Rock and Roll, Religion, and Leonard Cohen

With very few exceptions, the story of American popular music in the last five decades is largely a story of decline. After a brief and fiery decade, the Sixties, in which every kid who flocked to California or downtown Manhattan with a guitar case and a hungry heart seemed to turn into Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Lou Reed, things took a turn for the worse. Take away Springsteen, the Ramones, and the Notorious B.I.G., and you’re left largely with years and years of bloated stadium schlock, screechy garage noise, or confections too sweet for the musical palate of anyone older than 12.

What happened? How did a scene that produced so many masterworks in such a short time fade away? There are several feasible explanations, from the changing economics of the music business to the ravages wrought by technology, but one of them in particular deserves much closer attention: the reason American music has sucked so badly for so long may be, first and foremost, theological.

You don’t have to be a scholar of either religion or rock n’ roll to realize how much the two have in common. All you need to do is spend some time with, say, the Doors. If you look at the long-haired, bare-chested Jim Morrison striking a Christ-like pose in the band’s most iconic image, and if you listen to the way its four musicians race one another to ecstasy, creating songs that are so white-hot with passion they nearly fall apart, you realize that the Doors were about more than putting out albums and prancing on stages. They were about, to paraphrase their most famous song, breaking on through to the other side, transcending above reason and unlocking a higher mystical sphere of human consciousness.

The Doors were hardly alone: Recording Revolver, the Beatles’ 1966 album, John Lennon told his studio technician he wanted to sound “like the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain top,” while the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson quipped that “our influences are of a religious nature” and Lou Reed dove into the work of the German philosopher Oswald Spengler and his theories of Christianity’s decline. For a host of socioeconomic and political reasons, much of this profoundly religious nation’s spiritual yearnings—newly released from traditional forms of worship like church attendance—were expressed instead by guitar, bass, and drums. Rock was how young people worshipped, and they were every bit as devout as their ancestors.

Posted on May 21, 2014

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