The Common Good
May-June 1996

Appetite for Destruction

by Richard Vernon | May-June 1996

Rock, religion, and redemption.

Rock music is less than 50 years old; Christianity is almost 2,000. And yet the two have been intimately connected since rock's inception, often with mutual misunderstanding and co-destructive results. The desire for redemption is, to coin a phrase, as old as sin. Steve Turner's Hungry for Heaven attempts an understanding of the links between faith and rock in the light of humankind's longing for salvation.

Originally a 12-part radio-show broadcast in 1980, the first incarnation of Hungry for Heaven appeared in 1988. Revised to include more up-to-date material generally, brand new material on rap and techno, and a completely revamped 11-page chapter on U2, the book was re-released in 1995.

A widely published rock critic, Turner's credentials are impressive. He is the author of several books including Conversations With Eric Clapton, U2: Rattle and Hum, Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Now, and A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song. Though obviously more comfortable with that which he knows (largely standard stadium-fodder and bland baby-boomer rock), the depth of Turner's knowledge is remarkable, as is the sensitivity of his spot-on analysis.

The text is peppered with choice quotations culled from his back catalog of interviews, and, when playing to his strengths, the results are brilliant. The rush and thrill of pop music is most evident, the ties to the spiritual are most appropriately drawn, and the "search for redemption" is most visceral and relevant in the historical chapters.

Turner's grasp of '50s music is constantly underpinned with fascinating nuggets: For example, Mahalia Jackson's songwriter was the preacher at one of several churches that the young, gospel-obsessive Elvis attended.

The '60s stuff (understandably) has more the feel of an eye-witness account, as the '70s punk stuff has the feel of a superbly researched piece of sociology. Even though he appears to like some punk music, Turner clearly has come to like it via his intellectual understanding, as well as his evident, genuine love for rock and roll.

The book's main weakness is its coverage of newer music, except that produced by older, more established artists. In the case of Van Morrison, this is all to the good, since his music and spirituality are inseparable and grow evermore intertwined. For a reader with more than just a passing interest in contemporary "pop" culture, however, Hungry for Heaven is somewhat frustrating.

Left-field critics should bear in mind that this book is aimed squarely at Turner's contemporaries, and that most Christians-and-rock books take an avowedly "anti" stance and are generally panic stricken that "our kids are listening to the devil's music." In stark contrast to such books (John Blanchard's appallingly racist, scare-mongering Pop Goes the Gospel epitomizes the genre), Turner's coverage of "rock and the occult" is calm, measured, and sane.

Nevertheless, "alternative" genres-indie pop, world music, grunge-and live issues-the correlation between feminist genres (Foxcore, Riot Grrrl) and the role of women in rock, and artistic control in corporate rock as well as small, self-funded record labels (D.C.'s Dischord Records)-should have received attention. Generally, Turner ignores the political, somehow separating it from his critique of the music's spiritual content, impact, and implications.

THE BOOK'S central theme-the essentially redemptive nature of rock and roll-is amply demonstrated. From its origin in black church music, to the exploration of Eastern mysticism in the '60s, to fascination with the occult in the '70s, to the perennially narcissistic escapism of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the music speaks to a dissatisfaction with the world and a desire for something, somewhere, better than the here and now.

Artists create to fill this void, perforce attempting to redress the balance between what they take and what they give back. The very act of creating music, even superficially destructive music, is of such a positive nature that within it resides something of the redemptive or, at least, the redeemable.

Righteousness is a key tenet of reggae, the only rock genre exclusively linked to a particular form of religious expression, Rastafarianism. The "Rivers of Babylon" chapter is one of the best pieces on the history of Rastas and reggae's distillation of their faith that I have read. The book is probably worth the cover price for those few pages alone...and I don't like reggae.

Turner knows his field and sticks to it. He writes with knowledge, enthusiasm, and lucidity. Granted, his field is mostly of interest to his co-boomers seeking affirmation of their lingering fondness for baldy long-hairs wielding guitar-bass-drums and stock portfolios. Hungry for Heaven provides these 40-somethings with good insights into the origins of their music, and dispels myths about more contemporary forms of rock (that punk and grunge are evil and unmusical, techno involves no talent and is impersonal, and reggae is just a pot-smoker's soundtrack). Steve Turner doesn't cover all the bases, and he doesn't try to.

There is room for a book dealing with these same issues but whose author is under 30 and familiar with the left field. Verdict? Hungry for Heaven is well-written, well-researched, and well worth it.

Review of Hungry for Heaven: Rock 'n' Role and the Search for Redemption. By Steve Turner. InterVarsity Press, 1995 (revised edition).

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