Andy Whitman, my favorite writer at Paste Magazine, delivered a lecture at the Trinity Arts Conference last week.
I missed it. My work schedule prevented me from attending, and it hurt to miss out. Nobody writes about music with more passion than Andy. And few can draw from such a wealth of experience in listening closely. I’ve discovered a great deal of excellent music from following Andy’s journeys. And it is a privilege to call him a friend.
God bless him, he just gave me permission to post his entire speech.
So sit back and enjoy the words of one of my favorite writers, Andy Whitman:
Thank you for the opportunity to speak this morning.
My name is Andy Whitman. I’m 52 years old. You should know three things about me. First, I work in corporate America for 40 or more hours every week. Second, for as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a writer. And I became a writer. Sort of. But I will tell you that I never envisioned that I’d spend most of my writing life honing sentences about systems management and database capacity planning. I don’t know anyone who set out in life to write sentences about database capacity planning. But that’s what I do. Third, I leave my little eight-by-eight cubbyhole in corporate America and I go home and I write about music, all kinds of music. I write about music for Paste Magazine, for Christianity Today Magazine, and for a website called All Music Guide. I’m going to talk about the intersection of those three things this morning. It’s a strange kind of life. Occasionally I venture forth and interview a bunch of shaved, pierced, tattooed musicians. They look at me as if they were being interviewed by Dick Cheney. And then the next day I go back to my cubicle.
I’m thankful to be here. One of the great privileges in participating in an event like this is that it brings people together who otherwise would probably never encounter one another. That’s the case with my friend Dave Sims. Dave has been a “virtual” friend for many years, and we’ve exchanged a lot of email messages with one another, but it’s wonderful to finally meet him in person. And that goes for all of you as well. It’s nice to meet you, and I look forward to getting to know all of you a little better as well.
I’ll start off with the obligatory talking animal story. David Foster Wallace, one of my favorite novelists, and a very astute observer of both human and animal nature, tells the tale of two young fish swimming along. They happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Mornin’, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim along for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and says, “What the hell is water?”
I love the story because it suggests that the world as it is, the world as it is meant to be seen from God’s perspective, is something that we can be blasé and cynical about, bored with, habituated and hardened to, even to the point of not really seeing it all. The reality is that we live on a planet that is teeming with glory and horror, full of six billion people with at least six billion different stories, every one of them loved and desperate for love in the most amazing ways, a world that shouts out, if we have ears to hear, Look at this! Look at this place and these people, fallen and beautiful, broken and resplendent. That’s what we’re swimming in. That’s water. And I love the story because it suggests that we can be swimming in it, and totally miss it. What the hell is water?
The theme of this conference is change. And change is perhaps the defining characteristic of our culture. We live in a rapidly evolving world in which the knowledge and skills that carried us through to where are today may very well be outmoded next year, and where we have to constantly retrain and retool to keep up. I spend 40 hours or more of my week working in the high-tech world. The skills I learned five years ago are as antiquated as the eight-track tapes I used to play in my Ford Pinto. I have to change continuously or I will be out of a job. The parenting skills my wife and I acquired when my daughters were five and two no longer apply now that they’re almost twenty-two and nineteen. Timeouts don’t seem to work any more. For that matter, the relational skills my wife and I acquired when we were newly married no longer seem to apply much, either. We’re different people than we were twenty-six years ago. Not only have our interests changed, but in some significant ways our personalities have changed. We’ve had to adjust to each other, and to life with kids, and now to life without kids as empty nesters. There are new challenges every step of the way.
But there is another and deeper aspect to change that I’d like to focus on this morning. It’s reflected in the fact that you’re here this weekend, at a conference that seeks to investigate the relationship between the Christian faith and the arts. We all have different stories of the ways we have journeyed toward or away from God, but mine involves growing up in the Christian Church, and then rejecting the Church’s teachings, and later coming back to the Christian Church. And I want to start in the middle of that story, during a time when I wanted nothing to do with God.
When I was eighteen years old I made the mistake of enrolling at a Christian college as a non-Christian. I didn’t think it would be a big deal at the time, and I figured that the denominational affiliation of the college was simply a historical nod to the past, but I quickly figured out that the place was infested with Jesus Freaks.
Somehow, in ways that are still unclear to me, primarily because it was a really fuzzy kind of year, I became the campus evangelism project, and by the end of my freshman year I had collected a drawer full of Four Spiritual Laws booklets. You may be familiar with the Four Spiritual Laws booklets. They were yellow, and using nice, easy-to-understand illustrations, they walked the non-Christian and potential convert through the process of repentance and acknowledging the lordship of Jesus Christ. By the end of my freshman year I knew the contents of the Four Spiritual Laws booklet by heart, probably far better than the people who were sharing the gospel with me, and I had mastered the art of communicating to several of the more attractive sisters that I loved them and had a wonderful plan for their life. That tended not to go over too well, but at any rate I had decided to transfer, so at the end of my freshman year I packed up all my belongings and moved to Athens, Ohio, home of Ohio University. I had done my research meticulously. Ohio University was rated the #2 university in the country at the time for creative writing, which was my prospective major. It was also rated as the #3 party school in the U.S. Both factors figured heavily in my decision.
So I transferred to Party School U.S.A. and became a Christian. It was a long and involved process, consisting of countless arguments and bull sessions in dormitory rooms at 2:00 in the morning, but what it came down to was this: my life wasn’t working. I didn’t like the person I was becoming. And I remembered those Four Spiritual Laws booklets, with their handy drawings showing Self on the throne of life and Jesus on the throne of life, and I decided to abdicate the throne. I was a lousy king, and so I decided to give Jesus a shot at ruling the royal realm. The way my friends explained it, it was a simple transference of power. I stood up and walked away from the throne, and Jesus walked in and sat down on the throne, and that was that.
Within a few days I had figured out that it wasn’t quite so straightforward. I was a Christian, and Jesus was the Lord of my life, but I found the same patterns in my life that I had found so distressing before my conversion. I was angry. I was selfish. I didn’t treat people in the ways that I wanted to be treated myself. I wanted to change, but I didn’t know how to change. The old man, my old carnal self, was theoretically dead, but I kept dragging his sorry carcass around with me. And he kept messing up that full and abundant life I was supposed to be experiencing as a follower of Jesus Christ.
That was 34 years ago. I would like to tell you that I’ve arrived, but I haven’t. I’ve had thirty-four years of Jesus on the throne of my life, and there are still many days when Jesus looks a lot like King Andrew the Magnificent, beneficent ruler of the Kingdom of Me. And the question that I would like to pose to all of you is the same question I often ask myself: if change is possible, if Christ changes our lives, then why do we look so much like the jerks we looked like before?
The predominant disposition of our lives — the way we are hard-wired — is for self to be on the throne. We are all expert rulers of the Kingdom of Me. It’s what we do best, and it comes as naturally as breathing. Selfishness is our default setting. And yet we serve a Lord who states in very unequivocal terms, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” If you don’t experience the cognitive dissonance between that statement and the everyday realities of looking out for number one, who is not named Jesus Christ, then you’ve never really grappled with the issue. We’re not there yet. There is a gap between who we are supposed to be and who we are, the way we live our lives. And the only way that gap will be narrowed is if we change.
Here’s the good news: I believe that change is possible. And I also believe that it’s difficult. I wish it was as easy as abdicating the throne and allowing Jesus to be the king of our lives. But I suspect it takes a lifetime. At least, that’s been my experience. The work of the Holy Spirit in our lives plays a significant role in this process, as does prayer, as does our relationship to the Church and its sacraments, and those times when we allow our brothers and sisters in Christ to know us, warts and all, and to speak into our lives and tell us the truth instead of merely what we want to hear. We’ll never get it entirely right. This side of paradise, we will always have moments, days, maybe weeks where the Kingdom of Me reigns supreme. But we can be changed. We can look more like the people God intends us to be.
And here’s more good news, news that speaks directly to why we’re here this weekend: art can play a role in the change process. We’ve all read articles and heard talks at conferences about the transformative power of art. It’s something of a cliché, and if you’re like me you start to yawn within the first thirty seconds of some earnest presenter who’s ready to wax rhapsodic about beauty. But here’s the deal: it also happens to be true. I’ll try to keep you awake.
I told you that I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. And that’s true. What I didn’t mention is that I also have a morbid streak a mile wide, a death-obsessed, depressive personality that fixates on the maudlin and the tragic the way some people fixate on their favorite sports teams. When I was nine years old, while all my other classmates were playing kickball and tag out on the playground, I sat in the stairwell and wrote after-the-nuclear-holocaust short stories. I wrote my own eulogy, in perfect iambic pentameter, at age twelve. It’s a kind of sickness, one that was, in fact, officially diagnosed many years ago when a doctor told me I was suffering from depression. In terms of the four humors of the ancient world, I am a melancholic. I see the world through black-colored lenses.
The problem is that depression doesn’t fit very well within the Christian template. I can run down the Fruits of the Spirit checklist the apostle Paul lays out in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Galatians. Love? Check. Good stuff. I don’t always do it well, but I’m all about love. Peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, kindness, self-control? All great stuff. I don’t always see evidence of them in my life, but I’m always encouraged when I do. And there’s one I left out. For anyone who suffers from depression it’s almost incomprehensible. It’s the dreaded J word: Joy. Wow, it’s even hard for me to speak it.
For someone who writes “after the nuclear holocaust” short stories for grins, Joy makes about as much sense as asking someone to flap their arms and fly to the moon. Joy is watching the televangelist’s wife on TV, singing her solo with her beehive hairdo, beaming like she’s on Ecstasy, as fake and phoney as can be. Joy is those crazy Christian loonies who won’t admit it when they’re really sick, like when they have cancer, because that would be a negative confession, and so they walk around smiling and claiming the victory as they rot away from the inside, nutty as fruitcakes.
But there it is, in the Bible. It’s apparently a good thing, something to be sought after and diligently prayed for. And I hate that. It would be easier if it were optional, if that was a smorgasbord list from which we could pick and choose. The extroverts can have the J fruit if they want it. So what are you supposed to do with this Joy stuff, Mr. Death?
Here’s what I do with it: I listen to music. Aside from my family and friends, the reason the word “Joy” has any meaning in my life, any connection to the world I live in and the world inside my head, is because of music. I listen to the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, or to Miles Davis’s classic album Kind of Blue, or to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, and I get it. Oh yeah, that’s what that is. It’s what makes me want to jump on the couch cushions and play air guitar and completely embarrass myself by acting utterly and inappropriately not my age. It’s joy.
And for that reason I want to thank the committee who put together this conference for identifying me as a “music reviewer” instead of a “music critic.” Can I tell you much I hate the term “music critic”? Do you want to spend with a critic? I don’t. And every time someone identifies me as a “music critic” I want to hang a sign around my neck that says something like “Will complain for food.” Yes, I write about music, and yes, sometimes I write about albums I don’t like very much, and I say that, but I don’t write about music to criticize it. I write about it because I love it. And I write about it because it connects in ways that go deep down, and because it helps me understand who I am and who God is. It helps me grasp the fact that all of these strangers who surround me are not so strange after all, that we share a lot in common. And it helps me understand joy.
That’s a big deal. But let me warn you that you will encounter many people in your life who won’t understand that, and who will want to turn it into a little deal. They are the pragmatic, no-nonsense Type A doers of the world, and they won’t understand a focus on the arts. Their reactions may vary from viewing the pursuit of music, or the pursuit of the arts in general, as a relatively harmless hobby to viewing the pursuit of the arts as a complete waste of time. “Why don’t you do something with your life?,” they may ask you. I work with these people every day. These are the people who genuinely get excited about routers and firewalls and budget reports and spreadsheets. I don’t mean to belittle these folks. I’m glad they exist. If everyone was like me, nothing would ever get done, and we’d all sit around with headphones on until we got hungry, and then we’d discover that we didn’t have any money to buy food.
But the writer Nick Hornby nails it in the introduction to his book Songbook, which is his tribute to the power of specific songs and specific albums in his life: “I love the relationship that anyone has with music,” he says, “because there’s something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It’s the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part.”
That’s it. That’s why this strange, impractical pursuit that adds nothing to the Gross National Product of God’s own U.S. of A. or your own bank account, is completely worth it. But there will be subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle forces that come to bear on your life that will try to convince you that it’s all a silly, idealistic focus that should fade once you grow up and become engaged with the real world. So let me try to project out into the future a little bit for you, particularly for those of you who aren’t that far removed from your high school or college years. It doesn’t get any easier. If you are a student now, the odds are likely that you’ll get married, and that you’ll have kids, and that you’ll embark on a career. There will be real pressures on you to stop paying attention. And I know a lot of Baby Boomers my age who have stopped paying attention. I encounter people all the time, people like me who were raised on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Motown and Dylan — who bemoan the current state of popular music, who are stuck in some bizarre Woodstock timewarp where they’re convinced that no decent music has been released since Led Zeppelin IV and that it’s all been downhill since John married Yoko.
I feel bad for these folks, but I don’t believe them. Listen, I understand how it happens. You get out of college, you get a real job, you get really, really busy, and eventually you end up focusing on fertilizer debates with your suburban neighbors and discussions about your sorry golf game and your even sorrier investment portfolio instead of some hot new band from London or New York City. But I still don’t believe them. It’s not true for me, and I don’t believe that it has to be true for you. I don’t believe them because I hear new music all the time that still provides that same visceral thrill that I experienced when I was a kid, and when I first heard Led Zeppelin IV or The White Album.
It’s the same reaction. It’s the same mingling of excitement and awe and (God forbid, this coming from a depressive type) just plain joy that accompanies the discovery of some musician or some band who says the same old sweet nothings that rock ‘n roll has said for fifty years, but says them in a way, either musically or lyrically or both, that it all sounds fresh and vital and new. I’d like to believe that God is wrapped up in that process. In fact, I know He is. And I try to express that in what I write, and I’m going to try to express that in the words I speak this morning. In the end, I’m after the same things the musician is after. I’m trying to find what matters, and bear witness to the beauty of God’s creation, and the ugliness within, the tug of war between the surrender that leads to wholeness and healing and the death grip on self. And then I try to make the words sing. I’m privileged and blessed to be able to make that attempt. You want to know how it’s possible for an aging, balding paunchy Dick Cheney lookalike to write about rock ‘n roll? You pay attention, and you keep waking up in the morning. You keep looking for those messages that startle you, that energize you, that make you feel alive, regardless of whether they’re packaged in a book or in a film or a plastic disk or an MP3 file. That’s why we’re here this weekend. To stop would be a form of death, and frankly I’d rather talk about life.
So let me talk briefly about the things I’m looking for in a good song or a good album, and the things I try to emphasize in an album review. First, let me tell you that I’m not much of a musician. I can string together a few chords on the piano and the guitar, and I have some knowledge of music theory, but I’m far from an accomplished musician. What I am is a fan of music. That started when I was a small child, when my parents bought me a transistor radio, and I figured out that there were these things called rock ‘n roll stations that offered an alternative to the Frank Sinatra and Herb Alpert records my parents were listening to. And it’s continued ever since.
The first record album I ever bought was The Beatles Second Album, when I was nine years old. I saved up my allowance money, 25 cents per week, to buy it. The first concert I saw (or more accurately, didn’t see, because I was too short to see over the crowd) was the Beatles at Severance Hall in Cleveland in the summer of 1964. I hopped in the wood-paneled station wagon owned by next-door-neighbors, and we drove up to Cleveland from Columbus, sat in the next-to-last tow, and listened to a bunch of teenaged girls scream. I don’t think I actually either saw or heard The Beatles that evening. But I was there.
That was forty-four years ago. In the meantime, I’ve explored just about every genre of music that there is to explore. I like some better than others. I’ve never been much of a heavy metal fan, and I tend to skip through all the long recitatifs I hear in operas to get to the arias. But just about everything else is fair game. And I’ve found meaning and value in all of it. I started out as a fan of rock ‘n roll, and my first real exposure to popular music was listening to Top 40 radio in the mid-sixties at a time when The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and all the great Motown and Stax/Volt soul artists were vying for the top of the charts. It was a great time to discover popular music, but like every musical era, it had its share of schlock and shallow pop ditties as well. And I’ve continued to explore. Rock music has always been the foundation of my musical interests, but over the years I’ve gone backward to dig into the early days of rock’n’roll and the great jazz and blues of the past, some of the early pioneers of country and bluegrass music, and the vast classical music catalogue. I’ve gone forward to explore new trends and changes as they occur, from the burgeoning singer/songwriter movement of the early ‘70s through the early punk music of the late ‘70s through all the hybrid, hyphenated genres that have names like New Wave, Alt-Country, Post-Rock, Hip Hop, Indie Rock, and so on. And I’ve gone outward, exploring far more than the western music of the U.S. and the British Isles, and some of my favorite music these days comes from places such as Jamaica, North Africa, and the Balkans. I’ve even circled back to the music of my parents and found great value in the songs of Frank Sinatra, a person I viewed as an old fogie when I was a kid, and a person I now view as one of the greatest singers of popular music ever.
To quote the great music critic Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. Actually, I’ll amend that slightly to state that there is very little new under the sun, because on very rare occasions—maybe once or twice per decade—some musician or band comes along and actually invents a new sound, something we’ve never heard before. In spite of what all the breathless press releases from music publicists tell me, about 99% of the music I hear is a reworking of old and tired variations on a theme. There are only so many notes and so many chords and so many rhythmic ways to play them, and when you’ve followed this stuff for close to half a century, a certain sameness starts to set it.
So if, in spite of music publicist claims, my life isn’t going to be radically altered by that new Celine Dion album, and even if western civilization as we have known it really isn’t about to undergo a seismic shift, I still try to find some minor pleasures in the new albums I hear. Sometimes I look for music that faithfully recaptures and then slightly twists a classic sound. The Beatles are still inspiring musicians almost forty years after they broke up, and there are literally hundreds of power pop bands who aren’t really doing anything new, but who have discovered that a couple verses, a catchy, hook-filled chorus, some chiming guitars and multi-tracked harmonies are still a glorious combination. Sometimes I look for musicians or bands who mix up genres that seem incompatible, and who emerge with a hybrid that is surprising because of its unexpectedness. I’m going to be talking about a couple of those hybrids in just a minute. I’m also a big fan of melody, and sometimes I look for something as simple as a lovely song. The recent Sun Kil Moon album April is a great example; the good, old-fashioned acoustic folkie template applied to a bunch of pretty songs about memory and longing and regret and loss.
In general, I tend to prefer rough and raw over slick and well produced. I tend to like idiosyncratic — some would say “bad” — singers over classically trained vocalists. And in general, soul — impossible to define, but I know it when I hear it — trumps just about everything else. I’ll take Van Morrison singing Sesame Street songs — which he’s actually done — over a profoundly literate but bland singer. Those are personal preferences. There’s nothing objective about it. It’s what I like.
Mostly, though, I listen to the words. I don’t mean to downplay the importance and value of instrumental music, nor will I deny that I’ve heard many, many albums of well-written songs that have been sabotaged by the same boring music I’ve heard a thousand times before. But all else being equal, I’m looking for songwriters who attempt to move beyond the mindlessness and sterility of party anthems and easy rhymes and I Love My Baby or My Baby Left me sentiments. I want to hear someone with a unique voice — not the vocal kind, but the literary kind. I want to hear someone who asks all the big questions about God and love and death and where to find meaning and purpose, and I want to hear someone who asks those questions in ways that they haven’t been asked before. That’s the Big Quest. That’s what I’m hoping to find every time I open up another shrinkwrapped CD with another breathless PR release folded around it. I’m looking for musicians and bands who break out of the pack and stamp themselves as unique individuals, with something unique to say. There’s a simple test here, really: does it wake me up? Does it shake me out of the lethargy that can easily set in when I’m in the middle of seemingly interchangeable days in my cubicle? Does it make me feel more alive?
Paste Magazine, the music publication I write for most frequently, calls it “Signs of Life.” It’s the tagline for the magazine. And it’s a pretty accurate description of what I’m trying to find. Everybody knows that there is formulaic, disposable music out there. It fills the airwaves. But I’m also here to tell you that there is wonderful, beautiful, disturbing, uplifting, lovely, sad, heartbreaking, thrilling music out there, and it has nothing to do with genre labels. It’s not Christian. It’s not non-Christian. It’s human.
I’d like to tell you about a few of those signs of life I’ve encountered over the past few months, a few of the outposts in my musical world where I am challenged and startled and where, at least on my better days, I’m more likely to change because I’ve been exposed to what I hear. So here are five or six relatively new albums that for very different reasons have impressed me and challenged me and made me want to jump up and down on the couch cushions.
Let me tell you about a band from Athens, Ohio called Southeast Engine. Southeast Engine sounds a lot like the band Wilco, a band you may be familiar with. They play a particularly aggressive brand of what is today called alt-country, and what used to be called country rock, and they have a raspy, world-weary lead singer who could double for Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s singer and songwriter. Their latest album, which is called A Wheel Within a Wheel, may contain as many biblical allusions as the entire U2 catalogue, starting with the opening rocker “Taking the Fall” and continuing right on through the final track, which sounds something like Wilco discovering the Book of Revelation. There’s an openness and vulnerability about the singing and the songwriting that I find totally disarming. It’s both highly literary and highly confessional, and I like it very much.
Let me tell you about the band Aradhna. There’s no great secret here, but I’ll spell it out. I usually have very little use for Christian music and the Contemporary Christian Music genre, although Christians have made some of my favorite music. Like a lot of other Jesus Freaks, I threw away a lot of my favorite “secular” albums, and for a while I tried my best to focus on overtly “Christian” music. But I didn’t really like it, and sometime back around 1978 or so I went through my own little musical counter-Reformation and I threw away a bunch of CCM albums and repurchased a lot of that worldly, pagan music that just happened to sound better and speak to me in more direct ways. I’ll go even further and state that the Worship Music wing of the CCM genre holds little appeal. There’s too much imitation of Fleetwood Mac circa 1975, and too many wince-inducing, sub-Hallmark “apple of my eye/wind beneath my wings” references. When it comes to music that actually connects in spiritual ways for me, and that I actually want to listen to in the car outside of Sunday mornings, give me Sigur Ros or Miles Davis. They probably didn’t know they were creating worship music. It just worked out that way for me.
So when an album comes along that fits squarely within the Worship Music tradition of the CCM genre, and I actually like it, then there may be some evidence that hell has begun to freeze over. But that’s what happened with Aradhna. The four core members of the band are as Americans, but they’ve all spent significant portions of their lives in Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. And therein lies the strange and wondrous merger of two worlds that contributes to the uniqueness of the band’s music, and to the surprising vigor of their latest album Amrit Vani. There are sitars here. And tablas. They sound as exotic as you would expect. And there are acoustic guitar arpeggios and gently lilting violin solos that wouldn’t sound out of place on a very western Windham Hill album. It works beautifully. The lyrics are sung in Hindi and are taken from the Hindu sacred scriptures, but they’ve been reworked to reflect devotion to Christ and to conform to an orthodox Christian worldview. The music digs deep in a contemplative, meditative way that few worship albums even begin to approach, and, as a bonus, it’s quite lovely. I highly recommend it.
As I mentioned, I’m also a big fan of musicians who take seemingly incompatible musical genres and mash them together and come up with something new and unexpected. And so I want to recommend the latest album from a band called Firewater called The Golden Hour. Firewater is led by a former punk named Tod who was once in a band called Cop Shoot Cop. You can imagine how uplifting that music was. But Tod left the police academy twelve years ago to embark on a relentlessly eclectic exploration of world music. His first solo album was an immediately breathtaking affair, equal parts Tom Waits seedy cabaret and gypsy wedding party, and it predates indie rock’s current obsession with Balkan music by a good decade. Subsequent albums have explored Bollywood, klezmer music, and Big Top circus sounds.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, the latest album The Golden Hour sounds like nothing that has come before it. Newly divorced and disgruntled by George W. Bush’s re-election, Tod left New York in 2005 with a backpack, his laptop, and the clothes on his back. The ensuing three-year hejira/debauch through India, the Punjab, Pakistan, and parts of Afghanistan and Turkey is fully chronicled on the new album. Setting up shop wherever he could find willing musicians, recording at times around tribal campfires, Tod provided the songs and the punk attitude, native musicians provided the accompaniment, and a single microphone and a laptop provided the recording studio. The results are endlessly fascinating and disturbing; a man at the end of his rope, rootless, and without hope, howling at the moon, and leading the locals through a nihilistic hoedown. Singing about his divorce and the unraveling of normality, Tod yelps “This is no joke/This is my life.” You tend to believe him. Normal must have been a long time ago. Along the three-year trek he was drugged, beaten, robbed, and almost died of a mysterious intestinal illness “I was forced,” he says, “to end my trip at the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border, due to general ill health and the unnerving likelihood of kidnapping.” It’s not pleasant listening, but it comes close to being essential listening. It’s a superb, disturbing slab of desperation and creativity.
I’d also like to tell you about the most impressive album I’ve heard in the past year, an album called At War With Walls and Mazes by a young New York musician who calls himself Son Lux.
About a year ago, I was asked to officiate in a contest called “Bandspotting,” which was part of Calvin College’s 2007 Festival of Faith and Music. It was like American Idol in that I got to judge a lot of musical unknowns and wield extraordinary power over the lives of musicians looking for their big break (okay, at least some kind of break). It was unlike American Idol in that I didn’t get to make any snarky comments from the peanut gallery.
The winner of the contest was a young man named Ryan Lott, who goes by Son Lux as his musical alias. Ryan is a classically-trained pianist who is enamored with Kid A-era Radiohead, and in college he alternated between playing Brahms in a tux and playing keyboards in a funk and hip-hop band. And on his debut album he sings in a sort of hushed rasp, throws in some Rachmaninoff dramatic flourishes, and then slices and dices everything via tape loops, lots of sampling –everything from fairly standard hip-hop beats to operatic divas — and then adds some electronic blips and beeps. And although that certainly qualifies as the kind of musical mashup that I like, it doesn’t really tell you much about the songs themselves. And the songs are astounding. I was immediately struck by Ryan’s use of Scripture (and lines clearly derived from Scripture) throughout these songs. He starts with a biblical verse, a fragment of a verse, a spiritually charged word — and repeats it over and over again, like a mantra, or like Rosary beads. And listening to the same scrap of truth repeated, sliced and diced, taken out and examined from all sorts of musical angles, I finally got it. This is the musical equivalent of Lectio Divina, the spiritual discipline of meditating on a small segment of Scripture and soaking in that truth in all of its ramifications. And here this classically trained indie kid had found a way to do it via Radiohead and Rachmaninoff. The music is quiet, and it’s thunderously beautiful. I think it’s a fabulous album. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I’m also drawn to sad, mopey characters who wring melodrama out of relational breakdowns and breakups. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the music of Nick Drake or Elliott Smith, but they both had an uncanny way of distilling sadness and melancholy and making it seem supremely melodic. My latest favorite in that genre is a guy named Jacob Golden, whose recently released debut album is called Revenge Songs.
Revenge Songs is a divorce album. I’ve never been divorced. I don’t know what that feels like. But I’ve sat up some late nights with friends who are going through a divorce, just as I’m sure you have, and I think I have some idea of the messy ambivalence that accompanies those hypercharged days; the anger and self-loathing and sense of relief that seem to co-exist, impossibly, in the same human beings.
Jacob Golden’s album captures that ambivalence just about perfectly. It’s easily the best breakup album I’ve heard since last year’s bitter flameout from the band The Mendoza Line, which was called Thirty Year Low, and it just may stand a chance of joining the pantheon of the Great Divorce Albums: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, and Beck’s Sea Change. It’s that good.
Golden sings in a lovely choirboy tenor that belies the desperation of his lyrics. He double tracks his voice, and there are numerous times on the album where he channels the sound of those old Simon and Garfunkel albums very convincingly. But there’s a naked honesty and vulnerability there that is quite startling. I don’t expect choirboys to sing things like:
I never said I had any answers
I never claimed to be the better man
I’ve got no integrity to cling to
I don’t have myself a backup plan
That’s from a song called “Zero Integrity,” and it’s only one facet of a remarkably complex album that also takes in the reeling, kaleidoscopic emotions of bitterness, sorrow, confusion, anger, recrimination, relief — the whole gamut of emotions that people tend to go through during such emotionally overwrought times. It’s the most human thing I’ve heard in months. And you’ll be singing along with the heartbreak.
Finally, let me tell you about a kid named Ezra Furman, who really wants to be the next Bob Dylan. I love Bob Dylan. I always have. But if any of you have followed music for any length of time, you will know that the term “new Dylan” is the kiss of death. Anybody remember a guy named Steve Forbert? See what I mean?
So I won’t tell you that this 20-year-old kid from Boston is the new Dylan, even though he howls more than sings, disdains trivial little things like pitch, pummels his acoustic guitar like a madman, has a harmonica rack on top of his guitar, and writes the most astounding metaphors and consistently surprises me with his imagery. I don’t know who that would sound like.
So Ezra Furman has a band called The Harpoons, and he has one album, which is called Banging Down the Doors, which was my favorite album out of the hundreds of albums I heard last year. One of his songs takes in faith, doubt, the virgin Mary, alcoholism, Starbucks coffee, premature death, and Soren Kierkegaard. In about three minutes.
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 in almost all of the tracks, and the songs hurtle by at breakneck speed. That other guy who we won’t mention 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. 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.
So those are some examples of new music that has breathed new meaning into my life over the past few months. I mentioned earlier that I spend forty or more hours every week working in corporate America, with the Type A doers of the world. I moan about it, but the truth is I’m thankful for the gig. It’s allowed me to make the mortgage payments and support my family and send two kids to college. But it’s not how I envisioned my life would go. By this time I figured I would have written the Great American Novel, worked on the Hollywood screenplay, counseled Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep on how to play the lead roles, and settled down to a life of public adulation and reverence, bestirring myself for occasional appearances on NPR and PBS. I had modest dreams.
Instead I write about database capacity planning. The two books I’ve written Creating Graphics for Your Commodore 64 and Lotus 1-2-3 for Beginners are long out of print. You wouldn’t want to read them anyway. Neither would I.
So I go home, and I spend time with my family and friends. I pray, and I try to be awake to the possibility of loving and serving people, of acting like Jesus really is on the throne. I read books. And I listen to music and write about it. All of that’s tied up in who I am.
I live in the suburbs, but I go to church in the inner city. I do that for a couple reasons. First, I have no great interest in talking about golf and fertilizer. Second, I think it’s important to leave my comfort zone. I like comfort. It’s pleasant. But at this point in my life, the point where I once thought I’d have it made, and that I’d be able to kick back and take it easy, I find that I don’t want to take it easy. My pastor is constantly exhorting us to engage suffering, to be the eyes and hands and feet of Jesus in a hurting world, to care, and to get off our sentimental duffs and do something good for the Kingdom of God. And so a couple times per week my wife and I get in the car and drive down to the city. Our church is full of artists — writers, painters, musicians, concert promoters, entrepreneurs. By and large they’re a bunch of tattooed, pierced wounded warriors with MFAs. And then there are the people from the hood.
It’s not a perfect church. I’m far from a perfect human being. But sometimes I look around on Sunday mornings and I’m amazed. Some of the people there wouldn’t identify themselves as Christians. They’re watching, taking it all in. They’re looking at these people who claim to be changed by God, and who claim to love one another and the whole world around them, and they’re just waiting to see us slip up, to be those standard-issue hypocritical Christians who say one thing and do another. Usually they don’t have to wait very long. We’re pretty obliging in that way. Me too. I’m not making excuses. Everybody I know wants to be changed in this journey toward God, to be a less self-centered person, and everybody I know blows it on a fairly consistent basis. But we do so as screw-ups loved by God, and that’s what we try to communicate.
Everybody has a story to tell. That, to me, has been the biggest revelation I’ve encountered while being a part of our current church. Many of the stories are sad ones, some of them heartbreaking, pound-your-fist-into-the-pillow ones. People have had to put up with such crap, and have done such crap to themselves. And who knows where one leaves off and the other begins? Not me. It’s a mess. But I’m fairly convinced it’s a holy mess.
The music that touches me most deeply is also a holy mess. It’s touched by God, it’s true, and it reminds me that in the midst of the wreckage and the carnage there are human beings who are infinitely loved. And, when I let it, it can shake me from my self-imprisonment and release me from the captivity of the Kingdom of Me. It reminds me that I have a choice, and that I am not powerless in these matters.
I can obsess about the hard knocks of life, and I can put on my melancholy, depressive lenses and see the world in shades of dismal grey. Or I can recognize the strange, incongruous blessings that flow from the mess and the brokenness. I see it all the time in my church, and in my own life. And I hear them all the time in music. Jacob Golden gets a divorce and writes a beautiful, honest, poetic masterpiece. The jazz pianist Bill Evans spends all his money on heroin, his wife dies of an overdose, the power company shuts off his electricity because he can’t pay his bill, and he goes into the studio and in one take lays down an impossibly moving hymn called “Peace Piece,” a little slice of transcendent beauty and longing. How can that be? But it is. It happens all the time. It all fits together, and I get to write about it. And I’m so thankful to be able to do it.
At my workshop this afternoon I’m going to play several of the songs I’ve talked about this morning. I’m also going to play a longtime favorite by the English band Radiohead called “Fake Plastic Trees.” I’m sure many of you are already familiar with Radiohead. They’re one of the best-known indie rock bands, not only because of the creativity and innovation they bring to their music, but also because of their radical marketing strategy of skipping the record label entirely and offering their latest album In Rainbows for whatever their fans wanted to pay for it. The song I’m going to play is a fairly straightforward power ballad from one of their early albums. From the standpoint of song structure, it’s a masterful example of how to build a song from a pensive beginning to a soaring coda, and it’s the embodiment of how to merge words and sounds to generate something that is far greater than the sum of its parts. And, for my money, it perfectly encapsulates many of the ideas that I’ve tried to communicate this morning. It’s a beautiful, sad, desperate magnum opus on profound disappointment. It’s about love, and the loss of love, and the hollow feeling in the gut when it all comes crashing down. It’s a mess.
I’ve been married for 26 years to the same woman. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced the kind of crushing rejection and emptiness that comes at the bad end of a relationship you thought was going to be very good. But it all comes back to me when I hear that song. And that helps me understand my daughters a little better when they’re in the middle of a messy breakup. It makes me understand a little better the hell my divorced friends have been through. And it makes me realize how much I’ve been changed in good ways by this messy, amazing, redemptive relationship I have with my wife, and how blessed I am that I haven’t had to experience that crushing emptiness. I listen to that song and think, “This is the way it is for a lot of people. It’s all sterile. It’s all fake. There isn’t a real human being on the planet.” That’s what I remember.
I’m not going to tell you that every minute I spend listening to music leads to some sort of spiritual epiphany. There are plenty of days when I’m content to hear a good hook, or some strange, new, innovative mashup, or just some well-structured verse-chorus-verse singer/songwriter fare. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying music for its own sake. But sometimes something more happens. Sometimes — many times, in fact — it wakes me up from my lethargy, from the routine, from the monotonous, daily grind, and it reminds me of some basic truths: people matter. The big questions matter. There is a whole universe of life going on inside these human beings I encounter, and most of it is hidden and below the surface, and I begin to understand it better when I listen to music.
That’s what music can do. It’s a conduit for grace. It’s a gentle, persistent, beautiful, and sometimes very unsafe and alarming reminder that the world is not all about me. It doesn’t bring about any drastic changes in my life. It just reminds me, constantly, that I need to be changed, that there is more out there, that God isn’t through with me yet. And it reminds me, again and again, in infinitely varied ways, of one basic fact: the world is a lot bigger than the Kingdom of Me.
This — this place, this conference, all the hundreds of beautiful and tragic stories that encompass your lives, and the lives of all of the people who are not here with us this weekend — this is where I swim. This is water. This is what it’s about, and this is why I spend inordinate amounts of my time and money listening to music. It helps me remember what’s important. It opens up to me new vistas of what it means to be a less self-centered human being. And I’d like to think that it helps me, at least on my better days, to position myself in relation to God in ways that lead to positive change. It helps me listen better. It helps me pay attention to all the beauty and tragedy around me. It helps me to be less of a jerk. These are simple goals that take a lifetime, but they have some practical ramifications, like when I’m able to look at the people behind the mouths that talk about database capacity planning and at least try to see them as they really are: complex human beings who are loved by God.
We live in a time when the arts are increasingly marginalized and branded as superfluous, as a luxury we can no longer afford, and where arts programming in our schools and our cities is being severely curtailed. My sister-in-law, who is a wonderful artist and a wonderful art teacher, just lost her teaching job because her administration decreed that kids in the ghetto, where she works, don’t really need art. God forbid that beauty should be found in the hood. The symphony orchestra in Columbus, Ohio, where I live, just cut the number of its full-time musicians in half, and is in danger of going under altogether. It’s not a world-class symphony orchestra, but it’s an orchestra that plays Mozart and Beethoven pretty well, and decent Mozart and Beethoven is still a thousand times better than no Mozart of Beethoven at all. Two of my favorite music magazines—No Depression and Harp –folded in April. In some sense, both were competitors of Paste Magazine, where I write. Am I happy about their demise? No. I’m saddened by their demise. The world is a better place when more, not fewer, voices write about music that strives to be something more than a commodity, a fashion accessory, the hippest new ringtone for your phone.
We also live in a time when Christianity is seen as increasingly irrelevant, or worse, intolerant and judgmental, where any truth claims are viewed as arrogant and condescending. It’s okay that we hold to our silly, outmoded beliefs, but why can’t we have the common decency to keep them to ourselves, or to relegate them to an hour or two on Sunday morning? Why can’t we be content just knowing that we’re going to heaven? Isn’t that enough?
But it’s not enough. It’s never been enough. This isn’t about fire insurance. And it’s not about life after death. Look around you. This is water. This is about life before death. For me, it’s about staying up late with the headphones on, not because it’s a job, but because it’s a joy. I hope that through this weekend, and through the sharing of our stories, we’ll be able to recapture why we actually care about these things. Thank you for the privilege of being here with you.