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Throwback Thursday: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly series showcasing an album, single, music video or performance of a bygone era and its personal and/or cultural significance.

When he carries his lover’s lifeless corpse down the front steps of his macabre-style home, I remember being terrified ⎯⎯ and mesmerized. If you know me at all, you know I have a love of horror movies (Halloween being my personal favorite), so an eager fascination with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Following Tom Petty‘s tragic death earlier this week, I got to thinking about the song’s eery, Beetlejuice-esque visual, one of the first clips I ever saw in my life. I was seven at the time, and my older sister Katrina watched MTV nonstop ⎯⎯ you know, during its heyday when the network actually played music videos. Her basement bedroom, constructed from one-half of our dusty and dank car garage no one ever used, was strewn with purple-vomit carpet. There was no underlining padding, and as I sat perched and transfixed in front of her 20-inch box TV set, my knees rubbed raw. But I didn’t care. There was something morbidly comforting about the harmonica warbling throughout the song’s soft-rock arrangement.

The visuals flirted with Texas Chainsaw Massacre moodiness, cool blues, greys and whites flooding my vision. The scenes zipped past my eyes: him dressing a woman’s (played by Kim Basinger) body up in a wedding dress; sitting her at long wooden dining room table with ruby red lipstick glistening in the moonlight; and his slow march to the shoreline, where he finally learned to let her go into the cresting waves. I never knew what the song was really about (but I guess no one does), and years later, that melody would haunt my most devilish of nightmares. As Petty’s protagonist, a goofball mortician, struggles to come to terms with a former lover’s absence, he attempts to relive the past. “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 an Indiana night,” he opens, staging one of the most bizarre pop songs of all time.

Later, he recounts falling in and out of love with the wayward wildflower. “Well, she moved down here at the age of 18 / She blew the boys away, it was more than they’d seen / I was introduced and we both started groovin’ / She said, ‘I dig you baby but I got to keep movin’…on, keep movin’ on…”

“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” has an obvious double meaning ⎯⎯ “One more time to kill the pain,” Petty seemingly succumbs to marijuana to either mask his sorrow or trigger the psychedelic hallucinations. Even Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell is hazy on what the song is actually about. “My take on it is it can be whatever you want it to be. A lot of people think it’s a drug reference, and if that’s what you want to think, it very well could be, but it could also just be a goodbye love song,” he once said. The song was originally called “Indiana Girl,” with the chorus reading: “Hey, Indiana Girl, go out and find the world.” When it came time to cut it in the studio, they lyrics were reworked. “In the verse there is still the thing about an Indiana girl on an Indiana night, just when it gets to the chorus he [producer Rick Rubin] had the presence of mind to give it a deeper meaning,” Campbell explained.

Basinger, who has starred in such films as Hard Country, L.A. Confidential, Never Say Never Again and others, reflected on the experience in a 2015 interview: “Now, that was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life. It was classic, wasn’t it? He was a doll, and he was so sweet and asked me to do it, and both of us are extremely shy so we just said three words to each other the whole time. I’ll never forget how heavy that dress was! And I had to be dead the whole time. You know, it’s really one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, because I had to be completely weightless to be in his arms the way I was.”

The song was released as part of the band’s 1993 Greatest Hits compilation, and the video went on to win the MTV Video Music Award for Best Male Video the next year, besting clips by Beck (“Loser”), Tony Bennett (“Steppin’ Out with My Baby”) and Bruce Springsteen (“Streets of Philadelphia”).

“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” is forever stuck on my brain, fated to roll around, resurface, distort by midnight reveries. That was probably the moment, back in 1993, that I feel in love with music: an alluring, shiny, escapist avenue which sent me spiraling down the path I am now set for life. I will never be the same.

Thank you, Petty, for the pleasure.

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Jason Scott

Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake--and she doesn't like you very much.