Behind the Meaning of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” By Tom Petty

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was recorded by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1993, while he was working on his second solo studio album, Wildflowers. The sessions were the last to include drummer Stan Lynch before his eventual departure in 1994.

The song was first released as part of Petty’s Greatest Hits album in 1993. It quickly rose to No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming his first top 20 hit of the 1990s. It also topped the Rock Album chart for two straight weeks.

Indiana Girl

Written in the garage of Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell, the track was originally titled “Indiana Girl” by Petty– a reference that stuck around in the song’s opening lines, She grew up in an Indiana town…she grew up tall and she grew up right / With them Indiana boys on an Indiana night. The basic riff for the song had been swirling around in writing sessions for a while but had never found a permanent home.

In an interview with Songfacts, Campbell explained how the song came together. “It was called ‘Indiana Girl,’ the first chorus was ‘Hey, Indiana Girl, go out and find the world.’ We liked the song and Rick Rubin suggested we cut it.”

He continued, “Tom was singing the chorus, and he decided he just couldn’t get behind singing about Hey, Indiana Girl. We went back and about a week later he came in and said ‘I’ve got a better idea,’ so he changed the chorus to Last dance with Mary Jane. In the verse, there is still the thing about an Indiana girl on an Indiana night, just when it gets to the chorus he had the presence of mind to give it a deeper meaning.”

Who is Mary Jane?

Though Petty never explained exactly what the meaning of the song was about, two main interpretations have taken precedence.

The first sees the group singing goodbye to Petty’s first wife Jane Benyo. Though the pair officially got divorced three years after the song was released, in Petty: The Biography, author Warren Zanes revealed that Benyo would call Petty “regularly, obsessively, and threaten suicide if he said he was hanging up.” While he was still alive, Petty himself admitted the couple fought often and even credited his former wife for keeping their family together while on the road.

I was introduced and we both started groovin’
She said, “I dig you, baby, but I got to keep movin’ on, keep movin’ on

While the lyrics seem to point to a lover in Petty’s life, Benyo grew up in Gainesville, Florida in the same neighborhood as Petty, making the lyrics she moved down here at the age of eighteen…I was introduced and we both started groovin‘ a bit of a stretch.

Another, and more widely accepted meaning, is that “Mary Jane” is used as slang for marijuana, telling the story of how Petty was introduced to the drug by personifying it as a young woman.

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

Throughout the song, he talks of “killing the pain” with Mary Jane and using her to leave his tired old town for a while. With Petty publicly announcing his affinity for the drug, this meaning seems to hold more weight.

“I’m mostly just a reefer guy. It’s a musical drug,” Petty told Men’s Journal in 2014. “I’ve had a pipeline of marijuana since 1967.”

Campbell offered his two cents on the lyrics saying, “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.”

Music Video

Petty’s music videos often took a turn for the weird but the visual for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” might just take the cake. In the video, Petty plays a mortician—if he seems to fall into the role naturally it could have something to do with his pre-fame days as a gravedigger.

While in the morgue, Petty takes home a corpse played by Kim Basinger. When he gets her home, he puts her in a wedding dance and dances around a candlelit room with her. After a while, he decides to get rid of her by throwing her into the ocean. In a twist ending, she opens her eyes as she sinks into the water.

In an interview with Billboard, Petty said of the video, “She’s got to look really good, or why would he keep her around after she’s dead? I thought, ‘Kim Basinger would be good. I’d probably keep her for a day or two, let’s go see if she would do it.’ You can make a joke about it, but you have to act a bit to be dead. It’s not easy.”

Tom Petty Photo: Robert Sebree / Warner Records

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