Tom Petty and Warren Zanes

The Waiting Was the Hardest Part: Warren Zanes on Rock Icon Tom Petty

Tom Petty biographer and respected musician Warren Zanes speaks on heroin headlines, playlist gems, and playing the long game in rock music.

Warren Zanes wears many hats: guitarist for underrated mid-’80s garage rock band The Del Fuegos, Vice President of Education for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, author of widely acclaimed 33 1/3 series hit Dusty in Memphis, top dog at the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. At the moment, he’s wearing the hat of biographer to a bandleader who was once famous for some crazy hats of his own: Tom Petty.

PopMatters caught up with Zanes to discuss headlines and B-sides from Petty: The Biography, the likelihood of a Del Fuegos reunion, and the crucial importance of music history in education.

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You also worked on the companion book for Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary, Runnin’ Down a Dream. How does Petty: The Biography follow from or connect to that one? Did you draw on much of that research, or did you start fresh?

I approached this as a different project. The interviews for the book were all unique to the book, though some of the lines of questioning related to both. I wanted to go into it with a fresh head.

A lot of the family perspective comes from Adria, Petty’s eldest. There are several mentions of Annakim, who’s in her 30s now. Did Annakim decline to be interviewed, or did you just not want to go there with her?

I wanted to respect family dynamics. Biographies can be difficult affairs for family members, so I didn’t want to add to the intrinsic complexities by being the guy banging on everyone’s bedroom doors. I had to intuit as to what made sense to pursue and what didn’t. In the process as a whole, the most important thing was going deep with Tom. Adria offered me so much that proved important to the book, I felt like she was giving me the perspective I needed. I’ve read biographies that attempt to get every voice and cover every year with equal scrutiny, and I think what they sometimes sacrifice is narrative strength. The completist approach is certainly one approach, but with a career as rich and as complex as Tom’s, I had to make choices. I wrote for the fan, but I also wrote for an audience that may not know him at that fan level, an audience that might become fans. Most importantly, I wanted this book to be honest, go deep, and work as a book, with a reasonable sized set of characters who could be followed through time.

Stan Lynch, Petty’s original drummer, turned you down for interviews repeatedly. How did you finally get him on board? His quotes struck me as 85% ornery and 15% contrite. Were you surprised by how fresh his baggage seems, given he left the band over twenty years ago?

Stan has kept himself out of the Heartbreaker spotlight, for years. He was reluctant. But he remembered me from the tour I did with the Heartbreakers, and he eventually consented. He told me that he did so because I approached respectfully and went to his door, ready to leave whenever he asked me. But, to his defense, I have to say this: Those who have been in bands know how long the feelings related to such an experience can last. And if you’re among the exceptions and have been in a band as long as Stan Lynch was in the Heartbreakers, you know that you’ll probably be sifting through it all for as long as you’re still standing. Does the 60 year old man no longer linger, sometimes even break into a sweat over the experiences of his childhood? Sure he does. So, I think it’s no surprise that Stan, and the others, continue to think deeply about the strange experience they all went through. I was in a band for five years, and I still have to bring it into therapy.

Bugs Wiedel (his guitar tech, to say the least) and Mary Klauzer (his wrangler with management) have been with Petty for nearly his entire Los Angeles life. The book covers much of what they see in him. What do you think he sees in them? What does he value in the rest of his team, beyond the traits of his band members?

Petty is a remarkable bandleader. My friend Chuck Prophet said that Jim Dickinson, the producer and musician, once said to him, “I wouldn’t wish the job of bandleader on my worst enemy.” But Petty has stuck it out, getting the fruits of survival as he also suffers the the downsides of the job. The people around him, so many of whom are long term, he’s trusted for their loyalty, their good work, and, I think, their humor.

Most of the headlines about this book are anchored to Petty’s brief heroin addiction, despite your having been very careful to convey the extent to which he doesn’t want to glorify drug use. Do you find the sensationalism of it worrisome or annoying at all? After all, you rightly suggest that Petty’s been almost inhumanly responsible and upstanding for such a very large part of his career, despite his rock star status.

The book isn’t out yet, of course, but, yes, the early headlines grabbed for the material that makes headlines in our day and age. When an artist steps up and gives an honest accounting of his or her life, some tougher details will emerge. No one was thinking this book would somehow escape the era in which we live. At the same time, I don’t want to overindulge in cynicism. I respect the audience out there and believe that many, many people don’t stop at the headline. I’d say that a book lives most of its life well beyond the headlines. The situation needs to be viewed for what it is. And, being in advance of the release, this is the time when sensationalism is most apt to go down, if it’s going to.

Petty has had so many hits, but what are your top five Petty b-sides?

Not necessarily all B-sides (some are just not on albums), but “Casa Dega”, “Trailer”, “Crackin’ Up”, “Lost In Your Eyes”, “Parade of Loons”.

The Pettyheads are starving and you have Petty’s blessing to tell unvarnished truths! Why did you stop at 336 pages? Did you cut anything out?

I think any writer who has been through this process has cut a lot out. I’m no different. Flaubert said something like, “There is no writing, there’s only rewriting.” It’s like making albums: cut 30 tracks to make the best 12 track album you can. Did I edit out necessary content? I hope not! But I wrote a lot and sculpted that mass into what I felt was the best book I could make.

In rehashing the segments of time where your band overlapped with Petty’s, did you find yourself tempted by the prospect of another Del Fuegos reunion, or did the jaunt in 2012 satisfy you on that account?

I think I might be done with Del Fuego reunions. It was fun for a few shows, then a bit less fun there in the middle. Then I missed my kids and wanted to play soccer in the street.

Are you still working with Steven Van Zandt’s foundation on a history of rock music curriculum for middle and high school students? What’s next for you?

The project with Steven is very, very important to me. Like Tom, Steven grew up during the Renaissance period of rock and roll. No mistake that both these guys use radio to share the stories and the sounds of one piece of American life that is among the most precious. When not a single kid in the class knows who Bob Dylan is, it’s worth considering that maybe something is missing in American education. Embrace the future, help to shape it, but know the past. There’s some good shit back there.