Tom Petty Tries His Hand At Southern Rock
By Robert Hilburn
The Los Angeles Times — March 31, 1985
Most Southern rock just sounds like heavy metal with a Dixie accent.
The musical strains may be different, but both styles revolve around themes that celebrate the “live fast, love hard and die young” mentality. One difference is most heavy-metal fans outgrow the nonsense once they pass their teens, while many Southern rock fans remain good ol’ boys forever.
That’s what gives Tom Petty’s new “Southern Accents” its character. The just-released LP is not a concept album (“We’ve already had enough ‘Gone With the Winds,’ ” wisecracked Petty), but its key songs look with rare compassion and insight at some of the tensions and frustrations that contribute to the good ol’ boy life style.
Petty? Southern rock?
Though he and the Heartbreakers band are associated with Los Angeles (their home base for nearly a decade), they are from Gainesville, Fla., where they were exposed to lots of good ol’ boys.
Petty never fell for the hell-raisin’ Southern rock stereotype, prefering to reflect in mainstream rock songs like “Listen to Her Heart” and “Refugee” on more universal matters of youthful aspirations and integrity.
In looking for songwriting ideas for his new album, however, Petty found himself drawn increasingly to the South and his roots. He spent a lot of time there on the last Heartbreakers tour in 1983 and spent several weeks around his home town after the tour.
The result is a sometimes affectionate, occasionally disheartened commentary on the stifling bonds of tradition that often inhibit social mobility in the South. He’s especially concerned with the way that tradition discourages the youthful aspiration that has always interested him as a writer.
Petty’s theme is introduced in the album’s opening track, appropriately titled “Rebels.” It’s a well-crafted tale of a good ol’ boy (he’s drunk in the song’s opening line and he still hates the Yankees in the closing one) who finds it hard to swallow some of the ideas passed on to him, but is unable to break away.
There’s the explosive inner tension in the hard-driving track. The lyrics in part:
I was born a rebel . . .
Yeah with one foot in the grave
And one foot on the pedal.
About the song, Petty said during an interview in his home in Encino, “I was just thinking about the average young guy down there who is brought up in this tradition that tells you, ‘this is the way it has always been and the way it should be.’ I’m not just talking about jobs, but a whole way of living.
“That causes some real conflicts. In the song, the guy is born with it all lined up against him, but for some reason he just can’t get in line and play the way he’s supposed to.”
Petty can relate to that rebelliousness.
“I never bought the idea of having your life laid out for you and I got out, but a lot of them never do,” he continued. “It’s hard to understand why, but that tradition is so strong that they don’t ever realize that two hours in any direction gets you somewhere else. I could see the creases in the curtain at a real early age. One thing that helped me break away was music.”
Petty didn’t even wince at the “spot” as he walked down the stairs to the state-of-the-art recording studio in his hillside home. The spot was the place in the wall that a frustrated Petty hit with the back of his left hand late one night last October.
Despite severe pain at the time, Petty figured he had just bruised the hand. It wasn’t until he noticed the severe swelling an hour later that he rushed to the hospital and learned that he had broken several bones.
“It wasn’t like I was furious and smashed my hand against the wall,” he said now, standing in the middle of the state-of-the-art studio, where he recorded most of the new album. “I was just at a point where I had been working on the album for over a year and I thought I was finally about done.
“I kept wanting to say, ‘That’s it. We’re finished,’ but I sat down and listened to one of the songs and I knew it still wasn’t right, so I started walking back up to the house and just swung my hand–like I’ve done a lot.”
Petty still wasn’t taking the hand all that seriously when he went to see a specialist the day after the accident. He recalled: “My manager and I were just sitting in his office, laughing, thinking I might have to be in a cast for a couple of weeks or something, and all of a sudden the doctor looks at me real seriously. He finally says, ‘You’re a guitar player, huh. . . . Well, I think you can have some trouble here.’
“He told me about needing an operation and having to go through months of therapy to even have a chance of playing the guitar again. But I never really accepted the possibility that I couldn’t play again. The band also tried to keep it real light. They’d joke about how I’d have to take less money if I was just the singer.”
Petty picked up an acoustic guitar and strummed it a little, holding the strings with his left hand. The fingers still seem slow in responding, but he expects to be in good shape by the time he hits the road again in late May.
The Southern themes aren’t the only new element in Petty’s new album. Concerned about a sameness in his sound, Petty brightened several tracks this time with horns and a variety of other unusual (for him) textures–a point underscored by the sitar-tinged psychedelic touches in his new single, “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
Petty started thinking about new musical elements after his last album, “Long After Dark,” was viewed as a disappointment in several quarters. Though “Dark” featured some of his most impressive lyrics, there was a sameness to the arrangements that led many to dismiss it as a recycled collection.
Petty’s own vague discomfort with the 12-string guitar and organ signature of his sound was heightened after he heard how Robbie Robertson, former leader of the Band, had rearranged a track Petty submitted to Robertson’s “King of Comedy” sound-track album in 1983.
Taking the basic Heartbreakers track to a song called “The Best of Everything,” Robertson added horns, a backing vocal (by the Band’s Richard Manuel) and other touches. Red tape between Petty’s record company, MCA, and Warner Bros. Records, which released the “King” LP, kept the song off the collection, but Petty loved what he heard.
“It made me realize there was a lot more we could do with our sound,” he said. “It was still basically a Heartbreakers track, but it didn’t sound anything like the Heartbreakers. It had a real liberating effect on me and, I think, the band.”
In a mood to experiment with his sound, Petty was introduced by producer Jimmy Iovine to Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, who ended up co-writing three songs on the new album, including the new single.
Regarding the odd textures on “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” Petty noted: “That was Dave in some sort of psychedelic tantrum. I really like it because it’s good to surprise people. A lot of people told me that they thought I had lost my mind the first time they heard the record because it’s not what they expected. But I hate being expected to do anything. It’s good to stir the pot a little.”
The time off has clearly rejuvenated Petty. At the end of the “Long After Dark” tour, he felt burned out. He wanted to take a long break from the road to write songs and to record in a more relaxed manner. He built a home studio so that he could experiment with different approaches to the songs. As it turned out, however, he spent so many hours in the studio that the process was more grueling than in the old days. Still, he seemed pleased with the freshness and diversity of “Southern Accents.”
The highlights are two ballads: the nostalgic title track, an expression of regional pride that features the most tailored vocal Petty has ever put on record, and “The Best of Everything,” the tune left off the “Comedy” sound track. The latter song is about a girl who works in a restaurant–just like her mama did, but wants something more out of life, possibly even a singing career. The song doesn’t reveal what happened to the girl, but stands as a ode to her and anyone else who has ever wrestled with chasing his or her dreams.
The lyrics, in part:
Yeah and it’s over before you know it
It all goes by so fast . . .
The bad nights take forever
And the good nights don’t ever seem to last.
“Spike” is a rowdy portrait of redneck recklessness, while “Dogs on the Run” alludes to the renegade spirit of anyone breaking away from the norm. “Make It Better” is a tip of the hat to the rejoice and energy of Southern R&B.
There’s a schizophrenic quality initially to the album because the textural exuberance of the three Petty/Stewart tracks stand apart from the Southern consciousness of the rest of the material. Once the novelty of the new textures recedes, however, “Southern Accents” emerges as a work of considerable energy and command.
While Petty plotted his future after the 1983 tour, the other members of the Heartbreakers got involved in outside projects. Drummer Stan Lynch toured with T-Bone Burnett; keyboardist Benmont Tench did shows with Stevie Nicks and was active in the studio; bassist Howie Epstein backed John Hiatt on some live dates, and guitarist Mike Campbell wrote “The Boys of Summer” single with Don Henley.
This separation led to so many break-up rumors that the Heartbreakers had to get together at one point a year ago in Petty’s living room to make sure they were still a unit.
“If we hadn’t taken the break, I think we might have split up because I was bored,” Petty acknowledged. ” When we started, there was an idealism to what we were doing, but it had been beaten up pretty bad by the music business and probably by success over the years. There was also that problem of being on the road so long there is very little chance to live.
“I think that stifles a writer. I just needed time off. I went to England for a while, took trips down South and all of a sudden I was writing things without even thinking about them. It felt natural again. The whole band feels natural again. I can’t wait to get back on the road. It’s been a long time.”