Category Archives: Rock-n-Roll

Posts that bring rock into the discussion

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.

Situation Norman

It was in a locker room. I couldn’t believe I was here. First of all, at Gordon College—that bastion of conservative Christianity. Second of all, in the same room as him. A friend had offered to drive me up here from Boston, where we were both in seminary. I was a little saddened to see less than 200 chairs set up on the gym floor, carefully arranged on a tarp so as not to mar the shining wood beneath. Larry Norman came onto stage to great applause, and was remarkably intimate with his fans. He’d been a big name in the 1970s, almost single-handedly starting the Christian rock genre. After the concert was over, my friend said “Do you want to meet him?” Here he was, in the locker room, taking the time to speak with fans, individually. He refused to sign autographs, preferring to give the glory to the Lord. But he listened, he responded, and, it was clear, he loved.

While the sections of the brain that process religion and music may not be the same, we know that our gray matter is intricately interconnected. Analysts have noted that the most famous religious leaders of modern times have quite often been deeply affected by music. Religious services without some form of music are in the minority for a reason. And it really doesn’t matter what style said music takes, it moves people. Instead of apologizing for my own musical tastes, I’ll simply note that I was exposed to Larry Norman at a young age. Although his religious perspective and mine had parted ways before I had the chance to meet him, I’ve never disparaged his music. It is authentic, innovative, and above all, sincere.

Gregory Alan Thornbury has just published a biography of Larry Norman. I will surely read it. Although Christian rock has grown insipid and cloying since it began, it is still a remarkably lucrative business. Evangelicals will pay good money to get those rock rhythms with unthreatening words and praise of Jesus thrown in. Norman’s songs, however, were complex and nuanced. Equal parts love and social justice, they might not even mention Jesus. Or when they did, they might suggest he was a UFO. Unconventional. Blasphemous to some. As the ‘70s faded into the ‘80s, Larry Norman was considered old news. He had, however, started something that was bringing other people lots of money. And he looked me directly in the eyes late one night in the locker room of a conservative Christian college, and told me to keep on believing. Obscurity, he showed by his life, is no measure of a person’s actual importance. And music and religion can never be separated.

Blood Brothers

Every once in a while I take a chance and write about music. I don’t do this too often since it’s a very personal thing, and as open as I may be on this blog, I’m not as accessible as I seem. We all need a place to retreat in this world, and Bruce Springsteen’s music is one of those places for me. Late last year, just after it was published, Springsteen’s Born to Run—his philosophical and revealing memoir—sold briskly for several weeks. Since it made its way into my stocking I’d been intending to read it since then. And putting it off. There’s something disillusioning about finding out your heroes are only human. The best among mine are heroes precisely for that reason. Gods need not apply. Overcoming my fear, I dove in.

Two things stood out in this autobiographical account: religious imagery looms large, and depression mingles liberally with it. I recall reading an early review where the writer expressed surprise that the Boss suffers from depression. I responded (perhaps out loud), “have you ever listened to his songs?” I became a Bruce fan because he sang about working class people. Bruce and I share that background. He knows that your roots never let you go. Indeed, roots are what keep you grounded. Many of my academic colleagues, I learned, were simply carrying on the family business—and a privileged business it is. Those of us who had to overcome poverty to get in the door were never really welcome in the ivory tower. You can’t help where you’re born, but you can sure be punished for it. Bruce understands that.

I’ve never been to one of his concerts. I don’t even like to listen to his music when someone else is in the room. There’s something deeply personal about communing with someone you feel understands you. Of course I’ve never met Bruce Springsteen. I probably never will. He won’t know the kind of influence he’s had on my life and I feel that I’m risking an awful saying so here on this blog. There aren’t too many heroes in my life. I’m not inclined to idolize people. In this memoir, however, Bruce won’t let himself become an idol. He’s not perfect and he takes pains to make sure that you know that. We were, nevertheless, raised in situations not dissimilar from each other. Unlike Bruce, I have no musical gifts. No, I’ll never likely meet him—and if I did I wouldn’t want it to be with other people around. Some things are just too personal that way.

So Long, Marianne

fullsizeoutput_122f“It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen has died. But can you blame him? This seems to be a week for losses. I came to appreciate Cohen’s work long after his best-known songs had been and gone. The interviews with and news stories about him that I’ve read convince me that he was an extraordinary man. Spiritual and sensual, he was a true contemplative. He strove to experience what it means to be human. I sometimes fear we’ve lost that as a goal. I see headlines proclaiming that we can now have chips implanted in our brains—we can become part computer. “You held on to me like I was a crucifix,” he once sang. Who believes in crucifixes anymore? Salvation doesn’t come from above. It comes from self-interest. From business and bank accounts. And that chip in my head.

My wife taught me the value of music therapy. When the forces of darkness gather, listening to music can help you through. Many artists have covered Leonard Cohen’s songs. So much so that some have forgotten who it was that wrote them. A true artist, I suspect, doesn’t mind. Those of us who delve in creativity know that we are more like receivers than gods. It takes worshipers to make a deity. The songs that Cohen wrote were messages to the world. Poetic and deeply personal, they are reminders that being human is okay. In fact, it’s what we’ve evolved to be. I have a feeling we’re going to be needing more poets in the days to come. Someone has to shine the shoes of those who work in Trump Tower. My mind is singing “Chelsea Hotel.” Everybody knows.

Cohen was a reminder that sacred and secular are not so far apart. In fact, they are often difficult to distinguish. There may be a problem when you discover that in seminary, but if you can put it into a song perhaps people will listen. Eras, it seems to me, ought to have anthems. F.D.R., one of the truly great Presidents of the century past, proposed “Happy Days Are Here Again.” I wonder what songs we’ll be associating with the presidency over the next four long years. Will there be any music at all? Far be it from me to proclaim any man a prophet, but can you listen to “First We Take Manhattan” and come to any other conclusion? Go to iTunes, or that chip in your head, and listen. You might just end up singing “Who by Fire” as well.

At the Crossroads

flood_album_cover

Back before there was iTunes—before Napster was even a thing—I heard a song on the radio. It was by a relatively new band, They Might Be Giants. We lived in Illinois at the time and I was being paid so poorly that we couldn’t afford luxuries like CDs. When I called the local radio station to ask them to play the song (“Birdhouse in Your Soul”) they apologized—they didn’t have the album. “We really should,” the receptionist told me. Although I was only earning a part-time salary—the fate of many a doctorate holder—and my wife was still in school, we eventually bought Flood. It quickly became one of our favorites. One of the songs that immediately struck us both was “Your Racist Friend.” It’s been going through my head lately, for some reason. “I know politics bore you, but I feel like a hypocrite talking to you and your racist friend,” the duo sings. I could quote the entire song, but let me highlight one of my favorite lines: “Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.”

I’ve been reading online that some people are saying, “Just get over it. You lost. Deal with it.” Auf Deutsch, “Komm damit klar.” After so many rounds of Kübler-Ross that Elisabeth is getting dizzy in her grave, I’ve begun to realize something. This was no ordinary loss. I’ve been alive long enough to be disappointed with election results several times. The psychological trauma from Tuesday rates somewhere between 9/11 and the Challenger explosion. To put this is perspective, when Reagan won I was depressed for a while, about as much as when the Steelers lost Super Bowl XL, and I’m not a sports fan. I’ve never spent the hours after an election glancing at the faces of others to see if they looked as damaged as I felt. “Just get over it” people?—it’s called shock. “Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.”

This was no ordinary election. Yes, I was born in the Kennedy administration. I was too young to understand Camelot, but I’m now old enough to read the writing on the wall. I saw our nation put a man on the moon. I felt the unending frustration of Vietnam. I watched Nixon resign after Watergate. God help us, I even survived two terms of W. I’ve never felt that we were bargaining our soul before. I was at the crossroads at midnight. I know what I saw. Can a man who has openly treated women as objects, insulted people for their race, and advocated thug violence to win lead a unified country? I don’t know. “If anything was broken I’m sure it could be mended,” the song says. Let’s hope so, but let me contemplate the ghost of democracy past. It’s my right.