Michael Washburn | Southern Accents | Bloomsbury Academic | April 2019 | 20 minutes (3,222 words)
Around 10 p.m. on September 25, 2017, Tom Petty told the audience at the Hollywood Bowl, “We’re almost out of time,” and struck three D chords in quick succession. “We’ve got time for this one here.”
In six minutes Petty’s public career will be over. Petty and the Heartbreakers will finish the song, thunderously and to thunderous applause. Petty will wish a good night on his audience, and then he’ll linger on stage after the band retreats. Seven days later his life will be over.
But before that we have four minutes of music.
Just as Petty’s third D starts to decay, drummer Steve Ferrone counts the band in, and Petty and the Heartbreakers lock into the last song of their fortieth anniversary tour. Petty prowls the stage playing a white Fender Electric XII, and then he steps to the mic and belts out in his late-career, Dylan-esque sneer, “She was an American Girl / raised on promises.”
“American Girl,” the final track on the Heartbreaker’s first record and the last song he’ll ever sing in public, is as perfect a rock song as there is. “Raised on promises” could be the national motto. It should adorn our currency, the contemporary American English for “In God We Trust.” Not that the phrases are synonymous. A promise is probably a poor substitute for a god, but it’s what we’ve got if we’re lucky and realistic — promises and hope. At his best Tom Petty excelled at articulating promises and hope, fulfilled and fallow. One of the things that rock offers is triumphant hope. Rock in its triumph mode, regardless of what bittersweetness resides in the lyrics, is open windows, open roads, open vistas. In America, the image of the road itself is often linked to such aspiration, with opportunity just beyond the horizon, and reinvention obtained if you can find a better spot to call home. All you need is a soundtrack to hold you to your pace. Few did this kind of hope — and the attendant rages of desperation, anger, longing, passion — like Petty. It’s an ageless passion. Tracks like “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” “Running Down a Dream” feel as vital today as when they were recorded. Petty’s best music doesn’t age into dotage like so many of his contemporaries. The songs sound clean, fresh, and vibrant affirmations that even if things get sticky, it’s ultimately gonna be alright.
It’s hard to responsibly generalize about Petty’s audience because it’s like generalizing America.
Which is how “American Girl” sounds at the Hollywood Bowl.
The Commonwealth of Petty goes bonkers for this song, of course. I dropped in on some shows during the 2017 tour, and the crowds were always the same, spilling beer, smiling, maybe getting prematurely red-eyed and a bit belligerent. It’s hard to responsibly generalize about Petty’s audience because it’s like generalizing America. Yes, it’s usually the white, middle-aged, or older, bulge of America, but you take the point. Despite the reality that in any collection of 20,000 individuals, people will hold fast to irreconcilable cultural tastes, political opinions, and moral commitments, and when the band tears into “American Girl,” the crowd, already euphoric, feels the electric thrill of shared rock ’n’ roll communion.
Throughout the band’s life, the Heartbreakers retained quite a bit of purity when it came to their stage shows. This gig could’ve been back at the Whisky a Go Go, except for the ever-present screens, several-stories high, displaying real-time footage of the band or other images. But, different images accompany “American Girl.”
What does the phrase “American girl” conjure in your mind? I’d wager that many of you think of a white girl. Mary Ann or Ginger, fresh-faced or sultry. The subcategory doesn’t matter as much as the likelihood that in most of your minds, your American girl is white.
Not for Petty, tonight. Just as he sings the song’s first lines about being raised on promises, the screens transition from abstract swaths of color into images of women. At first the screens show the stereotype: fresh-faced white women and the open road. But soon there’s an African American family, a Latina soldier, and Alexis Arquette, the transgender activist and actor who died from HIV-related complications in 2016. Images of dozens of women cross the screen, young and old, all ethnicities. As the song speeds toward its end, hundreds of snapshots cross the screen, growing smaller as they gain in number before dissolving into a cartoon rendering of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in the American flag. As the song ends, Lady Liberty’s torch and crown preside over the audience.
Now, we shouldn’t give Petty a round of applause for figuring out that not all women are white. But he did punctuate this tour and, however unexpectedly, his career, by playing one of his most durable creations against a backdrop that both asserts and celebrates America’s multiracial society.
Petty had all kinds of money and all kinds of fame, but he wanted to challenge himself artistically.
Though the optimism about American racial harmony might have been naïve, and the message of solidarity and diversity delivered with a somewhat corporate accent, choosing to close the show with these images was not haphazard. I don’t think many fans ponied up for a Petty concert looking for a message. Petty frequently received plaudits for appealing across the aesthetic and political spectrum of rock ’n’ roll fans. There’s something for just about everyone. That has more to do with the muscularity of the music and the elastic way his best songs easily stretch to fit most anyone’s life. But Petty did also subtly engage in politics during his career, especially in the later years. And he learned about the power of rock ’n’ roll iconography the hard way.
In essential aspects, Petty’s final performance of “American Girl” repudiates and corrects his largest, most embarrassing misstep: his use of the Confederate Battle Flag during the 1985 tour in support of his sixth album, Southern Accents. In 2017 the stage set celebrated a vision of racial harmony; in 1985 the set deployed an embattled icon that many see as our primary homegrown symbol of race-based hatred. In much the same way that one of Petty’s final public gestures was in part a repudiation of the Confederate Flag, his career in the decades following Southern Accents was a decided rejection of his Southern Accents era’s persona and aesthetics.
* * *
Southern Accents was released in March 1985. Over the previous nine years, Petty and the Heartbreakers had released a series of successful records. All of these albums are good rock records. Some are great. But at that point, Petty’s catalog lacked any concerted, unified artistic statement, and Petty was at a crossroads. His impending crisis was more than boredom, though. Petty had all kinds of money and all kinds of fame, but he wanted to challenge himself artistically. Early in his career, when people still confused him for a punk rocker, Petty said that rock music was just “stupid shit.” For Petty most contemporary rock musicians — including himself — wrote and rewrote versions of the same love songs over three chord progressions. After 1982’s Long After Dark, Petty sought to challenge himself and his artistry, and he began working on a set of ideas which became a loose concept album about the American South. Southern Accents was intended as an artistic breakthrough. On paper the record sounds like a winner. With the aura of history promised by many of the songs, its sense of place, and an expanded palette of textures including horns and a string arrangement, Southern Accents seems as if it could be the career defining record Petty intended. And this is even before you consider the groundbreaking Alice in Wonderland–inspired video for the record’s first single, “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Although the album contains a few of Petty’s most accomplished songs, for reasons ranging from the aesthetic to the narcotic, Southern Accents didn’t stick the landing.
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Drugs, faddish 1980s’ production aesthetics, the mystifying inclusion of inferior songs, and a protracted recording process during which a frustrated Petty pulverized his hand melded together to create a record with a deep identity crisis. Southern Accents is an incoherent yet compelling mess. What makes this particularly baffling is that on YouTube or the retrospective boxset Playback you can now find many of the songs that were inexplicably left off the record. Many of these songs are better written, are produced with better quality, and, perhaps most importantly, are of a piece with the original thematic intent of the record. Listen to these, and you can Frankenstein into existence the milestone, barrier-breaking album that could’ve been.
The failure of Southern Accents is more than a lack of coherence and a crippling reliance on 1980s’ production gimmicks. I say this not because it doesn’t measure up to the rare few and almost objectively brilliant concept records in music history, like The Who’s Quadrophrenia. In fact, Southern Accents was always meant to be conceptually loose. Petty was not trying to create a fully formed rock version of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in forty minutes. He wasn’t striving for a robustly detailed “novel.”. In listening to Southern Accents and considering the remnants of Petty’s original idea, we find a record that is less a comprehensive story than a series of snapshots about life in the South. The songs comprising the thematic core of Southern Accents — “Rebels,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Southern Accents,” “Spike,” and “Dogs on the Run” — predominantly follows a single unnamed Southerner as he shambles through life embittered, drunk, antagonistic, but still hopeful and yearning for love and connection.
Southern Accents is an incoherent yet compelling mess.
So, yes, the record presents as Southern, from the opening song “Rebels” to the Civil War–era Winslow Homer painting on the cover. That’s not the problem. Things get dicey because the South of Petty’s imagination endorsed rather blindly some of the most corrosive myths of American culture and history. Petty adopted a staggeringly uncritical stance toward commonplace historical misunderstandings of the South, and his record manages to be both too much and too little about the South. The album is deeply suffused with a long-standing, parochial, and miniaturized understanding of the American South. This is almost not Petty’s fault. It’s hard to nail down any region in a record, period, even for a consummate pop rock writer like Petty. And with all its historical burden, the South is nearly impossible to succinctly explore. Moreover, the thirty-five year old Petty who made Southern Accents had spent his adult life as a rock star, so he likely didn’t have the inclination to interrogate his vision of the South. But the result was that Southern Accents promotes an aggressively narrow conception of Southern identity. To put it bluntly, Petty’s South is the white South.
* * *
After the record was released, Petty by turns claimed conceptual success and that he had said to hell with the notion of a concept record toward the end of the recording process. It’s hard to fully believe the latter claim, but even taking at face value Petty’s claims of retreat from his conceptual ambition, failing to complete an idea isn’t the same as abandoning it. Petty surrendering a coherent theme had more to do with exhaustion than with any change of heart — and it didn’t do anything to make the songs any less flawed. Besides, for an album that wasn’t a concept record about the South, Petty sure promoted it like one. Even the cover art clearly signaled the Southern concept. Southern Accents was the first album cover in the band’s career that did not feature Petty’s face. Instead, a yellowing parchment border frames Winslow Homer’s famous painting of a Union veteran reaping the harvest in a “new field.” Painted shortly after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, The Veteran in a New Field is an iconic image of grief and death, as well as hope for life and restoration. It’s also a confusing choice. Tommy Steele, the art director for the record, told me that neither he nor Petty knew that the painting featured a Union and not Confederate soldier, nor did they consider that the wheat the solider reaps symbolizes, in the critical vocabulary of Homer’s time and ours, the North. The South had cotton. Art history aside, it’s hard not to read the album cover as a reflection of the work inside. The concept hadn’t been complete, but its completion was asserted in every aspect of the album’s release and promotion, except the actual music.
Petty adopted a staggeringly uncritical stance toward commonplace historical misunderstandings of the South, and his record manages to be both too much and too little about the South.
After the album’s release, Petty ensnared himself in a second thicket of issues. Songs like “Rebels” and “Southern Accents” didn’t expand Petty’s appeal, but they surely deepened his connection to fans who identified strongly with certain parts of Southern culture. In a misguided move, Petty doubled down on his appeal to these folks by wrapping himself (at times, quite literally) in Confederate iconography during the tour. The Southern Accents tour book features the Confederate Battle Flag, and the flag was a prominent stage prop — in background images and lining Petty’s clothing. A live album recorded during the tour was titled Pack Up the Plantation: LIVE!
Petty wasn’t comfortable with the tour’s reception. Certain factions in his audience assumed that Petty had outed himself as a Neo-Confederate. Audience members began waving the Battle Flag. Petty realized that his adoption of these Southern symbols was being taken differently than he had intended. While some may sanely wonder at the idea of Confederate iconography ever being neutral, Petty naively supposed it to be a neutral design element of a rock show. Petty soon realized that if this was the cost of adopting a Southern image, then to hell with being Southern. He repudiated Southern iconography and stepped away from the trappings of his Southern birth, something that had been subtly threaded through his catalog until then. The tour’s reception and the record’s artistic shortcomings — along with some simmering creative dissatisfactions with the Heartbreakers — prompted Petty’s reevaluate his music and persona.
By the time Petty’s next major record, Full Moon Fever, was written and recorded, he had reimagined himself as a free fallin’ Southern Californian. The Tom Petty of Full Moon Fever was a conscious creation born from the failure of Southern Accents, at that time Petty’s last real attempt to make a bold artistic statement.
By the time Petty’s next major record, Full Moon Fever, was written and recorded, he had reimagined himself as a free fallin’ Southern Californian.
Which gets us to the overarching argument of this book: although Full Moon Fever may be his most commercially successful record, Southern Accents is the most artistically pivotal moment of Petty’s career because of the manifold ways it failed. On the terms that Petty set for himself — art, not shit — the record was almost foreordained to fail. Given both who Petty was and the way he tried to execute the record, there was no way Southern Accents could satisfy his ambitions. Ultimately, the record’s problems were planted as deep as Petty’s North Florida roots. Like many of us, he didn’t grasp the implications of his instincts or the origin of some of his ideas. This story involves rock ’n’ roll, guitars, cocaine, songwriting, the recording process, broken hands, and all of those things you expect in a rock record. But it also involves the South, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, race, and how in his moment of artistic reach Petty almost unwittingly tapped into deep veins of Southern myth which damned the record and, for a brief period, damned Petty himself.
Biases inform us listeners, too: weirdo biases operate in the dank subterranean chambers of us all, sometimes veering into the deeply dangerous. We inherit, restate, sometimes reinscribe these notions, and then represent these ideas to the world, unless we have something to help us rectify and assess our thinking. In our partial knowledge we both create and endure, both mold and are molded by, the culture that we live in. If we push hard enough on just about any part of our life, we plunge through the surface into a history that’s unknown to us even as it structures much of how we live. This is, obviously, just what history is and what historians do. Not claiming a new theory of knowledge here. We are just applying the notion a bit. Even people who get the theory don’t always see the application.
* * *
Context is important. Since I proposed this book, the world has seen several developments that touch on its contents: the media’s attention on the white working class in the wake of Donald Trump’s election; Trump’s election itself, which occurred about a week before I signed the book contract; the violence in Charlottesville; a movement to remove Confederate monuments from public areas around the nation; Tom Petty’s unexpected death at the age of sixty-six.
In February 2017, I began corresponding with a friendly woman named Mary Klauzer. Since 1978 Klauzer has worked alongside Tony Dimitriades, Petty’s manager. I had cold called East End management, and as soon as she answered I thought I’d torpedoed my chances. The song “Mary’s New Car” on Southern Accents was written about Klauzer, and when she told me her name I got a bit tongue tied. It took a few days of back and forth, but the always relaxed Klauzer ultimately told me that Petty would be happy to meet with me to discuss the record. The timing would be difficult. Petty was being honored as the MusiCares Person of the Year. Soon thereafter he was heading into rehearsals for the fortieth anniversary tour. After that, he would be on tour. Klauzer told me to reach out to her after the tour concluded, ideally in early October, to arrange what she expected would be a meeting at Petty’s place.
At 2:26 p.m. on Monday, October 2, 2017, I sent Klauzer a note to shore up details for the meeting. One hour later I wrote again. The second note expressed both sorrow and apology. Within a half an hour of my first email, news had broken of Petty’s cardiac arrest.
It would be untrue if I said that Petty’s death didn’t have a tremendous impact on this book. Our conversation might have changed some of this. More important to me, though, would have been the chance to listen to him reflect on the South’s role in the making of this record, his career, and his life. I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live four times in my life. Anemic numbers, yes. I was fortunate enough to see the band twice on their final tour. At both shows — and throughout the tour — he closed with “American Girl,” variations of the same visuals flickering behind the band, though not as realized as at the LA show. Earlier in the set, Petty and the band always played “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” the sole Southern Accents song performed on the tour. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is a slinky, seductive number. On the album it’s more gossamer than denim, though. Not so on this final tour. These performances felt fierce, nearly defiant. To my ears it felt like the song had matured into itself. The band relied less on synthesizers and digital effects and more on bass, drums, and guitars. Rock performance is like identity, both personal and national: it’s a living thing and it’s always changing. That’s a good thing. As noted historian of the South George Brown Tindall once wrote, “To change is not necessarily to lose one’s identity; to change sometimes is to find it.”
Michael Washburn, Director of Programs at Humanities New York, has written about books, culture, and politics for a number of publications.
Excerpted from Southern Accents (33 1/3 Series), by Michael Washburn. Copyright © 2019 by Michael Washburn. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury and Michael Washburn.
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