Tom Petty Reveals ’90s Heroin Addiction In New Biography

The story behind the creation of Warren Zanes’ forthcoming Tom Petty biography is an interesting one: Though Petty gave Zanes plenty of access to his life in order to write a complete story, it’s still considered “unauthorized.” Petty decided that he did not want to have the privilege of censoring Zanes’ discoveries, which resulted in some fairly weighty revelations. In Petty, Zanes reveals that the musician actively used heroin in the ’90s, a fact that feels especially significant since the Heartbreakers kicked out their bassist Howie Epstein for suffering from the same addiction in the early 2000s. Epstein died soon after. Petty cut this aspect of his life out of Peter Bogdanovich’s 2007 Heartbreakers documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream. The Washington Post spoke to Zanes about the discovery, mainly focusing on a single question: Why, after all of these years, did Petty decide to reveal this information about himself?

Let’s get right to this. In a world of headlines, this is going to be a big one. I told my editor about Petty’s heroin addiction in the ’90s. She said, “How does a 50-year-old become a junky?”

That happens when the pain becomes too much and you live in a world, in a culture, where people have reached in the direction of heroin to stop the pain. He’s a rock and roller. He had had encounters with people who did heroin, and he hit a point in his life when he did not know what to do with the pain he was feeling.

And he hasn’t ever spoken about this before.

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.” 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.” But I wanted to show that Tom Petty is a man who lived the bulk of his life in the album cycle. He wrote songs, they recorded those songs, they put a record together with artwork, they released it, and they went out on the road to support it. Over and over and over and over and over. And he, being the leader of the band, had to do most of the work around it. 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. 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.

When The Post asked Zanes about the hypocrisy of the Heartbreakers’ decision to kick out Epstein, he revealed the following:

The other obvious question. Heartbreakers’ Howie Epstein was cut loose because of his heroin addiction. And he died soon after. Petty’s also addicted, and he gets to work his way out of his. It there something hypocritical about it?

Here’s the important point. The Heartbreakers sent Howie to rehab. They tried to help him. The last tour that they had Howie on, in the days prior to the tour, he was stopped by police in a stolen car with Carlene Carter with black tar heroin. And he was still on that tour. The Heartbreakers are hardly a case study in intolerance. They held on trying to keep that band together. That’s kind of the Heartbreakers code. You keep this band together. But it got untenable.

Petty is out 11/10 via Henry Holt & Co.