Traditionally, the opening band shouldn’t have the best weed on the tour. That’s just not good form. But in 1987, when my group, the Del Fuegos, was first on a bill of three as part of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Caravan, we defied tradition. We may have gone onstage when the audience was thinking more about a hot dog and a beer than a band they didn’t know playing songs they didn’t know, but our dressing room, the smallest backstage, was the where the pot smoking members of the tour typically found shelter. That included the occasional member of the Georgia Satellites, sometimes a Heartbreaker and, often, Tom Petty. The quality of our product couldn’t be denied.
Petty finally asked us if we could get him some of this special stuff. The other alternative, I imagined, would be to move into the opener’s dressing room, so I guess he felt it was time to request his own supply. Fair enough. Likely expecting us to say we’d check with our pot dealer, he instead heard us explain that we’d ask our mother if she could send some for him. “Your mother?” And he put the question to us in just the way you’d hope Tom Petty would do it. That Southern drawl, that wry, disbelieving grin, a your-fucking-mother? look as he released a cloud of smoke. Sure enough, she sent along a care package within a few days. Petty, not getting a chance to thank her in person, told us we should bring her by his family’s house next time she was in Los Angeles. Which we did.
It wasn’t long after that tour that I quit the Del Fuegos. I moved to New Orleans, a little too young to be on the shady side of the rock & roll dream. I got a job repairing bicycles just outside the French Quarter. That’s where I was, my hands covered in grease from working on a derailleur, when I heard the first single from Petty’s new album. It was “I Won’t Back Down.” I wasn’t at a place in my life where it would have made any sense to think I’d see Tom Petty again. Unless maybe he was in New Orleans and had issues with his bicycle. But goddamn if he didn’t sound great, I thought, like he’d reinvented himself, yet again.
Not too long after that, I started college. In the 12 years that followed, I went from my first year of undergraduate studies to a Ph.D. And it was on the far side of that run, around the time I started receiving the occasional piece of mail addressed to Dr. Zanes, that I again and unexpectedly heard from Tom Petty. It was pure surprise. I just didn’t hang in his circles. But there it was: An email from Mary Klauzer in his management office, letting me know that Tom had read a book I’d written and would like to have dinner next time I’m in Los Angeles.
The book was the first in the 33 1/3 Series, Dusty in Memphis, named after the album that was the volume’s subject. A somewhat odd, short book, it was equal parts memoir, a remix of my dissertation and a fan account. I wondered to myself, “Tom Petty really read this?” But apparently he had, twice. More surprising still, he wrote a song he said was inspired by the book. The song was “Down South,” from the Highway Companion album.
What Tom Petty did for me in that next chapter of our relationship was to work from sheer instinct. That little book he read gave him basis enough to begin trusting me as a writer. Frankly, it wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to go on. But that’s the kind of man he was, deeply intuitive. He could have called any number of writers with longer resumes, but he called me. And instead of seeing me as the kid in the opening band with the chipped tooth whose mother grew the great reefer, he saw me as a writer, a real writer, even before I could.
It all got going pretty quickly. I wrote some liner notes, edited a companion book for Peter Bogdanovich’s Runnin’ Down a Dream documentary, looked over various press releases as they came and went through the management office, did whatever they sent my way. Then, a few years in and working at Tom’s one day, he asked how I’d feel about writing his biography. I still felt like I had grease on my hands from the bicycle shop, but there I was, standing with Tom Petty, my hero since I was 12, being asked to step up as his biographer. Yes. God, yes, I would do this.
It was that same intuition of Petty’s that allowed him to open himself to the biography process, which, really, hinged on him. He agreed to every interview request, never said no to any question I asked. Was it all comfortable? No. Was it honest, rigorously so? Yes. Sometimes I would drive away down the Pacific Coast Highway after a long interview session, unable to believe just how forthcoming Tom had been, again. He spoke of childhood beatings at the hands of his father, unrequited love in the years when it stings the most, the pain of having to be a bandleader in times when it also meant sacrificing some aspects of friendship in order to hold it all together. Unpretentious, unwilling to self-mythologize, he gave his own life a hard, direct look in the eye. He sat for his portrait, not always happy with the results, but did what he needed to do to let the truth out of his house and into the world. I was lucky to watch it happen, to be close to a man of that kind.
Petty: The Biography was released on paperback last year.