Monday, May 31, 2010

My Testimony: How I went into debt and started smoking due to the influence of Over the Rhine...

This is an appreciation piece I wrote a few years ago for my all-time favourite band, published privately in a book by and for fans called "etcetera whatever: Photos, poems and prose inspired by Over the Rhine"

It was back in the Summer of '93, on an old pigfarm in western Illinois littered with thousands of tents, the air polluted with dust, heat, noise, and exhaustion, when I first encountered that voice that stopped me dead in my tracks. Something was happening under one of the concert tents that never happens at Cornerstone - the crowd was completely silent, listening to this beautiful, quiet voice singing its way into each person's soul. Amidst all the confusion that is a typical Cornerstone, you could hear a pin drop. I don't remember what the song was, but the band wasn't playing, it was just her voice. It was impossible for me to just walk by. I stopped and listened, and my spirit was held captive by an artistic beauty I had never known before. And my life, from that moment on, was changed...

Before encountering the music of Over the Rhine, I really didn't have much in the way of discerning artistic taste. I was mostly a pop and metal kind of guy, with a newfound love of alternative that would eventually take over. I was into CCM / Christian rock, having basically grown up on the stuff, yet growing tired of the shallow confines of that genre. I remember feeling like there must be more to a life of faith than what the Christian subculture was offering. I read authors like John Fischer and Brennan Manning who were crystallizing and clarifying my understanding of the dissatisfaction and misgivings I was having about that little "christian" world around me. Into this moment in my life of wanting more depth and artistic integrity came the music of two groups who were offering, each in their own way, what I was starved for: Over the Rhine and Vigilantes of Love (two groups that, for many of us, were like 2 sides of the same coin). They opened my eyes to a whole other world of artistic expression of faith that existed not inside the confining walls of the CCM "ghetto", but instead was active in the everyday world. I started noticing a life of faith in a multitude of artists whom I would have previously written off as "secular" simply because they weren't advertising themselves as "Christian" product. Over the Rhine helped draw me away from that place of spiritual condescension by exemplifying how true beauty and artistic integrity could embody a life of faith without needing to compromise either, nor needing to advertise itself as such. Simone Weil says "If I had to choose between loving Christ and loving the truth, I would have to choose to love the truth, convinced that if I am truly seeking the truth, I will eventually fall into the arms of Christ." In the religious circles I knew, it was sometimes true that, in seeking "Christ", people often ended up with an idol of their own making. Over the Rhine isn't exactly an overtly religious group. In fact, many of their avid fans have no interest in religion whatsoever. Over the Rhine express their faith not in ostensibly evangelistic ways, but rather through the continual pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. In doing so, I believe they have done more to deepen my faith in more meaningfully real ways than anything I was previously encountering in the so-called "Contemporary Christian Music" scene.

A few years later, at Cornerstone once again, I was feeling rather lost and discouraged with where my life had taken me (or where I had not taken my life as the case may be). Over the Rhine was the first group to play that year, at the Gallery "pre-festival" show. They were just the right way to start things off for me, and as a surprise, they had just released a new CD! I took that CD back to my tent, put the headphones on, and the first lines of Good Dog Bad Dog cut straight into my heart, resonating immediately with my emotional state at the time. "What a beautiful piece of heartache this has all turned out to be." The lyrics and music on that CD were exactly what I needed to hear right then, and it reached me perfectly in a way that few CDs ever have. I will never forget that moment. It instantly became my favourite CD, and they secured their place as my favourite group ever. I soon started digging deeper into who this band was and what they were all about.

In an old newsletter from Over the Rhine, Linford writes about sitting in the back of Kaldi's coffeehouse & bookstore, picturing the Inklings meeting in a place like this, C.S. Lewis smoking his pipe and writing (as Linford was now)...
In the spring of 2001, I was also sitting in the back of Kaldi's in downtown Cincinnati, used books lining the walls around me, thinking not of the Inklings, but wondering rather if this was the spot Linford sat at as he wrote that newsletter. I was smoking, not a pipe, but a clove - whose sweet aroma I first (and for many years only) smelled at Over the Rhine concerts, and have since always associated with their music. This was partly due both to their playing in college-towns and to the guy selling their merchandise back then. Todd used to smoke cloves at their gypsy-ish table while selling things like cigar boxes filled with CDs, trading cards, and t-shirts with pictures of clocks and hermits on them.

There has always been something extremely literary about the way Over the Rhine presented themselves, from the fondness for antique photographs, to their poetic lyrics inspired by authors like Rilke, Flannery O'Conner, Maya Angelou, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, Madeleine L'Engle, etc... This literary aspect was one of the key elements of the group that pushed me past being a mere fan to outright obsession (or "commitment", as they would call it). When you are touched so deeply in your soul by art such as this, you want to know where the artists draw their inspiration from - what feeds their spirits and fills those deep wells from which we, the listeners, draw so much life. In those early days especially, the answer you would usually get to that question was (more often than not) the name of a book or author. And soon a bookish cult developed among some of us fans. We would look for literary references in their music, during interviews, while reading those old newsletters, or just while talking with them after shows, making a list for our next trip to the bookstore. They even had weekly recommendations on the website for a while, which brought me back there religiously. I admit to going into a bit of debt filling my bookshelves with their recommendations! But, as the saying goes, I may be broke from buying too many books, but am far richer because of it...

I was in Cincinnati that time because I was on my way south to visit the monastery where Thomas Merton had lived. When Over the Rhine were in my town earlier that year, their current merch guy (and pastor), Dave Nixon, invited me to stay at his house when I was in town. Now this guy didn't know me from Jack the Ripper, and yet these are the kinds of people you find in attendance at Over the Rhine gatherings, welcoming the stranger and all that... Dave showed me around town a bit, driving with me to see the group at a concert hall near the infamous "Sudsy Malones" where they played some of their first shows. Dave also showed me where "The Grey Ghost" was - the beautiful house Karin and Linford were living in at the time. The thought crossed my mind that Linford's book collection was right in there, and how cool would it be to actually look firsthand at the library that inspired so much of mine?!

Over the years I have seen the group over 40 times in concert, collected all their CDs, and never have I been disappointed by their music; never has it failed to move me or to restore my spirit and remind me of where I want to be, what kind of person I hope to become. They've given me far more that just a row of CDs for my collection. Among other things, they've shown how genuine faith can be expressed in the world - artfully, with truth and integrity - and I can't imagine what my life today would be like without their influence, much less how empty my bookshelves would be...

2 comments:

LittleBird said...

why i live in persistent hope of posts from your pen.

this.

Gregory Milinovich said...

wow....i loved this, partly because it is very well written, but mostly because it felt like you were telling my story. some of the details are a bit off, in my case, but the spirit of the thing is exactly the same, particularly the bit about how over the rhine helped to deliver you from the confines of a ccm upbringing. everything about that felt eerily familiar, like looking in a mirror, or reading my own memoirs! in any case, thanks for writing this, and for somehow being a kindred spirit, at least as far as these pixels go, and trusting that we could easily lean into an otr song together, with a couple of cloves, a good book, and some stories to share. thanks. peace.