It was a chilly overcast Saturday afternoon December 8 as Kate Clay and I walked down Manor Farm Road from her family’s house towards Horspath village’s little bus stop at the bottom of the hill. She had invited me to join her and her “mates” who were going to see the new movie version of the musical Godspell, showing at a theater in downtown Oxford.
I remembered Kate from that summer three years ago when she was just thirteen. She was extremely shy, and had not interacted with me, my brother, or my mom very much. Now at sixteen she seemed to have come out of that shell, though still more reserved than her gregarious older brother. She had a look about her that was quite distinctive, with straight brown hair cut short on top and behind the ears in back, but with long bangs tumbling over her forehead and even longer on each temple down in front of her ears. Shy and cerebral like me, she had a thing where she would look down when she was thinking, her hair hanging down obscuring her eyes and nose, then bring her head up and flip her bangs to the side revealing her big eyes when she was finally ready to share her thoughts. More so than me, her brother or her parents, she seemed to have a real fashion sense about her, always dressed with thought when I had seen her. Today she was wearing a knee-length camel colored wool coat, fake-fur trimmed black gloves, brown and gold plaid knee socks rising above tall shiny black boots with platform heels an inch higher than mine. With my own big ‘fro’d hair, charcoal colored flared slacks, and two-tone suede heels (a bit worse for wear after ten weeks of way more use than I had imagined when I brought them) we would have looked the part of a trendy young couple. That is except for my bright orange down jacket (certainly a bit on the dirty side as well from so much use) that clashed with the rest of my attire, certainly not the least bit fashionable.
When we got near the village store at the bottom of the hill I noticed that there were two young people, with long wool coats a lot like Kate’s, one looking female and the other maybe male, sitting together at the bus stop across the street from the store. As the two of them noticed us, I could see them sit up straight and launch into what looked like a very animated discussion, talking at each other but also glancing our way. I’m sure just seeing Kate had not piqued their interest, but rather the ‘bloke’ with the big hair she was walking with. When we got within earshot of their conversation they quieted. Their gaze darted back and forth between Kate and me, finally focusing on Kate as we stopped in front of them, anticipating her explanation of who that bloke with her was.
Kate said way too nonchalantly, “Cooper… these are my mates T.J. and Mackenzie”. They both immediately focused intense gazes on me as sixteen-year-olds are particularly skilled at doing. T.J. had reddish auburn hair cut like Kate’s, short in back with long bangs in front of the ears coming down to her chin line. Shorter bangs on the forehead showed off a big round face but with small wide set eyes and a tiny nose, and a big wide mouth below. Protruding from the bottom of her long blue wool coat were horizontally striped gray and white knee socks above tall shiny black boots like Kate’s. Mackenzie had a similar long wool coat but in black, and short black hair coming straight down and slicked against the scalp, dark eyes and chiseled facial features giving him (her?) a completely androgynous look. Unlike his/her two mates Mackenzie was wearing jeans, black and tight around skinny legs, with the cuffs rolled up above the biggest shitkickingest black combat boots you could possibly imagine. None of the three of them were wearing makeup or earrings, that might have signalled to me that Mackenzie was perhaps female.
Kate continued for my benefit, “My mates are going to accompany us to the movie”, stopping her introduction right there, not giving her friends any context of who I was or why I was with her. It immediately hit me that they might be jumping to a conclusion that I was some sort of new boyfriend, and in not giving them the real scoop, Kate was playing them, jerking their chains.
Sensing the ruse, I tried my best to play along, thinking what a boyfriend might say to his new girlfriend’s best friends meeting them for the first time. What I thought of was something that was totally false, at least the second part, but I said it anyway. “Nice to meet you. Kate’s told me all about you two!”
Hearing me say that, Kate nearly lost it, and had to swallow hard to keep the beginning of a laugh from bursting from her mouth. She then took her little ruse up a notch by reaching around and taking my arm with hers. I could see T.J.’s jaw literally drop, her mouth opening but no words able to come out. Mackenzie wrinkled his/her nose and shook his/her head slowly, trying to process something that just did not compute, then made three attempts to start a sentence, “Uh… Wha… Whe…”, failing at each.
T.J. uttered an “Okay”, waving her hands in front of her. It was as if she was trying to clear the air so she could reign in her faculties to cobble an intelligent question together and deliver it, to get to the bottom of this subterfuge. “So HOW do you two know each other exactly?”. Having heard my accent when I spoke she added, “He’s a… You’re a… Yank, right?”
I grinned and said nothing more than my favorite British affirmation, “Indeed”, delivered with my best Monty Python British accent, more misdirected grist for T.J.’s whipsawed mill. Kate and I were still arm in arm. This was Kate’s scene to play out, I was just playing along.
Kate hung her head as she was wont to do, her bangs obscuring her eyes, but the biggest shiteating grin slowly forming underneath. She took her arm away from mine so we were standing separately again. Then sweeping her head and hair back with a flip, reported very matter of factly the missing context, that my family had lived next door to them four summers ago and I had become Kevin’s friend, and that I was currently back from ten weeks traveling the Continent and staying with them for a couple days until I flew home to the States on Tuesday. I was just “tagging along”.
“So the arm in arm thing?” T.J. queried. Kate shrugged, still with the big grin, but dropped her head again.
Mackenzie giggled, maybe more like a stereotypical girl. T.J. theatrically flopped back against the bus stop bench, glaring at Kate but with her own grin, saying, “You evil little witch!” Kate seemed to react to that characterization as high praise. Mackenzie stood and held out a hand to shake mine, saying, “Nice to meet you Cooper!” T.J. finally rose and did the same.
I played my usual “So how did you all meet?” card and the three of them were immediately engaged. They looked at each other, their eyes darting back and forth, each seemed to be anxiously waiting for one of the others to start, but still just an energized silence of anticipation. Finally they all laughed, at the same time even, as if on some telepathic cue. Kate flung back her hair, her signal she was about to speak and the other two relaxed into listening mode.
Kate explained that the three of them had been schoolmates since primary school. Their families were connected too. Mackenzie’s dad and hers worked together at the Morris Motors factory in Cowley. Mackenzie’s mom was a local artist of note. T.J.’s mom and Madge were best friends, both longtime volunteers at Saint Francis church. T.J.’s dad was the church vicar, and had baptized both T.J. and Kate.
“But not me!” Mackenzie piped up at the mention of baptism.
“Not Mack,” Kate confirmed. I noted the more masculine sounding nickname.
“My parents were hippies,” Mackenzie continued, “I was never baptized. I’m going to PURGATORY!” Mackenzie spoke that last word with a theatrical physical and vocal shudder, raising both hands and wiggling fingers in the air with eyes stretched open to the extreme.
“My god child there is still time to accept Jesus and join the flock!” T.J. mocked, perhaps lampooning her dad the vicar.
“And yet,” Mackenzie pausing for dramatic effect, “I still somehow do not. Why is that? What a lost soul am I!”
“Repent!” Kate chimed in with a big grin in her mate’s direction.
“Never!” Mackenzie replied, grabbing Kate by the nose and wiggling it. Mackenzie suddenly remembered that I was there and withdrew back to his/her quiet and docile pose. I noted that the three seemed to have a great understanding and affection for each other, which I of course found very satisfying and inspiring even. And I still could not say categorically whether Mackenzie was male or female, which I found intriguing, though I was leaning toward female at the moment, despite the nickname and the monster boots.
The bus came and we boarded, Kate sat next to me and her mates on the bench across from and facing us. T.J. put her arm around Mackenzie, who cuddled up next to her and rested his/her head on her shoulder, smiling contentedly as the bus rattled down the road, jostling us all. They looked at me for another prompt to launch into a new conversation, showing me a kind of deference as a relative ‘elder’.
So I tried my best to play the role they were thrusting me into. We’d talk about the movie we were about to see. I told them I had not seen Godspell performed as a play or a movie, but I’d heard the original cast album and I really liked the songs and the music. I said that I thought that the three of them would like it as well. And trying to reach out and find ways to make a connection with Kate’s friends I continued, noting that since Mackenzie was “begat by hippies” they might enjoy the whole “hippie Jesus rock and roll thing” in the show’s score.
“Not sure that’s her thing!” said Kate, finally indicating Mackenzie was a female type person.
Mackenzie looked at me, nose wrinkled and lips pursed pondering. “That’s my parents’ thing, all that ‘peace and love’, ‘flower power’, ‘sex and drugs’ stuff. Not really my cup of tea!” And then getting more philosophical, “Not really going to change the world at this point in my opinion. We’ve moved on. We need to be much more practical, not so idealistic.” Kate and T.J. nodded their heads thoughtfully like that did make sense. But then trying not to be too dour, Mackenzie added, “Though I do like show tunes!”
The hippie wannabe, I felt defensive. Was peace and love, joy for that matter, really passe? Was it worn out as a paradigm to guide ‘the Cause’? They sensed my defensiveness, their radar for nonverbal cues finely tuned. The three of them were quietly pensive.
T.J. tried being diplomatic, saying that she had heard the Godspell album too and liked the music, saying it was “way better than catechism class”. And then to Kate, who must have attended those classes with her, “Can I get an amen, sister?” Kate lifted her head, flipped her bangs out of her eyes, and did her best to issue a bright “Amen!” The two young women touched fingers across the space between them.
“Well wait a minute!” I said. I wasn’t going down without a fight, and let some androgynous sixteen-year-old dismiss in a couple sentences the whole hippie ethos. “There is more to ‘peace and love’, to ‘flower power’, to ‘sex and drugs’ even, than just words!”
I started in on the items in the laundry list.
“So let’s start with peace,” flipping up the two-finger peace sign. “We’re not going anywhere until we stop all this war and violence between us. Look at the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli war could have easily led to a military confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union. How can we evolve as a world with that crap going on!” I was in gear, gesticulating, and they noted that and dropped down into respectful listening mode.
“And then of course, love.” I put my hand over my heart and then pantomimed opening it, sharing the love. “The Beatles said it,” figuring no one of my generation could question their logic, “All you need is love! When we are not hating at, shooting at, each other, then we can lead with love and we change the dynamic, we change the world.” I could tell by the facial expressions of the two across from me that they were skeptical, but holding their fire. Kate had her head down thinking. Despite the tough audience, I wasn’t stopping, I was on a roll now.
“And if we can be at peace and interact with love then we can create and share joy.” I was making this stuff up as I went along, not sure it was really a coherent argument. “The joy of just being alive. For me the joy of travel. For all of us,” gesturing with my hands to the three of them and then all the other people on the bus, “The joy of being able to be our unique selves,” daring to look at Mackenzie for that one.
Summing up I tried to close strong. “‘Peace, love and joy’ may sound simplistic,” pausing for effect, “But still they are profound goals to improving the human condition!” Listening to myself pontificate it sounded a bit much, so I softened a bit, “At least I think they are!”
Now came the harder sell, but I plowed forward. “Now peace, love and joy are the goals; but sex, drugs and rock and roll are the means as it were, to get there.” I loved trying to boil things down to the essence, though maybe oversimplified in this case, but oh well, I was going to see where I could go with this line of argument.
I continued, “Sex has not been my forte, but our parents’ generation hasn’t been able to deal with it at all. Watch those old TV shows where even mom and dad had to sleep in separate beds. Total denial. Sex is that deep intimate pleasurable union between two people that perpetuates the species and acknowledges how we are all connected. Again not my department, as of yet, but I totally get it!”
It struck me that here I was, an eighteen year old male talking to three sixteen year olds about the meta of human sexuality, on a public bus, and essentially confessing my virginity.
“And drugs, what we’re talking about is altered perception and mind expansion, not just getting drunk like our parents do. Sharing ‘getting high’, exploring higher, or at least different, planes of consciousness. Not just the ‘social lubrication’ that people have done with alcohol since the beginning of time and adults still do today. Not that I begrudge that whole lowering of inhibitions thing with alcohol, making it easier for people to connect and be emotionally honest with each other. Of course, not so much when you’re sixteen!” I realized I was losing my focus, getting into talking about drinking.
“Social lubrication?” T.J. was a bit incredulous, having not heard the term before and thinking it comical. “Don’t adults just drink to get pissed, or maybe just have a glass of wine with dinner?”
“Yeah pissed, but why? What’s the purpose?” I posed the question. “It’s being able to let loose, speak more honestly about your feelings. That’s that lubrication thing.” We were off on a tangent.
Finally trying to refocus my argument, continuing, “Finally the music, rock and roll, in all its variations. But unified by compelling rhythms and the beat. The music brings us together. It carries the messages we need to hear about peace, love and joy.”
“The music is all about sex and drugs,” Mackenzie noted, “‘Let’s do drugs’,’Let’s have sex’, ‘Let’s do drugs and have sex’ It gets a little repetitive after a while!”
“Yeah,” I conceded, “Sure there’s that, but there’s more. Pink Floyd is not just sex and drugs. Dark Side of the Moon is a critique of society.”
Mackenzie quieted and thought about that.
After my initial rant had kind of wound down, the three of them looked at me, still skeptical. Though we were only two years apart in age, I felt like there was some sort of chasm between us. Like I was on the young end, the tail end, of the whole hippie ethos, me the wannabe who thought it all was, or had been, profound. And they were the leading edge of a whole new ethos, still probably mostly undefined, forming on a very different set of principles, more pragmatic and practical ones perhaps. They were not wasting energy trying to fundamentally transform the world but just realistically trying to make it work better. To them, the hippies were not the gurus, the trailblazers, just historical oddities, yesterday’s news. The big hair was not such a big deal.
When we got to the theater there was a pretty large crowd, including a lot of other older youth. There was one line to get tickets, and then a second longer line once you had your ticket to enter the theater. My three comrades scanned the crowd and particularly all the other older youth with great concern. Looking at the three of them, and then looking at the others their age, I noted that none of the other young women had the super fashionable clothes or style of haircut that Kate and T.J. had, having more standard type hair you’d maybe expect on an older teen. It struck me that my comrades, particularly Mackenzie, might be the nerds, weirdos or even outcasts among their classmates. Kate caught sight of a kid in front of us in the line for tickets and I heard her swear for the first time.
“Shite! Bobby Bricks is here!” she said in a low growl, a tone I had not heard her use before. Standing next to me in line, she spun around to face her two comrades behind us and repeated the news in a low hiss. More expletives came from T.J. Mackenzie actually stiffened her upper lip, that stereotypical British thing, and looked up at the sky as if for some sort of divine assistance.
Bobby was in line in front of us scanning the crowd in line behind him with a scowl on his face. He looked about their age. You could see his gaze focus in on Mackenzie, his scowl getting even scowlier. He said something to the person in line next to him and then sauntered back towards us, saying loudly, “There’s little Mack-what-see,” presumably referring to Mackenzie’s nerdiness and androgynous look.
Kate issued another growl under her breath and moved to Mackenzie’s left side and took her arm. T.J. took her other arm. Kate’s head dropped and I sensed she was trying to figure out what to do as Bobby continued to approach us with an angry look in his eye. She lifted her head with a jerk and focused her big eyes on him.
“Hey Bobby,” she said, then pointing at me, “I’d like to introduce you to Mackenzie’s cousin Spike from the States.” It caught me off guard at first, but I quickly got her gambit, including calling me “Spike” rather than my real name. Kate was in ‘little witch’ mode again, and I was impressed with her ability to improvise, and struck by her willingness to use full scale fabrication to achieve her desired result, in this case the worthy cause of protecting her mate from a bully and his verbal harassment. Bobby was maybe 5’9” and slightly built, looking to be maybe sixteen like the rest of them. I was 6’, 6’2” in my two-inch heels, with another two to three inches more of hair on top depending on the weather conditions that day.
Trying to play the Spike character now, I figured I would be more effective launching my own preemptive strike. I exited the line and strode toward Bobby with my right hand outstretched, trying to do so with just the friendliest exuberance. I could see his little assault lose momentum as he shifted his focus to me and my offer to shake his hand, putting out his own almost reflexively.
“Great to meet you Bobby,” I said, clasping his hand hard and shaking it. And then for good measure, “It’s a pleasure to meet all my little cousin’s schoolmates!”
I assumed he was a schoolmate, and hoped it was really true, though it struck me it didn’t really matter, it just had to be believable that Mackenzie’s cousin who did not know any better might think that Bobby was a schoolmate. I threw in “little” because I figured it would sound more protective somehow, like I was looking after my ‘kid sister’ and was definitely older. I could see Bobby’s mind struggling with how to process and respond to my greeting, including all its extra juicing of positive energy.
“Uh… okay,” he responded nonplussed, “You really her cousin?”
“Indeed,” I said, not being able to resist using my favorite British word yet again (though I was playing an American), “I have not seen her for a few years but I’ve known her since she was a little kid.”
Hearing my accent he said, “You live in the States?” still incredulous.
“Yeah,” I assured him, “Detroit. You know, the ‘Motor City’? Motown?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” I could see him struggling to process too much discordant information.
I continued my own overly friendly counterassault, asking whether they had classes together, how long he had lived in Oxford, and telling him a bit about my own travels. With his friends now calling to him to come back because they’d reached the kiosk to buy their tickets, I could see in his eyes that he was feeling like his little bullying sortee was maybe not worth it at this point. He nodded at me and frowned, and walked back to his mates.
Once he and his friends had purchased their tickets and gone off to the end of the second line to enter the theater, now out of earshot, Kate looked at me with big twinkling eyes and a bigger grin and said, “Nice going… SPIKE!”, emphasizing her made up name for me. T.J. seconded her kudos. Mackenzie took in a deep breath and then blew it out between her lips theatrically with puffed cheeks, still looking a bit traumatized by the whole thing, brief as it was. We bought our tickets and as we walked past Bobby and his mates in the second line I made sure to stay at Mackenzie’s side, between her and him. I could see him making a point of ignoring us.
We were far enough back in line so that when we finally got in the theater most of the seats were already taken. My three companions took a moment to scan the crowd and find Bobby and his friends, who were sitting on the right side about halfway back. Most of the remaining empty seats were in the first couple rows. Kate led us down the left aisle to the area between the screen and the front row. Again my comrades scanned the first and second row from the vantage point of the front of the theater, looking for the best place to sit. Three young women, looking in age like classmates and sitting in the second row, waved to them. Kate and T.J. moved forward to take seats in front of them, leaving one between them for Mackenzie. I sat next to Kate.
The lights dimmed, and after some coming attractions, the movie began, the screen no more than ten feet in front of us, some twenty feet tall and thirty across. In the darkness came the sound of wind chimes with a blowing wind behind them, and the screen lit with a mottled gold surface with a hexagonal outcropping at the bottom. As the camera pulled out to reveal a graffitied corrugated metal wall, we heard a supple and well modulated male voice, identifying itself as the voice of God, as the wind continued to blow behind…
My name is known. God and King. I am most in majesty and whom no beginning can be and no end. Highest in potency I am and have been ever.
A little up note and emphasis on the last word “ever”, identified the voice as young and vigorous and not old and patriarchal like the stereotypical reading of an old man god. Having established its bona fides, the voice continued to describe its creation of the world as the camera panned from the graffitied corrugated metal wall to see that we are below the Brooklyn Bridge looking across the Hudson River at the contemporary skyline of New York City, featuring the twin World Trade Center towers.
And of this pleasant garden of which I have mostly goodly planted I will make him gardener for his own re-creation.
There was a growing sense of irony as we heard those words and saw the skyline of the massive city, up in front and above us in our first row of the movie theater. Finally the shot changed to cars noisily rushing by across the bridge to hammer home that irony. The camera panned again and found a shadowed figure, later revealed as the John the Baptist character, pulling a cart across the pedestrian walkway on the side of the bridge. Slowly we could see that he was a young white man with long freak flag hair, mustache and a beard, in an iconic Jimi Hendrix style 19th century cavalry jacket, so stereotypical of hippiedom. The movie title, “Godspell”, displayed above him along with the subtitle, “A musical based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew”. I was well in that moment, though detached enough to notice that my three comrades to my right seemed in it as well. The man hummed a melody as the camera revealed that he was pulling what looked like a colorfully painted circus cart across the bridge and into the waiting metropolis.
The scene changed to a crowded city sidewalk, the screen filled with the bobbing heads of hundreds of walking pedestrians. Next the traffic jam of cars in the adjoining street with drivers’ voices of frustration and anger. The camera then picked out eight young adults from the mass of humanity and vehicles. They all started seeing the image of the young man in the Jimi Hendrix jacket, their pied piper of sorts, who finally blew his shofar to call them away from their mundane lives. They all heard him begin to sing the musical’s first number, ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord’. Each one dropped whatever they were doing, kicked off their shoes and discarded their purses, and were willingly drawn to the big fountain of Central Park, where the John the Baptist character was standing and singing out his song. As they frolicked and were ‘baptized’ themselves in the water of the fountain, the last member of the forming entourage, the obvious Jesus character, was revealed watching the other nine, shyly but expectantly, from a spot just off the piazza that surrounded the fountain.
Detached momentarily from the engulfment of the briskly paced sounds and images, the point of the scene was obvious to me. These eight young adult people were drawn from their mundane existences to a more compelling and profound call of anticipation and joy of the Lord’s coming. Not unlike a few of my neighborhood friends who had embraced the Christian religion and pitched me to join them. But though the lyrics were merely the song title sung over and over, the tune and rock score were catchy enough to entice me. In its way it was the biblical equivalent of “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, that phrase popularized by Timothy Leary.
Referring to Jesus, the John the Baptist character then announced that someone was coming who was way more exalted than he was, who would baptize them with the holy spirit, not just plain water like he had, saying, “I’m not fit to even take off his shoes!” I was both stuck by the sincerity of his deference and discomforted by its extremeness. Yes I had my mentors and people I looked to for advice and even guidance – my mom, my ‘feminist aunt’ Mary Jane, Robert who had run our youth theater group – but I saw them basically as fellow travelers who happened to be farther along the path than I was and had good wisdom from the journey to share with me. But not operating on some higher plane that I could never aspire to.
To John’s surprise, the Jesus character then humbly requested John baptize him. As Jesus knelt before him in the fountain, a very catchy and evocative acoustic guitar line began, and as John poured water over his exalted comrade’s big mane of teased out hair, not unlike my own, Jesus broke into the show’s second musical number, ‘Save the People’, with his quavering tenor voice…
When wilt thou save the people
Oh God of mercy, when
The people, Lord, the people
Not thrones and crowns, but men
The first line of the song, a question, sung with all the Jesus character’s tender innocence, grabbed my heart, sent shivers down my spine and goosebumps on the flesh of my arms. The words had unlocked a complicated set of emotions from my inner soul. My homesickness and general emotional vulnerability at this point. My strong feelings that my family and friends needed me to play more of a role assisting them. Plus my own messianic vision of my generation’s role to save the world from its angry fathers who had lost their own vision of a future of peace, love and joy…
Flowers of thy heart, o God, are they
Let them not pass, like weeds, away
Their heritage a sunless day
God save the people
That metaphoric line, “their heritage a sunless day”, ping ponged in my mind gathering connotations. We humans have yet to rise to our true potential, but my generation would do our part to take our bold steps in that direction. The scene changed to John and Jesus walking into a meadow, Jesus now with clown makeup on his face, Superman t-shirt, suspenders, striped clown pants and shoes. The second verse began…
Shall crime bring crime forever
Strength aiding still the strong
Is it thy will, o Father
That men shall toil for wrong
More questions from Jesus about the state of our human species and millennia of its “sunless day”, questions I resonated with and longed to answer myself…
“No”, say thy mountains
“No”, say thy skies
Man’s clouded sun shall brightly rise
And songs be heard instead of sighs
God save the people
With each of the above lines one of their other eight comrades appeared from behind the bushes, energized and dancing, now also donned in iconic hippie clothing – colorful t-shirts, oversized blouses, overalls and jeans, silly hats – to join Jesus’ troupe of followers who believed that we humans could do better. I thought of the lyrics of Elton John’s song, “Tiny Dancer”…
Jesus freaks out in the street
Handing tickets out for God
Getting back to the ‘Save the People’ song, they were hokey lyrics in retrospect, but in the moment they were compelling to me and fired my heart and my imagination. Yes, I thought, the sun shall brightly rise, and I committed myself to being part of the effort to make that so.
The guitar line intensified in an interlude while the camera shifted to an aerial shot of the ten of them, just a line of small specs, crossing the big Central Park with the city’s skyline finally revealed in the background. Hearing the music ramp up, and knowing my stage musical conventions, I anticipated that the chorus was about to join in and focus all their combined vocal power. As the interlude completed, the camera shifted to a view of New York City skyscrapers featuring so many thousand windows behind which so many people were living their lives. The other eight voices finally joined for the third verse…
When wilt thou save the people
Oh God of mercy when
The people, Lord, the people
Not thrones and crowns, but men
God save the people, for thine they are
Thy children as thy angels fair
God save the people from despair
God save the people
The camera panned down from the buildings to the street where our entourage of ten danced along in an otherwise deserted city, as the voices repeated “God save the people”. Finally an obvious stop in the music that I knew signalled for the chorus to belt out the final verse of the song with all its combined and concerted energy. I had been a member of those choruses in several musicals, and there was nothing more powerful than all of us on stage turning our focus and voices to the audience, and singing out the song’s message to them. The camera came in close and moved with the group showing their faces in profile as they continued to dance forward and sing, the tempo slowed so the chorus could belt out the lyric with all its vocal power…
When wilt thou save the people
O God of mercy when
The people, Lord, the people
Not thrones and crowns, but men
The goosebumps intensified on my arms as the epiphany grabbed my mind and vibrated through my body. Kate noted my gooseflesh and asked in a whisper if I was okay. I nodded vigorously, though not wanting to speak or take my eyes from the big screen towering in front of us. Finally the song was over and I knew I had been moved. From where to where I was not exactly sure, but a significant psychic distance to be eventually calculated.
Having been swept up in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, the next hour or so was just expertly crafted, performed and shot musical razzle-dazzle. ‘Day by Day’ was a sappy personal anthem of fidelity to the god Jesus was the avatar for. ‘Turn Back, O Man’, the standard honky tonk piano sexy female vamp. ‘Bless the Lord’, was the next big, belt it out chorus number, this one with a nice soulful, gospel-ish Motown feel to it with the five female characters doing their best Diana Ross and the Supremes or Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Then a Vaudevillian softshoe, ‘All for the Best’, featuring Jesus and John dancing on roofs of buildings and in front of the big Accutron video screen in Time Square as their onscreen silhouettes mirrored their movements. ‘All Good Gifts’, another paean to god like ‘Day by Day’. Finally commandeering a tugboat in the City harbor, the ensemble sang the bluesy ‘Light of the World’…
You are the light of the world
But the tallest candlestick
Ain’t much good without a wick
You’ve got to stay bright to be the light of the world
The last part of the film got down to the business of the story of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas and others leading to his crucifixion. It was interesting that it was narrated by the John turned Judas character, but that there was no real indication in the action of the movie or even in the narrative explaining the motivation for that betrayal. There seemed to be a sort of implication that his band of happy go lucky hippie followers, when push came to shove, did not stand up for their leader and the principles he championed, and that they had previously sung the praises of. Somehow Jesus had to ‘die for their sins’ and he was tied with red ribbons to the chain link fence by his followers turned crucifiers. Once he was dead they untied him and carried his body away, having miraculously seen the light and the error of their sinful ways, singing the final reprise of ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord’. As their funeral march through a still empty New York City turned the corner and went off screen, the camera then followed around that corner to reveal that all the teeming masses of the city had returned, and the movie ended.
Taken to a high plane of inspired metaphysical perspective by the first fifteen minutes of the movie, by the end I was clearly back to earth and pondering instead the craft of the moviemaker, songwriter and cast. We sat and watched all the ending credits as most of the audience behind us made their way out of the theater. When the house lights finally came up we rose and stretched and my three comrades looked at me as if deferring to their two-year elder to lead the post mortem.
Rather than any sort of pontification on my part, though I had plenty of thoughts to sermonize on at that point, I instead followed my now standard protocol and asked the basic facilitating question, “Well, what did you folks think of the movie?” They each dutifully chimed in, like answering a teacher in class.
T.J. first, the alpha if any of the trio. She said she liked the Jesus character, and that if her dad’s Sunday services had as catchy music and sermons as the movie, she might more wholeheartedly attend church each Sunday. Her report out stalled on an unfinished thought, and she signaled to Kate it was her turn to address the question.
Kate dropped her head for a long minute, long bangs over her eyes as she thought and composed them. She finally raised it and threw back her big bangs. She cracked a grin signalling that what she was about to say was in no way intended to be profound. “The lads were all cute, particularly Jesus!”
“And John”, T.J. added, prompting a snicker from Kate and a quick sidebar with her friend that “you always go for the older blokes with facial hair!” It was like they had momentarily forgotten that I, an ‘older bloke’, at least relatively speaking (though without facial hair) was part of their conversation. But then realizing, looked at me fretfully. Mackenzie rolled her eyes and said “Teenagers!”
Her comrades and I laughed and I added, “Hey… I’m still a teenager too.”
As we talked I could see T.J. and Kate keeping their eyes on their other schoolmates that had been in attendance and were now leaving the theater, tracking presumably where Bobby was, and possible other bully types I was not aware of, with the goal of avoiding another encounter like we had had in the ticket line. When it was basically just the four of us left in the theater, other than the young guy who worked there and was cleaning up, T.J. gave the nod to leave.
On the bus home the three of them conversed about the movie, which characters they liked, whether the story was consistent with the book of Matthew, and related to that, whether T.J.’s minister dad would approve or not of that telling. I listened mostly, not really qualified to talk to the second or third item, and conflicted about the first and about the movie generally.
The one character I had resonated with initially was Jesus himself. He had been portrayed as a shy alpha full of provocative ideas and other thoughts, like I saw myself, at least at my best. He led by means of those ideas rather than by force of will. The John/Judas character was obviously intended to be Jesus’ foil as John and later also his antagonist as Judas. But it did not make sense that that character would betray Jesus for money. I could not recall any moment where John was ‘turned’ from being Jesus’ number one acolyte to being his mortal foe. The motivation for that turning would have made for an interesting story, but if it was there I had missed it. There was only some narration by John, now Judas, in the final scene that he had betrayed Jesus for money, and implying that some of the others had betrayed him as well. A weakness in the writing of the script I thought.
And all the other eight characters were ultimately disappointing to me as well, because none of them rose to the occasion of Jesus’ predicament and betrayal until after he was crucified and dead. They had acted too much like sheep, his ‘flock’ as they say, lacking much differentiation from each other. But okay, it was a musical, and they were basically the show’s chorus, stepping forward in a scene to temporarily play a character to help tell a particular parable that Jesus wanted told to illustrate an idea. I had wanted them to be more of a cohort, Jesus’ strong allies, and not just a more passive chorus whose job was only to reinforce the messages from the lead character and the writer behind the lyrics.
As my three comrades proceeded with their conversation, I continued to stew in those thoughts, telegraphing more and more my discomfort until Kate noticed and gave me an “okay, what’s troubling you, spill it” look. I was immediately impressed with her assertiveness. And again, that nearly telepathic thing that happened between the three young women who knew each other, and apparently me, so well. T.J. and Mackenzie caught Kate’s look at me, read it, and they quieted and all turned their gazes in my direction, giving me deference and ‘the floor’ to speak.
I looked at the three of them and held my hands up in front of me, palms inward, using my hands as I often did to help congeal and align my thoughts into a hopefully coherent stream of words. In this case as if pantomiming pulling those thoughts out of my mind. I then opened my hands toward my comrades and spoke. “What was John/Judas’ motivation for betraying Jesus? I did not see him as motivated by money!”
Kate looked down, thinking. I could see in Mackenzie’s eyes she was pondering as well. It was T.J. that was quick to respond with a burning load of thoughts. She said that Judas was indeed motivated by money. He could not accept Jesus’ teaching that the “meek shall inherit the earth”, that though the rich people might get more than their fair share in this life, the poor people would be rewarded in heaven. Judas thought the poor people should take what was rightfully theirs in the here and now, and he took his own payoff.
I replied that I got that someone could feel that way, and betray his principles for the money, but where was it indicated in the script that John/Judas felt that way. Wasn’t he the one concerned for the wellbeing of the poor people?
She noted the song ‘All for the Best’. Jesus was arguing that it was all for the best for the poor to get their reward in heaven. Judas turned those words the other way complaining that it was not fair in the here and now that all the bounty of the earth was “all for the best”, that is the rich. I acknowledged that she obviously knew the song, the musical, and the Bible way better than me. She seemed pleased at that acknowledgment, particularly one coming from a male type person a couple years older than her.
I was enjoying my philosophical intimacy with her and our exchange of ideas. I could see in her eyes she was feeling the same. I said that I still had a problem with the John/Judas character’s motivation, from Jesus’ main advocate and advanced man to his betrayer. She responded that yes, they had combined two characters from the Bible uncomfortably into one, but it did make for a powerful irony that Jesus’ chief acolyte became his betrayer. And finally she conceded that yes, that whole ‘turning’ was not well told in the script.
“So,” I said, grabbing their attention and looking each of them in the eyes. Since I was feeling more comfortable and safer with my conversation partners, the shy alpha in me burned to be provocative, like Jesus in the movie. I assumed that persona of the elder, the mentor, straightening my posture, squaring my shoulders, and puffing out my chest a bit, as if going into character. Showing my most drippingly ironic look I asked, “Is it, indeed, ‘all for the best’?”
The question was ambiguous and I knew it, but that was basically the point. Mackenzie smiled immediately. I could see Kate wrinkle her nose as she tried to parse it, then I guess getting the ambiguity, she grinned and dropped her head to ponder an answer. T.J. got a fierce look on her face like she was a predator about to strike. I enjoyed seeing that fierceness, pleased she was unbowed by her ‘elder’.
“Based on Jesus’ or Judas’ point of view?”, the words burst from her mouth.
I chuckled, countering her energy with my own, “Your point of view!”
“Pick Judas… pick Judas…” Mackenzie quietly chanted, diminutively waving her hands in front of her in a mock cheerleading move. I could see T.J. loving her comrade’s playful insurrection, as it acknowledged her alpha status. Still it was an insurrection and had to be dealt with, and T.J. gently smacked Mackenzie on the shoulder with the back of her hand saying, “Shut up, pestilence!”
Mackenzie theatrically stiffened up, and in a robotic monotone said, “Pestilence shutting up…”, then, “Pestilence shutting down…”, dropping her head and closing her eyes.
Given she had smacked her comrade into silence, all T.J. had to offer initially was an “I don’t know!”
From her shutdown state, the robotic voice emanated from Mackenzie again, “Just a teenager…”, eliciting another playful smack from her mate.
Chastised now to speak her mind, T.J. continued, “I mean I see both points of view, Judas’ and Jesus’. Is it fair that some people are rich and others are poor? Well, some people with money work hard for what they get, but others not so much. But in the end, it’s not about the money, ‘you can’t take it with you’ as they say, it’s about your moral choices.” I could see her get a little tentative, ending with a “Right?”
Kate had raised her head and was pondering T.J. as she listened to her mate’s thoughts, finally adding, “I suppose you could say it is a moral choice of society to decide whether it’s okay for there to BE rich people and poor people,” again as with her mate, spoken tentatively like she was supplying an answer to a test that she wasn’t quite confident of.
Awakening, and speaking with a sing-songy little kid voice now, Mackenzie said, “Teacher teacher, what’s the right answer?” No smack from T.J. this time, we all quieted in thought.
My thoughts went to John and Jesus in the movie. They had a cause, a mission, in their case, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’, that their ‘flock’ bought into, at least until the shit hit the fan. So what was my cause, my mission, and would I stick to it if the going got tough? I was no ’Catcher in the Rye’ like Holden Caulfield, though I loved that book. Was I a visionary like Jesus, a rabble rouser like John, or a member of the chorus, still a critical role, one of Bowie’s ‘young dudes’ who would “carry the news”.
And what was that news? Was it peace, love and joy? Those were all good things, but could they alone really get the job done, move our society forward? Lance’s cause, on that ship across the North Sea, seemed to be just sex, drugs and rock and roll. More about the pleasurable means than the ends. My cause was somewhere in Butch’s and Bublil’s vision of a transformed world. In Trix’s, Jen’s and Monika’s determined alpha swagger. That was the news I wanted to carry.
Ready to move on to a related topic, Mackenzie said that it was “scary”, but she had seen pictures of her parents from their “hippie days” wearing clothing not unlike the costumes of the characters in the movie. “Like brightly frocked naive children dancing around and handing out flowers, but missing no opportunity to get high and have sex,” she said.
I saw it from her eyes and it was all kind of laughable and pathetic even. The hippies had ultimately failed. Theater had failed as well. It had so powerfully made the case, at least to me, for the hippie ethos back in 1969 with naked people singing on stage in the musical Hair. That had inspired me to plunge into the theater world myself. Now in 1973 with the musical Godspell, it seemed that it was all smoke and mirrors, craft and pyrotechnics. Even worse, it was nostalgia of all things, with no compelling call to action.
Finally it was the end of the line, at least for the bus, at the little convenience store at the bottom of Horspath’s hill. The four of us exited and stood together at the bus stop. It was already getting dark and cold. T.J. said that she and Mackenzie were going to study for end of term exams at her house. Kate said she would join them later. T.J. stuck out her hand to me saying, “Been a pleasure!”. I took it and thanked her for the great conversation, and wished her good luck on her exams. Mackenzie did her imitation of the same routine and I responded in kind. They told Kate to give their love to her mom, and the two of them then headed off up the other road into the village.
Kate and I walked back up Manor Farm Road. She had done her good deed for the day, getting their houseguest, me, out of the house for the afternoon so her mom could have her clandestine snort of Scotch and indulge in a romance novel, and who knows maybe what else. Four hours ago when we left their house to walk down to the bus stop Kate had just been Kevin’s younger sister. Now I had had a glimpse into her soul, the ‘little witch’ as it were, but a good witch. I had engaged with her two best mates, and gotten a glimpse of the world the three of them lived in. They were now three more of the intriguing young women I had met on my European odyssey. The experience of the movie and our philosophical conversations around it, including Mackenzie’s critique of the hippie ethos, had made its mark on me.
But rather than continue to talk about that, or anything else for that matter, we walked up the road together in silence. I felt I had connected with her and her comrades. She had employed me, without asking, in a brief playful ruse that I was her boyfriend. She had later again employed me in another less playful ruse as Mackenzie’s ‘cousin’, and directed by her I had risen to the task of deflecting a bully intent on giving her comrade Mackenzie a hard time. She had briefly let me into her world, or at least I felt like she had. Now it felt like things were going back to how they’d been before we left the house together. I was her brother’s friend and she was his ‘teenybopper’ sister. I felt like it would not be appropriate to share with her brother, mom or dad the highlights of our afternoon together and that she and I had made any sort of connection. Again we did not talk about it but that seemed like the unspoken understanding.
When we entered the house, Kevin was not back from his shift at the garage, but Bill and Nana were back from the pub. Madge quizzed me straight off.
“How was the movie?”
I nodded vigorously. “It was really good. Great musical numbers! Good performances!”
“And you met T.J. and,” Madge pausing just ever so briefly, “Kenzie?” I noted she used the second, more female half of Mackenzie’s name. I caught Kate subtly rolling her big eyes. I couldn’t quite tell whether it was just an unguarded response, or more calculated for her mom’s or my consumption, or both. Regardless, I could see Madge noting it with a slight nod and a knowing determined chuckle, as if to say, “Yes dear, I’m going to call her ‘Kenzie’, though I get that you think otherwise!”
“Yes,” I replied, tempted to add “Indeed!”. But deciding that I had already overused that wonderful word, I said “Good friends!” instead.
Kate, who seemed pleased with my terse responses, said to her mom, “T.J. and Mack send their love!”
It seemed to me that Kate was underestimating her mom by not sharing with her more of her thoughts and the trials and tribulations of her life. But then I remembered being pretty much that way too when I was sixteen.