Behind the Meaning of the Spirited Song “Don’t Do Me Like That” by Tom Petty

Ah, the fragile ego. What a person won’t do in order to protect their pride. In the popular Tom Petty song “Don’t Do Me Like That,” the theme is clear, especially in the case of the male ego. In the song, Petty tells the story of a man who was “cut down to size” by a woman. And he pleads with her, “Don’t do me like that.”

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Want to know more about the meaning? Let’s dive in.

The Song’s Origins

Written by Petty, the song was first recorded as a demo with his band Mudcrutch in 1974. Later, though, as he was more established, Petty recorded it with his band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, some five years later. The hit single was released officially in November of 1979. It marked the first single from the album Damn the Torpedoes.

[RELATED: Behind the Meaning of Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ Hit “You Don’t Know How it Feels”]

As far as the performance, the song hit No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, marking the band’s only top 10 hit, perhaps surprisingly, given the number of memorable songs from Petty and his merry crew. The track also hit No. 3 in Canada but failed to chart in the U.K. despite airplay.

When Petty had first written the song, though, in the mid-’70s, he considered giving the song to The J. Geils Band, because he thought it better fit their sound. However, producer Jimmy Iovine, who would later found Interscope Records and work with Dr. Dre and a myriad of big names, convinced him to include it on Damn the Torpedoes, thinking it would be a hit. Turns out, Iovine was correct.

It’s a Hit

“Don’t Do Me Like That” earned significant praise upon its release with The Heartbreakers. Billboard, Cash Box, Record World and more said it was a success. Critics loved its rock temp and its hook. Listening to the track, it’s easy for the refrain to get stuck in your ear like a Q-tip. With Petty’s sharp delivery and alliteration in the chorus, the song is a memorable one and has been now for nearly 50 years.

The Lyrics

The song opens with a story:

I was talking with a friend of mine
Said a woman had hurt his pride
Told him and she loved him so an
Turned around and let him go
Then he said, “you better watch your step”
Or your gonna get hurt yourself
Someone’s gonna tell you lies
Cut you down to size

Next comes the refrain:

Don’t do me like that
Don’t do me like that
What if I love you baby?
Don’t do me like that

Don’t do me like that
Don’t do me like that
Someday I might need you baby
Don’t do me like that

Combined, these two sections of the song explain the state of mind of the song’s subject. A man is left by a woman who said she loved him. He’s devastated. He pleads with her for her not to leave him. Implicitly, there is fear and doubt on the part of the man. If she leaves, where will he be? His pride will be hurt, he’ll look foolish to others, and, perhaps worse, he’ll be alone.

[RELATED: 5 Deep Cuts From Tom Petty That You Should Be Listening To]

But it would be interesting to hear the song from the perspective of a woman today. What was she thinking? What did he do to make her want to leave? After all, she had, according to the lyrics, expressed love for him. Perhaps he did something to wrong her, to hurt her. This side of the song isn’t ever explained.

There is a saying by Margaret Drabble, and it’s an unfortunate one. “A man’s greatest fear from a woman is that she will laugh at him; a woman’s fear is that a man will kill her.” Of course, it’s not a fair trade and it’s one society has seen come to fruition countless times, unfortunately.

And while “Don’t Do Me Like That” thankfully doesn’t take the relationship to those big extremes, it does touch on that dynamic.

Petty sings:

Listen honey, can you see?
Baby, you would bury me
If you’re in a public eye
Givin’ someone else a try
And you know you better watch your step
Or you’re gonna get hurt yourself
Someone’s gonna tell you lies
Cut you down to size

Final Thoughts

In the end, the song is relatively harmless. It’s also catchy. But it does point a finger, in one way or another, at the difficult dynamic between men and women as promises are broken, minds are changed and lives are affected.

Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns

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