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God And Death In Rock Music


How do we deal with God in rock, a youth culture?
 

Of all the concerns a youth culture has life is primary because children are much closer to death than adults by which I mean they didn’t exist at all ten or fifteen years ago and so feel a disconnect from the social mores of a a world they have just been invited into and which they see death hopefully from a great distance.
 

So any time rock music tries to come to terms with death it does so within those parameters: its target audience, its reason for being, is scarily close to nothing on the other side. Perhaps they can imagine what it was like before they were born since they are so close it to it and all their morbidity appears to be pre and during life rather than after life; that’s the secret of Goth as well.
 

It is also a secret of rock: a music so alive it vibrates with it and moves with it and is an eternally adolescent life and sound and as it grows it flounders in many ways, while a BB King can grow up gracefully a rolling stones is constantly reliving its youth and that’s because the thundering “I won’t” of rock can only work in opposition to an established I will. In the 70s rock became so ossified and so part of mainstream culture it ossified and was near death the way jazz is because it was boxed into its own obsolecense before a bunch of kids came out of the streets and reclaimed it.
 
 

And all of em from Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent to Kurt Cobain and Biggie were running from death and moving towards it at the same time and so believed only in rock could they be forever young. It was a truth: maybe rock stars age but rockers don’t. especially now in the wildly fragmented pop community every day, every moment another kid shows up to change the face of pop music.
 
 

So where it goes for rock is at the beginning they used to do teen death songs, stuff like “Teen Angel” and “Tell Laura I love Her” and “Ebony Eyes” -car crashed and plain crashes, and true loves and “she was over there and over there and over there” but she was with God know with angels flutterring somewhere…
 
 

And meanwhile the total sexiness of R&B and blues had no room for God except it was coming so closely off Gospel the holiness was implied by dissected: like the country there was a disconnect in R&B between the secular and the religious so when a ray Charles rethought Gospel and placed secular love in place of God adoration he made pop in his own image and leveled out the playing field.
 
 

And still rock couldn’t quite figure out how to integrate mortality and immortality into modern pop. The Beach Boy’s “God Only Knows” was a scandal just for using the name and in song after song time (as Phish recently put it) sure was elastic. And still it was difficult to think how to deal with the theisms in pop; Dylan always had that old world Older Testament stuff going on but at this point it had not much to do with yet another love that dare not speak its name while in England Cliff Richards discovered he’d be better off as an outed homosexual than an Outed Born Again Christian because if anything at all was established in Western culture it was the Church and there was no easy way to deal with -no way to announce faith in anything, let alone Jesus Christ, without discovering yourself the subject of derision. The God of love never survived the 60s.
 
 
 

So as a subject matter there is a sense that religion is very compartmalized even today. There is Christian rock of rouse and some of it is very god (“P.O.D” are an excellent group) and Gospel but lyrically it seems impossible to integrate belief into a secular love song. When Dylan became born again he did three Christian albums and at least two of them are excellent, but all three are unlike his other albums at least because they are ONLY about Christianity *(later, there would be an occassional song like “I And I” that managed to be thestic and more than only thestic) and if we’re talking about exceptions Van Morrison is such a grumpy guy his religion on an album like “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher” is integral to his songs and an album like “Avalon Sunset” with its day in the life sensibility includes the drop dead (with Cliff Richard on harmony) “Whenever God Sheds His Light On Me” and it doesn’t seem bizarre on the same album that gave the world “Have I Told You Lately” -a big hit for Rod Stewart. U2 have always worn their faith on their sleeve but they seem to personify the contractictory nature of theism in song, they appear to be doing what should be done in dealing with the subject but they are such preachy hellhounds you kinda wanna sock em in the nose half the time (the other half of the time you wanna hug em). Springsteen’s faith seems to be so involved in rock and roll that the rapture of Berry is his largest theological undertsanding. In detailing lives of quiet desperation he finds salvation somewhere but is it in God or man?
 
  
Then there is the devil worshippers in rock which nobody takes even vaguely seriously. Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, all those Goths -the denizens of darkness were in it for laughs and nobody could take it vaguely seriously because they didn’t. Except some folks did and sometimes when you looked behind a Columbine you find a fan of Ozzy Osbourne and “Suicide Solution” and therein lies a problem but not ours because it is an old and useless argument: I call it the “Tom And Jerry” where kids emulate television actions. The same with rock: there may be an illness but it isn’t in the music and the Cult sure aint responsible for any of this.
 
 
 
Of course, this is the easy stuff. If you believe in the devil you believe in god and rock isn’t necessarily about believing in God but mostly about singing about God period. Lennon didn’t release but he sang “Serve Yourself,” an answer song, a good one, to Dylan’s born again “Serve Somebody” and “Imagine” begins with “Imagine there’s no heaven”. Indeed, Lennon explicit states his state of disbelief in the litany that ends “God”. That, however, was a bravery we don’t find often see in mainstream pop. And it is left to outsiders like Titus Andronicus to deal with nihilism in such an out of the way in your face manner. It is a tough subject, nothingness, writing about how there is nothing, is much harder than writing about a belief in God if only because it is hard to write about something when 90% of your audience disagrees with you. That’s right folks, 90% of the world believes in some form of Deity. Which makes perfect sense to me since as long as you are wiley like us Westerners and don’t actually FOLLOW any of the rules it makes perfect sense to embrace theology and the mainstream. Life is tough enough without willing yourself into the abstractness of disbelief. Except not in art.
 
 
Like the man said, with great art comes great risk and rock seems tailor made to deal with a subject so overwhelmed by contradictions -though I don’t even really want it dealt one way or another but it’s as if a part of our emotional life is ignored. I went to the Francis Bacon exhibition at the Met the other day and I can’t recommend it highly enough because in his art was always the sideways glance into nothing because the point here is we have to look at both sides of the cradle we rock and we have to be able to see nothingness as well as something because if those we love die and we find our faith shaken, a great art that is already integrated into our vision of life can help us dealing with the terror in the same way a shock, even a moderated shock, isn’t as scary the second time round. When you look at his painting of his late lover in an empty rooom sitting on a chair, black on all sides that su
rrounds, it is a thundering rebuke to the santa clausy theology too often rammed down our throat and when you hear young teen fans sing “Your life is over’ along with Titus Andronicus it is a rebuke to the fakery of fate and life they have been force fed for the past seventeen years. It is not a question of right or wrong here, it is a question of consumtion: what we are being fed and how we are being fed it.
 
 
The greatest piece of art ever given to god, a true song of Solomon, is John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and the greatest piece of art ever given to the antichrist, or at least to those in disbelief, is Miles Davis “Black Magus” because whenever a sound unravels, whenever a band is struggling to get the formation together from chaos they are asking a theological question: is there order or is there chaos? The answer doesn’t matter in the slightest only the question.
 
 
 
Reggae is a gospel music where if you ever listen to a man like Buju Banton, the Rasta never moves far from his religion. In Arabic music it is likely to split between Islamic classical music and secular pop music. But in rock the struggle continues as to what death means in a youth culture. My Chemical Romances “The Dead Parade” tells the story of a teenage boy with cancer as he melts out of this world. It’s a great album -my fave of 96 but still isn’t where we need to go when it comes to theology and rock. But Titus are a start and any time when you are dealing with moral equities it’s a start because it’s as if that soundtrack buzzing somewhere on that Sunday drive back home is ringing in the changes of your mind and when you go at least while you’ve been here you’re finding all the right questions. To quote Conor: let’s hope it’s enough.

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