I remember still being an atheist when I procured my first copy of ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery when it came out in 1974. I had spent my middle school years saying that I was an atheist, for reasons not completely clear to me in retrospect. It was probably partly because I had read Erich von Däniken, and was very taken with what would eventually become known as “ancient astronaut theory.” It was probably also partly because I was just rebelling against my perceptions of the small-town midwestern Methodism in which I was raised.
But whatever else it might have been, I’m quite sure that it was partly from listening to Greg Lake sing “The Only Way” (on Tarkus). In other words, it seemed cool to be an atheist. My mother (who was certainly no atheist, but was quite open-minded), instead of trying to convince me to abandon my supposed conviction, warned me that I would need to be aware that openly discussing this could lead to VERY negative reactions from others. Fairly wise advice, given that I was just coming out of junior high school, and was already frequently persecuted for being a “queer” (i.e., I read a lot, was overweight and bespectacled, was not at all athletic, and had only recently put together the broad outlines of the whole “birds and bees” thing).
It was into the midst of that ostensibly “cool” youthful atheism that ELP’s recording of “Jerusalem” was dropped like a dirty bomb. It remains THE single ELP track that can almost immediately liquefy my spine and reduce me to a puddle of awe. Here was Greg Lake, singing about Jesus (albeit in England). I was not previously familiar with the poem or its hymn setting. Since becoming familiar with the hymn, my sense of the near-perfection of arrangement and of sonic texture has only been confirmed.
The reverberations of “Jerusalem” followed me through high school, which is to say that they followed me from my “cool” atheism of early adolescence to the Bible-thumping obnoxiousness of my later adolescence. What were some of those reverberations?
One was that savory but unsettling phrasing, “dark satanic mills.” Even after I dove head-first into fundamentalism, the sense for the importance of darkness haunted me. It was only much later that I actually found believers in God who seemed willing to approach it. Most notably, Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn would later grab at the same region of my heart, singing about how we’ve “got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.”
Another reverberation was the triumphalist feel of the song, which was delivered with such arresting aesthetic sincerity, while also being… I don’t think that the word ‘ironic’ quite covers it; that’s the word that comes to mind right now. The building of a New Jerusalem has seemed so central to Christianity, both as I have at times rejected it and at other times embraced it. The sort of Christianity that I drifted into over time (Anabaptist/Mennonite) questions the triumphalist, empire-building feel of some major streams within Christianity more broadly. Thus, I still listen to “Jerusalem” and hear this resonance as a friendly one.
A third, and (for purposes of this post) final resonance is that the darkness of these mills (I didn’t know at first what “mills” were being referenced; I still can’t hear the song with the emphasis on that word) desperately call for something that is not darkness. This is now how I understand the “religious” feel of “The Only Way” as well as of “Jerusalem.” Perhaps this is part of what made Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready”–released earlier, but not on my radar until a bit later–another revelatory listen.
No, I’m not going to present some kind of argument that this music should push you in a certain direction religiously (or spiritually, if you prefer). I share this vignette from my path, hoping that you might nod with understanding, remembering and treasuring the resonances that such rich music and poetry have had along your path as well.
4 thoughts on “A 14 year old atheist “among these dark satanic mills””
“And not content with that, with our hands behind our backs,
We pull Jesus from a hat,
Get into that! Get into that!”
-Karn Evil 9, 1st Impression, Part 1
“Jerusalem” is a very stunning track. Thanks for the post, Pete!
Pete, I love Brian Salad Surgery. It was ahead of its time: “load your program”….The first concert I went to was ELP: $6.50 to see them at Nashville Municipal Auditorium. They had a full orchestra with them, and it was spectacular. I’ll never forget Greg Lake singing “From the Beginning”; it was the most beautiful song I had ever heard.
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