Conversations With Tom Petty
by Paul Zollo
Omnibus Press (hardcover, 330 pages, $24.95)
Though Conversations With Tom Petty isn't billed as an autobiography, it tells you everything you need to know about a man whose life and music have always been thoroughly intertwined. As author Paul Zollo notes of the book?s division into two sections (Life and Music), ?the two are really inseparable though they've been divided here.? Generously illustrated with photos of Petty throughout all phases of his career, Conversations takes a direct approach to its subject, relying on a question-and-answer format.
Zollo, a clearly devoted fan, gets Petty discussing his American Indian heritage, his dad?s drinking problem and seeing Elvis Presley on a film set at age 11 ("He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I'd ever seen in my life") before launching the singer into a detailed discussion of his music career. His first taste of success came in the early 1970s with his band Mudcrutch, who were popular in their native Gainesville, Fla. Petty eventually came to feel out of place in a music scene increasingly dominated by Allman Brothers clones. Taking flight to L.A., Petty set about shopping his tape door-to-door to various record companies. The rest is history.
A more penetrating look at Petty's recorded work can scarcely be imagined, with a song-by-song discussion of all of his albums including his latest release, Highway Companion. A self-confessed "purist" who views music as a "nice, safe, wonderful world," Petty still marvels at his career longevity and is clearly grateful toward the fans who have kept him successful. Generous with praise toward his peers, he fondly recalls his time with The Traveling Wilburys as "about as much fun as you can legally have" and goes on to express his admiration of, among others, George Harrison ("We met each other and instantly became really close"), Roy Orbison ("One of the funniest guys I've ever met. A sweetheart. You couldn't help but love him"), and wife Dana, who gets raves for being a smart, supportive, loving spouse.
Elsewhere Petty wistfully recalls doomed Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein, who died of a heroin overdose in 2003, and discusses for the first time the trauma he endured when an arsonist set fire to his home. Petty's commentary on his work — of which he is justifiably proud — is a Petty-phile's dream, whether he?s declaring his 1994 solo album Wildflowers his personal favorite or recalling how he wrote the song "Insider" for Stevie Nicks, only to end up keeping it for himself when he found it too good to part with. When Petty, who states that music "changed my life, sustained my life" and whose own songs have been almost entirely 1950s and 1960s influenced, laments the current state of music, namely his concern that quality rock is being "denied a whole audience," it is fueled by the kind of anguish any passionate lover of music can surely commiserate with.
Though the book, which contains a discography and individual track listings, is occasionally repetitive, it ranks as an absorbing must-read of one of rock music's most likable and honest personalities.