Let’s Get Spiritual
Many have said that rock ‘n’ roll is the devil’s music. Evil in its manifest form has been singled out in the music’s driving beat, in the lyrics sung either backwards or forwards, and in the lifestyle of drugs and sex that rides shotgun inside many a tour bus. It is a broad generalization that clamps a lock on the entire genre and doesn’t allow for interpretation or insight. Granted many a song, especially those hitting the airwaves these days, isn’t likely to be piped in at the next convocation of cardinals at the Vatican. You’re probably not going to be hearing Eminem’s “Bitch Please, Part 2” blasting out of the Popemobile anytime soon. But even Bob Dylan performed before His Holiness in 1997, so lumping all of rock music into the bad egg basket can be a tad reactionary.
Nevertheless, many popular artists have found that the seedier elements involved in mainstream music are impetus enough to seek a higher calling. For some, that means immersing themselves completely in a new spiritual life and giving up their former rock lives. For others, it’s enough to work both sides of the fence, focusing their talents on the secular and spiritual side of their performance. Some of these musicians have washed away their past without so much of a glance backward. Others have wrestled with their transition in walking some form of godly path.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis has arguably wrestled the most with his spiritual conscience. The Louisiana piano prodigy always felt the need to follow a sacred direction, but the lure of rock ‘n’ roll always managed to draw his buckshot attention span into its tumultuous web. His mother, Mamie, wanted her son to stay away from the squalor of show business and enrolled young Jerry into a Texas Bible college when he was in his mid-teens. But, while performing for the Lord at an assembly, Lewis allegedly boogied-up the hymn “My God Is Real” to the point where he was curtly expelled from the institution that night. While he pursued a contract with Sun Records, he also pursued a preacher’s daughter, Dorothy Barton, whom he married at age 16. Not able to toe the straight-and-narrow, Lewis abandoned Dorothy and went back to the clubs.
As his life simultaneously hit highs and lows throughout the 1960s, with bestselling records and three divorces, Jerry felt pangs of guilt, constantly comparing his life with that of his more spiritual cousin, Jimmy Swaggart. After 13 years of marriage ended with his third wife, Myra, in 1970, Lewis swore off women, cigars and alcohol and embraced the calling of the Lord once again. His conviction lasted all of two months. The death of two children and two wives, along with bouts of alcohol abuse plagued him in the decades to come. Poor Jerry seemed to consign himself to the dark side early on in his career. In 1957, during a recording session, he said, “You’ve got to walk and talk with God to go to heaven…I have the devil in me! If I didn’t have, I’d be Christian!”
Another contemporary of Jerry’s also has wrestled with his faith over the years. Richard Penniman bounced from Atlanta to Houston in the early 1950s, virtually creating the sound that would evolve into the very definition of rock ‘n’ roll. After signing with Specialty Records in Los Angeles, Little Richard headed his own band and toured extensively, belting out songs like “Rip It Up” and “The Girl Can’t Help It.” But his buddy, Joe Lutcher, was constantly reminding him that rock ‘n’ roll was evil, and Little Richard was ready for a conversion. According to rock legend, after being warned of his own damnation in a vision and praying to God to save him on a plane with a fiery engine, Little Richard finally renounced the music he had been playing while on tour in Australia. He enrolled in Seventh-Day Adventist courses at the Oakwood Theological College in Alabama and received a bachelor’s degree. Subsequently, he was ordained a minister at the Church of God of the Ten Commandments and began touring the country with Lutcher in the Little Richard Evangelistic Team.
Richard’s record company kept his life alteration a secret for a while, and his mainstream songs continued to sell phenomenally. Little Richard, in the late ‘50s, married a fellow Christian named Ernestine, and recorded gospel records with Quincy Jones. Rock ‘n’ roll beckoned to him again in late 1962, and the reverend Richard was back on tour, playing his boogie hits to appreciative fans. Working with the legends of his day, such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Little Richard soon fostered a mean drug habit. When he was arrested for homosexual acts in a bus station bathroom, Ernestine divorced him. The narcotics habit spilled over into the 1970s, as he performed sporadically in festivals and package concerts.
Finally, after the death of his brother, Little Richard re-committed his life to the pulpit (this time with the Universal Remnant Church of God), wrote a testimonial autobiography, and said, “If God can save an old homosexual like me, he can save anybody.” While he continued to perform his rock hits well into the turn of the century, he seems to have stayed more ensconced with his religious walk. In his autobiography, he summed up some of his trepidation about secular music. “My true belief about rock ‘n’ roll…is this: I believe this kind of music is demonic…A lot of the beats in music today are taken from voodoo, from the voodoo drums…If you study music in rhythms, like I have, you’ll see that is true. I believe that kind of music is driving people from Christ. It is contagious.”
Little Richard isn’t alone in the world of preaching the gospel and leaving time for a little soul strutting. Growing up in a gospel-singing family, Al Green jumped into the world of R&B sounds by the late 1950s with both feet. By the early 1970s, he was garnering top five hits with “Look What You Done For Me,” “You Ought To Be With Me,” and the heavily-covered “Let’s Stay Together.” Around 1973, Al felt the need to seek a higher truth and turned to Christianity for answers. Shortly thereafter, he met Mary Woodson at a concert in New York State. This troubled New Jersey housewife left her husband and children behind, following Green back to his Memphis home, and became his girlfriend. On October 18, 1974, tensions boiled over when she suddenly flung a pot of burning hot grits on Green while he was taking a shower, and then proceeded to fatally shoot herself in the head.
Having already sought religious conviction, this was all Green needed to prompt him to become an ordained pastor. He bought the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis and preached from the pulpit. Still touring and singing his old tunes, Green suffered a bad spill from a stage in Cincinnati in 1979 and became more committed to the Lord. He said, “I realized that I was being disobedient to my calling. I was moving towards God, but I wasn’t moving fast enough. That was God’s way of saying I had to hurry up.” He released several gospel albums throughout the 1980s. By the end of the decade, however, he began performing his classic hits and has continued straddling the fence of spiritual and secular singing ever since.
Sinead O’ Connor
Another ordained figurehead who still grounds her singing career in mainstream rock is the troubled Irish dervish Sinead O’Connor. Signing a record deal at age 17, this emotive and facile singer has led a tumultuous career throughout the 1990s, inciting outrage and stupefaction. Vilified in the press for everything from declining appearances at awards shows to her lack of support of the Gulf War, she effectively shotgunned her rising career into the crapper in 1992 when she tore up a picture of the Pope on “Saturday Night Live.” “Fight the real enemy” she muttered, and producer Lorne Michaels offered, “We were sort of shocked, the way you would be at a house guest pissing on a flower arrangement in the dining room.”
While she was still the critics’ darling, O.Connor’s record sales subsequently dropped, and her personage was relegated to the quirk bin. By 1999, it appeared O’Connor was coming apart at the seams, relinquishing custody of her daughter to the girl’s father and reportedly attempting suicide. To mend the emotional wounds, she strangely turned to the Catholic Church once again. On April 22, 1999, she was ordained as a priest in the dissident Roman Catholic Latin Tridentine church in France. She is now called Mother Bernadette Mary of the Order of Mater Dei. She is supposedly committed to the vow of celibacy. She told Gear magazine, “I prefer having sex with women, I prefer making love with women, I find that sexier. I’m more suited to going out with women. However, I’m celibate and choose to be celibate.”
For O’Connor, the traditional spiritual path associated with the Catholic religion seems to be, well, a bit out of step in her walk. Perhaps, she’s trying to be the most liberal clergywoman around. Check out how this priest talks to her 13-year old son, according to the Gear article. “We ring each other up and use all the insults from ‘South Park’ at each other – ‘a**ramming,’ ‘Uncle F****,’ ‘s***face,’ and “c***sucker.’ It’s great to have that kind of relationship with your son.”
Religious conviction is a heady thing, especially in Christianity, and many a convert has simply dropped their previous life altogether and wandered off to seek God. For the folks of Fleetwood Mac, this very scenario took place amongst their ranks in 1971. While on tour in Los Angeles, the band’s guitarist, Jeremy Spencer one day simply left his hotel room and never came back. Frantic calls to the local police, the FBI and Interpol yielded no clue of his whereabouts. After two days, everyone learned that Spencer, who had been distraught over his rock lifestyle, had simply boarded a Children of God bus and driven off. This particular faction was a religious sect that later became known as The Family. Journalist Cameron Crowe spotted Spencer on a London street corner, “blank-eyed and selling Children of God books.” Spencer released an album, “Jeremy Spencer and The Children” with his brethren in 1972, followed it up with another band-oriented effort in 1977, then virtually disappeared for about 20 years.
Religious cults didn’t figure into the departure from the secular spotlight for the vampy Prince protégé Vanity. The Canadian-born lead singer of Vanity 6 found God after years of heavy drug usage and carnal pleasures, including a brief fling with the Purple One himself. After she was hospitalized for a liver infection brought on by narcotics abuse, Vanity, whose real name is Denise Matthews, became a born-again Christian. She left behind the ripped lingerie, stopped singing “Nasty Girl,” and became a full-fledged evangelist. Now based out of Fremont, California, Denise travels the country as a guest speaker for many Christian-based engagements.
After founding keyboardist Gregg Rolie left the group Santana in 1971 to seek other horizons with the band Journey, Leon Patillo joined the Latin-flavored rockers. Singing as lead vocalist on several albums with the group throughout the 1970s, Patillo felt something was missing in his life. The brother of his girlfriend told him about Christianity, and soon, Patillo felt the call of the ministry and quit Santana. He immersed himself in a two-year bible study course and became an ordained preacher. He was fired up for the Lord in 1985 when he told Contemporary Christian Magazine, “I’m going to make a stand. I’m going to do something different. I’m going to let the world stand up and say, ‘Wow, man, did you see that guy?’ And it’s going to be a perfect set-up. As soon as they’ve got their mouths open or their hearts open and they’re going ‘Wow,’ I’m gonna throw Jesus right down their throats.”
Patillo followed through on his new-found conviction, recording 9 spiritual albums over the years and performing Christian shows for sell-out crowds in venues like Madison Square Garden and the MGM Grand. He hosted his own TV show, “Leon and Friends” from 1992 to 1996, and since 1998, he has been a pastor for the Rock House Church, an all-denominational house of worship, in Long Beach, California.
Around the time rock singer Jeff Fenholt was playing Christ in the original Broadway version of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” he thought about turning his own life over to the Messiah. When he sought out a church to help him with his transition, he was kicked out because of his long hair. This was the early 1970s, so people with stringy coifs were more associated with being a Manson follower than being overtly holy. Fenholt sank into years of drug addiction. He almost killed his wife several times. After the Broadway play ended, he toured with many rock groups into the 1980s, including heavy metal headbangers Armageddon.
He finally had a chance around the turn of the decade to hear about Jesus from some workers renovating his home. Accepting the Lord into his life, Jeff continued to play for bands like Black Sabbath in the early 1980s, but soon he became disenchanted with the mainstream rock world. He went on to a successful career recording contemporary Christian music and witnessing to troubled youth, especially those behind prison bars.
A heroin addiction figured into the conversion of one of Rock’s earliest idols. Fronting the doo-wop group the Belmonts, Dion was arguably the most influential link between the early progenitors of rock like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and the subsequent conquerors that swept in with the British Invasion. “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer,” and “Ruby Baby” all rode high on the charts, but Dion himself was riding high on heroin by 1963. The quality of his work was suffering, and on April 1, 1968, he prayed, “God, if you’re out there, please help me.” He and his wife went to Miami, and Dion’s been drug-free ever since.
While not giving up the world of rock ‘n’ roll, Dion did spend a good portion of the 1980s devoting his life to recording 6 gospel albums. By the end of the decade, he was playing nostalgia-tinged concerts and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Dion stayed the rock ‘n’ roll course in the ‘90s, but never let go of what helped him shake his addiction. In March 2000, he was sitting in Rome, witnessing to his long-held faith to a group of ecumenical students.
A whole slew of rockers from the 1970s seemed to yearn for a spiritual change in their lives. Kerry Livgren, guitarist for the famous prog-rock outfit Kansas, told interviewer Red Beard in 1991, “I was a very philosophical, mystical, religious pilgrim – I guess would be the best way to describe myself. I went a period in my life where I was just – the guys used to say I was the charter member of the religion of the month club, you know. I would just go from one thing to another.” This quest for spiritual nourishment in Livgren’s life continued throughout the decade.
In 1979, he settled on Christianity and found everything he’d been looking for. While continuing to perform with Kansas, Livgren began to present a Christian view of the world in the lyrics he wrote and released a solo album called “Seeds of Change” in 1980. Lead singer Steve Walsh grew frustrated with Livgren’s religiously-laced songwriting and left Kansas in January 1982. Livgren felt the time was ripe to strike out on his own. He formed his own band called AD and also released several Christian solo LPs throughout the 1980s. After serving as a church treasurer and minister of music at a Covington, Georgia house of worship, Livgren hooked up with his old bandmates and toured sporadically with Kansas throughout the 1990s. He is still committed to the Christian lifestyle, having started his own spiritual record label, and last heard working on a classical album based on the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead.
Another early ‘70s rocker who went on to a meaningful religious conversion was Mark Farner of the power boogie rock machine Grand Funk Railroad. With two number one hits, “We’re An American Band” and “The Loco-motion” between 1973 and 1974, the blistering guitar outfit defined American anthem rock for a generation. By 1976, the steam had run out of the group, and lead vocalist/guitarist Farner created an alternative energy retail company in Michigan. Re-teaming with the Railroad in the early ‘80s, Mark found his need to pursue the arena lights was tempered by an inner desire to find spiritual fulfillment. He subsequently became a Christian and formed his own band Vision in 1985. Recording several solo albums for the Christian label Frontline in the late ‘80s, Mark also started his Common Ground Ministry that toured the country for speaking engagements.
But the call of his Grand Funk roots was never too far in the distance. Farner joined his bandmates periodically over the years, and after a sellout performance to aid Bosnian victims in 1997, the group hit the road for a massive tour at century’s end.
B. J. Thomas
Billy Joe Thomas was a Texas balladeer who scored phenomenal hits in the ‘60s with songs like “Hooked On A Feeling,” “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” He also was scoring his fair share of drugs and consuming alcohol on a daily basis. By the time he hit the mid-70s, he was desperate to hear about an alternative to his lifestyle. He told interviewer Barry Klein, “I didn’t have a vision. I just had some people talk to me about kind of changing my ways, and I had always been kind of raised around the church, so I always had those beliefs. I just kind of returned to my faith along with my wife Gloria, and that helped me all the way down through, even though I did fall into drug addiction again for a number of years.”
Thomas also changed his tune, cranking out gospel music for several years. Since he didn’t just stick to this format, he was oftentimes criticized. When Klein asked Thomas if he’d sang any gospel in the ‘90s, B.J. responded, “I really haven’t done – I did a little gospel thing for Warner Brothers in ’94, but that’s the only thing I have done in gospel in like 15 years. I do think that gospel was some of the best music I ever did, and I did win five Grammys for that. Trying to exist and get along in the Christian music business is just almost impossible. You know, they didn’t like me and it got down to the point where we were having death threats. I never did just do only gospel music. I just did my regular show and I would add gospel music, so we really went through some heartbreaking times in that music. So I had to kind of get out of gospel, although I still love to sing it…” B.J. still retains his commitment to God, but he’s been writing country songs ever since.
The famed guitarist for ‘60s icons Buffalo Springfield and ‘70s folkies Poco also had a tough time crossing over to the Christian music market. Furay’s transition to a more spiritual path was not borne out of so much strife, but instead curiosity. While playing with J.D. Souther and Chris Hillman in the early ‘70s, Furay struck up a friendship with Al Perkins of the band Manassas, who, in turn, related some info to him about God. Furay finally accepted the Lord over dinner in Colorado in 1973. “When I first got saved, I wanted to put together a rock ‘n’ roll band for God. I believed we were going to get out there and win the world for God. I found it very difficult in 1976 to really make those in roads,” he told Charisma magazine.
Furay continued to play clubs and bars over the ‘80s and ‘90s, inserting a few Christian tunes in with his old Springfield and Poco hits. “There are a lot of people in the Christian world who do not approve of what we do,” he told Charisma. “But I will tell you – there is not one song that I have recorded that I would be ashamed to play. There were no subtle messages written. Any song Neil (Young) wrote or Steve (Stills) or Jimmy Messina wrote didn’t have a message that I couldn’t do.” Furay is now a pastor in Boulder, Colorado, yet still records his own spiritual music. “I am right now working on a secular record and another devotional record,” he recently told Charisma. “Does that mean my secular record is evil?” For Richie, his message and conscience are clear.
Sometimes the call to change one’s life appears in mysterious forms. For founding member of The Byrds, Jim McGuinn, he’d already been fascinated with spiritual dictums for much of his early career. The group’s chart-topping 1965 hit “Turn! Turn! Turn!” practically lifted verbatim it’s lyrics from the bible book of Ecclesiastes. By 1968, as a follower of the Subud faith, Jim changed his name to Roger, in accordance with the religion’s allowance of a person to pick an optional moniker to suit the sound of their soul. But soon Christianity began to manifest itself in Roger’s life.
He found a strange man on his front lawn one day claiming Jesus told him to bring McGuinn some songs to sing. Roger became agitated when he learned Elvis had died of prescription pills abuse, a habit McGuinn was hooked on. He kept encountering Christians everywhere he went, who tried to tell him some good things about God’s Word. Then, under all the burden and stress he felt, Roger simply bowed down one day and prayed to accept Jesus. McGuinn says his burden was instantly released. Roger didn’t exactly hit the road to spew the gospel or start recording Christian-fueled tunes however. “I don’t perform gospel music,” he wrote in Blue Cloud Abbey magazine. “I prayed about it, and received that I was to stay where I was when I was called. So I put a positive spin on all my songs and hopefully, with the Lord’s help, will continue to light up the darkness in a different way.” Happy and committed to his faith, McGuinn is content to being the folk artist at heart, uploading his songs onto the net from his home in Orlando, Florida.
Another folk singer who came to religion through mysterious ways was the “conscience of Canada” Bruce Cockburn. Heralded as one of rock’s most intelligent songwriters, Cockburn fostered a huge following across the Great White North in the 1970s with his country-folk-blues riffing on humanity’s vast indifference to the world around us and the wonders beholden in nature. Around 1974, Cockburn had been exploring the path of Christianity when, as he told Sojourner magazine, he saw a being on his wedding day that he assumed was Jesus Christ. This puzzling moment lingered with him, and his gradual turning to the faith was more of an evolution as he puts it, instead of a conversion. He simply got to the point one day where he said, “Okay, Jesus, I’m yours.”
He was tagged as a Christian mystic. Cockburn told Rolling Stone magazine, “I’ve seen statistics that one out of every five people in the United States has had what are called ecstatic experiences, which can come from religion or acid or body chemistry. I’ve certainly had those experiences, and on several occasions, they’ve been specifically Christian, involving the person of Christ. If that make me a mystic, I accept it.”
Cockburn certainly did not become a mindless follower. In the 1980s, he toned down his Christian viewpoints so as not to appear a part of the rigid Christian Right that was prevalently vocal throughout the Reagan years. “I’m inclined to be a religious person,” he told Contemporary Christian Music magazine. “But I want to make sure you know that I don’t have to answer for those guys.” His songs addressed the injustices found in the democratic dream, concentrating on postmodern despair, and the crumbling rights of third world citizens. Cockburn’s sly commentary on jingoism made a splash in 1983’s “If I Had A Rocket Launcher,” which contained the lyrics “If I had a rocket launcher/Some sonofabitch would die.” Controversial, yes. Meek, no.
Interestingly enough, there have been occasions when a person who has been established with a ‘religious’ persona suddenly jumps to a so-called mainstream path. This has occurred most vividly in the Christian music arena. Most recently, current teen sensation Jessica Simpson has taken this approach. Amy Grant was the most publicized musician of the bunch to gain this kind of notoriety.
Having become a committed Christian after attending Bible classes in high school, the Tennessee native’s career took off in the inspirational song market. Grant garnered several gold albums by the mid-80s and won a Grammy for her “Unguarded” record in 1986. But she suddenly announced, “I want to play hardball in this business…I want to be the U.S.A.’s top pop singer with the wholesome image.” By the end of the decade Grant had made that foray into popdom, and in 1991, released the number one hit “Baby, Baby,” a song about her daughter Millie.
Divorcing her husband Gary Chapman in 1999, Amy married longtime friend and country singer Vince Gill in March 2000. While she hasn’t given up on her faith, and many of her so-called pop songs continue to contain religious overtones in the lyrics, many Christian fans gave up on Grant. Amy feels hurt by that narrow-mindedness and told author Bob Millard, “Historically, anytime a gospel artist tried to cross over, it has been just death for them in the Christian music realm. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand the mentality that says you can’t express several sides of your life.” Perplexing for Amy, but understandable in the fickle world of music fans, either secular or Christian.
After The Fire and Sixpence None The Richer
Two other bands that jumped through the same secular hoop as Amy Grant were After The Fire and Sixpence None The Richer. Originally formed in 1972, and sporadically disbanded/re-grouped throughout the 1970s, After The Fire, an English quartet, started their recording career with their self-released album “Signs of Change.” The band’s songs would have been classified as Christian progressive rock. When the 1980s brought synth and new wave, the group signed to CBS, recorded more religious songs, but then scored their one and only hit when they went secular with the 1983 smash “Der Kommissar.”
Like After The Fire, the Texas-based Sixpence None The Richer (named after a phrase in C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”) were designated Christian artists who didn’t see noticeable sales in their strictly-spiritual endeavors. Their first two albums, “The Fatherless and the Widow” and “This Beautiful Mess,” tackled many a worldly woe through Christian philosophy. But when the band released the catchy, non-religious-themed song “Kiss Me” off their self-titled 1997 album, the record shot up the charts. While this new album touched on Christian themes, it also addressed plain-old relationship scenarios and showcased the writings of poets W.H. Auden and Pablo Neruda.
Surprisingly, this number one band came to be known as a Christian-based outfit, yet, the members didn’t care for that label. Scoring two chart-topping hits, “Broken Wings” and “Kyrie,” in late ‘85/early ’86, Mr. Mister was seen as a wholesome up-tempo unit who tinkered with Christian-themed lyrics in their songs. “Kyrie” was from a Greek phrase, “Kyrie Elesion,” which means “Lord, have mercy.” Lead singer and main writer, Richard Page grew up the son of a Presbyterian choirmaster and had been a devout churchgoer during most of his youth. But when the media pressed, Page explained away the religiosity of songs like “Kyrie.” “We didn’t want to preach or tell everybody to be a Christian. It was just an inspirational, powerful phrase that fit good as a song title…The song is a prayer basically. It’s not that we’re subscribing to any Christian dogma; I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a Christian band because that’s not what we’re all about.” Page went on to mention that he favored meditation. But no matter how much they tried to downplay their religious persona, Mr. Mister couldn’t fully shake it. Their follow-up hit “Healing Waters” was subsequently nominated for a Grammy…in the Best Gospel Performance By A Duo or Group category.
Of course, not all rockers who choose to immerse themselves on a spiritual journey pick Christianity as the way to enlightenment. George Harrison was one of the first rockers to openly explore religion in the harsh glare of the media, and he started by corralling his fellow Beatles into sampling the teachings of the Mahareshi Yogi. Having gleaned an interest in Indian music during the filming of “Help,” Harrison was drawn to the mystical side of Indian beliefs in the mid-60s. After hearing the Mahareshi, George and the Beatles renounced their drug usage, saying they had “gone beyond it.”
Souring on the humanistic foibles the Mahareshi seemed to display while the band visited him in India (as alluded to in The Beatles’ “Sexy Sadie”), Harrison moved on to the Krishna religion. He wrote, “Everybody is looking for Krishna. Some don’t realize that they are, but they are. Krishna is God, the Source of all that exists, the Cause of all that is, was, or ever will be.” He became a devout admirer of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a spiritual master in the Hare Krishna movement. Together with John Lennon, George co-signed the lease and paid for the first Krishna temple in England and financed the first printing of the book “Krishna.” In the summer of 1969, George and the devotees of the new London Radha-Krishna Temple produced a single on Apple Records called “The Hare Krishna Mantra.” The mono-droning, redundant chant made the top 20 on the charts throughout Europe and Asia.
Harrison has sprinkled a great portion of his solo songs with teachings gleaned from the Krishna movement. The most popular of those tunes, “My Sweet Lord,” openly praised Hare Krishna in its closing chorus. His triple album release “All Things Must Pass” in 1971 and the album “Living In The Material World” in 1973 both had songs that were loaded with Krishna verbiage and both reached number one on the American charts.
For George, chanting has become a complete way of life. As he sings on “Awaiting On You All,” “By chanting the names of the Lord and you’ll be free.” In an interview with Mukunda Goswami, Harrison said, “We should keep chanting all the time or as much as possible. Once you do that, you realize the benefit. The response that comes from chanting is in the form of bliss, or spiritual happiness, which is a much higher taste than any happiness found here in the material world.” For Harrison, a test of his faith came to fruition one night in 1971. While flying from Los Angeles to New York to prepare for the famous Concert For Bangladesh, Harrison’s aircraft was caught in a horrendous electrical storm. Another airplane almost clipped the top of the one George was flying in. He told Goswami that he just gripped his seat belt and kept yelling “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare” at the top of his lungs. “I know for me,” he said, “the difference between making it and not making it was actually chanting the mantra.”
Seals & Crofts
The Baha’i religion is usually not advertised as a house of worship in your local yellow pages. Its history begins in the 19th century when a Persian prophet named Baha’u’llah claimed he was a Messenger of God. He was subsequently imprisoned for 40 years, then exiled from Iran, and died in 1892. Since then, the Baha’i faith, which promulgates the belief in one God and the oneness of mankind, has seen several messengers of God come into being over the years.
Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, both Texas musicians, weren’t messengers, but they came to believe in this faith. Having spent the better part of the sixties in Los Angeles playing in various bands, the two childhood chums formed a quartet named the Dawnbreakers in 1969. The group’s manager introduced them to the Baha’i religion, and the two became very devoted followers. A year later, Seals & Crofts split from the band and formed their own duo. A string of their gentle hit singles wafted across the airwaves over the next five years, including “Diamond Girl,” “Get Closer,” and “Summer Breeze.” Many of their lyrics and themes were inspired by the Baha’i faith. Their religion afforded them a pro-life stance, and in 1974, their song “Unborn Child,” which was written from the fetus’ point of view, outraged many pro-choicers who had recently seen Roe Vs. Wade pass legislation.
By 1976, the boys’ sales dropped on their latter efforts, and as the decade ended, the two immersed themselves fully in their religion. For the last 20 years, Seals & Crofts have only played a few reunion gigs and have mostly performed for several Baha’i World Congress gatherings.
Richard and Linda Thompson
One of the greatest and most critically-acclaimed folk singers ever, Richard Thompson has filled his prodigious career with an output of songs that cannot be defined in any one genre. From country to Cajun to Celtic, his style of music is at once literate and wholly unique. Singing with The Fairport Convention, Britain’s answer to the Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds, in the 1960s, Thompson honed his craft and began to take an interest in a mystical sect of Islam known as Sufism. His deep belief in the religion caused him to stop playing his electric guitar for awhile. When he left the Convention in 1972, Richard met singer Linda Peters, married her, and together they released six landmark albums throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Sufism is grounded in the belief of separateness as a part of our human condition. Rumi, the founder of the Mawlawiyyah order, hinged the basis of the faith on Man’s search for an absent God, typifying the separation from a loved one. This kind of isolation figured into many of Richard’s lyrics over this period. He focused on and embraced the topic of death on many of his tunes, particularly in “Wall of Death” and “When I Get to the Border.” Around the mid-‘70s, the Thompsons decided to drop out altogether and joined a Sufi commune.
They barely played any music over a two-year period. Richard and Linda did, however, find strife in their marriage. Linda left Richard twice while they were in the commune. In 1978, the couple resurfaced and signed with Chrysalis records, releasing the album “First Light.” The album contained overt Islamic references. The Thompsons tempered their religious convictions in future albums, and upon listening to Richard’s subsequent works, one would be hard-pressed to hear any allusions to the Sufi religion. The doctrine of separateness seemed to infiltrate their marriage, and by 1981, the Thompsons recorded their last album together, “Shoot The Lights Out,” and divorced. The record was hailed by many as one of the top 10 best albums of the decade. Richard still churns out lauded albums year after year, while Linda runs a jewelry shop in London.
Another Islamic believer who dropped out of sight for quite some time was the legendary Cat Stevens. The soft-spoken folk/rocker was at the peak of his career at the end of the 1970s when he virtually plummeted below the radar. He’d garnered eleven top-40 singles, including “Moon Shadow,” “Morning Has Broken,” and “Peace Train.” His record sales made him a fortune. But deep inside his conscience, he was unhappy. He related to “20/20 Downtown,” “My life wasn’t as pretty as my songs.” “I didn’t know what to smile about,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I was confused.”
While swimming off the coast of Malibu, California in 1975, Stevens was suddenly snared in a vicious riptide and began struggling. Death seemed imminent. “And without hesitation,” he told “20/20 Downtown,” “I called out ‘God, if you save me, I’ll work for you.’ And at that moment, a wave came from behind, which was this small wave, that just pushed me forward, and I was swimming back, you know, with all the energy that I needed. And I was home and dry. And that was my commitment.”
His brother gave him a copy of the Koran. Several months later, Stevens converted from his Catholic upbringing to Islam at a mosque. He made the decision to quit the music business altogether after the release of his 1979 album, “Back To Earth.” Having officially changed his name to Yusef Islam, Stevens married a Muslim woman named Fouzia Ali and settled into starting a family. He auctioned off all his gold discs and guitars and donated the money to his new-found faith.
In February 1989, Stevens was seen in a broadcast seemingly condoning the holy death threat, or ‘fatwa,’ issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini on author Salmon Rushdie. He has since maintained that he was not taking a militaristic stance but was merely reiterating the Koran’s scriptures that make it clear that if someone defames the Prophet, then he must die. Stevens’ recent emergence in the media spotlight coincides with new retrospective releases of his back catalog of songs, and he appears quite content with his ongoing beliefs and way of life. Asked by “20/20 Downtown” if he had ever played the guitar since he walked away from the music business, Stevens chuckled and said, “No, I’m petrified of it.”
Of all the rock icons who have committed their life to a higher calling, Bob Dylan certainly shook up the music community in the late 1970s with his sudden left-field announcement of becoming a born-again Christian. For the former Robert Zimmerman, a Midwest Jew who rose to astounding heights in the world of rock adulation in the early 1960s, he was no stranger to dabbling in religions throughout the decade of experimentation. Most notably, he’d taken up chanting and had traveled across America with two Krishna devotees, writing songs and visiting Krishna temples.
But no one seemed to be aware of the signs prefacing his call to Christianity when Dylan suddenly dropped out of sight in the spring of 1979 and took three months of Bible study at the Vineyard Fellowship in Los Angeles. On August 18, 1979, he released the album “Slow Train Coming” which was filled with songs highlighting his newfound teachings. Dylan made no bones about singing openly about his conviction with lyrics like, “I’m pressing onto the higher calling of my Lord,” and “I’m saved by the blood of the Lamb.”
When he launched the subsequent “Born Again Tour,” he opened each gospel-filled concert with sermons. He chose not to play any of his old hits and was booed by some who were not open to his new material. Receiving a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal in 1980 for the song “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Dylan followed up with another album called “Saved.” A third album, “Shot of Love,” released in 1981 still showcased Christian-laced lyrics, but not as overtly as the previous two records. The times, they-were-a-changin’ again for Dylan.
1983’s release, “Infidels,” returned Bob back to his familiar folk/rock trappings and secular-based observations. He was photographed wearing a prayer shawl at the bar mitzvah of his son in Jerusalem a short time later. When pressed by the San Luis Obispo Register in March 1983 as to his former Christian conversion, Dylan replied, “Whoever said I was Christian? Like Gandhi, I’m Christian, I’m Jewish, I’m a Muslim, I’m a Hindu. I am a humanist.” Dylan formerly returned to his Jewish roots, practicing Lubavitch Hasidism, an ultra-orthodox form of Judaism.
He later cryptically spoke to Newsweek magazine, saying the message is in the song. “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw The Light” – that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity.”
This is a sentiment that describes the attitude of many a rock devotee. Some find all the joy and comfort they need in the varied world of rock music. Others use rock as a way to bring faith to others. And finally, there are those who wrestle with the music, either finding a common ground with the medium or forsaking it altogether. However, you choose to approach it, keep the faith and stay rock-steady.
© 2000 Ned Truslow