Did Tom Petty believe in God?
Well, that’s a complicated one. Not unlike any of us - as our views, understanding, or relationship with God tends to be.
While it’s basically impossible to make a judgement (pun intended) on anyone’s faith, I don’t think Tom suffered fools. I don’t think he had a high tolerance for inauthenticity or hypocrisy...and yet we’re all hypocrites at the end of the day, to varying degrees. Simply because none of us live out our highest ideals, values and beliefs fully 100% of the time, do we? So I tend to give more grace to people when it comes to this area of hypocrisy. But that’s not really the point here. I will say that I enjoy finding God in places where you normally wouldn’t expect Him to be or think He’d show up…
I’ll examine this question in 3 parts: Tom’s upbringing, Tom’s friends, and lastly, Tom’s lyrics. And you might find it interesting, pointless or total rubbish. That’s OK.
Part 1: Upbringing
First and foremost, Tom was a southerner. I think knowing this is important to understanding where Tom was coming from with God, and whatever beliefs he may or may not’ve had. One could assume that any foundational understanding or perceptions of God will be filtered through the lens of the South. And the south, when it comes to religion, is a somewhat jacked up. It is a twisted, mysterious, perplexing, paradoxical, fascinating, and mystifying geography when it comes to God, the flesh and the Spirit. It’s one weird place. If you want to see a bizarre and beautiful documentary about this, check out Jim White’s film, “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.” It’s filled with strange southern characters, dimly lit honky tonk bars, pool halls, and backwoods Pentecostal churches. Watch it, you might be enthralled. The music is awesome, and I find it hard to believe that places like this actually exist on the map. I think Tom saw glimpses of this world in Florida…
It’s the classic duality of the south. You repent on Sunday morning for your sins on Saturday night.
I read that his parents taught Sunday School at their little church in Gainesville. I can’t imagine Tom showing much interest in going, and perhaps being forced (dragged?) to go at an early age.
During the Heartbreakers 1987 Rock and Roll Caravan Tour, Tom went to Jerusalem. Upon touring the city with Roger McQuinn, and after seeing the wailing wall with a tour guide, he states, “Ten years of Sunday school, and this guys tells me more in 5 minutes.” The guide says that “Music is holy,” to which McQuinn agrees. I tend to agree as well. I think Tom has mentioned somewhere that he sees the band as a holy thing(?). 10 years of Sunday School was it for Tom, then around age around age 11, his main religion becomes the Church of Elvis Presley. His infamous encounter in 1961 with the King is widely known and well documented. From here, rock and roll devotion would take over. And we’re all lucky for this as a result.
When then the 60’s happened, and the subsequent experimentation with music, drugs, freedom, rebellion, girls, etc. I imagine Tom probably put God on the shelf for a while during this period. Even going as far into the 70’s and early 80’s well, as he was experiencing his first waves of fame and success. His job, lifestyle and trajectory doesn’t fit nicely into the pews of a small southern congregational church. Also safe to say that living in L.A. and being wrapped in the music industry probably didn’t encourage any type of faith, belief, or expression about God. It would be more of the opposite that would be celebrated and/or accepted. Indeed, the Heartbreakers of the 70’s and 80’s were a wild bunch…
Part 2: Friends
But then, Tom sure had some popular friends, and who knows what ways they spoke into his life? Or what types of conversations they had in private, as friends.
1. George Harrison
One of Tom’s closest friends, and fellow Wilbury bandmate. George, the quiet Beatle, was deeply spiritual, as we all know. In the 1960’s, he was introduced to yogis, meditation, and Hinduism, and remained wholly committed for the rest of his life, embracing the Hare Krishna tradition. It’s interesting to note that when Tom passed, there was a small family memorial service held at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, near L.A. The temple and meditation garden was the same place for the funeral of George Harrison, who died in 2001. I wonder if Tom had a specific wish for this, or if the family chose it…
2. Bob Dylan
Another fellow Wilbury. Just try to untangle the faith and spirituality of Bob Dylan, I dare you. A mystery wrapped in an enigma, Dylan caused quite the stir when he released three explicitly evangelical Christian albums between the years 1979-1981. Benmont played on the final album of the “trilogy”, 1981’s Shot of Love. Who knows where Bob stood in these matters afterwards, and when he was in a band with Tom? Yet, in every interview I’ve ever read or watched, Bob’s never afraid to address or speak his mind on God.
3. Rick Rubin
A hippie-mystic-guru-meditation-music lover type of guy. All over the map in some ways, but appears to be centered and grounded in others. The decade of American Recordings he did with Cash is some of the best music ever created, IMHO. Having a discussion once about communion, Rubin informed Cash that he had never taken communion before. Surprised, Cash invited and insisted they partake together. Which they did, nearly every day, even over the phone if it wasn’t possible to do it in person.
4. Johnny Cash
Cash was a great man of faith (and a walking contradiction, as Kristofferson says). Cash was friends with saints (Billy Graham) and sinners (the rest of us). To be in his presence was to be in awe, and slightly afraid. An artist recognized for his authenticity, and his marriage to June was something to behold. Cash and Tom became close friends in the 1990’s, during the making of Unchained. Tom speaks highly of this time, the recording of this album, and his love for Johnny and June.
I have to believe that each of these people had an influence on Tom - his faith outlook, his beliefs, his spirituality - during different points & turns of his life. Close friends tend to do that.
In 1996, I read a speech he gave to a crowd of students at UCLA, upon receiving the "George and Ira Gershwin Award For Lifetime Musical Achievement." (you can find it in the summer 1996 TPATH Fan Club Newsletter). This was in the midst of recording with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins:
“At the end of the session he (Carl) took me aside and he said, 'You know, I really like you, Tom.' "And I said, 'Well, what are you getting at, Carl?' "And Carl said, 'I don't know. I just feel that tonight with us playing here that there was a lot of God in the room.' And I looked at him and he said, 'You know, I don't know Tom, if you believe in heaven but it's really nice thinking even if you don't.' "And I said, 'Well, Carl, I just hope that I get there.' "And it really touched me what he said -- he said, 'I really believe all us boys that kinda knocked around on those guitars and drums and things and went through life and were pretty good people and just tried to play a little music and stayed out of people's way -- maybe had an occasional joint -- we may have raised a little too much hell at times, but still found the time to help people whenever we could. I believe that one day we're gonna all sit around somewhere and play music like we did tonight.' And he said, 'When you get there, Tom, I'm gonna give you the best guitar God's got.' “And that really touched me. I want to tell you all that whatever your concept of God is, I believe that He writes the songs and it's just sent down through me, you know, and other songwriters. I feel like a receiver -- and tonight I'm really grateful to receive this award.”
He sounds completely sincere and abundantly grateful for the gifts and life that God has given him. “God writes the songs.” Which brings us to…
Part 3: Lyrics
Let’s look at a few instances where any concepts of God popped up in his lyrics. These are just a few that come to mind, for the sake of this musing.
1. “Oh baby, don't it feel like heaven right now” and “You take it on faith, you take it the heart, the waiting is the hardest part.” (1981) A stretch? Sure…
2a. “I was born a rebel, down in Dixie on a Sunday Morning.” (1985)
2b. Southern Accents, the song (1985)
There's a dream I keep having, where my momma comes to me
And kneels down over by the window, and says a prayer for me
Got my own way of praying, but every one's begun
With a southern accent, where I come from
Maybe the most intimate and personal Tom has been, lyrically. He didn’t really start to address or even hint at God in his songs until around the time of Southern Accents (the album). He had grown up a bit, and lost his mother a few years earlier. This had an effect on him, and now he was ready to get reflective in his writing. The song becomes a beautiful southern prayer of sorts.
This was also a time when Tom was using cocaine, staying up all night, addicted to cigarettes and Coca Cola, had self-admitted anger issues, as well as relationship/marital problems. A time when TPATH goes out on the road with the largest Confederate flag ever sewn together as a backdrop to their stage show. Complete with the Rebelettes, a group of female back up singers. Again, the twisted duality of the Southern thing. The wrestling with the flesh and the spirit. Having it both ways. (For a deep dive on the duality of the south, listen to “Southern Rock Opera” by the Drive By Truckers. I have to think this was a more complete and realized “Southern Accents”)
3. “Gypsies at home watching Jerry Falwell on TV
Might mean somethin' to you, it ain't nothin' to me” (1985)
The mid-1980’s were a rough time for televangelists, to put it mildly.
4. “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.” (1989) Impossible not to include!
5. With “I can only thank God it was not too late”, a line he repeats multiple times. Ah, the lovely Angel Dream (1996). And it sounds sincere, like he’s finally found salvation in the form of love.
6. “They love it (rock and roll) like you love Jesus,
It does the same thing to their souls” (2002)
Well, we know that Tom understood the devotion part of it. He knows both have the potential to save your soul.
And yet, still I get the feeling that Tom would rather worship at the altar of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chet Atkins, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis (cousin of Jimmy Swaggart!!) and James Brown. And….what do all of these artists have in common? Many, if not all, grew up in the Southern Pentecostal Church. Just food for thought. You can’t ever really get away from it, once it’s in your system. Bruce Springsteen frequently mentions that he is still carrying and grappling with his upbringing in the Catholic Church, not able to shake growing up in the shadow of St. Rose of Lima Church in Freehold, NJ. I personally think it makes for a more compelling artistry, and I appreciate folks who don’t shy away from it. I’m thinking of artists like Cash, U2, Leonard Cohen, Cat Stevens/Yusef, Lenny Kravitz, Lauryn Hill, Kings of Leon, Kanye West, Marvin Gaye, where I find strong undertones of God, faith and spirituality in their music. There’s probably a hundred more we could mention. Sometimes this is the best church…
Then there’s latter day Petty.
7. Playing Dumb, a bonus track from Hypnotic Eye (2014). A scathing indictment about the recent (and appalling) scandals that have have rocked the Catholic Church.
“I’m still throwin' up some of that food my mind was fed
Well let's light a candle for every kid
For every soul that was done away with
For every confession that wasn't on the level
For every man of God that lives with hidden devils.”
Ouch. Say like it is…
8. Finally, I forgive It All (2016)
A hymn of sorts. Fact or fiction? Who is his niece Lauren? Was this song directed to people or events from his past, someone like Jane? Was he relieving himself of any burdens or bitterness he was carrying that comes from unforgiveness? Speculation, yes, but you never know.
- I’ve believe I’ve seen Tom wear a cross around his neck in photos through the years. Also, during the 2016 Mudcrutch tour, I remember seeing a photo of Tom wearing a black vest, with a huge cross stitching on the back of the vest. Not saying anything specific, just mentioning it. It might just mean that he’s not afraid to wear/display a cross.
- At the end of many concerts, particularly near the end of his career, Tom’s final words from the stage were often, “Thank you, God bless you.” Yes, a lot of artists say this, but you can mean it too. I tend to think that Tom got more grateful with each passing year for the incredible gift and life he was given with his band.
Again, “Let me be clear” (in best Obama voice), I’m not making any conclusions whatsoever. Just observations. Do I think TP knew or believed in God? Don’t know. It’s too personal. Maybe even Dana Petty and Mike Campbell don’t know where Tom stood with these things.
Tom’s relationship with God was complex, contradictory, nuanced and ongoing. Like each of ours is.
Which brings me back to Part 1. If I were to poetically sum it up, I would use this line from Rebels: “I was born a rebel, down in Dixie on a Sunday Morning.”
Thanks for reading!