What it comes down to for me – as a Velvets fan, a lover of rock and roll, a New Yorker, an aesthete, a punk, a sinner, a sometime seeker of enlightenment (and love) (and sex) – is this: I believe that we are all, openly or secretly, struggling against one or another kind of nihilism. I believe that body and spirit are not really separate, though it often seems that way. I believe that redemption is never impossible and always equivocal.
Ellen Willis in Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island
The very first issue of Rolling Stone I ever bought had Peter Frampton on the cover. It was February 1977 and the year before his album “Frampton Comes Alive” was a huge success. Songs from the record played frequently on the radio – “Show Me the Way” and “Baby I Love Your Way.” Every two weeks for awhile thereafter, until I started to subscribe, I bought a copy of the magazine to see what was happening in the music world.
The pattern developed early for me, I think. My enjoyment of most anything is enhanced by reading about it. When I fell in love with baseball, I started to read about some of its history and best players. With my eighth grade experience of God’s love in Jesus, I began another journey of reading – mostly evangelical and charismatic writings. When some of that reading brought me to more questions, other journeys began – philosophy, psychology, and rock and roll.
In April of 1977, Rolling Stone, in an issue with Hall and Oates on the cover (remember them?), published a long article by Ellen Willis about her spiritual journey – which was also a journey with rock and roll. I don’t recall how much of it I actually remember, but I found it on-line and was moved in re-reading by its deep honesty. What I remember vividly, the first time I read the article was this quote from a song called “Rock n Roll” by a group I had never heard of, The Velvet Underground. The quoted line in the article read: “her life was saved by rock and roll.”
Life saved by rock and roll. What could that mean? Jesus saved, but I was doubting what that meant. In my first encounter with Jesus it meant that those who believed in him, believed that his death was a necessary requirement for God’s forgiveness of our sins, were saved from the eternal punishment of hell. If you did not so believe, well…. I had come to a difficult place with all that, though. How could I write off people of other religious traditions when I knew virtually nothing about them? Cartoonish condemnations of existentialism and pragmatism left me wondering what these philosophies might teach. I wondered if the full impact of Christian faith in Jesus was really meant to be focused on another life? I did not want to give up on Jesus, but I wanted a Christian faith that could help me think more deeply and that could take into account so much that I was learning and encountering.
Part of what I was encountering was rock and roll and writing about music that matched the music’s artistry. A writer like Ellen Willis could pen words that discussed music and spirituality. Her words were truthful. I too, think we struggle against nihilism of one kind or another. I too believe that body and spirit are not really separable. I believe that redemption is never impossible, and always equivocal – by that I mean our embodiment of God’s love and grace is real but momentary, and in the next moment we can lose our way a bit. I learned this from Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Ellen Willis.
In the end, I believe that Jesus saves – that is, through Jesus I experience the grace and love of God which lead to a greater degree of wholeness in my life, and lead me to work for the healing of the world. I also believe that the grace I know in Jesus comes to me in different, and sometimes surprising, ways – including rock and roll and the words written about it. This life was saved by rock and roll, at least, in part.
With Faith and With Feathers,