Sixes and Sevens

Few eras conjure mental images as readily as the sixties.  As the first decade of my life, I idealize them a bit, I suppose.  I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the truly wonderful and troubling things going on around me, and being raised in a Fundamentalist family I probably couldn’t have enjoyed many of them in any case.  Morris Dickstein’s Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties was written in the seventies.  Since he’s a literary scholar much of the culture he analyzes is print culture, emphasizing the works of Jewish novelists and African-American writers.  That fits the sixties image pretty well.  He also looks at the music, but not as much as I had anticipated he might.  For me the music of the decade conveys what it really was about.

At one point Dickstein describes the political situation in the fifties that led to this incredible decade.  I had to remind myself that this was written forty years ago, for he seemed to be describing, with eerie prescience, the world of Trump and his followers.  Repressive conformity and the superiority complex of that era led to a breaking point where individual expression tumbled long-held rules and regulations that had tried to repress women and those that didn’t fit the WASP mold.  Most of us thought those controlling, catatonic days were over for good.  It seems we underestimated the will of those who lack imagination of where things might go if freedom were allowed to be free.  Some people, it seems, believed the sixties were a disease to be cured.

Historians who have a wider grasp than I do say that time has to pass before accurate pictures can emerge.  Instant potted histories tend to miss much of what becomes clear only with the slow passing of further decades.  To me the music defines them.  I only started to become culturally aware in the seventies, and that was in a small town.  When I learned to look back, largely in the eighties, I could see, and hear, that I’d lived through an extraordinary time.  The nineties, largely spent at Nashotah House, were again isolated from culture.  Who knows how this new millennium will be assessed?  Has a new music emerged that will help define us?  Or will it be, as Dickstein unwittingly projects, a new era of acceptance, love, and peace?  Or did the world really end at the millennium?   It could be, we might dare to dream, that a new decade as remarkable as the sixties is waiting to usher in Eden again.

January 2019

When January starts grinding you down you have to find something to hang onto.  See, I even ended a sentence with a preposition.  January.  If I’m not careful I can find myself getting quite depressed, so a bit of self-induced music therapy helps.  Although I hate to admit it, I am a bit of a fussy person when it comes to my likes.  My music tastes are quite personal and I mourn when a performer I like retires or dies.  There’s not a ton of stuff that I enjoy and I don’t listen to music as often as I should.  I work from home most days so I could have music on, but I find it hard to read (which is much of my job) with music playing.  Like I said, fussy.

The other day—a weekend—I pulled out John Cale’s Paris 1919.  John Cale is an underrated member of the Velvet Underground.  Okay, with Lou Reed in the lead it’s gonna be tough to stand out.  Cale, who suffers from competing with J. J. Cale (who was actually John Cale too; I empathize!), is a very thoughtful lyricist.  Despite having been abused by a priest in his youth, he sprinkles his songs with religious references.  “Andalucia” is a haunting single with the words “castles and Christians” hanging there for anyone to interpret.  And “Hanky Panky Nohow” has an intriguing line about nothing being more frightening than religion at one’s door.  There’s something profound here.

I grew up listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico when my older brother played it and the curtain door between our rooms didn’t block any sound.  The only performer I could name was Reed.  Years later, when the music of my young, virginal ears started in with a longing I couldn’t explain, I bought the album and learned of John Cale.  I have to confess that I first encountered his name as the performer of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Shrek.  It drove me nuts when ill-informed students used to say it was Rufus Wainwright; yes, he performed it on the CD, but not in the movie.  John Cale is one of those somewhat offbeat singers, who, like Nick Cave, salts his songs with images of a Christian upbringing that show a grown man clinging to something to which he somehow can’t fully commit.  It makes us who we are and then leaves us wondering.  It must be January.

October Devotee

Here it is October and I have hardly written about monsters.  Apart from the US government, that is.  I suspect that I could use a little escapism right about now, and most of the boxes are unpacked from the move.  Perhaps it’s time to watch a little horror and feel better about the world.  Monsters, you see, crop up in the most unexpected places.  Yes, in October we expect them to be crouching in dark corners and in dismal swamps as the light begins to fail.  Yet the trees are still mostly green around here and I think I might be in need of some new material.  As with most people my age, I get lost on the internet—someone needs to offer a roadmap to it.  Preferably on paper. 

I admit being stuck in the past.  As any music therapist will tell you, a person’s musical tastes often reflect the sounds of their youth, and some of us believe that rock hit its high point in the 1980s.  My work doesn’t lend itself to background music, so I seldom listen to the radio, and I wouldn’t even know what station to try to hear contemporary offerings.  Fortunately I know some people half my age who find their tunes on the internet, and I was recently introduced to Panic! At the Disco via YouTube.  I’m old enough to remember when music videos first appeared, although I never saw them.  We lived in a small town and, besides, we couldn’t afford cable.  Kids at school, however, talked about MTV and other places—there was no world-wide web then, kids!—that they had seen the latest, coolest video that I could only imagine.  When my contemporary young friends showed me “LA Devotee” by Panic! I was stunned.

If you haven’t seen it, just look up the official video on YouTube.  You’ve got the whole internet at your fingertips!  While the lyrics seem innocent enough—young person wants to make it big and so imitates the Los Angeles lifestyle—the video is horror show.  Literally.  Borrowing from M. Night Shyamalan the opening sequence is a cross between The Village and Signs.  Then it becomes a torture chamber for a young boy (from Stranger Things, no less, a show I binge-watched when it came out on DVD).  And Satanism.  Yes, taking on the LA lifestyle is compared to selling your soul to the Devil.  The stunning visuals kept me clicking the replay button.  Even as I felt my age, I also felt October growing.  And I was glad to see the monsters are still there.  Too bad we can’t banish them from DC, however.

Jericho’s Folly

The sound was compellingly familiar although it had been years since I’d heard it.  We were visiting the Quakertown farmer’s market for the first time—this weekend event is widely advertised and we were curious.  Part fresh produce, but mostly flea market, it was a tribute to my generation.  You could find stuff from my childhood years here, making it a species of time travel.  We stepped out of the car on a gray morning when I heard it.  I was drawn to it.  I’m at the age where I recognize things before I can name them.  “Where are you going?” my wife asked.  “Toward Pink Floyd,” I replied.  Music has a way of doing that to you.  It took another minute for me to place the song.  It was from the album The Wall.

After we returned home I had to hear it again, uninterrupted by the distractions of a flea market to new home owners.  It was a frightening experience in the age of Trump.  Although they’d never been my favorite band, I had a long history with Pink Floyd.  My older brother used to listen to them, and when I was working as a church intern (yes, there is such a thing) while in college, the kids in a family I was staying with took me to see The Wall on laser disc—an affluent family in the neighborhood had just bought a player, and I was curious both about the technology and the film.  The Wall is one of those concept albums that requires attention—you kind of need to listen to the whole thing.  The accusations against those who are different being sent “up against the wall” chilled me with thoughts of Trump and American fascism.  I can only listen to the album within prescribed headspace.

Even those who’ve never been sent to boarding school can imagine how it lends itself to abuses and horror.  At Nashotah House the album was almost as frequently cited as Hotel California.  When the religious isolate themselves odd things begin to happen.  On one of the occasions when I was left home alone in our New Jersey apartment, I pulled out my DVD of The Wall and began to watch it.  As the years melted away, I suddenly felt young and intensely vulnerable.  The visuals, like a little pin-prick, were jabbing at nerves a little too close to the surface.  I had to turn it off and watch a horror film instead.  It’s even scarier to listen to the album when democracy has failed its constituents.  The wall, after all, is a most protean of metaphors.

Forever Jung

A funny thing about aging is that you recollect your youth, but you find yourself less able to do the things that seemed so easy when you were more spry.  We live in a world where the elderly are coming to outnumber the young, and that means a lot of memories of “the time when.”  This thought confronted me when reading a story about two missing patients from a nursing home in Germany.  Authorities were frantic to find them until they were spotted at Wacken Open Air, the largest heavy metal fest in the world.  The news stories seemed bemused—it was cute, in a way, wasn’t it?  Two old guys trying to recapture their youth, like salmon swimming upstream where they were born.  I’ve got to wonder if there’s more to it than that.

Music has a way of touching us deeply.  While I prefer my rock on the harder side, I’m not exactly a metal-head.  There’s something, however, in the rage of metal that resonates with some of us when we get older.  It’s almost religious.  You see, I recall hearing the music from my brother’s room when I was growing up.  As a naive fundamentalist, I sometimes went downstairs shaken, as if my virginal soul had seen some image it shouldn’t have.  Some teens reach a level of maturity before others, and metal speaks to them.  Let’s face it—life is unfair.  We see that every single day.  Music can help us cope with such unfairness and there are times when John Denver and James Taylor seem downright gullible.  Ask the elderly.

Our society harbors many myths.  One of them is that evolution doesn’t occur.  Not only is it a biological fact among species, but it’s also, on a macro-level, something that happens as we age.  Perspectives shift.  We come to see the wisdom of Heraclitus—no one steps into the same river twice.  Especially when it’s Styx.  Technology keeps us alive longer now, and sometimes it seems that it does so just to tell us what we can no longer do.  I’ve got, I hope, a number of miles left on the odometer, but my focus is on the car’s stereo system.  When driving to Wacken Open Air to pick up two men trying to plug into either the rage or the euphoria that heavy metal means to the elderly what comes through your speakers?  What would the “sweet Psalmist of Israel” have wanted to hear when not even Abishag could keep him warm?  Yes, Herman, there is a wisdom that is woe.  And banging your head may not be the worst option at such times as these.

Call It What You Will

I didn’t even know the House of Representatives had a chaplain. Then Paul Ryan fired him. I wondered once again if evangelicals were interested in religion at all. We all have labels we’d like to claim but lack of legitimacy prevents us from keeping them. My secret wannabe title is rock star, but given that I can’t sing and can’t play any instruments, I have trouble retaining it. Evangelicals, however, have no challengers. They are so flexible they’d make Proteus blush. Such theological promiscuity, traditional religion teaches, will have its comeuppance. If 45 has accomplished nothing else, he’s forced the religious right to show its true, secular colors. Of all the great ironies of the situation none is greater than the fact that “nones” of whatever description hold up the weightier matters of morality better than those most vocal about their faith. Evangelicals, however, control the narrative and claim to do so with God’s own authority. They have few challengers.

Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

Then, mere days latter, Rev. Patrick J. Conroy was reinstated by the whiplash GOP. Did somebody warn the religious right that “religious” was part of their name? “Hypocrisy” comes from a Greek root meaning to play a theatrical part. As my stepfather used to tell us, “do as I say, not as I do.” He was a secular man, so his hypocrisy could be overlooked. Noble, even, at times. When those who stake their entire identity on WWJD promote, vocally and enthusiastically, an unrepentant candidate for sinner of the year, you’ve got to wonder if even hypocrisy has lost its punch. How can you reason with people who refuse to reason? We used to lock them away in asylums. Now we throw them into the swamp.

Double standards are the new normal, I guess. Nobody really paid any heed when the fall of the towering televangelists showed, decades ago, that the idol they proclaimed as true religion was rotten to the core. Oh, they made the headlines for a while, but their tumble did nothing to dissuade their true followers. Evangelicals control their own narrative. For many decades now higher education and the media have pretty much ignored religion as a force for social change. Once upon a time Evangelicalism meant change based on ideals that more or less fit the recorded words of the carpenter from Nazareth. Now that its inspiration is the ninth circle below, those who have access to the funds of higher education prefer to put their money elsewhere. Why study something that threatens democracy on a daily basis? Why bother trying to understand Evangelicals? Call it what you will—there’s no way to object to anyone claiming whatever name they want. I should know; I’m a rock star, after all.

Original Sinner

Musical preferences are a personal matter. In the case of the kind that loudly thunders from open car windows, often they should be more so. Still, music is a deeply moving phenomenon. When a musician is paired with a compelling personal story, it can be quite a gripping narrative. Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock is one such account. Although Larry Norman was never popularly famous—many people today have never heard of him—he was a tremendously influential person. Like most true innovators he was, as Thornbury shows, a difficult person. He often had more enemies than friends, but there can be no doubt that he lived, at least in his own mind, by his convictions. And on his own terms.

I didn’t know until reading this brief biography that it was common for Larry Norman to wait around after concerts and talk with fans. When a friend invited me to see Larry in concert I was, as is generally the case, so wrapped up in my own issues that I hadn’t done much research. I was thrilled to see the artist that I, like Thornbury, had discovered during college. It was my friend’s idea to go backstage to talk to him. To this day those few minutes remain some of the most thrilling of my life. Norman was a name dropper, according to those who know, and I’ve met a few famous people over the years, including Jeff Bezos, but Larry was different. The breadth of his impact on rock in the 1970s and into the ’80s, was vast. Many secular artists count him among their most profound influences. And he had time to sit and chat with a seminarian from nowhere.

While my friend and I waited to see him, the guy in front of us wanted to play Larry a song. In an act of hubris I can’t fathom, he’d brought his own guitar to the concert. Larry kept saying “I don’t understand why you want to do this.” But surely he knew. Throughout his career he helped start many younger artists on their track, some to Christian stardom, others to more quiet lives. He had, however, something he couldn’t give away. Larry Norman was a true original. Despite his uneasy dalliance with fame, he was willing to sit and talk with a star-struck young man who would go on to become a lifelong admirer of an artist who remained true to himself, even if he was too Christian for some and too secular for others.