Tom Petty’s biographer says book was the ‘singular, defining experience’ of his life
Music fans everywhere were wrecked by the news of Tom Petty’s death, none more than Warren Zanes.
Zanes, a former member of the Boston band the Del Fuegos, spent five years researching and writing the well-reviewed 2015 bio “Petty: The Biography,” an undertaking he calls the “singular, defining experience in my life.”
In the days since Petty’s death — he was 66 when he succumbed to a heart attack Monday night — Zanes’s grief has turned to gratitude — for the music and for the opportunity to spend so much time getting to know and write about one of his idols. But the songwriter’s sudden passing has been hard on a personal level.
Speaking on the phone from New York, Zanes became emotional as he talked about his relationship with Petty.
“The most difficult part was [telling] my sons. They grew up with Tom Petty,” said Zanes, whose children are 13 and 15. “My father died a few weeks back and my sons know I did not know my father. I had seen him twice in 35 years. It didn’t matter what I did in life, my father showed no interest in me. . .
“Tom Petty’s death was a big point of contrast,” Zanes, 52, said. “This guy, who also happened to be my hero, stepped in and validated me in a way my father never did. That’s not what he set out to do, but that’s what he did.”
Zanes’s relationship with Petty actually dated back several decades, to his days as a precocious teen tuning into WBCN and sneaking off the Phillips Academy campus to see shows in Boston. As much as any other song, Petty’s first single, “Breakdown,” made Zanes want to join a band, which he did as soon as he got his diploma.
Fast forward a few years, the Del Fuegos were playing a three-night stand in LA and they invited Petty to come. He didn’t, but he did call Zanes in the wee hours of the morning to invite the band to his house the next night.
“We just hung out and did what musicians do: We talked about music, we smoked some weed, and we kind of warmed our hands on the fire that we’d been waiting to sit around — you know, Tom Petty.”
(Unbelievably, a Polaroid taken that night is the only picture Zanes has of himself with Petty.)
Years later, impressed with Zanes’s book “Dusty in Memphis,” a slender volume about Dusty Springfield, Petty hired Zanes to write/edit a few things — liner notes, the companion book for director Peter Bogdanovich’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” documentary, etc. — and then asked if he’d consider writing his biography, promising he’d hold nothing back.
And he didn’t, talking about his divorce, his heroin addiction, and the departure of Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch.
The book sold well and gave Petty fans, whether casual or committed, a new appreciation of the artist. But Zanes still thinks Tom Petty isn’t given the due he deserves, and that may be the singer’s own fault.
“He’s the one who got in the way of that because he was competing with artists who are much more willing and much more capable of self-mythologizing,” Zanes said. “Tom Petty really felt like, ‘Man if the songs can’t do it, I’m not going to come in behind them and beg people to have an experience with them.’ ”
The outpouring of emotion following his death this week demonstrated that for many, many people, the songs did do it, and that makes Zanes happy.