Tom Petty Was Worried About Romanticizing Drug Use in His Biography

When Tom Petty recruited writer Warren Zanes to author his biography, he expressed concern that being honest about his past drug use might romanticize it. In the book Petty: The Biography, the musician spoke for the first time about the period when he used heroin. He explained that if any young readers walked away wanting to use the drug, he didn’t want to publish the book at all.

Tom Petty stands onstage and holds a guitar.
Tom Petty | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Tom Petty said he didn’t want his biography to be authorized

When Petty spoke to Zanes about the biography, he had a list of terms, which Zanes recounted in an article for Rolling Stone.

“1) It’s your book, Warren, your contract. 2) It’s not authorized, because authorized biographies are always bulls***. 3) I’ll help you get the interviews you need, so long as the people are willing. 4) I’ll give you all the time with me that you need. 5) I get to read it before it goes to print, and if there’s anything I feel the need to respond to, you weave my response in … but I’ll never tell you to take something out. It’s your book.”

Petty mostly stuck to these terms, but he still asked Zanes to take out a comment he’d made about Bob Dylan in the 1980s.

Tom Petty didn’t want his biography to romanticize drug use

While Petty was happy to let Zanes steer the direction of the book, he didn’t want the biography to romanticize drugs. He was speaking publicly for the first time about his heroin use, and he didn’t want to glamorize it. 

“The first thing he said to me on the subject is ‘I am very concerned that talking about this is putting a bad example out there for young people. If anyone is going to think heroin is an option because they know my story of using heroin, I can’t do this,’” Zanes told The Washington Post. “And I just had to work with him and say, ‘I think you’re going to come off as a cautionary tale rather than a romantic tale.’”

Zanes explained that Petty had lived in a cycle of writing, recording, and releasing albums. The breakdown of his marriage threw the cycle off balance.

“I think he was invested in being caught in that cycle in part because there was so much movement in it all that the trouble from his past was kept at bay,” Zanes explained. “But then, when he left his marriage and moved into a house by himself, things slowed just long enough that all of that past came right as he’s coming into the pain of not being able to control the well-being of his kids and not being able to control a dialogue with his ex-wife. The classic situation of midlife pinning a person down to the mat.”

Some parts of the book put the musician in an ‘uncomfortable’ position

According to Zanes, the portion about Petty’s divorce and drug use put the musician in an uncomfortable position

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“The second half of the book, involving divorce and heroin use and the blending of families, got some divided responses among Petty’s family members, some contention, some trouble,” Zanes said. “I think Petty found himself at the center of it, and in a way that proved uncomfortable. But my job, from the beginning, had been to tell the man’s story based on interviews, primarily those with him. And that’s what I’d done.”

Zanes felt the book would have been a failure if he hadn’t painted an honest picture of Petty. He believed that the discomfort after the book’s release was proof he’d succeeded.

How to get help: In the U.S., contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 1-800-662-4357