“American Girl” defined Tom Petty’s writing approach, the idea of staying so “wide open” that he allows “listeners to see themselves in the picture,” Warren Zanes wrote in his definitive 2015 biography. You feel nostalgic, desperate, sad, hopeful and yet you have no idea where or when the action is taking place. Or who exactly it’s about. No “Tommy used to work on the docks” or Magic Rat driving over the Jersey state line.
Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there
Was a little more to life
Is she a suburban housewife in Eisenhower-era Levittown? An ex-cheerleader in Bloomington desperate to catch a Greyhound to Chicago? A lost soul on a commune, post Summer of Love? Truth is, she could be anyone. Because these everycharacters were what made Petty’s songs irresistible, connective tissues.
Instead of names and dates, we got moods and that immediacy that came through Petty’s passionate delivery. There’s that summer “we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon,” (1979’s “Even the Losers”) or 1996’s “Walls (Circus),” a song so beautiful and vague lyrically it’s almost an exercise in the abstract.
How vague is “American Girl?” So vague that at some point fans grew so desperate for something, anything to latch onto that they created a phony yarn about the one specific reference within the song. In that second verse, the protagonist heads out on the balcony where she “could hear cars go by/Out on 441.” A-ha! That had to be Petty writing about a college suicide in his hometown of Gainesville, Fla., where U.S. Route 441 cuts through. Never mind there was no record of said suicide and Petty chuckled about the “urban legend.”
“They could have just called me and found out it wasn’t true,” he once said.
“American Girl” is also, of course, defined by its sound. Petty’s fascination with the Byrds was no secret. He recorded a carbon copy cover of the band’s “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” on 1989’s “Full Moon Fever,” helped revive Roger McGuinn’s pop career in the early ’90s and produced Chris Hillman’s “Bidin’ My Time,” an album released just two weeks ago.
The opening jangle of “American Girl” sounds suspiciously like McGuinn’s distinctive 12-string Rickenbacker, though it’s actually the doubled-up guitars of Petty and Mike Campbell, the longtime guitarist in Petty’s backing band, the Heartbreakers. The voice that emerges from that Bo Diddley beat is just a smidge grittier than McGuinn’s, so close in spirit that when the former Byrd heard the song, he thought, “When did I write that?”
And yet, it’s no theft. It’s an update and a reinvention of the Byrds sound — and as he grew as an artist, no more than a sonic shadow of where Petty’s voice and catalogue went. You can hear that distance clearly on “King of the Hill,” a duet recorded for McGuinn’s 1991 solo comeback. By then, Petty’s croakier-growl of a voice played the urgent, younger brother to McGuinn’s more folksy twang.
Back to “American Girl.” I’d heard it so much over the years, I’d mentally dismissed it with so many of the overplayed, FM dinosaurs from childhood, songs by the Doobies, Steve Miller and the Eagles. But one Thursday night a few years ago, in a club outside Boston, Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz was playing a set plastered with his favorite covers, including songs from the Kinks, the Stones and the Band. He called up his younger brother, Scott, and broke into a driving version of “American Girl.”
On the second verse, as Scott hit the 441, I remember noting that fists seemed to be rising throughout the room to punctuate the line. Never mind that Petty wrote “American Girl” three decades earlier or that those “waves crashin’ on the beach” had to be the Pacific. It didn’t matter. Petty’s writing had delivered something you find in only a perfectly executed song. It somehow felt as if it had been written for each one of us, a universal, emotional footprint that we all could share.