The organ is lit up like the stage at Radio City Music Hall. Overblown poppies bloom in Oriental splendor in the organist's iridescent paisley jacket. At the keyboard, he rocks vigorously in gigue time, his rhinestone-decorated black suede shoes dancing over the pedals. Cascading waves of sound shake Manhattan's Carnegie Hall. Then, with a puff of smoke, the organist disappears. Overhead, a glowing portrait of a rotund face with crimped curls and dimpled chin flashes on a screen. The overflow audience explodes in cheers for Virgil Fox and Johann Sebastian Bach.
That kind of razzle-dazzle concertizing does not always win cheers for Organist Fox. "I am controversial as hell," he admits. "My more conservative colleagues regard me as an infidel. They say I'm a showman, and I'm proud to be one." Communication, argues Fox, is what an artist lives for"audiences on their feet screaming for more." He dismisses musicological purists as "barnacles on the ship of music."
For 19 years Fox, a nonsectarian theist, held the prestigious post of organist at Manhattan's Riverside Church. In those days, his most conspicuous eccentricity was a fondness for walking the streets in a toreador's black capethat and a rapidly emerging, unorthodox approach to Bach. "The word toccata means to touch, "he asserts, lapsing into his habit of speaking in italics. "My Bach is a redblooded, gutsy he-man Bach. His mind is universal; his heart is overwhelming, and the spirit that rides over the entire creativity of this enormous man is transcendental."
Paper Plugs. In 1970, inspired by a visit to the now defunct Manhattan rock emporium Fillmore East (where he wore paper earplugs), Fox decided to reach out for the large youth audience by giving Bach a psychedelic transfusion. He added a ton and a half of prisms, lenses, wire, plastic, glass and crystal, installed a light show and his Rodgers Touring Organa 4,000-lb. electronic monster with 56 stops and 144 speakersand opened in the Fillmore with an all-Bach recital. Surrounded by a swirl of colored lights, he swept in on the chariot of the colossal Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. "Go-o-o-o-o, Virgil!" yelled a handsome man with a bushy Afro. Replied Fox: "Sebastian Bach is delighted you are here."
Since then, Fox, 61, has been the world's busiest solo organist. He gives some 80 concerts a year, carrying his Bach crusade from Westminster Abbey to high school auditoriums in towns like Altoona, Pa. About half his performances conform to a strictly classical format, and half, given in conjunction with David Snyder's Revelation Lights, are informal lecture-concerts, for which he gets from $6,000 to $8,000 per appearance. "This music is pure uninhibited rhythmic soaring," he tells his listeners. "If you get in the stream, you are off! Get ready!" Four of Fox's LPs taped at such performances have cracked Billboard's bestseller charts.