Bigger Than Jesus: The Gospel of U2, Leonard Cohen, and Sufjan Stevens

boy

 

“You gotta hear this band…” my friend Todd said, waving a white LP cover. It was 1981, we were sixteen, and Todd was evangelical about new music. He was in a Goth-y phase: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Killing Joke, The Cure, Bauhaus, The Cramps, et al; LPs and singles played at full volume on his dad’s ancient hi fi. I liked these bands well enough, but I didn’t love any of them, much as I wanted to. As he put the record on the spindle, I braced for more gloomy fare.

“They’re from Ireland, these guys,” Todd said. “And… they’re Christian.”

“Like Christian rock?” I was stunned. “Like… folk mass stuff?”

Todd was a weird kid, and full of perverse surprises, especially since adolescence had kicked in, but… Christian rock? From Ireland, land of Lucky, the Lucky Charms leprechaun? No way. Although his parents and my grandparents were religious, we’d both decided that was all bullshit. Hadn’t we?

Todd answered by placing the crusty needle on side one, track one, and cranking it: “I Will Follow” screamed from the tattered speakers like an air-raid siren. He banged his red hair to the pealing electric guitar riff and strange, plinking sound (a glockenspiel). When the rhythm section fell in, fuzzy bassline high in the mix, my heart surged. I was a fledgling bass player, and immediately thought, “I want to do that. I can do that.” (Todd was a guitarist, and my de facto bass teacher.) When the singer opened his mouth, I gasped and laughed. It sounded like he was sobbing.

“They’re called U2,” Todd shouted.

 

 

I needed more info. Todd had just bought the band’s year-old 1980 debut, Boy, which was now playing, and their recent sophomore LP, October. He’d heard about them from his Rocky Horror cronies. (MTV had recently debuted, but U2 was not yet a mainstay.) I grabbed the arresting Boy album cover with the beautiful sad-eyed kid on the front, and scanned the intentionally blurred band photos on the back. Todd kept shouting as the tunes played out, sharing everything he’d learned about U2 from a Bono interview in his expensive imported copy of NME.

“They’re all really young, like, almost our age!” he yelled over the music. “And the singer and the drummer, their moms died, and that’s why they’re Christian, to deal with it. The guitarist’s Christian, too. I don’t think his mom’s dead, though.” More details from the NME: drummer Larry Mullen’s mother died in a car accident when he was 14, Bono’s mom passed from an aneurysm suffered at her own father’s funeral (!!) when he was also 14. Within a year, Bono and Larry started a teenage band including guitarist Dave “The Edge” Evans and bassist Adam Clayton.

 

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“They were in this Shalom Fellowship thing,” Todd said. “Except for the bass player, who I think is a stoner. And the pastor guy tried to get them to stop the band, but they said fuck you. But they’re still Christian.”

I would come to find out the Shalom Fellowship weren’t just Jesus Freaks. Indeed, they’d offered solace to Bono and Larry’s grief, and a feeling of camaraderie for Protestant and Catholic alike in the sectarian, often violent Dublin of the 1970s. (A young Bono narrowly missed being blown up by the IRA, for instance. Also: how did I learn of the Troubles? From U2.)

Solace to their grief. Todd was intuitive, and he knew my dad had died in 1972, just before he and I met. I was pretty sharp, emotionally, and I knew my best friend hoped this music would help me deal with my own childhood loss.

It did, and then some. Particularly October, which Todd played right after Boy, also at top volume. October is actually their most brazenly Christian record. Boy is more electric nostalgia for lost childhood innocence, which would’ve been enough for me. But by the band’s own admission, October is “about God,” and the band’s struggle (except for heathen bassist Adam) to reconcile their faith with rock and roll and to process the losses they’d experienced. Songs like “Tomorrow” ached for someone’s return (Jesus? A dead parent?), the refrain of “Stranger in a Strange Land” was a repeated “I wish you were here.” I could feel the grief in Bono’s voice, the hope that what he’d lost still existed somewhere, and he would experience it again. “Gloria” was the band’s attempt at a punk rock Christian song, and their desperation to honor both without sacrificing either is palpable in Bono’s huge, plaintive vocal, chewing on phrases like O Lord and In Te Domine (Latin! Cool beans!).

 

 

No other band had a story like this or was making music like this. The emotional intimacy and the earnestness, not typical early 80s attributes, struck me as cutting edge and brave. To some, it grated, but to Todd and me, it inspired fealty. None of it, however, made us Christian. Todd was on his way to becoming an atheist, while I was identifying as agnostic, i.e. a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God. (These days, I prefer the term possibilian.) Regardless, we each responded intensely to the songs. For me, the music alone was exciting and exuberant, but it wasn’t just that; combined with the band bio and the quasi-religious lyrics, the tunes resonated in an unfamiliar inner space. Perhaps, in another age, religion would have filled this space; hymns, sermons, and Bible stories would’ve helped me make sense of life, made me feel connected to something greater than myself, articulated my longings. But while I sensed/hoped something else was there, no theology felt right to me. U2 presented their devotional art through the lens of rock abandon, but minus any dogma. For me, it clicked; while the records spun, I felt a part of something greater, tenuously touching what I’d lost.

For instance, in “I Will Follow” Bono sings of a child in peril, then, in the chorus, he’s the voice of a parent promising to watch over their kid, come what may. (That’s how I filled in the spaces left by Bono’s oblique wordplay.) Even death will not keep this spirit from having your back. Like his mother, like my dad; not made flesh, but revivified into the next best thing: song.

I was on the inside when they pulled the four walls down
I was looking through the window, I was lost, I am found 
If you walk away, walk away, walk away, walk away
I will follow…

But let’s be clear: “I Will Follow” did not make me believe my father was actually following me around and looking out for me from Heaven. (If so, he was doing a shitty job.) The song made me feel connected to some version of him, be it memory, spirit, whatever. Feeling connected to my dead dad via art is not the same thing as believing he is like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, trying to get my attention and striving to protect me.

Regarding the sonic quality of the first three seminal U2 albums (Boy, October, and War), credit must go to producer Steve Lillywhite. He cast a sonic picture of four hard cases thrashing and yelling and swigging ale atop buzzing amplifiers in what sounds like a rock and roll cathedral, all of it swathed in echo and drone, clattering-yet-controlled noise swirling around Bono’s caterwauling. He was a perfect choice.

All of the above delivered unto me a band that unveiled a place where music can be more than just tunes in your head; it can be a place beyond time, where the experience of being human expands. Even now, three decades on, whenever I lock eyes with another fan, we’re there together. Over the years, this vista has filled with more music, as well as other art, and it ever broadens. But U2 was there first. On days when all seems to be going my way, I’d be inclined to say thank God.

 ~

About seven years after my discovery of U2, and rock as spiritual experience, I’d covered a lot of ground, with music as my vehicle. I’d moved from Atlanta to New York City, and, at twenty-one, replaced the bass player in garage rock titans the Fleshtones. It was my first working gig. These guys were blue collar, thirty-something New Yawkers, peers of the first wave of CBGB bands, seemingly on the verge of something bigger. They were grudge holding, hard drinking men with attitude and energy to burn, something new for me, and I enjoyed them for a while. We traveled internationally, made records, and I was able to quit bartending; how cool it was to hang out with ascending rock stars like R.E.M. and The Bangles, sharing stages with James Brown, Jonathan Richman, and Chuck Berry, and having enough carnal adventures to distract me from “spiritual sustenance” for a while.

 

 

For the Fleshtones, an unabashed party band (their biggest song, “American Beat,” was on the soundtrack to the Tom Hanks movie Bachelor Party) the notion of music as a substitute for religion was anathema. They scoffed at such effete, hifalutin’ hippie-smelling shit. That’s not to say we didn’t occasionally achieve transcendence for our fans and ourselves; we did. But calling it transcendence would bring trouble in the van. Nevertheless, I did occasionally poke that dog with a stick, pushing in a tape of U2’s 1985 EP Wide Awake in America, seeking refreshment as we rattled down a cobblestone road, hung over, somewhere in France.

“That fuckin’ singer sounds like he’s been slapped!” (That’s actually pretty accurate.) “These fuckin’ pussies make me want to hit something! What is this commerce? I shall not call it music!” Oh, how they hated, hated the unsmiling, brazenly ambitious U2, who’d tread the same stages as they, and were, at that moment, becoming the biggest band in the world.

By spring of ’88, I was tiring of the Fleshtones. We were playing a roadhouse-type joint in New Jersey, and much was afoot in my fevered brain. I was considering leaving the band. I wanted to write songs, front my own group, play solo acoustic. Plus, their conservative politics (“You don’t like cops? Call a hippie!”) were becoming intolerable for me, a child of the Woodstock Generation. The prospect of actually leaving what had started as a plum gig, however, made me anxious.

I was also in love. Yes, this was great, but also intense and, frankly, scary. I understood, for the first time as a functional adult, why Cupid employed piercing arrows in his job, why people say they are smitten, which, if you care to look it up, means you’ve been hit and/or sliced open in violent way (as in “I smite thee!”). I was flushed and nervy.

The Fleshtones had dispersed after soundcheck, and I wandered into a nearby café, exhausted from the road and smarting from ill will among my bandmates. I was in full-on Fleshtone mode: dyed black pompadour, skintight red twill jeans, Chelsea boots, and a biker jacket with Mardi Gras beads hanging from the epaulets. The TV over the bar was on PBS, and a Leonard Cohen documentary was starting. It coincided with his new album, I’m Your Man.

 

Leonard_Cohen_-_I'm_Your_Man_-_Front

 

I knew of Cohen’s “Suzanne,” and maybe a couple others from his 60s-70s period, but I found him, well, annoying. That afternoon, however, I was fragile enough to finally take in what Leonard offered. On the TV, he was playing “Bird On A Wire.” Slack jawed, sleep-starved, and horny, I listened.

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

Something inside me turned. I ordered a double espresso and sat transfixed as the Bard of Montreal, then fifty-four, spoke at length of songs, poetry, and his remarkable life. I recognized him at last. For the first time, jumping onstage and pummeling an eager crowd with the Fleshtones’ brand of rock and roll didn’t have the same allure.

I played quick catch-up. He’d not put out an album in four years, and I’m Your Man was different, sonically and lyrically, than anything he’d done on his previous seven records. Interestingly, when I went back to the apartment I shared with my girlfriend, I saw she had a copy of his debut Songs Of Leonard Cohen (also his sophomore LP Songs From A Roomand I finally really listened to “Suzanne.”

Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time looking from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men shall be sailors then, until the sea shall free them

I’m Your Man was a departure, and I found I preferred this synth-heavy, even occasionally Euro-disco L Cohen; his baritone had dropped to the sub-basement, and slow-burned with a laid-back intensity. He’d forsaken his nylon string for a drum machine and a cold keyboard. The lyrics, pared down koans of wit, freely employed Biblical imagery or language that sounded liturgical, often funny, quite direct, and with tighter rhymes than the freeform stuff of the past.

Crucially, it was all sexy in a way that I’d not yet clocked. The words swaggered. He was riffing on getting old(er), embracing darkness and loss, but also sharing the burnished glories of an elder’s sensual life, all with a candor that struck me as particularly brave. I sensed I would need this kind of stuff on the road ahead. I was wrong about so much in my twenties, but in this, I was correct.

 My friends are gone and my hair is gray
I ache in the places that I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song.

I was a man now, and I saw Lenny had been through some kind of shit, some full-grown-man drama, yet he’d come out the other side and wrought it all into art. I wanted a go at that. Five months later, I quit the Fleshtones, proposed to my girlfriend (she said yes), and staked out a new path, which included taking up my old bartending gig. Within a week, an ouzo-loving regular brought me a copy of Leonard’s first Best Of LP. “I figured you’d need this,” he said.

I spent much of my subsequent twenties exploring the myths and stories Leonard and U2 (and, for that matter, the Waterboys, Dylan, and Van Morrison) were tapping into. Some friends would see me reading books like The Gnostic Gospels and/or The Power of Myth and cluck about me becoming religious. I wasn’t. The stories captivated me. The stories about the stories captivated me. I glimpsed a kind of clarity and connection in the creation and sharing of stories. I boned up on symbols and narratives that shaped minds and hearts, molded entire civilizations (including ours) for good and for ill. I experienced many moments of wonder and fascination, dots connecting, corners brightening. And when I wanted to set those moments to music, I turned to the artists who’d led me there.

I soon found Leonard Cohen didn’t just write and perform spiritual pop, he lived the life of a man in service to same; after touring for I’m Your Man and descending into alcoholism, he exiled himself to a Zen Buddhist community atop Mt. Baldy, in California. He returned in 1992 with The Future, which stunned me so deep, I had a dream in which Leonard was my rabbi. I recall no images, but just before my waking reality and timeline clicked into place, I thought, “Leonard Cohen is my rabbi.” (One of his grandfathers was a renowned Montreal rabbi.) The song “Anthem,” from The Future, may have had something to do with this.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ma5tF6TJpA

 

Leonard became a spiritual authority figure for me. I sought out his poetry (he was an established poet and novelist prior to seeking music stardom at age thirty-two); sadly, I found his intensely erotic novel Beautiful Losers unreadable. But it really didn’t matter. And even though his catalog contains some awful songs, I didn’t care, because the good stuff is beyond good. Do you turn your back on your rabbi because he wears an ugly sweater he made? No. He would remain forever in the black with me.

As a twentieth anniversary gift, my wife took me to see him at Madison Square garden in 20o9. It had been a tough year for us, and the show, one of the best I’ve ever seen, was akin to a “rekindling cruise.” At seventy-five, Leonard was preternaturally sprightly, the greatest advertisement for Buddhism, sobriety, quitting smoking, and art I’ve ever seen. He waxed candidly of overcoming addictions to alcohol and nicotine; he spoke freely about his depression, anxiety, insomnia, etc.; he joked about his dance with a vast array of pharmaceuticals, legal and otherwise. My heart – several times broken by this point – swelled against its scars.

By this time, his song “Hallelujah” – originally released in 1984 – had become a worldwide standard. There is no song like it: a modern interfaith hymn with countless variants, employed whenever humans require a binding agent. While it isn’t my favorite L Cohen tune (that would be “If It Be Your Will”), it encompasses much of what he offers as an artist, all in one uber song: love, devotion, the blues, humor, lust, righteous anger, delicious wordplay, and folksong simplicity. It exists now, in some form, in the music collections of every demographic you can imagine. Like me, people were hungry for such a thing and likely did not know it ‘till they heard it. Best of all, no one sitting at a desk made all that happen. Through the 80s, 90s, and ‘aughts, “Hallelujah” rose on its own enchanted steam until it was everywhere. (And yes, I am sick of it. But so what.)

I heard there was a secret chord
David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

Leonard, like U2 before him, gave me music for my temple, but he covered broader territory than Bono and Co.: betrayal, making amends, and, if not making peace, recognizing the road to reconciliation.

I loved you for a long, long time
I know this love is real
It don’t matter how it all went wrong
That don’t change the way I feel
And I can’t believe that time’s
Gonna heal this wound I’m speaking of
There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure,
There ain’t no cure for love.

~

candl
In January of 2011, my son, Jack, turned thirteen. As with every birthday, he threw a big party in our Addams Family-meets-Norman Rockwell 1910 Victorian house, where we’ve lived since leaving Manhattan in 2002. Like his parents, he loves sharing music with friends, and for his annual party, he makes a famous Jack’s Mix CD for attendees’ parting gift bags, complete with a cover he designs. (At this writing, ten editions of Jack’s Mix exist, dating back to 2005.) Remarkably, the songs he curates do not come from listening to the radio or watching TV (he does neither), but rather from the internet, friends’ iTunes, movies, and even the occasional track from his parents’ collections.

As ever, in 2011, he did what he always does on his birthday: he repeatedly played Jack’s Mix very loud on our cobbled-together dining room stereo as approximately thirty kids hung out, sang, danced, and ate cake. As the sun set through the bay window, most of the kids migrated to other parts of the house, leaving an aspiring ballerina alone to dance around the dining room in her sock feet to a song I would find out was Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago.” When the song was done, she went back to the CD player and repeated it, again and again and again, working on her moves.

 

 

This was my entry point for Sufjan Stevens. It was also Jack’s, as Sufjan had come to him in the same way U2 had come to me in 1981: a dear, edgy friend saying, “You gotta hear this.” I immediately appreciated the ambitious, epic pop design of “Chicago,” Sufjan’s most popular song; strings, horns, choir-like background vocals, artful repetition of chords, textural shifts a la Phillip Glass, and Sufjan’s gorgeous restrained tenor weaving a rich melody in the middle of it all, telling a story, in lyrics both oblique and direct, about young adventurers crying for freedom from the land and making lots and lots and lots of mistakes.

Jack began playing Sufjan a lot, usually on his laptop, songs culled from an impressive, eclectic repertoire stretching back to 2000. A few Christmases ago, he performed Sufjan’s hilarious “Christmas Unicorn” (Sufjan has released two Christmas albums) at our local theater’s Christmas show, while his best friend danced equine-like, a tinfoil horn taped to his forehead.

Even through the low-grade speakers of his computer, the songs drew me in, and I began to notice repeated Christian references, allusions to Abraham, Bible study, the Devil, the transfiguration of Christ, the Lord, Elijah the Prophet, the Book of Revelation, the Voice of God, and angels, all of it couched in catchy indie pop. I asked Jack about it and he said, yes, although Sufjan rarely talks about it in the press, he is Christian. And then Jack pointedly played me the album Seven Swans, which a Spin reviewer astutely described as sounding like “Elliott Smith after ten years of Sunday School.”

But here’s the thing: my son is an agnostic. Like me, he’s adamantly not Christian. He views the Bible stories and images Sufjan employs as potent allegory, and he admires Sufjan for speaking/singing his truth – especially so tunefully – with no regard for whether it’s cool or not. As a parent, I like that Sufjan’s music casts carnality in a reverent light, embraces the thorniness of grief, and reveals the beauty in simple things and random moments. (Sufjan is also frequently funny.) But my favorite thing that Sufjan has shown my son is what forgiveness looks like.

Recently, the whole family went to a Sufjan show at the Palace Theater in Albany, NY. Sufjan’s latest release, the spare, sad Carrie & Lowell, is his first in five years, and is about his relationship with his troubled mother, Carrie, who suffered from addiction and mental illness. She abandoned the family when Sufjan was one, and, after years of homelessness, died in 2012. Lowell is Sufjan’s stepfather, and the co-founder of Sufjan’s Asthmatic Kitty record label.

As we drove to the gig, I was thinking we might see a show like the YouTube clips in which ebullient Sufjan wears wings and glowing costumes and talks at length between songs as a small orchestra sits smiling behind him. This was not to be the case.

 


When Sufjan walked onto the dark stage with a stripped-down ensemble, he said nothing to the crowd. Not a word. He wore jeans and a T-shirt. No wings, no light-up costumes. The set featured a very church-y lighting design; spotlights pointed into our eyes, and movies of tides rolling in and out played onstage, all while an intensely focused Sufjan and poker-faced band performed the entirety of Carrie & Lowell, about fifty minutes of music, all of it restrained until an incredible, long, rave-like, raging noise freakout. After that, he thanked the crowd for their attention and explained he needed to play the new stuff, it was very important to him to get through it. The crowd cheered, a woman in an orchestra seat proposed marriage, and he lightened up, chatted to us, and played the hits.

The Carrie & Lowell part of the evening, however, was the most riveting example of public mourning I’ve ever seen. In a recent, in-depth Pitchfork interview, he talked of the harrowing grieving process, and how it informs the album. The shows, like the album, are a shadowy tribute to the difficult, ill mother who brought him into the world, a woman whose trespasses he reveals and, refreshingly, forgives through song. But it’s not an easy thing, this forgiveness; it’s excruciating and ongoing, never finished. But he shows that it’s a choice from a son who doesn’t want to descend into resentment.

I forgive you, mother, I can hear you,
And I long to be near you
But every road leads to an end
Yes, every road leads to an end

Before Carrie died, she and Sufjan reconciled to a degree. She told him, as recounted in “Fourth Of July,” to make the most of his life because, as the coda repeats, “We’re all gonna die.” In Albany, Sufjan and the band repeated this phrase even more than on the album, with lights blaring into the audience, relentlessly repeating the reminder for several minutes; I took this as an exhortation to seize the day. Combined with the lessons in forgiveness and frequent invocations of Jesus, et al, this made the Palace Theater even more like a church. Except better.

So can we contend, peacefully
Before my history ends?
Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me
From fossils that fall on my head
There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I’m dead

 

 

Walking into a church, after all, is meant to remind one of death. What hangs above the altar, regardless of denomination? A cross on which a man died. Once upon a time, I learned the death focus was, in part, meant to bring perspective, to send one back out into the world with renewed appreciation for the gift of life, to make it easier to forgive those who trespass against us, even when it is painful and feels like the weak choice.

But for many – my son, my friends, me – institutionalized church/religion just does not work, for various reasons. Too much blood on their hands, too much power abused, too sexist, racist, and destructively anti-science. The beautiful, effective, time-tested, useful stories and music are overshadowed by dogma, fear, and hate.

Nevertheless, the stories, borne on music, like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” find their way to other hands, other voices, other media. They motor through the ether via some unseen power, traveling through violent neighborhoods, into music pressed onto plastic, coded into 0’s and 1’s, compressed onto videotape, performed in small town theaters, shared over broadband, and held close in the broken hearts of those who need them.

 

About Robert Burke Warren

Robert Burke Warren (@RBWUncleRock) is a writer and musician. He's written for Texas Music, Brooklyn Parent, The Woodstock Times, Salon, the Good Men Project, the Bitter Southerner,Paste, The Rumpus, The Bitter Southerner, Chronogram, and the Da Capo anthology The Show I ‘ll Never Forget. His debut novel, Perfectly Broken, is out now from The Story Plant. robertburkewarren.com
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2 Responses to Bigger Than Jesus: The Gospel of U2, Leonard Cohen, and Sufjan Stevens

  1. What a remarkable journey through song, and spirit, loss, and love. I have been intrigued lately by the depth of sentiment, the longing portrayed in rock and roll, the hymn-like quality of so much of the really haunting music. This article helped fill in so many gaps in my understanding of the background behind these great musicians. I will definitely check out the final artist you reviewed. Thank you so much.

    • Robert Burke Warren says:

      Thank you so much, Lisa. So glad it went where it was intended. And yes, Sufjan is really worth your time. best – RBW

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