The passing took many in the music world by surprise. Just last week, the Heartbreakers frontman was onstage wrapping up his 40th Anniversary tour with a three-show mini-residency at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl. While Petty had hailed the tour as his “last big one” in now-prescient comments, few fans thought that meant more than an extended live hiatus.
Petty’s final New York shows at Forest Hills Stadium were newsworthy in their own right. On July 27 — the same day that President Donald Trump tweeted his controversial intention to ban transgender individuals from serving in the U.S. military — Petty drew accolades for including late transgender actress Alexis Arquette in a photo medley of diverse women during his encore performance of “American Girl.”
How intentional was the gesture? Depends who you ask. PageSix celebrated Arquette’s inclusion as a “political statement,” while acknowledging that the shot had been ‘included in the tour for weeks.'” The Gothamist acknowledged the image was “perhaps a nod to President Trump’s controversial decision,” while KSHE95 called it “an inadvertent swipe” at Trump.
In any case, the move was enough to prompt David Arquette, brother of Alexis, to thank Petty on Instagram.
While Petty was never known for being an overtly political figure, he did have a history of opposing conservative candidates. In 2000, the Heartbreakers frontman sent a cease and desist letters to then-Gov. George W. Bush for using his song “I Won’t Back Down” at his presidential campaign rallies. Ditto for Rep. Michele Bachmann’s use of “American Girl” at her campaign kick-off in 2012.
In contrast, when President Obama walked onstage to “I Won’t Back Down” at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Petty told Rolling Stone, “I got chills. They knew it would be okay. I’ve had a chance to meet the President and talk to him about the music he listens to.”