L. Rock Hubbard

Revisiting the curious career of the ultimate cult musician.

L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, crooner.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

The early 1980s were a particularly strange time for Scientology. L. Ron Hubbard, the church’s controversial founder, kept such a low profile that rumors abounded that he had, in the parlance of Scientology, “dropped the body.” The rumors gained such currency that Hubbard’s son, Ronald DeWolf, filed to become an appointed trustee of his father’s estate on the grounds that Hubbard had not made a public appearance since 1980, and was most likely dead.

Hubbard, whose fetish for secrecy and privacy rivaled late Howard Hughes’, countered the claims not by making an appearance but by signing an affidavit from his secret lair that asserted that he was experiencing a late burst of multifaceted, runaway creativity. “As Thoreau secluded himself by Walden Pond,” Hubbard waggishly boasted, “so I have chosen to do so in my own fashion. I am actively writing, having published Battlefield Earth, and my Space Jazz album.” (For the record, at no point during his seclusion in Walden Pond did Thoreau release an album named Space Jazz.)

The novel Battlefield Earth plays a central role, of course, in Scientology’s strange relationship with pop culture. But even people morbidly obsessed with Hubbard might not realize that before John Travolta donned platform boots to cackle maniacally at the foolishness of puny man-animals in the film version of Battlefield Earth, the book had been adapted into an album written by Hubbard called Space Jazz. Space Jazz wasn’t the only album masterminded by Hubbard in the final years of his life, as the eccentric guru boogied his way toward death. Collectively, these albums offer a fascinating glimpse into both Hubbard’s psyche and rampant egomania. (To describe these albums as music at all represents runaway narcissism on Hubbard’s part.) Though designed as proselytizing tools, these albums instead function as fascinating sociological and anthropological artifacts chronicling the secretive and insular world of Scientology at a strange, uncertain time.

Space Jazz, released in 1982, was the product of a very specific cultural moment. Thanks to the popularity of E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, space was the place and science fiction was the hottest genre around. Scientology wanted in, so an ambitious plan was hatched: Hubbard’s epic 1982 Battlefield Earth novel, to be followed by Space Jazz, and then a big-budget Battlefield Earth movie to follow in the mid-’80s, with John Travolta in the lead as hero Jonnie Goodboy Tyler.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Battlefield Earth wasn’t made into a film until 2000, at which point Hubbard was long dead and Travolta, aged out of playing a boy hero, was cast as the villain Terl instead. So Space Jazz is a forgotten curio despite its connection to one of the most notorious flops in pop culture.

Hubbard’s sonic space opera is, as you might imagine, a staggeringly strange piece of work, a bewildering cross between Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack (whose hero is referenced in the shameless opening track “Golden Age of Sci-Fi,” along with Superman and Buck Rogers), an amateur radio play, and a campy audiobook that goes overboard with special effects and musical cues. If you have not recently read all 1,050 pages of Battlefield Earth or seen the film, the album is completely incomprehensible; if you’re familiar with the story, it’s mildly comprehensible.

Musically, the album alternates between canned uplift (“Jonnie”, “Golden Age of Sci-Fi”) and droning dirges, broken up with patches of comic-book dialogue, robot voices, and laser-gun sound effects. A then-new, extremely expensive digital sampling synthesizer called a Fairlight CMI peppers the album; Hubbard seemed to imagine it represents the sound of the future, but it actually sounds more like the rightly discarded mistake of an abandoned past. Even for Battlefield Earth buffs like myself, Space Jazz is less a guilty pleasure than a harrowing endurance test. With Space Jazz, L. Ron Hubbard set out to re-create Battlefield Earth as a purely sonic experience. He succeeded all too well.

Space Jazz was followed four years later by an album inspired by another of Hubbard’s late-period magnum opuses, the aforementioned Mission Earth, which Edgar Winter adapted for a concept album ostensibly written by the reclusive senior citizen, who had officially died by the time the album was released in 1986. So if Edgar Winter’s Mission Earth soars above Space Jazz to earn the dubious distinction of the greatest album L. Ron Hubbard ever wrote, that’s largely because the previous effort set the bar so low. Of the four albums credited to Hubbard, Mission Earth is the only one that actually sounds like music. It’s the only album that could conceivably be played on the radio without prompting confused cries of, “Why?” and “What?” and “Is this even music?” and “How could this have happened?”

The guitarist deserves a St. Jude medal for making typically convoluted couplets like “To Mission Earth I was assigned/ A planet that was seizure inclined” sound like the base components of actual music, and not the ravings of a madman. It helps that Mission Earth has a driving, propulsive beat that makes it easy to overlook the profound silliness of the lyrics—and that Winter brings to the project a scary conviction and effete theatricality to rival John Travolta’s in Battlefield Earth.

If I might damn Mission Earth with faint praise, it has some of the kitschy, campy stomp of The Elder, Kiss’ notorious concept album. Songs like “Just a Kid” and “Bang Bang” have the infectious hooks, narrative thrust and the ripe theatricality of show tunes; they’re not good by any stretch of the imagination, but they are listenable, which is more than can be said of any of the other albums Hubbard is credited as having written.

Thanks to Winter, Mission Earth rises to the level of cheesy mediocrity. Given his source material, that is a remarkable achievement. A lot of talented professionals worked on the commercially available albums credited to Hubbard, including Chick Corea, Isaac Hayes, and Stanley Clarke (as well as Winter, of course), but Mission Earth is the only project that feels remotely professional.

Space Jazz and Mission Earth are direct offshoots of Hubbard’s career as a scribbler of science-fiction kitsch, but the other two albums written by Hubbard, 1986’s The Road to Freedom and the 2001 tribute The Joy of Creating, are Scientology’s version of gospel: psalms designed to express Hubbard’s ideas and messages through song.

The Road to Freedom is attributed to “L. Ron Hubbard and Friends”; the album was conceived as a tool for disseminating Scientology, and acolytes were encouraged to buy multiple copies to hand out to friends and co-workers. However, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but the morbidly curious making it past the first track, “The Road to Freedom,” which finds Travolta, Leif Garrett, and Frank Stallone expounding the gospel of L. Ron Hubbard, earnestly trying to wrap their mouths around lines like, “You are not mind or chemicals, you don’t even have a form/ You’re in a trap of senseless lies, it’s time to be reborn” over the tremblingly earnest sounds of wimpy soft rock.

The tone is painfully earnest, the jargon thick. No one can accuse The Road to Freedom of being off-message: “Take the route of auditing and once again be free,” the title track admonishes. “Give them the cans and audit it out!” implores “The Evil Purposes.” To help non-Scientologists lucky enough to be gifted with this bizarre vanity project, the liner notes to The Road to Freedom contains a glossary of Scientologist terms like ARC, auditing, engram, and reg, but even with that cheat sheet The Road to Freedom still feels like it was recorded in another language and then only intermittently translated into English.

The Road to Freedom is defined by a messianic sense of purpose. It’s filled with flowery, maudlin rhetoric about saving mankind and freeing people as well as a cheerfulness that frequently feels demonic. “Laugh a Little” implores listeners to find something to laugh about as an antidote to the blues but the laughter on the song sounds less joyous than monstrous, the final cackles of fools laughing themselves to death.

L. Ron Hubbard’s posthumous gift to Scientologists ends with “L’Envoi Thank You for Listening,” the only song on any of the four albums where he actually sings, in a foghorn baritone that has been synthesized and processed into a state of ghostly unrealness. The Wizard steps out from behind the curtain for a bow, and the effect is just as surreal and jarring as you might imagine. Hubbard presents himself not as a man with a philosophy but as a speaker of profound truths:

I do not sing what I believe
I only give them fact
If they believe quite otherwise
It still will have impact
For truth is truth and if they then decide to live with lies
That’s their concern not mine, my friend,
They’re free to fantasize.

The Road to Freedom does nothing to refute the notion that Hubbard was a charismatic lunatic who managed to convince a surprising number of otherwise intelligent people that he was not just sane but humanity’s last, best chance at sanity. That, friends, is what you call a long, long grift.

The Joy of Creating, cobbled together from Hubbard’s writings and released 15 years after his death, is defined by forced joviality. Everyone seems to be performing with a plastic smile. The Joy of Creating reduces its roster of singing Scientologists to poor imitation of themselves—pod people versions of the personas they’ve spent their careers creating.

Isaac Hayes, for example, is no longer a towering exemplar of swaggering sexuality; he’s the smiling figure of benevolence seen chuckling in the Joy of Creating CD booklet, clad in a bright orange Cosby sweater. This is not a man who will steal your woman—this is a man who will give your toddler a piggyback ride.

Hayes is the first friendly voice heard on The Joy of Creating. He begins the album by reciting Hubbard’s poem “The Joy of Creating.” “Wax enthusiastic and you’ll very soon feel so,” he intones, his voice full of canned wonder and manufactured awe. “A being causes his own feelings.” According to the CD booklet, “The Joy of Creating” “reminds us that a being causes his own feelings, and this truth alone has revitalized many artists and professionals the world over.”

Hayes’ brief track is billed as a mere “Prelude,” a palate cleanser for what’s to come, yet four tracks later the words Hayes tried so nobly to instill with life and meaning reappear, reimagined by Doug E. Fresh as an old-school party jam. It doesn’t stop there. Six of the album’s 15 tracks are versions of “The Joy of Creating,” including versions by Chick Corea and our old friend Edgar Winter. At a certain point The Joy of Creating stops feeling like music and begins to feel like a sadistic thought experiment. If the same clumsy batch of words are repeated six separate times by professional musicians in a wide spectrum of genres, can that ungainly chunk of words somehow become music?

The Joy of Creating is an album of surreal blandness and empty polish: Remove the jarring strangeness of Hubbard’s words and you have an album begging to accompany massages or afternoons at the spa. The Joy of Creating was seemingly designed as a proselytizing tool; the album puts a friendly face on the tenets of Scientology, but an awful lot of creepiness seeps through. The final line in the titular poem—“The greatest joy there is in life is creating. Splurge on it!”—seems like a tagline you’d find on a billboard on Mars. The Friends of L. Ron Hubbard nursed an earnest, sincere desire to share their hero’s words and ideas with the world, with music as their medium. Yet The Joy of Creating, and Hubbard’s entire strange output as a songwriter in the 1980s, suggests that his “music” was the worst possible advertisement for his ideas (at least until the release of the film version of Battlefield Earth).

These albums constitute one of the strangest and least explored crannies of Hubbard’s bizarre and fascinating career. Hubbard set out to uplift all mankind; he saw his music, like his books and teachings and ideas, as gifts to a humanity whose true potential only he could unlock. But these albums live on only as gifts to lovers of camp the world over. Splurge on it!