The great Mike Salardino and I have a lot in common.
Along with a great name (my middle name is Michael) and Italian heritage, Mike and I are Catholic school alumni with long service as altar boys.
Today, Mike remains a proud practicing Catholic and an advocate for all that is good and holy.
As for me, well, let’s just say I started bringing KISS magazines and albums to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Elementary School, then wrote lyrics for AC/DC and Blue Oyster Cult on the bathroom walls of Trinidad Catholic High School, and that I never looked back.
So it’s fitting that Mike presents his top 10 mainstream songs with a spiritual or religious theme, while I play devil’s advocate.
“I can’t thank my mentor Frank Provenza enough for helping me out,” Salardino said. “I explained the subject to him and he shot me about 20 tracks in half a day. There are many songs that fit the category, so choosing 10 was not easy.
Music, Mike believes, can be a powerful tool for proselytizing.
“Famous theologian Bishop Robert Barron says when you’re trying to explain faith to someone, don’t start with dogma,” Mike said. “It’s like introducing someone to baseball by explaining the rule of internal flight.
“Start with beauty, especially the beauty of art and music.”
10. “Seven Spanish Angels”, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson. The first three songs on my list are sad. This collab is about an outlaw and his girlfriend trying to outrun a group. The religion is not hidden: they appeal to God for help and the outlaw is shot and recaptured by the angels. The girlfriend apologizes to God and then invites her own death after which she too is escorted away 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 fill the lead vocal role vacated by John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne. The title refers to good and evil, yin and yang, which prevail in all human beings and in the world itself. For me, the most quoted sentence is: “The world is full of kings and queens who blind you and steal your dreams; it is heaven and hell.
9. “Angel of the Morning” (Juice Newton version.) A song about a woman who’s finished a one-night stand and tries to sound cavalier about it. But it is clear that she does not think so. What is clear is that she wants the man’s true love but knows she won’t get it. She doesn’t really see herself as an “angel” in this story that plays out too often in real life.
Jon: “Sympathy for the Devil”, The Rolling Stones. Since its release in 1968, it’s become something of a signature song for a band that wasn’t shy about making alliances with the dark side (see 1967’s “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and 1973’s “Goats Head Soup”) . against the backdrop of chords, Mick Jagger portrays the Devil as a sophisticated socialite, a “man of wealth and taste”, who has both witnessed and instigated the world’s most calamitous episodes.
8. “Concrete Angel”, Martina McBride. My favorite country singer offers a heartbreaking song about child abuse. After 17 years on the board of the Child Advocacy Centre, this is a sensitive issue for me. The abused child only becomes an “angel” when the abuse takes his life.
Jon: “Cry to the Devil”, Motley Crue. One of the reasons I love Cruester Chef Nikki Sixx is her candor. Convinced that then-President Ronald Wilson Reagan was the antichrist – six letters in each name, count them! — Sixx wrote this 1983 anthem to inspire listeners to stand up and shout such characters. “It’s always been a song about pushing back,” Sixx said. “It could be the perceived enemy at hand, the devil within, or someone on a wobbly election campaign.”
7. “The Spirit in the Sky”, Norman Greenbaum. OK, enough teardrops! This is a very clear song about a person who says their purpose in life is to be a friend of Jesus, so that when they die they can go to heaven with the Spirit in Heaven. 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 many standout tracks from an Australian band that ranks among my all-time favourites. Fueled by an eerie riff that just won’t let go, this 1987 track mirrors the “God and the Devil” phase of the late lead singer Michael Hutchence. “Like ‘Heaven and Hell,’ it’s a reminder that ‘every one of us has the devil within:’ a fact, no doubt, that aligns with the Christian doctrine that all are born with sin. Which, by the way, is the name of another fantastic INXS song.
6. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, Bob Dylan. From the movie “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”. Most think the song is about the death of Billy the Kid, but it’s actually about a deputy sheriff who was shot by Billy. No mystery here: the dying person speaks of being at the gates of heaven.
Jon: “Number of the Beast”, Iron Maiden. This top-notch heavy metal scorcher, from the 1982 album of the same name, unfairly equated this powerfully melodic British quintet with Satanists. On the contrary, the song is a colorful and lively representation of a poor sap that falls on a devilish ritual. And a hell of a melody to that.
5. “Why Me”, Kris Kristofferson. It’s Kris who plays Billy the Kid in the movie that featured “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Again, a pretty straightforward message of gratitude to the Lord, but Kris doesn’t think he deserves it. How can you not love a song about gratitude and humility, especially sung by this deep voice? His interpretation seems very sincere.
Jon: “Highway to Hell”, AC/DC. The best offering from a band that didn’t shy away from 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 concert 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 singer Brian Johnson explained. “When the sun sets in the west and you walk through it, it’s like a ball of fire.”
4. “Jesus Christ Superstar”, (from the original rock opera.) A scandalous offering at the time, this song now seems tame. It’s a dispute 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 cries out to Jesus that he has not lived up to his expectations. Before judging, how many times do we do the same thing?
Jon: “Running with the devil”, Van Halen. An uplifting ode to life in the fast lane. With one of Eddie Van Halen’s strongest riffs serving as the basis, “Diamond” David Lee Roth serves as a delectable warning of the dangers of “living at a killer pace.”
3. “My sweet lord”, George Harrison. I’m told this is the first solo song by an ex-Beatle to reach number one (Editor’s note: correctamundo.) I checked the lyrics for a hidden meaning, but there is none. He said to the Lord, “I really want to see you. I really want to feel you, Lord, but it’s taking so long.” It didn’t take long enough. Harrison died too young.
Jon: “Tubular Bells”, Mike Oldfield. Released in 1973, this long, multi-part instrument would probably never have seen the light of day in America if it hadn’t been included in what’s aptly called the “scariest movie ever made.” Thanks to “The Exorcist” and its assorted scenes of possession-inspired mayhem, it’s impossible to dissociate that distinctive synth 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 isn’t about the Virgin Mary, it’s really about Paul’s mother. But Paul never says that in the song, and the whole world thought he was talking about the Virgin Mary. So that’s how I take it. After you corrected me, people told me they preferred my interpretation. So it’s a religious song! This is my story and I stick to it.
Jon: “Hellhound on my trail”, Robert Johnson. Presumably the occult postures of Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Motley Crue were just for show. But if you believe the legend, this disturbing tune could be the real deal. As the story goes, Johnson ventured to The Crossroads at midnight, where he traded his immortal soul so he could play blues guitar like no one else. This issue, from 1937, is delivered in a haunting and painful moan: revealing Johnson to lament that his time is running out. Not so fun fact: It was one of the last songs Johnson recorded before his death at the age of 27.
1. “Stairway to Heaven”, Led Zeppelin. A great classic song. One of the best. If you listen carefully, it’s about a lady looking for a false god. She is trying to “buy a stairway to heaven”, which she considers wealth and good. The song reaches such a fantastic climax with Robert Plant’s vocals that it’s easy to miss the message that you can’t buy your way to heaven.
Jon: Talk about the devil! It was also my first choice. Lead guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Page has made no secret of his alliances with the dark side and his admiration for Aleister Crowley: the infamous English occultist and ceremonial magician. The tell-all book “Hammer of the Gods” even deduces that Page may have made a Faustian bargain, and Page once cryptically linked his composition to unnamed “rituals.” Writing the line ‘because you know sometimes words have two meanings’, a curious minister turned the song upside down, seemingly revealing unheavenly lines such as ‘Behold 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 really bad mood,” Plant reportedly said. “Then suddenly my hand was writing 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, then I almost jumped out of my seat.” The entire lyric would have been completed in one sitting. Dictation completed, 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 twitter.com/jpompia. Help support local journalism by subscribing to Chieftain at chieftain.com/subscribenow