Tom Petty Once Revealed the True Inspiration Behind ‘American Girl’ and Totally Debunked an Urban Legend

Tom Petty was nothing short of a titan of American music. The songwriter and guitarist channeled his love for the George Harrison-penned Beatles’ tune “Here Comes the Sun” into a successful career of his own. Among Petty’s many hit songs is “American Girl,” the tune that put him and The Heartbreakers on the map. The urban legend says the song is about the suicide of a college student, but Petty debunked that myth and revealed the truth years before he died.

Tom Petty in 1977. Urban legend maintains Petty wrote the lyrics to "American Girl" based on the story of a suicide, but he once revealed the true inspiration was far more mundane.
Tom Petty | Michael Putland/Getty Images

Tom Petty found inspiration for his songs all around him

In addition to the jangly “American Girl,” Petty songs routinely found their way onto the charts, radio, and MTV. The Florida native found inspiration for his songs all around him, too.

When frequent collaborator Stevie Nicks told Petty about what she said following a regretful one-night stand, he turned it into the massive hit song “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” During a break in recording with the Traveling Wilburys, Petty sat down and wrote “Free Fallin’” in 30 minutes just to amuse Jeff Lynne.

Even the songs that embarrassed him, such as “I Won’t Back Down,” turned into major hits. But it all started with “American Girl,” and Petty revealed the true meaning of the song while debunking an urban legend about its origin.

Petty once revealed the true inspiration behind “American Girl”

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The lyrics for “American Girl” include the lines “Yeah, and if she had to die trying/she had one little promise she was gonna keep” in the first verse, and later, “Well, it was kinda cold that night/She stood alone on her balcony” in the second verse. 

The urban legend, as Mental Floss reports, is that Petty wrote the song about a suicide at the University of Florida in his native Gainesville. As Petty once revealed, the truth is far more pedestrian, and the inspiration is there in plain sight.

Petty lived in inland Encino, California, when he wrote the lyrics to the song, according to Mental Floss. The lines, “Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by out on 441/Like waves crashing on the beach,” represent Petty hearing traffic that reminded him of the ocean. — he wrote the song from his own perspective.

​​”It’s become a huge urban myth down in Florida. That’s just not at all true. The song has nothing to do with that,” Petty once said, per Grunge.

What was Petty’s cause of death?

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The news that Petty died at his home on Oct. 2, 2017, shocked the music world. Petty continued to write, record, and tour new music, and he was relatively young, so his death could be considered unexpected.

Petty’s cause of death was initially believed to be cardiac arrest. Months later, a coroner’s report classified Petty’s cause of death as an accidental drug overdose. Eric Clapton and Traveling Wilburys bandmate Bob Dylan expressed their grief at the time. 

Frequent collaborator Nicks later revealed Petty was not well in the time leading up to his death. 

The Heartbreakers continued making music in various projects following Petty’s death, but “American Girl” remains an unforgettable high point in all their careers.

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