I seem to keep going back to the Seventies, perhaps it’s time to impose a moratorium. But one thing I liked about the Seventies, besides the fact that I was under twenty then, was that you could find on Top Forty radio a song like today’s song (for Easter), a song that both celebrates Jesus Christ while questioning his divinity, and that musically “takes his name in vain.”
About that last phrase. It is, of course, one of the Ten Commandments that one should never take the name of the Lord God “in vain.” Which is to say, for profane purposes. However, that commandment applies to the name of the Deity of Moses and of the Hebrews of Exodus. And, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s apt phrasing, “you say I took the name in vain / I don’t even know the name.” In effect, we don’t know the name of that god so jealous about his name being misused. It’s generally suggested by the Tetragrammaton, the four letters Y or J, H, V or W, and H, and is not to be vocalized in full—usually given as Yahweh or Jehovah—by observant Jews, due to that commandment. None of this has anything to do with the name of Jesus, except that, as my mother was raised, the commandment extended to “the Lord’s name,” the given name, Jesus.
This pretty much applied in the Catholic circles I was a part of back in the day. And so a song with the refrain “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ / Who are you, what have you sacrificed” would immediately strike someone of my mother’s views as sacrilegious. And that’s how she saw it, much as she felt about Paul Simon’s cavalier “Jesus loves you more than you will know” (wo, wo, wo) in “Mrs. Robinson.” She forbade having that song in the house. Winning her over to Jesus Christ Superstar was, I submit, one of the coups of my early teens.
The only reason it was possible was because of the “rock opera” that is Jesus Christ Superstar—which I still consider the crowning achievement of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s career, even though I confess to finding his tunes for Old Possum’s cat poems to be pretty damn charming. When I was in 8th grade, our class trip that year was to New York City where we would all see a Broadway show, on the proceeds of all the bake sales and lunch sales and school newspaper and every other commercial venture we were encouraged to pursue (who knows about fund raising if not the Catholic Church?); one group opted to see Grease, another, smaller group opted to see JCS. I was among the latter group and it was the fact that a class from Our Lady of Fatima was permitted to go to JCS that made my mother relent, somewhat. She still was none too happy about today’s song, but, hearing me play the album—which she allowed me to get—she came to see that it actually does tell the same Palm Sunday to Good Friday story that we’d all had drummed into us since earliest schooling. And it tells that story with some great rock touches, with a sense of the Broadway show's egalitarian reach, and even with a torch song from Mary Magdalen and some great soul-searching by everyone’s favorite traitor, Judas. On the original recording, that part is covered by Murray Head who emotes to a frightening degree when he reaches suicidal pitch.
He’s also the singer of the radio hit “Superstar” which very cannily matched the notion of a man-turned-god or god-turned-man with the kind of apotheosis usually reserved for those more than mere mortals hugely popular in the entertainment arts. So much so that the comment “if you’d come today you could’ve reached a whole nation / Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication” seems eminently sensible and much to the point. The song, fully empowered by mass communication—and perhaps by John Lennon’s quip that “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus”—takes aim at a lowly carpenter’s son who has dominated the world but without benefit, initially, of the apparatus of dissemination that all public careers in our world depend upon. It should be humbling for the “superstars” of our day because we do in fact all know who Jesus was, even if we don’t quite know why we know.
The questions in the chorus build on that too: the realization that we all know who Jesus was without exactly knowing who he is. Since he has the kind of significance that seems never to die completely, the question—posed by Judas after death, we might say—keeps up his own vicarious and ambivalent pursuit of the “truth” of Jesus, wanting to know what his deal is. Even to the point—important for Judas, but also for everyone who sets themselves to worship someone who was executed by the state—“did you mean to die like that?”
The Church, of course, has answers to all the questions in Tim Rice’s lyrics, but asking them on Top 40 radio still takes a bit of chutzpah. I have to confess that I was quite taken with Jesus Christ Superstar around 1971-72 (“Superstar” got to #14 for two weeks in spring of 1971). And then saw the stage show in spring 1973, and then Norman Jewison’s film opened that summer and I was smitten yet again (as was my mother who thought Ted Neely, who plays Christ in the film—I still prefer Ian Gillian’s vocals on the original album—was just so adorable). Jewison manages to make the film not only visually interesting—thanks to the on-location sites—but also infuses it with the ad hoc magic of the stage show, which is to say that there are no big name Hollywood-type stars, nor name rock stars, only a group of people who might be expected to be found in a troupe. They comprise the cast and give the film the feel of a generational—Woodstock generation, that is—search for something authentic, where rock’n’roll is still authentic, compared with pop and show-tunes. If that view seems entirely suspect now, then that just lends credence to my view of what made the early Seventies different.
The opening fanfare of this song, in the show, comes right after Pilate has dismissed the long-suffering and mostly silent Christ with the words, “Die, if you want to you innocent puppet—”. That blast of orchestration sounds like the Resurrection and the parting of the Pearly Gates for all true believers, but it doesn’t introduce a song of Christ’s triumph, rather a song of light mockery and a truly disbelieving disappointment: “Every time I look at you I don’t understand / How you let the things you did get so out of hand.” The assumption is that Christ could have done it all differently if he chose to, a theme that will be part of the story of his life and death forever. It’s a very telling idea, right there at the beginning of a Christian’s education into what matters: a bit more of that “everything must be this way.” It happened that way and so it must mean something just the way it happened. It wasn’t supposed to be any other way and so we must find in what we believe happened the basis for what we will believe about all ultimate meaning.
By the time I was a big fan of JCS I had parted company with such absolute renderings of what Christ was or wasn’t. I was sympathetic to the songwriters’ aim of exploring the story as a great story with all kinds of implications. But, come this time of year, I still think, sometimes, about the story as it has been told and understood. And I still find much truth—the truth of youth, perhaps—in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. And now I hear that John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon is going to play Herod in a North American tour of the show . . . .
As Mom and Dad would say, “Will wonders never cease?”