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Saturday Song #1

The idea for this new feature has been around for at least a couple years; I almost started in a few different times and then just...didn't. So, why start now? The blog has been fairly stagnant for a long while now and I want to get back to some actual writing. I do still enjoy doing the Sunday Shuffle, but that format doesn't lend itself to talking about the songs. There are so many great songs out there and I want to focus on one song a week, to tell you why I love it. I'm sure I will cover songs almost everyone knows and songs that only a handful of you know. Either way, I want to share my passion for music in another format. I will create a Spotify playlist to house every song that gets featured here, so that you can listen along if you're so inclined. Okay, let's get to our first song...

"Mary Jane's Last Dance" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

It was the era (the early 90s) when bands would put out a greatest hits album and include newly-recorded songs. That practice did seem to fly directly in the face of the notion of a greatest hits collection, but we all just ended up accepting it. Springsteen did it, adding 4 new songs and giving us "Murder Incorporated." Madonna did it, adding 2 new songs, including "Justify My Love." Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did it and wouldn't you know it, "Mary Jane's Last Dance" became a hit and one of their iconic songs. It's easy to hear why.

The song starts with that great guitar riff and very little else for the first 10 seconds before the whole band kicks in. There's a pleasing shuffle to the beat, which still gives plenty of space for that riff to keep working it's magic. Then Tom starts to sing...

She grew up in an Indiana town
Had a good-lookin' momma who never was around
But she grew up tall and she grew up right
With them Indiana boys on them Indiana nights

...and we get hit with the signature harmonica riff and the backing "ooh"s, which are both integral to the song. Back to the words we go...

Well, she moved down here at the age of eighteen
She blew the boys away, it was more than they'd seen
I was introduced and we both started groovin'
Said "I dig you baby, but I got to keep movin'...on

I love how Petty waits to deliver the "on" in that line, almost like it's tossed away. It allows him to keep the rhyme scheme but to also extend the story. And speaking of the story, this song can be interpreted two ways. One way is that this is a song about a guy and a girl and how things didn't work out. The other is that this is a song about drugs...

Last dance with Mary Jane
One more time to kill the pain
I feel summer creepin' in
And I'm tired of this town again

Regardless of which way you interpret the lyrics (and I think you can hold both in your mind), that chorus is amazing, not only for the harmonies but also for the way Petty draws out the word "pain" and again with, well, "again." It's a chorus to sing along to, with the car windows rolled down and the stereo cranked up. The good news is you get to sing it a few more times, because we're only about 90 seconds in. A quick drum fill and the return of the harmonica and then it's time for verse two...

Well, I don't know but I've been told
You never slow down, you never get old
Tired of screwing up, tired of goin' down
Tired of myself, tired of this town
Oh my my, oh hell yes
Honey, put on that party dress
Buy me a drink, sing me a song
Take me as I come cause I can't stay long

Aaaaand cue the chorus again. The rhythmic cadence on the verses words perfectly with the music, with the end of each line finding the drumbeat and the guitar. Meanwhile, each chorus has had little guitar flourishes on top of the main riff, but when we exit the second chorus, we get a different guitar lick that wonderfully entwines with the other riff...and then comes the solo. This first time, though, the solo is relatively contained so we can get to the third and final verse...

There's pigeons down on Market Square
She's standing in her underwear
Lookin' down from a hotel room
Nightfall will be comin' soon (dig that little guitar lick here too)
Oh my my, oh hell yes (love that this comes back)
You got to put on that party dress
It was too cold to cry when I woke up alone
I hit the last number and walked to the road

The song hits the chorus again and then spends the last minute or so just bringing all the musical motifs back, both harmonic and guitar, before Mike Campbell unleashes a second solo to take us out of the song. It's a fadeout, but I always like to think they kept rocking for another couple minutes after the song officially ends. Still, at just over 4 1/2 minutes, it's not like we got cheated.

"Mary Jane's Last Dance" was recorded in 1993, during the sessions for Wildflowers, Petty's second solo album, and one of my favorite albums of all time. It amazes me that he was on such a hot songwriting streak at that time, almost 20 years into his career. This is also the last song with Stan Lynch as a member of the band. Much has been said about Lynch's departure from a variety of viewpoints; for me, I'll just say that he sure picked a hell of a song to go out on. Rock music doesn't get much better than this.


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