Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Seven).

“When I bought my first copy of the Bible, the King James version, it was to the Old Testament that I was drawn, with its maniacal, punitive God who dealt out to His long-suffering humanity punishments that had me drop-jawed in disbelief at the very depth of their vengefulness”.

– Nick Cave, Introduction to The Gospel of Mark, 1998.

In a career spanning nearly four decades, Nick Cave has continually pushed the boundaries of the written word in song, literature and screenplay.  One of the many striking things about Cave’s literary skills is the ever-present Biblical and Christian influence.  In terms of his music output, this has been a mainstay of his work since his days in pre-Bad Seeds outfit The Birthday Party.

In Cave’s 1985 single, Tupelo, from the album The Firstborn Is Dead, he uses Biblical imagery in order to describe the birth of Elvis Presley during a heavy storm in Tupelo, Mississippi.  The title of the album simultaneously refer to both Elvis, whose identical twin brother, Jesse Gardon Presley was delivered stillborn 35 minutes prior to the birth of Elvis, and to Exodus in the Old Testament:

“Moses said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘About midnight I am going out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well.  Moreover, there shall be a great cry in all the land of Egypt, such as there has not been before and such as shall never be again …”

– Exodus 11: 4-6

Cave’s next album, Kicking Against the Pricks (1986), takes its title from a passage in the King James Version of the Bible, which reads “I am Jesus whom thou persecutes:  it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:5).  The phrase refers to the pointlessness of an ox kicking at the sharpened wooden rod, known as a prick, when the driver is tilling soil.  One of Cave’s heroes, Johnny Cash also used the phrase to great effect on his song The Man Comes Around from the album American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002, a song also packed with Biblical imagery.  Cash had covered Nick Cave’s song The Mercy Seat on his previous album American III: Solitary Man in 2000.

The Mercy Seat, from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 1988 album Tender Prey, as is the case with a majority of the writer’s work is laden with double meaning and Biblical imagery.  The Mercy Seat is a vivid first person narrative of a man on death row about to executed by the electric chair.  The term “Mercy Seat” refers to both the electric chair and the throne of God which the song’s protagonist knows he will soon be visiting.  In the Old Testament, the mercy seat is the symbol of the throne of God over the Ark of the Covenant.

“And thou shalt make an ark-cover of pure gold:  two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof and a cubit and a half the breath thereof.”

– Exodus 25:17

In the chorus of The Mercy Seat, Cave sings:

“And the mercy seat is waiting

And I think my head is burning

And in a way I’m yearning

To be done with all this measuring of truth.

An eye for an eye

And a tooth for a tooth

And anyway I told the truth

And I’m not afraid to die.”

This refrain, repeated fifteen times over the course of the song with a number of variations on the lyrics was inspired by Leviticus 24: 17-12, which states:

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.  Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life.  If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.  Whoever kills an animal shall make it good and whoever kills a person shall be put to death.  You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord, your God.”

At the start of The Mercy Seat, we see the convict suffering from apophenia, an unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied by an abnormal meaningfulness, seeing “a ragged cup, a twisted mop” but also “the face of Jesus in my soup”, the only image of forgiveness for the convict’s actions in the song, whilst the convict remains adamant that he is “nearly wholly innocent, you know”.   The image of “Those sinister dinner deals …” is suggestive of the convict’s last meal, a special meal provided for those on death row shortly before execution but in relation to the Biblical imagery within the song, also makes a connection to The Last Supper in the Bible.  The image of “a blackened tooth” in Verse 3 of the song suggests isolation but also martyrdom as if the convict is the tooth chosen to be blackened.  In Verse 4, Cave sings:

“I hear stories from the chamber

How Christ was born into a manger

And like some ragged stranger

Died upon the cross

And might I say it seems so fitting in its way

He was a carpenter by trade

Or at least that’s what I’m told.”

Religion is a subject that is frequently encouraged in prisons and this verse tells of how the prisoner hears Biblical stories from his cell.  This verse sees the prisoner finding it ironic that Jesus was a carpenter but was crucified on a wooden cross.  Here, we see another link with Johnny Cash, who was imprisoned on a number of occasions, and recorded the song Jesus Was A Carpenter on his 1973 album, The Gospel Road.  Jesus’s trade is said to be that of carpenter in the book of The Gospel of Mark in which Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, just as the prisoner in The Mercy Seat is by society:

““Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And not His sisters here with us?  And they took offence at him”.

– Mark 6:3

As the song continues, the convict becomes more anxious about his impending death and reckoning.  In the lines “And like the moth that tries To enter the bright light”, we see the narrator drawn towards the light of God as he approaches death.  This not only diminishes the importance of the song’s character but also shows his spiritual longings to be a compulsion.  We are given various suggestions of guilt before his final admission in the song’s closing line, “And anyway I told the truth but I’m afraid I told a lie”.

The Good Son, the album that followed Tender Prey in 1990, continued the use of Biblical imagery in Cave’s work, most notably in it’s title which was coined from The Parable of the Good Son (Luke 15: 11-32).  The sheer amount of inspiration that Cave has taken from the Bible continues to this day, across a wide spectrum of musical styles, most recently on albums such as Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008).    Speaking about the Biblical influences on his music, he said:

“I’m not religious, and I’m not a Christian, but I do reserve the right to believe in the possibility of a God.  It’s kind of defending against the indefensible, though; I’m critical of what religions are becoming, the more destructive they’re becoming.  But I think as an artist, particularly, it’s a necessary part of what I do, that there is some sort of divine element going on within my songs”.

– Interview with Nick Cave, Los Angeles Times, 2010.

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Six).

“Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be putting me on”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me coming you better run”

Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61””

– Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, from the album Highway 61 Revisted, 1965.

Long before his fully fledged conversion to Born Again Christianity in the late 1970’s, When he released the full on Christian themed albums Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), Bob Dylan was already referencing The Bible.

On Highway 61 Revisited from 1965’s landmark album of the same name, he begins the song by referencing the story of Isaac and Abraham.  In the story of Isaac and Abraham, God commands Abraham to kill one of his son, Isaac, in order to prove his devotion to him:

“Some time later, God tested Abraham.  He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am”, he replied.

Then God said, “Take your only son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region

of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you””.

– Genesis 22.

Adding significance to the use of the story in Highway 61 Revisited, Abram, the original name of the Biblical Abraham, is the name of Dylan’s own father.  The use of the Abraham and Isaac story could also be used as a protest symbol against the Vietnam War.  It is probably no coincidence that the President at the time of the American Civil War was Abraham Lincoln.  Therefore, Bob Dylan may be making a connection between the Bible story and historical events via his own father in order to make a comment about the Vietnam War.  Is Dylan about to be sacrificed as a warning to America not to kill it’s sons by sending them to war in the same way Abraham Lincoln did in the American Civil War?

Highway 61 is the road which runs through Bob Dylan’s home town down to the Mississippi delta and the same road that he wanders down in One Too Many Mornings.  The route passed near to the birthplaces and homes of influential musicians such as Muddy Waters, Son House, Charlie Patton and Elvis Presley and had already been the subject of Roosevelt Sykes’s 1932 song Highway 61 Blues.  It is also the road where Bessie Smith died after sustained serious injuries in a car accident.  But most significantly in terms of music history and relating to the first verse’s religious imagery, it is the road where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil, at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49.  So therefore, through the song’s Biblical reference, is this God telling Dylan’s father that he has to kill his son at the same place that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil?

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Five).

“I look towards religion as possibly one means to finding an answer, to making sense why we’re here. That’s what drives the creative force, to make sense of one’s life. A very natural place to look is in that divine area, because it’s so strong and has been here long before us”.

– PJ Harvey, interviewed by The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 1995.

Whilst often difficult to decipher, made more difficult by the way in which the singer rarely discusses what the lyrics of her songs are about, preferring to leave it to the listener’s own interpretation, the songs of PJ Harvey are brimming with Biblical and Christian imagery.  From the outset, this was an artist who either steeped her work in religious imagery or wrote songs which had a distinctly Biblical feel.  However, Harvey herself is not a religious person.  She never attended church as a child and was never baptised.  What we therefore have in Harvey’s songs is a canon of religious offerings by a secular artist.

On PJ Harvey’s debut album Dry, from 1992, we get our first insight into the way in which the artist looks towards religion for answers and inspiration.  Take for example, Hair.  Hair is based on the Delilah’s betrayal of Samson in the Bible story (Judges 16).  In Hair, contrary to the Bible, Delilah cuts off Samson’s hair in order to make him hers, as opposed to through hatred.  See, for example, the first verse:  “Samson, The strength, That’s in Your Arms, Oh to be, Your Stunning Bride”.

Elsewhere on the Dry album, we find the song Joe, the tale of unrequited love and the loss of that love, based on Harvey’s experience with her first boyfriend Joe Dilworth, then drummer with Th’ Faith Healers and later of Stereolab.  It is interesting the way in which Harvey places herself as the fallen woman wishing to be redeemed in many of her songs through the use of Biblical imagery.  In Joe, she takes the position of Mary Magdalene:  “Come in close now I’ll wash your feet, With my hair I’ll mop them dry”.  These lines refer to Luke 7:38:  “And standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with perfume”.  Here, we see this incident from the Bible used as a metaphor for PJ Harvey’s outpouring of grief at the breakup of the relationship.  In the Bible, Mary Magdalene is a prostitute, a fallen woman who is redeemed by this act.  The song Joe sees PJ Harvey longing for her former lover to save her from her despair by staying in her life with graphic images of suicidal thoughts (“Joe you be my buddy please, In This hell and dead-locked time, When I’m trusting that head-ache tree, Cut me down with your silver knife”).  Her former lover is seen as a hero figure, the worshipped, just as Jesus was worshipped by Mary Magdalene, whilst Harvey positions herself as Mary Magdalene, similarly wishing to be redeemed and given a second chance.

Taking the position of the fallen woman, often accompanied with religious imagery, is a common theme in Harvey’s work.  On Dry we also find PJ Harvey’s breakthrough song, Sheela-Na-Gig.  A Sheela-Na-Gig is an ancient early Christian fertility statue displaying an exaggerated vulva.  In the song, PJ Harvey takes the idea of the Sheela-Na-Gig in order to paint a graphic picture of a prostitute:  “He said Sheela-Na-Gig, you exhibitionist, Put money in your idle hole, He said ‘Wash your breasts, I don’t want to be unclean’, He said, ‘Please take those dirty pillows away from me’”.

When asked the question “Aren’t you a big Bible reader as well?” by Rolling Stone Magazine in 1995, PJ Harvey replied:

“Not every day. I go through phases. I read it as much as I can. There’s just so much in there. I don’t know the answers to anything. Everything is possible as far as I’m concerned, and nothing is impossible. I enjoy reading it for that. It’s, like, if you want to let your imagination run wild, dip into a few Bible stories. It’s pretty amazing stuff. Why take a trip on acid when you can read the Bible?”

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Four).

“ … wandering stars for whom is reversed the blackness of darkness forever” – Jude 1:13.

Wandering Star from Portishead’s Mercury Music Prize winning album Dummy (1994) takes the ideas of Jude 1:13, in order to paint a picture of intense suffering, as is singer Beth Gibbons’ specialism.  Coupled with a voice which seems to harness all the sadness of the world and spill it back at you with a haunted beauty that is often unmatched, Wandering Star tells a tale of fallen angels condemned to live in hellish pitch black anguish and torment forever more.

Firstly and most obviously, the chorus of Wandering Star is taken verbatim from Jude 1:13.  In the Bible, ‘stars’ often represent angels, with Lucifer and his demons being referred to as “falling stars”.  Take for example: “How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn!  You have been cut down to Earth, You who have weakened the nations!” (Isaiah 14:12).  Lucifer was once an angel of light, “O star of the morning”, with good angels being known as morning stars.  When translated, Lucifer means ‘shining one, morning star’.  Wandering Star is a song about demons being cast into the abyss, written from the perspective of a demon as a metaphor for the suffering of a human being.

By taking on the form of the demon, Beth Gibbons taps into very human emotions.  The line “Those who have seen the needle’s eye” is also a Biblical reference.  See Mark 10:25 which states, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God”.  Essentially, what this is saying is that those in a low condition who suffer on Earth, as opposed to those who are in a high condition and prosperous, are more likely to enter heaven.  Here Gibbons uses the idea of “the needle’s eye” to depict the darkest place that a human being can be in.

Like many of Portishead’s songs, Wandering Star is about being in the midst of depression and the need to escape.  Take for example, the lines “And the time that I will suffer less, Is when I never have to wake”, referring again to those who have suffered on Earth entering the Kingdom of God.  The line “For it’s such a lovely day” is very telling as if we look at the etymology of the word ‘Lucifer’, a demon, we find that it is derived from the Latin word ‘Vulgate’ which translates as ‘the morning star, the planet Venus.  If we take Pluto to be a Dwarf Planet as opposed to a Planet, there are seven Planets.  Similarly, it took God seven days to create the Earth and finally, there are seven days in a week.  Seven is the divine number of God and therefore, Wandering Star is a song which uses the image of a demon in order to talk about the emotions felt by a human being on Earth who is suffering great pain, battling their demons, questioning their life and looking to make it into Heaven.  Discussing her lyrics and persona within Portishead in the 1998 documentary Welcome To Portishead, she said:

“Nothing is always as it seems, I think that’s the main thing and the one thing I would like people to realise (is) that, even, it’s like me laughing when we’re doing this, it just goes to show how different it is on the outside to the inside.  Human beings are brilliant at pretending to be something they might not be … most of us live under a charade of a personality but underneath, we’re all the same.  Most of us feel paranoid or lonely or unlucky in life or past heartbreaks or other family problems.  You know, normal things that … things aren’t what they seem.  So, however I come across, I might not be a good portrait of what I am”.