Every year at Easter, I force my little family to sit through yet another screening of Jesus Christ Superstar. I don’t cook a ham, I don’t color eggs, I don’t force anyone to attend church. This is my whole observance of the holiday – contemplation of an early 1970s take on the days leading up to the crucifixion.
Every year, the movie sparks a lot of discussion – what’s up with the people dressed in rags? They’re lepers. Why doesn’t Jesus like swap meets? They’re having their swap meet at the temple, and Christ thinks its inappropriate to have people turning His church into a marketplace. In Phoenix, we had our heads on straight. Our swap meet was the the parking lot of the place that had greyhound racing during the week. Why did people live in the middle of a crappy desert? Most of Israel isn’t a crappy desert. I hear it’s really nice. Is Pontius Pilate the same guy that invented the yoga? Yes.
The thing that came up this year was the fact that Jesus Christ Superstar came out in 1973, a year marked in my mind by the kind of soul-crushing shame that makes me want to dig a pit, fall into it and collapse in on myself as my body digests itself with the acid of horror.
I was 8 years old in 1973. Aware enough to know that I was surrounded by a culture that people would look on for decades as the nadir of human civilization.
New Seekers’ song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” was not only still on the radio, it had been made into a commercial for Coke so we could hear it that much more often. The song “One Tin Soldier,” which had been used in the film Billy Jack (which I have never seen and about which I have no opinion) was still battering the airwaves with its antiwar bludgeon. The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” while not a peacenik antiwar protest was nonetheless another giant bummer you couldn’t dance to. They get lost with other agonizing, horrible songs like “Wildfire” and “Run, Joey, Run” that came out while I was still cringing.
The clothes of 1973 were a combination of chunky, greasy, scratchy lumpy miracle fabrics and loud colors that looked good on the idealized anorexic frame of models, but looked horrible on actual parents. Kids were all stuck dressing like Holly Hobbie, a fad so popular that it spawned the “Little House on the Prairie” television series the following year.
In 1973, my mother had a lot of friends who did a lot of drugs and often had nowhere else to go but our house. I can’t count how many times someone at our house broke something, and then went limp with hysterical laughter at the mess they had caused. Or how they would, in their inebriated haze, try to have serious conversations with my siblings and me. They failed to make the slightest bit of sense, although it was apparent that in their minds, they were relating to us at some very deep and spiritual level because they grokked us as human beings. These people are why I never got involved with drugs in any significant way.
But the blind self-absorption wasn’t just my mother’s friends. All over America there was a fascination with the 1920s, especially The Great Gatsby and its cast of characters who spent all their time contemplating themselves and each other. Everyone played backgammon, spending tons of money on little suitcases full of tiny poker chips over which they could pose with drinks and pretend to be intellectual for the benefit of equally drunken pseudointellectual onlookers. And the 1970s was when the adults all decided that sex should be moved out of the dark bedroom and into the living room, dining room or front yard, where we could all see it.
How can you be 8 years old and not be scarred by the skin-peeling embarrassment of it all?
But Jesus Christ Superstar somehow escaped all of it.
As an opera, it’s a story told entirely in song, but no one song tries to contain the whole narrative, so we avoid the whole weepy story ballad agony. The clothes are mainly the kind of clothes that dancers still wear today – close-fitting pants and tops that allow freedom of movement. And the story itself isn’t one that will go out of fashion anytime soon.
So that’s my real celebration of Easter. That Jesus Christ was crucified and died for the sins of 1973, redeeming what would have otherwise been the worst year of all time.