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Fred Mills: Tom Petty and our Southern Accents

Tom 2

Ed note: the following commentary/review was originally published here at BLURT in 2010, on the occasion of Tom Petty’s massive career overview, The Live Anthology box, on Warner Bros. Because of the subject matter I dwelt upon, it seems as relevant now, in the wake of the Confederate flag controversy (which I previously commented upon). Particularly so given Petty’s recent musings on the flag and how he now regrets using it in the iconography and marketing of his concert tour for Southern accents back in ’85. Feel free to weigh in at the comments section below – particularly if you were at the 1990 concert in Charlotte, as I was, when Petty, prompted by a fan tossing a battle flag onto the stage, stopped the show and told the audience that he regretted his earlier embrace of that flag. – FM

BY FRED MILLS

Writers whose roots extend below the Mason-Dixon line have long dwelled on matters of heritage. Even those who preach the occasional necessity of getting out in order to make a life for oneself understand how roots run deep, and you can no more escape that heritage than you can declare your back yard a sovereign nation and secede from the Union. So to speak.

Tom Petty’s a writer, of songs, and while he’s a textbook example of a southern boy who got out and, in the parlance, done real good for hisself, in those songs there’s always been a lyrical tension between the past and the present that gives his material an autobiographical undercurrent, an ambiance, a vibe, peculiar to southern writers. I’m a writer, too, and the longer I do it the more I discover my own regional idiosyncrasies creeping in to my work; I suspect they were always there and I just didn’t recognize them as such. Finding parallels between Petty’s life and mine isn’t particularly hard, either. Both of us came of age in the sixties, he in upstate Florida and me in a textile mill region of North Carolina, right at the NC-SC line — which, if you know much about those two regions, suggests a distinct lack of cultural opportunities, so a person was usually left casting a wide net utilizing whatever resources could be found.

 

“Well she was an American girl

Raised on promises

She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there

Was a little more to life

Somewhere else

After all it was a great big world

With lots of places to run to…”

 

As Petty pointed out in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, his best-known song “American Girl” is not about a specific girl: “I was creating a girl like I knew in Gainesville, the kind who knows there’s more out there than the cards she’s drawn.” But he was also subliminally sketching himself into the character, articulating what he had felt growing up in Gainesville. This is why the tune strikes a chord regardless of whether you’re a male or a female; the yearning is universal, and it’s not necessary limited to teenagers either.

In our mutual quests to find a little more to life Petty and I both eschewed high school sports for books, movies and, most particularly, music, and because of that our role models tended to be a few years older, typically long-haired and liberal-tilting types (and with good weed connections) who gave us the kind of encouragement we didn’t necessarily get from our peer group. Both of us took a lot of grief when we began growing our own hair out, including thumpings from local good ol’ boys who took exception to our appearance, and such incidents fueled streaks of anger, defiance and righteousness. Petty, for example, told Rolling Stone that during his early years as a musician he was harassed by rednecks and even refused service at truck stops and it helped him understand and sympathize with what African-Americans went through on a daily basis. On my end, I was on the receiving end of redneck taunts myself, and I still wince at the memory of the time when a couple of my so-called friends cornered me one afternoon following school, one of them holding me down while the other one took a pair of scissors to my hair (which, let’s be clear here, was only a little ways past my collar and hardly “dirty hippie” length). Not to mention fielding racial epithets because my mom was on the local school board during the protracted period of desegregation and therefore our family was perceived to be among the “nigger lovers” aiming to upend the social order.

Those angry, defiant and righteous feelings continue to manifest in us as adults.

And Petty and I both finally got out, too: he traveled far, to L.A., and embarked upon one of rock’s more storied careers; I made it to college, and in a roundabout way, not always financially fruitful but still aesthetically satisfying, to a life in music, too. All along, although the two of us have met just once and then only very briefly, our southern heritage has continued to link us in ways that gives his music a resonance that is deeper and more enduring than that of pretty much any other artist I admire.

***

One day in late 1979 I wandered into a Chapel Hill, NC, record store. Spying among the new releases a copy of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I wondered who this leather-jacketed guy on the sleeve was. The shoulder-length blonde hair painted him a traditional ‘70s rock type, yet the jacket and half-smirk/half-sneer creasing his face suggested he was more aligned with punk, which by then I was already enthusiastically embracing. The guy behind the counter played a couple of songs, notably the Byrdsian raveup “American Girl,” and I was sold. It would be over-romanticizing matters for me to claim I converted, on the spot, to fan-for-life status — it was only Petty’s first album, after all — but I can confess, in all sincerity, that the net result was the same.

Other albums would similarly floor me — 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, 1985’s Southern Accents, 1994’s Wild Flowers (billed as a solo Petty release), even 2002’s The Last DJ, which did well commercially but took a drubbing from critics — while songs from all of Petty’s releases would find their way into regular mixtape rotation in the car, on the home stereo, and eventually on the iPod and smartphone, too. I recall buying the 45 of “Refugee” because it had a non-album B-side, “Casa Dega,” a spooky-sounding slow-burn number that referenced a strange little Florida town (it’s actually spelled Cassadaga) populated by psychics. The lyrics, mysterious yet open-endedly romantic, have always gotten under my skin, like a partially-remembered dream that lingers and haunts you long after you’ve awaken:

 

“She said to me as she holds my hand

And reads the lines of a stranger

Yeah, and she knows my name, yeah, she knows my plan

In the past, in the present, and for the future…

‘Baby fools pay the price of a whisper in the night

In Casa Dega

Time rolls by, night is only night

Can I save you?’”

 

Of course it was the live Petty experience that would cement my fanship. I’ll never forget squeezing down front at an outdoor amphitheater in Charlotte in the early ‘80s to watch the Heartbreakers blaze through a set in the summer’s heat; I was surrounded by so many gorgeous, sweat-drenched, dancing, screaming females that I got a first-hand sense of what Beatlemania might have been like. Later that evening at the nearby hotel, who should I run into at the elevator but keyboardist Benmont Tench; upon learning that we had a close mutual friend, he paused to chat a few moments then invited me up to say hello to Petty, as the band was about to check out early and drive through the night on their bus to the next gig. Starstruck, I wound up mumbling at them something about “owning all the records” and “when are you going to start making better music videos,” thus ensuring that Petty and Tench quickly found excuses to go finish their packing before I could get around to asking for an autograph. But hey, at least I got to shake their hands.

Another time was in Phoenix in the mid ‘90s, at a point when the Heartbreakers had skillfully merged both their own songs and Petty’s solo material to craft what was unquestionably one of the most dynamic stage shows by one of the most formidable live acts in the business. In particular, they brought down the house with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which had earlier been an MTV staple thanks to the goofy Alice In Wonderland-styled vid, but in concert was transformed into a psychedelic epic complete with an eye-popping, potentially seizure-inducing, lights and strobe production.

But the Petty concert I’ll always remember most vividly was in 1990, once again in Charlotte. [Jan. 29 to be precise, with Lenny Kravitz opening.In] April of the previous year Petty had released his first solo LP, the Jeff Lynne-produced Full Moon Fever, so he was spotlighting a good chunk of that record even though with the exception of guitarist Mike Campbell the members of the Heartbreakers only had cameos on FMF. The band was also doing a lot of the Southern Accents album, from 1985, and much of the same stage design (plantation mansion columns, assorted antebellum/southern touches, etc.) from the Southern Accents tour was still being used. It was during the “Rebels” segment that something totally out of the blue happened.

A certain yahoo element had already been making its presence in the crowd known, emitting whoops and raising beer cups whenever Petty would make a regional reference. It was starting to feel like a NASCAR rally in the arena. Now, as the band eased into the song’s signature piano intro, somebody tossed a folded-up object onto the stage. Petty walked over, picked it up, and started unfolding it: a rebel flag, symbol of the Confederacy — and of a whole lot more. He froze, uncertain as to what he should do. Well, wave it proudly at all your fellow Southerners, you could almost hear the collective thought ripple through the air. Instead, Petty walked back to the mic, still holding the flag, and slowly began to speak, talking about how on the Southern Accents tour a few years ago they’d included a Confederate flag as part of the stage set, but since then he’d been thinking about it and decided that it had been a mistake because he understood maybe it wasn’t just a rebel image to some folks. As a low rumble of boos and a few catcalls came out of the crowd, Petty carefully wadded the flag up and concluded, “So we don’t do” — nodding at the flag — “this anymore.” Glaring at it one last time and then chucking it back down, he glanced at the band then launched directly into the next song.

Driving home from the concert that night I still could feel the combined chill and thrill I’d gotten earlier. A lesser performer wouldn’t have been able to pull off a simultaneous refutation and affirmation, and in the unexpected duality of sentiment and expectations of the moment, Petty and his Heartbreakers had gone on to perform the song with a visceral resolve imbued equally with grace and grit I hadn’t detected at previous concerts.

Turning on the radio, I heard the local classic rock deejay talking about the incident in disparaging terms and inviting listeners to call in and “let Tom Petty know just what we think about him.” In that moment, I felt the anger and defiance of my younger self return, and I wanted to punch the dashboard. Just a few blocks from my house, in my distraction I ran a stop sign, got pulled over by a cop, and received a ticket that led me to having to take a series of classes on highway safety in order to have it dismissed. Thanks, y’all.

 

***

Petty Box

It’s these memories that steer me to The Live Anthology (Reprise), a five-CD, three-DVD, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers box. Arriving as a kind of two-year coda to 2007’s Peter Bogdanovich-directed TP&THB documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream and the accompanying book and multiple-DVD/CD set, it’s a dream date all on its own terms, stuffed to its 12” x 12” x 2”, Shepard Fairey-art-adorned gills with all manner of goodies and memorabilia. There are facsimiles of tour posters and backstage passes; a thick LP-sized booklet boasting detailed track annotations and commentary plus extensive liners from Petty, Warren Zanes and a host of music journalists; a pocket-sized TP “notebook”; and a reproduction of the 1977 promotional-only 12” EP Official Live ‘Leg that Shelter Records distributed to radio stations (the repro even duplicates the way the original had the same four songs pressed on both sides; incidentally, the nine-minute “Dog On the Run” is a must-hear). In short, pure collector catnip.

Sound- and vision-wise, Petty’s not just fucking around with a high-ticket item suitable for holiday shopping, either. One of the DVDs contains all of the live audio material in the high-resolution Blu-ray format, meaning that if you have a Blu-ray player and harbor an audio geek side, you’re in clover. Meanwhile, the two video discs nicely complement the other Petty DVDs in your collection (there have been quite a few, including RDAD, to date). Live at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was professionally filmed at the Heartbreakers’ Dec. 31, 1978 concert, and it’s every bit as intense and celebratory as a New Year’s Eve show should be. That it captures the band on the cusp of — but not quite there yet — huge international stardom, a good nine months before the release of Damn the Torpedoes, therefore giving you a long-form look at a group still hungry and fueled by an almost punkish combativeness, makes for a revealing and rewarding viewing experience. Several as-yet-unreleased songs were already in the setlist at the time, notably “Refugee” and “Casa Dega,” and the closing Isley Brothers cover “Shout” completely smokes the version that appeared on 1985’s concert album and film Pack Up the Plantations: Live!

The third DVD is titled 400 Days, a documentary film directed by Martyn Atkins. Atkins had been introduced to Petty by Rick Rubin during the making of Wildflowers, and he accumulated footage of Petty and the Heartbreakers in the studio and on the subsequent 1995 tour – essentially a chronicle of 400 days in the life of an artist and a rock band. It’s an engaging portrait, necessarily less comprehensive but in places more intimate than the Bogdanovich film, with a number of the performance clips in particular demanding repeated attention.

Everything circles back to the live CDS, however. And while the thought of over five hours’ worth of concert material is daunting by any standard, as a live album in the truest, most classic sense — think the Who’s Live at Leeds, the Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, the Allman Brothers At Fillmore East, Gov’t Mule’s Live… With a Little Help from Our Friends, etc. — this surely ranks high. Petty told Rolling Stone that he put a lot of effort into sequencing the material in order to make each disc represent “a whole program,” like an individual concert set. Acknowledging the fracturing of artistic intent that iTunes represents and how people will undoubtedly cherry-pick the individual tunes they want to hear, he added, “But there’s somebody out there who will sit down and take it as the work it is.”

And what a work it is: a series of five emotional journeys (four, if you opt for the standard, budget-conscious 4CD edition, but I encourage you to be brave, hock your kid’s bike at the nearest pawn shop, and go for the full unexpurgated Kahuna), arranged not chronologically but in order to reveal, as Petty writes in his liners, “mood first… a band capable of thinking on its feet… one moment leading to the next.”

If you’ve had the patience to read this far you’re obviously a Petty fan and probably don’t need me to sell you on the music. I will say that, given the sheer quantity here, 62 songs in all, it’s damned remarkable that there’s nary a shred of excess on display. Even at their most demonstrative, say on a 2001 wig-out on “Don’t Come Around Here No More” or the extended boogie/raveup/anthem that is 1993’s “Drivin’ Down To Georgia,” the Heartbreakers demonstrate a cool restraint that keeps the focus on the actual songs. They also, via a healthy sampling of cover material (my faves: Peter Green & Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” from Bonnaroo ’06, and Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” from the famed 1997 Fillmore residency), open the doors wide to an in-action view of the band’s roots, influences and inspirations.

And for a collection of tapes that spans three decades, the sonic consistency and flow across the discs amount to an achievement that’s equally remarkable. For example, the aforementioned “DCAHNM” is followed immediately by a 1978 recording of “Too Much Ain’t Enough,” but they sound like they could have come from the same show. Another memorable pairing juxtaposes “Southern Accents” with Wildflowers standout “Crawling Back to You,” confirming a notion I’ve long held, that the Southern Accents and Wildflowers albums, though separated by a decade, are linked musically and thematically in Petty’s mind. And in one of the most striking sequences, one that almost singlehandedly sums up the Petty musical and thematic aesthetic, you get “Even the Losers”/”Here Comes My Girl” (1980) followed by “A Thing About You” (1981), “I’m In Love” (1982), “I’m A Man” (2006) and “Straight Into Darkness” (1982) — an entire lifetime’s worth of defiance, bliss, celebration, swagger and heartbreak rolled into a 25-minute mini-set.

In the latter tune, originally from 1982’s Long After Dark, Petty sings:

 

There was a little girl, I used to know her

I still think about her, time to time

There was a moment when I really loved her

Then one day the feeling just died…

I don’t believe the good times are over

I don’t believe the thrill is all gone

Real love is a man’s salvation

The weak ones fall, the strong carry on…”

 

It’s a telling number that, like “American Girl,” has a universality sunk deep into its sonic and lyric hooks, and it’s emblematic of the many musical riches contained on The Live Anthology. Listening to the box is like immersing oneself in a sea of sense memories. Indeed, as a songwriter Petty’s sometimes been accused of having an unvarnished nostalgic streak. (You could make a similar case for Springsteen.) But there’s a difference in nostalgia for the sake of cheap, fleeting emotion, and nostalgia that seeks to extract something that’s true and pure from a previous life in order to find clarity within the present one. The present’s never quite as clear-cut as we like to tell ourselves it is.

I reckon that’s something else Petty and I have in common. We both realize that to survive and move forward you often have to escape your current circumstances — after all, it’s a great big world, with lots of places to run to — but only a fool would try to erase the past.

Luckily, I’ll always have my southern accent to remind me of mine.

 

“There’s a southern accent, where I come from

The young’uns call it country, the Yankees call it dumb

I got my own way of talkin’ but everything is done

With a southern accent where I come from…”

 

Fred Mills: Time to Put the Battle Flag Away

Flag

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion had it right a decade ago.

The massacre in Charleston last week, in which avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof entered Charleston’s Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, joined a prayer group, then pulled out a gun and killed nine of the attendees while spouting anti-African American racist declarations, has prompted yet another one of those so-called National Conversations About Race In America. Unsurprisingly, though, Jon Stewart had the most sober and straightforward response, eschewing his usual “Daily Show” monologue for what appeared to be a spontaneous air-clearing in which he predicted that “we still won’t do jack shit.” (Watch the video of his commentary, below.)

He’s right. That National Conversation will take a familiar arc—including the usual debate about the Confederate battle flag, which is a symbol of racism to many but is a symbol of Southern heritage to others—then be shelved until the next tragedy occurs, and that’s a tragedy itself. Regarding that flag, with which Roof proudly posed in photos as well as other items clearly emblematic to him of white supremacy, I’ve long been aware of the cultural dichotomy that exists.

Roof

I grew up in the South and I have ancestors who were staunch Confederates, probably even slaveholders; I also was raised to abhor racism in any form, even the subtlest kind, and have tried to raise my son, now 14, to be color blind. I’ll never forget the time he came home from preschool and happily announced he had a new buddy. What’s he like? I queried. When he got to the part about outlining the friend physically, he didn’t describe him as black or white; rather, he used a shade of chocolate to characterize the child’s skin tone, as matter-of-factly and innocently as I might describe someone as having blonde, red or dark brown hair.

I can only hope that we have an entire generation of children coming up similarly unconcerned with matters of ethnicity and instead judge others based on their merits as fellow human beings. I’m not naïve, though; kids are raised through the prism of their parents’ attitudes, so for every parent out there who is trying to make sure his or her child is color blind, there’s probably another parent, or even a role model that the child looks up to, who is imparting his own bigoted or racist viewpoint. In that regard I’m just as cynical as Stewart.

This morning I found myself searching for a version of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s song “Gervais,” which originally appeared on 2005’s Exploration and is about the Confederate flag that stands in front of the South Carolina state house in the capitol city of Columbia. Sing Guthrie and Irion,

“Still flying the flag up on Gervais,

Was a battle flag, now we can put it away.”

Irion addressed the potentially controversial lyrics in interviews the duo did in 2005 promoting the album, calling it a song “that needed to be written.” Guthrie and Irion were right back then—and they are still right, now more than ever. Put the battle flag away, South Carolina. It’s time, once and for all, to do the right thing.

I mentioned that I grew up in the South during the ‘60s, in a small textile town located on the N.C.-S.C. border. The desegregation of schools in the South was happening at the time, a process that was protracted and painful and included a plan here in North Carolina known as Freedom of Choice that was designed to ease the transition to full desegregation by giving students the option to go to a white or a black school no matter what race they were. If memory serves, Freedom of Choice was in place while I was in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades, and although it was in theory a reasonable enough idea, in practice it meant that only a handful of black kids attended the formerly all-white schools. (I think we had about 5 or 6 blacks at my middle school while I attended.)

Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to have enlightened, progressive-minded parents, including a father who served in the state legislature and a mother who was on the local school board during the Freedom of Choice period. Her position on the board ensured that we received a few nasty, anonymous phone calls, and I remember taking one in which a male voice on the other end of the line growled, “Do you know your mama’s a nigger lover, young man?”

Two other memories stand out.

As a child, standing in the front yard one weekend afternoon, I watched a long line of Confederate flag-festooned cars and trucks driving past our house en route to the countryside. “Can we go follow the parade?” I excitedly asked my father. “That’s not the kind of parade we want to join, son,” he replied, a frown on his face, as he gave me a rudimentary explanation of what the Ku Klux Klan (or what remained of it) was all about. Eventually I would come to realize that some of the kids that I went to school with or played baseball and football with on the vacant lot a few blocks from my house were the children of  local Klansmen.

Klan

Several years later I was sitting in the doctor’s office, reading a book and waiting to get my bi-weekly allergy shot, when a familiar voice came over the tall partition dividing the waiting room: “Fred, aren’t you going to come around here and join the white folks?” Well, I routinely sat on that side of the room because it always seemed to be empty and I could read without distractions. I’d never given a single thought to the partition or why it was there. That evening at home my mother explained to me how many in our town believed that whites and blacks shouldn’t mingle—Separate but Equal customs and facilities still prevailed in places—and what previously had been a gradually-evolving awareness and understanding of racism suddenly came into sharp, uncomfortable relief.

That voice at the doctor’s office? Remember what I said above about role models? It belonged to my then-current (7th grade) homeroom teacher. I never could look at her again with the same eyes.

***

Fred Mills is the Editor of BLURT.