Shoegazing For Jesus
Is it just me, or is it getting a bit religious in here? Maybe it started last week, when I listened to Tori Kudo of Maher Shalal Hash Baz (as mentioned on The Weakest Link) making Biblical fundamentalism sound respectable, even sensible.
See, I always liked gospel music, in a strictly Paul Simon-esque nice-Jewish-boy vicarious kinda way. But it had to be the right sort of gospel. Once, when I was at college, I went to dinner at the house of some people widely rumoured to be Christians. "What sort of music do you like, Tim?" asked one, adding "I've got quite a few gospel records" before I had a chance to say anything dangerous.
"That's great," I said, rather startling them - I rather think I'd been identified as a sinner ready for Inquisition By Vapid Niceness. But, of course, I was waiting for Aretha Franklin's One Faith, One Lord, One Baptism, or maybe some gritty uplift from the Staples Singers. What I got was two white blokes with acoustics and sensible spectacles. God was presented as a sort of Independent Financial Adviser in a white frock. I made my excuses and left, presumably with the Holy Spirit receding into the distance, shaking his spooky fist in frustration. "And I woulda got away with it it, if it wasn't for your pesky Al Green collection!"
So that was the deal. White people can't do gospel. Hymns, sure, ploughing fields and scattering, feet in ancient time, forgive our foolish ways. But there's a point where the organ stops playing 'Rock Of Ages' and gets a bit more Sly Stone. And the Haagen-Dazs sure isn't vanilla down that rocky road.
Or is it? The list of whiteys who can get with the God thing and not look cheesy is small but select. But it exists. Elvis and Jerry Lee both banged out some creditable gospel sides when they were feeling a bit shamefaced about their burger-munching, cousin-marrying, bassist-shooting ways, but of course their Southern roots were always showing. Good ol' boy gospel cops many stylistic licks from the black strand, with the optional extra of snake-handling (for that Alice Cooper piquancy). What I'm interested in here is the authentically Caucasian sound of the-music-that-Everett-True-hates-to-call-'indie'. Y'know, the student stuff.
The most recent Spiritualized single (brought unto you from the Let It Come Down album) has a bonus track; St Jason's take on 'Amazing Grace', all bilious horns and unsteady guitar, struggling to escape from a version of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' that appears to have made a grab for the same parking space. It's a trick Pierce has pulled before, of course, with his gotta-pray-to-keep-me-from-cryin' 'O Happy Day' on the Royal Albert Hall live extravaganza. Pulling in a proper gospel choir is often a cheap trick to give alt-pop emotional wallop (hello, Blur!) but Pierce's tactic is more risky. He's playing games with sin and redemption, the beatific oblivion that can come from substance abuse as much as transubstantiation. Did St George slay the dragon or just chase it? Remember that Lou Reed sang from the same pew on the third Velvet Underground album ('Jesus', 'Beginning To See The Light') and a pattern starts to emerge - there's something the alt-gospellers share with the polyester-clad happity-clappities shaking their tambourines on Songs Of Praise. Does an interest in the religious, redemptive power of music give you the right to grow your hair into a mullet?
Which leads us inevitably to Nick Cave. He's another one who avoids the credibility chasm of honky soul (let us praise the Lord that Michael Bolton has not seen fit to record a gospel album) by leapfrogging the black churches and taking the white preacher man as his model. He's Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter, Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, he's Jimmy and Jim and all those fallen televangelists, but he sure as hellfire ain't gonna apologise for his fall. And the chances of him marrying an Ewok called Tammi Faye are as slim as him.
He's the most academic of the feedback evangelists, with his musings on St John Of The Cross and the iconography of El Greco. But he also rides the conundrum that made Marvin Gaye so magnificent (and ultimately, left him with a bullet in his chest). Erotic love and religious love spring from the same impulse, so when one defines the other as 'a bad thing', something's got to give. Look at Cave's titles: 'The Witness Song'; 'New Morning'; 'I Let Love In'; 'Song Of Joy'; none of them would look out of place in Hymns Ancient And Modern. Lately, he's been getting even more specific, with 'There Is A Kingdom', 'Hallelujah', 'God Is In The House' and 'Oh My Lord'. He even seems to have followed Ann Widdecombe on the incense-laden road to Rome, with 'Brompton Oratory'. His choice of covers ('Jesus Met The Woman At The Well', Dylan's 'Death Is Not The End'), also betrays a fascination for the feel of Christianity, but not a happy acceptance of it. He acknowledges religion the same way he acknowledges sex, death and smack - it's there, to be loved, feared, praised or hated as you see fit. You never heard Cliff Richard kick off a song with the line "I don't believe in an interventionist God" - at least, not at Wimbledon.
There are a few other bands that borrow from the Book. Sometimes, when they take the form of gospel (the magnificent Make Up), it can work. When they take the content, as Delirious? show, I feel myself being dragged back to those earnest bespectacled boys in the student house. There's Madonna as well, but isn't there always?
But for the best agnostic co-opting of The Word, you might have to step outside the Strat-wielding ghetto. Gavin Bryars has been labelled a 'modern classical' composer, whatever that means, but he's also been a jazz bassist and a co-conspirator with Brian Eno in the gloriously daft Portsmouth Sinfonia project. His most famous piece is probably 'Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet', based on a tape recording of a homeless man still clinging to a God who appears to have shat on him from a great height. The original version was coupled with 'The Sinking Of The Titanic' which, coincidentally, uses 'Amazing Grace' as a motif, albeit in slightly more restrained form than Spiritualized manage. A later, longer version of 'Jesus' Blood' had Tom Waits' voice doubling the tramp's heartbreaking refrain. It's not strictly a gospel record because Bryars doesn't get worked up, or even involved. He simply presents a human tragedy and lets us do the emotional work. But it does use the power of religious music to make its point. It can even be seen as anti-Christian - the tramp keeps the faith, and look at the good it does him. Graham Greene rewritten by Albert Camus. I don't believe in an interventionist God, but if there is one, he's got a sick sense of humour.
And may someone or other have mercy on our souls.
© TIM FOOTMAN 2002