This time of the year, I can still hear it playing

This time of the year, I can still hear it playing

The first historical reference to Jesus Christ is ascribed to writings that appeared in 50 AD, roughly 30 years after the Crucifixion.

The first use of the word “Superstar” dates to the year 1910.

That’s a lag time of some 860 years, give or take.

What’s interesting to me is it only took 60 years for someone — or two someones — to blend them into a musical masterpiece.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” was released in 1970, and if you were aware and at all cognizant of what was going on, you knew about it.

I was 15 that spring, a ninth-grader experiencing my first exposure to life in a public school, having been sheltered in the cocoon of parochial school since the Kennedy inauguration, a solemn event my mother made sure her children witnessed on Jan. 20, 1961.

Robert Frost, America’s poet laureate, read from a work he’d written specifically for the occasion, and I remember that due to the blinding sunshine and his failing eyesight, he needed assistance in order to complete his recitation, other hands providing shade.

JFK was the nation’s first (and only) Catholic president, which made the tragic events of Nov. 22, 1963, one of my generation’s signature touchstones, right up there with the lunar landing.

The space program was hardly immune to religiosity, despite its nondenominational mandate, as everyone who was near a television set on Dec. 24, 1968, surely recalls the astronauts’ reading from the Book of Genesis, the verses about the creation.

“And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light and God saw that it was good.” This was an amazing juxtaposition and ought to have been controversial, but it was Christmas, after all.

Less than two years later, however, the landscape had changed significantly. Martin Luther King’s murder, coupled with Bobby Kennedy’s bloody death, turned 1968 into a year of rage, a cauldron of bitterness and resentment that boiled over during the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where blue-shirted thugs assaulted peaceful demonstrators in the name of law and order.

Against the nightly network TV backdrop of footage from an unwinnable war in Vietnam, things got even worse in 1969, but by then Nixon was in the White House and many folks gave up caring.

Apollo 11 fulfilled JFK’s ambition to put a man on the moon, but Chappaquiddick and the Manson murders dimmed that brilliant moment, and Altamont spoiled the togetherness of Woodstock.

So … goodbye and good riddance to the '60s.

What, pop culture sages wondered, might the year 1970 offer?

It was into that vacuum Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice launched a rock opera titled “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and, well, let’s just say that nation was just the least little bit ticked off.

Looking back from a comfortable distance of 54 years, it’s easy to understand how, in time, their creation not only survived the bile, the raw anger and the righteous indignation of mainstream America, but flourished, yielding a best-selling album, two highly regarded Broadway productions and a lauded motion picture.

In those days acceptance and appreciation weren’t the majority’s choice, which meant that for those of us in our teens, it was time to make our voices heard. The first step, of course, was getting our hands on the record, which, oh-so-predictably, some stores refused to carry, citing sacrilege and the cynical corruption of the young.

I’ve always been rather proud of the fact that my father — decorated war veteran, staunch Catholic, respected college professor — was the one who brought a copy of “Superstar” into our home, a gesture I’ve found more and more admirable over the years.

“Let’s see what the fuss is all about,” he said, cueing up Side One and lowering the tone arm onto a slab of vinyl that changed a lot of thinking, at least from my perspective and, I’m sure, many others.

The biggest problem back then stemmed from exploring the human side of Jesus, though we’d been taught since infancy it was precisely that aspect of his character that made him so singular.

“He was God and man,” we were schooled to believe, but when it came time to confront that dichotomy, many simply couldn’t deal.

The album’s four sides described Holy Week in a way that was revolutionary and, at the same time, reverential. We saw Jesus lonely, angry, confused, bitter, determined and frightened. His most memorable lines, to my sensibility anyway, were these:

“God, thy will is hard, but you hold every card,

I will drink your cup of poison, nail me to your cross

and break me, bleed me, beat me, kill me:

Take me now before I change my mind.”

Doctoral dissertations have doubtless been constructed around the sentiment expressed in those 40 words, their import, their gravity.

As for me, I’ll do what I’ve done every Holy Week since 1970.

I’ll light a candle, settle into the silence of my room and listen to “Jesus Christ Superstar” from start to finish, remembering and savoring it all, relishing its vast, sacred and eternal importance.

Mike Dewey can be reached at or 1317 Troy Road, Ashland, OH 44805. He invites you to find him on Facebook, where there’s always room for discussion and debate.

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