Jesus Christ Superstar Revisited

I remember hitch-hiking to the lake my uncle lived on, one summer in 1970.  I got picked up by a car with four girls in it.  As a male adolescent, I couldn’t believe my good luck, riding in a car with four girls in it.  They had the car radio tuned to the FM rock station (back then there was AM radio, which played “bubble-gum” pop music, and there was FM which played acid rock like Hendrix, Clapton, Ten Years After, and Jethro Tull).  “Jesus Christ Superstar” came on the radio.  I asked the girls, “Is this Jesus Christ Superstar that everybody’s talking about?”  They didn’t know.

The fact is, everybody was talking about Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970.  It was one of the most popular rock-operas next to Tommy, by The Who.  And it launched Andrew LLoyd Webber’s illustrious career, who wrote the music for Jesus Christ Superstar.  Everybody had to have an opinion about Jesus Christ Superstar–stoners, clergy, church-goers, theater buffs, everybody across the board.  It was that much of a sensation.  Life Magazine devoted a whole issue to it.

Jesus Christ Superstar challenged religion, which happened a lot in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s.  The very title, calling Jesus a superstar, was a challenge.  And Jesus Christ Superstar was good rock music.  We listened to it over and over again because we liked the music.  But this rock-opera also took the Jesus story seriously, and engaged with the story seriously.  I remember one evening while there was a social event at our church’s divinity school.  One minister offered to listen to the whole rock-opera with any church goers who wanted to do so.  Then, after we heard the piece, he opened up the floor for questions and comments.  We took it that seriously, and the minister took it that seriously.  Some thought it was sacrilegious; some thought that it brought the Jesus story into the modern world; some thought it was a holy opera; some thought it was too strange a mixture of religion and rock.  But everyone had something to say about it.  Godspell came out later, but it wasn’t the musical masterpiece nor as sensational as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

What occasions these reminiscences is my TV.  On the retro channel, due to the Christmas season, they just played Jesus Christ Superstar.  Watching it so many years later, I had many feelings.  But I was mostly struck with the thought that they could never make this album and movie today.  Back in 1970, religion had a strong enough influence in society that you could make an album about religion, and it would mean something.  There is so much religious apathy today that Jesus Christ Superstar would largely be ignored.  And Andrrew Lloyd Webber’s career wouldn’t be launched by it today.  Consider two films, The Passion of the Christ in 2004; and The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.  I thought I should see The Last Temptation of Christ.  It was a  shocking movie in its day because it depicted Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a sexual relationship.  I didn’t see The Passion of the Christ, and didn’t think I needed to.  These films came and went but weren’t the sensation that Jesus Christ Superstar was.  And they were only movies, they weren’t music and film and theater all, as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

It would largely be ignored today because religion is largely ignored today.  An opera that engages seriously with the Jesus story wouldn’t catch on because of the so few people who also engage seriously with the Jesus story.  Or with religion itself.  W. H. Auden writes, “But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast.”  I think today’s indifference to religion, though, is indeed something we do have to dread.  If we still can dread anything–other than something that threatens self-interest.  Apathy and indifference is more of a threat than we may credit it to be.  I’m glad that the abuses and ridiculous and hurtful ideas from religion are being denounced and done away with.  And if apathy is the remedy for this, well and good.  But by the same token, the bland world I am finding myself in today, is still frightening.  To me, it is a deafening silence.

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Kavanaugh and the Evaluation of Memory

I’ve been reflecting on an incident from 1976 that is burned into my memory.  That is 42 years ago.  A very successful piano player who is my friend played one of my own compositions with me in a hotel bar.  I have an original song called “Space Blues.”  I wrote it in 1976.  One night, I sat in with my friend’s band; I played keyboard.  The band’s keyboard player had a beard, and he asked me if I wanted to sit in.  He yelled out from the audience for me to play a mambo, since he’d heard me play one before.  My friend was playing bass on a Moog Synthesizer.  The lead singer had sung on a Motown record, and he worked with my father at the Fisher Body plant in Livonia.  My friend asked me what song I wanted to play, since I was sitting in.  I told him the chords to Space Blues and the band and I started playing it.  The lead singer liked it, and started improvising some lyrics.  Actually he really sort of sang tones without words, since I hadn’t written the words yet.  I was thrilled to have this song of mine being performed in public.  I was thrilled to be playing in a bond with my friend, since I had a lot of respect for his musicianship.  Playing Space Blues in that hotel bar with my highly respected friend is seared in my memory.

Now, 42 years later, I have finally recorded Space Blues.  I sent it to my friend, the same friend who played with me in 1976, who has been producing my recordings.  He did not remember the song at all; it was as if he heard it for the first time.  I feel like telling him, “You played this song with me in 1976!”  But he has no recollection of any of this.  It didn’t make the same impression on him as it did on me.  He has played innumerable songs since, has played in countless bands, doesn’t even remember me sitting in with him that night in the hotel bar.

That’s the nature of memory.

SLOW DANCING AT THE BLUES BAR

Feeling electric

Current

Generated by you, us, moving

That slow dance to the blues band

Your head resting on

My heart

Beating

Moving

To the music

Feeling

More than hearing

The music

You

Touching me

Slow dancing

Electric current

Turned on

Electric

The music

Moving

On the dance floor

Those moments, moving

Afterward

Days pass

Remembering

We are not the same, now

Pygmalion and the Artist’s Love Affairs

When I first heard the myth of Pygmalion, I took it literally.  I thought it was about a sculptor who made a statue of a beautiful woman.  She was so beautiful that he fell in love with her.  Pygmalion (the sculptor) implored the gods to bring his statue to life, so that he could have a life with his creation.  I first thought that the sculpture being a beautiful woman was what caused Pygmalion to fall in love with her.  I read the story differently now.

An artist falls in love with each creation that comes out well.  Deeply in love.  I have some songs of my own which I love deeply.  I listen to them with enraptured delight.  I have certain poems that I feel the same about.  Now a poem or a song can’t come to life.  But that doesn’t change the love affair that the musician or poet enters into with these creations.

There is, of course the matter of public’s reaction to an artist’s creations.  That would be more like a parent’s feelings about her or his children.  And that would be a different myth.

A Future Blues Song

Broke Again

Broke again, and a week until payday

Broke again and I don’t know where it went

Broke again, and a week until payday

Got nothing to show and my money’s all spent

 

I have a good time till the money’s all gone

I have a good time, I just do as I please

I have a good time till the money’s all gone

And I’m all out of cash and I’m feeling the squeeze

 

I’m struggling till payday, don’t know what I’ll do

I’m struggling till payday, how will I get by?

I’m struggling till payday, don’t know what I’ll do

It all costs too much for a regular guy

A Naif Meets the World

I have dedicated my life to the pursuit of intangibles: poetry, theology, philosophy, music.  My pursuit was essentially free.  My professors told me what to read and study, which was good guidance in the formation of my mind and my critical judgement.  But when it came to writing papers, I freely chose what subject to write on, who and what to study, what to say.  In the writing of poetry, I chose when to write, what to write, what style to use, what feeling to express.  In music, I wrote what was in my heart as the muse beckoned.

I remember my early impressions of professional ministry.  When I first took on a parish, I remember thinking, “This is a job!”  I was compelled to write a 2 1/2 page single spaced talk every week.  I was compelled to pick hymns, Bible readings, Psalters, and every Sunday to suit up and lead the service.  Then there was dealing with the personalities, petty complaints, infighting, and other distasteful things that arise in seemingly every parish.  Previous to taking on professional ministry, I would read theology at my leisure, pray when my heart was moved, commune freely with my Creator and Friend.  Now I prayed on demand, read theology with an eye to using it in my homily, communed according to the prescriptions of the job.  But this is not complaint.  I love this job more than any other job I’ve ever done.  I just never thought that my heartfelt devotion would feel like a job.

Now I am discovering that music is a business.  Sure, you hear talk about the music business all the time.  But to find yourself in it?!  It is a business that requires as much delicacy as does balancing the personalities in a parish.  A good friend of mine, who is an international pianist, has been giving me much appreciated, much needed advice about the “business” of music.  I am making a CD of my original music.  In order to make a quality disk, I needed first rate musicians.  I inquired of a well-established musician in my home town, and he set me up with a musician to play on one song.  This musician took an interest in my music, or my money.  He appointed himself executive producer, and made plans about the future of my disk and my musical career.  When I decided he was getting too intrusive, I made calls on my own to hire my own musicians.  The musicians I contacted talked, the “executive producer” found out I was making decisions on my own, confronted me, and laid down the law of how our business relationship was to be.  Now I am embroiled in an imbroglio.  All I want to do is record my originals.  But there is a business side to music, even as there is a business side to theology.  Even as there is a business side to everything in this material world.

One of the characteristics of my music is a tone of peacefulness.  The music is all written, and only needs recording, mixing, and mastering.  And that can’t be done without entering the business of music.  But that peace I entered into in the writing of my music is seriously compromised now with the business of production and the soap opera of the interwoven world of musicians.  I had no idea that manifesting my music would mean entering an internecine world of rivals for my wallet and musical future.  It’s comforting to know that it’s all written, and written when I was in a better place.  Where this new magical mystery tour will take me, I can’t foresee.  What it will do to my future compositions, I don’t know.  I only know this, my naivety has met the world.  It seems that on this material plane, intangibles manifest through business.  Some people make business their life’s calling.  I have dedicated my life to intangibles, not business.  But I now see, sadly, that maturity means dirtying one’s hands with the negotiation of money and the people who come with it.

Life Is

“You’re going to have a hard life,”

My boss told me, in my 20’s

I’ve had dreams crushed, my heart broken

But who hasn’t

I’ve lived impoverished a long time

I didn’t feel it as a Harvard student

When I got my Ph.D.

I was worse than impoverished, deeply in debt

And I felt it

I’ll likely never get out of debt

I wrote and published a book

When I was poor

I lowered myself to begging a few times

Was relegated to the back seat of a lot of cars others owned

All the while I played and wrote music, poetry, lyrics

 

Some people live a comfortable life

To them, a good life

But shit happens, even to them

Some people are rich and complacent

Some people are very rich and dedicated to acquisition

I have known a few years of comfortable middle-class

And bought expensive art prints

A piano, an amp, guitar

A couple crystalline rocks

I travel places with my partner

 

My life has been hard at times

And I have known accomplishment, and contentment, and bitterness

I have no regrets

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