“I wanna die just like Jesus Christ/I wanna die on a bed of spikes … I wanna die just like J.F.K./I wanna die on a sunny day …”
I don’t suppose I’ve got your attention now, do I?
I can’t claim authorship of those lyrics. That belongs to Scottish band The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Recently, I was listening to their song, “Reverence,” and reminded of when I first heard it and those inflammatory and self-loathing lyrics.
For a 13-year-old rural Nebraska kid raised as a Catholic, you can imagine how, well, frightening and fascinating the song was when those words were combined with the seductive bass line and walls of guitar distortion.
The song was released in February of 1992, and I’m not entirely sure when it was that year that I would have heard it.
I had figured out that if I went to a pickup in our machine shed at night, I could pull in radio stations that were not available during the day and wouldn’t come in on my boombox at any time.
I had come across a great radio show called “Dangerous Exposure” hosted by Mark Reid on 98.5 out of Omaha on Sunday nights. Reid is an Australian, and his voice made it all the more special for me. Beyond The Jesus and Mary Chain, he would play things like Opus III’s “It’s a Fine Day,” The Church’s “Ripple,” and songs by Omaha and Lincoln bands. It was a great resource for what was going on in alternative music during that explosive period in the industry.
“This is ‘Dangerous Exposure’ with Mark Reid …” he would begin each show before launching into an introduction about the music he was excited about playing for us.
When it came to “Reverence,” “Dangerous Exposure” hit the nail on the head. The song was banned by the BBC and “Top of the Pops” in England, but fortunately alternative stations in the United States decided it was acceptable for airplay.
As I listened to the song, feeling that I was doing something I should not, I was grateful my mother was nowhere nearby. At first, she would probably be oblivious to the song. But I could imagine the sour and alarmed look that would seep across her face as she gradually realized what was being sung.
“Nathan, what is this?” she would have asked before telling me to turn it off.
On my own in the dark night, I was free to absorb this transgressive song without fear of judgment — by humans, anyway. I’m sure I felt it was a bit evil, in a way, but it also held a certain morbid romantic appeal, too.
I feel like I can now vocalize an understanding of the song that I could not at that young age. To me, it isn’t the wanting to die that is the important sentiment of the song. It was what would arguably follow death — a larger than life persona that would transcend anything achieved during life. In some ways, your death would become more important, or at least more remembered, than your life should you follow in the footsteps of Jesus or Kennedy. On a certain level, I think that desire for a legacy appeals to all of us. “Reverence” just states it in a way that many people find provocative.
Reid, who just happens to share a surname with brothers Jim and William Reid, the founders of The Jesus and Mary Chain, was a fan of the song, and so I was able to hear it many times. The lyrics of “Reverence” have stuck with me throughout my life, and sometimes I’ll start singing them when I’m on my own and feeling in a mood to incite an imaginary audience. They still carry a certain excitement these 20 years later, even though I’ve done my best to shed all the relics of religious belief.
It may be worth noting, with a bit of embarrassment, that I never did buy the album that the song appeared on, “Honey’s Dead.” I think in my youth, I was still a bit frightened of the spiritual power of the song and actually having ownership of it. I figured it would be better to be able to put the blame for listening to the song on a far-off DJ. Maybe, just maybe, it also had to do with the fact that the album got mixed reviews. Even at that age, I looked to critics for guidance.
Instead, I bought the previous The Jesus and Mary Chain album, “Automatic,” to get my fix of the band. I really loved the song, “Head On,” which The Pixies would go on to cover on their album, “Trompe le Monde.”
I do now own “Reverence” via a singles collection from the band. I have not been zapped by lightning or had any other evidence of Divine punishment. However, I still haven’t played the song for my mother. 🙂
Many of you are probably familiar with The Jesus and Mary Chain from their song “Just Like Honey,” which was featured in “Lost in Translation.”