A day or two ago I somehow happened to hear a song that was unfamiliar to me but obviously by Tom Petty, which included the lyric

She grew up in an Indiana town,
Had a good-lookin’ mama who never was around.
But she grew up tall and she grew up right
With them Indiana boys on them Indiana nights

I idly wondered, ‘Huh, is that Tom Petty? Why is he singing about Indiana?’

Now, and I know this may come as a shock, I don’t listen to much contemporary commercial radio, talk, music, or otherwise, so I had no idea that Mary Jane’s Last Dance was a 1994 top ten hit for the blonde, reedy-voiced singer.

The song finished with an Indianapolis-specific lyric:

There’s pigeons down in Market Square
She’s standin’ in her underwear
Lookin’ down from a hotel room
Nightfall will be comin’ soon

Market Square, per se, may not exist. But Market Square Arena was Indiana’s largest venue for touring rock bands, one that Petty has surely played dozens of times since his late-seventies emergence in American rock. When I heard this lyric, I (mis?)understood it to describe the titular Mary Jane as a billboard model on the Arena’s banners, observed by the narrator as he looks down from his hotel room.

The Indiana references puzzled me, and the song reminded me of another song by Petty. Once again, I encountered this song in anomalous way – I learned how to play it with some friends years ago, and had no idea who it was by or what the original sounded like. All I knew was that it was a seventies rock number. My disinterest in the genre prevented me from exploring it further for some time.

Well she was an American girl raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinking that there was
little more to life somewhere else
After all it was a great big world with lots of places to run to
And if she had to die trying she had one little promise she was gonna keep

American Girl is from Petty’s first LP, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, released in 1976. Breakdown is probably the best-known song on that album.

At any rate, these fragments were clacking around in my head when we went to see Spiderman 2 yesterday. the film opens with a slow zoom out from, um, well…

A giant billboard photo of a model named Mary Jane.

This started to give me the willies, a wee bit, and so I’ve spent part of today treading Googlefluid in an attempt to answer some questions. In the excercise I have also learned some interesting things, the most tasty of which is that American Girl was written twenty-eight years ago today, July 4, 1976. The same source, a University of Florida student newspaper, reports that the narrative of American Girl (which involves a woman standing on a high balcony with unclear thoughts of dissatisfaction in her head) is probably not based on a supposedly-true incident of dorm-building suicide.

Why Florida? Well, Petty is from Florida and California. Which begs my original question, why Indiana?

This is a question I believe will simply go unanswered. This page collects some anecdotes about the song, including the tidbit that Mary Jane’s Last Dance was originally titled Indiana Girl, but otherwise sheds no light on the subject.

In my own mind the singer is certainly linked with my experience of the state in which I mostly grew up. It’s fair to say I was one of those Indiana boys in the Indiana night, if possibly not the Skoal-cap variety the lyric may call to mind. I’ve done my fair share of skinny-dipping in quarries as the midsummer night sounds thickened the humid, still air. I certainly hope I did my bit to help some Indiana girls grow up fast and grow up right. Discretion here draws the curtains on this pastoral.

I should clarify. Petty’s role in my Indiana youth was not to illuminate or romanticize the ways of youth, but rather to serve as a somewhat baffling weapon of ostracism. The particular lyric is from 1980’s Damn the Torpedoes. The album’s hits were Don’t Do Me Like That and Refugee.

In Refugee, Petty sings

Somewhere, somehow,
Somebody must have kicked you around some.
Who knows why you wanna lay there and revel in your abandon.

It don’t make no difference to me, baby,
Everybody’s had to fight to be free,
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee.

After I returned from living abroad for a year, drastically changed in appearance, some of the redneck students in my high school determined that this song encapsulated something about me, in their eyes. They dubbed me “Refugee,” and I was greeted with it as some sort of taunt for a period of time. I still don’t get it.

Somewhere, somehow,
Somebody must have kicked you around some.
Who knows? Maybe you were kidnapped,
Tied up, taken away, and held for ransom.

It don’t really matter to me, baby,
Everybody’s had to fight to be free,
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee.

Were they threatening me? I think, in fact, that this was the intended implication, as repeated violent encounters with members of this group of kids marked my entire high school experience.

If that is indeed the case, I can only savor the inverted meaning. I am threatened with violent enforcement of some sort of social or behavioral code, presumably because I am ‘acting like a refugee.’ The enaction of this violent corrective would involve ‘someone kicking me around some,’ which in the song prompts the problematic behavior. I could only conclude that I was to be encouraged in my deviance.

This campaign culminated in one particularly spectacular beating. It ended when an on-site police officer tackled the much larger goon who was happily engaged in pounding my face into mush against the ground. That event concluded with me holding the goon’s sister in my arms and comforting her as she wailed, because her brother had been arrested (again) and would certainly have to go to jail. Later I learned, unsurprisingly, that said goon had the whuppin’ kind of Daddy.

So in my mind, Petty’s work is associated with a particularly American kind of pointless, inherited violence, self-loathing expressed as a kind of xenophobia. It’s not the artist’s fault, and I have to say, it’s barely the goon’s. But I surely do see it as a deeply embedded part of Hoosier and American character.

Well it was kinda cold that night
She stood alone on her balcony
Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441 like waves crashin’ on the beach
And for one desperate moment
There he crept back in her memory
God it’s so painful when something that’s so close
Is still so far out of reach

Oh yeah, all right
Take it easy, baby
Make it last all night
She was an American girl

6 thoughts on “American Girl

  1. It seems to me that perhaps they were calling you refugee because your changed physical appearance made you look like one… (not that I was there, of course)

    Petty’s work has, to me at least, always seemed the voice of the outsider, whether by choice (the loner), by default (the rejected), or both…

  2. This has got to be one of the best July 4th posts I’ve ever read. Nicely done! Although I admit I’m baffled by how you managed to avoid Tom Petty all these years. I still like him, although I’ll probably lose my indierock credentials for admitting it.

  3. thanks, Anne.

    I should note that I actually have no beef with Petty’s songwriting, generally. American Girl is pretty excellent, and I admire the free rythyms in the lines. It’s just some quirk of my life that colors it so.

  4. Interesting that you happened analyze MJLD. I was just relearning the song on guitar. Good stuff.

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