At the dawn of the 1970s, a rock opera about Jesus made its stage debut. It was a new telling of the New Testament. Its voice was the counterculture, and its audience was more than ready to hear the old story in their language. It also did not try to win sympathy for Judas Iscariot, or neglect to mention that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
If you haven’t heard of “Truth of Truths,” blame Rolling Stone. John Mendelssohn was not a critic who would take kindly to an earnest and respectful operatic take on the Bible. ToT took a drubbing, and Mendelssohn’s description of the show as “preachy” was particularly cutting. Preachiness was exactly what the creative minds behind ToT wanted to avoid.
But “Jesus Christ Superstar” was the public’s anointed, so ToT ran its course without benefit of critical acclaim. After a tour to five major U.S. cities and selling 500,000 copies, the album went out of print in 1975. It’s resurrection season, though, and ToT is back in production thanks to a new CD release from Oak Records. (You can also find LPs on eBay.)
Jesus Is Just Alright With Whom?
The 1970ish musical milieu saw a concurrence of concept albums and rock operas, a Christian cultural renaissance, and the commercialization of Jesus. Between 1969 and 1972, Jesus appeared eponymously on Billboard’s pop charts four times. The same years also contributed “Salvation,” “Godspell,” and Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” to the national religious conversation.
ToT brought together the sincerity of “Godspell,” the countercultural tang of the Jesus movement, a lyrical scope not to be found in the anaphoric “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and a reverence absent from anything Rolling Stone might like. ToT was not a reimagining radical, ironic, or otherwise. You can’t reimagine the Truth. You can only tell it, or not tell it.
ToT tells the truth. It begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation. The Bible is a long book, so choices had to be made. We get David and Bathsheba rather than David and Goliath. Joshua doesn’t judge Ruth, but we hear messianic prophecies and the Magnificat.
The music is relentlessly upbeat, even when the entire race of men less eight is getting wiped out, or when the Lord firebombs Sodom and Gomorrah. But the groovy ‘70s diapason knows how to get its point across: the only song that ends on a minor chord is a lament following the crucifixion. That’s also the only song in which believers lose sight of the promise.
Not to worry. Mary Magdalene gets to do her real job in ToT, which is not being Jesus’ sorta girlfriend, but proclaiming the resurrection. In a song unmistakably reminiscent of the schlocky hymn “In the Garden” (whose words do not always call hearers’ minds to the intended Easter morning setting), Mary gives her testimony of having seen Jesus alive and heard his voice.
And since the Bible doesn’t end there, ToT doesn’t end there either. The last two songs proclaim that Jesus is coming back, and that apocalypses belong to God rather than high-budget movies. ToT is quietly perceptive, casting the same performer (Patti Sterling) for both Eve and the Virgin Mary. The liturgical feel of its Ten Commandments and Magnificat make room for a Sanctus that, while exuberant, never becomes raucous (and certainly not snide).
What’s the Buzz? Tell Me What’s Happening?
Original cast member Pat Liston says ToT has more life in it for two reasons. First is its significance as a musical artifact. The album was recorded by the legendary Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles at Gold Star Studio. That’s an auspicious beginning for anyone. ToT’s influence within the Jesus movement places its outgrowth, the contemporary Christian music industry, as a direct beneficiary of these big guns.
Second, Liston says, “People now are often surprised when they hear any music from that drug-infused era that has a scriptural base, and that ‘crazy hippies’ believed in an actual biblical message.” But they did. ToT is musically gnarly, but it plays Scripture straight. Oak Records manager Don Long cites Oral Roberts and Calvary Chapel among the show’s original promoters—not exactly endorsers who habitually get on board with hazy hippie projects.
Moreover, ToT practiced what it preached. “Jesus Christ Superstar” rewarded the cool kids, affirming the virtue in paying the equivalent of a monthly SNAP benefit for tickets to shows evangelizing for the moment’s orthodoxies. The ToT cast performed for prisoners, and the kind of people who get laughed at by cultural elites via Rolling Stone reviews. It’s almost like ToT’s digging of Jesus went a little deeper.
The Mainstream Media’s Easter Charade
Easter TV used to give us nice things, like “The Ten Commandments,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “The Miracle Maker.” This year we’re getting “Jesus Christ Superstar” (can “Corpus Christi” be many years off?). For anyone who would rather not finish out his or her Easter with a spiritually unmoored, snarling Jesus abandoned to the cross, “Truth of Truths” is a great alternative. It’s no longer a “contemporary” rock opera, strictly speaking, but it has ripened into a folk classic whose message will never expire.
Liston sang King David and two prophetic voices for ToT. He says of producer Ray Ruff, “He taught me that [music] could be a vehicle to people’s hearts and minds, and to never, ever take that gift lightly.” That’s the kind of voice people of goodwill would benefit from hearing on Christianity’s most holy day. Maybe NBC could put together a reunion or a revival for Easter 2019.