Possessed by Music

AP Photo/Peter Kemp

You might have known a music obsessive in your youth, the kind of person who went to all the shows, tore off their shirt, and danced with enviable abandon; you might have been that obsessive yourself. In the late 1960s, a shirtless, longhaired man started appearing at rock shows around England. He danced on stage, held cryptic signs, and believed he was Jesus Christ. His name was William Jellett, and at Medium, writer J.P Robinson assembles a vivid portrait of this one of music’s most mysterious, passionate, messianic fans. He danced to Captain Beefheart, to Led Zeppelin, at punk shows, at reggae shows — seemingly at more places than a person could physically be at one time. He would disappear only to reappear again. He was the guy you saw at shows and wondered What’s his story? Robinson examines the way spirituality and music connected for Jellett, how this pained man found a home, and the darker side of his guru identity.

Throughout this time, Jellett was increasingly visible at gigs. Watching the Incredible String Band, he danced on his seat, as the audience shouted “Jesus, we love you.” Sometimes, people would throw beer cans at him. He was “an easy target, in more ways than one,” one gig goer remembers. He talked to women about cats, or walked down an aisle, handing out fruit and nuts, or exchanging grapes for front row tickets. At a pub in Ealing, someone recalled, he “jumped on stage and started singing ‘I know it’s only rock and roll but I like it,’ before the Stones released song of said title.”

At a Slade gig, in 1971, he banged his tambourine as they played “Know Who You Are.” When the recording of the gig was released, as “Slade Alive,” he was credited as “unknown member of the audience.” He watched New York Dolls in 1972, with the fashionable set, who disliked his robes. At a Frank Zappa gig in 1972, he stood to proclaim that “if you want to know the truth, listen to Jimi Hendrix.” At another gig, “as I started singing,” one musician remembers “everyone began cheering and I thought it was because of me. Then I realized it was because ‘Jesus’ had arrived in the audience.”

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