As you read this, I am gallivanting around Huntsville, Alabama with my most significant of others and possibly her family, so feel free to read this on the most literal of levels if you wish. Believe it or not, that is only coincidental. My reasons for pulling this track out today are far less clunky and superficial (though, depending on your particular feelings on overanalysis, potentially just as heavy-handed).
“Down South” was in many ways the theme song to my time living in Texas, perhaps in hopes of making optimism work to my favor through my decision. It failed. Texas has a bit more to offer than Northern assumptions about Texas might lead you to believe, but most of it is in Austin, and I found myself in Dallas. It was one of those moments of divine whim, where the time was right to strike out on my own, and the sense of adventure was high, so I said “why not?” and went down, where I immediately set out to destroy my finances and hireability (or so the end results would suggest).
Dallas is a slow town, and a huge one. People honk at you if you walk anywhere, like you’re an oddity. Basically every road feels like a highway. Downtown is nearly desolate on a workday, and I’m not 100% sure where people would go even if it wasn’t a work day. Everyone is decidedly Texan, but not in a cowboy or backwoods way. They’re just Texan. You know what I mean if you’ve been to big-city Texas. I met a lot of quite pleasant people, made zero lasting friendships, and found myself back North within half a year, quite literally broke in both funds and pride. Perhaps stories for another time.
I find myself thinking about the song a lot these days, not because I miss Texas, but because I’m finally making the plunge to get out on my own again, after years of financial uselessness. I am not making such a drastic blind leap… “Never again!” I tell myself… but there is always a certain fear that comes from leaving one place to get to another. It’s true in the first lunge of the airplane that tells you you’re no longer touching terra firma, the first day of school and the first day of college… hell, there’s a second of anticipation even when you jump into a pool, if you want to take that “plunge” metaphor to its logical end. You don’t know exactly what you’re getting into. I’m beyond ready. I just wish I could see just a glimpse of the future… the part that tells me I get out alright, this time with money and pride intact. Of course, on the plus side, screwing up last time has brought me personal and social betterment through meeting new and amazing humans and opportunities I may not have fallen in with if not for having fallen out of “normal society”. In some ways I consider that far better. I just don’t want to press my luck a second time.
Tom Petty sort of sums up the best parts of the American myth to me, and especially the most charming and respectable parts of the southern bit of the myth, so this song not only played to a moment of my life but plays to who Tom Petty was when it came out… an elder statesman of rock, an aging southern gentleman… you get the feeling that he knows the sort of working-class Americana mindset while currently being the quintessential southern patriarch, again in only the best aspects… he transcends in that way. He also reminds me of my father when he sports a beard, for what that’s worth.
This echoes my trepidation, because this interplay of two Southern realities is the interplay of American realities. The folk and Americana paths, along with the standard rock-n-roll one, are the paths Petty walks, and they are paths that understand the problems with ideas like the American dream. It’s easy to see this crossroads in my own life as a much needed, long awaited entrance to someone else’s idea of maturity, but such a vision ignores the reality. We’re told we need to be independent, but the opportunities to do so are slim. Technically, I -can- get out on my own, but in doing so, I run the risk of being buried, like I was before. It’s a catch 22: we belittle those who cannot reach the life goals society sets by the time society believes they should be set, but going for those goals leaves us stuck in a cycle of constantly being short on cash, constantly putting off our own happiness and sanity to pay off other people. Whatever we were put on earth for, I can’t in good conscience believe it was to work for nothing, to live paycheck to paycheck, and to be treated as nothing more than a commodity. Yet that’s the world I’m entering, just as much as I’m also entering a world of increased freedom.
So while right now, the searsucker and white linens might sound appealing, lounging back and enjoying the supposed ease of southern living (and without a doubt getting myself into a glorious, glorious sweet tea coma), it’s all preparatory for a pretty big change that won’t be easy at all, and one that wraps a simple song about pursuing a simpler life in about 20 layers of recursive meta-reference for me. The first time around, Petty acted as an artificial jolt of optimism. This time, it’s a reminder of how artificial it all was. From here, it’s a battle to see what wins out: the wisdom of experience, or the inevitability of how the world works. With Petty on my side, perhaps I can tip that experience scale.
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