This week, Michael Washburn, author of Tom Petty’s Southern Accents (coming Fall 2018!), reflects on Tom Petty’s impact on American culture, what Tom Petty’s Southern heritage meant to him, and how Petty approached the representations of Southern heritage in Southern Accents.
Tom Petty’s death last week provoked a torrent of deserved, heartfelt tributes. The 66 year-old rock star bridged late-70s rock radio to the video generation, and he continued writing solid songs well into the 21st century. Petty’s death revealed him as an institution that we’d long taken for granted. It’s only in his abrupt absence that we’re focusing on the role that he played in so many of our lives. Almost instantly, the internet was heavy with the grief and appreciation for Petty, both his work and his life. I suppose it’s in the nature of tributes for them to quickly coalesce around a fairly limited number of ideas – the immediately relatable or heroic attributes of our fallen heroes. Tributes tend to constellate around such things as authenticity, the inability/refusal to compromise, or, sometimes, in the way the musician influenced the culture beyond their fan base.
Petty’s quickly assembled memory castle foregrounds two related characteristics. First, he was maybe the last great American rock star and definitely the great American rock everyman. Petty was a quintessentially American icon – a skinny kid with a dad who knocked him around, a townie in a college town, a guy that stood his ground against his predatory management and his avaricious record company (the former fleeced him and the latter tried to his use popularity to fleece his fans). Second, Petty was someone we all know and love because he had been the soundtrack for much our lives. The music’s good, if not uniformly great. But what Petty lacked in Springsteen-esque working class operatics was more than balanced by the sheer quantity of damn good rock songs, sturdy, impeccably efficient and effective numbers.
All of this these responses are true. From the American girl “raised on promises,” to standing up at the gates of hell, to Petty and his band running down a dream, he’s a perfect American rock star. Rock does triumphant hope well. Rock in triumph mode, regardless of what bittersweetness might rest in the lyrics, is open windows, open roads, and open vistas. In America the road itself is often triumphant hope, and all you really need is a soundtrack to keep the pace. Few did triumphant hope – and the attendant rages of desperation, anger, longing, passion – like Petty. It’s an ageless passion. “American Girl,” “The Waiting,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Free Fallin,” and so many more feel as alive today as they did when they were released. Petty’s music doesn’t age into dotage like so many of his contemporaries. The songs sound clean, tight, alive, and timeless.
That Petty’s best music feels timeless doesn’t mean Petty himself slipped free of his times. And I think one incident from his life – and what that shows about his character – is particularly poignant these days.
In 1985 Petty released Southern Accents, a record about which I’m writing about for 33 1/3. Southern Accents was intended as a concept album about the American South. For a few reasons ranging from the artistic to the narcotic, Southern Accents failed as a record about the South. But it is a fascinating failure and offers a view into, among other things, Petty’s early 90s reinvention, the way that the South and the Civil War are figured in American cultural memory, and how often the idea of “Southern identity” typically only includes white people. You’ll have to wait until the book’s publication to get much more than that out of me, but I do want to look at another aspect of my book, the Southern Accents tour, memorialized in the live album and concert video Pack Up the Plantation: Live!, also released in 1985.
The iconography of the Confederate South, most notably the Confederate Battle Flag, was the iconography of the Southern Accents tour. The cover of the tour book features Petty’s photo emblazoned over a Battle Flag, and includes photos of Petty wearing a trucker cap with a Battle Flag patch. More importantly, Petty employed a large electric Battle Flag as backdrop for the tour. The flag blazed to life when the Heartbreakers played Southern Accents’ opening track “Rebels,” a mid-tempo rocker about a drunken loser from the South who harbors some notion that the “blue bellied devils” of the Union wrecked his life. This happened at each of the shows during the Southern Accents tour, but the video evidence can only be found on a Pack Up the Plantation VHS tape or the standalone video of the “Rebels” performance, which was released as a video (the “Rebels” video has vanished from YouTube, but low quality uploads can be found on lesser video sites).
In one moment, Petty took what was a failed concept record – no great sin – and enveloped himself in what many see as the trappings of racism. On the Pack up the Plantation performance, you can see Petty, Battle Flag glowing behind him, grab an actual Battle Flag from the stage. He dervishes the flag around. He drapes it over his shoulders like a swamp trash Ziggy Stardust. Petty acts out the Southern loser at the heart of the song. Petty struts across the stage with an insolent smirk. He’s mugging at the camera. He makes a kind of, “Not bad, who knew?” face at the crowd. As if he just wandered onto stage with a band that he didn’t know and they happen to tune into the same thing. The same heritage. Somehow more nasally than usual during this performance, Petty sneers his way through the lyrics, “honey don’t walk out/I’m too drunk to follow” amidst the pageantry, flag draped over his shoulder.
The image is either shocking or it isn’t. I get the circularity of that sentence, but Tom Petty and the Confederate Flag offers an x-ray of American culture almost as much as anything these days (and back in the 80s days, too): the late rocker who is being heralded as the all-American rock genius and powerful band leader is either wildly out of context or solidly within context of what it means to be an American these days. He’s either embracing his Southern heritage or embracing the heritage of racism.
Heritage – whatever we choose as the content of that term – can be a trap. Or maybe it’s an anchor, pulling us beneath the waves of the current fractious moment in our nation’s lifespan and allowing us to, at best, neglect our fellow Americans feelings and the integrity of their heritage. Petty knew quickly that he had made a mistake with the Confederate iconography. Fans began bringing the Confederate Battle Flag to Petty’s shows, something he found distasteful. Petty scrubbed the flag image from the live release and noted, from the stage, that he wasn’t part of any Lost Causism. And then Petty moved on.
On June 17, 2015, Dylan Roof, race terrorist and fool, slaughtered nine people at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. After his capture, Roof explained that his shooting spree was intended to spark an American race war. Soon photos of Roof posing with the Battle Flag began circulating and, as you surely recall, the nation launched into a series of discussions about the proper role of Confederate symbols, a debate that rages to this day.
Although Petty had distanced himself from the Battle Flag, he remained disappointment in himself, so much so that he felt it imperative to address the issue in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting. In an interview published in Rolling Stone in 2015 Petty reflected on his use of the Battle Flag.
“The Confederate Flag was the wallpaper of the South where I was a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida,” he said. “I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its logo….That Southern pride gets transferred from generation to generation. I’m sure that a lot of people that applaud is don’t mean it in a racial way. But again I have to give them, as I do myself, a ‘stupid’ mark. If you think a bit long, there’s bad connotations tooth’s. They might have it at the football game or whatever, but they also have it at Klan rallies. If that’s the part of it in any way, it doesn’t belong, in any way, representing the United States….It isn’t necessarily racism. They just don’t like Yankees. They don’t like the North. But when they wave that flag, they aren’t stopping to think how it looks to a black person.”
In both the interview and his earlier public repudiation of the flag, Petty demonstrated what’s starting to feel at this moment – October 2017 – almost un-American: the ability to look beyond one’s own circumstances, history, or heritage, and read the world through the eyes of others. My diagnosis is a bit overstated; there are millions of people that strive for empathy or understanding. But their voices are mere whispers in the maelstrom of what passes for civic discourse these days. Petty’s disavowal of the Battle Flag still rankles some fans (check out some Youtube comments if you’d like), and I’m certain that his comments in 2015 further alienated that population of his fans. Still, Petty copped to his error and tried to show how his mistake was one more version the same delusion a lot of people have bought into for over 150 years: that anytime you adopt the “heritage” of the Confederacy you’re also adopting the history of a slavery and oppression.