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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - 'American Girl' (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - 1976)
1980s month takes a brief pause so I can fit in a guest post from Chris Dalla Riva, author of the Can’t Get Much Higher newsletter. Chris will take it from after this brief message from my corporate overlords who have really nailed guest posting options in the past few weeks…
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It’s Friday night. I’m at Willie McBride’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. It’s one of the few remaining bars in my neighborhood that has live music. My friends and I grab some Bud Lights and head into the backroom where the band is getting set up. Hordes of buzzed 20-somethings are packed in around us, mulling about, chatting with their friends. Those conversations die a sudden death when the guitarist strums a mighty D major chord.
Though there are endless paths the band can go from there – in fact, thousands of songs open with a D major chord – this particular D major can only go in one direction. For a moment, it seems like it is going to build slowly. But it’s not. When you hear the crack of the snare six seconds later, the momentum is nearly unstoppable. Upon the vocal’s entry, there’s no turning back.
Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn't help thinking that there
Was a little more to life
At 10:30PM in Hoboken, New Jersey on that Friday night, everybody at Willie McBride’s agrees that there is no better way to open a cover band set than with Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’. It is, in many ways, the summary and quintessence of American rock music in the second half of the 20th century.
The lyrics are laced with the teenage frustrations that characterized the genre from its inception. The rhythm hints at the endlessly parroted shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits rhythm made famous by Bo Diddley around the same time teenage anxiety began to creep into our compositions. The opening guitar riff jangles like the best of the folk rock made famous a decade after Mr. Diddley’s ascent. And the flash of the closing guitar solo points to the histrionics that the instrument was headed for in the 1980s. If ‘American Girl’ is not the paragon of 20th century rock music, then it is, at the very least, the apex of rock openers.
But it’s not. At least not in Tom Petty’s mind.
‘American Girl’ is the closing track on Tom Petty & the Heartbreaker’s eponymous debut album from 1976. Each time I listen to that record, I am mystified by how ‘American Girl’ is the last track and not the first. I’m doubly mystified because the penultimate track, ‘Luna’, feels like the end. Its off-kilter, somewhat experimental fade out has always signified an uneasy closure to me. And that makes sense. Pushing through and living with uneasiness is something that characterizes much of Petty’s best work. But then ‘American Girl’ kicks in, and I feel like I am beginning a journey not ending one.
So would I enjoy this album more if it opened with ‘American Girl’? I’ve actually experimented with this by reordering the songs on a Spotify playlist. In general, I think it greatly improves the cohesion of the record. I do see two drawbacks, though:
1. ‘American Girl’ is such a powerful song that it can easily overshadow the rest of the record when it’s in the first position.
2. The finger-twisting guitar solo at the end of the track does make you feel like you are driving down the 441, waves crashing on the beach, as the sun sets.
These two points give some credence to the song closing the record. But I don’t think they are strong enough to override my general opinion that it is beckoning to be an opener. If you still don’t agree, I implore you to listen to a local cover band open with it for a bunch of drunk people.
Many thanks to Chris for this guest post - I’m sure many of you are happy that his excellent bar stool report deprives me of an opportunity to talk about the use of music in The Sopranos.
Chris writes the Substack newsletter Can’t Get Much Higher.
If you are searching for insightful evaluations based on data concerning past and present musical trends, and you end up there. You’ve reached your destination.
American Girl is one of my favorites!
Thanks for letting me write about this masterful song and less-than-masterful closer lol