Rick Springfield and the Eternal Search for ‘Jessie’s Girl’

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses! (NEW)

Where is Rick Springfield now? That question isn't hard to answer: The 63-year-old rocker-actor's new album, Songs for the End of the World, comes out this week.

Where is Jessie's girl now? That one is still a mystery for the ages. We still know as little about the real "girl" in 2012 as we do about the model for the Mona Lisa... speaking of great pop art.

"Jessie's Girl" was riding at No. 1 on the charts the week that MTV came into existence. As Springfield recalled in his 2010 autobiography, Late, Late at Night: A Memoir, "MTV calls to say they'd like to interview me and play the video. 'What is MTV?' I ask. Nobody seems to know, but it's press, so next time I'm in New York I find myself in a tiny hole-in-the-wall in a not-great neighborhood talking to a kid named Martha Quinn who looks like she's 12…. I believe she is the first to ask the questions I've answered more than any other: 'So, was there really a Jessie's girl?'"

Just as surely as there was a Sharona. But no one thought of tracking her down—seriously tracking her down—until the trail had run cold.

Springfield recounted the tale for Songfacts in 2009: "I don't know her name... I was going to a stained glass class in Pasadena, and I met this guy and his girlfriend. I was completely turned on to his girlfriend, but she was just not interested. So I had a lot of sexual angst, and I went home and wrote a song about it. Then about four months later I stopped going to the class and lost contact with them. The only thing I remember is his name was Gary, so I changed the name, because 'Gary' didn't sing very well. But the whole thing is absolutely what I was feeling. He was getting it and I wasn't, and it was really tearing me up. And sexual angst is an amazing motivator to write a song."

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We can all be glad Springfield didn't opt for "Gary's Girl," much as the alliteration must have seemed appealing for a minute. So, surely either Gary or Girl must have stepped forward to claim their piece of fame by now?

No. "Actually, Oprah's people tried to find her, and they got as far back as finding the stained glass (instructor)," Springfield said. "I couldn't remember his name, but I said it was late '70s; they found him, and he had died two years earlier, and they'd thrown all his papers out a year after that. So we missed finding out who she was by a year."

There are two explanations for the continued MIA status and the fact that no one has stepped forward claiming to be the subject(s) of the tune. Either the story is apocryphal—although if Springfield were going to make something up, he'd probably have come up with a backstory sexier than a shared stained-glass connection (and sexier than Pasadena, for that matter)—or else Gary and his girlfriend joined the Peace Corps circa 1980 and permanently retreated to a land untouched by MTV or, later, Oprah.

Springfield didn't think the song would be life-changing when he wrote it. In his memoir, he talks of his excitement at landing producer Keith Olsen to helm a few tracks for Working Class Dog, but remembers, "When it comes to the songs of mine that Keith elects to produce, I'm actually a little perturbed. He picks 'Jessie's Girl,' a tune I consider a good album cut but not really a single or a standout."

It didn't hurt that Springfield's General Hospital success roughly, accidentally coincided with his breakout tune. But while soap bubbles don't endure, "Jessie's Girl" became one of those timeless expressions of unrequited longing somehow made all the more universal by being name-specific—a power-pop tradition that encompasses everything from Tommy Tutone's wall-crawling "867-5309/Jenny" to Fountains of Wayne's lusty "Stacy's Mom."

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Springfield says that it's one of the two most-requested '80s songs in clubs—along with (surprise) Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'"—and actually tops the Journey tune as a karaoke request, maybe because it's easier to sing along with Rick than Steve Perry.

For Springfield, it's been the kind of gift whose licensing fees just keep on giving. It started early, when the Chipmunks chimed in with a cover. A decade and a half later, Boogie Nights was a huge turning point in its revival, as the song turned up in the climactic drug-dealing sequence along with "Sister Christian." Subsequent filmic appearances have included Hot Tub Time Machine and Couples Retreat. It was a first-season Glee highlight—with some viewers wondering if a character had been named "Jesse" just so a rival character would get to belt out that oldie. And, as Springfield points out with some bemusement, "The song gets me invited to one of Stephen Colbert's early Colbert Reports to take part in a skit in which he forgets the lyrics to 'Jessie's Girl' and I prompt him from the side of the stage. For reasons still not clear to me, my photo permanently adorns his studio-set wall."

As nearly all of Springfield's contemporaries would surely say: Why can't I find a copyright like that?

But why can't we, as a trivia-obsessed nation, find a girl like Jessie's girl? Specifically, the girl? Calling America: If you know anyone named Gary, ask him if he ever lived or played in Pasadena in the late '70s. Find out if he ever did any glasswork for churches back in the day. And above all, determine if his now fifty- or sixtysomething wife is really, really hot. Then turn them in. It's your duty as a pop-cultural citizen.