Thursday, April 27, 2006

American Idol and Hippie Anthems

I have this problem. Yes, another one. And I'm not being facetious; it really is a problem. Deep in my heart of hearts, I want to love people, be tolerant of diversity, celebrate our differences. I liked old Jesse Colin Young, and I still have a soft spot for his sixties anthem about smiling on my brother and getting together and loving one another, right now. Then I encounter people who love the television show American Idol, and it's all shot to hell.

See, I told you this was going to be difficult.

Because deep in my heart of hearts I also cannot comprehend how anyone could even remotely tolerate, let alone love, a show like American Idol. There are people in my church -- good, godly folk who love Jesus and love their spouses and kids and pay their taxes and give to the poor and needy – who love American Idol. And it’s like watching Mother Teresa snort cocaine. What’s wrong with this picture? And how have these otherwise wonderful people become so deluded?

They debate the merits of people named Katharine and Taylor and Elliot and Paris (Oh no! Not another one!), who are competing for future jobs in Vegas, and who sing bad cover versions of already bad originals from people like Queen and, God help me, Rod Stewart. Somebody tell me I’m dreaming, and that I’ll eventually wake up from this nightmare. When did the collective American musical consciousness undergo a lobotomy?

And stupidly, I take it personally. I fancy myself as some sort of musical Moses, writing my stupid articles for Paste Magazine, leading the people out of MTV and Top 40 slavery. “Follow me,” I call out to them, and lo, the musical sea parts before me, and I can cross over on dry land. And the people say, “Nope, we like it back here in slavery, where we can enjoy our leeks and onions, and listen to Katharine and Elliot. We like our Vegas schlockmeisters and pop tarts, and we don’t give a damn whether we ever see a guitar or hear a power chord again.”

It’s thoroughly depressing, I tell you. They’re all so young, too, in their twenties and thirties, already becoming middle-aged and sedate. In ten years they will travel to Branson, Missouri to take in a Kenny Rogers revival show, and play vintage Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken MP3s on their drive out to Cheeseland.

Ah, I’m bitter, and I know it. And the better part of me doesn’t really mean it. I love these folks. I really do. I just don’t understand. And so I put on Jesse Colin Young again, listen until the words start to sink in. “Smile on your brother. Everybody get together, try to love one another right now.” Yeah, right now would be good, before the next episode featuring covers of Tony Orlando and Dawn tunes.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Blue Like Jazz

I’ve just finished Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. After the long two-month slog through a half dozen Henry James novels, this was a two-day sail through refreshing waters. It’s an easy read, but no less provocative or worthwhile for that.

Many of you are probably already familiar with this book. In many ways, it could very well be the Official Gen X&Y Handbook on Everything That Sucks About Christianity But Is Cool About Jesus. And I’m sympathetic, even though I’m stuck back in Gen W. There is a lot to criticize about an evangelical culture that has somehow spewed forth Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson, not to mention WWJD fashion accessories and Witness Wear t-shirts and Dieting for Jesus books, and that often seems more characterized by what it hates than what it loves.

So Miller comes with an axe to grind, but he does so in such a winsome, funny, and self-deprecating way that it’s hard not to like him. I greatly appreciated his honesty and authenticity. In true postmodern fashion, the book is not so much a structured narrative as it is an extended series of blog entries. Miller offers chapters on various theological topics (Faith, Grace, Belief, Church) and chapters on theological topics disguised as non-theological topics (Work, Magic, Romance). And he simply tells his story. In that sense, Blue Like Jazz is very similar to Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies or any of Frederick Buechner’s Theological Lexicons (Whistling in the Dark, Wishful Thinking) – snapshots of a life, taken at various points in time, that add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. And although Miller isn’t the writer that Lamott or Buechner is, he’s much more in tune with the Nouveau Deadheads and Slackers who are totally turned off by dry orthodoxy, pomp, and expository teaching. It’s all about telling your story, dudes. And hey, I’m down with that. :-) There’s a reason I have a blog, too.

I tend to be surrounded by Nouveau Deadheads for Jesus these days, so it’s interesting and instructive for me to see how Miller’s ideas have played out in the life of my church. One of Miller’s consistent themes is that the evangelical church, as a whole, has not done a very good job of loving people. There is a lot of lip service given to the concept, but when it comes down to it, there is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) pressure within evangelical Christendom to ensure that church members conform to certain rules, expectations, and overarching beliefs, many of which have nothing to do with Jesus at all. Republicans are good; Democrats are Satanic, or, on particularly benevolent days, at least not as good. The most important social issues of the day are abortion and homosexuality. The world and its culture is evil, so you must avoid it, and live in the parallel universe of Christian books, films, and music, which read and look and sound almost but not quite like what you’d encounter in the world, but with wholesome, sanitized messages. Those who hew the party line are loved. Those who do not are tolerated, prayed for, smiled at in that condescending “one day God will illumine your mind and you will see the light” way. They are anything but loved. They are, in fact, judged.

Miller hits this topic hard in his book, and I have to say that he is on target. I have never felt comfortable with this way of thinking, ever, probably because I’ve often been the recipient of the condescension. I eventually figured out that “Fuck you, brother” probably wasn’t the best response, and that it betrayed the kind of person I wanted God to make me. But I did get weary of being the token “liberal’ (if you know me, you know how absurd such a label really is), worldly, politically-deluded rock ‘n roll libertine. So, quite possibly in order to survive and remain a Christian who isn’t totally given over to cynicism, I hang out with a bunch of escapees from evangelical groupthink. For the record, I don’t think the Democrats are the answer. I know for a certainty that George W. Bush is not the answer to anything except the “President Who Hoodwinked the Nation” clue in Jeopardy. I think Jesus is the answer.

And I think I’m a part of an imperfect, messy church where the default response is to love. It doesn’t happen all the time. It certainly doesn’t happen all the time in my own heart, either. There’s a lot of inner reconstructive surgery that still needs to happen. But, by and large, I see a lot of very different people being welcomed and loved, regardless of the baggage that they tote into the proceedings. And make no mistake. When you operate that way you’re likely to collect a lot of baggage, and you don’t have to dig very far under the surface to find all sorts of brokenness and dysfunction. But I’d still rather operate that way, or at least have it as the goal of operating that way, than to set up the unspoken Evangelical Litmus Test and politely do the Shun for Christ routine that I see in many churches.

So Miller’s book brought all that to the surface. It made me laugh. It made me uncomfortable when I thought about the many ways I don’t love. And it made me very thankful for a funky, messy church that wants to love people. Really. For those of you up for a good, stimulating read, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

What Do You Call This?

I have this annoying problem. I start reading a book. Usually I like it. But sometimes I don't. Sometimes I'm bored stiff. And the annoying problem is this: I have to finish every book I start, regardless of whether it moves me, challenges me, or puts me to sleep. On the positive side, it shows a dogged perseverence that I exhibit in virtually no other area of my life. Is something too hard? Give it up. Take a nap. Play a video game and shoot aliens or Nazis. But on the negative side, this is a form of idiocy. Who willfully chooses an experience whose emotional reward is roughly equivalent to a trip to the dentist? And who keeps going back, again and again and again?

Recently I forced my way through a collection of Henry James' novels -- to be specific, Daisy Miller, Washington Square, The Bostonians, The Ambassadors, Portrait of a Lady, and The Aspern Papers. They were all collected into one massive, 1,200 page volume full of tiny print. I'm told that Henry James is a great novelist. And maybe that's what kept me going; the idea that, like castor oil, this stuff didn't taste good, but it was supposed to be good for me. But it wasn't good for me. Henry never met a five-syllable word he didn't like. And I got thoroughly weary of the whole ordeal. I wanted to flog Henry James and his erudite, run-on sentences, sic Chuck Norris on him and have Chuck kick Henry's sorry literary butt. The guy is a crashing bore. He needed to be kidnapped from the literary salon and sent on a Secret-Ops mission with Chuck or Steven Seagal.

But I dutifully read every word. I do the same thing with the Bible. There are the occasional rough patches. I read something like, "from the tribe of Naphtali, 26,000 men." and I can see that every sentence for the next three pages conforms to the pattern, "from the tribe of x, y number of men." Do I skip ahead? Nope. I read every blasted tribe name, every blasted number.

What is wrong with me? What do you call this? And how do you cure it?

Monday, April 24, 2006

National Anthems

I watched parts of two sporting events this weekend, both of which featured (naturally) the playing/singing of the U.S. national anthem before they started. And it struck me again just how much of a raw deal we've gotten with the ol' Star Spangled Banner.

I don't mean the words. The words are fine, and hey, I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free (except for my phone lines and e-mail messages). But the music itself is lame, lame, lame. I'd give it 1.5 stars out of fifty.

I know Broadway didn't exist, at least in anything resembling its current form, when Francis Scott Key composed the Star Spangled Banner in 1812. But I'm telling you, that melody is right out of some schmaltzy Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It needs to be sung by somebody with a tophat and a cane. It is, of course, also notoriously difficult to sing. Countless great singers, such as Ashley Simpson and Justin Timberlake, have been needlessly embarrassed because they simply couldn't hit the high notes. I've honestly only heard one person (Jimi Hendrix) do it well. And that was great only because of the amazing guitar feedback.

This dire situation becomes painfully obvious whenever other national anthems are played. The Italian national anthem, which I heard several times during the recent Winter Olympics, sounded like an operatic aria. Puccini or Verdi would have been proud, and those Italians went at it with gusto and antipasto and other formidably Latin-sounding terms, just belting it out as if they were Pavarotti singing to the back row of the balcony. Then the American national anthem would be played, and I'd be ready to break into a tap dance, which you don't want to see.

We've been saddled with this thing for almost two hundred years now, and I say it's time to update the drab musical furniture. We need something more contemporary, more relevant, less prone to smarmy ridicule. I'd like to nominate Neil Young's "Keep On Rockin' in the Free World." I know Neil's Canadian, but really, we're about ready to annex those pesky Canucks anyway, so it should work out okay. Anyody else have any other suggestions?

Jeffrey Foucault

My mopester du jour is Jeffrey Foucault. Foucault has the kind of melancholy, world-weary voice that makes me remember why I love music. It’s perfectly imperfect; a craggy, raspy, soulful mess of a thing that conjures up images of tarpaper shacks and dirt roads that lead to nowhere, a less dissolute, slightly more tuneful Tom Waits as a Mississippi Delta front porch balladeer. His 2004 album Stripping Cane was one of my favorites from that year, and he has a new one (Ghost Repeater) due out in a few weeks. Stripping Cane’s title track perfectly captures his songwriting sensibilities. There is goodness and sweetness in the world, but you have to work hard to find it.

“Drunk Lullaby,” which is on the self-titled album by Redbird (Foucault’s collaboration with Peter Mulvey and Kris Delmhorst), is Exhibit A in how to write a song. Through striking imagery, through indirection, Foucault picks off the scab of a wound and exposes what it’s like to hit bottom, to lose the only thing that made life worth living.

The show is all over
The house lights are down
I got paid and I feel alright
So let's go downtown
I'll buy you a drink
I'll be broke by tomorrow
But I'm flush for tonight

And the moon is a beat up old record
This town is a broke down hi-fi
And it all just keeps on spinning
And I don't hear a thing
But your name for a drunk lullaby

I've got a room at the top of the stairs
The trucks roll by all through the night
And if I was brave I'd be gone by now
If I was a fool I'd keep holding on tight

And the moon is a beat up old record
This town is a broke down hi-fi
And it all just keeps on spinning
And I don't hear a thing
But your name for a drunk lullaby

She stands at the window with a lit cigarette
Her hair falling loose down her back
And it catches the sunlight and it shines like a halo might
Before someone painted it black

And the moon is a beat up old record
This town is a broke down hi-fi
And it all just keeps on spinning
And I don't hear a thing
But your name for a drunk lullaby
-- Jeffrey Foucault, “Drunk Lullaby”

Friday, April 21, 2006

Theology and the Kingdom of God

I have been watching, with some interest and amazement, a sometimes heated discussion/debate currently underway on one of the online sites I frequent. The topic: women in church leadership. The same tiresome arguments are marshaled on both sides. If God had wanted man to fly, He would have … Sorry, wrong argument. If God had wanted women in church leadership, then He wouldn’t have sent his only begotten Son, got that, Son, and appointed twelve males, as in men, got that, as his closest disciples. And the other side counters with charges of cultural ossification, blindly adhering to the traditions of the past, yada, yada, yada. See how these Christians harangue one another.

It strikes me, reading these debates, how little I actually care about this stuff. To tip my hand somewhat, there are women in my church who are involved in leadership. They are involved in church leadership. They are involved in all kinds of leadership, and I can’t imagine life, in general, without their wisdom and gifts. But beyond that, I just really DO NOT CARE. It’s not worth expending much time and energy, nor, as best I can tell, are any of the innumerable other theological topics that tend to bog down Christians from the more important tasks of loving Jesus and loving other people.

I just don’t think it’s all that complicated, although at one time in my life I tried to make it complicated. If you’d look downstairs in my basement, you’d find several bookshelves full of books that deal with theological issues. We just threw about 100 of them away last weekend during a frantic spring cleaning session, but there are still hundreds left. I’ve read most of them. I went to seminary, and studied Greek and Hebrew, and at one time could have debated the merits of whether the apostle Paul was writing to north Galatia or south Galatia. That was back in the days when I thought I might be a pastor, before I figured out that struggles with addictions and telling the fourth grade Sunday School class to "sit down, damn it" probably weren't the best recommendations for church leadership. And none of it helped me much in terms of loving other people, or avoiding some nasty habits, or getting outside the all-consuming Kingdom of Me.

Here’s the thing: the charge that is always leveled at Christians by non-Christians is that we are hypocrites. And, of course, they’re right. We are, indeed, hypocrites, and we fairly routinely betray by our words and actions what we claim to believe. We are self-centered, ingrown, prone to constructing fortresses to keep the rest of the world out. And I have been that way in my own life.

If that is to change – and I hope and believe that it can and that it is – then I need something beyond intellectual answers. I don’t need knowledge. I need a soul transfusion. And if I have overreacted, if I have moved away from the intellectual approach to the Christian life that comes fairly naturally to me, then it is because, in my own Luddite way, I have tired of being a hypocrite. I don’t want to know one thing and do another. I want to live a life and be a part of a church that is characterized by costly love, by getting outside our comfort zones, by caring for the unlovable, by giving of our time, our money, our energy sacrificially to serve others. Really. No fooling. I want and expect that to happen. The best marketing a church can ever do is simply to love other people -- both inside and outside the church -- unconditionally. There is nothing more attractive than that, and nothing more revolutionary. And it’s what Jesus did. And if, by the way, there are women who know how to do that better than I do, and can teach me how to do it better, then I am all ears.

Here is how uncomplicated this is: Love, trust, and obey God. Love other people. Apologize (AKA repent) when you screw up one or both of these things. Repeat as necessary. There. That’s easy. It’s not easy to actually do it, of course. But it’s easy to understand it. And that’s about the extent of my theological interest these days.

New Maranatha! Maudlin Mopery Mix

I've made a new mix CD for a friend in Dallas, but you can get in on the action if you're interested. If you'd like a copy, just let me know.

1. A Nest of Stars – Iarla O Lionaird (6:28)
2. Two Hands of a Prayer – Ben Harper (7:50)
3. Leaders – Archer Prewitt (4:24)
4. Drunk Lullaby – Redbird (5:16)
5. Sets of Keys – Denison Witmer (3:27)
6. One Great City! -- The Weakerthans (2:54)
7. Outside the Door – Jay Farrar (3:56)
8. Shuffletown – Joe Henry (5:27)
9. Glenn Tipton -- Sun Kil Moon (4:16)
10. Papa Hobo -- Paul Simon (2:35)
11. This is Where -- Richard Buckner (3:46)
12. Factory Girl – Whiskeytown (4:50)
13. Heartbeats – Jose Gonzalez (2:40)
14. Yonder Voices – Mando Saenz (3:38)
15. Long Goodnight – Scott Miller (2:25)
16. Satellite Song -- Shane Nicholson (1:59)
17. Envelopes of Light -- Pierce Pettis (4:14)
18. Doxology – Kelly Joe Phelps (2:17)

It's all acoustic, starts with transparent beauty and prayer, ends with cautious hope and praise, and has a bunch of mopey whining in the middle. If you find a metaphor for my life there, you might be right. The songs alternate between fragile folkie picking and rumination and the gentler side of alt-country. It's all men, too. I don't know why. It might be an unconscious reaction to dealing with three women at home and having to put up with one too many chick flicks. But look, these are sensitive, nay, even wimpy guys on this mix, so it all shakes out just fine.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


When I was sixteen years old I discovered the music of Nick Drake. Nick sounded suicidal (a sound that was, alas, eventually borne out in his personal life) even when he was at his most upbeat, and his albums were the perfect soundtrack to the kind of hypercharged, hormonally-driven angst I was experiencing in the wake of my first serious adolescent love and the dashed hopes of said love. It didn’t matter that I lacked the courage to actually speak to the object of my affection. It was enough to bask in the utter, inconsolable pain of it all. She didn’t even know I existed (an almost inevitable consequence when you don’t speak, but I preferred to take a more tragic view), and Nick’s songs provided comfort and solace during those dire days. Since then I have been drawn to a succession of musical mopesters. I listen, feel the pain all over again, tell my wife that it hardly seems worth going on, and she tells me to buck up and mow the lawn.

Elliott Smith was a favorite, and lived up (died up?) to his image by plunging a steak knife into his chest a few years ago, the ultimate mopester death. These days, nobody carries on the tradition better than Mark Kozelek, head whiner for Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. But there are numerous contenders in the Quiet is the New Loud Mopester Movement: Iron and Wine, Kings of Convenience, Sondre Lerche, Belle and Sebastian, Low, Badly Drawn Boy, Turin Brakes, Bonnie Prince Billy, South San Gabriel. They’re all worthwhile, but these four guys do it better than anybody but Kozelek, in my opinion, and give me hope that despair still hurts so good.

Archer Prewitt – Wilderness (2005)

Prewitt is the guitarist and sometime vocalist for Chicago indie rockers The Sea and Cake, but his solo albums are much more subdued and depressive affairs. Wilderness is my favorite out of several good ones, and features Prewitt’s downcast, lovely melodies set off against sweeping, romantic strings. The overall effect is similar to Nick Drake’s Bryter Later – beautifully melancholic music, suitable for the bedroom, or for when there’s nobody in the bedroom but you. Don’t even think of reading more into that. I’m talking loneliness. Loneliness.

Denison Witmer – Philadelphia Songs (2002)

It’s a Coming of Age album. It’s a Rite of Passage album. It’s both. Witmer has yet to make the masterpiece I believe he has in him, but this one comes the closest because of its profound sense of place. I don’t know Philadelphia all that well, but I can smell the cheesesteak dives on Passyunk, and catch fleeting glimpses of the ghosts of Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin when I listen to this album. More importantly, I can remember back to what it was like to be 23, 24 years old, with a head full of plans and a heart full of dreams, and not knowing how to make them come true other than to get the hell out of Dodge. Witmer captures that moment perfectly in these songs, which time and again hone in on the essence of sadness, and loneliness, and the restless desire to move on.

Jose Gonzalez – Veneer (2005)

One of my favorite albums from last year. Jose is the Swedish born and raised son of Argentinian parents. Never mind. He still sounds like Nick Drake. He has Nick’s sweet fingerpicking and alternate tunings down pat, and there’s the same thread of melancholic wistfulness traced through every song. His new EP Stay in the Shade is just as rewarding, and accomplishes the not inconsiderable feat of making a Kylie Minogue cover sound good.

Gus Black – Autumn Days (2006)

Hushed vocals, gentle acoustic guitars, and songs of good love gone bad. Yes, it’s formulaic, but Black makes it work because he sounds like Matt Beckler. Who is Matt Beckler? A guy in my church who does hushed vocals and gentle acoustic guitars as background music for various WB and MTV shows featuring nubile women and their suntanned, buff fratboy lovers. Hey, a guy’s gotta make a living. But I really like Matt Beckler’s music, and I really like Gus Black’s music, too. There are lush string arrangements here, which Matt Beckler does not do. But it’s all lovely, sad, and hopeless, mopery taken to dizzying new lows.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Lakes of Canada

I have been listening to this song today, over and over again. You can listen to it here if you'd like. I am not a fisherman, or a boater, so I have no idea really what this song is communicating, but I believe in sudden joy that darts like a fish, a dazzling, darting light in murky darkness. Hell, I've experienced it today getting ready to go to a funeral home. So for those of you who believe in such things, you might like this song. Today, of all days, it is really precious to me.

Look for me another day
I feel that I could change
I feel that I could change

There's a sudden joy that's like
a fish, a moving light;
I thought I saw it
rowing on the lakes of Canada

Oh laughing man
what have you won?
don't tell me what cannot be done.
my little mouth, my winter lungs
don't tell me what cannot be done
cannot be done

Walking in the cirlce of a flashlight
someone starts to sing, to join in
Talk of loneliness in quiet voices
I am shy but you can reach me
rowing on the lakes of Canada
rowing on the lakes of Canada

Oh laughing man
what have you won?
don't tell me what cannot be done
my little mouth, my winter lungs
don't tell me what cannot be done
cannot be done

So look for me another time,
give me another day
I feel that I could change
So look for me another time
give me another day.
I feel that I could change
rowing on the lakes of Canada
rowing on the lakes of Canada
rowing on the lakes of Canada
rowing on the lakes of Canada
-- The Innocence Mission, "The Lakes of Canada"

"I'm in awe of big songs, national anthems, rock opera, the Broadway musical. But what I always come back to, after the din and drum roll, is the small song that makes careful observations about everyday life. This is what makes the music by The Innocence Mission so moving and profound. 'Lakes of Canada' creates an environment both terrifying and familiar using sensory language: incandescent bulbs and rowboats are made palpable by careful rhythms, unobtrusive rhyme schemes, and specificity of language. What is so remarkable about Karen Peris' lyrics are the economy of words, concrete nouns - fish, flashlight, laughing man - which come to life with melodies that dance around the scale like sea creatures. Panic and joy, a terrible sense of awe, the dark indentations of memory all come together at once, accompanied by the joyful strum of an acoustic guitar. This is a song in which everyday objects begin to have tremendous meaning."
-- Sufjan Stevens, on "The Lakes of Canada"


The crap, when it comes, seems to come in waves. Surf’s up. In ascending order of importance, here’s what has washed ashore in the past twenty-four hours:

  • I was late. I had to get to Thomas Worthington High School, right now, to serve as judge/scorer for Doug Buckley’s kids, who were participating in a poetry contest. I needed to turn left onto SR 161. I could see the high school. It was just a couple hundred yards away, on the left. And yes, I saw the Right Turn Only sign, too. But I didn’t want to turn right. I wanted to turn left. And so I took the law into my own hands, at which point the Law took me into its hands, pulled me over with lights flashing, and issued me a traffic citation. As they say in schools, Reading is Fundamental. So is following through on what you read. And so I am kicking myself. Stupid. There is a way in which a man should go, and then there is the high school on the left.
  • Kate found out this morning that she is almost certainly going to be laid off from her job by the end of the week. It’s the usual corporate story that we’ve seen repeated ad nauseum over the last ten years, but it’s unusual because this time it’s a hospital, and this time it’s Kate. I’m actually somewhat inured to it in the IT/telecom world. The hospital is losing money, so positions have to be eliminated. All of those congestive heart failure patients who benefited from nurses visiting them in their homes are out of luck. And so is Kate, and so is everybody else in her department. It sucks. Aside from the normal reaction of feeling like your guts have been kicked in, Kate is struggling with how this is going to pan out financially. We’ll be okay, and it truly will be interesting to watch God work, but with one, and soon to be two, kids in college, this is not a great time to be downwardly mobile. Prayers for a quick transition to a new, challenging and rewarding job would be appreciated. Yes, RN jobs are plentiful. RN jobs with decent hours, decent pay, and with a nice blend of medicine, teaching, and social work – which Kate thrives on – are not. Please pray for her, and for us.
  • Our friend Joyce died on Saturday, but we didn’t find out until last night. I walked in the door, traffic ticket in hand, to be told that she had passed away Saturday evening. So tonight is the funeral home; tomorrow is the funeral. I did my crying last night, and I’ve been okay at work today, but I’m not betting on emotional stability at the funeral home in a little while. I get pretty shaky just thinking about it. I don’t know what to say, other than it hurts, and God is good. I know all the clich├ęs – she’s been released from the pain, she’s in a better place now, yada, yada, yada. I believe those things, too. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to say a single one of them to my friend Don. I’ll probably hug him and tell him I love him, because I do, and I can do that with a clear conscience, and still live with myself in the morning. God, death stinks. That’s a prayer, by the way. I’m not telling Him anything He doesn’t know. And it’s nothing but moaning. But sometimes you have to moan.

National Recording Registry Has Daydream, Falls Asleep at the Post

Thanks to Joshua, who pointed out the list.

Move over, Rolling Stone Magazine and VH1. Everybody knows that there's a holy, unassailable canon of popular music. But the National Recording Registry, everybody's favorite archivists, has just upped the ante by publishing its new list of the audio recordings deemed most worthy of saving for posterity. Associated with the U.S. Library of Congress, the National Recording Registry selects recordings that "are culturally, historically or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States" (editor's note: and apparently the UK since it includes The Beatles, but we'll wink and look the other way on that one). The only new recording this year? Sonic Youth's 1998 album Daydream Nation, which joins Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, and Nirvana's Nevermind as the only popular music from the past 25 years that has been added to the list.

So let me kvetch. Sonic Youth? As one of the four most significant recordings of the past 25 years? Why not, oh, The Psychedelic Furs or Kylie Minogue or someone else equally ridiculous? Look, Sonic Youth is a good band and Daydream Nation is a good album. But when you're compiling what appears to be an attempt to formulate the ultimate list of audio artifacts for future generations, or the aliens, or whoever is supposed to enjoy this stuff, don't you have an obligation to consider overall cultural impact, innovation, musical genius -- *something* that suggests some overarching critical importance beyond "a pretty good post-punk album"? It's not like Sonic Youth were the first to do what they do (or anywhere close to the first), that they carved out a whole new musical genre, or that they had a massive impact on the culture. So ... what is it? I don't get it.

And sorry, but if you're compiling a list for the aliens, you ought to be able to get the names of the songs right. What are the Venutians going to think? That should be "Whipping Post," not "Tied to the Whipping Post," as it's identified in the blurb on the 1971 album The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East. Check the album cover, ye most distinguished archivists. Unless the goal is to confuse the aliens. But Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds should already have that angle covered.

Monday, April 17, 2006


You heard it here first ...

  • Anyone else notice the naming pattern for the Chris Martin/Gwyneth Paltrow babies? It seems to follow the Prominent Object in First Book of the Bible --> Prominent Name in Second Book of the Bible pattern. Which is how we've ended up with Apple and Moses. Assuming that Chris and Gwyneth keep it together long enough to make a third baby, we're due next time for the Prominent Object in Third Book of the Bible name. That would be Leviticus, so I'm guessing either "Bull" (if a boy) or "Dove " (if a girl).
  • I predict that the next Coldplay snoozefest will be called Zzzzzzzzzz and will sell 43 million copies.
  • I predict that although Barry Bonds has grown from a slender man to someone impersonating King Kong, he will never be indicted for steroid usage. I also predict that he will eventually break the alltime homerun record, and no one will care, because most baseball fans are smarter than they let on.
  • We're rapidly approaching the third anniversary of the end of the war in Iraq and the presidential declaration of victory. In honor of that historic occasion, I would like to announce that I am through with this parenting business. Although my youngest daughter is only 16, she is now officially on her own. I predict that she will quickly learn how to be self-sufficient, easily earn the $60K per year she will need to attend college and survive while doing so, and marry a nice, rich neurosurgeon.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Random Musical Revelations

  • Listening to Led Zeppelin is not conducive to highly technical work. It is very difficult to care about the current non-support of duplicate IP addresses in the ol’ corporate network -- even though multicasting does, in fact, require duplicate IP addresses -- while listening to “Hey, hey mama, said the way you move/Gonna make you sweat/gonna make you groove.”
  • Listening to Led Zeppelin is, however, conducive to rediscovering Sandy Denny. That’s her singing on “Battle of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin IV/Zoso/Runes/The Satanic Stairway to Heaven Album. She was the lead singer of a band called Fairport Convention, a bunch of folk rockers most famous for taking ancient traditional English folk tunes and tarting them up with electric guitars and a backbeat. She got drunk, fell down a flight of stairs, and died of a head injury at the ripe old age of 31. Sad. But wow, could she sing.
  • Led Zeppelin had a secret J.R.R. Tolkien fetish. Aside from entitling a song “Misty Mountain Hop,” they also wrote a blues song (“Ramble On” from Led Zeppelin II) with the line, “But Gollum, the evil one, ran way with her.” It’s hard to fathom the choice between a virile, chest thumping, preening, golden-maned Robert Plant and the slimy Gollum, and that some hippie babe might choose Gollum. But there you go. Who would have figured? No wonder Robert’s heart broke (listen to “Heartbreaker,” from the same album, if you don’t believe me) and he felt the need to ramble on.
  • Bands who use Roman numerals in album titles are really pretentious. The band Chicago really mastered this ostentatious twaddle, making it all the way up to XXIII or XXIV, I believe, but Led Zep was no slouch in that department, either. Get over it, guys. This is rock ‘n roll, not Virgil’s Aeneid.
  • My favorite Roman numeral is X. That’s also the name of a perfectly wonderful band. They had a lead singer/bassist named John Doe and a drummer named D.J. Bonebrake, both of which are better names than Robert Plant, which was far too docile and vegan-like for a rock singer. Check out Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun, and More Fun in the New World.
  • Using an iPod in shuffle mode is generally the way to go (I like to think of it as the world’s greatest radio station, WHIT), but sometimes the transitions can be brutal. Like going from The Ramones to Rachmaninoff. Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Sergei.
  • Listening to Led Zeppelin IntraVenous (IV) reminded me of the great Backwards Masking controversy that surrounded this album in some Christian circles. The backwards masking conspiracy theorists cast a pretty wide net, and at one time even implicated The Carpenters, who purportedly embedded the message “That’s not the way and video sends the message” in their hit song “Close to You.” Scary stuff. Okay, nobody said that the backwards masking had to make sense. But at any rate, various fundie preachers claimed to hear Satanic messages when they played “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, particularly when they listened to the line “It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.” So, to alleviate your fears, I decided to listen to the line backwards, and here’s what I heard: “neeewk yaim uht rof neelk nyirps uhtsuhj stih.” Hail Neeewk Yaim. Here’s the thing, kids: don’t try to listen to music backwards. You can hear plenty of crap just by playing it forwards, the right way. But you won't hear all that much if you listen to Led Zeppelin IV, which still sounds like a pretty great album.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Deckchairs on the Titanic

The aphorism “Deckchairs on the Titanic” originates sometime in the early ‘70s, and it either has to do with a problem at New York’s Lincoln Center or a PR fiasco related to President Ford, or both. Invariably, the phrase has come to mean that re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic is a futile task, but one that might be attempted at any rate. (from Wikipedia).

If it seems like I’m preoccupied by death these days, it’s only because I am.

I’ve written about my friend Joyce before. Joyce is 71 years old. She was a simple, unassuming farmer’s wife and mother in Amity, Ohio, and then her husband died, so she went back to school and kept going until she had a Ph.D. in Education, and was the head of the Gifted Program for the Mount Vernon, Ohio school system. She loved my kids, and that’s how I grew to love Joyce. Her second husband, Don, is one of my best friends; a retired school principal, a gentleman farmer, and the man I’m most likely to call spiritual mentor. In his quiet, unassuming way, he talks about soil and wind and seed and pursues prayer and the spiritual disciplines in deeper ways than anyone I’ve ever known.

Joyce has bone cancer, and after several years of remission, it’s come back with a vengeance in the last few months. Chemotherapy wrecked the rest of what health she had, but didn’t seem to do much to halt the spread of the cancer. So Don and Joyce pursued more holistic methods of healing. And they didn’t work, either. Over the last month or so Joyce has been confined to a wheelchair because the pain of walking has been too great. She was scheduled for surgery on Monday, and the doctors had intended to insert metal rods into her legs in the places where her bones had rotted away. But before she could make it to the hospital on Monday, she had a heart arrhythmia on Sunday evening, was rushed to the emergency room, and is now on a ventilator. Assuming she pulls through this episode, she can look forward to another round of extremely aggressive chemotherapy and radiation therapy, just as soon as her body can tolerate the shock to her system.

There is a part of me that can detach from the situation and see it somewhat objectively. Joyce is 71 years old. Some people die when they are 71 years old, and Joyce may be one of them. But most of the time knowing that doesn’t seem to help much. It’s not so much the death as all the suffering that seems to accompany it. The cure doesn’t seem any better than the disease, and often seems worse. T.S. Eliot, a poet, not a physician, described it this way:

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

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

He didn’t think he was describing chemotherapy. But he was. Joyce may not die of cancer after all. She may end up dying of the absolute paternal care that will not leave her alone. The ship is sinking, so move the deckchairs around. Activity is good. Any activity is better than none. Or maybe not. I’m inclined to think not.

My father is not dying of the absolute paternal care. Lucky him. The doctors are going to leave him alone. There is nothing they can do, so he will stroll around for a while with his arteries 99% clogged, and then he will have a heart attack or a stroke. My sister tells me that he has decided to straighten out his life and turn to God. Good for him. There is a part of me that remains profoundly cynical, but that’s my problem. So good for him. I hope it happens. I know you can’t outsin the love of God, and that forgiveness is there for anyone and everyone, including my father. The cynical part of me thinks that this is an interesting test case all the same. But again, that’s my problem.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Good Friday. Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But how about when they do know what they do? I know the answer to that rhetorical question. Yep. Them too. The prideful part of me doesn’t like that answer. But since I’d prefer not to be excluded from the Kingdom of God myself, I’m glad that it works the way it does. Grateful, even. So pray that I can be grateful for my father, who may be experiencing a conversion. I hope so. I pray so. I think.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Tick, Tick, Tick

My dad has been released from the hospital. After a heart catheterization and an exploration of his carotid arteries, the doctors found that both his carotid arteries, which carry blood to the brain, are approximately 98% blocked. So what are they going to do? Nothing. Basically, my father is too far gone. There is a fairly routine RotoRooter procedure that usually deals with this (and which my father could have undergone several years ago, but he checked himself out of the hospital against doctor's orders), but because the blockage is so extensive, and extends up close to his brain, the risk of surgery was deemed to be greater than the risk of doing nothing at all.

And what is the risk of doing nothing at all? An almost certain heart attack, or, even more likely, a stroke. It's just a matter of time, and probably not all that much time. Tick, tick, tick. What's that sound? Is it a heart or a timebomb? The answer, of course, is Yes.

I won't go into them here, but there are other issues. If you know me and you see me, ask me about them. But here's a teaser. 1) After returning from his heart catheterization, my father requested a cheeseburger and fries. Upon being told that he couldn't have them, he went off on the nurses, calling them every lewd, demeaning term you can imagine. Such a joy. 2) My father has no money. If he has a stroke (which he almost certainly will) and if he survives it (questionable), he will need long-term medical care. I know that it is the "Christian" thing to do to care for one's parents in their old age. Sorry. It ain't gonna happen at the Whitman household. I don't want my father near my family. I'm not going to subject them to that. If you think that #1 is an indication of his basic personality, and might be related to #2, you're probably right.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Currently Listening To ...

Lots of Paste-related stuff, which I can’t really talk about, other than to say that T Bone Burnett’s new album The True False Identity (due out at the end of April) is worth the 14-year wait, and that the 2-CD, forty-song career retrospective called Twenty Twenty (also released at the end of April) is the ideal introduction to the man and his music. If you are not familiar with him, you should be. T Bone is best known as a hotshot producer (the O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain soundtracks, and dozens of great albums from the likes of Counting Crows, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Joe Henry, Sam Phillips, Cassandra Wilson, Gillian Welch, etc.), but before his producing days he played in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, was part of a great, underappreciated group called The Alpha Band, and made a half-dozen solo albums, all of which are superb. He hasn’t recorded anything since 1992’s The Criminal Under My Own Hat, so the new album is a long, long time in coming. In typical T Bone fashion, it’s witty, surreal, and sometimes devastatingly sad, chronicling the disintegration of American culture and the disintegration of a marriage. In the press release, T Bone claims that it’s a comedy album. Uh huh. And Schindler’s List is slapstick.

Otherwise, here’s what I’ve been listening to as I journey to and from the hospital, where my dad is undergoing various heart tests. I’m rockin’ the Grim Reaper, which might explain why my latest batch of music has tended to be on the morbid side.

Donald Fagen – Morph the Cat

This is the Steely Dan mastermind’s third solo album, but the first and third are twenty-five years apart, and they form a sort of loose trilogy – the tales of a young man, a middle-aged man, and a man approaching the end of his life. And although there’s a morbid side to these songs, there’s also a lot of fun. It’s Donald Fagen spitting in the face of death.

Two things continue to stand out: 1) Fagen's sardonic, poetic lyrics, and 2) the uncharacteristic warmth of the backing band. To be sure, this is still slick jazz/pop/rock, the kind of sophisticated, glossy music Fagen has been churning out with Steely Dan for thirty-five years. But Fagen gives this superb band plenty of room to burn, and burn they do; the improvisational interplay borders on the best that jazz has to offer. Usually the presence of 7+ minute songs on a pop album is reason to fear indulgent wankery; here those lengthy songs are the best on the album. And the lyrics are absolutely killer, capturing the conflicted heart of mindless escapism and claustrophobic paranoia in the wake of post-9/11 New York City. "Brite Nightgown" just amazes me; three choruses of existential dread, three vignettes of how New Yorkers encounter death, all set to the funkiest, most stomping, most booty-shaking groove this side of an early Prince album. With a cameo appearance from W.C. Fields. How great is that?

Pretty great. In fact, the more I listen to it the more I think it's potential Album of the Year material, easily Top 10, unless the rest of the year sees a spate of masterpieces.

Eric Lindell – Change in the Weather

Lindell’s major label debut is on Alligator Records, as solid a blues label as ever existed, but don’t be fooled. Although loosely based on the blues, these songs are blue-collar roots rock, more Los Lobos than Howlin’ Wolf. And that’s just fine. Lindell has the blue-eyed soul man shtick down pat (sounding at times like Gregg Allman), he plays swamp guitar like John Fogerty, and his loose, rockin’ band plays these well-written originals as if their lives were hanging in the balance. Great stuff.

Milton and the Devils Party – What Is All This Sweet Work Worth?

That’s Milton as in John, author of Paradise Lost. What else would you expect from a band made up of English professors? So it’s egghead rock, but the emphasis is at least on the rock, and these guys wear their influences proudly, whether they come from the musical world (a vocalist who sounds like Elvis Costello, and a power pop sound derived from The Kinks), or the literary world (the Bible, where “Heathen Eden” recounts the story of the Fall from an, uh, slightly more modern perspective, and Graham Greene, whose The End of the Affair gets quoted). There’s a bit of leering misogyny that is offputting for me, but even on a throwaway like “Perfect Breasts,” they still manage to steal the chord changes from “All Day and All of the Night” while singing about “working out the kinks.” All is forgiven.

Scotch Greens – Professional

Lots of bands have combined elements of country and bluegrass music with raw punk energy. Scotch Greens are unique in that they combine the country/bluegrass elements with some headbanging sludge that is right out of Metallica or Korn. It’s heavy metal, y’all. I’m not a big fan of headbanging sludge, but it’s kind of fun to imagine guys with banjos whipping their long hair around to tunes about drinkin’ by the river.

Willie “Big Eyes” Smith – Way Back

Willie played drums for Muddy Waters and harmonica for Bo Diddley, so it’s not too surprising that “way back” takes the time machine to Chicago circa the mid-‘50s, when Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf were tearing it up. Blues legends Pinetop Perkins and James Cotton, no strangers to Muddy’s band themselves, help him out, and the mix of originals and covers from Muddy, Jimmy Reed, and Sonny Boy Williamson sounds exactly like what you would expect – raw, electric, and rockin’. Willie’s a little weak in the vocal department (could be why he was a drummer all those years, although pushing seventy probably doesn’t help), but sonically this album is a stomping joy.

Sun Ra – Visits Planet Earth/Interstellar Lowways

Sun Ra claimed to be from another planet. It’s hard to argue with him. He incorporated elements of Egyptian mythology and science fiction into his songs, led a big band long after big bands had gone the way of the Egyptian roc, and played ringmaster to a stage show that featured plate twirlers and fire eaters. It was just your basic three-ring jazz circus.

These two 1958 albums, recorded at the height of the staid and proper Eisenhower administration, must have blown some minds. They still do. Sun Ra plays spooky flying saucer keyboards, the reed section of John Gilmore and Marshall Allen anticipates the free jazz experimentation of Ornette Coleman by a couple years, the Arkestra plays instruments such as solar bells, solar drum, and space lute, and everyone chants in unison, “Rocket Number Nine/Take off for the planet Venus.” Those are the words. For almost seven minutes. Far out, Wally. Far out, Beaver.

Monday, April 03, 2006


I spent yesterday morning with the 3 – 6 year old kids at my church. One thing I had forgotten, but which I rediscovered, is that there is a huge difference between the cognitive abilities of a 3-year-old vs. a 6-year-old. While the 6-year-old kids were processing, asking questions, and generally involved with the content of the class, the 3-year-olds were more likely to respond to the question “Who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey?” with “I’m poopy.”

But it was great fun. While I’m not in a hurry for grandchildren (really, Katryn and Rachel, you can wait at least until you’re well into your twenties. Please.), I love the energy and imagination that these kids have. They’re very sweet. When I asked two of them what they wanted to be when they grew up, they both responded, “a Star Wars guy.” How about that? Me too.

My father may or may not have had a heart attack Friday evening. The doctors will be running a series of tests this morning. But in any event, he is in the hospital, and I spent parts of Saturday and Sunday visiting him and doing some processing of my own. This is a fairly routine event. It happens two or three times per year. He doesn’t do what his doctors ask him to do, he lives the most unhealthy lifestyle imaginable, he checks himself out of the hospital against doctor’s orders, and then he ends up back in the hospital a few months later. What a surprise. One day, probably in the not-too-distant future, he really will keel over of a heart attack or stroke. In the meantime, it’s difficult for me to know how to respond. There is, as they say, a history there. In my case, it goes back fifty years. And although there’s some good in that history, there’s also a lot of crap. To say that I’m conflicted would be an understatement. I can be the biggest softie in the world with most people, but I find myself unable to muster up even an ounce of compassion for my own father. I’m not proud of that, but I often don’t know how to deal with the conflicted emotions I experience when things like this occur. For those of you who believe that compassion is a good thing, even for those who may not deserve it, I’d appreciate your prayers so that I could love the unlovable.

The rest of the past two days have been spent writing for Paste Magazine, importing still more music into the iPod, cleaning the house, doing laundry, hanging out with my wife and daughters at a wonderful farewell dinner Saturday evening, and then seeing my daughter off to school again (alas, spring break is over) at Kent State University.

I’m tired. Is it the weekend yet?