The “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” Controversy Tom Petty Once Had To Shut Down

Almost a decade after Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their iconic track “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” the song landed in the middle of a hotly contested controversy. Except this time, the scandal wasn’t about the song’s subject matter or composition.

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On the contrary, public outcries about the track had to do with similarities between “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California.” The only problem? Petty, who arguably could’ve been the most justified in his anger over the song’s likenesses, didn’t seem to think there was a problem in the first place.

Tom Petty’s Reaction To The Song’s Controversy

Rolling Stone wasted no time in getting Tom Petty to speak out about the “Dani California” drama when the outlet spoke to the songwriter in June 2006. Petty said he was aware of the situation, thanks in no small part to the fact that “Everyone everywhere is stopping me.”

“The truth is,” Petty continued, “I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock and roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took “American Girl” [for their song “Last Nite”], and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘Okay, good for you.’ It doesn’t bother me.”

Reporter Andy Greene pressed Petty on the issue further, citing several news outlets that suggested the Heartbreakers’ frontman would be pressing charges against the Red Hot Chili Peppers for plagiarism. That, too, Petty quickly denied. “If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe. But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.”

The Two Tracks Shared Another Significant Common Thread

The commonalities within the greater rock and roll canon are certainly one way to explain the similarities between “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Dani California.” But the tracks didn’t just share a common format. They also featured the same producer, Rick Rubin, who had worked with both bands on several projects before “Mary Jane’s” and “Dani California.”

Rubin later told Rolling Stone that Petty’s soon-to-be smash hit wasn’t even in the running for the Heartbreakers’ mid-1990s ‘Greatest Hits’ album. Originally, Petty had given Rubin five other demos to listen to so that he could find a track worth putting on the compilation album. After Rubin heard the band noodling with “Mary Jane”’s opening A minor riff in between songs, he suggested Petty pursue that creative idea further.

While Petty obviously obliged, Rubin admitted Petty’s opaque communication style made it difficult to estimate the song’s success in its earliest stages. “I don’t know how he felt about it,” Rubin told Rolling Stone. “I couldn’t read him. Sometimes, he would say things very clearly, and sometimes he would not, and feel strongly about something, and I would never know.” Given the song’s tremendous popularity in the decades to come, we’d say all’s well that ends well.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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