I Once Was Blind but Now I Rock: Nine Conversions Put to Music

The following list was compiled and annotated by David Zahl, and published in the latest […]

Mockingbird / 4.5.19

The following list was compiled and annotated by David Zahl, and published in the latest issue of The Mockingbird magazine on Faith & Doubt. Best enjoyed with the volume up:

The Road to Damascus has been well traveled in pop music. Perhaps not enough to make “conversion songs” a legitimate subgenre, but enough for a pretty solid list. Musicians are a mercurial lot, after all, prone to radical reversals and expressions of faith—usually faith in love or a particular lover, sometimes rock ’n’ roll itself. Maybe a DJ saved their life, who knows.

But pop history is also littered with religious conversions, a number of which have been put to (very good) music. For some it looks like a traffic-stopping about-face, for others a dawning so gradual it can only be noticed in hindsight. For the purposes of this list, what’s important isn’t so much the “how” as the “what.” Something happened and the artist was inspired, perhaps compelled, to sing about it, and their muse thankfully did not fail them. We’ll go chronologically.

Hear Me Lord – George Harrison (1970)

The quiet Beatle’s persona is writ so deeply into the pop landscape that it’s easy to forget that, in addition to being a phenomenal songwriter and (slide) guitarist, George is also the prototypical religious rocker. He underwent a radical conversion to Hinduism at the height of the Fab Four’s fame, dragging his bandmates to India to sit at the feet of his guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But unlike some celebrities who embrace Eastern mysticism, George wasn’t shy about its capital-R Religious elements. He wanted to talk to people about God, and remained committed to doing so until the end of his days. In fact, the final song on his final album Brainwashed bears the chorus “God! God! God! He’s the only reason we exist.” “Hear Me Lord” comes much earlier, buried on the back third of his monumental solo debut, All Things Must Pass, comprising the record’s single grandest statement of faith (putting “My Sweet Lord” in the shade). With Phil Spector’s Wall Mountain of Sound lending George’s lyrics unmatchable sonic majesty, our man laments his wayward past, professing his newfound faith more overtly than John and Paul would’ve ever allowed. George then pleads with his Lord not only to forgive him, but to make Himself known to people everywhere. It was a risk then, and it’s a risk now.

I Gotta Be More (Take Me Higher) – Al Green (1974)

To call the Memphis superstar’s conversion dramatic would be an understatement. The deal went down while Green was in the middle of one of Soul’s most legendary hot streaks, his early ’70s collaboration with producer Willie Mitchell and the inimitable Hi Rhythm Section. On October 18, 1974, just as “Take Me to the River” was hitting airwaves, Green’s girlfriend burst in on the singer as he was about to take a shower and poured a pot full of scalding hot grits on the singer, burning him badly. She then ran into the bedroom, where she shot and killed herself with Green’s own .38 special. Upon emerging from the hospital months later, he went into the studio and recorded this gem of repentance and belief. A few years later, much to the chagrin of his fans, he committed himself fully to Gospel music and ordained ministry. Green still preaches at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, and has thankfully started singing his early hits again. But Gospel fans would do well to check out the best track off his 1985 reunion with Mitchell, “He is the Light.”

Changing of the Guards – Bob Dylan (1978)

Now that’s how you write a conversion song! Pop music’s most notorious regeneration occurred in 1978, after Dylan reportedly had a vision of Christ in a hotel room in Tucson, bringing to an end the tumultuous period that followed his divorce from his wife Sara. But word has it that his band, especially a pair of female backup singers, had been actively sharing their faith with Dylan over a period of months beforehand, greatly influencing the recording of 1978’s masterful (and underrated) Street Legal. In retrospect, the opening track, “Changing of the Guards,” should’ve been a giveaway, and not just its title. In front of a driving chord progression and full-bodied arrangement, Dylan sings of a grieving good shepherd and an ebony-faced maid with a saving message for our tormented protagonist. The biblical imagery comes fast and furious, an apocalyptic scene rife with eternal stakes (“Eden is burning”), where the old order of “destruction in the ditches” is being eclipsed by a new one of “tranquility and splendor on wheels of fire.” Never one for half-measures, Dylan essentially inserted himself into Revelation, and we are all the better for it.

I Came to Believe – Johnny Cash (1984)

It says something about the Man in Black’s fortunes in the 1980s that a song this good—and this important—wouldn’t see release until 2006, when Cash re-recorded it for his final American Recordings record (V: A Hundred Highways). The legendary baritone had been vocal about his faith long before he put the story to song, though. He credits his conversion to a suicidal spelunking expedition in 1967, where, deep in a Tennessee cave, he was filled with the sense that “I’d left Him, but He hadn’t left me.” While the later version produced by Rick Rubin reverberates with a touching frailty, the earlier take, recorded with countrypolitan maestro Billy Sherrill in 1984 has a (superior) dignity all its own. Quite simply, the song finds one of America’s greatest National Treasures at his most treasurable, synthesizing old time religion and AA in a voice that compels its audience not only to listen but to believe. Get a load of the first verse: “I couldn’t manage the problems I laid on myself / And it just made it worse when I laid them on somebody else / So I finally surrendered it all, brought down in despair / I cried out for help and I felt a warm comforter there.” Amen, Johnny.

This Is the Sea – The Waterboys (1985)

Around the time Cash was toiling in obscurity with Sherrill, across the pond the original Michael Scott and his group of Scottish vagabonds were finally ascending to center stage via their 1985 record This Is the Sea, which boasted their signature tune “The Whole of the Moon.” Indelible as that song may be, the closing title track may have it beat. Over an army of acoustics, in a cavern full of reverb, Scott draws a passionate line in his personal sand, handing his burdens over to the Almighty in no uncertain terms. “You wanna turn your back / On your soulless days / Once you were tethered / And now you are free / That was the river / This is the sea!” While every Waterboys release is worth owning, true believers are encouraged to check out both of Scott’s solo albums, which up the devotional content without diminishing the poetry. His second one, Still Burning, contains one of the best paeans to One-Way Love ever put to tape, “Love Anyway.”

1974 – Amy Grant (1988)

Head Mountain Goat John Darnielle’s all-time favorite record opens with a stunning, shimmering account of Grant’s conversion as a teenager in the title year (she later admitted 1975 would’ve been more accurate). Dismissed by some listeners at the time for not being Christian enough and others for being too Christian, the gated production has dated surprisingly well, and the gorgeous melody carries the song’s theme gloriously. It doesn’t hurt that Grant turns in a performance for the ages. But it’s the lyrics that carry the bulk of the weight, painting a picture of adolescent faith that rings undeniably true, yet without a whiff of condescension. “We were young,” she sings, and “none of us knew quite what to say.” But “love had lit a fire,” and its truth could not be denied. The bridge, in which Grant acknowledges how time can obscure those precious initial feelings and then asks God to “make it ever new,” lends the song added gravity and anchors it beyond her context. Conversion, it turns out, is not a one-time thing, and thank God for that.

I Know You Love Me – The Smoking Popes (1997)

At the Chicago pop-punk heroes’ final concert in 1998, lead singer and songwriter Josh Caterer introduced their single “I Know You Love Me” with the following words (paraphrasing): “This is my favorite Smoking Popes song because it is about my relationship with Jesus.” Thud. It was an auspicious end to a group that had long since outgrown their sophomoric name. Yet “I Know You Love Me” bears all the hallmarks of what made Morrissey such an outspoken Popes fan: a deceptively nimble melody laid over hard-charging power chords, delivered in Caterer’s semi-detached croon. Even if the subject matter were completely different, it would still be one of their catchiest anthems. “This world is freezing cold,” it starts, “I long for you to hold me in your arms.” The verses cast an eye on the terrifying reality of the world, while the chorus explodes with joy. The two opposites coexist; in fact, one wonders if Caterer would have been able to experience the latter had he not recognized the former. It’s the sound a man who knows—not just in his head but in his heart (and fingers)—that he is loved. And that belovedness distinguishes the song most of all: it is not a declaration of Caterer’s love for Jesus, but of Jesus’ love for him. That is, his conversion does not seem to be based on the shifting sand of his own affections, but in the assurance of God’s disposition in the midst of them. Any pontiff worth his smoke would be proud.

Lyric – Zwan (2003)

Billy Corgan may have ruled the ’90s with The Smashing Pumpkins, but at the risk of sacrilege, his single best piece of work may be the album he recorded in 2003 with the highly combustible Zwan. The Pumpkins’ implosion at the end of the century hit its leader hard, leading him to seek—and apparently find—refuge in Catholicism. Before the dust could settle, he assembled a crew of indie all-stars to embark on a bold new chapter, penning the songs to match. “Here comes my faith” goes the opening line of the first song, “Lyric,” as the guitars break into one of his best melodies since Siamese Daydream. The record doesn’t let up from there. Two tracks later we get “Declarations of Faith,” another hard-charging and supremely tuneful Christian anthem, but nothing that could prepare us for the climactic 14-minute epic “Jesus, I / Mary Star of the Sea.” Subtle, this was not. Too bad the notoriously egomaniacal singer had worn out his welcome in the broader culture, and no one paid attention. They would have heard MTV’s auteur of angst giving voice to a joy nearly unthinkable five years beforehand.

Head Above Water – Avril Lavigne (2018)

More or less breaking news, the first release from the Canadian hitmaker after a five-year silence is as much a praise song as it is a power ballad. She wrote it in the midst of a miraculous recovery (rescue?) from a near-fatal bout with Lyme disease, and rebirth comes across loud and clear. “I thought I was dying,” she wrote in conjunction with the release, “and I had accepted that I was going to die. My mom laid with me in bed and held me. Under my breath, I prayed ‘God, please help to keep my head above the water.’ In that moment, the songwriting of this album began. It was like I tapped into something.” Thankfully, Lavigne’s knack with a killer hook—and just enough attitude—survived the ordeal intact. To describe the accompanying video as “baptismal” would not be a stretch. Coming soon to a worship service near you.

Honorable Mentions:Christian of the World” – Tommy James (1971), “To Know Love” – Barry McGuire (1973), “I Believe in Jesus” – Donna Summer (1980), “5/4” – Sunny Day Real Estate (1995), “Born Again” – Richard Ashcroft (2010)

For more like the above, visit our magazine website where you can subscribe for 4 or more issues, or purchase your copy of the latest. And if you haven’t heard, David’s new book Seculosity was released this week (to rave reviews)! Visit here to check it out.


5 responses to “I Once Was Blind but Now I Rock: Nine Conversions Put to Music”

  1. Joshua A Encinias says:

    This is the content I need.

  2. John Seetoo says:

    Excellent article, Dave!

    Also worth considering:

    When Mercy Found Me – Rhett Walker Band

    Soldier for Jesus – Joe Louis Wlaker

    You Saved Me – Lou Gramm

  3. John Seetoo says:

    Also, “A Heart Needs A Home” – Richard Thompson

  4. John Seetoo says:

    A few others that came to mind:

    “Presence of the Lord” – Eric Clapton/Blind Faith

    “I See the Light” – Jorma Kaukonen/Hot Tuna

    “I’ve Got a Reason” album – Richie Furay

  5. Trevor Giuliani says:

    Love this, nice work, inspires faith!

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