It's another of those age old industry practices aimed squarely at fucking the fans. That doesn't exactly narrow it down, does it? I'm referring to the practice of tacking "new" songs onto what is supposed to be a "Greatest Hits" package. Someone did market research and discovered there are dummies like me who will actually buy 14 songs they already have in order to get one or two they don't. It's like telemarketing. Everyone tells you they hate telemarketing, but it still goes on. Why? Because it works — at least it works well enough to be profitable.
Getting back to new songs on greatest hits albums, it's annoying because it undercuts the very idea of what a Greatest Hits album is supposed to be. These compilations are supposed to summarize the best or most popular — sometimes, but not always, the same thing — works from an artist. If it's brand new, it's not a hit.
Well, unless it becomes one like "Mary Jane's Last Dance" did for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. It's one of the biggest hits of his entire career, and it almost didn't happen. Petty was in the process of transitioning from MCA to Warner Brothers and was recording his first record for Warner. To close out his MCA contract, Petty had to deliver a greatest hits album and he was required to put two new songs on the compilation. He refused to give up any of the songs he was working on for what would become Wildflowers nor was he happy about interrupting work on the album, but he called up the rest of the band and along with Rick Rubin went to hammer something out quickly.
Rubin suggested Petty take an unfinished song he'd heard from the Full Moon Fever sessions and write a proper chorus for it. He went off and worked up a chorus and tidied up a few of the other lyrics and "Last Dance With Mary Jane" was born. The hilarious part of this story is, of course, that a song that was an unfinished afterthought tacked on to a greatest hits album became one of the biggest hits in the storied career of The Heartbreakers, something Rubin has playfully never let Petty forget.
I liked the song the very first moment I heard it and my esteem for it has only grown. I remember one day about three years ago listening to it in my car and was just struck by what a great record it was. It's got a great sound, a great mix, terrific ensemble playing, and a great hook. It had a classic sound, and always has.
My favorite part of the song has changed over the years after hundreds of listens. My current favorite is the last part of the final verse:
It was too cold to cry when I woke up alone
I hit the last number and walked to the road
It's very Springsteen-ian to me and a great way to lead into a final chorus and then a monster guitar solo played by Petty himself. The record industry should still be ashamed of itself, but this once they applied pressure to the sand, and Petty wound up with a pearl in "Mary Jane's Last Dance."