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Warren Zanes – Writing the Book on Tom Petty

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Warren Zanes

Warren Zanes

Warren Zanes

Writing the Book on Tom Petty

by Jay S. Jacobs

Thirty years ago, Warren Zanes and his brother Dan led a hip rock band called The Del Fuegos.  The Boston-based band released three albums on the cutting-edge Slash/WB label, gaining a cult following, but never quite making the breakthrough that was expected.  Probably their career high was getting the coveted opening slot on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Southern Accents tour.

Zanes, who had grown up listening to Petty’s music, felt like he had arrived.  Not only was he being paid to travel the country playing his music, but he had a backstage seat to see one of his favorite bands on a daily basis.  He even got to know the guy a bit, making it even more of a thrill.  This kind of exposure should have rocketed the Del Fuegos to stardom, but it was not meant to be.  Warren and Dan had a complicated relationship and Zanes left the band after the third album’s sales were not up to expectations and Slash dropped them.

Eventually Zanes swerved from making music to returning to school, earning his Masters and becoming a teacher.  However, he never completely got over his music, and he started mixing it in with his academic career.  Eventually that led to Zanes writing a book on Dusty Springfield.  It was that book which re-established Zanes’ relationship with Petty.  Petty read the book, and reached out to Zanes.  After they had been back in touch for a bit, Petty suggested that Zanes write a book about him.

There was a catch though.  Petty promised complete cooperation in the writing of the book.  He would answer any question, no matter how personal or embarrassing.  He would also help Zanes to get access to all living members and former members of the Heartbreakers, including guitarist (and co-writer) Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch, as well as collaborators, friends and family.  However, Petty did not want it to be an authorized biography.  He wanted it to be a warts and all project.

The fruits of that agreement has recently hit the stores.  Soon before the release of Petty: The Biography, I caught up with Zanes to discuss the book, the experience and the man who inspired it.

Petty - The Biography

Petty – The Biography

Almost 30 years ago, you are a big fan of Tom Petty’s who gets to open on his tour.  Fast forward and you are friends with the guy and writing his biography.  How surreal was that?

It’s one of those surprising turns in life that you don’t plan and you’re not fully prepared for.  It was really meaningful to me to come back into his life.  I’d left the music business and gone back to school.  I was ensconced in universities for twelve years, from starting my bachelors degree to finishing my Ph D.  I was really at a remove from the music business.  He made contact with me when he read a book that I had written in the 33 1/3 series.  He got a copy and read it.  I hadn’t seen him in… I think… more than 12 years.  His management sent a message saying, “Tom would like to have dinner with you next time you’re in Los Angeles.”  That started a whole new chapter in my professional relationship with him.  And I do call it a professional relationship, [rather] than to call it a friendship, though it has elements of that.  But every time we’re together, the reason we are together is oriented around a project.  That doesn’t mean it’s not a relationship, but I’m going to call it a professional relationship.  (laughs)

Well, as you just mentioned, you’d previously written a book on Dusty Springfield.  How did that come about?

That came about because while I had come into graduate school and it was [working] on [my] Masters to the Ph D program.  I, like most graduate students, started doing more teaching.  As I was starting my professorial career, I brought more and more music into the classroom.  It just got me thinking about music differently.  Then, as I was finishing the Ph D, I got signed to a record deal by the Dust Brothers, who had done Beck’s Odelay and The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique.  I was thinking about music more than I had in the previous decade.  When I was getting set to release this first solo record, my manager connected me on a kind of blind date with Joe Pernice of the Pernice Brothers.  The first time I meet Joe Pernice and he says, “Hey, I’m doing a book in this new series.  Would you be interested in me putting your name in the hat?”  I said, absolutely.  It gave me this interesting opportunity to take some ideas that had been my dissertation, but think them through in this more pop context, in relation to this album that I had always loved, Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.  It was a total chance that I met Joe Pernice and he connected me to this thing.  I got to filter all of this different thinking that had been up in my head.  Then it’s just one notch crazier that Tom Petty gets a copy and reads it.

Tom came to you about the book after reading the Springfield book.  How did he find out about it and why did he feel you’d be a good choice to write his story?

I don’t know how that happened.  I don’t know if my publishers might have sent one to his management because we had a previous connection.  I don’t really know.  I didn’t ask questions, because I was probably too excited.  (laughs)  When we finally had that dinner, he said “I read your book and I was inspired to write a song that I want you to come back to my house and hear.”  By that time I thought that I was involved in some kind of overblown daydream.  But it actually happened.  What was interesting also to me and for me was I’d just been a crazy kid in the opening band.  Now Tom Petty was thinking of me as a writer, at a point that I was not yet thinking of myself as a writer.  You can do a few books before you really say, “You know what?  I’m a writer.”  I wasn’t there yet, but Tom Petty was there.  So he started bringing me into projects as a writer.

Tom Petty in 2014. Photo by Jim Rinaldi.

Tom Petty in 2014. Photo by Jim Rinaldi.

You were certainly in a rather unique position here.  I’ve written two unauthorized biographies – one on Tom Waits and one on Tori Amos – and did not get much in the way of cooperation from either, in fact Waits’ camp sort of tried to sabotage it a bit.  Petty gave you pretty complete access, but insisted that it not be an official biography.  Why do you feel that was?

He’s got a laconic Southern presence, but his mind is a very fast mind.  He formulated the framework for this project very quickly.  He said, “Would you be interested?”  I said yes.  He said, “This will be your book.  It’s not ghost-written.  It’s not co-written.  It’s not authorized.”  He went on to say that he felt that when he saw a book on the shelf that was authorized, he knew that he couldn’t trust it.  It would be whitewashed.  So, counter to what the idea of authorized originally meant, he held it to become a category [where] this is going to be the way that the artist would like people to see it.  That doesn’t mean it’s going to be the truth.  So he came up with the concept that gave me a higher level of control than he had.  He never refused me an interview.  He never refused a question.  Every person that I wanted to make contact with, he and his management team helped me make that contact.

You were in an odd position knowing the man.  When you were writing did you ever wonder if certain parts may upset him too much?

It’s a gritty account.  I’m a fan of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  I have been since I was 11 years old and I heard their first album.  I feel like they are America’s rock and roll band.  I couldn’t write an account any differently from the one I wrote.  The one I wrote, the author is a guy who holds Tom Petty in very high esteem.  So however gritty this was, I believe it’s gritty because lives are gritty.  Lives are complicated.  Show me the man who hasn’t made some choices that he later regrets.  But in order to give people like myself a better sense for the man who wrote the songs, I had to go deep on the true story.  That really was my ambition, because the songs that I fell in love with could not have been written by someone who led a tidy life.  They wouldn’t have come from that person.  They came from somebody who lived a complicated life.  So I needed to tell the story of a complicated life so that people could listen to those songs at the next higher level.

As you mention often in the book, other than Stan Lynch, most of the band members are pretty introverted, Petty included.  Was it tough getting them to open up?

It wasn’t tough, because once one guy went there, the others were willing to do it.  It was very interesting because everybody advanced as a group to the next level of opening up about the Heartbreakers story.  I felt very lucky at times to be the guy capturing these accounts.  I was not coming up against resistance.  I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever have it this good again.


There are a lot of details about Petty’s early family life, particularly his problems with his father Earl.  How much do you feel that relationship shaped who he became as an artist and as a man?

I think it affected him deeply.  I’m a child of the therapy generation.  I’m a believer in much of [Sigmund] Freud’s thinking: What happens in childhood is integral to who we are.  It’s going to inform our story every step of the way, I think.  It doesn’t mean we don’t change our relationship to that path, but I don’t think you can understand the man without understanding the child.  This is a child who was going through some shit that no child should have to.  It informed his later life deeply, I think.

To a certain extent, Tom Petty is sometimes a little undervalued as a rocker – He’s always been respected, but he’s not always mentioned in the rock God firmament like Springsteen, or the Stones, or the Beatles, or whatever.  Why do you think that may be?

I think because he is not a self-mythologizer.  He is not a self-promoter.  His career would be bigger if he was comfortable at doing that, but he’s not.  He is a guy who puts all his focus on writing songs and making records and keeping the band together so that they can continue to make records.  But once they are done, my impression of him has always been that he feels that if the songs aren’t making a strong enough case, then something is wrong with the song.  He shouldn’t need to come behind them and do back flips.

Early on, no one seemed to know where to slot the Heartbreakers – were they New Wave, were they punk, were they rock, were they alt?  For example, one of my favorite of their songs was “Louisiana Rain,” which is almost straight up country.  Do you think about the band’s diversity has over the years made them so intriguing?

Yeah.  They have such facility as a band.  Listen to The Live Anthology, which Petty said [was] the document to go to if you really want to understand that band.  If you listen to it, [you] hear them doing “The Theme from Goldfinger,” for instance.  You hear them do a Dave Clark Five song.  Then you hear them do some of their own extended live material that they’ve only done live.  They are many different bands without ever veering too far from their identity.  A big part of that is Petty’s voice.  He can do a song like “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and his voice is such a strong central presence that even with some extreme production changes, it still comes off as being a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers track.  The band has the capacity to play in a wide range of styles, while still being themselves.  Petty has a capacity to sing in a number of styles.  But somehow their sound identity can remain intact.  I think that’s helped them have a longer career.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in 1981.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in 1981.

Of course, Damn the Torpedoes was the album that exploded the group.  Previously, even though he had some success, he was still a struggling musician.  But between the breakup with Shelter Records and the popularity of the album, nothing was ever the same for the group.  How overwhelming was that jump into fame for him and the band?

I think it’s overwhelming for anyone.  We love rock and roll for many reasons, but one of them is that it is a place where we see people from the margins have big careers in the mainstream.  Our heads are pumped with notions of how powerful the American dream is in our society, but the truth is we don’t see it embodied very frequently.  We see it sometimes in sports, we see it in entertainment, we definitely see it in rock and roll.  It’s Elvis Presley.  It’s Buddy Holly.  It’s guys like Tom Petty.  Did he have to make a large adjustment, coming from lower on the class ladder to becoming a rock and roll star?  Most certainly.  What he did was he kept his head down and just kept working.  If I were to give one word attached to Tom Petty, I tell you he is a worker.  I don’t think it’s a codified work ethic, but he has maintained a pace in his life.  So the challenges of adapting to rock and roll stardom, I don’t think he was really so much dealing with them, because he was just on the job.  There were a lot of people standing around him wondering where the next songs are.  For decades.

In the late 80s, Petty made Full Moon Fever, his first album without the band, although Mike, Ben and (late bassist) Howie Epstein did work on the album a bit.  They’d been working together for years, how did the idea of a solo record sit with the other band members?

Among other things, Petty is a tremendously skilled bandleader.  What his band wasn’t seeing in that moment – and understandably – was that Petty was making a choice in doing that solo album that would ultimately benefit them.  This was a guy who needed to step away and breathe a little bit.  He found a way to do it.  When he came back to the Heartbreakers, it gave them some years.  They are coming on 40 years and they are still together.  Some of these choices to make solo records came around at times when he needed to do that in order to be able to come back and be the strong bandleader that he needed to.  From the band’s perspective, it was the first time with Full Moon Fever they’d seen him doing that and I think it was very threatening.  Also, the Jeff Lynne records (Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open) were done differently than they were accustomed to doing.  They were more constructionist records than the recordings of live performances.  It felt like: “What is Tom doing?”  Petty’s intuitive and he’s not asking for a lot of outside opinions, because he’s always believed in his own.  So he did that thing, and there were doubters on the sidelines, but the results certainly suggested that Tom Petty made a pretty good choice in doing a solo record with Jeff Lynne at that time.

The Traveling Wilburys in 1988.

The Traveling Wilburys in 1988.

You were actually there for one of the earliest meetings with Bob Dylan and George Harrison and Jeff Lynne that led to the creation of the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.  What was it like to be a part of that historic rock moment?

Dylan wasn’t there.  It was George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell.  They were all sitting in Tom’s office at his house while the Petty family Christmas party was unfolding in the next few rooms.  The Pettys had given me a Beatles magazine.  I’m not a big go-get-the-autograph kind of guy, but this felt like an unusual circumstance.  (laughs)  Just unusual enough for me to go get the autograph.  Jane Petty, that’s Tom’s former wife, she kind of almost pushed me into this room.  There they are, playing music together.  For me, I did not view it as historic.  I didn’t know what it was.  I knew there were some legends in the room.  And I knew that I felt tremendously uncomfortable.  So after I got my autograph, I got out of there pretty quickly, because they were in their world and I rightly didn’t view myself as a member of that.  So I left with my magazine, which my sons will inherit.  (laughs)

Petty had never really discussed his heroin use before, even in the Running Down a Dream documentary.  Why do you think it was important to him to discuss that important but embarrassing addiction?

At one point he said to me, “There’s no reason to do anything but just tell the truth at this point in life.”  He did have hesitation.  He worried that even if there was one kid out there who might romanticize drug use because of Tom Petty’s story, it wasn’t worth telling that story.  I said I believe that we’re in a time where there is more awareness about addiction.  This can be told in such a way that it’s not going to be romanticized.  I felt strongly that could be done.  So with his interest in telling the whole truth, and us finding a way, I think he felt ready.  I don’t have anybody writing my book, but I imagine it’s hard to go through this experience.  That I am seeing eye to eye with him.  We set out to do what he wanted to do.  I think we really arrived at an honest, good book.  I believe he sees that, but at the same time he is having to live through the process of seeing new difficult information about his life going public.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in 1993

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in 1993

One of the biggest things you got here is that you finally got Stan Lynch to open up on his mysterious break with the band.  Everyone has been pretty hush-hush for years about that.  I’m afraid I’m not quite that far into the book yet, but how did that come about?  Were you surprised that Lynch finally opened up about that?

It’s tough to say: Would Stan have done interviews earlier if people had come in a more personal style?  That’s what Stan says.  He says it wasn’t about not doing interviews, he just said nobody came to my door like [I] did.  But, he said no several times before I went to him and said, “Stan, I just don’t think I can do this without your involvement.  I’ll come to your front door in Florida if you just give me 20 minutes.  If after 20 minutes you want me to leave, I promise I will leave.”  That’s what we did.  I flew down there for those 20 minutes and then it turned into eight hours.  I really needed his voice.  Only people who have been in bands can understand that it doesn’t matter that 20 years have passed.  The feelings are still strong.  I was only in a band myself for five years.  That was many years ago, but I still feel some of the disappointment.  I still feel a little bit of the anger at how things got handled by my brother, who was the band leader.  We worked through a lot of it, but these things… it’s just like feelings from childhood.  Feelings from the time that you’re a young man.  They don’t necessarily have an expiration date.  A lot of Stan’s feelings had a strength to them.  A lot of Tom’s had a strength to them.  I can understand why.  These guys went through a lot together.  They saw their lives flipped upside down by success.  Then they had to negotiate it.  Negotiating how to handle success was mostly on Petty’s back.  He had a group of his friends from his hometown watching how he did it.  And you know what?  Several of them were going to get resentful.  I don’t think there would be any way around that.  But, I needed Stan to voice some of that, in order to give the experience of being in a long-term band and leaving it.  A real taste is in the pages.

Did you ever hear what Tom thought of the final book?

Our arrangement was that he got to read it before publication.  When we set up the parameters here, he said, “I’m not going to tell you what is in it and what is not in it.  But I’m going to ask for the opportunity to read it before publication and respond to anything that I feel begs a response.”  That, too, he stuck to.  He never said “Don’t put that in there and put this in there.”  Never.  But we sat down and went through the entire book together.  We did the first half over a two day period.  We did the second half over a four day period.  He got to address what he wanted to address.  Then I found a way to sew his voice into the existing narrative.  It was, without a doubt, one of the more intense, human experiences I’ve been through.  I didn’t come out of any of this with less of an admiration for Tom Petty.  If anything, I came out with more of an admiration.  He is a man of principle, a man with a really defined set of values that organize his life.  He’s a guy that I still look up to in many, many ways.

What is your personal favorite Tom Petty album or song?

This is the truth, it shifts.  It really depends.  That’s a testament to how strong his catalogue is, from beginning to end.  I’ll often be listening to the newest records.  I listen to Hypnotic Eye a lot.  Songs like “All You Can Carry” and “Forgotten Man,” these are incredible tracks.  I went through a period when these were my favorites.  But I was looking back at the first record lately and listening to “The Wild One, Forever” and “Mystery Man” and going, okay, today this is my favorite.  It could be Southern Accents.  I went through a period where Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) was my favorite, for however uneven he thinks it is.  He has a hard time listening to Echo.  I know people who say Echo is the best record.  Or, I was just talking to somebody yesterday [about] Long After Dark.  Petty turns up his nose at that one, and I think it’s incredible.  I’m talking to Mike Gent from the Figgs, and Mike Gent did what Ryan Adams did with the Taylor Swift record.  He went and recorded the entire Long After Dark in sequence, solo acoustic.  (ed. note: He recorded them under the name Gents Parlour.  Interestingly, Gent changed the album title to Long After Stan.)  Because he fell in love with that record.  That’s his favorite.  Man, his catalogue is so good, the effect is the same as The Beatles catalogue.  In some ways The Stones catalogue, but there are a few things in the Stones catalogue that don’t measure up.  But The Beatles, you can go anywhere and be satisfied.  Petty you can go anywhere and be satisfied.

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: December 2, 2015.

Photos 1 & 2 ©2015. Courtesy of Henry Holt & Company. All rights reserved.

Photo 3 ©2014 Jim Rinaldi. All rights reserved.

Photo 4 ©1977. Courtesy of Universal Music Group. All rights reserved.

Photo 5 ©1983. Courtesy of Universal Music Group. All rights reserved.

Photo 6 ©1988. Courtesy of Warner Music Group. All rights reserved.

Photo 7 ©1993. Courtesy of Universal Music Group. All rights reserved.

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