Above us awaits the comforts of heaven, with its minimalist post-modern furniture and central air conditioning. While down below, the cool kids are all hanging out playing rock n’ roll and smoking (mostly because they’re on fire). In the middle, somewhere between the saved and the damned, lies purgatory, a waiting room where all the magazines are out of date and the radio is stuck on the easy listening station.
As the old saying goes: nothing in life is certain, except death and taxes. Now thanks to corporate loopholes (or if you happen to be the President of the United States), we can scratch taxes off that list as well. That leaves only the slow crawl of mortality, marching us back to the soil, to become fertilizer for the daisies. Unfortunately, our journey doesn’t stop there. We still have the afterlife to contend with, and there’s no shortage of speculation on where we might end up.
This week, we dive into those mysterious celestial waters of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.
Tiger Lillies – “Heaven to Hell”
There are enough contemporary songs about heaven to keep America’s mega-churches and christian rock stations buzzing 24 hours a day. Secular rockers have made their own contributions to the canon with classic rock standards like Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. Instead of dragging out those old chestnuts again, making you long for the cold embrace of oblivion, I present the Tiger Lillies, an avant garde trio out of England. They are most famous for their stage adaptation of Der Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter), a German children’s book written in 1845 full of cautionary tales like “Snip Snip”, where the Scissorman cuts off a boy’s thumbs when he won’t stop sucking them. The band specializes in songs about death and depravity. Their best album is arguably From the Brothel to the Cemetery, and “Heaven to Hell” is one of the stand out tracks. In it, Martyn Jacques, the operatic vocalist, pictures an eternity in paradise considerably more dull than advertised, as illustrated in the lines: “Jesus, he plays the guitar/ he sings like Joni Mitchell/ I thought I’d be happy in Heaven/ But in fact I’m unhappy as hell”.
Tom Jones – “Burning Hell”
There are so many great songs about hell, especially in the metal genre, that it’s difficult to choose just one. Bands like Slayer, Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath have turned brimstone into gold, like alchemists with distortion pedals. However, for my money, I look to a crooner who could sew together a hot air balloon with all the female undergarments thrown on stage during his 42 year residency in Las Vegas: the one and only Tom Jones.
Much like Johnny Cash’s late career comeback with Rick Rubin, Tom Jones put down the golden microphone and let his hair go gray, after which he was free to chose the right material and start making the most interesting music of his life. This track is a barn-burner from the 2010 album Praise & Blame, his scorching version of John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell”.
The Velvet Underground – “Waiting for my Man”
In life, there have been few who walked the line between grace and damnation more often than Lou Reed. He sang about beauty in the gutter while casting a stark light on the horror of being human. Somehow, even in his most cutting work, he left the door open a crack for redemption to pop in and call his number. The Velvet Underground explored these themes in most of their work, and “Waiting for my Man” is one of the best examples. A blunt tale of a man waiting on the corner for his drug dealer, the purgatory of addiction is maybe expressed best in the third verse: “He’s never early/ he’s always late/ first thing you learn/ is that you always gotta wait”.
Amen to that.