Everybody loves Tom Petty. He is the “everyman” of rock’n’roll and his catalog of songs sits atop the modern rock songbook. Forty years in, his band, The Heartbreakers, virtually define what it is to be a “band,” and are one of the best, if perhaps underappreciated, in rock and roll history.
It is that concept of a band that is a central theme of Warren Zanes’ book Petty: The Biography. Like thousands of American teenagers, the Beatles historic Ed Sullivan performance meant everything to Tom. It gave “fucked up homes across America an alternative.” Certainly, it gave Petty focus, a purpose and, more importantly, a way out. Little has been written about Petty’s upbringing until now, but it’s safe to say its unpleasantness helped shape him.
Gainesville, Florida also shaped him. Caught between dirt-poor rednecks and the more educated bohemia of the University of Florida, it was at once a place on the cusp of breaking out, and one trapped in time. For a small, backwater town, it gave birth to an astonishing number of musicians, such as Don Felder of The Eagles, Bernie Leadon the Flying Burrito Brothers and later the Eagles, his brother Tom, who played in Linda Ronstadt’s band and, of course, The Heartbreakers. Most went West to find success and Petty and his band — as Mudcrutch — would soon follow.
Having lived the band experience in the Del Fuegos, Zanes shines an empathetic light on Petty’s path from band member, to bandleader, to solo artist and back again to lead The Heartbreakers. Zanes makes the case that Petty’s writing was distinctly southern but in a Muscle Shoals rather than Allman Brothers way, and his skeletal romanticism was there from the start. The Heartbreakers' success story really starts in Tulsa, Oklahoma, under the tutelage of Denny Cordell, former Wrecking Crew member Leon Russell and their label Shelter Records. Following Russell into studios and A-List parties would also open Petty’s eyes: “I saw a lot of things that maybe you shouldn’t do and some things you should. Cautionary tales were in every other room I passed through.” They would eventually cut their classic debut album and make a successful tour of the UK, just as punk rock was breaking, but return home to radio silence. That album would often be mis-characterized as a punk album — due in large part to the misguided cover — and be largely misunderstood at home in the States. Critic Robert Hilburn was an early fan and “got” what they were doing, writing “they stepped away from the pop norm in a way that invited you to weigh your own attitudes. But adventure had become a commercial liability in the 1970s.” A year and a half later — a lifetime in pop music — “Breakdown” would enter the Top 40.
A pivotal move is made after the second album, You’re Gonna Get It! when Elliot Roberts, a partner with manager Tony Dimitriades, counsels Petty, “you can’t give everybody in the band an equal cut…(it’s) going to be a big problem at some point…because you’re going to feel bitter and used. It’s going to blow the whole deal.” And, as Zanes correctly notes, “Within the band, no one was going to like it. Some would understand it. Some would come to understand it. And some grumble still.” Petty clearly wanted the band to stay A BAND and to guarantee that, he had to make some difficult decisions; many a great band has come apart from the internal friction and jealousy can kicked down the road.
And that’s the big takeaway in this book for me. As great a songwriter and as individual a singer that Petty is, he wanted to be in a band. Zanes explains: “Bands, once the fundamental unit for music making,” have, in today’s industry, become “just another category among many. But if you were raised during the British invasion or the punk years, a band was everything, a shield, a shelter.” Better yet is his analysis of what that means to kids and fans who had bought the records: “the ones who believed from the beginning, they don’t want to see Mick Jagger with any other group. They’ve been asked to make an investment in an idea and they did it.” Petty, of course, was one of those fans all those years ago.
From the door-busting Damn The Torpedoes, to the solo success of Full Moon Fever, and Wildflowers (which Petty calls his “divorce album, not Echoes,) the core players would remain The Heartbreakers and play in featured roles on the “solo” albums, and that speaks volumes. Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench would be musical wingmen for life. That Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Stevie Nicks would seek him out for collaboration only solidifies Petty as “the coolest guy out of the South since William Faulkner” and a musician’s musician.
Of course, the big bombshell in the book is the disclosure of Petty’s slide into heroin use. That matter is dealt with honestly as a very bad decision in a very dark personal time for Petty. In the end, it only proves that Petty is, in fact, very much the guy we root for. As longtime confidante Bugs Weidel sums up, “as an artist, as a husband, as a father, as a friend, this guy has spent his life trying to improve. In every single way.”
Warren Zanes has crafted a warm, honest, and most importantly, human story of one of the great musicians of our time. And if that’s not something to cheer about, what is?
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