STEPHEN DUBNER: Before we start—
WARREN ZANES: Is there a way to turn Steve down and make me louder? Just to prove that I’ve been in a band?
DUBNER: Exactly. I don’t need so much Warren in here. That is like basically the only thing that people in bands ever say: “More of me, please!”
[MUSIC: The Del Fuegos, “I Should Be the One” (from The Best of The Del Fuegos: The Slash Years)]
An atypical Freakonomics Radio episode today. It’s a conversation with an old friend about music — but mostly about success and how success can be gained by people of whom little is expected.
DUBNER: If someone had said to me, “Look at the four guys in The Del Fuegos or look at the 400 guys in all the bands you know, who would be the least likely to end up with a Ph.D.?” it would have been you. It really would. No offense but it would have been you. So, does that trajectory seem as strange from the inside as the outside? Or no, does it not surprise you so much in retrospect?
ZANES: It does surprise me. When I try to make contact with myself as the young kid in the rock-and-roll band with chipped front tooth. I don’t see him getting to where I got.
So, where did Warren Zanes get to? He’s the executive director of Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. Before that, he was the vice president of education and public programs at the Rock and Roll Hall Fame and Museum in Cleveland. And he writes books
, including a new, very in-depth, and very personal biography
of Tom Petty
ZANES: He’s been my hero since I was 11, you know — someone I really looked up to.
As it turns out, Tom Petty’s potential for success was no more evident to the people around him than Warren Zanes’s was to me.
ZANES: Something that several of the principals in Gainesville, Florida, said to me, was, “I wouldn’t have put my money on Tom Petty.” You know, you had Steven Stills there. You had Don Felder, Bernie Leadon who went on to being in the Eagles. You had the Allman Brothers close by, playing in battles of the bands. There were people who just looked like they were all set to go. These guys are finished products.
DUBNER: And describe him as a teenager.
ZANES: I see a guy who wasn’t in touch with his confidence completely yet; who did not yet know what he was going to be as a songwriter. I think you see another player among a community of players. But not the superstar.
Today’s conversation is also about one of the most fragile, most volatile, most sublime social units ever invented: the rock-and-roll band. The alliances, the distortions, the deep bruises and the absurd elations that can never be explained to an outsider. Also, the inevitable failures.
ZANES: I think that the music business is best for those who have a capacity to weather a chain of disappointments. You know, ’cause if you can only handle one, you should probably go work at the florist, you know?
* * *
Warren Zanes is 50 years old. I knew him a little bit, a long time ago, when we were both in bands. His band, The Del Fuegos, was out of Boston, and for a few years they did really well. My band, out of North Carolina, was called The Right Profile. We never put out a record. We had signed a deal, with Arista, and moved to New York. But then, while we were in pre-production on that first record, I quit. The closer I was getting to the rock-star dream, the less appealing it looked. And I went cold turkey. I lost track of pretty much everyone I knew from then, including Warren Zanes. All I heard was that he too eventually parted ways with his band — which was probably pretty complicated, because his band was run by his big brother, Dan Zanes. Now at that point, I would not have been surprised if I’d heard that Warren came to a bad ending, because he was pretty — how shall we say this? — he had a little bit of Icarus in him. He really wanted to get close to the sun. But, he pulled up just in time; his wings did not melt. Which is good news for him, for me, and especially for anyone who cares about Tom Petty.
DUBNER: Why’d Petty want you to or let you write a book about him?
ZANES: So, when the idea of a book came up, he said, “Here’s how it would happen. It’s not ghost-written. It’s not co-written. It’s not authorized. It’s your book.” And I said, “Why not ‘authorized’?” And he said, “When I see ‘authorized’ on a book, I know it’s bullshit. It’s whitewashed. So you write it. All I ask is the opportunity to read it when it’s finished and respond to that which I feel the need to respond to.”
DUBNER: With any guarantee of your changing it, or not even?
ZANES: He said, “I can’t tell you what’s in or what’s out. I just — you give me space to respond if I feel the need to respond.” So this is not typical. You know, basically he’s relinquishing control.
DUBNER: With access, however.
ZANES: With full access. I was never denied an interview. There was never a question I asked that he did not answer. And when I tried to get to somebody else with whom he had an association, I always got the interview. So, I had full access and nobody stood in my way. And I think it was hard. He’s somebody who has been quite private, at times, pretty reclusive, and there I was, telling his story. And it’s him talking to me, but it’s filtered through my mind, my perceptions. Life stuff happens.
DUBNER: There’s heroin.
ZANES: Yes, there’s drug use.
DUBNER: There’s stage fright.
ZANES: Yes, stage fright; family falling apart; a band going through real turmoil. There’s something very primal going on as I went through these pages.
[MUSIC: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Breakdown” (from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers)]
Zanes first remembers hearing Petty, on the radio, as a kid, back in Boston in 1976. WBCN played “Breakdown.” Zanes grew up listening to Josh White records and Pete Seeger records, andLeadbelly.
DUBNER: What’s your favorite Tom Petty song, if you can?
ZANES: It’s difficult to say what my favorite Tom Petty song is because it’s a shifting category. But I would say, today, that from the first record, the song “The Wild One Forever,” is my favorite song.
DUBNER: Really? Why that one?
[MUSIC: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “The Wild One, Forever” (from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers)]
ZANES: When we were talking, Tom Petty starting going into early failed romances and these are the romances that were happening up in his head but not yet in the material world. And he talks about one young woman named Cindy in particular, who, for a minute there, he thought something might happen. And he really never forget her and he said to me, “She’s in more songs, than you would ever realize.” And he mentioned the song “Even the Losers,” from Damn the Torpedoes, being about a night that they came together and in the morning, she said, “That’s all there is.” And I went back into the records and you could begin to speculate where else Cindy was appearing. And I think even “The Wild One Forever” is absolutely a Cindy song. And there’s an ache to it.
Zanes met Petty many, many years before this book would even begin to happen. In the 1980’s. Petty and the Heartbreakers were already big, on their way to huge. Zanes and The Del Fuegos were, in their minds, on exactly the same path.
[MUSIC: The Del Fuegos, “Sound of Our Town” (from The Best of The Del Fuegos: The Slash Years)]
ZANES: We first met Tom Petty when we were doing a three-night run at the Roxy, which is on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. It’s legendary. We were doing three nights and every night from the stage, we would say, “We hope Tom Petty comes down.” We were unencumbered in being Tom Petty fans. And on the second night, a woman by the name of Alison Reynolds, who became my girlfriend, came backstage and said, “In fact, I know Tom Petty. And I’m going to see if he can come down tomorrow night.” And so we thought, “Great. Night three, he’s going to show up.” And then we’d take a victory lap, we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve. And the next night, you know, nothing. The shows are over. And I was in my hotel room, I had an adjoining room actually to the bass player. There was the usual party after the show, debauchery of all the most expected kinds. And the phone rings in my room and it was Tom Petty. And he said he was sorry he couldn’t make the show and invited us out to his house the next night. I think he might have viewed us with some amusement. And we looked like a rock-and-roll band.
DUBNER: So you ended up, a while later, opening up for him, yeah?
ZANES: Yeah, he came and he sang on one of our songs on our third recording. And shortly after that, brought us out on a summer tour, which is about a three-month tour, which was toward the end of my time in The Del Fuegos.
[MUSIC: The Del Fuegos, “Longest Day” (from The Best of The Del Fuegos: The Slash Years)]
Alright, let’s back up. Zanes joined the Fuegos right out of high school. He was 17.
ZANES: The Del Fuegos, as a band, started before I was a member. So, initially it was at Oberlin College. You had three students put together a band, playing rock-and-roll covers. Now, I was away at boarding school, and I would sneak out. I would put on my black ski mask, you know, it was after hours and I had a friend who was what they call a townie and he’d drive me into Boston and we’d go to shows. And I just had to be back to boarding school by sunup. And I fell in love with that scene and I didn’t have any ambitions to be a part of it so much, but my brother asked me to join the band right as I was getting toward graduation. And it was convenient that I hadn’t filled out any college applications. I didn’t have a Plan B, so when he said, “Do you want to be in my band?” I was all over it. And I was already invested in that world that he was in.
DUBNER: How was your guitar playing at that point?
ZANES: When he asked me to join the band, I said yes to joining and then asked him what instrument I would be playing. And he said, you’ll be the guitar player. And we went to a music store and we bought a guitar for me to play. And he wrote out some chords on a piece of paper and you know, a couple songs, you know, theEverly Brothers, “Bird Dog.” Got me a copy of The Rolling Stones Now — an early Rolling Stones album with Brian Jones on it — and said, “Study this.” Three months later I was in the band and my first gig was just a couple weeks later. And six months after that we had a record deal.
Their first record, in 1984, was called The Longest Day. It did sound a little bit like early Rolling Stones. I met the Fuegos on their tour for that record. They were playing in a bar in Greensboro, N.C. We were backstage, between their two sets, just hanging out — and in walks the guitarist Nils Lofgren, who was playing with Bruce Springsteen at the time. Apparently Bruce was playing the Greensboro Coliseum the next night. And then, a few minutes later, in walks Bruce himself. Now, The Fuegos invite Bruce and Nils to join them onstage for a couple songs at the end of the Fuegos’ set.
ZANES: It seemed like the natural thing to do. And then when we stepped back out of the dressing room, it was as if everyone in that room had called five people. “Get down here fast.” And this is pre-internet, so it was viral without the technology that makes it easy to go viral. And we went up on the stage and we did, “Stand by Me” and I think —
DUBNER: “Hang on Sloopy,” also.
ZANES: “Hang on Sloopy.” And I just turned around to my amp and I turned the volume down to zero. And really, I just watched. And then, you know, how would I remember that night? I’d remember that night because for the next two years, the first question in every interview was, “What was it like to play with Bruce Springsteen?” And then I realized that when Bruce came down to play that show, in many ways, he was doing us a great favor giving us this experience. But on another level, we became his missionaries. And, I don’t want to reduce his good spirit to a business move, but I saw the power of what he did. Because, it wasn’t just in interviews; I told the story of Bruce playing with us so many times, it was like I was a one-man promotion machine for Bruce Springsteen.
DUBNER: So, there were a lot of bands around then as there are now. And you guys, The Del Fuegos, even though you didn’t become a huge band, became a pretty big band, a likeable band, a well-reviewed band, with good songs and good performance, energy and all that. What was it like to be on that ride? And did you recognize that you were in the minority of bands where it happens that well and that fast?
[MUSIC: The Del Fuegos “Have You Forgotten” (from The Best of The Del Fuegos: The Slash Years)]
ZANES: Well, I would say, we got big enough so that it started to hurt. I don’t look back and think of it as a particularly fun time. I look back and think it was an invaluable education, but it was not the kind of fun I would have thought I was getting into. And I think if you’re young and you’re in that business of dreams, you’re always looking at the guy who’s got just a little bit more than you, and you’re measuring yourself in relation to that. And you always come up the loser. Maybe that was just us, but I think my brother felt like that; I felt like that. And so, you always felt like, “Oh that’s great, we sold 350,000 records. But we don’t have a gold record.” And that’s where the party begins. We were hell-bent on becoming rock-and-roll stars. It’s not necessarily a flattering thing to say, but that’s what we wanted. We were out to get as big as we could possibly get.
DUBNER: Why do you think that’s not flattering?
ZANES: Because in that culture there’s some sense of “we do it for the music.”
DUBNER: So how long did you play in the Del Fuegos?
ZANES: It was three records, five years. In human years, that’s about 50 years.
DUBNER: And what happened at the end?
ZANES: At the end, I went to my brother and said, “I want a larger piece of the creative pie.”
DUBNER: Meaning you wanted to write songs for the band?
ZANES: Yeah. And I had been writing and I’d given him things, but the band never tried any of my songs.
DUBNER: Toward the end when you were frustrated that your songs weren’t getting an airing, what was your relationship like, overall, with your brother?
ZANES: We were you know, just tragically repressed. I mean, this is the problem in any relationship — marriage or band, whatever. If you’re not sharing the dreams you have in your head with the people with whom you’re in closest proximity, you’re entering dysfunction. I think we were so afraid of our own dreams and so afraid of the failure of not realizing those dreams, that we just didn’t talk about it. And we went straight to the bartender.
[MUSIC: The Del Fuegos, “He Had a Lot to Drink Today” (from Stand Up)]
The Del Fuegos had by now put out their third record.
ZANES: Radio wasn’t excited about it. The critics weren’t excited about it. Everybody was looking at it like, “We’re not entirely sure what you’re trying to be here, we appreciate that you’re trying to be something, but we just don’t know what it is.” And so the record wasn’t doing well. And it turned out that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had just put out their record and it wasn’t doing as well as they expected. So this tour, where we were opening up for the Heartbreakers, came to be called the Rock ‘n’ Roll Caravan, and right in between the two acts, another band was added, The Georgia Satellites, who had a No. 1 song with “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.” And so I remember watching them just having this summit experience. They were a great rock-and-roll band.
DUBNER: So you played how many shows roughly with Petty and the Satellites?
ZANES: It was around three months of shows.
DUBNER: And was it fun? Thrilling? Grueling?
ZANES: It was the thing that should have been fun that was grueling.
DUBNER: That’s the worst. Some people say that the key to happiness in life is just to meet or exceed expectations. So, the lower you can set your expectations, the better you are. And once you have high expectations, you’re screwed.
ZANES: One of the challenges for me in this is it was so obvious that the dream was coming true, that I was afraid to say anything to anyone about how it actually felt. And how it actually felt — I was just at a level of disappointment in that experience that was hard to get past. And I was doing a lot medicating my feelings. I felt like I was on this fantastic tour and somehow I hadn’t earned it, I wasn’t worthy of it. And that’s a hard feeling to live with for three months. In retrospect it’s not that surprising to me that I wasn’t in the band too much longer after that. I was uncomfortable in the world.
When Zanes quit the band, he was 22 years old.
ZANES: My first ambition when I left The Del Fuegos was to create something that would show the world that I was superior to my brother.
DUBNER: Meaning a record, presumably, yeah?
ZANES: Oh yeah. I mean, I knew of no other — it wasn’t going to be bullfighting.
But, as Warren Zanes soon found out, once you’re not in the band, you are not in the band.
ZANES: After I left The Del Fuegos, the last time I saw Tom Petty was at his Christmas party. So, I had quit the band, but I was still out in Los Angeles and had been invited to his Christmas party and I showed up. Tom had given me a Beatles magazine and I heard during the course of the evening that George Harrisonwas in the building. You know, when a Beatle comes onto the grounds, there’s a murmur that passes through the group that’s assembled. And I heard that murmur. And I went to Tom’s then-wife Jane and I said, “You know, Jane, I’m not an autograph-hound type, but he gave me this Beatles magazine and I heard that George Harrison’s here.” And she took me down this hallway and opened the door to what was Tom’s office and did it in such a way that it probably — to the people in the room — looked like I ran in there. But on my side, I felt like I’d been pushed in. And in that room, behind the desk was George Harrison, to one side was Tom Petty, to the other side was Jeff Lynne and Petty’s guitar player Mike Campbell— and they’re all playing. It’s three-fifths of the Traveling Wilburys, and they’re playing a song. And they stop because this kid just ran in the room. And George looked at me and said, “It’s Brian Jones, back from the dead!” And then he started playing this song about a dandy. ‘Cause I was wearing this — you know, it was the ‘80s — I was wearing this heavily embroidered jacket — it was all too much — and Iwas a dandy of sorts. And so he’s playing this song and everybody’s having a bit of laugh at Warren’s expense. And I’m holding this Beatles magazine. And at the end of it, George takes the magazine and he signs it for every Beatle, because they’d learned one another’s signatures so that they could sign. And Tom Petty sees the level of discomfort — you know, this is like too good and too awful at the same time. He’s like, “It’s okay, you know. You can hang out. Sit down.” And I said, “No.” And I left. And that was the last time I saw Tom Petty for quite a while.
DUBNER: It sounds like some Greek tragedy where you’d crossed boundaries kind of intentionally, but kind of not. Even though you had done it intentionally and you were okay with being on the other side, immediately someone recognized you as not being part of the tribe anymore.
ZANES: Yes, yes. ‘Cause just prior to this, I had had a moment in Petty’s office, just the two of us and we were talking and he asked, “You know, you’re not in your rock-and-roll band anymore, what are you going to do?” And I was giving him the plan, which was to stay in Los Angeles and to put a new band together. And to take over the world. And he just looked at me and said, “This isn’t where bands come from. You should go home.” It was so deflating for me because I had another story about what was going to happen to me next. And looking back, he was teaching me something that he had learned. You know, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers didn’t come from Los Angeles, they came from Gainesville, Florida. And they did their ‘becoming’ there. And they had only gone out to Los Angeles when they were at a pretty advanced state of becoming. So what Tom Petty was telling me was, “Go home, find the thing, see if it holds water.”
So Zanes went home, wrote songs, made demos, sent them out. He got interest from a major label and was pretty sure things were going to work out. Now he just had to be patient, wait for that record deal. Meanwhile, there was a girl, in New Orleans.
DUBNER: Alright, you moved to New Orleans for a girl. What was your ambition in your head at that point? What did you think you’d end up doing?
ZANES: I thought I was going to have sex with her.
DUBNER: I meant long-term, but I appreciate the short-term view.
[MUSIC: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (from Southern Accents)]
ZANES: I thought I was going to New Orleans to just wait to make a record. It didn’t get made and nothing came of it. Eventually I had to embrace reality and get a job. And I got a job working as a bicycle mechanic outside the French Quarter. And it had been like a year and a half since we’d been playing Madison Square Garden opening up for Tom Petty. And I remember a vivid scene: I’m in the bike shop, my hands are covered in grease, and I’m trying to fix this rear derailleur on a Schwinn and the new Tom Petty song comes on the radio. And I’m just looking at the grease on my hands and it was one of those “look how far I’ve fallen” kind of moments. It was a little bit more than the young person that I was could handle. But I’d just been riding on a tour bus, parking next to that guy’s tour bus. And he’s on the radio and I’m trying to fix this rear derailleur on a Schwinn.
Sensing that his girlfriend might break up with him because of his lack of ambition, he thought about going to college. One problem: his car had just been flattened during a storm.
ZANES: So when it came to you know, playing with this idea of going to college, I knew I had to walk. So I took out a map and I looked for university icons and the closest one was Loyola University. And I didn’t know that Tulane was really like 20 feet further — I was just thinking, “I don’t want to have to walk too far.” So I went into the admissions office and said, “Here’s my situation, I’m trying to stay in this relationship. I only want to take a couple classes. And I don’t really have time to go through the application process.” And I just took two classes. I took a History of Philosophy and a Women’s Literature, thinking that this would make me smarter and more attractive to women. I remember at the end of these two classes — Carol Siegel was the teacher of the Women’s Literature class — I think she recognized that I had really fallen in love with the classroom. And she sat me down and she said, “Warren, I just want to give you some advice. Don’t do what I did.” And I wasn’t quite sure where she was going with that. And she said, “Don’t go from here all the way through to a Ph.D.” And I almost swallowed my tongue. I was, “Hey, I liked your class, but please get over yourself. Like, Ph.D.?” And of course, I went through …
DUBNER: And got your Ph.D.
ZANES: And got the Ph.D.
DUBNER: What’d you get your Ph.D. in, and where?
ZANES: The Ph.D. I got from University of Rochester in visual and cultural studies. I really worked hard. I worked pretty quickly. But I was reshaped. My mind is the same mind I had going in but it was retooled. It was given a new plasticity. It was given opportunities to think differently in relation to different subject areas. That was my process of “becoming.” So, yeah, it would be hard to see the kid in the band getting to the other side of that. But 12 years, however quick, that’s a pretty long time to rejigger yourself.
[MUSIC: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Even the Losers” (from Damn The Torpedoes)]
Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: how did Tom Petty triumph in an industry known to eat its young? By emulating the heroes of his favorite movies — Westerns. And, crazy-idea warning: should everyone be required, at some point, to join a band?
* * *
Tom Petty — with the Heartbreakers more often than not — has turned into one of the most enduring songwriters and performers in the history of rock-and-roll, which not many people would have predicted at the outset. He was part of a big and vibrant music scene in Gainesville, Florida. But, Petty was hardly a superstar-in-waiting. Among other potential detriments, he was on the laid-back side. You’d never catch him breaking loose like Elvis Presley or preening likeJagger. Even when he sang, he barely raised his voice. Yeah, there was a sneer in his singing sometimes, occasionally a snarl. But for the most part he had the affect of a teenager who sits in the back of the class, in a leather jacket, picking his nails, not wasting his breath on anyone. He wasn’t much of a student, wasn’t athletic at all. So looking at him, you might have got the impression he didn’t really care about something as bourgeois as success. And you would have been wrong.
ZANES: Mike Campbell, the guitar player in the Heartbreakers says, “No one’s as ambitious as Tom Petty.” And he goes on to say, “Thank God somebody was in this band.” You’ve got to have that guy. And that’s one of the ingredients that goes into the band leader. You know, in American rock-and-roll the Heartbreakers are our Rolling Stones. They’re hitting 40 years together now. So, you had a band leader who was able to pull off that magic trick and part of it related to ambitions.
Warren Zanes’s new book, Petty, tells the whole story.
ZANES: When you look back at Gainesville, Florida, after The Beatles have been on Ed Sullivan, it was much like other towns, where you had all these garage bands coming into being. But in Gainesville, you also had guys peeling off and going and having big careers. So, as time passes — locally they had The Tropics. And The Tropics were a hot Florida band and they end up being up there with Dick Clarkon TV — it’s like wow, that’s possible. Then you have the Allman Brothers, then you see Bernie Leadon going out to California, he’s in The Flying Burrito Brothers. Then Don Felder follows him and they form The Eagles. So the message there is: this could be you. It’s the Beatles’ message, carried through locally. And that kind of gives Tom Petty’s ambition liftoff. And he talks about really getting the message from Don Felder before Don Felder went out to join The Eagles. Felder says to him, “You know, if we keep playing cover songs, we’re not going to be making records. People don’t make records of cover songs.” And Petty really hears it. And I think, there’s no turning back from that point, once he sees the power of songwriting.
Petty was in a series of bands over the early years. The latest one, known as Mudcrutch, gets a record deal and relocates to L.A. They worked with the producer Denny Cordell.
[MUSIC: Mudcrutch, “Depot Street”]
ZANES: He gives them this idea to do a reggae feel to this song, “Depot Street.” And in Petty’s view it’s like a novelty record. They were trying to figure out what they were.
The record didn’t sell and what they were soon changed. Petty, the main songwriter and lead singer, got his name above the title. The first album was just called Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
ZANES: The first record died before it was a success. And then it hits in England, not in the States, and then only because there was a promo man, who listened to it and said, “I can’t believe this record stiffed.” But they get that first Top 40 single with “Breakdown” and you know, by the time it hits, they have to be making the second record. And so they’re thrown very quickly into the album cycle. And that’s where Petty lives most of his life: Write the songs, record the songs, release the songs, and support them; write the songs, record the songs. And so he comes into this situation where there’s always someone with their hand out looking for more songs.
As the band got more and more successful, Petty was invited to reassess how the spoils were being divided.
ZANES: It was his band as he started it, but it was an equal split among the band members. And Petty’s there doing all the work, keeping the band together, success starts to happen and everyone in the band is making as much as everybody else. And they have a manager come in to work with their existing manager, Elliot Roberts. And Elliot Roberts was at the time managing Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. And Elliot looks at the situation and goes to Tom and says, “If you keep up with this equal split among band members, you’re going to get so resentful that you won’t have a band.” He said, “Now’s the time to address it. ‘As band leader, it’s not an equal split anymore, I’m the band leader, I’m the songwriter, I’m getting a bigger piece of the pie.’ It’s going to be an highly unpopular decision, but it’s going to allow you to keep your band together.” It’s counterintuitive in that way and Petty goes with Elliot Roberts. But Petty doesn’t go to the band and tell them, he has Elliot do it.
DUBNER: And it turns out that that’s a pretty typical move for Petty going forward, right? He was good at delegating, especially the tough stuff, yeah?
ZANES: I don’t know if that’s totally fair. I mean, I think Petty started to go, “this is business.” I mean, I think, the band that is going to stay together is probably not the band that’s doing group hugs and high-fiving one another backstage. The group that stays together is probably going to be the one that sets up appropriate boundaries.
Petty also discovered that even though they were selling a lot of records, they weren’t making much money from songwriting royalties.
ZANES: Well, he signed the kind of deal that most young artists sign, which involves giving your publishing away.
DUBNER: And you write entertainingly, I mean, in a tragic way, that he thought “publishing” meant, like, published songbooks, right?
ZANES: Yes. He thought it meant songbooks —
DUBNER: As opposed to ownership of the songs.
ZANES: Yeah. He didn’t know. When they came to look at this, later on in court, he just said he signed something under duress. And that to me, is close to the truth.
ZANES: Because it’s duress in the wide sense. It’s somebody sitting there, and there is a pressure to sign that thing. And it’s the pressure of, “I want to change my situation, I want the dream to come true.” It’s not when musicians do their clearest thinking. When they’re signing their first deal, they’re young. It’s that head-full-of-dreams effect. This is an industry that they know the next young person is coming, and they know that person has a dream. And they’re not going to scrutinize a contract. And even if they did, they could tell that kid to get lost because there’s another 50 in line behind him. And several of them are talented. So, is the company in the wrong signing deals where the company makes the bulk of the money and the band is oftentimes in debt? Why should record companies be the exception to the rules of capitalism?
So Petty fought back. It turned into a lawsuit between him and his record label. Meanwhile, he and the band were recording the record that would become Damn the Torpedoes. Petty was worried that the label would seize the tapes.
ZANES: One thing that I love about Tom Petty is he’s one of these American kids who grew up on Westerns. And you know, what is the Western? The Western is a situation in which you’ve got characters who are kind of making up their own laws in the face of the law. See, you’ve got the sheriff, but the sheriff is often a kind of stiff, ineffective character. And then you’ve got the cowboy. He’s operating just outside the system. Petty loved Westerns. When it came to Petty finding himself in a music business where he wasn’t getting compensated as he should have, yet the record company was making a lot of money on his back, I think he started to think like a cowboy. And Elliot Roberts, as manager, is giving them the money to record, but they’re doing outside of the system — nobody is supposed to know about it. So, at the end of a recording day, they hide their tapes. They give them to Bugs Weidel, who’s the roadie. Roadie from the beginning, up to the present. And it’s that cowboy character: “The system isn’t working for us, so we’re going to work just outside of it.” So simultaneous with him declaring bankruptcy, he’s recording his new album and they’re hiding the tapes at night. It’s not what you hear of in a typical rock-and-roll story. But to me, this is a kid who grew up thinking about cowboys.
DUBNER: So Petty’s been in bands for fifty years, right? And you’ve been in bands for a while, sometimes more intensely than not. I was in bands for a shorter time than you, but still for a bunch of years. Reading your book, my big takeaway from it was that being in a band and all that that entails — all the economics, all the psychology, all the anthropology, all the everything — is in a way, excellent training for the rest of your life.
ZANES: I think you’re absolutely right. And I will say to people — talking about my life in the university — I told them what degrees I got, I told them what my dissertation was on, and then I say, “But my most important degree was five years in a rock band. That’s where I learned the most.” I needed the university to process that, but the most important part of my education was playing in a rock-and-roll band.
DUBNER: So, I’ve often harbored this fantasy that America would institute a kind of mandatory rock-and-roll service. Clinton used to talk about the Peace Corps or some kind of service, and like in Israel everybody has to go join the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, which has become this bonding thing. So, I can’t think of anybody in the world who might even come close to approving of my fantasy mandate other than you. You think it’s a good idea?
[MUSIC: The Del Fuegos, “I Should Be the One” (from The Best of The Del Fuegos: The Slash Years)]
ZANES: I think it’s the only idea.
DUBNER: Hey, nice book. Congratulations.
ZANES: Thank you.
* * *
I am a sucker for reinvention stories. So I hope you can appreciate why I am so appreciative of Warren Zanes’s reinvention as an academic and an author. He also still makes solo records, by the way. And his big brother, Dan Zanes, also pulled off a beautiful reinvention. About 15 years ago, Dan started playing music for kids — but great kids’ music — some original, and some pulled from the fringiest fringes of the American songbook. Now his band is known as Dan Zanes and Friends. He’s won a Grammy Award for his music. And even though I am way, way older than his intended audiences, the power of good music is such that when I’m far away from home — on a plane maybe — and missing my family, there’s a Dan Zanes recording I always reach for. It’s an old song called “I Was Born Almost Ten Thousand Years Ago.” It is the weirdest history lesson in history. I don’t know why, but it makes me smile every time I hear it. And I hope you find a smile in it too.