Friday, August 31, 2007

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Ohio State Football

T-minus 24 hours until the start of another wacky season in Buckeye football land, and the team's first two games are officially in limbo (does that still exist, or did the Catholic Church relabel it the Big Ten Network?). Oh, they'll be played all right. It's just that if you're not one of the lucky 110,000 sitting inside the Horseshoe, you won't be able to see them. That's because the B10N still has not reached an agreement with any central Ohio cable providers. Last year all 12 Ohio State regular season games were televised by ABC/ESPN. They were free ("free" being a relative term meaning that they were part of the basic cable package). Most were shown in high definition. This year we have the privilege of paying extra for a premium cable service that currently no one can receive, to watch games that currently cannot be broadcast in high definition even if some cable company miraculously steps in and works out an eleventh-hour deal. Somebody explain to me again just why this is a good thing ...

What if they invented a new network and nobody came? One can dream.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Michael Vick Chew Toy

Somebody came up with a brilliant marketing idea.

Coming in the Clouds (Inspired by The Fifth Dimension)

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. -- 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

The Singles of the Summer of Love

Before Labor Day arrives and we bid a fond farewell to the Official 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Summer of Love(TM), let's revisit the top singles of that groovy summer, shall we? Here they are:

Van Morrison - "Brown Eyed Girl"
The Hollies - "Carrie-Anne"
James Brown - "Cold Sweat"
Soul Survivors - "Expressway to Your Heart"
Wilson Pickett - "Funky Broadway"
The Beach Boys - "Heroes and Villains"
Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood - "Jackson"
The Box Tops - "The Letter"
The Music Explosion - "Little Bit o' Soul"
Tommy James & The Shondells - "Mirage"
Bobbie Gentry - "Ode to Billie Joe"
The Monkees - "Pleasant Valley Sunday"
The Supremes - "Reflections"
The Animals - "San Franciscan Nights"
Scott McKenzie - "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)"
The Turtles - "She'd Rather Be With Me"
The Tremeloes - "Silence Is Golden"
Janis Ian - "Society's Child"
Spanky & Our Gang - "Sunday Will Never Be the Same"
Lulu - "To Sir With Love"
The Mamas & The Papas - "Twelve Thirty"
The Fifth Dimension - "Up, Up and Away"
Procol Harum - "A Whiter Shade of Pale"
The Association - "Windy"
Jackie Wilson - "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher"

Note the relative lack of hippie wankery. Sure, Scott McKenzie is there, and blissfully instructs us to wear flowers in our hair. But "Scott McKenzie" is to "Hippie" as "Velveeta" is to "Cheese." The Monkees, the Prefab Four, offer the radical suggestion that we should all fire up our suburban grills for a nice barbecue. Lulu greets us with a sappy ballad to her favorite teacher, and The Fifth Dimension, already one step away from a Vegas lounge act at the onset of their careers, exhort us to get high by riding in a hot air balloon. To be sure, there are some great songs and performances there. Van is Van, and nobody's ever sung "sha-la-la-la-la" any better. Bobbie Gentry scored her one hit, and then disappeared, but what a hit it was. Procol Harum proved that it was possible to marry Bach to trippy imagery, and Brian Wilson was heading quickly toward both sonic brilliance and a mental breakdown. And James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Jackie Wilson all delivered classic soul performances. But I'm struck by just how ordinary and pedestrian so much of this music was, and is. The revolution was happening, and somebody forgot to notify AM radio.

By the fall of '67 they'd figured it out, and we'd soon be hearing groundbreaking music from the likes of The Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Santana. But outside of San Francisco, the Summer of Love was remarkably quiet, and remarkably ordinary.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Uncle Tupelo's Kids

It’s been almost fifteen years since the Great Uncle Tupelo Schism rocked the music world. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate. Outside of Belleville, Illinois and the minds and hearts of a few thousand dedicated fans, probably not many people even noticed. But I did, and I mourned for a couple years before the first Wilco and Son Volt albums appeared. The chief protagonists, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, have certainly moved on to bigger and better things in the intervening years – Tweedy with Wilco, and Farrar with Son Volt. But, truth be told, as much as I like them now, I liked them better when they were alternating songs on classic albums like No Depression and Anodyne.

There are apparently others who remember as well. Here are two bands who have chosen sides in the schism, but who capture that early Uncle Tupelo energy nonetheless. And when you put the two CDs together and play them in shuffle mode, you’d swear that it was 1993.

Southeast Engine – A Wheel Within a Wheel

Representing the Wilco side of the schism we have Athens, Ohio’s Southeast Engine, and lead singer/songwriter Adam Remnant, who does a more than passable Tweedy impersonation. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Adam Remnant is a pseudonym, because there are more biblical allusions here than in the entire U2 catalogue, starting with the opening rocker “Taking the Fall” and continuing right on through the final track “Let It Be So,” which sounds like The Partridge Family (complete with ba-ba-ba-dah chorus) discovering the Book of Revelation. There’s an openness and vulnerability that makes it all more than palatable, though, and when Adam sings the asshole-returning-to-Jesus confessional ballad “God, Let Me Back In,” his voice cracking like Tweedy’s in all the right places, there is a world of hurt in those straightforward lines. This is unironic, poetic Jesus Americana. Tweedy pulled it off with “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” Southeast Engine pulls it off for forty minutes here. (Out October 16th on Misra Records)

Macon Greyson – 20th Century Accidents

Representing the Son Volt side of the schism we have Dallas’s Macon Greyson, and lead singer/songwriter Buddy Huffman, who has Jay Farrar’s craggy, soulful tenor down to a sadsack science. There are times when it’s impossible to tell them apart. Like the early Son Volt albums, Macon Greyson’s songs alternate between blistering roots rockers and country-inflected ballads. The ballads are just fine, and showcase Huffman’s social conscience and better-than-average lyrical gifts. But this band really shines on the rockers, where they take the no-frills ethos of the best bar bands and kick it right into the back alley. The bluesy Stones swagger of “Black Light” may offer the best Keith Richards guitar lick since “Brown Sugar,” and the sturdy power chords of the title track and “Minnesota Weather Map” will have the air guitarists pumping their fists. It’s straightforward rock ‘n roll for the millionth time, and, as is the case with all such miracles, it sounds utterly fresh and vital. (Out October 9th on Fat Caddy Records)

Friday, August 24, 2007

People Take Warning!

In 1930, commercial radio was still a novelty, and television and CNN were as fanciful as the notion of travel to Alpha Centauri. In the rural southern United States, still largely bereft of electrical power, news traveled slowly, and was usually conveyed not by professional journalists, but by itinerant musicians who set up shop on the steps of the general store, or in the jukejoint on the outskirts of town.

People Take Warning!, a 3-CD box set about to be released by Tompkins Square Records, collects 70 topical songs recorded between 1927 and 1938. These are songs you might have once heard on the general store steps or in the jukejoint, and they chronicle disasters great and small – floods and tornadoes, hurricanes and fires, prison riots and sinking ships, crashing airplanes and collapsing coal mines and serial killers; a whole panoply of tragedy and devastation. Not surprisingly given the early recording technology, the sound is abysmal. The performances range from mediocre to superb. And the songs themselves are utterly harrowing. The deaths per song ratio has to be higher here than any music not related to Auschwitz or Hiroshima.

There are well-known, even legendary performers here – Son House and Charlie Patton, Charlie Poole and Furry Lewis, delightfully mixed together during a time when genres like “blues” and “country” were not so rigidly defined. Even more impressive are the one-hit and no-hit wonders who appear in this collection, perhaps once famous on the local circuit, now lost to the cultural memory – Richard “Rabbit” Brown, an old medicine show performer who frequented the steamboats and barroms of New Orleans, traveling evangelist Elder Curry, who saw the Memphis flu epidemic of 1930 as the judgment of God, the Dykes Magic City Trio, whose murder ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” was outlawed by the local North Carolina sherriff because it caused a riot whenever it was sung. There’s also Kansas Joe’s and Memphis Minnie’s 1929 recording of“When the Levee Breaks,” a song you have may seen credited to the old itinerant bluesmen Page/Plant.

It’s ancient music, to be sure, and the pious sermonizing and saccharrine sentimentality surely mark it from another, distant era. But it’s surprising how contemporary some of these songs still sound. “The Muder of the Lawson Family” could be an outtake from Springsteen’s Nebraska. And the grizzled Bob Dylan is still recording songs like this, and “Nettie Moore” from Modern Times could be lifted directly from this collection. It’s a fascinating glimpse into our musical past, and an ongoing reminder of how little some things have changed. I watch scenes on CNN of miners trapped in Utah, and these songs form the soundtrack in my mind.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Walk Score

Here's a handy, fun, and utterly worthless tool that calculates the Walk Score for your particular residence. Go ahead and try it. I did and found that my particular abode registers a 28 out of 100, which is considered "Poor."

But if you were to actually look at the map that comprises all those walkability components near my home, you would see a bunch of green and blue -- green for parks, and blue for water. You know why? Because I live within a half mile of two metro parks, and within a couple hundred yards of a lake.

Here's the deal: I live in the perfect neighborhood for walking, and I walk all the time. I walk through the woods. I walk along the shore of a lovely lake. And when I take a walk, those are the kinds of places I like to walk. But because I can't easily walk to a Starbucks, and because the nearest Tae Kwan Do establishment is miles away, my neighborhood is dinged for not being very walkable. Screw it. What urban moron thought that these categories would be meaningful to anyone who doesn't wear a robe and a headband all day?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hold Steady, My Man

Yes, they are coming back to Columbus. October 27th at the Newport Music Hall. Anybody want to join me and my white-haired Emmylou Harris lookalike for a night of gutter poet/cowgirl beauty queen fun?

Friday, August 17, 2007

New All Music Guide Reviews

The Mendoza Line -- 30 Year Low/Final Reflections of the Legendary Malcontent
Golden Dogs -- Big Eye Little Eye

Go, Kid, Go

Start with a plaintive nasal whine, a la Dylan, and end in an agonized howl, a la that raccoon you caught in the trap last summer. Pummel your guitar in the middle. Go, kid, go. Oh, how I love this album.

God is a middle aged woman
With planets for earrings
And international date lines
At the corners of her eyes
And she’s thinkin’ ‘bout remarriage
To a guy she recently met
And hasn’t even asked out on a date
Okay, to be perfectly honest
He’s never even spoken to her
He barely even knows she exists
But hey, God is really shy
She doesn’t like confrontation
And she’s not so young anymore

But oh God, won’t you just say hello?
Oh God, you can take it real slow

It’s been hard since Jeremy left her
And sometimes it seems so pointless
Like she’s unlovable
But I love her very much
I love the way she looks
And I just want her to be happy
I wish I could talk some sense
Into her troubled head
Full of beautiful grey hairs
But I am only human
But maybe that’s just it
Or maybe that’s just what she needs

Oh God, things are gonna be fine
Oh God, don’t lose your head over some stupid guy
Oh so beautiful on the patio at night
Oh so wonderful
How did I not see it before?
Oh God
Oh God
-- Ezra Furman, “God is a Middle Aged Woman”

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Harry Potter: Dreadful and Vulgar?

Some of you are ready to cast Cruciatus curses my way even now. So let me explain.

I'm a Harry Potter fan. I find myself caring deeply about him and his Hogwarts friends and teachers. I want him to win the hand of Ginny Weasley, pass his O.W.L.s and, in general, restore order to the universe. But Harry has his critics, both literary and moral. Some reviewers have castigated author J.K. Rowling for her awkward prose. And the moral guardians of truth? Where does one begin? How about with Spokesperson for the Moral Masses James Dobson.

Last week he reiterated his criticism of the books:

We have spoken out strongly against all of the Harry Potter products. Magical characters — witches, wizards, ghosts, goblins, werewolves, poltergeists and so on — fill the Harry Potter stories, and given the trend toward witchcraft and New Age ideology in the larger culture, it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds.

One hopes that someone will eventually introduce Dobson to the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. This week he bemoans the loss of sacrificial heroes in our culture. If the irony were any thicker, you'd have to cut it with a Lumos spell.

It's unfortunate when the clueless have vast influence, but I honestly don't spend much time worrying about James Dobson and his woeful misconceptions. Of far more importance to me is the prevailing view in some circles that the Harry Potter books are lowbrow fluff, literature in only the most tenuous sense. To gain a better appreciation of those who hold this view, I refer you to this excellent article, written by Paul Spears.

To probably no one's great surprise, I am somewhat sympathetic to this view. I've read all seven Harry Potter books. And every five pages or so I found myself wincing at the awkward sentence structures, the lazy writing, the adjectives that weren't quite right. And my Inner Snob, which all too quickly becomes my Outer Snob, was offended. Spears describes this process very well:

Many who consider themselves academic are embarrassed to admit the guilty pleasure of popular literature, and in our public capacity believe it is our duty to point out that Harry Potter is not Dante’s Inferno. For some reason critics think that if people quit reading popular novels and spent more time immersed in the work of Homer or Spenser the world would be a more ethical and beautiful place.

I will note that this view applies not only to literature, but also to -- oh, let's just pick an artform at random -- music. The prevailing view among music critics is that popular equates to crap (to use the popular vulgar term), and that, in spite of occasional aberrations about once per decade (U2, Bruce Springsteen), there is an inverse relationship between number of albums sold and quality. According to this theory, the greatest music is currently being made by some kids in their bedrooms in Portland, Oregon, who are known only to four of their friends and their grandmothers. Since this music will be difficult to find, you might want to check out new albums from people named Ezra Furman and Joe Henry instead. Hypothetically.

But getting back to Harry, let me note again that I read all seven books. And I deeply enjoyed all seven books. Awkward writing be damned, there was something there that compelled me to read more than 4,000 pages of the story of the boy wizard. And sure enough, Paul Spears nails what that is, too:

The world of Harry Potter is grounded in transcendent truth. In J.K. Rowling’s magical world there is no doubt about the fact that there is good and evil. It may be difficult to determine who is good or evil (Snape), but whether or not good exists is never in question. Heroic acts are lauded by the good people, and pencil-pushing bureaucrats who are legalist for the sake of legalism are seen as not truly understanding the fight between good and evil. You learn that good is worth fighting for even when it puts you in mortal danger. It is because Rowling draws from the transcendent that we so resonate with her fiction.

It is good that Harry Potter is dreadful and vulgar. It appeals to those of humanity who, according to Chesterton, “have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.”

To put it another way, you can't beat a ripping good story. But it's interesting to note what makes it so good -- those transcendent themes that transform us even if we are not cognitively aware of them. One of them, which Spears doesn't touch on directly, is laying down one's life for others. That reminds me of something, some big religious deal I'm thinking. Nah, that couldn't be right, because this is a demonic wizard we're talking about.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Garfield's Houses

Former President James Garfield’s impressive home (called Lawnfield, as opposed to my own home, called TractHome) is about a mile down the street from my sister-in-law’s place in Mentor, Ohio. Because there isn’t a lot to do in Mentor, Ohio, particularly when it’s raining or snowing, as it often is, Lawnfield is a favorite destination during our visits. As befitting an ex-president, it’s a showy, ostentatious Victorian castle with some friendly midwest trimmings, including a wide front verandah that stretches the length of the very long house. The ol’ homestead fell into disrepair for a few years, but since then it’s been lovingly restored to its former glory, fitted out with period furniture and Victorian frills and patriotic bunting. Now packs of blue-haired women roam the grounds, admiring the gardens, the carriage house, and the servant’s quarters.

Twenty-five hundred miles away, right where the canyons of L.A. give way to the start of the San Gabriel valley, the singer/songwriter and musical archaeologist Joe Henry lives in the home built for James Garfield’s widow Lucretia. Joe claims that he can hear Lucretia’s ghost wandering around at night, and that she seems to be soothed by anyone playing the piano. Who am I to doubt him? Joe’s been exhuming old skeletons (both in and out of the closet) and mysterious scraps of poetry and long-suppressed nightmares for about twenty years now, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’s turned up a ghost or two along the way. I just think it’s fairly amazing that one of them lived at Lawnfield.

Joe Henry has a new album called Civilians coming out in a few weeks. It’s another in an ongoing series of poetric dreamscapes from the coolest lounge in the universe, the one where the piano player reads Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Chandler, where the patrons all drink their bourbon neat and play Tom Waits on the jukebox in between sets. It’s lounge noir, and it’s desperate, and desperately tender, tinged with an aching sadness and the flicker of hope, with the increasing awareness that the tiny dramas enacted here are not tiny at all, and that they echo in eternity.

Here’s the way Joe expresses it in the liner notes:

I have noticed with surprise - and only in retrospect - how often God is mentioned throughout this 12-song cycle, and He must be surprised as well. I recognize in His many appearances, though, not the god of my Methodist raising, who sat judging tennis balls “in” or “out” from high on a perch, but one among us, who stretches like the net itself, wholly visible and there but to frame the attempt. (To me, this is the God of Shakespeare, Wilde, Moliere, and Buster Keaton, and could easily be played by Gene Hackman, if he wasn’t otherwise so occupied.)

It probably won’t win any points for theological precision, but it does just fine in the human interest department, the one that matters when you’re writing songs about conflicted human beings instead of hymns and praise choruses. And nobody writes songs about conflicted human beings better than Joe Henry. A few albums back he wrote one about Richard Pryor that pretty much set the standard for how to portray sinners and saints who inhabit the same body, and he does it all over again here with a song about Charlie Parker, surely nobody’s idea of a saint, but a marvellously gifted musician who was touched by the divine.

This is the state of the union as delivered by a 46-year-old man, subject to the ravages of time, trying and failing at times to be a good husband and a good father, increasingly aware of his shortcomings and the hope that lies outside of those shortcomings:

We’re taught to love the worst of us
And mercy more than life, but trust
That mercy’s just a warning shot across the bow
I live for yours and you can’t fail me now
I live for your mercy
You can’t fail me now

It’s a proclamation and a prayer, a statement of fact and a fervent plea. It’s also a damn good love song, the kind between a man and a woman, and not between a man and his maker. Joe Henry does that kind of thing pretty well, too.

But sure enough, there are metaphyscial and biblical echoes throughout these songs, including one that employs Passover imagery to allay the ravages of time and death:

If you fear the angels above while you sleep
Then I’ll be the blood you paint on your door
Your dream is a worry that nothing will keep
But time is a story and there will be more

These are sad songs, even desperate songs. But always there is a glimmer of hope, of something like the belief that love might actually make a difference, and that there is still time to make a new start. And they were recorded in that house haunted by ghosts.

James Garfield never really got started. He was felled by an assassin’s bullet a mere seven months after he took office. Unlike the mythologized Lincolns and Kennedys, he stuck around for a while, and all the melodrama of martrydom melted away in the tedium of a long recovery that never quite happened. He lingered in a coma for a few weeks, then seemed to make a miraculous comeback. He regained consciousness, then lucidity, and was bundled up and shipped to the New Jersey seashore in the hope that the invigorating ocean air would speed the healing process. The bullet didn’t kill him, at least not directly. An infection did, ten weeks after the murderous fact. He died of sepsis, the old wound festering and leaking poison throughout his body.

Joe Henry sings on his new album:

We build this up and we knock this down
We call our little mob a town
We nail a sign above the door
God bless our little civil war

He could be singing about The Shiites and the Sunnis, or the internecine warfare between husband and wife. But I like to think that he’s singing about James and Lucretia and, by extension, all of us who are caught between the safe, neatly manicured world we think we can control and the shock of sudden tragedy, walking around with the shrapnel of an ancient wound lodged in our souls. Say hello to Lucretia for me, Joe, and play her a sweet and sorrowful tune on the piano.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Paste #35

Paste #35 (September 2007) is out now. Kanye West, his humble self, is on the cover, and there are long feature articles on Kanye, K.T. Tunstall, and Rilo Kiley, plus the usual album, film, book, and video game reviews, and a 20+ song CD sampler. I have album reviews of Pentangle and Raul Midon and a meditation/essay on the wonders of a folk/protest singer named Peter Case.

One of the criticisms that Paste Magazine receives on a fairly routine basis is that albums are ranked too highly, that there are too many four-star reviews (although, to their credit, Paste rarely awards a five-star review because, quite frankly, there just aren't that many five-star albums). So I thought about that criticism again when I opened the album reviews section and saw album after album rated as four stars.

Is the criticism justified? Maybe, but only if you think it's unlikely that fifteen or so really good albums could be released every month. Personally, I have no problems with all those stars so liberally festooned over the pages. Paste, like most magazines, is presenting a skewed sample. The magazine covers what it wants to cover, and most people want to write about things they like. Paste receives roughly eight hundred new album releases every month. Is it really that hard to believe that fifteen of them are really good?

For what it's worth, I did my little part to balance out the proceedings by assigning 2.5 stars to Raul Midon's album. But then I blew it by assigning 4.5 stars to Pentangle, and by raving about Peter Case. Sorry. I like them, and I want to tell people about them. The tagline of the magazine is "Signs of life in music, film, books, and culture," and those signs of life are everywhere.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A New D****?

There are few curses more dire than to be tagged the New Dylan. Anybody remember Steve Forbert these days? So I won’t say it. I’ll keep it vague and say that Ezra Furman’s nasal vocals, harmonica work, and wildly poetic imagery might remind you of somebody.

Ezra Furman is a twenty-year-old kid from Chicago, via Tufts University in Boston. He’s got a band, The Harpoons, and he’s titled his debut album Banging Down the Doors. It’s been out for a couple days now, and you ought to buy it. Today. He has got, as they say, one hell of a Voice. Not much in the way of the vocal kind, mind you. That voice is completely untamed, and often doesn’t bother with trivial little things like pitch. The kind that makes you jolt out of your seat as you hear one startling image and one pithy aphorism after another. The kind that, you know, that other guy came out of the gate with, the freewheelin’ wild kind that cuts through the bullshit and makes you see the whole crazy, beautiful world in new ways:

She is pressing foot to petal, she is zooming straight away
She is swimming in the jukebox of the screaming, driving day
She’s about the age of Mary when she had her wonderboy
She’s an alcohol enthusiast whose dad is unemployed

That’s the way one of Ezra’s songs starts out before careening off into reflections on faith, doubt, Starbucks coffee, premature death, and the peculiar malaise of the times in which we live, all in a neat three minutes and ten seconds. Then he follows that up with a love song to God, who in Ezra’s fervid theological imagination is a middle-aged woman who wears planets for earrings and has international date lines at the corners of her eyes.

These are acoustic songs, for the most part, although they’re a million miles removed from laid-back folky territory. There’s a manic, propulsive energy at work here, and these songs hurtle by at breakneck speed. That other guy once said that he wrote songs so quickly because he couldn’t envision the world lasting much longer, and you get the same sort of feeling listening to these songs. Like Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Ezra Furman sings like his skull is ready to explode. He’s got the world’s biggest migraine, and he spits out his words like machine gun fire, and at times he abandons language altogether and simply howls like a feral wolf. It’s frightening, and it’s brilliant.

I moaned a few weeks ago that I had yet to hear a 5-star album this year. I’ve heard one now. Midway through these extraordinary proceedings Ezra yelps,”This is only our first record, I want you to love me!" Don’t sweat it, ye precocious harpooner. Mission accomplished. These are songs that sink deep, and they draw blood every time.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Pulling Up the Drawbridge

There's an interesting discussion underway at the Arts and Faith forum. It's the age-old conundrum of how much we, as Christians, should allow the surrounding culture to influence our lives. Typically, this discussion breaks down along fairly predictable lines. The conservatives/fundies accuse everyone of being worldly and having lost their salt and light, the rock 'n roller moviegoers accuse the convervatives/fundies of being narrow-minded, judgmental, and out of touch, and the non-Christians look on in disgust and thank the Higher Power As They Understand Him/Her/It that they are not Christians. I'm thankful to report that, for the most part, the current discussion has not degenerated along the predictable lines.

There is a tension here that will never entirely disappear. Nor do I think it should disappear. It is evidence of the struggle that we face as Christians; trying to follow Christ, and being acutely aware of our own proclivity to give in to temptation and to sin.

I do think that the whole focus on evil being “out there” is fundamentally misguided, though. The problem isn't movies, or rock 'n roll. You can retreat from all media influence (or limit that influence solely to the “wholesome” Christian cultural ghetto), hole up in the fortress, pull up the drawbridge, fill the moat with pirahnas, and still find evil, because we cannot escape from ourselves. The problem is “in here,” not “out there,” and until we start to address that we’re focused on the wrong things.

But I think it would be disingenuous to claim that the culture doesn’t influence us, sometimes in negative ways. I love rock ‘n roll, and I write about it for my living (or at least part of my living). I obviously find value in that, and yes, I find value as a Christian. But I’ve also struggled with some addiction issues in my life, including some years when I was a Christian. How did that happen? Because of my own inherent weakness and proclivity to sin, because of genetic disposition, because of peer pressure, because of the lure of idolotry and the promise of an instantaneous buzz instead of the hard work of spiritual transformation. Take your pick. Probably all of the above. But also because I listened to Grace Slick telling me to “feed my head,” and because I watched a bunch of crazy hippies in Michael Wadleigh’s documentary of the original Woodstock Music Festival and thought to myself, “hey, I think I’d like to do that the rest of my life.”

Jefferson Airplane didn’t make me do those drugs, nor did Michael Wadleigh. But it would be silly for me to deny that they influenced me. And so, to this day, I am careful about what I allow myself to be exposed to in music and in film. I can handle a lot of things, and shrug it all off in the name of art and believe (rightly, I think) that art is made by broken people and experienced by broken people, and that it is still possible to find great beauty and insight in the midst of the carnage. But as one of those broken people, I can’t watch movies that feature drug use, nor can I listen to music that advocates drug use[1]. I simply can’t go there because I’ve gone there in the past and almost destroyed my life.

It is not true that Anything Goes, although I think we should be very careful about proscribing what goes and does not go in a group setting, including the church. We need to leave enough room for the Holy Spirit to work in individual lives, and trust that individuals are sensitive enough to know what they can experience as worthwhile and praiseworthy, and cannot experience because it would be detrimental to their souls, if not their marriages, and their very lives.

Do I think it's okay for churches to show films, or to sponsor rock 'n roll shows? Sure I do. At the same time, I want to leave room for people to opt out of the proceedings without fear of judgment. The problem is not “out there.” The problem is me. But sometimes what is out there can undo whatever spiritual transformation has already taken place. And nothing is worth that, not even rock 'n roll.

[1] Don't you hate it when the footnote is longer than the original post? Me too, but you're gonna have to deal with it. I think it's important to note here that tone and context is everything, and just because a film/song contains references to drug use, that does not necessarily mean that said film/song is advocating drug use.

Take, for example, virtually every song recorded by my favorite rock 'n roll band, The Hold Steady. There are drug references galore. But you'd have to twist the meaning of those songs quite dramatically to believe that songwriter Craig Finn is advocating drug use. And because I will go to great lengths to work in Hold Steady lyrics into any form of writing I engage in, including recipes and directions to a friend's house, here's an example of what I mean:

I was not involved at the northtown mall
as a matter of fact i didnt even know that's where it happened

i was france ave when they came out dancing
i was lyndale south. i was kicking it with cousins
we were talking about going clubbing
instead we just started drinking

i've been straight since the cinco de mayo
before that i was blotto
i was blacked out. i was cracked out
i was caved should have seen all these portals
that i've powered up in.

we started recreational
it ended kinda medical
it came on hot and soft and then
it tightened up its tentacles

i wasnt there
i was blind high
i was scared. i was lake and columbus
i was cutting off all my hair
i was unfurling a flag of defiance
aimed at my guidance guy

so this is it
this is the end of the session
i ain't gonna be taking any more questions
i think my attorney's gonna second that notion

it started recreational
it ended kinda medical
it came on hot and soft and then
it tightened up its tentacles

the band played screaming for vengance
and we agreed, this world is mostly manacled
it started ice cream social nice
it ended up all white and ecumenical

there are guys
with wild eyes when they ask to get you high
there are girls
that will come to you with comfort in the night
that's right

we started recreational
it ended up all medical
it came on hot and soft and then
it tightened up its tentacles
the band played sabbath bloody sabbath
you thought it was stoney and adorable
it started in the vestibule
it ended in the hospital

there are guys
with the wild eyes when they ask to get you high
there are girls
that will come to you with comfort in the night
there are nights
where it all comes on a little bit too bright
there's a cross
and in the center there is a hot soft light
-- The Hold Steady, "Hot Soft Light"

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Mendoza Line -- Thirty Year Low/Final Remarks of the Legendary Malcontent

I've been spending more time with The Mendoza Line's Thirty Year Low/Final Reflections of the Legendary Malcontent, the band's upcoming 2-CD swan song. The more I listen, the more I like what I hear. The only bad news (other than the obvious marital crash and burn that is well documented here) is Timothy Bracy's Dylan impression that occasionally borders on parody. But he's a fine writer, and the manic guitars cover the multitude of drawn out, nasal vowels.

And Shannon McCardle? Wow. If Bracy tends to cushion his sorrows in poetic ways, McCardle goes straight for the jugular, snarking about the picture of the kitty on her rival's sweater, and offering sweet little vignettes like this:

Come on over honey
Grab your pens and get your shit
She's drawin' blueprints, layin' marble,
Built a shrine around your dick

Hell hath no fury. McCardle's songs are white hot, furious, and absolutely great. I hate divorce. I don't wish it on anyone. At the same time, I'm thankful for the superb art that sometimes emerges from the crucible of pain. This is bitterness and recrimination set to a backbeat, and in its voyeuristic way it's brilliant. My sympathies to Timothy and Shannon. My thanks for creating such a wonderful album.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

I Hate Blogs

Not all the time. But many days.

Here's how it works:

1) You post some lovingly crafted tome of cultural analysis, or some agonized personal reflections. Nobody responds.

2) You read your friends' blogs, who post about breast feeding, or the baby's hard turd. Four hundred forty seven people respond, and share their own loving baby poop stories.

3) You get depressed.

Today I hate blogs.

My kids used to poop in their pants. No kidding. Not for a long time, though.

Being Bob

Nobody but Bob Dylan can be Bob Dylan, but you can’t blame a songwriting guy for trying. In order for this to work, you have to simultaneously sound profound and utterly inscrutable. The response that you’re aiming for here is a sage nod of the head, even as each audience member secretly thinks, “umm, just what the hell was that about, anyway?” So here’s Adam Duritz of The Counting Crows, pulling it off better than most.

I woke in mid-afternoon cause that's when it all hurts the most
I dream I never know anyone at the party and I'm always the host
If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts
You can never escape, you can only move south down the coast

I am an idiot walking a tightrope of fortune and fame
I am an acrobat swinging trapezes through circles of flame
If you've never stared off in the distance, then your life is a shame
and though I'll never forget your face, sometimes i can't remember my name

Hey Mrs. Potter don't cry
Hey Mrs. Potter I know why but
Hey Mrs. Potter won't you talk to me

Well, there's a piece of Maria in every song that I sing
And the price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings
And there is always one last light to turn out and one last bell to ring
And the last one out of the circus has to lock up everything

Or the elephants will get out and forget to remember what you said
And the ghosts of the tilt-a-whirl will linger inside your head
And the ferris wheel junkies will spin there forever instead
When I see you a blanket of stars covers me in my bed

Hey Mrs. Potter don't go
Hey Mrs. Potter I don't know but
Hey Mrs. Potter won't you talk to me

All the blue light reflections that color my mind when I sleep
And the lovesick rejections that accompany the company I keep
All the razor perceptions that cut just a little too deep
Hey I can bleed as well as anyone, but I need someone to help me sleep

So I throw my hand into the air and it swims in the beams
It's just a brief interruption of the swirling dust sparkle jet stream
Well, I know I don't know you and you're probably not what you seem
But I'd sure like to find out So why don't you climb down off that movie screen

Hey Mrs. Potter don't turn
Hey Mrs. Potter I burn for you
Hey Mrs. Potter won't you talk to me

When the last king of Hollywood shatters his glass on the floor
and orders another, well, I wonder what he did that for
That's when I know that I have to get out cause I have been there before
So I gave up my seat at the bar and I head for the door

We drove out to the desert just to lie down beneath this bowl of stars
We stand up in the palace like it's the last of the great pioneer town bars
We shout out these songs against the clang of electric guitars
You can see a million miles tonight But you can't get very far
Oh, you can see a million miles tonight But you can't get very far

Hey Mrs. Potter I won't touch
Hey Mrs. Potter it's not much but
Hey Mrs. Potter won't you talk to me
-- Counting Crows, “Mrs. Potter”

People Take Warning

I realize that there are only about a thousand people on the planet who would be excited by such things, but I am one of them. Somebody should write a song about bridges in Minneapolis.


People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938
Landmark 3CD Box Set Coming September 25th, 2007

"In the late 1920's and early 1930's, the Depression gripped the Nation. It was a time when songs were tools for living. A whole community would turn out to mourn the loss of a member and to sow their songs like seeds. This collection is a wild garden grown from those seeds."
- Tom Waits, from the Introduction

Songs of death, destruction and disaster, recorded by black and white performers from the dawn of American roots recording are here, assembled together for the first time. Whether they document world-shattering events like the sinking of the Titanic or memorialize long forgotten local murders or catastrophes, these 70 recordings - over 30 never before reissued - are audio messages in a bottle reflecting a lost world where age old ballads rubbed up against songs inspired by the day's headlines.Featuring beautifully remastered recordings by the some of the cornerstones of American vernacular recording such as Charlie Patton, Ernest Stoneman, Furry Lewis, Charlie Poole and Uncle Dave Macon, these songs tell of life and death struggles forever immortalized on these rare and compelling 78 rpms.

Produced and annotated by Grammy winning team of Christopher King and Henry "Hank" Sapoznik with an introduction by Tom Waits, the accompanying 48- page three-CD anthology designed by Grammy award winning Susan Archie brims with many eye- popping historic images never before reproduced.

People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938 TSQ 1875
Release Date: September 25th, 2007

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Appetite for Difficulty

I was struck by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott’s appreciation of the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, who died earlier this week. Like fellow searcher/director Michelangelo Antonioni, who died the same day, Bergman asked the tough questions and probed the great mysteries in his films. They were not easy going, these films. They were dark, obtuse, freighted with symbolism that asked the viewer to actually work at its meaning, and that implied that it might take more than one viewing, and a fair amount of thinking and discussion, to adequately explore that meaning.

Scott wrote, in part:

There was, among certain filmgoers in the 1960s, an appetite for difficulty, a conviction that symbolic obscurity and psychological alienation were authentic responses to the state of the world. More than that, the idea that a difficult work had special value — that being challenged was a distinct form of pleasure — enjoyed a prestige, at the time, that is almost unimaginable today. We would rather be teased than troubled, and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness.

Given all that, it may be hard for someone who wasn’t there — who never knew a film culture in which “La Notte” didn’t already exist — to quite appreciate the heroic status conferred on Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman 40 years ago. I don’t believe that the art of filmmaking has necessarily declined since then (I’d quit my job if I did), but it seems clear the cultural climate that made it possible to hail filmmakers as supreme artists has vanished for good. All that’s left are the films.

It was and is an utterly radical proposition: that enlightenment and entertainment were not mutually exclusive concepts; that one could come blinking into the sunlight from a darkened theater and emerge not numbed, not mollified, but as a better human being.

A comparable movement was underway at the same time in the world of popular music. In the same years that Bergman and Antonioni were at the peak of their considerable powers, The Beatles were redefining what was possible in pop music with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Marvin Gaye was probing the incongruities of Black Power and life in the ghetto, and Bob Dylan was spinning out couplets like these:

Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation will be like after a while

Now we get:

I’m hot coz I’m fly
You ain’t coz you not

Yeah, okay, I’ve stacked the deck, and I’m picking examples that suit my argument. And yes, there are exceptions. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t view the sixties as some sort of mythic golden age in the history of music. I was there, and I had my ear to the radio, and I’m here to tell you that there was as much musical swill then as there is now. But what was different is that complex, innovative music and culturally engaging lyrics could still find a mass audience – even when that audience had to listen to the songs three or four times before even conjecturing on their meaning.

The wonder is not that music such as Sgt. Pepper’s … or Marvin’s What’s Goin’ On? or Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde could be made. People are still making comparably challenging music today. The wonder is that it could achieve mass acceptance, that people – a large number of people, at that – actually listened to these albums, really listened to them, sat around and pondered lyric sheets and debated rhyming couplets, and that people like Bob Dylan could have #1 hits on the Billboard charts. The miracle is that Bob Dylan was utterly inscrutable, and yet he was a certifiable rock star who sold millions of records.

We could debate endlessly about why we, as a culture, no longer have an appetite for difficulty. We could toss around terms like “MTV” and “video games” and “American Idol” and engage in hand wringing over the cultural lobotomization of America. And that’s a fun game. I’ll be sure to play it next week. But for right now I’d simply like to salute what was, and what may never be again. Bergman and Antonioni are gone, and so are Lennon and Harrison and Marvin Gaye. They made me a better human being. They made a lot of people better human beings. And they miraculously entertained us in the process.