Don’t look for Tom Petty at the communion rail any time soon. The rocker doesn’t have a reputation for being a political activist in his music, but with a song set to be released next week, “Playing Dumb,” he implicitly takes on the Catholic Church for “covering up” the clergy sex abuse scandals, according to a new cover story in Billboard.
The magazine quotes the lyrics “For every confession that wasn’t on the level/For every man of God that lives with hidden devils” in prefacing comments from Petty about the tune — which appears as a bonus track on the Blu-Ray and two-LP vinyl editions of his new album, Hypnotic Eye.
Billboard writer Fred Schruers noted that Petty “arches an eyebrow at the digital recorder before him” when asked about “Playing Dumb.” But the singer didn’t hold back.
“Catholics, don’t write me,” Petty tells the magazine. “I’m fine with whatever religion you want to have, but it can’t tell anybody it’s OK to kill people, and it can’t abuse children systematically for God knows how many years… If I was in a club, and I found out that there had been generations of people abusing children, and then that club was covering that up, I would quit the club.” He says he “felt that I was being asked to play dumb” and believe “that ‘OK, well, they paid some money, so it’s all over.’ I don’t trust that.”
Petty also arches his eyebrow toward not just the Catholic Church but religion in general in the article, saying, “Religion seems to me to be at the base of all wars… I’ve nothing against defending yourself, but I don’t think, spiritually speaking, that there’s any conception of God that should be telling you to be violent. It seems to me that no one’s got Christ more wrong than the Christians.”
Most of the fans who buy Hypnotic Eye when it comes out Tuesday won’t hear “Playing Dumb,” due to its bonus-track status. (The double-LP configuration that includes the song is only currently for sale via Petty’s website, while the Blu-Ray is available through other outlets.) Billboard says Petty kept the song out of the main running order of the album not because it would be controversial but because it was “hard to sequence” with the other 11 tracks.
Much of the rest of Hypnotic Eye has a sociopolitical subtext, as evidenced by titles like “American Dream Plan B.” But the magazine also duly notes that Petty “won’t take the bait” when he’s asked to name names of the figures he might have in mind as targets, saying “it’s a political album that’s not really on either side” with themes that are “really more about morality than politics.”
He’s concerned with the hunger for power that occurs “the minute the badge goes on” — something he wryly says he observes even with concert security, let alone at the top levels of government — and a consolidation of wealth and power that “wipes out the middle class.” “I’m old enough to remember an America where if you were willing to be a fairly hard worker, you could support your family… Everybody was happy — not this 'Well, I’m not succeeding if I don’t have what these phony people, these soulless shells on TV, are wearing or doing.’”
But lest it sound like Hypnotic Eye will get dirgey in taking on clerics and Kardashians, advance reports describe the album as consistently hard-rocking. Heartbreakers guitarist and co-producer Mike Campbell reinforces that aggressive promise in telling the magazine that Petty sounds “really urgent and committed… he sounds like he did on the first and second albums.” Fans have already heard officially leaked sneak previews of five of the 11 tracks, all of which feature Campbell turning out gnarly riffs and leads.
If they want to hear Petty’s mellower side, they can wait for an expanded edition of his 1994 solo album Wildflowers, which is being reissued in late fall with a selection of “unearthed,” previously unheard outtakes that the singer calls “part two of that record." Billboard describes Wildflowers and its follow-up Echo as Petty’s "divorce albums,” but he describes himself now as “romantically content” and says, “I don’t write as many love songs as I used to. I’m not in any love crisis at the moment.”
Petty isn’t known for churning up undue amounts of controversy, but when he has, it’s usually had to do with his comments about the music industry itself. Last year, he called most modern country music “bad rock with a fiddle” and elaborated that "most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle '80s where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos” — comments that drew some scorn but also agreement in the country music community, where Petty covers have been much more predominant in recent years than George Jones covers.
Prior to that, Petty ruffled a few feathers in 2002 when he released the semi-conceptual album The Last DJ with a title song that took on corporate rock radio, although he claimed at the time that “radio was just a metaphor. 'The Last DJ’ was really about losing our moral compass, our moral center.” If fans had any problem back then with his journey from “American Girl” to American moralist, it mostly had to do with the more laid-back nature of his grooves at the time. So if Hypnotic Eye really rocks as hard as the advance word suggests, any subtext may not matter as much as the six-string text.