I’ve been on a trend of reading biographies of famous musicians lately. And by trend, I mean I’ve read a whopping two. But I’m contemplating a third. And if “two with a potential third” doesn’t count as a literary movement unto itself, I don’t know what does.
I read “Petty,” by Warren Zanes, which is obviously a book about people who hold on to every slightest offense and fixate on trivial ways in which they’ve been wronged. No wait, I’m sorry. Different kind of Petty. This particular book was about a musician named Tom Petty. No, I didn’t read it as a result of him passing away. In fact, he died shortly after I finished the book. I hope I wasn’t responsible. I probably could’ve dragged out the last chapter had I known a life was on the line.
By the way, Tom Petty died on my birthday. Tom Clancy died on my birthday a few years earlier. I don’t know who thought “dead celebrities named Tom” was a good birthday present for me, but Messrs. Hanks and Cruise would like to stop that trend at “two with a potential third.”
More recently, I read “A Good Life all the Way.” by Ryan White, about a young pup named Jimmy Buffett. I hear the young kids love that guy. I wrote about him once before. A lot of his songs seem to have fun stories behind them. Either they’re autobiographical or he’s just a damn good poet. Turns out it’s a bit of both.
Next up might or might not be “Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography.” He’s a little bit Tom Petty, a little bit Jimmy Buffett. Not sure I’ll read it, though, because I’m starting to wane on the whole rock star biography thing. The first two were both a bit lackluster.
There are definitely things to like about both the Petty and Buffett biographies. The first half of each book did an excellent job of describing the musician’s upbringing and difficulties breaking into the music business. Both describe how the bands came together and struggled through adversity well. I doubt it’s much better now, but man, the music business sucked in the 1970s. They wouldn’t promote you unless you had multiple albums coming out each year. Tom Petty might’ve fit a little bit of a mold, in the vein of an Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd, but Jimmy Buffett was really screwed. Too country for rock n’ roll, too gaudy for good ol’ boy country.
I knew Tom Petty for most of my upbringing. I was the MTV generation, and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was one of the definitive videos of that decade. Jimmy Buffett, I discovered later in life, first in college, but not really catching on until well into my thirties. Evidently, I’m not the only one who caught him late. His career has really only taken off in the past decade or two.
Not that you would know that by reading his biography. But more on that later.
My first gripe about these books is minor and might only affect me. They each assume I know all of the members of Petty’s and Buffett’s band. Look, I bought these books because I like their music, they seem to live interesting lives, and I want to know a little more about how those lives and songs intertwine. I don’t really know who all of their band members on, and I know you devoted a full page to them fifty pages ago, but just dropping their last name here isn’t helping me distinguish who is who.
I spent half the Tom Petty book thinking, “Wait, is this the drummer that is going to stick around?” or “Tom Petty has a bass player?” I’m sure that’s on me and and a simple trip to Wikipedia could’ve told me who would matter in the end. But if I wanted to read the Wikipedia entry for Tom Petty, then I wouldn’t have bought your book? So maybe assume I don’t know the difference between a Stan Lynch and a Benmont Tench, and give me a little context when you’re throwing out five names in a row. They’re called “and the Heartbreakers” for a reason and they weren’t even present on Petty’s most-successful album.
Not that you’d know that by reading the biography. More on that later.
As an aside, did you know that Jimmy Buffett’s “Coral Reefers Band” pre-dated anyone actually being in said band? He was a solo act, but he would act like he was talking to band members on stage. He was leery of adding actual humans to the band because he had such a great rapport with the imaginary ones. That being said, I just finished the book and can’t tell you the names of any of the real Coral Reefers except for Mac McAnally, because he has his own career outside the Coral Reefers. I think there’s also Marvin Gardens and Kay Pasa. Wait no, those were the fictional characters.
But here’s where the two biographies fell apart. After the acts are discovered and start making a name for themselves. The Petty book used the phrase “album cycle,” where the band writes and records an album, then tours to promote said album, then is expected to go back into the studio and record another album. “Their A & R Man said I don’t hear a jingle…” Did I mention the music industry sucks?
That quote was from a 1991 Tom Petty song. Not that you’d know that from the biography. More on that… um, right here.
The Buffett book doesn’t explicitly mention the album cycle, but Buffett also didn’t have hits like “American Girl” and “Refugee” that he needed to follow up on. Buffett always had a smaller, but more loyal fanbase. His concerts were much more well-attended than his album sales or radio airplay would indicate. And with fans that knew all the lyrics! So the record companies didn’t really know what to do with him. That being said, they still expected one to two new albums per year, whether he had new ideas for songs or not.
Buffet’s an odd case. He became the granddad of laid-back, despite never really being the daddy of it. He’s in the top ten of wealthiest musicians despite never having a number one song. “Come Monday” barely made it up to number thirty, and “Margaritaville” topped out at number eight. “It Five O’Clock Somewhere” did make it to number one on the country charts, but that’s primarily listed as an Alan Jackson song. Not that you’d read much about it in the biography. His first, and only, album to reach number one was his twenty-fifth album, which came out just before his sixtieth birthday.
Not that you’d know that from the biography.
Because it’s at this point, with both artists running through a mundane repetition of forced creativity, that the biographies decide that the story’s not worth telling. I’m pretty sure the Buffett book put the entire 1980s and 1990s in one chapter. The Petty book muddles together the recordings of “Southern Accents,” “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough),” “Full Moon Fever,” and “Into the Great Wide Open.” The video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” gets a mention or two, and “Free Fallin'” gets a paragraph, despite it being the longest charting single of his career. I think there’s more mention of an attempted concept album for “Southern Accent,” in the vein of “Quadrophenia,” that didn’t happen, than there is about the actual album. There was supposed to be a song on it about southern racism. That didn’t make it on the album and was never recorded. “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” was actually recorded, and released as a single, with a video that was a failed sequel to “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” but it’s not mentioned at all. Why would the reader want to know bout an actual song that they remember, when there’s so much cool information about something Petty decided wasn’t a good idea to record?
You know Traveling Wilburys? The supergroup with Bob Dylan and a former Beatle or two? You can read between the lines and find it in there, but you have to really know what you’re looking for. But Mudcrutch, the first band Petty formed, that didn’t succeed, gets a chapter.
I understand part of the reason this happens. If you’re interviewing Petty or Buffett, or the people around them, they might not have much to say about a random 1983 album that they produced to fill a contract that peaked at number seventy. The first few albums had a lot more time and heart and soul invested. The problem with that logic is that most of the people reading the book probably discovered the musician through some of those throw-away songs and albums.
I read Stephen King’s “On Writing,” which is more or less an autobiography. He focuses on what it was like to sell that first manuscript but not most of the others. He finds it ironic when people say “The Stand” was his best book, because they’re saying he peaked in the first ten percent of his career. But then he proves their point by ignoring most of his other books.
That being said, Beatles books don’t gloss over everything after “Love Me Do.” But according to “A Good Life All the Way,” a song from “Coconut Telegraph,” written by a thirty-something Jimmy Buffett, is interchangeable with something from “Songs From St. Somewhere,” scribed by a seventy-year old.
Hey, speaking of which, Jimmy Buffett’s album names don’t always correlate with the songs that have that lyric. The line “I gotta fly to St. Somewhere” appears in “Boat Drinks,” released in 1979, but the album “Songs from St. Somewhere” came out in 2013. Even more impressive was when the album name came BEFORE the lyric. The song “Nautical Wheelers,” containing the line “Living and dying in three-quarter time, was on the album “A1A,” which came out ten months AFTER the album named “Living and Dying in 3/4 Time.” Pretty impressive for a guy to think “How should I end this song? How about with the name of my last album?”
It’s a good thing those songs and albums came early in Buffett’s career or else I might never have read about that in the biography.
With Tom Petty, I gave the author a pass on the last twenty years. It’s not like Petty did anything of note after “Wildflowers.” And even “Wildflowers” was a little lacking after “Full Moon Fever” and “Into the Great Wide Open.” I’m going to arrogantly speak for ninety percent of Petty fans and claim that “Last Dance with Mary Jane” was Tom Petty’s last dance with, um, memorable songs.
But Jimmy Buffett is a different story. He became more successful as time went on. His first number one album, “Licence to Chill,” came out in 2003. It gets a few paragraphs. He runs a nationwide chain of restaurants. They get a couple of pages. Satellite radio station? It’s mentioned briefly. Even that number one hit, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” gets less mention “The Christian?,” an unsuccessful song from an unsuccessful album from his unsuccessful attempt at an unsuccessful country-music career.
The book does (briefly) talk about the rest of the world finally catching up with where Jimmy Buffett had already been for thirty years. Garth Brooks and Toby Keith might have gotten the credit for making country music fun and mainstream, but Jimmy Buffett had paved the way for them. But the chapter (yes, one chapter) that covers the last twenty years gives almost as much ink to Kenny Chesney as it does to Jimmy Buffett.
I was really curious about “Bama Breeze,” a song about a bar he frequented in his teens. Did he really have his twenty-first birthday there? Don’t know. It was written in 2004. I don’t think it was mentioned once in the entire book. What about “Fruitcakes?” Did the term for his fans come from the song or did the song come from the name for his fans? Wouldn’t know. It came out in 1994 and is not explained. The book does talk about where Parrotheads came from and some of their annual meetings of Parrotheads, including the ones that Jimmy Buffett has nothing to do with, but nothing about Fruitcakes. He almost got shot out of the sky by the Jamaican authorities, and even wrote a song about it, but it only gets a brief mention, even though a story of boating through dangerous waters outside the island of Bemini gets many pages.
Jimmy Buffett fell off the stage in Australia and added a verse to “Margaritaville” about it. It’s not in the book, but some broken legs in 1981 are featured prominently.
“Delaney Talks to Statues”? “Semi-True Story?” “Nothin’ But a Breeze?” Nope, nope, and nope.
I know it’s a biography of the singer, not a book of song reviews. But for his first six albums, the book pretty much went song by song, explaining the significance of each. Even the obscure songs that get virtually no play on Radio Margaritaville. Then it switches to a “nobody really cares about the details” theme.
Did you know that the album “Take the Weather with You” has a number of tributes and homages to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? Including the aforementioned “Bama Breeze”? Neither did I. I just found that out on Wikipedia. It wasn’t referenced in the book.
So next up might or might not be Billy Joel. I’m torn. Fool me once, shame on you. Is the third book going to follow the same pattern? Am I going to get twenty pages on “Piano Man” and a paragraph on “We Didn’t Start the Fire”? Will it treat “Uptown Girl” as an afterthought? Will I get a detailed menu of every breakfast he ate in 1972 but then have all four of his wives clumped into one sentence?
Only time will tell.
Hey, I think that’s the name of a Jimmy Buffett song. Not that you’d know that from the biography. It came out in 1996.