In the late Sixties, visceral, unpretentious old rock music began grappling with the forms and narrative ambitions of opera. Folk art aimed high. High art went slumming. Everyone got all mixed up. Even Hoyt Axton has a concept album about, as far as I can tell, Chinese communism. But Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar might be the grandest expression of pop-culture values that pop culture has ever produced.
It wasn’t the first rock opera. Tommy preceded, and there are other claimants as well. But JCS might have been the first to come at it from the opera side. Webber studied at the Royal College of Music, not at the duck-walking feet of Chuck Berry with Mick and Keith.
To liken the life and struggle of Jesus to the living myth of the modern superstar was a pure pop-culture ejaculation. Webber and Rice weren’t timid. They could have moved from their first collaboration, the tepid but often pretty Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, to another myth with a distinctly modern, celebrity-culture resonance. Orpheus comes to mind. But no, they went right for the big JC. It was risky, but in the aftermath of Vatican II, not that risky.
Around the same time, the revelations of comparative mythology and Jungian symbolism were finally reaching popular consciousness, providing us plain folk with some heroic alternatives to the familial and sexual microfocus of Freudian self-understanding. Freud had been in the drinking water for so long that we were all unwitting Freudians — even those who couldn’t tell Sigmund from a sea monster.
But here, in the mind-blowing psychedelic age, that Joseph Campbell idea — that all-stories-are-one-story-and-it’s-your-story — exposed all myths, even the most active and sacred ones, to free culture play and the applications of personal psychology. Don’t tell me about your mother, tell me about this sea monster.
Jesus and superstars enjoy an implicit simpatico. They straddle the worlds and struggle to reconcile their ordinary humanity and their divinity. In 1970, the same year that Jesus Christ Superstar came out on vinyl, with Deep Purple’s Ian Gillian simply slaying the title role, one of our most tortured superstars (the one who had declared himself “bigger than Jesus”) had famously sung, “Who in the world do you think you are? A superstar? Well, right you are!”
So superstars are Everyman, but an Everyman who has gone to a place mortals probably shouldn’t go, and from which there is no easy return or revocation. In the opera, Jesus has his eloquent “Why me?” and “I want out” moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, but the savior/superstar bargain, kinda like the devil’s, has no out clause.
Tim Rice’s Judas implores Jesus to accept his purpose as political, historical and revolutionary, not as divine. Don’t believe the hype, he says, in so many words. You are Guevara, not God. And like Guevara, Jesus is bound for tee-shirts and bumper stickers and general commodification. Thus enters another late-stage counterculture theme: revolutionary co-optation, a pop culture process by which the genuinely transgressive becomes product.
JCS rocks but is not quite rock, exactly. It’s rock as it has always occurred to the ears of musical theater folk: badass fuzzed riffage and big square beats and, most of all, screams! An orgy of rock screams! Everybody gets to scream in this one. The first one comes halfway through the preamble of the opening song, Judas’ epic “Heaven on Their Minds,” and the very first word screamed (it will always be Murray Head for me) in this opera of ecstatic screaming is “Jesus!” Game on.