I posted this review almost two years ago, and at the time most of us considered that Petty had a lot of gas left in his tank. Of all the musical memoirs and biographies I have read–and there are many–this is the one I loved best. The loss of this plucky badass rocker hit me harder than the death of any public figure since Robin Williams died, so reposting this here is my way of saying goodbye to him. Hope he’s learning to fly.
Oh my my, oh hell yes! If Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is a band that lights your fire, you have to read this biography, which comes out Tuesday, November 10. You’ll be happiest if you can do it near a source of music, and the very best of all is to be near a desktop or other screen where you can view and hear the music videos as you read about their inception. Petty made it big just as I graduated from high school. By the time my first-born entered elementary school, I had a backseat full of little kids who bounced their heads along to the unquestionable rhythm of his music playing on the radio. And right about now I am supposed to tell you that I got this DRC free for an honest review, courtesy of Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers.
Zanes has really done his homework here, interviewing Petty extensively, and also interviewing members of the band past and present, as well as other musicians (Stevie Nicks foremost among them) with whom he occasionally partnered. This was my first exposure to the Traveling Wilburys, a superstar group formed just for the sheer joy of it and consisting of George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Jim Keltner. Well, here:
and after Orbison died, his chair was represented in the circle, with his guitar (I assume it’s his anyway):
Petty’s story is one of the ultimate success in spite of everything. Born into the kind of messed up, abusive, impoverished Southern home that America’s shot-to-hell social work system can’t even begin to repair, with a father that got along better with alligators than children and a mother who was stricken with both cancer and epilepsy, Petty was ready to get the hell away from the swampland and Florida immediately if not sooner. Petty tried school several times, but English (oh yeah, poetry right?) and art were the only courses that held any magic for him. He had one marketable skill, and unlimited ambition. As it happens, that was plenty.
If you want to read his story, this is the place to get it. Zanes has filled it with lots of vignettes, some of which are very funny. When a particular episode or situation is remembered differently by different musicians, producers and what have you, he tells what each has to say.
What you won’t find much here is his family, and that is oddly appropriate. Petty himself recognizes that when a guy is a professional musician doing the album cycle—write the songs, record the songs, make whatever changes need to get made, release the album, then go on tour to promote the album, and come back and do it all over again—family just gets left out. His first wife Jane developed some serious problems with chemical dependency and mental illness, and he experienced serious guilt over leaving their two daughters with her, but what else was there to do? Taking them on the road wouldn’t exactly be a healthy environment. Even if he quit making music, who’d pay the bills then? And so it went. So his elder daughter Adria puts in her two cents here and there, but mostly this is a story of Tom’s life as a musician. But reading about Jane’s addiction issues and then watching this video gave me chills (not great for small children, if you have them near you):
There aren’t really any slow parts to this biography; the least interesting to me were the various bands he formed or joined prior to his success as a soloist and then as the leader of the Heartbreakers.
That much said, this is the first, the VERY first time this reviewer (and all the reviews on this site are mine) has ever gone back to read a galley a second time before reviewing it, not because I didn’t get enough notes (oy, the notes!) but because it was just so much fun to follow Petty’s music and read the stories behind the songs.
If you don’t like Tom Petty, I question why you are even still reading my review. But if you’re a fan, this is a great bio to read, intimate without being tawdry or prurient, carefully researched, tightly organized. I am glad I didn’t have to edit it, because he probably had a mountain of extra information that was either cut or not included in the first place. But from anyone that loves good rock and roll, it’s uplifting and absorbing.
The ultimate holiday gift for someone close to you that loves Petty’s music would be his giant discography, the Traveling Wilburys DVD and CD, perhaps the documentary (which is on my own Christmas list), and this book. Rock and roll forever!