In the summer of 1987, Warren Zanes and his band the Del Fuegos spent three months on tour with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Two years later, Zanes was working at Bicycle Michael’s on Frenchmen Street when he heard a familiar voice.
“I remember the scene vividly,” Zanes recalled recently. “I was repairing a crappy Schwinn three-speed. My hands were covered with grease. And Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ came on the radio.
“Not that long before that, I’d been in his opening band; in New York, we played Madison Square Garden. And there I was, repairing a f------ Schwinn.”
Hearing “I Won’t Back Down” that first time “was one of those moments. I felt like I was learning a little bit of a lesson there. It was clear that Petty had taken this big step. I knew he was kind of lost by the end of (his previous) tour. But this was the sound of somebody who had found their way out of being lost.”
Zanes eventually found his own way out of being lost in New Orleans. And his overlapping careers as an academic, writer and musician would lead him back to Petty. In November, his “Petty: The Biography,” the definitive account of a distinctly American band and its leader, was published to much acclaim.
Zanes will discuss and sign copies of “Petty: The Biography” at the Billy Reid New Orleans clothing store, 3927 Magazine St., on Sunday (Jan. 10) from 4 to 6 p.m. Garden District Book Shop is a co-sponsor of the event.
The author is well acquainted with Uptown. After the Del Fuegos, a raucous band out of Boston led by Zanes’ brother Dan, disintegrated with the 1980s, he moved to New Orleans in pursuit of a woman. She suggested he’d be more interesting if he took a college class or two.
“My car had been crushed by a tree in a storm, so I was on foot or bicycle at that point,” he said. “I was living on Magazine Street. I took out a map and found the closest university. It was Loyola.”
He eventually graduated with a double major in creative writing and art history. He earned a couple of master’s degrees elsewhere, followed by a doctorate in visual and cultural studies from the University of Rochester. “The hook was set at Loyola. If I had my choice of schools, it wouldn’t have been that. But it was just right for me. I had a great experience there.”
He’s since taught at several universities, released solo albums, and served as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s vice president of education and programs. He’s currently executive director of E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, which endeavors to expand the study of popular culture in schools.
Several years ago, Zanes wrote a book about the making of Dusty Springfield’s classic album “Dusty in Memphis.” It found its way to Petty, who, through his manager, invited Zanes to dinner in Los Angeles. They hadn’t seen one another since the Del Fuegos days.
At dinner, Petty said that his song “Down South,” from his “Highway Companion” album, had been inspired by Zanes’ Springfield book. “That started this relationship where he saw me as a writer before I was bold enough to do the same for myself,” Zanes said.
He subsequently contributed to several Petty-related projects, including a companion book to director Peter Bogdanovich’s 2007 documentary “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and the DVD release’s liner notes. As they stood outside Petty’s house in Malibu one day, the star proposed a more ambitious undertaking: A biography.
“He said, ‘This would be your book. You go get a contract. I don’t tell you what’s in or what’s out. I give you full access.’ He mapped it out in two minutes.”
Even though Zanes would have Petty’s complete cooperation, the book would not be an “authorized biography.” “To him, the distinction was with ‘authorized,’ the subject would have the power to say what’s in and what’s out. And he was relinquishing that power. It gave me this amazing freedom, combined with amazing access, that made the project ideal for me as a writer.”
Petty’s one caveat was that he be allowed to read a pre-publication manuscript and respond to any viewpoints he felt were inaccurate.
“You can see it in the book, moments where there are multiple viewpoints in tension with one another,” Zanes said. “And frankly, I think that brings life to it. Because that’s what a band is like: A group of, generally, dudes who don’t see things the same way and are trying to do something together nonetheless.”
“Petty: The Biography” is as much the story of the Heartbreakers as Petty. Zanes interviewed friends, family members, associates and current and ex-bandmembers. What emerges is a comprehensive account of the forces and sources that shaped an enduring rock catalog.
“Sometimes what an outsider would think of as a small moment was, within the band’s dynamic, a big, historical shift,” Zanes said. “But only a bandmember would experience it that way. Nobody gets to really understand the band except the band. I tried to get as close to that as I could.”
His own experiences in the Del Fuegos helped. “I was in a band that was more dysfunctional than the Heartbreakers. The Heartbreakers are still together because Petty is a really intuitive, good bandleader. But that doesn’t mean his band loves every choice he makes.
“More than once, Petty described being in the Heartbreakers as a lonely experience. Yeah, they’re among his closest friends. But once that business got going, he often had to think business over friendship in order to keep it going.”
During his many interview sessions at Petty’s home, Zanes was always impressed by the coffee Petty served. His inspiration was a diner outside Malibu. “They used Maxwell House and a classic Bunn automatic coffeemaker,” Zanes said. Petty “set his home up with that very thing. And I think what he was going after was just the perfect 10-cent cup of coffee like he remembered from (growing up in) Gainesville. When he didn’t have enough money for a barbecue platter, he still had enough for a refillable, 10-cent cup of coffee.
“I like the way he wears his success. He’s one of the 14-carat rock ‘n’ roll stars, but his interests are not much different than what they were at 19.”
That the 50-year-old Zanes is an unabashed Heartbreakers fan also informed his writing.
“When I had my first girlfriend, formed my first band, got married, had kids, got divorced — from age 11 until now, there’s always been a Tom Petty record for me to reach for. So I’ve got this personal history that so many of his listeners have. That was a great basis for putting a book together.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.