Spirit in the Sky

Somewhere in the late 1960’s, hippie ‘Jesus freaks’ had the epiphany that Christ had been a hippie just like them, and the counterculture re-embraced Christianity. What that meant in the long-term spiritual life of Western civilization, I don’t know, but it did create a phenomenon of “Christian pop culture” with secular-friendly hits like Jesus Christ Superstar, obviously, and Spirit in the Sky, written and performed by the very Jewish Norman Greenbaum. Greenbaum wasn’t interested in harnessing the fad for hippie Jesus stuff, he just thought it would be fun to write his own interpretation of a gospel song. His Spirit in the Sky comes out sounding like something an early Jethro Tull might have done if they didn’t hate the church, and it appealed to both fans of psychedelic music who wouldn’t otherwise touch Jesus, and fans of Jesus who wouldn’t otherwise listen to rock music. In other words, a huge crossover hit. Meanwhile, the warm and fuzzy spirituality of the hippie generation was one of the things that spurred the reactionary contempt of the punk generation. All that peace and love and rope sandals shit didn’t speak to the kids with the safety pins in their noses; they felt that peace and love were an idealistic lie, spirituality was an opiate for people who couldn’t get their hands on real heroin, and sandals left one vulnerable to stomping. Which is why, in the cynical 80’s, the time was right for Spirit in the Sky to be revived by one of punk rock’s most iconoclastic movers, Nina Hagen. Hagen is known for having an overcooked minestrone of spiritual beliefs, picked from all corners of world history and brewed together with hair bleach and LSD. She can pick bits of wisdom from Christianity as happily as from Hinduism or the sex cult down the street, but she also became a punk because she didn’t fit into any of the boxes offered by organized religion. Her Spirit in the Sky is both a fuck-off to people who think they can wins God’s favor by sitting in a pew on Sundays, and – somehow – a wholly sincere statement of the singer’s faith in her own redemption. That was the central irony of a hit Christian rock song in the first place, though.

The Sphinx

If you’ve grown up with Nico as a strong female role model, you really never even had a chance of turning out normal. Nico herself, of course, never had a chance of turning out normal, not with the life she was given. Her status as any kind of a role model may be undercut by her heroin addiction, her shittiness towards others, her nonexistent mothering skills and her overall not-nice personality, but it does rest on one thing: her refusal to maintain the pretense of being a normal person locked in a carapace of outer beauty. Plenty of fucked-up people glide through life doing just that; pulling their exterior into a visually presentable form is enough to keep their inner turmoil from overwhelming their lives. The sheer effort of it must be maddening. It’s much braver, if less materially rewarding, to allow your outside to match your interior life. Like Nico, who looked like a ghoul in her later years because she had always been a ghoul deep down inside.

Speechless

Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda may have disappointed their fans when they broke up Cibo Matto, but we can be grateful for their legacy, and how much the pop music landscape owes to them. They can both rest feeling very satisfied that they’ve lived to see the things that made them a novelty in the 90’s become commonplace. Now we can proudly say that weird, multicultural, homemade-sounding music made by eccentric young women is an entire genre all its own. In 1999, however, Cibo Matto were a genre of one. They overturned the tropes of what two Japanese-American girls were expected act and sound like, used computer editing to alter their vocals and create collage-like sound effects, wrote about weird things that no one else was writing about, picked like magpies from any genre they liked, made a concept album about their favorite foods, earned the personal mentorship of Yoko Ono, wrote a concept album about a haunted hotel, broke up and got back together, went on to found other groundbreaking projects like Gorillaz, and just generally made a career out of being too weird to pin down. Truly, one of those cult bands that made a huge ripple just by doing their own thing for a handful of supporters.

Smack Jack

Nina Hagen was the soundtrack of my entire 9th grade year. Her weirdness did a lot to transport me out of the petty misery of high school. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t have access to the visuals – it might have ruined me for real life even more than it did. Nina looks damn good as a man though, and her face shows the same flexible range as her voice. This kind of aesthetic excess belies Nina’s D.A.R.E.- approved message. “Smack ist Dreck” indeed, but clearly people don’t become like this by prudishly saying no to things. Apparently the song was written by Nina Hagen’s babydaddy, who was himself a heroin addict and eventually died of AIDS, so there’s an element of tragic irony at play. The real message impressionable little minds are likely to absorb is that being a wildly weird and interesting person requires the rejection of conventional mores of behavior aka doing dumb shit that might put you in the ground but at least you died interesting.

Sleeping Beauty

“This song is about reincarnation, but most people think it’s about cosmetic surgery” says Lena Lovich. That’s a big leap in meaning and philosophy, but I can see how most people take words at face value. It’s nice to see Lovitch still up there doing it, shaking her crazy old lady bones. She doesn’t seem like one to espouse cosmetic correction of any kind. She seems like more the kind to tell everyone to let their freak flag fly. Weirdo types like Lena Lovich really blossom with age, don’t they? Especially women, who delight in outliving expectations of prettiness and acceptable behavior. It’s admirable to see the creativity of old ladies who’ve embraced the role of the crazy spinster aunt or witch in the hut in the woods. It’s so much less of a battle after you’re through being young and attractive.

Sister Ray

This is the jam you put on at parties and/or work as a test to find out who your real friends are. (It’s a trick. You have no real friends.) The Velvet Underground, leaning heavily on their underground-ness, used long violently loud jam sessions like this one to alienate as much of their audience as they could before getting booted out of whatever venue they were playing. It was certainly the first time in the realm of rock music that topics like mainlining drugs and sucking on a ding-dong were topics of conversation, at least in as blunt a manner. No euphemisms or clever entendres for Lou Reed, he calls it sucking dick for heroin in plain English. The Velvets did end up with the distinction that all of the fans they did acquire, all went on to become degenerate drug fiends and sex perverts in their own right. And so the moral corruption of social fibers, or whatever.

A Sinful Life

Timbuk 3 was so much a part of the soundtrack of my life growing up that it was a shocking letdown to find that they’re not actually well known or wildly popular. I thought everyone listened to this band! I grew up with their cassette tapes clacking around in the glove compartment, but I guess that was just my extended family and literally no one else. Well, obviously, I absorbed their music and appreciated their worldview. I love music with both weight and humor, and I love the balance the Timbuk 3 strikes with their social commentary – still relevant! – and general mistrust of major institutions like national holidays and organized religion, paired with a sweet romanticism and faith in humanity. The tattered heart may redeem itself in the arms of another tattered heart, and the rest of the world can continue its journey down to hell.