By 1997, Tom Petty’s life was in shambles. His latest album, She’s the One, had bombed commercially, and he’d just fired his longtime drummer, Stan Lynch of the Heartbreakers, after years of acrimony. Even worse, his 20-year marriage had just come to a bitter end. Living in a tiny house he calls a “chicken shack,” he found a new way to deal with his pain: heroin. Before long, he was hooked. “Tried to go cold turkey, and that wouldn’t work,” he says in the new book Petty: The Biography. “It’s an ugly fucking thing.”
The book, by author and former Del Fuegos guitarist Warren Zanes, marks the first time Petty has ever talked about his heroin abuse publicly, but it’s far from the only dark moment in the book. Petty and Zanes have decided to tell the unvarnished truth, and the result is not only the definitive account of Petty’s life, but one of the best rock biographies in recent memory.
Zanes makes clear he’s no impartial observer — in fact, he’s a Petty superfan going way back. “‘American Girl’ seemed to be wide open for listeners to see themselves in the picture,” Zanes writes in the preface. “I certainly saw myself. Something happened when that voice delivered those words in that way.” The pair first met in 1986, when the Del Fuegos opened for Petty, and they stayed friends over the years, as the Del Fuegos broke up and Zanes became a teacher and historian and wrote an acclaimed book about the making of Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.
Their closeness seems to have helped Petty open up about the most painful chapters of his life, all the way back to his Florida childhood. He had a contentious relationship with his father, Earl, who once beat him for shooting a slingshot at a passing Cadillac. “I was covered in raised welts, from my head to my toes,” Petty remembers in the book. “I mean, you can’t imagine someone hitting a child like that. . . . I was fucking five!”
Much of Petty: The Biography focuses on the saga of the Heartbreakers — the bond between bandmates as well as the tensions. Most of the group members were also in Mudcrutch, Petty’s early-Seventies band, back when he was a skinny blond nobody playing bass. Zanes had frank discussions with all of them — including former drummer Lynch, who opens up about his long-simmering difficulties with Petty.
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Lynch was particularly irked about Petty’s 1989 hit solo album, Full Moon Fever, which Petty recorded with minimal help from the Heartbreakers and a different drummer. But he has plenty of regrets about how he handled his final years with Petty. “I didn’t need to be so big, so loud, so fucking noisy,” Lynch says in the book. “If I could talk to that guy. . . . I would’ve gone, ‘Son, you’re a fool. You just don’t know it yet. So why don’t you keep your fucking mouth shut and just let a few things work around you.'”
That’s not to say he’s forgiven Petty, especially when it comes to the subject of former bassist Howie Epstein, who died of heroin-related complications in 2003. “I never forgave Tom for not being at his funeral,” says Lynch. “I can’t. I wish I could.” Petty says he went to a separate, private memorial, and is deeply hurt over Lynch’s insinuations that he didn’t do enough to save Epstein’s life. “I don’t think Stan knows what we went through with Howie,” says Petty. “Nobody does. I owe Howie more than to tell those tales. But I will say that I miss him all the time. I hear his voice on records, and it just kills me.”
Petty managed to avoid Epstein’s fate by going to rehab and kicking his heroin habit. The sweetest event of the past 15 years was Petty’s surprising decision to reunite Mudcrutch in 2008, which Zanes takes as a sign of Petty’s commitment to his magic. “You don’t see Billy Joel re-forming the Hassles or Bruce Springsteen re-forming Steel Mill,” Zanes writes. “Probably for very legitimate reasons. It was a career move that could stop a manager’s heart. . . . [But] Petty didn’t always think in terms of what made sense; it was all about the songs he thought ‘might be back there.'” This revealing book gets inside that uncompromising spirit.