Steve’s Columns

The Quick & the Dead: Scratching for soul in pop culture

Johnny Cash – He has written books, hosted a popular television show, starred in and produced movies, and has recorded 1,500 songs that can be found on 500 albums. He remains today, the crowned king of blue collar troubadours. Cash has the lurching height of a NBA forward, the distinctive facial features of a cleanly-shaven Abe Lincoln, the swagger of John Wayne, and the perceived moral authority of Moses.

Mahalia Jackson – “Precious Lord” became a universally beloved song because it grasped the heart. You can hear how it inspired King, energized Jackson, and bandaged up Dorsey. It enabled King to weave a civil rights message to a white audience over the growling police dogs, shouted racial slurs, and the segregated lunch counters. It empowered Jackson to take traditional gospel music to locations beyond the choir loft and to audiences beyond the black church. It inspired Dorsey to blend the juke joint blues with the Sunday morning hope of gospel. It was both Good Friday heartbreak and Easter Sunday jubilation – somewhere right there in the grit and toil of life.

John Coltrane – A notable difference between the contemporary church service and a vintage Coltrane gig would be the use of words. For most mortals, worship is expressed through prayers, creeds, and hymns. For Coltrane, it was expressed through sweat, overlapping chord progression, bulging neck veins, blasts, and wails.

Robert Johnson – In the South, the juke joints are packed on Saturday night and the clapboard churches are crowded on Sunday morning. It is one of the endearing and fascinating aspects of the region. There are ample opportunities to fall into the lust of the flesh, and more than enough altars to find redemption. The Robert Johnson legend of the crossroad fits right into a vibrant worldview of angels, demons, heaven, hell, sin, and atonement. At the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, you can even buy a t-shirt that reads, “Lord, forgive Robert Johnson.”

Albert Einstein – Walter Isaacson’s new book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, intrigued me because of its lengthy chapter on faith. I had wrongly assumed that Einstein was an atheist. What I discovered was quite the opposite. In addition to wanting to know why the sky is blue and the quantum theory of radiation, this man of unsurpassed genius and unquenchable curiosity was enamored with figuring out the most profound of mysteries. “I want to know how God created this world…I want to know his thoughts; the rest are details,” he said.

Pauley Perrette – Goth purists may be disappointed that she was not bedecked with fetish boots, black lipstick, or skulls and crossbones. Instead, she was kicking back in old jeans, a white tank, and tennis shoes. She is far more of a very cool grad student than my generation’s Elvira. Truth be told, she’s a party girl with a brain. Her mind grapples with the big questions of life at a frenetic pace, producing both theories and uncertainties about life. In the midst of the swirling notions, she still has faith that one day she will understand the pain and joy of humanity’s existence.

Evel Knievel – Watching him tell his story, one could sense that Evel was genuinely transformed by his midnight visitation from God in his Daytona hotel room. His swagger and bravado created an image that helped to provide him with popularity and wealth, but his contrition and God’s grace are what he believes will grant him eternal life. Even the daredevil knows he can’t cheat death forever.

Nightcrawler – Quite simply, Nightcrawler is one of the most devout and unconventional Christian characters that has ever been portrayed on the big screen. Furthermore, his distinct characteristics span his portrayal in comic books, graphic novels, and an animated film. He talks righteously about sin and the power of faith, without the slightest hint of holier-than-thouism. Although he has every right to be angry at humans for their bigotry, he chooses to help them. He has fears, but he acts with courage through the power of prayer. He quotes the Scripture to find strength that his genetically mutated special powers cannot give him.

Aaron Neville – There are two striking features you notice when Aaron Neville performs: his massive biceps and his ethereal falsetto voice. Once you come to grips with the incongruity of his hulking, muscular frame and his transcendent vocal gift, you take notice of the rosary bracelets, the distinctive mole above his left eye, and the numerous tattoos – including the dagger on his left cheek.

Al Green – The soul man still puts on the pizzazz with roughly twenty concerts per year in mainstream venues. Resplendent in his white suit, Ray Ban sunglasses, and loaded with long stem roses like a florist, he still has the magic to commandeer the human heart, making it pulse in romance or worship – our very own funky St. Valentine.

Elvis – Elvis’s spiritual journey is a key ingredient to understanding the triumphs and struggles of one of the most pivotal figures in American pop culture. As a young man, Presley was raised in poverty and southern Pentecostalism. He attended a conservative Assemblies of God church, but would often sneak off in the middle of the service to listen to the preaching and singing at a black church less than a mile away. Elvis loved gospel music and dreamed of singing it professionally before his own career took off in the mid 1950s.

Bettie Page – Ah, those jet-black Bettie Page bangs. Fifty years after they were immortalized on a pin-up icon, you still see them on the pale hipster chicks with the cat-eyed glasses. That is just one of the lasting manifestations of Bettie Page’s industrious and enigmatic seven-year modeling career. She was a splash of rockabilly, a dash of Goth, and an extra helping of sass. The Los Angeles Times described her as a “taboo breaker who ushered in the sexual revolution of the 1960s.”

Eric Clapton – “From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety,” Clapton continues. “I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do. If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you… because it works, as simple as that. In all this time that I’ve been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. I have no problem with religion, and I grew up with a strong curiosity about spiritual matters, but my searching took me away from church and community worship to the internal journey. Before my recovery began, I found my God in music and the arts, with writers like Hermann Hesse, and musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.”

Bob Dylan – His public proclamations about Jesus brought far more controversy to his career than when he was booed for playing an electric guitar instead of an acoustic at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. His spiritual quest was exceedingly more countercultural than a mere shift of musical instruments. Dylan’s gospel albums dumbfounded critics and aggravated a segment of his fan base when the “spokesman for a generation” had become a preacher.

June Carter Cash It is strangely fitting that the last time the public saw the face of June Carter Cash was on the enormously popular music video for her husband’s rendition of a song called “Hurt.” She is seen looking down upon her beloved husband, Johnny Cash, as he sings about pain and loss. The well-worn lines upon her face express love, betray concern, and proclaim pride. Johnny was her man through thick and thin.

Brian Setzer – The heavily tattooed and hot-rod loving Setzer would certainly seem to be an unlikely crusader for Christian spirituality, traditional values, and prayer. Not surprisingly, however, his outspoken musings offer provocative food for thought. But no one should be surprised. After all, he has been blessed with a 20-year career of swimming upstream and making old things new again with fresh pizzazz and style.

Bono: In Conversation – During his conversation with Assayas, Bono poetically stated: “Coolness might help in your negotiation with people through the world, maybe, but it is impossible to meet God with sunglasses on. It is impossible to meet God without abandon, without exposing yourself, being raw.” His interlocutor responded: “What about your own sunglasses then? Do you wear them the same way a taxi driver would turn off his front light, so as to signal to God that this rock star is too full of himself and not for hire at the moment?”

Sinead O’Connor – Make no mistake, O’Connor is more reform school than charm school. She is combative and contrite, brash and brilliant, tough and tender, intemperate and introspective, course and comely, radical and religious. She smokes like a freight train and curses like a drill sergeant. She finds solace in the book of Jeremiah and loves Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming. Dr. Phil would have a heyday sorting through her relationships (she has four children from as many different men). She’s an earthy punk rock mom trying to find peace in a war-torn world and grasping to strengthen her spiritual devotion when religion sometimes acts as if it doesn’t need God.

Summer of Love – As the Beatles would soon discover, fame and fortune was not everything it was cracked up to be. At a later time in Lennon’s life he found himself watching television preachers in search of answers. In 1972, Lennon sent a fascinating letter to Oral Roberts, regretting having said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and confessing that he took drugs because he feared reality. Additionally, he quoted the famous lyrics “money can’t buy me love” and sent a donation.

Al Green – The soul man still puts on the pizzazz with roughly twenty concerts per year in mainstream venues. Resplendent in his white suit, Ray Ban sunglasses, and loaded with long stem roses like a florist, he still has the magic to commandeer the human heart, making it pulse in romance or worship – our very own funky St. Valentine.

Alice Cooper – Although Cooper’s shows still explore the haunting and ghastly aspects of human nature, its message carries a different twist. “It might sound absolutely insane coming from me, but what the world needs is a good shot of morality,” he says. His last several albums have been dramatic interpretations of what the world would be like without the grace or love of God. His alter ego is a theatrical prophet of doom, or a rock and roll version of a character pulled from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.

Bono – Bono is rock ‘n’ roll’s most limber and enigmatic spiritual provocateur. He sees every stage as a pulpit and every coliseum as a cathedral – focusing on the fire of Pentecost, the grace of the Gospels, and downplaying the Law of Moses. “Our music is church to me; where else are we going to talk about these things?” he has asked.

Johnny Ramone   Ironically, Ramone had an eclectic collection of friends who included shock rocker Rob Zombie, provocative filmmaker Vincent Gallo, and Bush-basher Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. After Vedder impaled a mask of President Bush during a concert, Ramone tried to convince him of how alienating his political theater was for fans. “I try to make a dent in people when I can,” he said. “I figure people drift toward liberalism at a young age, and I always hope that they change when they see how the world really is.”

Leigh Nash – When we met at Fido’s Coffeehouse in Nashville, Leigh didn’t strike me as a mommy rocker. She’s unpretentious, charmingly Southern, and fetchingly adorable. She even bought my coffee. A week after our lengthy conversation, I met up again with her in New York, where she was singing at the hipster hangout Arlene’s Grocery in Soho. Hearing her in that intimate setting, I was reminded why I fell in love with her voice so many years ago.

Charlton Heston, Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe: The Spiritual pursuit of actors – Charlton Heston confessed to the difficulty of portraying the humanity of Moses. “He had God’s thumbprint on his forehead, but because he was a man he must be comprehensible to other men,” Heston observed of his role. “I always work on the theory that the audience will believe you best if you believe yourself. This meant that I had to come to understand Moses well enough to believe in my portrayal of him.”

Sly Stalone – Ironically, his catapulted career proved to be counterproductive in his search for happiness and purpose. “After you’ve been knocked down a few times, and the world has shown you its dark side, you kind of realize that you need light, you need guidance, you need God’s word, you need spiritual help,” he says. “And that’s when your journey will begin.”

Cicely Tyson – There is a palpable magnetism and processional authority to hymns and gospel music. “There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord,” wrote novelist James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, a book about race and religion he wrote in 1963.

Punk Rock Orthodox Priest – The symbolism was profoundly countercultural. When Sergei Rybko lumbered onto the stage in between rock bands at a dingy nightclub in Moscow, his appearance was sure to provoke a whiplashed double-take. Draped in a flowing black cassock and adorned with a massive gold cross, 49-year-old Rybko sports a shiny bald head and burly beard that would make the guys in ZZ Top jealous.