What Does Religion Have to Do with Rock?

A Review of Dan Graham’s Rock My Religion (MIT, 1993)

Originally published in Mental Contagion

Dan Graham’s video, “Rock My Religion,” (1984-85). (Note that both the video and the book of essays, as well as one of the essays, all have the same title) begins with visual scenes of a Shaker revival meeting with a rock music soundtrack dubbed over it. Then the scene changes and a visual scene of a punk rock show is overdubbed with the sounds of a revival meeting. What is so intriguing about this is how well the shaking, twitching, rhythmic movements, and circular shuffling of the religious ecstatics resonate with the secular screaming and ranting of the rock music. Likewise, the moshing, slamming, pogo-ing, and head banging of the punk rock crowd meshes with the moaning, chanting, and wailing of the revival meeting soundtrack. The harmony of this visual juxtaposition of seemingly disparate practices speaks more to the underlying similarity of forms in rock and religion than any words can describe. In the following discussion, we will be referring to the video, as well as Graham’s written words, primarily his essays, “Rock My Religion,” “Punk as Propaganda,” and “McLaren’s Children.”

Graham’s essay combines descriptions of the Shakers’ religious rituals, as the Native American Ghost Dance, quotes from Patti Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips, and Jim Morrison, along with commentary on the emergence of teenagers as a consumer class in the 1950s. Graham’s primary method of argument is juxtaposition - he supplies the stimuli and the reader is left to mull over the meanings unleashed by these pairings of seemingly disparate elements. There is a lot of space for the reader’s mind to wander within the text. Of the many threads that are woven in, we will unravel two primary themes: 1) music/dance as an ecstatic spiritual practice, and 2) music/dance as a form of social protest in the face of oppression. First, we will have a brief digression to introduce a history of the Shakers and of the Ghost Dance.

The Story of Ann Lee and the Shakers

Graham describes the life of Ann Lee, “an illiterate blacksmith’s daughter from Manchester, England, [who] founded the Shakers at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution...She joined a sect which taught that Christ’s Second Coming could be experienced through a trance produced by the rhythmic recitation of biblical phrases. This trembling also cured the body of ills,” (Graham, p. 80). Graham provides a context for Lee’s life of a marriage to a man she “disdained,” bearing four children who died in infancy, against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution and the exploitation of the urban working class by factory owners. In a revelation, she saw that sexuality and procreation led to many of the ills in contemporary society and she founded a sect based on celibacy and a simple communal life. “Imprisoned as a witch, Ann Lee had visions that she was the Second Coming of Christ, incarnated in the form of a Woman,” (G, 81). She emigrated to the US in 1774 and died in 1784. At its peak, the Shaker sect numbered approximately 6,000m but has declined to one small community today, (from the Penguin Dictionary of Religions).

The Ghost Dance

“A revivalistic, prophetic movement among Amerindian tribes of the Great Basin and Plains of North America in the late 19th century. The founding prophet, a Paiute Indian, Wovoka, claimed it had been revealed to him in a vision that, if the Indians would dance, the dead would return and all the native peoples would be restored to the happy way of life they had before the arrival of the white man...Fanatical belief that ‘ghost shirts’ would protect wearers from the harm of enemy bullets prompted still further confrontation with the whites. The movement subsided rapidly following the tragic massacre of Sitting Bull and his people at Wounded Knee in 1890,” (from the Penguin Dict. Rel.). This is often considered a “millenarian” movement, meaning a vision of cultural renewal or change which often occurs when a culture seems to be approaching “the end times.”

Music/Dance as an Ecstatic Spiritual Practice

(Ecstasy is used here in the spiritual context, defined as:  “trance, frenzy, or rapture associated with mystic or prophetic exaltation,” American Heritage Dictionary). Graham describes the Shakers ritual Circle Dance, in which “lines of men and women formed four concentric moving circles. The dance liberated the group from individual sin and helped them to achieve a collective purity. The group rhythmically chanted from the Bible and marched in circles. Stomping their feet, they shouted, ‘Stomp the Devil!’  Sisters and Brothers began whirling in place. The group cried, ‘Shake!  Shake!  Shake!  Christ is with you!’ There is a noise like ‘Whoosh,’ which means the Devil is present. People clapped. They leaped up and down. Some removed their outer clothes. A fit of shaking, ecstatic seizures passed over the group. ‘Reeling, turning, twisting,’ some rocked on their feet. Still others were doubled over, feet and hands linked, as they rolled on the floor. They rolled over and over, like wheels, or they turned like rolling logs. Some got down on four legs [sic] like dogs, growled, snapped their teeth and barked. Indian spirits entering the meeting, ‘possessed’ the bodies of the Shakers. Elder and Eldress would have to pull Squaws and Warriors apart...Ritualistically, the Devil was snared from his hiding place within the group and cast out,” (G, 83). Graham also describes the Great Religious Revival of 1801: “In tent meetings, rural pioneers clapped their hands, rhythmically reciting biblical texts. Here for the first time, the piano and guitar replaced the organ as conveyor of spiritual feeling. The saved would ‘reel and rock’ and, in their collective desire to be ‘reborn,’ people would ‘talk in tongues,” (G, 84).

“My belief in rock ‘n’ roll gave me a kind of strength that other religions couldn’t come close to,”(Patti Smith, quoted in G, 85).

“For a time during the seventies, rock culture became the religion of the avant-garde art world,”(G, 94).

Black Elk describes his experience of the Ghost Dance:  “we began dancing, and most of the people wailed and cried as they danced, holding hands in a circle; but some of them laughed with happiness. Now and then someone would fall down like dead, and others would go staggering around and panting before they would fall...Suddenly it seemed that I was swinging off the ground and not touching it any longer. The queer feeling came up from my legs and was in my heart now. It seemed I could glide forward like a swing, and then glide back again in longer and longer swoops...all I saw at first was a single eagle feather right out in front of me...I looked ahead and floated fast toward where I looked...When I touched the ground, two men were coming toward me, and they wore holy shirts made and painted in a certain way...they said...’We will give you something that you shall carry back to your people and with it they shall see their loved ones.’  I knew it was the way their holy shirts were made that they wanted me to take back,” (Black Elk, in Niehardt, Black Elk Speaks, 204-6).

Jim Morrison describes a childhood incident in which he saw the aftermath of a car accident in the desert:  “The reaction I get now thinking about it, looking back - is that the souls of the ghosts of those dead Indians...maybe just one or two of ‘em...were just running around and freaking out, and just leaped into my soul. And they’re still there,” (in G, 90).

“Rock performers electrically unleash anarchic energies and provide a hypnotic ritualistic trance for the mass audience - especially when both musicians and audience are under the influence of psychedelic drugs. Such shows suggest the transport of the tent meeting or the Shakers’ deliberate seeking out of the Devil in order to purify themselves and ensure communion with God,” (G, 92).

Music/Dance as Social Protest

Ann Lee formed a music and dance group that sought to subvert the secular society of the day and institute a religious utopian community based on a mystical communion with God. As a result of following her direct revelation, she was persecuted in England and eventually emigrated to the US to manifest her spiritual vision by forming the Shaker sect.

“There was no hope on earth, and God seemed to have forgotten us. Some said they saw the Son of God; others did not see Him...The people did not know; they did not care. They snatched at the hope. They screamed like crazy men to Him for mercy. They caught at the promise they heard He had made...We begged for life, and the white men thought we wanted theirs,” (Red Cloud, in Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 413).

Kicking Bear describes the news of the visions of the Messiah: “In the beginning, he said, God made the earth and then sent the Christ to earth to teach the people, but the white men had treated him badly, leaving scars on his body, and so he had gone back to heaven. Now he had returned to earth as an Indian, and he was to renew everything as it used to be and make it better...the earth would be covered with new soil which would bury all the white men, and the new land would be covered with sweet grass and running water and trees. Great herds of buffalo and wild horses would come back. The Indians who danced the Ghost Dance would be taken up into the air and suspended there while a wave of new earth was passing, and then they would be set down among the ghosts of their ancestors on the new earth, where only Indians would live,” (B, 407). The whites considered the frantic Indian dancing to be a “pernicious religion,” the “fomenters of disturbance” were rounded up and the tense situation peaked in the massacre at Wounded Knee, in which “Big Foot and more than half of his people were dead or seriously wounded...One estimate placed the final total of dead at very nearly three hundred of the original 350 men, women, and children. The soldiers lost twenty-five dead and thirty-nine wounded, most of them struck by their own bullets or shrapnel,” (B, 408-18).

“The rock club and rock concert performance are like a church, a sanctuary against the adult world. Mechanized electric instruments unleash anarchic energies for the mass. The rock star stands in a sacrificial position against the regime of work; his sacrifice is his body and life. By living life and performing at the edge, he transcends the values of everyday work. But this transcendence is achieved by sacrificing his ability to become an adult. He must die, or fall from fame,” (G, 90). As with the archetype of Christ as the original rebel who meets a tragic death, so to do those who protest against the social order often (perhaps are even required or expected to) come to an early and tragic end. As newspapers testify to, death sells. Or as Graham writes, death “is a technique to achieve fame and immortality,” (G, 90).

Rock, My Religion/Rock My Religion

Graham’s essays raise many interesting questions (only some of which we have discussed) through both his arguments as well as his juxtaposition of seemingly disparate elements which speak directly to the reader. In discussing various rock figures and styles in the context of Ann Lee and the Shakers, and the millenarian movement of the Plains Indians’ Ghost Dance he anchors current secular pop culture into a history of the use of music/dance as an ecstatic technique of mysticism, as well as a form of social protest which often leads to tragic consequences. While the protester comes to an untimely death, through the intrinsic human process of myth-making, s/he comes to be viewed as a tragic hero and martyr, who can then serve as a historical and inspirational figure for the next generation of protesters. This calls to mind Marcus’ “secret history” of punk rock. [One element which we have not examined, but is well developed in Graham’s essays, is the ambivalent relation that the rock protester has with the society that is subverted. In particular, the entertainment industries ability to market “subversion” in a way that makes it a profitable product which loses its original subversive intent. Perhaps this will be a topic of a future column.]  

The protest element of music/dance is well documented and generally accepted, however, the religious or spiritual element is generally not discussed in relation to secular music. The striking similarities between Graham’s images and sounds of the Shaker revival and the punk rock concert spur thoughts about the relation of the spiritual/mystical and contemporary music/dance. Could Marcus’ “secret history” lead back, not just to avant-garde artists, but further to the in-spiration of mystics throughout time?

To the ancient Greeks, the connection between music and the spiritual was self-evident. The word, “music,” derives from “the Greek mousike (tekhne), (art) of the Muses, i.e., poetry, literature, music, etc., from mousikos, of the Muses, from Mousa, a Muse,” (American Heritage Dictionary). The muses were the nine daughters of Mnemosyne (the goddess of memory) and Zeus (the Father of the gods) who were the source of inspiration for each of the various art forms.

Graham’s title (which he liked well enough to use for the title of his video, essay, and eventually his book) captures this connection between rock and spirituality when it is given the emphasis of, rock, my religion. It also captures the protest element, rock (as in rock or agitate the apple cart) my religion. With this title, Graham effects another juxtaposition, uniting both the religious/spiritual element of rock music with the subversion of the social order.

ConiunctionisDavid Kopacz