From Opening Act to Rock Biographer

A former rocker himself, Warren Zanes' new book chronicles the life and career of Tom Petty.

Musician, scholar, author and educator Warren Zanes has added a Tom Petty biography to his varied résumé.
Musician, scholar, author and educator Warren Zanes has added a Tom Petty biography to his varied résumé.
Photo courtesy of the publisher.

Warren Zanes was barely out of his teens when the Del Fuegos, the rock band he played in, toured North America as the opening act for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Some 30 years later, Petty tapped Zanes, now 50 and living in Montclair, to write his life story. The book, Petty: The Biography, is due November 10 from Henry Holt.

The Del Fuegos—started by Zanes’s brother Dan, now a successful children’s music artist—recorded three albums for Warner Brothers from 1984 to 1987. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, on the other hand, have endured for more than four decades, riding classic-rock hits like “Breakdown,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Refugee” and “You Got Lucky” into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Zanes, a New Hampshire native, has had his own rocking career. After his stint as a guitarist in the Del Fuegos, he returned to school and began piling up degrees, eventually earning a PhD. in visual and cultural studies from the University of Rochester. He has taught at three colleges, served for five years as vice president of education and programming for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is currently executive director of Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, which provides educational materials on popular music to middle and high schools. He has released three solo albums, is working on a fourth, and wrote a book, Dusty in Memphis (Continuum, 2004), a brief exploration of the classic 1969 Dusty Springfield album of the same name.

It was the Dusty book that reminded Petty of the shaggy-haired, chipped-toothed guitarist he had met on the road. When filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was working on a documentary about the Heartbreakers, Petty approached Zanes about taking part. Zanes ended up writing a companion coffee-table book for the film and subsequently wrote the liner notes for a Heartbreakers’ anthology.

Still, it surprised Zanes when the rock star suggested the biography. It would be a rarity, perhaps unique: one rock musician writing about another. Although the book would not carry the label “authorized,” Petty promised Zanes his complete cooperation. “It’s your book,” Petty told him.

“I was shocked at the level of trust,” Zanes tells me over breakfast at Raymond’s in Montclair. “In my view, he’s a bit of a recluse. He’s never been a self-promoter in the ways you would expect in the music business. He’s somewhat unknown.”

Indeed, Petty: The Biography reveals a headstrong but damaged hero. The son of an abusive father, Petty stumbled into rock ’n’ roll as a teen in Gainesville, Florida, and achieved stardom as a singer, songwriter and guitarist through a potent combination of talent and sheer determination. The book chronicles Petty’s rocky road from cover bands to marquee act. Zanes delivers the requisite tales of life on the road (“sex and drugs are the given,” he says), but he delves deeply—and fascinatingly—into the inner workings of the Heartbreakers and Petty’s emergence as a strong leader capable of making tough decisions, including firing the contentious drummer Stan Lynch. At one point, Petty tells Zanes, “I’ve had to be brutal.” (Zanes also shares Lynch’s side of  the story in painful detail.)

Zanes is intrigued by the band dynamic from both a musical and social perspective. “I hope that in some kind of 20th-century history of America, there’s a section on bands, because I think they are a bigger piece of the American story than anyone realizes,” he says. Zanes views the Heartbreakers and their contemporaries—notably Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band—as belonging to “the golden age of bands.”

Yes, he says, kids still form rock bands, play cover songs and dream of something bigger. Yet there’s a difference. “In the golden age of bands,” he says, “it was what you were seeing on TV, what you were hearing on the radio. It was what you were seeing style-wise. People were fashioning themselves after members of bands.”

Certainly this was true for Petty. In the book, Zanes describes Petty’s arrival in Los Angeles as an emerging recording artist suddenly mixing it up with A-list stars like George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Brian Wilson. “He had listened to their stuff on AM radio in Florida for years, and now he’s in a room with these guys,” Zanes says. “He’s standing right next to them and engaging them in conversation.” Petty was awestruck—yet he gained confidence from these interactions. “He wants to be one of the guys who make it happen.”

But making it happen would include major sacrifices and the inevitable low points. Zanes describes the breakdown of Petty’s first marriage, the loss of bassist Howie Epstein to a heroin overdose, and Petty’s own previously undocumented bout with heroin addiction. “It was a surprise to me,” Zanes says. “We talked about it in great detail….he was deeply concerned that some kid might make the wrong connections, to think that hard-drug use can be cool.”

The book also captures lighter, brighter moments, such as a mid-1970s rendezvous in Los Angeles between Petty and Springsteen, who had already achieved fame. The more extroverted Springsteen initiates the meet up with a phone call. Petty picks up Springsteen in his new red Camaro convertible, and they cruise straight to the famous Tower Records store on Sunset Boulevard to buy an armful of 8-track tapes. “They drove until they listened to every single one,” Zanes says. “Obviously, in that car, it was less about conversation than sharing that experience of being in love with this music. And I love that.”

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