This Jesus is cool

Old sins die hard, as they say. And Sebastian Bach as the King of Kings is just, well, weird.

Every time I imagine the former bad-boy front man of late-’80s metal band Skid Row stepping into the titular role of Jesus Christ Superstar, I’m reminded of the musical’s standard-setting London cast from 1970 singing, “This Jesus Must Die.”

Sorry, Baz.

“Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ …”

Bach, nicknamed Baz, assumed the role of Savior in the musical’s current Broadway production last November, following in the sandals of such Superstar Messiahs as Ted Neeley, from the 1973 movie version, and Ian Gillan of Deep Purple fame, the part’s London-cast progenitor.

To be sure, Jesus is one of Broadway’s toughest roles; certain untheatrical expectations are placed on whoever plays the part. When Superstar first arrived on the Great White Way in 1971, drew protests, being called sacrilegious, even irreligious.

Which misses the musical’s point entirely.

Superstar is the tale of the final seven days in the life of Jesus the man as he grapples with his impending death. As such, the rock opera sidesteps the religious grandstanding that could have turned it into mere staged dogma. And as such, it has a rare and profound power to move.

The current yearlong traveling production also features the mellifluously voiced Carl Anderson (the 1986 pop hit “Friends and Lovers,” with Gloria Loring) reprising his movie role as Judas. (Baz seems truly in awe of Anderson, ironic for a tale of the Passion Play.)

Superstar was the first hit from the future Broadway ueber-team of knighted Brits Andrew Lloyd-Webber (the composer best known for Phantom of the Opera and Cats) and lyricist Tim Rice (in later years, the schmaltz behind Disney’s The Lion King).

The music in the current Broadway production of Superstar retains its early-’70s electric-guitar squall, as if Iggy Pop’s Stooges had gotten loose in the orchestra pit. But the show’s overall appearance has been “modernized”: Roman soldiers, for instance, now look, as one reviewer put it, like Star Wars stormtroopers.

Rice’s original libretto is mostly unchanged, incorporating late-’60s lingo that often taps the lyricist’s tendency toward serious corn.

The mob outside the temple is referred to as “blockheads” (what is this, Charlie Brown?), while in the hit song “Superstar,” Judas questions, “Buddah is he where it’s at, is he where you are?”

But nothing — nothing — tops the fabulous scene during “This Jesus Must Die,” when high priest Caiaphas declares, “This Jesus is cool,” instantly turning the Passion Play into an episode of The Mod Squad.

Yet there are moments where the lyrics have a subtle brilliance.

“Put away your sword/ Don’t you know that it’s all over?” Jesus admonishes the apostles during “The Arrest,” as he’s led to Pilate for judgment.

“Why are you so obsessed with fighting?” he asks. “Stick to fishing from now on.”

Jesus Christ Superstar has evolved into the truest form of modern-theater classic, routinely dissed and dismissed by critics as shallow and bloated, yet perennially popular with the public. I’m ashamed to say I’m going to see it, though I must confess, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“Who are you …”

“Eighteen and Life,” Skid Row’s signature hit from 1989, with its “Your crime is time” refrain, erased for that generation the notion that songwriting has anything to do with rocket science. And, of course, there was, from that same year, “I Remember You,” a “power ballad” certainly smarter than Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”

As the mouthpiece for Skid Row, Bach was part of what seemed initially another second-coming for FM radio, where routine blasts of such preening cock-rock made Robert Plant seem like a freakin’ genius.

Skid Row sold some 20 million albums with Baz at their helm. That said, the golden-haired singer was the bane of critics, who lumped the Skids in with the era’s other heavy-rock hair bands — Poison, Ratt, Whitesnake, Warrant, Winger — that became America’s most widely successful cliche for maybe a decade, only to combust from ego-driven personnel problems and stalled album sales about the time grungy feedback began emanating from Seattle.

During hair-metal’s heyday, Bach was the pinnacle of Spinal Tap excess, publicly raving about drug-fueled orgies and starting fights with fans from stage. And he was seemingly an idiot, photographed backstage at an L.A. Guns show at the height of this country’s HIV epidemic in a T-shirt declaring “AIDS kills fags dead.”

“Maybe I did wear a T-shirt when I was 19 years old with a homophobic message … for like a half an hour of my life,” Bach, now 34, conceded by phone from a Superstar show stop in Florida, “but if you’re gonna mention that, you’ve gotta mention that in the year 2000 … I donated $12,000 of my own money to fight AIDS. Wearing a T-shirt and coughing up 12 grand, which has more of an effect?”

People grow up, of course.

Of course, last March, Bach got into a fight with a New Jersey bartender reportedly because the barkeep refused to let Bach take his drink outside. Before it was over, witnesses said Baz was threatening to come back with a gun and take out everybody involved.

“Don’t you know who I am?” he supposedly demanded.

The police report states that Baz blessed the intervening authorities with a few choice words.

“F••k you, cops!” he bellowed. “You’re all a bunch of f••king idiots!”

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