ROCK OF AGES : There’s a New Spirituality in Pop Music


Violent Femmes out of Milwaukee is one of the most respected bands in an American post-punk contingent. The trio has revived much of rock music’s original resistance to tradition and authority.

British critics have been especially enthusiastic about the group, all but stumbling over themselves in racing to congratulate leader Gordon Gano about the sarcasm and wit of the Femmes’ “Hallowed Ground” album.

As Gano recalls it, the English writers that the band met on tour all expressed their appreciation of his gift for cutting irony--especially in “wonderfully tongue-in-cheek” religious songs like “Jesus Walking on the Water.”


Imagine the critics’ surprise . . . when Gano explained that that song wasn’t sarcastic at all.

“Jesus on the Water” may be playfully constructed, but it reflects the deeply rooted spiritual beliefs of Gano, whose father is a Baptist minister in Milwaukee.

Sample lyric:

Jesus walking on the water.

Sweet Jesus walking in the sky.

He took my hand . . .

Raised me up . . .


I can hold my head high.

English critics, however, aren’t the only ones who have been caught off guard.

Rock and religion were once as separate as church and state, leaving the rock community conditioned to expect only derision and attack when religion--at least Western religion--is discussed.

But there’s a New Spirituality in pop music.

Dozens of today’s most popular and/or acclaimed rock artists--from U.S. bands such as Los Lobos, Lone Justice and the Call to Scottish groups such as Simple Minds and Waterboys--now feel free to express their spiritual beliefs as part of their wider musical packages.

Most acknowledge strong Christian ties, but the feelings are based generally on laymen’s understandings rather than any scholarly investigations. Don’t expect to see copies of William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience” on every band’s tour bus.

The music by these artists isn’t exclusively steeped in religious topics, but it talks about spiritual concerns with a freedom that is rare in music directed at the hard-core rock audience.

Prince may be best known for his fantasy romps into the erotic, but one of the highlights of Prince’s recent “Sign O’ the Times” album is “The Cross,” a moving expression of faith and consolation that begins:

Black day, stormy night

No love, no hope in sight.

Don’t cry. He is coming.

Don’t die without knowing.

The cross.

Similarly, Kris Kristofferson, who once gave musical prescriptions for helping lovers make it through the night, employs spiritual ideals in an attack on social ills in “Love Is the Way.” Sample lines:

Deep in the heart of the infinite darkness

A tiny blue marble is spinning through space.

Born in the splendor of God’s holy vision

And sliding away like a tear down His face.

The group that has done the most to legitimize rock’s New Spirituality is U2, the Irish band that has come to enjoy a popularity and respect of near-Springsteen proportions. The band’s latest album, “The Joshua Tree,” has been the nation’s best seller for eight weeks now, and its recent U.S. tour was an instant sellout.

It was a gentle, though revolutionary, moment in rock when the quartet climaxed each night of its recent five-night stand at the 15,000-seat Los Angeles Sports Arena engagement with an audience sing-along of a song whose lyrics are straight from the King James Version of Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the Lord

He inclined and heard my cry

He brought me up out of the pit

Out of the miry clay .

T Bone Burnett, a singer/songwriter and record producer who was a forerunner in the campaign to inject spiritual content into contemporary pop, sees the New Spirituality as a healthy maturing of the rock art form.

“Maybe rock ‘n’ roll has finally begun to grow up,” he says. “It has gone through its infancy and its adolescence, which was the ‘60s, and probably its yuppie/material stage. Now, the artists are free to look a bit deeper into life and search for some eternal truths . . . the kind of search that has been part of literature and art for ages.

“All you have to do is look at the TV for an hour or drive down the street and it’s pretty obvious why this is happening. Rock ‘n’ roll is a very powerful medium and it helps us all to get something through this medium that is about life rather than death.”

Don’t get the idea that the New Spirituality is necessarily an expansion of the traditional, separatist Christian music scene that concentrates on tidy messages of worship and comfort to an audience of true believers.

U2 is as likely to deal with moments of spiritual confusion as with the blessings of faith. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the most eloquent song on the new album, concerns grappling with one’s own doubts.

To casual observers, tunes such as the Violent Femmes’ “Love and Me Make Three” may even sound sacrilegious. It’s a look at the misdirection of much organized religion:

Christ is crying

Outside your church door

Don’t let him in

He’ll get mud on the floor

Just put on your apron

and count up all the money .

“I believe that if you believe Jesus is the light of the world, there are a couple of kinds of songs you can write about,” explained Burnett, who has produced albums for Los Lobos, Elvis Costello and Peter Case. “You can write songs about the light or you can write songs about what you see by the light.”

Most of the artists involved in this loose confederation feel uncomfortable discussing their beliefs. They see spiritual feelings as simply one of many influences that shape their outlook and art, not as something that must be a dominant aspect of every song.

Any definition of beliefs, they fear, would only draw a line, forcing listeners to feel they have to accept or reject those beliefs rather than merely consider the principles outlined in their songs. Another concern is that talking about religious principles makes them appear as smug or holier-than-thou.

“We don’t want to appear to be flaunting our beliefs,” said U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. during an interview earlier this year in Dublin. “It’s a very personal thing and you don’t want it to look like some sort of lecture or gimmick. The music, the lyrics say everything the band has to say about their feelings.”

“Man, I’ve got the devil in me, “ screamed former divinity student Jerry Lee Lewis the night in 1957 that he recorded “Great Balls of Fire,” igniting a debate that has remained unresolved in rock ‘n’ roll.

Lewis had stomped his way into rock immortality a few weeks earlier with “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On,” a record so explosive that Sam Phillips, owner of tiny Sun Records, was willing to sell Elvis Presley’s contract to big-time RCA Records. He knew he had another, maybe even bigger, star in Jerry Lee.

But Jerry Lee was troubled. He liked being a star; driving that shiny new Cadillac around his hometown of Ferriday, La., and buying a new house for his mama. And he may not have been the best divinity student--he was thrown out for sneaking out of his room once too often. Yet he couldn’t erase from his mind the visions of hell that the preacher warned about at the Assembly of God church he attended as a youngster with his cousin, Jimmy Lee Swaggart.

Jerry Lee went ahead and made the record that night, but that debate has apparently raged in his heart ever since. He wondered in interviews after his two sons died in separate accidents whether he shouldn’t turn his back on rock ‘n’ roll and sing the gospel with Jimmy Lee. And he sometimes wonders about it aloud on stage on nights when his soul seems especially fragile--like the anniversaries of his mama’s death.

For most of the last 30 years, however, Lewis has pondered that question alone. Rock ‘n’ roll has largely ignored man’s spiritual side.

Religion became isolated from rock during the music’s early days. Teen-agers in the ‘50s reacted against everything that they perceived as aligned with the stuffy, restrictive adult world. They may have still had to go to church and school, and forced to take out the trash, but they rebelled against all this authority in the music. Yakety-yak . They did talk back--endorsing Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and other pioneers of rock.

The separation of religion and rock was intensified as many church leaders--especially fundamentalist groups in the South--attacked the music, often, there is reason to believe, as much on racial grounds as religious grounds. The South wasn’t used to--or ready for--black and white teen-agers mixing together at dances and rock shows.

This instinctive rejection of adult values became intellectualized in the ‘60s as millions of disillusioned young people--the core of the expanding rock audience--lost faith in American institutions, the church as well as government and Big Business. How could you believe in the old institutions if they led to a world so devoid of real values?

It wasn’t all so innocent. There was a selfish, arrogant side to the ‘60s--the sense of a new order--that allowed many young people to rationalize the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as some sort of epic journey.

Speculates Burnett: “I think that people in the ‘60s believed that the world stopped for a moment in 1963 and everything after that was new and that we no longer had any real connection with the past. Forget about Tolstoy or Rembrandt. . . . We were supposed to be new Aquarian creatures who started all over.”

Along with the idealistic side of the ‘60s, the hedonistic side pushed rebellion to new and dangerous extremes. The Rolling Stones--who sometimes explored man’s dark side with an artful aim and other times with a commercial lust--even toyed with a Satanic image.

The Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” can be viewed as an ironic commentary on man’s evil nature, but it was widely viewed at the time as simply an extension of the Stones’ lawless, renegade image.

While the Stones seemed to recoil from the Satanic image themselves, hundreds of heavy-metal bands in the ‘70s picked up on it--using it as one more device in a campaign to appeal to the rebellious side of its young audience by shocking parents. These bands turned rock into vaudeville, though parents fell for it every time. Ministers called the music the works of the devil and urged their congregations to burn the records.

About this side of the rock mentality, Burnett reflects, “I always looked on it as a way to make money. In its infancy, rock was all about girls and cars and rebellion. As it moves along, you have to constantly invent new (approaches) so if you care about nothing but being rebellious you get to a point where you say, ‘Let’s get really bad’--and what’s worse than the devil?”

Not every shade of spirituality has been off limits in rock. “Foreign” religious practices were not nearly as off-putting to rock fans in the ‘60s and ‘70s as the Judeo-Christian beliefs and ethics that young fans identified with their elders. Ever since 1966, when the Beatles made headlines with a pilgrimage to the Maharishi in India, fans have learned to deal with--if not necessarily condone--their heroes embracing more exotic spiritual paths.

A landmark in the recombination of rock with religion was ex-Beatle George Harrison’s 1971 solo album, “All Things Must Pass,” which included the smash No. 1 hit “My Sweet Lord”--an anthem of devotion to Krishna.

After that, albums with blatant Eastern mystical overtones became commonplace. Guitarist John McLaughlin amended his name to Mahavishnu John McLaughlin after meeting up with Sri Chinmoy; Carlos Santana billed himself as Devadip Santana for a number of years. Pete Townsend and Ronnie Lane became devotees of Meher Baba; Seals and Crofts advocated the Bahai faith; Richard Thompson became a strict Sufi; and Rastafarianism--the belief system of a Jamaican sect--became a household word with most American rockers thanks to the emergence of reggae music.

Seemingly, these sects remained exotic enough that the stars who championed such unusual beliefs could still be seen by fans as following in rock’s rebellious and anti-authoritarian traditions--while Judaism and Christianity still retained that undesirable cultural identification with Mom and Dad, the flag, apple pie and Chevrolet.

Suggests Burnett: “One of the lessons of the ‘60s was, ‘Don’t take someone’s word just beause he is in authority.’ That’s a hedge against tyranny. But then I think people just gave up on that after Watergate and got very lethargic and the (attitude became), ‘Don’t take anyone’s word who is any position of authority ever.’ ”

The most controversial record of 1979 was one that preached the virtues of fundamentalist Western religion. It wasn’t just the message that was controversial, but also the unexpected messenger.

Bob Dylan’s 1979 “Slow Train Coming” album was supreme culture shock. Here’s a songwriter and cultural hero whose anthems of change established him as the leader in the attack on the Old Order. But “Slow Train” represented a zealous embrace of evangelical Christianity, complete with symbolic crosses on the album’s front and back cover.

The album was one of Dylan’s most compelling works, and it found an audience (sales exceeded 1 million copies). Yet much of the old Dylan audience felt betrayed, and the enigmatic singer didn’t soothe matters when he toured with a show that featured only his new Christian songs, a radical tactic that incited massive boos and walkouts.

Whatever the subtleties, the lesson of “Slow Train Coming” was clear: Rock and religion was a dangerous combination.

The next major artist to be put under the spiritual spotlight was one who didn’t seek it at all: Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen uses his Catholic background more as a source of literary imagery and dialect than as a proclaimed spiritual path. He has talked little of any religious beliefs, but his frequent use of terms like “sin” and titles like “The Promised Land,” “Reason to Believe” and “Adam Raised a Cain” began to catch the attention of some religious leaders.

George J. Yamin Jr., a DePaul University professor who presented a paper on “The Theology of Bruce Springsteen” to the American Academy of Religion in 1983, believes Springsteen “assimilates and reinterprets in terms suitable for his listeners” such Jewish and Christian ideas as Paradise Lost and the search for the Promised Land.

But Springsteen never acknowledged in subsequent interviews that the terminology was more than convenient imagery. His most important contribution, in the context of New Spirituality, may have been his focusing attention on human values and traditions, and re-establishing integrity as a laudable goal in rock.

The new breed of true believers, diverse as they may be, seem out to integrate their faith into their music and not to use it as a vehicle for preaching or evangelization--in the process missing some (but not all) of the flak that came Dylan’s way.

Key works in spotlighting the greater spiritual consciousness in rock were U2’s second and third albums, “October” and “War”--both overtly Christian and both as widely well-regarded by fans and critics alike as Dylan’s pioneer efforts had been widely attacked.

Like many of U2’s fans, Evy Nelson, 28, enjoys U2 on several levels.

“Primary is the devotion,” said Nelson, a devout Christian and an editor of U2/USA, the largest and oldest unofficial U2 fanzine. “I get such a thrill listening to rock ‘n’ roll radio when, in-between these insipid songs, will pop up ‘Gloria’ or ‘Three Sunrises,’ and it’s magic. I think to myself, ‘That’s Bono, and that’s my God he’s singing to with passion and obsession.’ . . .”

But there’s a darker side to some of the more spiritual songs that appeals not only to her but, she feels, non-believers as well.

“Bono has no attachment to things of this world,” the Los Angeles fan said. “He’s looking for something else outside of this world, and generally it’s looking toward the afterlife. That’s one reason why his music appeals to people who don’t even share his faith--because he expresses a frustration with this life.”

The New Spirituality is by no means a unilateral movement with a designated agenda.

Bible-believing Gordon Gano’s spiritual walk is a long way from the more universalist or pantheistic leanings of World Party’s Karl Wallinger or Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr. Some of these artists operate from bases of very specific belief systems; others are just expressing an unfocused spiritual curiosity.

A good deal of these artists come off as demonstrably and devoutly Christian in their statements and songs--among them, U2, Lone Justice’s Maria McKee, Burnett, Gano, Peter Case, Tonio K., Bruce Cockburn and the Call’s Michael Been.

But if these artists find a purpose and meaning in the type of Christian religion that few of their rock predecessors have had much use for, most of these believers still profess to be every bit as skittish about organized religion as their more secular contemporaries--and they resist easy labels that may carry misleading associations.

“People ask us all the time if we’re a Christian band,” says Been, the Call’s singer/songwriter. “And I don’t really know, because I don’t know what the word (Christian) means anymore. It would depend on the definition, and then you’re talking about a real long process of discussion and introspection.

“The term is damn near useless, from what I can tell. I don’t think it has to do with what you call yourself--it’s not what you say you are, it’s what you are .”

What many of these new Christian artists are is socially conscious and left-leaning, at least on certain topical issues--which sometimes puts them at confrontational odds with believers from the Bible belt.

U2, the Call and Cockburn have all recorded songs about Central America that take a virulently anti-Reagan stance. The Call’s “Blood Red” is in part a slap at evangelist Jerry Falwell for his views on foreign policy; and during recent U2 concerts, Hewson went so far as to derisively mention Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts during the same spoken-word section of “Bullet the Blue Sky” in which he conjures images of American fighter planes in Central America. Burnett and Gano are equally critical of the President and other prominent evangelical figures.

Then there are those who may use Christian imagery and profess a strong interest in the spiritual but have declined allegiance to any single spiritual path--among them, Simple Minds, the Waterboys, Peter Gabriel and Van Morrison.

Notes World Party leader Karl Wallinger, who frequently uses deistic references in his songs: “I think that God is just the natural flow of things--the world’s got a rhythm and man is out of step with that rhythm. . . . People who say they’re Christian have basically got some weird idea that they must adhere to one single book of wisdom. And God, I feel, isn’t a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. He’s the victim of cult followings. He’s a bit like Lou Reed.”

Where most artists questioned profess strong qualms about using their music as a forum to try to convert their audiences to their religious views, Stryper--the heavy-metal Christian band from Orange County--shows no such compunctions whatsoever. On stage, they throw Bibles out to cheering teen-age throngs and employ flashing lights in the shape of a cross.

Says drummer Robert Sweet: “We always had this attitude that we didn’t want to be characterized as this little religious band sold in religious bookstores and happy and content to play in a church for love offerings.

“I mean, all that’s wonderful, but our whole goal and vision was to be a real rock ‘n’ roll band to reach a real world. . . .”

Stryper’s latest record quickly went gold (for sales of more than 500,000 units), and MTV reports that the band’s latest video receives more phone requests than any other clip week after week.

Given how strongly Stryper feels about preaching the gospel, you might think Sweet has qualms about some of the other bands currently getting attention for their spiritual content--some of them Christian but just not motivated to use music as an evangelizing tool like Stryper, and some of them not Christian at all.

And indeed, he does have reservations. “I think it’s great when somebody stands up and says ‘I want to dedicate this song to God’ or when someone in a song says something about Christ, but I just hope that people mean it,” he warns. “I’m not saying people don’t mean it, but that could become just a very easy thing to say to look good.”

Rock hasn’t surrendered its resistance to religion.

Groups like the critically respected XTC and the English synth-pop group Depeche Mode are among many that take an antagonist’s view. XTC’s “Dear God” and Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours”--both hits with rock fans--are biting songs that question the concept of a merciful God in view of man’s suffering.

“Dear God” is a musical prayer that--after reciting a dramatic compendium of earthly evil and disaster--ends on a less-than-devotional note:

The wars you bring, the babes you drown

Those lost at sea and never found

And it’s the same the whole world ‘round

The hurt I see helps to compound

That Father, Son and Holy Ghost

Is just somebody’s unholy hoax

And if you’re up there you’d perceive

That my heart’s here upon my sleeve

If there’s one thing I don’t believe in

It’s you

Dear God .

Between such examples of the passionately pious and the passionately peeved, it’s not inconceivable that pop radio could become the battleground for the next Holy War. Rock ‘n’ roll may not be the devil’s music any more, but the more secularly minded ought not to be counted on to give it up entirely to the New Spiritualists without a fight.

U2’s Bono Hewson will talk at length about the emptiness he sees in Western society. He spent a month in Ethiopia after the Live Aid concert in 1985, and he says he still suffers from the culture shock.

“Not the culture shock of going there, but the culture shock of coming back,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I had left a desert. I felt like I was coming home to one. What I saw was that we have so much in the West, but so little. Though we physically are so fat, we are spiritually starving to death.”

With the band’s popularity skyrocketing, however, Hewson appears increasingly uncomfortable with the way some fans are portraying him as a point man of the spirituality movement.

“I sense that people are looking at (the band) as leaders,” he said. “But we refuse to serve that role. Having faith in God as I do, they expect me to have a lot of answers and all I have is a lot more questions. I think our role is to ask questions.”

But isn’t it natural for fans to look to their heroes for answers?

“People like Dylan and (Van) Morrison were heroes to me, but I looked to them as I would a book--not as leaders. I read books and I listened to records and I responded to both. The best they could ever do was point you in a direction. I never thought that if I could just meet them for 20 minutes that they could straighten my life out. People have got to find their own answers.”