Tag Archive: Jesus


The Dream, Betty Swanwick

The Dream, Betty Swanwick

The cover of Selling England By the Pound features a painting by Betty Swanwick, one called The Dream. Her style is noted as being “quintessentially English,” according to the British Council for Visual Arts. Peter Gabriel must have thought so, too. In his quest to make Selling England more applicable to a British audience, he chose an image for the cover that evoked the fussiness and the passive grandiosity that Brits do so well. In the forefront of the painting is a man sleeping on a park bench in the middle of a garden. While Selling England was still in production, Peter saw The Dream and thought it’d be perfect. A big reason, I think, was that the song “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” featured the lyrics “When the sun beats down and I lie on the bench…”

Peter asked Betty to add a little something to the painting to make it even more applicable to the song – a lawn mower standing up next to the park bench. It looks like it’s really supposed to be there, perfectly married to the song. The Dream visually tells a story of a man who simply wants to be left alone, but has other people constantly making demands of him. The same exact theme is presented in “I Know What I Like.” THAT is truly a piece of synchronicity (unlike The Dark Side of the Rainbow), and the larger framework is the British character.

That character might also be the character of mankind in general. We don’t want anyone ordering our lives, and yet we spend so much time trying to order other people’s lives, particularly those of people we love. Jesus said we should take the plank out of our eye before we try to take the speck out of our brother’s (Matthew 7); to me, one of the things that means is “don’t mess with someone’s life unless you don’t mind them messing with yours.” We’re meant to live in community with one another, so in a way no one’s life should be un-messed with – but it always needs to be done lovingly (I can’t stress this enough), and treading where you’re not welcome is the epitome of un-love.

At Peter’s request, Betty added the lawn mower to the painting, and I can’t for the life of me find anywhere a picture of the painting in its original form. I suppose the original The Dream has been lost. It’s no big tragedy, I guess, because the addition of the lawn mower fits in perfectly with the tone of the piece, but it makes my obsessive-compulsive self very sad.

The “In Your Wardrobe” subtitle is confusing. The best explanation I’ve heard is the “wardrobe” refers to the works of C. S. Lewis and his magical gateway into the alternate dimension of Narnia. This sorta fits with the main character of “I Know What I Like” desiring escape from the demands of the world, but that’s stretching it quite far.

The third track is “Firth of Fifth,” so called for the Scottish term for coastal waters. We would call it the Mississippi River or the Chesapeake Bay, but Scots and some Brits would say Firth of Chesapeake or Firth of Mississippi. A rather famous firth in Scotland is the River Forth, also known as the Firth of Forth. The next logical firth would be… Peter must have dislocated his shoulder he was patting himself on the back so hard.

I first experienced both “Firth of Fifth” and “I Know What I Like” back in 6th grade, during my Genesis OCD phase. But I only knew about them as parts of “Old Medley,” the 20 minute track that opened the second volume of Genesis’ live album from the We Can’t Dance tour, The Way We Walk. The rest of both Vol. 1: The Shorts and Vol. 2: The Longs was made up of Phil songs, but “Old Medley” was composed of all songs I had never heard before. “Old Medley” contains key sections of “Dance On a Volcano,” “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway,” “The Musical Box,” “Firth of Fifth,” and “I Know What I Like,” and it also features snippets of “That’s All,” “Illegal Alien,” “Your Own Special Way,” “Follow You Follow Me,” and “Stagnation,” all sung over the main keyboard hook of “I Know What I Like.” In fact, it was reading the liner notes and seeing the authors of those old songs that gave me my first indication that Peter Gabriel used to be a part of Genesis.

The remainder of The Longs (with the exception of a sweet drum duet  between Phil touring drummer Chester Thompson) was songs that exceeded 10 minutes in length, and only from as far back as 1983. At the time, these were my favorites, so it makes sense that I would come to like the Gabriel years even more than Phil’s heyday. Even though Phil holds a special little place in my heart, and always will, it’s albums like Selling England By the Pound that will be Genesis’ lasting legacy. If I were playing Desert Island and could only pick one Genesis album out of all of them, it would probably be Selling England.

Advertisements

Pink Floyd’s journey through madness takes us to a brief segue from the end of “Time” (which is actually “Breathe (Reprise)”) into a gentle piano, the intro to “The Great Gig In the Sky.” Over the piano is laid a snippet from one of the interviews Roger Waters did during the album’s production. It speaks of how you shouldn’t be frightened of dying, and “any time will do.” These wise words come from Gerry O’Driscoll, the Abbey Road Studios janitor.

The only vocals on the whole track (other than the interview snippets) are those of Clare Torry, a vocalist that engineer Alan Parsons suggested. Clare wasn’t enthusiastic about it, since she was not a fan of Pink Floyd. It didn’t really get better for her when she agreed to come to the studio, as the members of Pink Floyd didn’t really give her anything to do; they themselves didn’t even know what they wanted. So she just said to herself, “Maybe I should just pretend I’m an instrument.” She did two and a half takes, stopping in the middle of the third because she felt it wasn’t working and that she was repeating herself. But while she was losing confidence in herself, the members of Floyd and the production team were simply blown away. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the album, and even to this day her performance is amazing.

Despite the absence of lyrics, “The Great Gig In the Sky” deals with death and mortality. Death is scary at first, but so much of its bluster and noise is man-made. Something’s only scary if someone’s scared of it. Like “On the Run,” “Great Gig” shouldn’t be strictly thought of as a song, but a wordless piece of art that evokes a feeling without spelling it out for you. There’s a pigeonholing of music that says that only the words of a song can be about something. That’s an extremely limited way of thinking, and The Dark Side of the Moon proves that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The vinyl flip brings more sound effects, these ones from an old-style cash register. The song “Money” is a crunchy, groovy piece of rock in the novel 7/8 time signature. The odd time puts the listener a little off balance, particularly because “Money” is plodding and a little machine-like. When the guitar solo comes, though, it switches to 4/4 in order to make guitarist David Gilmour’s life easier.

The lyrics talk about the excesses money can bring, but more poignantly about selfishness. “Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie.” They also make a rather infuriating mistake with the line, “Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today.”

Money is not the root of all evil. There is a great misconception out there that somehow the cause of all our problems is money, but that’s just not the case. Never mind that it’s ridiculous to focus on the badness of money and forget things like power, sex and self-gratification. It’s also ridiculous to say that an inanimate object could be the source of an exclusively human problem. No, the reason horrible things are done in the name of makin’ that dollar is not money itself; it’s us.

Jesus didn’t say money was the root of all evil, but a great many people think he did. In fact, one of the only things Jesus had to say about the subject was “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s,” which basically means stop whining, pay your taxes, and get back to doing God’s work. The “root of all evil” thing is actually from the Bible, but not only doesn’t Jesus say it (Paul does), but instead of money, it’s love of money. The Bible talks a lot about splitting your loyalties and how you shouldn’t do it. You can’t serve two masters because you’ll hate one and love the other, and that includes money.

Pink Floyd has a similarly cautious approach to money here, not wanting to delve into the excesses that commonly follow success. Money can quickly become an obsession, and that leads to paranoia and madness, which is Floyd’s central theme on Dark Side. But it’s ironic that “Money,” a song that speaks very jadedly about monetary success, was Pink Floyd’s breakout hit and their first taste of the very thing “Money” cautions against. And with the Floyd’s next album, Wish You Were Here, they lament about the hole that money and “Money” got them into. And they didn’t really get themselves out of it until 20 years later with their final album, The Division Bell.

Next: “Us and Them” and the balance between the ugly and the beautiful.

I’ve made much mention of the Ziggy Stardust storyline, but I haven’t taken the time to fully explain it yet. This is a general outline as far as I see it, containing elements of my own interpretation.

It starts with Earth in crisis, five years from its natural resources running out and it wasting away to nothing. An alien named Ziggy Stardust comes to Earth with the quest of saving it from destruction. Ziggy is flamboyant, hedonistic, sexually promiscuous and prone to decadence. He sends out a transmission that’s heard by the young people of the world on their radios, which leads them to organize and mobilize, rallying around Ziggy as a leader. As is only natural for him, he becomes a rock and roll star along with his band, the Spiders From Mars. They take over the world with their high-octane rock and sexually liberal attitude. As Ziggy becomes bigger and more popular, he becomes more egocentric as well, which leads to distance from and friction with his band mates. It also leads to paranoia. His fear is that he will die on stage, which comes true. He is consumed by his own glory and fame – possibly assassinated by one of his own band mates – but ascends to a higher level of consciousness, joining the spirits of rock and roll in a kind of heaven. With his exit, he leaves the Earth to its doom.

In what passes for a title track of an album with a prohibitively long name, “Ziggy Stardust” is one of the few moments in the album where Ziggy is looked at from the outside. The song’s narrator is a member of the Spiders From Mars who reverentially describes Ziggy with a poetic flare, but also details his growing pomposity and decadence. Make no mistake; Ziggy is an extravagant figure, and his band mate’s description of him is accurate. He’s a true rock star, larger than life and louder than bombs. And just as his rock stardom is legendary, so are his indulgences and excesses. The song eventually ends with the Spiders deciding to break up, but not before one last show.

The Spiders From Mars

David Bowie (the real person divorced from the Ziggy persona) was actually afraid he would die on stage, more specifically that he would be assassinated. I say “afraid,” but I think Bowie was more than just scared. He was excited and hesitant, but he mostly just thought that this was his destiny. With each passing concert, he felt more certain that it would end this way.

As a coping mechanism, he incorporated it into his stage show. In an intensely interesting and weirdly ingenious turn, he takes his actual paranoia about himself and funnels it into the story of Ziggy. Ziggy not only dies at the end of the album, but every show Ziggy gave was his farewell. On the 1972 tour, right before Bowie and his band performed “Rock and Roll Suicide” as the closer, Bowie in the guise of Ziggy would say, “this is the last show we’ll ever do.” In doing that, Bowie wasn’t going to die anymore; Ziggy was.

The song’s called “Rock and Roll Suicide” because Ziggy had a premonition and other-worldly certainty that he would die. He knew he would be killed at that show, but he went on with it anyway, marching knowingly towards death. You may be sick of hearing this by now, but this is yet another parallel to Jesus Christ. It part of the admitted story of the album that Ziggy is some sort of Messiah, so comparisons between him and Christ are only natural. Jesus, at some point, knew that he was put onto this earth to save its people from their sins, and that he would do that by being the eternal blood payment for those sins; by dying. He was certain of it being unavoidable, just as Ziggy did.

Aladdin Sane (a lad insane…)

Bowie said himself that he got lost in the Ziggy persona, blurring the line between where David ended and Ziggy began. On that tour, so many people were telling him and acting like he was a real Messiah. He was eventually able to put Ziggy in a pen, but not before he mined him for all he was worth. In the same way that “Suffragette City” was a single by Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, his next album, 1973’s Aladdin Sane, was as close as he ever came to making an entire album by Ziggy’s band. Pin-Ups followed that same year, which was a Ziggy album of cover songs. And finally, 1974 saw Diamond Dogs, morphing the Ziggy character into a post-apocalyptic wanderer.

After that, he left Ziggy behind and went into his “plastic soul” era, the Thin White Duke, his techno dalliances and his forays into dance music during the 80s. Now, 45 years after his musical career began, Bowie is rock and roll royalty. And the crown jewel of his glittering crown will always be Ziggy Stardust.

Next: director Todd Haynes takes the story of the glam rock era and does… something. I’m not really sure what.

David Bowie in Labyrinth

In 1997, Bowie released a remix of a track from his latest album, Earthling, called “I’m Afraid of Americans,” redone by none other than Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame. I was in high school at the time and pretty into NIN, but I only knew David Bowie in the context of his role as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth. Sure, I recognized him as a musician, but as an aging pop star, he was barely on my radar. So when “I’m Afraid of Americans” came out with Trent’s name attached to it, my ears pricked up.

I found the track a little boring, and of a similar style to his much-lauded contribution to the Lost Highway soundtrack, “The Perfect Drug.” I was pretty disappointed by that song, and was sad to see him declining even further with “Americans.” And who was this crusty British guy doing the singing? And why does everybody (including Trent, apparently) respect and admire him so much? Several of my friends viewed David Bowie as a sort of elder statesman of all things weird and unusual.

Mike, my college friend and musical mentor, thought David Bowie was just the bomb. When I heard him talk about Bowie in such a reverential way, I thought, “That dude from Labyrinth? And the one Trent Reznor did that God-awful song with?”

Ah, youth; the younger you are, the more forgivable your ignorance and stupidity are.

I thought (and still think) Mike is a pretty smart guy, so I took a closer look at David Bowie and discovered the behemoth of Ziggy Stardust. However, for whatever reason, I didn’t listen to it in its full form until several years later. I was talking to Mike then and said, “Y’know, Ziggy Stardust is a pretty great album.” He just shook his head in disappointment and said, “Duh.”

My first impression of Ziggy Stardust was uncharitable however. I was not impressed with the track listing. Some of the names were “Starman,” “Lady Stardust,” “Ziggy Stardust,” and one called simply, “Star.” How did this become one of the greatest albums of all time with such shoddy lack of originality and dunderheaded obviousness as this?

Ah, youth; the younger you are, the more forgivable your massive disrespect is.

While my thought process about Ziggy Stardust has become much more enlightened, I still think Bowie could have cranked out some more original song titles, but that aside, it’s a nearly flawless record. It even has two “star” singles (ironic, isn’t it?).

Released as a single a little before the album, “Starman” is a hooky piece of pop-rock gloriousness. Its lyrics have probably the most crystallized piece of the Ziggy Stardust story of any track on the album. It tells of a the youth of planet Earth hearing a message through their radios from an alien, telling of a starman waiting in the sky. That alien is Ziggy himself, and he brings a message of hope for the salvation of mankind. Most important is that this transmission comes first to the youth instead of the adults. It’s rather like the news of Jesus’ resurrection first coming to two women, the least reliable of sources in that time.

“Starman” was Bowie’s first hit single since “Space Oddity,” and proved to the world that he wasn’t a one hit wonder. He appeared on Top of the Pops performing “Starman” in full Ziggy costume, complete with Mick Ronson and company all dolled up as the Spiders From Mars, and shocked the audience with his outlandish and unprecedented appearance. Those watching T.V. that night had never seen anything quite like that before. After that, everything changed for Bowie.

A few years later, after Bowie had become a superstar, “Suffragette City” was released as a single. Pretty different from “Starman,” it has wild abandon instead of a pop sheen. The guitars are loud and vicious, and the even catchier than “Starman.” It also features a Little Richard-style piano part and an accordion sound produced by an ARP synthesizer.

“Suffragette City” is the hardest to understand as part of the Ziggy Stardust storyline. The way I choose it process it is this is a song actually BY Ziggy Stardust (not David Bowie) in the fictional world of the album. It’s about a guy who’s facing a choice between sex and drugs; he can’t have both, so he chooses sex. Consequentially, he can’t have his druggie friend Henry coming around anymore. He calls Henry his “droogie,” another reference to A Clockwork Orange, as “droogie” is the Nadsat word for “buddy.” And the narrator is very happy in his choice of drug-free lovin’ all the time; there’s even a celebratory sing-along shout of “wham bam thank you ma’am!”

Next: rock and roll suicide and the further evolution of Bowie.

20th Century Bolan

T. Rex’s 1972 album, The Slider

40 or so years after the fact, when the term “glam rock” is brought up, those in the know usually think “David Bowie.” Rightly so, for his music endures. But Bowie wasn’t the only one making glam rock; arguably, he wasn’t even the one who invented it. That honor belongs to Marc Bolan.

Bolan was the Christopher Marlowe to Bowie’s Shakespeare. They were friends, no doubt, but also competitors; ringmasters in the same arena. A lot of the rivalry was probably created out of whole cloth by the music media – and their respective wives. June Child Bolan once told Angie Bowie flat out that her husband was too good to appear on any of Bowie’s records. But I think Bowie and Bolan themselves were fine with each other, and enjoyed some healthy iron-sharpens-iron.

For his first few albums, Bolan was calling his musical act Tyrannosaurus Rex, but he shortened it to T. Rex in 1970. About that time, he took to wearing top hats and feather boas on stage. A breakthrough was when he discovered a small bottle of face glitter belonging to his wife on a table in his dressing room. On the spur of the moment, he put a dab of it on his cheek. And with that, glitter rock was born.

T. Rex’s music simply blew up in the U.K., making up an astounding 6% of the total British GDP for record sales. But just like Marlowe, he was much more popular during his time than after it. Bowie is still a part of our musical collective unconscious, but you’d get a few more scratched heads if you mentioned T. Rex.  Some might know “Bang a Gong” or “20th Century Boy,” but most would say “wasn’t that a song back before I was born?”

Bowie and Bolan

Bowie’s music has endured the ages a lot better than the songs of T. Rex. For instance, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums feature five of Bowie’s albums but only one by T. Rex. That could also be due to Bowie having a career that spans nearly 40 years, while Bolan’s is only 9 years long before his untimely demise. Marc tragically died in a car crash in 1977, just as his career was seeing a resurgence.

Fading into the mists of time as he is, Marc enjoys a special tribute on Ziggy Stardust. The song “Lady Stardust” started out as a tribute/exploration/criticism of Bolan. Whereas Bowie created characters for him to inhabit, Bolan came by his glam tendencies rather honestly. He wasn’t being completely honest with his audience (that’s not what glam artists do, nor does their audience except it), but what he presented on stage was just Marc, not a contrived and intricate personality like Ziggy. As such, he opened himself up to ridicule. It’s explained in the first verse of “Lady Stardust.”

People stared at the makeup on his face / Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace / The boy in the bright blue jeans jumped up on the stage / Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and disgrace

“Darkness and disgrace” might be a gross overstatement, since T.Rex’s songs were always brighter and more celebratory than Bowie’s, but the sentiment is still understood. Like a good glam rock song should, Bowie points out the more outlandish aspects of Bolan’s public character in a lightly mocking but mostly admiring way.

Oh come on! He’s gorgeous!

Gender-bending is also part of Bowie’s breakdown, being an essential tenant of glitter rock. Rock and roll has always been about challenging social norms, about pushing the establishment into a corner to get it to fight. In 1972, the vogue way of doing that was sexually, challenging what it meant to be male and female. The very act of a man wearing make-up and being beautiful was enough. And let’s face it: Marc Bolan was one beautiful bloke. He stood out among the British male population by the fact that he was just so, so pretty. That was probably the largest thing that contrasted him with David Bowie; when stripped of his make-up, Bowie was actually pretty weird-looking. Marc Bolan, on the other hand, was like Venus de Milo and the statue of David with a top hat as the kicker.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m straight as one of Legolas’ arrows. I loves me some women (one woman in particular), but I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit that if Marc Bolan was a woman (and not rotting in his grave), I’d tap that.

The story present in Ziggy Stardust can’t be forgotten, though, and Bowie doesn’t. “Lady Stardust” serves the dual purpose of also being Ziggy’s rise to popularity and first taste of stardom. There’s even a possible parallel to Peter’s triple denial of Jesus on the night after his crucifixion, further suggesting Ziggy as a Christ figure. He meant to save the world with rock and roll, but as the album unfolds, rock and roll will prove to be his own downfall and demise.

Tarted Up

While projections about planet Earth’s expiration date are fraught with peril, the fictional world that Bowie created has its time limit announced from the very start: five years. It opens on people crowding around a television set to hear a newscaster tearfully tell the world that it has “five years left for crying.” The ostensible reason is a lack of natural resources. In the face of impending disaster, human do what humans do. Chaos quickly ensues, complete with looting and other savage behavior, including killing over food.

It is against that backdrop that Bowie creates his most enduring character, Ziggy Stardust. The song “Five Years” has a beautiful restraint to it, slowly building and building until it’s a towering inferno, dwarfing all other work Bowie has done previously. A big part of glam rock is ironically trussing up rock and roll to accentuate its more ridiculous curves and angles. Hunky Dory did that to a masterful degree, but Ziggy Stardust is totally serious about its camp. I know that’s a contradiction in terms (“serious camp”), but the way Bowie sells it, you buy the contradiction, a spare, and the t-shirt that goes with it.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine

Brian Slade, the Bowie-like character in the indie flick Velvet Goldmine, said in a press conference, “Rock and roll is a prostitute; it should be tarted up.” “Soul Love” tarts up its musical motif to exaggeratedly point out that it really is a prostitute, from the nasally performed vocals right down to the alto sax solo. Story-wise, I’m not sure how it fits in to the Ziggy plotline, though it makes perfect musical sense for it to follow the achingly epic “Five Years.” Lyrically, it seems to be about the narrator being in love with love, with the concept itself. Even so, he’s aware that he can’t have a practical application of the concept ‘til it’s directed at a particular person.

Segueing right into it is “Moonage Daydream,” a slow rocker and Bowie’s strongest attempt so far to blow the listener’s brains out. This represents the birth of Ziggy Stardust on Earth, his triumphant arrival and the start of his mission/ministry. Ziggy is a sort of futuristic Christ figure, a being from outside this world whose sole purpose is to save it from itself. This parallel isn’t lost on Bowie, and he plays it to the hilt, if pretty subtly. Ziggy’s means of salvation are generally the same as Christ’s, too; Jesus atoned for us by being a perfect replacement, the Platonic form of a human being. All over “Moonage Daydream” are suggestions of Ziggy’s identical nature to human beings, divine entity though he is.

There’s also the closing words of “Moonage Daydream,” spoken over the killer Ronson guitar solo that ends it. “Freak out! Far out! In-out!” It reminds me of A Clockwork Orange, in which in-out is a Nadsat slang term for sexual intercourse.

I could speculate wildly on what this means, getting further and further from the point, but what still remains is that Ziggy likes sex. Maybe he thinks that sex will save the world. On an extremely general level, I understand that line of thinking; if people had more sex, there would probably be less war, for one thing. However, it won’t fix our planet, and it won’t fix Ziggy’s, either. So what will?

The answer: rock and roll.

God, religion and spirituality in all their piety seem very far away from where the Rolling Stones are, but are they really? The church and rock and roll are actually more married than one might think. After all, the church is a place for sinners, broken and fractured people with problems, hang-ups and unanswerable questions. The church is no place for folks who have got it all figured out, much as it may seem like a collection of sanctimonious, self-righteous prigs, or too holy for someone who’s screwed up as badly as you have. Just the opposite. Jesus came to perfect the imperfect, not save those who were already saved.

Rock and roll, in the same fashion, is a forum for people to share and commiserate with – and sometimes enjoy – their problems. It points out what’s wrong and says, “let’s fix this,” and also what’s right and says, “isn’t this great?”

Christianity has produced some great music over time. Indeed, it was some Catholic monks who first thought up the idea of writing music down and came up with a language to do so. In more modern times, black churches used their culture, heritage and personality to develop a form of worshiping God in song, and it was called gospel music. The most prominent feature of gospel is the sense of laying it all down and being completely sold out for God. It’s been regurgitated by thousands of white musicians, including the Rolling Stones on Exile. They too use their personality to present it in a true Stones fashion in a completely authentic way.

“Tumbling Dice” is a prototypical slice of gospel-tinged blues-rock, and using gambling and dice games to illustrate the desire for freedom from commitments, particularly troubles concerning women.  It features a background chorus of female singers who inject the song with heart and soul, and a lilting guitar part that sways smoothly with incredible flow. It doesn’t rock as hard as some other songs on Exile, but it stands up better for that sense of head-nodding, foot-tapping joy that gospel owns for all its own.

“Loving Cup” is another gospel-tinged song, this time utilizing the spirituality and inherent holiness of the piano. Long-time Stones session pianist Nicky Hopkins shows brilliance here, giving the Stones that extra push they needed to rocket off into musical ecstasy. “Loving Cup” is a desperate love song, beautiful and extremely poetic in its discourse about how much the narrator loves and depends on his subject. It reminds me of “Thank You” by Led Zeppelin in its honesty and grace, but has the added element of the music supporting the lyrical theme in a greater way. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Stones love song without a sexual reference or two. “I’d love to spill the beans with you ‘til dawn.” I see what ya did there…

On the second side, things slow down a bit after the frenetic pace of “Happy” and “Turd On the Run” and the danger of “Ventilator Blues.” That lowering pace comes first in the form of “I Just Want to See His Face.” The feel of this song is completely one of a gospel jam, people sitting around with instruments and not knowing where this will go or when it will end. Sometimes that produces the most soulful and spiritual music. “Face,” though, sounds sloppy and directionless, like the spirit is simply not with them. It could be due to the production, which makes you think you’re hearing what’s going on one floor above you. You’re not part of it, not down in the musicians pit with everyone else. As a result, you don’t feel the same “holy ghost power” that the musicians probably do.

Things get even slower with “Let It Loose,” which ends the third side of the record on a very soulful note, if very long in the tooth. The song is over 5 minutes long, the longest on the entire record. It also takes quite some time to really get going, and the good parts don’t last long enough. It makes the experience pretty boring; soulful, but boring.

Near the end of the record, however, is the penultimate statement of spiritual good will, “Shine a Light.” This song is a show-stopper, fantastically epic and emotional. That same chorus of female singers does wonders, as they inject attitude and authenticity to what’s really a white English boy trying to be a Macon, GA gospel preacher. Mick Jagger, for his part, acquits himself with remarkable aplomb, selling completely out to his role as the rock and roll saver of souls. He hoots and hollers like a Pentecostal church member , punctuating his singing style with impassioned cries of joy.

I can visually imagine “Shine a Light” in no other way than a southern Baptist church with a big stained glass window, a choir in robes of white, maroon and gold, the congregation on their feet and dancing despite the 100 degree heat, and Mick in a black pastoral robe losing control of his voice and his limbs.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that Exile On Main St. is the last great album the Rolling Stones ever made. After that came Goats Head Soup, and that began a downward slope that took almost 20 years to break out of, punctuated by a bright spot or two (Some Girls wasn’t that bad). But suffice to say, after Exile, they started being a parody of rock and roll and eventually were a parody of themselves. They exist now as a reminder of a past age, inspiration for all the aged rockers to pick up their guitars again, and the most arthritic band still making music. I guess that’s pretty good.

Jesus People

According to my dad, my parents were NOT hippies – they were Jesus People. Hippies and Jesus People have a lot in common, like a mellow and positive attitude, a fashion sense that included bright colors, long tassels and hemp, and a liking for patchouli, most likely to cover up the odor of an unwashed body. But while hippies were very loose and open about spirituality, they were generally opposed to organized religion; they saw it as a way to keep people down.

Jesus People, on the other hand, found true freedom and liberation in Jesus Christ, something they didn’t find in the hippie culture, despite the advertisement of it. Hippies were wary of Jesus because of his association with Christianity, a thing of oppression (as they saw it). But Jesus People were much more interested in Christ as a person than they were in Christianity as a religion. They loved him. It is possible to be in love with someone who’s been dead for 2000 years, because to Jesus People (and to Christians in general) he’s not dead. He lives within each one of us, growing and improving us from the inside out. It’s like The Matrix – the concept can’t be fully explained; you have to see it for yourself.

Jesus People used to wear these buttons that said “One Way.” It refers to following Jesus as being the only way to heaven. When a member of the Jesus Movement saw a stranger that they thought might be a fellow Jesus Person, they would hold up their index finger (“one”). If the stranger did the same, they both knew that they had something in common, and that they would see each other again in heaven. It was like they shared a little secret, something the rest of the world wasn’t in on. It’s like when I was living in New York, regularly wearing my Red Sox cap on the streets of Manhattan. Most people didn’t care, but one time I saw another guy wearing the same cap and caught his eye. We exchanged no words, but gave each other a little nod and smile as I passed by.

It may seem like Jesus People were some exclusive organization with a rigorous membership process to weed out the fakers, but that’s not how it was. It’s important for us of this pluralistic generation to understand that Jesus People weren’t enforcing their individuality, or proclaiming their distinction from everybody else. They weren’t saying, “I’m different and I like that.” They were saying, “I’m saved, and you can be too!!!” The message of Jesus People was what the message of modern Christian evangelicalism should be: the more the merrier. And that should come without exceptions, addendums or provisos. This is an invitation regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation; if you have lungs and a beating heart, you can join this club.

As for Jesus People themselves, most of them grew up, got married and had kids, and generally settled down into a typical American existence. However, most of them (including both of my parents) never lost that zeal and passion for the word of God, or that all-or-nothing mentality that’s an essential part of their Christianity. And since both of my parents are such freakishly awesome people, it must not be a bad thing.

Even so, Jesus People are part of a bygone age, and their way of thinking about things is just different that ours today. They touted the “one way” philosophy, a thing that’s not only stuck around in Christianity but gotten more intense. While I’m certain that there’s only one road, Jesus’ road, I think that road might be a lot wider than a lot of Christians believe it is, or maybe than they want it to be.

I’m completely aware that people are gonna quote the “way is straight and narrow” verse from the Bible to me. Here’s my response. Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, “…narrow [is] the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” I posit that certain Christians would prefer it to be “only YOU guys find it, and screw everyone else.” It’s narrow, yes, but only in comparison to the other road, the one that leads to destruction, and the number of people who choose it. Perhaps another way of putting it is that those people aren’t even on a road; they’re lost in the forest being eaten by the bears. The only way for us to find them is to go into the forest and risk getting eaten by the bears ourselves.

Oh jeez. I try to write about Led Zeppelin and I end up preaching about evangelism. Sigh… more about IV next time.

Discernment

John Lennon had a way of seeing into the truth of things. All the masks people use to hide their true selves were just smoke screens to John. Not only did he not really have any of his own, but he could see past other peoples’ and get a glimpse of who they really were. It’s one of the reasons I admire him so much, for I share that quality. I see what a person projects sub-consciously as well as what they want me to see. Sometimes I’m pretty myopic about certain things, and I often have no idea what to do with my knowledge, but I can usually look at a situation and tell what’s really going on.

The technical term for that is “discernment.” John’s own discernment is no clearer than on the track “Crippled Inside.” Humans have all sorts of masks that they hide behind, and to someone like John (and me), they’re frustrating because they’re so pointless. It’s like an elephant holding up a little twig and saying “You can’t see me!” On “Crippled Inside,” John cuts right to the quick and leaves you with nowhere to hide. Its bouncy and music-hall melody make it easier to swallow, but it’s always gone down pretty easily for me; just like John, I don’t have any masks, either.

John’s frustration with the facetiousness and contrivance of scared little men comes from a simmer to a boil in “Gimme Some Truth.” The sentiment in this song is yet again something I completely understand. Seeing the truth of a matter makes it even more frustrating when people purposely try to conceal it. Politicians are the easiest to blame, and John has some pretty unkind words to say about them. When a politician says something, I know that what they don’t say is even more important than what they do. There’s often a hidden agenda behind their smooth words and breezy attitude, and a si9ngle statement probably doesn’t mean exactly what it says.

Politicians have the gift of spinning something until it revolves around what they want it to revolve around, but it usually doesn’t work on me. I know there’s some hidden side that they’re not discussing nearly every time they open their mouths. The direction they want it to go is usually along the lines of what their constituents and their political party wants to hear. Republicans and Democrats have packages of things they say, and you can almost predict what they’re going to say as if from a script. It just takes a little discernment to unravel their manipulation.

Taking a different than both “Crippled Inside” and “Gimme Some Truth,” the smoky, bluesy hypnosis of “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier, Mama, I Don’t Want to Die” uses heart and soul instead of the blunt approach of the other two. Instead of talking plainly about lies and deceptions, John reveals on “Soldier” his existential longings, his desire to find his place and finally be comfortable in his own skin. He lists all the things he doesn’t want to be, but what does he want to be?

John and I may share a discerning nature, but John had a big advantage I don’t have, and that’s boldness. My interest in harmony and not starting fights is quite often bigger than my desire for complete honesty. John, on the other hand, saw harmony as something that had to be fought for. It wouldn’t just generate on its own, so we need to work to create it, and then work some more to maintain it. This is great wisdom, and all too often people let their own needs and desires trump the principles of peace, love and coexistence.

“all we are saying is give Jesus a chance!”

What’s ironic is that in fighting for peace and harmony, John Lennon was one of the most controversial figures of his day, generating a lot of discord. Isn’t that term strange? “Fighting for peace.” All in all, John Lennon may have been in the papers as out in front for the struggle for peace, but he didn’t actually create any harmony until his tragic and senseless death. While it’s not true that real artists aren’t appreciated in their own time, it is true that words aren’t usually enough to change people’s hearts. Sometimes things need to get a lot worse before they can get better, and it often takes something as horrible as a murder to put things on a different and more positive path. Just look at Jesus.

Yes, I really did just draw a parallel between John Lennon and Jesus Christ. Deal with it.

Next: it wouldn’t be a John Lennon album without a personal attack or two.

I spent the first 10 to 15 years of my life with a pretty black and white idea of Christianity and the world in which it exists. Christianity was completely true and all other religions, paths, practices and philosophies were completely false. In high school, I started to perceive a few shades of grey; my mind started wandering into things that ended in question marks and ellipses rather than periods. That made me curious but uncomfortable, so I confined my search for answers to my own internal logic, what I could figure out on my own. It was a bad move.

When I got to college, the number of my questions just exploded. Uncertainties were coming at me from all sides and I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. My only recourse was to dispense with the uncomfortable feeling and barrel on ahead. It got to the point where I was questioning just about everything. When I was young, all things were certain; now, very few things were.

A couple of things stayed true: God was real, love was real, and God loved me. I’ve always been certain of that. But every other thing was up in the air, and they’ve slowly been coming down to a more graspable height ever since college. They still fly away sometimes, but I know I’ve got a firm hold on the really important stuff.

The most important thing I’ve learned since high school is that there’s not a lot of difference between Christians and non-Christians. I used to think there was this thick black line dividing them, and that line ran along who treated you well and who didn’t. What, little Ben cut in front of me in the line for the drinking fountain? He must be going to hell! But who treats you well has to do with their own battle with their sin nature, not whether or not they carry the label “Christian.” Christians can be just as vile as other people, and they even have a corner on the market of certain types of vileness. And quite often some deep truths about God, love and the nature of both come from seemingly “heathen” sources.

Since their first record and for about 10 years after, Black Sabbath had been fighting against insinuations and outright statements that they were Satanists. Every time the question came up in an interview, they flatly denied it. Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler made no secret of the fact that they were brought up Catholic. The image was brought on by their dark, doomy music and references to Satan in their lyrics, but the public took it several steps further. Sabbath eventually learned to live with it, and then to use it to their own advantage, but it had to be frustrating. And around the time of their third album, they decided to fire back.

Master of Reality contains some pretty bold statements about the goodness of God, the evils of Satan, and some unabashed references to love. The songs “After Forever” and “Lord of This World” lay the groundwork for Christian metal, even if no Christian artist under the sun will admit that it’s true. “After Forever” takes an incredibly direct approach to God and the question of his existence, even having the narrator (which would most likely be Geezer himself) say “I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways.” Furthermore, he warns the person he’s addressing against denying God in front of their friends, and  says “God is the only way to love.” Gospel message? Maybe. Something a Satanist would say? Definitely not.

“Lord of This World” takes the opposite tack, being a letter from Satan to a hapless victim whom he deceived. But rather than laughing in victory, Satan seems a little sad, like taking the person’s soul was a little too easy. There’s no longer any need for deception on Satan’s part, so he just lays it bare. His victim chose “evil ways instead of love” and made him the “master of the world where [he] exist[s].” Satan might as well be saying, “Why did you follow me instead of God? I’m freakin’ evil, dude! Get a clue!” Christian ministers who preach hellfire and damnation can’t even do it as effectively as this.

At the cap there’s “Into the Void,” a futuristic account of the few people who know the truth leaving the earth in spaceships forever because it’s too corrupt, and searching the galaxy for a place to start anew. The earth is filled with hatred, evil, misery and death, and it’s all Satan’s fault. I have a feeling those who left the planet did so because they were looking for heaven, and Earth too closely resembled hell.

There is a very important distinction to draw here, one that could make or break your decision on Black Sabbath, if you haven’t already made up your mind. Sabbath’s message on Master of Reality is pro-God and pro-love, but not necessarily pro-Christianity. Jesus is never mentioned explicitly, though God is. The principles Sabbath presents here are found in an undiluted form in Christianity, but they’re careful to avoid throwing their hat in with the Christian crowd (or any crowd).

And I can’t talk about Master of Reality and its Christian themes without also talking about a track from their very next album Vol. 4, called “Under the Sun.” It’s a cover, but it captures BS’s spirit very well. It’s a call to not let anyone’s philosophy intrude on your own, to make your own path. This is stupid, of course; everyone’s philosophy is a collection of things they’ve heard and have chosen to hang onto. The reason I mention it is that they make a reference to “Jesus freaks” in the first line, where the narrator is laying out all the people groups he doesn’t want telling him what to believe. That list also includes “black magicians,” but the slap in the face to Christians remains. “Under the Sun” basically says the singer already has it all figured out, and doesn’t want anybody telling him what’s what; a revelation of arrogance, naivety, and plain old stupidity.

Black Sabbath eventually came to accept their slightly demonic image, and in 1980 they started fostering it. Ozzy had been fired, and an essential part of Black Sabbath’s image was gone. Nature abhors a vacuum, but rather than replace Ozzy, they shifted their image and musical direction, hiring Ronnie James Dio as the new lead belter. With the addition of Dio, they started leaning into the suggestions of Satanism, or at least started embracing the devilish side of their public face.

Ronnie James Dio

The Dio Sabbath always made me uncomfortable. With Ozzy, the suggestions of Satanism were a hysterical joke, made tragic by that some people took the joke seriously. With Dio, though, they seemed somehow authentic. I fear they started dabbling with things they shouldn’t. All in all, Black Sabbath’s Lucifer influences are a lot of bluster without any substance, but they came dangerously close to making them real in the early 80s. For that reason, I’ve always preferred the Ozzy years to Dio. After Dio… well, it’s not worth mentioning.