I'm riding in the passenger seat of my friend's dad's car, looking at a blurry mid-90s version of Chapel Hill as we listen to a cassette of Full Moon Fever that her dad left in the tape deck. She's the first in our group to get her license, and Tom Petty is our ambassador into this new level of freedom. We drive down country roads just to drive, just to listen to Tom Petty run down a dream.
I'm in the passenger seat again, and this whole "driving without an adult" thing is no longer a novelty. It's just a way to get from one place to another. But there is something special about riding down the Pacific Coast Highway in this particular car. It's a black Pontiac being driven by a nice young gentleman who I know I'll be spending the rest of my life with. Not that we've known each other that long. Not that there's a ring on my finger. It's that whole "when you know, you know" thing. California is on the stereo, and I can't help but agree with Tom Petty that California's been good to me. I feel safe in this Pontiac. When you know, you know. "Sometimes you got to trust yourself," sing both Toms—the one who wrote the song and the one who's driving the Pontiac.
It's my first time at the Hollywood Bowl, and I'm here for my first Tom Petty concert. It's one of those perfect California June nights, our friends hooked us up with super special Tom Petty Fan Club seats, and the opening act is this obscure singer/songwriter named STEVE WINWOOD (no joke). I've made a couple of big decisions since that day in the Pontiac. First, I am marrying Tom from said Pontiac, and second, we will be moving back east at the end of the summer. As the night goes on, I realize that singing along with Tom Petty at the Hollywood Bowl is the perfect way to close the California chapter on my life.
News flash: I am not special. Many, many people have a Tom Petty soundtrack to their lives. Each soundtrack is its own singular mix tape with its own codes and meanings. That's why I felt hesitant when I started reading Petty: The Biography, by Warren Zanes.
Running' Down a Dream meant newfound vehicular freedom in mid-90s Chapel Hill. California conjures the feeling of relief and safety you feel when you're cruising down the PCH in a Pontiac with your forever person. Was I prepared to learn what these songs are really about? I was still recovering from learning that Patty Griffin wrote Heavenly Day about her dog. No biggie, it was just OUR WEDDING SONG.
Nevertheless, I persisted. And holy Zombie Zoo, am I glad I read this book. If you are a Tom Petty fan, or a fan of music, or a fan of biographies, or a person who is interested in the music business, read this book.
First, let's talk about the writing. It's good. So good. Zanes has a way of putting Tom Petty's essence into a perfect set of words, when I could only ever come up with a cloud of feelings.
"Petty's romanticism wasn't along the lines of Springsteen or Waits, two songwriters who worked with elaborate panoramas of image, character, and place. His narratives were always more skeletal, perhaps less self-conscious."
"He would never oversell a song, never push its feelings on you, but he learned, somehow, to bring the truth out of a lyric."
(My) Tom and I have had lots of road trip discussions about Tom Petty—how he compares to other artists, how to describe his lyrics and instrumentation, which album is his best (I say Full Moon Fever, Tom says Damn the Torpedoes, and don't @ me because I Won't Back Down). Reading this book was like Zanes parachuting into our car through the window and being like, "lemme break it down for y'all..."
Now let's talk about the main character of Petty: The Biography. I mean, besides the obvious one. The second-most prominent character in this book, the one looming behind all the stories and analysis, is hindsight.
Hindsight can be instructive and heartbreaking at the same time. Especially the kind of hindsight that comes with knowing how this story ends. Petty: The Biography was published in November 2015, in what we now know was the penultimate year of Tom Petty's life. This final, non-negotiable hindsight made a beautiful book painful around the edges.
Hindsight also poses questions, like, What if Tom Petty had ended his marriage when he realized it was making him miserable? What if The Heartbreakers had let Stan Lynch go when they realized he was polluting the dynamics of the group? And, finally, What if Tom Petty had believed the knuckleheads at MCA when they rejected Full Moon Fever?
That last question brings up the bright side of hindsight—the one we can all learn from. Tom Petty ALWAYS believed in his ability to create something worthwhile, even when he was just a kid from a messed up family in Gainesville. When MCA said "no thanks" to Full Moon Fever (ahem, his best album) did he believe their lies? Nope. He believed in himself. In hindsight, that belief is what made his story worth telling.
We will all be forced to deal with knuckleheads who will say "no thanks" to our stuff. If we believe them, rather than believing in ourselves, well, that makes for a pretty short biography, doesn't it?
...was the name of my column in Phillips' Finest, my middle school newspaper. If it was good enough for seventh grade, it's good enough for "adulthood."