Florida-born singer-songwriter Tom Petty was brought up in the 1950s on a hearty diet of American rock ‘n’ roll. Aged ten, he discovered his early dream of becoming a musician after having the rare chance of meeting everyone’s favourite 1950s rock icon, Elvis Presley. In the summer of 1961, Petty’s uncle was working on the set of Presley’s film, Follow That Dream, in nearby Ocala, and invited Petty to watch the shoot. After this brush with stardom, Petty had his first musical icon and traded his Wham-O slingshot for a collection of Elvis 45s.
As a teenager in the 1960s, Petty was introduced to The Beatles during the band’s 1964 premier in the States live on The Ed Sullivan Show. “The minute I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show – and it’s true of thousands of guys – there was the way out. There was the way to do it,” he once explained. “You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit. And you make the music. And it looked like so much fun. It was something I identified with. I had never been hugely into sports. I had been a big fan of Elvis. But I really saw in the Beatles that here’s something I could do. I knew I could do it. It wasn’t long before there were groups springing up in garages all over the place.”
After this pivotal moment, Petty decided to drop out of high school, aged 17, and form a band. After a decade of developing his talent as a guitarist and vocalist, Petty finally broke through to global consciousness with his band, the Heartbreakers.
His success burgeoned into the 1980s as he became revered by some of his idols and ultimately found himself in the Travelling Wilburys alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and George Harrison.
Naturally, having lived his wildest dream, Petty had very few regrets prior to his death in 2017, aged 66. However, in an interview with Rolling Stone, the rockstar picked out one particularly enduring regret of his career.
In 1985, Petty released his sixth studio album with the Heartbreakers, Southern Accents, which featured songs such as ‘Rebels’, ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ and ‘Mary’s New Car’. While touring in support of the album later in 1985 and ’86, Petty displayed a Confederate flag on stage; a decision he very soon came to regret.
The battle flag, originally used in the 19th century for the Southern Confederate party during the American Civil War, has since become a symbol associated with white supremacists and Southern patriot activism.
After Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American churchgoers in 2015, Petty told Rolling Stone that he wished he’d never used the hate symbol. “I wish I had given it more thought,” he said. “It was a downright stupid thing to do.”
“The Confederate flag was the wallpaper of the South when I was a kid growing up,” Petty added, offering an explanation for his use of the flag. “I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its logo. I was pretty ignorant of what it actually meant. It was on a flagpole in front of the courthouse, and I often saw it in Western movies. I just honestly didn’t give it much thought, though I should have.”
Petty’s regret for using the flag was realised much earlier than 2015, however. The first track on Southern Accents, ‘Rebels’, is about Southern American tradition. Petty explained to Rolling Stone that consequently, “the Confederate flag became part of the marketing for the tour,” adding that he “regretted it pretty quickly”.
During a later tour, a member of the audience threw a Confederate flag onto the stage. Whether it was in protest or endorsement of Petty’s assumed Southern patriotism, it’s unclear, but Petty felt the need to clear the air at this juncture. “Look, this was to illustrate a character,” he remembered saying onstage. “This is not who we are. Having gone through this, I would prefer it if no one would ever bring a Confederate flag to our shows again because this isn’t who we are.”
Concluding the discussion with Rolling Stone, Petty added a final thought on the ambiguity surrounding the flag’s symbolism. “That Southern pride gets transferred from generation to generation. I’m sure that a lot of people that applaud it don’t mean it in a racial way. But again, I have to give them, as I do myself, a ‘stupid’ mark. If you think a bit longer, there’s bad connotations to this. They might have it at the football game or whatever, but they also have it at Klan rallies. If that’s part of it in any way, it doesn’t belong, in any way, representing the United States of America.”