By Joel Hartse
My latest musical obsession is Christian rock from the 1960s and 70s, a time before there was such a thing called Christian rock, and particularly attempts to re-interpret liturgical music in pop and rock forms. It is mostly bad, or at least weird, and while some of it is good, it has led to me one conclusion:
Catholics do not rock.
I’m not trying to be a jerk. I think Catholics do a lot of things really well—sacraments, for example. Plus, I could tell you “some of my best friends are Catholics” and it would be true—I went to a Jesuit high school, and my first real adult job after college was fundraising for a Catholic charity. So while I’m not one, I have all the respect in the world for Catholics.
It’s just that they don’t know how to rock. I mean, I think individual Catholics can rock—I have heard Bruce Springsteen and the Hold Steady—but “contemporary” music in the guitar-bass-drums sense does not seem to be able to cozy up to Catholic worship the way it does to, say, that of the Evangelical congregations I’ve attended.
The few “contemporary” Catholic services I have been to have tended to feature a man with a beard or a woman with a short, severe haircut playing an acoustic guitar, usually worn at an absurdly high and un-hip position on the torso so that he or she is almost peering over it, and maybe, just maybe, some drums.
I remember a particularly valiant attempt to contemporarify one of the unpopular all-school required masses at my high school, one of the ones in the gym. The priests had recruited one of the kids who was in the percussion section with me in second period band. They had him playing drums during those just terminally, terminally un-rockable sung sections of the liturgy: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” and then a few minutes later to the same tune “a-amen, a-amen, a-a-a-amen.” He filled his post admirably, gently padding at the drums, using brushes (sticks would have been a bit much, I suppose) with no emotion whatsoever, starting straight ahead, stoically—which is exactly the right attitude for a drummer who has been tapped to play music that doesn’t need or want drums.
If you have been to a more rocking Mass, feel free to disagree.
The latest example of Catholic non-rock, one that has actually made some kind of waves in pop culture this year, is a video from 1983 that you have probably seen—“Jesus is My Friend” by Sonseed, a Catholic rock band (I love being able to write those three words in a row) that was active in New York in the 1980s.
This video is officially the corniest thing ever created in the history of the universe: the ska rhythms, the matching outfits, the lyrics (simile: Jesus is like a Mountie, because he always gets his man), are almost too much to bear. It’s “contemporary,” but Sonseed absolutely does not rock.
The great thing about this song, however, is the way it sidesteps irony—this music isn’t so-bad-it’s-good, it’s more like so-unconcerned-with-cool-rock-posturing-it’s-good. It may even be actually good. “Jesus is My Friend” is played with utter sincerity, and an apparent lack of snark that is unheard of today, especially among youngish Christians like me and my friends who are forwarding it to everybody we know. When they sing “he taught me how to praise my God and still play rock and roll,” our first instinct is a snicker—“don’t they know that they are not rocking? Haw haw haw.”
But frankly, in 1983, Sonseed were playing (or lip-synching) their hearts out (especially that wonderful bald guitar player and his tennis shoes), making original music that, while cheesy as all get-out, was unique and weird and interesting. What are we doing in 2009? Writing ironic blog entries about them.
Sonseed is an antidote to the Christian rock of now, but also to the Christian coolness of now, a time when relevance, whatever it may mean (beer, post-punk music, animal-friendly shoes) has taken such a primary role. Which is why, perhaps, we need them—and why “rocking” is a secondary concern when you believe in what you’re doing.
Sonseed isn’t cool and doesn’t rock, but frankly, Christianity isn’t cool and doesn’t rock. I’m sure the members of Sonseed are embarrassed by that video, but I’m also sure that a lot of people will buy the reissue of their album which is (really) coming out later this year, and maybe that 25 years later, a new generation of Catholics (and non-Catholics) will embrace the joy of not rocking for the Lord.