Fifty years ago, in 1965, jazz legend and saxophone virtuoso John Coltrane released a 33-minute album called A Love Supreme. A four-part suite, its spiritual concerns were explicitly laid out in the four movements: Acknowledgment, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm. Coltrane, at that point of time, had been reading up on Ahmadiyya Islam as well as commentaries on Christian gospel. After an overdose incident in 1957, Coltrane had been struggling to rid himself of substance addiction and religion was just one of the things he felt would stop him from self-destruction. A Love Supreme was a musical genius thanking God for being given a second chance. There is a difference between happiness and exultation; this album, often cited as the greatest jazz album of all time, is quite clearly the latter. From the instantly recognisable four-note bass (played by John Garrison) that underpins Acknowledgment all the way to Coltrane’s rousing, scything solos that push the other three members of his “Classic Quartet” into uncharted jazz territory, only the most hard-boiled cynics can deny divine intervention in the making of this album.
There is something of the devotee’s fervour in the image of a musician spending days and nights in practice: experimenting, composing, perfecting. A fair few behavioural elements that are common for serious practitioners of both music and religion: repetition, intensity and single-minded devotion. Have you ever noticed classical musicians and their monkish demeanour onstage? The kind of discipline they show is more spiritual than military.
Coltrane was not the first popular musician to take to religion and he wouldn’t be the last. In the late 1970s, Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian and released two albums of gospel music covers: Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980). As with everything else he did, this development divided his fans sharply. In Todd Haynes’ experimental Dylan biopic I’m Not There, this phase of his life is portrayed particularly well, with a reclusive Dylan-proxy called Pastor John (Christian Bale) singing hymns like Pressing On. In a 1980 concert promoting Saved, Dylan said onstage: “Years ago they (...) said I was a prophet. I used to say, ‘No I'm not a prophet’ they say ‘Yes you are, you're a prophet.’ I said, ‘No it's not me.’ They used to say ‘You sure are a prophet.’ They used to convince me I was a prophet. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer. They say, ‘Bob Dylan's no prophet.’ They just can't handle it.”
Dylan would face further criticism and lampooning, even from friends like John Lennon. In fact, one of the last things that Lennon recorded was a song called Serve Yourself, a direct response to Dylan’s single Gotta Serve Somebody. The lyrics speak for themselves.
“You say, you found Mohammed / Facin' to the East / You say, you found Krishna / Dancin' in the streets / Well there's somethin' missing in this God Almighty stew / And it's your mother / (Your mother, don't forget your mother, lad) / You got to serve yourself / Ain't nobody gonna do it for you.”
And then there’s the strange case of Yusuf Islam, the British singer-songwriter, born Steven Georgiou and formerly known as Cat Stevens. Like Coltrane, Stevens also took to religion after a near-death experience: he almost drowned off the coast of Malibu, California in 1976. In December 1977, he converted to Islam after reading the Quran in the preceding months. But as he discovered, life as Yusuf Islam was very different from life as Cat Stevens.
In Psalm, the final movement of the 1965 album A Love Supreme, Coltrane delivers what he called a “musical narration” of a poem he wrote for God.
In 1989, a section of the media misinterpreted his comments on the fatwa against Salman Rushdie: Islam had been speaking in jest and some over-eager reporters published a story that claimed that he supported the call for Rushdie’s assassination. Later, in 2004, he was denied entry into America, an experience which he later wrote a song about. In Islam’s case, religion did not mean an increased musical output. Quite the contrary, in fact: he did not perform for almost 15 years after his conversion.
This goes on to show how touchy modern-day organised religion has become. And for some reason, musicians and other artists seem to bear the brunt of this more than others. Vicky Beeching is a British musician whose music is part of America’s sizable Christian rock scene (she moved to America in her 20s). When Beeching came out as a lesbian in 2014, there was no shortage of bigots who swore they would never listen to her music again. Pastors denounced her on televised debates. Beeching’s ordeal was another reminder of the fact that religious bigots view musicians as the softest of targets. This time, though, the joke was on them: Beeching became an international cause célèbre, her following on social media increasing manifold. She continues to be an influential commentator on matters of civil rights and religion.
In Psalm, the final movement of A Love Supreme, Coltrane delivers what he called a “musical narration” of a poem he wrote for God: displaying tremendous skill, he plays almost exactly one note per syllable of the poem, which ends with the words: “Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.” As a god-fearing musician, you may be laughed at, you may be accused of terrible things and you may be told that your religious beliefs are a sign of weakness or artistic decline. But once the music starts, it’s between you and God. Isn’t that how religion is truly supposed to be?