The Story Behind Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”

Tom Petty

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is a group that remains not only familiar, but well loved, even for casual fans of rock music. However, there is one song in their catalog that seems to confuse almost every fan, casual and dedicated individuals alike. That song is called “Last Dance With Mary Jane.” If you’re familiar with alternative names for certain drugs, your mind probably immediately goes to that particular topic. On the other hand, if you’ve led a more sheltered life, you might think that the song is about a dance with a girl. The question is, which is it? As it turns out, there’s a lot that went into the creation of this song as Tom Petty intended it. Things aren’t always so black-and-white, including the meaning of the title, but that didn’t stop it from becoming one of the greatest hits of all time.

A Song Reworked

It would be impossible to tell the story of this song without first discussing how it came into existence in the first place. At first, it wasn’t actually titled “Last Dance With Mary Jane.” Tom Petty, who was the lead singer for the group, also wrote the lyrics. He himself admitted many times that he struggled with the lyrics. Originally, the song was entitled “Indiana Girl” and was indeed about a girl from Indiana, hence its name. There are still some of those lyrics in the finished piece, but you sort of have to go looking for them. If you listen carefully, you will hear mention of an Indiana girl in the song. So, how did the rock song about a girl from Indiana get changed to “Last Dance With Mary Jane?” It all happened when the group got together to record the song, at least in part. Remember how Petty himself had admitted that he had trouble with the lyrics to the song? As it turns out, he struggled with the lyrics so much that he continued to rework them even when it was down to the wire. He just wasn’t happy with the way the song was turning out. To further complicate matters, the producers for the record label weren’t terribly excited about it when they heard it, either. As a result, the title was changed, as were the majority of the lyrics.

More Than One Meaning

Over the years, many people have speculated that the song is indeed about smoking marijuana, especially since Mary Jane is a slang term for the drug. It’s come up so many times that people have asked the band members themselves what the song is actually about. The funny thing is, they seem to be rather tight-lipped about the meaning of the song. In fact, they almost always say that they like the fact that the song could potentially have more than one meaning. It might be about marijuana, but it could just as easily be about a girl named Mary Jane. As far as they’re concerned, it’s good that it can have more than one meaning because it allows the listener to put themselves in the position of the person that is in the song, which obviously makes it more meaningful. However, the band members do tend to comment on one thing about this song. They all agree that it was very difficult to write and that it gave them grief from beginning to end. In fact, it was so difficult that the song almost ceased to exist in its entirety.

Try, Try Again

This is a song that was admittedly difficult for Petty to write. Obviously, he struggled with it because so many changes were made to it that even the title of the song itself eventually changed. In past interviews, he himself has said that he had a very difficult time with the lyrics and that he wasn’t particularly happy with them, even when they were about to record the song. Apparently, he wasn’t the only person in the band that wasn’t particularly thrilled with the song. The first time that he played it for any of the other band members, it really didn’t go over well at all. Nobody seemed to be happy with the song’s tempo or with the lyrics. As a result, he went back and reworked everything several times over. As previously mentioned, he was still working on the lyrics when they were ready to record the song. At one point, he even mentioned the fact that he had reworked the song so many times that he was finding it difficult to remember which version he was working on. As a result, he would have to write a little section and then go back and reread it in order to make sure that the next section matched up because he had written so many different versions, he was effectively writing one version for the first verse and a completely different version for the second verse.

Songs are like any other piece of creative art. Sometimes, they just flow and it seems like you’re almost on autopilot while you’re creating them. You feel as if you are merely a vessel and the ideas are coming from somewhere else. At other times, you have a general idea in your head, but you struggle to put any of it down so that it actually makes sense. There are still other times when something sounds great in your head until you put it on paper and then you wonder why you ever thought of it in the first place. This was definitely one of those songs for the band. As such, it was never terribly popular with any of the band members, largely because they remembered how difficult it was to create the finished piece every time they played it. As far as Petty’s part is concerned, he has said in many past interviews that he was never completely happy with the song, even when it was finished. As a result, they didn’t particularly enjoy playing it. However, it became one of those situations where the song got airtime on the radio and became popular with fans, so they had to play it at concerts. That said, none of them ever particularly enjoyed doing so.

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