Tag Archives: John Cale

Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.

Gods and Goliath

EyreAffairNot only gods are proficient at creating worlds. Writers, as readers know, are the creators of worlds too. I first discovered Jasper Fforde via a friend’s recommendation. With the depressing demise of bookstores, however, I end up picking up whichever one happens to be on the shelf. Not that this is a bad thing, but I find myself in a melancholy cast when I think of all the joy that is not being had by avoiding reading. It’s all rather hollow, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Eliot? All of which is to say Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair was great fun. As usual when I read fiction, I kept an eye out for how religion appeared in this alternate world—most fiction that ignores religion completely somehow seems to be less realistic than Fforde’s fantastic tale. In the world of Thursday Next, the churches are dedicated to GSD, the Global Standard Deity. As one of the characters explains, the GSD is a combination of all religions intended to stop religious wars. It’s a great idea on paper, but religions are prone to wars as sparks fly upward.

Somewhat later in the novel Thursday encounters a crucifix-wearing vampire. Fooled by the sigil, she almost becomes a victim to the blood-sucker. When Thursday points out the supposed impossibility of a vampire wearing a crucifix, he replies, “Do you really suppose Christianity has a monopoly on people like me?” Although Fforde can be a great comic writer, some of his quips are quite profound. Indeed—does Christianity have the only vampires? All religions have their monsters, whether that’s what the author meant (score one for reader-response theory). The truth is the truth, no matter whether intentional or not.

The idealized world of The Eyre Affair is one in which religion has become universal. The great military conglomerate in the book is called Goliath not because of the Bible but because of its size and apparent strength. It is brought to its knees, however, by Thursday—a female David, if you will. In practical terms, throughout the book the military is much more powerful that the church of GSD. Perhaps that’s because people are afraid. Religion, which once upon a time allayed fears, has now become one of their main generators. “Nothing frightens me more than religion at my door,” John Cale once sang. In this rich complexity the reader is invited to bask as Jasper Fforde works his magic. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of his books. Before it is too late. You might find yourself learning a thing or two about religion. I did.

No Song for Old Men

Succoth in Waukesha, Wisconsin. A pillar of the local synagogue had invited me to come to his booth with some of my seminary students to let them celebrate an ancient tradition and talk to a Jewish believer about it. We were all having a good time, and someone mentioned Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” One of the seminarians, brash as always, spoke up and admired “Rufus Wainwright’s cover in the movie Shrek.” Although I’d corrected many students before, I let this faux pas ride. Music is very personal to me, and the cover played in the movie Shrek was John Cale’s version, although the soundtrack substituted Rufus Wainwright’s cover of John Cale’s cover. And this student was far too young to have appreciated the Velvet Underground. I was a little surprised, then, when my wife pointed me to a CNN story this week about the thriving popularity of the song. Instead of putting my paltry words out there on CNN for all the world to see, I decided to address them here, to my private audience.

Velvet_Underground_and_Nico

Leonard Cohen has been described as a man who writes songs with a prayerbook in one hand and a picture of a naked lady in the other. He has spent time in monasteries and his lyrics have a very serious edge to them. What the many self-proclaimed experts commenting on CNN seem to have missed is that Cohen’s song is a song for old men looking backward. Yes, it is rife with biblical imagery, but no, it is not a religious song. Not in the sense that it is often used today. John Cale got that. When I hear his early work with Lou Reed or even his first cover of “Hallelujah” that managed to capture something even Cohen hadn’t (no mean feat, that), I can hear the aging Cale casting a glance back to the same place that Cohen saw. We are all aging and we all remember the vitality of those years when possibilities seemed endless. No, it takes decades for a hallelujah to become broken. All the versions by popular artists trying to breathe soul into a tragedy have missed the point. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

I only listen to this song when I’m alone, preferably with John Cale. When Leonard Cohen sent him the lyrics there were 15 pages of them. The CNN report cites the 75 or 80 verses that Cohen wrote. That’s because the song is a life. The biblical images of the song first captured my attention, but I also realized that it was a song about something that’s gone and that’s never coming back. Not for guys my age. Not for guys who can still remember being eighteen and feeling like life hadn’t even begun yet. Now I look back over five decades. I hear “Heroin” seeping from my brother’s room, somehow knowing the dissonant chords would stay with me for the rest of my life, although I have never personally used drugs. There is a longing there, a longing for something that life offers maybe once, for a few short years. Age and inevitability catch up with everyone, and breathy young artists think they’re chic when they cover a song that is meant for old men who remember what glory used to feel like. Only those with experienced ears can really hear Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah.

Hallelujah of a Long Night

I discovered Leonard Cohen is an unusual way. Having grown up with very limited funds for purchasing music, most of what I listened to growing up was what I heard on the radio out of a small-town station or what I heard emanating from my older brother’s room. My musical tastes, however, always included a “religious” element, whether that be a blatant religious message or provocative lyrics combined with compelling tunes. It was only when I first watched Shrek that I learned about Leonard Cohen. The moving scene where Shrek and Donkey have gone their own ways, both disappointed in love, is framed by John Cale’s rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It is particularly poignant even in an animated movie, and I wanted to learn more about the haunted composer. The official movie soundtrack included the song covered by a different artist, but I found Cohen’s name listed as the writer. That’s when I began to explore.

I can’t pretend to be a groupie of any performer, but I find much of Cohen’s music to be moving and provocative. His lyrics, self-effacing and tentatively assertive, seem to capture the ideals of many religions. Reach out but don’t touch. Seek your own fulfillment, but put others first. I was reminded of this the other day while listening to some of his songs. A commentator once described Cohen as an artist with a Psalter in one hand and a picture of a naked woman in the other. An artist who struggles to overcome his humanity, yet who thoroughly enjoys it. “Hallelujah,” Cohen once explained in an interview, began as a religious song and ended up an erotic one.

As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, my thoughts return more often to his provocative lyrics. After viewing Shrek I began to purchase Cohen CDs (this was back in the day when I was fully employed). I was amazed at what I’d been missing. There is an honesty about Cohen’s work from which many who overtly claim religion could learn. Cohen is the sinner who does not pretend to be a saint. His work openly expresses the struggle. If those who want others to join their religion could learn this simple trick of being honest, they might be surprised by the results. Self-assured bravado cannot convince as readily as the confessions of a lost but sincere seeker.

La Puerta

A musician who has always deserved more acclaim than he has received in his solo career is John Cale. A founding member of the Velvet Underground, a band whose lyrics and insistent – if at times atonal – music capture their era far more effectively than most, Cale has gone on to produce some songs provocative enough to rival those of Lou Reed himself. On his Paris 1919 album, the song “Hanky Panky Nohow” contains these thoughtful lyrics: “nothing frightens me more than religion at my door.” These words are, ironically, prophetic. Religion at the door, in public office, behind major media corporations, has become an insidious threat to the founding principles of this nation. Right, Ms. O’Donnell?

Yesterday morning I went out to get the newspaper. Although I live in a relatively safe town, we are classified as the “Greater New York City” area, and I’m always suspicious of anything unexpectedly left on the doorstep. There was an unaddressed, blank, sealed white envelope there that jingled when I nudged it with my foot. At first I thought it might be a set of keys left at the wrong house, but when I did finally open it I discovered a bilingual set of aluminum faith coins. An accompanying letter assured me that God wants to save me and shared with me a dream of somebody in a white dress carrying a Bible. The letter, amazingly, misquotes John 3.16.

I am the frequent victim of Jehovah’s Witness visits. I have students handing me booklets that will save my soul. I receive offers of golden miracle crosses in the mail – I still carry mine around, but prosperity has continued to elude me – with the assurance that God wants only the very best for me. I open the paper and see the suffering of the people of Indonesia. I see a column about teen suicides resulting from bullying with victims as young as twelve hanging themselves. I see overweight politicians feathering their already overstuffed nests. I turn back to the anonymous letter. “Please hold this coin or pass it on to someone who needs it,” it instructs. I think I’m going to need a truckload of coins. Nothing frightens me more.