Jesus Christ Superstar (1970 Concept Album and 1973 Film)

(Originally appeared in The Donald P. McMahon Project, March, 2015)

Some random thoughts and bits of trivia concerning one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, Jesus Christ Superstar. There are many versions of JCS, but for this piece, I’m writing about the original 1970 concept album (for the music) and the subsequent 1973 movie version (for the music and the imagery).

Anyway, here we go:

While in high school, I rented a movie called Jesus Christ Superstar at Potomac Video in Potomac, Maryland. I had never heard of it before. And yes, I would rent videos on weekend nights when I was in high school.

From the opening guitar notes when Judas wails from the sandy cliffs, it was clear that this wasn’t the type of video I was looking for, but something far better: surreal, melodic, different from anything I had ever heard or seen, especially in Broadway musical form. In fact, I had only seen a few musicals up to that point, two of which were Fiddler on the Roof and Barnum. This one was unlike Barnum. Fewer midgets. Less juggling. More desert and anguished cries. I fell in love.

During my first viewing, my mother heard the music coming from the television and walked into the family room. She told me that the movie was “anti-Semitic,” a statement that puzzles me to this day. Then again, my mother never did watch the movie, although she did love Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer, a movie that I DID find anti-Semitic because it’s also anti-Quality.

I later heard additional criticism that Jesus Christ Superstar was racist because the Judas character in the movie was played (in an astonishing performance) by black actor Carl Anderson. Actually, in the Broadway version, Judas was played by Ben Vereen, another incredibly talented black actor, later to become famous for playing “Chicken George” in the 1977 TV series Roots.

I’ve never seen Ben Vereen as Judas, but Carl Anderson’s performance still affects me deeply. The look on Judas’s face when he gives up Jesus’s location to the Romans for thirty pieces of silver is horrific. You can sense his great, unyielding pain. And yet Judas never really had any choice, as he was chosen by God for this role. Is this racist? Should the part have been played by a white actor and singer? I can’t imagine anyone doing it better, regardless of race.

Also, I’ve always felt that the main character in Jesus Christ Superstar was not Jesus but Judas. We see this world through his eyes, which wouldn’t have been possible if our entry into the movie was through the Messiah’s.

There isn’t a month that goes by that I don’t listen to Jesus Christ Superstar at least once.

Most of my memories of listening to Jesus Christ Superstar while in high school involve driving around alone in my twenty-year-old 1971 Buick Electra (a car I bought used for $200), just wanting to get the hell out of the house and to clear my head. Looking back, I should have spent more time with other people, but it just felt like the right thing to do at the time.

I once played the cassette of Jesus Christ Superstar while out on a date, driving to a restaurant. This was in the mid-1990s. The woman didn’t say anything, just looked puzzled.

I’m still shocked that no one has yet sampled the opening guitar chords to the first song, “Heaven on Their Minds.” Listen to that guitar riff! Kanye? Skrillex? The Roots? Anyone?!!!

In the original 1970 album-only release, Jesus was played by Ian Gillan, lead singer of Deep Purple and later the lead singer for the reformed, Ozzy-less Black Sabbath.

Gillan recorded the entire vocals for Jesus Christ Superstar in less than four hours. Or so he claims. Impressive, considering that the album runs nearly two hours.

The musicians for the 1970 release featured some of the best studio musicians around at that time. On guitar was Henry McCullough, later the guitarist for Paul McCartney & Wings and Spooky Tooth. McCullough was also the guy on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon who mumbles, “I don’t know. I was really drunk at the time.”

There’s an amazing parody of Jesus Christ Superstar, from 2004, called ADBC. The parody, which ran on BBC, was co-written and directed by the brilliant Richard Ayoade, who also wrote Garth Marenghi, The Mighty Boosh and The IT Crowd. Check it out:

The designer of the beautiful 1970 concept album (the cover featuring the gold angels joined) was Ernie Cefalu, also responsible for hundreds of other LP covers, including Led Zeppelin III, Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic, and Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollars Babies.

Ernie has also claimed responsibility for designing the infamous “Tongue and Lips” logo for the Rolling Stones, first seen on their 1971 album Sticky Fingers. Maybe he did, but it seems as if every designer in the late ’60s made the same claim. Ernie also claims that he earned only $200 for the logo, which has since helped the Stones make untold millions in marketing revenue. But he doesn’t seem overly upset by this.

I also grew to love other musicals, especially Hair and Evita. I never admitted this to any of my high school or college friends, who were all listening to post- and punk rock. I’m a huge fan of Fugazi and other punk rock, and I even had a long-running “alternative” radio show on WTUL in New Orleans, but I still love Hair, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. What can I say?

I also love the musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein (Sound of Music) and the Sherman brothers (a ton of Disney songs, including the brilliant—except for the Dick Van Dyke accented performance—“Chim Chim Che-ree”).

No, you don’t have to be gay to love musicals. But I am Jewish. And Jews are hard-wired for musicals. Not sure why.

The genres of musicals, comedy and horror have a lot in common. They’re all just a tiny bit removed from reality. Anything can happen, which really frees up the writer. And the viewer.

I think this is why kids deeply love musicals. Musicals can be as surreal as children’s everyday reality. Want to break into a song while eating spinach? Go for it!

Yvonne Elliman, the beautiful Hawaiian who played Mary in both the concept album and in the movie version, later scored a number one hit with “If I Can’t Have You,” written by the Bee Gees and appearing on the soundtrack to 1978’s Saturday Night Fever. She also sang backup vocals for Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff.”

One of my favorite all-time jokes in movies appears in Clockwork Orange when the sociopathic character of Alex fantasizes that he’s not Jesus but rather one of the nameless idiotic Roman soldiers who is whipping Jesus. Talk about delusions of non-grandeur.

When you think about it, Jesus isn’t all too nice to his buddies in Jesus Christ Superstar. Granted, he had a million things on his mind, including heaven—as one usually does when one is the Messiah—but still . . . there tends to be a lot of screaming.

The singer Ted Neeley played Jesus in the movie version. Michael Medved, the conservative film reviewer and all around dickhead, voted Ted Neeley the worst on-screen Jesus ever. Neeley is voted even lower on the list than the piece of cardboard who played Jesus in the 1965 dull-fest The Greatest Story Ever Told. Then again, Michael Medved later raved about Mel Gibson’s biblical torture-porn, Passion of the Christ.

The pacing, the rhythm, the segues are beautiful in Jesus Christ Superstar. It flows effortlessly from soft to loud, from slow to fast. When it’s finished, the listener feels drained. This has been a huge influence on me when it comes to writing. Flow. So much of a book’s or article’s success has to do with flow. And melody. Yes, I find melody in written works.

In the song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the second-to-last song on the second side, Mary sings that Jesus is a bit different from all the other men she’s known over the years. Yeah, no kidding.

I suppose “known” is a euphemism for “slept with.”

Which is what also makes JCS so amazing. This Jesus is truly human, with everyday needs and weaknesses. This caused a huge stir among evangelicals upon its release. There were pickets and protests wherever JCS was being staged. It still causes a stir.

I’ll take the loving version of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar over the S&M version in Passion of the Christ any day.

I’ve seen a few stage productions over the years and I’ve never grown tired of Jesus Christ Superstar. I still have the Maxell cassette that I taped the LP onto. I listened to the tape so often that it grew thinner and thinner. It no longer works but I still keep it, unable for some reason to throw it out.

The cinematographer for the movie was Douglas Slocombe, who later shot Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The costume designer was Yvonne Blake, who later designed the fat, white, alien suit that Marlon Brando squeezed into in 1978’s Superman.

The music and lyrics to Jesus Chris Superstar are sometimes described as kitschy and silly, but to me it means the world. It made me want to learn more about the Bible and more about Jesus, and from what I learned about Him, his philosophy was beautiful. Many of his followers over the millennia have been assholes, but the Big Man was (as it’s put in the song “This Jesus Must Die”) pretty cool.

Speaking of cool, the actor who played Peter in the film version, Paul Thomas, later became an infamous porn star and director of more than 300 adult films, including 1978’s X-rated Pretty Peaches, one of the few (if only) pornos to ever feature an enema scene in a public bathroom. Sexy. Would make for a good musical.

Another fact about Paul Thomas, who played Peter: He was born rich as part of the Sara Lee dessert family and started his career making 8-mm fuck loops for the Mitchell brothers, the infamous San Francisco pornographers. One of these shorts was named “Wet Bed.”

David Cassidy of The Partridge Family and Micky Dolenz of The Monkees were both considered for the role of Jesus in the 1973 movie.

In a 1990s touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar, Dennis DeYoung, the lead vocalist in Styx and the gentleman responsible for writing the song “Mr. Roboto,” played Pontius Pilate.

Speaking of gentlemen, ex-Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach played Jesus in a 2002 touring production of Superstar. He quit before he could be fired.

Remember the character of Herod in the movie? The goofball who wears square-framed yellow-tinted sunglasses? He was played by Josh Mostel, son of Zero Mostel, who was Max Bialystock in the 1967 movie The Producers.

Josh Mostel later played Bluto in the short-lived, terrible 1979 sitcom version of Animal House. The show was called Delta House.

Andrew Lloyd Webber was about twenty-one when he finished composing the music to Jesus Christ Superstar. Twenty-one!

The lyricist, Tim Rice, was around twenty-four. When I was twenty-four, I had accomplished exactly zero, except for having worked in a record store for the previous nine years.

Once, back in Maryland, at a stoplight, with my Pontiac Grand Am’s windows open—this was during the summer—the driver in the car next to mine could hear me blasting the song in which Jesus is being whipped. She looked over at me, then rolled up her window.

The closing scene in the movie when the hippies get back onto their bus to return to civilization always leaves me a little depressed. Jesus won’t be returning with them, at least in the physical sense. And the hippies are coming back. Who needs ’em?

Look carefully at the face of Carl Anderson’s—the actor who played Judas—after he is the last person to board the bus. The driver takes off more abruptly then expected. Judas looks none too pleased.

Leonard Cohen’s song “Nightingale” was dedicated to the memory of Carl Anderson after his death from leukemia in 2004.

I always thought that the bus idea was brilliant. Just a bunch of singin’ and dancin’ hippies coming from Lord knows where to perform a Passion Play in the desert—and then leaving. In some ways, I feel closer to these performers who are pretending to be from Biblical times than I would with performers in movies who really want you to think they’re from that time.

Hey! Wouldn’t it be cool to create a musical about Muhammad? And what Muhammad went through during his last seven days before leaving this Earthly realm? Maybe not.

I could never understand the appeal of that other infamous Bible-themed musical movie, Godspell. The music isn’t nearly as good, and I find it horribly sad. Turn off the sound and it could very well be The Warriors.

Jesus Christ Superstar wasn’t the first rock opera. Some have said that the first was The Story of Simon Simopath by the British band Nirvana—yes, there was an earlier band named Nirvana—in 1967. Some have claimed it was S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things (1968).

The first successful rock operas came later: the Who’s Tommy (May 1969) and the Kinks’ Arthur (October 1969).

There were many Biblical musicals released around (and after) the time of Jesus Christ Superstar, none of which compared. Last year, Mike Doughty, who founded the band Soul Coughing, released his own musical version of Book of Revelation. I haven’t heard this one yet.

I listened to Jesus Christ Superstar while writing this piece. In fact, I listened to it twice. And as I type this, the song now playing is the beautiful “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).”

If you’ve never heard the music for Jesus Christ Superstar, or seen the movie, check it out. You might like it, you might not. But I think you will. If you do, please let me know:

Thanks for your time! Now get out there and do some good. Ho-ho Sanna Hey Sanna Sanna Sanna Ho!