Biblical Imagery in the Songs of Creative Infidels

Why do Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Paul Kelly and many others, who are either non-practising Christians or Jews and in some cases declared atheists, make use of so much Judeo-Christian imagery in their songwriting?

I’m not talking about real believers. When practising Christians and Jews write songs, they are testifying. I’m talking about the folks that do not go to church or synagogue and you might say do not practise exactly what they preach.

The use of religious metaphor is a handy way to try on the persona of the prophet. Everyone likes to believe every now and then that they are the chosen one—an extension of the first/only child syndrome. The use of religious text and myth is also an effective way to create the illusion of resonance. For instance:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
to fetch a pail of water

doesn’t sound as deep as

Joseph Jack and Mary Jill
goeth up Golgotha Hill
to fetch a pail
of blood and nail … 

A useful reason for infidel songsmiths to turn to the Bible for imagery is for simple shock value: getting people’s attention by a relatively risk-free flirting with the sacrilegious. I say risk-free because Kinky Friedman’s song “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” is unlikely to raise death threats from either Jews or Christians, whereas a truly controversial and dangerous song title like, say, “They Ain’t Making Paedophiles Like Mohammed Anymore”, would earn you half a dozen fatwas.

Writers don’t mess with the Koran. Yet. But there was a time when Greeks, Romans, Christians and Jews could be stoned to death for taking the name of God in vain, and heresy is still alive and well in fundamentalist Islamic culture. The name of God may change but the fanatics stay the same.

I’m going to illustrate some of the religious imagery of Dylan, Cave, Cohen and Kelly and look at a little of their backgrounds. I’ll just reference fragments of the songs, as you can find most of the full versions on the internet.

Paul Kelly

“I have written a lot of songs that come straight from the Bible. I don’t believe in God but I’m interested in why so many people do.” Paul Kelly was born in Adelaide in 1955. He attended a Christian Brothers school and was an altar boy but stopped going to Mass when he left school in 1971. “I would call myself Catholic,” he says, “but I don’t believe in God.”

Kelly has allegedly said that the Christian Brothers had a three-pronged philosophy—religion, academic aptitude and sport—and that he was adept at sport, good academically and even had a religious face for a while.

That face may be gone now but the mask remains. Here are a few illustrative fragments from some of the songs of faith he has written:

Though I speak in tongues of angels
And in many tongues of men
Though prophecy may sing through me
Without love I’m nothing.
                        (“Love Is the Law”)

She’s got a smile that shames the sun
Glory be to God!
Undoes her buttons one by one
Glory be to God!
                        (“Glory Be to God”)  

I still cry for baby Jesus
and I still pray when I’m alone
and when I’m lost he’ll come to find me
because he died to save my soul.
(“I Still Pray”, co-written with Kasey Chambers)  

Twelve angels from the north
Twelve angels from the east
Twelve angels from the south
Twelve angels from the west
Coming for to carry me away.
                        (“Forty-Eight Angels”)  

Seven golden candles flaming
bring forth the Son of Man
in his mouth a two-edged sword,
seven stars shining in his right hand
the beast has eyes before him,
the beast has eyes behind,
those not with me are against me,
they’re surely gonna feel my holy fire,
God told me to
to thine own self be true
God told me to.
                        (“God Told Me To”)

Even the title of Kelly’s most recent album, Stolen Apples, makes reference to Adam and Eve. The very premise that stolen apples taste the sweetest is 100 per cent bona fide Catholic thinking. They presumably taste sweeter because they are verboten, not yours, keep-off-the-grass. So by taking them, you enjoy not only the guilty pleasure of eating someone else’s apple, but also the sinful pleasure of knowing you’re being naughty.

Now anyone who has ever raised an apple tree knows that the sweetest apples aren’t the stolen ones but in fact the ones that are grown properly. When I lived in Maui, I pinched a lot of fruit from other people’s orchards that tasted like cardboard. The best papaya I ever ate was one I grew myself. I used to watch it like a hawk, too, lest some other choirboy try to steal it.

Leonard Cohen

“I love Christ. I see Christianity as the world historic mission of certain ideas that the Jews developed. Christianity is a mighty movement, and that is the way those ideas penetrated the world. Christianity is the missionary arm of Judaism. As Maimonides said, ‘We’re all working for the world to come.’”

Christianity is the missionary arm of Judaism! Now there’s an original thought. I suspect that Leonard Cohen, like so many other people who use Jesus to mouth Old Testament values, is writing his own personal Frankenscripture. His Prince of Peace and Non-violence obviously saw no conflict playing for the Israeli troops of Ariel Sharon for two weeks during the build-up to the Yom Kippur War.

Cohen was born in 1934 to a middle-class Jewish family of Polish-Lithuanian ancestry in Montreal. His father died when he was nine years old. Like many other Jews named Cohen, his family made a proud claim of descent from the Kohanim: “I had a very Messianic childhood. I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest.” Kurt Cobain famously sang, “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally.”

One woman friend in New York once said Cohen was “a very complicated man. Complicated in a very grown-up way. I mean, he makes Dylan seem childish.”

I hold this image of Leonard Cohen from an interview I read recently: lighting up a fresh cigarette before every sentence up at his Zen monastery retreat. A seventy-seven-year-old man seeking inner balance yet he still chain-smokes. Isn’t his Zen master supposed to hit him with the stick when he does this? What about starting with the obvious things such as tobacco addiction and then working your way up to the Monkey Lotus Posture?

God is alive; magic is afoot
God is alive; magic is afoot
God is afoot; magic is alive
Alive is afoot … magic never died …
                        (“God is Alive, Magic is Afoot”)

The complete and quite long version of this is my favourite Cohen piece, taken from his book Beautiful Losers. But placing magic and God in the same sentence would once have earned Cohen a Burn-at-the-Stake Certificate.

Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him

“Suzanne” was for many of us our introduction to the writing of Leonard Cohen.

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord …
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name …
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah …

I know that I’m forgiven,
but I don’t know how I know.
                        (“That Don’t Make It Junk”) 

Here is your cross, your nails and your hill;
and here is your love, that lists where it will.
                        (“Here It Is”) 

And I did forget my holy song:
and I had no strength in Babylon.
                        (“By the Rivers Dark”) 

For the Christ who has not risen,
from the caverns of the heart
for the innermost decision,
that we cannot but obey
for what’s left of our religion,
I lift my voice and pray …
                        (“The Land of Plenty”)

Nick Cave

When asked if he had any interest in other religions, or in a broader, non-religious spirituality, Nick Cave replied: “Oh, a passing, sceptical kind of interest. I’m a hammer-and-nails kind of guy.” Nick Cave was born in Victoria in 1957. He was raised as an Anglican and sang in the boys’ choir at Wangaratta Cathedral. Later in his education he sang in the school choir at Caulfield Grammar in Melbourne.

Reviewing Cave’s book And the Ass Saw the Angel in Modern Word, L.J. Lindhurst wrote:

Nick Cave enjoys a love-hate relationship with a bona fide, fire-and-brimstone Old Testament God; in his music, he praises God, yet twists like a broken marionette under God’s wrath. Nick Cave’s God is not ambivalent, nor is he kind. This is a God who is waiting around the corner to trip you, who delights in his cruel plan, and whose meddling with justice and revenge cannot be fathomed by a mere mortal man.

I still remember the first time I heard “Big Jesus Trash Can” off the first Birthday Party album. The engineer that produced the record stuck contact microphones onto pieces of roofing tin and placed them in front of the speakers of the guitar amps for more grunt. The tortured sound just jumped off that disc.

Big-Jesus soul-mates Trash-Can
pumped me fulla Trash at least it smelt like Trash
wears a suit of Gold (got greasy hair)
but God gave me sex appeal
he drives a trash can
he’s comin’ to my town.
                        (“Big Jesus Trash Can”)

Nick Cave probably has more biblical references per square inch than any other non-practising-Christian writer out there. Here are just a few:

How Christ was born into a manger
And like some ragged stranger
Died upon the cross
And might I say it seems so fitting in its way
He was a carpenter by trade
Or at least that’s what I’m told
(“The Mercy Seat”, that is, the electric chair) 

You’ll see him in your nightmares, you’ll see him in    your dreams
He’ll appear out of nowhere but he ain’t what he seems
You’ll see him in your head, on the TV screen
And hey buddy, I’m warning you to turn it off
He’s a ghost, he’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a guru
You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by his Red Right Hand.
                        (“Red Right Hand”) 

Farmer Emmerich went into his barn
And found a cow suckling a serpent
And a brown ape clanking a heavy chain
Said Farmer Emmerich to the ape
Never ask me to come into this barn again.
                        (“Fable of the Brown Ape”)  

Bob Dylan

In an interview with Spin magazine in 1985, Bob Dylan said:

I went to Bible school at an extension of this church out in the Valley in Reseda, California. It was affiliated with the church, but I’m not a believer in that born-again type thing … it’s the people who live under tyranny and oppression, the plain, simple people, that count, like the multitude of sheep. They’ll see that God is coming. Somebody representing Him will be on the scene. Not some crackpot lawyer or politician with the mark of the beast, but somebody who makes them feel holy … people are going to be running to find out about God, and who are they going to run to? They’re gonna run to the Jews, ’cause the Jews wrote the book, and you know what? The Jews ain’t gonna know. They’re too busy in the fur business and in the pawnshops and in sending their kids to some atheist school. They’re too busy doing all that stuff to know. People who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now as if he was here. That’s my idea of it, anyway … it’s all there in black and white, the written and unwritten word. I don’t have to defend this. The scriptures back me up. I didn’t ask to know this stuff. It just came to me at different times from experiences throughout my life.

Here are a few examples from Father Bob’s extensive canon:

He’s the property of Jesus, resent him to the bone
you got something better, you’ve got a heart of stone.
                        (“Property of Jesus”) 

Ye shall be changed, ye shall be changed
In a twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet blows
The dead will arise and burst out of your clothes
And ye shall be changed.
                        (“Ye Shall Be Changed”) 

Of every earthly plan that be known to man, he is unconcerned,
he’s got plans of his own to set up his throne, when he returns.
                        (“When He Returns”) 

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
you’re gonna have to serve somebody,
well, it may be the devil or it may be the lord
but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
                        (“Gotta Serve Somebody”) 

God knows there’s a purpose, God knows there’s a chance,
God knows you can rise above the darkest hour of any circumstance.
                        (“God Knows”) 

Father of grain, father of wheat, father of cold and father of heat,
Father of air and father of trees, who dwells in our hearts and our memories,
Father of minutes, father of days, father of whom we most solemnly praise.
                        (“Father of Night”) 

Every day your memory goes dimmer,
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before.
I’ve been walkin’ through the middle of nowhere,
Tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door.
                        (“Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”)

Someone asked me last week, “Joe, do you believe in God?” Is that a multiple choice? It’s like asking somebody, “Do you believe in Sky?”

Of course, I believe in Sky—and I believe in God. But belief is really the wrong word here. Perceive is more accurate. Each of us perceives spirituality differently. Even Jews and Christians. John Stoltenberg once said that there are as many different Bibles as people. We each pick and choose our personal canon and ignore the rest. The King James Version alone had over 100,000 translation errors. Some profound ones, too: “The Kingdom of God is within you”, for example, should have been rendered: “The Kingdom of God is among you”—an emphasis on community over self-discovery.

Every astronomer maps out a different patch of the infinite cosmos. There is no once-and-for-all definitive Book of Sky. Or final instalment of the Book of God. Nor will there ever be. Today’s myths were yesterday’s religions. But don’t knock myth. Myths are the true indestructible library of the spirit.

Jean Cocteau said, in the notes to his film Orpheus:

Myth is like a key that opens even the most unsympathetic soul to writing. I have always preferred myth to history because history consists of truths which in the end turn into lies, while myth consists of lies which finally turn into truths.

Our major significant religious paradigm is grafted deep into our psyche during our early childhood years, depending on whatever belief system our parents and teachers taught us. Kids from Catholic families, who go to Catholic churches and attend Catholic schools, receive a stainless steel Catholic cookie-cutter template. Similarly with Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Scientologists. This template is as much a part of us as our sex or the colour of our skin. Of course, as we grow into independent thinkers, and develop away from herd mentality, we can train ourselves not to judge people by skin colour, sexual preferences or religious beliefs. We can, in fact, change ourselves completely. But our original religious etching always stays in place. We never forget our first Spiritual Lover. And like an archaeological dig, higher education is stacked layer upon layer, over time, but the echo of the church bell, the cantor or the chanting imam can always be heard.

Joe Dolce is presently recording an album of songs that were all first published as poems in Quadrant: thirteen of his own, and one each by Les Murray and Andrew Lansdown.

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