My top 8 spiritual rock stars
Crass, eh? This is just a personal choice, by no means comprehensive, entirely serious or even fair. But it’s a thread that’s run through my music fandom since I was a teenager.
I was somehow attracted to those who had been through the sex/drugs/hedonism of the rock world and rejected it, or at least come out the other end. Maybe I was just jealous, I don’t know!
Here, then, are my personal selection of musicians whose spirituality is central to what they do, and who have touched my own, em, interests in that direction over the years.
(Bubbling under: Suzanne Vega; Sinead O’Connor; Donovan; the Proclaimers, Cat Stevens)
8. George Harrison
Tell Tale Songs
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The Beatles exist apart from my Self. I am not really Beatle George. Beatle George is like a suit or shirt that I once wore on occasion and until the end of my life people may see that shirt and mistake it for me.
Created the genre. Not only spiritual highs but a spiritual discipline. Introduced religions of India to millions, opened the door to the mystics of Japan, Tibet and the Middle East. They were here before , espoused by the Beats and some jazzers but when the Daily Record in Glasgow ran a centrefold on how to do Transcendental Meditation, the tide had turned for real. His music reflected it in mixed ways – a few overtly Indian tracks under the trade name of The Beatles were far more upfront in their agenda than the more conventional but appealing All Things Must Pass, where he hit on a winning combination of an Indian message carried on the engine of Western country and gospel. It wasn’t to last, and later albums descended into preaching and self-righteousness. But George was the first, and lest we blame him for the New Age, let’s look to the thousands of people who took up and stuck to the disciplines and practices that suddenly became available as a result of a curious guitarist picking up a sitar on the film set of Help.
Standout track: Within You Without You (Sergeant Pepper)
7. Van Morrison
Music is spiritual. The music business is not.
Not much to say about Van, except that I was sceptical for many years. While I accepted that Astral Weeks was an exhilarating and spiritually-inspired work, much of the other stuff that reviewers said ‘shows the influence of John Donne’ or other such twaddle merely seemed to have Van barking out the names of various poetical and religious celebrities and not much more. While the longer songs on his albums used repetition to draw you in establish a mood, I wasn’t really convinced. Until, that is, I went to see him live in Manchester. A couple of times in the show he expertly conducted the band from a ranchy drive gradually down to a hushed pause, with whispered vocals that created not sound but silence that filled the hall and was intensely moving. It was the same trick that appeared on the albums but live it worked. He seems to have abandoned this self-proclamation of spirituality these days in favour of a more street/blues feel.
Standout: Beside You (Astral Weeks)
6. Bob Dylan (’79)
You either got faith or you got unbelief, and there ain’t no neutral ground. (Precious Angel)
Cries of dismay went up from the ranks of Dylan fandom in 1979 when the Zim embraced what seemed to be a particularly reactionary, uniquely American form of born-again Christianity. His first born-again album Slow Train Coming caused many Zimbos to grit their teeth, all the more so when he announced his stage repetoire would now consist exclusively of Christian material. That position did not last long, and the hostility to Slow Train would gradually abate over the years. Personally I love it. Its release coincided with a time when I was living apart from the rest of my record collection, so I played it many times and while I baulked at much of the message he was putting over I was moved by the sheer passion and commitment with which he did it. And the sly humour evident in Gotta Serve Somebody and Man Gave Names to the Animals showed that this was no brainwashed cultist. In I Believe in You there’s a touching reflection on the fact that not only legions of fans but some of Dylan’s closest friends must have turned their backs on him at this time. And few Dylan vocal performances before or since have the passion and abandon of the vengeful When He Returns. After a few years, the right-wing political agenda of Slow Train faded out and Dylan seemed to revert to his previous mystical soup of Jewish, Biblical and Romantic references. When he produced a series of duff albums in the 80s, the definition of a bad Dylan album was hastily revised and Slow Train was thoroughly rehabilitated in recognition not of its message but the wholeheartedness of the messenger.
Standout: When He Returns (Slow Train Coming)
5. John McLaughlin
I think the world is music and the world is madness. I do, I really do. I thank God every day that I have another day, because it may sound trite, but it’s a miracle to be alive. And so here I am, and I’m going to do whatever I can, and that’s it! It’s as simple as that!
When I first came across John McLaughlin he was a devotee of the Bengali mystic Sri Chinmoy. I knew some of his followers in Glasgow and while I was, let’s say ‘not drawn’ to the idea of giving up not only alcohol and smoking but even tea and coffee and, worse, wearing only white clothes, I could recognise that they were by no means indoctrinated zombies, that their sense of humour was intact and that they had no interest in extracting money from converts. I worked in a Glasgow restaurant and one night that the Mahavishnu Orchestra were playing the Chinmoy brigade met in the restaurant before the gig – it was like a cricket team meeting (a very quiet one) ! The music was resolutely non-hippy – painfully loud virtuoso riffing at very high speeds with wacky titles like Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love. Later Carlos Santana became a Chinmoy devotee and while the music press mocked, persevered and made an album with McLaughlin Love Devotion and Surrender which stands up today. I was surprised then to read in a music paper that ‘McLaughlin has given his guru the golden elbow and is making up for lost time with Johnny Walker’s’. The McLaughlin that emerged a few months later was not that different – he had longer hair and wore colours, but the Indian influence was even stronger and he entered what for me was the most exciting phase of his musical career with the Indian band Shakti – acoustic guitar, violin and two Indian percussionists.
Standout track: Mind Ecology (Shakti: Natural Elements)
4. The Incredible String Band
The sheer unspeakable strangeness of being here at all (Robin Williamson)
The Incredible String Band are often characterised as the essential Hippy band – flowers, incense, goofy clothes, the lot. They were amongst the most enthusiastic proponents of the transformative power of cannabis and LSD – both for the individual and society – and it’s fair to suppose that most of the lyrics of their first five albums were hallucinatory in origin as well as atmosphere. Yet in 1969 they became converts to the most modern, marketing-oriented, pseuo-scientific and unpsychedelic religious organisation of the day – Scientology. Much has been written about this movement and its science-fiction writer guru, and I won’t rehash any of it here. What is striking, however is the way Williamson and Heron’s poetic sensibility, far from being lost in the brash acronym-driven adspeak of Scientology (up your stats and boost your org!), managed to make beautiful and attractive a philosophy whose own literature was singularly unbeautiful and crass. Pictures in a Mirror, most of U, Seagull and Restless Night from Earthspan and Dreams of No Return all contained poetic evocations of the Thetan set from from the constraints of the Matter Energy Space and Time continuum by the process of removing painful engrams gathered in thousands of years of reincarnation. A million milles away from the ‘Get Your Super Powers Here – suggested donation $10000’ approach that they must have had to ingest in order to partake of the cult’s practices. The strongest and most beautiful evocations were Heron’s setting of Licorice McKechnie’s lyrics in Sunday Song and most of Williamson’s uncompromisingly strange Myrrh. Both Heron and Williamson have since left the fold. Williamson in particular was too big a mind for the constraints of a controlling organisation like Scientology, and since he left, has continued to mine the rich veins of spirituality in the bardic traditions and recently in Latin hymns.
Standout tracks: The Circle is Unbroken (The Big Huge); Sunday Song (Earthspan)
3. Richard Thompson
Well, you know, it’s just a method. It’s a process of understanding the world and communicating with the creator and that’s basically it.
Meeting or reading interviews with this laughing, self-mocking individual, you’d never know he was a Moslem, praying five times a day facing Mecca, taking Arabic poetry on tour with him, and avoiding alcohol. Dip into many of his lyrics and you will find no twee aphorisms or fortune-cookie wisdom – indeed you’ll find some of the most disagreeable and desperate characters ever to grace a song. Thompson embraced one of the many Sufi traditions of Islam in the early 70s and after a brief period of outward commitment – wearing robes and turban and living in a Moslem commune, his faith went inside to become the simple and mature foundation of what seems to be a more ‘normal’ life than most successful rock stars – coaching kids’ football, playing acoustic folk clubs as well as rock venues, corresponding generously and enthusiastically with his fans via his website. His lyrics rarely refer directly to his faith nowadays – in fact he recently attacked the fundamentalists in song – but in the album Pour Down Like Silver he followed the Sufi tradition of writing praise to God in the guise of love songs and describing religious ecstacy in terms of drunkenness, and in the final track allowed his guitar to testify for him.
Standout: Night Comes In (Pour Down Like Silver)
2. Leonard Cohen
I realised with enormous relief I had absolutely no aptitude for the religious life.
The first thing you notice about Cohen is that since he first put out a record in 67(?) he’s been banging on about the same themes – brokenness, redemption, naked women, laws etc – exploring his own symbolism consistently while chopping and changing musical styles and arrangements. I’m not enough of a poet or poetry critic to detect any significant change in his lyrical or poetical style when he first fell in with Joshu Sasaki Roshi of the Mount Baldy Zen Centre, but it seems that he took to its highly disciplined and almost militaristic style like a duck to water. In fact Cohen has always expressed an admiration for the military (roaring into the Isle of Wight festival, the UK attempt at Woodstock, on a fleet of motorbikes with his backing band called the Army), and this most Japanese of Buddhist schools provided him with the ethos of discipline, self-sacrifice and physical exertion he was after without risking his life in combat (he did visit the Israeli army in one of its wars but did not stay long). The Zen imagery was at its most apparent in 1979’s Recent Songs, but his commercial comeback album I’m Your Man took an altogether more secular and earthy attitude. His last album Ten New Songs was written at the end of several years full-time living as a Zen monk (named Jikan – Silent One or Silent Cliff – ‘but you can call me Cliff’) and contains glimpses in Here It Is and Love Itself of the fruit of months of meditation, as well as, in Alexandra Leaving, the wisdom to let go of the things of youth. (see Pico Iyer’s review in Tricycle) A hero.
Standouts: Avalanche (Songs of Love and Hate); If It Be Your Will (Various Positions)
Leonard Cohen semi-official site
1. Robert Fripp
Music so wants to be heard that it sometime chooses strange characters to make it .
It’s strange that this mild, urbane, middle-aged man with the fastidious, almost pedantic attention to detail that is often a trait of the self-educated should produce, even today, some of the most cacophanous and disturbing metal music ever to endanger eardrums. In recent King Crimson DVDs he sits centre-stage, his guitar held at the classical angle, almost immobile for the whole concert, unleashing torrents of noise and, when the song demands it, solos of yearning beauty. In the late 70s, Fripp abandoned King Crimson and the music business for a three-year training in the teachings of J G Bennet, himself a former pupil of the shaman Gurdjieff. When he returned, he put out a few records of what he called Frippertronics, and it is here that my interest lies. It is a looping system where every note you play repeats, fading only gradually, so every new note you play has to be the right one – Gurdjieff/Bennet’s emphasis on being awake, on intention and attention. To many, it’s just a series of random, repeating honks, but to those who were captivated at the start, it creates a mental/emotional landscape that is unique. Even through his more famous work with Bowie and Peter Gabriel, and with the later versions of King Crimson, Fripp kept true to his developing spiritual insights, even setting up an international virtual school, Guitar Craft, promoting the ideas of wakefulness and intentionality through the medium of the guitar. It starts with the guitar but extends to all aspects of life. For me, just the unique sustained Fripp guitar tone somehow evokes at once stillness and longing.
Standout: Guitar: Wave (from the David Sylvian album Gone to Earth); Frippertronics: Let The Power Fall (album) may still be available. Fripp now produces many Soundscapes albums using a similar approach but without the simplicity of the pure guitar Frippertronics.
© Norman Lamont 2004