Aug 16, 2014

'He just says, Trust me, man. Trust me.'

John Rydgren, an ordained Lutheran minister and radio DJ, connects experimental music with the promises of Jesus:

In 1966, Rydgren started America's only Psychedelic Christian radio show in a Lutheran church basement in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Jesus People movement, which would combine hippie aesthetics with an evangelical message, was only just beginning, at the time. It hadn't yet spread from San Francisco to the rest of the country. It would be another five or six years before the youth pastors of middle America figured out, as Larry Eskridge puts it in his history of the Jesus People, how to "negotiate a truce between the demands of their own religious heritage and the allure of secular youth culture."

The 34-year-old minister was breaking new ground with his radio show, Silhouette.

Rydgren was director of the TV, Radio and Film department of the American Lutheran Church, a left-leaning denomination that later merged with other Lutheran groups to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. His show mostly played popular rock music, including the Rolling Stones and the Monkees, but it also featured Rydgren's own strange and memorable spoken-word tracks.

Between songs, Rydgran played short, psychedelic homilies: "Search It Out," "Rinky Dink," "Music to Watch Girls Walk By," "Hippie Version of Creation," "Groovin on a Saturday Night."

The show was syndicated, playing in New York, on FM stations across the country, and even on American Armed Forces Radio, broadcast to soldiers fighting in Vietnam.

"What's it all about?," Rydgren asked, in one spoken-word piece. "It's about where it's at -- with life, people, God, Christ, you know?"

From the Lutheran station in Minnesota, Rydgren moved to Los Angeles in 1972, working as a DJ there. He had a heart attack on-air in 1982, and died in 1988 at the age of 56.

Recordings of psychedelic spoken-word sermons have circulated as bootlegs for years, attracting the attention of connoisseurs of strange music and rare recordings.

Bizarre Records called the 1968 album of Rydgren's work "possibly the greatest psychedelic beat-hippy jesus-freak records ever recorded."

Collector Bill Kopp wrote, "There's a reason that these tracks have not been totally forgotten: they're good. They're historically relevant, and they're entertaining."

Kevin Foakes, of the electronic music project DJ Food, describes the first time he heard one of Rydgren's tracks: "As soon as I heard that baritone voice, the hip but sometimes dark delivery and the selection of music he chose to recite over, I was hooked."

Rydgren . . . chose to integrate God's word into his radio shows, intertwined with subjects that the youth of the day could relate to. Sex, drugs, rock music, fashion, cars, it all went in with a Lord's eye view on each and every one. The creation of the world was turned into a psychedelic trip with allusions to heavy rock and growing weed, a girl with thigh length boots he was checking out suddenly gets him thinking about who had made the girl -- 'quite a design.'
Rydgren's legacy has been kept alive by collectors. One of Rydgren's tracks was sampled by the rapper Nas on his 1999 track, "Nas Is Like." DJ Food recorded a tribute to Rydgren in 2009.

His work was remastered and re-released by Omni Records in 2012.