Finding God — Many Gods, Actually — in Rock ‘n’ Roll

I’ve been sitting here all morning trying to describe what I hear when I listen to the L. Ron Hubbard-penned song, “Just a Kid,” that Edgar Winter (he of the great ’70s cruise anthem “Free Ride” and a card-carrying Scientologist) put to music. My initial reaction was to hate it based on the sheer amount of creepiness I associate with the Church of Scientology, thanks in large part to reading Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear — even having the song in my headphones seems like it could render me susceptible to brainwashing. But for the sake of journalism, I kept listening over and over, trying to pull out what might be great about the song, hoping that it wasn’t a hidden message that was seeping into my mind, convincing me to leave Brooklyn so I can scrub the decks of the Scientology cruise ship.

Up until this morning, I’d never heard any of Hubbard’s music. That all changed when I read Nathan Rabin’s piece at Slate. Rabin tells us that the songs on the album Mission Earth “are listenable, which is more than can be said of any of the other albums Hubbard is credited as having written.”

So I listened to that five or six times, and, while I don’t think I’ll be giving my worldly possessions to the church, it did eventually strike me that the song sounds a little like Lords of the New Church-era Stiv Bators as the featured vocalist in a bad sci-fi musical. The more I dwell on this comparison, the more I hear the song in my head.

This has been a constant struggle in my life that I’ve only recently become almost mature enough to overcome: I’m skeptical of all religions, which means I’m also skeptical of religious music. When I say “religious music,” I mean any music that’s actively praising a supposed god or spiritual practice. It’s a prejudice that, I’ve slowly come to realize, is pretty indefensible for a number of reasons.

The first — and as a Jew this was a hard thing to wrap my head around — is that Jesus has inspired some of the most amazing music I’ve ever heard, and can even be called the basis for much of the Western music I love. There was a big chunk of my life when I was unable to admit this out of some misplaced fear or ignorance, but then I’d hear songs like “Honey in the Rock” by Blind Mamie Forehand, and I knew I had to change my thinking.

Now, I’m not saying that the Scientology rock is even in the same stratosphere as that song. I won’t even place it in the same league as some of the Hasidic hardcore I’ve heard or the Jesus Freak hard rock of the ’70s. As far as religious movements and practices that earn the title of “cult,” ones outside of the Judeo-Christian realm, Hubbard’s songs don’t get close to the eerie goodness of the Manson Family jams (or Manson’s decent solo recordings, for that matter), or the psych freakout (and great clothes) brilliance of Father Yod and the Source Family:

The Scientology song works because it’s campy, which is something that isn’t the case for, say, gospel music or the Islamic punk rock called Taqwacore. It has more in common with the Manson and Source Family works because the people playing the music are paying tribute to a person they consider to be a living deity — but, again, it’s nowhere as good. Like Scientology, the music occupies its own strange spot on the spiritual map, and it’s hard to imagine how Hubbard or his people thought it would help them find new recruits. It sounds like it could be influenced by the heavy metal the kids were listening to at the time, but that probably has more to do with Edgar Winter being behind the wheel.

Whatever the case, and whatever Hubbard’s motivations for writing the music in the first place (my guess: ego), it proves again that listening to music from various religious movements presents some small challenges that some listeners should probably get over. And while I’d probably grade Mission Earth as a really decent cubic zirconia, it’s equally often that you get true, perhaps unexpected, gems from spiritual music.