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Reflecting on a life shaped by rock 'n' roll

In his music, Tom Petty can be vague or specific in his lyrics, and he also can tell a good story. Petty can be just as general, detailed and engaging when talking about his life, too.

He’s all that in Conversations With Tom Petty (Omnibus Press), a recently released book featuring interviews that American Songwriter senior editor Paul Zollo conducted with Petty in 2004-’05.

Like many musicians, Petty was influenced by Elvis Presley, but not too many had the good fortune to meet Presley. Petty did, and early on in the book, there’s a great story about 11-year-old Petty visiting the Florida set of Presley’s film Follow That Dream. Petty remembers that Presley “seemed to glow and walk above the ground” and that the star’s hair was so black “it shined blue when the sunlight hit it.”

Petty’s love of The Byrds, The Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield influenced his decision to leave the music scene in and around his hometown of Gainesville, Fla., for Los Angeles. Naïve and nervy, he shopped demos of his then-band Mudcrutch to the big labels.

Petty recalls, “There were literally record companies all down Sunset Boulevard. You could see them, with their names on them. There’d be A&M, MGM, RCA. You just saw them down the road. So we would just go in the front door of every one with a tape and say, ‘Hi, we just got here from Florida, can we play you this tape?’ We didn’t know that that just wasn’t done. So I think just having the balls to do that got a lot of people to listen to us.”

Eventually, Mudcrutch signed with Shelter Records. The band evolved into Petty’s Heartbreakers and the rest, as they say, is history, and Zollo asks Petty about his life and career in mostly chronological order.

Some of the best segments are about two former Heartbreakers — drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Howie Epstein. Of Lynch, who left in the 1990s after the session for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” Petty says with respect and humor, “He had his own style of playing, and we butted heads a lot for 20 years.”

A short chapter is devoted to Epstein, who died Feb. 23, 2003, of a heroin overdose at age 47. Toward the end of Epstein’s tenure with the band, Petty remembers a few concerts where Epstein arrived at the last minute, in bad shape, yet he still managed to get through the gig. Eventually, band manager Tony Dimitriades fired Epstein with the promise, Petty says, that he could return if he could get clean and sober, but Epstein died not long after his dismissal.

Petty also talks at length — and for the first time ever, he claims — about the fire on May 17, 1987, that destroyed his home. It was arson, Petty says, and he, his then-wife Jane, their one daughter who was home and their housekeeper just made it out in time. Petty, who “had run out of the house in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt,” is forever grateful to Annie Lennox for buying the entire family a new wardrobe.

The only area of his life that Petty doesn’t delve into is his divorce from Jane; he only goes as far as to say the proceedings were “really miserable.” Petty does make it clear that he legally can’t reveal specifics about their divorce, and he takes the high road throughout by not badmouthing his ex-wife in any way. He’s proud of their two daughters, Kim and Adria, and he’s over the moon about his current wife, Dana, and her son from a previous marriage, Dylan.

Zollo, obviously a Petty devotee (and an informed one at that), keeps his fandom in check for the most part. A singer/songwriter himself in addition to being a journalist, Zollo asks Petty insightful and easy-to-follow questions about composition and guitar chords/structures that result in answers even non-musicians can understand.

Petty writes in the forward that Conversations With Tom Petty is not an autobiography. That’s merely a technicality — guided and prompted by Zollo’s questioning, the book really is an “as told to”-type memoir, in Petty’s own words and voice. And in the end, that’s what an autobiography is all about.

— By Chris M. Junior