catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 5 :: 2007.03.09 — 2007.03.23


The spirit in rock music

I didn’t understand rock 'n roll until I was 14.  That was when I retired my White Heart and Petra tapes and bought my first compact disc for my new compact disc player.  I had done some research and discovered that if I wanted to branch out into “secular” music it would be safe to start with U2.  So I bought their most recent album with the funny title, Achtung Baby.  After the first listen I was sure I had made a mistake.

The sounds were weird and even off-putting for ears trained on Contemporary Christian Music production values.  Achtung Baby offered no clear sign of hope and the songs seemed to sway back and forth from blatant sexual innuendo to thoroughly religious language.  Was it “She moves in mysterious ways?” or “The Spirit moves in mysterious ways?”  How could it be both?!  My adolescent mind didn’t know what to do with the ambiguity.  “Yeah I’d break bread and wine if there was a church I could receive in”—ok, clearly they’ve lost whatever faith they supposedly had.  But then Bono adds “…cause I need it now!” and I don’t know what to think.

Since I put my hard-earned money into the album I was not going to give up after the first listen.  So I decided to give it two more listens—just enough to get my money’s worth—before returning to my Christian tapes.  I would ignore the fact that the liner notes pictured band members smoking, drinking and wearing women’s clothes.  Instead of dwelling on the negative, I would try to figure out what was good about it.  By the third listen I was convinced it was not a good album and the critics had no idea what they were talking about.  But I did have a strange urge to hear it again.  So I did.  And again.  And again, this time surprising myself by singing Bono’s dirty words—“going down on me, spilling over the brim”—as if they meant something more than what they seemed to suggest.

I was at a crossroads (this was before I knew about Robert Johnson).  Do I give my soul over to the devil by accepting secular music or should I remain true to the Lord and His music?  U2 was my first clue that this was a false dilemma.  You too can do both!  I was positively galvanized by this possibility and was eager to test it out.  The first challenge was The Velvet Underground.  U2 seemed to have great respect for this strange music from New York’s late 60s avant-garde movement.  So I gave it a try.  Reed’s lyrical depictions of drug addiction and sadomasochistic sex are not exactly decent Christian talk, but who could deny the life in those loud and free feed-backy guitars?  And how marvelous the simple vibrancy and throbbing energy of Mo Tucker’s artfully clumsy drumming!  It felt like they were breaking down the doors to the future.

My next great challenge opened the floodgates and made me a rock music junkie for life.  It was Nine Inch Nails' dark depiction of alienation and despair, The Downward Spiral.  The album begins with a foreboding glorification of the autonomous individual.  Trent Reznor defiantly screams “God is dead and no one cares.  If there is a hell I’ll see you there.”  The album ends when the godless singer’s confessions of alienation and despair lead to a graphic depiction of his own suicide.  As I listened, the feeling of discomfort and the urgent desire to make sense of this strangely compelling music rose up again just as it did when I first heard U2.  Only NIN was a much darker kind of music.  Was I becoming immune to evil? 

As these experiences continued and my faith survived, even thrived, I knew I wasn’t going over to the dark side.  These faith-testing moments gave me a more nuanced understanding that my spiritual well-being was not weakened by the volatile mix of sin and salvation in rock music.  It was certainly enhanced.

For years now I have turned to rock music for this particular spiritual experience.  I find other music spiritually beneficial, of course.  Classical music feeds my mind with lavish harmonies and thoughtful musical passages, a product of the resonant churches of Europe and the peaceful meditation of mystics.  Folk music is late night comfort food, a nostalgic embrace of all things traditional.  It offers many a well-turned phrase and is useful for peaceful protest rallies and communal sing-alongs around the fire.  Pop music also has its place.  It’s the people’s music, after all.  Infectious, happy, pleasing to a broad audience.   A long road-trip is much improved by a string of top 40 hits on the radio.  But in my experience, none of these musical forms can do what rock can do. 

In order to understand precisely what rock does, it’s important first to realize that rock 'n roll is fundamentally different than classical, folk and pop music.  Its spirit is radically opposed to these and any other forms of music.  In fact, you might find some difficulty defining rock as a form of music at all.  If you break down its musical elements,  early rock 'n roll appears nearly identical to Rhythm & Blues: 2-3 minute songs built on a blues scale, a jazz-influenced running bass-line, verse-chorus-verse repetition and sexually implicit lyrics over syncopated 4/4 rhythms.  But a comparison of R&B to the earliest rock 'n roll reveals that rock 'n roll sets itself apart by its attitude. 

One can clearly sense a change in spirit from R&B to rock 'n roll in the song considered by some to be the beginning of rock 'n roll: "Rocket 88."  It was written by Ike Turner and recorded at Sun Studio by Sam Phillips in 1951.  Technically, the song resembles any R&B song recorded at the time.  But when you play it next to other R&B songs, there is a distinct difference.  "Rocket 88" sounds wilder, louder, grittier.  The electric guitar is distorted and ugly, the fortunate result of a broken guitar amp (it had fallen off the back of the truck on the way to Memphis).  Instead of replacing the bad amp with a “good sounding” one, producer Sam Phillips stuffed a ball of paper in it and cranked it up in the mix.  This act perfectly embodies rock 'n roll.  Certainly many R&B producers often had to deal with bad amps they couldn’t afford to replace, but Phillips modeled the rock 'n roll attitude by deciding to highlight, not hide, the damaged amp.

It is no coincidence that Phillips continued to support the rock movement with his discoveries of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.  Many of these performers came to Phillips with standard gospel songs and ballads but Phillips pushed them to go further, providing a spiritual environment for rock 'n roll to thrive.  Phillips believed God was doing something in Memphis and he wanted to capture it.  Memphis music had the potential to cross racial barriers, Phillips thought, so when a naïve young man named Elvis came into Sun Studio with Pentecostal charisma and an appreciation for “Race Music”, Phillips made another rock 'n roll decision to highlight what others might have let remain hidden.

Phillips had an ear for the genuinely human and soulful elements of performances and he was always ready to capture a spontaneous moment.  This freedom also carried over to discussions in the studio, which sometimes turned theological after a few drinks.  This exchange between Sam Phillips and Jerry Lee Lewis was captured on tape right before Lewis launched into an impassioned performance of "Great Balls of Fire," revealing the religious tension driving the early pioneers (many of them church-goers) of rock.

Lewis:  [The Bible] says make merry with the joy of God only, but when it comes to worldly music, rock 'n roll…You have done brought yourself into the world, and you’re in the world, and you’re still a sinner.  You’re a sinner and unless you be saved and borned again and be made as a little child and walk before God and be holy—and brother, I mean you got to be so pure.  No sin shall enter there—no sin!…It don’t say a little bit; it says no sin shall enter there…You got to be so good.

Phillips: All right.  Now look, Jerry, religious conviction doesn’t mean anything resembling extremism…Now, listen.  Jesus Christ was sent here by God Almighty—

Lewis:   Right!

Phillips: Jesus Christ came into this world.  He tolerated man.  He didn’t preach from one pulpit.  He was around and did good.

Lewis:      That’s right!  He preached everywhere!

Phillips: Jesus Christ, in my opinion, is just as real today as He was when He came into this world.

Lewis:   Right!  Right!  You’re so right you don’t know what you’re sayin’!

Riley:    Aw, let’s cut it. 

Van Eaton:  It’ll never sell, man.  It’s not commercial.

Phillips: Wait, wait, wait just a minute.  We can’t, we got to—now look, listen.  I’m tellin’ you outta my heart and I have studied the Bible a little bit…If you think that you can’t do good if you’re a rock and roll exponent—

Lewis:   You can do good, Mr. Phillips, don’t get me wrong.

Phillips: Now, wait, wait, listen.  When I say do good…You can save souls!

Lewis:   No!  No!  No!  No!

Phillips: Yes!

Lewis:   How can the Devil save souls?  What are you talkin’ about?

Phillips:  Listen, listen

Lewis:   Man, I got the Devil in me!  If I didn’t have, I’d be a Christian!

This exchange illuminates the spiritual tensions that continue to haunt rock music.  Phillips’ view that rock is a saving force contradicts Lewis’ embrace of the devil’s music and desire to maintain the “purity” of Christianity.  (This was before anyone had the bright idea of making a separate genre of music just for Christians.)  And musicians Riley and Van Eaton give expression to the strained relationship between rock’s soul-saving freedom and the commercialism on which their livelihoods depend.

Phillips clearly believes rock is meant for more than making money.  He speaks about rock in spiritual terms.  In fact, I’ve heard him justify rock’s role in the sexual revolution by pointing out that love songs of the mid to late 50s and early 60s opened up lines of communication between boys and girls that were suppressed by parents.  According to Phillips, rock saves souls because it expresses the complicated mix of emotions that accompany young people on their way to adulthood.  Instead of giving trite answers or preaching, rock hollers and screeches its non-sensical tutti-frutti’s into the air and pierces the silence with expressive peals of guitar feedback in much the same way that James Dean relieves his hidden anxieties when he punches that desk in the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause (one of Elvis’ favorite movies).

Many Christians and non-Christians misunderstand the significance of rock music.  They think it’s just a bunch of horny kids letting off some steam and excess aggression.  It is that.  But rock music is also one of God’s special creatures designed to glorify God and serve others.  It is true that rock is often used to glorify men and women, but this does not alter the goodness of rock music itself.  I have spent much of my life trying to explain why I’m drawn to rock 'n roll and how it fits with my faith.  But to this day, I have not found one single example of rock 'n roll with flawless theology or completely pure motives.  To the contrary, I am often appalled at the outright amorality and hedonism of rock.  I can see why many of my fellow believers prefer happy Jesus songs with rock instrumentation rather than true rock 'n roll.  Rock 'n roll is messy.  Listening to music cleansed of immorality and coarse language makes one feel pure, untainted. 

This idea of purity does not resonate with me, however.  I relate to Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans: “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do…For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do;  no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15-19).  Rock music is the perfect expression of this frustrating inability to put our own contradictions into words.  Rock highlights our weaknesses, our mistakes and cranks it up in the mix.  It dares to put human shortcomings on the stage, proudly announcing “This is me.  Take it or leave it.  But don’t deny it.”         

I understand now what I didn’t understand when I was 14: rock music has always done what it did to me.  Even after Elvis became the leader of the three-ring (media) circus and Dick Clark put rock into business suits, rock 'n roll continued to speak to adolescents with its strange mix of self-destructive expressionism, not-so-hidden sexuality and Southern gospel-influenced religious fervor.  From post-WWII Britain’s Rolling Stones to the American Midwest’s Iggy Pop and the Stooges, from New York’s Patti Smith and the back-to-the-basics movement of the 1970s to English punk with a political edge, from Seattle’s clash with commercialism in the form of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit to hip-hop’s Public Enemy and its rock counterpart Rage Against the Machine, the best rock music expresses the tension between sin and salvation inherent within.

When I’m tired of pop music’s sweet nothings and the moralistic sentiments of Christian contemporary music, when I don’t want some folksy poet to put together a clever couplet explaining the mystery of the universe, I will turn to rock 'n roll.  I will embrace the punk rock attitude that points a middle finger at an enemy that has no name.  I will add my name to the list of witnesses who hear the spirit moving in the piercing screams of Kurt Cobain’s “Territorial Pissings”, in the “electric church music” of Jimi Hendrix and in the sexually charged gospel funk of Prince because it moves.  It moves in all kinds of mysterious ways.

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