It was the summer of 1979 when I first heard Tom Petty on the radio:
I was talking with a friend of mine
Said a woman had hurt his pride
Told him that she loved him so
Turned around and let him go…
“Don’t Do Me Like That” was my favorite song for a while, and the radio would always be my favorite way to hear Tom Petty. I never owned a TP album; I just caught him on the airwaves for what feels like my whole life. And it occurred to me, thinking back now about all those TP singles, that one of their defining qualities was a recurring reverence for women and what it was like to love and admire them.
Much rock music throughout history has been male-focused if not straight out misogynistic. Sexism is an accepted part of the Rock & Roll mythos, and it was certainly prevalent in the latter decades of the 20th century and into the new millennium. And Tom Petty, for all those years, kept threading his library of songs with women in respectful and realistic roles while remaining true to the grit and groove of Rock & Roll.
There’s songs like “Don’t Do Me Like That” where women had power; they could break your heart, so watch out boy! Continuing this theme was “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” and “Even the Losers.”
He wrote love songs wrapped in bravado: “Here Comes My Girl” “Yer so Bad” and “You Wreck Me.” And when he went tender, as in “Wildflowers” he did so with elegiac beauty.
There were songs when love was shared and pure (“The Waiting”) and when things done gone bad (“Stop Dragging My Heart Around” with Stevie Nicks).
But Tom Petty was best when singing the songs of women from a third person point of view, as an observer of humanity’s better half and more complicated creature, such as in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” “Free Fallin’” and arguably TP’s signature song and first hit…
Last Thanksgiving morning, I was busy in my kitchen with the radio on (well, Pandora), in the company of my teenage daughter, Sophia, and our teenage cousins Cate and Madelyn, when “American Girl” came on. I knew it from the opening “Chhh” and got my head going with the swirling guitar riff as I continued to prep the meal and wait for the killer first line. And much to my absolute fucking delight, said line was delivered not just by Tom Petty but my daughter and our two cousins, a song known by heart by three teenage girls a full 40 years after its debut on American radio:
Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises…
I let them sing alone; it was their song after all.