Praying at the church of rock and roll: How John Lennon made me a skeptic, Morrissey made me a believer and "Exile on Main Street" never let me down
If there's one "God" I can believe in, it's John Lennon's
September 27, 2015 1:00AM (UTC)
“We believe in nothing, Lebowski!” say the nihilists who harass The Dude in his tub. I always equated nihilism with punk rock — there’s that song “88 Lines By 44 Women,” by The Nails, where the lead singer runs down the list of the bad relationships he’s had -- Jackie the “rich punk rocker,” Sarah the “modern dancer,” Suzy the Ohioan Scientologist -- and then he points out that Terry “didn’t give a shit, was just a nihilist.” Whereas Suzy probably believed in quite a lot, some of it hard to wrap one’s head around, I always favored Terry. That single hit the radio in 1982, right around the time many Reagan-supported Christian fundamentalists were gaining power, profit and influence, especially via their cable Sunday morning network TV exposure. In the Middle East, fundamentalist Muslims had succeeded in ousting the Shah via a passionate revolution. Scientolology was also expanding. I think they annexed Tom Cruise during this era. There was even the Church of the Subgenius, led by pipe-smoking Bob Dobbs, which was appealingly satirical, though I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or not. Most of all, it made me shrink. I envied those who believed... in anything at all.
I was born in the late 1960s and raised “culturally Jewish," in that I loved baseball, jazz, Woody Allen and that mushroom and barley mixture they served us on holidays. I loved Anne Frank. I still have a certificate on my bulletin board which reminds me that I have a couple of trees planted in Israel, but I’ve never visited them and do not intend to now. I was Bar Mitzvahed on Coney Island (not in Luna Park or on the boardwalk in front of the corn and clams hut, but in an actual temple) but had no idea what I was saying during the manhood ritual. I read my Haf Torah phonetically and, let’s face it, went through the whole thing so that I could have a dance party (“Tainted Love” was the big hit, as was anything off "Dare" and Yaz’s “Situation” and I got the message Soft Cell and Phil Oakey were laying down easily). Nobody in my family pushed me toward any religion. I don't blame them. I actually felt lucky at the time. So many of my friends had no choice.
If anything, religion like a lot of rules and study to me, and like Joey Ramone, another secular Jew (I suspect), I didn't wanna be learned or tamed. I had a hard enough time mastering Trigonometry and all the muffled lyrics to the new R.E.M. EP, much less the ins and outs of the holy Torah. This a roundabout way of saying I, too, believed in nothing. And now, over 30 years later, I find that I am a middle aged man who still believes in zip. The difference is that as I find myself on the wrong side of 45, I have only just started to wonder why.
Autumn's kick-off this week brings as it does every year new birthday (for me and for Gwen Stefani who is only a day younger than I am), as well as the baseball playoffs and the hint of Christmas and Chanukah and Kwanzaa (seven weeks away — prepare yourselves, it's coming). Once again, I find myself surrounded on all sides by devout New Yorkers, and happy children on my TV. With regard to sports, I know people pray for the Yankees (or the Red Sox, or this year the Mets) to succeed while I can only grit my teeth. If there’s a hurricane, as we are in hurricane season, the believers pray for safety, while I stock cans of Heinz beans and try to remember where I placed my knife with the compass on the handle. They are sure of themselves and grateful for the gift of faith. I am ashamed for the lack of it. I don't even have the option to be a proud atheist like Bill Maher or the late great Chris Hitchens. Atheism, to me, is just another form of belief in something greater than oneself, and the only thing that's greater than myself, the only way I excel, is by realizing just how much my head is filled with rock and roll facts, figures, theories and lyrics. I’m the Rain Man of pop, with no room for the spirit. It may try to enter me, but it will come up against a wall of British indie.
I don’t blame my parents. I blame the Stone Roses for releasing a perfect debut album. I blame all four Beatles, and Bob Marley and Eric B and Rakim and even They Might Be Giants. They've squatted in my soul where faith and belonging might have found a place to blossom. There's even room for terrible music there, but not for God. And even if I had a vacancy, I am pretty sure I would evict it after a while. For this, and I know this is somewhat of a psychopath's cliché, I blame John Lennon (that said, my favorite Salinger book is "Franny and Zooey"). Lennon made me the skeptic I am today. The cynic. The guy who loiters in the used car dealership of soulfulness without ever taking the keys.
My father left the family in 1980 to become the ramblin’ gamblin' man that he remains today (I think he's still alive, I haven't seen him in 10 years). The old man was not cut out for a domestic life and a job that kept him from the track. Later that year, my mother woke me up one morning in early December, in tears. I thought she was going to tell me that my Dad died. A loanshark shot him in the belly, maybe? Or a horse broke from the paddock and trampled him. Maybe he was shot in a poker match like Stagger Lee. Instead, she told me that John Lennon, my hands-down favorite Beatle, was murdered steps from his doorway in Manhattan, about 45 minutes from my house.
I’d never heard any solo Beatles songs. I was 11 and still just into a phase where I was collecting each Beatles record, and once you have your own vinyl copy of The White Album, complete with the poster… well, hell, you can spend days just looking at the collage. It takes months for an 11-year-old, even an already pop-savvy one, to fully absorb the double album. But after that, I began to collect Lennon's solo stuff and drawing his name on my white Hanes tees. Soon, I happened to hear the song “God,” from his solo debut, 1970's "Plastic Ono Band." There are incredible songs all over that record: “Mother,” “Isolation,” “Well Well Well,” even “My Mummy’s Dead” (amazing nobody’s ever covered that one).
But “God,” with its climactic list of things that John no longer believed in, seemed to fortify all my suspicions and faithlessness in a matter of seconds. Things John did not believe in: Magic. I-Ching. Bible. Tarot. Hitler (a relief). Jesus. Kennedy. Mantra. Gita. Yoga. Kings. Elvis. Zimmerman (Bob Dylan) and the Beatles. He believed in himself and Yoko, that was it. That was “reality,” John promised. God was, according to the lyrics, nothing but a “concept by which we measure our pain.” He said it again for emphasis, but he didn’t need to on my account. Here was the same guy who, in his 20s, sang about love and peace. Now he was cleaning house and it felt righteous to me. It helped me mourn him.
But it also left me one suspicious little duck as I came of age. “It’s cool not to believe in anything,” I told myself. I not only renounced my faith (no press release), but I renounced Ringo, Paul and George. John was my guy, perfect, dead, a kind of saint. Bob Dylan, who I was discovering at the time as well, was my guy too. Bob sang, “Don’t follow leaders," when he was a young man. Yeah, fuck those leaders. And watch the parking meters. I defined myself by how much shit I refused to take, from anyone, anywhere, anyhow that I chose.
But John didn't even buy into Bob. Lennon was truly a love-and-peace kind of guy, for all his perfect vitriol and skepticism — remember, he dispensed with the Maharishi in a devastating three minutes in the form of “Sexy Sadie,” and did the same to Dylan by answering his Christian period hit “Serve Somebody” with the venomous “Serve Yourself.” (“You tell me you found Jesus Christ, well that’s great, and he’s the only one. You say you just found Buddha and he’s sitting on his ass in the sun.”). Joni Mitchell was even better. She didn't even buy into John. "They won't give peace a chance," she sings in "California," on Blue, "that was just a dream some of us had." Go Joni, raise your eyebrow for me. Ringo was still flashing that insipid peace sign every time he saw a camera and Paul was singing about "Pipes of Peace," and we all know George was following his path, so they had to make way for Joni, and Leonard Cohen, another perfect cynic ("Everybody knows that the dice are loaded..." he sang. Quel sorprese, Lenny).
As I got a little bit older, by say 1984, I was whatever you call a white suburban kid who dresses in all black, with a black raincoat and spikey hair. A punk? A Goth? An American iteration of a rain soaked British indie youth? I was not a skinhead or a Rude Boy or a hippie, I know that. But I could not go full-tilt into punk rock or follow the Dead or even reinvent myself as a B-Boy because that would require allegiance to some kind of mini cultural ethos. Gang of Four loved a man in uniform, but I didn’t trust people in culture drag whether they were cops or B Boys. Yes, my rain coat was in its own way Mancunian culture drag, but it felt plain enough that I gave myself a pass. My sister owned tie-dyed t-shirts. Other kids I knew dressed like Michael Stipe. I dressed like a postman from Salford.
I was a fan of no one. TV shows would let me down, authors were never as good as people said they were, and Echo and the Bunnymen, U2, Depeche Mode and Siouxsie started to suck the more popular they got. It took a lot for a band (or a writer or a filmmaker, or, you know… a young woman) to penetrate my reinforced, barbed-wire-covered wall of perfect doubt. Only one band got in, really. One in hundreds.
If there was a wrench in my perfect I am a rock/island status, it came from my beloved land of raincoats. In 1984 and 1985, The Smiths, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, seemed to pass right through my wall of bullshit proofing like vapor, and swirled around me until I was dizzy and swore my first allegiance to a band in the better part of a decade. The Smiths confused me because I couldn't tell if they believed in anything at all or were just as skeptical as I was. Morrissey was contradictory. "My faith in love is still devout," he sang, but earlier, he'd dismissed the same emotion as a "miserable lie." It didn't matter — part of the reason I couldn't take my eye off them (in addition to the fact that they were amazing to just ... observe) was to figure out where they truly lay, on my side of philosophy or with the believers? “If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together,” he promised. Did that mean that love was necessary? Or was the bomb just as acceptable? ("Come, come, nuclear war," he pleaded years later as a solo artist.)
By college, I had every chance to be changed. I was happy there (a small liberal arts school in Vermont with a modicum of notoriety, thanks to a certain book by a certain writer) and I was doing enough acid that I could have probably been indoctrinated into the Manson family and died for Charlie, but I was also listening to a lot of indie rock and most of the singers of this indie rock employed this thing called irony ("does anyone remember irony") as they sang their mostly deadpan lyrics (Camper Van Beethoven and the like). It was no call to arms, this stuff; nothing to take literally. It was safe. I didn't really have to take any skinheads bowling. I could stay in my perfect bubble and quietly rue anyone who believed in anything at all. Vegans. War protestors (come the Gulf). All causes, good or bad, were bound to be counted out as bullshit before too long. Any mode of spiritual salvation was a money grab, if you asked me then. Three-card monte. Squeegee men. Prophets. They were all the same.
By graduation, when I was on the cusp of becoming a published writer/artist myself, Trent Reznor was busy screaming “God is dead and no one cares, if there is a hell, I’ll see you there.” I liked that. No one cared. I didn't care. And yet I was still too much of a wuss to join the Atheists. Trust no one, ran the "X-Files" catch phrase, which I amended to, "not even those who trust no one."
One day in my 40s I asked my shrink what I should do about this problem, because nobody wants to start feeling their mortality without at least some kind of insurance policy for the soul. He suggested that I meditate. He gave me a mantra (a Sanskrit word with literally no meaning, he said) and I attempted it dutifully, but as I sat there, cross-legged on my floor, breathing in and out and reciting this word, my mind began to wander and I started to think about balance, and how it’s dangerous to have too much faith and dangerous to have too little and that nobody really has no faith at all and then I started thinking about "Led Zeppelin 2" and how it's such a great record to play in the fall ("leaves are falling all around...")
After almost 20 years of working in rock and roll it began to occur to me: maybe that alone was what I believed in, and I was facing a real paradox — if you believe in nothing because of rock and roll, doesn’t that really translate into an utterly devout and worshipful relationship with rock and roll itself, one as devoted and unbreakable as any faith bond that's more widely accepted? After all, no matter where you go or how base you are, it's always there. Bob Seger sang “Rock n’ Roll Never Forgets,” and even more convincingly KISS (via Argent) sang “God Gave Rock 'n’ Roll to You." Yes, those songs kind of blow (well, Seger has better ones anyway) but the point held water. So I could not be a Rastafarian, a Satanist, a Buddhist. I would be a Rock 'n’ Roll-ist. I search for meaning in the grooves of "Imperial Bedroom" or "Bookends" or "There's A Riot Going On" because I believe there is meaning there. Surely Elvis Costello would frown upon me deifying him, and Tom Waits, too; and if he were alive, Kurt Cobain would be horrified, as would Nick Drake (although it probably didn't take much to horrify that guy), but that's who I am and as I push 50, it's getting high time to just accept it. Rock and roll made a skeptic out of me but it also gave me my own private temple where the B-52s are welcome as is Matthew Sweet and even The Eagles (actually just Eagles if you ask them).
I never stop trying, of course, to get with the acceptable faiths or bring others around to mine. After we broke up, my ex-girlfriend, another rock writer of some note, got heavily into yoga and the culture of yoga that goes along with it and it felt like I lost her twice. I started dating another woman who was obsessed with her gluten intake and when I said "That's all bullshit," I lost her too. It became clear that at this rate, I was destined to end up with nothing but my records. So I began to wonder: is that all bad? Little Richard gave up playing for God, but when I hear his music I hear and feel something that I can only identify as joyful and powerful and holy. And so I played her Little Richard. A lot of it. And some Rock Steady. Some Madness. Selecter. And to her it was just music. Good music. It wasn't sacred. I should have gone with Springsteen first.
If I have a point here it's that who is to say that the full-body warmth and tingle that takes over when I hear "Led Zeppelin 2" or "Astral Weeks" is a kind of small rapture, a little strain of the great surrender that the devout feel. I certainly give myself over to it. It has its way with my mood and my body. Maybe I’m the most spiritual person I know; I just turn to "Revolver" instead of the holy texts. "Revolver" is a holy text. The only question remains: What is the leap of faith required when you have tried and failed to revere anything but rock and roll on a spiritual level? I guess it’s that much of rock and roll is flawed and derivative, but then, you could say that about all faiths. Atheism, nihilism, any other -ism that rejects these things outright is certainly something to be respected, but if you’re looking and wondering, eventually, you gotta make the leap and hope your entire belief system isn’t shattered by bad EDM or another inscrutable Radiohead album — which could send me right back into the Temple proper. I know it’s there for me as an option, but so is my copy of "Exile on Main Street," which has yet to let me down.
Marc Spitz is the author of "Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the '90s" (Da Capo Press). His new book on rock and roll cinema, "Loud Pictures," will be released by Dey Street Books/Harper Collins in 2017 Follow Marc Spitz at @marcspitzMORE FROM Marc Spitz • FOLLOW marcspitz