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Defender of the Faith: Claiming to Be a Wise Man

January 23, 2015

I was amazed I hadn’t seen it myself.  I knew the album well, having spun it incessantly through the late 70s and early 80s and believing its opening track, “Carry On My Wayward Son,” to be a rock masterpiece.  But it was only there in that high Andes café in Huancayo, Peru, listening to Elder Jones as he held forth that I finally recognized the Leftoverture LP by the group Kansas for what it so obviously was, a concept album about the work of a Mormon missionary.

Kansas - LeftovertureAs I went over the record’s songs in my mind, it was as clear as that high mountain sky. It was me and my fellow white-shirted, baby-faced missionaries serving all around the globe who were the proclaimed wayward sons. It was us who had risen above the noise and confusion and were now carrying on despite our weariness to share the good news with a yearning world.

The songs told our story.  They voiced our doubts about our ability to effectively share what we held dear while reinforcing our trust that all would work out if we just kept the faith.  We would have peace, our crying would be over and heaven would surely wait for us when we were done.  “The Wall” was the lamentation of our earthly brothers and sisters seeking a path to the Promised Land but awaiting our arrival to help tear down the barriers that hindered their progress.  The uncertain but tentatively hopeful feelings of those who chose to let us inside when we came knocking was reflected in “Miracles Out of Nowhere.”  “Opus Insert” was our welcoming message of light and joy, while “Questions of My Childhood” and “Cheyenne Anthem” told of the deeper understanding of life’s meaning that came through further investigation of our offered truth.

It’s a game that I’ve been living, now I need to know what’s real / Can you help me find the answers, can you tell the way I feel?

The idea that our rock and roll heroes could understand us and our mission so deeply was incredibly energizing for our small cadre there in the Peruvian highlands.  The Lord worked in mysterious ways indeed, and He was clearly pretty dang awesome too; Kansas was way cooler than all those boring old hymns we sang at Sunday church meetings.  Sure, mission rules stated that we weren’t supposed to be listening to “worldly” rock music while serving our mission calls, but clearly the Guy Upstairs got it even if our old fogey leaders didn’t.  Rock and roll promoted our faith; it didn’t diminish it.

Yours Truly, wayward and defending in Huancayo, Peru - 1984

Yours Truly, wayward and defending in Huancayo, Peru – 1984

Our openness to interpretations and folktales that showed how what we already liked was actually faith-reinforcing did not stop with Leftoverture.  I can’t now recall which fellow missionary shared with me the “obviously true” experience of a pair of fellow proselytizing youth serving in the United Kingdom some 7-8 years prior to our time in Peru.  The story went that, during an especially spirit-filled meeting to share their testimonies with a gathering of locals, two missionaries had noticed a small group of long-hairs quietly but intently listening in the back of the hall.  After the meeting ended and folk were slowly coming down from the spiritual high and heading home, the unkempt but obviously deeply moved rockers approached our missionary friends to quietly pass along that they KNEW the truth of what they had heard but could not openly admit it due to the potential negative impact of doing so on their commercial interests.  Yep, here was insider assurance from fellow light-bearers, the specific identities of whom were vague, that even Led Zeppelin secretly knew the truth of our gospel message.  Our work was assuredly divine!

Led Zeppelin - Secret Mormons?

Led Zeppelin – Secret Mormons?

It wasn’t just epic hard rock or conceptual progressive anthems that reinforced our youthful certainty in our unique callings.  I remember with joy the day Elder Dean, my colleague and fellow covert metalhead – yes, there were limits to the relative tolerance of even “rocker” missionary peers – took me aside during a rare get-together in Lima to share with me the title of the new album released by our graven heavy metal idols Judas Priest in 1984, Defenders of the Faith.  “Dude, we’re defending theJudas Priest - Defenders of the Faith faith right now here in Peru. How cool is that!”  In that pre-digital age, we wouldn’t actually be able to hear the new album until we got back home in mid ’85, but we knew it was “all about us, man.”

Beautiful, faith-promoting Truth was and continues to be in the eye of the beholder, of course.  Whether primary Leftoverture songwriter Kerry Livgren’s compositions resulted from a Mormon-leaning Deity’s spiritual influence or Messrs. Page, Plant, Bonham, & Jones clandestinely carried the torch for Joseph Smith was irrelevant to the positive reinforcement and reassurance those stories gave to us young believers as we undertook our peculiar service far from home and family.

Truth be told, things haven’t actually changed much through the intervening years.  I can still be regularly found on any given day, eyes shut tight and rapt, finding reinforcement of some deeply-held truth — whatever that might be at that moment — within an inspired spiritual message flowing forth from the headphones. Isn’t it amazing how music can provide the needed message in the needed moment?  Death metal can reaffirm life, stoner rock can clarify the mind, and 70s prog rock can make a wavering 20-year-old certain of his chosen path.  Sounds divine to me.

From → Church, Music

  1. Okay, I’ll buy your theory if you can show me how Hanoi Rocks fit into the general scheme of things here.

    • Well, you see the song “Love’s an Injection” off Hanoi’s 1982 Self Destruction Blues album, it is symbolic of how, like, Mormonism penetrates you with its truth and stuff, you know, gets below your skin and such … pretty obvious now that you think about it, right?

      • I’m there! I didn’t wake up this morning realising that I was going to convert to Mormonism…

  2. Very moving post. I was a Mormon in the 90s and though I no longer wish to follow the rules, it was still the right faith for me. What attracted me to them was the fact that, unlike the fundamentalist born agains, I wouldn’t have to be expected to destroy my record collection as a pre-requisite for joining the church. You are spot on about Kansas!

    • Thanks, small world, eh? And yeah man, as Rod “The Revelator” Argent taught us back in ’73, it was God himself that gave Rock ‘n Roll to us!

  3. The weekly show I used to present on public radio (bit like College radio but city wide) was sandwiched between the Heavy Rock show and the Contemporary Christian Music show, an irony that was not lost on this poor unbeliever (in either church) but totally lost on the audience I suspect. Anyway, the C-boys, who were very nice in a different way to the metal boys, once played an instrumental track by Kerry Livgren and, when I expressed enjoyment, subsequently procured me a copy of the CD. Have to say that a instrumental prog album was about as much proselytising as I could handle back then.

    Rod ‘The Revelator’ Argent is just perfect. Tried and failed abjectly to come up with more biblical middle names, though Nick ‘Jesus of Cool’ Lowe has a certain ring to it. But Bob ‘Judas’ Dylan just sounds cranky, and I couldn’t find a way to make Elizabeth Frasers transmuting of pain into vocal beauty fit into either her or Cocteau Twins names.

    Was this post part of a longer piece? Just wondering.

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