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'Tom Petty' is an impossibly intimate, clear-eyed portrait of a rock god

Only a biographer who’s been in a band, and striven to make great rock music, could have written Petty’s story with such insight and familiarity.

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    Petty: The Biography
    By Warren Zanes
    Henry Holt & Co.
    336 pp.
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Those of you who often find yourselves playing air guitar and slipping into daydreams of life as rock star … you might want to hold your horses, or at least read this book first. Tom Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes will both fuel those Walter Mitty dreams and, at the same time, make your own, ordinary life look pretty darned good.

Truly a man who has suffered for his art (as confirmed by friends and intimates who experienced collateral damage), Petty is the quintessential rocker, and, like many before him, it has been lonely at the top.

At 65, the hardscrabble Florida native is still fighting off the swamp snakes and alligators that followed him to stardom in LA. His unrivaled passion for songwriting, performing, making records and keeping his band together (four decades and counting) has been his sole raison d’être, since the fateful day he witnessed The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Tom Petty was 14, and suddenly nothing else mattered. Nothing.

While illuminating and celebrating Petty’s (and his Heartbreakers) creative output and sustained success in fascinating detail, Zanes’s book painstakingly computes the massive human cost of Tom Petty-level-fame – to his family and creative partners, but mostly to the man himself – perhaps better than any artist bio before it.

To get to the top, Zanes starts at the bottom: Born in 1950 in Gainesville to a poor, barely educated and physically abusive father and a mother who was too afraid of her husband to intervene, Petty was a poor student, a dreamer, far more interested in what he perceived was a much more exciting world beyond his own.

It was a world populated by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and movies stars like Brando, James Dean, and guitar-strumming cowboy heroes. A chance encounter with Elvis (Presley shot a film near Petty's hometown) and a life-altering handshake with the King as he climbed out of a gleaming white Cadillac to greet his young worshippers lit Petty's pilot light. And a particularly good crop of local musicians got Petty’s rock odyssey off the ground.

Then the Beatles fired up the rocket, and after going as far as he could in the local music scene Tom and his band Gainesville band Mudcrutch found themselves in LA in 1975, not ready for prime time, but ravenous to learn and make it big. And after a few toe stubs, they did. Tom and his reshuffled lineup’s first album simmered under the radar at first but after dogged promotion – with the band willing to open for literally whoever would have them – word spread that they had something special and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were off to the races. They hit the top of the charts, the Super Bowl halftime show, and eventually The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And they’re still at it, 40 years and counting. Tom’s writing songs, they’re making records, and touring the world as one of the premier rock bands of all time.

A strong supporting character in this epic and intimate biography is the author himself. Zanes is also a songwriter and rocker, who once sought stardom. He idolized Petty, and his Boston-based band the Del Fuegos shared tour stages with Tom and the Heartbreakers in the 1980s. They became friends onstage and off, and he and Petty reconnected two decades later when Zanes started writing music biographies, most notably "Dusty in Memphis: The Dusty Springfield Story." It caught Petty’s eye, and a call was made.

The author’s first-hand band experience and recording savvy steered him to the right questions to ask, and the right players, producers and family to seek out. The payoff is an impossibly intimate, clear-eyed portrait of an ambitious, reclusive, highly disciplined, self-destructive, near genius songwriter and performer, who was born to rock and roll and takes his job very, very seriously.

But when it came to his life story, the infamous control freak was happy to let his hand-picked biographer tell the tale, reminding Zanes that “ it’s your book, not mine.”

Even non-fans and detractors have to admit that few artists live and die for rock music like Tom Petty. And only someone who’s been in a band, and striven to make great rock music could have written Petty’s story with such insight and familiarity. It’s a cautionary tale, but an inspiring one for those who thrive on music, whether making it or just listening. Zanes hands us a backstage pass to the inner workings of a big-time rock band – communal creativity, ego, jealousy, betrayals, debauchery, comraderie – of the rock and roll life. It's at once thrilling, deflating, inspiring, and alarming. It reduces a rock god to very human proportions, but also fills one with awe at what the barefoot boy from rough-and-tumble north Florida has managed to create with talent, drive, and an undiminished belief in the power rock and roll.

And Tom Petty isn't finished yet. Someone has to carry the banner. He's already thinking about the next great song, the next Heartbreakers album, the next world tour. Then the next one, and the next….

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