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Rebels Still: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Here’s the problem with Tom Petty. He was almost a rebel without a cause.

When it came time to celebrate the South’s influence on his music, he broke his promise even though he said that he would never back down. I refer to his 1985 concept album Southern Accents, a free-falling bomb except for the lead single “Don’t Come Around Here No More” with its weirdly Alice-in-Wonderland themed video that rotated hourly on MTV.

The album opens with “Rebels” a Bruce Springsteen styled rock anthem infused with Petty’s genetic memory of “blue-bellied devils” burning down our cornfields.  Carrying on the theme, the title song “Southern Accents” talks about being in jail and praying with Mama in a Southern accent. 

I don’t have anything against praying with Mama or remembering the hypocrisy and thievery of the invading Yankees – ghosts that linger in every new real estate development around here – but Petty didn’t run down any dreams when he failed to distinguish between the political South and the musical South. He failed to understand that his Southern accent would come out naturally in anything that he played. Especially since most American music has Southern roots.

The album release and accompanying “Pack Up The Plantation” tour was nothing more than left-over 1970’s nostalgic Southern Rock propaganda. It reflected nothing of the musical diversity common across the South. Petty and the Heartbreakers were better than that – much better – as I discovered when I spent last weekend with Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Or it seemed like I was living with them as I spent hours listening to their recently released 72 track album entitled Live at the Fillmore, 1997 (Deluxe Edition). Tired of touring, the band played 20 dates in the San Francisco venue during January and February of 1997. Petty said that these live performances were “the highpoint of our time together as a group.” They also showcased the talents of the group over a wide range of musical genres.

And what a group they were. Petty, flanked by Mike Campbell on lead guitar and Benmont Tench on piano, opens the album with Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” followed by their own finger raised call to arms “Jammin’ Me.” The track list thereafter almost equally rotates between the Heartbreaker’s major hits and covers of their favorite songs. 

Little Richard’s “Lucille” follows “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”  Both songs gave Campbell ample opportunity to prove why he was voted one of the top 100 guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. Then in a jump to the 1970’s, Tench displayed his untamed piano talents on J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze.”

“Cabin Down Below” precedes Petty’s high reedy soulful cover of “Time is on My Side.” Originally written by Jerry Ragovoy, it was covered by The Rolling Stones and by soul singer Irma Thomas with Petty’s rendition equal to either version.

All of this in the first 10 tracks with 62 more to go. Additional standouts include performances by Roger McGuinn and John Lee Hooker along with covers of bluegrass standard “Little Maggie”, The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” and a jangling instrumental of “Goldfinger.” Also deftly done are covers of 1960’s British-invasion groups The Kinks, The Zombies, and The Who.  All played with the same level of musical expertise as if Petty had written all of them. 

After listening to the album several times, it occurred to me that Petty had, over a 20-day period, captured the essence of what he had failed to do 12 years earlier with Southern Accents – record an album about the South’s influence on not just his music but on Southern music’s rebellious trinity of identity – Blues, Country and Rock.

The strained track listing of Southern Accents and its lead song “Rebels” reminded me of what Donald Davidson said about William Faulkner. In his book Still Rebels Still Yankees, Davidson observed that Faulkner wrote great literature about the South because he wrote objectively about life in the South as he witnessed it play out day by day. He didn’t try to reform what he saw. He didn’t simplify complex issues. He didn’t politicize or sell his own Southern identity cheap. He just let the talent breathe through his own words – much like Petty does with music on Live at the Fillmore. Released over 5 years after his death, Petty finally delivers on the intended cause of Southern Accents.