Many have said that rock ‘n’ roll is the devil’s music. Evil in its manifest form has been singled out in the music’s driving beat, in the lyrics (whether sung backward or forward) and in the lifestyle of drugs and sex that rides shotgun inside many a tour bus. A broad generalization clamps a lock on the entire genre and doesn’t allow for interpretation or insight.
Granted, many songs, especially those hitting the airwaves these days, aren’t likely to be piped in at the next convocation of cardinals at the Vatican. You’re probably not going to be hearing Eminem’s “B____ Please, Part 2” blasting out of the Popemobile anytime soon. But even Bob Dylan performed before His Holiness in 1997, so lumping all of rock music into the bad egg basket can be a tad reactionary.
Nevertheless, many popular artists have found that the seedier elements involved in mainstream music are impetus enough to seek a higher calling. For some, that means immersing themselves completely in a new spiritual life and giving up their former rock lives. For others, it’s enough to work both sides of the fence, focusing their talents both on the secular and spiritual. Some of these musicians have washed away their past without so much of a glance backward. Others have wrestled with the transition in walking a godly path.
[JERRY LEE LEWIS]
Jerry Lee Lewis has arguably wrestled the most with his spiritual conscience. The Louisiana piano prodigy always felt the need to follow a sacred direction, but the lure of rock ‘n’ roll always managed to draw his buckshot attention span into its tumultuous web. His mother, Mamie, wanted her son to stay away from the squalor of show business and enrolled young Jerry into a Texas Bible college when he was in his mid-teens. But while performing for the Lord at an assembly, Lewis allegedly boogied-up the hymn “My God Is Real” to the point where he was curtly expelled from the institution that night. While he pursued a contract with Sun Records, he also pursued a preacher’s daughter, Dorothy Barton, whom he married at age 16. Not able to toe the straight-and-narrow, Lewis abandoned Dorothy and went back to the clubs.
As his life alternately hit highs and lows throughout the 1960s, with best-selling records and three divorces, Jerry felt pangs of guilt, constantly comparing his life with that of his more spiritual cousin, Jimmy Swaggart. After 13 years of marriage to his third wife, Myra, ended in 1970, Lewis swore off women, cigars and alcohol and embraced the calling of the Lord again. His conviction lasted all of two months. The death of two children and two wives, along with bouts of alcohol abuse, plagued him in the decades to come. Poor Jerry seemed to consign himself to the dark side early on in his career. In 1957, during a recording session, he said, “You’ve got to walk and talk with God to go to heaven … I have the devil in me! If I didn’t have, I’d be Christian!”
An ordained figurehead who still grounds her singing career in mainstream rock is the troubled Irish dervish Sinead O’Connor. After signing a record deal at age 17, this emotive and facile singer has led a tumultuous career since the 1980s, inciting outrage and stupefaction. Vilified in the press for everything from declining appearances at awards shows to her lack of support of the Gulf War, she effectively put her rising career in the crapper in 1992 when she tore up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live.
While she was still the critics’ darling, her record sales subsequently dropped, and she was relegated to the quirk bin. By 1999, it appeared O’Connor was coming apart at the seams, relinquishing custody of her daughter to the girl’s father and reportedly attempting suicide. To mend the emotional wounds, she strangely turned to the Catholic Church again. On April 22, 1999, she was ordained as a priest in the dissident Roman Catholic Latin Tridentine church in France. She is now called Mother Bernadette Mary of the Order of Mater Dei. She is supposedly committed to the vow of celibacy. She told Gear magazine, “I prefer having sex with women, I prefer making love with women, I find that sexier. I’m more suited to going out with women. However, I’m celibate and choose to be celibate.”
For O’Connor, the traditional spiritual path associated with the Catholic religion seems to be, well, a bit out of step. Perhaps she’s trying to be the most liberal clergywoman around.
Of course, not all rockers who choose to immerse themselves on a spiritual journey pick Christianity as the way to enlightenment. George Harrison was one of the first rockers to openly explore religion in the harsh glare of the media, and he started by corralling his fellow Beatles into sampling the teachings of the Mahareshi Yogi. Having gleaned an interest in Indian music during the filming of Help, Harrison was drawn to the mystical side of Indian beliefs in the mid-’60s. After hearing the Mahareshi, George and the rest of the Beatles renounced their drug usage, saying they had “gone beyond it.”
Souring on the all-too-human foibles the Mahareshi seemed to display while the band visited him in India, Harrison moved on to the Krishna religion. He wrote: “Everybody is looking for Krishna. Some don’t realize that they are, but they are. Krishna is God, the Source of all that exists, the Cause of all that is, was, or ever will be.” He became a devout admirer of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a spiritual master in the Hare Krishna movement. Together with John Lennon, George co-signed the lease and paid for the first Krishna temple in England and financed the first printing of the book Krishna. In the summer of 1969, George and the devotees of the new London Radha-Krishna Temple produced a single on Apple Records called “The Hare Krishna Mantra.” The droning redundant chant made the Top 20 on the charts throughout Europe and Asia.
Harrison has sprinkled many of his solo songs with teachings gleaned from the Krishna movement. The most popular of those tunes, “My Sweet Lord,” openly praised Hare Krishna in its closing chorus. His triple album release All Things Must Pass in 1971 and the album Living In The Material World in 1973 both had songs that were loaded with Krishna verbiage and both reached #1 on the American charts.
For George, chanting has become a complete way of life. As he sings on “Awaiting On You All”: “By chanting the names of the Lord and you’ll be free.” In an interview with Mukunda Goswami, Harrison said, “We should keep chanting all the time or as much as possible. Once you do that, you realize the benefit. The response that comes from chanting is in the form of bliss, or spiritual happiness, which is a much higher taste than any happiness found here in the material world.”
A test of his faith came one night in 1971. While flying from Los Angeles to New York to prepare for the famous Concert for Bangladesh, Harrison’s aircraft was caught in a horrendous electrical storm. Another airplane almost clipped the top of the one George was flying in. He told Goswami that he just gripped his seat belt and kept yelling “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare” at the top of his lungs. “I know for me,” he said, “the difference between making it and not making it was actually chanting the mantra.”
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