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.

Southern Turn

In America’s ever roving commercial eye, Día de Muertos has become an extension of Halloween.  Retailers have realized that people will spend a lot on their fear, and the autumnal holidays delve into that primal territory.  Since the Day of the Dead, being a mix of indigenous Mexican religions and the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day, comes two days after Halloween why not blur them together with greenbacks?  So capitalist thinking goes.  While certainly not free of monied interests, the Disney/Pixar movie Coco has the virtue of addressing Día de Muertos as the separate holiday that it is.  A form of ancestor worship—a religion extremely common around the world—the thought-world of the film shares in common with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride this idea that the afterlife is colorful, if not joyous.

I realize I’m jumping the gun here, but I just saw Coco for the first time over the weekend.  Not just a culturally sensitive treatment of an indigenous holiday, it is also a celebration of music.  In a very real sense, music is life in the film, and even the dead continue to thrive in its presence.  Again, the connection with Corpse Bride suggests itself.  The key difference, from a religionist’s point of view, is that Coco is based on, to an extent, actual religious traditions.  An irony of this is that, together with the worship of Santa Muerte, the focus on death sometimes makes the Catholic Church nervous.  Focus should be on resurrection, not death.  But what if death isn’t seen as evil?  Where is thy sting?  This can be a real challenge when your organization is offering escape from death.

The fear of death is natural enough.  It’s the ultimate unknown.  It fuels both religion and horror.  In that sense films like Coco that show a joyful aspect of the hereafter do an end-run around traditions that base their wares on ways to avoid the consequences of death.  Hell becomes a threat to be avoided—the forgotten dead in Coco face annihilation, a fate that Héctor notes comes to everyone eventually.  Eternal torment isn’t in the picture.  I have to wonder if this view doesn’t present a form of salvation that is unwelcome among rival religions.  Although Catholics don’t have the hostility toward Halloween that many Evangelicals display, there is a challenge of rival faiths here.  Stores have already begun offering this year’s Halloween wares, and increasingly among them are Day of the Dead decorations.  The holidays are quite distinct, although related, and movies like Coco suggest what we fear may be more a matter of perspective than of the decree of an angry deity.

Tintinnabulation

On a summer’s day when I can work with the windows open, I hear the bells of a local church.  We haven’t been in our current location long enough to know for sure, but they seem to come from the direction of the United Methodists.  Around noon each day they ring out hymn tunes to which I often find myself filling in the words.  These are traditional hymns that I’ve known from childhood, and there’s an easy familiarity about hearing them, although my own spiritual journey may have taken me in different directions.  The sound of bells is so pleasant, I think, that nobody really objects.  Then I wonder about what I thought.

Music in public places does impact other people.  Consider the heavy metal or rap booming out of a passing car with the stereo turned up too high for human consumption.  Or jazz in the park.  Music impacts other people.  What, I wonder, is the message those of other religions hear along with these old hymns?  Do they suggest more than the praise of the locals for their version of the Almighty?  Is there some subtle proselytizing going on?  Is the music for members of the parish only, or can outsiders hear it and be free of obligation?  In many ways this encapsulates, I believe, the conflicts rife throughout our nation.  Traditionalists who see nothing wrong with “white” Christianity spreading its message but who object to a mosque being built in their community would likely find church bells comforting, even if they personally don’t attend.  Those from the outside, meanwhile, hear a message of cultural superiority.

Some sects feel compelled to praise God vocally, often and enthusiastically.  Their religion insists they do so.  Hymns ringing from the steeple, even if they’re not exactly your brand, participate in that mandate.  The deity likes to be adored.    (Think Psalms.)  This specific divinity, however, isn’t alone.  Perhaps beyond the bounds of where these sound waves flatten out to inaudibility, there are others with religious beliefs often older.  They too have rules about how to behave.  They may not be friendly to those who come bearing a new message of a new truth.  Globalization follows in the wake of technology and no god beyond the laws of physics oversees tech.  Our smartphones have made the world a much smaller place.  In such tight quarters, sounds carry.  Church bells, innocent as they seem, may be heard as a war cry.  But I wouldn’t suggest such things on a day so pleasant that I can work with my windows open and listen to the bells.

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.

Pay Attention

hiddenplainsightIt happened in seventh grade, but I remember it vividly. It was music class. I’ve always enjoyed music but have never been able to make it without the assistance of a device that plays recordings. This particular day, however, Mr. Butler gave us the assignment to write down whatever we heard for about ten minutes. He told us to start and I began listening. Hard. I didn’t want to miss a thing. When time was up he asked some people for their answers. The first person said the sound of Mr. Butler’s footsteps as he walked to his desk after saying “start.” I was utterly shocked. How had I missed that? More answers emerged and my sense grew that I was completely inept at hearing things—well nigh deaf—since I had only heard the sounds that I was listening for. Hidden in Plain Sight: The Social Structure of Irrelevance, by Eviatar Zerubavel, makes me feel a little better.

A lot has happened since seventh grade. I have now realized that I’ve missed most of it. We filter out stimuli constantly. What is really interesting about a sociologist’s look at what we fail to notice is that we often miss important things in life by assuming that figure is more important than background. Or that space between things is less important than the objects themselves. Or that we can indeed listen for silence instead of sounds. It is a matter of how we perceive things. There are millions of stimuli bombarding you right now. I’m flattered that you’re even bothering to pay attention to my musings here. Are you also feeling the clothes you’re wearing? The shoes on your feet? The taste of either your last meal or the toothpaste that might have followed it? We shove things into the “background” all the time, including other people. We can’t pay attention to everything.

Interestingly, Zerubavel raises the issue of moral inattention. We do sometimes consider things outside the realm of moral consideration. But should we? What are morals if not an indication of what society has taught us to value? Indeed, social attention, or inattention, teaches us from our earliest days what is safe to ignore and to what we must pay attention. It helps us survive. Reading this little book, however, has left me wondering about all the things I have habitually missed through the years. Some of them may have been important. Sitting in a silent room, after all, I failed to notice the sounds of my own pencil scratching on paper, writing down all the sounds I was hearing.

Defying Labels

I don’t know much about the music industry, but I do know that as in publishing, labels make a difference. Who doesn’t conjure up a certain sound when they see Motown? Companies jealously sign artists to their label, with a close eye on the bottom line. Labels. Branding. Marking our territory. People like to give things labels to make them easier to understand. By now it’s no longer news that David Bowie has died. The tributes are coming thick and fast, and one recurring theme seems to be that nobody really knew how to label him. Bowie was an original, a creator. Like many truly creative people, he was seldom at the top of the charts, but his fan-base grew over decades and those who listened to him knew that he defied labels. Labels are for convenience, and life is, well, not convenient.

There’s been speculation about his final album, Blackstar, released an iconic two days before his death. The song “Lazarus” has flagged the attention of many, but here we are after the third day and he hasn’t come back. I think of my childhood and tween years in the 1970s, seeing Bowie’s album covers in my brother’s room and wondering if he was a man or woman. His transgressions frightened the young conservative that I was, accepting the label given to me by those who thought they knew me. I heard his songs coming through the open door. I couldn’t understand them, but somehow they remained with me until I was mature enough to learn to listen. Some sounds are too subtle to hear, except with experience. Here was a man telling the world “don’t label me.” And yet label we did.

“Lazarus” is a haunting song. I may be no music critic, but here is a piece by a man who knows he’s dying. The video shows him emerging from a tomb-like wardrobe (in itself significant) and simultaneously lying on his deathbed. He’s in Heaven, but in danger. Still, he knows he’s free. Like the biblical Lazarus from the Gospel of John, resurrection is only temporary. Lazarus has come back, but he must die again. As the frantic Bowie scribbles his final words on the final page, he backs up once again into the tomb from which he emerged. David Bowie may not have been a Bible scholar, but his song is prophetic. The three days have now gone past. He may not have come back, but it just may be that he never really left.

HunkyDory