Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Rock Spirituality Blowing in the wind(Column)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Rock Spirituality Blowing in the wind(Column)

Article excerpt

Terri Hemmert is the morning disc jockey on WXRT-FM, an award-winning, 50,000-watt rock station that blankets Chicago. She may be the best known female DJ in the U.S. She is also a member of her parish choir, an activist with the Peace Museum, a spokeswoman for support of AIDS victims and a volunteer at her parish shelter, where she does laundry for the homeless on Saturday mornings.

Hemmert is also a sought-after speaker. She recently opened a series of talks in our parish with an engrossing evening of videos and sound on rock and spirituality. My wife, Jean, and I dragged our Glenn Miller bones to St. Clement's to listen to Terri's exegesis of the mysteries of rock.

We will never be the same.

Terri Hemmert was almost as careful with her audience as she is on the air. She doesn't tell people how to live their faith. "My job is to live out the values of these songs," she said. "Rock music doesn't trivialize religion -- not if we care about it. Don't be offended by rock. If you are offended, you should ask yourself why."

I have been a somewhat reluctant listener to rock music since I was introduced to it in the mid-1950s. As a high school teacher, I earned time off my purgatory by supervising dances. My mind numbed to the heavily accented beat and the simple, repetitive phrase structures as I watched the writhing, dancing couples who seemed to be wearing out their clothes from the inside.

First called "rock 'n' roll' and viewed by some, such as Terri's Baptist grandmother, as "the devil's music," rock derives in part from black, gospel, country, western, blues and folk music. Its earthy and simple lyrics are in stark contrast to the, bland, sentimental and mindlessly patriotic lyrics of the 1940s. But if the prerock lyrics were as syrupy as a greeting card, at least the music didn't dislodge one's bellybutton lint.

To me, rock lyrics sounded self-absorbed, and the delivery was raving. I kept missing the message. I wasn't much different from former President George W. Bush, who, it was said, once listened to a U2 album called "Rattle and Hum," which touched on a number of social and political concerns - and he didn't understand it.

I heard but really didn't listen to the plaintive songs of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and the like. Early rock enabled white kids to enter the world of black rhythm and blues and to learn something about the nature of segregation. It helped them to articulate teenage problems - school, cars, parents, young love. Later, the gutsy, rebellious lyrics would echo the tensions of social protest and the Vietnam War.

After 1962 and the arrival of the Beatles, rock music was no longer just for dancing. It was for listening. Soon composers and directors like Leonard Bernstein and Frank Zappa tried to turn rock into classical. We found ourselves listening to Bernstein's "Mass" and watching Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ, Superstar" and Arthur Schwartz's "Godspell."

About that time, I found myself at the wedding of a fellow teacher and listening to folk singer Bob Dylan's song (hymn?) "Blowin' in the Wind." It was played on an electric guitar by a skinny woman backed by an electrified rock band. "Is she talking about the Holy Spirit?" I asked myself. But before I could find an answer within myself, she was singing "Come Saturday morning, I'm going away with my friend..."

Yet, I still held forth in the classroom about rock's negative side. There were always dead bodies piling up -- Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix -- to link drugs to the music. …

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