Hive Five: Tales of Rocker Religion Rejection

Bob Dylan performing in Copenhagen during his Christian phase. Photo: Keith Baugh/Redferns

When the news arrived on Tuesday that everybody’s favorite Hasidic dancehall reggae star, Matisyahu, was shearing his beard and abandoning the ideals he’d adopted in his 20s after an adolescence as a Reconstructionist Jew, it got us thinking. How many other major musical figures have gotten religion and then lost it somewhere along the way? Rock history turns out to have no shortage of heroes who have taken a spiritual stance and then made a move in the opposite direction. Here’s the classic rock guide to the spiritual flip-floppers.

1. Bob Dylan gets saved

The man Hibbing, MN knew as Robert Zimmerman left Judaism behind in the late ‘70s and became a born-again Christian, apparently taking his own lyric, “He not busy being born is busy dying,” rather literally. Between ’79 and ’81 Dylan released a trio of iffy Christian-themed records, ironically scoring one of his biggest hits in the process with “Gotta Serve Somebody” from 1979’s Slow Train Coming. But no one’s more notorious for zigging when you’re expecting a zag than Dylan, and in the mid ‘80s he began backing away from Christianity. By the ‘90s he could be found at Chabad synagagoues and yeshivas, and even appeared on their telethon. Of course, he did release a Christmas album in 2009 — Zimmy always likes to keep us guessing.

2. Richard and Linda Thompson turn Sufi Muslim

It may not have seemed like an obvious step for a pair of British folk-rockers, but in 1974, singing and domestic partners Richard and Linda Thompson embraced Sufism, a particularly intense branch of the Muslim faith. At first, the move dovetailed with their decision to drop out of the materialistic music biz, but by the late ‘70s they were back on the block. Ex post facto tales about Sufi requirements like Linda having to walk a respectful distance behind her hubby add a little more context to the notorious tale of her smashing a bottle over his head backstage shortly before their 1981 breakup (though there were admittedly more earthly reasons as well). These days, guitar hero Richard describes himself as a “lapsed Sufi.”

3. The Beatles Get a Guru

Speaking of Brits becoming intoxicated with Eastern mysticism, today the story of the Beatles’ brief infatuation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is the stuff of legend, but in 1967 that sort of spiritual envelope-pushing was unprecedented for pop stars. Sometime after their sojourn to Bangor for some Transcendental Meditation training from the Maharishi, the Fab Four were overcome by doubts about their new friend’s motivations, and by ’68 they were sans guru, but at least they got a great batch of songs out of the experience, including most of the tracks on The White Album.

4. Carlos Santana Meets Sri Chinmoy

In 1972, Carlos Santana’s world was turned around by the fiery jazz-fusion of fleet-fingered guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. Not only did Santana shift his sound from Latin-tinged psychedelic blues-rock to a more refined fusion style on Caravanserai, he also followed McLaughlin’s lead into the religious realm. The Mahavishnu mainman introduced Santana to his guru, Sri Chinmoy, something of a spiritual entrepreneur, who established his own church to promote his teachings. Both McLaughlin and Santana — rechristened Devadip — were with Chinmoy for a number of years. But you can only expect a rock star to stick to a strict practice that forbids earthly pleasures for so long, and in 1981, the friction between Santana’s on-the-road lifestyle and Chinmoy’s demands finally became too much. The guitar god later described his former guru as “vindictive.” Still, it was under Chinmoy’s influence that Santana and McLaughlin cut the classic jazz-rock dueling-guitars album Love Devotion, Surrender. Left to his own devices, Carlos eventually drifted towards Rob Thomas. You make the call.

5. Dion: The Wanderer’s Rebirth

As the man who led Dion & the Belmonts to immortality, Bronx rocker Dion DiMucci has his own undeniable place in history, but like many other high-powered artists, he eventually became profoundly influenced by Bob Dylan. In the late ‘60s, Dion walked away from his street-corner sound, adopting an introspective-balladeer approach, most famously on his 1968 social-commentary hit, “Abraham, Martin, and John.” A decade later, Dion was in step with Dylan once more, as both men made the move to born-again Christianity in 1979. Of course, as a born-and-bred Catholic boy, Dion had a bit of a head start. The man who once gave the world “Runaround Sue” spent years as a zealous Protestant, successfully pursuing a gospel career, and it was two decades before he reverted back to his old-school faith, sparked by (What else?) a visit to his old church in the Bronx.

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