“What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening!”
About the time the Original Cast album of Jesus Christ Superstar was released in 1970, I was moving from the small farming community of Lebanon, Indiana to Evansville, the third or fourth largest city in Indiana. Little did I know the opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber would be the soundtrack for much of my teenage life and become the impetus for a spiritual journey that has lasted for decades.
The life we lived in Lebanon was idyllic; small town USA. Dad was the minister for the First Baptist Church, a community leader, incredibly respected. In the minds and hearts of many he was right up there with The Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and the Pope. I whine a lot about being a PK (preacher’s kid), but truth be told, I was extremely proud to be my father’s son (and still am!).
I never saw myself as one of the popular kids, but, I did have a lot of friends. We had grown up together either at Central Elementary, at First Baptist Church or both. We played Little League baseball together, we played sandlot ball together, we were in Scouts together; Jeff, Tim, Randy, David, Jeff (Jeff was a very popular name), Charlie, Lisa, Betsy, Jill, Susan…and, many, many more.
In the spring of 1970, we were promoted out of the sixth and into the seventh grade…Junior High School! Filled with pride, excitement and just a touch of anxiety! We said our goodbyes and went on summer break and vacations vowing to that we would all stay close friends in the much larger Junior High.
It was during this summer of 1970, our parents announced we were moving to Evansville. God was calling dad to a new congregation, in a much larger city, away from all our friends, away from the life we knew. But, how could you argue with God’s call? We were going to move in October. For me, this meant six weeks at the Lebanon Junior High School, a chance to say goodbye to all my friends.
For me, this meant a return to elementary school. Yes, Evansville schools at the time were K through 8, and High School was 9 through 12. So, after achieving one of life’s greatest rewards of going to Junior High, I would be back in elementary school. Devastated does not begin to describe it.
For me, this meant having to try out for the baseball team, instead of “graduating” from Little League to American Legion ball where all the coaches knew me and my abilities. It meant, not being good enough to be “drafted” for the league and having to play in an instructional league that was one step above sandlot.
For me, this meant joining a Scout troop with twenty kids I did not know. Twenty kids who did not take scouting as seriously as my friends and I had. They didn’t wear a proper uniform or even try to progress through the ranks. Me, in my fully pressed and immaculate uniform, with my sash filled with merit badges, and my rank of Life Scout stuck out like a new kid never wants to do. Heck, most these kids even smoked on camping trips (OK, I was a little naive and sheltered).
The first day in my new school, my new elementary school came. The principal took me to my new home room. 25 kids who had grown up together. 25 kids who had already been in school six weeks. 25 kids who started at the new kid as the principal introduced me to the teacher. The teacher who stood me up in front of the class and asked “who can show Jeff around the school and introduce him to everyone?” 25 kids whose 50 hands were glued to their desktops and whose eyes refused to make eye contact. Finally, a hand raises and I hear voice say, “I’ll show him around.” (Thank you to Hal Bloss for being my first friend in Evansville! (and one of the longest lasting))
One of the people Hal introduced me to that day was Charlie Hagan. In 1970, I was just beginning to discover music, the Monkees, the Beatles, the Partridge Family (yes, I confess). Charlie and I began to explore music together. (He even let me listen to his album by the Rolling Stones!). Together we dreamed of becoming rock stars, even dressing like them…bell bottoms, puffy-sleeved shirts in wild colors, clothes patched with American Flag cloth, chokers…you get the picture.
I was learning to play guitar, Charlie the drums. Together with Jimmie Gains and Jeff Wilhite, we formed a band called the E’ville Spirits, though I don’t think we ever played a note together, Charlie and I would jam for hours on end.
We started writing songs together, Hagan ‘n Ton, destined to be the next Lennon & McCartney or Jagger & Richards. Honestly, we wrote very little music, we wrote lyrics and dreamed. We designed album covers and we even played for a school assembly. To this day, I can remember Hal being our biggest fan. “I know you guys are going to do it”, he would say.
A couple years passed and now it was time to go to high school. Charlie and I had written at least five “albums” of song lyrics by then. But, life was about ready to change again. Charlie’s family were devout Catholics. Charlie would be going to one of the Catholic High Schools. Ugh! Well, we could still get together on weekends to “rehearse”! Then, more news came. Charlie was an accomplished dancer, performing in multiple productions. Over the summer, he had been accepted into a boarding school in Illinois. It seems the boarding school focused on dance as well as academics.
Before he left for school, Charlie had one last gift for me. As we were saying our goodbyes, each trying desperately not to cry, he reached into a box and gave me his well worn and scratched copy of an opera, really, an opera!??! Yeah, I knew that Tommy by the Who was a rock opera, but this one wasn’t about a pinball wizard…of course, it was Jesus Christ Superstar.
I had heard parts of it coming from my older brother’s room and liked it but I had never really listened to it, never really heard the words, never really felt the impact…until then. I listened to it over and over and over again, I memorized the words, I learned some of the music. This was controversial…at a time in this teenagers life when he was starting to question authority and status quo. It was mesmerizing.
The story of the week leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, told from the perspective of his betrayer and his friend, Judas. It was a story of Christ’s humanity. For me, it was the first picture of Jesus as a man. It was the first time he felt real, instead of a character in a bible story. The Opera was met with protest when it was first written, In fact, Rice and Webber could not find anyone who would produce the play. Instead, they turned to the record company who had produced “Tommy” for the Who and released it as a concept album.
When the play was produced, it was met with picketers at the theatre. Christians felt it depicted Jesus as too human. The Jewish community felt it portrayed them as the assassins who killed him. It was a multi-faceted story. Yes, it was set in the year 30 AD, but it was as much about the political unrest of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Prophetically, it even serves as a picture of the political climate in 2018.
Perhaps the biggest outcry then as of now, is the ending. The story ends with the crucifixion. I have to admit, it bugged me too back then (however, I will say, the ending to NBC’s production on Easter Sunday 2018 was awe inspiring). But, back in 1972 and 73, it felt incomplete. I was starting to enter my “Jesus Freak” phase, listening to Godspell, Larry Norman, and Phil Keaggy. In 1973, the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar hit the theatres. Our entire church youth group went to a screening.
In the movie, there is a moment, a moment that stopped time. It was at the end of the scene for the song Trial Before Pilate. You know the one? The one with the 39 lashes. That scene. The actor who had just flogged Jesus 39 times. Stops. Panting. And stares quizzically at Jesus. THAT scene. That quizzical look. What was he thinking? What was he feeling. I began, what was to become a lifelong obsession with research and learning. I had to know more.
I was soon to learn about Ius Gladii, the right of the sword. Dating back to roman times. It was the right to issue punishment (including flogging and crucifixion) for crimes. I read descriptions of the whip, medical accounts of the flogging and of the crucifixion. I had to write the ending, the “proper” ending.
What started as a simple poem “Ius Gladii – The Right of the Sword” grew into a full rock opera, title “He Has Risen” The story of Christ from the burial to the ascension. I still remember snippets. From Ius Gladii:
When you stood staring quizzically
At my prophet King
What did you think of my lord then?
Was he different from the rest?
And from the title song, “He Has Risen”
He Has Risen
Just as he said
He Has Risen
Just as he said, he would
I can still hear the melody in my head when I type those words.
I would spend the next two years honing the lyrics, studying music theory and composition to be able to write the orchestration, and working with the late Mark X. Hatfield to turn my music scores into reality and bring the words to life. Alas, Mark was probably the only one that ever heard my rock opera. It, like the hundreds of songs (lyrics) I wrote in me teens and twenties, lost to time.
When it was time to enter college, I decided to study Music Theory and Composition. That decision was heavily influenced by composing (and I use that word loosely) my rock opera. While I learned very quickly one had to have talent (and play an instrument…rock guitar did not count) and changed my major, I continued to write song lyrics and poetry well into my 30’s.
I won’t be as bold as to say Jesus Christ Superstar saved my life, but to an awkward, pimple-faced, shy teenager it was magic and I can say, it forever changed his life!