Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Paste Magazine and the Village Voice

For those of you who care about such things, there is a new issue of Paste Magazine out today. It features a fine cover story on actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), lengthy features on Patti Smith and The Avett Brothers, and the annual roundup of the best albums, films, and books of 2005. Guess who got the #1 album? Let the moaning commence. Ready. Set. Go.

There are the usual 100+ album, film, and book reviews, about a half dozen of which are mine, and my regular back-page column, which has now been dubbed "Listening to My Life."

Can I just say that I love this magazine? Yes, I'm biased. But I'm also a fan.

And rumor has it, although I haven't yet seen it, that I'm in the current issue of The Village Voice, adding my $.02 to the contentious chorus of music critics in their annual Pazz and Jop Poll.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Jesus Covers the Smiths

Stolen from pastemagazine.com:

The BBC plans to celebrate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus this Easter with a procession through the streets of Manchester, featuring musicians from The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, and songs by The Smiths and New Order. Seriously.

The program is called Manchester Passion. A contemporary retelling of the last hours of Jesus’ life, it will combine words from the Bible with contemporary music while reenacting important moments in the gospel story.

A character playing Jesus will sing Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart. ” He’ll then sing New Order’s “Blue Monday” with his betrayer, Judas.

Mary Magdelene, accompanied by a string band, will sing The Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have)”.

In the most anticipated act of the day, Jesus will sing Smiths classic “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” as he’s being whipped by Roman soldiers. After that, he’ll encounter his Roman prosecutor Pontius Pilate, and the two of them will sing Oasis hit “Wonderwall.”

The public will be invited to sing anthems like the M People’s “Search For a Hero Inside Yourself” after the march. The crowd will carry a huge white cross, and audience participators will be asked to bring along something that symbolizes a personal burden.

The event will end with a resurrected Jesus singing from the top of Manchester’s Town Hall. The song has not yet been revealed.

BBC’s Classical Music Television department is putting on the show. The Church Of England and the Roman Catholic Church in the area both support the event. “We are very pleased to be taking the good news of the gospel onto the streets of Manchester,” Church of England spokeswoman Gillian Oliver told the Guardian. “If anything, something like this can translate the old story into new terms.”

My take: It's a wonderful idea for 1970, but the songs are all wrong. Yeah, I realize that the city of Manchester is really trying hard for that local music tie-in. And yeah, the whole Jesus Rock Opera thing has been done to death, and the notion of Son of Jesus Christ Superstar is a bit dicey. But I'll cut them some slack and assume that maybe it could work with the right songs. But these songs? Let's take a look:

First, Mary Magdalene plumbs the theological depths while warbling The Buzzcocks' punk anthem "Ever Fallen in Love":

You disturb my natural emotions
You make me feel like dirt
And I’m hurt
And if I start a commotion
I’ll only end up losing you

Ah, the poetry and the passion of The Passion. Here, once again, we have the tired Jesus/Mary Magadelene romantic arc, of which there is absolutely zero evidence in the Bible or church tradition. But why tamper with a good love story? There's nothing more pitiable than a woman spurned by a man who must be about His Father's business. She feels like dirt, she's hurt, it doesn't help to flirt, he's always curt, she's tried wearing her most sexy skirt. None of it helps.

Then there's the Jesus/Pontius Pilate duet on Oasis' "Wonderwall."

I said maybe
You're gonna be the one who saves me
And after all
You re my wonderwall

This one is curious, to say the least. Maybe they could work in a little Sinatra/Sammy Davis Jr. shtick:

PP: Jesus, baby, you're my wonderwall.
Jesus: No, Ponty, you're my wonderwall.
PP: No, you are.
Jesus: Stop it, you are.


Finally, we have the Joy Division classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart," sung by Jesus.

Do you cry out in your sleep
All my failings expose?
Get a taste in my mouth
As desperation takes hold
Is it something so good
Just can’t function no more?
When love, love will tear us apart again

It's a great song. But I wonder if the Manchester organizers, brimming with civic pride, actually thought about the life and teachings of Jesus, and whether those words make any sense in that context. And Jesus saw the multitudes, and called them unto himself, and spake unto them: "Love will tear us apart." Huh? Yeah, I'd follow that dude around and risk martyrdom. Why not have Jesus sing instead, oh, say Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" or The Beach Boys' "Surfin' U.S.A." It would make about as much sense.

Taken all together, I could, if I wanted to, work up some passion about this travesty. But it's probably not worth it. What truly amazes me is that the organizers missed the most obvious local tie-in: The Stone Roses singing their 1989 hit "I am the Resurrection." But maybe that would be too blatant. We wouldn't want the adoring Mancunian masses to think too literally about this story.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

For Him Who Has Ears to Hear

I continually amaze myself. And that’s not good.

Last week I posted a snarky review of a CD I had received. It was witty and smug as it complained about Hallmark Card lyrics in Christian music, and it concluded with a little Hallmark Card poem about just how much I hate Hallmark Card lyrics. Delicious irony, no? Damn, I’m good. So I was feeling self-righteous and funny as hell, full of self-congratulatory bonhomie and zest, until I received an e-mail message from the person who made the album. He essentially said that it was okay if I didn’t like his album, but he wondered why I had to be so mean-spirited about it.

Yeah. Just why is that?

Yesterday was a day full of little epiphanies. I read Erik’s post about his father. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s a wonderful, painful reminder of the sorrows that some people tote around for a lifetime. Sometimes I forget that. Ram Sridharan and Gabe and Ann Williams came over for dinner last night. Ram, who comes from a Hindu background, and Gabe, who comes from a Muslim background, talked about what it was like to be disowned by their families because of their Christian beliefs. It’s not all shades of grey. Christianity requires stark choices, and sometimes I forget that.

Jesus asks all who are weary and heavy-laden to come to Him. As I survey the emotional and psychological landscape, that would appear to be just about everybody. It was certainly everyone I encountered yesterday. Everybody’s toiling up the hill with a million-pound load on their backs, the weight of sorrow, poor choices, generational sin, or just plain horrible circumstances pressing them to the ground. And if I claim to be a follower of Jesus, and I do, then what right do I have to belittle and mock these people? I can’t play Jesus. I can’t remove the weight. But I don’t have to jump on their backs, either.

After everybody left I sat down in the den and listened to some albums I have to review for Paste Magazine. All through the dinner conversation I struggled to hear soft-spoken people. Then I went in to play rock ‘n roll critic. That irony isn’t lost on me either. But I can put on the headphones and turn up the music as loud as I want.

One of the albums I played was by Jules Shear, an old New Waver turned introspective folkie. Jules sang:

I’m not accustomed to the clearness
I’m not accustomed to the view
I’m not accustomed to the clearness
When I am standing facing you
I guess I got used to believing in me
Believing soon turned into truth
I’m not accustomed to the clearness
Seeing everything new

Even with a hearing deficit, I heard that loud and clear.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cash Checks In at Church

There are many reasons to love my church, but one of them is certainly the opportunity to hear the lines "But I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die" played from the stage as people are milling around after worship. It wasn't a record. It was the worship band doing Johnny Cash. Very well, too, I might add, with Grant doing a note-perfect rendition of Luther Perkins' guitar solo.

Here's a suggestion for next week:

I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame 'cause Mama tried

Monday, January 23, 2006

Songs that Deal with Theological Concepts

I have a friend at Messiah College named Jeff Rioux. Jeff is in charge of coordinating cultural events at the college -- conferences, films, concerts, etc. He's been asked to put together a suggested music list to accompany a book that is presented to all first-year students. And he's looking for recommendations. I gave him a few, as shown below. But since you, my dear and faithful readership, are such a literate and musically attuned buch, I thought I would solict your suggestions as well. What do you think? What else would you recommend for Jeff?

Here's our e-mail exchange. Jeff's comments are in italics. Mine are in normal font.

I’ve been asked to help put together a study guide of sorts for a book that is used as common reading on theology for all first year students at Messiah College. For each chapter in the book, they are looking for examples from popular culture (film and music) that will help students reflect on the themes in the chapter. A song may support or contradict what the authors say. They are not looking for didactic songs, but songs that might help students think about what they read.I should have said no way, this is going to take weeks. But I didn’t, and the deadline has already passed.

I have many ideas, but too much of it is artists that I listen to. Anyone want to suggest some? I’m looking for songs here, but I’ll post also over in film if you want to suggest films. Here are the chapter titles and very brief descriptions – not mine (I know this isn’t really enough to go on):

This chapter argues that love and grace form the core of the gospel and that those who call themselves Christians need to demonstrate love and graciousness in all they do. Unfortunately, graciousness of faith is not the norm. Christians, as well as followers of other religious traditions, often seem mean spirited or even violent in the ways they present their faith. Some have suggested faith itself is the problem. What are some pop culture artifacts that engage themes of grace, suffering, conviction, and complexity?

Bruce Cockburn, "Fascist Architecture," from Humans
Mark Heard, "Everybody Loves a Holy War," from Victims of the Age
Richard Thompson, "Outside of the Inside," from The Old Kit Bag (and whose lyrics deserve to be quoted in full, because they are written by a Muslim from the point of view of someone who believes that Muslim extremists have it all wrong):

God never listened to Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker lived in vain
Blasphemer, womaniser,
Let a needle numb his brain
Wash away his monkey music
Damn his demons, Damn his pain

And what’s the point of Albert Einstein
What do we need Physics for?
Heresy’s his inspiration
Corrupt and rotten to the core
Curse his devious mathematics
Curse his deadly atom war

There’s a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won’t realise I’m there

Shakespeare, Isaac Newton
Small ideas for little boys
Adding to the senseless chatter
Adding to the background noise
Hard to hear my oratory
Hard to hear my inner voice

Van Gogh, Botticelli
Scraping paint onto a board
Colour is the fuel of madness
That’s no way to praise the Lord
Grey’s the colour of the pious
Knelt upon the misericord

There’s a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won’t realise I’m there

I’m familiar with the cover
I don’t need to read the book
I police the world of action
Inside’s where I never look
Got no time to help the worthless
Lotus-eaters, Mandarins, crooks

There’s a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won’t realise I’m there

Chapter 1 God and Creation
This chapter gives a sweeping picture of the mysterious God who made the world. Touching on Trinitarian concepts, the authors focus their energies on the character of God as love – lavishly poured out for the world in expansive and embracing graciousness. What are some examples of how artists view creation and how humanity is positioned within it?

Bruce Cockburn, "Lord of the Starfields," from In the Falling Dark
Bruce Cockburn, "Creation Dream," from Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws
Mark Heard, "Orphans of God," from Satellite Sky
Julie Miller, "Orphan Train," from Broken Things

Chapter 2 Human Nature
In this chapter, the authors guide readers through the great complexities of the human condition. From the Imago Dei to issues of freedom, failure, dignity, and doubt – the authors are pressing toward a faith that works toward love, justice, and concern for common humanity. What are some pop pictures of these themes today?

Neil Young, "Why Do I Keep Fuckin' Up?," from Ragged Glory. No, I'm not kidding.
Jim Carroll Band, "Everything is Permitted," from Catholic Boy. Shades of Dostoyevky and the Grand Inquisitor
The Weakerthans, "Aside," from Left and Leaving
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?," from Armed Forces
Julie Miller, "Broken Things," from Broken Things

Chapter 3 Hearing God’s Voice
A challenging topic, the authors give a brief vignette of vocation. Dancing through tough topics like General Revelation, Christology, and Prayer – the author’s move toward problematizing God’s voice so that readers look for a little more than just the proverbial “writing on the wall.” What ways do you see the public communicating or wrestling with conviction, divinity, revelation, and Truth in today’s culture?

Problematizing? I'm ready to foamatize at the mouth over that one.

Bill Mallonee, "River of Love," from Killing Floor
Van Morrison, "Rough God Goes Riding," from The Healing Game
Jackson Browne, "Farther On," from Late for the Sky

Chapter 4 The Fullness of Salvation
This chapter points readers to more than just personal piety or abstracted generalizations. How do you see salvation being communicated in culture today? What themes do you see emerging in our modern society and what could educators capture and share that exemplifies this for students?

Victoria Williams, "Psalms," from Loose
Peter Case, "Poor Old Tom," from The Man with the Blue, Postmodern, Fragmented, Neo-Traditionalist Guitar (which still contains one of my favorite couplets: "Progress and love got nothin' in common/Jesus healed a blind man's eyes with mud").
Mark Heard, "The Dry Bones Dance," from Dry Bones Dance
Bob Dylan or Buddy Miller, take your pick, "With God on our Side," from The Times They Are A'Changin' or Universal United House of Prayer

Chapter 5 The Spirit and Life
The authors spend most of their time here in a conversation about the work and role of the Holy Spirit. While the church is trying to manifest the fruits of the Spirit – the wider popular culture may see them doing something embodying something else. Is there anything out there that deals with dying to self so that one might live again for others?

Talk Talk, Spirit of Eden (the whole album)
Van Morrison, "And the Healing Has Begun" from Into the Music
Bill Mallonee, "Driving the Nails," from Driving the Nails

Chapter 6 Being the Church
What, in popular culture, points out how confusing the Church really is for those who don’t often make it on Sunday mornings? Who is reminding the Church that it is still vital to the world today? Perhaps you will find someone who has a picture of what it could be…?

Steve Taylor, "Steeplechase"
Steve Taylor, "I Want to be a Clone"
Pierce Pettis, "Family" from Chase the Buffalo
Bill Mallonee, "Drunk on the Tears," from Jugular

Chapter 7 The Bible
Is there anyone out there who is exploring the dynamic text in a living, revelatory way?

Tonio K., "Hey John," from Rodent Weekend '76 - '79 (Any song with a chorus of "Hey John, I can't deny/You sure as hell could prophesy" is fine with me).
Van Morrison, "Rolling Hills" from Into the Music (some great -- and funny -- verses about Bible study)

Chapter 8 The Future
The authors are trying to share a picture of faith that is hopefully looking forward. I’m sure there is a ton of stuff flying around that smacks of cynicism but what helpfully could point people toward a new understanding of the Kingdom while authentically dealing with the pain of the passing age?

All Things Bright and Beautiful, "The Marriage Feast of the Lamb," from Love and Affection
Bruce Cockburn, "The Rose Above the Sky," from Humans
Bruce Cockburn, "Festival of Friends," from In the Falling Dark. Which again deserves to be quoted in full, just because:

An elegant song won't hold up long
When the palace falls and the parlour's gone
We all must leave but it's not the end
We'll meet again at the festival of friends.

Smiles and laughter and pleasant times
There's love in the world but it's hard to find
I'm so glad I found you -- I'd just like to extend
An invitation to the festival of friends.

Some of us live and some of us die
Someday God's going to tell us why
Open your heart and grow with what life sends
That's your ticket to the festival of friends.

Like an imitation of a good thing past
These days of darkness surely will not last
Jesus was here and he's coming again
To lead us to his festival of friends.

Black snake highway -- sheet metal ballet
It's just so much snow on a summer day
Whatever happens, it's not the end
We'll meet again at the festival of friends.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Miles Davis and the Fine Art of Overkill

It's a great time to be a Miles Davis fan. Miles is arguably the greatest and most influential jazz musician of all time. Inarguably, he changed his musical course more frequently than any of his contemporaries, and his creative flights were sometimes dizzyingly abrupt and confounding. He was frequently so far ahead of the curve that many in his audience couldn't even recognize the landmarks along the road, and it is only in retrospect that we now see the genius. Along the way he introduced the world to musicians and arrangers as great and as diverse as Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, and John McLaughlin.

Columbia Records, God bless them, is in the process of unleashing the most comprehensive aural record of any musician ever recorded. Miles released more than 100 albums during his long and exceedingly prolific career, but that's nothing compared to the riches that Columbia is slowly doling out from the inexhaustible Miles vault. Every nine to twelve months sees the release of another seemingly essential boxed set. In roughly chronological order, here's what's come out:

-- 1998 -- The Complete Birth of the Cool
-- 1998 -- The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions
-- 1999 -- The Complete Columbia Recordings: Miles Davis and John Coltrane
-- 2000 -- Complete Savoy and Dial Recordings
-- 2001 -- The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions
-- 2002 -- Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973 - 1991
-- 2003 -- The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
-- 2004 -- Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963 - 1964
-- 2005 -- The Cellar Door Sessions 1970

But that bare list doesn't truly do justice to the music. By way of comparison, note that 2004 release. In 1963 Miles released an album called Seven Steps to Heaven. It was a transitional album, one recorded between his first and second great quintets. And it spanned six songs and about forty-five minutes. The corresponding boxed set, in contrast, spans 7 very long CDs, and contains live versions and innumerable outtakes of the songs on that album. Instead of 45 minutes of music we get more than 8 hours of music. And that's the kind of treatment that Miles has been receiving for most of the past ten years. The man's recorded output has almost tripled since his death; no mean feat if you can pull it off.

But it begs the question: how much is too much? I have that Seven Steps boxed set, as well as a couple of the others. It's not only exhaustive, but exhausting. Seven Steps to Heaven is a good, not great Miles Davis album, and at 45 minutes it was just about right. But I now have 8 hours of music, and if I want, I can hear five different takes of the song "Joshua" from the original album - two abortive studio efforts, two live recordings, and the original album track, all recorded during 1963 and 1964. But I don't want. It's simply too overwhelming. And that's the conundrum in which I currently find myself. I love Miles Davis. And I would have thought that it would have been impossible to shovel too much Miles Davis music at me. But Columbia has found a way to do it. There have been nine boxed sets over the past eight years, with each boxed set containing 5 CDs on average. Hmm, I could listen to music or write a novel. Life is too short.

The temptation with any re-issues project is to cram it full of outtakes and unreleased songs. It's a way to entice longtime fans to ante up on the prohibitive cost of these sets; give the people something new in addition to what they already know. But I'm starting to see the wisdom of a less-is-more approach. I could now, if I chose, listen to Miles Davis non-stop for the next several months, and never repeat a song or performance. But there's a big, wide musical world out there, and I don't want to listen to Miles non-stop. Overkill is overkill, even in the wondrous world of my favorite jazz musician.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Money, Power, Nobodies, and Somebodies

Erik wrote on his blog:


Mammon is not just having stuff or wanting more of it. It's being somebody, in the eyes of the world. This is something that Lewis emphasized in Screwtape Letters.

Somebodies don't have time for nobodies. They don't create space for those who aren't cool like them. They don't hang out with the least, last, lost. Widows and orphans mean little to somebodies. And the sad thing in my experience is that the Church is full of both types of people -- lots of somebodies and lots of nobodies; and it rarely addresses this. Instead, the Church often allows people to privately fret over their individualized enslavement to Mammon (in this case, of only the "cash cow" variety) while not explicitly drawing attention to itself as the paramount Body of Nobodies.

In Christ there is no slave or free; no rich or poor; no male or female. This is radical, turn the world upside-down, what-are-you-some-kind-of-communist-pinko talk here. It's not just giving 10% of your income. It's changing where you live; who you hang with; what kind of clothes you wear and what kind of car you drive. It's practicing hospitality. It's being not cool.

I think good church is happening when the nobodies reach out to the somebodies and the somebodies realize that, in Christ, they're nobodies too.


Good thoughts, Erik.

I have the "being not cool" part of this down fairly well, and am available for lessons. I can turn any legitimate hipster into a pathetic, sniveling, greasy-haired, D&D playing anti-social nerd, or your money will be cheerfully refunded. Otherwise, I have to work on the rest.

I agree with you that there is a "power" component of Mammon that is quite dangerous, and that often goes unchecked in our myopic concern for getting our finances in order. The finances are just the tip of the iceberg. The somebodies wield the power, while the nobodies are, at best, unnoticed, or, at worst, the unwitting victims of the somebodies. Unfortunately, that can sometimes happen in the Church, the last place where such social stratification should be in evidence.

I have experienced both sides of the somebody/nobody divide. Probably most people have as well. I recall being laid off my from my job as a technical writer in corporate America. I busted my butt, did what I was asked and then some, and was unceremoniously dumped on the street after some bean counter I had never met decreed that 15% of the company's employees and 40% of its "support" employees (word to the wise: if you're in corporate America, avoid "support" roles at all costs) were to be shown the door. I was a nobody, and I felt used. I felt violated. I felt angry. Mostly I felt powerless, probably because I was.

And so I decided to pursue power. I didn't think of it consciously that way. I thought of it in terms of augmenting my employment skills. I entered an M.B.A. program. And I jumped through the hoops, did the work, and graduated with honors. Not only did I have the means to power, but I had honors as well. Look upon me, O world, and fear and despair.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with a desire to understand finance, and marketing, and decision-making tools, and to use those skills appropriately and well in the business world. But there is a part of me that views the mindset I encountered in my M.B.A. program with cordial disdain. Every personality test in the large battery of tests I took as part of that program told me that I had the wrong personality to succeed in the world of big business. The academic part of it was a relative breeze. But they may have been right about my heart. I met some good people. But I also met people whose goal in life was to make the most money possible by any means possible. And I tended to view those people in the same way I might view a rabid dog. Back away slowly and no one gets hurts. I was simply a misfit at Mammon U. For that matter, I didn't even remotely want to fit in.

Or maybe I did, and here's the kicker. I like power. I didn't think I did, and I certainly tend to villify the power seekers I see in my world, but there is a part of me that likes the spotlight, and the ability to influence the lives of others. I see it most clearly in my role as Senior Editor for Paste Magazine. On a regular basis musicians/bands send me music and plead with me to include a review of their music in Paste. To some extent I can make them or break them. Most of them are relative unknowns. And by doing my part to slip them in to "my" magazine, I can ensure that 350,000 folks get to read about them, and possibly hear them. And I've found that some people will go to some fairly extravagant lengths to make that happen. That's power. So kneel, minion, and lick my boots. And send your lavish praise my way. Worse yet, I entertain ludicrous fantasies in which some rock 'n roll band, now catapulted to superstardom through my intercession, gratefully acknowledges my seminal role in their success, performs the power ballad "Ode to Andy" at Madison Square Garden, and pulls my protesting self on stage to acknowledge the thunderous applause. "It was nothing, really," I tell the wildly cheering mob. Just me wielding Power.

"The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure; who can understand it?" The prophet Jeremiah wrote that 2,700 years ago, and not much has changed. Sometimes I despair of ever getting this right. But I'm thankful to have a laboratory in which to practice. Here is who I would like to be: no respecter of persons, indifferent to the career paths, wealth, talents, education, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, dress, cleanliness, or music listening habits of the people I encounter, even when they listen to the misogyny of 50 Cent or the vacuousness of Kelly Clarkson. :-) I would like to say to one and all: you are welcome in my life. I have time for you. You and your story are important. Some days I am that person. Other days I am caught up in the things the world tells me matter the most.

But it helps if I remember who I am. I am a screw-up and a selfish asshole, the undeserving recipient of extravagant grace. If I have gifts and talents, they come from God. If I am able to crawl outside my skin and care about others, genuinely engage in the lives of others, it is because God has changed me. I am loved beyond my wildest imagining, not because of who I am, but in spite of who I am.

That's the truth. That's a source of hope for me, not despair. The nobodies become somebodies, but not because of themselves. I am one of those in the process of becoming. It's a wild ride, and it's not over yet.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

And Yet More Thoughts on Mammon

In this city I confess
I am driven to possess
Answer no one, let them guess
Are you someone I impress?

I am a big boss
With a short fuse
I have a nylon carpet and rubber shoes
And when I shake hands
You'll get a big shock
You'll be begging for mercy when the champ is through
You'd better believe I'll put the clamps on you

In this city, be assured
Some will rise above the herd
Feed the fatted, leave the rest
This is how we won the West

I am a safebox
I am the inner sanctum when the door locks
I own the passkey
You say you can't take it with you?
We'll see about that, won't we?


In this city I confess
God is Mammon, more is less
Off like lemmings at the gun
I know better, still I run

I am an old man
And the word came
But you can't buy time on a good name
Now when the heirs come around like buzzards on a kill
I see my reflection in their envious eyes
I'd watch it all burn
To buy another sunrise

Some men find the fire escape
Old men learn it all too late
Push...push...push the alarm
Old MacDonald's bought the farm
-- Steve Taylor, "What is the Measure of Your Success?"

"The optimist in me wants to bronze this song as a museum piece for the materialism-run-amok decade in which it was written; when the measure of a man was his stuff. But since greed is one of the grand, recurring themes of American life, it logically follows in the 1990s that the love of money is the root of all downsizing. If Gucci loafers can lead us into greed's snare, so can sensible shoes." -- Steve Taylor

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

More Thoughts on Mammon

It occurred to me that Mammon is not really a false idol. By that I mean that it really does deliver on its promises, which a false idol never does. So maybe it’s a true idol, which may make it even more dangerous.

Mammon promises comfort, ease, the good life. And for many people, it seems to deliver just that. I’ve watched two of my suburban neighbors raise their kids, enter the Empty Nest years, and promptly move to bigger houses. And by bigger houses I mean 7,000 square foot, 7-bedroom McMansions on the golf course, with the swimming pool, the tennis court, and the three-car garage, just enough room for a Lexus, a Beamer and a Mercedes. They followed Mammon, and Mammon rewarded them handsomely.

Some people really are cushioned from cradle to grave. They are born with a silver spoon in their mouth and they end up finally keeling over while lining up a putt on the 17th green. Mammon does this for them. Mammon says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have trusted in your own self-sufficiency; trust also in Me. Do you not know that in My Father’s house there are many McMansions?” And so there are.

This doesn’t work in many places; in Darfur, Sudan, for instance, or on the south side of Columbus. But if you come from the right background, and if you live in the right suburb, and your skin is the right color, and you attend the right schools, and if a few other crucial factors line up, you can follow Mammon merrily along and Mammon will deliver on His promises. Try not to look into your egotistic, self-sufficient heart, and you’ll be just fine.

It’s a living death, of course. You’ll lose your soul in the process. But you’ll look good while doing it, and you’ll be the envy of a whole covetous world. And that’s the appeal of Mammon. How else can we explain the otherwise preposterous choice to build 7,000 square foot McMansions after everybody’s left home? Who’s going to be impressed? Apparently no one related to you.

I have caught this disease. It’s latent most of the time, but sometimes it flares up and I find myself writhing in its grasp. I don’t want a McMansion. The 300GB iPod Gigando would do just fine. The truth is it’s easier to wag my finger accusingly at the McMansions than it is to do the hard work of examining my own covetousness and greed. But it’s there. It’s there in the easy transference from reliance on God to reliance on my brain, my college degrees, my job, my salary. And it’s there in my iPod Envy, in the stupid belief that one more gadget will make me a healthy, whole, well-balanced human being.

I don’t know any cure for this other than confession and repentance, two exceedingly unhip concepts that make you look dependent and non-self-sufficient and guilty and fallible. But maybe there’s some relief in looking in the mirror and seeing your true face instead of the face you project to the envious, covetous world. And maybe there’s value in striving to maintain your soul. I’d like to think so. I believe so. But Mammon, He’s no ordinary idol. He’ll wine you and dine you and woo you, and He looks like a million bucks, hell, ten million bucks, because a million doesn’t go as far as it used to go. It’s too late when you look into His eyes and find there’s nothing there.

Monday, January 09, 2006

American iDols and Mammon

My current iDol is an iPod. I don’t have one. Almost everyone I know has one, and I want one, badly. I want the 300GB Gigando, which holds about 75,000 songs, or roughly 7,500 albums worth of music. It doesn’t exist. Ideally, it would play music for roughly 16 hours per day for the next 1.2824 years, without the need for recharging, and without repeating any songs when in Shuffle Mode. Most people don’t have a need to store 7,500 albums on something the size of a credit card, but I do. Or I will, at least if the current trend of receiving 5 – 10 free CDs in my mailbox every week continues for much longer. Such is the blessing and the curse of playing Music Critic. And I figure that with the iDol, I can just add more and more music without the corresponding guilt that comes from watching CDs spread like a cancer throughout the house, taking up first all of one room, and then another, then whatever spare closet space might be available. The kids are heading off to college, but is that really a reason to downsize? Hell no. That leaves one bedroom for Kate and me, and three to store music. That sounds about right. Besides, if or when grandkids arrive, they can just move a stack of CDs or ten and sleep in the spare beds.

Occasionally it dawns on me that this way of thinking may be as warped as some of my now unplayable vinyl LPs that were left out in the sun too long. Unfortunately, I exaggerate only slightly. What does it say when my current music collection is larger than that contained by our suburban Public Library? I don’t know, but it’s probably not good. I figure we can always build a tasteful wing on to the house if need be, the Andrew Whitman Music Memorial, featuring the Sufjan Stevens Shrine, the Richard Thompson Terrace, and the Grateful Dead Grotto. Kate, ever the pragmatist, desirous of a simpler, uncluttered life, sometimes says things to me such as, “Why don’t you at least throw away the albums you genuinely don’t like? At least do that. There are probably hundreds of them you’ve never played, or played only once, and that you hate? Why don’t you at least get rid of those?” My eyes narrow suspiciously. “Which of your children would you throw away?” I ask her. “Which part of your past are you willing to discard? You don’t understand. This isn’t stuff. This is life.” And I mean it, sort of. I don’t care about the plastic. I really don’t. But I do care about the associations, the memories, the way that songs prick through my complacency and make me alive to the world around me, the warp and woof of the way music is woven throughout my entire life. You might as well ask me to cut off my arm.

But this too is life: yesterday Ram preached a great sermon at church about money, or, more specifically, Mammon – the god of the Idol Rich. He talked about money as a God substitute, a rival deity. He talked about the allure that money holds out – the promise of security, power, freedom, a more abundant life, and about the stark choices that confront us – to serve God, or to serve the false idol Mammon, to declare our allegiance by the way we live our lives and the way we view the not-so-Almighty Dollar, to be other-focused and not me-focused.

And he’s right. He’s absolutely right. I think about these things, a lot. And it is amazing how easily I can flip-flop on these issues. I am rich. I am not rich. I have too much. I don’t have nearly enough.

Only .4% of the world’s population makes more money than I do, according to a survey that John McCollum recently posted on his blog. So give me your tired, your poor, your wretched masses yearning to be free. Yeah, buddy. So why is it, Mr. 99.6% Wealthier Than Thou, that you have no idea how you’re going to pay for two kids who will be in college at the same time because you just don’t have that spare $40K or $50K per year lying about the estate, and how is it that more than half of every paycheck never even makes it to your bank account because it’s automatically deducted in four kinds of taxes and in retirement savings and in charitable contributions, and how is it that with all of your so-called wealth, you can’t afford to buy a frickin’ iPod, Nano, Gigando, or otherwise?

These are the questions that these infernal guilt-inducing Internet surveys and well-intentioned sermons never seem to address. But I do know this. My natural tendency, the ever-present pull in my life, is toward me. My ever-present tendency is to hoard, not to give away. And I believe that’s wrong, and I don’t want to be that way. I occasionally see some grudging progress. Hey, if selling that stupid I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House CD will help some starving kid in Cambodia, then go for it. More importantly, I’ve seen both the amount and the percentage of our charitable giving go up over time. And I don’t regret that at all. I’m thankful for that. But I really do want that iPod, and I wish I wasn’t somewhat resentful that I don’t have one. I’m not proud of that. But it’s true. And so I talk to God and ask Him to change me, to make me less selfish, to help me focus on what is truly important and lasting. It’s not stuff. It’s not even what I like to fondly think of as “life.” It’s Life. It is a battle that will continue. But I hope, and I pray, that the Almighty Me will lose a little more frequently, and that others, and the Kingdom of God, will be served.

Thanks, Ram, for a great, uncomfortable sermon. Or maybe I should say Damn you. No, I’ll leave it at Thanks.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Paste Podcast

You've read me, o faithful audience. Some of you have seen me, live in the flesh. And on Talita's or El Vaquero nights, you've smelled me. And now you can hear me on the inaugural Paste Podcast.

Click here to see the details, and note that my name appears in the same sentence as the words "Buddy Miller" -- kind of fun. Happy listening.

One Cool Cat

Piss, piss, moan, moan. Most Emo music, a la Dashboard Confessional or early Bright Eyes, bores me to tears. Just die already. But not when it's written from the point of view of an Emo kitty with poetic sensibilities.

Why don't you ever want to play?
I'm tired of this piece of string.
You sleep as much as I do now,
and you don't eat much of anything.

I don't know who you're talking to
I made a search through every room,
but all I found was dust that moved
in shadows of the afternoon.

And listen,
about those bitter songs you sing?
They're not helping anything.
They won't make you strong.

So, we should open up the house.
Invite the tabby two doors down.
You could ask your sister
if she doesn't bring her Basset Hound.
Ask the things you shouldn't miss:
tape-hiss and the Modern Man,
The Cold War and Card Catalogues,
to come and join us if they can

for girly drinks and parlor games.
We'll pass around the easy lie
of absolutely no regrets,
and later maybe you could try
to let your losses dangle off
the sharp edge of the century,
and talk about the weather, or
how the weather used to be.

And I'll cater
with all the birds that I can kill.
Let their tiny feathers fill

Lie down;
lick the sorrow from your skin.
Scratch the terror and begin
to believe you're strong.

All you ever want to do is drink and watch TV,
and frankly that thing doesn't really interest me.
I swear I'm going to bite you hard and taste your tinny blood
if you don't stop the self-defeating lies you've been repeating
since the day you brought me home.
I know you're strong.
-- The Weakerthans, "Plea from a Cat Named Virtue"

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Overview of Contemporary Celtic Music

It may be cultural guilt. I am about as Irish as Erin Brockovich, and my decidedly English ancestors were probably firing bullets into rock-lobbing members of the IRA 90 years ago in Dublin. In any case, I have a longstanding affinity for the Celtic/Rock musical hybrid that dates back to my high school years. While everybody else was listening to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, my friends and I were buying Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span albums and dreaming of fair damsels and woodland nymphs and singing hey-nonny-nonny choruses in the high school corridors, which impressed the cheerleaders to no end. For anyone curious about such music (and really, who doesn’t want to warble hey-nonny-nonny from time to time?), I thought I would compile a highly personal and subjective guide to the genre.

It all starts with Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. The time? The late ‘60s. Two English bands, both founded by one Ashley Hutchings, forego their fascination with all things Dylan and Beatles and decide to strike out in a new direction, exploring the traditional music of their native land and tarting it up with electric guitars and a backbeat. This is far more square than it might originally seem (although you will probably grant me that fa-la-la and hey-nonny-nonny probably wasn’t going to win over the hipsters). Imagine the American counterpart – rocking out to, say, “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” or “On Top of Old Smokey.” Exactly. It was a wonder that the idea didn’t wither on ye olde vine.

But it didn’t, partly because these traditional folk songs have a timeless quality and appeal that transcends customs and cultures, and partly because these musicians were really, really great. Consider the best-known Fairport Convention lineup, and the amazing musical tree that sprang forth – Sandy Denny (possessor of one of the greatest, purest, most soulful voices you will ever hear, who later made a handful of achingly gorgeous solo albums with her band Fotheringay), Richard Thompson (who for almost forty years has constructed, with sometime help from then-wife Linda, a catalogue that rivals Dylan or Van for longevity and quality), Dave Swarbrick and Simon Nicol (who recorded several fine albums as a duo), and Ashley Hutchings, who went on to found The Albion Band, one of the better Celtic bands of the ‘70s, after he launched Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.

By now you’re probably getting the idea. The Celtic Rock genre is as convoluted and inbred as any imaginable, with bands constantly breaking up, re-emerging with slightly altered lineups, switching members like trading cards, etc. For what it’s worth then, here is a roughly chronological guide to the best that this confusing genre has to offer:

The 1970’s

Fairport Convention -- The definitive Celtic Rock band, at least in its earliest and best incarnation. Best albums are Unhalfbricking, What We Did On Our Holidays, and Liege and Lief. The band has limped on to the present day, with about thirty different lineup changes, the British version of The Beach Boys. None of the current members were in the original band.

Steeleye Span – The, umm, other definitive Celtic Rock band. Best albums are Below the Salt and Parcel of Rogues, although anything from the ‘70s is very worthwhile. Maddy Prior was a great vocalist, the equal of Sandy Denny. And although Steeleye couldn’t compete with the jaw-dropping guitar work of Richard Thompson, they made up in volume and power chords what they lacked in virtuosity. A couple of their late-seventies albums, notably All Around My Hat and Commoner’s Crown, could best be classified as Celtic boogie, a sort of Foghat-meets-Folderol approach that is surprisingly effective.

The Pentangle – Featuring more marvelous vocals from yet another thrush, this one named Jacqui McShee, and some stunning intertwined guitar work from John Renbourne and Bert Jansch. Best albums are Sweet Child and Cruel Sister. There’s a strong traditional Celtic flavor to the music, but the band was surprisingly versatile, as witnessed by their inspired cover of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.”

Martin Carthy – Carthy was in and out of Steeleye Span a couple times, but he’s best noted for a fine solo career, which continues today. His best solo albums are probably Byker Hill and Landfall, although you can’t go wrong with anything he’s recorded. He also has a highly distinctive guitar style that profoundly influenced everybody’s-favorite-morose-suicide-not-named-Elliot-Smith, Nick Drake.

John Martyn – Another great and largely unrecognized guitarist who mixed jazz chops and sensibilities with more traditional Celtic sounds. Best albums are the lovely Sunday’s Child and his moving tribute to Nick Drake, Solid Air.

The 1980s

June Tabor – The singing librarian. Shy, bookish June Tabor may be the best interpreter of traditional Celtic music who has ever lived. Her rich alto is best in evidence on ‘80s albums such as A Cut Above, Some Other Time, and Freedom and Rain, although she’s made great music throughout the past thirty years.

Silly Wizard and Andy Stewart – Arguably the greatest traditional Scots band, Silly Wizard featured two dazzling instrumentalists in brothers Phil (accordion, keyboards, whistles, guitar) and Johnny (fiddle) Cunningham. They can be heard to best effect on Wild and Beautiful and Live Wizardry. Although lead singer Stewart sometimes undermines the band with his mawkish over-emoting, he has a pure tenor and winsome burr that would melt the heart of the most critical listener, and his solo debut By the Hush is worth hunting down, if for no other reason than to hear the title track, the bitter, beautiful lament of a soldier who has escaped the potato famine in Ireland only to be conscripted into the Union army at the onset of the U.S. Civil War.

The Pogues – The best band of the ‘80s. Period. Sorry Bono, but Shane MacGowan wrote better songs. It was an idea whose time had come – the combination of raw punk energy and attitude with traditional Celtic instrumentation – and the sonic assault this band delivered was wondrous. But behind MacGowan’s perpetually slurred vocals and besotted countenance was the heart of a poet, and his songs could break your heart. Best albums? Start with Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace with God, but buy them all.

Dick Gaughan – Gaughan has had a mercurial career as a musician, actor, and early web designer, but 1981’s Handful of Earth forever sealed his reputation as a great, soulful singer and songwriter, offering definitive takes on the traditional “Erin Go Bragh,” the Robert Burns song “Now Westlin Winds,” and the decidedly populist sentiments of “World Turned Upside Down” and “The Worker’s Song.”

Boiled in Lead -- Celtic by way of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Boiled in Lead combined the thrash of city mates Husker Du and The Replacements with traditional Irish jigs and reels, while tossing in tributes to East African guitarist Thomas Mapfumo and a crazed cover of The Hollies’ “Stop Stop Stop.”. Best albums are From the Ladle to the Grave and Orb.

Van Morrison and The Chieftains – The Chieftains are normally a little too soporific and PBS-ready for me, but they perform flawlessly and energetically on Irish Heartbeat, Van’s only foray into traditional Irish music. Van’s voice, of course, is far too influenced by American gospel and soul to pull off a couple of the more schmaltz-laden numbers, but hey, he’s Van. He could sing “Danny Boy” in a faux-Irish pub in County Prefab U.S.A. and it would be great.

The 1990s and Beyond

Black 47 – The best of the political Celtic bands. Named after the most dire year of the Irish Potato Famine, Larry Kirwan’s band is loud, rowdy, and highly agitating, mixing sentimental ballads of the Auld Country with incendiary calls to arms (or at least rocks) and impassioned, elegiac tributes to heroes such as Brendan Behan and James Connelly. The rap with bagpipes is a little strange and offputting, but still they get me all riled up, and I’m ready to go out and throw stones at the English bastards myself. Then I remember my ancestry, and I get conflicted. Best albums are the eponymous debut and Fire of Freedom.

Damien Dempsey – Dublin native Damien Dempsey only has two albums thus far, but those albums, They Don’t Teach This Shit in School and Seize the Day, are revelations, equal parts Dylanesque protest music, reggae riddims, and traditional Celtic instrumentation. He’s a talent to watch.

Eliza Carthy -- The daughter of British guitarist/vocalist Martin Carthy and vocalist Norma Waterson brings blue hair, tattoos, piercings, and the corresponding attitude to Celtic music. Every album from her prolific 10-year career is worthwhile, but she started out good and she’s getting great, a highly encouraging trend. Check out 2002’s Anglicana or 2005’s Rough Music for a taste of rarely heard traditional music, world-class fiddle playing, and beautiful singing.

Kate Rusby – Kate Rusby is probably the best known of the current crop of traditional and traditionally-influenced performers. And with good reason. This Yorkshire lass has a pure folk soprano that is a wonder to hear. I’m partial to her early albums such as Hourglass and Sleepless, but her last few albums are very good as well, and, like Gillian Welch, she has developed the ability to write original tunes that cannot be distinguished from her ancient source material. Don’t miss her collaborations with Kathryn Roberts and The Poozies, either.

Susan McKeown – Sandy Denny lives. McKeown’s stately, gorgeous alto is featured on mostly straightforward adaptations of traditional English and Irish folk songs, but she occasionally throws in a curveball, as in her collaborations with the Malian ensemble Tartit and the Mariachi Real de Mexico on her latest and best album Sweet Liberty. 1998’s Bushes and Briars is great, too. But the real reason to check out this music is and will always be the Voice. Rediscover the fine art of singing.

Flogging Molly – Shane MacGowan lives, even though he’s not quite yet dead. Sure, it was probably done slightly better in the ‘80s, but Dave King has the songwriting chops and the snarl, and Flogging Molly has the hyperkinetic drive that marked the best work from The Pogues. Drunken Lullabyes and Within a Mile of Home are the best punk/Celtic hybrids that have been released in many years. And Lucinda Williams never sang a duet with Shane MacGowan.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


God bless Tonio K. He eventually became a Christian, but he was a lot funnier and a lot angrier as a non-Christian. I miss that.

now i know it's not unusual
it's nothing so unique
there's probably hundreds of wonderful love affairs
that go bad in this town every week
but all of them others
them sad-hearted lovers
could cry in their beer, what the hey
it didn't concern me
was none of my business
i never had nothin' to say
but suddenly darlin'
the table has turned
you have left me for somebody new
and now it's hard to express
the resentment i feel
for the years that i've wasted on you
but let me put this another way, ok?

i'm full of h-a-t-r-e-d
i'm bitter and malign
you've got me
p-i-s-s-e-d off
i'm angry most of the time
why don't you
g-o t-o h-e-double"l"
you tramp
you philandering bitch
i'm going to
k-i-l-l one of us baby
give me time and i'll decide on which

and i know i'm acting immature
i'm acting like a child
i should display some self-control
instead of going wild like this
and i do wish i could accept all this
as simply "life" which includes pain
and act upon the actual fact
that nobody's to blame
yes i wish i was as mellow
as for instance jackson browne
but "fountain of sorrow" my ass, mother fucker
i hope you wind up in the ground

i'm so full of h-a-t-r-e-d
i'm bitter and malign
you've got me
p-i-s-s-e-d off
i'm angry most of the time
why don't you
g-o t-o h-e-double"l"
you tramp
you philandering bitch
i'm going to
k-i-l-l one of us baby
when i'm sober i'll decide on which
(but then again, maybe with the proper counseling, we can work this out)
-- Tonio K., "H-A-T-R-E-D"

Things are fine at home. Why do you ask? No, really, they are.