The Devil and Tom Petty

This week as I hid behind my laptop from the dangers of the world I became interested again in one of Tom Petty’s songs, “Spike,” which I have listened to many times before.

There are probably a dozen live versions on YouTube (Songkick says Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played 1,123 concerts, which sounds low), and two from albums, one live and the other in the studio. In all versions the song is about someone going into a strange place, wearing a dog collar, and being confronted by a local troublemaker who calls him Spike.

In a more recent version, from May 1, 2012, in Estero, Florida, Petty tells the story as a frame tale, amusedly. The frame takes up nearly half the 8:40 performance. He says he wrote the song when he lived in Gainesville, where there was a dive he had never been in, called the Cypress Lounge.

“And all my life I had been told that was the meanest, nastiest bar in the whole state of Florida,” he says. (When Petty deepens his north Florida accent for “nastiest,” you believe him.) “There were hippie-killers in the Cypress Lounge.”

He describes a hot Florida day, and a guy in biker leathers and dog collar walking up the road. “He takes a hard right and goes right through the front door of—the Cypress Lounge…and I mean, it was scary in there. There were robbers, and muggers, and retired shrimp boat captains in there. There were guitar thieves in there. So the meanest guy in the bunch gets up and walks over to our man, and he looks him right in the eye, and he said,”—Petty begins to sing—”Look, we got another one, just like the other ones, another badass, another troublemaker. I’m skeered ain’t you boys skeered? Hey, I wonder if he’s gonna show us what bad is….”

The words are almost a chant, a near-monotone, and sound like mere sarcasm. In this and most live versions, Spike gets to speak. The local (Petty) asks, “Hey, Spike, what d’ya like?” and Spike answers, “Nothin’….” Petty explains that Spike slides out of the Cypress Lounge and starts hitchhiking (the highway numbers vary from version to version), singing, “Doot doo, deedee deedee….”

In the version of July 29, 1986, in Portland, from The Live Anthology (2009), Petty tells a shorter tale, which starts, “This is about a young boy, used to wear a dog collar…I used to see him all the time. What’s his name?” Petty asks. The crowd roars, “Spike!”

Petty’s speaking voice is younger and less theatrical. “They always told us never to go in the Cypress Lounge,” he says matter-of-factly. He includes guitarist Mike Campbell in the story and says they used to see Spike all the time. Petty sings more dramatically, using his Dylan-inflected voice and falsetto. When he sings, “Hey, Spike, what d’ya like!,” it’s in the angry shout that puts him improbably in the New Wave, with Elvis Costello, according to some.

The troublmaker’s voice is still only mocking and sarcastic, but he does say, “I might see the world a whole new way. I might be a brand-new man.” He barks and howls: “I might say, ‘Bow-oo!’…I might say, ‘Fuck it.’” When Spike throws the door open and slides out of the bar, “The sun came in like a searchlight.”

Most live versions, like these two, are straight-forward. The album version does something significantly different though; I would call it literary. It is from 1985’s Southern Accents, the band’s sixth studio album, produced by Robbie Robertson, which has a reaper by Winslow Homer on the cover.

The song is only three-and-a-half minutes long, and there is no frame. After some razor-like throat-clearing by a guitar, a sly Moog groove kicks in. (Petty, who has been one of several called a Fifth Beatle, seems to have picked up the Beatles’ tendency to begin some songs with an almost awkward mechanical locomotion, like a Model T coming to life.)

In this version, the bully calls Spike “a man,” and his “Hey, Spike, what d’ya like?” is more of a cry of frustration. His speech tends to tail off impotently: “Ohh, I zuzzuz….”

When he says, “Hey, Spike, you’re scarin’ my wife!” he sounds genuinely alarmed. His “Hey, Spike, tell us about life,” gives Spike credit to be able to do so, and his, “Could you tell me ‘bout life?” has real plaintiveness and searching. The backup voices singing “doot doo” are not Spike now; they might be the bully’s townsfolk.

The bully seems to be genuine when he says he might want a dog collar too, and it “Might make me say ‘ow.’”

“I might say…I might say….” He goes silent, and Spike locomotes out and boogies on down the road.

The last noises on the track are panting and slavering, as if he has become that thing.

What do you call the personification of this Spike? Outsider? Threat, not victim? Contagion? A bringer of awareness of difference? A changer of lives? I like that this knowledge, this new consciousness, could be mistaken for evil but might just be art.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.