Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Rockin' Preacher

I promised this post awhile ago. And, well, here ya go!

On the surface, it seems like a case of "one of these things is not like the other": the rock star becoming a preacher. And yet, so many times in the history of rock and roll, some of those great rock gods gave their lives and careers over to the capital G God. It might seem like a head scratcher to some, but let's review, shall we?

A lot of those early rockers (Elvis, Jerry Lee, etc.) were raised in church. Raised in church, in the south. Church is the south is serious. Still is. So many of those rockers actually learned their trade in church. Pentecostal churches were, in a way, ground zero for rock and roll: the chaos, the excitement, the music and the movements. It was all there, even back then. And good Christian folk, who otherwise would have eschewed such behavior, were totally fine with it, as long as it was in the name of Jesus.

It's funny that, in its infancy, rock music was protested most vociferously by the church. The early progenitors of the style were sons of the bride of Christ. When they warmed up or jammed informally, they sang Gospel tunes. Many of them were fans of Gospel singers, most significantly Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Blackwood Brothers, who Elvis loved. This was who they were, to the point that they recorded Gospel records at the height of their stardom, often to the chagrin of their management or labels.

What I love about these stories is that, far from being diametrically opposed, the church and rock music are almost the same thing. There's a fervency and urgency to it all. People are devoted to pouring on their adoration. The fans/parishioners are giving what they've got to what they believe in. And let's not forget the preachers/singers. They're the same person: working the crowd, communicating a message effectively and emoting in such a way that everyone gets it, and there's not a single heretic in the place.

Yet, there are differences, and the most marked difference is the perception of the two. The ubiquitous puritanism that engulfed America by the 1950's had framed the argument of morality in the simplest of terms: a conservative, moralistic lifestyle was what God desired. Any deviation from that must be sin, and rock and roll was deviation defined. If you're a church boy who grew up to sing "Great Balls of Fire" or "Good Golly Miss Molly", well, you're conflicted. And these men were, in more ways than one.

Little Richard is probably the most famous of all the rocker-turned-preacher. He grew up in Georgia, attending the African Methodist church. By age 10, he was faith healer. He loved charismatic churches, and the excitement was not lost on Richard. But, like all of us, he was a saint and a sinner. The original lyrics to "Tutti Frutti", for example, had to be edited and changed so that the song would even have a shot at airplay. His interest in orgies, his homosexuality, along with the typical alcohol and drug abuse that accompanied many of the early rock icons have always showed a man conflicted. But in 1957, at the height of his popularity, a plane ride to Australia changed all that. Richard claimed to have seen angels on the wings of the plane, which, after he reached his destination, crashed into the sea. This was all the sign he needed to abdicate that hedonistic rock and roll life he felt it had become, and devote his life to preaching the Gospel. He went back to rock, then back to evangelism, and then found a peace about both worlds.

Wayne Cochran was known as the "White Knight of Soul". His biggest claim to fame is writing "Last Kiss" (last popularized by Pearl Jam). Like Little Richard, he had a huge pompadour and charisma to match. He's now a minister at a church in Florida, and has been for decades.

There are others, too: Sting was planning on being a priest before his foray into the "devil's music". Richie Furay, of Buffalo Springfield and Poco, became a born-again Christian and eventual pastor. And let's not forget the Reverend: Al Green, who became a pastor in 1976, in the middle of the height of his R&B career. Of course, there is also a long list of rock stars who became Christians.

The fervent nature of both a rock and roll show and a pentecostal church service are almost one and the same: people get all worked up over something they believe in, or are excited about. The object of that adoration may be different, but the reaction is the same. The takeaway, I think, might be that certain personalities are drawn to both of these lives. Those people are very passionate and feeling individuals, who feel they have something to say, and also want people to hear it. You could say that it even takes a little ego to think that, week after week, a group of people are going to listen to you. I've known a lot of ministers who preach in spite of their humility, for sure, but there are also more than a handful who are almost made to get that kind of attention.

Some church going folk might be bothered by that. But I'd say that God gave them their charisma to somehow further the kingdom. You'll note that it's very hard for fallen ministers to stay out of the limelight. I think it's not only because they crave it, but that they are also somehow made to seek it. Sure, it's a fine line between being a sycophant/glory seeker, and just being your own charismatic self, but I think those people are naturally that way. The key for those people, and for ministers who stand in front of hundred of people every Sunday, is to know that they are in the service of those they stand before, just like a janitor or an electrician. There is no difference: they are providing a service. And it's a good lesson for rock stars, too. How many famous musicians have been felled by their own hubris? Remember Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol? No one is an entity unto themselves, and if nothing else, that's the lesson from rock stars becoming preachers. And now, rock stars singing Gospel: