So if you’re going to have a black guy play Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, it better be Corey Glover. If you’re a guilty white person like me, you still might squirm a little bit when you see Glover take his forty pieces of silver to hand over Ted Neeley’s J. C. I mean, the historical Christ probably looked more like Osama bin Laden than Barry Gibb with Jennifer Aniston hair extensions, right? So having a black man betray a white Jesus with a kiss in front of a predominantly white audience at the Orpheum could be interpreted as an irresponsible move. But the casting is defensible on two prongs: (1) If you’re going to do a rock 'n' roll passion play, you need rock stars—and Corey Glover was the only African American to front a big rock band (Living Colour) in the forty years between Jimi Hendrix and that dude from Bloc Party. (2) If anybody can illicit sympathy for having issues with Jesus, the guy that sang the Grammy-winning 1988 hit “Cult of Personality” can.
Neeley, of course, is reprising the role he transubstantiated in the original 1973 movie version of Superstar—and even though he’s now way past thirty-three years old, if you’re sitting back far enough, he still looks good in the robes (even the crucifixion diaper, actually). And he can still sing: He comes close to bona fide Axl Rose range, going from a warm Seger baritone to what Chuck Klosterman once referred to as Rose’s “crazy devil woman” voice.
Actually, Neeley’s Christ—or should I say Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Christ— is a very specific cultural interpretation that has a lot in common with Axl W. Rose. First of all, they both love the Elton John/Queen, almost operatic hard rock, with gigantic guitars, strings, and over-the-top vocals. They both were country boys living in the big city amongst groupies and sinners—Indiana Axl had his Michelle, and Jesus of Nazareth had his Mary Magdalene; they both were hella judgmental towards the people in their new homes (Axl penning Hollywood-is-a-New-Sodom ditties like “Welcome to the Jungle” and “One in a Million,” Christ using his own crazy devil woman voice to kick the merchants out of the temple). And they both had insane martyr complexes—Axl with the "November Rain"/"Don’t Cry"/"Estranged" video cycle, where he imagines himself dying alone repeatedly, and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane , asking first, plaintively, “Will no one stay awake with me, Peter, John, James? Will no one wait with me, Peter, John, James?” and then, in devil woman voice, “Whyyyyyyyyyyyy, whyyyyyyyyyy should I die?!?”
In a way, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s J. C. is, like Axl, the paradigm for the perfect rock star. Maybe even a painful reminder to people like me, who actually miss rock stars. Some people don’t—and you guys can have Weezer and Deerhoof and Stephen Malkmus. But I miss my rock stars. And outside of nostalgic video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, do we have any contemporary musical messiahs? After Axl, we had a few reluctant prophets: Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder had J. C.’s sensitive side down, but they were reluctant Superstars. The post-grunge guys, Chris Martin and Thom Yorke, are both holier-than-thou enough, but they seem so proggy, and hidden behind technology, so English. The Strokes are more like a cool clique of apostles than The Second Coming. I dunno, Jack White? Isn’t he a little too wan? And some people see Mary Magdalene in Meg, but I really don’t. I guess there’s always Bono—but have you ever really seen Bono angry? Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Christ gets angry, and he sort of has a sexy girlfriend, and he’s full of angst about his position in the world. You could make the argument that hip hop has cornered the market on superstars—remember P. Diddy and Nas rapping up on twin crosses on “Do You Hate Me Now?” But most of the superstar rappers, like Jay-Z, who actually refers to himself as J-HOVA, or “God MC,” have the persecution complex down, but lack the element of introspection, the “Why me, Lord?” that comes with the responsibility of trying to do the right thing.
Which brings me to an old Yoda quote: “No. There is another.” Like Axl and J. C., I also would rather hang with the sinners than cry with the saints, so with that in mind, my sex columnist friend, Alexis, is always asking me, “What do you white boys love so much about Kanye West?” This is the perfect opportunity to give her a definitive answer.
O Kanye, how great Thou art. On one of his first big hits, “Jesus Walks,” off his debut album The College Dropout, he raps about the responsibility of being the voice of his generation (after surviving a serious car accident, no less). “God show me the way because the devil tryin’ to break me down/the only thing that I pray is my feet don’t fail me now.” He grew up with his single mother in the Midwest, before going on to become a success in the biggest media transmitter cities in the world. He cultivates a martyr complex, on topics both great—“George Bush doesn’t care about black people!”—and small—the Grammys. On songs like “Heard ‘Em Say,” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” he’s not afraid to examine his own petty obsessions, nor the larger system that produces those obsessions. He’s always doubting himself and then finding strength in his faith (“Stronger”), in that angsty, petulant, Andrew Lloyd Webber Christ way.
And he does it all with fresher beats, and a much fresher haircut.