EVERYONE KNOWS who Tom Petty is, but what do we really know about him? The blond, Florida-born rock 'n' roller has forged a lengthy and lucrative career by writing good, simple songs and playing them unpretentiously. He's fronted a crackerjack band, the Heartbreakers, since the mid '70s; he was a Traveling Wilbury; he made that one video where he dressed up as the Mad Hatter. And?
Even hardcore Petty-heads may have difficulty summoning any deeper knowledge than that. Petty's a terrific rock star, but not much of a celebrity. Warren Zanes—whose band the Del Fuegos opened for Petty in the '80s—has penned not only the first Petty-approved biography of the reclusive musician, but perhaps the first real book of note about him altogether.
It turns out Tom Petty has some pretty remarkable stories, and Petty: The Biography touches on several of them, but doesn't quite tie itself into a propulsive, alluring read. Petty's early days in Florida, while largely unreported until now, are a bit of a slog. And the Heartbreakers' history is dominated by Petty's tempestuous relationship with original drummer Stan Lynch, who has more quotes in the book than Petty himself. Apart from guitarist Mike Campbell—who's even more of a mystery than his boss—the other Heartbreakers barely register in the narrative.
Petty: The Biography made headlines with its revelation that Petty sank into heroin addiction in the '90s, and Zanes explores this area with tact. At that time, Petty had also reached the end of a difficult marriage with his first wife, who is described as abusive and suffering from mental illness. (If that sounds vague to you, it remains vague in the book as well.) But I can't help feeling that for a book about a man who spent his life making music, I would've liked a little more about the actual music—at no point does Zanes send the reader scurrying to Petty's back catalog to listen with deeper knowledge. Instead, Petty: The Biography colors in some gray areas in the man's personal history while remaining oddly cursory. It's a generic quality that Petty's workmanlike tunes successfully elude.