Also Sprach Zarathustra

In raw schlock, pure truth is sometimes hidden. In cheap, cheesy, bottom-feeder pop fodder, secret knowledge can be found, if listeners tune their ears to the right frequencies and adjust their inner dials. Where better to conceal astral wisdom than blasting from countless radios? When Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” hit the air waves, millions knew with their bodies what their minds would never comprehend: after the Apollo-men had been to the moon nothing would ever be the same.

Americans had made their lunar odysseys and were now - in early ‘73 - back for good. It took a Brazilian jazz pianist sleazing his way through a German’s orchestral masterpiece based on an exile-German’s most famous philosophical tract to get the message out. First, however, came the British film, 2001, a Space Odyssey. Deodato’s proto-disco version of Strauss’s tone poem would never have happened if it hadn’t been used as the film’s main fanfare theme, its clarion call to new consciousness. In 2001, it’s orchestral - a straight rendering by the denazified conductors Boehm and Von Karajan. In the top 40 hit, it’s lounge-jazz afro-caribbean funk. Starting with a sub-bass groan, Deodato adds jungle-creature noises, conga drums and shakers, electric piano and chunka-chunka pulse bottom. A swankering guitar solo comes forward, and then the grandiose Teutonic brass fanfare. If this global burst of groove-gnosis weren’t so crucial, it would be hilarious. From Nietzsche and Richard Strauss to Stanley Kubrick’s film. And from there to something that might serve better as the soundtrack for a TV sports special than for the human mind breaking into the translunar beyond and meeting the Unspeakable Cosmic Other.

Nietzsche proclaimed the next step in human development - not the imbecilic Aryan superman who crushes the untermenschen, but the self-overcoming, self-transcending man. A Darwinian post-monkey man looks nothing like Nietzsche’s Uebermensch. Zarathustra tells us: “what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.” A link, a span across the void, a reach into the past and future (which are the same for Nietzsche): this is what the prophet came to show us.

How much of this did Eumir Deodato understand when he entered the studio and got the Brazilian space-funk cooking? Absolutely none of it. Other orchestral pieces had been retrofitted for American radio. “Bumble Boogie” and “The Nutrocker” had made it onto the charts. In 1972, as the last men on the moon made their final lunar sacrifices, a group called Apollo 100 put “Joy” (based on “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”) into the top ten. The year before that, Walter Carlos had made science fiction synthesizer versions of Rossini and Beethoven integral to Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. Only a few years later would come “A Fifth of Beethoven,” a disco-kitsch version of the most important symphony in the history of that form.

It took the American Idiot-Zarathustra - Der Elvis - to truly integrate Nietzsche and Strauss into pop-cosmic consciousness. Once he heard the celestial brass and booming drums, he knew that this would be the perfect sound for his grand entry onto the stage, every concert beginning with Strauss’s theme of exaltation. Elvis may not have been able to pronounce the prophet’s name, but he knew a trans-galactic power riff when he heard it. His jumpsuits too, the emblem of his power and glory, came straight from the moon. He started wearing them the year that Apollo 11 landed and he never gave them up. Weighing close to thirty pounds (with another ten for the massive belt) the jumpsuits are his version of space-wear. Pure white, stiff and cumbersome, with a high napoleonic collar, crusted with arcane symbols and strange patriotic emblems, these are the magic garments needed for his liftoff into the prophetic heavens.

What was Zarathustra’s message that everyone knew with their bodies but couldn’t bear to know with their brains? It’s actually quite simple - all crucial truth is. Something is out there, something vast and far beyond our ability to comprehend. And meeting it, human consciousness is like a fluttering candle flame obliterated in the radiance of a star going nova.