Thursday, December 29, 2005

Another Reason to Love Sufjan Stevens

There are many reasons to love Sufjan Stevens. This is another one:

If someone asked, I would say that I was born again. I would look you right in the eye and say it.

I don't know anything about CCM. I'm not an evangelist. I'm a songwriter and a storyteller. If that story happens to be about Christ, then perhaps, in some odd semantic way, the song could be termed 'evangelical'. I gladly accept that. I also sing about divorce. And murder. And adultery. I sing about chickens and war and bathrooms. In my mind, the gospel is not something to pander and pawn off like a diet soda drink. There is no product. There is no selling point.

This is what it means to be born again: to fully and completely disengage with the preconceptions and preoccupations of the adult world and its religions, to dismantle all laws - of physics and society - and yield yourself to the birth canal, and what comes after, in which everything begins to shake and tremble with all senses fully turned to the center of the universe, the creator, God the Father, in whose cultivation we begin to know and understand our true selves, our real selves, as a reflection of God's image, his creation, like newborn babies, full, fresh, suckling, elated and laughing at everything. But honestly, I have no idea how this relates to my music. I hate talking about this stuff.

I'd like to spend less time talking about God and more time being in God's presence. I think that would put an end to this conversation, once and for all.
-- from an interview in Plan B Magazine, Oct. 2005

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Every December 28th a group of about 50 middle-aged geezers, a few of them now slouching past middle age, meet at a friend’s house to catch up on life. Thirty years ago the geezers were just hippies, and they all lived together in what passes for the ghetto in Columbus, Ohio. They bought a handful of houses on 17th Avenue, crammed husbands and wives and kids and single folks together, along with homeless people off the street and cats and dogs and goats, shared their stuff, pooled their incomes, and set up shop as an official New Testament Church, living in community, guaranteed to get it right this time, correcting the errors of 2,000 years of church history, ministering to the poor and needy, focusing on loving one another and the world around them. I was one of those folks, and spent eight years in their midst. I met my wife in that ghetto. The best man and ushers at my wedding all came from those motley crusaders.

Thirty years later, it’s evident that they got it wrong. And thirty years later, given the sizable turnout that will show up at my friend’s tonight, and given the fact that many of these people will travel great distances to be there, it’s evident that they got a lot right.

It was a silly, naïve notion. “Stupid,” as my friend Jeff told me a couple weeks ago over lunch. Jeff and his family are now firmly established in a nice denominational church. He wears a suit on Sunday mornings, and his hair is short, and he prides himself on being part of a long and vital church tradition. “I look back on those ‘Let’s all hold hands and be the church’ days with some embarrassment,” he tells me.

And I understand. I recall the interminable wrangling over every theological issue imaginable, the need to re-invent every single doctrinal stance and claim it as our own, the inevitable hubris that accompanies any attempt to be “the New Testament Church,” and the underlying disdain for all the poor brothers and sisters who have had it wrong for lo these two millennia. It’s not a shining legacy. And it wasn’t all peace and love. Some of the naïve hippies got robbed at gunpoint; a couple of the women got raped. Camp’s Carryout, across the street from the first apartment I shared with my wife, was held up almost every Saturday night.

It turned out to be a pretty lousy place to raise a family. And the naïve hippies grew up and got married and started having kids, and they figured out pretty quickly that toddlers and crack dealers on street corners weren’t the best combination. One by one, they left. Why? Because they could. Because they had the education and the job skills and the wherewithal to abandon the sinking ship. Four families pulled up stakes and moved out to the country, where to this day they’re still living in community and raising goats and growing grapes for wine. Everybody else scattered, some across the country, some to the relative comfort and safety of Columbus suburbia. The irony isn’t lost on me when I realize that from that tiny house church a suburban megachurch of 7,500 people emerged, and that the massive parking lot is filled with SUVs and minivans. Old hippies never die. They just become Republicans, and put W stickers on the back bumpers of their Beamers.

And so I wonder about the legacy. Is my friend Jeff right? Was it all for naught? Was it all just a silly, idealistic, misty vision that faded once people grew up and got some sense? Did we dabble in radicalism, only to become dreaded Average Americans?

Maybe. But I don’t think so. The fifty people who will show up tonight tell me No. They are doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, along with those who have never been able to hold down a steady job, and those who have suffered from debilitating mental illness, and those who have lost their marriages, and those who have watched their children walk away from everything good and important and choose addiction and enslavement. Life has a way of battering the shit out of you, even if you are the incarnation of the New Testament Church.

Every one of them will be on equal footing. They will be greeted warmly. They will laugh and remember together. They will be cherished as people who shared a common life together, as friends and brothers and sisters in perhaps the best and most inclusive sense. I would like to think that this is something different from Average America.

I look forward to this time, as I do every year. And I feel challenged, as I do every year, to work through what our common vision now means in middle age, in the midst of a successful career. I desire and pray for the generosity of spirit that characterized those turbulent, wonderful years.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Unwed Fathers

Fucked up kids havin' fucked up kids havin' fucked up kids ...
Happy Campers, "No Direction"

In an Appalachian Greyhound station
She sits there waiting in a family way
"Goodbye brother, tell Mom I love her
Tell all the others I'll write someday"

From a teenage lover to an unwed mother
Kept undercover like some bad dream
While unwed fathers, they can't be bothered
They run like water through a mountain stream

Just like his mom, my sister, my nephew Nathan dropped out of school midway through high school. He spent a couple years in and out of juvenile detention centers for assorted brushes with the law, and now, at the ripe old age of 19, finds himself the father of a sweet two-year-old little girl named Madison. He lives with my sister in Columbus. Madison's mother, also 19, lives with her mother in a dilapidated trailer outside of Ironton, Ohio, three hours south of Columbus.

Mom and dad met in the most romantic of circumstances; while huffing glue in the stock room of the fast-food restaurant where they both worked. There was no courtship, no flowers, no wooing. There was just quick sex amidst the oversized jars of condiments. There was no thought of marriage. He didn't really love her. For that matter, he didn't even really like her. And she felt the same about him. Both secretly believed that the other was a loser. But then along came Madison nine months later, as babies tend to do, and the arduous ordeal of shared custody began. This year it was Nathan's turn to "get" Madison for Christmas.

Thursday night Madison and my sister showed up at our house for the Christmas celebration. Madison's dad was back home nursing a hangover. Or maybe he was doing Ecstasy. My sister wasn't sure.

In a cold and gray town a nurse says "Lay down"
This ain't no playground, and this ain't no home"
Someone's children out having children
In a gray stone building, all alone

From a teenage lover to an unwed mother
Kept undercover like some bad dream
While unwed fathers, they can't be bothered
They run like water through a mountain stream

Madison was shy at first. She didn't know where she was. But she warmed up quickly. She explored our house, and she led my daughter Rachel around by the hand, pointing at the Christmas decorations, laughing, her eyes sparkling with pleasure. There was something magical happening, and I simply sat back and watched; Rachel with Maddy, both delighting in the other's company.

When it was time to leave Madison cried. She didn't want to go. She grabbed Rachel's hand and pulled her toward the door, as if to lead her out to the car.

On a somewhere else bound Smokey Mountain Greyhound
She bows her head down, hummin' lullabies
'Your daddy never meant to hurt you ever'
He just don't live here, but you've got his eyes'

From a teenage lover to an unwed mother
Kept undercover like some bad dream
While unwed fathers, they can't be bothered
They run like water through a mountain stream
-- John Prine, "Unwed Fathers"

Madison's mom is pregnant again. My nephew is not the father, but it doesn't matter. She won't marry this guy either. But she's eligible for more food stamps this way, and you do what you have to do to get ahead. And in a couple more days Madison will head back to the dilapidated house trailer in Appalachia, where there is no employment, and no books, and no money, and no food, and perhaps no running water. But there is electricity, because there is TV. What will happen to this little girl? How can she possibly escape the same fate? I don't know. But sometimes it's difficult to hold on to hope. I've never met Maddy's mother. I don't know what she looks like. But I know my nephew, and I can picture him, even though he's never around anymore. He has a sweet, innocent little daughter, and she's got his eyes.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

What Kind of Government Are We Again?

Re: the secret wiretapping of American citizens:

"The White House's claim, essentially, is this: The president may do whatever he sees fit in order to keep the country safe. For some, those last seven words justify and legitimize the unlimited powergrab of the first eight. But many of us cannot accept the beginning of that sentence -- "the president may do whatever he sees fit" -- regardless of what follows. Those of us who reject that claim call ourselves "Democrats" or "Republicans" -- words that refer to forms of government in which the leaders are accountable to the people and to the rule of law, and therefore may not simply do whatever they see fit.

"This is a different era, a different war," President Bush said in defending his right to be free of all checks and balances. What he means, clearly, is that this new war and new era also requires a new form of government. Democracy and republicanism, he is arguing, are luxuries we can no longer afford in this new era.

The astonishing thing to me is that only "some" oppose this claim." -- Slacktivist

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Gomer Online

You have to read the biblical book of Hosea to get that. But here she is:

Coming soon to a Christian junk/trinket shop near you ...

Monday, December 19, 2005

Shit, Now He's Talking About Merde

I'll cut the crap eventually, but not today. Today I'm thinking about our incessant mouthing of words like "human rights" and "freedom" and "democracy," and the "legal" wiretapping of American phone lines, and the white phosphorus that may or may not have been used to melt the skin of Iraqi civilians during the battle for Falluja, and the torture of war prisoners that we would never do, okay, yeah, we did, but which we'll never do again. This is one of my favorite quotes, but you should read the entire novel:

"Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies - my only talent - smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall - on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing left to do but fall prey to desire." -- Walker Percy, from The Moviegoer

The Lion, the Witch, and Beef Carpaccio

Yesterday Kate and I celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. Twenty-three years ago this dark-haired babe and this slender (well, as slender as it ever got, given those genes) dude stood before God and man and woman and toddlers and promised to love, honor, and serve one another. Twenty-three years later this silver-haired babe and this balding fat guy worshiped in a church where some of those toddlers are now all grown up, and raising toddlers of their own. It's a different church, with a few more churches in between, and with a lot of joy and sorrow woven throughout. I married Kate for many reasons (the dark-haired babe factor being somewhat prominent), but mainly because she was my best friend. She still is. I hate the term "soul mate." It conjures up images of New Agers and newspaper ads for singles. But I love her beauty and her compassion and her wisdom. She's not the same person she was 23 years ago. Neither am I. But I like to think, and I'm fairly certain that it's true, that if I'm a better person, it's mostly because of her. I tried for a while to get married, went through a succession of girlfriends, and one broken engagement. And I married the right person. I like to think, and I'm fairly certain that it's true, that if that's the case, it's because of God, who knew me better than I knew myself.

We went to see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe after church. I enjoyed it, although not as much as I'd hoped. I know this story very well, and the movie was actually very faithful to C.S. Lewis' book. Certainly it was better than any of the other film adaptations of the story I've seen (there was a particularly painful PBS version from about ten years ago). But I found myself making comparisons to The Lord of the Rings trilogy throughout, and TLOTR was superior in every way. Battle scenes with no blood? Please. Perhaps because it's a story intended for small children, but I found the story itself to be antiseptic and shallow and about as a subtle as a sledgehammer. The Aslan/Christ parallels are blindingly obvious. And they are in the book as well, of course. In any event, I found myself longing for deeper, more complex characters. But that would have meant a different story, I suppose. I read The Chronicles of Narnia for the first time as an adult, and I had the same complaint. Perhaps I just came to this story too late in life.

Afterwards we headed to Lindey's in German Village. It was snowing. The luminaries were lit. There was a brass band playing Christmas carols on a street corner, and a street vendor roasting chestnuts out in front of the restaurant. It was all quaintly Victorian in the best faux-Dickens sense. God bless us every one. The meal was fabulous, and included Beef Carpaccio -- raw beef with shaved Parmesan cheese and Portobello mushrooms. Mmmm. The carnivore in me still wasn't sated, however, so I went for the New York Strip Steak, while Kate opted for scallops. All in all, it was a great day. And it's a wonderful life. Really. In spite of my depression, it really is.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Favorite Albums of 2005

Is it too early? I say No. We're in the down time when no decent artist or band releases an album. So I'm going to go out on a limb and proclaim that 2005 is unofficially over, and that these are my favorite albums that have been released this year.

The Top 10 (in no particular order)

Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois
There's not much I can say about Sufjan's music that hasn't been said a thousand times. But I will say this: he sounds like no one but himself. I've been avidly following popular music for more than forty years. And during that time, it's amazing how frequently "the next new thing" sounds remarkably like something you've already heard five or ten or fifty times already. But Sufjan's basic building blocks -- banjo, the '70s sensitive folkie vibe, '60s Girl Group/Greek Chorus background singers, trumpet and trombone, and the orchestral minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich -- are utterly wild and unpredictable, and he's managed to do something I didn't think anyone could do anymore: he's truly made new music. I didn't rank these albums. But you can go ahead and call this one my favorite album of 2005.

Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell -- Begonias
Country duet singing at its best. Much of the genre is schlock; pure, unadulterated cornpone. This is the real deal, with intelligent songwriting, heartbreaking harmonies, and echoes of Sts. Gram and Emmylou everywhere.

The New Pornographers -- Twin Cinema
Intelligent, quirky power pop. Carl (A.C.) Newman can write superb pop melodies, and although he borrows liberally from every great band from the British Invasion through the New Wave, he still manages to stamp his own identity on these songs. Just when you're ready to play Spot the Influences, he throws a curve ball. Neko Case is the secret weapon, a great singer in her own right who fits in perfectly with this band.

Sigur Ros -- Takk
Pretentious and precious? Sure. But breathtakingly beautiful. There are probably a hundred critical reasons not to like this album, and for anyone who remembers the carnage wrought by Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, 10-minute nonsensical songs are a good starting place. But then I play the album, and all is forgiven. I have to take my Icelandic knit hat off to any band that so unabashedly pursues beauty. And finds it.

Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane -- Live at Carnegie Hall
Jazz fans, let's fantasize for a moment. Let's imagine that the impossible actually existed, that sitting at the bottom of, say, an unmarked box at the Library of Congress, unnoticed for almost 50 years, was a 1957 concert tape featuring Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Let's suppose that the recording was pristine, an impossibility given the ancient recording technology of the time. Let's imagine that Coltrane ripped off a few jaw-dropping solos, and that Monk was at his playful and eccentric best. And let's imagine that this went for about an hour, instead of the three measly studio tracks with which we've been left. And then let's say it all came true.

Congotronics -- Konono #1
I know nothing about Congolese music, wouldn't know a virtuoso likembe (thumb piano) performance from a pedestrian one. But I know a wall of sound when I hear one, and I know that when three likembes are playing through a stack of Marshall amps, it sounds something like Jimi Hendrix in an alternative universe, and that those percussive grooves are enough to get this middle-aged soul off his sorry butt and engaging in what he likes to fondly think of as "dance." But don't tell the wife and kids.

The Clientele -- Strange Geometry
Literate Brit folk rock for a rainy day. There's a bit of the dreamy shoegazer sound of Ride and Slowdive here, some Nick Drake folkie melancholia, the baroque pop psychedelia of The Left Banke and "Eleanor Rigby." Marry that to a lead singer/songwriter who is clearly enamored with Wordsworth and Byron and Keats and you've got one hopelessly romantic musical venture, all dappled sunlight and memories of idyllic youth and present-day heartbreak, alas. But it sure is pretty.

The Decemberists -- Picaresque
Literate Brit folk rock (by way of Portland, Oregon) for librarians and medieval scholars. Colin Meloy writes about obscure Portuguese royalty (“The Infanta”), injured soccer stars (“The Sporting Life”), and somehow incredibly and plausibly compares the U.S. military presence in Iraq to an Academy Awards Oscar ceremony, all while using 4-syllable Ivy League words (okay, mostly three syllables, but where else are you going to hum along with “palanquin,” “rhapsodical,” and “chapparal”?). It’s all delivered in a baroque musical confection that features progressive rock, accordions, and jangly REM guitars, resulting in full-fledged and inestimably beneficent Nerd Rock. I give it a 90. It’s also got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Al Green -- Everything's OK
Al’s 2003 comeback album I Can’t Stop turned out to be just the warm-up. Better in every way than its predecessor, Everything’s OK finds Al in early ‘70s form, pleading, cajoling, and soaring off into that impossibly great falsetto, all the while mixing his earthly and heavenly love metaphors to tremendous effect. This is soul music in all the best senses of the term, and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better.

The Deadstring Brothers -- Starving Winter Report
Loud, sloppy rock ‘n roll influenced by The Rolling Stones of Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers, a lead singer who has the Mick mannerisms down pat, and propelled by equal doses of slide guitar and pedal steel.

Honorable Mention

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah -- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
The Pernice Brothers -- Discover a Lovelier You
John Francis -- Strong Wine and Spirits
Danny Cohen -- We're All Gunna Die
Van Morrison -- Magic Time
Bob Dylan -- The Bootleg Series Vol. 7 -- No Direction Home Soundtrack
Kate Bush -- Aerial
Brad Mehldau -- Day is Done
Jose Gonzalez -- Veneer
Bettye LaVette -- I've Got My Own Hell to Raise

Biggest Disappointments (or perhaps simply Most Hyped/Overrated)

Coldplay -- X&Y
Bruce Springsteen -- Devils and Dust
Jamie Cullum -- Catching Tales
Death Cab for Cutie -- Plans
Franz Ferdinand -- You Could Have It So Much Better

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Santa Claus is Back in Town

I like traditional Christmas carols. Really I do. But my favorite Christmas song is an old Lieber and Stoller tune made famous by Elvis Presley in 1956, back when he was still swivelling his hips and inciting the little bobby soxer hormones. No peace on earth or mercy mild about that boy.

To do it right, you have to curl your lip and sneer. For some reason, we never sing this in church.

Well it's Christmastime pretty baby
The snow is fallin' on the ground
Yeah, it's Christmastime pretty baby
The snow is fallin' on the ground
Well you be a real good little baby
Santa Claus is back in town

Got no sleigh with reindeer
No sack on my back
You gonna see me comin'
In a big black Cadillac

Hoah it's Christmastime pretty baby
The snow is fallin' on the ground, hmmmmm
Yeah you be a real good little baby
Santa Claus is back in town, yeah

Hang up your pretty stockings
Put out the light
Santa Claus is comin'
Down your chimney tonight

Hoah it's Christmastime pretty baby
The snow is fallin' on the ground, hmmmm
Yeah, you be a real good little baby
Santa Claus is back in town
Yeah, I said you be a real good little baby
Santa Claus is back in town, yeah, oooh

Yeah. Oooh.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


I am depressed. It’s not a seasonal thing. It’s a life thing, possibly a lifelong thing. The outward circumstances are good on all fronts, and there is no objective reason to feel like I’m standing at the edge of a yawning abyss. But I do. And so I think it’s time to see the doctor again. He will probably prescribe what he has in the past – good ol’ Welbutrin, the little purple pill with the smiley face on it. I don’t like taking little purple pills every day, and I’ve tried to avoid them for a while now, but I am coming to the conclusion that waking up crying at 3:30 in the morning is probably not a normal thing. Or crying at work, which can be embarrassing, particularly when one sits in the midst of stoic computer programmers. Got a problem? Let’s work out a problem-solving algorithm. No, on second thought, let’s reprogram your brain, Mr. Spock, so that you can at least act like the emotive part of your being doesn’t operate based on 0s and 1s. I may be dealing with some latent hostility in addition to depression.

This morning I awoke from a dream at 3:30 a.m. In the dream, Kate and I were shopping together (this is one of the many ways I can distinguish dreams from reality). We were at a mall – The Easton Towne Center, maybe, home of Ye Olde Upper Middle Classe, or perhaps Polaris Fashion Place. In any event, it was one of those places where I feel profoundly uncomfortable and cynical, ready to make snarky comments about the walking mannequins and the dummies with wallets. And we encountered Kate’s former college roommate Molly.

Molly has not been a part of our lives for a long time. She and her husband were close friends for a while, but a messy divorce, and alienated kids, and a remarriage, and too many miles and too many years ended all that. We haven’t seen her or heard from her in more than a decade. But there she was, in my dream, arm in her arm with her new husband, walking through the mall. We greeted her. She looked at us. She recognized us. And she walked on without saying a word. Then I woke up crying.

You Freudians and Jungians can have a field day with that one. But here’s what was most disturbing. It got worse after I woke up. It was full-on existential dread. For you non-philosophers, imagine the sense of general well-being that usually permeates your day-to-day existence – your family, your friends, your health, your career, your accomplishments, whatever it is that provides that general coping/hanging-in-there equilibrium– and then imagine somebody turning on the Soul Vacuum and sucking that right out of you. Or maybe it was just this:

“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:19-23)

No shit, St. Sherlock. Paul. Whoever. But I sure get that “groaning inwardly” part. It’s the sucker punch that comes when you are fifty years old and it’s 4:00 in the morning, and you are wide awake, staring at the ceiling, contemplating the wasted years, the endless unnumbered days that now are numbered, the countless times spent bored, high, disengaged, whatever it was that made you not fully present in the moment. And now you find that the moments cannot be recaptured, that there are whole sections of your life that are walled off from the present. But you can still see the trail of ghosts, unreachable, but all too recognizable. And you find that the older you get the longer the trail stretches – best men and ushers at your wedding, ex-friends and former lovers, people with whom you swore your commitment and your passion and your undying allegiance; now moved on or dead, the victims of too many miles and too many years or simple rigor mortis, relationships that were one-of-a-kind gems reduced to a yearly exchange of generic Christmas cards, or nothing at all -- all, every one of them, residents of the Kingdom of Gone.

This is why I am depressed. Nothing lasts. You invest in the good stuff – not stuff at all, it turns out, but people – and still nothing lasts.

“For in this hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:24) Damn you, St. Sherlock, you better be right. I’ve placed all the chips on that statement, let it ride on that one big lucky number. The hope of eternal life, the shaky bet that this world is not the end, that all of the lost relationships will be found, or will be caught up in something, someone, so big and so loving that they will seem irrelevant. Because they don’t seem irrelevant now. They hold the shape and form of those I have loved, but they are holes, empty air. I look and I know those shapes. But there is nothing there.

Poetry Slam II

I’ve been reading Louise’s blog (which is great, by the way), and I came across a statement that I think captures some of the ambivalence and frustration I experienced when listening to Tone’s last poem on Friday night. Louise said:

“There was a time, way back in MFA-land, when I thought I was the only female poet who had not been abused as a child. All these healthy-looking, functioning adults and not a single one of them had loving parent(s)? Wow. And so it began, my experience with female poets who feel

a) if something bad happened to them, they had to write about it
b) they needed to shock with their poem
c) they will get a "better" (read less critical) response with heavy stuff -- the abuse, the rape, the abortion, etc.

I remember sitting there, smallest person in the room in all senses, trying to make out what to say to a woman who just bared her soul about her child abuse in what was at best a mediocre poem. My inner voice said to me: I hate this.

I also remember starting to feel as if I had to write about the crappiest crap in my life just to be validated. This feeling warred with not wanting to be pegged to that topic.

Now, when I'm in poetry-slam-and-spoken-word-land, I see this kind of female poet exists here too. (Not all, mind you, the best of us seem to have range.) I see them get sympathy points in the same events where good poems get real and really earned points. And it really does seem to be a problem for women poets more than men. (Men have their own problems.)
And to those who think their i-hate-you-daddy poem is original, it was Sylvia Plath who first said:
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through. - written and published in 1962"


First, I’m sorry for anyone who has suffered abuse.

Second, beyond that, I’m not sure what else there is to say. Abuse is obviously traumatic and scarring. I don’t want to downplay that at all. And to the extent that I can know someone in that situation and call them friend, then I want to be supportive. I surely don’t have the magic words to fix any of it, but I will listen, enter in to that person’s pain, and try to be there for that person. That’s what friends do.

But here’s what I wanted to say to Tone: Everybody has his or her story to tell. And it’s okay to tell it through art, but please realize that your story, whatever it is, doesn’t make you much different from anyone else. You are not the most wretched, suffering person on the planet. Of if you are, then so is everybody else. Dysfunction is the norm. I hate to say it, but your traumas and your private hells are both uniquely yours and something you share with just about everyone. So go ahead and share about them. Write about them. But don’t play your traumas as an artistic trump card, don’t play Can U Top This in the Sympathy Sweepstakes, because I’m going to claim that if you do then you’re being cheap and tawdry and ultimately demeaning to your art. It’s confrontational melodrama, but it’s melodrama just the same. And it stinks, not because it’s not real or important, but because it’s bad art, and you’re trying to pawn yourself off as an artist.

There is a fine line here, and I’m not at all saying that art can’t engage social issues. Some of my favorite art does just that. But it is a matter of, umm, Tone. Bob Dylan and Public Enemy write great social protest songs. Steve Earle tries, but then claims that Condoleeza Rice’s problem is that she’s so uptight because she’s not getting anything in bed. One is challenging and uplifting; the other is merely idiotically distasteful and misogynistic. Can you guess which side I think rants about Ritalin and Mountain Dew fall on?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Poetry Slam

The Poetry Slam at the Columbus Music Hall Friday night was pretty great – a lot of attitude, some very nice piano jazz trio accompaniment, and the occasional worthwhile poem. :-)

For those who may not be familiar with the concept, a Poetry Slam is competitive poetry; a combination of T.S. Eliot, performance art, and women’s figure skating judging. Poets recite/perform their poetry, the crowd hoots and hollers at every apt simile, hint of enjambment, end-stop, and iambic foot (or maybe at just what they think is funny), and five judges rate the results on flash cards, using marks ranging from 1 – 10. The highest-ranked poets (four on Friday night) go on to a second round, and the poet with the most points at the end of the night actually ends up with some cash. There’s a definite performance element to this, although it wasn’t clear to me just how much weight was given to the actual poetry vs. the performance of the poetry. My guess is that performance rates higher, given the quality of some of the poetry that made it through to the second round (hi, Jeff! I love you, guy, but enough of the iambic duometer – Birds sing/Phones ring/Bells chime/Poets rhyme). In any event, this was as far from a stuffy “poetry reading” as you can imagine, with the poets exhibiting a flair for the dramatic, and an attitude informed more by hip-hop than by the literary salon. It was, in fact, a lot of fun.

The poetry? A definite mixed bag. There were people who were certainly poets there, and good ones at that. I was particularly impressed by Louise, who performed a poem called “Adopted People” that was real and full of pain and beauty, and Scott, a wise and funny guy (not the same as a wiseguy, for what it’s worth) who ended up winning the competition. Both made it to the second round. So there is some justice in the world. But I have to say that I found some of the judging rather curious. Jeff, I love you, but there is absolutely no way you should have made it to the second round, even with the brilliant kitsch of “Nadia’s Theme” as the musical accompaniment behind you. One “poet” did an improvisational rant about all the Oppressive White Folks who are apparently responsible for dubious cultural detritus such as Ritalin and Mountain Dew. It’s a race thing, or maybe ageism/handicapism, I thought, remembering the Mountain Dew I had to drink at lunch on Friday. Maybe they’re out to kill all the black folks and the middle-aged white balding men with hearing aids. Sigh. Social commentary is great, protest is great, and some of my favorite poetry and music deals with highly charged issues, but I’m still amazed, and not in a good way, by ill-prepared people who incoherently rail against Yellow Dye #5 in Mountain Dew, claim that it’s all part of a dastardly conspiracy to keep the black man down, and then want to pawn it off as poetry. Please. I’ll take iambic duometer over that. No matter what color the skin/Or what shape you’re in/Simple rhyme or deluxe/Racism sucks.

But that was an aberration. I loved the idea that people got together and read and listened to poetry. I loved the jazz accompaniment. I loved the fact that a lot of people turned out. I loved Shaun Barber, Emcee Deluxe, who did not suck. And I look forward to doing it again, soon. Many thanks to Dan Thress and Shaun Barber for organizing the event.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Have a Sufjan Christmas

Right here:

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Kate Bush -- Aerial

A new review for Paste Magazine ...

Kate Bush
Columbia Records
4 Stars

Reclusive Pop Stars Returns with Lovely, Mysterious Odes to Domestic Bliss

For an industry obsessed with shameless self-promotion, rock ‘n roll certainly loves its hermits. From Brian Wilson to Syd Barrett, Bill Haley to Phil Spector, the music world is filled with former stars who have left it all behind and slammed the door, loudly and firmly, on fame and notoriety. And, truth be told, we delight in every furtive movement we can detect from the shadows.

Enter, quite belatedly, noted recluse Kate Bush, the pop thrush last heard on 1993’s The Red Shoes. In itself, the twelve-year absence is enough to warrant careful scrutiny. But when an artist is as eccentric and talented as Kate Bush, the speculation is bound to be juicy. Why the long absence? Maybe she was mad as a hatter. Or maybe she was dying, slowly and painfully. She was, it turns out, having babies and staying home to do the laundry. And on her new double album Aerial she provides ample evidence of why domestic life is rich with subtle meanings and strange pleasures.

The first CD, subtitled A Sea of Honey, is typical atypical Bush art pop, no song like any other, a heady mixture of gurgling synths and melancholy piano balladry, Renaissance lutes, violas, and harpsichords, and massive pop hooks supporting the most whimsical and esoteric subject matter imaginable. Album opener and first single “King of the Mountain” is by far the most conventional song here, if “conventional” can encompass an unsettling rumination on Elvis, Citizen Kane, and the claustrophobic cost of fame. But “Pi,”a gorgeous hymn-like tribute to, you guessed it, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, is as cockeyed as it sounds, and finds Kate lovingly singing the first twenty-five or thirty digits of everyone’s favorite infinite number. Then it gets stranger. The beautiful piano ballad “Mrs. Bartolozzi” is an ode to domestic bliss, specifically a washing machine. Never has a spin cycle sounded so erotic ("my blouse wrapping itself around your trousers”). And never has such an erotic song descended into such nursery rhyme tomfoolery ("Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy/Get that dirty shirty clean"). It’s lovely, bonkers, and an amazingly effective love song. And the cheerfully cracked housewife motif continues. On “How to Be Invisible” Kate addresses her extended absence and good-naturedly tweaks the rabid fanbase that delights in her Mad Witch persona: “Hem of anorak, stem of wallflower, hair of doormat," she sings, and domesticity never sounded so good or so enchanting.

The second CD, subtitled A Sky of Honey, is a 42-minute tone poem that owes as much to Ralph Vaughan Williams and birdsong as it does to pop and rock music. Loosely framed by assorted bird calls (some imitated by Kate over the course of the suite), Kate sings about an ordinary day by the English seashore. The sun rises, birds sing some more, Kate watches a seaside painter at work, watches the sun set, goes for a moonlight swim, and watches the sun rise again. Sweeping orchestral passages link the songs, synths wash in and out like the waves, and it’s all moody, contemplative bliss, a lovely, pastoral ode to the wonders of nature.

Not all of it works. On the otherwise lovely harpsichord madrigal “Bertie,” dedicated to her young son, Bush’s lyrics are so saccharinely puerile and cloying that the kid may want to sign up for counseling now and save himself some trouble in the future. The ode to the washing machine grates as well as delights. And the idea of Kate Bush imitating birdsong, in all its lilting, trilling, and cawing varieties, is, at best, a mixed blessing.

But she is who she is, a true original, making music that is audaciously unconventional, willfully iconoclastic, and weirdly beautiful. It’s great to have her back – alive, well, and not altogether right in the head.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Thunder Road

Bruce Springsteen understands the power of myth, and that some myths are archetypally American. And on a song called "Thunder Road" he taps in to one of the great ones -- the power of the open road, horsepower harnessed beneath a hood, Woody Guthrie riding the rails and Jack Kerouac roaming the countryside, James Dean and Marlon Brando in their leather jackets, barrelling down the highway. It is a myth fostered by Detroit and Madison Avenue, but more than that, it is a myth fashioned deep within human hearts. It is a myth that calls out to anyone who has ever been stuck in a dead-end town, working a dead-end job, who has ever experienced that insistent longing for something new, something different, something better. It's a big country, so get in the car and go. Get the hell out of Dodge.

And it is a myth that has been handled badly in countless rock 'n roll songs. But not on "Thunder Road." I love these lyrics, love the slow camera pan that opens the song, the way Springsteen sets the scene cinematically, focuses in on a young woman, or maybe a not-so-young woman, slow dancing to the radio. A young man in a car watches her. Maybe he is James Dean, but probably he is someone far more commonplace and prosaic. And the car is no hot rod; it is just a car, a beat-up Ford or a Chevy with a dirty hood. It is a scene out of normal, average American life. What is not normal is the way two lives come into sharp focus; all the mundane, commonplace moments funneling down to a white-hot point, here, now, interchangeable days and weeks building to this choice on which everything hinges: get in the car, or stay behind; stay on the porch and lead a dull, safe life, or climb in the front seat and risk it all for love.

Rock 'n roll lyrics can rarely stand on their own. Even some of Bob Dylan's best songs look shabby when reduced to print. You need the music to complete them, and Bruce Springsteen's lyrics are no different. So go find the song (it's the opening track on an obscure little album called Born to Run) and listen to it. Failing that, imagine a quiet piano and a voice, insistent and soulful, and imagine that the music builds and builds, layer upon layer, bass, drums, electric guitar entering in succession. Like the car and the open road that beckons, the song picks up speed as it rolls along. And when Springsteen sings those words about rolling down the window and letting the wind blow back your hair, the gas pedal is on the floor, the music is full throttle, and rock 'n roll has never sounded so glorious and so uplifting. It is the pefect marriage of words and sounds.

The screen door slams
Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again

Don’t run back inside
Darling you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking
That maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright
Oh and that’s alright with me

You can hide `neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets
Well now I’m no hero
That’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl
Is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?

Except roll down the window
And let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back
Heaven’s waiting down on the tracks

Oh-oh come take my hand
We're riding out tonight to case the promised land
Oh-oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road, oh Rhunder Road
Lying out there like a killer in the sun
Hey I know it’s late we can make it if we run
Oh Thunder Road, sit tight take hold
Thunder Road

Well I got this guitar
And I learned how to make it talk
And my car’s out back
If you’re ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
The door’s open but the ride it ain’t free
And I know you’re lonely
For words that I ain’t spoken
But tonight we’ll be free
All the promises’ll be broken

There were ghosts in the eyes
Of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they’re gone
On the wind, so Mary climb in
It’s a town full of losers
And I’m pulling out of here to win.
-- Bruce Springsteen, "Thunder Road"

Monday, November 28, 2005

We Can't Make It Here Anymore

Every year my brother-in-law and I spend part of the Thanksgiving holidays playing our favorite music for one another. We put together our Top 15 or 20 albums of the year and play DJ, with an audience of one (sometimes more, but we tend to kick them out, because they want to talk, and we want to listen; damn relatives).

We did it again this year. And this was one of the songs I heard. It's a great song. I listened to it while trying to digest too much food. The irony wasn't lost on me. But even on an empty stomach, there's a lot to digest here. I want to work for justice. I want that justice to be tempered by mercy. And as this song points out, we live in a country where both are in short supply.

Vietnam Vet with a cardboard sign
Sitting there by the left turn line
Flag on the wheelchair flapping in the breeze
One leg missing, both hands free
No one's paying much mind to him
The V.A. budget's stretched so thin
And there's more comin' home from the Mideast war
We can't make it here anymore

That big ol' building was the textile mill
It fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can't make it here anymore

See all those pallets piled up on the loading dock
They're just gonna set there till they rot
'Cause there's nothing to ship, nothing to pack
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks
Empty storefronts around the square
There's a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere
You don't come down here 'less you're looking to score
We can't make it here anymore

The bar's still open but man it's slow
The tip jar's light and the register's low
The bartender don't have much to say
The regular crowd gets thinner each day

Some have maxed out all their credit cards
Some are working two jobs and living in cars
Minimum wage won't pay for a roof, won't pay for a drink
If you gotta have proof just try it yourself Mr. CEO
See how far 5.15 an hour will go
Take a part time job at one of your stores
Bet you can't make it here anymore

High school girl with a bourgeois dream
Just like the pictures in the magazine
She found on the floor of the laundromat
A woman with kids can forget all that
If she comes up pregnant what'll she do
Forget the career, forget about school
Can she live on faith? live on hope?
High on Jesus or hooked on dope
When it's way too late to just say no
You can't make it here anymore

Now I'm stocking shirts in the Wal-Mart store
Just like the ones we made before
'Cept this one came from Singapore
I guess we can't make it here anymore

Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin
Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I'm in
Should I hate 'em for having our jobs today
No I hate the men sent the jobs away
I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily white and squeaky clean
They've never known want, they'll never know need
Their shit don't stink and their kids won't bleed
Their kids won't bleed in their damn little war
And we can't make it here anymore

Will work for food
Will die for oil
Will kill for power and to us the spoils
The billionaires get to pay less tax
The working poor get to fall through the cracks
Let 'em eat jellybeans let 'em eat cake
Let 'em eat shit, whatever it takes
They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps
If they can't make it here anymore

And that's how it is
That's what we got
If the president wants to admit it or not
You can read it in the paper
Read it on the wall
Hear it on the wind
If you're listening at all
Get out of that limo
Look us in the eye
Call us on the cell phone
Tell us all why

In Dayton, Ohio
Or Portland, Maine
Or a cotton gin out on the great high plains
That's done closed down along with the school
And the hospital and the swimming pool
Dust devils dance in the noonday heat
There's rats in the alley
And trash in the street
Gang graffiti on a boxcar door
We can't make it here anymore
-- James McMurtry, "We Can't Make It Here"

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Chris Whitley

I heard sad news earlier today that singer/songwriter and guitarist Chris Whitley died over the weekend. To put it mildly, Whitley lived hard. I expected him to die a lot sooner than he did, but I'm still startled and dismayed when I realize that it’s actually happened.

Chris Whitley wasn't exactly a household name, but I loved his music, followed his career through a few ups and a lot of downs, and was consistently impressed by his ability to re-invent himself and his sound. He never stood still long enough to attract a dedicated following, and that was both his greatest talent and his curse.

His 1991 debut album Living With the Law was a mindblower, a creepy, dark, atmospheric collection of songs produced by Daniel Lanois that was part Delta blues, part alternative rock, and all endlessly creative, mixing Robert Johnson and U2 and snippets of ranting televangelists and radio static. For a collection so willfully weird and difficult, it amazingly spawned a couple of minor FM radio hits in “Poison Girl” and “Big Sky Country” and earned Whitley a Grammy nomination.

But that was the commercial pinnacle. Whitley waited four years to deliver a followup album, struggled with sundry addiction issues, and eventually emerged with Din of Ecstasy, a curious grunge/blues concoction that alienated his old blues and roots music fans with its dissonant electric guitar feedback, and failed to win new fans of the grunge revolution. It was a critical and commercial flop.

But oh, what an album. "Love" probably isn't the right word for an album that was grisly, stark, angry, profane, and at times intensely harrowing. But Din of Ecstasy may be the most charged album in my rather large collection, a seething tug of war between the forces of death, numbness, and escape, and a life-affirming desire to matter, to make a difference, to retain one’s humanity. It is music about addiction, about God, about numbing yourself to make the pain go away, about blaspheming in rage and impotence, and then calling out for help in the midst of misery. Whitley’s guitar work is searing, Jimi Hendrix rockets bursting in air and Eric Clapton blues runs and Kurt Cobain sonic shredding. In short, it is stunning, and it is a loud, abrasive 911 emergency call to the divine.

But it didn’t matter. Nobody bought the album, just as nobody bought the ten albums that followed, all of them distinct, each different from its predecessor, all of them restlessly creative and innovative, weird and wonderful. And now he is gone.

Chris Whitley was an amazingly inventive guitarist, a songwriter of brutal and sometimes beautiful honesty, and, by all accounts, a screwed-up, addicted, mentally unstable, humble, nice guy. He could be a terror, and he could be the sweetest man in the world. I will miss him, and I will miss his music.

Ironically, it wasn't one of the illegal addictions that killed him. It was cigarettes. He was 45 years old.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Listening To ...

The Deadstring Brothers – Starving Winter Report

Imagine Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Gram Parsons in their primes, transplanted to Detroit, laid off from the Ford plant, pissed off and ready to pound longnecks (if not rednecks) at the local saloon, and you’ll have some idea of the emotional weight and sonic power of Starving Winter Report. The Replacements reinvented the Stones in the 1980s, and countless alt-country bands have paid homage at the shrine of St. Gram, but no one has combined The Stones’ bluster and energy and Gram’s cracked-vocal heartache quite as well as The Deadstring Brothers. Detroit native and lead singer/songwriter Kurt Marschke has mastered Jagger’s bluesy swagger on most of these tracks, and does a credible mid-sixties Dylan howl on “Talkin’ Born Blues.” The pedal steel sobs front and center, and the guitars absolutely rip throughout. It’s a short report, but give the band points for economy and brevity. There is no best song here; the whole album is great. It’s loud, loose, ragged, and not far removed from a stomping, beer-swilling masterpiece.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle – The McGarrigle Christmas Hour

Almost the whole dysfunctional Wainwright family -- aunt Anna, mama Kate, siblings Rufus and Martha, but minus papa Loudon (of course) -- shows up on this idiosyncratic Yuletide recording. Kate and Anna still harmonize beautifully after all these years, particularly on the traditional English and French carols that are frontloaded on this set. But things get seriously dark midway through, with the sisters’ fine cover of Jackson Browne’s “Rebel Jesus” (“So I bid you pleasure/And I bid you cheer/From a heathen and a pagan/On the side of the rebel Jesus”), Martha’s despairing “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” Rufus’s mournful Broadway croon on “Spotlight on Christmas,” and the spoken-word “Counting Stars,” which recounts the end of a love affair set amidst holiday gaiety. Emmylou Harris and Beth Orton sit in as family guests, add some fine vocals, and help lift the gloom. Fittingly, longtime McGarrigle collaborator Chaim Tannenbaum concludes the set with Elvis’ “Blue Christmas.” Happy holidays, and hide the knives and razor blades.

John Francis – Strong Wine and Spirits

Philadelphia singer/songwriter John Francis sounds like the reincarnation of Jeff Buckley here, but his soaring tenor cannot hide the malaise at the heart of his music. The songs on this debut album are transparently beautiful, and you’ll marvel at that sublime upper register. But the lyrics tell a different story. “Johnny Cash is Dead” is both a funeral dirge and a promise of hope, while finely realized portraits of urban decay and disconnected lives such as “Mercy for Cities” and “Love in the Fallout Shelter” are disquieting in their intensity and sadness. It’s choirboy despair seasoned with wisdom, poetic vision, and a dash of hope and mercy; music from a young Christian who lives in a broken world, and won’t pretend otherwise. We need more like him. The atmospheric production, a la Daniel Lanois, suits these unsettling songs perfectly.

The Gibson Brothers – Red Letter Day

There is something magical about brotherly bluegrass harmonies. And while Eric and Leigh Gibson don’t quite hit the heights of Ira and Charlie Louvin or Ralph and Carter Stanley, they make a strong case for sibling revelry. These guys sound like they’re having a great time singing together. Red Letter Day mixes well-written originals with bluegrass classics and unlikely covers from wide-ranging sources. It’s mostly straightahead picking and singing in the tradition of Red Allen and Jimmy Martin, but kudos are in order for the adventurous takes on Ray Charles’ early soul standout “I Got a Woman” and The Rolling Stones’ rollicking “I Used to Love Her (But It’s All Over Now)”. The harmonies, as always with a Gibson Brothers album, are the real reason to return. Along with Tim O’Brien’s and Nickel Creek’s new disks, this is as exemplary as bluegrass music has sounded in 2005.

Straitjackets and the Ministry of Death

It's been said before in a book. It's been quoted on blogs. But it's worth posting again, because it's true, and it ought to be shouted from the rooftops, particularly the rooftops of certain Christian music labels.

"When we speak of "God," "truth," "glory," "success," "good life," "humanity," "real," "necessity," or "profit" and believe that we know fully or have, in any way, gotten to the bottom of what we're talking about, we've lost it. Perhaps we might say that it's straitjacket time. It, now and forever, is bigger than we think. It is always more than what we have in mind. I'm grateful for and in dire need of whatever art can keep me awake and alive to the mystery, whatever keeps me paying attention, whatever reminds me that none of us (and no ideology) are possessors of the final say. Art that doesn't bear witness to the opaque, the mysterious, or even allow any ambiguity is propaganda at best and, at worst, a ministry of death, an exercise in sentimentalizing, self-congratulatory delusion." -- David Dark, Everyday Apocalypse

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run at 30

A new article for Paste Magazine ...

Bruce Springsteen’s album Born to Run changed my life. I know. It’s the kind of claim that hyperventilating music journalists make all too frequently, and Born to Run may have been the object of more fawning critical adulation than any other rock album. But it’s true. I can’t help it if all the ‘70s hipsters at Rolling Stone got it right too.

I was twenty years old when Born to Run was released in November of 1975, pondering what to do with my impending, useless Creative Writing degree, utterly clueless about what to do with my life, but full of passion and energy and general piss and malaise. Nixon was a crook and Ford wasn't much better, progressive rockers and sixties hippie dinosaurs were ruining everything I cared about in music. I was scared shitless about the future, my girlfriend had dumped me, and the radio sucked.

Into that swirling vortex strode Bruce Springsteen, a scruffy kid from the Jersey Shore who sang about chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected hotrods and gang warfare and redemption beneath a dirty hood. I was a middle-class Midwestern kid from the suburbs with a rusting ’68 Ford Fairlane, but it still made perfect sense to me. I knew nothing about the mean streets of Jersey, but I already knew more than I wanted to know about towns that rip the bones from your back and life as a death trap and a suicide rap, and I understood all too well that longing to be somebody, to make my mark, to push through the mediocrity and the spoken and unspoken expectations and live life to the fullest, like I was born to run, ready to head off down Thunder Road at a moment’s notice and never look back. Mary would have to wait. Hell, I was ready to climb into the front seat of that car myself if Bruce would settle for me. Springsteen’s music connected in ways that went deep down, made me feel desperate and more alive than I’d ever felt, and I wanted to tell him about it.

Amazingly, I got my opportunity. And in the annals of Great Celebrity Encounters it was a certified bust. In the spring of 1976 Bruce Springsteen came to Athens, Ohio and played an impossibly great, sweaty, three-hour concert at Ohio University that just about convinced me that I was not alone in the universe, and that if rock 'n roll was no substitute for divine revelation, then it was at least damn close. After the concert, my ears still ringing and my heart still pounding, I wandered to the bagel buggy, a popular late night haunt in Athens. Somebody jostled me from behind. I turned around, saw Bruce Springsteen, and knew that my shining moment was at hand.

“Great show, Bruce,” I said.

“Thanks, man,” he said. And then he was gone. So much for fawning adulation.

And now thirty years have passed. I’ve hung with Bruce for the duration, heard his music change, watched his metamorphosis into folkie troubadour, witnessed the breakup and re-formation of the E Street Band, that marvelously well-oiled musical machine that propelled his greatest songs. The songs a man sings in his twenties can sound ridiculous when sung by a man in his fifties, and Bruce seems to know this intuitively, tinkering under the hood with “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” and transforming them from full-bore, passionate rockers into pensive, haunting memories. When a man hits his fifties he’s seen a lot of ghosts, and some of them are bound to be named Mary and Wendy and Terry.

The lavish, 30th Anniversary re-packaging of Born to Run is the Holy Grail for longtime Springsteen fans – a cleaned-up, remastered album that still retains that marvelous wall of sound, a DVD full of reminiscences and behind-the-scenes footage, and, best of all, a complete concert circa 1975, a scruffy Bruce playing the wondrous songs of his youth as if his very life was hanging in the balance, looking just like he did in Athens, Ohio.

I wanted it, wanted it badly, but it turned out I had to wait for it, just as I’ve had to wait for every good thing in my life, and couldn’t find it by simply getting in the car and driving to a new destination. I went to two music stores the day the Anniversary edition was released, only to find that both stores had already sold out by the time I arrived. Apparently there are other Bruce fans out there, and some of them appear to care intensely too. And so I went the complacent middle-aged route and ordered it online. But it arrived, and it reminded me again of desperation and faith and the youthful passion that still smolders. I returned from my search empty-handed. But on my way back to work, returning to the jungleland of corporate cubicles, I rolled down the window of my decidedly suburban minivan and let the wind blow back my thinning hair, for old time's sake.

Monday, November 14, 2005

How I Handled Messiah

There is a bad pun there, if you think about it. But it's not worth thinking about too hard.

I attended and spoke at a conference this past weekend called Faith and Popular Culture at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, right up the road from Gettysburg. It was a wonderful conference. Thanks to Jeff Rioux and all the Messiah College staff and students who made it possible. I hate logistics, and I can imagine that the logistical nightmares come in terrifying waves when planning something like this. But the conference came off without a hitch, no doubt because of all the hard work that went on behind the scenes. If you ever read this, thanks, folks.

I find that I always emerge from events like these both totally exhausted and totally invigorated; exhausted from trying to survive on four hours of sleep for the entire weekend, invigorated by the exchange of ideas and by the music I hear. The conference at Messiah was no exception. There were many highlights.

Steve Turner, the keynote speaker, author of books on Johnny Cash, Marvin Gaye, and Jack Kerouac, and journalist friend to the stars, was a warm and thoughtful man who helped me hear parts of U2’s Atomic Bomb album in new ways, and who regaled us with stories of rock star dinners with Bono and T-Bone Burnett. One such story: over dinner, Steve recommends that Bono read a book about the miner’s strike in England in the early 1980s. Bono does, and writes a song about it called “Red Hill Mining Town” that later appears on The Joshua Tree. Every rock journalist entertains these kinds of fantasies (here’s mine: Hey Sufjan, ever heard of a slim little volume of poetry by T.S. Eliot called Four Quartets?), and it’s nice to know that occasionally they come true. Steve is a prime example of a Christian involved in the popular arts who is making a difference in his field.

David Dark, one of the workshop speakers I heard, is a very bright man with a gift for synthesizing seemingly unrelated strands of popular culture and finding the common apocalyptic (in the sense of revelation, not Rapture and Armageddon) warp and weft in the cultural tapestry. Some of his favorites will be familiar to many Christians (Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare). Others will be surprising and perhaps shocking (Radiohead, Beck, The Simpsons). I love and heartily recommend David’s book Everyday Apocalypse, and was again struck by the way he brings to life the radical nature of Jesus’ message, a message that continues to startle and disturb and bring life and light to a dying, dark world.

My own workshop went well. I think; I’m probably too close to it to judge objectively. But nobody stormed out of the room, nobody slept, and as best I could tell people were listening and engaged. I talked and played some music, and then we all discussed the ideas well past the time when the workshop was supposed to end. I certainly learn from these experiences. I hope others do as well.

I also heard some wonderful music. Sam Ashworth’s songs are crafted so well, and I delighted in just sitting back and taking in standard verse-verse-chorus pop songs about love for the billionth time, and still finding something that yielded palpable pleasure and joy. It’s hard to improve upon a catchy melody and a hook-filled chorus. John Francis, a Philadelphia musician with whom I was not familiar, and Sarah Masen, a musician whose work I know and admire, both struck paydirt with their sets; Francis with his eerie, haunting cover of John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son,” and Masen with her re-working of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” For my generation these songs are absolutely iconic, and the immediate barrier that arises is that I can hear Fogerty and Dylan in my head the second somebody strums the opening chords to the songs. But both Francis and Masen overcame the familiarity factor by re-inventing these songs and finding something vital and fresh in music that, for me, approaches Hoary Standard territory. Wilco drummer Glenn Kotsche turned out to be a wildly inventive percussionist who employed an international array of rhythmic devices and tape loops to create ever-evolving soundscapes. Very good stuff.

And I relent and repent in sackcloth and ashes. I’ve dissed Jeff Tweedy a bit on some of the Internet music forums, mainly because I don’t think he’s worthy of the fawning acclaim that seems to accompany his every move. But Saturday night, during his stripped-down solo acoustic set, I rediscovered the pleasure of Wilco’s songs as songs. Not all of them work for me, and I still wince at some of the lyrics (not because of perceived blasphemy, but because I believe he thinks he’s more of a poet than I do). But I appreciated the breadth of his set (he covered everything from early Uncle Tupelo tunes to most of the album A Ghost is Born), and I was able to hear how clearly his song structures follow the Dylan template laid out lo these many years ago. He’s working within a tradition I understand. I do wish he’d abandon the fifteen-minute humming amplifier tradition, although, to be fair, we didn’t hear that Saturday night.

I also need to mention the great time I had traveling to and from the conference. Fourteen hours in a car isn’t usually a recipe for good times, but in this case I was accompanied by my brother-in-law Bill McCune and by my friends Dan and Annie Thress from my church in Columbus. We had a wonderful ongoing discussion about the role of art in the church and in the life of the Christian. For a while we also played a strange, exotic game of Name That Tune involving New Orleans jazz and R&B musicians. This is Trivial Pursuit carried to its most esoteric extreme, but some of us like this stuff, and a great time was had by all in the minivan.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

For All the Saints

When I was growing up in the Catholic Church, November 1st was a Holy Day. All Saints Day, they called it. Aside from the obligatory Mass I had to attend, that also meant that it was a big deal. It was a day to stop, to consciously take time out of our busy lives to remember, to pray for, to be thankful for, all the saints who have gone before us.

Now I don’t celebrate Holy Days. I don’t go to Mass. So this will have to do for my feeble attempt at recapturing something that is still important.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” The Catholics really understand this “great cloud of witnesses” idea. So do the Orthodox. We Protestants usually miss it, and tend to think that the Church begins and ends with our own noses. But it does not. It has existed now for 2,000 years, 100 generations of Christians who have gone before us and shown us how to live life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

It’s not my business or my place to determine sainthood. But sometimes it shines forth, as it is apt to do, and I think it’s okay to recognize it when you see it. Here are some of the saints I’ve known, and who have gone before me:

  • Jewel Dunavant, my grandmother, a poor, uneducated woman who knew no theology, but who knew Jesus, who loved her children and her grandchildren, and who prayed for them every day.
  • Sarah Scott, four years old, who had Down’s Syndrome, and who taught me more about unconditional love than anyone else I’ve ever known.
  • Jeff Trefney, my college friend, who had a heart condition, and who always told people that he wasn’t going to live long, but that he was going to live all out for Jesus. He didn’t, and he did.
  • My uncle Frank, a reformed alcoholic, who prayed every day and who dearly loved his wife and kids until Alzheimer’s slowly eroded his memory. Jesus knew his name when he couldn’t remember it himself.
  • Sue Elliott, my college friend, who married my dormitory buddy Doug, and who sat patiently in a dorm room for night after night, listened to me rage against Christians and Christianity, and who did nothing but pour out upon me love and kindness. She was a great mom, and left behind two teenaged kids and my grieving former dormitory buddy when she died of cancer a few years ago.
  • Carroll Krupp, my father-in-law, who couldn’t verbally express love to save his life, but who made up for it by simply loving, day after day, year after year. He mostly made things, best of all a functional family who love one another, and who know how to express that.
  • Clarence Tittle, an old man who praised God as he was dying of cancer, and who told me that there was no time for cynicism, no matter how fashionable it might seem, and that life was too important to be lived half-heartedly, that every single moment was important and precious.
  • Leonard Helser, a staunch, upright Presbyterian, who in his eighties hobbled with his cane through the ice and snow to our house so that he could meet us and welcome us to a church when no one else did so, and who told us that it was more important to love and follow Jesus than it was to be a Presbyterian.
  • Mike Williams, who had a red sports car and a beautiful wife, and who died too young of a brain tumor, and who finally figured out what was really important.

On All Saints Day we used to sing this hymn:

For all the saints, who from their labor rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, alleluia!

It is a truth that I would do well to remember.

Every so often somebody tells me that they think the Church is dying. “You’re too late,” I tell them. “A hundred generations too late. The Church can never die.”

These were ordinary people, these saints. They didn’t have haloes, and they might be astonished to see their names on a roll call of the holy. But today I remember them, and I’m thankful for them. I can pick out their faces from that cloud of witnesses. Some of them ran with perseverance, and some of them ran a sprint, and some of them hobbled across the finish line. They’re all resting from their labors now. Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet on it. I’d bet that they’re worshipping, that they are in a place where red sports cars simply don’t matter, where Down’s Syndrome and cancer and heart conditions are swept away like inconsequential crumbs from underneath the banquet table, where their tongues have been loosed and they know how to express love. I thank God for them.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Joe Henry and the Soundtrack to Addiction

My favorite singer/songwriter these days is a guy with the unassuming name of Joe Henry. He started in the late '80s as an alt-country/rootsy troubadour, and recorded several excellent albums with The Jayhawks as his backing band and with T-Bone Burnett producing. But in the mid-'90s he took a left turn into an atmospheric mix of folk and funk and soul and jazz that defies easy categorization. It's late-night lounge music of a sort, a mix of Sinatra salloon singer and Dylanesque surrealism, but it's way, way off kilter, as if the lounge might exist on one of the outer moons of Saturn. It's eerily beautiful, and always, always, always, just slightly bent. Just when you think he's going to come up with a hummable chorus, he throws in yet another dischordant note. I love his unpredictability.

He's also an amazing lyricist. If Dylan hadn't shown the capacity to occasionally rouse himself and produce great music in his dotage, I'd tell you that he's the logical successor to Dylan. As it is, Joe Henry is brilliant and disturbing, spinning out the stuff of nightmares, but with startling imagery and beautiful insight. Here are the lyrics to two songs about addiction. He doesn't only write about addiction. But if you're going to put together a soundtrack for Addiction: The Movie, I can't think of two better places to start.

Sometimes I think I've almost fooled myself
Sometimes I think I've almost fooled myself--
Spreading out my wings
Above us like a tree,
Laughing now, out loud
Almost like I was free

I look at you as the thing I wanted most
You look at me and it's like you've seen a ghost
I wear the face
Of all this has cost:
Everything you tried to keep away from me,
Everything I took from you and lost

Lights shine above me, they're like your eyes above the street
Lights shine below me, they're like stars beneath my feet
I stood on your shoulders
And I walked on my hands,
You watched me while I tried to fall
You can't bear to watch me land

Take me away, carry me like a dove
Take me away, carry me like a dove
Love me like you're lying
Let me feel you near,
Remember me for trying
And excuse me while I disappear
-- Joe Henry, “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation”

You wild beasts and you creeping things
Get down in your place,
Down with all the absolutes
And God's awful grace.
Who wants to see this coming?
Who wants to think you do?
Better to be blind
when I'm
Falling for you

Go and tell old Pharaoh
His time has come about,
His pretty houseboys laugh and sing
As they're filing out.
They set fire behind them
I see it burning into view,
High upon the mountain
where I'm
Falling for you

All manner of abandon
Is just the thing we need,
Get ready for the country, boys,
The town has gone to seed.
The telephone line is sagging
With word coming through:
Put your head between your knees, I'm
Falling for you

I can quit this anytime,
It's just to help me sleep,
It stops the tiny voices
And strange hours that they keep.
Who wants to hear them bleating on,
And have to answer too?
Better to be dumb
when I'm
Falling for you

So you ladies and you gentlemen--
Pull your bloomers on,
Swing up on the highest beam
And let the floods come on.
Who wants to be there wondering,
When the Wonders rage on through?
Better to say never
when I'm
Falling for you
-- Joe Henry, “Tiny Voices (Falling For You)”

Thursday, October 27, 2005

America's Next Top Muppet

Finally, a reality TV show I can get behind:

This opens up many new intriguing entertainment possibilities:
  • Yoda Millionaire -- Everyone's favorite green furball wines and dines 43 gorgeous babes, whittles down his choices to one Jedi-like mate, yes, then marries her he does in a beautiful double-ring, double-sunset ceremony on Tattoine.
  • Survivor: Felt Factory
  • The Real World: Sesame Street -- Seven normal nubile young adults (two gay, one bi-sexual, one former Miss Condom Awareness, two former frat boys, one puppet) move into a 23.5 million dollar home, copulate, drink themselves silly, learn how to count and spell with the help of the puppet, and call it Real.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Music Mix, Family Values Edition

I am not the only person in my family who listens to music, although I probably have the distinction of playing it the longest and loudest. So here’s a sampling of what’s been playing in my house of late, some of my choosing, some not.

Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge – It’s not Mike Oldfield’s fault that his music will forever be associated with the movie The Exorcist and Linda Blair’s spinning head and projectile vomit. Tubular Bells, the 1973 soundtrack to the movie, has held up remarkably well over the years, and stands on its own as perhaps the first New Age album ever released. But unlike the soporific qualities that the New Age label often suggests, Tubular Bells is consistently complex, involving, and evolving, an exceptional extended composition that mixes elements of folk, rock, and classical minimalism. The tubular bells of the title still ring eerily and majestically. Hergest Ridge, from a year later, is more of the same, slightly more pastoral and contemplative, but no less of an accomplishment for that. Oldfield moved into much more mainstream pop territory in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but these two albums will forever stand as his masterpieces. They remain supernaturally evocative and strangely beautiful.

Julie Miller – Blue Pony, Broken Things – Kate loves these albums, and pulls them out to listen to them fairly regularly. Fortunately, I love them too. There is something oddly endearing about Julie’s little-girl breathiness and her worldly wise, grace-filled lyrics, as if Flannery O’Connor had been squeezed into Shirley Temple’s prepubescent body. On these albums Julie sings about brokenness and sorrow and mental illness, orphans and misfits and children of God. She consistently finds the right balance between sentiment and schmaltz, deep truths and cliché, and she never crosses the line. The heartland rootsiness of husband Buddy’s backing guitar work and superb harmonies are an added bonus. These songs sound real, raw, and poetically beautiful. “Orphan Train,” in particular, still moves me after six years and hundreds of hearings. Put your ear to the track and you can hear your name.

Steeleye Span – Live at Last – When everybody else in my high school was listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, I was listening to Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, fostering my love of traditional English ballads, and dreaming of rescuing damsels in distress. Groovy hippie damsels, but still. Steeleye Span were the foremost proponents of English ballad boogie, singing centuries-old folk songs about fairies and elves and obscure monarchs and tarting them up with electric guitars and a backbeat. If the marriage of AC/DC and Tolkien sounds contrived, just listen to their extensive catalogue from the ‘70s. It still sounds wondrous, at least if you used to play Dungeons and Dragons.

Live at Last, recorded in 1978 and long out of print, just happened to be the hole in my Steeleye Span collection. And a beat-up, used vinyl copy just happened to be at Lost Weekend Records a few days back. In truth, it’s only fair, and the band had seen better days and recorded better songs. But Maddy Prior, the raven-haired hippie chick who sang most of the songs, still sounds sweet and worth rescuing from any castle turret, and the band still boogies along in its Foghat-meets-Frodo way. Where’s my cape?

Johnny Mathis – The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis – A few years ago the Whitman family staged the Great Christmas Music Rebellion. “Listen to Bruce Cockburn do this Huron Indian Christmas song from the 17th century,” I’d tell my family as we decorated the tree. I’d wax rhapsodic about Beausoleil putting a Cajun spin on “Christmas on the Bayou” or Elvis Presley’s lascivious sneer on “Santa Claus is Back in Town,” a sexually charged anthem to stuffing stockings and other things. Finally they had had enough. “We need some decent Christmas music,” they told me, “or you’re on your own when it comes to decorating the tree. We need something we can all relate to.” Okay. So, much to my chagrin, I went out and picked up Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. Conform to the masses, and all that.

Everybody’s heard Johnny Mathis Christmas music. It blares from department store speakers starting about Halloween and doesn’t let up until after the New Year. This album collects all the department store favorites. It’s light on the traditional carols and heavy on the consumer schmaltz, featuring “Winter Wonderland,” “A Marshmallow World in December,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” and Johnny’s signature Christmas tune, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” I loathe the marshmallow tune, but some of these songs are comforting in the same way that meatloaf is comforting. I tolerate it, even when my daughter Rachel plays it at decidedly non-Christmas times of the year, such as mid-October. But there are compensations. Come December I’ll get to sleep in the same bed with my wife, who will have no occasion to mock “Iesus Ahatonnia,” that wondrous Huron carol.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Miracle Cars and Miracle Cures

He is a friend, a hero, a husband and father, a musician with roots in the American Deep South who is never home. Ten years ago his songs were all over the radio, and his band played in front of thousands. Tonight he is playing alone in front of forty or fifty people in a busy coffeehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Some of the people are here for the music. Many are here for the coffee and conversation. He is a fifty-year-old rock ‘n roller on the road, and it is all he knows. There never was a tour bus. There used to be a van. Now there is a 1986 Honda, a miracle car he calls it.

“A friend sold it to me for one dollar,” he tells the audience. “It has 160,000 miles on it, and it still gets 34 miles to the gallon. So far I’ve driven it 20,000 miles from town to town, night after night, and I haven’t had any major repairs.”

He plays mostly new songs, tales written from the road over the past year or two. But the biggest crowd response still comes from the old songs, the band songs, the Greatest Hits that never were, but which still resonate deeply. And even on the new songs, the post –9/11, post-band, post-record-deal songs, he still exudes a weary hope:

flowers growing out of the desert
flowers out of parched ground
flowers coming right up through the cracks
of the pavement in your old town
flowering's not a science
it's more like a fine art
flowers coming right up through the cracks
of our broke up little hearts

we all need new beginnings

the first steps make you better
maybe you're just a prayer away
from getting your shit together

You never know. That half century of muddled relationships and indifferent success might suddenly change for the better. America might one day wake up from its Britney/Madonna stupor and figure out that it should pay attention to people who actually have something to say. Maybe. It’s worth another tour, another two months away from home. It’s worth another trip in the beat-up Honda. The miracles might extend beyond the car.

He used to cushion the private references in flowery metaphors. Now he doesn’t even try to hide the autobiographical details.

“This is a new song about my son,” he says. “He’s eighteen years old, and he’s in a rehab facility because he’s addicted to cocaine. He’s been in there about six months. We’re hoping he can come home soon.” He strums his guitar, waits in vain for the conversations to die down, finally launches in to Tasteful Background Music for Coffee Drinkers:

from a simple plant that was long growing there
from the king of the world to your worst nightmare
got you an old recipe and some chemicals to stir
it might have felt just like God once but now it's Lucifer

oh to be clean

and you know the thing is sleeping, a scratch below your skin
and God knows if you wake it up you gotta calm it down again
and I wonder what it felt like when the waters flooded in
and it got too hard to swim

it feels just like a hunger but you cannot feed the thing

it always wants a new song that you can't really sing
it never shows you the whole truth till the poison's leaking through
and what you thought you were doing, well now it's doing you

and it could take a few years to dig out of this mine

what with a shaft so deep and dark it might take a lifetime
the choices they're like diamonds you found down there one night
you gotta grab the one that's your true self and bring it to the light

oh to be clean

and you know the thing is sleeping, a scratch below your skin
and God knows if you wake it up you gotta calm it down again
and I wonder what it felt like when the waters flooded in
and it got too hard to swim

Like most of his best songs, this one is a wondrous, terrible thing, a great howling mess of brokenness and sorrow and bone-marrow truth. He is a thousand miles from home on a lonely Saturday night, and the espresso machines are whirring in the background as he sings his voice raw, and the regular customers are wondering who the hell this morose folksinger is if they think about him at all, and he gamely plugs away at the tiny, insignificant task of unveiling his heart for public display.

Afterwards, he sits at a back table, sells a few CDs, chats with anyone who wants to talk. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days, but there is also a weariness in his eyes that sleep won’t take away. I watch the young women come up to him, tell him how much they love his music, pass along their cell phone numbers. I want to kick him in the balls, hard. I want to shake him. I want to hug him.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” I want to tell him. “You can go home, be with your family. You can lay down the guitar, forget the suffering artist persona, and deal with the real suffering you’re facing. There’s real pain there. You need to do more than write a song about it.” But I don’t say anything.

Outside in the parking lot we engage in the kind of careful small talk that is designed to guard our hearts. I tell him that it was a great show, because it was. He tells me that it’s always great to see me. We hug. We tell each other to stay in touch. He gets in the ’86 Honda and drives away, off to find another miracle.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Sweat and Dust

“To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not each of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." – Genesis 3:17-19

This Hunter-Gatherer, a descendent of Adam, has turned into a madman with a keyboard. It’s how I earn my living, if not by the sweat of my brow, then at least by the sweat of my brain. From 8:00 a.m. until the early evening I sit in the midst of very smart, very technical people and try to translate their technobabble into something resembling the English language. “There are four main tables in the database schema and about 50 utilities,” one of them says, “and we need ERDs for each of them by the end of the month.” I nod my head sagely, acting for all the world like I both know what he is talking about and care about his intent.

But I don’t. Or, more correctly, I don’t, but I need to know what he is talking about, and very quickly, and I need to care, because my paycheck is dependent on my ability to absorb highly technical information and turn it into understandable prose. Note to self: look up ERD.

In many ways I’ve spent the last 23 years of my life enacting an elaborate charade. I am not a TechnoGeek. Far from it, in fact. I’m an English major. I have a degree in Creative Writing. I keep trying to deny it, keep going back to school and tacking on more degrees – in Education, in Theology, an MBA, for God’s sake. And the bottom line (ooh, a nice business reference there) is that I want to write poetry. I sit in endlessly droning technical meetings and listen to talk about Nodes and all too quickly tune out and start composing Ode to a Node in my head.

I’ve learned to fake it pretty well, and they pay me a great salary to figure out what ERDs are and somehow “do” (whatever do means in this context) fifty or more of them by the end of the month. I’ll do it. I always do it. But at the end of the day I go home and wonder why I’ve just spent ten or eleven hours of my time simultaneously bored out of my skull and frantically scrambling to get more work done than I can realistically accomplish. It’s a tug of war in which my soul is caught in the middle.

I just turned 50, which qualifies me for reduced fares on city buses I never ride and a discounted membership to AARP, which I don’t want to join because it makes me feel old. I have friends and cohorts who are seriously talking about retirement. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, still trying to make the transition from my interests and passions to a viable career. I don’t think I want to be an ERD Specialist when I grow up, whatever that might entail, but I think I might just become one anyway out of necessity. I look on the pragmatic side, which is tougher than you might think for a hopelessly romantic idealist who writes Odes to Nodes. There’s something to be said for regular paychecks, especially on cold winter nights. I am living the American Dream[TM], which affords me a nice 4-bedroom, 2.5 bath suburban house with screened-in porch and finished basement and plot of land, two cars, all the trimmings, two daughters who will soon be college educated, and exotic toys like leaf mulchers and snowblowers, which clutter the two-car garage. I love my wife, I love my kids, I love my friends, I love my church. I get to engage the Creative Writer side by writing for a couple magazines and seeing my words in print. Life is good. I am blessed. So why do I feel that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I get in the car to drive to work? And the theology major in me wonders if this is what God intended.

I also wonder how much of this is simple whining, the product of Baby Boomer navel gazing and an insistence on My Happiness. I wonder what the feudal barons in 13th century France would have said when the serfs in the fields complained about a lack of self-actualization and the angst and malaise that accompanies being stuck far down the rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Would they have sent them to therapy? Or would they have called them scurvy knaves and smote them on the backsides with their swords? I think I know the answer. Those feudal lords hated Maslow.

I wish I knew the answers. In the meantime, I have to work on ERDs for the next few hours and then mow the lawn when I get home. In nice, neat diagonal suburban swaths, of course.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Scorsese and Dylan

I don't know how many of you caught Martin Scorsese's film on Bob Dylan that was broadcast on PBS the last couple nights. But if you missed it, you missed something special. What a great film. I was impressed by how coherent and forthcoming the present-day Dylan is in his comments. He seems to be past the point of feeling the need to play games with interviewers.

But I certainly gained a new appreciation for why he felt the need to play those games in the first place. Scorsese's collage of the '66 European tour, where he showed Bob answering the same inane press questions again and again, made me appreciate how truly wearying it must have been to face that interviewing onslaught day after day.

And even though much of the '66 concert footage is readily available in D. A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, I was thrilled to see and hear those monumental songs again. Others have frequently complained about Bob's offputting howl, but I have to say that I love that howl. Hearing Dylan respond to the boos and catcalls with "Something is happening/And you don't know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?" is still the best upraised musical middle finger I've ever heard.

In retrospect, it is easy to understand the bewilderment and hostility of the audience. Aside from the folk scene "betrayal" issues, Dylan's music in '66 was an absolute sonic pummeling -- loud, abrasive, and so densely packed lyrically (even when the audience could hear the lyrics) as to defy instant comprehension. It must have sounded as foreign and alien to his audiences as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music would sound to the recent escapees of the Mickey Mouse Club at an Ashley Simpson concert. Amazingly, Dylan persevered through it. But Scorsese's film reminded me just how utterly revolutionary Dylan's music was at the time. He busted the doors wide open, and music has never been the same. I thought Scorsese captured that moment just about perfectly.