Wednesday, March 30, 2005

John Prine

I just got off the phone with singer/songwriter John Prine. This is one of the fringe benefits of writing for a music magazine. Occasionally you get to interview people who have been heroes to you for decades. Today was one of those days.

Well, "heroes" is probably too strong. But I've loved John Prine's music since I was a teenager. He was one of the numerous "new Dylans" when he first arrived, a raspy-voiced singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar and penchant for writing great lyrics. Thirty-five years down the line, he's still doing the same thing. He's not flowery or overly wordy. In fact, he writes with great economy, and he says more with less than almost any other songwriter going. I love his songs. He's a very funny guy who can write songs that will break your heart.

So I just talked to John, who was gracious and kind. I'm always amazed when "professional" musicians turn out to be regular Joes who are happy to give you the time of day. And he was. He's a recovering alcoholic/addict, a cancer survivor, the proud father (at age 58!) of two sons, aged 9 and 10, and a brand new Christian. I got to pray with him at the end of our conversation, and I think he was as surprised and moved by that as I was.

I don't always love my job. But I always love my "hobby," and I'm so thankful for the opportunity to do what I do.

Sam Stone came home
To his wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas
And the time that he served
Had shattered all his nerves
And left a little shrapnel in his knee

But the morphine eased the pain
And the grass grew round his brain
And gave him all the confidence he lacked
With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back

There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes
Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose
Little pitchers have big ears
Don't stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios

Sam Stone's welcome home
Didn't last too long
He went to work when he'd spent his last dime
And Sammy took to stealing
When he got that empty feeling
For a hundred dollar habit without overtime

And the gold rolled through his veins
Like a thousand railroad trains
And eased his mind in the hours that he chose
While the kids ran around wearin' other peoples' clothes

There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes
Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose
Little pitchers have big ears
Don't stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios

Sam Stone was alone
When he popped his last balloon
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair
Well, he played his last request
While the room smelled just like death
With an overdose hovering in the air

But life had lost its fun
And there was nothing to be done
But trade his house that he bought on the G. I. Bill
For a flag draped casket on a local heroes' hill

There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes
Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose
Little pitchers have big ears
Don't stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios
-- John Prine "Sam Stone"

Friday, March 25, 2005

A Psalm for Terri Schiavo

"By coincidence, this Good Friday is the 10th anniversary date of Pope John Paul's 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae'' ("The Gospel of Life''), which called euthanasia `a grave violation of the law of God' and also decried abortion and most applications of the death penalty." -- Richard N. Ostling, AP Religion Writer, 3/25/05.

A woman in Florida named Terri Schiavo is dying. Some would deny the right to call her a woman, and would prefer to think of her as a vegetable. She lives, they insist, in a "vegetative state," kind of like broccoli on the supermarket shelf. If so, she/it is a vegetable who laughs at jokes, says words like "Hi" and "Pain," and recognizes family members. Fifteen years ago she suffered a heart attack, and since then she's been like old, rotting broccoli -- inconvenient, good for nothing, just lying there on the shelf. She won't go away. She just keeps on breathing and breathing. But not for long now. Terri Schiavo is being starved to death.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

To get at the root of the cancer you have to dig deep. We worship at the altar of selfhood, the church of convenience. We like the idea of sacrifice as long as we don't actually have to engage in it ourselves. We honor those noble men and women over in Iraq. We build memorials to all the soldiers in all the great wars who have protected freedom, the freedom to do whatever the hell we want.

But crucifixion is not convenient. The great physician has bleeding hands. They are not protected by rubber gloves. They are dirty, messy, covered with the filth of our denials and rationalizations, our excuses and refusals to engage. That's too bad about that woman in Florida, honey. Pass the popcorn.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored
Our sickness must grow worse.

We are terminal cases and we don't even know it. We think we will live forever. We think we can play the Lifeboat game and never end up outside the lifeboat ourselves. Sometimes we have to make hard moral choices, we tell ourselves. These things are complex. We speak of the quality of life as if it were the stock market report, something we could read off a ticker tape.

But we are terminal cases, every one of us, deathly ill, rotting away from the inside, painting our fingernails from our hospice beds.

God, help us to know our sickness.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

God, forgive us. God, forgive me. Burn up all that is worthless. Have mercy on who we are -- the damned, God-redeemed human race, men and women and vegetables with souls, searching for streams of living water and digging with all our might, digging furiously in the desert, hollowing out empty well after empty well, escape tunnels that only circle back on ourselves, always ourselves, broken and heartsick and desperately in need of what only God can offer. Forgive us, Lord, for we know not what we do.

I am the bread of life, the wounded surgeon said. But yesterday the law of the United States denied the right of a Catholic priest to administer communion to Terri Schiavo. It's bread. It might help to keep her alive. It's wine. It might help to alleviate her thirst.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood —
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
-- T.S. Eliot, from "Four Quartets"

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Dancing About Architecture

The last few nights I’ve been feverishly (literally; I’ve felt like crap, although I seem to be doing better today) working on a presentation that I have to deliver next weekend at the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am supposed to play resident music critic and talk for an hour and a half on the role of the music critic and how to approach musical criticism from a Christian perspective. My audience will be a bunch of writers, academics, musicians, and rabid music fans, most of whom will know a lot more about trends in contemporary popular music than I do. In the words of every critic’s favorite band Radiohead, “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”

At this point I really don’t know how this is going to come together. I know a few things; the title of my workshop, for instance. It’s “Dancing About Architecture.” It’s from a semi-famous quote from singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, which is: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”

The thing is, Elvis is mostly right. Music goes far beyond a “message” or a “theme” (you hear that, CCM world?) In fact, music affects us so viscerally and so subjectively that trying to summarize its impact or reduce its power to a few principles seems hopelessly misguided and ineffective. It’s like stating that Moby Dick is a book about a white whale. It’s true, but it misses the whole point.

And the point (I think) is that music has the power to move us, shape us, change the way we see ourselves and God and the world around us. And it short-circuits the whole objective, cognitive process. How can I explain to people that Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue -- an album of all-instrumental jazz made by a non-Christian – has led to one of the most profound worship experiences in my life, that it reaches me in deep places that no doctrinal catechism can ever reach, that there are moments of such intense beauty there that the only proper response is to fall to my knees and thank God for the wonder of His creation? And how can I explain that another person – a bright, spiritually aware person, at that – can hear the same album and be totally unmoved? What is the mystery there? How do you fathom that, and how do you communicate it to a group of people from widely different backgrounds and beliefs?

Here’s another quote I really like from critic/enfante terrible Lester Bangs, one of the first rock critics, founder of Creem Magazine, and the subject of the film Almost Famous from a few years back. I really like it, although it may be a bit over-the-top, particularly for my Christian audience. I’m tempted to use it anyway because it cuts so close to the bone.

"Rock writing is, and nearly always has been, the trade of simps, wimps, displaced machos, brats and saps; of asskissers of the ruling class; of fuddyduddy archivists with cobwebs on their specs; of pathetic idealizers of a lost youth no one has ever — even approximately — experienced or possessed; of sycophantic apologists for chi-chi trends, musical and extramusical alike, without which — so they've always claimed — "rock is dead"; of binary yes/no cheeses with the cognitive wherewithal of vinyl, shrinkwrap, the physical column-inch."

There is so much that rings true there. There is a herd mentality that characterizes much of contemporary popular music criticism. And there are a few rules that apply: The weirder the music is, the better it is. New is good; old is bad, unless it’s from the 1960s. There is an accepted and generally understood canon of rock music that is above reproach, and woe to the critic who dares to question the canon, for he shall be excommunicated from the simpering fold, and shall dwell in outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth and playing of Abba records.

I encounter people all the time – Baby Boomers like myself who were raised on The Beatles and The Stones and Motown and Dylan – who bemoan the current state of popular music, who are stuck in some bizarre Woodstock timewarp where they’re convinced that no decent music has been released since Led Zeppelin IV (ah, the golden age of Roman numerals) and that it’s all been downhill since John married Yoko.

I feel bad for these folks, but I don’t believe them. It’s easy enough for it to happen. You get out of college, you get a real job, and you stop paying attention, and eventually you focus on fertilizer debates with your suburban neighbors (Ortho Weed ‘n Feed: Better For Your Lawn Than Scott’sTurfbuilder?) and golf and your investment portfolio instead of some hot new band from London or NYC. But I still don’t believe them. I don’t believe them because I’ve never grown up, at least in that sense (my wife could perhaps list others) and don’t want to, and because I hear new music all the time that still provides that same visceral thrill that I experienced when I first heard Led Zeppelin IV or The White Album.

It’s the same reaction. It’s the same commingling of excitement and awe and (God forbid, this coming from a depressive type) just plain joy that accompanies the discovery of some musician or some band who says the same old sweet nothings that rock ‘n roll has said for fifty years, but says them in a way, either musically or lyrically or both, that it all sounds fresh and vital and new. I’d like to believe that God is wrapped up in that process. In fact, I know He is.

And that’s what I’d like to talk about at Calvin College. And that’s probably what I will talk about at Calvin College. But I surely don’t know how to make a systematic presentation out of that. So I suspect that I’m going to play music and tell stories. I don’t know of any other way to communicate the ineffable.

Monday, March 21, 2005

U2 at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame

Some of you may have caught U2's speeches/performances as they were inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. If so, I'd love to hear your reactions.
Just as a handy guide to my take on the men and the music, I mostly love U2, think "Atomic Bomb" is very good and occasionally great, think The Edge is an unsung guitar hero, and am (oh, how to put this nicely) ambivalent on Bono. All of those things were in evidence at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony.
Bruce Springsteen's induction speech was wonderful -- poetic, heartfelt, and funny. I thought the Edge, Adam, and Larry acquitted themselves well in their speeches, too.
Bono is Bono. He's the perfect frontman, has wonderful pipes, and writes great songs. I'm just not sure I like him as a human being. His speech was, by turns, rambling and incoherent, self-serving, maudlin, rambling, self-serving, pompous, mean-spirited, and self-serving. And did I mention that he really likes himself? I know there's nothing new here, nothing that hasn't been pointed out a thousand times before. Maybe arrogance comes with the territory, and that you can't be the lead singer/songwriter/spokesperson for the Biggest Band in the World without a supersized ego. I'm sure the temptations and challenges are great. But sometimes I just want to slap the guy silly, shake him by the shoulders and tell him that it's okay to be normal, that sometimes it's fine just to be humble and thankful, and that there's no need for the defiant clenched jaw and the Big Pronouncements. But that wouldn't be Bono, I suppose. As I said, I'm ambivalent.
The songs? On the VH1 special, they were "'Til the End of the World," a snippet from "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (with Springsteen sharing the vocals) and "Vertigo." It was good to great stuff, with the Edge playing that magnificent guitar that somehow manages to be both raw and ethereal, and Bono mostly hitting the high notes. I'm happy for the band. It's certainly a well-deserved honor. But, as has been the case for a long time now, I like them more when they sing than when they talk.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Life and Death

I talked with my brother-in-law Bill McCune last night. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few days back, and he's now pondering the no-win choices between which kind of surgery he prefers, and which kind of aggressive cancer treatment he prefers.
I know that when you reach a certain age (and I seem to have reached it) this kind of news becomes more and more common. You probably reach a certain point in life when you say goodbye to more friends that you say hello to. But this now makes four close family members who have either died or are dealing with life-threatening illnesses in the past year. My brother-in-law Jim died last April, my father-in-law Carroll died last month, and my niece Kristina and my brother-in-law Bill are both battling cancer. And I'm saddened and sick to my soul.
Bill is probably my closest friend. Certainly I've spent more time with him, and have shared more openly and transparently with him, than I have with anyone else in my life other than Kate. We connect at some pretty important and deep levels. Please pray for him, his wife Jan, and his daughters Heather and Jessica. Please pray for the Whitman family, too. I am able to praise and worship God in the midst of this. I firmly believe that He is in control, and in many ways I believe my spiritual life is on a better footing than it has been in a long time. But that doesn't negate the ache in the soul that I feel. God is good, and I hurt. Both are true. I can't fully fathom what Kate must be feeling, although I'm trying my best. This is her family, not mine. And they are a dear family, and they're going through hell.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Envelopes of Light

Writing (or reviewing) songs about the Christian life can be a tantalizing and frustrating prospect. Go to one extreme and you find most of the CCM industry, equally divided between espousing sentiments that are doctrinally correct, but dry and didactic, and sappy odes to Jesus that ignore the harsh realities of living in a fallen world. All the mystery and tension is removed. Go to the other extreme and you find vague expressions of spirituality that can mean almost anything; generic love songs that suffer from what I like to call the "is it Jesus or is it the girlfriend?" syndrome. These songs are nothing but mystery.
So I'm always thrilled and moved when I find someone who finds the balance. A songwriter named Pierce Pettis consistently finds that middle ground for me. When I wrote about depression a couple days ago I recalled the many mornings I spent driving to work with his album "Chase the Buffalo" in my CD player. Listening to that album, I think I realized for the first time that I was probably clinically depressed. Sometimes music opens a window that can't be opened in any other way.
I listened to that album again this morning as I was driving in to work. It's magical. It's beautiful. I am thrilled that I have the chance to lead a music workshop with Pierce Pettis at Calvin College in a few weeks. I hope, when I see him, to tell him how much his songs have meant to me. He finds fresh ways to express old truths. He also helped me realize that depression doesn't have to be the last word, that in the midst of darkness grace shines through. There are little envelopes of light everywhere you look, if you have eyes to see.
What does grace look like? It looks like this:
At the sign of the times
He hesitates to navigate his course
His rite of passage
Up the stream of consciousness to find its source
She watches him go
A sentinel behind venetian blinds
Keeps the home fires burning low
Like a vestal virgin waiting in the night
And clinging to the highway
Like a baby to the breast
The distance feeds his urgency
And his dreams just do the rest
When he's down so dark
She mails him little envelopes of light
Cicadas in the mist
Are rising from a whisper to a roar
The way silk dresses hiss
As ballroom dancers glids across the floor
He's felt the ambience of God
Like a heat mirage on the highway
But the closer he comes
The more it seems to slip away
Just out of reach
A single treetop peach
He's stretching for with all his might
And somewhere in his heart
He comes across an envelope of light
Driving down the road
With a feeling that he can't identify
A scarecrow is hanging
Like a crucifix against the thorny sky
Three days and nights
In the belly of a whale
Three days and nights
In a perfect hell
Then like a phoenix bird
Rising in an envelope of light
And when he's down so dark
He gets these little envelopes of light
-- Pierce Pettis, "Envelopes of Light"

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

No Depression and the J Word

I wrote my first Death poem when I was nine years old. My wife Kate finds this strange, and wonders why I wasn’t out doing what other nine-year-old boys were doing --- running around, playing, wearing superhero capes and the like. I was doing those things, too (at least to the extent that chubby little dwarf legs can be said to “run”), but then I’d come home and write Death poems.

The end of one of them went like this:

And when on my grave they’ve placed the flowers before me
And two days later they’ve wilted away and curled
Don’t let them weep and wail and mourn about me
Don’t let them say that I have the changed the world
Just let them say that the world is a little better
Because I was there.

What an insufferable little snot.

But Kate is probably right. It’s probably not normal for nine-year-old kids to write Death poems. Or to read an article called “I Am Joe’s Spleen” in a Reader’s Digest Magazine and become absolutely, irrevocably convinced that my own spleen was not working properly, and that I was destined to die tragically young. Or to write “after the nuclear holocaust” short stories on the playground while other kids were playing marbles and dodge ball.

So the evidence would seem to suggest that maybe I’ve been depressed most of my life. After a certain point I just figured that it was normal for me, and I vowed to get on with my life as best I could. Then I talked to my doctor about it a few years back.

“What makes you think you’re depressed?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I told him. “But I cry every morning on my drive in to work.”

“Is your job upsetting you?”

“No, not at all. I like my job.”

“Then what is it? How’s it going with your family? Any traumas that have occurred in your life recently?”

“No, the family’s doing well. No real traumas, either. All I know is that I’m overwhelmed by the beauty and the sadness. I’m driving in to work and the sun is coming up, and the snow is shining like a billion diamonds, and I’ve already lived half my life, probably more than half my life, and I’m thinking, you know, what have I done to deserve this beauty that is laid out before me, and I just start crying.”

He gave me an uncomprehending stare, but he whipped out his prescription pad faster than you can say “Welbutrin.”

Which bring us to, well, Welbutrin. For the uninitiated, Welbutrin is a little purple pill with a smiley face on it. It doesn’t make you happy. It makes you Not Sad. Some days I’m thankful for it, and some days I see it as a curse. Forget all the romantic nonsense about depressed people being able to experience the world deeply. Depression sucks. It’s seeing the world through black-colored lenses. It’s about missing big parts of the Christian experience because one’s human brain is wired in such a way that the parts of normal life that ought to bring fulfillment and contentment do not, and the parts that are difficult or traumatic are magnified and become all-consuming.

And it plays havoc with the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I can run down the checklist the apostle Paul lays out in the fifth chapter of Galatians. Love? Check. Good stuff. Don’t always do it well, but I’m all about love. Peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, kindness, self-control. All great stuff. I don’t always see evidence of them in my life, but I’m always encouraged when I do. And there’s one I left out. For anyone who suffers from depression it is almost incomprehensible. It’s the dreaded J word. Joy. Wow, it’s even hard to type.

For someone who writes “after the nuclear holocaust” short stories for grins, Joy makes about as much sense as asking someone to flap their arms and fly to the moon. Joy is watching the televangelist’s wife on TV, singing her solo with her beehive hairdo, beaming like she’s on Ecstasy, as fake and phoney as can be. Joy is those crazy Christian loonies who won’t admit it when they’re really sick, like when they have cancer, because that would be a negative confession, and so they walk around smiling and claiming the victory as they rot away from the inside, nutty as fruitcakes.

But there it is, in the Bible. It’s apparently a good thing, something to be sought after and diligently prayed for. Damn. It would be easier if it were optional, if that was a smorgasbord list from which we could pick and choose. The extroverts can have the J fruit if they want it. So what the hell are you supposed to do with this Joy stuff, Mr. Death?

I don’t always know. Whatever it means, I’m not going to do the beatific beaming, and I’m not going to deny reality. If God can accept the low-key, subdued, introverted version of Joy, then I’m willing to give it a shot. I think that maybe occasionally I catch some fleeting glimpses. Sometimes I encounter God during worship, and I’m surrounded by a family I love, and who love me, and by brothers and sisters who are willing to be real with one another, warts and all, and who love one another sacrificially. It dawns on me, not to go overboard here, that this is pretty good. I still don’t know if I would call it Joy. But words like “thankful” and “blessed” come to mind. Maybe for now they’ll have to do.

In the meantime, I carry songs around in my head in the same way that some people carry rosary beads in their pocket. I pull them out and play them in my head whenever I need to, and as a naturally depressed person I need to fairly frequently. The one I’ve been pulling out lately is an old Carter Family hymn. A.P. Carter, the man who wrote it, was a mean old cuss, but he wrote some great songs, and this is the chorus of one of them:

I'm going where there's no depression
To a better land that's free from care
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home's in heaven
I'm going there

That’s a better poem than I ever wrote. He probably wrote poems about death when he was nine-years-old, too. He died before nuclear weapons were a reality, and that’s probably a good thing.