Album: Southern Accents
Despite being three years in the making, and starting off as a concept album, Southern Accents felt more like a patchwork than a unified whole, all over in the map in terms of style (which isn’t a problem) and song quality (which is). It’s right there in the credits: five people are credited as co-producers of the album. Sure, those five people are Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Jimmy Iovine, David A Stewart and Robbie Robertson, but my point stands.
Too many cooks. And too many drugs, as well. At least in the case of “Rebels,” the opening track, in which, after a massive sounding guitar hook from Mike Campbell, Tom Petty — voicing a character here — is pleading for his life.
Honey, don’t walk out, I’m too drunk to follow
You know you won’t feel this way tomorrow
Well, maybe a little rough around the edges
Or inside a little hollow
I get faced with some things sometimes
That are so hard to swallow
During this verse, Stan Lynch is not playing a straight beat, wobbling around it like the drunk guy in the song. Until the chorus, a crazily catchy piece of hookery that rivals “Refugee” in its dramatic anthemic quality.
(Hey hey hey!)
I was born a rebel, down in Dixie
(Hey hey hey!)
On a Sunday morning
Yeah with one foot in the grave
And one foot on the pedal
I was born a rebel, born a rebel
The massive declaration of dudes rebelness and rebeltude is contrasted mightily with the actual facts of his life: he’s a chronic drunk who keeps getting arrested, driving his woman out of his life. Which, of course, from his perspective, was her fault. Because that’s just how these guys roll. Nothing’s ever their fault.
She picked me up in the mornin’
And she paid all my tickets
Then she screamed in the car
Left me out in the thicket
Well I never would’ve dreamed
That her heart was so wicked
Yeah but I keep coming back
‘Cause it’s so hard to kick it, hey, hey, hey
After the second chorus, where you’d normally expect a guitar solo or a bridge, there’s a horn fanfare. Which if I’m going to be honest, doesn’t really go anywhere.
It might be here where Petty got so frustrated with the arrangement they were working on that, fucked up to all hell, re-listened to his original demo — just him and a Rickenbacker 12-string — and realized he hated what they were doing so much that he punched a wall, completely fucking up his left hand. (At least he had the presence of mind — or gut instinct — to do it with his non-dominant hand.)
As you can imagine, this caused a bit of delay in the recording of Southern Accents, which they eventually finished with the help of Jimmy Iovine.
Meanwhile, back in “Rebels,” the guy in the song has leveled up in terms of both self-pity and self-delusion, eventually blaming all his problems on the South losing the Civil War. As you do. I’m not gonna lie: before I figured out that it was more of a character study than a self-directed song, I kinda hated that last verse, even as I loved Petty’s contemptuous delivery of “blue-bellied devils.” All of which was exacerbated by Petty’s use of “Rebels”-inspired imagery on the Southern Accents tour, his most ill-advised move in a mostly well-advised career.
“Rebels” was the third and final single from Southern Accents, and while it did reliably well on rock radio — from 1981 (“The Waiting”) through 1999 (“Free Girl Now“,) Tom Petty had 25 songs chart in the top ten of the Billboard US Rock chart — it was a total stiff on the Hot 100, sputtering out at #74.
“Rebels” at Live Aid 1985
“Rebels” live at Bonnaroo, 2013
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