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.