Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, American Girl. Album: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (1977)
A track from the first Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album, “American Girl” was never a huge hit, but it became one of their most popular songs. Part of its lasting appeal is its intrigue, as it is the subject of an urban myth.
Sorry, urban legend enthusiasts. Tom Petty’s 1977 standard wasn’t inspired by a University of Florida girl who committed suicide by jumping from a Beaty Towers balcony. Though the song’s second verse references both a girl standing “alone on her balcony” and “could hear the cars roll by out on 441” (a highway that runs near the Gainesville campus), Petty has shot down the misunderstanding on numerous occasions.
In the book Conversations With Tom Petty, the lead Heartbreaker is quoted as saying, “It’s become a huge urban myth down in Florida. That’s just not at all true. The song has nothing to do with that. But that story really gets around.” Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell has backed Petty up, stating that some interpretations of the song took the lyrics at face value: “Some people take it literally and out of context. To me it’s just a really beautiful love song.”Tom Petty said of this song: “I wrote that in a little apartment I had in Encino. It was right next to the freeway and the cars sometimes sounded like waves from the ocean, which is why there’s the line about the waves crashing on the beach. The words just came tumbling out very quickly – and it was the start of writing about people who are longing for something else in life, something better than they have.”
Mike Campbell has been The Heartbreakers’ guitarist since they formed the band. Here’s what he told us about this song: “We used to have people come up to us and tell us they thought it was about suicide because of the one line about ‘if she had to die,’ but what they didn’t get was, the whole line is ‘if she had to die trying.’ Some people take it literally and out of context. To me it’s just a really beautiful love song. It does have some Florida imagery.”