Monday, May 16, 2011

David W. Stowe's "No Sympathy for the Devil"

David W. Stowe is professor of English and religious studies at Michigan State University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism, and reported the following:
My fingers practically trembling with suspense, I flip to page 99 hoping for a good page. I’m relieved to drop into a discussion of the complex psyche of Marvin Gaye as reflected in his breakthrough album, What’s Going On. The page turns out to be a pretty representative core sample of my book, which explores the interplay between musical, evangelical Christianity, and electoral politics during the watershed decade of the Seventies.

More specifically, No Sympathy for the Devil sets out to understand the unexpected irruption of religious themes in popular music around the turn of the decade, ranging from obscure Jesus folk songs that bubble up from the hippie-tinged Southern California Jesus Movement scene to “O Holy Day,” Jesus Christ Superstar and “Jesus is Just Alright.” I try to balance artists who were known chiefly among fellow born-agains—Larry Norman, Children of the Day, Barry McGuire, 2nd Chapter of Acts—to famous stars like Al Green, Johnny Cash, Earth, Wind & Fire, B.J. Thomas, and of course Bob Dylan.

Marvin Gaye is important to my narrative for a few reasons. He received a very strict Pentecostal upbringing, distanced himself from these religious roots while becoming a Motown star, but returned to spiritual, even Christian themes in his later work, especially What’s Going On. “Gaye went out of his way to acknowledge the divine presence in his album,” I write. “’God and I co-wrote that album together,’ he told Smokey Robinson. ‘It was a very divine project and God guided me all the way,’ he confided to a journalist. ‘I don’t even remember much about it. I was just an instrument. All the inspiration came from God Himself.’”

Page 99 goes on to unpack some of the specific songs on the album. “God Is Love” is essentially a short sermon on forgiveness. “Wholy Holy,” a song Aretha Franklin would cover on her hit gospel album Amazing Grace (released not long after What’s Going On), exhorts people to unite and spread love and salvation: “Jesus left a long time ago/Said he would return/He left us a book to believe/In it we got a lot to learn.”

The world-weary “Save the Children” leads into a major theme of my book: the end-times theology that ran rampant among the Jesus Freaks and their musical fellow-travelers. Gaye admits that his preacher father stressed the book of Revelations above all. “It’s the book I’ve studied most carefully,” he said. “It contains the one script we’ll never be able to undo—the final showdown, the day when it all comes down. With that kind of knowledge up in your face, it’s hard not to go crazy.”
In other words, What’s Going On was inspired by the same apocalyptic premonitions that ran through the Jesus Movement. “The world was coming down around me,” Gaye told journalist David Ritz. “Dr. King’s death confirmed my instincts about this country. America couldn’t deal with someone that good and just. Suddenly everyone was going nuts. The riots in Detroit hit close to home. We could smell the smoke and hear the gunfire on West Grand.” Gaye began identifying with the “white kids” counterculture. “They were smoking weed and dropping acid and I went along with them,” he said. “I loved the hippies. They were rebels, like me, and they did this country a world of good. They finally stopped a terribly unjust war. They looked at the status quo and called it bullshit and they were right. They had the right idea about the power of love. Who else was offering hope?”
Within two years Gaye would transform his public persona from quasi-religious prophet to the hedonist hipster of “Let’s Get It On,” “I Want You,” and “Sexual Healing.” The violent spiritual turbulence Gaye experienced throughout the final decade of his life was typical of many who participated in the evangelical revival my book investigates. It wasn’t easy being, or becoming, a Jesus Freak.
Learn more about No Sympathy for the Devil at the the University of North Carolina Press website, and visit the official No Sympathy for the Devil Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue