Greatest Song At This Moment - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' "Listen To Her Heart"

Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included The Ramones' "Indian Giver," R.E.M.'s "Me In Honey," and David Bowie's "Starman."

At the risk of sounding like one of those know-it-all trivial historians, "Listen To Her Heart" is about nothing less than the attacks on and never-ending perseverance of rock 'n' roll. Most would dismiss the song as another in a long line of standard, catchy, "I hope I date that girl" songs about, well, a girl, and it certainly works well on that level. A classic Petty opening, the right kind of slick production, and a little extra oomph on the instruments during the second verse... if that's what you want to think, more power to you. But when you play the song repeatedly for perhaps 45 times in a day, memorizing every syllable of its 2.5 verses, you begin to read into every single element, and that's where you fixate on that old fashioned pronoun technique of using "Her" to describe a non-woman. The "Her" in this song is the music itself (or "herself").

I might be assigning too much credibility to Petty as accredited rock historian, but why shouldn't I? Aside from being in the business for my entire lifetime, hanging out with Bob Dylan, an ex-Beatle and Roy Orbison, the guy just seems to love his craft. He's not a pioneer in any way, more like an acolyte for rock music. But in the early 1990's, Petty not only solidified his credibility with me during his "History Of Rock 'n' Roll" interviews, but he articulated three chunks of information which have influenced my perspective on rock 'n' roll ever since. They are:

Opinion/Fact: "Chuck Berry was rock's first poet."
Conspiracy: While discussing the late-50's change of many of rock's biggest stars (Little Richard retires/becomes a preacher, Berry's arrest, Elvis goes into the army, and Jerry Lee Lewis marries his cousin), he posits that the government arranged it all. To kill rock 'n' roll.
Belief: "The thing about rock music is... it's not really supposed to be 'good.'"

Imagine that last word spoken in Petty's trade mark giant teeth, drawn out a little longer than it should be, and then imagine it hitting me like a ton of bricks my senior year of high school. I'd never thought about it that way, and it got me wondering about what rock was supposed to really be about, and how the feelings it generates were strong and resonant, and despite temptations and shadow government agency's interference, it had prevailed.

Which brings us to "Listen To Her Heart," from the Heartbreakers' second album in 1978, written in the heart of the Rock-V.-Disco era and pre-dating the Ramones' "Rock 'n' Roll Radio" by two years.

So in the tradition of those crackpots who "decipher" every line of "American Pie," I now present my crackpot, line-by-line decoding of "Listen to Her Heart." Fortunately for everyone, my song is about 17 times shorter than the McLean song, so we won't be here all day.

"You think you're gonna take her away/With your money and your cocaine."
Petty has supposedly stated he wrote this song after his girlfriend got "locked in" Ike Turner's house, so the money and cocaine could have easily been inspired by these events. But in the late-70's rock frame of mind, I can't help but picture the scene from "Almost Famous" where Jimmy Fallon plays an agent who would tour "on a pogo stick" if he thought he could make more money. This moment gets emotionally sideswiped with the Lester Bangs flashback quote about how this was a "dangerous time for rock 'n' roll." The companies were closing in. Disco's on the move. The music business going to tempt the music artists away from their true lovers.

"You keep thinkin' that her mind is gonna change/But I know everything is okay."
The music companies - "The Man," as it were - is persistent, but naive. The Man believes these simple worldly possessions will sway rock music to its side, but because The Man does not truly love the music, and because Tom Petty DOES, things will turn out all right. Why?

"She's gonna listen to her heart/It's gonna tell her what to do/She might need a lot of lovin'
But she don't need you."

In the time it was written, rock music was coming out of the Rock God era and creating some of the grass-roots heroes (punk rock, Bruce Springsteen, etc.). These new rock stars were seen as saviors of the music not for how much they changed rock 'n' roll, but for how much they reaffirmed what was already loved about it. A hippie might think that the Goddess of Rock 'n' Roll created these champions through her caring spirit; the kind of hippie who loved The Byrds and had shaggy dust-blonde hair. And I've always loved the admission that "she might need a lot of loving." It's just enough humility to keep everything human. Next verse.

"You want me to think that I'm being used/You want her to think it's over."

Battling the wily lawyers of The Man, now we come in direct conflict with the enemy. In fact, The Man has tried to plant rumors of disloyalty into the rock lover's mind, telling us - and I do mean US - that rock music is dumb and manipulative and boring and that it's not ours to have. Simultaneously, The Man has been talking to our Lady of Rock, desperately explaining that the dream is dead. Disco has won, the companies have won, drugs have won, there is no fight. Mission Accomplished. It's the Bond-villain monologue moment. The Man has us strapped to a missile, about the launch us into the moon, thinking he's won it all.

"You can't see it don't matter what you do/Buddy you don't even know her."

Our hero breaks free of his missile chains as he could have all along. The Man didn't have a chance. For all his struggles, for all his scheming, he was defeated without even knowing why. The Man is mystified, so before delivering the final punch to the jaw, our hero gives one last post-chorus explanation.

"And you just can't creep up behind her/And you can't understand that she's my girl/She's my girl"

Taking a knee next to The now-defeated and bruised Man, our hero delivers the most direct line of the song. When he sees The Man's confused look, he realizes the concept of pure love is still beyond his grasp. NOTE: This is the first time Petty uses the word "Girl," and it's the last new word we hear in the song.

(Big Instrumental Break and Chorus)

Pow! The Man gets knocked into prison by the joy and beauty of rock. The credits roll, the soundtrack goes Platinum, and our imaginary world feels complete. All is as it should be.

Tom Petty

Written By Phillip Mottaz

Greatest Song At This Moment - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' "Listen To Her Heart"