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?

worship3

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: 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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Preachin’ to the Choir

apollo with lyre

Digression

Three months into this blog, I’ve reached a strange crossroads. Looking back over the topics I cover, I see posts about teaching, religion, conspiracy theories, werewolves, and child rearing, among others. It’s a dizzying array of topics that I’m sure confuses my readers and makes it difficult to “build an audience” for my blog. In all honesty, this has bothered me too much, I think. The great blogger Bryan Daniels has inspired me to not care about numbers so much in this post on his blog, Chief of the Least.

Liberation! Wasn’t that easy?

Anyhow, as it turns out, the posts I like best are the ones that blur the distinctions between my topics. My recent post, “The Werewolf Priesthood,” is a good example of what I’m talking about. It’s about werewolves, yes. But it is also about faith. And teaching. And parenting. Is my confusion clear? Where are the lines at which one topic begins and the others end?

So this is how I will approach this blog for the time being. Numbers be darned.

Psst. But seriously, one or two shares or likes on Facebook or Google+ makes a huge difference to my fragile, pathetic self-esteem! 🙂

Oh, Original Sin. You fascinate me.

End Digression

This post will hopefully be focused on and applicable to a specific audience, to be consumed and distributed as they see fit. I do hope, however, that the broader intersections are apparent as well, because they are important to me.

 

English: the first of the Epistles to the Colo...

English: the first of the Epistles to the Colossians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Sometimes, listening to the sermon in church pays off. I recently heard a sermon about the Epistle to the Colossians that opened my eyes to something I’d never known. Verses 15-20 of chapter 1 are apparently lyrics to a popular hymn in the proto-Christian era.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

(Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

This was a revelation to me.

The Apostle Paul’s subsequent advice column was not simply information given to instruct the intellects of his readers. Instead, it organically erupted out of an engagement with art! Paul seems to know that his readers engage with the world through means that transcend mere rational logic. In fact, I argue that the logic of religion must engage the imagination as much as the brain. It could very well be that because I happen to teach English, I find this element of Colossians more exciting than anyone else does, but, nonetheless, it struck a chord with my inner poet.

The lyrics in this little ditty are certainly pedagogical in nature and they offer an essential vision of orthodox Christian theology. Yet they are innately poetic as well. Phrases like “image of the invisible God,” and “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” are not literal, but imaginative, and they offer the human reader an entryway into the supernatural, the Divine. Theologically,  they establish a theme in the first line about Jesus springing forth into history, directly from the central God. The theme is repeated (becoming a motif!) by the use of imagery that subsequently centralizes Jesus, making him the center around which the Christian life revolves. Whether one is a believer or not (I imagine many of my readers are not), there is an aesthetically pleasing poetic structure in these words that is admirable.

Paul, being the … ahem … great prose stylist that he is … cough cough … builds his instruction, or argument, upon this poetic beauty. Thank goodness!

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

(Colossians 1:21-23 ESV)

This snappy bit of prose (wink wink) makes even less sense if the reader does not understand Jesus as central to salvation. Given the supernatural and mystical nature of this belief, it is a concept much better conceived in the poetic than it is driven home in didactic form.

I have, as I’ve alluded to in the past, severe difficulty with contemporary Christian music (and culture in general). We’ve found a way to isolate the emotional and pedagogical elements of faith, assigning the former to music and the latter to sermons. This makes for bad poetry (“Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy, wet kiss” – ick) and, in my opinion, a degraded culture. This discovery about Colossians, which was new to me, was therefore exciting. Here is a model that insists we do better.

This discovery not only has theological ramifications, it also opens up yet another intersection, that between faith and literature. I’ve posted about this particular crossroad before; if you missed it here’s the link.

As an English professor, this discovery is not only exciting, it is a relief. Maybe I’m not Jekyll and Hyde after all.

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Rodney Crowell and My Salvation from Christian Music

The Houston Kid

The Houston Kid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one needs another polemic about the banality of contemporary worship music. This is a topic that’s been theorized and explored by people who care about it a lot more than I do. Here’s one fairly recent example I found lingering in my Pocket account.

Basically, the problem is that I have a rare medical condition, and if I hear a song that uses the words “amazing,” or “awesome” more than 37 times, my pancreas will explode and I will die.

OK, that’s not true, but I think you see my point. Contemporary worship is a genre that primarily rewards the emotional and scolds the intellectual. For instance, only this shameless genre could offer the world the phrase “Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss,” with an un-ironic, straight face.

Of course I paint with a broad brush, but largely the genre fetishizes the …ahem… “awesomeness” of God, while ignoring the particulars of how that awesomeness is created. The problem with ignoring those details is that anything complicated about the Christian faith is left out of the experience. And if there is anything that Christianity has to offer contemporary society, it is the complications the religion carries within itself. This makes it real and relevant. Jacob, as a chosen scoundrel, undermines all notions of fairness and justice. This creates a beautiful confusion within the individual pondering the patriarchal story. It is a confusion that challenges the listener in a way that worship music refuses to, leaving my pancreas to suffer. Imagine Michael Phelps splashing in a kiddie pool. This is an image of what worship music too often does to Christianity.

Beautiful Despair in Rodney Crowell

This brings me to the subject of this post. Growing up listening to the Country Music of my parents, I first became aware of Crowell (dare I refer to him as Rodney here?) because of the great popularity of his hit album Diamonds and Dirt. The wit and depth of his lyrics, along with his stubbornly traditional approach to pop-country, made me a lifelong admirer.

As I grew older however, the Clash came calling for me and I neglected to follow Rodney’s career for many years. This was an insightfully blind mistake on my part. As luck would have it. I caught up with him around the time I was approaching 40, just in time for Rodney to guide me through that time in a way that Christian music would never have been able to.

What makes his music resonate with my own Christian Imagination is that, far from avoiding the beautiful confusion of life, he hones in on it as the very subject that makes life worth living. His song “Beautiful Despair” from 2005’s The Outsider, perfectly captures this attitude.

Beautiful despair is slouching forward

Toward a past you might regret

All to suck the marrow out

Of every magic moment that you get

The “awesomeness” that this lyric captures is not rooted in happy sentimentalism. Instead it captures the delicate dance that joy and pain share in the human experience. What is beautiful is not that we may avoid pain, but that the pain we will feel makes the joy worth feeling. This is the sweetness and light that Matthew Arnold wrote about, and to hear a wise, aging poet capture it in musical art provides more solace and inspiration than any endless repetition of shallow superlatives.

I was fortunate enough to see Rodney perform in a small venue in Athens, GA a few months ago and I noticed that his set consisted strictly of early and recent material. I didn’t feel that he was regretting the popular material of the late 80’s, but an artistic symmetry between the work of the brash young troubadour and older sage is clearly apparent. His classic early material, highlighted by songs like “‘Til I can Gain Control Again,” and “Song for the Life,” show an intimacy with the wisdom of recent songs like “Beautiful Despair,” “Earthbound,” and “My Father’s Advice.”

I feel a large measure of discomfort being mushy and personal so publicly, but given the nature of this post, I think I have an obligation to explain the depths of my appreciation for this great artist’s music. I have recently moved my family 11 hours from home for a job that I am most grateful for. I love teaching, and I particularly love teaching this group of students. I see great meaning in what I’m doing and I’m blessed with an institution and colleagues that encourage me in my work. As a person of faith, I see God’s hand in the events that ultimately led to this job.

Yet I am also feeling a sometimes overwhelming sense of loss and isolation.

Though I’ve met almost nobody I don’t like very much, I still search for the intimacy I left in Cleveland, Ohio. I sit through worship music that seems to uplift everyone around me, but leaves me unmoved. The music simply cannot withstand the contradiction of my situation. The abandonment of comfort. Finding my loss. Loving what sometimes makes me sad. Rejoicing for the opportunity to struggle. In short, the Beautiful Despair.

I am so fortunate to have abandoned Rodney Crowell’s inspiring music for so long, as now, with fresh ears, I can not only hear and enjoy it, but I can feel it.

The vision in both his lyrics and vocal performances captures the complexity of life as I currently lead it. I do not regret the pain and loss. Without them, the joy and passion would be incomplete.

Please watch this performance.

I Know Love is All I Need–from The Outsider

Though my parents are still with me (though still not with me), the speaker in this song captures the grateful isolation, the feeling of having arrived at lostness, that I feel. This is a feat that, sadly, Christian music does not attempt, yet it seems to me that it is an integral part of the Christian experience. To know and be confused. To trust and still fear. To carry doubt with sureness. To know that the experience of fear gives one the exhilarating chance to escape it. And knowing that the escape will still bring doubt along with it.

These contradictions are not to be avoided, as worship music often does. They are to be embraced as the very gift God has given us. Life is beautiful because it is inconceivable. Seeking the answer is a big part of answer. Rodney Crowell, thank God, understands that. With the help of his art, I can joyfully suck the marrow from this wonderful, terrifying life I’m lucky enough to still be living.

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