Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, “American Girl”

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, “American Girl”

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: People have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.

A couple winters ago, in the midst of this soul-crushing economy you may have heard mention of, freelance writing just wasn’t covering the caviar bill. So I bit the bullet and fell back on the first job I ever held: warehouse work. I picked up four 10-hour shifts a week at a used-book warehouse here in Denver, a job that requires lots of standing, lifting, hauling, and talking shit about football and politics with the UPS guy around the loading dock.

I hadn’t performed manual labor in almost two decades. But after years of writing full-time for a living, it was weirdly refreshing. I had to get up at 5, take a long walk to the bus stop, take a long bus ride out to the boonies, get off a few stops past the county jail, and then take another long walk from the bus stop to the warehouse. And then—having already expended more calories than a writer typically does all day—I had to clock in and start, you know, working. I had to deal with blisters. I had to deal with bruises. I had to deal with depression.

And I had to deal with Kenny.

Kenny (name changed to protect the… ah, fuck it, his real name is Kenny) was one of the managers of the warehouse. I instantly bonded with him. He was a gruff, crass, old-school warehouse lifer, totally like the dudes that showed me the ropes at my first warehouse gig when I was 16. And just like those coworkers of yore, Kenny lived by an unspoken rule of warehouse etiquette: You listened to classic rock. There were conditions to this rule: You had to listen to the most numbskull classic-rock station in town. You had to blast it on a crappy, broken-down boombox that’s been collecting inches of dust since 1987. And the boombox has to emit as much static as music. So it shall be written, so it shall be done.

So, yeah, Kenny and I blasted that classic rock. It surrounded us and penetrated us. Every day we drew on the arcane energy of Rush and the Wagnerian pomp of Led Zeppelin to make it through yet another grueling, shitty shift. The two of us, though, had more in common than simply liking rock. As we discovered one day, we both played it.

Kenny, he casually yet proudly informed me, played bass in a hair-metal band in the ’80s. He and his bandmates never got a record deal. They never released an album. I’ve never heard of them, and neither have you. But they had a hell of time, Kenny assured me, putting on makeup and playing Poison covers to crowds of dozens in random small venues across the Great Plains. Then, with no small amount of cockiness, he invited me to see his new band play. Needless to say, I was in.

A couple weekends later, I found myself at a shitty strip-mall bar in the shadow of an I-70 overpass near Arvada, Colorado. Surprisingly, the bar was packed. I’m used to punk and indie-rock dives, where a decent turnout for a local band might number somewhere near 50. This bar housed at least three times that many people. And on the dance floor… they were dancing. Not stiffly, not self-consciously, not ironically. They were just fucking dancing

Granted, not everyone was cutting a rug. Maybe a dozen people were up there in front of the stage, shaking their asses as Kenny and his middle-aged bandmates—free of makeup, to my disappointment—played faithful, respectable versions of boombox-worthy, musicianship-showcasing tunes by Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. Standard stuff, and mostly background noise, the soundtrack to a Friday night of flirting, fighting, and toxin-metabolizing.

And then Kenny’s band played “American Girl.”

I’ve been to many crazy shows in my life, and I’ve seen many mad stage-rushes. None compared to this. That indelible opening jangle of Tom Petty’s 1977 power-pop anthem drew patrons to the dance floor like bees to honey. They crept from every corner and crevice. They swarmed and hooted and spilled their beers. Old men danced with young ladies. Old ladies danced with young men. Kenny and crew grinned and cranked up the energy. It was awesome.

And then it was over. The band took a break. Still smiling, the audience wandered off for a fresh beer. At the end of the bar stood Kenny. I’d been expecting to pay him a vague, insincere compliment at some point in the night. I really meant it, though, when I gushed, “Man, that was great! ‘American Girl’! Killer song. And you guys really nailed it.”

Kenny downed half a Bud Light in a single gulp. Then he turned to me, cool as a cowboy, and said, “I fucking hate ‘American Girl.’”

When “American Girl” was released as a single in February of 1977, a lot of people hated it. Okay, I’m speculating here. I was only 5 at the time. I thought The Banana Splits was the pinnacle of culture, so I don’t have any firsthand perspective to impart. But the facts speak for themselves: “American Girl” didn’t even chart in the U.S., whereas its moody, muted, relatively sophisticated predecessor, “Breakdown”—The Heartbreakers’ debut single—at least made it to No. 40.

“American Girl,” however, served an important purpose in the historical scheme of things. In an era where excess, earnestness, and exhaustion had become rock’s status quo, Petty’s ode to hope, fresh air, and multiple orgasms was a revelation. That said, its ringing chords and primal rhythms aren’t entirely retro. The song draws strength from rock ’n’ roll’s adolescence while openly acknowledging—even celebrating—its maturation. The words “Take it easy, baby / Make it last all night” never sounded so playful or pure, but the innocence is sliced with bittersweetness. We’re old and wise enough, Petty seems to be singing between the lines, to look back at youth with urgency and clarity—rather then with the muddled regret of the ’70s. “And for one desperate moment,” Petty drawls, his voice cracking like he’s 13 again, “There he crept back into her memory.” Beneath it, he bashes away at the same handful of basic, open chords that he probably learned when he was 13.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because another kind of rock music was supposed to accomplish all this in 1977: punk. It didn’t, of course. At least not in America. England almost instantly warmed up to (and shelled out for) the likes of The Sex Pistols and The Clash; over here, it took a couple more years before far less radical new wave groups like Blondie and The Cars were able to put even a dent in the mainstream. Petty was lumped into this movement by a few overeager writers and industry types at the time, but it was always clear that the Dylan-and-Byrds-loving, Southern-rock veteran was no new-waver. He’s an old-timer. A traditionalist. An unabashed sentimentalist.

Which is why “American Girl” has swollen in stature over the years. It’s one of the most fearlessly universal songs ever written, a plea for simplicity in an age of overthinking, overreaching, and overcomplicating. What started life as a failed single quickly became an uncontested classic, one that no dancing grandma in a strip-mall bar (or riff-lifting indie band—sorry, Strokes) can resist. When Petty appeared on Fridays in 1980, the three-year-old flop “American Girl” was one of the two songs he chose to play before a national audience. And for good reason. By then, the American mainstream had at least partly caught up with the song’s wide-eyed, blood-rushing, shiver-inducing vividness.

As illogical as it seems, my coworker Kenny hated playing “American Girl” for the exact reason everyone else on the planet (American, female, or otherwise) loves it: It’s dumb and fun. That night at the bar, he confessed to me, his words as bitter as his Bud-dosed breath, that he couldn’t believe anyone liked “American Girl.” After all, it took no surplus of talent to play it. It took no knowledge of music to like it. But when Kenny’s band played a song that did demand a bit of talent and knowledge—like, say, Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”—hardly anyone danced.

At that moment, the pedestal I’d placed Kenny upon crumbled into so much boombox dust. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In my mind, I tried to sympathize; after all, this dude did spend his glory days playing “Talk Dirty To Me” to high-school kids in Iowa. Besides a few magnitudes of quality, though, is “Talk Dirty To Me” that different from “American Girl”? They’re both simple, direct, catchy, and nostalgic. Maybe that’s why Kenny hated it; it reminded him of all the potential he once had as a musician, a potential since squandered in strip-mall bars and pointless discussions about classic rock on the warehouse floor with four-eyed, know-it-all jackasses like me.

If that’s really the case, though, Kenny should have loved “American Girl,” even more than I do. It’s about him. He is, after all, an American boy, raised on promises—even if those promises never came true the way he once hoped they might. I haven’t seen or talked to Kenny in the two years since I quit the warehouse to dive headlong back into writing. My blisters have popped. My bruises have healed. My depression has even been channeled into making a little music of my own. But my experience with Kenny left a weird, hanging, unresolved note to our brief friendship. I didn't argue with Kenny about "American Girl" that night at the bar. Why waste my breath? He was surrounded by dancing, happy proof that he was wrong. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s still in a cover band that rocks every Friday night in some shithole under an overpass, helping people drink and boogie and forget the soul-crushing economy for a couple hours.

And although it's just a job to him—no different than unloading trucks at the warehouse—I hope he’s still playing “American Girl.” I know he doesn’t like it. He probably never will. Then again, he doesn’t have to.

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