Thursday, March 29, 2007

John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

Thirty-five years ago today my friend Bridget died. She was 16 years old at the time of her demise. She was a reporter on the high school newspaper, and she found out a dirty little secret about a guy named Phil. I know Phil’s full name. I was his friend, too. But in the hopes that he’s still alive, and that he’s perhaps changed for the better, I’ll leave it at that. Phil was a straight A student. He was the captain of the golf team. And he was the biggest drug dealer in my high school, and Bridget wrote a story in the newspaper that exposed that dirty little secret. Two days after the story appeared, Phil beat Bridget to death. With a 3 iron. Then he buried her body in the woods, and she wasn’t found for several weeks. The day after her murder, Phil went out and shot a glorious round of golf, leading my high school team to a match championship.

Around the same time Bridget was murdered a man named John Wayne Gacy Jr. was in the midst of a serial-killing spree. He ended up murdering 33 young men and boys, 28 of whom he buried in the crawl space under his house. But before his arrest in 1978, he was best known as a clown, having attended countless children’s birthday parties and civic events dressed in a clown suit. “He was one of the most generous, friendly, and hard working men you would ever want to meet,” one of his shocked neighbors commented after his arrest.

I have lived with secrets. I understand the schizophrenia of such a life. I haven’t murdered anyone, but I’ve deceived people, deliberately, and pretended to be one thing while inside I knew I was someone else entirely. “You want to get creeped out?” I occasionally ask myself when I catch myself in a particularly judgmental mood. “Take a look in the mirror.” And I know plenty of people who are living with secrets now, who don’t even know that I know their secrets. But I do. These days I feel a great sorrow for such people. They are following a pattern that is as old as mankind itself. Deny. Rationalize. Run away. Adam and Eve did it. There are days when I still want to do it, too.

We like to think of light as a good thing. But there is such a thing as unflattering light, a light that lets us see all the ugliness and brokenness, that exposes the desperately pathetic charade of righteousness, and the dead corpses rotting beneath the foundation of the house. I’m fairly convinced that we can’t be healed unless and until we start to see ourselves in that unflattering light.

His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne's T-shirts
When the swingset hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God

Are you one of them?

He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took off all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss
On the mouth

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid
-- Sufjan Stevens, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Calvin and Hobbes

"All generous minds have a horror of what are commonly called "Facts". They are the brute beasts of the intellectual domain." -- Thomas Hobbes, "Leviathan"

I'm taking off dark and early Friday morning for two and a half days at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The occasion is the Festival of Faith and Music, which you can read more about here.

I'm looking forward to the time for many reasons. First, my daughter Katryn (nee Emily) and I are doing the father/daughter spring break roadtrip. It's not Florida, and the traveling companion is one's old man instead of some studly college boy, but I still think it has potential. We'll have twelve hours together in the car over the course of the weekend, and previous roadtrips have shown that wonderful bonding can occur as we converse by yelling very, very loudly over the rock 'n roll that is blasting from deep within the bowels of Van the Minivan. Okay, I had to bribe her into going by telling her that she'll probably have a chance to meet Sufjan Stevens. And that he'll probably write a song for her called "Katryn! They Have Misspelled Your Name! They Have Omitted the H!" Sufjan, don't let me down.

This time I'm just going. My role as "American Idol Judge" is now over. We've proclaimed the winner of the new music competition, I've written my little liner notes for the CD that will be distributed to folks at the conference, and I can kick back and simply absorb all the goodness.

And there will be a lot of goodness.If you've checked out the schedule, it probably goes without saying that some great music will be played this weekend. I'm looking forward to all of it. And yes, I'm looking forward to the dinners where I get to hang out with these folks. Two years ago, the last time this conference was held, it was a great joy to break bread with Sufjan, and Pierce Pettis, and Bill Mallonee, and David Bazan, and a bunch of people who have inspired me for years, some by their music, and others by their words. This weekend will be no different, and this time the dinner companions will be Sufjan and Emmylou Harris and Neko Case, and the guys from Anathallo, and a great mix of the new and familiar in terms of Christian writers and thinkers. I'm looking forward to seeing Josh Jackson, editor of Paste Magazine, again. Josh and I live by exchanging emails, with occasional phone conversations in between. It will be great to see him again in person. David Dark, a very bright and articulate man who has written several books about the intersection of Christianity and popular culture, and which I cannot recommend highly enough, will be there, and I look forward to reconnecting with him. I look forward to reconnecting with Steve Stockman, a warm, gentle Irish bloke who may be the foremost U2 expert in the world. Andrew Beaujon, who as far as I know is not a Christian, will be there. He's written the best, most objective analysis of the sometimes strange world of evangelical popular culture (Body Piercing Saved My Life) I've ever encountered, and I'd like to meet him and thank him for writing the truth. And Lauren Winner, one of the keynote speakers, has written two of the best books I've ever read -- Girl Meets God and Real Sex -- and I look forward to meeting her and thanking her for her insatiable pursuit of truth, her honesty, and the dazzling way she strings together nouns and verbs.

Then there are the hundreds of people who are "just" Christians and thinkers and music fans. These folks won't be presenting their views at workshops. They'll be listening, asking questions, taking it all in. I met some of them two years ago. I look forward to reconnecting with some people I now consider friends, and meeting some new ones.

For me -- and perhaps for quite a few of the people who will come together this weekend -- what Calvin College does every two years is a little slice of heaven. Christianity and popular culture in general, and music in particular, are often uneasy bedfellows. They smack up against one another in uncomfortable ways. The natural tendency is to codify the relationship, to set down five or ten hard and fast rules for what Christians should and should not listen to. It's natural, but it totally misses the point. As Thomas Hobbes has noted, the "facts" often don't address the real issues. And the real issues have to do with staying alive to God, to the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, to becoming less selfish and more in love with God and others, and to allow music, and yes, even popular music, to be a conduit that opens up new vistas of what it means to be a whole, fully engaged human being participating in this process. That's what people talk about for two days. They listen, and they listen well. And then they talk with one another. It will be a blast, and I can't wait to tell you about it when I'm back.

The Hold Steady in Paste

Everybody's favorite lapsed Catholic band (okay, mine at least), The Hold Steady, will grace the cover of Paste Magazine's May issue, offering positive proof that Paste is all about image, not substance. Look at these guys, and move over, Britney. I'm telling you, the accordion is making a big comeback.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Summer Lightning

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Henry David Thoreau and I would not have been bosom buddies. I go to the woods only if I must, to see which mosquitoes and poison ivy vines await me, and to discover, in the midst of my otherwise comfortable life, that I had not thought to bring insect repellant.

But what can I do? My friend Don loves the woods. He lives surrounded by them, atop a hill in a clearing that contains his farm, three miles outside the tiny town of Amity, Ohio, which is itself as far removed from civilization as can be imagined. This is Amish country, and the vehicles that pass us on our pastoral walks are likely to be drawn by horses. Don is not Amish. He’s a Presbyterian farmer and retired high school principal in a John Deere cap. But he waves politely to people named Enos and Jakob, and they wave back. We walk along wooded lanes on an impossibly warm March evening, and Don points out the signs of impending spring: the forsythia buds, ready to burst open, the year’s first garter snake sighting, the swallows and magpies, back from spring break in Daytona Beach. A year ago, right around the time the crocuses were in bloom, he buried his wife. Joyce died during Holy Week. Her funeral was Holy Saturday, and Don saw the Easter sunrise, not because he was up for an early service, but because he couldn’t get to sleep.

“There is a hole in my heart,” he tells me, “and God’s mercies are new every morning. Look at this. Look at the glory of God’s creation.” But I am a city boy, and I look and see garter snakes. So I pray silently that I might be able to see as Don sees.

Yesterday at lunch I met with my friend Fred. Fred lost his father a little over a month ago. Now his son-in-law, 25 years old last week, is dying of cancer. Fred’s doing okay except for the times when he’s not, and when he’s not he has to stop talking because he’s ready to cry. I understand that, understand the whole bewildering, terrible mess, although I haven’t had to deal with it directly for a while. But there is glory and terror on every side. Don seems to think that they’re not opposites, and that they can co-exist. And maybe they can.

All I know is that by the time I made it to Don’s house I was already tired, emotionally drained, and overwhelmed. “Let’s go outside,” Don suggested. “The woods can do wonders for a tired soul.” “Sure,” I thought, God’s own Nature Boy in business-casual khakis. “Lead on, Thoreau.”

So we walked. And walked and walked; four or five miles on lonely farm roads, past apple orchards with bare branches, past stubbly corn fields, through the woods that caught the golden light of a setting sun. We headed back to Don’s house in the gathering darkness, watched the moon come up over the horizon and the first of the nighttime stars, heard the distant rumbling of thunder, and turned around to be surprised by what looked like summer lighting before an approaching storm.

I felt lonely, and lost, and I missed my wife and kids. And I heard a song. That’s not an unusual thing. I hear songs in my head all the time. They come to me unbidden, out of memory’s vault, and they provide an ongoing soundtrack to my life. This one was by an old hippie folksinger named Garnet Rogers, who can be maudlin and sentimental, but who, at least once, reached out to capture a golden moment and pin it for posterity, and who last night was singing my life:

Tonight the harvest moon
hangs across the valley
I see the hills shine in its silvery light
It's the same old moon
That shines upon you
It'll light my way until I'm by your side
Well, who scattered these diamonds
Through the vault of heaven?
Who drew the curve of the magpie's wing?
Who shaped your face?
What made you love me?
Where is the spark of every living thing?

Who? What? Where? Those are questions still worth asking. Outside of those two conversations with grieving friends, I spent the entire day surrounded by algorithms and rules, in a world that is neat and precise and understandable, where reason and perfect knowledge hold sway. But then, unbidden, the other world broke through, a world that is beautiful and broken, that is not reasonable, where there is glory everywhere but where everything is out of season, where young men die and summer lightning appears in early spring:

We are brief as summer lightning
We are swift as swallow's flight
We are sparks that spiral upward in the darkness in the night
We are frost upon a window
We won't pass this way again

We made it back just as the first raindrops started to fall. I said goodnight to Don, told him that I had enjoyed our walk, and that I would see him next month when he ventures down to the big city. I was tired. I was raw. I don’t always understand these things, but I cried all the way home, playing that song in my head, over and over again. When I got there, I did one of the few unreasonable things I did all day. I hugged my wife and kids.

Monday, March 26, 2007

What Does Your Drawing Say About YOU?

I love these little Internet quizzes that analyze your personality based on your fruit preferences or favorite Beatle. This one analyzes me based on my artistic talents.

And here are the results of my analysis:

Your friends and associates probably don't know what the hell to make of you.
You are a singularly sloppy person, totally without artistic aptitude.
You like to think about your method, seeking to pursue your goal in the most effective way. But you can't draw worth shit.
You may have a sunny, cheerful disposition. You may be a mean son of a bitch. It's hard to tell. Give it up, dude.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Halleluiah and Other Casualties

Here’s the deal, boys and girls in America: the best rock ‘n roll band in the world these days is fronted by a barstool poet named Craig Finn, and he’s the heir to all the wide-eyed, wild-haired proclamations of outsiders and would-be Messiahs from Kerouac to Dylan to Springsteen to Bono. His band, The Hold Steady, plays AC/DC and Who power chords and Professor Roy Bittan piano riffs. Finn roams the stage, runs his fingers through his hair, and declaims half-spoken, half-sung visionary statements about addiction and Jesus, hopelessness and hope. They are little rock ‘n roll vignettes that are haunted by shadowy characters living life at the edges of the world. Some of them fall off. Some of them walk on back to love and if not wholeness, then at least sanity. He’s easily the best songwriter I’ve heard in the past five years, and he brought his cautionary, desperate, and desperately funny sermons to Columbus, Ohio on St. Patrick’s Day.

I knew that the confluence of The Hold Steady and St. Patrick’s Day was likely to produce some interesting moments. And indeed it did. Whenever you mix a glorified bar band with frat boys and an excuse to party, the results are fairly predictable. So the flying beer ended up in my hair. I did my small part to keep various crowd surfers off the ground. And I got pummeled and bruised a bit. No big deal. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, Bud Light hair and all.

Finn and his band played most of their latest album, Boys and Girls in America, and a few selections from earlier albums Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday. The crowd sang along with every word (and there are a lot of words in Craig Finn songs), pumped their fists, and slammed into one another. Guitarist Tad Kubler made a few rock star moves and at one point played atop a 20-foot Marshall amp. But for the most part, this was Craig Finn’s show, and Craig Finn came across as the quintessential boho poet, part acid casualty and part dissolute English professor, the smartest, most sensitive, and most damaged guy in the room. It was glorious rock ‘n roll, the perfect marriage of music and lyrics, and it left my bruised, beer-soaked self very, very happy.

For what it’s worth, don’t look for the MTV Awards and superstardom to follow anytime soon. The keyboard player looked like a Brooklyn cabbie, Kubler has a beer gut, and Finn, disheveled and, yes, wild-eyed, looked like he wasn’t lying when he sang that the eighties almost killed him. If image is everything, then The Hold Steady will amount to nothing. But none of that matters. Every so often these little rock ‘n roll epiphanies remind me why I even bother to care about disposable, four-minute songs. And I experienced more than a few of those moments Saturday night, and I realized that, at its best, and in spite of crowds who are more interested in getting drunk and rowdy than listening to good music, rock ‘n roll can still carry the seeds of redemption.

“Certain songs they get scratched into our souls,” Finn sang at one point, and he is right. One of them was about Holly, a recurring character in Finn’s songs who first made her appearance Saturday night in a song called “Crucifixion Cruise”:

Halleluiah came to in a confession booth
Infested with infections
Smiling on an abcessed tooth
Running hard on residue
Crashing thru the vestibule
The crucifixion cruise
She climbed the cross and found she liked the view
Sat reflecting on the resurrection
Talking loud over lousy connections
She put her mouth around a difficult question
She said Lord what do you recommend
To a real sweet girl who's made some not sweet friends?
Lord what would you prescribe
To a real soft girl who's having real hard times?

The frat boys in the crowd went apeshit over that one, screaming “USA! USA!” in unison when it ended. Go figure: a song about existential despair greeted by a hockey chant. And here was the best one, another song about Holly, an impossibly harrowing and tender little ditty called “How a Resurrection Really Feels” that closed the concert:

Her parents named her Halleluiah, the kids all called her Holly
If she scared you then she's sorry
She's been stranded at these parties
These parties they start lovely but they get druggy and they get ugly and they get bloody
The priest just kinda laughed
The deacon caught a draft
She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass
She was limping left on broken heels
When she said father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?

Holly was a hoodrat
Now you finally know that
She's been disappeared for years
Today she finally came back
She said: St. Louis had enslaved me
I guess Santa Ana saved me
St. Peter had me on the queue
The St. Paul saints they waved me through
I was all wrapped up in some video booth
When I heard her say I love you too

She said I've laid beneath my lovers but I've never gotten laid
Some nights she felt protected
Some nights she felt afraid
She spent half last winter just trying to get paid
From some guy she'd originally thought to be her saviour
They wrote her name in magic marks
On stopsigns and subway cars
They got a mural up on East 13th
That said Halleluiah rest in peace
Halleluiah was a hoodrat
And now you finally know that
She's been disappeared for years
Today she finally came back

Walk on back
Walk on back
She said don't turn me on again
I'd probably just go and get myself all gone again
Holly was a sexy mess
She looked strung out but experienced
So we all got kind of curious

Walk on back

Walk on back

“Walk on back,” Finn sang softly, over and over again. After a night of raucous power chords, it was startling in its quiet insistence. “Walk on back,” he sang, his voice, at last, barely a whisper, his right arm extended out over the crowd. And then he walked off the stage. “USA! USA!” the frat boys chanted, and spilled their beers. All the boys and girls in America were too wasted to recognize a gentle benediction.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

John Carter Cash and the Family Legacy

I talked on the phone with a man named John Carter Cash yesterday. Consider, for a moment, what it would be like to be John Carter Cash. On the up side, one would have the genetic makeup, the social contacts, and probably the financial wherewithal to make a pretty fair splash in the music world. On the down side, one would have to live with continual comparisons to one’s dad and mom, and when one’s dad and mom are Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, and grandma was a woman named Maybelle, it’s easy to see how it might get tiresome, if not downright impossible to live up to the heritage.

To his credit, John Carter Cash seems comfortable in his own skin. He’s written and recorded his own music, but he’s best known as a music producer and as the keeper of the Cash/Carter family legacy. The immediate context of our conversation was a tribute album that John has just produced to highlight his mom’s music. Called Anchored in Love: A Tribute to June Carter Cash, and set for release in mid-June (naturally), it features 12 songs that June wrote and/or made famous, sung by some pretty big names in country music and rock ‘n roll who knew her and loved her. Anchored in love is right, and you can hear it in every note. Elvis Costello, one of the rock ‘n rollers, includes an autoharp on his cover of June’s “Ring of Fire” because that’s the way The Carter Family would have played it. The Peasall Sisters, who were little girls in O Brother Where Art Thou? last time I checked, are just about grown up, and now sound remarkably like Anita and Helen and June must have sounded back when they played the Grand Ole Opry in the early ‘50s. Willie Nelson is here, and Sheryl Crow, two Billy’s (Joe Shaver and Bob Thornton), and venerable country legends like Ralph Stanley and Loretta Lynn. Emmylou Harris, who appears on 38% of all music recorded in the past thirty-five years, is here as well.

The cynical part of me wants to say that because Walk the Line was such a phenomenal hit, and because Johnny sold some five million albums from the grave in 2006, there’s a great opportunity here to cash in on some more financial wherewithal. But you know what? I don’t believe that’s the motivation. Maybe I heard the scripted “I did it for God and family” speech yesterday. But it sure didn’t sound like it. It sounded to me like John Carter Cash is a man who records a tribute album to his mom because he wants to honor her. He seemed like a really great guy. He definitely had a great Tennessee accent. And I’m willing to bet that he loved, and still loves, his imperfect, gracious and gifted parents.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Signposts Along the Road

(With thanks to All Music Guide’s Thom Jurek, who knows a good prayer when he hears one. He’s heard two in the past couple months.)

Here is a not-so-secret secret. I am a Christian, and I despise Contemporary Christian Music. Riddled with cliches, prone to drab loss/cross and grace/face rhymes, and safe as milk, these slick, soulless Infomercials for Christ are usually the last place I look for spiritual value.

But I do look. And I do listen. And sometimes I find the ineffable and the transcendent in the strangest places: Van Morrison breaking free of language altogether and soaring off into one of his otherworldly scats, Miles Davis playing a muted trumpet, Bob Dylan (yes, Bob Dylan) singing any of the raw, open wounds disguised as songs on Blood on the Tracks, summoning up new vistas of loss and regret and longing, Sufjan Stevens quietly mourning the death of a friend to bone cancer. These are all spiritual signposts for me. They crack my heart open, and they point the way home.

The Christ Tree by The Trees Community is one of those signposts, but for more than thirty years it’s been a signpost that’s been buried and forgotten. The album, originally released in 1975, reportedly sold fewer than 500 copies on its original release, and quickly went out of print. Now resurrected and reissued as part of a 4-CD box set, and the recipient of universally glowing reviews, the album may finally win the surviving members of the community the respect and acclaim they so richly deserve.

The story of The Trees Community is part and parcel of the Woodstock era, even if the music is not. It goes like this: a bunch of hippie Christians get kicked out of their Manhattan apartment building/commune, buy a bus, and set off in 1971 to tour the country, explore different modes of Christian spirituality, and make music together. It ends up as a seven-year road trip, with stops along the way at Trappist, Benedictine, Franciscan and Paulist monastic communities, evangelical and social outreach groups of every denomination, and a Hutterite farming collective. An extended stay at Thomas Merton’s Gethsemane monastery results in the two live concerts released as part of the box set. An abortive, early studio album called A Portrait of Christ in Music is never released at all (but is included in the box set). And, finally, in 1975, The Christ Tree arrives as the community’s first and last official album.

Altogether it’s a miraculous thing, as unearthly as any music ever recorded, and as eerily lovely as the post-modern classical music of Henryk Gorecki or Arvo Part; four hours of utterly uncategorizable transcendent beauty. The short summary is that fourteen people play more than eighty instruments and sing. The even shorter summary is that you’ve never heard anything like this in your life.

The 12-minute “Psalm 42,” which opens this collection, sets the tone. It incorporates elements of Balinese chant, American folk song, Indian raga, African polyrhythms, Scottish bagpipes, Tibetan gongs, and something called Mexican bell wheel Sanctus. The voices weave in and out in contrapuntal harmonies, rise to glorious crescendos, recede to whispered pleas, as the words of the ancient psalm reverberate through the recording studio, bounce off the walls, and ascend to heaven. This isn’t world music; it’s universal music: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.”

And it’s utterly outside of time. Everything about this music ought to be trippy and dated. It is not. Cut off from commercial trends, wandering the country without access to a radio, totally bereft of a cultural (or countercultural) context in which to place themselves, The Trees Community simply created music without precedent. Nobody told the nomadic hippies that they couldn’t mix contrapuntal vocal techniques with eastern instrumentation, so they did. And the end result is something brave and lovely and utterly strange: worship music that sounds like it comes from anywhere but planet Earth.

That’s not to say that listeners won’t find plenty to latch on to in the earthly realm. “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,” Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of John. In the impossibly moving “How Long is a Little While?” The Trees Community gives voice to the cry of countless grieving sufferers throughout the world. How long? How much can we bear? This is a spiritual blues that bears, yes, some connection to Mississippi Delta blues. And Tibet.

Like I said, there’s nothing like it in recorded music. Do yourself a great favor and pick up a copy.

Rickie Lee Jones’ new album Sermon on Exposition Boulevard is another of those signposts. Jones has had a long and illustrious career as an unregenerated boho, the female yin to Tom Waits’ Hollywood gutter poet yang. Here she offers a mostly extemporaneous take on the Gospels, inspired by spiritual philosopher Lee Cantelon and his book The Words, a latter-day spin on Jesus’ teachings presented in the language of the hipsters and the down-and-out.

Backed by junkyard percussion, plucked ouds, and distorted electric guitars, Rickie Lee encounters the Jesus of the gospels, stripped of 2,000 years of musty tradition and ceremony, and improvises on a lyric that is the antithesis of all that is safe and antiseptic. Scatting and soaring like Van, repeating her lyrics like rosary beads, she moves into dangerous territory indeed:

I wanted to pray
I wanted to let you go on your way
I wanted to know why they laid there
Dying in the streets next to the restaurant
Where people were eating and yes
I wanted to pray

How do you pray in a world like this
You know, I see the people on TV
And they close their eyes
and they bow their heads
And they say "Let us pray"
And it feels so cold and meaningless
And I wanted to pray
And I said
Tell me father
Tell me mother
Heavenly mother
And they said

When you pray
Pray alone by yourself
In the secret room of your heart
Don't go out into the church filled with people and pray
God hears every secret that you say
See all those people praying on TV and the churches
They like to make a big parade out of what they're doing
They think God hears them louder if they say it
Over and over and over and over and over again

But I say, God, but I say this
You are the prayer
Your eyes are the prayer
Your hand on your cheek
You are the prayer
Those words you want to speak
They are the prayer
That dance you make
When you're by yourself
Just before your mother calls you on the phone
You are the prayer
I tell you what
You gotta take it back from them
Because the prayers belong to you
All you gotta do is say hey hey
I'm down here too, I'm down here too
I'm down here too
And I hear you in the trees
And I hear you
And I'm near you
I wonder why there's so much suffering

I want to say thank you, thank you
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you
I wanted to say thank you, thank you
I wanted to say
I wanted to say
You are where I like it best
You are where I like it best
You are where I like it best

That's the Lords' prayer
"You are where I want to be"
So, amen, just amen
Amen, all by myself, amen, amen
I'm so lonely, just amen
And I'm rising, rising, just amen
You can look through my eyes
Hear through my ears
Look through my eyes

It is, as Madonna says, like a prayer. It’s unorthodox, in both the musical and theological senses, and I wouldn’t advise using it to construct any creedal statements. What it is is a cry from the heart, and it will crack yours wide open if you let it. It’s raw and unfiltered. It’s disturbing. It’s beautiful. And it will let you hear an old, familiar story in a new way.

They are two remarkable albums, two new signposts for me. The reason I listen to music is to encounter moments like these. I’m thankful to still find markers along the roadside.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Pullhair Rubeye

It was bound to happen. You give some kid the technology and the drugs, and eventually he's going to release an album that is recorded backwards, every lysergic second of an interminable 32 minutes.

That's what Animal Collective singer/songwriter Avey Tare and wife Kria Brekken have done on Pullhair Rubeye. As if song titles like "Lay Lay Off, Faselam" weren't inscrutable enough, Avey and Kria have fun speeding it up, slowing it down, putting it through a sonic blender, and then playing it all in reverse. And it all comes out as something like "Ishneh kooooshi elnaaaah aywaaaaah." It could be Hopi, but instead it's hopeless.

I remember the sixties, sort of, and I remember John and Yoko. So what do you do with a "groundbreaking" avant-garde concept that was a bad idea forty years ago? I say lay, lay off, Avey and Kria. Number nine, number nine ...

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Plug for Calvin/A Prayer for Britney

It will probably come as no great shock that I am not a Britney Spears fan. To my ears, she is a talentless hack famous for one and only one thing. To my eyes, she is, well, justifiably famous. And therein lies the American Dream and the American Nightmare. Somehow we have arrived at a peculiar moment in our culture in which image totally overpowers content and substance. And when the image includes beautiful bodies, drug and alcohol abuse, bizarre behavior, and nervous breakdowns in front of the camera, all the better. There are a few cultural outposts that still fly the old, tattered flag of substance and quality, Paste Magazine among them. And I’m thankful for them. But I watch the news at 11:00, and it’s not The Decemberists or The Hold Steady who command the leads-ins to Today’s Top Stories. It’s people named Anna Nicole and Paris and Lindsey and Britney, who self destruct right before our eyes, in high definition video, and who are big enough and dazzling enough to transcend the normal gossip shows and somehow become International News.

In a strange twist of fate that has me smiling, I will be traveling in a few weeks to a music conference at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan to participate in something called Bandspotting. Bandspotting is a variation on the American Idol theme. In this case, two judges (Asthmatic Kitty label head Michael Kaufmann and me) will listen to some musicians/bands looking for their big break, and declare one musician/band the Grand Prize Winner, complete with the opportunity to perform before the assembled conference masses. And if you know me and my antipathy to all things American Idol, you may see the humor in that, too. For me, American Idol is nothing less than the scourge of the music world, a show that contributes like no other to the cultural lobotomization of America, a worthless hour, now beamed into our homes two or three days per week, in which marginally talented Vegas wannabes do karaoke to songs that weren’t very good in their original incarnations, and eventually win enormous recording contracts and sell millions of albums to people who don’t know anything else. So I don’t know if I’m supposed to be Simon or Randy, but it probably doesn’t matter. In either case, there is a fair degree of ambivalence.

What helps is that the music I’m listening to from Calvin College is really good. It’s an amazing contrast. They just planted Anna Nicole in the ground, and Britney may be headed there any day now, and still the American Idol masses scramble to become the next Britney. At the same time, a bunch of kids have recorded some songs in their bedrooms, or maxed out their credit cards so they could spend a few hours in a recording studio, and have written and recorded songs in which their hearts are laid bare, and done their damndest to pin down the ineffable and the transcendent in rhyming couplets and major and minor chords. Michael and I are put in the impossible position of declaring only one of them a winner. And so, before that happens, let me go on record as stating that I salute them, all of them. None of them are losers.

Meanwhile, there are the disturbing images of a woman with a newly shaved head bearing the insignia “666,” an unsuccessful suicide attempt in a rehab center, and a media frenzy that simultaneously decries and celebrates the insanity. I truly don’t like Britney Spears’ music, but that’s not the Britney Spears I think about these days. I think about a young woman who is desperately crying out for help, and I can’t help but feel sad for this poor, lost kid who doesn’t know who she is, who has grown up in such an artificial, strange, soul-sucking world that she can’t tell what is real from what is glittering and shiny and empty. And that’s the person I pray for, regardless of whether she ever “sings” again. What happens when image is everything and you look in the mirror and see no reflection? I don’t know. But I hope she finds herself.