The great Mike Salardino and I have much in common.
In addition to an awesome name (my middle name is Michael) and Italian heritage, Mike and I are Catholic school alumni with longtime service as altar boys.
Today, Mike remains a proud, practicing Catholic and advocate for all that’s good and holy.
As for me, well, let’s just say I started out bringing KISS magazines and albums to Our Lady of Mount Carmel grade school, progressed to penning AC/DC and Blue Oyster Cult lyrics on the bathroom walls at Trinidad Catholic High School, and never looked back.
It’s fitting, then, that Mike presents his top 10 mainstream songs with a spiritual or religious theme, while I play the devil’s advocate.
“I can’t thank my mentor Frank Provenza enough for helping me out,” Salardino said. “I told him the subject and he shot me about 20 titles in half a day. There are numerous songs that fit the category so picking 10 wasn’t easy.”
Music, Mike believes, can serve as a strong tool of proselytization.
“Noted theologian Bishop Robert Barron says when you are trying to explain the faith to someone, don’t start with dogma,” Mike said. “That’s like introducing someone to baseball by explaining the infield fly rule.
“Start with the beauty, especially the beauty in art and music.”
10. “Seven Spanish Angels,” Ray Charles and Willie Nelson. The first three songs on my list are sad. This collaboration is about an outlaw and his girlfriend trying to outrun a posse. The religion is not hidden: they appeal to God for help and the outlaw is gunned down and taken up by the angels. The girlfriend apologizes to God and then invites her own death after which she, too, is escorted by the angels. Sad but great song.
Jon: “Heaven and Hell,” Black Sabbath. The obvious thematic choice, and, at least according to my Jesuit religious instruction, the only two options for an afterlife. From the 1980 album of the same name, this white-hot classic saw the indomitable Ronnie James Dio filling the lead vocal role vacated by John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne. The title refers to the good and bad, yin and yang, prevalent in all human beings and the world itself. For me, the most quotable line is, “The world if full of kings and queens who blind your eyes and steal your dreams; it’s heaven and hell.”
9. “Angel of the Morning” (Juice Newton version.) A song about a woman who has completed a one-night stand and is trying to sound cavalier about it. But it’s clear she doesn’t mean it. What is clear is that she wants real love from the man but knows she’s not going to get it. She does not really see herself as an “angel” in this story played out all too often in real life.
Jon: “Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones. Since its release in 1968, this has become a signature song of sorts for a band that was not shy about its dalliances with the dark side (see 1967’s “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and 1973’s “Goats Head Soup.”) Over a three-chord backdrop, Mick Jagger paints a picture of the devil as a sophisticated socialite, a “man of wealth and taste,” who was both witness and instigator of the world’s most calamitous episodes.
8. “Concrete Angel,” Martina McBride. My favorite country singer offers a heart-wrenching song about child abuse. After 17 years on the Child Advocacy Center board, it’s a sensitive issue with me. The abused child only becomes an “angel” when the abuse takes his or her life.
Jon: “Shout at the Devil,” Motley Crue. One of the reasons I love head Cruester Nikki Sixx is his candor. Convinced that then president Ronald Wilson Reagan was the antichrist — six letters in each name, count ’em! — Sixx wrote this 1983 anthem to inspire listeners to stand tall and shout down such characters. “It has always been a song about pushing back,” Sixx said. “It can be about the perceived enemy at hand, the devil inside, or someone on a wobbly campaign trail.”
7. “Spirit in the Sky,” Norman Greenbaum. OK, enough tear jerkers! This is a very clear cut song about a person saying their goal in life is to be a friend to Jesus, so that when they die, they can go to heaven with the Spirit in the Sky. I never liked the melody but the lyrics are clear. Could you have a hit with a song like this today?
Jon: “Devil Inside,” INXS. One of the many standout tracks from an Australian band that ranks as one of my all time favorites. Fueled by a sinister riff that just won’t let go, this 1987 track reflects the late, lamented lead vocalist Michael Hutchence’s “God and the Devil phase.” Like “Heaven and Hell,” this is a reminder that “every single one of us has the devil inside:” a fact, no doubt, that aligns with the Christian doctrine that all are born with original sin. Which, incidentally, is the name of yet another fantastic INXS song.
6. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Bob Dylan. From the movie “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” Most believe the song is about Billy the Kid dying, but it’s really about a deputy sheriff who was shot by Billy. No mystery here: the dying man speaks of being on heaven’s door.
Jon: “Number of the Beast,” Iron Maiden. This first-rate heavy metal scorcher, from the 1982 album of the same name, unfairly pegged this powerfully melodic British quintet as Satanists. Rather, the song is a colorfully vivid depiction of a poor sap who happens upon a devilish ritual. And a hell of a tune at that.
5. “Why Me,” Kris Kristofferson. It is Kris who plays Billy the Kid in the movie that featured “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Again, a pretty straight message of gratitude to the Lord, but Kris doesn’t think he deserves it. How can you not like a song about gratitude and humility, especially sung by that deep voice? His rendition sounds very sincere.
Jon: “Highway to Hell,” AC/DC. The best offering from a band that wasn’t shy about including “hell,” “damnation” and references to the devil in song titles. Despite its ominous title, the inspiration for this 1979 masterpiece was the grueling life of a gigging band. “It was written about being on the bus on the road where it takes forever to get from Melbourne or Sydney to Perth across the Nullarbor Plain,” lead vocalist Brian Johnson explained. “When the sun’s setting in the west and you’re driving across it, it is like a fireball.”
4. “Jesus Christ Superstar,” (from the original rock opera.) A scandalous offering at the time, this song seems tame now. It’s an argument between Jesus and Judas that somehow didn’t make it into the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but managed to find its way into the book of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Judas is screaming at Jesus that he hasn’t lived up to his expectations. Before we judge, how often do we do the same?
Jon: “Runnin’ with the Devil,” Van Halen. A cautionary ode to life in the fast lane. With one of Eddie Van Halen’s strongest riffs serving as the foundation, “Diamond” David Lee Roth serves up a delectable warning of the perils of “living at a pace that kills.”
3. “My Sweet Lord,” George Harrison. I am told this is the first solo song by an ex-Beatle to hit number one (editor’s note: correctamundo.) I checked the lyrics for some hidden meaning, but there is none. He is telling the Lord, “I really want to see you. I really want to feel you, Lord, but it takes so long.” It didn’t take long enough. Harrison died all too young.
Jon: “Tubular Bells,” Mike Oldfield. Released in 1973, this lengthy multi-part instrumental likely would have never seen the light of day in America had it not been for its inclusion in what is rightfully called the “scariest movie ever made.” Thanks to “The Exorcist,” and its assorted scenes of possession-inspired mayhem, it’s impossible to disassociate that distinctive synthesizer opening with levitating beds, spinning heads and enough vulgarity to make a hardened sailor blush.
2. “Let it Be,” The Beatles. OK, Jon, you’ve enlightened us that the song is not about the Virgin Mary, but really about Paul’s mother. But Paul never says that in the song, and the whole world thought he meant the Virgin Mary. So that is how I’m taking it. After you corrected me, people told me that they prefer my interpretation. So it’s a religious song! That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Jon: “Hellhound on My Trail,” Robert Johnson. Assumably, the occult posturings of Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Motley Crue were merely for show. But if you believe the legend, this unsettling tune might be the real deal. As the story goes, Johnson ventured to The Crossroads at midnight, where he bargained his immortal soul for the ability to play blues guitar like no other. This number, from 1937, is delivered in a haunting, pained wail: revealing Johnson to lament the fact that his time is running out. Not so fun fact: This was one of the last songs Johnson recorded before his death at the age of 27.
1. “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin. A classic great song. One of the best. If you listen closely, it’s about a lady seeking a false god. She’s attempting to “buy a stairway to Heaven,” which she sees as riches and possessions.The song builds to such a fantastic climax with Robert Plant’s voice that it’s easy to miss the message that you can’t buy your way into heaven.
Jon: Speak of the devil! This was my top choice, too. Lead guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Page has made no bones about his dalliances with the dark side and admiration of Aleister Crowley: the infamous English occultist and ceremonial magician. The tell all book “Hammer of the Gods” even infers that Page may have made a Faustian bargain, and Page once cryptically linked his composing to unnamed “rituals.” Keying on the line “’cause you know sometimes words have two meanings,” an inquisitive minister spun the song backwards, apparently revealing such non-heavenly lines as “Here’s to my sweet Satan” and “He will give you 666.” Even lyricist Robert Plant attributed the song’s creation to a supernatural source: “I was holding a pencil and paper, and for some reason I was in a very bad mood,” Plant is quoted as saying. “Then all of a sudden, my hand was writing out the words, ‘There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold/And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.’ I just sat there and looked at the words and then I almost leapt out of my seat.” The whole of the lyrics were, reportedly, finished in that one sitting. Dictation complete, even Plant admitted he was “confused” by the meaning of the lyrics.
Chieftain reporter Jon Pompia can be reached by email at [email protected] or at twitter.com/jpompia. Help support local journalism by subscribing to the Chieftain at chieftain.com/subscribenow