Into the Great Wide Open: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “American Girl” (1976)

The first nine tracks on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers can be placed into three different categories: there are three fantastic songs that have stood the test of time musically and lyrically (“Breakdown,” “The Wild One, Forever,” “Fooled Again [I Don’t Like It]”), four very good songs that hold their own amidst those better songs (“Hometown Blues,” “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll,” “Strangered In The Night,” “Mystery Man”), and two songs that, while enjoyable enough, aren’t as substantial as the rest (“Rockin’ Around [With You],” “Luna”).

The album’s closing track, “American Girl,” certainly belongs in that first category. However, lumping it into a group would almost be a disservice to exactly how good it is. 38 years later, it is still one of the absolute best songs that Petty has ever written, and one of the best tracks that the Heartbreakers have ever recorded.

Fittingly enough, the song was recorded at Shelter Studios in Hollywood on July 4th, 1976, “when there were a lot of American things going on,” Petty recalls to Paul Zollo in Conversations With Tom Petty. “Super red, white, and blue things going on.” Perhaps the spirit of Independence Day in the bicentennial year inspired the group to get a particularly good take of “American Girl.” Stan Lynch certainly sounds energized behind the drum kit; he puts forth his most galvanic performance on the record, both in terms of energy and speed. He handles the breakneck tempo steadily, but with just the right amount of tenacity, especially near the end of the second verse as he slightly opens the hi-hat to intensify the soundscape.

Petty claims in the Playback liner notes that he “wrote [‘American Girl’] at home on acoustic guitar to a Bo Diddley beat,” and that Stan’s drum track was “[his] version of the Bo Diddley beat.” Stan had actually already perfected a typical Bo Diddley pattern in the bridge to “Mystery Man,” but he made the right choice by not sticking to convention for this track. Although the Diddley influence can be heard, most notably in the breakdown, Lynch’s drumbeat is far more powerful and fitting. Due to the quickness and ferocity of his playing, it probably didn’t help the Heartbreakers’ case as they got mislabeled as a punk rock and/or new wave group, but this would not prove to be a lasting issue.

Ron Blair also turns in what might be his best performance on the album. His three note lick in the intro is one of the song’s defining features; before that point, it seems as if the song could go in any direction. His line steers the track where it needs to go, and ultimately encapsulates the song’s melody and space. As the first verse hits, Blair falls into a funky, bouncier rhythm that wonderfully complements the rhythm guitar figures and Stan’s more straightforward beat. It’s his busiest playing on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and by stepping out as much as he does, he becomes the true propelling force behind “American Girl.”

Of course, the most memorable aspect of the song will always be Tom and Mike Campbell’s brilliant dual guitar work.

The motif that rings throughout the intro, between the verses, and the outro is beautifully soaring, and the way the Heartbreakers build around it only heightens its greatness. Their interplay continues into the verses; Tom holds down the chord progression (one of the smartest and most unique he has ever written) in open position while Mike augments it with higher pitched chord figures. Campbell eventually lets loose in the outro, initially playing a simple, catchy two note riff before ripping his best, most frantic solo on the album.

Due to the high, jangly nature of Petty and Campbell’s guitar work, many listeners assumed they employed the use of a 12-string guitar (they instead used two regular 6-strings), which then led to an inevitable comparison. “People ask us if we were trying to sound like the Byrds,” Petty says. “We would never have dreamed that we could sound like the Byrds. We would have wished we could sound like the Byrds. But we certainly weren’t thinking that … not on ‘American Girl.’”

In Peter Bogdanovich’s Runnin’ Down A Dream, Roger McGuinn, one of the Byrds’ lead singers and guitarists, himself remembers hearing “American Girl” for the first time and thinking: “When did I write that?” He wound up recording his own version, which appeared on his 1977 album Thunderbyrd. Since then, countless artists have covered the tune, from Goo Goo Dolls to Def Leppard, to Taylor Swift. No one, however, has matched the original recording. Many groups have captured the urgency, but very few — if anyone at all — has captured the majestic open atmosphere amidst the frenetic pace.

Petty’s tremendous lyrics and vocals cannot go unmentioned. Contrary to popular belief, the song was not written about a student who leapt to her death at the University of Florida. He attributes the imagery of the second verse, where she is “[standing] alone on her balcony,” to “living in an apartment where I was right by the freeway. And the cars would go by. In Encino, near Leon [Russell’s] house. And I remember thinking that that sounded like the ocean to me. That was my ocean.”

So if the urban legend has been debunked, who is the American girl? A likely inspiration for the song, or at least the opening line, is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1963 film Dementia 13. In the aftermath of a family tragedy, a woman named Louise expresses her concern for another woman by saying, “The mood around this place isn’t good for her. Especially an American girl. You can tell she’s been raised on promises.”

Petty takes this thought and runs with it. The first verse seems to interpret these promises as the oft-repeated “American dream,” which details endless opportunities, and the assurance of life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. This is why “she couldn’t help but thinking that there was a little more to life somewhere else. After all, it was a great big world, with lots of places to run to.” It’s the next line that both introduces a bit of mystery to the character and flips the concept of promise: “Yeah, but if she had to die trying, she had one little promise she was going to keep.” Up until this point, the promises have been thoughts that were instilled in her. Now, she knows something that most people don’t.

It conjures up images of Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, and other female cultural icons who remain prominent and enigmatic into the 21st century. Women who, at different points, seemed to live or represent the “American dream,” but experienced downfalls with varying degrees of explanation.

Returning to the second verse, the “cars [rolling] by out on 441 like waves crashing on the beach” is still one of the best pictures Petty has ever painted. As the girl is out on the balcony, “for one desperate moment there, he crept back in her memory.” This offers insight into why she was looking to run somewhere else, and what the possible promise is that she’s keeping. It is at this point that Petty offers up what is still the most concise, brutally and incomprehensibly honest line he has ever written:

God, it’s so painful when something that is so close
Is still so far out of reach

It’s life, condensed into two lines. It applies to everyone, to any possible situation, at any given point in time. For the titular American girl, it might refer to her situation with the man she has just remembered. It could just as easily refer to the “American dream,” or any of the other things she has been promised. It hits home for any American who, as a kid, pledged allegiance to the flag, claimed to be a part of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, and has grown up to hear about and/or witness so many injustices and instances where America has been clearly divided.

Just the same, it can be applied to a failed or failing relationship, job opportunity, or living situation. It is a feeling that everyone has thought, but the words can’t always be found when they need to be said. And Tom Petty, speaking for the American girl, himself, and anyone who happens to be listening to the song, nails it.

These two lines demonstrate why he is still such a celebrated songwriter and massive influence today. If there is a complex emotion that can’t seem to be simplified, he has most likely already done it and included it somewhere in one of his songs. On top of that, it’s clear he truly believes what he is singing; the strength, power, and determination in his voice during these two lines is flawless. As a matter of fact, the entirety of “American Girl” is sung perfectly.

Petty has his vocal high points on the record (“Breakdown,” “Fooled Again”), but this track is hands down his best performance on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It may be the only song on the first two albums where his studio vocal is not surpassed by any subsequent live vocal. Not that there aren’t great live versions readily available with impressive vocal takes from Tom; the original version just remains the definitive version.

There are other qualities that make “American Girl” such an enjoyable track: Benmont Tench’s unexpected but incredibly well-executed bluesy licks in the breakdown; Dwight Twilley and the late Phil Seymour’s fantastic background vocals, which particularly shine over the song’s outro; Stan’s high harmony on the last line of the choruses. The list goes on. Simply put, it is a perfect track, and possibly the best one that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have ever committed to tape.

The self-titled debut is a bit of a strange ride, and regardless of the insanely high quality of the last song, the group would go on to make many albums that are arguably far, far better as a whole. Even the next album, which sometimes gets a bad rap from critics, was an improvement in a few ways. But what a way to close this one out.

Dylan Sevey

A Rhode Island-based writer and musician, Sevey is an avid listener of blues, jazz, folk, and rock 'n' roll. He serves as frontman for Dylan Sevey and the Gentlemen (www.facebook.com/ dylanseveymusic), and is the drummer for Smith and Weeden (www.facebook.com/ smithandweeden). Twitter and Instagram @dylansevey; contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.