"This, to be sure, is not an autobiography," Petty advises us in the foreword to Conversations With Tom Petty. It is an important distinction. This book compiles conversations, not interviews. Paul Zollo, in this book, is not a journalist. He is a music fan and he is a Tom Petty fan. The questions he asks tell us a lot about both men and reveal a lot about this project. Zollo often drops compliments in his questions. Conversations with Tom Petty is not written by an objective journalist making informed, independent observations. This is not a sordid tale of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. This is Petty answering the questions he wants to answer in a friendly environment.
This is not about Tom Petty, the man. Conversations is a listening companion intended for the devoted fans who are more interested in the songs Petty sang with Stevie Nicks than whether or not they did blow (or anything else) together. It is an easy read because of the setting and the Q&A structure of the book. This is two guys sitting around, talking about music. There are no startling revelations, yet there are plenty of interesting facts and details to be learned.
That does not render the book useless or boring. Nearly every song in Tom Petty's 30-year career is mentioned and discussed. The book is divided into two halves. The first is a narrative that covers his childhood (briefly) through the present. The second is an in-depth discussion of each of his albums and most of the songs on them. Zollo admits this approach might seem strange, as there is some repetition between the two halves, but it does make for an easy read. Readers will know more about the man by listening to him talk about his music because the two are inexorably linked. It is when he is talking about his music that you get to peer inside his mind. For example, when he tries to explain his misunderstood The Last DJ album: "I wasn't talking specifically about music or radio stations. I was talking about the state of the world, where our moral head has gone. How the world has gotten meaner and meaner and meaner, and almost applauds evil. That was what I was trying to say."
Petty is often described in interviews as being wary of the press. He might not have said those same things in a traditional interview if asked for his thoughts on the state of the world. By allowing Petty to remain in his comfort zone, Zollo gets Petty to reveal plenty.
One of the more interesting stories in the book concerns Petty's Full Moon Fever album. Full Moon Fever was a huge hit for Petty commercially and critically: "I brought the record in, and they didn't like it. Which had never happened to me. I was stunned. They didn't like it. They didn't hear a single.
"They didn't want to release it. They wanted me to go away and come up with a single. So I was pretty devastated. And I just kind of put it on the back burner. And I was really depressed. Mike [Campbell] and I cut that song, 'Alright For Now,' the kind of lullaby that's on there. We did that without Jeff [Lynne]. Jeff was out of town. And then Jeff came back and I said, 'They don't want to put the record out.'
"For one thing, it was too short. It was only nine songs. And the CD had become really popular. So they wanted it to be a little longer. Then I cut the Byrds song, "Feel A Whole Lot Better" just to make the record a little longer… Then later on, I brought the record back. And the regime had changed at MCA. And I brought exactly the same record in. And they loved it."
Petty fans know how absurd it is that a label executive could not hear a single on Full Moon Fever. "Free Fallin'" is one of Petty's biggest hits and most popular songs. It is the first track on FMF. In fact, the album opens as follows:
- "Free Fallin'"
- "I Won't Back Down"
- "Love is a Long Road"
- "A Face in the Crowd"
- "Runnin' Down a Dream"
"Free Fallin,'" "I Won't Back Down," and "Runnin' Down a Dream" all got major airplay on radio and MTV and were bona fide hits. The other two, ""A Face in the Crowd" and "Love is a Long Road," are great album cuts that are fan favorites.
He also dispels the myth that "American Girl," from his first album, is about the suicide of a young woman in Gainesville, Florida. Urban legend. It's become a huge urban myth down in Florida. That's just not at all true. The song has nothing to do with that. But the story really gets around.
There are no scores settled, personal or professional. He spends very little time discussing the band's fallout with original drummer Stan Lynch, other than to say it happened, or the subsequent hiring of Steve Ferrone. The famous battles between Petty and his record labels are barely mentioned as are his first marriage and its demise.
Despite the reluctance to discuss personal matters, there is a chapter devoted to former bassist Howie Epstein. Epstein died of a drug overdose in 2003. It is one of the instances where the personal and the musical intersect. Petty would probably have preferred not to talk about his friend's slow descent into an addiction that took his life but is candid about it nonetheless. He describes the last time he saw Epstein alive and his dismissal from the band. Petty says he thinks his wife, Dana, is the one who took the call he knew was going to one day come.
"He had a dog named Dingo, a German Shepherd, that he was very close to. He had him for years and years and years. He was very tight with the dog, he took him on tour with him, he wouldn't be apart from this dog. And I heard, through the grapevine, that he had broken up with Carlene [Cash], and that he was staying in New Mexico full-time. And the dog died. And the next day Howie died."
One of the real treats in Conversations is the preview of his new album, Highway Companion. The finishing touches on both the book and the album were happening at the same time and Zollo got to hear some of the songs and discuss them with Petty. I cannot wait to hear the new album and I know already I will wind up re-reading that final chapter once I do.
There are plenty of stories not told in this book but what is here is usually interesting and you will not have to dig hard to find it. If you are a devoted fan, the hardcover price is worth it. I had no advance warning that 2006 would be such a Tom Petty year for me. I started a music column this year and never would have expected the first installment to be a Petty album.
I have reviewed his new single and previewed his new album and will certainly review it as soon as it is released. This book could not have arrived at a better time for me. If you are a casual Petty fan, you can wait for paperback but I wouldn't. After you read it, you may find you're not so casual after all.