We’re all feeling a bit cooped-up at the moment, with the Covid-19 lockdown in place, so time to get out on the open road with this riff rock classic, credited with the introduction of the term ‘heavy metal’.
I’m focusing on the song, really, but the context in the video is the 1969 film ‘Easy Rider’. In it, the characters are escaping with the proceeds of a drug smuggling enterprise. Just a bit of a spoiler – it doesn’t end well. So despite its countercultural portrayal of sex, drugs and er… some other drugs, the film is a kind of morality tale.
The song wasn’t written for the film however and I’m interested in the way it speaks to me about life and how to live it. The 60s were a time when people were trying to find new ways of living and ‘head out on the highway’ is obviously a metaphor for that. I’m involved with Christian friends who are trying to pioneer new ways of following Jesus and so the message of the song is relevant to that calling.
Among many religions, there is tradition of journey as a picture of life and that is the meaning behind the act of pilgrimage – deliberately going somewhere with other people for a spiritual purpose. The destination is not really the point of it, so much as the travelling together and the adventures on the way.
“I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder”. If that’s for you, I hope you enjoy this Bible reading about the prophet Elijah.
This is the title track from the 1967 Beatles album and film of the same name. The ‘plot’ was structured around a merry band of travellers and strange characters who sign up to a mystery coach trip one day – destination unknown. Over the journey they get to know each other better, have their minds opened and enjoy … adventures. The film gets a mention in the definitive hippy narrative The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which also tells the tale of a band of ‘Merry Pranksters’ travelling the country in a converted school bus and spreading their message of liberation as they understood it.
The link to the idea of Christian life as a pilgrim journey of mystery is too delicious to avoid. Over history, some branches of the church have been architecturally and socially austere, while others have been plush with colourful decor and ornament. Some groups focus on The Word and doctrine, while others find connection with the mystery of God in experience through art and symbolism.
So if that could work for you, this is the invitation – roll up for the Mystery Tour.
Wolfe, Tom, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (London: Vintage, 2018) p.211
All hail the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll! Sister Rosetta Tharpe developed her guitar playing style for use in gospel ministry and evangelism and had a recording and performing career from the 1930s to the 1960s. She is credited with influencing most of the early (male) rock ‘n’ roll stars . She also laid foundations for electric blues by using an overdriven, distorted guitar sound – here she is playing a very beefy-looking Gibson SG Custom.
‘Up Above My Head’ says that the ‘music’ of God is all around – if you can just listen out for it, you can sense God working and even speaking to you. But if you are having a hard time, it can feel like you are drowning and everything is getting on top of you. Many people in the Bible were all too familiar with that experience – as you can read in Psalm 69. Plenty of material for the Blues there.
I’m about to drown
Sinking deep in the mud
Getting swept under
by a mighty flood
So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, here is a principal piece of evidence that indeed “God gave rock ‘n’ roll to you”. I hope you can hear that ‘music in the air’.