Here’s a repost of my review of Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes. It was written November 20, 2017, and appears here as/is.
Last month, Tom Petty’s tragic and unexpected death left many fans saddened and surprised. I was among the masses of people who was shocked by the news that Tom Petty, front man of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, had suddenly passed away of a massive heart attack. He died on October 2, 2017, less than three weeks before he would have turned 67 years old.
I read many comments from people who were lucky enough to catch his last concerts. Petty was on tour from April until late September 2017. By most accounts, he had performed as well as ever. I never got a chance to see Tom Petty perform live, but his music was a big part of my personal soundtrack when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. I own a few of his albums, as well as recordings made by associated acts like Stevie Nicks.
When Tom Petty, died I decided I wanted to read more about his life. I downloaded Warren Zanes’ 2015 book, Petty: The Biography. After several weeks of concerted effort, I finally finished the 336 page volume. The fact that it took me so long to finish is not necessarily a comment on the book’s quality. I was impressed by the work that went into this book. Zanes has a Ph.D. in visual and cultural studies from the University of Rochester, was himself a member of the Del Fuegos, and he writes well. I think I read more slowly nowadays because I read on an iPad and get distracted by things like Facebook.
Anyway, Zanes has written a very comprehensive book about Tom Petty’s life up until 2015. He starts at the beginning, when Petty was a boy in Gainesville, Florida, with an abusive father who “beat the ever loving shit out of him” and didn’t appreciate his artistic bent. Despite Earl Petty’s attempts to quash his son’s creativity, Tom Petty was destined to be a star. He even learned how to play guitar from a fellow star, Don Felder, who is also a Gainesville native. I knew about Felder’s tutelage, because I’ve also read Felder’s very entertaining book about his time in The Eagles. Of course, that was published about ten years ago, before anyone knew that Petty would die so suddenly.
Zanes covers Petty’s early life, including his experiences with his very first bands and the eventual creation of Mudcrutch, the band that would preclude Petty’s Heartbreakers. He covers how Petty and his bandmates traversed the United States from Florida to California, where Petty eventually settled. Apparently, California was more agreeable for a man of Petty’s artistic vision. He brought his first wife, Jane Benyo, with him and had two daughters there. But although Tom and Jane were married for 22 years, their union wasn’t particularly happy. Zanes does a pretty good job explaining why and remains even-handed and respectful.
I also got a kick out of Zanes’ description of Petty’s Aunt Pearl, his father Earl’s twin sister. Apparently, even though Earl Petty hadn’t liked his older son being so artsy, he later grew to appreciate his son’s musical success. Apparently, Mr. Petty wore his satin Heartbreakers jacket all over town and would party with whomever wanted to come over and celebrate his famous son. Zanes wrote that Petty was kind of disgusted by it and apparently Petty said something to the effect of, “God only knows how much pussy he got because of me.” No, I never knew Tom Petty personally, but for some reason, I can imagine him saying something like that. He just always seemed like that type of guy.
I got some unexpected insights reading this book. For instance, I never knew that the 1994 album, Wildflowers, was Petty’s “divorce” album. I also never knew that the title track, “Wildflowers”, was Petty talking to himself about his situation. According to Zanes’, Petty’s first wife, Jane, was mentally ill and difficult to live with. Although they had two daughters, the second one, Annakim, was born during the years when things began to get rocky. Nevertheless, Petty loved his daughters and even briefly had custody of Annakim. Zanes also includes commentary about Petty’s second marriage to Dana York, with whom he had a stepson named Dylan.
I was surprised to read that Zanes’ book was not “authorized”. It seemed to me like Zanes had gotten cooperation from Petty and his friends. I never got the sense that anything about this biography was disrespectful or scandalous, so I can’t imagine why Petty would have objected to it. Zanes’ characterization of Petty is very sympathetic, appreciative, and complimentary. But most of all, this book offers a detailed look at Petty as an artist. I’m sure Zanes is now enjoying increased book sales due to Petty’s recent passing, but in my opinion, he deserves it.
If you’ve been looking for a comprehensive book about Tom Petty’s life, I recommend Warren Zanes’ Petty: The Biography. I think he did a good job. Four stars out of five.
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