Better Off Dead: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” & What It Says About Projecting Expectations Onto A Lover

Maybe there’s something to the necrophiliac’s fetish for the corpse. Of course, like all things perverse, this predilection tends to be most commonly found in men and their love of a girl they can really mold into their own. But no matter one’s gender, it’s rather understandable that there’s far more comfort in the projections one is allowed over a dead person as opposed to a live one. In the video for one of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ best songs, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” that corpse bride destined for emotional extension is Kim Basinger, forty-one at the time of the filming (which, in Hollywood terms at that point, essentially did amount to being dead for a woman).

Created at a time when MTV was still a network that fostered artistic boldness instead of buffoonery, the sinister concept for the video finds Tom Petty in the role of a mortician tantalized by the prettiest little body he ever did see. As he peeks over his shoulder to see another, more buttoned-down co-worker regard him suspiciously, Petty finally takes the plunge by pilfering her husk (to the nonplussed reaction of the security guard watching him wheel her away) and bringing it back to his creepy mansion bachelor pad. Propping her up on the couch, he communicates with her as though she’s really alive (ah, the 90s, a decade so preoccupied with chillin’ with dead people–as firmly established by Weekend at Bernie’s). Offering to turn on the TV for her, he switches it back off when she slumps over even more in response. Pondering what else he can do with his new beloved (MTV was avant-garde, but not avant-garde enough to show us necro porn), Petty paces the room. Eureka! He’ll put on a dinner party for two, dressing her in an elegant wedding getup and painting her lips red. Seeming to enjoy the quiet time spent with her at the table (the only thing better than an attractive woman is one who doesn’t talk), Petty spices things up even more by having a dance with her–the last dance, obviously–amid a room rife with candlelight.

When it’s over, however, Petty seems to grow almost as bored with her as he would if she were a live woman. Deciding it’s simply not right to keep her soul caged this way–nor half as exciting or meaningful as he perhaps expected it to be to have total control over a “companion”–he releases her into the night, dumping her body into the water beneath the cliffs of his home. The plot pays homage to a combination of Patrick Bouchitey’s 1991 film Cold Moon and Charles Bukowski’s The Copulating Mermaid of Venice. In turn, one would like to believe it possibly served as the inspiration for Ryan Gosling’s performance in Lars and the Real Girl.

Though the video might have one believe the track itself is all about necromancy, the multi-layered meaning of the lyrics and title of the song applies both to drug use and a final goodbye to a lover (dead or not). As guitarist Mike Campbell noted, “My take on it is it can be whatever you want it to be. A lot of people think it’s a drug reference, and if that’s what you want to think, it very well could be, but it could also just be a goodbye love song.”

In the end, maybe even when we project our feelings and desires onto someone deceased who can’t fight against them, it’s still somehow unsatisfying. After all, in spite of our congenital narcissism, the last thing we really want to see is ourselves mirrored back to us. That’s almost more unpleasant than a formaldehyde bath. And as for our dead girl, well, she’s just glad to be permitted the luxury of being on her own again, hence the twist ending.