In these raucous times, it’s hard to imagine the legacy of religion in rock’n’roll. But it remains a religion to people nudging 40 and 50 and even, omigod, 60. Today, you might hear punk rock lyrics like those in ‘Bad Religion’: “Have you lived the experience? Have you witnessed the plague? People making babies sometimes just to escape, in this land of competition the compassion is gone, yet we ignore the needy and we keep pushing on, we keep pushing on…”
That’s sincere, but too damn earnest. Classy is when you twist it with a bit of education, like Sting does in ‘St Augustine in Hell’: “The less I need the more I get, Make me chaste but not just yet” (the last bit is what St Augustine of Hippo really said, back in the 4th century). Earlier in the song, Sting sings, “Blessed St. Theresa, the whore of Babylon/Madonna and my mother all rolled into one.” And nobody brought out a fatwa on him, for Augustine was a bad Algerian boy who had a raunchy life before going all good at the nose and knees and writing Confessions.
Or take Marilyn Manson, the American musician (actually Brian Hugh Warner, born 1969), whose heart is in the right place and who actually seems full of outraged morality under the fire and brimstone he spews at official religion: “I went to god just to see, and I was looking at me. Saw heaven and hell were lies. When I’m god everyone dies.” That’s from the song ‘The Reflecting God’ in his 1996 album Antichrist Superstar.
But it’s The Rolling Stones who strike fear in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ with: “I’m a man of wealth and taste/I’ve been around for a long, long year/Stole many a man’s soul and faith/And I was ’round when Jesus Christ/Had his moment of doubt and pain…”
To understand the throwaway elegance and self-destructive high of the 20th century, we have to understand that it was witness to the Death of God after two world wars and the Holocaust. With the Partition, India, too, lived through the destruction of civilisation as she knew it. But she seems to have internalised it differently. She reinvented her relationship with God as the Bhakti Movement. A sweet surrender to reality, which was mindgamed as ‘surrender to God’.
As for the West, their old Judeo-Christian religions were made of sterner stuff. And so they give their God as bad a time as He gave them. I don’t mean ‘we’ Indians should get more violent than we already are. But I do know that our passive-aggressive scene with God is feeble and unsatisfying. Pull Him by the beard and ask why His two best creations, Lucifer and Man, disobeyed Him. Go on, ask. Or listen to rock.