By Luke Haines
I don’t mean that in the shallow, performative way in which people often lament dead celebrities online. I don’t mean, in actual fact, that I quite like “Free Falling” and can’t name any of his other songs.
I mean that I would argue for “Echo” as a superb album, and that I think Stevie Nicks was wrong to record “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” over the originally proffered “Insider”, which ended up becoming a forgotten gem on 1981’s “Hard Promises” album. I think Rolling Stone were right to call Heartbreaker Mike Campbell “the most under-rated guitarist in rock and roll.” I’m a genuine, serious fan.
With my bona fides established, I think my love for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers might be jarring given my other credentials as a soft, leftist snowflake. Granted, Petty made California his adopted home and was a long-haired weed smoker, but he was also a genuine good ol’ boy, born and raised in rural Florida and beaten by his daddy. He disliked authority, threatening to rename an album “$8.98” when the record company tried to use his fame to jack up the price of an album to over nine dollars. He played a recurring character on “King Of The Hill,” and if that doesn’t make him Red State royalty, nothing could.
With this in mind, I think it’s worth remembering Petty as a man. Although his early 80s shows rolled out the Confederate flag as set dressing for the song “Rebels,” he eventually disowned the symbol, asking fans not to bring it to concerts.
He was clearly a committed lefty — 1992’s “Into the Great Wide Open” album has a liner note dedicating it to the campaign against nuclear weapons. He was aghast at the frequent killing of black men by police, mentioning in the same statement in which he supported the abandonment of the Confederate flag that…
“As a country, we should be more concerned with why the police are getting away with targeting black men and killing them for no reason. That’s a bigger issue than the flag. Years from now, people will look back on today and say, “You mean we privatized the prisons so there’s no profit unless the prison is full?” You’d think someone in kindergarten could figure out how stupid that is. We’re creating so many of our own problems.”
Pretty liberal stuff. This seems important right now because we live in a time of caricature. It feels increasingly like the right and left have to separate every aspect of their lives, to the point where the only celebrities the left is allowed are Susan Sarandon and Bill Maher, and the right are confined to Ted Nugent and Kelsey Grammer.
Many on the right would probably want to claim Tom Petty. They’d be wrong. Like Johnny Cash, whom the Heartbreakers backed towards the end of his career, Petty was a Southern boy with a blue collar mentality, but he was also progressive, kind hearted and a staunch opponent of prejudice and the cancerous notion of “the way things are.”
In his autobiography, Petty mentions that he and Bruce Springsteen were “the last two artists through the door” on the classic rock period before musical tastes changed. Springsteen, too, is a card-carrying liberal, having campaigned for Obama and called for universal healthcare.
If rock’n’roll is about anything, it’s about rebellion. Initially, from the constraints of an uptight and repressive society in the 1950s. This is the same uptight 1950s —where women were glorified incubators and blacks “knew their place” — that many on the right now long to return to. It’s time the left stopped putting up with the stereotype that we’re boring and joyless when many of the artists responsible for the fun things in life are themselves liberals.
As a broader point, however, it’s important to remember that there is more connecting us as people than dividing us. Music and art don’t “belong” to anybody, and neither do artists. Tom Petty was a rural southerner and a political leftist. I might not agree with a lot of people in the Deep South, politically, but if there’s any common ground to be had — and god knows politics needs it these days — then maybe it can start with everyone agreeing that “Damn The Torpedoes” is the greatest AM rock record of all time.
Luke Haines is a British writer who is pretty sure this photo of the Traveling Wilburys is proof that Death works on a right-to-left basis. He occasionally tweets as @lukedoughaines