Julie Burchill

Pop stars at prayer - from Madonna to the Beatles, and jihadist Cat Stevens

Pop stars at prayer - from Madonna to the Beatles, and jihadist Cat Stevens
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A spoof in the Israeli Daily recently had Eminem planning to convert to Judaism and move to Tel Aviv. But I don’t think we’ll be seeing that any time soon - he’s not really waiting for the Messiah, he’s just a

very naughty boy. Still, stranger things have happened.

I was very amused by the Reverend Richard Coles recently; when asked if he is the only vicar who has ever topped the British pop charts, he said 'Yes, but I met the vicar of Hitchen the other day and I said 'We've met, haven't we? Was it through the church?"' Apparently the vicar of Hitchen replied 'No, I was in Pigbag in the 1980s!'

I’ve complained before about that monumentally irritating type of contemporary cretin who gushes ‘I’m not religious, but I am very spiritual’ - often some sacked sportsman or spurned starlet trawling after a way to seem ‘deep’ after a lifetime of treading water in the shallows.

These desperately-seeking-something saps, of course, go about seeking enlightenment in completely the wrong way; they see spirituality as something that will take them deeper into themselves, and give them more utterly superfluous ‘me time.’ No wonder they never find what they're looking for; happiness, as survey after survey shows, is certainly found more often among Believers than the non-Believers. But to work, faith must encourage one to transcend the self rather than dwell even deeper on it, whereas being ‘spiritual’ seems to appeal to those who seek yet another way to ‘pamper’ themselves once the effects of the Rainforest Ritual body-wrap have worn off.

Sometimes, though, even showbiz sorts get belief big-time - proper religion, not just lighting a couple of candles and asking for stuff in a language they don’t understand. Richard Coles was hardly a megastar - he was the lesser half of a duo, the Communards, of which the more famous half was Jimmy Somerville, whose main claim to fame was being the person who most resembled a potato to ever top the British pop charts. But Coles's religious conversion seems completely genuine. And from Cliff to Madonna, pop stars so big they’re known by only one name have sought to find something that makes them feel small after, one imagines, becoming somewhat jaded with being treated as deities by a many-mawed monster thatworships them just because they can sing a few notes in the right order and hop about from foot to foot.

When John Lennon said in 1966 that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus’, he said it not triumphantly, as his record-burning detractors raged, but with real confusion and desolation.

As George Harrison put it:

‘Like we're The Beatles, after all, aren't we? We have all the money you could ever dream of, we have all the fame you could ever wish for. But it isn't love. It isn't health. It isn't peace inside, is it?'

The Beatles would soon take on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as their ‘spiritual advisor’ - travelling to India in 1968 to ‘devote themselves fully to his instruction’. Ringo, ever sensible, left after ten days, saying the yogi's compound 'was like Butlins holiday camp'. Paul stayed on for a month while the most humourless and therefore most gullible, George and Paul, stayed for a whopping six weeks before leaving abruptly after the Maharishi asked them to deposit profits from their next album in his bank account. When asked why they were leaving, Lennon replied ‘If you're so cosmic, you'll know why’.

Is it just the lure of the exotic? It’s interesting that pop stars (with a few exceptions, like the Rev Coles) don’t generally return to the religion they were raised in. Seeing photos of the smiling Beatles sitting around in the Indian sunshine before figuring out they were four golden eggs their yogi was planning to (p)lay, you might be forgiven for thinking that the oft-heard pop star complaint of travelling to foreign countries one has always yearned to see - yet being too popular to actually see anything except the venue and a few local vaginas - means that these ‘journeys’ are often less spiritual than a chance to go somewhere sunny and really relax in a controlled environment at one’s leisure; rather like upgrading from a Thomson package holiday to a custom-made Abercrombie & Kent number.

Holy places are highly guarded, often with unsurpassable security - what the pop star mistakes for the

tranquility of a spiritual experience may simply be a superior grade of tourism. Sometimes you can see conversion coming; everything about Madonna, starting with the given name that everyone initially believed was a stage-name, indicated that this was not a woman who would be content to live life as a cool-headed, rational atheist; divas have always been prone to believing that the Almighty took the time out to raise them up personally. Last year, rumour had it that she was reading the Koran and might be converting from Kabbalism to Islam, but ever the cynic, I can’t help thinking that the only reason Madge would ever don a niqab would be as a handy cover on those awkward days when she’s overdosed on facial fillers.

There are certain musicians whose religious journeys are somewhat more predictable than others, of course. It seems quite easy to switch from gangsta rap to hard-core Islamism - if you believe that white people

are devils, Jews rule the world and women are possessions, it’s just a short trip-trap from rap to Isis. But some Muslim conversions really catch one bending, as the Cockneys say. One minute Cat Stevens (Greek Orthodox father, Swedish Baptist mother, Roman Catholic school) was the wimpiest of hippie troubadours, extolling the peaceful pleasures ‘leapin and hoppin' on a moonshadow’; the next, he was calling himself Yusuf Islam and demanding the head of Salman Rushdie, the rotter. (He subsequently defended this as a ‘joke.’)

Even the terminally wet ‘Moonshadow’, however, sounds sinister now in the light of the approval of amputation under Sharia law - ‘If I ever lose my hands. . . I won’t have to work no more.’ Personally, having come to loathe ‘Yusuf’ for his vileness during the Rushdie affair and his subsequent cowardice in reducing it to ‘a joke’, and taking into consideration the awfulness of his recent music, that’s certainly a situation I could live with.