Seasonal Music

Music is deeply, deeply personal.  That’s why I don’t write much about it.  There are pieces, I swear, if someone walked in to shoot me when I was listening to them I wouldn’t even notice.  This effect is amplified in autumn.  I don’t listen to music all the time.  In fact, I rarely do.  The reason is, counterintuitively, I fear that music may cease being meaningful to me.  Good things have a way of running out.  The music I like is only very slowly supplemented.  So as the clouds encroached this month, I put on some tunes and I began thinking of appropriate songs of the season.  I’ve heard attempts of more recent artists to sound spooky, but their lyrics don’t match the mood I’m seeking—remember, it’s deeply personal.  So what is autumnal music?

Despite being a fundamentalist, I was raised on rock-n-roll.  My favorite artist growing up was Alice Cooper; in fact, to this day Alice is the only secular rock artist I’ve seen in concert.  Two tracks on Welcome to My Nightmare are among those eerie autumn songs: “Years Ago,” and “Steven.”  This album was profoundly sunk in my psyche before I discovered others.  While not scary in the same way, “Brilliant Disguise” from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love hits a similar chord.  The melancholy of autumn must be appeased and this song begs to bring it on.  Many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are like the angst of this season bottled up for a restorative tincture, but I was quite a bit older when I discovered Nick Cave.

The Boatman’s Call with its willowy sound and occasionally explicit lyrics, walks that line between a deep-seated spirituality and fear.  There are others, of course, some even fairly recent.  Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” from Night Vision certainly qualifies, as do the first two tracks on Muse’s The Resistance.  But this is my list, and I fear to reveal too much.  Someone who knows your music knows very much about you.  I hear some people discuss music as if it’s a throw-away commodity.  For others of us it has become part of our souls and we’re reluctant to reveal too much.  New members of this autumn music club are added only very slowly, and I reacquaint myself with the long-term members not frequently enough to rob me of their impact.  So it was as the clouds thickened and the cold wind began to blow as the leaves were beginning to turn that I put on my personal songs of the season.  And there was transcendence, but it was, as transcendence tends to be, deeply personal.

Man’s Best Fiend

While reading the Hull Daily Mail (don’t ask), I came across an article entitled “Rock legend Alice Cooper ask questions about the Beast of Barmston Drain.” Apart from that lovable Britishism of making groups into grammatical plurals, this brief article gave me much to wonder about. After all, Paul Simon’s most recent album features a song entitled “The Werewolf,” (about which I recently wrote) and here is another rock performer from my youth raising the question about a similar beastie. According to the piece by Amy Nicholson, the Beast of Barmston Drain is a new urban legend about a creature half-man and half-dog. No doubt, werewolf reported sightings have been in the ascendent over the past few years, but how such an insignificant beast drew the attention of Alice remains unknown.

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Many who know me—and those are few—are shocked to learn that I grew up listening to Alice Cooper. A fundie kid listening religiously to the father of shock rock? Songs about monsters, spiders, female maturation, and necrophilia? Perhaps it was because Welcome to My Nightmare just summed my childhood up rather nicely. Whatever the reason, to this day Alice Cooper is the only big name rock act I’ve even seen in concert. And that was only about six years ago, when I was still teaching at Rutgers. I had trouble hearing student’s questions in class on the next Monday night. Alice and werewolves in the same headline feels so much like yesteryear that it makes me want to believe in shapeshifters all over again. No wonder Hull is set to be the City of Culture. (Hey, Glasgow had it’s turn, so fair’s fair.)

To me, werewolves reveal much about a culture that strives to be far too civilized. We suppress our inner animal to become tie-wearing, wine-swilling sophisticates only to wonder where the wonder’s gone. And we start seeing werewolves lurking in culverts and drainage ditches. At least people are getting out at night. I’ve followed American tales of the dogman for years now, reading all of Linda Godfrey’s books on the subject. Even if it doesn’t exist, we stand to learn much of the creature that just won’t go away. Of all the transformations people talk about, that to the wolf is the most compelling, and among the most ancient. It may only be a dogman that people are seeing at the moment, but given some time it will evolve back into the wolf from which the story had its very beginnings. The answers, as always, probably lie in our childhood.

God’s Rain

Photo credit: Micahmedia, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Micahmedia, Wikimedia Commons

Music has been in the news this week with the death of the artist formerly and forever known as Prince. Also, in a lesser covered story, Bono’s friendship with Bible translator Eugene Peterson. This post will focus on the former former artist. I’ll have to circle back later to pick up Bono and Peterson. I have to admit that I haven’t listened to Prince much lately. I saw “Purple Rain” when it came out, and some of his songs have resonated with me throughout the years. What makes him such an intriguing figure is his view of sexuality. My source here is the Washington Post, specifically, an article by Michelle Boorstein stating that Prince was, beneath the sexy exterior, a conservative Christian. Specifically a Jehovah’s Witness. He would not be alone in this role since Alice Cooper is famously also a conservative Christian. Life upon the stage is that of the actor. With Prince, as Boorstein points out, the question goes deeper: he wrote about religion, but he also wrote about sex.

Those of us who indulge in creative writing know that poetry is perhaps the only place where dishonesty is impossible. Song lyrics are true. Prince often cites Christian tropes (see Boorstein’s article for samples), but his material is deeply sexual as well. This leads to the suggestion that he saw sex as a means of worshipping God. Once again, Prince doesn’t find himself alone in this place. Scholars brave enough to examine both religion and sexuality often find a connection there, and not just a tangential one. Both are about communing with something greater than the individual. Thinking back to my first viewing of “Purple Rain” I can say it wasn’t the religion part that stood out to me.

Histories of Rock-n-Roll are rife with stories of performers’ untamed sexuality, so that’s hardly news. What really strikes me is that with recent deaths—David Bowie, and now Prince—the media seems intensely interested in their views of religion. We don’t often look to artists for advice on how to live our lives, but as the polar opposites of scientists and rationalists, they are in touch with and willing to share their feelings. And we the people want to know what they thought of God. Often because it is so surprising. It’s easier to put someone in a box. Religion, however, is way more complex than most non-specialists think. It has room for creativity, for sexuality, and for exploring the meaning of life. I many not listen to Prince much, and when I do it’s not for religious advice. I am, however, inclined now to think in new ways about colorful rain.

Longer Nights

Nothing accompanies the slow decent into winter like scary movies. Now that autumn is officially here, it is time to look for the religious motifs in frightening movies again. Perhaps it is time to join Netflicks, because when it comes to my own movies I have mainly choices among bargain basement films I’ve picked up over the years. Over the weekend I watched one of them. John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is the second of his apocalyptic-themed movies, following on the remarkably creepy The Thing. (This is one of the few remakes that manages to outdo the original in just about every way.) Prince of Darkness, however falters almost from the beginning. I do appreciate a movie that is straightforward about using religion as the source of fear, and one that even has a character who is a graduate student in theology! Apart from the priest and street people, all the ill-fated characters are academics—professors and grad students of theoretical physics, the sciences, and our one, lone theologian. The plot revolves, literally, around a swirling green liquid in a decrepit church, which is the Anti-Christ.

Although the trappings are all here for a truly frightening experience, Christianity doesn’t really lend itself to a frightening mythology. To get to something truly tremendous, Prince of Darkness posits a kind of gnostic anti-God who is the father of Satan. The persona is evil writ so large that it is simply not believable that a corroded screw-top jar is able to contain him. For anyone who’s studied history or anthropology, placing the date of the Ball Mason jar back seven million years ago sounds like random guesswork. Homo sapiens sapiens weren’t even around then, making one wonder why God thought of a jar to trap the viscous Anti-Christ millions of years before the “fall” necessitated a regular Christ. The Bible appears, in transmogrified form, as an ancient book of spells that when translated sound suspiciously like the good old King James.

The movie does have its creepy moments—abandoned churches are scary; even fully functional ones can be remarkably spooky at night. It is difficult to accept that a priest would go to a physics professor before consulting his bishop, but then we have to prevent this movie from becoming just a watered-down Exorcist flick. Having Alice Cooper appear as the leader of the homeless minions was a nice touch, in any case. Since we are all still here, the movie ends predictably enough, with Satan’s Dad being stopped before entering the world. It does, in a de rigueur metanarrative, involve a self-sacrifice, albeit not a virginal one. And for the surviving handful of academics, life goes on as normal the morning after. Perhaps evil was blown too large to be believable here. Enough human-sized diabolism exists to frighten any reasonable person. And autumn is only just starting.

Last Genesis

Roger Corman was famous for saving a buck on his movies. When it came to low-budget sci-fi and horror, he could be counted on to stretch pennies into dollars. The B quality with which this impresses most of his films makes them all the more addictive. I watched my share growing up, but I’m still discovering ever more as an adult. The Last Woman on Earth is one I recently found and the religious implications of the film were so obvious that they seemed worthy of a little exegesis. The plot is simple enough, three skin-divers, a man, his wife, and his lawyer friend, are the only survivors of an anoxic episode. When Harold Gern (the man) wonders what happened his friend Martin says, “A new and better bomb, act of God, it doesn’t really matter.” The destruction of humanity is a time-honored divine pass-time, so no one considers the statement blasphemous.

Naturally enough, within a short time Martin starts to feel that Harold’s claim on his wife Evelyn (clearly, by choice of name, an Eve figure) is a bit unreasonable under the circumstances. Biology is, in this instance, the misogynic element as the men increasingly step up their hostilities. Evelyn eventually decides to run away with Martin, but Harold is in hot pursuit. The entire episode takes place on Puerto Rico, and so there are a limited number of places to hide. Martin tells Evelyn to await him in the church, which she dutifully does. Harold catches up with Martin and blinds him. Martin finds his way to the church and when Harold comes in Martin provides a final homily (including some lines from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”) declaring that there is no more God. He then dies on the church floor.

The movie ends with Harold and Evelyn leaving the church to try to learn what life is all about. Reading up on the movie, I learned that Corman wanted to keep the costs down so that the writer of the script was cast as Martin for the film. The script wasn’t finished before they started shooting. Nevertheless Robert Towne’s story brings the overall trajectory back to an updated Garden of Eden story. Puerto Rico, a tropical paradise, where the one woman is Eve, is the scene of the first sin—the murder of Martin by Harold. Throughout the movie, Martin is clearly the Abel character while Harold is selfish, unsympathetic, and emotionally absent. Cain wins the epic struggle and God, we are told, is no more. Not the most profound of story-telling, but the themes and concepts are very much biblical. And when the final couple leave the church the remainder of world history is set to begin. I’d gladly give this one a B.

Children Shall Lead Them

One of the perks of moving to New Jersey was landing in a town with strong support for the arts. Every time I attend a middle or high school concert, I consider how the old image of painful evenings of parents patiently pretending to enjoy the music has ended. The kids in this town could be professionals. If I close my eyes, I forget they’re all under nineteen. Last night at a school concert one of the pieces was “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” Eric Idle’s chestnut from the Life of Brian (now featured, I hear tell, in Spamalot). I first saw the Life of Brian with some trepidation while in seminary—I had been sounded warned that it was a profane movie, making fun of Jesus. Considering that all the actual references to Jesus in the movie are quite positive, I eventually realized what all the fuss was about. The movie doesn’t make fun of Jesus, it does, however, show the laughable nature of those who follow a religion blindly. This, I gather, was the real root of the problem.

Next to this fun piece, the concert also included several pieces taken from originally sacred contexts such as Mozart’s Dies Irae and settings of Veni, Sancte Spiritus and Ave Maria. Spirituals, likewise, are a perennial favorite. Performed along next to these pieces of religious origin were also decidely secular pieces such as “Scarborough Fair” and the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye.” In concert the sacred and profane blend beautifully. Perhaps there is a paradigm hidden in plain sight here. Religions need not be defensive and unbelievers need not attack them. The world is surely big enough for differences of opinion.

Music has a power that sometimes frightens me. I don’t often address it in my blog because of how much it affects me. Theorists often note that music is part of nearly every religion ever invented—we know that something special is going on when we hear it. And music has the ability to move large groups of people simultaneously. I’ve not attended many professional concerts (the last one was Alice Cooper in Atlantic City back in 2008), but no matter how secular the artist the experience is profoundly spiritual. I’m not sure I can adequately define what that means, but when it is felt there is no mistaking it. So maybe that’s why school concerts have such power. It seems that schools that support the arts also tend to have excellent academic records as well. The truth is hidden in plain sight.

Seedless

“And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother” (Genesis 38.9). During the conference last week the Routledge booth stood across from that of an evangelical publisher. One of the realities of conference life from the point-of-view of an exhibitor is over-exposure to what is fresh, clever, or cute upon first blush. Harper One’s continuous loop video, however, demonstrated that N. T. Wright, Desmond Tutu, and Bart Ehrman can sound repetitive, and even Colbert loses his punch when you hear the jokes for the twelfth time. The evangelical publisher across the way, however, had a large cartoon drawing that mapped out the believer’s life, book-by-book through the Bible. As probably anticipated, I can’t get that silly cartoon out of my head. After four days of exposure, I finally succumbed to asking for a flier. It was the usual evangelical fare, and the warning against adultery on back used the traditional term “seed” for “semen.” I found myself pondering the implications.

Since the King James Version shares the pre-scientific worldview of the ancients, the term “seed” has been preserved in the literalist mind. Even Alice Cooper uses it in his lyrics (his father was, after all, a preacher). Well, since the Bible is Holy Writ, it seems that semen has been transubstantiated into seed. The seed, as biologists tell us, contains all the genetic material to grow a new plant. Just add water, warmth, and a little light. Presto! Life sprouts. Since evangelicals tend to be fluent in biblicalese, even today men—the default, fully equipped model of humanity—come complete with abundant seeds. Agway should be so lucky. It feels, however, as if half of the equation is missing. If the Bible-writers had raised chickens, perhaps men would be full of eggs.

Thinking life cannot exist without metaphors. Metaphors are very dangerous in the hands of religion where they get taken literally. Too easily imagery slips into facticity. The male seed demonstrates a diabolical gospel truth: men alone provide the next generation. Women, as usual, are largely superfluous. The biblical male dominates the biblical female. The man owns the wife and must be enticed to share his precious seed. If conception fails, it is inevitably her fault. The metaphor has become a thumb-sized rod. Let us speak plainly here. The Bible has betrayed womankind. Judas Immaculate. In ancient times this was accepted fact. The microscope and biology should have buried this seedy metaphor centuries ago. But once again, the unthinking promulgation of a biblical trope survives at the expense of women. I have no seeds. No man since Adam has.

An obscene photograph?