One of the chapters of the book of essays I'm reading right now* starts with the line: "Tell me a story you know by heart." As it happens, the 1970 version of Jesus Christ Superstar is a story I know by heart--its words, notes, rhythms, its instrumentation and voices. Tonight, when the live version airs, I'll be singing along.
When we were kids, my sister and I used to spend one weekend a month at my Dad's house as part of the custody arrangement after our parents' divorce. Until I was 13, he lived in a rowhouse in Baltimore, spare of furniture and food in the fridge, but thick with associations of our childhood; it was the place we all had lived before our parents split up. I still remember the wallpaper in the room my sister and I shared when she slept in a crib, the bathroom where Dad kept the ever-useful Mercurochrome, and the room on the third floor where my Mom had made a collage on the wall of images she cut from magazines.
One of my Dad's prize possessions was the stereo, which I remember being huge, a piece of wooden furniture that opened on the top to reveal the record player inside; it had black-and-gold woven fabric on the speakers that looked like upholstery. I usually joke that he had only three records at his house, where there was no TV for entertainment, so we pretty much memorized them: Carol King's Tapestry, the original London recording of Jesus Christ Superstar (not the film soundtrack), and one by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (which one? I can't remember. But sometimes we could get my Dad to take out his saxophone and play along.). Now that I think of it, he probably had more records than that, but maybe those three were the only ones my sister and I were interested in hearing.
Listening to JCS recently, I thought about how influential that music was. What it meant for a child to encounter this way of telling a story central to my family's Catholic belief:
-- This version of the story is a political one, where the people in power are worried about the masses rising up and throwing off their oppressors. (Definitely not the slant of the story I was told in Catholic school.)
-- This Jesus is human. He is frustrated with his followers ("Look at your blank faces / my name will mean nothing / ten minutes after I'm dead."), tired of everyone asking him to solve their problems ("Heal yourselves!"), worried about whether what he did would matter ("will I be more noticed / than I ever was before?"). He is angry and afraid. His voice ranges from soft and tender to panther-like screams. He is more like us than the Jesus I learned in school.
-- Jesus is willing to go through with it, to let God (the real force behind everyone's actions, the only one who knows the plan) torture and kill him even as he feels fear and doubt. Even now, when I get to this moment in the soundtrack, I have to stop and just breathe.
-- The music surely influenced me--unusual chord progressions, unusual time signatures, a frenetically chanting chorus, wailing guitars and an insistent bass line, sudden silences. The organ's brassy tone sounds like a classical church organ but it's mashed all in with the rock instruments. The opening to Judas's first song is still compelling to me, still speaks of movement forward, something important beginning that will bring the world of these characters spiraling out of control.
-- And while I'm thinking of Judas: he is a complex character, the costar of the story. His reasons for being afraid, for doubting the direction of their project together, seem totally reasonable. The story I heard in school focused on his wrong-headedness, his duplicity and intent to hurt Jesus. In the JCS story, Judas loves Jesus, and is doomed to by his love to play a part in everything coming undone.
I don't know if my parents thought about how much this record would influence my thoughts, beliefs, musical preferences; how could they have? We never know what sticks in the mind of a child, for better or worse. And they had so much else to worry about, as we grew up the only kids we knew with divorced parents. They were navigating a space unknown to anyone around us. I admire them for how difficult that must have been.
I plan to sing along tonight. But maybe quietly, as I see what this new production has to say about a story I know by heart.
May you sing something good today,
* I can't say enough good things about this book, Joni Tevis's The World is On Fire. If you like lyric essays, run right out and buy it now! Some of them are so intense that I have to let the book sit for a while before I move on to the next one.
16 hours ago