Thursday, December 07, 2006

Makes me want to go used record shopping every day (or...why New York is the coolest place on earth)

This sort of thing gets my blood pumping...


In September of 2002 Warren Hill of Montreal Canada was perusing a box of records at a Chelsea, New York street sale when he happened upon a nice Leadbelly 10" on Folkways, a water damaged copy of the first Modern Lovers LP on Beserkely, and a brittle 12" piece of acetone-covered aluminum with the words "Velvet Underground. 4-25-66. Att N. Dolph" written on the label. He purchased the three records for 75 cents each.

As I have a small knowledge of records and am an old friend of Warren's, I got a call from him the next day in which he described the acetate. Because of the date and the unique type of pressing, we both agreed that it was probably an in-studio acetate made during the recording of the first Velvet Underground LP back in 1966 (I had heard that they occasionally would have
a vinyl cutting lathe in the studio to cut records of the day's recordings for the artists and/or producers to take home for review). Warren didn't want to play the mysterious platter due to the fragile nature of acetates, and the cheap nature of his record needle, so we agreed that the next time he was visiting me in Portland we would check it out together. If it turned out to be what we thought it was, maybe we could sell it at Mississippi Records, the small neighborhood record store in Portland that I work at. Sight unseen and sound unheard, I assumed that it was likely an acetate pressing of the recording which would be eventually be released as
the group's first album, "The Velvet Underground & Nico".

It took awhile for Warren to visit, but when he did he brought along the acetate. We cued it up and were stunned -- the first song was not "Sunday Morning" as on the "Velvet Underground & Nico" Verve LP, but rather it was "European Son"- the song that is last on that LP, and it was a version neither of us had ever heard before! It was less bombastic and more bluesy
than the released version, and it clocked in at a full two minutes longer. I immediately took the needle off the record, and realized that we had something special. Between the two of us we had heard many Velvets outtakes on both official and less than official releases, but the present material had never been heard by either of us.

The next few days found us scrambling for clues and information about what to make of this find; calling every record collector/historian we knew and reading everything we could find concerning the early recordings of the VU. We pieced together that this was probably a surviving copy of the legendary Scepter studios recordings which had been regarded as lost (hence the epic moniker "the lost scepter studios recordings" applied to these unheard sessions over the years). The recording is comprised of the primitive first "finished" version of the LP that Andy Warhol had shopped to Columbia as a ready-to-release debut album by his protege collective "The Velvet Underground".

This acetate, which is possibly the only surviving copy, represents the first Velvet Underground album as Andy Warhol intended it to be released.

Though the same compositions and even a few of the same "takes" (albeit in different mixes) were used on the subsequent commercial release, that which was eventually issued as their debut album on Verve, "The Velvet Underground & Nico", was a significantly different creation. I had heard of these nascent recordings before... it was said by some that the master
tapes had burned in a fire, by others that all of those recordings ended up being on the released album, and still by others that the only existing copy of that material was on an acetate owned by David Bowie, and that he was known to tout it as his most prized possession.

The truth about what we held was fuzzy until Warren managed to track down the N. Dolph referred to on the label for an interview.

Norman Dolph was a perennial in the New York art & music scene of the 1960's. He worked as a sales representative at Columbia Records through 1967, and was deeply involved with different facets of the independent music world on the side. Andy Warhol, who was managing the Velvets at the time, contacted Dolph & offered him a painting in exchange for services as
"ghost" (uncredited) producer for the Velvet's first recording session. Warhol wanted to record a Velvets album before they had a record company behind them as this would tend to minimize meddling label executives' mobility in compromising the musical arrangement's distraught primal force, not to mention the unprecedented taboo lyrics which openly address sex, drugs, and depravity. Warhol's plan was to have Dolph record it and then shop it around to labels (first & foremost Columbia) as a finished recording.

...and so Dolph rented out Scepter studios, and with an engineer named John Licata by his side, they recorded the Velvets for four days. At the time Scepter studios was between reconstruction and demolition with walls falling over and holes in the floor. Velvets' bass & viola player John Cale would later recall the environment as "Post-Apocalyptic".

Dolph took the master tapes made during this session to the Columbia building, which still had an in-house pressing plant, and cut the acetate "after hours" with people he knew on the inside. Dolph then sent the acetate to Columbia to see if they were interested in releasing it. It was returned promptly with a note that said something akin to "do you think we're out of our f**king minds?" Dolph then gave the acetate to Andy Warhol or John Cale, he cannot remember which.

Six of the songs recorded during the Scepter session made it on to the "Velvet Underground & Nico" LP, albeit with radically different mixes. The other four songs were re-recorded in LA by Tom Wilson. As far as we know, the only listenable copy of the original versions of Heroin, Venus In Furs, I'm Waiting For The Man, and European Son exist on the acetate that Warren
found. (A Japanese bootleg of the same material did appear, but in poor, arguably ‘unlistenable' sound quality. It is possible that the source tape for the Japanese bootleg was made from this very acetate decades ago when it was in different hands. Who knows?) We have since realized that we are in possession of a likely one of a kind artifact - the first recordings by one of the most influential rock bands of all time!

After establishing the authenticity of Warren's find we photographed the item and made a high quality digital back-up copy of the material. A media frenzy ensued, with articles appearing in Rolling Stone, Mojo, Record Collector, The Globe & Mail, and many other news sources. Calls started flooding in from people interested in buying the acetate, as well as record companies interested in releasing the songs on it. After much consideration, we decided that it would be best to release it to the highest bidder through an auction facilitated by our good friends at Saturn Records in Oakland, California (a store that has a well-established presence in the international vinyl collecting community, and an excellent reputation on the internet).

As to the most interesting mystery brought up by the appearance of this item - how did such an important artifact disappear for 37 years & end up at a Chelsea New York yard sale priced at 75 cents? ...We have no answer.

The track differences between the acetate versions and the commercial recordings on "The Velvet Underground & Nico" are detailed as follows:

1.European Son- completely different version,. Guitar solo is much bluesier. Less noisy and experimental. Longer by 2 minutes or so.

2.Black Angel's Death Song-Same take as released version. Different mix.

3.All Tomorrow's Parties- Same take as released version. Different mix.

4.I'll Be Your Mirror-Same take as released version. Radically different mix. No echo on Nico's vocals. Background vocals on end of song are more subdued.

5.Heroin-Completely different take than released version. Guitar line is different. Vocal inflections different, and a few different lyrics. Drumming is more primitive & off kilter. There is a tambourine dragging throughout the song.

6.Femme Fatale- Same take as released version. Radically different mix. Percussion more prominent. Alternate take on background vocals. Much more "poppy".

7.Venus In Furs- Different take than released version. Vocal inflections completely different. Instrumentation more based around Cales' violin than the guitar as in the released version.

8.I'm Waiting For The Man- Different take than released version. Guitar line is completely different. Vocal inflections different, and a few different lyrics. No drums, just tambourine. Bluesy guitar solo.

9.Run Run Run- Same take as released version. Different mix.

This .75 piece of vinyl is currently going for over $150,000 on ebay, with one day left in the auction (check it out for yourself here while it is still happening) . I predict at least half a mil. (and I thought getting close to $200 for Jars of Clay's first CD or 100 bucks for Daniel Amos' Shotgun Angel was a rush! Damn!!)

UPDATE: That first auction fell through (at 155k). Fake bidders swarm like bugs to this sort of thing, but despite rejecting high-risk bidders until further authentication (one person bid 2,000,000!), a fake still got through and won. A more private auction garnered a more conservative winning bid of $20,000. I'm depressed. I mean, 20 grand is still a great return on .75 cents, but to go from 155k to 20k? well, I'd need some drugs and therapy, that's all I'm saying. Before I turned my prize over to it's new owner I might even listen it on a normal turntable out of frustration and bitterness. I'd be too disgusted by what I was doing to enjoy it, but my disappointment would have to express itself somewhere...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Confessions of a CCM bystander (pt. II)

So...what happened? How does someone go from living and breathing the CCM subculture to turning their back on it? Well, for me, a few things came together in my thoughts and experience that brought my growing dissatisfaction with the CCM world to a head, to a point where I finally decided I'd had enough and went in a completely new direction. Many people I have known have turned their back on their faith when they left the subculture, throwing the baby out with the shitty diaper, but I did not. Faith in the reality of God and Christ was and is still an integral part of my identity, but my understanding of that faith, and how it is expressed and lived out in this life was taking a radical turn...

My dissatisfaction with the christian subculture began relatively early on, when I left the christian school I was attending (Zion) for the educationally greener pastures of public school. I remember in 8th grade, at Zion, when one of my classmates was leaving to go to public school, the leadership prayed for him and warned him (and us) that the world was full of wolves ready to tear us apart. It would be hard for my classmate at public school, without the christian protection he had here. He was leaving "us" to go be among "them", and that is always a bad idea. And then a few years later, before 11th grade, I followed suit. The big bad wolves? Turns out most of them were actually at the christian school I had been attending. Public school turned out to be a very welcoming, unthreatening place for me. I made more friends my first month there than I had at Zion in most of the time I was there (and it seems I actually made more friends at Zion after I left than I had before). (Some of my deepest and longest lasting friendships, I will admit however, came out of my time at Zion, and for that, as well as the strong spiritual foundation I found in those years, I would not trade the time I spent there for anything.) That, along with things like the blatantly erroneous anti-rock stance prevalent at that school (christian rock included - a good friend and extremely important influence on my life, Rich Kifer, was kicked out of that place for "leading the kids astray with that satanic christian rock"! I can't think of many other honors I would love to have bestowed on me), all that and more were leading me to an understanding that all was not right in that little sheltered world. But these were just the beginning seeds. I would still remain a part of the CCM subculture for many years to come, participating in youth group, as well as attending christian music festivals regularly - Ichthus and then later Cornerstone - festivals whose impact on my life is incalculable - even working at a christian radio station for a time).

In my early-to-mid twenties, my sense that something was very wrong with the ideological world of the christian / CCM culture was reaching a tipping point. For one of many things, Catholic bashing was fairly widespread (if not always expressed), and coming from a very catholic family, this started to bother me a great deal, the plank sticking out of the eyes of the catholic-bashers the way it was. Also, the college-age discussion group I was a regular part of seemed less interested in digging into the harder, deeper questions of the faith and preferred rather to just rehash the same old basic teachings of Christianity that we were supposed to believe without much question. I often felt like an adult trying to fit into the desk-chair of a first grader. I asked too many hard questions and had too many doubts to feel very comfortable in that group for much longer. Oddly enough, the depth I found at Cornerstone every year made me more and more aware of the shallowness of much of the CCM world's way of thinking and living. Working at a christian bookstore for a year, surrounded by all the cheap nic-nacs and gimmicks stamped with a Jesus fish didn't help matters any. The music was sounding more and more contrived, and the lyrics started sounding like a polished sales-pitch for a certain viewpoint, like propaganda. Much of the predominant music itself wasn't very good, sounding like a bland homogenization of sounds into one general sort of sound, very little distinction of instruments was audible to my ears. (What I suspect was happening around this time is that CCM was becoming a very big, profitable business, and so the "artistic" decisions were increasingly being made not by artists, but by businessmen. The Corporate Hand always has and always will take the heart out of art (especially music) in the name of making it more palatable to more people. Unit Sales is the ultimate goal of the corporate head, not integrity of artistic expression) There were (and always are) exceptions, but bottom line, to me most of it just started sounding like cheap, bad art.

My faith also began changing shape during that time as well. Christians tend to want to know whether or not someone is "saved". To those in the christian subculture, it is a black-or-white issue. But I was coming to an understanding of salvation as more of a process than as a once-for-all-time "get your golden ticket" kind of deal. I believed more in the process of "being saved" than of "having been saved". And everyone is somewhere in that process, on that journey. Some aren't at a place yet where they even consciously believe in Jesus, or God even, but many of them will get there at some point. Just because someone says they don't believe in God doesn't mean that their life isn't leading them to a place of faith. To dismiss or reject people because they aren't "one of us" saved, is to reject a potential brother or sister to be, or worse yet, is to possibly thwart that belief from ever growing or taking shape. And make no mistake about it - there is a lot of rejection of the "unsaved" among the CCM crowd, much condescension, as if unbelievers have nothing to offer in a relationship of any kind until they have said the "sinners prayer". Everything up until that point is focused on getting the unbeliever to that point. Getting them signed up for membership in the club.

Also, the silence of God was becoming more noticeable to me. And so my distrust of those who would glibly shout "thus saith the lord" in church, or talk about how "God told me..." or how God spoke something to their hearts...or those who presumed to speak for God ("God wants you to..." "God feels (x) when we..." etc..), my distrust of all of that kind of talk and those who uttered it was growing exponentially. And it's hard to build much of a successful career in the CCM world without at some point presuming to speak for God.

At some point in all of this growing restlessness I started reading John Fischer. He crystallized for me everything I was vaguely but indefinably feeling about the christian / CCM subculture. He gave articulation to what it was I was having such a problem with in this CCMworld. The book, Real Christians *Don't* Dance, was pivotal for me. I can't relate everything he said in there that opened my eyes (there's too much), but the reading of it was a moment when I realized that it was ok, even right, to have these misgivings about the little secluded world christians had created for themselves. I don't think I had even given much thought to the idea that it was wrong to live in this way, separated from any contact with the "non-christian" world that we were in fact supposed to be salt and light for.

Along with John Fischer, I read Brennan Manning's "Ragamuffin Gospel", and that too was an essential, pivotal book that crystallized my understanding of how we, as christians, are supposed to relate to the world around us. The idea that we fellowship as saints, but rarely fellowship as sinners. Which is to say we in this christian subculture world are more concerned with looking perfect before the eyes of everyone else (especially other christians) than we are with confessing our need for a saviour, our need for grace and mercy and forgiveness. We are a mess, and if we act otherwise, we end up acting unloving toward those who can't hide their messiness. We end up judging others from our false perch of "higher moral standards". John Fischer laments that there's "no graffiti" on our whitewashed walls.

Perhaps even more importantly during those years, I discovered the music of Over the Rhine and Vigilantes of Love. These two groups did more to open up my world than any others ever had, before or possibly even since. They created music that resonated with me deeply, music that was not polished pop aimed at unit sales, but rather true art, and lyrics that spoke to a deep search and struggle for truth, lyrics that were far more literate and literary than any I had previously encountered. There were layers to their music that were not easily grasped on first, second, or third listens. They were deep and rich with meaning. And even more, both of these groups (especially Bill Mallonee) talked in depth about their faith and struggles and what influenced their thought and artistic expression and approach, what fueled their search for a true and meaningful faith. These influences were more literary than musical, and included authors like Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner, Flannery O'Conner, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Annie Dillard, and a bunch more that I had never heard of before then. These were authors whose books were on the shelves, not of christian bookstores, but rather places like Borders and Barnes & Noble... in other words, these were people who were expressing their faith, writing about it and working it out in the real world, where everybody lived, and not just in some secluded "christian" world. As John Fischer says, you'll find what you're looking for, and suddenly my eyes were opened to the treasury of faith-based works of literature and music that were all around me in a "secular" bookstore like Borders! I guess I previously just assumed that all these authors and musicians that weren't sold in the christian bookstores were all going to hell or something, but I suddenly came to realize that this is not so. A whole world of authors, musicians and artists whom I had previously written off as "secular" were, in fact, people of deep faith, searching, struggling for an authentic expression of that faith in the real world, in flesh and blood (far from "pie in the sky"), among the hurting, the struggling, the lost. I discovered musical artists like The Innocence Mission (whose self-titled debut I still consider one of the most important examples of how true faith and true art can come together in a way that is not trite or cliche'), Bruce Cockburn, Pierce Pettis, Patty Griffin... artists of Christian faith who yet remained apart from the CCM world and all its trappings and baggage. Many of these artists and authors were (gasp!) Catholics! (by this time I was starting to believe that Catholics were to Christianity what college graduates were to the public school system. And evangelicals of the CCMish variety were somewhere more in the lower elementary level, perhaps enjoying nap time and cookies, believing that it was bad and wrong even to get too high of an education and better to stay right there in the lower el... and let's go over our ABC's again, shall we?) I also started seeing artists I had always known now in a new light - U2, one of the biggest bands in the world, is primarily a Christian band, although they are not exclusively so... Members of Simple Minds, Violent Femmes, The Alarm, Midnight Oil, The name just a few from the alternative side of the spectrum... It turns out there are Christians all over the place! You just need to look for them, instead of looking at them as the "unsaved" other... And many of them might as well be preaching from the scriptures themselves, as blatant as some of their lyrics and actions are... I also grew to appreciate "bridge" artists, like Julie Miller or Sam Philips, who had once been CCM artists and had since left the ghetto (as we lovingly refer to the secluded and artistically impoverished part of the world that is CCM culture) and had gone on to create a deeper artistic expression of their faith without the confines imposed upon it by what is "marketable" to CCM listeners, and without leaving anything of their outspoken faith behind...

As I've said, much CCM is basically a teaching tape set to music, and that includes much of the music I enjoyed a great deal. CCM was a way of reaffirming my faith, focusing my mind and thoughts... but now, in my late-to-post-college days, books (which had always had a prominent place in my life) were becoming my primary source of spiritual nourishment. Because of this shift, the prominence of a "message" in the music was less important to me. Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton were giving me richer food for thought in one paragraph than any pop artist could ever do in the entirety of their discography, and so artistic excellence took precedence over theological instruction. Lyrics didn't ever become UNimportant to me, but they were not of primary importance, and I preferred a broader range of expression now, growing increasingly less tolerant of didacticism or condescension in christian lyrical approach.

John Fischer and Brennan Manning had articulated for me what was wrong with the christian / CCM culture (as well as provided a vision of what a real Christian culture could look like), and in Over the Rhine and Vigilantes of Love, and the world they opened my eyes to, I found an alternative way of being Christian in the world, another option than what I had previously known. The vision that John Fischer seemed to be describing was already at work in the world. There already was a truly Christian subculture interacting with the real world, already being salt and light to those who needed that presence. These people were engaged in a life of faith that was deeper and richer than anything I had ever known in the shallow waters of the CCM subculture, and so there was really very little choice to be made. I jumped ship. At that point, the more I thought about it in light of these new discoveries, the less I understood why there is even a CCM subculture in the first place. It is just odd to me, not that the marketers have created and exploited this little CCM world, but that true Christians would or could ever allow it to exist in the first place. I don't wonder why there are "christian only" bookstores (given the market there obviously is for such places, what else can a savvy business entrepreneur do but take advantage of it?), I wonder why Christians would ever feel the need to support such places. There is obviously no "Anti-christian" mentality at work in the world (as I was once made to believe). Jesus is everywhere you look (of course you have to look for him, and not for those who are against him, which you will also find). As Rich Mullins once said, "All music is Christian". The idea that only the music sold in this christian bookstore is truly christian, while appealing on some level, is also dangerous and even heretical. People want the labels so that they won't have to think about what they are listening to or reading or otherwise engaged in. They also want the world to be black and white, everything is right or wrong, no gray, no mystery, no christians who also use cuss words or smoke. But this life is not like that, nor are the people who live it. And I guess I just came to a point where I wanted to be the one doing the thinking about what I was engaging in instead of accepting what some marketing savey salesman was deciding for me, and so I dropped even the idea of labeling anything as "christian" or "not christian". It all comes from God, and it can all be used by God. To the pure, all things are pure. The problem is not in the music we're listening to or the books we read or any of that stuff, the problem is with and in us, and how we come to, what we bring to, anything we engage in - books, music, movies, other people...this life and anything in it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Quote From: Flannery O' Conner

"Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards"

And a quote from the person whose blog I lifted it from (A.M.Correa):
Obviously, literacy/education barriers do exist, but I tend to think that a lack of interest in art indicates a narrowness of mind akin to arrogance. (A word like "artsy" is rarely a compliment.)...I do tend to think that "mostpeople" have a capacity for growth that they often deny themselves. The illusion of "security" can have a lot to do with it. Mostpeople don't like being made to feel or think about things they aren't comfortable with. Anything foreign or unfamiliar to their experience is usually treated with suspicion. It is this rejection of anything "different" that reeks of elitism....a lack of willingness to submit oneself to "difficulty" can be just as snobbish as the attitude of ivory-tower types who look down on "the masses."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Confessions of a CCM junkie

Hi, my name is Brook, and this evening I stepped foot in a ... a christian bookstore (like Ren confessing "I...I was NICE today" with a look of grave, nearly horrified concern on his face...). I don't normally do that sort of thing, but I used to practically live in that world, and so, despite the fact that it is so very foreign to me now, at the same time it will also probably always be a part of my life in some way or other, that CCM / CBA world of commodified holiness. There's a lot of fluff and nonsense in those places, but if you know where to look, there's also the occasional "real deal". I was buying the latest book by Margaret Becker, as well as a book w/ audio CD by A.W.Tozer (both for whom I still hold the utmost respect). Wandering around the isles, looking at all the "christian" product, got me thinking about what a strange looking animal the christian subculture is. Over the years, I've seen that scene get into bed with some odd partners - like Precious Moments porcelin figurines, or more recently Extreme Sports (I won't even go into the whole novelty item thing -like "Testa-Mints").

There was a time in my life, however, when I lived and breathed that subculture. Mostly as a teenager and young adult, probably well into my mid-twenties (at which point I discovered a whole other "christian subculture" out in the real world that changed my life forever). There is something innate in most of us, some desire or longing, to want to be a good person, to do the right thing, and the christian (marketing) subculture plays to and on that instinct for all its worth, getting you to believe that buying "christian" product is the "right thing to do" (just like Wilford Brimley does with oatmeal). The terms "secular" and "christian" come to serve as a rallying point of "us -vs- them" mentality, getting the "christian" consumer to place a moral weight on what they are buying - a morality that has nothing to do with "fair trade" or "ecological" considerations or that sort of truly biblical morality, and everything to do with which label has been placed on which product ("christian" or "secular"). There is this unwritten, unspoken belief, it seems to me, that the more products you purchase and consume labeled "christian", the better Christian you are (and therefore the better chance you have of getting to heaven because you are following the right path, doing the right thing, and all of that). This concept reached ridiculous proportions at a certain point (including christian mortgage companies, car dealers, clothing, etc), but in my own personal experience, it mostly focused on the music we were listening to, the books we read, and the company we kept, with the primary focus put on...Music. Entertainment, in general, seemed to me to be the earmark of whether one was living a holy, devout, christian life. Not whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked (who I wouldn't want to be near anyway because of the sexual immorality implied by their state), visited the sick and imprisoned, or any of that other unmarketable stuff, but rather what kind of music was I listening to ("feeding my spirit" with would be the correctly understood terminology), and was it "christian" or "secular"? (THE most important question one could ask regarding what one was engaging in). Those qualifying for something akin to sainthood would be those who got rid of all their (possessions? to give to the poor and follow Christ? no...) SECULAR ALBUMS and listened to only christian music...

I could go on and on, bitching about how screwed up all this line of thinking is, and I will at some point I'm sure, but for now just suffice it to say that this was the mentality that I was immersed in for a good amount of my young adult life. And to tell you the truth, I don't know that I would change those years much for anything. Granted, I've had to do a whole lot of unsticking myself from the cultural mess it entangles, seperating the truth from the trappings and baggage, but CCM music (Contemporary Christian Music, for those who might not know what CCM means, and who will probably rightly ask why would anyone use the word "music" after the letter that stands for "music") played a very important part in my life, and I do believe there can be a legitimate place in a genuine Christian's life for CCM. At its best, christian music helps keep one's mind and thoughts focused on the truths of their faith, on the God they serve, on Christ and His life, and what that means for their life and how to live it. CCM can serve as a catalyst for worship, or even just as a positive aural environment in which to allow oneself to soak in. It can be a common ground upon which relationships with fellow believers can be strengthened or discovered. There is nothing wrong with music that focuses on the various aspects of Christian faith. It can be very good, in fact, a calming and healing element for the soul, an anchor in the midst of times of confusion. And, probably best of all, it has the potential to lead one (to point in the right direction at least) towards a truly authentic life of faith, inspiring deeper study of the scriptures and deeper thought on how to apply these things to one's life. Some of the best artists are simply confessional singer/songwriters, sharing their life of faith and their struggles, providing something of a light and example for their listeners to follow or share in, to feel they are not alone (while some, at their didactic and condesceding worst, are simply making teaching tapes set to music, or propaganda even, with all the lack of artistic integrity that entails). Some of it is Inspirational, in the truest sense of the word. and some of it... well, some of it is just damn good rock and roll, whatever you might happen to believe.

Some of the best, and most genuine Christian artists I have come to know and love over the years include artists like Rich Mullins, Kieth Green, Rez Band (with Glenn Kaiser, whose life and example was probably the single biggest influence on my early Christian life and thought), Undercover (whose song "Build a Castle", as well as the albums Branded and Balance of Power in general, probably had the single most significant influence on my life and thought later on in college - an awareness of death and an understanding of the importance of relationships that has profoundly influenced me to this day), Daniel Amos / Terry Taylor, Mylon Lefevre (who seems to have flipped his boat since then and gone all looney cliche' charismatic), Margaret Becker, Kim Hill, Charlie Peacock, Amy Grant, Larry Norman (the grandpappy godfather of christian rock), etc. etc... There are countless others whose music I have loved, but these artists and more like them have had a deep impact on who I was (and still am), and how I thought about and lived my life of faith. In recent years, artists like Nicole Nordeman, Carolyn Arends, and Jennifer Knapp have continued to provide a spark of hope for signs of life in the christian music subculture to me, artists who seem (to me) to be the genuine article - that is, more concerned with their faith and the struggles and sacrifices it entails than with their CCM image as product (I would also mention artists like Sarah Masen or Sixpence None the Richer, but I generally think of them not as a CCM artists - which, despite all the nice things I just said about it above, would be to degrade the kind of artistic expression of faith that they create - but rather I like to think of them as among those genuine artists, akin to Sam Philips, who may have roots in CCMland, but live and move and shine their light in the real world, in ways the CCM world can't quite understand - or, worse yet, can't "market". No one's quite sure what's happened to Jennifer Knapp, but I'd like to hope she's about to head in that direction herself - turn in her resignation to the CCM marketing machine and follow Sam Philips' footsteps right the hell out of that ghetto)

Though I've outgrown that confining world of CCM culture, it's still a part of who I am, and there's enough goodness and life to have come from it that I don't wish it were otherwise. I've developed some of my closest friendships out of that era of my life, and I'm still living on the life of faith I found there (though it looks nearly unrecognizably different from what it was before), still struggling towards a genuine understanding of God and my relationship with who He is, still struggling towards a genuine expression of that faith in my everyday life.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

The BIG GAME (my rant on professional sports)


Today was the day of the BIG GAME. Big, IMPORTANT game I'm told. Big Sweaty men dressed in colorful tights playing with balls and chasing each other. This particular BIG GAME featured an oddly-shaped ball which the big sweaty men were fighting each other to be the one to hold. Play starts with all these big sweaty men bent over in a line, asses in the air, ready to go at it. One or two of these men are apparantly so excited that they can be seen running back and forth behind the line of men bent over. One of these men is known as the "tight end". And then there's that one big man who gets to bend over right behind another bent-over man holding a ball as he waits for the right moment to reach out and grab the ball in the front man's hand. from a distance it looks rather lude, this position they're in. Up close it doesn't look much better. Hopefully the man in front doesn't fart, as the man bent over behind him would most likely get the full dose (and I imagine these big sweaty men can pack a wollup of a fart). the play comes to an end after all these men chase after the one man with a ball in his hands, and generally, after they catch up with him, there is a big sweaty man pile - in fact there are many big sweaty man piles throughout the game. At least they're wearing protection. When a player does a good job, his teammates will usually reward him by giving him a loving pat on the butt. I don't know if this is some sort of incentive or what, but I do know that if I were the one playing in the game, the incentive for ME to do good would be the promise that if I did something good then no man would come near my butt with his hand. A hot cheerleader, fine, but no man-to-man butt-pats for me, thank you. The point of the game of course, is to score. step over that line with that ball in your hand and, touchdown, you score. much man dancing and butt patting to follow. then, after the BIG GAME, when it's all over, the big sweaty men all head to the locker room to undress in front of one another and take a shower together.

I suppose if I were gay, I would enjoy sports more than I do. But as it is, I think I would rather sit in my room and play with my own balls than watch other big sweaty men play with theirs.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"Futurological Congress" by Stanislaw Lem (an introduction)


Walter Wink, in his book "Naming the Powers" talks about the "powers of the air", referring to
"the invisible but palpable environment of opinions, beliefs, propaganda, convictions, prejudices, hatreds, racial and class biases, taboos, and loayalties that condition our perception of the world long before we reach the age of choice... It "kills" us precicely because we breathe it in before we even realize it is noxious. Like fish in water, we are not even aware that it exists, much less that it determines the way we think, speak, and act".
We've seen the awareness of this sort of "reality" analogously portrayed in movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show, and in music such as that made by Radiohead and Beck (as David Dark writes about in greater detail in his book "Everyday Apocalyptic"). In Stanislaw Lem's book "The Futurological Congress", the character Ijon Tichy finds himself in a similar environment / future reality (and Wink's concept of the "powers of the air" is portrayed as quite a literal concept here). It is a world in which reality itself has been commodified, by means of next-generation hallucinogenic drugs - “Mascons” specifically:
"Narcotics do not cut one off from the world, they only change one’s attitude towards it. Hallucinogens, on the other hand, blot out and totally obscure the world… But mascons falsify the world"
- which the society itself requires for it’s very existance and survival. Commodification comes in both the Truman show / 1984 sense (aka: imposed on one from the outside), and also in the Brave New World sense of voluntarily sought by the society itself
"The fiendishness of it all is that part of this mass deception is open and voluntary, letting people think they can draw the line between fiction and fact. And since no one any longer responds to things spontaneiously…the distinction between manipulated and natural feelings has ceased to exist"
Tichy, awakened to the truth, goes out
"Like a bloodhound hot on the trail, my mind sought out all the hollow, empty places in this monumental masquerade, this tinseled cheat that sprawled across the horizon"
As the purveyors of this society explain, “A dream will always triumph over reality, once it is given a chance”, explaining how
"one can mask any object in the outside world behind a fictitious image – superimposed – and with such dexterity, that the psychemasconated subject cannot tell which of his perceptions have been altered, and which have not. If but for a single instant you could see this world of ours the way it really is – undoctored, unadulterated, uncensored – you would drop in your tracks!"
This calls to mind, not only the concept behind Stephen King’s “Needful Things” – which is more akin to the reality spoken of in FC - but also, on the other end, a comment made I believe by C.S. Lewis that, were we to see our fellow man in all his trancendental glory, as he really is, we would be tempted to fall down in worship. Or, as Frederick Buechner’s Nicolet says (in Final Beast),
“whatever this is we move around through…Reality…the air we breathe…this emptiness…If you could get hold of it by the corner somewhere, just slip your fingernail underneath and peel it back enough to find out what’s there behind it, I think you’d be…I think the dance that must go on back there…If we saw anymore of that dance than we do, it would kill us sure… The glory of it. Clack-Clack is all a man can bear”
As these societal overseers so rationally put it,
“is it so satanical if, in some extreme case, a doctor chooses to hide the truth from his patient? I say that if this is the way we must live, eat, exist, at least let us have it in fancy wrappings…what’s the harm?”
As Ijon Tichy begins to wake up to the truth of the reality around him, he writes how “all along I was unaware of the foulness lurking behind that most elegant, courteous facade”. he knows he must do something about it, but what? He comes into posession of an “anti-illusory” elixir, one that helps to counter the effects on himself of the illusion-perpetuating drugs he is living on, and goes through stages of reality-awareness,
“realizing in a sudden shudder of premonition that now reality was sloughing off yet another layer – clearly, it’s falsification had begun so very long ago, that even the most powerful antidote could do no more than tear away successive veils, reaching the veils beneath but not the truth”.
Tichy finds himself “no longer safely inside the illusion, but shipwrecked in reality”, much like Neo once he is pulled into reality, out of the Matrix. He knows that a mind awake is not readily tolerated in a society who’s very survival is dependant on illusion, and is “certain that the fact that I could see was plainly written on my face and I would have to pay for it”. He fears that the anti-drug which woke him up will wear off and he would find himself back in “paradise”. and, much like the attitude of the Zion resistance group in The Matrix, he says that this
“prospect filled me with nothing but fear and loathing, as if I would have rather shivered in some garbage dump – with the knowledge that that was what it was – than owed my deliverance to apparitions”.

Thomas Merton writes along these lines in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
People are constantly trying to use you to help them create the particular illusions by which they live. This is particularly true of the collective illusions which sometimes are accepted as ideologies. You must renounce and sacrifice the approval that is only a bribe enlisting your support of a collective illusion...You must be willing, if necessary, to become a disturbing and therefore an undesired person, one who is not wanted because he upsets the general dream.

in a disconnected way, I’m reminded of all this when I hear a mass media / self-help icon like Dr. Phil say (in the form of real advice to his listeners), “there is no reality, only perception”

The book, in typical Lem fashion (and similar to fellow SciFi writer Philip K. Dick), is a strange trip, one that is well worth the price of admission and may well alter your own perception of whatever it is you think of as "reality".

Friday, November 10, 2006

Wendell Berry on the war

Some thoughts by Wendell Berry, excerpted from the chapter "Peaceableness Toward Enemies" in his book SEX, ECONOMY, FREEDOM AND COMMUNITY, in response to the war in Iraq. Oddly enough, these words were written 15 years ago in regards to the war waged by George Bush the first, who didn't succeed in making a complete mess of that country the way his son W has now.

What can we mean by the statement that we were "liberating" Kuwait? Kuwait was not a democratic nation. If it was imperative to "liberate" it after Saddam's invasion, why was it not equally imperative to "liberate" it before? And why is it not equally imperative to liberate Tibet or China, or any of the other nations under non-democratic rule?

It may be true that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous madman. dealing with a madman, people of common sense try not to provoke him to greater acts of madness. How Saddam's acts of violence were to be satisfactorily limited or controlled by our own acts of greater violence has not been explained.

This war was said to be "about peace". So have they all been said to be. This was another in our series of wars "to end war." But peace is not the result of war, any more than love is the result of hate or generosity the result of greed. As a war in defense of peace, this one in the Middle East has failed, as all its predecessors have done. Like all its predecessors, it was the result of failure, on the part of all of its participants, to be peaceable...

...victory for some requires defeat for others. And those who have been defeated will not be satisfied for long with an order founded on their defeat. One such victory will sooner or later require another. In fact, this war produced not order but disorder probably greater than the disorder with which it began (Brook's note: "probably" is no longer the right word to describe the situation. "incomprehensibly" is probably a better word when talking about this war). We have by no means shown that disorder can be put in order by means of suffering, death, and destruction.

We must also consider the possibility that this war happened not because we had a purpose in fighting it but simply because we were prepared for it... It is well understood that the mere possession of any piece of equipment is a powerful incentive to use it. Our aimlessness and apparent bewilderment in the aftermath of the war may be an indication that the war itself was virtually without a purpose.

...We were evidently determined to preserve at all costs a way of life in which we will contemplate no restraints. We sent an enormous force of our young men and women to kill and to be killed in defense of our oil supply, but we have done nothing to conserve that supply or to reduce our dependence on it... We wish to give our people the impression that except for their children, nothing will be required of them.

About equally troubling is the tone of technological optimism that accompanied the war's beginning... The assumption...has been that this was a war of scientific precision and predictability, that we knew exactly what we were doing, what was involved, how long it would take, and what the results would be...Of course, anyone who uses tools can testify that results invariably become more complex and less predictable as force is increased. When our leaders talked about the results of this war, they were talking about victory and the political order that presumably would be imposed (for a while) by the victor. They were not talking about the deaths and griefs, the economic descructions, the intensified hatreds and resentments, the changed patterns of poverty and wealth, and the ecological damages that would also be the results and that would not be readily predictable or controllable. The confession, by certain pro-war politicians, that some of the disorderly and lamentable results of the war were "not foreseen" was surely the war's most foreseeable result.

The circumstances of this war made obscure such apparently simple questions as "Who is the enemy?" and "Whom is this war against?"

The enemy was said to be Iraq, or Iraq as ruled by Saddam Hussein. But in Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein, we faced an enemy who had been armed, fortified, equipped, trained, and encouraged by ourselves and our friends. Our government gave aid to Saddam Hussein, indulged his human rights abuses and his use of poison gas, and encouraged him to think that we would not oppose his ambitions. We sold him equipment that could be used to develop nuclear weapons, missiles, and poison gas. We sold him toxins and bacteria that could be used in biological warfare.

...What about the children? we ask as our leaders acknowledge the inevitability of "some civilian casualties" - or "collateral casualties" as they put it...
We are thinking, too, of our own children to whom someone must explain that some people - including some of "our" people - look on the deaths of children as an acceptable cost of victory.

There is no dodging the fact that war diminishes freedom. This war increased government secrecy (which is at any time a threat to freedom)...and it increased governmental and popular pressure toward uniformity of thought and opinion. War always encourages a patriotism that means not love of country but unquestioning obedience to power. Freedom, of course, requires diversity of opinion. It not only tolerates political dissent but encourages and depends on it.

One thing worth the imperative to imagine the lives of beings who are not ourselves and are not like ourselves...

...there is one great possibility that we have hardly tried: that we can come to peace by being peaceable.

That possiblilty, though little honored, is well known; its most famous statement is this: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you."

In times of war, our leaders always speak of their prayers... Perhaps they believe or hope that prayer will help. But within the circumstances of war, prayer becomes a word as befuddled in meaning as liberate or order or victory or peace. These prayers are usually understood to be Christian prayers. But Christian prayers are made to or in the name of Jesus, who loved, prayed for, and forgave his enemies and who instructed his followers to do likewise. A Christian supplicant, therefore, who has resolved to kill those whom he is enjoined to love, to bless, to do good to, to pray for, and to forgive as he hopes to be forgiven is not conceivably in a situation in which he can be at peace with himself.

...Ignoring the Gospels' command to be merciful, forgiving, loving, and peaceable, our leaders have prayed only for the success of their arms and policies and have thus made for themselves a state religion - exactly what they claim to fear in "fundamentalist" Islam. But why God might particularly favor a nation whose economy is founded foursquare on the seven deadly sins is a mystery that has not been explained.

Peaceableness toward enemies is an idea that will, of course, continue to be denounced as impractical. It has been too little tried by individuals, much less by nations. It will not readily serve those who are greedy for power. It cannot be effectively used for bad ends. It could not afford opportunities for profit. It involves danger to practitioners. It requires sacrifice. And yet it seems to me that it is practical, for it offers the only escape from the logic of retribution. It is the only way by which we can cease to look to war for peace.

Let us hasten to the question that apologists for killing always ask: If somebody raped or murdered a member of my family, would I not want to kill him? Of course I would, and I daresay I would enjoy killing him. Or her. If asked, however, if I think that it would do any good, I must reply that I do not. The logic of retribution implies no end and no hope. If I kill my enemy, and his brother kills me, and my brother kills his brother, and so on and on, we may all have strong motives and even good reasons; the world may be better off without all of us. And yet this is a form of behavior that we have wisely outlawed. We have outlawed it, that is, in private life. In our national life, it remains the established and honored procedure.

The essential point is the ancient one: that to be peaceable is, by definition, to be peaceable in time of conflict. Peaceableness is not the amity that exists between people who agree, nor is it the exhaustion or jubilation that follows war. It is not passive. It is the ability to act to resolve conflict without violence. If it is not a practical and a practicable method, it is nothing. As a practicable method, it reduces helplessness in the face of conflict. In the face of conflict, the peaceable person may find several solutions, the violent person only one.

We seem to be following, on the one hand, the logic of preventitive war, according to which we probably ought to kill all heads of state and their supporters to keep them from sooner or later becoming power hungry maniacs who will force us to fight a big war to save freedom, civilization, peace, gentleness, and brotherly love.... If it is to mean anything, peaceableness has to operate all the time, not lie dormant until the emergence of power-hungry maniacs. Amish pacifism makes sense because the Amish are peaceable all the time. If they attacked their neighbors and then, when their neighbors retaliated, started loving them, praying for them, and turning the other cheek, they would be both wrong and stupid. Of course, as the Amish know, peaceableness can get you killed. I suppose they would reply that war can get you killed, too...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

by your side

When Dawn
then Dusk
and Darkened Sky
exchange their hue
for one last time
if all we've said
is just Goodbye
with one last day
to live our lives
I'll hold your hand
gaze in your eyes
and pray
a thousand times
'till all we've left
are tears to dry
at daybreak
on the other side

Friday, November 03, 2006

Bob Dylan

Well, I'm back from seeing Bob Dylan perform at The Palace tonight, and it was great! Dylan has so much material that you just can't know what he's going to play on any given night, but he played a few that I've only dreamed of seeing him do. Visions of Johanna for one. Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up In Blue, Highway 61, and All Along The Watchtower for some others. He's majorly reworked all of the songs, some of them so much that I couldn't figure out what they were until halfway through the song. Others I recognized the lyrics to but never did figure out what exactly they were. All I knew was that I was in the presence of a true Legend, and I was soaking it all in as much as I could.
There were many striking differences between the Dylan I saw last night and the Dylan I know of from music history. For one, he stood at a keyboard all night, didn't play a lick of guitar (though he did play a bit of harmonica here and there). He's also in a major country / classic bluesy soul rock groove. Rockabilly, for lack of a better word. Usually not my thing, but Dylan is a master and you have to appreciate the fact that he's gone back to the very roots of rock & roll and is keeping them alive and vital in our generation of slickly-produced commercialized sugar-sweet throwaway music. Plus, without Dylan, we don't even have the concept of "country rock" or it's like. He was the first to do that sort of thing.

I was wondering while watching him, given how different his current show is from what you would have seen in the late 60's, if the young Bob Dylan could somehow see and meet the old man Dylan, I wonder what he would think of himself. Would he recognize who he had become? And I wonder if the Dylan of today ever looks back to those early days and wonders what happened to that kid and how did he end up here, and could all those years really have gone by? Knowing what I know of him, probably not, but I know I would be asking those kinds of questions at that age. Hell, I ask those kinds of questions at this age! But maybe that's the kind of thing that's keeping me from living the kind of life he's lived. "If any man looks back after putting his hand to the plow, he is not worthy of me or the kingdom of God... and he'll be turned into a pillar of salt for good measure"

Thursday, November 02, 2006

October rusts

October has come and gone, the leaves (as Kansas once sang in lyrics it took me years to understand) have fallen from the trees. October has always been my favorite month, and nowadays life's quick passing usually finds me unprepared when it comes around. like death. it catches me off-guard, and I'm wondering how to make the most of the moment. like life. and then it's gone...
It's been an unseasonably cold October this year, and rainy, and that hasn't helped matters any. Not many good Cider Mill-ing days to be found. and I seem to have slept right through the ones we did have. I did see a few good concerts this past month though, and that always helps one to feel more alive and connected. Like Indigo Girls in Ann Arbor (a great town to spend autumn in anyway, with it's used book and record stores, and abundant coffeehouses - some that aren't even Starfucks - amid the near-tangible excitement of college life in general).

November promises to start off with a bang: Bob Dylan, at the Palace. A more important cultural icon I will not encounter in this life. He's at the top. The guy influenced the BEATLES for crying out loud! Had the balls to tell them that they were ok, but their music didn't have anything to SAY! Hit John Lennon pretty hard inside, and next thing you know we have the Sgt Pepper album with a song like "A Day in the Life". That is what you call impact. I've been immersing myself in Dylan's music this past week, reading his excellent book (Chronicles), and watched once again the Martin Scorsese masterpiece No Direction Home. I think I'm ready. and I'll be in the 2nd row! "is that Bob Dylan in front of you?" "no, that's just some guy...Dylan is the one in front of him" "so you're saying there's only one person between you and Bob Dylan??" "yes, that's what I'm saying"...
My brother will also be coming home at the end of the month for Thanksgiving weekend, and that is always something to look forward to. Since he's moved away, I usually get to see him maybe 4 or 5 times a year, and that's hard, but he's living in New York, and so I couldn't have asked for a better life for him (or a better vacation spot for me!).

After Chronicles, I'm going to get back to the Harry Potter book I started last month (Goblet), and maybe I'll take some Merton with me to the Cider Mill if we ever get anymore nice days before the place closes down. Reading Merton by a peacefully flowing stream out in the autumn woods has a way of transforming and healing the soul. I still haven't finished David Dark's book Gospel According To America (despite how absolutely rich and deeply thoughtful it is), so I'd like to get back to that one. And my dad is reading Faulkner's "Absalom Absalom", and I'm thinking about trying to tackle that one as well. I'll probably only get around to finishing Potter though...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

100+ Books to read

Books I have not yet read but feel the need to before I die:

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
The Imitation of Christ – Thomas A’Kempis
Macbeth – Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice – Shakespeare
A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis
The Power and The Glory – Graham Greene
Waiting for God – Simone Weil
Love in the Ruins – Walker Percy
The Book of Bebb – Frederick Buechner
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
De Profundis – Oscar Wilde
The Wounded Healer – Henri Nouwen
No Man is an Island – Thomas Merton
The Phenomenon of Man – Teilhard de Chardin
Escape from Freedom – Erich Fromm
Pensees – Pascal
The Ladder of Divine Ascent – John Climacus
St. Francis of Assisi – G.K. Chesterton
St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox – G.K. Chesterton
Little, Big – John Crowley
I and Thou – Martin Buber
The Everlasting Man – G.K. Chesterton
Brother to a Dragonfly - Will D. Campbell
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
Aurora Leigh – Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Notes from Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Foucault's Pendulum - Umberto Eco
Animal Farm – George Orwell
Bread and Wine – Ignazio Silone
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Self-Reliance – Ralph Waldo Emmerson
Hamlet – Shakespeare
A Third Testament – Malcolm Muggeridge
The New Man – Thomas Merton
Othello – Shakespeare
Diary of a Country Priest – Georges Bernanos
Markings – Dag Hammarskjold
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
The Night is Dark and I am Far from Home – Jonathan Kozol
Phantastes – George Macdonald
The Holy Longing - Ronald Rolheiser
Creative Ministry – Henri Nouwen
The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
Dear Theo: Letters of Vincent Van Gogh to His Brother
Lilith – George Macdonald
The Name of The Rose - Umberto Eco
A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
Compassion – Henri Nouwen
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Steven Covey
Exploring Spiritual Direction – Alan Jones
Lost in the Cosmos – Walker Percy
The Plague – Albert Camus
Resistance, Rebellion and Death – Albert Camus
Live from Death Row – Mumia Abul-Jamal
What are People For – Wendell Berry
Awareness – Anthony De Mello
The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
Our Journey Home – Jean Vanier
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
Ethics - Aerostotle
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Romeo and Juliet – Shakespeare
The Divine Comedy – Dante
Faust – Goethe
The Sorrows of Young Werther - Goethe
A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller
The City of God – St. Augustine
Dubliners – James Joyce
Night – Elie Wiesel
The Chosen – Chaim Potok
Beloved – Toni Morrison
The Magus - John Fowles
Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
The Captain's Verses - Pablo Neruda
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
The Life You Save May Be Your Own - Paul Ellie
Collected Fictions - Jorge L. Borges
The Trial - Franz Kafka
Complete Stories - Franz Kafka
The Kingdom of God is Within You - Leo Tolstoy
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time – Marcus Borg
The Virgin of Bennington - Kathleen Norris
Steppenwolf - Hermann Hesse
The Day on Fire - James Ramsey Ulman
Last Night of the Earth Poems - Charles Bukowski
Bound for Glory - Woody Guthrie
Rabbit Novels (4+1) - John Updike
Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
The Spiral Staircase - Karin Armstrong
Lolita - Nabakov
White Noise - Don Delillo
The Watchmen - Alan Moore
Love is a Dog from Hell - Charles Bukowski
The Iceman Cometh - Eugene O'Neil
A Long Day's Journey into Night - Eugene O'Neil
Pale Fire - Nabakov
Tropic of Capricorn - Henry Miller
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog - Dylan Thomas
Adventures in the Skin Trade - Dylan Thomas
Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas
Songs of Innocence and Experience - William Blake
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - William Blake
Chekhov (various novels, short stories and plays)
Thus Spoke Zarathustra - Nietzche
Ulysses - James Joyce
What Matters Most is How Well You Walk... - Charles Bukowski
Enders Game - Orsen Scott Card
The Cost of Discipleship - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Silence

The Silence of God has always been my biggest, most problematic stumbling block in my faith (or my "christian walk" if you want to be all CBA about it). Why is God silent? Buechner says how could God speak to us in any way that would remove all doubt without destroying us in the process? but I have a problem with that. Surely God can figure out some way to communicate with me in a way that I can understand and discern as God's voice, and not some other random entity, without "destroying me". And if He can't, well then we've got bigger problems than my own. because surely that applies to the whole history of men, back to and including those who "wrote" the bible.

My personal problem is not a belief in God, it is the belief in what God is (or is not) like. and here is where I hold the most resentment towards my "chrisian" upbringing. I think a lot of people (honestly well meaning or self-serving) claim (and have taught) a lot of things about God that are simply just wishful thinking. And knowing what to hold fast to and what to unstick from is the work that can leave a person wandering around in the dark of his or her own subjective judgements and unenlightened mind for ages.

This ties in to another key concept for me, one that I don't hear much discussion of beyond circular logic. How do you discern the Voice of God from the almighty Voice-In-Your-Own-Head? (my friend Sarah, who I believe got it from one of the Nashville group, puts it similarly: a lot of people have a personal relationship with the voice in their own head). The circular logic, of course, being a dependence on the bible to guide that discernment - "The Bible says this about God, and so therefore...". (This is a huge pet peeve of mine when reading christian authors - their flippant use of "God told me" or "Jesus wants us to...", that sort of speaking for God, or telling us how God feels about certain things, as though they just talked on the phone a couple hours ago with the almighty incomprehensible infinite. Don Miller does this somewhat in Blue Like Jazz in a couple chapters, and it grated on my nerves, but some of that book I thought was pretty good in a light reading rambling memoir-ish blog kind of way. Don Miller at his best is good blog material. but we won't be confusing his writings with the likes of Buechner ever!) Translation problems and incorrect interpretations aside, why do we accept these writings as directly by God, and not, say, Annie Dillards? there are too many religious writings in the world of religion potpouri that claim divinity for me to be so dismisively cock-sure that this one is the one and only right one. or at the very least, that I know enough of what this one means to draw conclusions or expectations from it. I come to realize that much of what I believe about God is hearsay (a word that comes strikingly close to heresy). My direct experience with God, if I've had any at all, is minimal. and can I point to any of it as undeniable or inexplicable? not really. most of it's just really really good times and memories in my life, which I credit to God (and still do). but it's odd that I don't feel "close" to God at times of hardship. is my god simply enjoyable memories and good feelings? I don't feel that unshakable faith that Paul or Job had. and yet I am still here, holding these thoughts (and even these struggles) dear to me, to who I am and what I want my life to be about.

and so, what are we left with? For me, it has been the simple prayer, God have mercy. it's really the one prayer I base my life of faith on. to me, it's so incomprehensible, and I recongnize my inability to understand any of it, really, that I simply have to throw myself on His mercy. it's what Christianity teaches anyway, more or less, as it's basic tenant. My eternal destination, and what happens to me in this life, are completely and utterly subject to God's mercy. I cannot demand otherwise, I cannot claim a legal right to more, and I certainly cannot hope in my actions or beliefs to save me in any sense of the word. It's what I prayed over and over while sitting with my grandmother when she was dying, and it's what I pray all my life in the face of the overwhelming nature of lostness and incomprehensible evil, in me and the world. I fail again and again, and the world looks more and more like hell every day (if you look in the "right" places), and I don't understand it and I don't like it, but I don't get a say in the matter beyond the plea of "Lord please have mercy".

But somehow I still believe, even though I do direct a lot of angry judgement at God. and I pray that my theological "temper tantrums", the various immature ways I try "working out my faith" turn out to have been no more harmful than a baby shitting it's diaper. I don't know, and I don't understand. I was raised soaking in a christian environment, and so it is and will always be a deep, essential part of who I am and what I believe. But I have a strong enough faith in the truth that i will throw everything I've got at what i believe (and what others believe), knowing that reality and what's true can withstand the harshest onslaught. I doubt and question fiercely, and I like to think that I have the kind of cynicism that my friend David Dark talks about, one that is simply holding out for the real thing and will accept nothing less. I like to think this indicates a stronger faith in God, rather than a shakey one

Friday, September 29, 2006

Bury My Heart

I am currently reading Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, and it is a heartbreaking account, from the American Indian's viewpoint, of the settler's merciless extermination of the Indians. Our own history, barely 150 years ago, contains attrocities committed by our ancestors that rival anything Hitler or Sadaam has ever done. Much of this book (our "Amercian history") is sickening to imagine. As William McPherson says on the back cover, "one wonders...who, indeed, were the savages."

Monday, September 04, 2006

Tom Waits for beginners

answering the question posted on another website as to where to begin with Tom Waits:

Bone Machine - this was my very first TW CD, picked it up because of the "sighting" in the Over the Rhine video Serpents and Gloves, and thereafter I was hooked. On first listen you will hear what sounds like an OtR piano playing, and you can see the influence Tom has had on Linford in this. took a few listens to truly get into it, but even upon first listen, I knew I was hearing something special. There's gold in them there hills, you just gotta do a little digging to get past the rough harsh ground you first encounter there and the mean looking dogs barking at the entrance. oh, and this is the one that won a grammy for best alternative album of the year back in whatever year that was.

Rain Dogs - His "most popular" album (whatever that means when talking about Tom Waits) among longtime fans. Pirates have taken over the carnival and they're making a mess of what you think you know about "music appreciation". Probably the worst thing about this one is the fact that Rod Stewart desecrated one of the songs on here (Downtown Train), killed it with radio play to the point that when you hear it here you can't help but think of Rod Stewart (who should be tarred and feathered for doing such a thing to Waits' music - although it probably made Tom a very rich man).

Closing Time - if you wanna get all wussie about it and "ease into" Tom Waits, this is definitely where to begin. His easiest on the ears, a dark and smokey jazz bar somewhere in the shady part of town, a lone piano player in the corner, just you and a few other patrons having a drink or two at the bar, trying to put your problems on the back burner for a little while... but loneliness and heartbreak are not so easily forgotten. Includes the ever-popular "Ol' 55".

Mule Variations - His best selling to date I think, definitely a great and varied taste of his style, this one has just about everything you could hope for from Tom, including a heartbreaking ballad or three that are right up there with (if not better than) anything he's ever done in his early piano days, as well as his trademark "ghost story" type talkies, and a few monsters-banging-on-things-and-scaring-the kids kinds of songs. Some would argue with the Rain Dogs crowd and say that this is his best.

I suggest starting with these 4, and once you can't get him out of your head and he has permanantly infected your soul, just start collecting the rest. Blood Money and Swordfish Trombones are my suggestions for your next stop. and if you just really want to freak yourself out right off the bat, get Real Gone, turn off all the lights at midnight, turn it up, and spin around until you're completely disoriented, and then sit there in the dark listening to the possessed voice filling your head until you cry.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


A couple of my friends have been encouraging me to start blogging regularly, and so I thought I'd take this moment to refresh my memory as to how to do this. this is a test, this is only a test. anything I say can and will be used against me in the afterlife...

(they all start out this stupid)

I turn 36 today. My birthday has started off quite wonderfully so far. a good friend got me a couple of Bukowski's latest books, and the new Ani Difranco CD. On Thursday I watched the Bukowski documentary (Born Into This) and became an instant fan. In the bonus material, Tom Waits reads a poem from Last Night Of The Earth Poems, and as he says so himself, it was a beauty. I saw Tom Waits in Detroit on Friday night, where the spirit of Howlin' Wolf and Flannery O'Conner were conjured by the gravelly voiced patron saint of the homeless and downtrodden. I like Tom Waits because he finds value in the valueless, gives dignity to the forgotten, the dreggs of society. Though I dont' think he's particularly religious, I think he is in his own way "looking for baby Jesus under the trash". Our society so thoughtlessly throws out so much, and Tom Waits has a way of making you dig through that trash, sure that there's something you've mistakenly discarded that is actually essential to life. His gruff voice is addicting if you can listen long enough to get past the barking abrassiveness that initially makes you want to cringe and cover your ears. His music is not "immediately accesible", even though he has been covered by people like The Eagles, Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, and Sarah McLachlan (among many others). oh, and his show (at the Detroit Opera House) sold out in 10 minutes. I did the best I could, but TicketBastard made sure I wasn't able to get better than 5th from the last row in the upper balcony. at least I was there...

Tonight I will complete the religious experience by going to The Church. Under the Milky Way and all that. Happy Birthday to Me. And Thank You to the friends who have made it a great one already not even 4 hours into it. You, your life and friendship, are the true gift I continue to recieve and enjoy in gratitude.