Despite the packaging, readers should be warned that Conversations with Tom Petty is not a biography! A biography is a crafted document with a narrative arc and heavy editing that removes blunders. What Paul Zollo has created is something different, awkward and redundant at times, something he can't quite control or edit sufficiently. Conversations is to a biography what a bootleg tape is to a highly produced commercial CD.
That said, it's a good read, and just what it claims to be: a conversation between Zollo and Petty about the musician's years making music -- the nitty-gritty of production, band politics and fame, as well as his roots in Gainesville and his famous friends in Los Angeles. Anyone who wants to know how "American Girl" was first recorded, or what kind of guitar Petty wrote Wildflowers on, will absolutely love Conversations. Gear-heads will eat it up.
The strength of the conversational format is that Petty comes through as the author, and Zollo -- impressively -- relegates himself to the unassuming role of interlocutor. The weakness is that a good interviewer can't push too hard, for fear of disrupting the flow of the conversation. Zollo doesn't want to upset Petty, so what gets left out of the book is the dirt that would have made a true biography juicier. It isn't until page 159 that the reader even understands that Petty has two daughters and a stepson, and we never get to hear about on-the-road indiscretions, which leaves some holes that might disappoint gossip-mongers out there.
But all in all, I was surprised -- once I adjusted to the Q&A format -- how engrossing the material was, how personable Petty could be, and how much I really did care about the ins and outs of recording and playing music. Zollo has created his own form, and while it might not work for another interviewer, he scored with this.