The death of Dan Fogelberg makes me sad. Fogelberg was certainly guilty of churning out his share of schlock, but for a while there, in the mid-to-late '70s, he produced well-crafted albums like Souvenirs and Nether Lands that were clearly indebted to the CSN&Y sweet harmony vibe. He didn't create any great music, but he made a lot of perfectly fine, pleasant, melodic rock. And man ... 56 years old. And prostate cancer. Both hit a little too close to home right now.
The Resurgence of Romanticism
I’ve read a couple interviews with famous musicians in the last few weeks that make me realize that romanticism, and all its attendant emphasis on heightened sensory experience and awareness, is alive and well. No great surprise there, I know. There is a reason, after all, why sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll are linked together. But I’m still always a bit taken aback when I read the justifications for the lifestyle.
So let’s get it out on the table. I start with the basic notion that human beings are selfish. They don't have to work particularly hard to be self-centered jerks. It comes as naturally as breathing. At least that's the way I've found it to work for me. The problem is that such a view is antithetical to the Christian message that we are to die to ourselves and live for Christ, to be a servant, to think more highly of others than ourselves, etc.
So, as a Christian, I'm going to struggle with any view that enshrines and celebrates selfish behavior, or that suggests that such behavior leads to better art. That's not to say that I can't be a selfish jerk as a Christian. I can be, and often am. But I don't want to be that way. And the problem that I have with the whole romantic movement is that it holds up as an ideal a way of life that, frankly, I've needed to repent of. I spent years of my life living for new and more intense experiences. I wanted to feel everything, deeply. And I excused selfish, self-destructive behavior that affected not only me but many people who loved me as the price that had to be paid to produce great art. Aside from supreme arrogance, I was also guilty of rationalization and denial. The problem was that I wanted to feel. I wanted to feel really good, and I wanted to feel really bad, and I was convinced that only in experiencing those extremes could I explore my true humanity. I was, in fact, a stereotypical romantic.
But it's a lie. Just to pick an obvious example, I love John Lennon as much as anyone. But I don't believe he needed to be an absolute shit to his first wife, or that he needed to ingest LSD continuously throughout a three-year period, in order to produce the art he made. There are many great artists -- among them Emily Dickenson, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Leo Tolstoy, Michelangelo Buonarroti, J.S. Bach -- who led fundamentally decent lives. They may have had their prickly sides; most of them did, in fact. But they weren't pursuing pleasure as if it was the Holy Grail, and rationalizing it all away in the name of Art.
It's interesting to note the case of one Eric Clapton. I remember reading an interview with Clapton from the mid-'80s in the now-defunct Musician Magazine. And Clapton rattled off the typical romantic shpiel -- that one had to suffer for one's art, that one had to live an extreme life in order to produce great art. Compare that with his recent autobiography. There Clapton admits that he had it all wrong; that he screwed up his life, and the lives of those who loved him, by holding to such views. I tend to think of such retrenchment as "maturity." :-) But I think he's right. Passion has its place in art. It can be channeled in marvelous ways. But if left unchanneled it simply overflows into every area of life, and that's not good. I see the romantic movement as advocating a veritable flood of passion. The problem was, and is, that people drown in the flood.
Okay, maybe I missed something. Paste Magazine named The National’s Boxer as the Best Album of 2007. So I decided to listen a little more closely. And after several more listens I’m still underwhelmed. It’s not a bad album. It’s a pleasant Coldplay-like MOR fest featuring a baritone with a headcold, and who writes better lyrics than Chris Martin. But Album of the Year? Sorry, not even in my Top 100.
Bram Tschaikovsky’s wondrous 1979 album Strange Man, Changed Man has been re-released. Power pop fans should rejoice. Following the Beatles template, the band turned the amps up to 11, worked on some chiming guitar runs, and practiced the multi-part harmonies. And the results are stunning. “Girl of My Dreams,” as lightweight lyrically as the title sounds, is nonetheless an absolute classic of the power pop genre, with a superb singalong chorus and a cascading, majestic guitar riff that will be embedded into your brain the moment your hear it. As a bonus, there’s a cover of Neil Diamond’s/The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” that is actually worth hearing.