Henry Holt & Co/First Edition edition
Tom Petty – class act. Magnificent run of albums and singles, kick-ass live band, a bit of time out on his own, but a fantastic bandleader, also a member of music’s first serious attempt at a living Mount Rushmore of Rock band, The Traveling Wilburys. He was the young kid there – the student, hanging out with his teachers; full peer respect though, in fact he was the one riding high, career-wise at that point, the start of a second golden run. And yet there aren’t any Tom Petty biographies. There was a book of interviews published, and a companion piece/picture book to the worthwhile Peter Bogdonavich-directed documentary. It’s nearly a decade since those items were released, and in that time the Heartbreakers move on towards their 40th Anniversary, they’ve released an amazing live anthology box-set and a couple of solid new albums, Petty’s had another solo album out…and still we don’t know that much about him and the band.
Enter Warren Zanes. Musician in his own right, great writer – his Dusty in Memphis entry into the 33 1/3 series is so close to perfect; so much so in fact that, as he reveals in this book, it was part of the reason Petty was happy to have him on board. For all of the access that Zanes has – and we hear a little about that, a time opening for the Heartbreakers, a fan-meeting and then the interviews that were part of this book (and the companion volume to Bogdonavich’s doco) – Zanes never holds that privileged access over the subject of this book, nor the readers. This is a work by Warren Zanes. It is not a book commissioned by Petty, nor bowing to his whim, his need, it is the very best kind of authorised biography because its subject has stood back and allowed the writer to write.
This is a book that gets to the heart of family – Petty’s own family and the Heartbreakers as family. It is a book that examines the special relationship and patience needed to dedicate a life to 40 years of record-making and touring. And it’s a book that is ripe with juicy anecdotes by and about the other Wilburys, Bob Dylan (from the tour where the Heartbreakers backed him – almost an antecedent to the forming of the Wilburys) and Stevie Nicks.
We never get the news that Petty and Nicks were ever anything more than good friends, but we do get sly nods from Petty, Zanes is very good at conveying those in a Posted Without Comment-kind of way.
Stan Lynch is an interesting – and disgruntled and quite likely unreliable – voice across this book. As the one member of the band to be fired and never rehired his quotes and his attitude serve to cement the story of what it takes to make a band tick; of how harsh decisions – and sometimes clinical, correct decisions – must be made to protect and serve the machine.
As with his other music writing, Zanes’ book will send you back to the source, directly. You’ll hear the thrill in the trills on those first records, and how crucial Petty’s voice was – as singer and songwriter – within the Wilburys. How, across the last decade, the Heartbreakers’ reputation as one of the great live bands has shown no hint of diminishing. Quite the opposite if anything.
Warren Zanes is a great writer and this measured, calm, compassionate and always interesting account of a thoughtful songwriter, one quite carefully guarded, is one of the best music biographies I’ve read in some time.