By Victor D. Infante
Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Tell me why you want to lay there, revel in your abandon
Honey, it don’t make no difference to me
Everybody’s had to fight to be free … – Tom Petty, “Refugee”
One of the problems with grappling with the late singer-songwriter Tom Petty’s songbook is the sheer ubiquitous of it all. Over the decades, the man was responsible for a truly staggering number of well-known songs, including “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “American Girl,” “Free Fallin’” and many, many others. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt, and there’s a strangely paradoxical temptation to believe that any ubiquitous music is irrelevant, particularly that sung in a Southern accent. The classism of that perspective should be self-evident, but then, so should a lot of things Americans take for granted. For a curiously literal people living in particularly literal times, American conversation and politics is steeped in symbolism, so much so that we sometimes don’t even realize what’s happening.
“They’re not arguing about guns, it’s about freedom. Guns are just the symbol,” says comedian Neal Brennan, in a conversation about gun control on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah in the wake of the Las Vegas Massacre. “Everything in America is about symbols: That’s why the Colin Kaepernick kneeling thing got so crazy. For a lot of people, he wasn’t protesting against police violence, he was protesting the National Anthem, and that’s the symbol for everything: The troops, bald eagles, mattress sales, Tom Hanks, Type 2 Diabetes. You know, America.”
We also see this when we’re talking about the iconography of the Confederacy, with some protesting the aggrandizement of those who fought for slavery and others arguing about preserving history. (Although most of those monuments went up as protests to gains by African-Americans in their long battle for civil rights, so a lot of the “heritage” argument is a bit specious.)
The problem, of course, is that we have powerful symbols which have wildly conflicting meanings to different people, which means we’re effectively having cross-conversations. We’re talking past each other, when progress only happens when one listens, and when one acts with empathy.
Petty, famously, used to tour with the Confederate flag, until he realized the impact it had on African-Americans. “To this day, I have good feelings for the South in many ways,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015, “There’s some wonderful people down there. There are people still affected by what their relatives taught them. It isn’t necessarily racism. They just don’t like Yankees. They don’t like the North. But when they wave that flag, they aren’t stopping to think how it looks to a black person. I blame myself for not doing that. I should have gone around the fence and taken a good look at it. But honestly, it all stemmed from my trying to illustrate a character. I then just let it get out of control as a marketing device for the record. It was dumb and it shouldn’t have happened. Again, people just need to think about how it looks to a black person. It’s just awful. It’s like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person. It just shouldn’t be on flagpoles.”
There’s rather a lot to admire in this statement. First off, there’s the acknowledgment of having made a mistake, which is a thing that seems to have gone out of fashion in public debate these days. Secondly, there’s a sense of empathy, and a willingness to put the needs of others before his own personal gain. Petty experienced backlash when he stopped touring with the Confederate flag, and he faced it with dignity and resolution. And perhaps that’s what’s so striking about Petty’s sense of empathy: The recognition that we’re all, in some way, lost, and that we’re all facing struggles.
Petty’s music is peppered with people striving to achieve some sort of freedom. They look for it in love, and they look for it by abandoning love. They look for it in rock ‘n’ roll, and on the road. His personas are often burned by their quest, and the listener is sometimes left with the idea that freedom may not be what they think it is.
Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than it is in the song “American Girl,” where he sings:
“Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there
Was a little more to life
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to
Yeah, and if she had to die
Tryin’ she had one little promise
She was gonna keep ..”
We see this sentiment recur throughout Petty’s lyrics, especially in his more anthemic songs such as “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” but you also see its flipside, a loneliness that comes with chasing that particular sort of freedom. We find it in bittersweet songs such as ‘Learning to Fly” and “Last Dance With Mary Jane.”
Those twin polarities – loneliness and freedom – are at the core of Petty’s music, and they’re buoyed by that aforementioned sense of empathy, that fundamental understanding that everyone’s in their own sort of pain.
“Well I don’t know what I’ve been told,” sings Petty, in “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” “You never slow down, you never grow old/I’m tired of screwing up, I’m tired of goin’ down/I’m tired of myself, I’m tired of this town.”
Petty saw that discontent as universally American. He knew it was something he could touch in his listener, and tried to whenever he could. It was the human open wound that was the focus of his songwriting, and it was what allowed him to breeze by so many genre barriers that entrenched other artists. Petty wrote with empathy but not sentimentality. He dug into culture on albums such as “Southern Accents,” but wasn’t seeking to mythologize one group over others, but rather was looking to uncover similarities, to connect pain to pain.
That it was during the “Southern Accents” tour that the conflict over Petty’s use of the Confederate flag came to a crisis is truly ironic, but it’s how we handle our missteps that reveal character, and by listening and changing, Petty showed what he was truly made of. That’s an important thing to understand, in light of both Petty’s work and the current social climate, because if there’s one thing Petty understood, it’s symbolism. He understood what a rock star represented in the culture, and he understood what he represented as a person.
He understood right and wrong. It seems almost ridiculous that this should be a remarkable trait, but one need only read the news to understand its rarity. Petty never made himself a hero over his decision to stop using the Confederate flag, but he was aware he was making a sacrifice. In a world where musicians are shouted down to “shut up and sing” and athletes are castigated by the president for peacefully protesting racism and police brutality, it’s obvious that there are always repercussions for speaking out against injustice.
We really don’t know who we’ll be when we’re called upon to make a choice between right or wrong. We hope, if and when we’re tested, we’ll rise to the challenge, but we don’t always recognize those tests when they’re happening, do we? Empathy – another thing which seems subject to odd castigation in our culture today – is the thing that allows us to navigate between right and wrong, to consider more than ourselves in our decisions. Courage is the thing that allows us to choose what’s right despite the cost, or as Petty sings in “I Won’t Back Down”:
“Well I know what’s right
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down.”
No stand is easy, and not everyone’s circumstances are the same. Sometimes, the best we can do is understand the pain that each of us in, and know that it’s not unique. That we don’t have to be lonely in our own suffering, that, as Petty sang, “everybody’s had to fight to be free.”