High Places

I have gotten me away unto an high place.  No, that’s no biblical, but it sure sounds psalm-like.  Part of the anxiety I felt about the literary loss over the past few days is that it happened just before a long anticipated, and paid for, vacation.  As Thursday dawned, I knew I had only two days to try to rearrange the undamaged books and try to salvage what I could of those that were soaked.  And I had to do it quickly and then leave, only to see the results when I returned.  Not yet having met any neighbors, and not really being in a position to prevail upon their presumed good will, it was a test of personal endurance.  Our garage has an upper floor that remained dry.  I made well over an hundred trips up those stairs, book boxes in hand.  One cares for ones friends.

For now, however, I am at my favorite high place, in the mountains.  On a lake.  I’m having to reconcile myself with my old foe H2O, for here it is placid welcoming.  It stays outside the cabin and we remain friends.  And truth be told, there is a kind of idolatrous element involved in my visits to the lake.  You see, I covet peace.  Since childhood violence and bullies have led me to a quasi-monastic life—Paul Simon reflected that perfectly in his early song “I am a Rock.”  Even Superman had to have his fortress of solitude.  Some fear being alone with their thoughts.  Although I struggle with them, they are, like my books, who I am.

Dawn’s early light; and it only got worse as the day went on.

Prophets and deuteronomists railed against high places.  Such were locations where the God of Israel grew jealous of the attention lavished on other deities.  Perhaps religious promiscuity comes naturally to people, but we need our high places to regain perspective.  To breathe pine-scented air and feel the chill of a July morning at altitude.  Yes, even to reconcile with the splash of water that is here to make life possible rather than to destroy that which you have worked to acquire.  Ironically some of the destroyed books had been with me since college—theological classics such as Niebuhr, Gutiérrez, and Tillich, lying on the unmown grass beneath a healing sun.  Perhaps they were trying to warn me of the idolatry of such retreat.  But here I am, reflecting on loss and hope, and praying that somehow we might just all get along.

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.

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.

The Werewolf in Summer

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It must be incredibly difficult to write a truly scary song. I don’t mean the kind of scare that most heavy metal can innately deliver, but I mean the kind of thrill that a classic horror movie gives. I’m constantly looking for the movie that can recreate the chills without getting blood all over the carpet. Music, however, soothes the savage beast. I remember when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out. Now, nothing about Jackson’s musical style shows any hint of being scary. It’s too upbeat. In the end the ghost will be a mere reflection in the mirror, and the zombies will fade with the sunrise. I had some people tell me back then that it gave them the chills just listening to it. Amateurs. A couple weeks back I wrote a post on Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch.” It’s kind of scary, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. I haven’t heard Paul Simon’s new album Stranger to Stranger, but when I learned from NPR that it has a track called “The Werewolf,” I knew I’d eventually add it to my growing stack of MP3s.

Like Thriller, the musical style of the song isn’t inherently scary. The organ in the final minute is pretty effective, though. What’s scary about “The Werewolf”? The lyrics. Simon is, to this child of the sixties, the foremost lyricist of his genre. Rich, complex, nuanced, his words tell a story and that story is scary. While I prefer my werewolves with different baggage, it’s pretty clear that like most shapeshifters the werewolf stands for hunger. There’s violent rage, of course, but like the wendigo, hunger drives those who can’t fulfill their desires in human shape. The Howling, for example, shows how lust can make a werewolf. There is a lust more dangerous than that of the flesh, and that is the greed that leads to societies with one-percenters who just can’t stop eating.

When we see Trump-clones who pay no taxes at all, due to the good that being uber-rich offers the economy, we should listen for howling in the night. Too many an April has rolled around where those of us called “middle class” stare in wonder at just how large a cut our government takes. The werewolves don’t wait for October to come around. No, those who are hungry eat all the time. I don’t find Simon’s music to be particularly scary. The tempo is upbeat and his voice just can’t feel threatening. Still, I’m shivering after listening to “The Werewolf” even though the shortest night of the year is fast approaching on padded paws.

Post Script to Art

At work Christian Century is a magazine that sometimes lands on my desk. I suspect the book reviews are the main reason for this, but I like to skim the headlines to see what the more progressive, popular periodical has to say about the world. I always glimpse the news in brief section, and quite often the quotes of the week are poignant. This past week I read one from Paul Simon, who was speaking at Princeton University. The quote ran, “We are living in an anti-art age. The world is now a brutal place and obsessed with speed and wealth.” I found my head nodding as I read that sentiment. While I was a little too young to be aware of Paul Simon’s considerable contribution to popular music while it was happening (although I was old enough to appreciate Graceland when it came out), I nevertheless listened to Simon and Garfunkel during college and beyond, amazed at the depth and accuracy of Simon’s poetry. Here was a true artist.

What a difference half a century can make. I find myself not recognizing the world that I took for an assured thing as a child. Drawing back to get some perspective—which is something I think Paul Simon would appreciate—I think about the world without technology. Other species, for example. The behavior of, say, deer is the same today as it was when Europeans first invaded these shores. While deer still wander out onto roads in their natural quest for food, we race at them in heavy machines that leave them dead and twisted grotesquely at the roadside. Deer may not have the mental capacity to think, “hey, there’s fewer predators than there used to be,” but they are frequently brought into contact with a technology that is so nineteenth century, and the result is fatal. Where has the artistry gone? The deer remain the same.

I read a lot of older stuff. When I see the literature that was clearly published for its beauty of language and artistry, it brings a tear to my eye. We don’t publish work like that any more, unless it can make money. Everything has become a calculated capital venture. If you can’t make money off it, it’s not worth doing. When I was stressing out in college over exams, I would sometimes put on my old Simon and Garfunkel records and listen to the deep and complex lyrics to “Mrs. Robinson,” or “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” or “The Sound of Silence.” Despite the angst, this was a world that had a place for beauty for its own sake. It’s not just the music that’s changed since then, because I knew that I was listening to the words of a prophet. And prophets only appear when there’s trouble ahead.

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