How I Came to the Church of Rock and Roll
Darcey Steinke on Finding Faith in America’s Great Religion
True, in junior high I sang along to John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” and knew every word on the “A Star Is Born” soundtrack. But in high school, during those liminal years, when many teenagers are porous to the point of emotional discombobulation, I was mostly uninterested in rock and roll. As a child I’d had a terrible stutter; speech therapy at 14 had given me more control over my spastic vocal chords so, in my teens, for the first time ever, I wasn’t the skinny stuttering freak. Nearly through puberty, and mostly fluent, I wanted more than anything to be normal. In order to inhabit normality fully I had to tamp down the best parts of myself—my ambivalence, my vulnerability—and I did this enthusiastically, embracing only the most mainstream of everything.
There were other factors. I was geographically challenged, living as I did in Roanoke, Virginia, a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains four hours away from the closest metropolitan center, Washington, DC. The local radio station, KissFM, played mostly 1960s hits like “Magic Carpet Ride” and contemporary soft rock: the Doobie Brothers, Chicago, and the Eagles. Discount Records, the music store in the mall, carried this same fare and only the most radio-friendly rock bands came to the Roanoke Civic Center. I owned only a few records, Toys in the Attic and Pat Benatar’s Love is a Battlefield. The only band that moved me even mildly was KISS.
I was a minister’s daughter heavily influenced by the Bible’s rhythms and by the church’s liturgy. My father’s embroidered robes and jeweled crucifixes reminded me of KISS. I just assumed that the artifice, which I knew to be fundamental to religion, was also the main component of rock and roll. Music stars, dead or alive, those I saw in magazines or on television—Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger—all seemed impenetrable to me. Their tie-dye and swagger seemed like an aesthetic phenomenon rather than a musical one. My experience of rock was as an essentially camp medium. I saw rock with quotation marks around it, or as Susan Sontag has said, “as the glorification of instant character.”
Not that my interest in more challenging music didn’t flare up occasionally. I remember hearing about the Sex Pistols and their American tour. With my well-manicured girlfriends, I condemned Sid Vicious for being “gross” and “weird” but inside my secret heart I felt a tiny bomb go off. Unlike the glamorous camp rock stars I’d grown accustomed to, the Sex Pistols were all ugly, freaky and emotionally messed up. In college, during my junior year abroad in Dublin, I’d lay around in bed with my bisexual boyfriend listening to “Ziggy Stardust,” the room slowly filling with blue cigarette smoke. In the early 90s I dated a man who made industrial dance music. One of his songs, “Mind the Gap,” rose to number one on the alternative dance charts. Every Saturday night, high on ecstasy, we’d go to Mars and dance.
But these experiences didn’t really get to me in any fundamental way. I married my boyfriend, who ruled our domestic stereo like a dictator, playing mostly house music and Wax Trax bands like My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult. We went to see Front 242 when they came to New York. The music was canned. Band members dressed like G.I. Joe dolls and did militaristic hand movements on a stage covered in green fog. The concert did little to dissuade me that artifice was still the main selling point of rock and roll. Even when Nirvana broke in 1991, while I recognized Kurt as the sort of brilliant freaky little dude that hung around my high school’s smoking block, it was the radio-friendly pop sound of the production that most appealed to me. To my suburban ear, Nevermind sounded as lushly antiseptic as a Bon Jovi record.
Enough of the desert. Let’s move to the wet spot. Let’s embark on the actual steps of my rock and roll conversion. Converts nearly always come to faith through kinship, an awakening through a faithful friend. This person in my case was the writer David Gates.
David is extremely elegant; he has a long grey ponytail, wire rim glasses and the aura of a hippie prince. We were driving out to read together at a bookstore in Connecticut. In his car stereo there were three CDs: Beck’s Odelay, James Brown’s Greatest Hits, and Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming. David switched around to different tracks, he was a big fan of Beck, he told me, and James Brown got all the stars and planets into his grooves. But it was the raw particle in Dylan’s voice that held me. “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” reminded me of the songs I sang in Sunday school and “I Believe in You” explicated how a longing for God can put you at odds with the secular culture. I was impressed by Dylan’s conviction. Fifteen years earlier I’d heard about his conversion but only as a joke. David talked about the music but also his marriage. He’d recently separated and was in the process of getting divorced. I was anxious for these details, as I was deeply unhappy in my own marriage and thinking of breaking out.
“You’re in it until you’re not,” David said sadly as he flipped to “When He Returns” and Dylan’s voice flared out of the speakers like gas fumes. The trees to either side of the car were a ragged strip of green and Dylan’s voice was a tendril, a mass of tendrils moved by hunger. I felt it reach like a visceral thing into my head and my heart.
The next day I went out and bought the CDs and played them while my husband was at work. I learned the odd Seussian lyrics to Beck’s songs and I danced around the living room to James Brown, but it was Dylan’s voice—the grains I heard of longing and pain—that I found most sustaining. I had a baby daughter, nearly nine months old then, and I would nurse her, change her and do the household chores all while listening to Dylan. First just Slow Train Coming but then Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde. Not only was I unhappy in my marriage, but also giving birth, which had been traumatic and spectacular, had left me with a hint of life’s grandeur, its meaning and texture, and there was no place for this feeling to unfurl or manifest.
I’d begun to go to noon mass at the local Catholic Church. I liked the vaulted ceilings and the candles burning all around in red glass holders and that the people around me—secretaries, janitors, businessmen and women in dark suits—were spending their lunch hours in prayer. I’d sit among them with my baby sleeping, her tiny face smushed against the side of the carrier.
The only problem was that the priest delivered his liturgy in monotone. His voice was always at the same numbing pitch, droning. I wanted to talk to somebody about God and sometimes I’d fantasize about meeting with the priest in his dark office beyond the sacristy. But the man seemed spiritually despondent, and I couldn’t imagine a conversation with him would do me any good. So I spaced out, as I had as a child, and tried to lose myself in the rich burgundy and moss green of the stained glass. One day as the priest opened his mouth, instead of the familiar monotone, I heard Dylan’s voice. I stared at the gold alcove beside me, Mary’s smooth ceramic face streaked with the colors of church glass and realized that Dylan, not the priest, was the spiritual leader I was so anxious to connect with.
Of course, intimacy with the leader of the convert’s religious group of choice is the next step toward redemption. Now that I understood Dylan to be that individual I became his devotee. I listened to all of his records. His longing mirrored my own. While his lyrics and phrasing were often sly and cynical, he was always theologically engaged. I grew fond of Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, but Slow Train Coming and Blood on the Tracks held me. God and loss configured, producing for me the most impassioned statement about what it is to be human that I’d heard, outside of Russian novels.
In biographies I read about Dylan’s own religious yearning and I had a vision that fleshed out the details of his 1979 conversion. I saw Dylan’s girlfriend Mary Alice Artes in her jeans and peasant top walking two hippie ministers around the pool filled with leaves and green water and up the stairs to the door of her West Los Angeles condo. Inside it was very dark, all the blinds were drawn and it took the ministers a moment to locate Dylan sitting on the couch in a cloud of cigarette smoke, his face waxen and troubled as he told them his life was empty, and that he wanted to feel God not just now and then, but all of the time.
That September I found myself in Oxford, Mississippi, where I was the writer-in-residence. I was separated and lived alone with my daughter in a house across the street from Faulkner’s dilapidated mansion and finally for the first time in my adult life I was master of my own stereo. I bought the local label Fat Possum’s records, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. I grew fond of Fred McDowell and Memphis Minnie and I even bought an Elvis CD. Elvis to me was a kitsch icon, the face on the plastic bust included on friends’ toilet tank altars along with Mr. T dolls and wide-eyed paintings of Keane kids. But there was something in Elvis’s voice, a lush sense of sadness and self-acceptance that drew me, a month after I arrived, to Graceland.
As I waited to tour I browsed the gift shop across from Graceland. Elvis’s image was printed on everything from baby rattles to underwear. I’d been warned that Graceland’s interior was unbelievably tacky. I was already somewhat familiar with the white couches and jungle room fountain. In Roanoke there is a miniature Graceland. As teenagers, my girlfriends and I would drive over to Riverdale Road and walk the little path through Don and Kim Epperly’s yard to the dollhouse-size Graceland in back. Kim, a local hairdresser, had built all the tiny furniture, replicated the carpets and wallpaper and even done the embroidery on the bathroom’s tiny towels.
So when my turn came and I entered the full-size Graceland, the magnified effect of objects I’d only seen small was magical. In Graceland light seems to come at you from all directions, as if the sun has liquefied and flowed into the floor, walls and ceiling. I recognized in the glittery décor a longing for transcendence that is often labeled as tacky. The mirrored bar in the downstairs TV room was like a fenestral opening, the kind I spent most of my childhood searching for, that soft spot in reality that linked this world to the next, and I liked the modest colonial kitchen. I could easily picture a bummed out and overweight Elvis, wondering what it was all about, as he raided the refrigerator. It’s this transfiguring light integrated with sadness that makes Graceland so powerful. Elvis’s endless hobbies—shooting guns, racquetball, horseback riding—all seemed obvious and desperate attempts to fill up a faltering life.
But it wasn’t until I got into the subtly lit annex where Elvis’s memorabilia is held that my full conversion took place. I walked past his gold lamé suit and black pants and striped jailhouse-rock shirt. The famous white bodysuit moved me the most. The embroidered red, white and blue eagle, the cape, the rhinestone superhero belt all held me in their messianic glow. Now I’m not a particularly patriotic person; if the Japanese bought the Liberty Bell, I wouldn’t care much. But Elvis’s bodysuit was different. I had the visceral feeling that Elvis’s costumes must stay in the United States of America. They were to my mind the most completely American objects I had ever seen, suggesting as they did glamour, sadness, and faith.
The realization was overwhelming and without precedent. It shocked me so much I began to wander around the darkened corners of the annex. I had been spit out of the portal; I’d come out the other side of that hip kitsch-heavy cynicism that I had worked so many years to perfect. I realized that Elvis was an icon, but not in any contemporary sense, not a one-dimensional computer icon. Neither was he an icon in the sense that Princess Di had been an icon, someone who represented a particular kind of lifestyle. Elvis was an icon in the traditional sense of icons of the Greek Orthodox Church. These icons depict Christ, Mary or a saint shown against a gold background, which signifies a source of illumination, independent of them. In iconography gold paint is built up from the base and the figure emerges from this globe of light. The gold light signifies of course the mystical Other, the life force, a higher power, God. For the first time I understood Elvis’s iconic status, that what he looked like or represented was less important than the fact that it was generally accepted that Elvis was divine.
Back in New York City, my marriage officially fell apart. My musical and spiritual awakening gave me the catalytic courage to move out, but there was also the minor but essential fact that I now wanted complete control over my CD player.
For a while in the little apartment I rented in Fort Greene I played my Elvis CDs and the blues, Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Lemon Jefferson, but mostly I listened to Dylan’s then-new record Time Out of Mind. Its darkness appealed to me; I felt it was the musical equivalent of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. Dylan understood how for a particular kind of person romantic abandonment and Godly desertion are impossible to separate. “Trying to Get to Heaven” impressed me as a spiritual breakthrough. Dylan wasn’t sanctimonious, and he could now inhabit that plane of raw vulnerability that is the closest thing we humans have to a conduit to God.
It was around this time that my friend Biz Mitchell suggested we start a rock band. The call, when it comes to the convert, is often a call to preach. So a week later, much to my surprise, I found myself in the possession of an electric guitar. I loved the open chords I was beginning to approximate, the C and the D, the lovely G, and I was thrilled to participate in rock and roll’s most material sacrament. I practiced every night after my daughter went to bed and also on the long sad nights she stayed with her father. My time alone with my guitar brought me to the very beginning of Rock’s history, to what the earliest blues men and women must surely have known: the guitar is a body, a body that is a powerful antidote against loneliness. I loved the distorted, desperate sound that came out of my little Fender amp, and I loved, with my earphones on, playing loud.
Now I’m fully aware that my musical Holy Trinity—the Blues, Elvis, and Dylan—is not a particularly unique way to venture down the rabbit hole of rock. But for me there was little meaning or texture in the music until I experienced rock and roll’s rich historical precedents. Like all converts, I am sappy. Sappy about what appears to be the dawning of my own personal golden age of rock. Thanks to my conversion I have a new sense of myself. I feel empowered to do things, to believe things, and to feel things that I never felt before. Though I am also painfully aware of my limitations as a listener and a musician, I am mostly grateful. Grateful that where there was once an absence, a desert, there is now a lush reservoir of abundant life.