Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Americana Mix

Following Dan's lead, I offer the Americana Mix, free to all takers:

1. Carry Me Ohio -- Sun Kil Moon (6:21)
2. Foreign Lander -- Tim O'Brien (4:36)
3. Rock Salt and Nails -- Buddy and Julie Miller (4:16)
4. Bandages and Scars -- Son Volt (3:22)
5. Bible Song -- Lori McKenna (3:48)
6. Party Time -- Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell (3:24)
7. The Living Bubba -- Drive-By Truckers (5:56)
8. If I'm Gonna Sink (I Might as Well Go to the Bottom) -- Neko Case (2:54)
9. Sandy Ford (Barbara Lee) -- Jim Lauderdale (4:48)
10. Killing the Blues -- Malcolm Holcombe (3:32)
11. In Town -- Todd Fancey (4:19)
12. When the Earth's Last Picture is Painted -- Milton Mapes (6:00)
13. Take It Down -- John Hiatt (4:00)
14. If the World Should End in Fire -- The Handsome Family (1:09)
15. Wondrous Love -- Ann and Phil Case (3:17)
16. Beyond the Shore -- Willard Grant Conspiracy (3:14)

A little commentary: I love country music -- at least the kind that emanates from some holler in West Virginia or some honky-tonk in Blue Collar, U.S.A. Can't stand the Gnashville variety. This mix is heavy on the first two flavors, with big-time twang, distorted electric guitars, and weeping pedal steel well to the forefront.

Those of you with astute ears or who paid attention to '70s rock will pick up on my Neil Young fixation. What can I say? I'm a sucker for whiny, nasal vocals and loud, distorted guitars. To that end, Sun Kil Moon, Son Volt, Drive-By Truckers, Milton Mapes (that's a band name, not a person, kinda like Jethro Tull, only louder and rootsier) and John Hiatt fit the bill quite nicely. I also love the classic sound of male/female country duets. Think George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Johnny and June Carter Cash, and Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Here, Buddy and Julie Miller, Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell, and Columbus' own Ann and Phil Case carry on the tradition. Lori McKenna, Jim Lauderdale, Neko Case and Malcolm Holcombe have soul oozing out of every pore, and the sound of their voices is enough to send me into paroxysms of delight (you don't want to be around me when this happens; I hear paroxysms are contagious). Todd Fancy plays in the indie rock band The New Pornographers. Here he sounds like a cowboy Brian Wilson, with his triple- and quadruple-tracked Beach Boys harmonies. Love that pedal steel, too. The Handsome Family are a strange lot; I love this song, though. Apocalypse Now, yeehaw!

Finally, Tim O'Brien's "Foreign Lander" is an Irish Folk song as transplanted to Appalachia, and goes back a few hundred years. It's one of the prettiest songs I've ever heard. There's a reason why some of these songs last hundreds of years. "Beyomd the Shore" is a special song for me. I listened to it a lot during the time my brother-in-law was dying of cancer about a year and a half ago. I don't know his religious convictions. I know he loved his wife and kids, and I know he knew something of shame's great load. So I played this song for him and prayed this song for him during those dark months when he was dying. Now I pray that I'll see him again beyond the shore.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Life Without the Fashion Queen

Five thousand diaper changes, a thousand rides in the stroller, five hundred trips to the playground, two hundred band concerts, piano recitals and volleyball games, fifty horrid Disney movies, fifteen family vacations, four Great Prom seasons, and it comes down to this: my daughter Emily is leaving for college, for another city, on Wednesday morning. It happens. All you have to do is keep waking up in the morning, doing your part as the semi-dutiful father, day after day. Just be there, quality time be damned. Quantity time is where it’s at. But it still boggles my mind.

Emily arrived on the scene with the fanfare that befits her personality, sirens sounding and lights flashing. And maybe that set the tone for an in-your-face life. She decided to show up on a crisp fall Saturday morning in Columbus, Ohio, amidst 100,000 people all trying to get to the same place – Ohio Stadium, to watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play a football game against the University of Illinois. Two people – Kate and Andy Whitman – were trying to get to the Ohio State University Hospitals to deliver a baby. It was not a happy confluence. I was stuck in college football gridlock, bumper-to-bumper traffic that was not moving, with a wife who was going into labor, and I had visions of Emily arriving in the back seat of our car. Fortunately, we spotted a highway patrolman pulled off on the side of the road, flagged him down, and explained our situation. “You’ve got to help us; my wife is having a baby,” I frantically exclaimed. Wow, that was cool. I’ve always wanted to do that, and I got to do it. And we cruised into OSU hospitals with our own private police escort, sirens and lights leading the way.

And it’s been a noisy, bright, in-your-face life ever since. Born to two introverts, Emily hit the ground running, a strong-willed, fun-loving extrovert, a pint-sized Ethel-Merman with a spotlight that seemed to follow her around. She didn’t sing when she sang; she belted. She didn’t merely talk; she demanded attention. Parents often speak about the need to shape their kids, to provide the right kind of environment and values and boundaries to influence a life. What they rarely talk about is the fact that their kids shape them, turn them into different, hopefully better people than they were before. And I’d like to think that has happened with Emily. Starting out as a rule-oriented control freak, I have been forced to become something different, because the rule-oriented, control-freak approach simply didn’t work with my daughter. The more I dug in my heels, the more Emily dug in her heels. And so, early on, and with lessons that continue to this day, I learned (Kate thankfully possessing a more flexible personality than mine) what it meant to be a parent of someone who was very different from myself, who had her own personality, a personality that I could attempt to bend and break, but which in the process I would destroy. And so I’ve learned to lighten up, to choose my battles, to let a lot of things slide that are against my nature, and to love and appreciate Emily for the unique human being she is.

And who she is is a pretty remarkable young woman. She’s one of the funniest, wittiest people I know, and she cracks me up several times per day. She’s remarkably friendly, and has found ways to connect with every in-group and out-group of people in her social sphere. She is astonishingly indifferent to popularity and coolness, preferring instead to simply like people for who they are, and regardless of where they are categorized and pegged in the unforgiving suburban adolescent caste system. And she is a suburban punk fashion queen, with her nose and lip piercings and her ability to combine seemingly outrageous combinations of clothes into something that often looks stunning and original and uniquely Emily. She is, most of all, herself. I thank God for her. And now she will continue to pursue her interests as a Fashion Merchandising major at Kent State University. It is, umm, somehow fitting. She has a dad who wouldn’t know an Armani from an Armenian. Take after the old man? Why start now?

And yet, and yet … she does take after me. She’s opinionated, like me. When we butt heads I hate this; only later do I realize that she’s acting out the peculiar Whitman obstinacy a generation down the line, and that she’s not going to change her mind just because some so-called authority figure tells her what to think. And in my better moments I am simply thankful to be her dad, and not an authority figure. She’s passionate about music, just like me, and I love the times when we’ve roadtripped to Cleveland together to see a concert and arrived home at 3:00 in the morning, schoolnight be damned, because some things are more important than first period Algebra. And I love the person she’s becoming. As the hormones settle down, as adolescence gives way to young adulthood, I see more and more glimpses of the young woman she is becoming – confident, caring, a natural leader, content to be no one but herself. And I love what I see.

So Wednesday is coming, too fast. I keep reminding myself that this is good. It is what is supposed to happen. I am so happy for her, and so proud of her. But I am dreading Wednesday as well. We will drop Emily off at the dorm, help her unpack, set up the computer, go to the bookstore and help her locate her books. And then we’ll drive home. Emily will be on her own, and we will be on our own, two introverted adults and only one introverted, occasionally obstinate adolescent. And I will have no control over what happens in Emily’s life, and God will remind me that I’ve had precious little control all along, and that it’s worked out fine thus far. But I will miss all the noise, all the brightness in our lives. I’ll probably mope for a few days, sit around the house and listen to the phone not ring, and the stereos not blare. And I’m dreading that, too. For those of you who are the praying types, please pray for Emily. Come to think of it, pray for the three remaining introverts as well.

The Top Songs of 1973

Taking the baton passed from Karen ...

It was my high school graduation year. And, as in most years since 1968 or so, it was filled with musical tripe and mediocrity. The best-selling songs:

1. Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Ole Oak Tree, Tony Orlando and Dawn
2. Bad Bad Leroy Brown, Jim Croce
3. Killing Me Softly With His Song, Roberta Flack
4. Let's Get It On, Marvin Gaye
5. My Love, Paul McCartney and Wings
6. Why Me, Kris Kristofferson
7. Crocodile Rock, Elton John
8. Will It Go Round In Circles, Billy Preston
9. You're So Vain, Carly Simon
10. Touch Me In The Morning, Diana Ross
11. The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia, Vicki Lawrence
12. Playground In My Mind, Clint Holmes
13. Brother Louie, Stories
14. Delta Dawn, Helen Reddy
15. Me And Mrs. Jones, Billy Paul
16. Frankenstein, Edgar Winter Group
17. Drift Away, Dobie Gray
18. Little Willy, Sweet
19. You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, Stevie Wonder
20. Half Breed, Cher
21. That Lady, Isley Bros.
22. Pillow Talk, Sylvia
23. We're An American Band, Grand Funk Railroad
24. Right Place, Wrong Time, Dr. John
25. Wildflower, Skylark

Aside from the soulsters/funksters (Marvin Gaye, Dobie Gray, Stevie Wonder, Isley Bros., Dr. John), this is an excruciatingly bad list. Not much has changed with the Top 40 since then, either. Tony Orlando and Dawn, Helen Reddy, Cher, soft porn from Diana Ross, total schlock from Elton John and Paul McCartney, who at one time had talent. It is not a pretty sight. What made it worse is that I worked as a busboy at a Holiday Inn throughout that year, a Holiday Inn that featured a particularly egregious lounge band with the requisite Helen-Reddy-wannabe vocalist, so I not only had to put up with this crap on the radio, but I then had to hear it over and over again on Friday and Saturday nights as the lounge band "entertained" the patrons who were already in a food-and-alcohol-induced coma. I'd like to think that those are the only reasons why they didn't simply leave or stick around and throw the high-priced bananas flambee.

I note with some interest that "Hocus Pocus" by Focus actually made it all the way to #68 on the charts that year, perhaps the only hit song in which yodeling is prominently featured.

What was I listening to instead? Jethro Tull ('73 was the year Passion Play was released, although Aqualung and Thick as a Brick were still in heavy rotation), Traffic (Low Spark of High Heeled Boys), a hippie folkster named Shawn Phillips, early Fleetwood Mac (the blues-based band, well before Stevie Nicks, The Embraceable Ewe, arrived on the scene), Wishbone Ash, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin, and megadoses of Pink Floyd (the most apt metaphor, unfortunately; Dark Side of the Moon was released in '73 as well, but I was particularly into Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother, and Meddle). And Focus. I thought the yodeling was cool. Or at least different.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Because Everybody's Doing It

And because I'm such a wimpy follower of popular trends ...

1. What is your occupation?

Web developer, usability analyst, computer-based training developer, technical writer, marketing communications specialist, software systems architect, technical communications manager, high school English teacher, creative writer, music critic. Seriously, I've done all those things, currently still doing four or five of them. Will work for food.

2. What color is your underwear?

Mostly blue. Some sporting Scottish tartan patterns, lads and lassies. Boxers, not briefs.

3. What are you listening to right now?

Nothing, but most recently "Begonias" by Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell.

4. What was the last thing you ate?

A bowl of Bran Flakes.

5. Do you wish on stars?

Rock stars.

6. If you were a crayon, what color would you be?

Can I just say how much I hate these stupid questions? If you were a Brady, would you be Jan, Peter, or Marcia? If you were Bono, what color would your sunglasses be tinted? If you were Donald Trump, which survey writer would you fire first?

Teal. If that's a Crayola color.

7. How is the weather right now?

Can I just say how much I hate these stupid questions?

Partly cloudy, increasingly overcast, possibility of rain, with gradual darkening toward night. Details at 11:00. More intensely personal revelations forthcoming.

8. Last person you spoke to on the phone?

Someone named Kirsten Beverly, who will be my daughter Emily's RA at Kent State University.

9. Do you like the person who sent this to you?

I stole it from John McCollum's blog. Absolutely, unless he's making up impromptu blues tunes like "Hot Buttered Mama" at wedding receptions. No, I take that back. That was pretty good, too.

10. Favorite drink?

Starbucks Mocha Frappucino. Sorry, John.

11. Favorite sport to watch?

Oooh, almost any of them. They are the great time wasters. Baseball, football, basketball, hockey, dog grooming, championship billiards, competitive chess. Almost anything except synchronized swimming, figure skating, or the gymnastics event where they twirl the ribbons.

12. Have you ever dyed your hair?

No. It's been really long (the Gimli years), curly, short, straight, and frizzed. But it's only been two colors -- brown and grey, both natural.

13. Do you wear contacts or glasses?

Contacts.

14. Pets?

None currently. Formerly cats, birds, tropical fish, usually not at the same time, for obvious reasons.

15. Favorite month?

September.

16. Favorite food(s)?

Yanni's gyros, crab cakes from any fresh seafood place on the Chesapeake Bay, El Vacquero's fajitas, Kate's chimichangas

17. What was the last movie you watched?

The Ice Storm, on TV a few nights ago. Great flick.

18. Favorite day of the year?

Christmas or the first day of a family vacation.

19. What do you do to vent anger?

Aside from screaming, cursing, lashing out at people I love, or turning it inward in fits of self-loathing? It's getting better, but I still do those things at times. Admit it. You do too. Otherwise, pogo around to punk rock. Walk as fast as I can (sometimes approaching the warp speed of 4 MPH) on the treadmill. Shoot virtual Nazis in Call of Duty. Write about it/process through setting down my conflicted emotions in print. Talk to family and friends. Pray. Not nearly enough of the latter.

20. What was your favorite toy as a child?

My football and baseball card collections. I had thousands of 'em, neatly categorized by team and position. Now I do it with music. This probably has some deep psychological meaning.

21. Fall or Spring?

Fall.

22. Hugs or kisses?

Lennon or McCartney? Laurel or Hardy? Blithering or moronic? Who writes these things, the editors of 17 Magazine?

Hisses.

23. Cherry or Blueberry?

Blueberry. Feel like you know me better?

24. Do you want your friends to email you back?

Of course.

25. Who is most likely to respond?

To what?

26. Who is least likely to respond?

Blithering or moronic?

27. Living arrangements?

Absolutely. Wife, Kate. Two teenaged daughters, Emily, 19, and Rachel, 16. Minivan. Sporty economy car. Neatly mown suburban Westerville, Ohio lawn, equal parts Kentucky bluegrass, rye, and fescue. Fertilizer? Ortho Weed 'n Feed. 401K? Nicely diversified between aggressive international funds and more conservative money market funds. Heart? Badly soiled and scuffed, in need of cleansing amd repair.

28. When was the last time you cried?

At lunch yesterday, in Mozart's Cafe, when trying to explain our church to someone I barely know named Greg Grant. I cry (or at least get weepy) easily, probably two or three times every day -- not necessarily wailing and sobbing (in fact, usually not), but damp/dewy eyed and choked up all the time. I'm not sure what that means (other than it tends to freak people out if I do it in public), but I don't think I'm depressed.

29. What is on the floor of your closet?

Laundry basket. Shoes. A bunch of luggage.

30. Who is the friend you have had the longest?

Carey Evans and David Hartmann, both from high school. And some of us went to high school during the Nixon administration.

31. What did you do last night?

Helped Kate set up for Rachel's 16th birthday party. Walked as fast as I could for an hour or so on the treadmill while watching a meaningless baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Arizona Diamondbacks (see #11 and #19 above). Washed a bunch of dishes after the birthday party. Talked on the phone to a couple church friends. Hung out with Emily and her friends for a bit. Finished Harry Potter #6. Went to bed. Talked with Kate for a long time about intensely personal matters not addressed by this survey. Stayed awake 'til 3:00 or so. Finally fell asleep.

32. Favorite smell?

Baking pies/cakes/cookies.

33. What inspires you?

People who are willing to admit that they can be wrong, and who are willing to change for the better. Jesus, who was never wrong, but who inspires me to love people other than myself. Music of all kinds, from classical symphonies to punk rock. Words when they are written beautifully. My wife and kids.

34. What are you afraid of?

Loneliness. My wife's death. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. My bad attitudes, and my mouth. Addictions, and the allure of sin. Giving up the good fight. Becoming my father.

35. Plain, cheese or spicy hamburgers?

You follow that up with this? Hell, cheese. Like this question.

36. Favorite car?

Don't care.

37. Favorite dog breed?

Oscar Meyer. Otherwise, don't care.

38. Number of keys on your key ring?

Now here's a self-revealing answer: 4

39. How many years at your current job?

9 months

40. Favorite day of the week?

Friday. Specifically, 5:00 p.m.

41. How many states have you lived in?

Two: Ohio and Illinois. But England rates as a non-state, and I lived there for a year.

42. How many cities have you lived in?

Ely, England, Columbus, OH, Gahanna, OH, Park Forest, IL, Rock Island, IL, Athens, OH, Columbus, OH, Ashland, OH, Columbus, OH, Westerville, OH, Mount Vernon, OH, Westerville, OH

43. Do you think many of these questions are exceedingly lame?

Yes.

44. What questions would you prefer that the editors of 17 Magazine had asked?

a) Favorite authors?

Answer -- Graham Greene, Annie Dillard, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Anne Lamott, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevski, Milan Kundera, Shusaku Endo, John Updike, Donald Barthelme, Henri Nouwen, Larry Crabbe

b) Favorite musicans/bands?

Answer -- Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Al Green, Richard Thompson, The Beatles, U2, Bruce Cockburn, Bill Mallonee/Vigilantes of Love, Over the Rhine, Sufjan Stevens, Steve Earle, Buddy and Julie Miller, The New Pornographers (hey, I didn't name them), Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, The Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, The Shins, Beulah, The Weakerthans, Kate Rusby, Mark Heard, Sam Phillips, T-Bone Burnett

c) Favorite movies?

Answer: The Apostle, Tender Mercies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Love and Death, Lost in Translation, The Lord of the Rings, The Deerhunter, Schindler's List, The Godfather I and II, Pulp Fiction, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Chariots of Fire, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Princess Bride, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Paste Magazine

Meet my friends.

A little over three years ago, my e-friend Josh Jackson sent me an e-mail message, which is how e-friends communicate. He wrote, "Hey, we want to start a magazine, and we want you to write for us."

Sure thing, I thought. It was flattering, but I didn't think much more about it. I knew Josh and his good friend Nick Purdy from an Internet discussion list, a couple of guys who discussed music as a springboard that often led to more intense, personal discussions about their families, their careers, their faith, their struggles -- in short, their lives. I liked Josh and Nick, knew they were big music fans, and figured that I would write an article or two for their photocopied fanzine that they would share with a few family members and friends. Josh had to nag me a bit to get that first article written because I procrastinated, but I finally turned something in to him, an article on Bill Mallonee's first solo album. And that was that.


A few months later the first issue of Paste Magazine showed up in my mailbox. With something of a shock I realized that this was the "photocopied fanzine" I had envisioned. Only it wasn't. It was a slick, professional-looking magazine, printed on nice paper, with color photos and an eye-catching layout, and a bunch of genuinely well-written articles on music, film, books, and popular culture. Inside was a CD that contained twenty-one songs from musicians/bands I knew and loved, and from musicians/bands I'd never heard of, and who turned out to be pretty good.

I'm still not sure that I've totally recovered from that initial shock. Maybe Josh and Nick haven't either. I know they worked 100-hour weeks before the deadline for that first issue, sleeping on couches in the office, because they had a vision for something a lot better than a photocopied fanzine, and a vision for engaging the culture as Christians. They didn't put out a "Christian" magazine. That was never their intention. But they put out a magazine that was true to its tagline: "Signs of Life in Music, Film, and Culture." By focusing on what was excellent, creative, thought-provoking, beautiful, challenging -- wherever it might be found -- they tried to raise the level of general cultural discourse.

There's some evidence that they're succeeding. These days, a little over three years after the launch of the magazine, they're printing over 225,000 copies per issue. Paste is in almost every Borders and Barnes and Noble Bookstore in the U.S., on airport newstands, in music stores. Josh and Nick are on CNN every week, hosting their own Paste Picks show, talking about the new music that most excites them. The New York Post and The Chicago Tribune have written flattering stories, and the Tribune named Paste as one of the world's 50 best magazines (#21, seven spots ahead of British music magazine Mojo, the magazine Paste has most tried to emulate). And last Sunday (8/14) the Atlanta Journal Constitution featured Paste and my friends as the cover story in its Arts section.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a personal stake in this. Since that first issue I've written more than 100 articles for Paste, They've attracted some big-name writers in the meantime -- the former editor of Rolling Stone Magazine, feature writers from Musician, Spin, The Village Voice, music critics from many of the major U.S. metropolitan newspapers. For whatever reasons, they keep asking me to write. I'd be a fool to say No. This is a gift of God, and I recognize it as such -- a big, fat present gift-wrapped with my name on it. It's provided an outlet to do what I love, to see my words in print on a glossy page, to meet and interview some musicians who have inspired me for years, and to be flooded with more free music than I have time to listen to. And it's opened other doors as well, like the opportunity to foist myself off as some sort of expert on musical criticism at college conferences. I am so grateful.

But I'm also just a fan. As a music fan who long ago felt abandoned by mainstream publications like Rolling Stone, with their focus on politics and Britney Spears' latest navel piercing, I longed to find a music publication that treated me intelligently, that assumed there was life and substance out there beyond the Top 40 and Total Requests Live on MTV. To that end, Paste fulfills two vital roles. It re-assures me that I am not alone in loving longtime favorites like Lucinda Williams, Bruce Cockburn, Buddy and Julie Miller, Over the Rhine, and Patty Griffin. And it exposes me to new music and new artists I otherwise might miss.

I am almost fifty years old. And I regularly encounter people my age, of my generation, who are stuck in their Woodstock timewarps, who lament the sorry state of popular music, and who long for the good ol' days of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. But for some reason I started paying attention to and buying new music when I was nine years old, and I've never figured out that I'm supposed to stop. Music is a source of life for me. It always has been. It thrills my soul. Paste is for people like me, and who look forward to discovering new (and healthy!) thrills on a regular basis. I am so proud of my friends. I am so thankful to be a part of their endeavor. Please do me the favor of reading the article above, and getting to know them a little better.






Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Beyond the Grid

I've been asked to speak at a conference called "Reconciling the Church and the Popular Arts" at Messiah College in Grantham PA (southwest of Philadelphia). The conference is November 11th - 12th. Steve Turner, who has recently written a wonderful biography of Johnny Cash (and a thoughtful, challenging book called Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts), is the keynote speaker, and the featured musical performer is Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Like the similar conference at Calvin College this spring, there will be workshops on music, film, radio, advertising, etc. I will again be speaking on music criticism from a Christian perspective.

In formulating some initial thoughts about this conference, I'm thinking that I'm going to entitle my workshop "Beyond the Grid." What is the grid? It's a handy tool developed by the theologian Francis Schaeffer in the 1970s as a way to evaluate art from a Christian perspective. Schaeffer suggested that all art could be plotted on a four-quadrant grid. Those quadrants were Good Art/Good Message, Bad Art/Good Message, Good Art/Bad Message, and Bad Art/Bad Message. Thus, one sought out good art with a good message, avoided bad art with a bad message, and wrestled with the conundrums of good art with a bad message and bad art with a good message. Schaeffer was a wonderful, godly man and a fine thinker, and he had a profound influence on many people, but I think his handy tool for evaluating art is fundamentally misguided, and not very helpful. For one thing, the Good Art/Bad Art distinction begs the question. Schaeffer assumes that it is relatively easy to determine. It is not. It is notoriously difficult, as every philosopher of aesthetics from Aristotle forward will readily attest. Second, the "message" of a piece of art is also slippery and very difficult to pin down. Just what is the message of "She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah"? Is it a good message? A bad message? How do we know? Or how about "Here we are now/Entertain us/A mulatto/An albino/A mosquito/My libido/Yea"? Good message? Bad message? Anyone care to decipher?

And that's what I'd like to talk about; how to move beyond this narrow taxonomy of categories and approach art in general (and popular music in particular) not as an analytical exercise, but as an exercise in joy. Don't get me wrong. As Christians we do need to think critically about popular culture. Obviously we cannot unthinkingly accept whatever the world throws at us. But I want to leave room for joy, and I'm not sure where that fits in to the analytical approach. I want to leave room for being surprised, shocked, challenged, deeply moved, and grieved by art, for becoming a less self-centered person, for becoming more thoroughly engaged with those around me. Art (and music) can do all those things. That cannot be quantified, and it doesn't fit neatly on the Schaefferian aesthetic grid. I don't want to pin down and label art, or understand it in its 19th- and 20th century contexts and how that has influenced the post-modern world, or anything else related to dry academics. I want it to explode within human hearts, and I want people to believe that this is God-ordained, not something to be feared, but something to be welcomed and embraced -- something like grace.

The reality is that Messiah is a Brethren college, part of the Anabaptist tradition that is deeply suspicious of popular culture as the mouthpiece of "the world." And I understand that view. There is crap out there. There is popular music out there that can lead people astray, that can influence them to make bad choices, to believe lies, etc. But I would also say that it would be unfortunate at best, tragic at worst, to minimize or underestimate the impact of popular music from a spiritual standpoint. In my case, there is also Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens, and hundreds of others. My point is not to create a new canon, the next generation of "high art." My list will look different from everyone else's, and not because I'm a relativist, but because I'm a unique human being, as is everyone else. But those musicians, and many others like them, have enriched my life in amazing ways, helped me understand love and the loss of love, death, the longing for community, for relationship, what it means to be a child, what it means to be a parent, and a hundred other real-life issues I face as a Christian. And that's what I hope students at this conference will embrace. Find the joy and the points of connection in your life, and let God move beyond the grid.

These are just tentative thoughts, and I'd welcome your own reactions or questions to any of this.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Dublin Your Fun

Let's get the negatives out of the way first. Columbus, Ohio: the sun doesn't shine between November and April, we live on the line between real winter and fake winter that leaves us with unending days of sleet and freezing rain. And the primary passions of most people in central Ohio are lawncare and golf. And football; mustn't forget that. How 'bout dem Buckeyes? Stuck for a conversation opener? Go with the following: How 'bout dem Buckeyes? It's a sure winner.

Other than that, Columbus is a great place to live, and it keeps getting better and better. For starters, consider the Dublin Irish Festival, which concluded yesterday. For 362 days per year, Dublin, Ohio, a northwest suburb of Columbus, is about as Irish as Erin Brockovich. But then, for three days in August, the little municipal park is transformed into the Emerald Isle, (with a touch of Hibernia, because men in skirts start showing up as well), five stages are quickly constructed, and the best Celtic musicians in the world show up and play and play and play; this year some 50 bands on 5 stages. Twenty bucks gets you a pass for all three days; eight bucks gets you a pass for one day. But get there early, because 100,000 other people will have the same idea.

I didn't spend three days, but I could have, and I wanted to. But I did spend one day, Sunday, and it was glorious. We (Kate, Emily, and I) decamped in front of the Celtic rock stage shortly after church was over, and we didn't leave because we didn't want to lose our choice seats (or, in the case of Flogging Molly, our choice standing room in the center of the mosh pit). So we missed out on wandering the festival, and had to forego exciting events such as watching big men with bushy beards toss big boulders, and watching little kids get their faces painted blue. Freedom! Okay, that was a Scottish reference, but somebody forgot to tell the folks in Dublin, Ohio.

In any event, we heard some great music. Black 47, one of the greatest political bands in the world, played a rousing set full of revolutionary anthems. Midway through, I was ready to head out and murder Englishmen myself. Their songs are great, though. Not many bands write genuine protest music anymore. Black 47 does, and they play it with raw punk energy. It's the kind of material that probably plays best in some smoky pub, would-be revolutionaries sloshing their pints of Guinness around and getting all worked up. It's a testament to the power of the band that it played pretty well under a hot tent in Ohio, too. Great stuff.

Bad Haggis (is there any other kind?) played a tight set. I wasn't familiar with the band before yesterday, but I'd love to hear more. Musically they were fabulous, mixing Latin rhythms (two Brazilian percussionists), a guitarist who wanted to be Carlos Santana (and who at times sounded remarkably like him), and an Uillean/bagpipes player together in a world music mash that sounded much better than that dubious description sounds. Lyrically they weren't anything special, but most of the time they kept their mouths shut and played, and then they were very fine indeed.

Then, Flogging Molly. I like Flogging Molly. I really do. I'm a big fan of the Celtic/punk sound first perfected by The Pogues, and Flogging Molly does it better than anyone since The Pogues. But someone should have told me that Flogging Molly is a big name in High School entertainment. But since they didn't (although, to be honest, the "No Crowd Surfing" signs should have served as a warning), I was inadvertenly caught up in a raging adolescent maelstrom, pogoing for all I was worth basically in order to stay alive and not get crushed. It was fun for about two minutes, the old football memories flooding back, but at various points my feet were trod upon (I was wearing sandals), I was crushed to the point that I couldn't breathe, and then I wanted to start punching people out of sheer terror. It was time for the ol' warrior to leave, so Kate and I wrestled our way to the side of the crowd outside the tent, and were able to enjoy the rest of the concert in relative peace while Emily stayed in the pit and moshed with the best of them. The concert? Great, in a football hooligan kind of way. A lot of fist-pumping showmanship from lead singer/songwriter Dave King, which led to lots of fist pumping in the audience. And wonderfully rowdy, rousing tunes. He's no Shane MacGowan, but he's very good.

All in all, a great day. Kate still had on her dress she wore to church. The grey hair and the dress in the mosh pit will long be remembered, even by those who were not in the Whitman family. Several security guards were marveling. And I was marveling too, because it was a great day with a great family, spent at a wonderful festival. I can't wait 'til next year.

Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell

I didn’t know it at the time, but the first male/female country duets I ever heard were destined to be among the very best of a long, distinguished, and oftentimes incredibly schlock-filled genre. I hated country music for most of my young life, and only started to come around when I was introduced to country music via The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which, in turn, led to albums by The Flying Burrito Brothers and the solo Gram Parsons. Gram Parsons, of course, is the common denominator in that list, and his duets with a very young Emmylou Harris on GP and Grievous Angel still sound uncommonly beautiful. Gram was the secret ingredient. Nothing against Emmylou; she’s a wonderful singer. But Gram’s voice, like few others, conveyed heartbreak and pain and world-weary resignation, cracking in all the wrong places that turned out to be exactly the right places. And when Gram and Emmylou latched on to a Dylan-influenced lyric and soared off together in those otherworldly harmonies, I had found my musical holy grail. “Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down/And they all led me straight back home to you,” they sang. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was prophetic. I wanted to find more, a lot more, of what I was hearing. Believe me, I’ve looked, and I still don’t know if I’ve ever heard better music. And so I keep coming back to Gram and Emmylou.

Gram died in 1973 at the age of 26, a brilliant career cut short stupidly and tragically by a drug overdose. And I’ve been in search of the perfect country duet ever since. I’ve come mighty close. The music George Jones and Tammy Wynette made together in the late ‘60s is musically perfect, possibly even better than that made by Gram and Emmylou. But the lyrics are serviceable at best, and at worst guilty of the kind of clich├ęd hokum that has always marred country music. “We’re not the jet set/We’re the old Chevrolette set/Our steak and martinis/Is draft beer and weenies” sounded great until you actually started paying attention. The same was true for Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, and Johnny and June Carter Cash. The great singing was offset by the embarrassingly banal songwriting.

Sometimes the search has derailed because of the sound. Buddy and Julie Miller, for instance, have recorded a couple dozen great country duets in the past ten years, but they sound nothing like Gram and Emmylou. I love them dearly, but Buddy has too much grit to pass for Gram, and Julie has too much little-girl breathiness to pass for Emmylou. Close, but still no Grievous Angel.

So along come Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell. The search just may be over. Their new album Begonias, just released on Yep Rock Records, is the new holy grail, as close to country duet perfection as I’ve heard in many years. I’ve been familiar with Caitlin Cary for a long time, first as a member of Ryan Adams’ old band Whiskeytown, later as a fine solo artist. But nothing prepared me for Thad Cockrell, because Thad Cockrell has the sound for which I’ve been searching for thirty years – soulful, world-weary, the voice cracking in all the right places. He sounds for all the world like a resurrected Gram Parsons.

Together they make nearly miraculous music, spinning out well-written original country weepers that sound like instant classics, covering Percy Sledge’s “Warm and Tender Love” and at least equaling the great original, and revisiting the loping Bakersfield honky-tonk of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard on “Party Time,” as lonesome and desperate a tune as ever belied by its happy title. This is the real deal, truckstop jukebox anthems made for men in John Deere caps who want to drown their sorrows, so if you have no desire to get in touch with your inner Bubba, by all means steer clear. But the singing is unbelievably great. Cary's voice sounds not so much like Emmylou's as Patsy Cline's, and Cockrell’s wounded tenor wraps around it perfectly. The grievous angel has returned. The wings are suitably clipped, but he still soars. For this Bubba, I can’t imagine that there will be a finer album released this year.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Messy Church at One

Our little church plant is almost a year old. And being the sentimental, nostalgic fool I am, this seems like as good a time as any to look back and take stock of where we've been, and where we're going.

I love my church. There, I said it. I really do. I wouldn't have necessarily expected this, and I don't know that I've ever truly experienced it in quite this way before, but it feels like home. Which is odd, considering that Kate and I are a generation older than most of the folks there, and we're surrounded by piercings, shaved heads, and tattoos -- wounded artists everywhere we look. Kate at least has her own piercings to blend in with this studded crowd. I have, what? My hearing aid? Very cutting edge.

For those of you who may not know, our church is in the city. And it's focused on the people who live in the neighborhood. It's not ghetto, but it's definitely not the BMW parking lot of the Big Vineyard. It's in the indeterminate zone between the OSU campus and a nice older neighborhood in Columbus known as Clintonville, which is kind of a little liberal enclave in a sea of conservatism, perhaps because of its proximity to Ohio State, and the fact that many people who live there are affiliated in one form or another with the university. The north campus area is fairly seedy, and has its share of drug dealers and homeless folks. Clintonville is Kerry Central, and has a bunch of interesting book and music stores and cafes, along with Wiccans R Us (where you can relax for a spell, or cast a spell, or just look for the perfect gift for that special warlock in your life), the local Planned Parenthood office, a couple abortion clinics, some longstanding hippie food co-ops, and tattoo parlors. Throw in the artsy element, which is unnaturally skewed in our church, and you have a fair cross-section of what our church is like.

It's also about the way people see the world. Although Columbus isn't exactly a hotbed of cultural activity, there is a large university here, and several smaller colleges, and there's sufficient critical mass to speak of an "arts community." A number of those folks have found their way to our church, where the arts are valued very highly. Lots and lots of people buy music, and go to concerts, and read books, and go to films. We have several professional-quality musicians in our midst, and a sizable contingent of folks who play in local bands on the weekends after working their day jobs during the week. We have some amazingly talented visual and graphics artists. We have poets who attend poetry slams at local bars. We have a pastor who attends more rock 'n roll shows than I do. And, I would venture to say that outside of possibly Decatur, Georgia, we may have the highest percentage of Paste subscribers of any church in the world.

All of which might qualify as "cool" or "hip" (two charges that are frequently leveled at our church, at least until people see the hearing aid), but somewhat unrelated to the advancement of the Kingdom of God. And that's where it truly gets interesting, because I do indeed see the Kingdom of God advancing. What I've seen is that art has enabled us to build a bridge to connect with non-Christians. I really like the fact that there are those who attend our church who would not identify themselves as Christians. They're listening. They're dialoguing. Some of them are just looking for ways to find fault with the hypocritical Christians. And given the broken people we are, they probably won't have to look too hard. But I hope, and I believe, that they're also finding Christians who are appreciative of what they do; who want to support creativity and artistic excellence in whatever ideological package in which it is presented, who show up at their concerts and their gallery openings, and who simply want to love and serve other people.

A couple weeks ago I attended the music night at the Columbus Music Hall. There was Kyle, who owns the local record store, doing his Bob Dylan impression. And there was Jovan from the neighborhood coffee shop, cranking the amps up to 11 and blasting some of the best punk stuff I've heard in ages. And there was Matt from our church, playing his lovely, introspective folk tunes. It wasn't a "Christian" event. It wasn't a "non-Christian" event. It was just people who love and appreciate music getting together. It was a good thing, and it's the kind of thing I see happening in our church all the time.

I also see a huge amount of brokenness and dysfunction -- addictions, eating disorders, cutting, mental illness, barely concealed rage -- oftentimes accompanied by the romantic, self-destructive notion that to be an artist one must suffer. It's incredibly messy, and it's overwhelming at times. I see plenty of people who have experienced major hurt inflicted by well-meaning believers. I see people who have experienced major hurt because of neglect, or abuse, or just plain stupid choices. Including me. Our church is a hospital, and every week I see incoming wounded. But there is an atmosphere where people can be and are open about such things, where they admit their hurts and failures, where they pray together and engage in the painful work of forgiveness and reconciliation and healing, moving beyond the all-consuming Kingdom of Me. There are discouraging days when people choose to head back onto the street rather than stick around and allow God to change them. But there are many good days, too. In sometimes small but significant ways, Humpty Dumpty is being put back together again. I'm excited to be a part of it.

I see both wonderful fruit and rotten fruit. There are a number of non-Christians hanging around, and I think that's exciting. That's largely due to my pastor Jeff, a scarily intelligent, wonderfully idiosyncratic guy who has the amazing gift of making people feel welcome and loved, regardless of the baggage they tote into the proceedings. He's the guy who bought pizza for the entire Crestview Middle School voting precinct when everybody was dripping wet, standing in line for hours waiting to vote on election day last November. And he pulls off random acts 0f kindness like that all the time. He goes into the neighborhood tattoo parlor and hangs out with the owners, buys them lunch, and expresses genuine admiration for their artistry. He's not faking it, or using it as the pretext for evangelism. He's just relating, and he genuinely admires their work. And he invites us, as the church, to come along and play, too. He's one radical dude, and I mean that in the best sense. He truly does live out what he preaches, and what he preaches, again and again, is that as Christians we need to let go of our prejudices and our comfort zones, get dirty, interact with "sinners," and love them into the Kingdom of God, because that's what Jesus did. And it's happening.

But it's a mess. As Christians, I truly believe that there should be evidence of God at work in our lives. And I do see that in so many ways, in so many lives. But some of the folks in our church have not yet made the commitment to follow Jesus. Others have made the commitment, but they may have made the commitment a month ago, and they haven't yet made the connection between following Jesus and obeying him in sexual matters, particularly when they've been sleeping with their girlfriends/boyfriends every night for years. And on and on it goes. It's messy, and the lines of demarcation have been smudged. Usually I think that's a good thing. We're focused on building community, building relationships. And it's only in that context that words of correction or admonishment can be heard; I say this to you not because I want to judge you, but because I want to be your friend.

I don't want to leave the impression that it's Sin Central, either, and that anything goes. There are many people in my church who struggle with addiction issues, including me, but nobody is saying that it's okay. They're saying that it's not okay, that it damages our relationship with God, and those closest to us, and leads to bondage. And they're right.

But here's the deal: everybody has a story to tell. That, to me, has been the biggest revelation I've encountered while being a part of this church. Most of the stories are sad ones, some of them heartbreaking, pound-your-fist-into-the-pillow ones. People have had to put up with such shit, and have done such shit to themselves. And who knows where one leaves off and the other begins? Not me. I am truly glad that there is a place where people can come and tell their stories, where others will listen and pray, and not judge. I'm glad for that myself. And I'm glad for the other people who have found that to be true as well. The comment that I've heard most frequently from non-Christians or new Christians is that people are amazed that they can be themselves. The deep, dark, hidden sins come to light and the healing can begin, and nobody freaks out, because you can't outsin the love of God. Except, of course, in most churches in America, and most people, Christians and non-Christians alike, have encountered that, and now they're encountering something different. God knows it's a mess. But I'm fairly convinced it's a holy mess. I'm so thankful.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Currently Playing

Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois

I'm still enthralled, enamored, and utterly smitten with Sufjan Stevens' new album Illinois. I liked it a lot on the first couple listens, and, if anything, it's unfolding in deeper and better ways with successive listens. "John Wayne Gacy Jr." and "Casimir Pulaski Day" were immediately memorable and startling, and still are. But I'm drawn more and more to the intricate arrangements, especially the one on "The Predatory Wasps," which has to be the most beautiful song I've encountered in ages. It will take an amazing effort to supplant this one from the top of my Best of 2005 list.

What is more remarkable to me about this phenomenon is that Sufjan has all the basic ingredients that normally make me want to retch. He's the epitome of the wimpy, sensitive artiste who goes all aquiver over sunsets and pretty flowers. As Tonio K. once wrote of the sensitive, navel-gazing Jackson Browne, "Fountain of Sorrow, my ass, m***** f******/I hope you wind up in the ground." But his songs are brutal, in amazing ways, and his arrangements and instrumentation are nothing short of brilliant. And the girl backup singers end up functioning as a Greek chorus, by turns funny like Aristophanes and tragic like Sophocles, all the while still sounding like escapees from a Phil Spector girl group. In the end Sufjan sounds like no one but himself; a true and original talent.

The Pernice Brothers -- Discover a Lovelier You

I like this one quite a bit. It's Joe Pernice's strongest batch of songs yet; sprightly pop tunes and shimmering, chiming guitars that belie a depressive personality. My kind of guy.

Milton Mapes -- The Blacklight Trap

That's a band name, by the way, not a person. The Blacklight Trap is currently meeting my everpresent need for Neil Young and Crazy Horse/Uncle Tupelo soundalikes. Now that Jay Farrar has released a new Son Volt album (which I have yet to hear), Milton may be moved to the back burner. We'll see.

Dar Williams -- My Better Self

This one isn't out yet for a couple months yet, but it's quite good -- folk music with an edge, featuring some pointed political commentary without the usual accompanying foul-mouthed polemics (see Steve Earle, the left's response to Toby Keith, which makes him just as obnoxious and stupid). It's nice to hear Bush bashing done intelligently. Plus you get great covers of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" and Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," two songs that fit the overall tone of the album perfectly.

Danny Cohen -- We're All Gunna Die Someday

Tom Waits protege Danny Cohen's album "We're All Gunna Die Someday" is weird and wonderful. He sings about the Summer of Love, Baba Ram Das, organically grown zucchini, power to the people, and then bleats like a sheep. All in the same song. And let me give a shout out to Anti- Records, Cohen's label. Waits, Cohen, Joe Henry, Merle Haggard, Nick Cave, Neko Case, etc. Are you kidding me? It's like somebody woke up and formed Andy- Records.

Martin Sexton -- Wonderbar

This one isn't new (it was released in 2001), but it's new to me, and it's spent a lot of time in my CD player. Martin Sexton is a terrific songwriter with a supple, soulful voice. And he has more worthwhile things to say about what it means to live as a Christian in the modern world than any 10 CCM albums of your choice.