Tom Petty Countdown #13: “Rebels”

Petty nearly ended his career over this song, as he shattered his hand by punching a wall in frustration over his inability to nail a proper recording. I can see his point. The drums are way too glossy for the earthiness of the tale, there’s an awkwardness in the return to the chorus at song’s end, and the whole thing lurches from section to section instead of flowing.

Sometimes a song is so good though that it’s hard to damage it too much. “Rebels” is just such a song. From the very first line, Petty creates a character who is defined by his mistakes: “Honey don’t walk out, I’m too drunk to follow.” His voice is all self-deprecating shame in the first verses as he depicts his various misdeeds in hilarious fashion.

But the third verse reveals another side to this guy, as he sings with wounded pride about the grievances he perceives that his forefathers suffered, grievances that affect him acutely in the present day: “Even before my father’s father/They called us all rebels/While they burned our cornfields/And left our cities leveled/I can still feel the eyes of those blue-bellied devils/Yeah, when I’m waikin’ ‘round at night/Through the concrete and metal.”

It’s a brave songwriting stance to take, even though it is just words in the mouth of a character, to depict the North side of the Civil War as the bad guys. The only other time I’ve heard it pulled off well is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, and even then, the character is filled with more sadness than anger.

But Petty nails it. And when he bursts into that chorus, with the 12-string ringing out alongside him, it’s hard not to get pulled along in the emotion, no matter what part of the country you call home. That’s a significant achievement, and, in the face of that, all technical problems the song might have seem pretty meaningless.

(For the full e-book of this list, Breakdown: Tom Petty’s 100 Best Songs, check out the Amazon links below.)



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