Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
Getting to interview somebody like Craig Finn should be a journalist’s dream gig. The Hold Steady frontman is hyper-literate and bookish and effortlessly funny. He just released his first solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes, and it’s exactly as good (maybe a little better) as the frothing-at-the-mouth critics say it is. There’s just one small problem. The album is also very, very religious. And for some reason, this makes me anxious.
“So … ” I tell Finn, trying to find a way to broach the subject. “There are an awful lot of Jesus shout-outs on this record.”
Finn laughs, which I take as a good sign. Maybe we’re on same page. But then he waits for me to ask an actual question. And that’s when I realize I’m in over my head. If I was talking to the Pope, this would be easy. “So you seriously believe in original sin? That’s fucked up, dude.” But with Finn, it’s like finding out that a close friend thinks he had stigmata once. How do you ask the things you want to ask without being a dick?
So I tell him a story. I tell him how, just a few days ago, I was driving through Burbank in a rented car, singing along to his record with all the windows open. I came to a stoplight somewhere in the middle of “New Friend Jesus,” and while I’m waiting for the light to change, I’m singing at the top of my lungs, “Got a new friend and my new friend’s name is Jesus!” And I realize, the guy in the next car is staring at me. Not with derision or anger. It’s bemusement. It’s the smile you give to a puppy who loses his footing on a newly-mopped kitchen floor. He thinks I’m adorable. Because he’s pretty sure he just caught me jamming out to Christian rock.
“And you don’t want people thinking you listen to Christian rock?” Finn asks.
“Well no, because I’m not listening to Christian rock,” I protest. “You don’t think it’s Christian rock, do you?
“I wouldn’t call it that, no.”
“How do I explain to people who want to preemptively judge me for liking ‘New Friend Jesus’ that it’s not Christian rock? I mean, it’s got funny lyrics, but it’s not necessarily a jokey song, right? It’s not something you’d find on a Dr. Demento record.”
“No, not at all,” Finn agrees.
“But without fail, songs with earnest expressions of religious conviction, particularly about Jesus Christ, make me cringe like I just caught my parents dry-humping.”
“You’re being serious about Jesus, or at least the characters in the song are. Is it satire? Or cultural commentary? Or something else I’m not thinking of? How is it not an Amy Grant song?”
Finn gives me a perfectly intelligent and well thought-out response. (“I’ve always been attracted to the human elements of Jesus,” he says, in part. “Not the superpowers but the actual human part.”) The problem is, I’m asking the wrong questions. I’m not really interested in his interpretation of “New Friend Jesus” or any other song on the album. I don’t know that it matters whether he was being ironic when he wrote lines like “Jesus is a judge and he’s kind and he’s just/Forgives us for our avarice and lust.” The bigger question, at least for me, is why his religious songs make me so uncomfortable?
The most obvious explanation is that I’m not religious myself, so all that spiritual voodoo just gives me the heebie jeebies. But I’m not gay and I can listen to David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” or Pete Townshend’s “Rough Boys” without getting creeped out. I can listen to the most violent, mean-spirited hip-hop songs about killing people for sport and still be like, “Crank that shit up!” But without fail, songs with earnest expressions of religious conviction, particularly about Jesus Christ, make me cringe like I just caught my parents dry-humping.
“I was talking to a guy over in England,” Finn tells me. “And he suggested that maybe people are able to swallow my Jesus stuff because I’m also talking about people throwing up and doing drugs and waking up in the gutter.”
There’s probably some truth to that. Finn keeps the religious stuff diluted. It’s not front and center, like Bob Dylan in his Born Again phase, but just another part of the lyrical landscape, like all the rest of Dylan’s songs. Still, every time Jesus shows up in one of Finn’s songs, it’s like a 40-year-old guy showing up at a college keg party. I’ve been to many Hold Steady shows, and I’ve seen it happen every time they play a song like “First Night.” When Finn is shouting about booze and shady drug deals, the crowd shouts along with every verse like it’s written on stone tablets. But when it takes a left turn into spiritual territory — “She cried and she told us about Jesus” — the shouts get suddenly muffled. The pumping fists become nervous glances at their shoes or fumbling with cellphones.
Growing up, Finn tells me, the only music he listened to that was overtly religious was probably the Violent Femmes. “Especially their second album, Hallowed Ground,” he says. “Gordon Gano was someone who sang about religion where it didn’t feel forced. I was like ‘Hey, this guy’s really cool and a great songwriter.’ I couldn’t always get what his take on Jesus was. One song he’s talking about Jesus walking on the water and the next it’s, you know…”
“Appalachian babies being thrown down wells.”
“Exactly, yeah. It’s either ‘let’s build an Ark’ or-”
“I want to bang black chicks!”
“He never really stayed on message. But even with all the weirdness, I think there was a sincerity. That’s what fascinated me about Gano. He seemed to have a loving relationship with Jesus.”
It’s a little jarring to hear that, because for most of my life I’ve thought the exact opposite about Gordon Gano and Jesus. Granted, prior to talking to Finn, the only explanation I’d been offered about the Violent Femmes’ relationship with religion came from teenage boys at my high school. “A guy who makes songs about wanting just one fuck does not also make unironic songs about Jesus,” they snickered as we passed around a joint in the parking lot. It made sense at the time, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that maybe Craig Finn has more insight into the creative thought process of an indie rock icon writing religious lyrics than teenagers from the south suburbs of Chicago buzzed on skunk weed. And now, of course, I’m wondering if all the Jesus music I’ve enjoyed over the years because I assumed it was ironic was actually recorded with tongues nowhere near cheeks. Tom Waits’ “Jesus Gonna Be Here,” the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus,” Wilco’s “Jesus Etc,” it’s all up in the air now. And that makes me more uncomfortable than a celibate at a swingers’ club.
I’m starting to think there might be something medically wrong with me. I call Jonathan Abramowitz, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and ask if there’s a clinical phobia that might explain my irrational fear. Why do non-sarcastic musical odes to Jesus make me so goddamn nervous?
“I’m not so sure nervous is the right word,” Abramowitz tells me. “Nervous would mean you’re afraid of it, like it’s going to do something to you. It sounds more like you’re just annoyed by it.”
“No, it’s not that,” I say. “I just feel like it’s … judging me.”
“Oh, okay, that’s interesting,” he says, his voice rising. “It could be a form of OCD.” He tells me about scrupulosity, a pathological fear of sin where you “purposely avoid any kind of religious stimulus that might remind you of your moral failures.” It’s similar, he says, to the closeted gay man who avoids showering with other men because it might stir up unwanted, unpleasant feelings. “They’re like, ‘I need to make sure I’m still attracted to women,’” he says. “‘I’m not going anywhere where I might see an attractive guy and get an erection.’”
“So you’re saying maybe I consciously avoid these types of songs because I’m afraid of getting an erection for Jesus?”
He laughs. “Figuratively, sure.”
I guess it makes sense. I wouldn’t be the first guy to have secret boners for Christ. But it seems unlikely, given my almost nonexistent history with religion. Growing up, I barely went to church, even during gift-giving holidays. I know the Lord’s Prayer and a few Christmas carols and that’s about it. In our house, we didn’t even say grace before meals. But sure, maybe a fear of a wrathful God slipped in somehow, and it’s wedged deep in my subconscious, waiting to be dislodged by a perfectly phrased pro-Jesus lyric.
I call my childhood friend Matt, who’s fresh out of seminary and recently employed by a liberal-leaning church in Chicago (which he’d rather I not mention by name).
“You’re being an idiot,” he scolds me. “It’s not you. Songs about Jesus are embarrassing for everyone. You think I listen to that kind of music when I’m not at work?”
He reminds me of a time, just a few years ago, when he and I went to a Mountain Goats show together. John Darnielle had just released an album of songs based on bible verses. And even prior to that, Darnielle’s catalog was filled with songs inspired by or directly referencing bible stories and characters. But what, Matt asked, was the one tune that everybody at any Mountain Goats show, regardless of their religious affiliation, would invariably sing along with? “Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” Specifically, the “Hail, Satan” part.
“I’ll sing it every time,” Matt confesses. “And I don’t feel bad about it. It doesn’t make me a Satanist or a bad person. It’s just cool to shout ‘hail, Satan’ and make rock horns.”
I ask if he’s heard Clear Heart Full Eyes. He has, he says, and he fucking loves it. (I’m not adding the “fucking” part for dramatic effect. The expletive is entirely his. “I fucking love Craig Finn” are his exact words.) He spends the next ten minutes explaining how Finn’s created a dark, beautiful universe of misfits, con-men, and losers. “Religion’s just another drug to them,” he tells me excitedly. “It’s not an expression of faith, it’s an expression of desperation. They pray the same way somebody takes a hit from a pipe.”
“So let’s say I’m at a red light in Burbank,” I say to Matt. “And the guy in the next car catches me singing along to ‘New Friend Jesus,’ and he looks at me condescendingly, like he’s got me and my world view all figured out. How do I let him know, ‘It’s more complicated than you think? I’m not some vapid, two-dimensional caricature who needs Jesus sing-a-longs to get through his day?’”
There’s a long silence on the other end of the phone. “You just tell him to go fuck himself,” Matt finally shouts back. “Give him the finger and keep singing. What the hell is your problem? Why the fuck do you care what he thinks?”
It’s moments like this that me think I should go to church more often.