heaven on their minds

walk across my swimming pool.

heaven on their minds

I thought Easter was this past weekend. I think I asked someone and they told me April 9th and so I was carrying that in my brain, except then I saw something else that referred to Good Friday as the 15th and now I understand why Tax Day is the 18th. But it’s probably why I woke up and had “Heaven On Their Minds” from Jesus Christ Superstar in my head, and once a couple of hours had gone by and it hadn’t been removed, despite listening to many other things, I decided “fuck it,” found it on a streaming service, and hit play.

I listened to the entire goddamn thing because I know the entire goddamned thing by heart, I can sing the harmonies and the guitar licks and know where the modulations happen. I didn’t listen to the whole thing because of some kind of superstition, but rather because I couldn’t remember when I’d made it through from start to finish and at no point did I get bored. I do not as a rule like Andrew Lloyd Weber, but every time I listen to JCS I think it holds up. Today was not any different.

If this isn’t your thing, or you think it isn’t your thing, I would urge you to give it a try. Just listen to the first song after the Overture, “Heaven On Their Minds,” because it absolutely sells everything that is great about Jesus Christ Superstar. Performed by Judas Iscariot, there’s tension, there’s drama, there’s melodrama. It’s constructed through use of a simple guitar motif over and over underneath an insanely delivered vocal, and then it vamps into the narrative, the verses, underscored by beautiful piano work that fills the space and gives the vocals the room to emote up and down and soar to make a point; I particularly adore the glissando run towards the end. The orchestra slips in and out so quickly you won’t even know it’s there, the right level of highlighting for both expansion and release. “All your followers are blind / too much heaven on their minds” is a genius lyric, it’s the ‘one line,’ as Springsteen once put it, it’s the line that delivers the song. This song is a journey; it needs to be, to remind us what’s at stake in the story that is to follow. You don’t have to be Christian or believe in Jesus to find the whole thing a compelling narrative. And I could literally get in the car with you right now and sing the entire number, note for note, with conviction.

Now you are probably thinking to yourself, how on earth is a nice Jewish girl from Connecticut so thoroughly familiar with and interested in Jesus Christ Superstar? And the reason for that is because my mother loved musicals and played them non-stop. She had one of those massive wooden stereo systems (kind of like this but without legs) that dates to at least 1966, because that was the year my brother was born and my dad had to put a padlock on the damn thing because once he could stand he could pull himself up and open the lid and scratch records. At some point in the 70’s Mom got an 8-track tape player from Radio Shack and Dad hooked it up to the stereo. It sat in the living room of our house in Southwestern Michigan and instead of mom having to stop what she was doing and flip the record over (or ask me to do it, which I was occasionally allowed the responsibility of doing) she could just let the tape cycle from track to track and it would loop endlessly.

I might have been outside playing but more likely I was hiding in my favorite reading spot, which was in this tiny gap underneath the console table behind the fancy couch in the living room. No one could ever find me there, there was good light because there was a bank of windows, and I was close enough to hear if someone was calling me and be there so quickly no one would ever know I was in the house reading instead of outside playing in a neighboring construction site in our subdivision. (It was great? They just left these houses under construction open and we had dirt clod wars with the kids from the next street over. THE SEVENTIES, I tell you.) But this was also how I heard the continual repeats of JCS (and later, is the reason my youngest sister once burst out singing “Dance 10, Looks 3” in the middle of the supermarket). Also on repeat: Pippin, Man of La Mancha, Chicago. The french horns in JCS made the french horns in Tommy feel familiar.

I didn’t own a copy of Jesus Christ Superstar until the 90’s, when it slid back into my life because the Afghan Whigs covered “The Temple” on Congregation, which was the first Whigs album I ever owned, bought for me from the Sub Pop store in Seattle when friends were out there in the early 90s, just right when “grunge” started. You know that feeling when you are listening to something new and then you recognize it and you’re singing the words, you clearly know the song, but the context is all off? I HAVE NEVER HEARD THIS BAND BEFORE, HOW DO I KNOW THIS SONG? Thank god for album credits. (Sidebar: Dulli has also performed a bit of “Heaven On Their Minds” as an intro, it’s insane, he should have been in some production of JCS and IT IS NOT TOO LATE.)

I think I vibe with JCS because it’s remarkably restrained for ALW, the costumes aren’t overblown, and you can easily follow the story even if, like me, it is not exactly in your lane. The performances are fabulous. The musicians are phenomenal. I do not think that the “updated” live version they did with John Legend in 2018 was all that great, and upon relisten, I’m still backing the original.

So at some point in the mid-90s, I think the movie might have been on TV around Easter that year, and an internet friend and I were discussing how much we enjoyed it, and the next thing I knew a copy of the album showed up in the mail, back when you could buy something like that for next to nothing (I think it cost her a quarter, or something similarly ridiculous).

Getting that record and putting it on for the first time in decades was time travel in a way I had never experienced before. It fired all the memory synapses in my brain and BOOM. I was back in the living room in that house, seeing everything from the perspective of someone who was 8 or 9, at the same height level. I think it made such an impression because at that point I was in my early 30’s and that’s the point in your life where time starts to register just slightly differently than it did when you were even in your teens or 20s. I also think I hadn’t necessarily spent a lot of time thinking about my childhood, again, because I was so busy moving as quickly as I could away from it. It can still do that now, I hear a faint crackle even if I’m not listening to it on vinyl, I can smell the new furniture smell of the hideous and uncomfortable company couch, smell the wild strawberries that grew in abundance in the empty lots across the street.

When I was in Southwest Michigan a couple of weeks ago to see the Sun Ra Arkestra, I spent a little time driving around the old homestead. I drove through back in 2003 when I drove cross-country from Seattle to New Jersey and then back again; no one in our family had even been in the state since we’d moved and I thought, when will I ever be back here again? But I did it again because I could, driving through the downtown where I walked with the marching band, past the department store where I’d ride my bike to get the top 40 listing whenever I could, and then the house. There are two houses now on the side where my bedroom used to face empty fields and then, across the street, farmland. It was a one-story ranch house and the windows seemed awfully low, even for a kid, but the result was that I could sit on my bed and listen to the radio and stare out the window at the lightning bugs and watch for blinking red lights from airplanes.

I could lie there for hours and listen to the radio, turning the dial to see what other stations I could find, then waiting for a station break so I could find out where the station was coming from. If I didn’t know, I’d get up the next day and go find it in the atlas, pulling the giant red book with gold-stamped letters out of the bookcase. We could always look at any book we wanted to, but heaven forbid you asked before you tried to look it up yourself. I would spend hours with that atlas, flipping through maps, memorizing the names of countries and cities and state capitals, then going to the library if I found something particularly interesting.

I'm always curious of the direction my brain goes in musically, what it pulls out of memory or some distant recess, and more than anything I'd like to know why some things reappear and other things never resurface. I've thought of that old house in Southwestern Michigan a lot because of those hours spent listening to the radio and staring out the window. In the early 90s, Patti Smith put out a small book called Woolgathering via Hanuman Press (and reissued it later in a tiny, slim volume). In the book, she writes about sitting and staring out the window at the field across the street from her house in New Jersey, how she saw or somehow knew that there were magical people moving around out there that she couldn’t see. It’s the kind of thing she talked about in early interviews, but not with the same specificity, probably because whoever she was talking to probably thought she was sufficiently weird enough without adding another layer to it. But it was the kind of thing I remember reading and thinking, you’re not alone.