It is only a slight exaggeration to say that I am a Christian today because of the use of the Electric Prunes' Kyrie Eleison (from their amazing album, Mass in F Minor) in the 1969 film, Easy Rider.
I was in high school when I caught this film (5 years after its debut) on my parents' little black-and-white TV. It changed my life. Soon, I borrowed a book of the Easy Rider screenplay from the North Babylon, New York Public Library. And then, I borrowed the Easy Rider soundtrack from the same library. I kept renewing both of them as long as they would let me. Finally, I splurged and bought my own vinyl LP of the soundtrack.
On the Easy Rider soundtrack LP were these musicians: Steppenwolf, the Byrds, the Electric Prunes, the Band, Roger McGuinn, the Holy Modal Rounders, and Jimi Hendrix. This is the album that led me to discover all the music I've loved since then, with very few exceptions. It was the trunk of my musical "family tree."
But, I digress. This blog is supposed to be about the appearance in the soundtrack of Kyrie Eleison, by the Electric Prunes. Below, I will post the relevant scenes for you youngsters who may not have seen the film, or you oldsters who were tripping too hard when you saw it back in '69. But first, some background.
Recall: George Hanson (the Jack Nicholson character) had just been murdered by rednecks. Our heroes Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy the Kid (Dennis Hopper) have not yet met their similar fates. They are having dinner when the song starts, and Hopper is trying to talk Fonda into visiting the New Orleans whorehouse which Nicholson had recommended to them: Madam Tinkertoy's House of Blue Lights.
Fonda is protesting, being the spiritual one of the pair, but Hopper (the carnal one) wins him over with the argument that George "would have wanted us to." So, they zip off to the brothel, and it appears to be housed in an abandoned church, because the place is adorned with high religious art, interspersed with pin-up style nudes. It is an interesting juxtaposition, given that the Electric Prunes are psychedelically chanting: "Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy" in Latin.
There has never in the history of the world been an album quite like Mass in F Minor. Everyone with any interest in popular music and/or Christianity should hear it at least once. When I first saw the above scene, this song affected me very powerfully, along with the images of the film. After spending some time in the brothel, and hooking up with two prostitutes, Karen (Karen Black) and Mary (Toni Basil), they decide to head out to Mardi Gras.
They wind up in a cemetery, and decide to drop acid (I've written a bit about my experimention with LSD here and here). The deliver method of the acid is important. Fonda places it on the tongue of Karen and then of Mary, like a priest giving the consecrated host.
During the cemetery scene, after the acid begins to kick in, the words of the Apostles' Creed are recited in the background.
So, what do we have here? We have sin: drunkenness, fornication, and drugs. We have the cry for mercy (Kyrie Eleison!). We have high church art juxtaposed with pornography. We have a mimicry of Holy Communion. We have the historic Christian Creed being recited. These scenes from Easy Rider happen at the intersection of sin and redemption, of transgression and mercy. And it is all bound together in one by the psychedelic chanting and mesmerizing guitar and organ of the Electric Prunes.
This scene made me feel powerfully, for the first time, the pull of the beauty of the historic Christian faith. It was not the Christian tradition cloistered away in safety, but bursting out of every seam of the universe to meet, confront, challenge, and possibly even convert these drug smugglers and prostitutes, even in the very midst of their intoxication.
It gave me hope of the same thing happening to me.