Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

The Rock ‘n’ Soul of Jesus

This repost is an annual tradition. Happy Easter.

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US #3 with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two million copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind he was Jewish. “Spirit in the Sky” was not the first or the last time Jesus hit the charts, but its success marked the unofficial beginning of a Jesus movement in and outside of rock in the ’70s that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan.

Partly a reaction to the hippie culture and also a part of it, the Jesus people, or Jesus freaks, as they were proudly known within their movement, generally sought to return Christianity to its origins. The seeds of today’s Christian right as well as its progressive left-wing were both sown in the loosely established communities/communes, and in some cases cults, which sought to throw off religious strictures as well as its staid music. Ironically, the so-called devil’s music conservatives railed against is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, though that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, these are the songs sung by generally secular rockers who went sacred at the height of the Jesus music movement of the ’70s, a 10-year period bookended by ’69’s “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979, the last time Dylan had a high-charting single at #24).

In 1966, John Lennon joked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and caught hell for it, though by the time he invoked Christ’s name and sang of his own crucifixion in 1969′s “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, all was forgiven and only a few outlets banned it, branding it sacrilegious.  By the end of the year, the Beatles were all but said and done, and it was the Quiet One who revealed himself to be the spiritual seeker of the group. Sporting a look that was rather Christ-like, George Harrison spent four weeks at #1 in the US and five weeks at #1 in the UK at the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971 with “My Sweet Lord,” the song that kicked off a kind of Jesus-mania in ’70s rock.

Speaking to his Krishna consciousness, while throwing in a couple of hallelujahs, Harrison was famously accused of copping the “doo-lang” backgrounds from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (a song about a boy which has been known to double as a spiritual). And yet, Harrison disavowed the influence, claiming his inspiration came from “Oh Happy Day”, a top five 1969 hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Oh Happy Day” grew from a Northern California gospel choir’s homemade record derived from an English hymn dating back to the 18th Century (Spiritualized also revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century).

Gospel music had been rocking souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs, to old hymns from the British Isles, and made way for a new form of expression giving voice to the inner lives of the oppressed. In his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, author Robert Darden speaks to the theological ideas and arguments behind the music:  By evoking a more powerful spirit, gospel-inspired music served to fight the demonic institutions of slavery and Jim Crow law. The 20th Century story of how church singers like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and more turned gospel into soul is among the greatest stories in music history ever told, as is the origin story of the blues, a music where heaven and hell, and Jesus and the devil, go head to head regularly. Rock ‘n’ soul were built on this gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues, soul and music’s connection to people’s liberation extensively throughout this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971, a big one for Jesus and his greatest hits: In May, Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” the title song from the debut album by Canadian rock group Ocean, became a million-seller and high-charting Billboard hit (I’ve seen it listed as a #2 as well as #3). The song was originally cut by Anne (“Snowbird”) Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” hearkens back to the first gospel song to score a number one crossover hit: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” as done by Laurie London in 1958. Mahalia Jackson—gospel’s reigning queen of soul during the civil rights era—would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring or memorable, though the Jesus music movement continued to gain momentum in the ’70s thanks to, well, Jesus, and the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice album project turned hit Broadway play bearing his name.

In May of 1971, songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) in the role of Jesus were also making their way to the charts. Murray Head (as Judas) and his version of “Superstar” were sitting at #20 and peaked at #14 in the US in June. Another song from the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,”  the “Him” being Jesus, and the “I” being Mary Magdalene (as sung by Yvonne Elliman) rose to #28, also in 1971.

Even the Rolling Stones got into the Jesus spirit that year: After the darkness that marked Altamont, they traded “Sympathy for the Devil” for when the Lord gets ready  andYou Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (from their Sticky Fingers album). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining on vocals.

In 1972, the gospel-based Staple Singers busted the crossover charts with Be Altitude, featuring the hits, “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,”  and the lesser-known “Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?”

In 1972, the Off-Broadway play, Godspell, scored a hit off its original cast album with “Day By Day” which went to #13 on the pop charts. Following the West End success of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 it was turned into a hit film, directed by Norman Jewison. Here’s a clip of Carl Anderson in the role of Judas, rockin’ the Jehovah out of the title song, followed by Murray Head’s chart hit version.

Curiously, it’s another Norman—not Jewison nor Greenbaum but Larry—who is widely considered to be the godfather of the aforementioned contemporary Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and the Pixies’ Black Francis grew up on it. A bit of a wild card, Larry Norman is generally well-regarded as an artist, remembered as a risk-taker, an experimentalist, and an iconoclast who didn’t cotton to the status quo in rock or Christian music. Also contributing to the coalescence of contemporary Christian music was Explo ’72, a festival concert that gathered over 75,000 young Jesus people in Dallas to see Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, and gospel artist Andrae Crouch for a kind of “religious Woodstock,” so-called by the Reverend Billy Graham, who was in attendance. According to author Andrew Beaujon’s book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, Explo set in motion the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music industry. Soon after, specialty labels formed, and the contemporary Christian music market was born to boom. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was Norman’s answer to conservatives, who thought rockin’ for Jesus was not in concordance with the road to salvation. Though surely as the Jesus rockers were dismissed from the inner sanctum of evangelical Christiandom, they had also impacted the sound of church hymns too: Catholic mass went “folk” in the ’70s and some of those freshly arranged hymns remain in church repertoire today.

In 1972, Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson sang “Jesus Was a Capricorn” on the album of the same title. He didn’t stay a Jesus rocker for long, though he had a definite claim in Jesus, given he was named for him—twice. “Morning Has Broken”, a Top 10 Cat Stevens hit in 1972, was based on the Gaelic hymn “Bunnesan” that’s been sung in churches as “Morning Has Broken” since at least 1930s. The Englishman of Greek origin has long since converted to Islam, first as a non-singer, now singing again. “Jesus is Just Alright” as covered by the Doobie Brothers was also a chart hit in 1972, though the Byrds had already recorded the Art Reynolds song in 1969.

Though by far, the biggest news in Jesus rock of the ’70s was Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Before developing his own distinct song style in the mid-‘60s, his lyrics vigorously opposed to injustice, Dylan had started out his career adapting old spirituals for his own form of protest song. By the mid-‘70s his Rolling Thunder Revue was as devoted to seeking justice for falsely accused prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as it was to an excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Following that harrowing passage, Dylan, in characteristic retreat mode, embraced Christianity. Born again, he cut two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and Saved (1980) produced by self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, Jerry Wexler.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming won the Best Male Rock Vocal Grammy and has since been covered by gospel artist Shirley Caesar, blueswoman Etta James, Neville brother Aaron, Texas troubadour Willie Nelson, marvelous Mavis Staples, and Hammond B-3 giant Booker T. with the M.G.’s. while John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”), and Devo (undercover as a Christian rock act, Dove) famously parodied it. At the time of recording, Dylan was pilloried: His 14-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979 featured nightly picketers stationed outside the theater. The reviews were radically divided. On 1981’s Shot of Love, Dylan answered some of his critics on songs which mixed secular and sacred and yielded at least one of his most enduring spiritual works, “Every Grain of Sand.”

In part owed to the controversy inspired by Bob Dylan’s gospel period, some believers choose to keep distinctly sacred references to Jesus out of their songs while others use his name as an invocation. Dylan faithful Patti Smith famously opened her rendition of “Gloria” with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”; she titled a song and an album “Easter”, while “Ghost Dance” features the holy incantation, “we shall live again.” Her friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe’s Catholicism left its fingerprint on her; she continues to be inspired by poet and artist William Blake whose portraits of the divine move beyond confines of religious dogma.

Punk and alternative rock depictions of Jesus are not unheard of: Joey Ramone sang “I’m Not Jesus”, and Jesus rode beside Paul Westerberg in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while a rather unholy trinity of bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones all named themselves after the big man. Flaming Lips, Ministry, and Spacemen 3 have got their Jesus songs too; they are but a small sample of alterna-Jesus references. Indie rock has its share of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens whose Jesus-inspired work stays more on the downlow, like that of U2, Bruce Cockburn, Moby, Midnight Oil, Polyphonic Spree, and Lambchop: All make allusions to JC and Christianity while enjoying success in the secular world.

In hip hop, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye “Yeezus” West whose 2004 single, “Jesus Walks” dared to speak of the very subject we’re talking about: With the Jesus movement in rock long in decline, to sing about him was often considered the equivalent of career suicide, yet West’s success was an exception. “Jesus Walks” peaked at #11 Pop and #2 R&B, sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold.

In 2008, the gospel songs of Dylan were compiled by the music’s greatest stars on Gotta Serve Somebody. The career of gospel songstress Mavis Staples has achieved a full-blown rock revival and continues to grow stronger following her contemporary albums produced by Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Southern California roots band Dead Rock West revived the Staples classic, “This May Be the Last Time” (the song the Rolling Stones borrowed for “The Last Time”), alongside works by Blind Willie Johnson and the Jesus and Mary Chain on their gospel-inspired collection Bright Morning Stars. Though the charts may never again see the high number of Jesus jams the ‘70s saw, if you’ve got the time to seek, you’ll find plenty more from where these came.

Happy Easter to all Jesus rockers, readers, and to people of all faiths: May your spirit be refreshed as you continue in the struggle for peace and justice (A version of this column originally ran in Crawdaddy! as The Origin of Song and appears elsewhere on this site annually).

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Gospel, , , , ,

Lit Up Inside: Van Morrison at 71

During San Francisco’s notoriously punishing, foggy summers, there are those who find itVan-Morrison extremely necessary to leave city limits and seek sun. On most days, it can be found shining a few short miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, known the world over for its rich hippie homes of ’60s and ’70s rock stars. Though several decades have come and gone since Marin’s hot tub, water bed and peacock-feathered days, no matter how many times I drive north, down the long stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and through San Anselmo toward the beaches, my wandering mind inevitably lands on one question: How could Van Morrison stand it here?

As most Morrison fans know, the redwood chapter of the Irish singer-songwriter’s story was relatively brief, compared to his life in music, now in its sixth decade. And yet the period beginning when he emigrated to America (coinciding with family life and a big burst of creativity) and ending with his three-year hiatus from performing and recording (following the release of Veedon Fleece) is notable: Morrison’s Bay Area tenure produced such an abundance of songs there was a surplus; moreover, they were consistently played on the radio and still are, forever ensuring his place in local music history. Van’s persistent presence, in and on-the-air here, has not only soundtracked our lives: it’s in our DNA, the songs passed on by Irish immigrant and hippie parents, down to their tattooed love children (and their children), even when concerning faraway characters like the “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Madame George.” Chances are whether you live in Nor Cal, North Carolina, or Northern Ireland you feel this connection too, yet the combination of deep personal content and universal humanity tucked inside Morrison’s songs was largely lost on me until reading the verses as a whole in Lit Up Inside (City Lights, 2014), the first published collection of his lyrics, handpicked by the songwriter.

Van-Morrison-bookIt is within these songs—written in Morrison’s own Irish, romantic, soul code, with their carefully planned lines and studied notes and phrases, learned from jazz and classic blues and early rock ‘n’ roll—the story of Morrison’s life unfolds. Whether in the concise rock ‘n’ roll tale, “The Story of Them,” the timeless “Gloria,” “Lonely Sad Eyes,” and “Mystic Eyes,” or epics like “T.B. Sheets” and “Tore Down à la Rimbaud,” we get a glimpse into the people and places of Morrison’s heart, while every sha la la la la la la la la lala dee dah, every your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye rolls off his tongue with the same ease it does our own.

Rarely a day passes in which I don’t silently quote from Morrison’s common poems and prayers. In fact, it is from one song, “Domino,” from which I draw most phrases, using them as mantras (though not necessarily in the order they were written). Popping forth, just when I need them most, the words have saved me needless worry, disgrace, despair, disgust, and other things worse. Dig it: There’s no need for argument. Don’t want to discuss it. Think it’s time for a change. Get some heavy rest. There you go. Lord have mercy (not that Morrison holds a copyright on that bit).

While “Domino” isn’t included in Lit Up Inside (it doesn’t need to be), others that work similar magic are included: “Blue Money” (take five, honey—when this is all over, you’ll be in clover, etc.), “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (as we gaze out on, as we gaze out on), “The Great Deception,” (you don’t need it): All are timeless, rich, and just that much sweeter for capturing a place, a time, a San Francisco (or other locale) that no longer exists.

And then there are the hymns, so many of them, providing the book’s heft, conjuring the Almighty, and the music itself, and the ability to heal, whether for the skeptic in “Dweller on the Threshold” or the believer in “See Me Through Part II (Just a Closer Walk with Thee).” Literature serves as savior in “Summertime in England,” the book’s centerpiece, as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Eliot join the gospel of Mahalia Jackson in one hella hallelujah chorus. In his celebration of the oneness (“Rave on John Donne”) and explorations of the dark (“Tore Down à la Rimbaud”) there is an unremitting acceptance of the what is.

Even in what some might call the middle of the road songs, “Days Like This” and “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” Morrison provides simple truths served up by a full service songwriter, and the kind of warmth, companionship, healing, and love too often in short supply in real life (in spite of a reputation that has painted him as a bit gruff). Reading these works on the page I was not only mesmerized, but delivered to a place where recordings cannot always take me. I’m astonished by the depth of the songs, unaccompanied, and their illumination of the Vanness—of a life lived intentionally yet with imagination.

In keeping with the new tradition of assigning the task of writing about musicians to those who generally write on other subjects, Irish professor Eamonn Hughes, American poet David Meltzer and Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin provide the book’s largely personal front material. Both forwards include testimony of the ways in which music in general and Morrison specifically aid transition and provide a vision toward destinations unknown. All the contributions refer to Morrison’s Belfast past and soul while Meltzer makes a case for the Irish songman belonging to the City Lights family of outsider poets and dissidents. Though I had not previously given much thought to the idea of Morrison—maker of hit singles, taker of world tours and recognizable throughout the West and way beyond it—as an outsider, the songs compiled are certainly a validation that fitting in is for squares, being on trend is for the birds, and speaking one’s mind may not win you any popularity contests, but in the end, truth wins. Lit Up Inside is further evidence, as if more was needed, that Morrison’s burr takes us toward our own truths and serves as a guide for the weary and restless on their way home. An artist for the ages, his songs are timeless contributions to poetry, written and spoken word, and shall remain in the air, long after we’re gone and the very last foghorn blows.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, California, ,

Thanks for the Music: Van Morrison is 70 Today

Written last summer for Blurt online, I’m reposting my review of Morrison’s collected lyrics, Lit Up Inside, on his 70th birthday.

During San Francisco’s notoriously punishing, foggy summers, there are those who find it extremely necessary to leave cityVan-Morrison-1 limits and seek sun. On most days, it can be found shining a few short miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, known the world over for its rich hippie homes of ’60s and ’70s rock stars. Though several decades have come and gone since Marin’s hot tub, water bed and peacock-feathered days, no matter how many times I drive north, down the long stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and through San Anselmo toward the beaches, my wandering mind inevitably lands on one question: How could Van Morrison stand it here?

As most Morrison fans know, the redwood chapter of the Irish singer-songwriter’s story was relatively brief, compared to his life in music, now in its sixth decade. And yet the period beginning when he emigrated to America (coinciding with family life and a big burst of creativity) and ending with his three-year hiatus from performing and recording (following the release of Veedon Fleece) is notable: Morrison’s Bay Area tenure produced such an abundance of songs there was a surplus; moreover, they were consistently played on the radio and still are, forever ensuring his place in local music history. Van’s persistent presence, in and on-the-air here, has not only soundtracked our lives: it’s in our DNA, the songs passed on by Irish immigrant and hippie parents, down to their tattooed love children (and their children), even when concerning faraway characters like the “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Madame George.” Chances are whether you live in Nor Cal, North Carolina, or Northern Ireland you feel this connection too, yet the combination of deep personal content and universal humanity tucked inside Morrison’s songs was largely lost on me until reading the verses as a whole in Lit Up Inside (City Lights, 2014), the first published collection of his lyrics, handpicked by the songwriter.

It is within these songs—written in Morrison’s own Irish, romantic, soul code, with their carefully planned lines and studied notes and phrases, learned from jazz and classic blues and early rock ‘n’ roll—the story of Morrison’s life unfolds. Whether in the concise rock ‘n’ roll tale, “The Story of Them,” the timeless “Gloria,” “Lonely Sad Eyes,” and “Mystic Eyes,” or epics like “T.B. Sheets” and “Tore Down à la Rimbaud,” we get a glimpse into the people and places of Morrison’s heart, while every sha la la la la la la la la lala dee dah, every your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye rolls off his tongue with the same ease it does our own.

Van-Morrison-book-343x500Rarely a day passes in which I don’t silently quote from Morrison’s common poems and prayers. In fact, it is from one song, “Domino,” from which I draw most phrases, using them as mantras (though not necessarily in the order they were written). Popping forth, just when I need them most, the words have saved me needless worry, disgrace, despair, disgust, and other things worse. Dig it: There’s no need for argument. Don’t want to discuss it. Think it’s time for a change. Get some heavy rest. There you go. Lord have mercy (not that Morrison holds a copyright on that bit).

While “Domino” isn’t included in Lit Up Inside (it doesn’t need to be), others that work similar magic are included: “Blue Money” (take five, honey—when this is all over, you’ll be in clover, etc.), “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (as we gaze out on, as we gaze out on), “The Great Deception,” (you don’t need it): All are timeless, rich, and just that much sweeter for capturing a place, a time, a San Francisco (or other locale) that no longer exists.

And then there are the hymns, so many of them, providing the book’s heft, conjuring the Almighty, and the music itself, and the ability to heal, whether for the skeptic in “Dweller on the Threshold” or the believer in “See Me Through Part II (Just a Closer Walk with Thee).” Literature serves as savior in “Summertime in England,” the book’s centerpiece, as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Eliot join the gospel of Mahalia Jackson in one hella hallelujah chorus. In his celebration of the oneness (“Rave on John Donne”) and explorations of the dark (“Tore Down à la Rimbaud”) there is an unremitting acceptance of the what is.

Even in what some might call the middle of the road songs, “Days Like This” and “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” Morrison provides simple truths served up by a full service songwriter, and the kind of warmth, companionship, healing, and love too often in short supply in real life (in spite of a reputation that has painted him as a bit gruff). Reading these works on the page I was not only mesmerized, but delivered to a place where recordings cannot always take me. I’m astonished by the depth of the songs, unaccompanied, and their illumination of the Vanness—of a life lived intentionally yet with imagination.

In keeping with the new tradition of assigning the task of writing about musicians to those who generally write on other subjects, Irish professor Eamonn Hughes, American poet David Meltzer and Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin provide the book’s largely personal front material. Both forwards include testimony of the ways in which music in general and Morrison specifically aid transition and provide a vision toward destinations unknown. All the contributions refer to Morrison’s Belfast past and soul while Meltzer makes a case for the Irish songman belonging to the City Lights family of outsider poets and dissidents. Though I had not previously given much thought to the idea of Morrison—maker of hit singles, taker of world tours and recognizable throughout the West and way beyond it—as an outsider, the songs compiled are certainly a validation that fitting in is for squares, being on trend is for the birds, and speaking one’s mind may not win you any popularity contests, but in the end, truth wins. Lit Up Inside is further evidence, as if more was needed, that Morrison’s burr takes us toward our own truths and serves as a guide for the weary and restless on their way home. An artist for the ages, his songs are timeless contributions to poetry, written and spoken word, and shall remain in the air, long after we’re gone and the very last foghorn blows.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, column, Poetry, rock 'n' roll, , ,

The Rock ‘n’ Soul of Jesus

This repost is an annual tradition. Happy Easter.

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US #3 with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two million copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind that he was Jewish. “Spirit in the Sky” was not the first or the last time Jesus hit the charts, but its success marked the unofficial beginning of a Jesus movement in and outside of rock that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan, in the ‘70s.

Partly a reaction to the hippie culture and also a part of it, the Jesus people, or Jesus freaks, as they were proudly known within their movement, generally sought to return Christianity to its origins. The seeds of today’s Christian right as well as its progressive left-wing were both sown in the loosely established communities/communes, and in some cases cults, which sought to throw off religious strictures as well as its staid music. Ironically, the so-called devil’s music conservatives railed against is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, though that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, for Easter Week, I give you songs sung by generally secular rockers who went sacred at the height of the Jesus music movement of the ’70s, a 10-year period bookended by ’69’s “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979, the last time Dylan had a high-charing single at #24).

In 1966, John Lennon joked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and caught hell for it, though by the time he invoked Christ’s name and sang of his own crucifixion in 1969′s “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, all was forgiven and only a few outlets banned it, branding it sacrilegious.  By the end of the year, the Beatles were all but said and done, and it was the Quiet One who revealed himself to be the spiritual seeker of the group. Sporting a look that was rather Christ-like, George Harrison spent four weeks at #1 in the US and five weeks at #1 in the UK at the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971 with “My Sweet Lord,” the song that kicked off a kind of Jesus-mania in ’70s rock.

Speaking to his Krishna consciousness, while throwing in a couple of hallelujahs, Harrison was famously accused of copping the “doo-lang” backgrounds from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (a song about a boy which has been known to double as a spiritual). And yet, Harrison disavowed the influence, claiming his inspiration came from “Oh Happy Day”, a top five 1969 hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Oh Happy Day” grew from a Northern California gospel choir’s homemade record derived from an English hymn dating back to the 18th Century (Spiritualized revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century). Gospel music had been rocking souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs, to old hymns from the British Isles, and made way for a new form of expression giving voice to the inner lives of the oppressed. In his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, author Robert Darden speaks to the theological ideas and arguments behind the music:  By evoking a more powerful spirit, gospel-inspired work served to fight the demonic institutions of slavery and Jim Crow law. The 20th Century story of how church singers like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and more turned gospel into soul is among the greatest told tales in music history as are the origins of the blues, a music where heaven and hell, and Jesus and the devil, go head to head regularly. Rock ‘n’ soul were built on gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues, soul and music’s connection to people’s liberation extensively throughout this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971, a big one for Jesus and his greatest hits: In May, Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand”, the title song from the debut album by Canadian rock group Ocean, became a million-seller and high-charting Billboard hit (I’ve seen it listed as a #2 as well as #3). The song was originally cut by Anne (“Snowbird”) Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” hearkens back to the first gospel song to score a number one crossover hit: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, as done by Laurie London in 1958. Mahalia Jackson—gospel’s reigning queen of soul during the civil rights era—would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring or memorable, though the Jesus music movement continued to gain momentum in the ’70s thanks to, well, Jesus and the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice album project turned hit Broadway play bearing his name.

In May of 1971, songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) in the role of Jesus were also making their way to the charts. Murray Head (as Judas) and his version of “Superstar” were sitting at #20 and peaked at #14 in the US in June. Another song from the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, the “Him” being Jesus, and the “I” being Mary Magdalene (as sung by Yvonne Elliman) rose to #28, also in 1971.

Even the Rolling Stones got into the Jesus spirit that year: After the darkness that marked Altamont, they traded “Sympathy for the Devil” for when the Lord gets ready  andYou Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (from their Sticky Fingers album). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining on vocals.

In 1972, the gospel-based Staple Singers busted the crossover charts with Be Altitude, featuring the hits, “I’ll Take You There”, “Respect Yourself”, and the lesser-known “Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?”

In 1972, the Off-Broadway play, Godspell, scored a hit off its original cast album with “Day By Day” which went to #13 on the pop charts. Following the West End success of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 it was turned into a hit film, directed by Norman Jewison. Here’s a clip of Carl Anderson in the role of Judas, rockin’ the Jehovah out of the title song, followed by Murray Head’s chart hit version.

Curiously, it’s another Norman—not Jewison nor Greenbaum but Larry—who is widely considered to be the godfather of the aforementioned contemporary Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and the Pixies’ Black Francis grew up on it. A bit of a wild card, Larry Norman is generally well-regarded as an artist, remembered as a risk-taker, an experimentalist, and an iconoclast who didn’t cotton to the status quo in rock or Christian music. Also contributing to the coalescence of contemporary Christian music was Explo ’72, a festival concert that gathered over 75,000 young Jesus people in Dallas to see Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, and gospel artist Andrae Crouch for a kind of “religious Woodstock,” so-called by the Reverend Billy Graham, who was in attendance. According to author Andrew Beaujon’s book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, Explo set in motion the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music industry. Soon after, specialty labels formed, and the contemporary Christian music market was born to boom. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was Norman’s answer to conservatives, who thought rockin’ for Jesus was not in concordance with the road to salvation. Though surely as the Jesus rockers were dismissed from the inner sanctum of evangelical Christiandom, they had also impacted the sound of church hymns too: Catholic mass went “folk” in the ’70s and some of those freshly arranged hymns remain in church repertoire today.

In 1972, Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson sang “Jesus Was a Capricorn” on the album of the same title. He didn’t stay a Jesus rocker for long, though he had a definite claim in Jesus, given he was named for him—twice. “Morning Has Broken”, a Top 10 Cat Stevens hit in 1972, was based on the Gaelic hymn “Bunnesan” that’s been sung in churches as “Morning Has Broken” since at least 1930s. The Englishman of Greek origin has long since converted to Islam, first as a non-singer, now singing again. “Jesus is Just Alright” as covered by the Doobie Brothers was also a chart hit in 1972, though the Byrds had already recorded the Art Reynolds song in 1969.

Though by far, the biggest news in Jesus rock of the ’70s was Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Before developing his own distinct song style in the mid-‘60s, his lyrics vigorously opposed to injustice, Dylan had started out his career adapting old spirituals for his own form of protest song. By the mid-‘70s his Rolling Thunder Revue was as devoted to seeking justice for falsely accused prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as it was to an excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Following that harrowing passage, Dylan, in characteristic retreat mode, embraced Christianity. Born again, he cut two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and Saved (1980) produced by self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, Jerry Wexler.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming won the Best Male Rock Vocal Grammy and has since been covered by gospel artist Shirley Caesar, blueswoman Etta James, Neville brother Aaron, Texas troubadour Willie Nelson, marvelous Mavis Staples, and Hammond B-3 giant Booker T. with the M.G.’s. while John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”), and Devo (undercover as a Christian rock act, Dove) famously parodied it. At the time of recording, Dylan was pilloried: His 14-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979 featured nightly picketers stationed outside the theater. The reviews were radically divided. On 1981’s Shot of Love, Dylan answered some of his critics on songs which mixed secular and sacred and yielded at least one of his most enduring spiritual works, “Every Grain of Sand.”

In part owed to the controversy inspired by Bob Dylan’s gospel period, some believers choose to keep distinctly sacred references to Jesus out of their songs while others use his name as an invocation. Dylan faithful Patti Smith famously opened her rendition of “Gloria” with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”; she titled a song and an album “Easter”, while “Ghost Dance” features the holy incantation, “we shall live again.” Her friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe’s Catholicism left its fingerprint on her; she continues to be inspired by poet and artist William Blake whose portraits of the divine move beyond confines of religious dogma.

Punk and alternative rock depictions of Jesus are not unheard of: Joey Ramone sang “I’m Not Jesus”, and Jesus rode beside Paul Westerberg in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while a rather unholy trinity of bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones all named themselves after the big man. Flaming Lips, Ministry, and Spacemen 3 have got their Jesus songs too; they are but a small sample of alterna-Jesus references. Indie rock has its share of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens whose Jesus-inspired work stays more on the downlow, like that of U2, Bruce Cockburn, Moby, Midnight Oil, Polyphonic Spree, and Lambchop: All make allusions to JC and Christianity while enjoying success in the secular world.

In hip hop, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye “Yeezus” West whose 2004 single, “Jesus Walks” dared to speak of the very subject we’re talking about: With the Jesus movement in rock long in decline, to sing about him was often considered the equivalent of career suicide, yet West’s success was an exception. “Jesus Walks” peaked at #11 Pop and #2 R&B, sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold.

In 2008, the gospel songs of Dylan were compiled by the music’s greatest stars on Gotta Serve Somebody. The career of gospel songstress Mavis Staples has achieved a full-blown rock revival following her contemporary albums produced by Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Southern California roots band Dead Rock West revived the Staples classic, “This May Be the Last Time” (the song the Rolling Stones borrowed for “The Last Time”), alongside works by Blind Willie Johnson and the Jesus and Mary Chain on their gospel-inspired collection Bright Morning Stars. Though the charts may never again see the high number of Jesus jams the ‘70s saw, if you’ve got the time to seek, you’ll find plenty more from where these came.

Happy Easter to all Jesus rockers, readers, and people of all faiths: May your spirit be refreshed as you continue in the struggle for peace and justice. (A version of this column originally ran in Crawdaddy! as The Origin of Song and appears elsewhere on this site).

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Gospel, Soul, , , , , , ,

Promenade in Green

(UPDATE, December 19: I have since seen the film in its entirety and the “Green Green Rocky Road” scene is the best part. Though Len Chandler and the histories of some of the other folksingers of color on the scene—Odetta, Richie Havens, Buffy Sainte-Marie—have been well-documented, the filmmakers chose to render invisible their counterparts or composites in their deeply cynical look at Greenwich Village folk).

Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film concerning a fictional folksinger from the early ‘60s Greenwich Village scene (based loosely in post-modern style on some incidents from the life of actual folksinger Dave Van Ronk and other figures of the Village scene) opened in select theaters this weekend.

I have not yet seen the film, but gathered from the soundtrack the title character played by Oscar Isaac, performs “Green, Green Rocky Road,” which Van Ronk himself went as far as to call his “theme song.”  With melodic and rhythm roots in the Georgia Sea Islands and before that, West Africa, readers of Keep on Pushing will remember the songwriting credit for “Green, Green Rocky Road” belongs to Len Chandler and Robert Kaufman (yes, as in Beat poet, Bob Kaufman).

I had the great and rare honor to interview songwriter and activist Chandler in 2007; large portions of our interview appeared throughout Keep on Pushing and on this site.  Chandler spoke highly of Kaufman, Van Ronk, and of course Bob Dylan, who detailed their shared history and collaborations in his book, Chronicles. And yet, it is “Green, Green Rocky Road,” a song Chandler never recorded, that may be one of his most enduring achievements, despite the fact he was a singing hero of the Civil Rights Movement (his contributions to African American/US political and social history remain obscured and inexplicably, largely unsung).

Here’s a clip of Van Ronk performing the song, followed by a clip of Chandler performing his own “Keep on Keepin’ On,” from his rare Columbia album, To Be A Man.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, film, Folk, Greenwich Village, Poetry, video, , , , , , , ,

Veterans Day: War Is Over

Iraq Veterans Against the War asked supporters to use social media this Veteran’s Day to speak about personal experience with militarism.  I don’t have much direct contact to report, unless you count carrying a sense of American shame and holding a deep well of sadness for the amount of senseless violence, killing, overspending, and harm done to the world’s people and resources in the name of liberty and justice for all.  My immediate family is not militarily descended, though among my few relatives who were called up, I remember an uncle named Charlie who went to Vietnam and mercifully returned, then asked to be called Charles from there on; I have not seen much of him in 30 years, but I suspect he’s suffered, the result of time served.

My own conscientious objection and moral opposition to war developed out of the lessons taught by a few good teachers who waged stealthy anti-militarism campaigns in their high school classrooms: Images from documentaries on the Holocaust and post-atomic bomb Japan have stayed with me strong since I saw them. An education in war’s atrocities, along with my own love of the message music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I believe schooled me well, until I went on to research and learn more.

Created at the height of the Vietnam era, conceived with strength and intended as a balm and wake-up call for all that had gone wrong, artist/activists from Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Universal Soldier”) and Phil Ochs (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore”) to giants Bob Dylan (“Blowing in the Wind,” “Masters of War”), John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (“Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine”), the stars of Motown (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, Edwin Starr’s “War,” written by Whitfield and Strong) and singers, songwriters and performers of all forms (“Peace Train” by Cat Stevens and “Love Train” by the O’Jays”), delivered the songs of peace. Quite often they took anti-war sentiment to the top of the charts. It was a time when an anti-war view didn’t have to fight for space on the front page or evening news—it was the news. Back then, unless they were complete squares, members of the silent majority or total idiots, men and women were not afraid to stand against war.

As time went on, the wealth of Vietnam-themed Hollywood feature films (Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon) depicting the horrors of war, and set to a rock music soundtrack of songs associated with the time period (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” for two)  further informed my own beliefs about  that time.  The truth had surfaced and history was beginning to support the unjust nature of all that war’s ill concepts and casualties. Bombing unarmed innocents in the name of freedom is pure and simple, illegal, immoral, and just plain wrong. One of the movies, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now!, so convincingly used “The End” by the Doors  to convey a soldier’s pain, one could be forgiven for thinking the music was written to fit the sequence(s) in which it was used (it was not). Here is the opening scene of the film that stars Martin Sheen as the fictional Captain Benjamin Willard:

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain, and all the children are insane.  Jim Morrison’s apocalyptic visions and anti-imperialist artistic views were tied up in a deep study of history and the humanistic concerns he shared with the artists of peace and vision who inspired him. Given his own generation’s stand against the war, Morrison’s radically left of center way of approaching life and art was complicated by his own family ties to militarism:  His father, Admiral Steven Morrison commanded the forces in the Gulf of Tonkin incident that sent the Vietnam war into overdrive. The Doors cut at least one specifically anti-war song, or at least we can deduce that theme from the action in their own short film for “Unknown Soldier.”

“War is over,” the present tense affirmation that serves as the chorus to”Unknown Solider,” predates the use of the phrase in the Plastic Ono’s Band “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971); it coincided with the Phil Ochs song “The War is Over” (1968) and knowing Morrison’s influences, was likely borrowed from French filmmaker Alain Resnais’ 1966 film, War is Over, a political thriller set in Franco-era Madrid and Paris.

As time went on, the anti-war song fell out of favor, at least in the U.S. where our direct involvement in wars was mostly covert and away from our shores.  Now and again, we’d get a crucial reminder that war is bad and killing is no good in songs (“War” by Bob Marley), while other times when war was declared and battles raged on, anti-war songs experienced a tiny revival (“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine comes to mind, as does “Living With War” by Neil Young who continues to wage peace every day of the year). But unless mandatory service makes a comeback, it is guaranteed you’ll hear fewer songs of resistance to war, or resistance to much of anything, really. Killing for peace, bombing for safety and drones from here to kingdom come are not really what the people want from their songs anymore. Until further notice, the rocket’s red glare shall shine on, while few take a stand in song to abhor them.

Where are the songs that urge calling off drone strikes?  I know there are some, but they are not on the Top 40, blasting from jukeboxes and commanding the dancefloor the way Edwin Starr made a stand: “War! Huh-good God, y’all, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again. Yea.” Though once again, the ’60s generation—I’m not saying they’re the only ones, but in terms of longevity, staying the course, consistency of message and laying it down—comes through. Septugenarian Graham Nash cut a song with James Raymond for Bradley Manning.

Nash had done the same for Bobby Seale and the Chicago Seven who among other things, opposed the war.  I’m not telling fans of ’60s rock anything they don’t already know.  But for the sake of the song, if you’re a singer or a songwriter and think that killing and torture in the name of what is wrong, use your stage to sing out and decry the lie, even if it’s just one song. Or do something: Professional musician Darden Smith is writing songs with vets. Recounting their experiences with war and turning them into songs, Smith has aided soldiers in coming to terms with their opposition to violence of all kinds.

The Veterans Against the War say on their website that everyday, 22 veterans take their own lives. Could it be that they cannot stand the post-traumatic stress of remembering?  Were they tortured, or asked to torture someone else?  We will not know now or ever because they’re gone, as are the great mean of peace, Gandhi, Dr. King and John Lennon. Today I thank all, veterans and others, who fought and now work for peace: You remind us that we can not tell ourselves that war is something that only happens over there, far away, to other people. We cannot continue to pretend that we are  not connected or impacted too. We are responsible. The horror, the horror.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, film, France, , ,

The Long Distance Revolutionary: Mumia Abu-Jamal

freedom

There is only one voice like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s, its tone perfect for professional broadcasting, its message carrying necessary information for our times.  But Abu-Jamal, as most people know, is no longer primarily an announcer by trade.  Better known as Mumia to the worldwide community of human rights activists who support his case, the former radio journalist has been serving time in prison for over 30 years now. He has spent much of that time writing and appealing his case.

In the documentary Long Distance Revolutionaryfilmmaker Stephen Vittoria and co-producer/Prison Radio sound recordist Noelle Hanrahan, make a compelling case that Mumia’s situation as a prisoner for life is more than a miscarriage of justice:  Rather than retell the circumstances that lead to the incarceration of the journalist/activist (whose views forced him to moonlight as a cabbie, just to survive), they shine a light on how he’s used misfortune as opportunity, to become a prophetic voice for the voiceless.

Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee and James Cone are among the scholars, theologians, journalists, actors, activists, writers, colleagues, and family members who testify in the film on the important role Mumia—the writer as political prisoner—plays on the world stage, reflecting the revolutionary’s role in contemporary American society. Through interviews, news reel footage, photographs and most of all, interviews and sound recordings of Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story of an intuitive and self-described “nerd” of a child, Wesley Cook, who journeyed into the Black Panthers, then followed his call to report on his city as he saw it, much to the distaste of its notoriously racist law enforcement. Of course, that’s business as usual in the land of the free, while the mystery that unfolds onscreen in Long Distance Revolutionary is more to a specific point: Just how does a death row inmate as sharp as Abu-Jamal  keep his mind in shape and his spirit alive while the state does its job squeezing the life out of him? Of particular note are the words of literary agent Frances Goldin who I’m unable to quote here, but who talks of how she was sufficiently moved by Mumia’s prose to take a chance on him in the book market.  But the most convincing voice of all is Mumia’s own which can be read in his multiple books in print all over the world and heard on Prison Radio, still recorded by Noelle Hanrahan.  At the film’s premiere in Mill Valley, California last October,  Mumia delivered an address, especially recorded for the Bay Area. He remembered its “luscious sun,” and the Bay as a place where he,  “a tall, skinny, dark sunflower,” could be among some of the “best, boldest, blackest, sweetest” brothers and sisters he claims to have known.

Curiously, the film’s only musical voice in the chorus is M-1 of Dead Prez. Used to be musicians sang out for injustice, the way that Bob Dylan once did for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who also appears in the film); in that case, the musical association indirectly lead to Carter’s exoneration. But the music community has largely remained silent on the subject of Abu-Jamal. So where are the other contemporary Musicians for Mumia? According to director Vittoria, the usual suspects were approached, but only Eddie Vedder responded to the urgency of the call.  “Please know that I (and my co-producers) tried hard to get…and a number of other musicians into the mix—on numerous occasions and through numerous fronts—but not one of them would agree to interview (except M-1) and/or offer a musical piece or new selection,” Vittoria wrote in an email to me.  Vedder’s song “Society” (previously associated with the feature film, Into the Wild,  concerning environmentalist/adventurer, Christopher McCandlessserves as the film’s closing theme. “I was fortunate that Eddie allowed us to grace the film with his powerful song,” added Vittoria.

Abu-Jamal was taken off death row late last year; he remains sentenced for life without possibility of parole and lives among the general prison population at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. But the system has not vanquished his spirit or his message. Mumia is still on move: Long Distance Revolutionary has been on the festival circuit and in general release throughout the year. It opens August 23 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco and next month at Spokane’s Magic Lantern.  Here’s the trailer:

Filed under: Angela Davis, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Book news, film, France, Never Forget, Now Playing, Poetry, , , , , ,

This Business of Music is a Buzzkiller

Injustice in the music business is one of the themes shared by three summer music documentaries now playing in theaters or on demand. Twenty Feet From Stardom, A Band Called Death and Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me all concern the lives of musicians who did not reap the benefits of success their superstar counterparts or even their industry’s executives enjoy. These tales of a typically unkind, fickle and often unethical music business are told far too often:  There is of course a long tradition of broke and hungry blues singers and ripped-off rock’n’rollers; perhaps most famous are the Funk Brothers, creators of the Motown sound, whose untold history became Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the blueprint for these kind of behind the veil stories. And yet, the background vocalists of Twenty Feet… and the musicians of the ironically named ‘70s bands, Death and Big Star, though largely overlooked, unsung, and often underpaid themselves, also delivered life-giving music of lasting value—music far more focused and accomplished than many of their more successful name brand peers.

Much to the younger generation of musicians in their family’s delight, the Hackney brothers co-created punk rock in early ‘70s Detroit.  A Band Called Death is their story, as told by surviving brothers Bobby and Dannis, with credit due to brother David for the vision. Inspired by their minister dad’s insistence they watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the boys formed a band; as rock evolved, so did their sound. David aimed to combine the guitar chords of Pete Townshend of the Who with the leads of  Jimi Hendrix. With Bobby’s vocals and bass, and Dannis’ agility on drums central to the crunch, David’s idea came into focus, though it had also been shaped by forces much stranger than spine-chilling rock’n’roll.  Impacted by the accidental death of their father, David’s idea—a hard rock threesome named Death with a triangular mind-body-spirit logo was an entire  concept, though it turned out to be a bit much for listeners to metabolize in the post-‘60s hour of segregated rock and soul.  It is generally agreed among band and family, record industry personnel and public perception that David’s extreme construct did the band no favors, particularly when they were very close to getting a record deal with Clive Davis and David wouldn’t budge. “First you let them change your name and then…” You may as well surrender your soul is the implication, and there is truth in those words. Though he and his brothers’ band were consigned to the rare and forgotten records rack for 30 years, David’s vision, that Death would one day be poplar after he was gone, turned out to be prophecy. A Band Called Death lets that story unfold, as it unleashes the power and excitement of the music, highlighting its timelessness and virtuosity. For non-believers, their pure rock’n’roll single, “Keep on Knocking,” may be the convincer:  I never tire of it and could happily spin it over and over and over again.

If there is such a thing as rock justice, revived career status may also be in the balance for some of the singers profiled in Twenty Feet From Stardom, a look at the ladies (and one man) who sing the background vocals to the soundtrack of your life.  To their tremendous credit, director Morgan Neville and producer and industry vet Gil Friesen don’t flinch from the cruelty of the record business, a model that has historically cheated its true talent while rewarding mediocre copycats. The film debuted at the Sundance Festival and screened earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival and is told by the vocalists Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, their contemporary counterparts, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill,  and the musicians they sing for (Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Mick Jagger). With differing degrees of yearning for the spotlight, each woman shares her own tale of what it was like to sing behind Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson and in the case of Love, for producer Phil Spector (now serving a prison sentence for murder).  Both Fischer and Lennear, emerge as the pair who crave little more than what they have: Fischer’s devoted to her gift and married to the music and a life on a road. Lennear stepped back and became a teacher, though as a result of the film and revisiting her years alongside George Harrison, Joe Cocker, and Ike and Tina Turmer, she’s been inspired to reclaim her place in the spotlight.  Here’s her version of the Beatles song, “Let It Be.”

Perhaps most depressing in this downbeat trio of tales is Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a story of unrequited loves and life let downs. Chris Bell, who alongside Alex Chilton, was a principle songwriter on the Memphis group’s first album, left the fold under what the film portrays as mysterious circumstances. What’s clear however, is that he was touched by substance abuse, and sexual and religious confusion, and all the troubles conspired to takeaway his life at the cursed rock’n’roll age of 27. It didn’t help that Big Star’s record label, Ardent, was affiliated with Stax, though while giants of the soul industry were experiencing business and reorganization troubles just as they crossed the bridge toward releasing rock’n’roll records. And then there is Chilton, a vocal talent with qualities so chameleon-like, and a reticence to be interviewed, that he’s hard to pin down. The teenaged soul singer of “The Letter” shifted gears in Big Star, and yet again in his post-band, punkish years; he passed away in 2010 before the completion of the film, and his presence in it is confined to audio and performance clips.  It would’ve been interesting to hear what he might say of his former band from a 60-year-old’s vantage point, but without him or Bell to speak for themselves, the real story of Big Star largely remains a mystery, to be filed under bands that never made it, but could have, if only the stars had aligned in their favor. Though their story is grim, their recording legacy is the prize: “The Ballad of El Goodo” from #1 Record, is a collaborative effort between Chilton and Bell, a power-pop freedom song:

Though I would not characterize any one of these music documentaries as uplifting, within the frames of each reel, and certainly within the individual stories, there are flashes of reverence, bright spots of humor, and in all cases, impeccable music. There is no shortage of stories like these, ready to unspool and cast the music business as it was once known in its true, unflattering light.  I don’t want to say I’m happy that everyone can see for themselves the hit parade of human sacrifice, left in the wake of what it takes to create superstar entertainment for the masses. Nor do I delight in the music industry’s complete and total rupture.  But it’s no doubt valuable for music consumers, just like consumers of other goods, to know a little bit more about what goes into the making of product they love so much. The music business is a killer, with very little to do with the art of its creators. Certainly it has shown little to no compassion for the health and welfare of musicians, without whom, there would be no primary product.  Perhaps it’s best we no longer fool ourselves into thinking that talent and excellence are qualifications for success, no matter what business we may find ourselves. The artist or worker without a killer instinct, will need to make a choice: Take a backseat willingly, or be content, to be left standing in the shadows.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Now Playing, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video, , , , , , , ,

The Rock’n’Soul of Jesus

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US number three with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two millions copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind that he was Jewish. “Spirit in the Sky” was not the first or the last time Jesus hit the charts, but its success marked the unofficial beginning of a Jesus movement in and outside of rock that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan, in the ‘70s.

Partly a reaction to the hippie culture and also a part of it, the Jesus people, or Jesus freaks, as they were proudly known within their movement, generally sought to return Christianity to its origins. The seeds of today’s Christian right as well as its progressive left-wing were both sown in the loosely established communities/communes, and in some cases cults, which sought to throw off religious strictures as well as its staid music. Ironically, the so-called devil’s music conservatives railed against in the beginning is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, but that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, for Good Friday and Easter Weekend, I give you songs sung by generally secular rockers who went sacred at the height of the Jesus music movement of the ’70s, a 10-year period bookended by “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (the last time Dylan had a hit single—#24 in 1979).

In 1966, John Lennon joked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and caught hell for it, though by the time he invoked Christ’s name and sang of his own crucifixion in 1969’s “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, all was forgiven and only a few outlets banned it as sacrilegious. By the end of the year, the Beatles were all but said and done, and it was the Quiet One who revealed himself to be the spiritual seeker of the group. Sporting a look that was rather Christ-like, George Harrison spent four weeks at number one in the US and five weeks at number one in the UK at the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971 with “My Sweet Lord,” the song that kicked off a kind of Jesus-mania in ’70s rock.

Speaking to his Krishna consciousness, while throwing in a couple of hallelujahs, Harrison was famously accused of copping the “doo-lang” backgrounds from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (a song about a boy which has been known to double as a spiritual). And yet, Harrison disavowed the influence, claiming his inspiration came from “Oh Happy Day”, a top five 1969 hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Oh Happy Day” grew from a Northern California gospel choir’s homemade record derived from an English hymn dating back to the 18th Century (Spiritualized revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century). Gospel music had been rockin’ souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs alongside hymns from the British Isles—making way for  a form of expression that gave voice to the inner lives of the oppressed. In his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, author Robert Darden speaks to theological ideas and arguments toward fighting what he characterized as demonic institutions like slavery and Jim Crow law by evoking a more powerful spirit.

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971,  a big one for Jesus’ greatest hits:  In May, Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand”, the title song from the debut album by Canadian rock group Ocean, became a million-seller and high-charting Billboard hit (I’ve seen it listed as a number two as well as a three). The song was originally cut by “Snowbird” Anne Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” itself hearkens back to the first gospel song to score a number one crossover hit: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, as done by Laurie London in 1958. Mahalia Jackson would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. Jackson was of course gospel’s reigning queen throughout the civil rights era, until the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, essentially dethroned her. The story of how Aretha, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and other church singers turned gospel into soul is among the greatest told tales in music history as are  the stories of the blues, a music where heaven and hell and Jesus and the devil go head to head regularly. Rock ‘n’ soul were built on gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances  in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues and soul more extensively on this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring, though the Jesus music movement continued to gain momentum in the ’70s thanks to, well, Jesus and the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice album project turned hit Broadway play bearing his name. In May of 1971, songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) in the role of Jesus were also making their way to the charts. Murray Head (as Judas) and his version of “Superstar” were sitting at number 20 and peaked at #14 in the US in June. Another song from the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, the him being Jesus, and the I being  Mary Magdalene (as sung by Yvonne Elliman) rose to #28, also in 1971.

Even the Rolling Stones got into the Jesus spirit that year:  After the darkness that marked Altamont, they traded “Sympathy for the Devil” for “when the Lord gets ready” and “You Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (on Sticky Fingers). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining in on vocals.

In 1972, the gospel-based Staple Singers busted the crossover charts with Be Altitude, featuring the hits, “I’ll Take You There”, “Respect Yourself”, and the lesser-known “Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?”

In 1972, the Off-Broadway play, Godspell, scored a hit off its original cast album with “Day By Day” which went to #13 on the pop charts. Following the West End success of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 it was turned into a hit film, directed by Norman Jewison. Here’s a clip of Carl Anderson in the role of Judas, rockin’ the Jehovah out of the title song, followed by Murray’s Head’s chart hit version.

Curiously, it’s another Norman—not Jewison nor Greenbaum but Larry—who is widely considered to be the godfather of the aforementioned Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and Black Francis grew up on it. A bit of a wild card, Larry Norman is generally well-regarded as an artist, remembered as a risk-taker, an experimentalist, and an iconoclast who didn’t cotton to the status quo in rock or Christian music. Also contributing to the coalescence of contemporary Christian music was Explo ’72, a festival concert that gathered over 75,000 young Jesus people in Dallas to see Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, and gospel artist Andrae Crouch for a kind of “religious Woodstock,” so-called by the Reverend Billy Graham, who was in attendance. According to author Andrew Beaujon’s book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, Explo set in motion the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music industry. Soon after, specialty labels formed, and the contemporary Christian music market was born to boom. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was Norman’s answer to conservatives, who thought rockin’ for Jesus was not in concordance with the road to salvation. Though surely as the Jesus rockers were dismissed from the inner sanctum of evangelical Christiandom, they had also impacted the sound of church hymns too: Catholic mass went “folk” in the ’70s  and some of those freshly arranged hymns remain in church repertoire today.

In 1972, Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson sang “Jesus Was a Capricorn” on the album of the same title. He didn’t stay a Jesus rocker for long, though he had a definite claim in Jesus, given he was named for him—twice. “Morning Has Broken”, a Top 10 Cat Stevens hit in 1972, was based on the Gaelic hymn “Bunnesan” that’s been sung in churches as “Morning Has Broken” since at least 1930s. The Englishman of Greek origin has long since converted to Islam, first as a non-singer, now singing again. “Jesus is Just Alright” as covered by the Doobie Brothers was also a chart hit in 1972, though the Byrds had already recorded the Art Reynolds song in 1969.

Though by far, the biggest news in Jesus rock of  the ’70s was  Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Before developing his own distinct song style in the mid-‘60s, his lyrics vigorously opposed to injustice, Dylan had started out his career adapting old spirituals for his own form of protest song. By the mid-‘70s his Rolling Thunder Revue was as devoted to seeking justice for falsely accused prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as it was to the freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Following that harrowing passage, Dylan, in characteristic retreat mode, embraced Christianity. Born again, he cut two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and Saved (1980produced by self-proclaimed Jewish atheist Jerry Wexler.  “Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming won the Best Male Rock Vocal Grammy and has since been covered by gospel artist Shirley Caesar,

blueswoman Etta James, Neville brother Aaron, Texas troubadour Willie Nelson, marvelous Mavis Staples, and Hammond B-3 giant Booker T. with the M.G.’s. while John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”), and Devo (undercover as a Christian rock act, Dove) famously parodied it. At the time of recording, Dylan was pilloried:  His 14-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979 featured nightly picketers stationed outside the theater. The reviews were radically divided. On 1981’s Shot of Love, Dylan answered some of his critics on songs which mixed secular and sacred and yielded at least one of his most enduring spiritual works, “Every Grain of Sand.”

In part owed to the controversy inspired by Bob Dylan’s gospel period, some believers choose to keep distinctly sacred references to Jesus out of their songs while others use his name as an invocation. Dylan faithful Patti Smith famously opened her rendition of “Gloria” with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”; she titled a song and an album “Easter”, while “Ghost Dance” features the holy incantation, “we shall live again.” Her friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe’s Catholicism left its fingerprint on her; she continues to be inspired by poet and artist William Blake whose portraits of the divine move beyond confines of religious dogma.

Punk and alternative rock depictions of Jesus are not unheard of: Joey Ramone sang “I’m Not Jesus”, and Jesus rode beside Paul Westerberg in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while a rather unholy trinity of bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones all named themselves after the big man. Flaming Lips, Ministry, and Spacemen 3 have got their Jesus songs too; they are but a small sample of alterna-Jesus references. Indie rock has its share of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens whose Jesus-inspired work stays more on the downlow, like that of U2, Bruce Cockburn, Moby, Midnight Oil, Polyphonic Spree, and Lambchop: All make allusions to JC and Christianity while enjoying success in the secular world. In rap, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye West whose 2004 single, “Jesus Walks” dared to speak of the very subject we’re talking about: With the Jesus movement in rock long in decline, to sing about him was often considered the equivalent of career suicide, yet West’s success was an exception. “Jesus Walks” peaked at  #11 Pop and #2 R&B, sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold.

In 2008, the gospel songs of Dylan were compiled by the music’s greatest stars on Gotta Serve Somebody. The career of gospel songstress Mavis Staples has achieved a full-blown rock revival following her contemporary albums produced by Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Southern California roots band Dead Rock West  revived the Staples classic, “This May Be the Last Time” (the song the Rolling Stones borrowed for  “The Last Time”), alongside works by Blind Willie Johnson and the Jesus and Mary Chain on their gospel-inspired collection Bright Morning Stars. Though the charts may never again see the high number of Jesus jams the ‘70s saw, if you’ve got the time to seek, you’ll find plenty more from where these came.

I chose to end with this clip from Gotta Serve Somebody, The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan because it features writer Paul Williams, speaking to Dylan’s Christian period.

A version of this piece originally ran in my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Gospel, Origin of Song, , , , , , ,

When Record Store Day Meets Earth Day, it’s time for The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

In honor of this weekend’s most auspicious collision of Record Store Day and Earth Day,  Saturday and Sunday respectively, I decided to reprise a story about where environmentalism meets record collecting, which as it happens is also the most-read article here at denisesullivan.com.  The Day Van Dyke Parks Went Calypso, originally appeared in the pages of Crawdaddy! in 2009, 40 years after the Santa Barbara oil spill and the birth of the environmental movement, and upon the occasion of the  re-reissue of Parks’ long out-of-print productions for calypso artists, the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, and the Mighty Sparrow. Parks had a goal and an idea ahead of its time: To forge environmental healing through music made by instruments made of cast-off oil drums. The story further explains one man’s adventures in art and activism and begins after the clip below: Taken from a documentary on the Esso Trinidad Steel Band,you won’t find the rest of the film on youtube, though you will find it with the reissued Esso, available at your local record store.

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during his Calypso Years.

Over a five-year period, Parks produced albums by the Esso Trinidad Steel band (1971) and Bob Dylan favorite, the Mighty Sparrow (Hot and Sweet, 1974); he also recorded his own calypso-inspired works, Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976). Born from his passion for popular song and launched at a time when grassroots protest was at an all-time high, Parks had every reason to believe calypso consciousness would prevail. But he hadn’t factored in the complications of taking on big oil, nor of touring the US with a 28-man steel drum corps from the Caribbean. He was unable to predict that the sessions with Mighty Sparrow would be fraught with rage, and that his efforts would earn him the enmity of Bob Marley, whose production requests he ignored in favor of calypso. And yet, you get the feeling he’d agree in one hot minute to do it all over again the exact same way if given a chance to revisit this section of his checkered recording history.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Calypso, cross cultural musical experimentation, Harry Belafonte, Interview, , ,

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