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NOD TO THE GODS: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, ‘American Girl’
April 6, 2014
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Each and every Sunday night when the clock hits eight, The Strombo Show takes over CBC Radio 2. It's music for music lovers by music lovers. To kick off the program, we always tip our hats to the legends, the noisemakers and the ground-breakers in a segment that we like to call: Nod to the Gods.

Our homage tonight is a tribute in itself, to the supercharged twangs of the folky 12-string guitar of Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. For the final track on their self-titled debut album, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers delivered one of their finest: "American Girl."

A few months after it was released, McGuinn released his own version of "American Girl" after his manager had spun the record for him. Petty has recalled McGuinn asking him, "When did I write that song?" A few decades down the line, Petty asked the same question of Julian Casablancas when The Strokes released their debut album. In a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Petty commented, "The Strokes took 'American Girl' [for 'Last Nite'], there was an interview that took place with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, 'OK, good for you.' It doesn't bother me". That year, for several dates of The Heartbreakers' tour, the opening act was The Strokes.

Beyond the "American Girl" conversation, Petty and McGuinn formed a personal and musical relationship that has resulted in some incredible collaborations — including this celebration of Bob Dylan's first album in 1992, featuring Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison.

This track has also been lured into the political conversation, incorporated by Hilary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primaries and infamously used by the Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Immediately after the latter use, Petty's management team sent a cease-and-desist letter. It wasn't the first time that a politician used a song against Petty's will; George W. Bush was requested to remove "I Won't Back Down" from his playlist in 2000. 

But perhaps the reason that "American Girl" has long been such a musical earworm are the TV shows and films that have incorporated the track, including FM, Chasing Liberty, Scrubs and Parks and Recreation. Most notably, it set the adolescent tone for the opening scenes of in Cameron Crowe's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," which is the film that introduced the world to Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Nicolas Cage (billed as Nicolas Coppola), Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz and Phoebe Cates. There is also the unforgettable moment of Buffalo Bill's abduction in "Silence Of The Lambs."

Nicolas Cage's uncle Francis Ford Coppola's 1963 film Dementia 13 influenced the song's opening lyrics. Referring to another woman, the character Louise states, "Especially an American Girl. You can tell she was raised on promises."

For further musical musings, new and old, join the collective for The Strombo Show on CBC Radio 2, every Sunday night at 8PM. And if you'd like to catch up or relisten, all of the episodes are archived here.


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