“I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic.” – Jack Kerouac
Kate and I attended the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan this weekend. It was a gathering of musicians, academics, producers, writers, and fans, all discussing music from a Christian standpoint, and it was a whole lot of fun.
The music I heard was beautiful, disturbing, otherworldly, earthy, rooted in tradition, avant-garde, childlike, wise. It was all of the above, and more. The highlights for me were Sufjan Stevens’ lovely and ethereal set Friday evening and Pierce Pettis’s and Bill Mallonee’s folk sets Saturday evening. Two acts – The Danielson Famile and Half Handed Cloud -- plied their Captain-Beefheart-meets-Syd-Barrett-and-Mr.-Rogers-in Sunday-School songs before an appreciative audience. You either like this sort of inspired performance art or you don’t. I don’t. It’s the same hipper-than-thou weirdness that turns me off to a lot of indie rock, as if greatness is found in willful amateurism and atonal shrieking. But I have to say that it is comforting and inspiring to know that there are Christians out there who are, in fact, really, really out there. I like the theory, even if I don’t always like the execution. And with some of this music, execution should have been a viable alternative. It was God honoring and godawful.
There were many, many highlights , and a couple lowlights. Let’s dispense with the bad news first. David Dark, a very bright man, and author of Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons, delivered two keynote lectures that were as dense and convoluted as the title of his book. It may be evidence of my feeble mind, but for someone who purports to find meaning in “lowbrow” entertainment, his lectures struck me as heavily academic, surprisingly meandering, and devoid of a point. Or maybe it’s that there were several dozen points, and I was missing the Big Point that was meant to serve as a unifying factor. In short, he had a lot of interesting and good things to say about many things that vaguely had to do with God and culture. Maybe it was an aural collage or something, and I again missed the avant-garde nature of the presentation. The undergraduate take: he used a lot of big words and rambled. Grade: C.
Okay, on to the good stuff. It was great to finally meet Josh and Nick from Paste, after many phone and e-mail conversations. They did a wonderful job of explaining the Paste “worldview” and the guiding principles behind the web site and the magazine. I met Phil Christman and Matt Fink, who write for Paste. It was great to hang out with Bill and Brenda Mallonee. I loved hanging out with Steve Stockman, author of Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2, a warm and gentle Irish bloke with good things to say. I ate dinner across from Pierce Pettis, and told him how much his music has meant to me. And I talked to his 17-year-old daughter Grace, a delightful spitfire, about Charles Darwin of all things, surely the most intense discussion with a 17-year-old I’ve ever had. I talked about music criticism with Sufjan Stevens, and puzzled with him over how to resolve the conundrum of using words to explain what cannot be adequately captured in words. And I met Dan and Amy Fox from Columbus, whose words I have read with interest, but whose faces were unknown until Friday. That was a pleasure. I met many other delightful fans of music -- guys in their thirties in Led Zeppelin cover bands, aspiring musicians who have just moved to NYC, lots and lots of folks with fire in their belliles and a burning desire to ramble on about how rock 'n roll saved their lives, just like me.
I think my workshop on music criticism went well. I enjoyed it. It seemed to flow fairly well. I babbled for a while, showed some slides, and played some music. People asked good questions. And before I knew it, it was over. Then I was inundated with kids wanting to drop off their band’s CD so that I could, you know, maybe listen to it and review it. And kids who were aspiring music critics who wanted to know how to get into the business (my advice: luck out and get on a mailing list with guys who want to start a music magazine). And assorted hangers-on and well wishers who just wanted to talk about music. It was a blast.
I was also struck by how difficult and how lonely this way of life is. We talked with some old friends until the wee hours of Sunday morning. Their marriage is crumbling. It may not survive. And it may not survive because of the damned artistic ego; the ego that is absolutely necessary to sustain an artist in the midst of indifference and apathy; and the ego that is hungry and thirsty for affirmation from others, even when that affirmation comes from a place of brokenness and dysfunction. I understand it. I am not immune to those temptations, and I fully appreciate how easy it would be to head down a path that leads to destruction. I intend no judgment here. But I do hate it. I hate the damage it does to human beings, the pain it causes, the emotional wreckage that results. God have mercy on us, artistic bastards that we are.
And so it was bittersweet; much joy, but also a fair amount of sorrow, wondrously affirming and deeply disturbing. It beat the hell out of sitting around the house watching basketball. It was a holy mess.