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Columbus, Ohio punk band Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments recorded a song years ago called “RnR Hall of Fame.” Actually, it’s not so much a song as a furious rant over equally furious musical noise. The “song” includes the lyrics:

Bombs away on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame / I don’t want to see Eric Clapton’s stuffed baby / I don’t want to see the shotgun of Kurt Cobain / I don’t want to see the liver of David Crosby / Blow it up / Blow it up before Johnny Rotten gets in / Blow it up before Paul Westerberg gets in / Blow it up before Steve Albini makes a speech / Blow it up!

(Listen to it here if you think you can take it.)

Such would have been my own opinion of the rock museum, say, ten years ago when my listening habits lay for the most part squarely within anti-rock musical circles that reveled in their obscurity and inaccessibility. Ohio art-punk bands in particular, such as Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Harriet the Spy, and Guided by Voices, took cues from the mainstream rock playbook but ran them through the wash with cases of PBR and spit them back in the face of the rock establishment: Blow it up!

I couldn’t help but have this song and my own punk-oriented commitments in mind as a few of us from the Rock and Theology project wove through the reliquaries of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame last week as a diversion from our attendance at the Catholic Theological Society of America annual conference. As we stood before display after display taking in artifact after artifact, I was confronted not only with a life-sized three-dimensional history of (fairly mainstream) rock, but also with my own rock history and a sense of the changes my own life-in-rock has undergone over the years.

Granted, the Slave Apartments point to the undeniable “cheesiness” of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame experience. Empty stage costumes hanging on headless mannequins, for example, look awfully silly up close and nothing like we remember them from their use in concert, in music video, or on album covers — with the exception, of course, of Jimi Hendrix’s vampiric pre-Vatican II cope, reverenced by Tom Beaudoin in an earlier post.

At the same time, between the slices of “cheese” were countless breathtaking moments of what I, through my Roman Catholic lenses, could only call sacrament. The most vivid of these were those times when I would round a corner and see Levon Helm’s mandolin and the sheet of paper on which The Band scribbled the lyrics to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a well-worn but hauntingly silent Martin guitar that belonged to Gram Parsons, and the ancient-looking 4-track recorder on which Bruce Springsteen recorded his Nebraska album at home. I was quite surprised at the feelings these relics conjured. While at one time my theology would have questioned such feelings as “idolatrous,” as I was confronted with this history-of-rock-through-artifact and my own musical history, I could not help but finally affirm that I was not interacting with mere musical-historical curiosities but objects that often mediate the sacred. These were not moments of mere interestedness. These were holy moments.

And isn’t that the way Christian — and especially Catholic — spiritually sometimes operates? When I have stood before the Christian reliquaries of martyrs and saints — viewing their skulls, fingers and other “incorruptible” remains or their empty chasubles and mitres hanging on mannequins — followed by a swing through the cathedral gift shop, the same conflicting feelings of “cheesiness” and sacredness are raised. The “cheesiness” of large portions of Roman Catholic spiritual practices and objects have for good reason been viewed suspiciously as a kind superstition, but does that kind of artifact-interaction not find echoes in the practices of musical fandom? Don’t we, when it comes down to it, need this?

Punk bands and other iconoclasts might be onto something in their radical critiques of the tendencies of musical and religious fandom. But before we scream “blow it up,” perhaps we should stop just to notice: that sometimes the utter “cheesiness” of our rock-n-religious reliquaries presents us with something more than the merely museumesque but a mediation of a holy encounter.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNT9uP5bW7g

Michael Iafrate
Morgantown, West Virginia

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3 Comments »

  1. i guess for me its a question of mediation, in general. on the one hand, there is the simple critique of fetishism & idolatry, and the distance they create between one’s self and others via their mediating properties; but on the other is the simple fact that anything that mediates, by necessity, can act as a bridge between self and others… even to the point of destroying the space between completely.

    so its not an easy answer; one person’s temple is another’s disneyland. i find, reading this, the fact that springstein’s four track is in a musuem and not in his house deeply offensive… and having to see it there would probably have made me want to blow all kinds of things up. however, were it in bruce’s house, and one day while he and were hanging out he was like “hey, there’s the four track i recorded nebraska on”… well, i’d probably pee myself.

    Comment by jeff. — June 18, 2010 @ 1:49 am

  2. Hi Jeff – I sympathize with your comment and agree with the issues you raised. The 4-track was part of a temporary exhibit made up largely of thing Springsteen loaned to the museum. Not sure if the 4-track is in his personal possession of if it came from somewhere else.

    Comment by Michael Iafrate — June 18, 2010 @ 9:53 am

  3. The lyric is actually “Before Paul Westerberg SITS in”. Get it?

    Great tune/rant.

    Comment by Paul — April 13, 2017 @ 10:31 am

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