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.

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.

Simon Says

Music preserves your youth. When my wife was studying music therapy, one of the pieces of information she received is that those whose brains have begun to shut down the speaking faculties can still sing. People respond best, in such states, to the music of their youth. Anyone who lives long enough will decry the noise that the younger generation calls music. I’m thinking about this not just because of my recent visit to Bethel Woods, but also because of a New York Times story that Paul Simon is planning to leave the musical stage. Simon and Garfunkel was among the music of my youth. Accessible music with profound lyrics and, for the most part, a muted sadness. I grew up a long way from New York City, but listing to this music I felt like I was wandering the streets of the Village, soaking in a reality I would otherwise never experience.

It strikes me as no surprise that among the earliest manufactured artifacts discovered are musical instruments. While I seem to have missed nature’s boon in offering musical gifts, I nevertheless inherited the appreciator’s side. I don’t often listen to background music. I listen to music to listen. It carries its own meaning, akin to what we tend to think of as a religious experience. No doubt, for many, Woodstock felt like such an encounter. Music that could take you away from the troubles of a war-torn, prejudicial, jaded society. Even if only for a few moments. “I am a Rock,” was, for much of my youth, a kind of personal anthem.

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During a commencement address in not too distant months past, Simon told the graduates that ours was becoming a society at war with art. Music is money. College isn’t about becoming who you are; it’s career training. We don’t allow our young any time to explore any more. Few are willing to admit that capitalism, unrestrained, is just as bad as communism. Music used to be about the soul. The artists I know tell me it’s now about the cash. The man calls the shots. So as I stood on the hill overlooking the former Max Yasgur’s farm a few days ago, the lack of sound was poignant. There used to be, it seemed, different ways of existing in the world. Today the tempo is set and the music composed by those who prefer marching tunes that lead straight to the bank. Standing on that windswept hill I’m sure I can hear the sound of silence.

Autumn Music

It is an experience as old as humanity itself. At least humanity that started to realize that age, as remote as it may seem, will always eventually catch up with you. This past weekend was Family Weekend at my daughter’s college. Since her school does things up right, there were a variety of events on offer, one of which was an a cappella group concert. A cappella has come a long way since my college days, with students able to use their voices to sound like a band, professionally mixed, and full of energy. Somehow, I don’t recall that much energy from when I was a student. In any case, the inevitable group doing “oldies” took the stage an opened with a song from 1987. Wait. What? Since when was a song of which I remember the first release an oldie? The kids did a great cover, and I suspect in their minds it was really an old song. I was only 25 when it was given to the world. Can I really be an oldie? Outside the leaves on the trees were brilliant, as if on cue for the tuition payers to have their heartstrings wrung. Trees become their most alluring as they are about to die.

Songs, however, have a way of becoming part of you. Back when we were young(er) and idealistic, my wife had thought to study music therapy. Nashotah House, however, decided to change the career trajectories of an entire family in the name of orthodoxy. One of the things she learned in her classwork, prior to being sent back to the work-a-day world, was that patients suffering from dementia can often sing a song from their youth, even if they can’t speak a word. Music gets into our brains in a way that language learning doesn’t, and when we hear that song we are, to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan (which another of the groups sang), forever young. It is a beautiful wish, endlessly covered and recovered. Watching those kids on stage, I recalled being on the cusp of adulthood myself. Everything seemed possible then. Then a world that others constructed imposed its constraints on me. My hair began to grow gray even as the leaves lit up yellow and scarlet and fire orange.

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Religion is the business of those who are old. Even as a religion major in college I was classed among those old before my time. We think of the hereafter on our deathbeds, not when we’re twenty. For those who teach their children to ponder eternity at a young age, however, that portal is never far from view. My fellow students were looking ahead to careers in all kinds of fields that would make their fortunes and reputations. My modest attempt to bring a younger generation to a more mature outlook faltered at the hands of Fundamentalists, and it was music that helped me through that terrible shock. Little do we think that that song we like so much is marking us indelibly as a child of our age. Time will not relent. We will be the ones, like the trees, showing our signs of age as our children show us where the future lies. And the attitude of that song from 1987 will be, for any who truly listen, forever young.