As someone with more than my share of concern about the effects of organized religion in the world, I was ambivalent when one reviewer referred to our first album, Look For Me, as gospel blues. She reassured readers who might have been resisting the urge to unearth their gospel records that it was now permissible.
Actually, it wasn’t at all surprising: of the fifteen tracks on that album, at least two, Take Away the Stone and the blues-drenched The Shining, used religious language to evoke altered, heightened states of mind. Of course blues singers have alternated songs about God, love and murder at least since the beginning of the recording industry, and the same is true of Johnny Cash. But we were writing in a tradition that combined religious and profane language in the same song, which is something else altogether.
In Into My Arms, the opening track of his wonderful The Boatman’s Call, Nick Cave (or one of his alter egoes) tells his beloved: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God / But I know, darling, that you do.” In the choruses he sings: “Into my arms, O Lord / Into my arms”, summoning a world of belief in which he cannot share, but whose language of surrender he cannot resist.
In Jesus Gonna Be Here, again, Tom Waits summons up a character who anticipates that Jesus will “cover us up with leaves and a blanket from the moon.” He imagines this Jesus coming in a brand new Ford: “I can hear him coming on down the lane / I said ‘Hollywood be thy name’.”
In both these songs two worlds meet in such a way that the rules of both are broken, and there is a tear in the fabric of the language that usually divides them.
For our second album Barbara wrote another such lyric. It was called Tattoo Jesus, and it features an unspecified narrator who draws the listener into an exotic setting, a tattoo parlour in Santa Fe. Into this parlour wanders a sad-eyed stranger on a Harley Davidson with a torn print from a magazine, identified as “Jesus in the arms of Mary Magdalene.” He wants this image to be tattooed onto his chest. By the time the tattoo artist finishes the work, the stranger lies “with arms stretched out wide”, and we know that everything is at stake here.
Of all the songs we recorded for the album, I found it most challenging to do justice to this one. I think this had little to do with my own doubts and beliefs. This is a song of surrender, and it demanded of me to be out of my mind and to enter and believe in a world where the rules I know are irrelevant.
At the end of the song Dave Ferguson plays a wonderful harmonica solo as the other instruments gradually fall silent. It goes on and on, irreverent and playful. It is as if someone had left the world of the tattoo parlour and was running down the road with some kind of knowledge that can’t be put into words.
There are days when I don’t much like the sound of my own voice, but that solo always puts an irreverent smile on my face.