When Music Meant Going to Hell
As a thirteen year-old in 1981, I was faced with the unpleasant realization that my favorite pastime of listening to rock music was leading me into the fiery depths of hell.
Word of the subliminal message craze had reached the masses, and as a soon-to-be confirmed Lutheran, this was serious shit. I’d already worn out the black Led Zeppelin T-shirt I’d purchased in sixth grade, my copy of Physical Graffiti wasn’t far behind, and now I was being told that they were devil worshipers. Just look at the symbolism on the intricate artwork of their third album, people told me. A goat’s head! Pentagrams! When I’d purchased the album I thought nothing of stars and goats. So what? Ah, but this seemingly innocuous artwork was code for something more sinister, to say nothing of the discovery that “Stairway To Heaven,” when played backwards, invited the listener to worship Satan, and – if interpreted a certain way – when played forward notified the listener of this very fact. (“In case you don’t know, the piper’s calling you to join him.”)
This was an unwanted addition to the growing list of concerns in my life. As if acne, divorced parents and a math teacher who entered my school straight from the Third Reich weren’t enough to worry about. Now I had to fear for my very soul.
I was a good, church-going-because-my-mom-makes-me kind of kid. Sure, I’d toilet papered a few (dozen) homes, hung out with a boy who shall remain nameless who vandalized a car, and shot off firecrackers on the front stoops of people’s homes from time to time, but deep down in my essence I was a pretty decent human being. (This would become more apparent a decade or so later – call it a long road to maturity.) So hearing that my favorite pastime of rock music was jeopardizing my cushy afterlife was extremely troubling.
I’d avoided the overtly satanic bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Their covers alone were enough to put the fear of God into me. But even comparatively airy fairy band favorites like Supertramp were under fire. While driving up to northern Wisconsin with my friend Todd, his brother’s girlfriend informed me that the song “Goodbye Stranger” included the line, “Say the devil is my savior/but I don’t pay no heed,” and she said this was a sign of devil worship.
I shouldn’t have paid any heed to the stupidity of that conclusion, but as a young teen who’d been taught about the very real existence of hell and who’d made the serious blunder of watching The Exorcist on network TV a year earlier, I absorbed this information with great trepidation. After all, if Satan could enter the body of Linda Blair, what was stopping him from entering me?
I soon learned about a lecture taking place at nearby Brookfield Assembly of God, where a pastor was to discuss rock and roll lyrics. I don’t know what the heck I expected. I guess I was secretly hoping he would say, “This is all nonsense. Don’t worry about it.” Instead, I sat through a litany of offenses committed by my favorite bands. I may have been in the clear with the hard core metal groups, but the pastor went on to attack many of my favorite artists, concluding with a long dissertation about the Pink Floyd song “Sheep,” in which an alternate version of Psalm 23 is recited. The pastor found particularly offensive the use of the word “bugger,” even reading aloud the word’s definition from the dictionary (but avoiding – if memory serves – the anal intercourse meaning).
I went home distraught, wondering how I was going to live my life without rock music, knowing full well I couldn’t, which only meant one thing: eternal damnation. My mom was in her familiar perch on the family room recliner with a bowl of popcorn in her lap, our dog Butch begging for a piece from the floor. Noticing the apparent look of dread on my face, she asked me about the evening. When I shared with her my concern, she responded with something along the lines of, “You’re a good kid. I don’t think what you listen to matters all that much.” This was from a woman who to this day is a God-fearing Lutheran.
Chalk one up for level-headed parenting.
I’ve learned since that lyrics are a slippery thing, often meaning little if anything at all, sometimes meaning much more than they would suggest. Just yesterday I listened to the song “Dance Hall Days” by Wang Chung, reading the lyrics to the song for the first time ever, and was floored to learn that the line isn’t “We were cool on Christ” as one of my Christian friends told me back in high school, but rather, “We were cool on craze.”
Hey, whether it’s craze or Christ, I’m cool with all of it. Whatever. You aren’t the words you listen to, and in my case, I’m not even the words I sing, as I’m now a Jew who in my classic rock band sometimes has to sing, “Jesus Is Just Alright” from The Doobie Brothers.
As Rick Davies of Supertramp sang, “I don’t pay no heed.”