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.

They were also in for a very big disappointment. The salvation the rock gods of the 1960s promised was immediate and complete and orgasmic. If organized religions advertised redemption as a life-long process, the shabby saviors with their musical instruments argued that it could be achieved in a four-minute song, aided by sex and drugs and abandon. Which, of course, is much more than mere humans are capable of: soon, the heady stirrings that Morrison and Hendrix and Joplin and the others aroused, inflamed by songs that shredded guitar strings and words that devolved into howls, turned tragic, with a slew of young corpses announcing the end.

With so many of rock’s messiahs now departed, the scene experienced a crisis of faith. Instead of going deeper, bands went louder, cultivating all of the genre’s rituals but none of its profundity. And fans reacted in kind, viewing the music now not as a spiritual pursuit but as just another consumer good. Rock’s immense promise appeared on the verge of being extinguished.

And then we started listening to Leonard Cohen.

He was 33 when he decided, in 1967, to abandon his career as a poet and pick up a guitar. He was a decade older than his peers, and shared nothing of their fervor. Cohen never believed in breaking on through to the other side. His idea of redemption was a thoroughly Jewish one, trusting not in instant transcendence but in the slow and painstaking personal journey we each must take to realize that being alive wasn’t that great, but it sure beat the alternative.

Instead of songs full of beats and life and promise, he sang softly and slowly about the fragility of existence. “There’s a crack in everything,” goes one of his better-known lyrics, “that’s how the light gets in.” Cohen’s was a wise and mature theology, but fans found it depressing. He was always well-received in Europe, but remained relatively obscure stateside, with no chart-topping albums or sold-out stadium tours.

But he persevered, and, eventually, a new generation of musicians, weary of rock’s narrowing spiritual scope, embraced Cohen as their rabbi and worked his ideas into songs. Nick Cave, the Pixies, R.E.M., Beck, and U2 are all big fans and disciples. Their music reflects the master’s. It is about hope and suffering. It is passionate but sober. It is committed in its explorations of fundamental human emotions without once trying to whip these emotions into a frenzy. And it has given us not only a renaissance for Cohen himself—his most recent album, released in 2012, was his first ever to crack Billboard’s top ten chart—but also a great rock revival. And the only thing to say to that is Hallelujah.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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