The Eternal Oddball Charm of Tom Petty

I was 22 the first time I saw Tom Petty. I cried. Not cute crying; there were no tender tears. Snot dripped down my nose and my eyes were puffy and red. My boyfriend at the time saw me and asked “are you okay? Should we go?” I choked out “I’m just so, so happy.”

Three years later, sitting in Queen’s Forest Hills Stadium, I watched Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers again. I didn’t sob and hiccup through “Free Fallin,’” like last time. But it was better.

I’ve listened to Tom Petty most of my life. Every time I turn him on, I feel like he’s singing directly to me. He got me through the death of my father and the loneliness of moving to New York City shortly after. Heck, he even looks like a younger version of my father and speaks with the same eccentric kindness. His musical idiosyncrasies make him the perfect soundtrack for any mood I’ve ever been in.

Outside, in the setting sun, watching the lovable weirdo warble through his 40-year catalog with the backup of equally great musicians, is how his music should be heard. Not only in the literal sense of “Into The Great Wide Open,” though you can bet I turned to my current boyfriend and pointed that out, getting a face palm in response.

They blasted hits like “I Won’t Back Down,” “Refugee,” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream” into the night. Their performance added much needed excitement to what appeared to be a Catholic confirmation ceremony occurring just beyond the venue’s fence.

Petty doesn’t use stage antics to get the attention. (That’s no knock to antics; opener Peter Wolf did his fair share of exuberant air guitaring and he was downright delightful in his shiny shirt rock star outfit.) When the man stood still at a microphone to croon the low-key “Crawling Back To You,” the audience clung to every word. He took “Learning To Fly” down several notches, playing it acoustic for the first half and putting all the focus on the lyrics. Words of hope, fear and nostalgia soared into the darkening sky and made my bones tingle.

Petty’s gift is that he’s a soothing oddball. His wacky, dry manner of speech and his nasally voice—cracking more as he ages but never losing its charisma—says “I’m a rock star but I’m really a just an eccentric musical genius and look I wrote this cool thing, let me share it with you fine folk.”

Now 66, Petty’s magnetism is stronger than ever, though his vocal range isn’t. But it didn’t matter. Backup singers the Webb Sisters were stellar as they aided him on the highest notes in songs like “Free Fallin’” while he led the audience in a mass sing-along. Not that we needed the prompt.

A woman behind us, with the most New Jersey accent, exemplified Petty’s ability to stir up a crowd. With every stellar chorus, she kept leaning over to her adult son and demanding “you should do that! You could do that!” While the poor boy just sat “mom, please”-ed his way through the show.

The show was reminiscent of Petty’s cameo in the almost universally reviled film The Postman” Kevin Costner’s 1997 post-apocalyptic film wherein he saves America from bandits with a bag of mail. I remain one of probably five people alive or dead who love it, a movie drowning in sentimentality.

Petty plays a future version of himself who has graduated from rock stardom to become the mayor of a town that doesn’t allow guns. Fitting for a man who wrote a song about “Two Gunslingers” throwing down their weapons and changing careers.

“I know you – you’re famous,” Costner tells him. Petty, humble loon that he is, responds “I was once. Sorta. Kinda. Not anymore.” Later, Petty recognizes Costner as The Postman. “I heard of you man. You’re famous.”
Trust Petty to choose a cameo in which he shrugs off his stardom in favor of something he thinks matters more.

It makes sense; The Postman is all about hope — however saccharine it’s presented — and Tom Petty’s nonjudgmental and universal music is pure, sweet, unadulterated hope.

He’s strange enough to be unforgettable, grounded enough to be tolerable, and his music authentic and sweet enough to endure.