When Tom Petty selected Warren Zanes to write his biography, he knew what he was getting into, but that didn't make it any easier.
Hearing Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” marked how much things had changed for Warren Zanes. Just a few years earlier, he had been on tour opening for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers as a member of The Del Fuegos. That day in 1989, he had parted ways with his band and was fixing a bike in Bicycle Michael’s on Frenchmen Street. The band was from Boston, but he moved to New Orleans to get his head back together, work on demos, and plan a return to rock ’n’ roll that never happened. He began taking classes at Loyola to keep his then-girlfriend from throwing him out, and that set him down a more academic path that led to a job with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a 33 1/3 book on Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, and this fall Petty: The Biography.
Zanes will return to New Orleans Sunday to sign copies of Petty at Billy Reid, the men’s clothing store at 3927 Magazine St.
Zanes loved Petty’s music since he was 11 and first heard “Breakdown” on the radio. Once he got to know Petty, Zanes was also fascinated by his seeming lack of bravado and sly sense of humor, but “the music was the driver,” Zanes says.
“He has managed to take pretty substantial deviations without ever seeming less like Tom Petty,” Zanes says. “His voice is at the center, and I think he’s quietly eccentric as a lyricist. If you listen to the lyrics of ‘Free Falling,’ it’s not anything you expect to hear on mainstream radio. I like that he could be produced with Dave Stewart from The Eurythmics. No one would have ever paired Tom Petty with that guy, but Tom Petty’s got a more expansive view of what he’s capable of. He doesn’t sit in his rut. His voice and the lyrics make it clearly a Tom Petty thing.”
He didn’t approach Petty about the book though. The proposal came from Petty, and the pitch process for the book highlighted the quick mind that Zanes feels Petty doesn’t get credit for—a characteristic he found it hard to get on the page in the book. “He’s got that slow, southern cadence to his speech that makes people think the mind is working at the same speed as the voice, but it’s not,” Zanes says. “The mind is moving really quickly.” In minutes, Petty said the book wasn’t going to be “as told to” or an authorized biography. It was going to be Zanes’ project, and all he asked for was the ability to respond to the manuscript once it was completed, and Zanes could do with that what he felt was right.
“We were standing in the driveway of his house in Malibu,” Zanes says. “And he formulated all of it so quickly. I asked him, Why not an authorized biography? He said, When I see ‘authorized’ on a book, I know that it’s bullshit. I never thought that I thought that, but I do. It’s the official account and it’s cleaned up, and he didn’t want that. The thing that made it hard in the end was what he set up in the beginning, but the speed with which he did it—I don’t know how much he thought about it in advance—but standing there in his driveway, he mapped it all out.”
The story Zanes tells in the book is of a complex guy willing to do what was necessary to move the band forward, regardless of the consequences. He parted ways with band members when necessary, and he put his band The Heartbreakers on the shelf to record Full Moon Fever with Jeff Lynne. The decision was understandably unpopular with the band and long-time fans of the band’s Byrds-like chime, but it came at the end of a period of musical uncertainty for Petty and quickly became his biggest selling album at the time. Full Moon Fever went five-times platinum and produced the singles “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Free Fallin’,” “A Face in the Crowd,” and “Yer So Bad.”
“it’s really a bandleader’s story,” Zanes says of Petty: The Biography. “He’s pulled off an incredible act as a bandleader in that he created this rock ’n’ roll aesthetic with the Heartbreakers a big part of it, but he was able to step away when he needed to in such a way that the band was stronger for it. It was a tough psychological move to pull off because you have four guys pissed off at you.”
Petty read the book in two halves, and Zanes went out to Malibu to sit down face to face with him hear his take. Petty thought the first half was good, and most of his notes were fact-checking, or stories told by others that he didn’t think were quite right. “But he never asked me to take anything out,” Zanes says. Since the second half of the story was emotionally harder and events were recent enough that Petty still felt them, the conversation got harder. In that half, Zanes tells the story of Petty’s divorce, his heroin use, and problems in the band including the sacking of long-time drummer Stan Lynch.
“We did twice as much time looking at the second half, and a real discomfort kicked in,” Zanes recalls. He believes that considering the events covered in that half of the book, if his writing hadn’t made Petty uncomfortable, then he probably wasn’t writing the book Petty hoped for. “People perceive his songs to be honest, and he wanted a book like that,” but that didn’t make the conversation any easier.
Zanes understood, “I didn’t work for him; I worked for the reader. I had to get comfortable with him not being comfortable. He is a dignified character in his own biography, but he’s human and as such, he’s flawed. It’s hard for anyone to see a flawed picture of themselves go public.”
That moment was intense, but according to Zanes, there were a number of intense times during the interview process. On more than one occasion, he remembers Petty asking him, “Do you think anyone in the band knows this?”
Zanes attributes much of Petty’s success to his willingness to own his ambition. Bruce Springsteen has always worn his ambition on his sleeve, but Petty’s laid-back persona hides somebody equally driven. In the book, guitarist Mike Campbell says, “Nobody is as ambitious as Tom Petty.” According to Zanes, that ambition manifested itself in the willingness to make hard choices for himself as well as others. “He says more than once that being in the Heartbreakers is a lonely experience,” Zanes says. “It was lonely because he made decisions that made that band stronger, gave it more longevity, but alienated him from the group that he was in. He made those choices in order to have a stronger band.”
To some extent, his success even alienated him from fans. “Petty talks about when they started to have some big hits and they went back to the Whiskey and people treated him like they’d sold out, and he was like I got into this because I wanted some hits. Isn’t that what Jerry Lee Lewis wanted? That’s what we’re here for.”
Zanes came away from the project admiring Petty’s work ethic. “He has a period of satisfaction after a project’s done and it’s close enough to what he was after, and then in a very short period of time, the restlessness comes back and he’s back at work hunting down the next song. I don’t think he’d be hunting down the next one if he didn’t think he had a shot at making his best record. That’s the cycle of his life—chasing these records but doing the work to get them.”