Tom Petty’s Biographer on the Story He Didn’t Tell
Warren Zanes is the author of Petty: The Biography. He first met the singer in 1986, when Zanes’ band, the Del Fuegos, opened for Petty and the Heartbreakers.
[Find ‘Petty: The Biography’ Here]
I was standing in my kitchen when I heard about Tom Petty’s death. The message came from a friend who had worked at WBCN in Boston. WBCN — that’s where, at age 12, I heard Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first single, “Breakdown.” Tell me this isn’t true. That was the message from my friend. I’m not sure how the constellations of thought come together, but they form quickly. Just that fast, I knew Tom Petty had died. And then the street outside my window looked different.
I’d thought about what this day might be like. Petty had been in the room with me (and so many of us) for more than 40 years. I could chart my life in relation to his releases. Early on, around the time of the first albums, I had the feeling that Petty was giving me better direction than the adults who came and went, mostly went, in my life. Even the losers. That alone helped.
Tom Petty was a long-term relationship well before I met him, well before I stood up there as a guitar player in a Heartbreakers opening act, well before he approached me about writing his biography. But in 2016 and 2017, the air stunk of rock & roll deaths. Prince, David Bowie, Chuck Berry, Gregg Allman, Glen Campbell. It was hard not to look at Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and, yes, even Petty . . . wondering when. But in Petty’s case, whenever I considered the possibility, I shook it off, sure it was just the mind’s play. Jerry Lee Lewis alive and Tom Petty dead? That made no sense.
Two years before news of his death came to me in my kitchen, in the week Petty: The Biography was published, a woman at a bookstore event in New Hampshire asked what I thought Petty would do in the last stretch of his creative life. The woman appeared to be in her mid-sixties, roughly Petty’s age, wearing a flannel shirt, not a trace of rock & roll on the outside. But she was a real fan, and I think we both knew the answer to her question.
Petty had always written from where he was, never tried to pull off a dye-job approach to song. He had faith in rock & roll’s ability to go wherever it was needed, to age with the people who made it and listened to it and lived by it. He’d seen rock & roll leave the sock hop and do just fine. Wouldn’t he proceed as he always had and, when the lights began to flicker, give us a few songs that helped us see that place for ourselves? Wouldn’t he find some way to explore through music what happens at the end of a life? Yes, the woman said.
Rock & roll doesn’t have much of that. Most of the recorded music that speaks frankly of death was left for us by “hillbillies” and blues artists, musicians living decades earlier, people who sang about death because it was breathing on them. The woman’s question started a bookstore conversation about our need not just for movies and novels and poems that speak of life’s end but rock & roll that does the same. Even if it’s hard stuff to make out to. It was in Petty’s character to give us some of that, help us see it. And since he’d never set out to make an album if it didn’t have a shot at it being his best, since his quality-control department was open 24 hours, his last recording — we all agreed — might not just take a hard look around at life’s closing years, it might be his greatest. But then, two years later, he was dead. Right after what many considered his most successful tour.
After I got the news, phone calls and messages started coming in. My agent, who had played an important role in the biography’s creation, gently suggested that I had some responsibilities, no matter where my head was at. Petty had entrusted me to write his biography, and this was part of the job, the last part. Take some calls, he said. I agreed. So for three days I did press, writing and talking about Tom Petty. I quickly understood that I wasn’t the only one struggling to use the past tense and, almost as soon, that none of us needed to. The pile of songs Petty left us with had earned him a place in the present tense. The songs are. He is. Then the three days of press ended, and it got a little quiet around my house.
I approached my last few written pieces — for Rolling Stone, Vulture and Slate — as final thoughts, send-offs. Then I stopped working on Tom Petty. The problem? He kept working on me. He’d given me an experience that changed me. His unexpected death forced me to acknowledge, in a visceral way, the degree to which biographers bring their subjects in through the stomach as much as through the mind. Biographers consume their people to understand them. I began thinking not just about Tom Petty and all I’d learned from him, which was a lot, but about biography, about being a biographer. About being his biographer.
I hadn’t been alone when I went through the process of writing the Petty biography. There was a family around me, even if it had splintered by the time of Petty’s death. They knew that writing this biography wasn’t just a matter of opening up the laptop a few times a day. They knew that Dad wasn’t always there at the dinner table when Dad was there at the dinner table. He was with that other guy. And that didn’t end when the book came out.
But there was more to it. Something remained unfinished following the publication of the biography. After Petty’s final review of the manuscript, I never spoke to him again. And this hangs over me. He’d made his comments and signed off. I went on my way, finalizing the book. Our relationship had always been based around work, and the work was done, the book finished. As happens with biographers and their subjects, our private world of conversations, which stretched over a period of years, was no longer just ours.
That last change happens fast, and, oddly enough, comes almost as a surprise. Even if it shouldn’t. The second half of the book, involving divorce and heroin use and the blending of families, got some divided responses among Petty’s family members, some contention, some trouble. I think Petty found himself at the center of it, and in a way that proved uncomfortable. But my job, from the beginning, had been to tell the man’s story based on interviews, primarily those with him. And that’s what I’d done. But that going public part of the process changed things, brought some strain. If it hadn’t, I believe that the absence of strain would have been the sign that I’d failed in writing the book Petty wanted me to write. In some ways, I’d been ready for this. But I thought we’d have a few years to process it all, to move past it. He’d invited me to be a guest DJ on his radio show. There were signs of thawing. But then he was gone.
Only a week before his death, I had a dream about the two of us taking a walk near his Malibu beach house, there beside the Pacific — which, in truth, we’d never done — and in this dream we returned to easy conversation, just like it had been before and during the writing of the book. We were talking about Elvis Presley’s ’68 Special. Petty was always at his lightest, his most comfortable and open, when the artist being discussed was someone other than Tom Petty. And the topic was Elvis. Talking about that subject, Petty could be what he’d been at the beginning, before it all went down, before he became Tom Petty … just another kid crazy for rock & roll.
Which brings me to the story I want to tell. Not mine — Petty’s. There was an important conversation that didn’t make the book, that came too late in the process. But it told me something about that kid, that kid crazy for rock & roll, and what that kid still meant to Tom Petty. I think Petty did what he could to go back and see him, back to Dreamville, whenever and wherever and however he could. It’s a story about coffee.
But let me first say this about coffee: When it’s time to conduct an interview, I always show up with a large cup. Because the last thing you want when you’re asking questions about a person’s life and work is to sit across from that person struggling to stay awake. Do that, and you’ve lost them. At the same time, you don’t want too much coffee. Starbucks sells some overly large cups of coffee. I bought one of those the day I interviewed Dhani Harrison for Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Dhani’s father, George. I drank the whole thing. Dhani had long hair at the time, a lot like George’s in the All Things Must Pass era. Forty-five minutes into the interview and all the way through that coffee, I found myself in a semihallucinatory state, thinking I might be talking to George Harrison. That’s too much coffee. What you want is the next size down from that.
When I’d drive to Tom Petty’s house for interviews, I’d always stop about half a mile away from his place to get my cup of coffee, after which I’d make my way down the last stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway that brought me to his driveway. There I’d call up to the main house, the gates would open, and I’d drive up the hill toward Tom Petty’s world.
After parking, I’d go into the recording studio lounge, no one there but me, where I’d see a tray with two overturned ceramic mugs, sugar, spoons, milk, and a large thermos of, yes, coffee. It was always there. I never saw anyone deliver it or remove it, but it was always hot and fresh. Of course, I wasn’t going to take the chance and show up without my own coffee, only to find out that that one time there was no tray with two overturned mugs, a thermos, etc.
The interviews for Petty: The Biography took place over a period of years. During one of the final sessions, knowing this was near the end, I mentioned to Tom that he always provided a great cup of coffee, better than what I brought myself. Now, please understand, not every thought I shared with Petty got a response. He wasn’t big on small talk. But in this case, I saw that what I’d said registered with him. Petty had those pale-blue eyes, and when he fixed them on you the effect was arresting. My comment about the coffee had gotten his attention. “You know, Warren,” he said, holding my gaze, “you’re not the first person to say that.”
What Petty went on to say certainly felt like book-worthy material. It didn’t make the final manuscript only because I was too far along in the process and couldn’t find an honest place for it. No matter, it was in my version of the book, the one I kept in my head. And, yes, it was about coffee. And it wasn’t. Petty went for 20 minutes, maybe more, talking about what a good cup of coffee should be, how to recognize one, where to find one. It was the level of engagement he reserved for subjects like Fender Telecasters or the Beatles.
The story he told me went something like this: He’d been out driving with his wife, Dana, north of their Malibu home, when they’d stopped at a diner. The coffee there, he told me, was close to perfect. Generally reserved, even shy, he felt compelled to ask the waitress what kind it was. She didn’t know. She told him she’d ask the manager. The manager, possibly surprised that a rock & roll legend wanted information about the diner’s coffee, gave him the secret, which probably wasn’t a secret at all. It was Maxwell House.
“Good to the last drop.” That was, and is, the Maxwell House slogan. Originally claimed to be the words of Teddy Roosevelt, who supposedly had a cup of the stuff at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville, the phrase was later attributed to General Foods Corporation president Clifford Spiller. Clifford Spiller? Good to the last drop? You can’t make this shit up.
When Petty heard the words “Maxwell House,” he didn’t turn back. He wasn’t going to deny the truth of his experience. In his view, it was a great cup of coffee. He didn’t bow to any hipster sensibility that went against his own tastes. His response? “Can I see how you make it?” The manager took Petty into the kitchen, where a Bunn Automatic coffeemaker was doing its thing. If you look in most any diner across America, the Bunn Automatic is a pretty standard fixture. For the places that do high-volume work, their units are professional-grade, tied into the plumbing rather than just sitting on the countertop. So, not long after the diner visit, that’s what Petty installed at his home. Two of them, in fact. He didn’t want to find himself waiting for a cup of coffee.
But the story didn’t stop there. The following Christmas, Petty explained, when hosting a family gathering that extended over a week, a private chef providing each day’s centerpiece of a sit-down family meal, Petty was again struck by a cup of coffee. The chef was using the Maxwell House, the Bunn Automatic … yet the coffee tasted even better. Again Petty went to the source, asking the chef what he’d done. As the man explained, before he put the Maxwell House into the machine, he used a knife to level off every cup he measured out. It was exact. Not close, exact. From there on out, that’s how it would be done at the Petty home. That, Petty told me, is what I’d been drinking.
He was still looking directly at me, as if to make sure I was getting all of this. I felt as though he didn’t just want to tell me something, he wanted to leave a mark. The Tom Petty who had watched thousands of cowboys move across the TV screen, well, just then he looked like one of them. I couldn’t think of a whole lot else to do but take a sip of that coffee and say, “It’s good. This really is good coffee.” To which Petty said, “You got that right.”
Of course, if his account ends there, that doesn’t mean the story ends there. It’s mine to tell. And I kept thinking about it. Had I ever seen Tom Petty without a cup of coffee? I wasn’t sure I had. When he walked onto his bus after a show, the crowd still thinking they might get one more song, there was a cup of coffee waiting for him. On the plane? A cup of coffee. At the Heartbreaker clubhouse? Coffee.
American coffee culture has changed over the past few decades. A game of catch-up took place, one in which American taste and style attempted to move closer to the standards of European taste and style. This is an old American reflex, of course: Catch up with the Europeans. And, despite all this, we’re still behind. What you get at a truck stop in Italy often beats our best. But, yes, a revolution did take place. I had to ask Petty, did he like what had happened? How did he feel about a quality espresso? He looked at me like I had missed the whole point of his story.
Yes, he told me, he’d tried some espresso, made backstage by one of the Heartbreakers. I’m guessing Benmont Tench or Steve Ferrone, but Petty didn’t say. He just said he didn’t get it. Should a cup of coffee be over that quickly? Is what’s good for tequila good for coffee? He didn’t answer the question, just looked at me in a way that said, No, it isn’t, Warren. What he was after in a cup of coffee, he explained, was something he found in a Gainesville diner, where he could sit for hours, getting refills, wrapping his fingers around a cup that kept being replenished. This, I came to believe, is what this coffee story was all about. It wasn’t about coffee. Not exactly.
It was that place. That Gainesville diner. It was the time. It was being high on dirt weed and drinking seven cups of coffee, talking about Wilson Pickett, the Beach Boys, Cream. It was no one throwing you out when you couldn’t scrape together the money for a piece of pie. It was a workshop where you could build scale models of your dreams.
In that perfect cup of coffee Tom Petty served me on Malibu afternoons — every cup of Maxwell House exactly level — he could almost experience, almost feel, something he couldn’t completely get back to. That coffee, I came to believe, was his Rosebud. We were not talking about a hot drink any more than Charles Foster Kane was talking about a sled. It was really about a moment in Petty’s life when the world was in front of him, when he could feel the closeness of that kid crazy for rock & roll, before the disappointments that come even to the star’s life. We were talking about a cup of coffee, but a cup of coffee into which a world could be poured.
I remember standing with Petty in his driveway when he first asked if I’d be interested in writing his biography. It was a conversation that dropped me at the front door of an experience I knew little about until I was in it. Petty knew damn well that I wanted to write his biography. This was just his dignified way of taking a conversation that had started with his management and making it a conversation between us. If one is to call it a conversation. It happened so fast. Minutes after it started, I was heading back down the driveway, Tom Petty’s biographer.
After I told him I’d love to write the book, he said, “Good, I’m glad to hear that.” He then proceeded to tell me the terms. 1) It’s your book, Warren, your contract. 2) It’s not authorized, because authorized biographies are always bullshit. 3) I’ll help you get the interviews you need, so long as the people are willing. 4) I’ll give you all the time with me that you need. 5) I get to read it before it goes to print, and if there’s anything I feel the need to respond to, you weave my response in . . . but I’ll never tell you to take something out. It’s your book.
All that came out like he was reading it off a piece of paper. He wasn’t. But this guy knew his own mind. And it was a powerful mind. If at the time I wasn’t sure what kind of sense all of these terms made — not authorized? — by the end of the process I knew Petty was right about every point. And he stuck to each of them. With one exception. There was a comment about Bob Dylan, nothing alarming by any stretch, not even negative in tone. It was taken from an interview done in the Eighties. Petty asked if I could please remove that, out of respect for Bob. When I explained that it didn’t come from our interviews, that it was already in print and would be cited as such, Petty said, “Well, I got away with it once.” I took it out.
The next time I saw Tom Petty after the day I headed down the Malibu driveway as his biographer, we were sitting down, talking about fathers and mothers and bomb shelters and Elvis Presley and alligators. We were underway. Over the next few years we’d drink a lot of coffee, and I’d get to know that kid back there in Gainesville as well as I knew the man on the couch across from me. I miss them both.