The Meaning Behind “Jammin’ Me” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and How Bob Dylan’s Lyrics Angered Eddie Murphy

It says something about the musical chemistry of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that they were able to take “Jammin’ Me,” with its somewhat bizarre lyrics, and turn it into a radio hit. The song hit the Top 20 in 1987 as the lead single off the album Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough).

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What is the song about? What musical legend wrote it along with Petty and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell? And how did it get Petty into some hot water with comedy legend Eddie Murphy? Let’s take a look back at this strange but true part of the Tom Petty discography.

Petty Doing Improv

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers put a lot of time and effort into their 1985 album Southern Accents. While it led to some undeniably incredible songs on the record, it also pushed Petty and company to the brink during the process of making it. Because of that, Petty set out to make sure his next release wouldn’t be as protracted or all-encompassing.

In fact, when he and the band assembled to make the 1987 album Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), the brief was to keep things simple and keep out any outside influences. That’s why there aren’t any special guests on the record (Southern Accents was filled with them), and it’s also why Petty and Campbell served as producers.

Petty even indulged in improvisational songwriting on the album, with a few of the songs created on the spot in the studio. For the lead single, however, they turned to a track for which Campbell had sketched out the music. Around that time, the band had been touring with Bob Dylan, and Petty decided he and Dylan would knock out the lyrics for the song that would become “Jammin’ Me.”

Dylan Vs. Hollywood

If you know “Jammin’ Me” at all, you probably know that the following lyrics stand out brazenly: Take back Vanessa Redgrave / Take back Joe Piscopo / Take back Eddie Murphy / Give ’em all some place to go. First, it’s an odd trio to assemble. While Murphy and Piscopo were indeed on Saturday Night Live together in the early ’80s, their careers had taken wildly different paths by the time this song rolled around in ’87. And good luck finding any connection to them and Redgrave, the distinguished British actress of stage and screen.

Beyond that, why call them out at all? Murphy, for one, was allegedly none too pleased with the song. Petty explained in Paul Zollo’s book Conversations with Tom Petty that those lyrics emanated entirely from his future partner in the Traveling Wilburys:

“That was all Bob, that verse about Eddie Murphy. Which embarrassed me a little bit because I remember seeing Eddie Murphy on TV really pissed off about it. I had nothing against Eddie Murphy or Vanessa Redgrave. (Laughs) I just thought what [Dylan] was talking about was media overload and being slammed with so many things at once. And times were changing; there weren’t four television channels anymore. It was changing, and that was the essence, I think, of what he was writing about.”

What is the Meaning of “Jammin’ Me”?

Put aside the lines about those three stars and what you get is a typically idiosyncratic series of Dylan complaints about encroaching modernity (or at least modernity as it was in 1987). These hassles lead the narrator to feeling helplessly trapped: You got me in a corner / You got me against the wall, Petty sings to open the song.

What’s fascinating about the song is that Dylan (and we’re assuming here that he handled the bulk of the lyrics in the verses) seems to be advocating a total withdrawal from the world. He doesn’t want to hear about current events (Take back El Salvador) or technological advancements (… and the Apple in young Steve’s eye). Let your TV bleed, Petty mewls at the end of one diatribe.

In the chorus, it feels like Petty’s fallback songwriting outlook of resilience and defiance comes to the fore: Baby, you can keep me painted in a corner / You can walk away but it’s not over. “Jammin’ Me” certainly had an interesting draw in the celebrity name-dropping. What’s kept it from being dated is the power and grit of the performance by Petty and his stellar band.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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