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Rock Reflections of a Super-Hero: The Spider-Man Rock Opera [Music]

The hilariously titled “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” — a Broadway musical featuring music by U2 — looks like it’s finally getting off the ground later this year. It’s been through a truly Mel Brooksian period of development that includes the biggest budget musical theater has ever seen, a complete shutdown after running $25 million into the red and having two of the three major parts recast, but it might be hitting the stage by the end of the year. And really, why bother?

I mean, no matter how good it is, it’s never going to top the definitive musical treatement of Spider-Man: Lifesong Records’ 1975 rock opera / concept album Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Super-Hero:

Of all the comic-related oddities I picked up during my time working at a comic book store, my copy of “Rock Reflections” (actually the 25th Anniversary CD re-release that came out in 2000) is hands-down my favorite. Everything single thing about it is simultaneously completely insane and totally awesome, from John Romita’s painted cover to Stan Lee’s narration to the gloriously, amazingly over-the-top songs themselves. And that’s before you get to the fact that this is an ablum with a rock song about Doctor Octopus turning Thor into a go-go dancer.

But I’ll get to that in a minute.Despite the re-release, “Rock Reflections” is still a pretty obscure piece of Spider-Man ephemera, and that’s a shame because this thing is a hoot. Produced with studio musicians, it’s essentially a musical journey through the highlights of Peter Parker’s life, which is somehow even weirder than it sounds. It starts off with “High Wire,” which, with the fact that the singer belts out the line “I’m a man… I’m a SPI-HIIIII-DER-MAN!”, is unquestionably the single greatest song about Spider-Man ever produced:

Seriously, that opening guitar riff is my jam.

It pretty much sets the tone for the next 45 minutes, but the other songs don’t always follow its rock-n-roll lead, instead working in different styles. “Square Boy” (an origin recap with an emphasis on his nerdy high school days) and “Gwendolyn” (an ode to Gwen Stacy) are both done up in a faux-’50s doo-wop style that actually does help differentiate them as “flashbacks,” while “A Soldier Starts To Bleed” (the only outright terrible song on the album) and “Peter Stays and Spider-Man Goes” are more folky ballads.

“Peter Stays” is actually the song that defines the arc of the album’s story, which is essentially “Amazing Spider-Man” #50 with a little “Death of Gwen Stacy” thrown in for good measure. And it is also amazing. The lyrics alone more than live up to the enjoyable cheesiness of the source material. Here’s how it opens:

“Will somebody call me Peter Parker before I go insane
You see this other guy that I’ve been lately forgot he had a name
I’ve found super-strength and fame ain’t all that they’re cracked up to be
‘Cause the only one that they don’t help is me”

Oh wait, it gets better. The chorus:

“So Peter stays
And the Spider-Man goes
But the spider is only human
And Peter says it’s time to spin a web of his own
It’s like fighting both sides of a mirror
Well this crazy war’s got me weary and I can’t fight

That line about fighting both sides of the mirror, incidentally, was the inspiration for Romita’s cover. But oddly enough, that’s not the song that most people probably heard. That honor would go to the album’s first and only single, which (from what I understand) actually got airplay, albeit mostly through college radio stations: “Spider-Man:”

I absolutely love this track. Not only does it capture the melodrama of the comics and feature more than its fair share of completely nonsensical metaphors (“I must be blind to see this clearly”), it’s got the line “Once I was helpless / Now I rescue those who need it, when I can.” For some reason, that “when I can” just strikes me as absolutely hilarious. Like “I save people when, you know, I’m not busy with other stuff.”

The music hits the absolute peak of its insanity, though, with “Doctor Octopus.” All told, this thing covers three tracks, including a grand, synthesizer-filled theatrical introduction (“AND WITH SLEEEEEEEEP / COMES THE AWESOME DREEEEEEEEAM”), a piece of narration from Stan Lee, and then the craziest song you have ever heard.

I barely know where to begin with this, but first of all, it’s a song that is also a dream sequence, so you know things are about to get radical right off the bat. Second, this the most soulful Dr. Octopus ever. I would buy this guy’s album in a heartbeat, if only for the way he says “Avengaaaaaaaaaaaz” Third, this is a song about Dr. Octopus talking about how much he hates guys like Silver Surfer and Captain America, and I’m pretty sure that is nowhere near being that guy’s deal. I mean, Silver Surfer? Do he and Doc Ock have a history I don’t know about?

Fourth, and this is the most important, this is a song where Dr. Octopus threatens to turn Thor and the Black Panther into “go-go dancers.” Fan. Tastic.

But amazingly, while it blows the rest of the songs out of the water with its sheer madness, this is not the best part of the album. That would be the back cover:

As if the shot of Spider-Man himself in the throes of lyrical passion (which I’m going to go ahead and rank in the top two pieces of art of John Romita’s legendary career) wasn’t enough, the album credits all the music to other Marvel Super-Heroes, including Luke Cage on bass, Hulk on drums, Thor on trumpet (I woulda figured him for a percussionist), Conan and the Barbarians rocking the strings, and my personal favorite, Captain America on Tambourine.

Sorry, The Louvre. We have found a new collection of the world’s greatest artistic treasures, and it is the back cover of “Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Super-Hero.”

Despite its relative obscurity and the rarity of the original album, “Rock Reflections” isn’t all that hard to track down. Used copies pop up pretty regularly on Amazon, and while it doesn’t have the back cover (which is worth the price of admission alone), it’s available for download on eMusic as well. And it needs to be spread around, if only because I want to hear bands doing covers of “High WIre” at San Diego this year.

(Special thanks to Andrew Weiss)

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