Thirty years ago, Warren Zanes and his brother Dan
led a hip rock band called The Del Fuegos. The Boston-based band
released three albums on the cutting-edge Slash/WB label, gaining a
cult following, but never quite making the breakthrough that was
expected. Probably their career high was getting the coveted
opening slot on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Southern Accents
Zanes, who had grown up listening to Petty's music,
felt like he had arrived. Not only was he being paid to travel the
country playing his music, but he had a backstage seat to see one of
his favorite bands on a daily basis. He even got to know the guy a
bit, making it even more of a thrill. This kind of exposure should
have rocketed the Del Fuegos to stardom, but it was not meant to
be. Warren and Dan had a complicated relationship and Zanes left
the band after the third album's sales were not up to expectations
and Slash dropped them.
Eventually Zanes swerved from making music to
returning to school, earning his Masters and becoming a teacher.
However, he never completely got over his music, and he started
mixing it in with his academic career. Eventually that led to Zanes
writing a book on Dusty Springfield. It was that book which
re-established Zanes' relationship with Petty. Petty read the book,
and reached out to Zanes. After they had been back in touch for a
bit, Petty suggested that Zanes write a book about him.
There was a catch though. Petty promised complete
cooperation in the writing of the book. He would answer any
question, no matter how personal or embarrassing. He would also
help Zanes to get access to all living members and former members of
the Heartbreakers, including guitarist (and co-writer) Mike
Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair and drummer
Stan Lynch, as well as collaborators, friends and family. However,
Petty did not want it to be an authorized biography. He wanted it
to be a warts and all project.
The fruits of that agreement has recently hit the
stores. Soon before the release of Petty: The Biography, I
caught up with Zanes to discuss the book, the experience and the man
who inspired it.
Almost 30 years
ago, you are a big fan of Tom Petty's who gets to open on his tour.
Fast forward and you are friends with the guy and writing his
biography. How surreal was that?
It's one of those surprising turns in life that you
don't plan and you're not fully prepared for. It was really
meaningful to me to come back into his life. I'd left the music
business and gone back to school. I was ensconced in universities
for twelve years, from starting my bachelors degree to finishing my
Ph D. I was really at a remove from the music business. He made
contact with me when he read a book that I had written in the 33
1/3 series. He got a copy and read it. I hadn't seen him in...
I think... more than 12 years. His management sent a message
saying, "Tom would like to have dinner with you next time you're in
Los Angeles." That started a whole new chapter in my professional
relationship with him. And I do call it a professional
relationship, [rather] than to call it a friendship, though it has
elements of that. But every time we're together, the reason we are
together is oriented around a project. That doesn't mean it's not a
relationship, but I'm going to call it a professional relationship.
Well, as you just
mentioned, you'd previously written a book on Dusty Springfield.
How did that come about?
That came about because while I had come into
graduate school and it was [working] on [my] Masters to the Ph D
program. I, like most graduate students, started doing more
teaching. As I was starting my professorial career, I brought more
and more music into the classroom. It just got me thinking about
music differently. Then, as I was finishing the Ph D, I got signed
to a record deal by the Dust Brothers, who had done Beck's Odelay
and The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. I was thinking
about music more than I had in the previous decade. When I was
getting set to release this first solo record, my manager connected
me on a kind of blind date with Joe Pernice of the Pernice
Brothers. The first time I meet Joe Pernice and he says, "Hey, I'm
doing a book in this new series. Would you be interested in me
putting your name in the hat?" I said, absolutely. It gave me this
interesting opportunity to take some ideas that had been my
dissertation, but think them through in this more pop context, in
relation to this album that I had always loved, Dusty Springfield's
Dusty in Memphis. It was a total chance that I met Joe
Pernice and he connected me to this thing. I got to filter all of
this different thinking that had been up in my head. Then it's just
one notch crazier that Tom Petty gets a copy and reads it.
Tom came to you
about the book after reading the Springfield book. How did he find
out about it and why did he feel you'd be a good choice to write his
I don't know how that happened. I don't know if my
publishers might have sent one to his management because we had a
previous connection. I don't really know. I didn't ask questions,
because I was probably too excited. (laughs) When we
finally had that dinner, he said "I read your book and I was
inspired to write a song that I want you to come back to my house
and hear." By that time I thought that I was involved in some kind
of overblown daydream. But it actually happened. What was
interesting also to me and for me was I'd just been a crazy kid in
the opening band. Now Tom Petty was thinking of me as a writer, at
a point that I was not yet thinking of myself as a writer. You can
do a few books before you really say, "You know what? I'm a
writer." I wasn't there yet, but Tom Petty was there. So he
started bringing me into projects as a writer.
certainly in a rather unique position here. I've written two
unauthorized biographies – one on Tom Waits and one on Tori Amos –
and did not get much in the way of cooperation from either, in fact
Waits' camp sort of tried to sabotage it a bit. Petty gave you
pretty complete access, but insisted that it not be an official
biography. Why do you feel that was?
He's got a laconic Southern presence, but his mind
is a very fast mind. He formulated the framework for this project
very quickly. He said, "Would you be interested?" I said yes. He
said, "This will be your book. It's not ghost-written. It's not
co-written. It's not authorized." He went on to say that he felt
that when he saw a book on the shelf that was authorized, he knew
that he couldn't trust it. It would be whitewashed. So, counter to
what the idea of authorized originally meant, he held it to become a
category [where] this is going to be the way that the artist would
like people to see it. That doesn't mean it's going to be the
truth. So he came up with the concept that gave me a higher level
of control than he had. He never refused me an interview. He never
refused a question. Every person that I wanted to make contact
with, he and his management team helped me make that contact.
You were in an
odd position knowing the man. When you were writing did you ever
wonder if certain parts may upset him too much?
It's a gritty account. I'm a fan of Tom Petty and
the Heartbreakers. I have been since I was 11 years old and I heard
their first album. I feel like they are America's rock and roll
band. I couldn't write an account any differently from the one I
wrote. The one I wrote, the author is a guy who holds Tom Petty in
very high esteem. So however gritty this was, I believe it's gritty
because lives are gritty. Lives are complicated. Show me the man
who hasn't made some choices that he later regrets. But in order to
give people like myself a better sense for the man who wrote the
songs, I had to go deep on the true story. That really was my
ambition, because the songs that I fell in love with could not have
been written by someone who led a tidy life. They wouldn't have
come from that person. They came from somebody who lived a
complicated life. So I needed to tell the story of a complicated
life so that people could listen to those songs at the next higher
As you mention
often in the book, other than Stan Lynch, most of the band members
are pretty introverted, Petty included. Was it tough getting them
to open up?
It wasn't tough, because once one guy went there,
the others were willing to do it. It was very interesting because
everybody advanced as a group to the next level of opening up about
the Heartbreakers story. I felt very lucky at times to be the guy
capturing these accounts. I was not coming up against resistance.
I sometimes wonder if I'll ever have it this good again.
There are a lot
of details about Petty's early family life, particularly his
problems with his father Earl. How much do you feel that
relationship shaped who he became as an artist and as a man?
I think it affected him deeply. I'm a child of the
therapy generation. I'm a believer in much of [Sigmund] Freud's
thinking: What happens in childhood is integral to who we are. It's
going to inform our story every step of the way, I think. It
doesn't mean we don't change our relationship to that path, but I
don't think you can understand the man without understanding the
child. This is a child who was going through some shit that no
child should have to. It informed his later life deeply, I think.
To a certain
extent, Tom Petty is sometimes a little undervalued as a rocker –
He's always been respected, but he's not always mentioned in the
rock God firmament like Springsteen, or the Stones, or the Beatles,
or whatever. Why do you think that may be?
I think because he is not a self-mythologizer. He
is not a self-promoter. His career would be bigger if he was
comfortable at doing that, but he's not. He is a guy who puts all
his focus on writing songs and making records and keeping the band
together so that they can continue to make records. But once they
are done, my impression of him has always been that he feels that if
the songs aren't making a strong enough case, then something is
wrong with the song. He shouldn't need to come behind them and do
Early on, no one
seemed to know where to slot the Heartbreakers – were they New Wave,
were they punk, were they rock, were they alt? For example, one of
my favorite of their songs was "Louisiana Rain," which is almost
straight up country. Do you think about the band's diversity has
over the years made them so intriguing?
Yeah. They have such facility as a band. Listen to
The Live Anthology, which Petty said [was] the document to go
to if you really want to understand that band. If you listen to it,
[you] hear them doing "The Theme from Goldfinger," for
instance. You hear them do a Dave Clark Five song. Then you hear
them do some of their own extended live material that they've only
done live. They are many different bands without ever veering too
far from their identity. A big part of that is Petty's voice. He
can do a song like "Don't Come Around Here No More" and his voice is
such a strong central presence that even with some extreme
production changes, it still comes off as being a Tom Petty and the
Heartbreakers track. The band has the capacity to play in a wide
range of styles, while still being themselves. Petty has a capacity
to sing in a number of styles. But somehow their sound identity can
remain intact. I think that's helped them have a longer career.
Torpedoes was the album that exploded the group. Previously,
even though he had some success, he was still a struggling
musician. But between the breakup with Shelter Records and the
popularity of the album, nothing was ever the same for the group.
How overwhelming was that jump into fame for him and the band?
I think it's overwhelming for anyone. We love rock
and roll for many reasons, but one of them is that it is a place
where we see people from the margins have big careers in the
mainstream. Our heads are pumped with notions of how powerful the
American dream is in our society, but the truth is we don't see it
embodied very frequently. We see it sometimes in sports, we see it
in entertainment, we definitely see it in rock and roll. It's Elvis
Presley. It's Buddy Holly. It's guys like Tom Petty. Did he have
to make a large adjustment, coming from lower on the class ladder to
becoming a rock and roll star? Most certainly. What he did was he
kept his head down and just kept working. If I were to give one
word attached to Tom Petty, I tell you he is a worker. I don't
think it's a codified work ethic, but he has maintained a pace in
his life. So the challenges of adapting to rock and roll stardom, I
don't think he was really so much dealing with them, because he was
just on the job. There were a lot of people standing around
him wondering where the next songs are. For decades.
In the late 80s,
Full Moon Fever,
his first album without the band, although Mike, Ben and (late
bassist) Howie Epstein did work on the album a bit. They'd been
working together for years, how did the idea of a solo record sit
with the other band members?
Among other things, Petty is a tremendously skilled
bandleader. What his band wasn't seeing in that moment – and
understandably – was that Petty was making a choice in doing that
solo album that would ultimately benefit them. This was a guy who
needed to step away and breathe a little bit. He found a way to do
it. When he came back to the Heartbreakers, it gave them some
years. They are coming on 40 years and they are still together.
Some of these choices to make solo records came around at times when
he needed to do that in order to be able to come back and be the
strong bandleader that he needed to. From the band's perspective,
it was the first time with Full Moon Fever they'd seen him
doing that and I think it was very threatening. Also, the Jeff
Lynne records (Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide
Open) were done differently than they were accustomed to doing.
They were more constructionist records than the recordings of live
performances. It felt like: "What is Tom doing?" Petty's intuitive
and he's not asking for a lot of outside opinions, because he's
always believed in his own. So he did that thing, and there were
doubters on the sidelines, but the results certainly suggested that
Tom Petty made a pretty good choice in doing a solo record with Jeff
Lynne at that time.
You were actually
there for one of the earliest meetings with Bob Dylan and George
Harrison and Jeff Lynne that led to the creation of the supergroup
The Traveling Wilburys. What was it like to be a part of that
historic rock moment?
Dylan wasn't there. It was George Harrison, Tom
Petty, Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell. They were all sitting in Tom's
office at his house while the Petty family Christmas party was
unfolding in the next few rooms. The Pettys had given me a Beatles
magazine. I'm not a big go-get-the-autograph kind of guy, but this
felt like an unusual circumstance. (laughs) Just unusual
enough for me to go get the autograph. Jane Petty, that's Tom's
former wife, she kind of almost pushed me into this room. There
they are, playing music together. For me, I did not view it as
historic. I didn't know what it was. I knew there were some
legends in the room. And I knew that I felt tremendously
uncomfortable. So after I got my autograph, I got out of there
pretty quickly, because they were in their world and I rightly
didn't view myself as a member of that. So I left with my magazine,
which my sons will inherit. (laughs)
Petty had never
really discussed his heroin use before, even in the
Running Down a
Dream documentary. Why do you think it was important to him to
discuss that important but embarrassing addiction?
At one point he said to me, "There's no reason to do
anything but just tell the truth at this point in life." He did
have hesitation. He worried that even if there was one kid out
there who might romanticize drug use because of Tom Petty's story,
it wasn't worth telling that story. I said I believe that we're in
a time where there is more awareness about addiction. This can be
told in such a way that it's not going to be romanticized. I felt
strongly that could be done. So with his interest in telling the
whole truth, and us finding a way, I think he felt ready. I don't
have anybody writing my book, but I imagine it's hard to go through
this experience. That I am seeing eye to eye with him. We set out
to do what he wanted to do. I think we really arrived at an honest,
good book. I believe he sees that, but at the same time he is
having to live through the process of seeing new difficult
information about his life going public.
One of the
biggest things you got here is that you finally got Stan Lynch to
open up on his mysterious break with the band. Everyone has been
pretty hush-hush for years about that. I'm afraid I'm not quite
that far into the book yet, but how did that come about? Were you
surprised that Lynch finally opened up about that?
It's tough to say: Would Stan have done interviews
earlier if people had come in a more personal style? That's what
Stan says. He says it wasn't about not doing interviews, he just
said nobody came to my door like [I] did. But, he said no several
times before I went to him and said, "Stan, I just don't think I can
do this without your involvement. I'll come to your front door in
Florida if you just give me 20 minutes. If after 20 minutes you
want me to leave, I promise I will leave." That's what we did. I
flew down there for those 20 minutes and then it turned into eight
hours. I really needed his voice. Only people who have been in
bands can understand that it doesn't matter that 20 years have
passed. The feelings are still strong. I was only in a band myself
for five years. That was many years ago, but I still feel some of
the disappointment. I still feel a little bit of the anger at how
things got handled by my brother, who was the band leader. We
worked through a lot of it, but these things... it's just like
feelings from childhood. Feelings from the time that you're a young
man. They don't necessarily have an expiration date. A lot of
Stan's feelings had a strength to them. A lot of Tom's had a
strength to them. I can understand why. These guys went through a
lot together. They saw their lives flipped upside down by success.
Then they had to negotiate it. Negotiating how to handle success
was mostly on Petty's back. He had a group of his friends from his
hometown watching how he did it. And you know what? Several of
them were going to get resentful. I don't think there would be any
way around that. But, I needed Stan to voice some of that, in order
to give the experience of being in a long-term band and leaving it.
A real taste is in the pages.
Did you ever hear
what Tom thought of the final book?
Our arrangement was that he got to read it before
publication. When we set up the parameters here, he said, "I'm not
going to tell you what is in it and what is not in it. But I'm
going to ask for the opportunity to read it before publication and
respond to anything that I feel begs a response." That, too, he
stuck to. He never said "Don't put that in there and put this in
there." Never. But we sat down and went through the entire book
together. We did the first half over a two day period. We did the
second half over a four day period. He got to address what he
wanted to address. Then I found a way to sew his voice into the
existing narrative. It was, without a doubt, one of the more
intense, human experiences I've been through. I didn't come out of
any of this with less of an admiration for Tom Petty. If anything,
I came out with more of an admiration. He is a man of principle, a
man with a really defined set of values that organize his life.
He's a guy that I still look up to in many, many ways.
What is your
personal favorite Tom Petty album or song?
This is the truth, it shifts. It really depends.
That's a testament to how strong his catalogue is, from beginning to
end. I'll often be listening to the newest records. I listen to
Hypnotic Eye a lot. Songs like "All You Can Carry" and
"Forgotten Man," these are incredible tracks. I went through a
period when these were my favorites. But I was looking back at the
first record lately and listening to "The Wild One, Forever" and
"Mystery Man" and going, okay, today this is my favorite. It could
be Southern Accents. I went through a period where Let Me
Up (I've Had Enough) was my favorite, for however uneven he
thinks it is. He has a hard time listening to Echo. I know
people who say Echo is the best record. Or, I was just
talking to somebody yesterday [about] Long After Dark. Petty
turns up his nose at that one, and I think it's incredible. I'm
talking to Mike Gent from the Figgs, and Mike Gent did what Ryan
Adams did with the Taylor Swift record. He went and recorded the
entire Long After Dark in sequence, solo acoustic. (ed.
note: He recorded them under the name Gents Parlour.
Interestingly, Gent changed the album title to Long After Stan.)
Because he fell in love with that record. That's his favorite.
Man, his catalogue is so good, the effect is the same as The Beatles
catalogue. In some ways The Stones catalogue, but there are a few
things in the Stones catalogue that don't measure up. But The
Beatles, you can go anywhere and be satisfied. Petty you can go
anywhere and be satisfied.
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