Petty interpreted stories in a way that made the mundane extraordinary and turned common folk into heroes
Five Tom Petty songs that tell an American story
American musician Tom Petty, who died yesterday at age 66 from cardiac arrest, leaves a legacy that will be rooted in his storytelling. A brilliant instrumentalist and adept actor (check out his cameo in Kevin Costner’s The Postman), Petty’s greatest gift was arguably his ability to reflect the best of Americana with simple lyrics that are easy to sing along to (“I put the pedal down to make some time”) as well as clever turns of phrase (“You tangle my emotions”) that pull the listening experience deeper. Petty, along with frequent songwriting partners Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell, interpreted stories in a way that made the mundane extraordinary and turned common folk into heroes. Here we look at five such stories.
American Girl, 1976
“She couldn’t help thinking that there was a little more to life somewhere else.”
You know, the one where Petty adroitly translates the thoughts of a young woman and punctuates her deepest feelings with a smooth blues-rock riff that makes you want to drive down a long road into the sunset. The protagonist feels trapped in her life and the song suggests that she thinks the cars “out on 441”, a deep-south highway that runs from Miami to Knoxville through rural towns, sound like "waves crashing on a beach". Notably, the song makes key appearances in Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Handmaid’s Tale (2017), both films about women in desperate situations.
Free Fallin’, 1989
“She’s a good girl, crazy about Elvis, loves horses and her boyfriend too.”
Petty again touches on the feelings and aspirations of a young woman in a first-person story about a “bad boy” who doesn’t even regret letting her go. The lyrics are specific to Los Angeles geographically, but are vague enough to indicate any time period from the 1950s onward; while the video is a time capsule that spans a post-war suburban poolside birthday party to 1980s mall scenes and skateboarder fashion. The tale being told is that there will always be good girls who deserve better than the bad boys who let them go. In a scene in Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise chooses the song after scanning a number of radio stations, clearly looking for a powerful song that resonates with his mood.
Runnin’ Down a Dream, 1989
“It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down, I had the radio on, I was flying”
From beginning to end, we follow the storyteller on a road trip – a prevalent theme in Petty’s songs as well as in references to Petty’s songs – that suggests a longing for the elusive American dream: the pursuit of happiness. The line “working on a mystery” indicates a willingness to accept fate as part of the adventure. Petty’s storyteller is singing along to Runaway by Del Shannon as he makes his way towards a new beginning. In both songs, there is an element of the unknown and feelings of anticipation. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed the song at the 2008 Super Bowl halftime show and it has been frequently used in American sports imagery as professional teams vie for championships.
Into the Great Wide Open, 1991
“Eddie waited till he finished high school / He went to Hollywood, got a tattoo”
Rock ‘n’ roll is rife with songs that tell stories of performers who shoot to stardom and fall hard as their stars fade (Shooting Star by Bad Company, Life’s Been Good by Joe Walsh). But the story of Eddie Rebel comes with a quirky, celebrity-studded video featuring numerous cameos by Petty himself as well as the Heartbreakers, who appear in miniature as the Mad-Hatted narrator (Petty) tells the story. Eddie (Johnny Depp) is “a rebel without a clue” who moves to LA, learns to play guitar, gets an agent (“and a roadie named Bart”), finds stardom, develops a demanding ego, and loses the love of the public and his girl. However, while the video is visually appealing, it’s not needed to capture the highs and lows of Eddie’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story thanks to Petty’s informative and detailed lyrics (“their A&R man said ‘I don’t hear a single’”).
Mary Jane’s Last Dance, 1993
“She grew up in an Indiana town, had a good lookin’ mama who never was around…”
The song leaves itself open to interpretation, but on the surface a fickle young woman named Mary Jane makes an impression on a young man. He attempts to savour the time he has with her, which seems to be his impetus to expect more from life. The macabre video tells a different story with Petty, an assistant in a morgue, falling in love with an attractive corpse (Kim Basinger) and taking her home, where he treats her to a special evening complete with dinner and a makeover, before releasing her into the sea.