When Jesus Christ Superstar was released as a concert concept album in 1970, I was 12 years old. I first heard about it on a public TV special that featured most of a London concert performance and interviews with members of the cast like Ian Gillan, Murray Head, and Yvonne Elliman, as well as with the lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Weber who created what was being presented as the first “rock opera.”
I watched the TV special as if I was hearing a call.
Having grown up in a Catholic family with scripture stories an important part of my narrative, and at the same time very influenced by the events and music of the late 1960s, this revolutionary treatment of the story captured my young, earnest imagination. I liked the electricity in the music, the urgency and soul of Jesus and Judas’ voices, and I was totally seduced by Mary and Peter’s intimacy with Jesus.
So, the next day I searched through the local record store ads in the Kansas City newspaper for the album. And, it was there. It was also the first time I had encountered the price of a double LP record set. And, it was expensive.
I sat down with my parents, as if I was asking permission to buy a hunting rifle or birth control, and asked if I could spend more than my allowance on this record. Having watched the TV special, I could tell them more about the record than most kids (and probably most adults) could at that time: how it was a rock rendition of the final days of Jesus life, how it was told from the perspectives of Judas, Mary, Peter, Pilate and other characters, and how it ended with a haunting, atonal, surreal interpretation of Jesus’ death.
I had totally geeked-out on the TV interviews and knew all the details, even if it had sent me to the dictionary for the meaning of the word “atonal.”
My parents listened gently and asked a few questions. I don’t know if they were really concerned or were just responding to the serious manor in which I had approached them. I just remember mom asking, “well, it’s not blasphemous, is it?” And, of course, I immediately answered that it was not, even though I didn’t know for sure.
Once I had bought the album, I listed to it constantly, memorized every word, and even made it my Good Friday meditation for a couple of my junior high years. I would watch my family drive away to the afternoon church service, and then, home alone, I would start the album at exactly the right minute so that Jesus would die exactly at 3 o’clock. I was not just a geek, but a drama geek–an earnest, Catholic-school-boy, rock-drama geek.
To this day, the opening electric guitar cords still send a shiver down my spine.
A good Friday to you all. Enjoy whatever spring holiday you celebrate.
Listen: “Heaven on Their Minds,” Murray Head as Judas, original concert version, 1970.