If the group of goth kids hanging around Denny's on Sunset one night in 1988 had any idea who was sitting a few booths over, they could rightfully claim they had witnessed one of the first gatherings of the Traveling Wilburys. Tom Petty, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne chose the coffee shop to celebrate the very recent birth of their new band.
Petty already had a band, of course, and it was the success of the Heartbreakers that helped put him at that table, with a group of men who had miraculously transformed from childhood heroes into peers and friends. How the singer-songwriter found his way to that Denny's in Los Angeles, and so many more fascinating places — including the top of the charts, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and playing on a radio somewhere right now — from a two-bedroom ranch house in Gainesville, Fla., makes up the marvelous, kinetic, funny, and if you'll pardon me, heartbreaking, new biography "Petty" by Warren Zanes.
The Wilburys' tale is one of hundreds of expertly described scenes in the book, written with Petty's full cooperation, which makes a strong case that all rock biographies should be written by musician-scholars of Zanes's erudition, wit, and experience. He balances the sensibility of an academic (he has a doctorate) — blending personal chronology and cultural context — with the plainspoken and often hilarious worldview of someone who slogged it out in the trenches just as Petty and his bandmates once did. (Bostonians with long memories will recall Zanes as a member of the late, great rock band the Del Fuegos, who had the pleasure and, as Zanes tells it, the terror, of opening for Petty.)
Whether he is detailing something as well-lighted as Petty's legal battles with his record company or the more shadowy, secretive corners of his life — a bout with heroin addiction that was known to very few — Zanes is never less than entertainingly artful and sometimes breathtakingly graceful. Best of all for music fans, he spends a good deal of time dissecting the songs: their inspirations, origins, iterations, and recording.
"Petty" is all the more impressive given that its subject, unlike many of his more ostentatious musical peers, has never been much interested in making his personal life public. Perhaps it was a function of an abusive childhood or the gun-shyness of a man who suffered heartache early in life — as Zanes puts it "girls were a beautiful road to a lonely place." Or maybe he is simply someone who is satisfied with expressing himself in song and leaving it at that. For whatever reason, Petty has always had, as one longtime friend puts it, "tinted windows on his soul."
Zanes peers behind the shading and reveals a complicated man, by turns fiercely loyal, sometimes angry and cruel, but also jovial and funny in ways you might not expect from the cool, laconic figure who belted out classics like "American Girl," "Free Fallin'," and "Don't Do Me Like That." (Fun fact: That last song was once offered to the J. Geils Band, who took a pass.)
The author's most impressive feat may be the way he assiduously avoids the salaciousness and grime that often accompany these kinds of tales, and the candor he was able to elicit from his subject. Refreshingly, and again unlike many of his peers, Petty has no compunction in accepting his share of the blame when it comes to everything from intra-band squabbles to his early absentee parenting.
So many names figure tangentially in the story, both pre- and post-fame, that the book features a wonderfully tangled cast of characters, including Leon Russell, several of the Eagles, both of the Eurythmics, Jimmy Iovine, Ringo Starr, and Jackson Browne, all of them popping up in cameos and longer arcs. There's a memorable ride with Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Nicks fans will be pleased by how prominently she appears.
But there are more than enough tales within Petty's own life and that of his indefatigable band mates past and present — drummers Stan Lynch and Steve Ferrone, keyboardist extraordinaire Benmont Tench, bassists Ron Blair and the late Howie Epstein, utilityman Scott Thurston, and guitarist-songwriter Mike Campbell — to fill this book and probably more.
Yet just like one of Campbell's impeccably economical solos — electrifying but never flashy and always in service of the song — Zanes tells the story with artful brevity and a keen sense of the necessary.
PETTY: The Biography
By Warren Zanes
Holt, 336 pp., $30
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.