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Workin’ on a mystery

Tom Petty, Heartbreakers commemorate 30 years of great Southern stories
/ Source: contributor

The Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hit “American Girl” has an oft-repeated back story that, as a Florida native (like Petty), I’ve always wanted to believe was true.

As the legend goes, Gainesville-born Petty wrote it about a University of Florida coed who jumped to her death from the Beatty Towers dorm. One variation has the unnamed girl tripping on hallucinogens and attempting to fly. I prefer the version in which the coed is lucid, voluntarily shedding her mortal coil and filled with the invigoration suicides are said to have once they make the decision.

Since middle school, I’ve repeated this story to incredulous ears more times than I can remember — continuing to tell it even when I was too old to responsibly pass on such unfounded nonsense. Enter the Internet. Some time back, in an ADD moment, I googled the myth only to find that sadly, a myth is all it is.

It’s not that I want some girl to be dead. I’m just a sucker for good Southern ghost story, which with or without a suicide, “American Girl” remains. What soulless creature (who enjoys rock and roll music) doesn’t get chills every time the ringing guitar riff pops up on classic radio? Then there are the lyrics, and just as important, Petty’s phrasing: “And if she had to die/Trying she/Had one little promise she was gonna keep … ”

“American Girl” is so eerie, it was used to create atmosphere in “Silence of the Lambs,” and so fresh that it’s hard to believe the song came out in 1977. Yet this summer, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers celebrate their 30th anniversary by launching what is rumored to be the band’s last major tour. And in July, Petty releases “Highway Companion,” his third solo LP (and 18th overall). How scary is that?

Runnin’ down a dream
Throughout his long, successful career, Petty has been compared musically to the likes of the Byrds, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. But as “American Girl,” and the rest of his huge catalog reveal, this Florida boy hails from the same story-telling tradition as fellow Southerners Flannery O’Conner, Carson McCullers and Truman Capote. Like the best of their work, Petty’s songs create sparse, sharp images, with something desperate underneath.

“American Girl” is the only Petty hit that comes with a fan-generated urban legend (that I know about). But it’s one of many practically-perfect songs about Regular Joes and Josephines yearning to break free. If not from life, then the particular lives they happen to be living. Take just a few of the titles: “Breakdown,” “I Need to Know,” “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” “Running Down a Dream,” “Runaway Trains,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

The Heartbreakers sound is a deceptively simple roots rock hybrid. It echos garage rock, folk and pure pop while remaining wholly American and unique. (FYI: Petty shares his roots via his record collection on the XM Satellite Radio Show “Tom Petty’s Buried Treasures.”) Underneath the music, Petty’s Southern voice (both literal and literary) brings personas and characters to life. In “Spike,” he only needs one line to conjure a vivid scene of rednecks harassing some poor punk rock kid (“Hey, Spike/You’re scarin’ my wife”).

In Petty’s love songs, like the Carson McCullers story, the heart is always a lonely hunter. Take “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” a song he recorded with Stevie Nicks. (Word to your mother — Nicks is performing with Petty on the Heartbreakers tour.) Here is a man so wounded by his lover, all he can do is beg her to stop. It ain’t quite Dylan, but it works.

Pack up the plantationUnlike less fortunate talented artists (Hey, Paul Westerberg!), Petty’s songwriting gets the recognition and Grammys it deserves. In 1996, Petty received both the Golden Note Award from ASCAP and UCLA’s George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement. In 1999, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 2002, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Petty even had a guest spot on the “Simpsons” playing himself as the song writing instructor at Homer’s rock star camp. 

Achieving rock star status during MTV’s early days, Petty’s creativity transferred well to video. So much so that he received MTV’s Video Vanguard Award in 1994. Those old enough may cringe when remembering the Heartbreakers “You Got Lucky” video in which Petty and his crew travel a post-apocalyptic desert in some sort of Buckminster Fuller mobile ala “Mad Max.” It wasn’t a bad song. It wasn’t a bad video. But man, it seemed like MTV played it every five minutes. Better to remember the spooky “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” in which Petty, as the Mad Hatter, torments Alice in Wonderland before serving her as cake. Then there’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” in which Petty gussies up, then parties with a corpse (played by Kim Basinger). Now that’s good Southern Gothic!

Like the best storytellers, Petty easily translates his song’s stories on stage. He and the Heartbreakers still put on a great show. Over the years, the performance has transformed from youthful exuberance and boundless energy to the more theatrical. Though not widely thought of as one of the more politically vocal rock stars, Petty has used his concerts as an outlet for his views on the government. In a 1991 show, as the band played “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” three characters dressed as Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush (the father) chased Petty around the stage.

The first performances of the current tour lasted over two electric hours. A retrospective set list covers the best known Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hits as well as Petty’s work with rock super group, the Traveling Wilburys, and songs from Petty’s upcoming “Highway Companion” LP. There are few surprises in the song choices — it is, after all, an anniversary tour. But as 30 years of touring show, Petty and the Heartbreakers concerts are never stale.

Ever the crowd-please, Petty is following tradition and closing shows with … what song? “American Girl,” of course. And for the two hours of music played to get there, the audience is always ready to explode when the final encore comes around. Like any great story, “American Girl” is one you can hear a million times, and still want to hear it a million more. The song may not have a ghost story behind it, but like Tom Petty, “American Girl” never seems to get old.

New York City-based writer Helen A.S. Popkin can’t help thinking there’s a little more to life, somewhere else.