So far, the best 33 1/3 book I've read is Pixies Doolittle and in my opinion could be the template for this series. It has interesting interviews with most of the band, it primarily focuses on the conception of the album and goes in-depth on each track. And then it ends. It's perfect. The only thing I could've had more from is just an even longer book!
I was hoping Southern Accents would be roughly the same in nature and believed it was at first. Washburn is a good writer and his being a fan of the band comes through and it's an interesting idea to write about a failed concept record that isn't a classic, like FMF or DTT or to some ears, WF.
The book's best moments in my opinion are when it focuses on the songs and the Mike and Benmont interviews, the whole thing could've just been that or at least 90%, it's a shame there isn't more from the 88 keys man and Mike.
The problem is the author focuses on race much too long. I respect Washburn's discussion of his past, and how he felt about certain superficial elements of the Confederacy and growing up in the South. I also like how he notes his respect for Tom after chiding the confederate flag from the stage and his later apology for using it.
But much like how he and others (including myself) look at Southern Accents and think about what it could've been instead of what it is, I feel the same way about this book, thinking it a shame more time wasn't spent on the music and songwriting process than on Washburn's relationship to the past and what it means in relation to Tom's goal for the album and the actual record itself.
I think I understand why he took this approach, as what's the point of art if not to move people and clearly discussing the album has given him an opportunity to clarify and perhaps expunge his own feelings of the south but this didn't interest me even where in some areas I agree; it is tasteless, hell worse than tasteless, it's downright wrong to tour with a plantation stage set and to celebrate the confederate flag to one degree or another and risk blurring the line between Tom playing a character on stage and in song and the musician himself.
Having not watched Pack up the Plantation nor seen shows from that tour (aside from It Ain't Nothin' To Me) I don't know what else to say about that.
When I was a little boy I never understood why the losing side of the civil war kept the flag.
Then I just accepted it and didn't really consider it the way I figure most people don't think about it. It became a part of the south and nothing of interest to me.
But I also understand how the band went with the flag as some in the South do view it differently, they don't think of it as slavery but as their own freedom and heritage; maybe it's a case where a symbol's meaning can change over time.
I think I understand (but I could be wrong) to them, it was something they grew up with the way many of us do with symbols we don't understand; it was years before I learned Nike was a Greek Goddess (and I had to look her up again just now to remind myself since I thought she was Roman) and not just the name of a shoe company; symbols and their meanings change over time or are forgotten, so I get why Tom used the imagery without thinking beyond a simple connection to the idea of the South.
My other main contention is Washburn's point that the black perspective isn't represented on the record.
1) It's almost a no-win situation.
If Tom decided to write a song about segregation or slavery or racism or whatever, from a white observer or black p.o.v., unless he was truly inspired it could come across as pandering and be a weak song since the primary motviation wasn't writing a good tune but making a political point.
My understanding is Tom sat down with a guitar or by the piano and began playing and songs would emerge and he didn't stop to question why or how but was grateful he could do it.
If such a song came to him about a black man (or woman) or about racism I'm sure he'd have given it a go, maybe he even did and the tune ended up on the studio floor, maybe it didn't. But my understanding is he wrote the songs and then figured out how they fit (or didn't) on an album.
So maybe he didn't have a song on this subject or from the black perspective.
And even if he had written such a tune, years later he'd most likely be criticized for daring to do so as a white man or for not truly digging deep enough into the black experience.
In other words, there'd be no appeasing criticism of the record in this area.
2) Tom isn't obligated to write about the black man or woman's experience. Why would he be even if the record is about the South?
The South isn't just about slavery or its past and having grown up there and found success on the west coast, perhaps Tom's focus were on other areas not touching on its shameful disgusting past.
That Washburn focused on this is his call but a little bit goes a long way and too much for my taste. I get it and I think the point comes across that no one in the band is racist and truly no harm was meant and beyond that, why keep hammering the point?
Heck, Tom even chastised the crowd for the adoration of the flag from the stage at one point. And later apologized for its use.
At points book became less about the album and more about the issue of racism, it felt like a bait-and-switch.
Overall, it's disappointing.
Still, I'm glad the book was written and did enjoy the parts that covered the music and can respect Washburn for being open about his past.
Some other points:
What I found interesting is how Benmont's take of his own band seemed to match mine to a degree, when on page 17 he says: "The band has always been up and down, it's never been a band that does a consistently great record after great record." While not quite my thought that each album has a really good e.p. underneath the weaker tracks, it's close enough, well...in my opinion anyway : )
While I didn't expect Washburn to offer a defense or even like the song, I never knew so many people don't care for It Ain't Nothing To Me. I still say it's one of Tom's best songs, it's not just catchy but a lot of fun with a unique structure he never repeated with that back and forth in the verses.
Washburn notes the power of the chorus but like a lot of people just doesn't care for the tune. But hey! All three other people besides me who like this song still appreciate it!
It's ironic that the two biggest cited sources for the disruption of the record were cocaine and Dave Stewart and yet without the latter the band would'nt have written perhaps it's strangest greatest hit, Don't Come Around Here No More.
And maybe too much blame is laid upon Mr. Stewart when cocaine, wild expectations and a demo that couldn't be equaled were more than enough to derail the concept.
The parts where Washburn discusses the transition to being an LA band is interesting.
I don't really care one way or the other because I more thought of them as this weird little classic rock band that's a bit stranger than they seem on first listen.
But I think it's an overall interesting observation, maybe he's right and on some level Tom had to formally draw a line between their southern Florida beginnings and where their careers really took off.
He might be onto something that Southern Accents certainly could've been the catalyst for Tom embracing/promoting them as an LA band from that point forward. I'll leave this for more devoted listeners than me to discuss.
To sum it up, the book's a well written letdown, especially after some of Washburn's interesting promotional interviews. Maybe it was naive of me to think more would be on Mike and Benmont and song discussions and less on race.
It's also a bit off putting since this has come out after Tom's death and he can't defend himself though to be fair Washburn was going to interview him.
If future books come out about the band I hope they focus more on the music and less on Tom (or other member's bios) and more on the playing in studio and on stage.
I still rank Zollo's Conversations with Petty as the best book to date on the man and his band but it's good this book is out there.
What do you think?