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Review: Zanes' 'Petty' a compelling biography of Florida-born rock star

It has been about 40 years since Tom Petty rolled out of Gainesville, heading for California and rock 'n' roll stardom. But Florida still claims him, and you can still hear his roots here, personal and musical, every time he opens his mouth to sing.

How Petty was shaped, for better and worse, by his Gainesville boyhood is just one of the compelling stories that make up Warren Zanes' Petty: The Biography. For fans, this book offers a rare glimpse at the man behind all that ringing rock. Petty has an outsized presence on stage, but privately, as one of his oldest friends tells Zanes, "He's got tinted windows on his soul."

Petty never entirely opens those windows, but it does paint a fascinating, fast-paced, sometimes moving portrait of its subject, based on extensive interviews with his bandmates present and past, family members, friends and colleagues.

Zanes also had considerable access to Petty himself, thanks to a longtime connection. Now on the faculty of New York University, back in the 1980s Zanes was a member of the Del Fuegos, a Boston rock band that once toured as the opening act for Petty and the Heartbreakers. After Zanes published Dusty in Memphis, about singer Dusty Springfield, in 2006, Petty got in touch with him — and this book is the result.

Tom Petty was born in 1950 to Earl Petty, who was half Cherokee but didn't talk about that part of his heritage, and his wife, Kitty, who was an invalid for much of her son's life. It was boom times for the University of Florida (its enrollment went from 587 students in 1945 to 8,000 in 1946, thanks to the GI Bill), but the Pettys lived on the nonacademic, blue-collar side of town in a small ranch house.

Earl Petty was physically abusive to Tom and his younger brother, Bruce, and Tom's urge to get out of Gainesville was born early. Thanks to an uncle who worked in the movie business, 10-year-old Tom met Elvis Presley during the filming of Follow That Dream in Ocala — and saw the road out.

Petty got his first guitar at 12 and started forming bands not long after. From the start, he was driven and ambitious, with ferocious focus. As former bandmate Jim Lenahan tells Zanes, Petty "is really good at getting people to quit school and join his band."

Readers who spent time in Gainesville in the '70s will enjoy Zanes' evocations of such notorious venues as Dub's Steer Room, where Petty's pre-Heartbreakers group Mudcrutch was the house band for a while, as well as his roll call of the astonishing number of other soon-to-be-famous musicians playing in the tiny town in those years: Stephen Stills, Don Felder, Duane and Gregg Allman, and the Leadon brothers, Bernie and Tom.

But no one ever became a rock star by staying in Gainesville, and by the mid-'70s Petty had left it behind. Zanes details the unlikely tale of how Petty moved to California, formed the Heartbreakers and signed a record contract. From this point on, the book is almost as much a biography of the band — one of the finest rock 'n' roll outfits ever assembled — as of Petty.

Zanes offers a range of voices on the difficulties and rewards of keeping a band mostly stable in its membership over four decades: Heartbreakers stalwarts and close Petty friends Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, former drummer Stan Lynch (who has plenty of axes to grind but still seems to love the band and its boss), several longtime managers and employees, and of course Petty himself. It's practically a sociological study of not only how to keep a band together but how to keep it creating musical magic.

Zanes also delves into Petty's personal life, including his friendships with other rock luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and, perhaps most importantly, George Harrison. The book also reveals how devastating the breakup of Petty's first marriage was. Jane Benyo was his Gainesville girlfriend, whom he married (at her insistence and his mother's) before he went to California. The union endured through his early years of stardom, but Benyo's battles with substance abuse and mental illness turned it into another situation where Petty was the victim of abuse.

After they broke up in the 1990s, he spiraled into clinical depression and heroin use, breaking free with the help of his second wife, Dana York — whom he met, in a classic sort of rock fantasy, after he saw her in the audience at a concert. These days, Zanes writes, Petty has reconciled with grown daughters Adria and Annakim, to whom he was an often absent parent, and is still making music and trying to adjust to changes in the industry. "With all of the social media and Internet outlets," he tells Zanes, "promoting a record these days is almost like being punished for making it."

Fair warning: Zanes' in-depth accounts of how many of Petty's iconic songs came to be will make you want to listen to all of them, so load up your playlist. I don't usually read books for review with American Girl and Breakdown and Free Falling blasting, but I did this time.

The songs, as Petty himself would tell you, are the thing, some of the most indelible rock songs ever made. But Petty: The Biography gives us an intriguing look at their source.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Petty: The Biography

By Warren Zanes

Henry Holt, 323 pages, $30

Review: Zanes' 'Petty' a compelling biography of Florida-born rock star 12/23/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 23, 2015 10:45am]
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