Tom Petty has been making music for over forty years, and has been internationally successful for almost as long. With this in mind, it’s strange to note how few biographies have been written about him and his music. Andrea M. Rotondo’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Guardian” joins a mere two other books (Paul Zollo’s “Conversations With Tom Petty” from 2003 and the “Runnin’ Down A Dream” coffee-table tome from 2007) in detailing the life of Gainesville’s favourite son. So why has Tom Petty been so ill-served on the biography front? Well, he doesn’t have the mystery of a Bob Dylan, the car-crash fascination of a Keith Richard, or the tragic life of, say, a Kurt Cobain. A life steeped in music and little else may be of scant interest to the big publishing houses. Also, the fact that Petty is fiercely protective of his family life and unerringly loyal to his friends means that any attempt at dirt-digging will be largely unsuccessful.
Andrea Rotondo’s attempt at telling Petty’s life story is successful, in parts. Despite a cringe-inducing preface (gist: OMG! I’ve loved Tom Petty for ages! I can’t believe I got to write this book!), she’s quite adept at chronicling the musician’s life. The problem is that with no access granted to the man himself or his family, and nary a Heartbreaker secured for interview, the book relies on old articles and internet sites for the bulk of it’s quotes, resulting in what’s commonly known in these circles as “a cut-and-paste job”. That’s not to say the author doesn’t know her subject, for she is a fan, as the aforementioned cringe-inducing preface makes abundantly clear; indeed, Rotondo spends a good portion of the book summing up the lyrical and audio features of each song on each Petty album. Unfortunately, the writing here veers from the clunky: “The next track on Full Moon Fever is the short but hypnotic ‘Face In The Crowd’. The singer quietly explains about this woman that is simply someone he saw in a crowd” to the bizarre: “Nearly everyone sings along to ‘Cabin Down Below’”. Really? Nearly everyone?
Purely as a chronicle of events, Rock ‘N’ Roll Guardian does it’s job well, and is engaging in a “and then he did this, and then he did that” sort of way, but frustratingly, many of the key moments in Petty’s life are only briefly explored. For example, in 1984, the artist broke his hand having punched a recording studio wall, and was told he may never play the guitar again. Rotondo explains thus: “After a particularly gruesome [recording] session, Tom decided to call it quits at 4am. He headed up the stairwell…[and] out of pure frustration he slapped the wall with his left hand”. This is far from the full story: Petty was high on drugs which severely impaired his ability to work, the song in question was “Rebels”, his frustration was down to his inability to improve on the song’s demo, and he punched the wall so hard that he powdered it. Why Rotondo didn’t add these facts to her summary is anyone’s guess, but they make the story more interesting and Petty more fallible and real. Additionally, Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein’s heroin addiction and subsequent death, which “tore Tom to pieces”, is only touched on.
At three hundred and sixty-two pages, and priced at around twenty five euro, one could expect the first ever career-spanning Tom Petty biography to be value for money. Unfortunately, the story finishes on page two hundred and sixty seven. Over the final one hundred pages, the reader is given a Tom Petty gigography, discography, and a listing of every song played by the artist on his “Buried Treasure” radio show. In 2014, filling almost one third of a biography with this sort of easily-Googled information looks suspiciously like padding out. “Rock ‘N’ Roll Guardian” is the only true Tom Petty biography on the market, but ultimately represents a missed opportunity.
This review originally appeared in edited form in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post newspaper