A Tournament, A Tournament, A Tournament of Lies

tournamentBracket

The end of the semester has sure been hard on my blog. Oh well. Onward and upward.

One of the pleasures of moving is experiencing a new culture with child-like curiosity. There’s real joy in being an innocent, unencumbered by the cynicism that comes with familiarity. I’m sure that certain things about the Athens, GA area will eventually wear down my resistance to bitterness, but I’ll fight that dread fate until the end.

What helps in my efforts for now is the fact that I possess two small children, 8 and 4, and their wonder naturally becomes mine. From my youngest’s fascination with Southern accents (“Mommy, I speak English, but I don’t speak y’all”) to my eldest’s wholesale adoption of cowboy boots as essential fashion, I am constantly reckoning with this new culture and landscape, and this has been blissful.

It’s become obvious (to me at least) that any proper exploration of Athens for my kids must include an introduction to the Great American Band, R.E.M. The band and this community are practically synonymous and their music is therefore essential to understanding the local culture. To this end, I’ve loaded my Android up with all my old albums and have been playing them for the girls, who have been loving it (and what’s not to love?). The seminal song, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” is high up on the family playlist, much to my delight. Take a moment to refresh your Gen X memories:

The song is catchy and enigmatic and weird and wonderful. One of the great pastimes of my generation was reciting the lyrics – making sense of the rapid-fire rhymes and idiosyncratic references was, if successfully pulled off, a trip to the Bank of Cultural Capital. If you were privy to the song’s secrets, you had what the kids today like to call “street cred.” In short, it captures that most imperceptible element, the “coolness” that Athens contains within its city limits.

Hearing it again, freshly, through my daughters’ four ears, has been been an intellectually stimulating experience as well. It’s lyrical rejection of paranoia as a motivating political tactic was powerful enough in the throes of the Cold War. (This is a theme throughout the entire Document album – see “Exhuming McCarthy). Today it is an essential defense against our public discourse.

In our time, and to a degree that Michael Stipe and company could never have imagined, paranoia and fear are co-conspiring kings.

Perhaps it is because of 9/11.

Or.

Perhaps it is because conspiracy has become big business.

The fact is, now more than ever, the most important decisions we make as a society are driven by fear and that is truly frightening. (Yes, the irony of that sentence is purposeful). The profits of cable news depend on the motivation fear provides, and the networks therefore have no qualms about packaging and selling conspiracy. It is a money machine.

This is, quite simply, a cultural disaster.

Caution and suspicion are not inherently bad things. In fact, when kept in check, they provide a vital conscience for both the individual and society. Fear is an instinct that has helped humankind survive from The Great Flood through Y2K, but its proper place is at the margins of life, not the center.

When thrust into the role of a life’s organizing principle, fear is crippling and destructive, forcing the individual to hide away from the world and forgo much of the experience that makes life worth living in the first place.

When extrapolated out to the societal scale, centralized fear breaks all the bonds that unite diverse people. All challenges then become more than obstacles to be faced and solved, they become the fault of “someone else.” Conspiracy theories are constructed, packaged, sold, and applied to every difficulty the nation experiences. These theories strive to make sense of chaos where sense does not exist. They are bought and sold in an economy that depends on victimization as its primary export. I believe that our hero Westley, from The Princess Bride said it best:

Indeed we are being sold fear, and consumer demand is high. This is a crisis we all now face. Together.

For all the good and great things the Enlightenment has brought us, this fascination with the individual has gone too far. We are more than individual consumers whose fates are our own concerns. George Costanza said it best, I think, when he said, “you know, we are living in a society!” Instead, we have drifted off, too far, into our own imaginary islands and left the very real mainland to rot. And it’s more than that we’ve simply drifted. We’ve fled one another’s great company.

R.E.M.’s song offers the wisest advice I can think of to confront this crisis. “Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline. It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.” In other words, don’t worry so freakin’ much.

The video that accompanies the song captures its essence as well as any could. The boy rummaging around the deserted shack in the wilderness, the end of civilization as it were, neither weeps nor gnashes his teeth. His forebears have left him ruins and rummages through them them with curiosity and humor. Then he skates among them.

We find ourselves in the same position as that boy. Our fathers and mothers have left us messes to clean up, as theirs did for them. There are problems to be solved and there alternatives to be chosen, but there is some joy to be found in the process. And isn’t it better to go through it with other people?

My family has staked out Athens as the place where we’ll make our stand. It is different from what we’ve known. We came here alone. Scary, but hey, we have R.E.M. to guide us. Coming up on our first year here, we can see a lot of progress in making this strange place our home. But, our strategy has not been installing security systems and building safeguards. It has been risk. It has been getting to know people. A place is not just its landscape and buildings, it is its people. Bad things will invariably happen to us as they do to everyone, but we will not be alone as we face them, blaming the hands of unseen and non-existent conspirators. Life is with people.

The past year has, in fact, been the end of the world as we knew it.

But we feel fine.

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Music Monday: Tom Waits, or, “I’d Rather have a Bottle in Front of Me Than a Frontal Lobotomy” Edition

Waits

Well, we just moved.

If I were a drinking man, this would have been a cataclysmic week for my liver. The ordeal with our moving truck alone would’ve made the pope cuss.

I don’t drink, however, so I like to drown vicariously through the music of the great Tom Waits from time to time.

His seminal album Small Change is always in heavy rotation on my mp3 player. One reason is the clinical precision with which Waits captures the chaotic messiness of lives lived on the margins. Prostitutes, con men, and coffee shop bums typically populate the songs of both early and late Waits. (Waits’ career does rather neatly fall into two major phases – the first half characterized by a drunken beat poet/jazz lounge persona, with the latter half seeing Waits take on the role of mad ringmaster of life’s surreal circus. Both phases are essential listening and the album Swordfishtrombones starkly provides the diving point for this remarkable career).

One of Small Change’s highlights is the beautifully comic parody “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” This song captures the essence of early Waits in all its comic desperation. We can picture the lounge singer diligently plucking away in a nasty, smoke-filled bar diligently providing entertainment for its seedy patrons, all while providing us an ironic critique of the whole environment. Reminds me of teaching some days.

At any rate, one of Waits’ many great gifts is his ability to infuse these low, urchin-like characters with a humanity that makes the listener truly fall in love with them. This seems to me to be an entirely Christian approach to life, and Waits’ music has at many times in my life, moved me in what can only be described as a spiritual way. He, like all great artists, does not avoid the muck, but rather dives in head first, finding in it the ugly truth and disgusting beauty of life.

Here is a clip from the old Martin Mull show Fernwood 2 Night, in which Waits parodies his own parody, in a proto-Stephen Colbert kind of way. Truly brilliant and utterly hilarious. Enjoy!

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Music Monday: (Gulp) Worship Music? Me?

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I know, I know. I’m the guy who hates worship music. Let’s just put that out there. I’ve even posted about this anti-passion before. See my ode to the great Rodney Crowell.

However, I do like church (generally).

My family and I recently purchased a house near Athens, Georgia and so we’ve been snooping around churches there. Who knows what’s going to happen, but we’ve found one we really like so far, and the music is no small part of that.

The church is called Classic City Community Church and their band is called “The Classic City Collective.” I’ve been so moved by them that I even bought their CD today (also apparently available on iTunes and Amazon).

The group undermines all my comfortable cynicism about Christian music. They seem to have a commitment to artistry that eludes most contributers to the decline of Christian Culture (aka “praise bands”).

They have taste. They have musical talent. And most of all, they can claim that most unique trait, subtlety. The music is emotional, but not boorish. These folks clearly are passionate about God, but they also have dignity and brains.

In other words there are no lyrics like “Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss.”

Contemporary physicists like to point out that given the vastness of the universe, the appearance of life here indicates that it all but certainly exists elsewhere. Likewise, this group’s existence has given me hope that there are musicians out there who are fighting against my bitter cynicism about Christian music and culture.

If good taste and dedicated artistry exists in Athens, surely it exists elsewhere. This is no small leap into optimism for me, and I’m grateful for the correction.

Here’s a clip they produced about the band and its mission. Do yourself a favor and give ’em a shot.

Two highlights I’d like to point out. At about 1:15 in, there is sample of an utterly beautiful song called “A Mind at Perfect Peace.” I wish I could find a clip of the whole thing because it is truly lovely.

Also during that clip, the group’s leader, Paul Reeves, reflects on his reluctance to write worship music in the first place. He basically claims that the purpose of this music is a great responsibility and that he “didn’t want to do that flippantly.”

This betrays a commendable artistic maturity, let alone a fine spiritual one. Well done, sir. You’ve sold a tough (yet newly hopeful) customer.

Music Monday: Billy Bragg’s Transcendant Activism

Sweet moderation, heart of this nation,

Desert us not. We are between the wars.

Billy Bragg

I came to Billy Bragg’s music during a moment that I believed in politics. I had a good heart and wanted to fix the world’s problems, and Bragg’s music offered a kind of utopian inspiration for my political imagination.

The passions of those days are gone for me. I’ve made the ethical move away from activism and have sought contemplative distance away from the grating sound of what Matthew Arnold called the “ignorant armies” clashing by night. Ideological Facebook skirmishes do little more than amuse me now. The delusion that just the right slogan written on just the right meme will turn the tide of the battle for the good never ceases to make me smile (or sometimes squint).

Nonetheless, Billy Bragg’s music, though clearly ideological, holds a dear place in my heart to this day. There is a sweetness to his political vision that I can’t help but admire still.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing him in concert three times in three different cities and each experience was transcendent for me. He is one of those rare performers who is so entertaining as a speaker, you almost look forward to his lengthy diatribes and introductions as much as you do his musical performance. To put it bluntly, the man is a comic genius. His banter with his band and with his audience (sycophants and hecklers alike) is truly priceless. He is currently on tour and if you have the opportunity, I highly recommend checking him out.

It’s always occurred to me when seeing him perform that his audience remains loyal to him because he remains loyal to them. Though I fight to maintain my precious political reclusiveness, I still have my imagination and I can imagine a better world for all people. This is who Billy aims his music at; the person who believes in what is currently not. In this way, his music transcends the immediate political sphere and directs his listener toward a distant utopian future.

In less capable hands, this might be silly and naïve, but Billy’s humor, musical skill, and utter lack of cynicism makes it work against all odds.

Though I cannot match his commitment to What Is Not, I am most thankful for it. Billy Bragg’s music still operates like a conscience for me, never letting me rest in my detachment. Gently challenging my Arnoldian ideals and keeping me from drifting away into cruel, cynical callousness.

“Between the Wars” is a masterpiece. A folk song sung to a single distorted electric guitar. In this song, Billy weaves youthful idealism and wicked realism into a stark portrait of our collective ideals, failures, and hopes. Please listen, enjoy, and, most importantly, consider.

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Music Monday: Reflections on the Genius of Dwight Yoakam

English: Dwight Yoakam

English: Dwight Yoakam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Visiting Newark, New Jersey and participating in Philip Roth’s 80th birthday celebration has had a seismic effect on how I relate to his fiction.

Seeing the place from which all that great art erupted was an ecstatic experience, but one that also filled me with a sense of profound loss. Roth’s career has been in many ways a project of re-constructing lost Jewish Newark, his childhood home, and this, it occurs to me, is why I find it all so moving. Roth has done something with his tragi-comic art that I am unable to do in my serio-farcical life.

I feel as though I come from nowhere.

I was born in Cleveland to two wonderful parents who participated in a great migration north from Appalachia. About half my family remained and about half moved to the Northeast Ohio region. This migration was altogether called-for, as the coal mining industry that was the region’s economic base had become highly mechanized and work was difficult to come by. My parents moving to Ohio with a few of their brothers and sisters was a difficult decision, but a necessary one. I am to this day in awe of their bravery and thankful for the life they made possible for me.

Yet all of this comes with a cost, doesn’t it?

The roots of tradition, culture, and family were necessarily cut off from me and I was left to cobble my own identity together from Spider-Man comics, Sherlock Holmes stories, and Elvis Costello. All good things, but so specifically mine.

What I’ve always longed for was a place to bestow on me a collective cultural memory. I’ve always wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. This is certainly the root of my attraction to Roth’s fiction and probably the reason I’ve chosen the liberal arts as my career. It also probably explains a mania I have about getting my kids settled in a place as soon as possible. (Relax Anderson! Just let it happen…). I’m a bit of a “community” fetishist.

A quick shout out to the internet is due here: Thanks to the advent of Facebook, I’ve been able to reconnect with much of my extended West Virginia family, and I hope to keep that connection active through family reunions in the future (if any of you are reading this, please lets get this done).

So what does all of this have to do with the great Dwight Yoakam?

Well, Yoakam is, in my opinion, a singular American Genius. His ability to absorb a huge variety of cultural influences and hone them into a sound that is authentically and unmistakably hillbilly is unparalleled. In addition, his songwriting, at its best, captures small details about life that communicates the vastness, wonder, joy, and pain of living.

I described above a cultural de-rooting that has been my legacy, and I fear that I cannot find words to due it justice. My description is, I’m sure, very trite. Yoakam’s song “Readin’, Writin’, and Route 23” is a far greater emotional document of the experience. Please enjoy and share!

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Music Monday

3/11/13 – Marshall Crenshaw Edition

 

Marshall Crenshaw (album)

Marshall Crenshaw (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Today I’m trying out a new weekly feature – Music Mondays.

Scanning my mp3 player this morning, I stumbled across a lost classic that I hadn’t thought about in years. “Cynical Girl” by Marshall Crenshaw.

First off, Crenshaw was the post-punk new wave’s answer to Buddy Holly, not just due to his appearance, but mostly because of his amazing songwriting and pop sensibilities. This dude can write a catchy pop song.

This song is my personal favorite of his. It has a driving rhythm and a Holly-esque lead guitar, all organized around an infectiously bouncy bass line. In addition to its catchiness, the song’s lyrics capture an sweet, and hopeful angst that pretty much characterized my teenage years (heck, who am I kidding – I’m still that way). The song’s speaker is an anti-utopian utopianist. He idealizes a future love who is just as cynical as he is about the world, making his cynicism something hopeful and naïve. This is the stuff of a Shakespeare sonnet, I say.

Have a listen and don’t forget to dance!

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