Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Joy and Sorrow

It was just another normal extraordinary day.

Yesterday my friends John and Kori received news about the little baby girl they’ve been waiting to adopt. They know her name, they’ve seen pictures of her, and in less than two months they will be able to travel to China and hold her in their arms. This is a wonderful thing, even a blessed thing, and I’m very thankful for them and for the palpable joy they communicate in loving this little girl.

Yesterday I also heard from my friend Paula in Colorado. Her (now ex) husband left her a year ago, moved in with a woman twenty years younger than himself. But he continues to harass her, verbally abuse her, threaten her. She’s trying to raise two teenaged sons, playing supermom when she’s scared and lonely and fragile, working to earn money that never quite adds up to what is needed, dealing with a hole in her soul that no one else wants to deal with. “Get over him,” her friends tell her. “He’s an ass.” And I want to strangle people I don’t even know.

After work I drove up to Amity, Ohio, to visit the farm home of my friends Don and Joyce. Joyce has bone cancer, and has been in remission for the past couple years. Over Christmas her condition rapidly deteriorated. Now she can hardly walk. She’s weak, and sleeps most of the day. The doctors have offered the less-than-comforting options of three different kinds of aggressive chemotherapy treatments whose side effects are almost as bad as the disease itself. They have decided to forego all of those options and focus on a more natural cure, which apparently consists of various vitamins and nutrients in powder form, stirred into gallons of carrot juice every day. I want to shake my head. But mostly I want to cry. I’m not sure I would do anything different if I were in their shoes. Desperate times call for desperate measures. What the hell. Guzzle that carrot juice. It’s got to be better than constant vomiting and diarrhea.

Mostly I listened to them, listened to the litany of medical woes, names of medications, names of vitamins and gluco-nutrients. Then I hugged them and prayed for them. They’re grasping at anything, desperate for anything that might work. And I prayed for healing, prayed that God would work a miracle. And I believe that God can do those things. But I also wanted to bludgeon my head against the wall. I hate this. I cordially hate it.

I got home at 10:30 after having been gone for 15 hours. I didn’t want to see my family, although I dearly love them. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I felt exhausted. No, maybe not exhausted, because I didn’t feel physically tired. But I felt weary. I had a soul ache. I wanted to punch somebody. I wanted to punch Death, but he seemed to be out of easy reach. And so I went to bed, and punched my pillow, and prayed some more, and tossed and turned until 3:00 a.m.

So this is how I talk about it. Sometimes it helps to write. Sometimes it doesn’t. I still want to bludgeon my head against the wall.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Punk With Thesaurus

One of my favorite bands hails from the godforsaken wasteland of Winnipeg, Manitoba (home of The Guess Who). They are called The Weakerthans. They play loud, raucous rock 'n roll, and they have a lead singer/songwriter who consistently amazes me with his words. Behind the bluster and the attitude lies the heart of a romantic poet. His name is John Samson, and these are some of the things he writes about.

Measure me in metered lines, in one decisive stare,
The time it takes to get from here to there
My ribs that show through t-shirts and these shoes I got for free;
I'm unconsoled, I'm lonely
I am so much better than I used to be

Terrified of telephones and shopping malls and knives,
And drowning in the pools of other lives
Rely a bit too heavily on alcohol and irony
Get clobbered on by courtesy, in love with love, and lousy poetry.

And I'm leaning on this broken fence between past and present tense.
And I'm losing all those stupid games that I swore I'd never play.
But it almost feels okay

Circumnavigate this body of wonder and uncertainty.
Armed with every precious failure, and amateur cartography,
I breathe in deep before I spread those maps out on my bedroom floor

And I'm leaning on this broken fence between past and present tense.
And I'm losing all those stupid games that I swore I'd never play
But it feels okay

And I'm leaving. Wave goodbye.
And I'm losing, but I'll try, with the last ways left, to remember
Sing my imperfect offering
-- "Aside"

late afternoon another day is nearly done
a darker grey is breaking through a lighter one
a thousand sharpened elbows in the underground
that hollow hurried sound of feet on polished floor
and in the dollar store the clerk is closing up
and counting loonies trying not to say
i hate winnipeg

the driver checks the mirror seven minutes late
crowded riders' restlessness enunciates
the guess who suck, the jets were lousy anyway
the same mood every day
and in the turning lane
someone's stalled again
he's talking to himself
and hears the price of gas repeat his phrase
i hate winnipeg

up above us all,
leaning into sky
our golden business boy
will watch the north end die
and sing 'i love this town'
then let his arching wrecking ball proclaim:
i hate winnipeg
-- "One Great City"

So the fields are stubble,
the garden is done where the scary scarecrow stands
and sees her holding up horizons with her hands.
She's so tired of reading Daddy's lips -- that essay on a frown.
Watch her memories of human voices drown.
Let horsey bray break between the thunder boom.
Make grasses swish meet the cricket's ring.
Let every sound consecrate our whispering words
that Betta never heard.

The backlanes tie the city down; a mess of dirty string.
Winter dies the same way every spring.
As the sky tries on its uniform of turned off t.v. grey,
and the way we watched her watch us walk away,
let every rain clatter down at groaning streets.
Make footsteps tick, talk to echoed walls.
Let every sound consecrate our whispering words
that Betta never heard.

Let every wind howl and creak the creaking doors
to rooms that too much has happened in.
Let every sound consecrate our whispering words
that Betta never heard.
-- "Elegy for Elsabet"

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Sigur Ros Speaks (in English, no less)

Sigur Ros played two concerts at Calvin College last weekend. Calvin has a wonderful tradition of inviting visiting musicians to talk about whatever they want to talk about with the college students on the afternoon before a concert. Here is a link to the conversation with Sigur Ros. Click on the MP3 of the Week at the bottom left corner of the page to listen in.

Here they talk about their music, their beliefs, Hopelandic, their collaborations with other artists, and, yes, Lionel Richie.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Quick Music Update

Crawling out from under the mound of new music, I'm updating a post from a few days back.

6) Hank Williams III -- Straight to Hell -- Hank sounds more like his grandaddy than his pappy. That's a good thing. One of the two songs I listened to contained the immortal chorus, "I'm here to put the dick in Dixie/And the cunt back in country/'Cause the kind of country I'm hearin' nowadays/Is a bunch of fuckin' shit to me." Yee haw. Whatever happened to cheatin' hearts and pickup trucks?

I miss those pickup trucks, it turns out. Hank has plenty of attitude, but after about the seventh song about snortin' coke, smokin' dope, and general hippie hell raisin', I started to yawn. Didn't the New Riders of the Purple Sage do this thirty-five years ago, anyway? Somebody slap some sense into Hank and tell him that Neil Young did the "better to burn out than to fade away" routine a long time ago, and that Neil is still alive. Don't bet on the same for Hank. But then again, he's got those hellraisin' genes to live up to. Somebody should also tell him that some legacies are worth leaving in the dust.

11) Scott Miller and the Commonwealth -- Citation -- From the former leader of the V-Roys, I'm told. I remember the V-Roys. Great band. Legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson helps out. This could be very good.

And it is very good. Miller's a fine raspy vocalist, with a bit of John Mellencamp and Springsteen in him, and this is fine heartland roots rock. Bonus points for the great cover of Neil Young's "Hawks and Doves," one of Neil's lesser-known songs from one of his lesser-known albums, and a handful of smart, bittersweet songs about growing older but not growing up.

14) Sussan Deyhim -- Madman of God: Divine Love Songs of the Persian Sufi Masters -- What it says, with contributions from former John Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman. Could be bizarre and impenetrable, could be absolutely wonderful.

It's not impenetrable at all. It's frequently beautiful. And although Deyhim is clearly the star here, the ethereal accompaniment and amazing polyrhythms often recall Peter Gabriel's soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. In other words, this is distinctly non-Western music, but with concessions thrown in to lure the rock 'n rollers. Like me.

19) Gus Black -- Autumn Days -- I listened to two of the songs. Gus sounds a bit like Cat Stevens, a bit like Sufjan Stevens. No evidence of Connie Stevens.

I missed the Donovan influence last time. But it's there; fortunately more in the vocals than in the trippy subject matter. Otherwise, these are primarily well written, highly melodic folk songs, with occasional forays into some noisier fare that recalls Pete Yorn.

23) Hillstomp -- The Woman That Ended the World -- One guy with a g uitar and a slide. One guy with a drum. See The White Stripes, above. Or The Black Keys. But supposedly more of a Mississippi Delta influence this time. I like it in theory. Again, we'll see.

The reality: much more Robert Johnson and Skip James than The White Stripes. And that's fine. But this is a blues record, not a rock 'n roll record, and it's about as raw and unpolished as they come. Why use three chords when two will do? That's not a criticism, by the way. Two chords, a bottleneck slide, and a growl can carry you a long way, and these guys take the tradition on down the line.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Julie Andrews

The first great, unrequited love of my life involved a nun, specifically Julie Andrews as Sister Maria in The Sound of Music. I was nine years old, and the only nuns I had encountered up to that point all taught at my elementary school and wore black and white robes and strange, towering headdresses that gave them a shape that somewhat resembled a hulking linebacker. So Julie Andrews on the big movie screen at the new Northland Mall was quite a revelation.

But there was Julie, all sweetness and goodness and something achingly indefinable that already made my nine-year-old body tingle, throwing her arms wide and belting out “I go to the hills when my heart is lonely,” and I was quite prepared to succor her in her loneliness, plead my case as a worthy suitor, and help her make the big break from the convent.

She could play the guitar and sing, too, which made her all the more attractive. A couple years before The Sound of Music a cultural phenomenon known as The Singing Nun had invaded America in general and Catholic America specifically. The Singing Nun’s big hit, called “Dominique,” was de rigueur listening in every Catholic home, including mine. And so I spent night after night of my early childhood listening to a nun in full linebacker regalia sing in French and strum her acoustic guitar. It was nice, but Julie opened up a whole new world.

Julie, in fact, could sing the most mind-numbing drivel and melt the hearts of little children. “Doe, a deer, a female deer,” she sang, “Ray, a drop of golden sun,” and little Franz and Rolfe gawked like they were sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to the master drop pearls of eternal wisdom. Far be it from me to complain. Never had the C major scale sounded so daringly playful and provocative. Julie had the entire wholesome Catholic package. She was sweet, she was lovely, she wore a modified veil that made her look demure but which didn’t obscure that cute little English bob haircut, and she was just rebellious enough to tweak the Mother Superior and make every Catholic boy think unholy thoughts.

So sixteen years went by and I married a woman who looked like Julie Andrews. Sort of. Okay, Kate is taller. And she had dark brown hair instead of light brown hair. And she couldn’t fake an English accent worth a damn, even though I coached her and encouraged to her say words like "Edelweiss" in that charming Julie Andrews way. But she had the Julie bob when I met her, and that wholesome, apple-cheeked Julie goodness about her, and she was so darn cute that I could hardly stand it, and was ready to break out into a duet with her at a moment's notice.

“Would you like to sing “The Lonely Goatherd?” I asked her early in our dating relationship. “Maybe yodel for a bit?”

She thought I was kidding. But I would have done it, and it would have been a gloriously transcendent moment.

Julie turned seventy a few months back. She’s mostly out of the entertainment industry now, preferring to spend her time writing children’s books and working for a variety of charitable causes. But she continues to cast her magic spell. Joshua Neds-Fox recounts the tale of how his two-year-old son is now enamored with The Sound of Music. Watch out, kid. It’s insidious. And delightful. And good. Who knows what might come of this?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

This Week in the Mailbox ...

... or why it's so hard to keep up with contemporary music.

This is what has shown up, unbidden, in the mailbox this week. I open it up, and music falls out. Unfortunately, work, family, and relationships have a way of getting in the way of listening time. Well, not really. It's all good. But it does make it difficult to keep up. Thus far I've made it through one of these albums in its entirety a couple of times, and about four songs on two of the other albums. There's probably some great stuff here. Maybe I'll find out. And maybe I won't.

1) Holly Brook -- Like Blood Like Honey -- Billed as a cross between Joni Mitchell and Fiona Apple. Probably not a roaring good time, but maybe poetic and insightful.
2) Susan McKeown -- Blackthorn: Irish Love Songs -- Sung in what appears to be Gaelic, if titles like "An Droighnean Dann" are any indication. No idea yet, but her last couple albums have been great. This is one I'll eventually listen to.
3) Milton and the Devil's Party -- What Is All This Sweet Work Worth? -- Billed as literary rock 'n roll made by a bunch of English professors in Pennsylvania who are enamored with Blake, Milton, Elvis Costello, and The Kinks. Sounds too good to pass up. I'll definitely listen, but at this point I can't comment.
4) Margot and the Nuclear So and So's -- The Dust of Retreat -- on Steve Earle's Artemis label. I'm expecting something rootsy, maybe country. We'll see. Named for the Gwyneth Paltrow character in The Royal Tennenbaums, so they win on style points alone.
5) Donald Fagen -- Morph the Cat -- This is the album I listened to twice, mainly because I had to review it for Paste. It sounds like Steely Dan, possibly because it was made by the main singer/songwriter for Steely Dan.
6) Hank Williams III -- Straight to Hell -- Hank sounds more like his grandaddy than his pappy. That's a good thing. One of the two songs I listened to contained the immortal chorus, "I'm here to put the dick in Dixie/And the cunt back in country/'Cause the kind of country I'm hearin' nowadays/Is a bunch of fuckin' shit to me." Yee haw. Whatever happened to cheatin' hearts and pickup trucks?
7) Sean Watkins -- Blinders On -- The guitarist in Nickel Creek, who is apparently trying his hand at Beatles/British Invasion power pop tunes.
8) Lila Downs -- La Cantina -- A self-described Deadhead who followed the band around in a VW bus, Lila's music apparently "digs deep into her indigenous Mexican roots, but with North American sonorities." Si, senorita. What a long strange trip this album sounds like. Again, we'll see.
9) The Roy Hargrove Quintet -- Nothing Serious -- Straightforward post-bop jazz from one of the world's finest trumpet players. I'm looking forward to hearing this one.
10) The RH Factor -- Distractions -- Hargrove's musical alter ego, this time showing off his P-Funk leanings. Okay.
11) Scott Miller and the Commonwealth -- Citation -- From the former leader of the V-Roys, I'm told. I remember the V-Roys. Great band. Legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson helps out. This could be very good.
12) Taraf de Haidouks -- The Continuing Adventures of Taraf de Haidouks -- And here I didn't even know they'd begun. Billed as the finest, wildest, and most soulful Balkan Gypsy band in the world. Includes a DVD, and an audio CD. It's a Balkan Gypsy multimedia extravaganza.
13) Kocani Orkestar -- Alone At My Wedding -- "A mighty Macedonian brass band" augmented by "vocals, clarinet, banjo, etc." I wonder what "etc." means.
14) Sussan Deyhim -- Madman of God: Divine Love Songs of the Persian Sufi Masters -- What it says, with contributions from former John Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman. Could be bizarre and impenetrable, could be absolutely wonderful.
15) Mark Pickerel and His Praying Hands -- Snake in the Radio -- The first solo album from the former Screaming Trees drummer. On Bloodshot Records, which usually means raw and rootsy, not what I would have necessarily expected from a former Seattle Grungehead. Again, we'll see.
16) The Pogues -- Complete Radio Sessions -- My favorite band of the '80s. A bunch of mid-'80s radio sessions recorded for the BBC. Should be wonderful.
17) Peter Walker -- Young Gravity -- No press kit. No info on the album cover. God only knows.
18) Tres Chicas -- Bloom, Red, and The Ordinary Girl -- Their first album was great. Caitlin Cary, former member of Ryan Adams' band Whiskeytown, is the main attraction here. I'm not really familiar with the other dos chicas.
19) Gus Black -- Autumn Days -- I listened to two of the songs. Gus sounds a bit like Cat Stevens, a bit like Sufjan Stevens. No evidence of Connie Stevens.
20) J. DiMenna -- Awkward Buildings -- Again, no PR materials. No idea.
21) 44 Long -- Hangover Heights Part 2 -- Apparently influenced by Neil Young/Crazy Horse, Son Volt, and Wilco. With those influences, it's worth a listen.
22) Soledad Brothers -- The Hardest Walk -- Detroit roots/blues stuff. Which could be great. A little local band called The White Stripes works the same territory. Lesser knowns The Detroit Cobras are even better, in my opinion. We'll see.
23) Hillstomp -- The Woman That Ended the World -- One guy with a guitar and a slide. One guy with a drum. See The White Stripes, above. Or The Black Keys. But supposedly more of a Mississippi Delta influence this time. I like it in theory. Again, we'll see.

That's the haul this week. I love my life.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Fool's Gold

Is it just me, or is the current crop of U.S. Winter Olympians particularly skewed toward unlikable people? NBC is working overtime to give us the usual fuzzy, feelgood stories that we’ve come to expect in those Up Close and Personal Moments. And they’re dishing out the typical cornpone shtick: Orphaned at two, young Golda Meddle was adopted by a struggling but kind family of ski bums. Skiing to preschool down the precipitous mountain near her glacier home by the age of three, Golda was winning international competitions at the age of five, and already dreaming of Olympic Glory. Blah blah blah.

But just look at the raw materials with which they have to work.

Here’s U.S. speed skater Shani Davis on why he elected not to participate in the team (note that word carefully, sports fans) pursuit race: “I worked to be here. None of my teammates worked to get me here. My dream was to be a short-track and long-track skater, not to skate in the pursuit. People can say what they want. I'm upset that they're upset. I've been skating since I was 6. This is the fruit of all the labor I put in for years. It's my choice, and I choose not to. The only things I care about are the 1,000 and the 1,500.”

There’s no “I” in “Team” you say? You wanna bet?

Then there’s U.S. figureskater Johnny Weir, who in one of those Up Close and Personal interviews described the tempo of a competitor's short program as "a vodka-shot, let's-snort-coke kind of thing." He concluded, ““I’m not for everyone. I’m me. I don’t front. I don’t put on a face. I don’t make statements just to make them. I mean every word I say, regardless if it’s offensive or mean-spirited. I’m not going to sugar coat it.” So bravely, quintessentially American, n’est pas? I’m me, and if you don’t like it, fuck you. No wonder the rest of the world perceives us as boorish and arrogant.

Finally, we have downhill/slalom/giant slalom skiing “legend” Bode Miller, the face of the U.S. Winter Olympic team, who has been a certified bust thus far, failing to win a medal in his two competitions, and being disqualified from the combined event on Tuesday after he decided to ski through rather than around a gate. Here’s Bode:

“This year I just want to enjoy myself. I could give up tomorrow without having the slightest regret. I could keep away from this world for a year and then perhaps start to feel the desire to prove something to myself again.”

What the hell. No sense in getting worked up about the Olympics. Or training. Or staying out of the local Torino bars at 2:00 a.m. the morning of a competition. Here’s the take I read a couple times today from various Internet pundits: Why sweat it? People are too uptight, man. If a guy wants to torpedo his career, you gotta admire him for that, right?

Wrong. Since when is being an irresponsible, selfish prick a virtue?

NBC prefers to present these athletes as “colorful.” Sure, just like NBA player Latrell Sprewell, who colorfully tried to choke his basketball coach to death, or Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tochet, currently in hot water for consorting with various colorful Mafia characters. It is really, really hard to cheer for this bunch to win, and everything in me wants to cheer for them to lose. Maybe tonight I’ll watch a sitcom. Or read a book. Or write a poetic ode to the Olympic ideal that would make NBC blush with pride. Anything instead of these USAssholes. I’m not so proud to be an American.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

CCM and Broken Plaster

This is something I wrote on an early Internet newsgroup, oh, about 16 years ago. In some ways I've changed. In other ways I haven't. Here is one area where my views have not changed.


The CCM industry, like every other industry, exists to make money. We can put a noble face on it and talk about the Christian witness provided in the music, but historically those Christian musicians whose witness hasn't led to increased album sales don't get the chance to keep on witnessing via recorded music. The bottom line is and always has been this: witness all you like, and be as artistic as you like, as long as you make money.

Certain concepts are intrinsic to the operation of the CCM industry, namely that Christian music is a ministry, and Christian musicians are ministers (in the church leadership sense) who are accorded the same privileges and responsibilities as pastors. I think these are highly debatable assumptions, but for argument's sake let's assume that they're true. My question, then, is this: is there something inherent in those assumptions that would promote and lead to higher profits in the CCM industry?

I would argue that there is. The alternative to the "ministry" view is that Christian musicians are Christians with musical abilities. Nothing more and nothing less. They compete in the marketplace with other people with musical abilities, some of whom are Christians and some of whom are not. However, CCM labels are at a distinct disadvantage in this competition. Their CDs sell for, on average, $15 - $16, while those of their competition (non-CCM labels, or, if you prefer, secular labels) sell for, on average, $12 - $13. How, then, do you convince the music-buying public to pay that extra $3 per CD?

I think you do it by promoting the uniqueness and the exclusive nature of Christian music. CCM musicians are more than Christians with guitars. They're ministers. They're annointed. They're called by God. They feature evangelistic messages designed to lead people to God (this despite the fact that the overwhelming evidence shows that it is Christians, not non-Christians, who listen to CCM). Furthermore, those musicians who don't record for CCM labels are *not* ministers. They may be Christians, but they haven't been zapped in the same way. This is the special "oooomph" that CCM needs to compete in the marketplace. Never mind that Brother X might be a brand new Christian who was signed because of his abilities to sing, play the guitar, and string together rhyming words like "loss" and "cross." If he records for Word or Myrrh then he's a minister.

How do you get people to buy this stuff? You simply tell them that the music is annointed. You emphasize the (false) dichotomy between "Christian" music and "worldly" music. You carefully control your product so that only overtly religious material or upbeat, wholesome material is released. You carefully control your artists so that they are presented as larger than life and Superstars of Holiness, and you ensure at all costs that their sins are kept hidden from their followers. And if one of them slips up and lets his sin become known, you have no choice but to boot him out of the club. How do you justify the extra $3. Simple. You tell people that they're not only getting music, but music from Giants of the Faith. And God help the poor wretch who doesn't live up to the image.

More and more I believe that the CCM world is absolutely based on a lie. That's not to say that God can't and won't use it. He does. But He uses it in spite of the wrong motives and untruthful messages, not because of them. The vast majority of CCM artists are no different from you or me except in one area: they have musical abilities. Setting them on a pedestal will inevitably lead to broken plaster. It also leads to bigger bucks for the CCM labels. These profits are made at the cost of the truth and the lives of those who swallow the whole pathetic charade. Is it worth it?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Sigur Ros in Columbus

I don’t know what heaven will be like. There are angels there, I’m told. There is some biblical evidence that they sing. And if they sing, then what comes out of their seraphic mouths is probably representative of some extraterrestrial musical genre that has no counterpart on earth. God knows we’ll have had enough of the usual gangsta rappers and pop tarts and earnest singer/songwriters when we get there, and it will be a relief to hear something different. But I’d still like to believe that the angels will brandish electric guitars. There is some good here on earth, common grace abounds, and there’s no sense in the wholesale banishment of the familiar from the afterlife. The music will be new, but it will retain echoes of what was good and glorious on this earth.

And if I’m right, then I suspect I got a preview of the heavenly host last night. Sigur Ros came to town and played like garage band cherubim, making a holy racket, sculpting a wall of noise that was simultaneously soothing and soaring and teeth-rattling. It was a beautiful, gloriously loud hymn of praise, whether they intended it that way or not, and more than a few of us religious types confessed afterwards to experiencing something remarkably like worship. If this is what it’s like around the throne of God, I can’t wait.

Lead singer/cherub Jonsi played his electric guitar with a bow, like a mutant cello, and made unearthly sounds with his voice. “Eeeeeuuuuu Syyyyyy Ohhhhhh” he sang on at least six songs, his falsetto soaring impossibly upward. It’s Hopelandic, a made-up language based on nonsense syllables and his native Icelandic, but I’d prefer to think of it as the angelic dialect of the heart. That mysterious phrase, repeated many times, sounded at various times like longing, yearning, grief, sorrow, joy, the unanswerable questions you hurl at God when your best friend dies of cancer, the wordless cry of joy when you witness the birth of your child, a thousand other moments of spiritual combustibility and incandescence that cannot be contained by cognitive knowledge and understanding. If it sounds trippy, it is. The gauze curtain that the band sometimes played behind, accenting shimmering shadows and spectral shapes, and the late ‘60s Pink Floyd freakout lightshow, only added to that impression. But that’s the territory explored by this band. It has nothing to do with objective communication, and everything to do with hotwiring the soul to the ineffable and the sublime.

On a more mundane, terrestrial level, we heard about half of Takk, the band’s latest album, several songs from the unpronounceable ( ), and, best of all, several new songs not yet released. For those of you familiar with the albums, take everything you know and ratchet it up several levels. “Glossoli,” from Takk, which opened the show, went from a brooding but serene placid beauty to a crescendo so intense that my body was literally shaking from the sound. Chalk it up to the booming bass if it makes you feel more in control. String quartet Amina, who opened the show, played several songs with Sigur Ros, and the coda to the haunting “Gong” faded so slowly and beautifully that the rowdy, beerswilling audience (this being Cowtown, after all), numbering in the thousands, was utterly silent. The encore’s closing song, Untitled #8 from ( ) (wow, is that a weird phrase to write), was a triumph of thunderous percussion and rapturous beauty, the music building and building until you were convinced that it could not possibly achieve a greater crescendo, and then building some more.

Then the band left the stage with a wave, and Jonsi uttered his only spoken words of the night. “Takk,” he said, Icelandic for “Thanks.” I muttered it under my breath myself, but it seemed inadequate compensation for what had transpired. Just what is the proper expression of gratitude for a rock ‘n roll seraph?

My New Hero ...

... is an Olympic athlete. But he's not a hero for the reasons you might imagine.


From today's New York Times:

Joey Cheek of the United States arrived at the starting line for the first of his two heats in the 500 meters Monday with a strategy, which was unheard of. Most long-track speedskaters will tell you that the shortest race on the Olympic program is over too soon to scheme for anything other than a fast start and a clean trip around the oval.

Cheek's design, it turned out, was grand. Bonnie Blair, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the 500, was among those at the Oval Lingotto who marveled at how relaxed Cheek looked en route to winning the gold medal in a rout.

On the strength of two nearly flawless races, Cheek finished with a combined time of 1 minute 9.76 seconds, which was 0.65 faster than Dmitry Dorofeyev of Russia.

Casey FitzRandolph of the United States, the defending Olympic champion and one of Cheek's closest friends, stumbled a few meters after the start of his first race and could not make up the lost time, finishing 12th.

Cheek said he had "kind of been plotting a little bit in my head" since winning the World Sprint Championships last month. His plan came out in the news conference afterward, when he politely interrupted a moderator who had opened the floor for questions.

"Before we do that, can I make a statement?" Cheek said.

Speaking at nearly as fast a clip as he had just skated, Cheek said, "I have a pretty unique opportunity here so I'm going to take advantage of it while I can."

Noting that he had a human tailwind behind him of family, friends, coaches and countrymen during the 12 years he pursued his Olympic dream, Cheek said, "I always felt like if I ever did something big like this I wanted to be prepared to give something back."

He then announced he would donate his $25,000 gold medal bonus from the United States Olympic Committee to a humanitarian organization, Right to Play. Cheek said he would funnel his money to a program to help refugees in Chad.

"I thought about this for a while," Cheek said. "I won World Sprints and I thought: 'Jeez, I might actually have a shot of doing something great in the Olympics. If I do, I want to make it meaningful.' "

He observed the Olympic production in 2002 when he won a bronze medal in the 1,000 meters in Salt Lake City. He saw the attention paid to the stars on such a stage.

"I learned there's a gold medalist tonight," he said. "And tomorrow there's another gold medalist. So I can either take the time and just gush about how wonderful I feel or use it for something productive."

It is not a coincidence that Right to Play is the pet cause of another Olympic speedskater, the Norwegian superstar Johann Olav Koss. Winning three gold medals in the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, Koss inspired Cheek, then a 14-year-old living in Greensboro, N.C., to switch from inline skating to speedskating.

Cheek's mother, Chris, recalled wandering into the living room one night during the Lillehammer Games while Koss was being profiled and Cheek saying, "Mom, that's what I want to do next."
Two years later, after cramming to finish high school early, Cheek moved to Calgary, Alberta, to train year-round. While there he lived in a couple's basement.

"I never hesitated over letting him go," Chris Cheek said. "If it's a dream they've got, you've got to let them go."

She added, "Joey's always been someone who picks something he wants to do and then figures out, how am I going to get there?"

Inspired by Koss's altruism, Cheek, 26, searched out the Right to Play office in the athletes' village shortly after settling into his room. He pored over the organization's literature and liked what he read. Through contacts he made there, Cheek was able to arrange to meet with Koss a few days ago for coffee, an experience Cheek called surreal.

"The things that he has done for other people has been an absolute inspiration for me," Cheek said. "Now I have an opportunity to do something similar. It's my hope that I can assist some people and maybe walk in his large shoes."

Before heading to the ice rink for his event Monday morning, Cheek was looking for the right frame of mind and he found it in the Right to Play office.

"I think on some level it is empowering to think of someone other than yourself," he said.
When he was introduced before his first heat, Cheek smiled broadly and waved to the crowd. He would say later that he never had felt more relaxed.

He posted a time of 34.82, which was 42-hundredths of a second faster than his closest challenger, Dorofeyev.

Only needing a time of 35.58 in his second heat to win, Cheek finished in 34.94. He was the only skater with times under 35 seconds.

Cheek admitted that his blueprint for success was not a sure thing. What if he had not skated well enough to have the news media hanging on his every word?

"A little risky, don't you think?" he said.

Cheek laughed and acknowledged it crossed his mind that he might be jinxing himself. "Yet I just wanted to be prepared if the stars aligned and God blessed me with the races I got," he said.

Win or lose, Cheek recognized that he was richly blessed.

"What I do is great fun," he said. "I've seen the entire world and I've met amazing friends. But it's honestly a pretty ridiculous thing. I mean I skate around on ice in tights, right?"

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Grand Slam

Friday night was the quarterly Jazz Poetry Slam at the Columbus Music Hall. For those who may not be familiar with this phenomenon, a poetry slam is competitive poetry. Yes, at the end of the night a poet walks away with a cash prize. Think of the Beat poets reading at City Lights Bookstore, but with judges holding up scorecards to rank their efforts, a la Olympic figure skating. But this time there was no international conspiracy, and no one whacked a competing poet on the knee. That was good. And although not all slams follow this format, the poets Friday night were accompanied by a live jazz trio (organ, guitar, drums), playing everything from Coltrane to Gershwin, improvising to follow the flow and the meaning of the poetry. When it works (and it works surprisingly often) it is thrilling. More than 150 people showed up, standing room only, and I found myself marveling at the surreal nature of the scene. People were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, craning their necks to watch, yep, poets. This could only happen in some alternative but felicitous universe in which people genuinely value artistic expression. The world may not be quite as desperate as I thought.

This Friday I got to play Judge, a role for which I am eminently suited. Just ask my kids. And it was considerably more difficult than I had envisioned. There are no guidelines on how to weigh the various factors that make up a poet’s performance. And make no mistake, these are performances more than readings, and they are as far removed from a staid, placid English classroom as they can be. Poets strut, shout, sing, whisper, harangue and cajole, and the audience is right there with them, shouting out affirmation or catcalls, applauding, laughing. It’s part fire-and-brimstone sermon, part hip-hop throwdown, and part literary salon reading. Good luck trying to sort out that particularly confusing combination.

But it’s mostly just fun, and I tried to approach it as such. For better or worse, I tried to focus on the quality of the poetry. And although T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath are not in imminent danger of being dethroned anytime soon, the quality of the poetry was surprisingly high. No one embarrassed himself or herself, and everyone offered something with substance and style. Overall, I give the whole experience a 9.0. It had a good beat, and you could both dance and think to it.

I was also struck by how eclectic, in every sense, the occasion was. Probably a third to half the audience was from my church, and many of the poets and musicians were as well. I love my church. I love the fact that most people there are very interested, even passionate, about the arts. That’s a rare thing, and I don’t take it for granted. But I also appreciated that this was not about religion, or faith, at least in any overt sense. It was just a bunch of people – Christians and non-Christians, whites and African Americans, political conservatives and liberals -- who care about the arts, finding the common ground, hanging out together and having a good time over, of all things, poetry. Maybe we could bottle it and ship it to the Middle East. Put down your guns and go sling some words around. For one night, at least, my world was characterized by peace and joy.

Friday, February 10, 2006


Okay, I' ve been tagged by Teddy. Here you go:

Four Jobs I've Had:

1. Web Developer
2. Computer-based Training Developer
3. Music Critic
4. Orderly at OSU Hospitals Dodd Hall for treatment of quadriplegics

Four Movies I Could Watch Over and Over:

1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
2. The Godfather (I & II)
3. Lost in Translation
4. The Lord of the Rings trilogy

Four Places I've Lived:

1. Westerville, OH
2. Park Forest, IL
3. Athens, OH
4. Ely, England

Four Television Shows I Enjoy:


1. The Amazing Race
2. Twin Peaks (that was a long time ago, but I'd watch the re-runs)
3. Old Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs, Road Runner, etc.
4. Whatever is on ESPN as long as it involves a ball of some sort and doesn't involve ice skating, gymnastics, dogs, pool, or poker

Four Places I've Vacationed:

1. Germany and Switzerland
2. All over California
3. Breckinridge, Colorado
4. New York City

Four Favorite Foods:

1. Kate's chimichangas (better than any Mexican restaurant I've encountered)
2. Gyros from Yanni's
3. Fish and Chips from Old Bag of Nails
4. Fajitas from El Vacquero

Four Websites I Visit Daily:

1. cnn.com
2. pastemagazine.com
3. all the CV bloggers
4. artsandfaith.com

Four Albums I Adore:

1. Sonny Rollins, "Saxophone Colossus"
2. Tonio K., "Life in the Foodchain"
3. Joni Mitchell, "Blue"
4. Van Morrison, "St. Dominic's Preview"

Four Other Albums I Adore:

1. Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue"
2. Steve Earle, "El Corazon"
3. Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited"
4. Sigur Ros, "Takk"

Four Other Other Albums ...

Man, it's so hard to stop.

Four Most Fabulous Concerts:

1. Bruce Springsteen, Athens, Ohio, April, 1976
2. Muddy Waters, Columbus, Ohio, November, 1981
3. Sam Phillips/Bruce Cockburn, Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1992
4. Bob Dylan, Akron, Ohio, 1980

Four More Fabulous Concerts:

1) Ronald Koal and the Trillionaires, various OSU dive bars, multiple times throughout 1980 - 1982
2) Old 97's, Cleveland, Ohio, January, 2004
3) The Ramones, Columbus, Ohio, July, 1981
4) Sigur Ros, Columbus, Ohio, 2/13/06? I don't know. I'll find out.

Trials and Tribulations of Adolescence

My daughter Rachel, 16, is a member of the Westerville North High School Mock Trial team. She and a number of her schoolmates are being trained to be junior lawyers, and they take part in a simulated trial competition with teams from other high schools. I don't understand all the labyrinthine rules, but basically the teams that are most authentically lawyer-like in their defense and cross-examinations and rebuttals move on to the next round, where they then compete at a district level, then a regional level, and eventually the state level. The winner of the state competition goes on to the national competition in D.C., where they get to imitate Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice, gradually perfecting their stonewalling and obfuscation tactics as they move up the competitive ladder.

It's a dubious honor for many reasons. First, the world needs more lawyers like it needs more cockroaches. But beyond that, and at a more personal level, these kids work their litigious butts off, often at the expense of the rest of their lives. The pressure is intense. These are driven, smart, highly competitive kids who are often not very nice to one another (great training for the real legal world), and they are capable of reducing any sentient being with a heart and a soul to tears. Last year the WNHS team made it to the state competition level. This year the expectations are just as great, if not greater, and these kids work incredibly hard. Most of them, including Rachel, are also immersed in a bunch of honors/AP classes that involve mounds of homework on a daily basis. In short, they don't have lives outside of school.

And I want Rachel to have a life; really have a life. It's an odd predicament. With her older sister Emily, Kate and I had to regularly crack the whip. No, you can't go out until your homework is finished. No, you can't invite seventeen friends over on Friday evening. It is just the opposite with Rachel, who is hyer-responsible and a caricature of the Type A Overachiever. "Blow off your homework," we tell her. "Who cares if you get a B on that upcoming quiz? We don't care. Go out with your friends. Get out of the house. Don't come home 'til 2:00 a.m. Be wild and go crazy. Live a little."

Parenting is such a humbling experience. I have two wonderful daughters who could not be less alike. What worked for one does not work for the other. It has always been that way. As Rachel navigates the treacherous waters of adolescence, I pray that she will understand in deep ways her value as a human being, a value that supersedes achievement or lack of achievement. That is my prayer for her. The world tells her that she has to earn everything. And she does not. She's my daughter. She's a child of God. She has value because of who she is, not because of what she does.

The latest round of the Mock Trial competitions starts today. I watched her march off this morning to the Ohio State Capitol building in her middle-aged lawyer suit. I deeply desire that the real verdict will sink in, regardless of the outcome of the competition -- Trial Dismissed. Found Guilty, But Forgiven by Reason of Grace and Mercy and Love.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Grammys

I do it, and I hate myself in the morning. I know it's going to be insipid, and then it is, and I kick myself for being sucked in.

What does it say about an annual awards show that bestows five little phonograph statues on an album released two calendar years before the ceremony? Counting, what a great life skill.

I predict great things for this hot new band The Rolling Stones at next year's Grammys.

In my defense, I didn't watch all of it, but I did watch snippets. It's like rubbernecking as you pass a car wreck. You don't want to look, but the prospect of juicy carnage draws you in. This year the most notable carnage occurred during a Jay-Z, Paul McCartney, and Linkin Park collaboration on Paul's old Beatles chestnut "Yesterday," surely one of the most surreal moments in musical history. Yesterday, word, all my troubles seemed so far away. Unh. Unh. Truly bizarre. Maybe next year we can witness a 50 Cent, Marilyn Manson and Debbie Boone collaboration on "You Light Up My Life."

The horror. The horror.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.” (Ephesians 5:12)

“I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— the secret that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this secret, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:25-27)

Another friend has been found out. Strip away the Christian happy face fa├žade, and pull the curtains back to reveal just another guy addicted to pornography. It started with Playboy Magazine as a teenager, and all those salacious centerfolds. It continued with the Internet, where instant fantasy is only a mouse click away, and you don’t have to hide anything under the bed.

You just have to hide it from God, and your spouse, and yourself, never quite admitting what you know to be true, always caught in a losing battle between what you know to be right and good and the incessant, leering demands of lust, always being led by your head, but the wrong one. And now all hell has broken loose. His wife is angry, hurt. He is ashamed. Their kids are confused. And his life is in a terrible place of reckoning.

I feel great sympathy for my friend. There are only two kinds of men when it comes to pornography – those who have indulged in lust, and those who lie about it when they tell you they haven’t. It’s the American way. But I have a great sense of hope for him at the same time. I don’t doubt that he feels terrible. I don’t doubt that his wife feels terrible, and I have great sympathy for her as well. But his secret is out. All the guilt he has carried around for decades, all the mental and emotional energy he has expended in hiding and rationalizing his secret sins, can now be brought into the floodlights of God’s grace and mercy.

But they are floodlights. And they seemed damned, uncomfortably bright. Those images that he looked at furtively on the computer monitor are suddenly displayed on a big projection screen, and it seems like the whole world is looking on. And the temptation is to run away, to deny, to rationalize, to blame. It takes a man to admit that he, and no one else, is a royal fuckup, and that’s not the American way.

More and more I am convinced that addiction is the great American affliction. It may be the great human affliction; I don’t know. But somehow I can’t imagine the natives in Papua New Guinea bookmarking the porn sites on their Internet browsers for easy reference and retrieval. We live in a culture that offers instant pleasure, and if you can’t find it through digitized sex, then you can find it more directly through a bottle or a joint or a line or a pill. We do anything and everything to stifle the great, yawning void of another grey February day in the cubicle jungle of corporate America, another thankless day at home, stuck with demanding kids, another night of nothing more adventurous than Dancing With the Stars or Survivor. And we think we’ll do a little something to ease the pain and the crushing boredom, and the little something ends up doing us.

My friend is not a bad man. He’s a good man. He loves his wife and kids. He’s kind, caring, giving. But he’s in a terrible place right now. He’s lived a double life, this Agent 777; on one hand sincerely desiring to love and serve God, on the other faced with the constant awareness that there is a corner of his existence that he wants to wall off from God and others. It was just his little secret.

But he has another little secret, one that gives me hope. He serves a God who loves assholes, and died for them. It is true for him and it is true for me. And he serves a God who is in the business of change, for whom it is never too late to turn around, for whom redemption is not just pie in the sky, but right now, today. It is an amazing thing to be guilty, guilty, guilty, and forgiven, and filled with the hope of glory.

And so I have hope for him. And for me. I cannot provide any personal details, but if you’re the praying type, I’m sure he and his family would appreciate your prayers.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Paste Wins PLUG Award

It's kind of a big deal, and worth putting on the Indie Resume, that is if indie types have resumes. Maybe resumes are too unhip.

More details here.

Friday, February 03, 2006

What Good Are The Arts?

From Michael Dirda's review of John Carey's book What Good Are the Arts?

All too often, reverence for the divine Mozart or a heavenly Vermeer tends to reduce the rest of us to interchangeable extras on life's stage, unimportant and quite expendable. This is a monstrous way to regard people. Instead of approaching artworks as showpieces, concludes Carey, we would be better off emphasizing personal participation in the arts. The activity itself matters more than the quality of the end product. Art should be "something done, not consumed, and done by ordinary people, not master spirits." It should result in community, not a fatuous sense of superiority. After all, we descended from hunter-gatherers who worked with their hands, and something in our genes still hungers for such manual activity. "It is not what you paint on a piece of canvas that counts," Carey argues, "but what painting a piece of canvas can do for you." Such focused acts of attention may, for instance, develop qualities of character like "self-discipline, patience, and delay of immediate gratification." Carey ringingly concludes the first half of his book with these words:"

The religion of art makes people worse, because it encourages contempt for those considered inartistic. We now know that it can foster hideous and earth-shattering evil. It is time we gave active art a chance to make us better."

I don't really understand this argument. Certainly everyone can and should be encouraged to create art. We can value the attempt, even if the results are not particularly noteworthy. And contempt, in any form, is not good.

But I don't agree with Carey's contention that the activity itself matters more than the quality of the end product. Nope. Not true. We don't apply this philosophy to any serious discipline; why should we apply it to art?

You want to be a doctor? What a nice goal. So maybe read a few books on medicine, make a couple attempts at curing people, and that's all that matters. We'll applaud your efforts. You want to be a commercial airline pilot? Good for you. Just think about how much fun you'll have, maybe practice a few times on a virtual flight simulator, and have at it. It's the attempt that counts.

Would you visit that doctor if you were sick? Would you strap yourself in to that pilot's airplane?

Carey is also conflating two very different purposes of art. There is value in creating art for its own sake. If people write poetry, paint pictures, compose music, then these activities have intrinsic value for the reasons Carey describes. But once those works of art enter the public marketplace -- once somebody tries to sell them -- then the quality of the art matters very much. It is not only appropriate, but it is absolutely necessary to evaluate the quality of the art, and that evaluation goes on whether it comes through a formal juried art show or an album review or simply through informal discussions and bull sessions in dormitory rooms. If you don't want your art to be evaluated, then your only alternative is to keep it to yourself.

The dichotomy that Carey presents is also ridiculous -- Mozart and Vermeer on one side, all the other insignificant unwashed artistic mediocrities (and worse) on the other. Who believes this? Who teaches this? No one I know. The closer one gets to a particular art form, the more deeply one becomes immersed in that form, the more evident it becomes that there are an almost infinite number of gradations in quality, and that there are so many criteria that go in to making up "quality" that it is very, very difficult to make categorical statements. But the solution, then, is to not make categorical statements; to qualify our judgments so that they are tempered by as many facets of the artistic work as we can communicate. The solution is to think more clearly and critically, to weigh those varying and occasionally conflicting criteria more carefully, not to throw up our hands and state that we can't comment about artistic quality. This is the counsel of despair.

Some art really is better than other art. That view need not be communicated contemptuously. But it should be communicated. I fervently hope that people -- all people -- continue to create art. And I fervently hope that people -- all people -- will continue to discuss what makes some of it more worthwhile than others.