Priest, journalist explore rock ‘n’ roll and the desire for Christ
By Nissa LaPoint
Photo by David Hazen/DCR
Beyond the rebellious and self-indulgent culture surrounding rock ‘n’ roll, Irish journalist and author John Waters sees in the music a thirst for the meaning of life.
At a Crossroads Cultural Center event Jan. 21 in Denver, Waters shared his own experience and research, which led him to discover that behind the guitar riffs and lyrics of great rock ‘n’ roll icons is evidence of a deeper “cry for the infinite.”
The 1960s British band T. Rex and their song “Ride a White Swan” opened his eyes to his own thirst for the infinite.
“The greatest mystery about it for me was that it seemed to speak to me about me,” Waters said about the song to a crowd gathered at St. Cajetan’s Center on the Auraria Campus in Denver.
Crossroads, a national nonprofit established by members of the Catholic Communion and Liberation movement, founded in 1950s Italy by Msgr. Luigi Giussani, sponsored the free event. Waters, a journalist for the The Irish Times, and Father Charles Klamut, a chaplain at the University of Illinois’ St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, presented at the event.
The speakers argued that mass media and modern culture prohibits and makes it taboo to talk about the desires of the human heart and the meaning of life. Yet rock ‘n’ roll, albeit in a sometimes vulgar and depraved manner, is a culturally acceptable and camouflaged way to vocalize these inner questions written on the human heart.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is maybe our confused culture’s cry for the infinite,” Father Klamut said.
The genre that originated in the 1950s and 1960s became the way for young Americans to discuss taboo subjects and express real emotions, they said. But Catholic culture is often hostile to the genre sometimes called the “devil’s music,” including Pope Benedict XVI who once said rock ‘n’ roll appeals to baser emotions.
Father Klamut said he struggled for years as a seminarian and priest over his love for the music and playing the guitar. He came to see it as a legitimate art form that aided his exploration of Christ.
Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan greatly influenced him, he said.
“I found (Dylan) was a man who was onto some incredibly deep truths,” he said. “He was tapping into some mysteries of life and suggesting them in a way that was just thrilling to me.”
He also related to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born to Run”: I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul/someday girl I don’t know when we’re gonna get to that place/where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.
“This sadness and madness were in me,” Father Klamut said. “It was only much later that I recognized this madness he’s talking about is actually sanity. It’s a desire for more. He’s talking about, I think, what we would call the ‘appetite for the infinite.’”
Through his exhibition titled “Three Chords and a Longing for Truth: Rock ‘n’ Roll as a Seeking for the Infinite,” Waters said he wanted to affirm the notion that music is a medium that can lead to truth.
Artists in the exhibit, including Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, U2, Amy Winehouse, Patti Smith, Coldplay and Mumford and Sons, play in tune with the desire for seeking truth whether they realize it or not, he said.
Waters said such artists play a role in opening young minds to the question, which is what will satisfy the heart, and the answer, which is Christ.
“That’s the kind of need that rock ‘n’ roll answers for kids growing up, because it tells them the question is there and there is a question. That’s really vital,” Waters said.
Father Klamut agreed.
“We live in a culture, as you mentioned, which almost systemically censors the question,” the priest said. “It creates an atmosphere in which there’s embarrassment, there’s even shame over even feeling this desire for the infinite. So rock ‘n’ roll has to do it in its camouflaged way. I really think music is a privileged way of keeping alive the question.”
Kayla Korte, 24, of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center in Boulder, said she related to the speakers’ own experience with music but with classic rock and Latin chants.
“I feel so vindicated,” Korte said after the event.