A track from the first Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album, "American Girl" was never a hit, but became one of their most popular songs. Part of its lasting appeal is its intrigue, as it is the subject of an urban myth that reads as follows:
The University of Florida is located in Petty's hometown of Gainesville, Florida. A dorm at the school, Beatty Towers, provided the backdrop to a popular urban legend at UF as well as the story behind this song. The story was that there was this virginal, All-American, debutante sort of girl, blonde locks and all, who decided to take hallucinogens for the first time while in her room at Beatty Towers. This being the 1960's and the age of limitless possibilities, it was pretty common to do something like that, especially in a college setting. Apparently, the girl thought she could fly, so she exited through the window and arrived face first on the concrete below. Some modern minstrels like to add that she jumped from the 13th floor, but this is probably part of campus lore. This incident was a big deal in Gainesville, which was still a picturesque Southern college town. It represented the end of innocence experienced by baby-boomers during the 1970's. Using it as inspiration, Tom Petty wove a captivating and poignant song based on this story for his first album and the rest is history. Expanding on the concept of innocence lost, this song speaks volumes and resonates even today. Beatty Towers are by State Road 441, which is mentioned in the second verse. (thanks, Pablo - Miami, FL)
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."
In our interview with Mike Campbell
, he said: "We cut that track on the 4th of July. I don't know if that had anything to do with Tom writing it about an American girl."
Roger McGuinn recorded this on his 1977 album Thunderbyrd. McGuinn was a member of The Byrds and a big influence on Petty. He once joked that this number was a Byrds song he'd forgotten. Petty told Mojo magazine January 2010: "American Girl doesn't really sound like the Byrds; it evokes the Byrds. People are usually influenced by more than one thing, so your music becomes a mixture. There's nothing really new, but always new ways to combine things. We tried to play as good as whoever we admired but never could."
Even though Petty and his band were from the US, this caught on in England long before it got any attention in America. As a result, Petty started his first big tour in the UK, where this was a bigger hit.
This was featured in the 1991 movie Silence Of The Lambs. It was used in a scene where a female character is listening to it in a car before she meets Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who abducts her.
The Goo Goo Dolls played this at the 2001 "Concert For New York," a benefit show organized by Paul McCartney. Classic rockers like The Who and David Bowie were big hits among the crowd of police officers and firefighters, and they responded very well when The Goo Goo Dolls played this.
Petty gave his reaction to the performance: "I was watching the 9/11 concert in New York and the Goo Goo Dolls played 'American Girl.' I could see the crowd cheering in this really patriotic context. But it was just a story when I wrote it. In my mind, the girl was looking for the strength to move on, and she found it. It's one of my favorites."
Petty credits their producer, Denny Cordell, with helping him understand the importance of crafting a story in the lyrics to this song. Petty says Cordell told him, "When you put a little truth in a song, it elevates things."
In the Bob Dylan tradition, Petty doesn't have a typical singing voice, but as heard in this song, he writes compelling lyrics that he delivers with conviction.
This song opens the 2004 movie Chasing Liberty. Other films to use the song include Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and That's My Boy (2012). Among the TV series that have used it:
Scrubs ("My Own American Girl," 2003)
Cold Case ("Bad Night," 2005)
The Sopranos ("Join the Club," 2006)
Parks and Recreation ("Harvest Festival," 2011)
The Goldbergs ("Shopping," 2013)
Petty and the Heartbreakers played this to open their set at the halftime show of the Super Bowl in 2008.
This was featured in an episode of the TV show Scrubs called "My American Girl." (thanks, Melissa - Newcastle, Australia)
Petty told Mojo that the girl in this song was not based anyone in particular. "She was a composite, a character who yearned for more than had life had dealt her."