Tom Petty Admits Touring With The Confederate Flag Was Stupid

Ever since the horrific racist mass murder in South Carolina last month, we as a society seem to be reassessing what it means to throw images of the Confederate battle flag anywhere. Various states, including South Carolina, have decided to stop flying it from their state house, and retailers have pulled the flag from their shelves. Many rock bands have, over the years, used the flag as part of their iconography. Some of them, like Kid Rock, aren’t planning to stop. Others are expressing regret.

When he was touring behind his 1985 album Southern Accents, Florian Tom Petty used the flag in his live show, something he soon came to regret. He’s now written an op-ed for Rolling Stone about realizing that he was wrong to use the flag. Here are some highlights:

In 1985, I released an album called Southern Accents. It began as a concept record about the South, but the concept part slipped away probably 70 percent or so into the album. I just let it go, but the Confederate flag became part of the marketing for the tour. I wish I had given it more thought. It was a downright stupid thing to do.

It happened because I had one song on the album called “Rebels.” It’s spoken from the point of view of the character, who talks about the traditions that have been handed down from family to family for so long that he almost feels guilty about the war. He still blames the North for the discomfort of his life, so my thought was the best way to illustrate this character was to use the Confederate flag.

I used it onstage during that song, and I regretted it pretty quickly. When we toured two years later, I noticed people in the audience wearing Confederate flag bandanas and things like that. One night, someone threw one onstage. I stopped everything and gave a speech about it. I said, “Look, this was to illustrate a character. 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.”

It got a mixed reaction. There were some boos and some cheers. But honestly, it’s a little amazing to me because I never saw one again after that speech in that one town. Fortunately, that went away, but it left me feeling stupid. That’s the word I can use. I felt stupid. If I had just been a little more observant about things going on around me, it wouldn’t have happened. We did do a live record [Pack Up The Plantation: Live!] and there was a picture inside of us playing in front of one. I went back and had it removed from the record. It took a little time to get done, but it did get done. I still feel bad about it. I’ve just always regretted it. I would never do anything to hurt someone…

Beyond the flag issue, we’re living in a time that I never thought we’d see. The way we’re losing black men and citizens in general is horrific. What’s going on in society is unforgivable. As a country, we should be more concerned with why the police are getting away with targeting black men and killing them for no reason. That’s a bigger issue than the flag. Years from now, people will look back on today and say, “You mean we privatized the prisons so there’s no profit unless the prison is full?” You’d think someone in kindergarten could figure out how stupid that is. We’re creating so many of our own problems.

Meanwhile, the Texas/Louisiana metal greats Pantera used the flag in much of their merchandise. Singer Phil Anselmo also fronted (and continues to front) the band Superjoint Ritual, and they used the flag on the cover of their 2002 album Use Once And Destroy. In a recent interview with Hard Rock Haven, he addresses his past use of the flag:

I think really where the use of the rebel flag or Confederate flag with us really came from was from our love of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and whatnot — shit like that, you know. There was never a time when it was okay to promote hate without a little bit of the tongue-in-cheek. It was never this blatant thing, unless I was completely out of my mind, which I was at points in time. I’ll own that for damn sure, but that was a long ass-time ago.

I’m coming up on 47 years old, and I think that if it’s upsetting enough to people in general — this is tough to say without taking any side — I can see where if people see it as a symbol of hate these days. I wouldn’t want anything to fucking do with it. I wouldn’t want much to fucking do with it at all. You see a Confederate flag out there that says “Heritage, not hate.” I’m not so sure I’m buying into that, you know?…

In hindsight, you know what, I would have not used it.

See that, Kid Rock? That wasn’t so hard.