Thursday, May 10, 2007
Basement Songs - "Southern Accents" by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
On December 26, 1993, Steve and I hung out in the Malchus basement for the last time. Four days before my wedding, this would be our last opportunity to just “be”, throwing back a few drinks and listening to some music. After the wedding, Steve would return to the south and I would be moving west with my new bride. It had been the plan that he and I would spend a night hanging out. Instead of heading to some local dive bar or trying to organize a small party, both of us decided that we’d just spend the time together.
We actually began the evening watching the Michael Douglas movie, “Falling Down”. At that time, all of my belongings weren’t packed and the basement was still my little den. My older siblings had long moved away, and my younger sister was at college. So the year and a half I spent living with my parents after college gave me complete rule over the basement. I had set up a television and VCR and my new stereo was on a stand close by. The far corner of the basement was the place where I watched movies, listened to music, and thought about the great things I would someday write about.
If we had gauged the evening on the quality of “Falling Down”, I wouldn’t be writing this. Or, perhaps, because of the let down of the film, I AM writing this. You see, after the movie, there wasn’t much to say. Even the two or three 7 & 7’s we drank couldn’t erase the disappointment we both felt. Instead of some kind of intellectual discussion, we turned to old reliable: the music. I threw on some Tom Petty and we just chit chatted about the wedding, the move, Steve’s relationship with his girlfriend. Bullshit, really. But the good kind of bullshit. The kind of bullshit that friendships are based on. When you watch a movie like ‘Diner”, all those guys are doing is b.s’ing. It’s comfort talk.
Then, “Don’t Come around Here No More” began playing. This song has a special meaning to the two of us. The year of Steve’s graduation, we went to a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers concert at Blossom Music Center. It was the ultimate summer show (the Georgia Satellites and the Del Fuegos both opened) Weeks before the show, we’d drive around town in the Whomobile, waiting for a Petty song to come on. At that time, TP hadn’t had his career revival from “Full Moon Fever”, so the radio stations only played his well known hits. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was played A LOT! And every time the song came on while I was driving, the two of us would pound the crap out of the vinyl dashboard of the Whomobile (it was an old Delta 88, for those of you who don’t know the story). That is one of my lasting memories of that old car. Steve and I pounding on that dash, thrashing back in forth in the front seat while the crescendo of the song blasted over the car speakers.
With that memory in mind, I jumped up, grabbed some old cassette (I like to think it was my copy of “Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe” since Steve openly mocked the group and the moniker) and placed tape over the tabs. We were going to make a mix tape. I started the Petty song over and announced my ingenious plan. The two of us would make the tape together, each of us alternating songs. My collection of LP’s, cd’s and cassettes was limited at the time, but that wasn’t important. We could certainly fill 100 minutes of music from what I owned. While my plan may have been to commemorate our friendship or create a lasting collection of music we could always look back on, Steve had other things in mind. He chose to think thematically about the occasion and chose several songs that spoke about our lives at that point in time. Thus, we created a collection that not only traveled down the nostalgia highway, but took its place in line of the important moments in our lives. The road map of our friendship is laid out on that tape. “Rock Lobster” shows up (cut short because we both got sick of the song after its fifth minute. Years later I would realize that we shut the tape off literally thirty seconds before the song ended. Still, when you’ve had enough, you must end the madness). Simple Minds, Springsteen, The Who, Van Halen and The Outfield weave into the mix from our years in high school. They Might Be Giants, The Smithereens, Joe Jackson, The Reivers and Springsteen parade around from our college years. All of these songs have a special meaning to us, even ‘Bust A Move” by Young MC. However, the other songs Steve chose, the songs that were thematically linked to that night, are ones that I return to time and again. “The Road Not Taken” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range was Steve’s way of saying “good luck” and that he was proud of me following my dream. “Independence Day” by Bruce was Steve speaking about the two of us growing up in the Cleveland suburbs and doing everything we could to leave Ohio and become our own men. And “Athena” by the Who…. Well, okay, I have no idea why he put that one on. It was the end of the night and there was only room for one more song. After 5 or 6 drinks, you go with what thrills you in the minute.
However, the one song that sticks to me from all of the selections we made that night was the second one recorded. And we didn’t even lift the record needle. Once “Don’t Come Around Here No More” ends, Tom Petty’s lovely ballad “Southern Accents” closes out the first side of the album of the same name. “I love this song. Let it play,” Steve said. It was his selection, I thought, he can choose what he wants. I’m glad he chose it. “Southern Accents” is quite simply one of the most beautiful songs that Petty has ever written. Quiet and restrained, it really captures the blue collar/southern experience theme that he was trying to achieve throughout the entire album. Benmont Tech’s piano is practically the sole instrument, with very light accompaniment by the great Stan Lynch. Mike Campbell has a brief moment on the dobro, and Howie Epstein’s angelic harmony vocals shine elsewhere. Finally, the legendary Jack Nitzche created a string arrangement that gives the piece a greater sense of heartache and power.
If you are only familiar with TP’s hit songs, you must go back and listen to “Southern Accents”. The music alone is moving enough. Yet, the lyrics pull you in with Petty’s prayer to the south, lost love, and his mother (who had passed away shortly before the recording of the album). I especially like the second verse:
“Now that drunk tank in Atlanta’s
Just a motel room to me
Think I might go work Orlando
If them orange groves don’t freeze
I got my own way of workin’
But everything is run, with a southern accent
Where I come from--”
I have family that lives in Alabama and that verse reminds me of them. Not that they’re a bunch of alcoholics, but that they do things their own way and that they take pride in who they are and their southern heritage. With so much history in the south, I’m sure that’s one of the reasons Steve chose to live there (besides the good woman who became his wife and the basketball).
And then Petty goes into the bridge:
“For just a minute there I was dreaming
For just a minute it was all so real
For just a minute she was standing there with me”
How many of us have had the “one” slip away? You thought he or she would change your life for the better, but in the end you suffered a broken heart. If you’re lucky, your true love is waiting around the corner to help mend those gaping wounds. If you’re not so lucky, as some of my dear friends have been, you wind up at the bottom of a bottle, consumed with despair. Steve and I had been through so much in our lives when this song got laid to tape. We had seen each other at our worst, and had been there for each other in those times of need. I don’t think Steve intended “Southern Accents” to serve as a reminder of our past and the closing of this chapter in our lives. But it turned out to be the perfect song for that moment; the perfect song for The Final Basement Tape.
I have listened to my copy of that tape (Steve has the original) hundreds of times since December 26, 1993. I’ve always been amazed at how well the songs flowed together. The two of us were literally running around the house, tracking down songs, trying to keep the other one in the dark to ensure that the next song was an unexpected surprise. My tape would wind up in car, sitting there for months. Then, when I was feeling down, it would drop out of the glove box and it would play for weeks on end. I have never grown tired of those songs (not even Mellencamp’s “Pop Singer”). Then it would be put away until I was seeking the comfort of an old friend. This past January, I pulled it out while I took down the Christmas lights. Like a fool, I chose a tape player notorious for ruining things and it ate the tape, destroying my copy forever. Luckily, I had found digital versions of the songs a year before and burned a cd. But honestly, it’s not the same. The crackles and snaps are missing from my LP’s. And the terrible hisses are missing from my warped cassettes (some of them second generation recordings). There was something pure about that tape, like my friendship with Steve.
Each and every time I hear “Southern Accent”, I’m back in the basement. It's frigid cold outside. The two of us are just sitting there, taking in the music, nodding to one another with slight smiles on our faces. Our lives are about to change forever. I’m going to get married and move away. There won’t be anymore nights like this. (Well, I was wrong about that one).
“Southern Accents” is the last true basement song. It is the final good memory I have of my parents’ old house. Thankfully, it was not the last time I would see Steve. Our friendship since that night has grown and we’ve become closer. I trust him more than anyone other than Julie and my family. I would trust him with my children in a heartbeat. That is how much of a brother Steve is to me. I dream of a day when we may live closer. I dream of his children knowing mine. I dream of a lot of things. But until that day comes, I’ll have the music. I’ll have “Southern Accents” to help ease my pain and get me through to the next day.