We someone famous dies, we talk about them. Everybody talks about them. If they are like Tom Petty, mostly we just extend our gratitude that we happened to hit this mortal loop at the same time. Tom Petty had a long career and an impressive body of work – listen to the whole catalog – the texture of his work is neither glam-rock smooth like Bowie nor quite as unwashed as Mellencamp. There’s a earthy, sexy grit to it, a forward groove, and a feeling that everything will be all right.
There are gems like “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, arguably the best driving song since Golden Earring’s “Radar Love”. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” stands out with its creepy Alice in Wonderland video. His biggest hit, “Free Fallin'” started out as a way to make fellow Wilbury Jeff Lynne laugh.
But when we praise the work of an artist, it is usually in terms of how their gifts affected us personally. What does the song mean to you? Which one got under your skin and cracked your heart wide open, leaving your brain in the dust?
“American Girl” was released in 1977. The urban myth states that the song is about a college girl from Petty’s home of Gainesville, Florida who took LSD and jumped thinking she could fly. I never read that part of the story til a few days ago. I’d heard the song hundreds of times, sang along, knew the words.
In the summer of 1989, on my first night in Paris, I was standing alone on a balcony at 3am. It was quiet, rainy and cool.
Earlier that night, I had struck up a conversation in a cafe with a boy named Karim. He was swarthy and beautiful and looked vaguely like Jeff Healy’s drummer. We were both 20 and far from home – although he would not talk about his home. He asked if I would like to go to the Eiffel Tower. Well, of course! He had a car and we could be there toute de suite!
He was a very fast, very terrible driver. Worse than me when I started driver’s ed and nearly took out some trees. It was after midnight though and the streets were clear. He bolted down close alleys and jerked the gearshift. The little orange Citroen hopped and screeched. And then suddenly, there we were. We parked on the Seine side and got out. 1989 was the 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower (from the 1889 World’s Fair). “100 ANS” was spelled out in lighted letters down one side. I had showed up in Paris at an auspicious time.
The air was heavy and sweet. And Karim kissed me and the clouds opened. The rain drenched and pounded us, but we did not move from our place. We kissed and kissed because the moon was full and the tower was lit and the rain gods couldn’t stop us.
We both started to shiver. He drove me back to the cafe like a maniac. Except now, he was a chilly, excited maniac. We agreed to meet for lunch in the same place. He kissed me goodnight and I didn’t want to let go, but I did.
I walked home slowly, cool insistent droplets pattering my head and hands. Back to my hotel. Back to standing alone on the balcony. Back to when I did everything I could just to be here. I couldn’t help thinkin’ that there was a little more to life somewhere else. After all it was a great big world.
I stood there, stopped shivering, tasted the warmth of his kiss lemonade beer and Gauloises cigarettes.
I knew I would never see him again. Not my choice. My group was leaving for Alsace in five hours. I breathed in the night deep as I could. God it’s so painful/something that’s so close/still so far out of reach. I wanted to make it last. Make it last all night.
I don’t play the what-if game. Life happens the way it is supposed to. I am exactly where I need to be. Wherever Karim landed, I hope he is happy. Whenever “American Girl” comes on, I sing along. It’s not about me, but it is. I appreciate what it means to me.
It got under my skin, cracked open my heart, left my brain in the dust for 3 minutes and 33 seconds.
Thank you, Tom Petty.
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