We recently put "Five Questions" to author Warren Zanes about his new book Petty: The Biography, out now on Henry Holt and Co. Zanes, a founding member of the roots-rock band The Del Fuegos, has also written Dusty in Memphis for the acclaimed 33/1/3 series, and Revolutions In Sound: Warner Bros. Records The First Fifty Years.
Let’s get the big question over with first since it’s dominated headlines of the book’s release. My takeaway from Tom’s admitted heroin addiction is: one usually hears about this stuff at some point and, I think, the big shock was that there was no smoke, no inkling about Tom’s problem in the press or otherwise. Fair to say that few people knew about this?
Tom Petty doesn't have a history of being caught out on the town with his pants down, of throwing televisions out windows, of dating actresses from Beverly Hills 90210, of waking up in Elizabeth Taylor's bathtub, etc. He's always been seen as a music guy. His friendships, whether with Johnny Cash or George Harrison, have been based around songs and playing. And he's been so steady as that guy that I think this new information arrived as something unexpected. It's not unusual to hear about rock and roll stars struggling with drugs--it's just that this rock and roll star in particular wasn't someone we put into that frame. And the period in which it all went down was one of isolation for Petty, so there weren't observers or bystanders who were reporting on it. But the fact was, Petty's life has been exciting, sometimes euphoric, but also quite difficult, and for a moment there, the difficulties accumulated in such a way that he was overwhelmed, lost, surprisingly alone. And he made a choice that he came to regret, a very risky, very dangerous choice. His concern in talking about it was that he didn't ever want any young person to romanticize drug use based on his experience. And, indeed, as I heard about it, there was nothing romantic in the story. But, with help, primarily from his wife Dana, he came through, and a second chapter became possible.
The cause of this was apparently the dismal showing of the album/soundtrack She’s The One. I really like that album. What are your thoughts on that album and Tom’s, in retrospect?
The cause of the turn to heroin? No, definitely not. He takes his albums very seriously, but he's certainly not the kind of guy who picks up heroin because sales dipped on a release! There was deep human trouble around the time of his heroin use, nothing that was related to the marketplace.
But, on the subject of She's The One, Petty describes a process that got confused, a bit misdirected, and a bit misrepresented. He'd been approached about putting together a multi-artist soundtrack, then realized he hated the idea of calling up artists and calling in favors. As he said, he knew immediately that he didn't want to be "that guy." Jimmy Iovine suggested that he do something along the lines of what Simon and Garfunkel did for Mike Nichol's The Graduate. That idea appealed more to Petty. He had outtakes from Wildflowers to work with, which was a great starting place, but he still had to rush to meet the deadline. Then, having met his deadline, he was surprised to see the film's release delayed six months. It was a soundtrack without a movie. The songs? There's some beautiful stuff on there. It feels a little more disconnected than we've come to expect from Petty, who is otherwise meticulous in making albums, but its disconnectedness ends up being one of the things that gives it personality. That's a Petty album that people return to because it's better than anyone realized, even if it's looser in construction. It was some amazing tracks and a beautiful, cockeyed personality. So, yeah, I'm with you, I really like that one.
Petty famously led the charge on holding LP prices with Hard Promises, even stickering that album with the price he felt should be charged. He released a 4 CD live anthology that retails for $15.99 on Amazon, so he’s been consistent. What are his views on streaming music services , their relationships with artists and with him personally?
I have to be honest, I've been around a lot of discussions about streaming, though not with Petty, and I find them to be somewhat tiring. Not because the issue isn't important. The defense of songwriter's and musician's livelihoods is crucial. But because we're in a wasteland of sorts, somewhere between the industry that was and whatever is coming next, the conversations never have closure. We know that proper compensation is something that's needed, but the changes we're facing are so much underway that no one has enough information to provide a lasting solution--so the conversations often involve a lot of people agreeing with one another but are somehow interminable. I'm very grateful that people are out there fighting for artist's rights. And I may be at fault for being lazy on the issue. But when I'm sitting next to Tom Petty, I'd much rather talk about songs, bands, recordings, human and creative struggles. The subject of streaming can suck the life out of the room. Again, not because it's unimportant, only because it often becomes a loop of frustrations and reflections on what was. Right now, I think it's important to keep bands playing, to foster an atmosphere in which musicians stand next to one another, listening to one another, playing and recording songs live. The Heartbreakers have been doing it for forty years — so that's what I pay attention to, the guys carrying the torch for the music part of it, even as the distribution and compensation part of it begs some kind of new, working model.
Tom seems like an everyman sort of guy, but has played with giants such as Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison. What is it about him that and/or his musical sensibilities that makes artists like that gravitate towards him?
What's interesting to me is hearing guys like Jeff Lynne and George Harrison describe Petty as being particularly "cool." To have a Beatle describe you in that way is somewhat profound, right? But that's how I've always thought of Petty, as being cool. He doesn't self-mythologize, make a case for his own greatness. He waits and watches, then makes the quiet observations that summarize all the bullshit relating to whoever is doing flips to get the world's attention. He's laconic, a Southern guy who seems to have a history of music coming through him. But he doesn't sell himself. We have too few guys who have that kind of cool. But also, Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash — these guys knew Tom Petty because of music. And when Petty is in the room, good things happen with the music. They might all love the guy personally, because he's cool and smart and funny, but, believe me, if Tom Petty wasn't lifting the music to the next level, they would have moved on. Instead, they all wanted to work with him.
I had a conversation with a friend who’s a Springsteen nut and I told him I’d place Petty’s catalog right up there with Bruce’s and in the top tier of post-Beatle/Stones musicians/bands. Looking at his recorded output and the fact that he’s kept such a killer live band together, mostly intact, for nearly 40 years (!), where do place him in the history books?
I've had a number of very interesting people from in and around the industry come to me and quietly say, "I think Petty's catalogue outweighs Bruce's." And it's funny to me how they do it, the style in which they do it. It's almost as though they're looking around, watching their backs, afraid they might be arrested. Bruce has an important place, means so much to American popular music--and I'm a part of his audience, have been for years--but because he's so good at being a public figure there's also a bit of a messiah element to how the fans see him. I don't fault him for this. I'm glad it's happening, and he's a force I would hate to lose. He is a musician with very real social power that he uses for the good. We're all lucky he's there. But Petty is a different animal. One of those guys could go into politics, and it's not Petty! But what Petty has is a very long term connection with an amazing band that cuts records live (which is nothing that should be underestimated and is more rare than we all like to believe), a remarkable catalogue of songs that have shifted in character over the years, and a very singular focus on the music itself. There are things that have happened along the way both Springsteen and Petty that would never make sense in the other guy's career. For however much these two great American artists get compared, they're apples and oranges in many respects. But we need them both. And they'll both be in the books. Petty will be remembered for "those songs," "those records." They will always be the pedestal on which he's going to stand. He's a songwriter and a record maker.
BONUS QUESTION: We’re based in Boston and I was a huge fan of your band The Del Fuegos, and even did an album cover for your brother Dan. Any chance of getting that band back together again?
Dan and I talked just yesterday. There was no yelling. I called him to say that I did a radio interview for the Petty bio, and the first question was this: "Is it safe to say that you and your brother Dan are the Ray and Dave Davies of American rock and roll?" To which I replied, "Sure, with the difference that no one knows who the fuck we are. But if you're asking me if my brother has been a pain in my ass at times, of course he has. In that respect he's a lot like Dave Davies was to Ray." The truth is, though, we never got to be Ray and Dave. I never had the opportunity to write for the Del Fuegos, not for a minute. I wrote songs, but I never got to bring one to the band. I didn't even get the chance to have a song rejected. That will always bother me. A few years back we did a reunion tour, and Dan made room for a few of my songs on an EP that we made for the tour. Those EPs are gathering dust somewhere. As far as the Del Fuegos go, it was too little too late. I took it as an important symbolic gesture, of course. But I do love my brother, and he's become one of my great supporters. He's opened a lot of doors for me, laughed when I called from the police station, helped when I woke up in a few strange bedrooms as a young man and needed bus fare home, that kind of thing. But we were also brothers in a band. That's not easy.
#tompetty #thehearatbreakers #warrenzanes