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.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Paste Issue #18

You know, I think this is a pretty spiffy magazine. Have I ever mentioned that?

The current issue features a cover story on film director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jerry Maguire), and follows Crowe around as he directs his latest movie Elizabethtown (Kirsten Dunst and the omnipresent Orlando "Legolas" Bloom). Crowe started writing for Rolling Stone Magazine when he was 15 years old, and interviewed folks like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Paul McCartney. And speaking of Paul McCartney, there's also a lengthy interview with him in this issue as well. And stories about bands Sigur Ros, My Morning Jacket, and (the reunited) Big Star. And 100+ album reviews. And tons and tons of film reviews. And book reviews. And a great article called "Them's Fightin' Words: A Tour of American War Fiction." And, for what it's worth, six articles/reviews from me.

There's also a 21-song CD featuring rock, alternative rock, blues, folk, bluegrass, hip hop, and Shel Silverstein, however he might be categorized. Folks who have songs on the CD include My Morning Jacket, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Death Cab For Cutie, David Gray, Dungen, Broken Social Scene, North Mississippi Allstars, Leo Kottke, Blackalicious, Jose Gonzalez, Ozomatli, and Shemeika Copeland.

There's also a 4+ hour DVD featuring music videos from The Flaming Lips, Josh Rouse, Nickel Creek, OK Go, The Pixies, Kathleen Edwards, The Deathray Davies, Jamiroquai, Supergrass, New Order, Elbow, Dan Zanes, and yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (with infamous flying, rotating piano, no less). And a few more. And 8 short films, and 9 theatrical trailers of upcoming movies.

This issue's cover painting, by the way, was done by Joni Mitchell, probably best known for other things, but a fine artist too.

My name also appears in the masthead as "Senior Contributing Editor." That's a new thing, and a good thing. I am so blessed.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Sergeant Pastie's Lonely Hearts Club Book

The new issue of Paste just arrived. I haven't really had time to check it out. But four words. Five words. Whatever. Here they are: Exclusive Interview with Paul McCartney. How cool is that? Check it out.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Paul Simon: Pondering an American Tune

A new article for the end-of-the-year issue of Paste Magazine ...


It is a restless 3:00 a.m., the most melancholic hour for insomniacs. And it is a month near the dispirited end of a hellish year in which too many people have died. Sometimes I can block it out, and sometimes I can’t. The thoughts that swirl around my brain tell me that tonight I can’t.

The house settles around me. Everyone else is asleep. It is a Thursday night; work beckons again in just a few short hours. But sleep is not going to come, at least for a while, and so I wander downstairs, check my e-mail, read the CNN headlines, and look out my window at the few lights still on in my neighborhood, wondering who else is up and prowling their hallways. I put on the headphones and settle back with an old, familiar friend, Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” It is the perfect late night musical accompaniment to insomnia; its somber, stately melody cribbed from a J.S. Bach chorale, Simon’s gentle, hushed delivery unsuccessfully masking the images that churn with nocturnal disquiet:

I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
but it's alright, it's alright
for we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
road we're traveling on
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong

It is an American tune from the early 1970s, conceived in a far different world that still encompassed Ho Chi Minh and Richard Nixon, the fresh memories of Kent State and My Lai, but it is a sentiment that must sound all too contemporary to those who descend daily to London tube stations, who fearfully cross Baghdad streets, or who inhabit the splintered ruins of hundreds of Asian villages and towns inundated by tsunami. It must ring in the ears of those who endure genocide in Darfur, in those who suffer from the AIDS plague throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Death carries no passport, and it is no respecter of nations. And we too here in America have heard that insistent refrain. Poor New Orleans, pummeled and drowned, struggles to return to something approaching normal life. Where I live, in Ohio, a Cleveland suburb loses 14 of its young men in one bloody day in Iraq, and a community seeks to comprehend the gaping hole at its heart. Even closer to home, my father-in-law lies in his newly dug grave, and two dear family members battle cancer. And at 3:00 a.m., I can’t help it. I wonder what's gone wrong.

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
Oh, and it's alright, it's alright, it's alright
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest

We cross the oceans and send rockets hurtling to the moon, planting our flag on whatever scrap of rock we can find, claiming the land and its allegiance as our own. But it is not our own. We are misfits and strangers here, still apt to be blown away by winds or bullets, always voyaging, never able to escape from ourselves or the inevitability of our demise. And there are days when it appears we have learned nothing, least of all how to love. Just turn on the news. Or take a look at my heart. I think of the words I have spattered this year like bullets, fired willy-nilly out of anger, arrogance, stupidity, even naivete, always amazed that the gun goes off when I pull the trigger, always slightly stunned when that smell in the air turns out to be gunpowder and not the sweet perfume of the roses I scatter in my mind. It is the shock of recognition, the one clear moment that comes only when all the distractions and entertainments have faded, when there are no more excuses, when the mirror reflects back our true image. What can you do? In my case, you pray. And you play the single greatest song of a singularly great American songwriter. You shut up and listen. Some nights that’s the best thing you can do.

And in my case I sit in my office, bathed in the blue glow of a computer monitor in a darkened room, pounding out this grim end-of-the-year reckoning. I will not be sad to see the end of 2005. Auld Lang Syne, and good riddance. We traffic in sorrow, the real hard coin of the realm, and music sometimes speaks hard truths. Tonight I listen to Paul Simon, to a beautiful melody and words that sting, and ponder the minor miracles: how we manage to rise above the broken heartedness and our own damned culpability, how we somehow find the strength and courage to get up, bleary eyed, and do it all over again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Journey and REO Speedwagon in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame

Not yet. Maybe next year.

The latest crop of nominees for the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame was released yesterday. Heading the list (are you ready for this?): John Mellencamp. Heading the list. I don't hate John Mellencamp. But he's a distinctly second-tier rocker whose music doesn't even begin to hold up against similar and better roots rockers such as Bruce Springsteen, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Neil Young. Of course, those folks are already in the Hall, so we're now down to the second-tier artists across the board. I'm telling you, Steve Perry's day will come.

Other nominees: Miles Davis, Blondie, Cat Stevens, The Stooges, and The Patti Smith band.

Miles? Miles is a giant, no question. In the jazz world. Yeah, I know, he invented jazz-rock fusion, and he occasionally employed rock-oriented folks such as John McLaughlin in his band. But if "Bitches Brew" is rock 'n roll, then I'm Mick Jagger.

Blondie? A couple big hits. A very photogenic lead singer. Deserving of a place alongside The Beatles and Dylan? Are you kidding?

Cat Stevens? Actually, I'll buy that one. I suspect it's only dear Yusef's ties to Islam and the Salman Rushdie fatwah that have kept him out this long. But at least he's musically deserving.

And here's what I love: The Patti Smith Band and The Stooges. I do love them, truly. But we're now at the point where the vast majority of Americans, even those who follow music to some extent, will be completely unfamiliar with and underwhelmed by inductees into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. Ask Bubba and Wanda to name a single song recorded by either The Patti Smith Band or The Stooges. You'll either get a blank stare, or the comment, "I didn't know those guys made music, but I love their movies. Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck."

So how many years before the real musical versions of Moe, Larry, and Curly (Michael Stipe) can be inducted into the Hall?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Sufjan Stevens in Cleveland

The three of us – Nick, Jeff, and I – hit the road by 5:30, right on schedule. It was Boys Night Out, and the boys, two slouching into middle age, one right on the verge of AARP eligibility, were embarking on a five-hour round trip to a late night rock show. Why grow up now?

When I saw Sufjan Stevens back in April at Calvin College he wore a swan costume and played before a hushed, attentive audience. No one snickered, although there were times when I had to stifle the urge, and I looked around incredulously, thinking surely that some smartass undergraduate with less decorum than my reserved, AARP-ready self was going to beat me to it. But no one did, and after five minutes I was won over. The swan costume looked more like angel’s wings, the perfect visual prop for music so fragile and ethereally beautiful that it had to be produced by a graduate of Seraph State. We got mostly songs from Michigan and (of course) Seven Swans that night, with a teaser from the upcoming Illinois album. It was gorgeous – audaciously gorgeous – music, and I vowed to follow Sufjan any time he came within about a 150-mile radius of home.

He barely made the cutoff point. Last night in Cleveland, 146 miles from home, we got raucous kitsch instead of ethereal fragility, and the crowd, primed for a pep rally, responded with rowdy enthusiasm. You Sufjan fans probably know the drill by now – the cheerleader costumes, the pom poms, the numerous Illinois-themed cheers/chants that serve as the between-song banter. It was fun the first couple times, mildly annoying after the eighth. But it was no big deal. The songs – overwhelmingly from Illinois this time, naturally – were performed flawlessly. I was particularly impressed with “The Predatory Wasp …,” wondering how Sufjan could possibly pull off that complex orchestral arrangement in concert. It helped to have eight people on stage – horns, guitars, keyboards, and those fine ‘60s girl group backup vocalists (The Swanettes?) singing marvelous counterpoint. We heard most of the Illinois album, minus the U.F.O and John Wayne Gacy Jr. songs. We heard “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” from Seven Swans, “For the Widows in Paradise …” from Michigan. Most curiously and chillingly, we heard the crowd sing along with “Casimir Pulaski Day,” the first feel-good crowd pleaser about bone cancer I’ve ever heard. We witnessed a very fine concert – very different from but just as compelling as the one I witnessed in April.

Opener Laura Veirs left me cold. Sorry. There was some occasionally interesting feedback squall, but otherwise her songs weren’t memorable either musically or lyrically. Midway through her set my friend Jeff and I wandered over to the record store next to the concert venue, chatted with the owner for a bit, and bought a couple of new CDs. All in time to make it back easily before Sufjan’s set.

And after Sufjan we drove back home, had more great conversation, and I was snug and in bed by 3:15. And then Kate wanted to talk about her day.

I’m paying for it today, of course, living with the cumulative effects of two and a half hours of sleep and a 50-year-old body, precariously functioning thanks to copious amounts of coffee, ready for another fine day in corporate America. It is the abuse we endure for music and friendship and marriage. I love it, am incredibly thankful for the whole messy, exhilarating, joyous thing. I’d gladly do it again – in a month or two.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Sigur Ros' "Takk" -- Cherubim Rock

If the cherubim form garage bands (and one can only hope they do), then surely this must be the sound they make. I've only made it through one complete listen, most of it in the car, so I'm sure I've missed many of the nuances of this album. The usual criticisms -- the bombast, the pretension, the unrelenting elven tweeness of Jonsi's falsetto -- could probably be leveled against Takk. Who cares? The music is so gloriously sweeping and panoramic and downright spiritually uplifting that there were times when I had difficulty not raising my hands from the steering wheel, not a recommended practice when driving a minivan. I love the strings. I love the brass band. And I love the vision of a band that simply wants to make transparently beautiful music. They succeeded.

A new Sigur Ros album today and Sufjan Stevens in Cleveland tonight. It doesn't get much more beautiful and beatific than that.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Two Beatific Sightings in One Day

Tomorrow I expect to be the recipient of two beatific visions. This could be better than Lourdes and/or Fatima. I'll let you know how it turns out.

1) The new Sigur Ros album (Takk) will be released, the first since the unpronounceable ( ) and the only album with any real shot for me of displacing Sufjan Stevens' Illinois as Best Album of 2005. I expect to listen to the angelic warblings at full volume as I race up the freeway tomorrow night to see and hear:

2) Sufjan Stevens, who will be playing in Cleveland. The last time I saw Sufjan was in April, when he cocked his head slightly in a beatific way and played the banjo while wearing a swan costume, an event which inexplicably did not cause me to bludgeon my head against the nearest hard surface. It was, in fact, beatifically beautiful, and I'm expecting more of the same, only in a University of Illinois cheerleader outfit this time. Given that, he'll have to work hard to achieve the beatific vision, but with that music, he's got a shot. I'm really getting too old to do these roadtrips, arriving home at 3:00 and rising at 6:00 to go to work. But one does what one has to do for the beatific visions.

Currently Playing ...

The New Pornographers -- Twin Cinema -- A.C. (Carl) Newman is a pop genius. Sure, Neko Case has a great set of pipes, and Dan Bejar contributes a few decent songs, but this is Newman's album, and he continually amazes me with his ability to turn the most tired power pop conventions inside out. Yes, you'll hear echoes of The Kinks and The Who, but it still sounds remarkably fresh. If it weren't for the three slightly inferior Bejar songs, Twin Cinema would be right there with Sufjan Stevens' Illinois as my choice for Album of the Year.

Son Volt -- Okemah and the Melody of Riot -- Which, if I do say so, plays rings around the latest disappointment from Wilco. As far as I'm concerned, Jay Farrar has always been the winner in the great Uncle Tupelo schism, but his solo albums have been meandering, noodling affairs featuring a few good songs surrounded by filler. Not so this time. The songwriting is much more tightly focused, the newly revamped Son Volt plays some righteous rock 'n roll ("6 String Belief" is an absolute anthem), and Farrar's vocals sound passionate and soulful. A wonderful return to the form that produced Trace, and easily the second best album in the Son Volt catalogue.

The Clientele -- Strange Geometry -- Gently melodic English folk rock, as filtered through a decidedly '60s sensibility. I hear echoes of Van's Astral Weeks and Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left mixed with the more baroque tendencies of Anglophiles such as The Left Banke. It's all pretty and it's all feathery light until you start listening to the lyrics, which are uniformly thoughtful, if a bit downbeat. But it's literate loveliness, and that's always in short supply.

Jose Gonzalez -- Veneer -- And speaking of Nick Drake ... Gonzalez has certainly spent his time with the Drake catalogue, and this album comes closer to recapturing that beautiful, hushed, doomed sound than anything I've heard in a long time. Gonzalez is not as mopey as Elliott Smith, and his accomplished fingerpicking compares favorably to Drake's innovative guitar work. What's not to like?

The Wild Tchoupitoulas -- The Wild Tchoupitoulas -- Poor, poor New Orleans. They play party music at funerals down there, so I've been playing this 1975 funk masterpiece from The Wild Tchoupitoulas, a loose collective of New Orleans R&B greats made up of members of The Meters and The Neville Brothers. It doesn't get any tighter or funkier than this.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

“New Orleans is a city surrounded by water -- Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, and myriad bayous, canals and waterways. Because we are below sea level, we need complex systems of levees, drainage canals, spillways and pumping stations to keep the life-giving water from killing us.” – from

I’ve never been to New Orleans. I’ve never seen the French Quarter, eaten a beignet or a King Cake, or joined in the Mardi Gras revelry. My knowledge of the city is based on photographs, movies, and the lively images I’ve conjured in my own mind. It is a composite formed by PBS documentaries on Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy novels and Tennessee Williams plays, and the Mardi Gras debauchery in Easy Rider and the bordello scenes in Pretty Baby. And by music, of course. Lots of music. Corrupt and decadent, florid and outsized, and unlike any place else on earth, New Orleans has always typified for me everything that is simultaneously seedy and exotic and alluring in American culture. It was always on my list of future vacation destinations. One day I would visit there, take it all in. The images, real or imagined, would become reality.

And now a different set of images emerges. They call it the Big Easy, a name that surely must leave a bitter taste in the mouth these days. There is nothing easy about New Orleans in this late summer of 2005, nothing remotely hospitable and welcoming about drowning and starvation and E. coli bacteria. The dead float in the canals and streets, unreachable, human buoys bobbing on the surface. Fires rage in the drowned city, and there is no water pressure to put them out. People die shockingly, casually, by the sides of impassable highways, and they are simply moved aside and covered with dirty blankets. It is too much to take in. It is Hiroshima and Auschwitz and the Twin Towers, misery compounded by horror, and it is live and in color from the birthplace of jazz.

I cope by doing what millions of other Americans do. I pray. I write my checks to the American Red Cross. I worry and fret, feel helpless, angry, and very, very sad. “Can you believe what is happening in New Orleans?” I ask a co-worker. He shrugs his shoulders and mumbles noncommittally. “Yeah, they’re screwed,” he says, and I want to punch him, slap some sense, or at least some common decency and compassion, into him. Apparently I am not coping all that well. I need a better strategy.

And so I play music, in this case the music of New Orleans. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t, but it reminds me of the greatness of what has been and of what may be no more, and of the faint flickering of what may one day rise again. And it gives me hope. God knows I need that. And God knows there is a lot of the music to play – the great zydeco recordings of Clifton Chenier and Queen Ida, the rich Cajun gumbo of Beausoleil and Marc and Ann Savoy, the incomparable R&B/funk of The Meters, The Neville Brothers, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, and Doctor John, the superb blues recordings of Professor Longhair, Lightnin’ Slim, Irma Thomas, and Slim Harpo, the early rock ‘n roll of pioneers such as Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey, and Lloyd Price, the modern-day contributions of stalwarts like Lucinda Williams, The Subdudes, Sonny Landreth, and Jon Cleary. New Orleans natives or residents, one and all. And that list doesn’t even begin to account for the kaleidoscopic innovations of New Orleans jazz, from Kid Ory and Sidney Bechet through Wynton Marsalis and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. At the center of those vast changes, and emblematic of that creative ferment, is Louis Armstrong, and I play his music more than that of any other New Orleans musician – the Hot Fives, the Hot Sevens, and, with increasing frequency, a sweetly sentimental song that has taken on its own pathos in the past few days:

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day
I know I'm not wrong, this feeling's gettin' stronger
The longer I stay away

It is the song that links the man with the place. Louie Armstrong recorded better songs. But nowhere else did he come closer to the intersection of his own life and the sense of loss that fueled his greatest music. Louie didn’t write the song, but he owned it as surely as Sinatra owned New York. And now I listen to it and try to own it myself, try to find the point of connection that will help me process this unfathomable loss.


And all too quickly the urgency turns to schmaltz:

Miss them moss covered vines, the tall sugar pines
Where mockin' birds used to sing
And I'd like to see that lazy Mississippi
Hurryin' into spring

The moonlight on the bayou,
A Creole tune that fills the air
I dream about Magnolias in bloom
And I'm wishin' I was there

Perhaps it is inevitable. The beauty of a real, vibrant city turns to cliché and sloppy sentimentality. The dirty, smelly, in-your-faceness of the French Quarter is transfigured into dreamy Creole tunes and hopelessly saccharine romanticism, mockingbirds and magnolia blossoms and moonbeams. Louie always was the master of cornpone.

And just as quickly the churn in the gut turns to dispassionate observation, political debate, the detached study of two-dimensional images and sound bytes. I am suffering from informational and emotional overload. Not only my brain, but my heart, has started to shut down. New Orleans is becoming simply “news” to me, something to be digested for half an hour before bedtime.

I hate this. I hate the fickleness of my own heart, which breaks for a few days, and then is bored and ready to move on to a new tragedy. I hate how quickly I become the co-worker I despise, with his flippant dismissal, his blatant disregard for basic human kindness. And I hate how easily sidetracked I can become when a very real, enormous tragedy becomes little more than flickering images on a screen. Apocalypse in New Orleans? Yeah, that’s big, but the Cleveland Indians are playing the Detroit Tigers.

I play New Orleans music in order to remember, but all too quickly I forget, grow calloused. Even the Mardi Gras funk and party music of Bourbon Street sounds unreal and forced to me, unintentionally ironic. “Meet the boys down on the battlefront,” The Wild Tchoupitoulas chant, one of the great fanny shakers and party tunes of all time, and I envision troops in their Iraq combat gear trying to evacuate the refugees at the Louisiana Superdome. “I was in the right place/But it must have been the wrong time,” Doctor John sings, and I wince when I hear it. No kidding. He didn’t intend it that way, but now it sounds prophetic.

There are a million displaced, homeless persons, thousands dead, every one of them with their own stories, their own hopes and dreams, now gone. I cannot fathom millions. I cannot fathom thousands. But I can imagine a face, just one face. And I need to find that face, I need to find that point of personal connection. For the sake of my soul, I need to cling to the urgency.


Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
When that's where you left your heart
And there's one thing more, I miss the one I care for
More than I miss New Orleans

It happens over Labor Day. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but New Orleans has come to me.

In spite of the soaring price of gasoline, my family has decided to visit my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. And so on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend I sit in a church pew in Muncie, Indiana, a thousand miles and a million sorrows removed from the Big Easy. I listen to a terrified woman named Mercedes talk about her family. Mercedes is now a professor at Ball State University, but she grew up in New Orleans. And now she misses the ones she cares for. “They thought they could ride it out,” she tells the congregation, weeping. “And I haven’t heard from them since last Sunday. I don’t know where my mother is, where my father is, where any of them are. I don’t know what’s happened to any of them. I’ve heard nothing.”

This is a Presbyterian Church, which prides itself on doing all things decently and in order, but there is nothing decent or orderly about the emotional wreckage on display this Sunday morning. The pastor has handed over his pulpit to someone with a raw, gaping wound of pain and uncertainty, grief and terror. Surrounded by stained glass windows and a fifty-foot pipe organ and polished hardwood pews, it is evident that this poor, distraught woman wants to scream. Listening to her, feeling my heart ripped open against my will, so do I. But five minutes of agony is sufficient, and we return to the liturgy – safe, comforting, predictable.

But I cannot forget her face. There is nothing else to do but drive home on Monday, pray for this frightened woman and her family, for a city of sodden, homeless, desperate people, and play Louie Armstrong once again. How can I miss what I have never known? But I do. And I listen to Louie’s old song, listen past those campy vocals, past the cornball verses, strain to hear something good and lasting and true. And it is there, as it always is, in the sound of the horn. It is an insistent cry that cannot be smothered, that cannot help but sound blue, even in the slightest of pop songs. Yes, there it is: it’s the horn.

And so I talk to God about the ache in my soul, about Mercedes, about the dead with their names and their individual stories, bobbing in the chemical-filled waters. I close my eyes and listen and imagine Louie’s glorious trumpet notes floating free over a ruined city; finally, at long last, something good that floats.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Jesus in New Orleans

Some songs are best heard in a live setting. This is one of them. Kate and I saw Over the Rhine in Columbus Friday night, and Karen Bergquist sang this song. I know it from Over the Rhine's album Ohio, but I was unprepared for the detonation that would go off in my heart in light of Hurricane Katrina. Obviously OTR didn't write the song with those circumstances in mind, but the song took on whole new shades of meaning, and I don't know if I've ever heard a vocalist put quite so much soul and passion into a performance. It was obvious that the song had taken on a new meaning for the band as well.

The last time I saw Jesus
I was drinking bloody mary's in the South
In a barroom in New Orleans
Rinsin' out the bad taste in my mouth

She wore a dark and faded blazer
With a little of the lining hanging out
When the jukebox played Miss Dorothy Moore
I knew that it was him without a doubt

I said the road is my redeemer
I never know just what on earth I'll find
In the faces of a stranger
In the dark and weary corners of a mind

She said, The last highway is only
As far away as you are from yourself
And no matter just how bad it gets
It does no good to blame somebody else

Ain't it crazy
What's revealed when you're not looking all that close
Ain't it crazy
How we put to death the ones we need the most

I know I'm not a martyr
I've never died for anyone but me
The last frontier is only
The stranger in the mirror that I see

But when I least expect it
Here and there I see my savior's face
He's still my favorite loser
Falling for the entire human race

Ain't it crazy
What's revealed when you're not looking all that close
Ain't it crazy
How we put to death the ones we need the most

Let the politicians cast their recriminations and point their fingers. We have better things to do. Today there are a hundred thousand faces of Jesus in New Orleans. Some of them are handing out food and water, and some of them are wearing faded blazers with the lining hanging out, and are only too happy to be clothed and fed. They are all important. Every one of them.

Friday, September 02, 2005


I'm tired. Work deadlines have contributed to a succession of 12-hour workdays this week. I've been dealing with crazy/sad decisions that some friends have made, decisions driven by brokenness and an inability to cope in healthy ways. No finger pointing intended, but it's a draining and sad time, and it takes its toll on one's emotional and spiritual wellbeing. On top of that, we're occasionally casting glimpses at the TV, where all I see is unremitting despair and gloom from New Orleans and vicinity. I pray. I write my checks. I try to be a friend. I try to get my work done. One thing I don't do is sleep much. I want to curl into a fetal position and declare a moratorium on life and its insistent and sometimes impossible demands. I'll be okay. It's just the normal stresses that come from living on a fallen planet. But some days all I can do is groan. Please excuse my groaning.