When a member of The Aquabats! gives you free backstage passes to one of their shows just to give you a signed copy of his book, you know that he really feels strongly about the message contained therein, and that’s exactly what happened with A Sound Salvation: Rock N’ Roll As A Religion by Ian Fowles. As soon as he handed it to me, I opened it up to a random page and saw a large section on The Hold Steady, and knew I was going to love it. The basic premise of the book is that traditional religions in the United States, such as Christianity, have steadily declined over the last century, especially among young people, and that, for many, Rock N’ Roll has taken its place. Fowles argues that Rock N’ Roll is not just a past-time; for some, it functions precisely in the way religion does for its adherents.
This is not a new idea. Most scenies, hipsters, and people in the musical community are aware that some approach Rock N’ Roll religiously, devoting their time and energy to it and hailing its saints as more than human. Fowles’ book is unique in that it makes a point-by-point argument for this idea, using the definition of religion from the Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Eliade. Though I was skeptical at first, his entertaining and easy-to-read book had me fully convinced by the end, with one crucial qualification, noted below. Interested readers and fans of Ian Fowles might want to know that the first run of 300 copies are all hand-numbered and signed by the author. The link to get a copy is at the bottom of this review.
At 130 pages, his book was an easy read that only took me a couple days to get through. This is partly due to the fact that the book is a condensed version of a larger argument Fowles made for his Master’s Thesis at Claremont University. At times, chapters that could have been more satisfactorily expanded upon were cut short, such as the very first chapter on religious traditionalism, leaving me wanting more in order to be convinced. Furthermore, Fowles explained to me that the current edition is meant only as a first edition. Rather than search for a publisher to take his book, he decided to publish it himself. I assume if a publisher later decides to take it, he will expand the current edition and add some illustrations.
As a whole, the book made a convincing argument. Each chapter takes a bullet point from the definition of religion and explains how Rock N’ Roll fits that point. According to the Encyclopedia of Religion, a religion contains the following, which are chapters in the book: 1) Traditionalism, 2) Myth and Symbol, 3) Concepts of Salvation, 4) Sacred Places and Objects, 5) Sacred Actions, 6) Sacred Writings, 7) The Sacred Community, 8) The Sacred Experience. Once religion is broken down in this way, it is easy to see right away how Rock N’ Roll could fit many of them.
Fowles’ first chapter touches on traditionalism in music, though this chapter really left me wanting more. His primary example is modern Rockabilly and how modern artists imitate the fashion and styles of Rockabilly artists past. I would be interested in a much expanded chapter here as I believe he has more to work with.
Myth and Symbol
This is where Fowles gets to the meat of his arguments. He uses the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads to kick off his chapter, and it becomes perfectly clear how Rock N’ Roll uses mythology. From Stairway to Heaven to Madonna, misinformation, tall tales, exaggeration, and a grain of truth have all been combined into elaborate, dark myths about Rock N’ Roll. An interesting intersection with Mormonism is the rumor mill surrounding which musicians are Mormon, with accompanying faith-promoting stories to boot.
Fowles then dives into one of his strongest examples, used throughout the book: Elvis. The mystery, intrigue, and legends surrounding the King persist to this day, making Elvis into an almost Christ-like figure. There are myths about mysterious lights at his birth and sightings of him after his death. A chapel has even been built at Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, and, most religious of all, Elvis merchandise still makes millions of dollars a year. People impersonate Elvis at shows and make pilgrimages to Graceland. As with many rock musicians, people will pay top dollar for items that Elvis signed, owned, touched, or secreted (bottled sweat is mentioned) in his life. Elvis isn’t the only rock musician honored in such a way. Anyone who has searched for rock memorabilia on eBay will notice what Fowles is getting at. In this way, rock musicians have gained immortality in a way few have ever achieved.
Concepts of Salvation
In this chapter, Fowles makes the argument that Rock N’ Roll saves people from their average lives and gives them a real place in the universe. While most rock fans will notice the message of Rock N’ Roll is one of salvation from the mundane (Pink Floyd and Twisted Sister come immediately to mind), this chapter fell a bit flat for me, and this was my main contention with the book. Fowles may have met the encyclopedic definition of religion, as long as we leave God out of the picture. However, for most of us reading, the anthropological or sociological definition of religion leaves out the key ingredients: right standing with God, and life after death. While Fowles does make the latter point about immortality as well as he can (though some would still take issue with the fact that Rock N’ Roll doesn’t really offer personal immortality, just an imprint on society), I still feel that for non-scholars, the point of religion is that it allows a person to achieve right standing with God, who is an actual, living, and personal being. So Rock N’ Roll does liberate people, sure, and makes them feel like they have a place in the Universe, I’m still left wondering what God has to do with it.
That having been said, Fowles comes remarkably close to satisfying my objection. Rock N’ Rollers are referred to as gods and saints, and sing about saving the souls of their listeners. Some like Craig Finn of The Hold Steady interweave religious topics and imagery through their songs. So, though I’m not sure Rock N’ Roll really fits the definition of salvation that we’re used to, I think this is exactly what Fowles is trying to do with his book. He’s trying to open up the dialogue and get us to wonder and analyze what “religion” really means, while giving us insight into a powerful subculture in the Western World: Rock N’ Roll. It really got me thinking.
Like the Bodhi Tree of Buddhism, the Ka’ba of Islam, or the Wailing Wall of Judaism, the religion of Rock N’ Roll also has its own sacred places and spaces. (pg. 65)
As was touched on in the section about Elvis, there are numerous sacred places and objects in Rock N’ Roll. I personally own and cherish several autographed items from musicians that changed my life: a signed Close to the Edge LP that I was lucky enough to get signed personally by the band backstage, a little model guitar signed by folk songwriter Brian Webb, and several items (including a set list and guitar) signed by the members of King’s X on three occasions. I have also personally visited Rock N’ Roll shrines such as the House of Blues in a couple cities, the site of John Lennon’s tragic death, and Elvis’ grave at Graceland, and I must say, there is a sort of mystical buzz around all of these places and objects for me. People regularly visit places where rock musicians died, their graves, and the sites of famous shows such as CBGB’s and Woodstock, though this latter phenomenon was curiously absent from the book; I would have liked to have read much more about Woodstock and the hippie and nonviolence movements of the ’60s. Fans of music wouldn’t have a problem accepting this point at all. People treat Rock N’ Roll shrines and places as any religious adherent would treat the shrines of their saints.
There are of course too many sacred rock rituals to list in such a small book, but the ritual of the rock concert is featured primarily in this chapter. It is not hard to see the similarities between the religious experience of a rock show and a worship service. Indeed, these days these two things are combined in the form of worship bands and Christian rock. At concerts, there are lots of actions we should expect to see: lighters lit, hands swaying back and forth, moshing, crowd surfing, Dio’s “devil horns,” etc. There are people on the front rows hoping to catch a pick, drumstick, or set list from the bands that they love. Fowles specifically mentions the mystical, trance-inducing whirls of Sufis in their meetings, Shaker gatherings, and glossolalia at Pentacostal services, as possible parallels to the rock experience.
Again, this point is easily made. I remember a friend-of-a-friend of mine who would always have music playing no matter what we were doing, and she constantly would listen for the lyrics to describe our current situation. It was an almost mystical experience for her, and from that point on I realized that lyrics could be approached like scripture. People deconstruct meanings, strip lyrics away to try to find their essence, and more often than not read way more into them than was originally intended. Lyrics quite often take on a life of their own after being written. The canon of any musician could easily be a boxed set of all their recordings, sealed at the end by the death of that musician.
The Sacred Community
Fowles once again hits the nail on the head. The most ardent fans of music find in it a community that accepts them, even if they have no other such community anywhere else. Goths, punks, hipsters, gangsters, metalheads, emos, hippies, Parrotheads… you get the picture.
The Sacred Experience
Lastly, Fowles ties up all his arguments with the sacred experience. I remember a devoted Tori Amos fan who was a dear friend of mine in high school, who was not religious until she first saw Tori Amos in concert. After that, she confessed to me that she was certain that God existed, because what she felt at that show had no other possible explanation. I was reminded of the verse in the Book of Mormon where Nephi tells us that the Holy Ghost speaks unto men in their own language. Well, for some of us, our language is Rock N’ Roll. I would guess that most of the people who read Linescratchers know that music can be a divine experience. Music lifts us up to other places. It moves us in ways we’ve never been moved before. It can extract from us emotions and feelings that we feel come from elsewhere. We feel chills, tears welling up, and we shake uncontrollably. In short, music is a mystical experience for me and many others. Fowles touches on a little science and psychology here, explaining in part why this might be (loud music causes neurons to fire in curious ways), and quotes my favorite psychologist, William James, who said that music is the best way to experience mystical truth. Certainly these factor into the experience of music, as many of us know.
Fowles finally asks, what will the future of Rock N’ Roll be?
Will Rock N’ Roll ever become a formally organized and critically organized religion? Only time will be able to answer that question, but there are seedlings beginning to sprout. For example, as discussed earlier, there have begun to be inklings of Elvis disciples forming groups to worship their ‘King’. As history has shown, all it takes is a charismatic leader, a number of people to follow him, and a few hundred years to form a powerful religious organization…if things continue to progress in America as they have for the past fifty years, it would not be surprising to see the birth of such a church within the next century. (pg. 128)
Ian Fowles has approached this topic with the passion of a true Rock N’ Roll adherent. His devotion to music really shows through the pages, and you really get the impression that he has devoted years to gathering articles, scraps of evidence, and ideas. His book is such an inexpensive, light read, yet an interesting puzzle, that I believe it’s definitely a must-have for Linescratchers readers. It will definitely leave you as it left me: wondering what religion really is, how it works in our lives, and whether we are members of the Church of Rock N’ Roll or not. Furthermore, it did have me wondering what the Church of the Beatles, or the Church of Elvis, or the Church of KISS will look like in two hundred years.
To find out more about Ian Fowles, A Sound Salvation, or pick up a copy of the book, click HERE.