We’re driving home from shopping, two 40-something parents and their three teen and tweens. It’s January. Call us old-fashioned—we listen to the radio, Rick Dees. It’s not just the Weekly Top Forty; it’s a countdown of #1s. A list of a list. We click around but the kids insist—“Go back to Rick Dees!”This pop culture is ruining them, I think, ruining us all, a proud tradition of pop culture ruin for every generation—Rick Dees, Casey Kasem, Dick Clark.Read More
Filtering by Category: Music
It’s not a story, love—not necessarily—or at least not the story I want to turn it into: a series of arcs with a solid end. Even if the ending is sad, a story offers something ordered. It’s an assurance that makes the introduction of characters—the way she flips her fan, the way he carries home bread—fasten their choices into the security of plot: a rationale that makes love seem safe in the coherence of story-form.Read More
Oh, oh, deep water— black and cold like the night. I stand with arms wide open, I’ve run a twisted line. I’m a stranger in the eyes of the maker. — Daniel Lanois
I’m nine and already weary of hard church pews. My mother’s voice is a tight mezzo soprano, rising above the congregation. I hiss at her to stop swaying along to the hymns she loves so much. Open your eyes, I say, embarrassed that she’s the only one moving. The rest stand still, eyes downcast towards navy blue hymnals, rigid platters full of sombre songs. The organ constant and low and alien. The hymns feeling like eternity.
At fourteen, I enjoy music, but I can’t say I love it. It’s in the mall, on the radio, in church. Distanced. Then one day the sublime opening riff of “Solsbury Hill” holds my ear, eases me into the lyrics. I am forced to listen.
Son, he said, grab your things I’ve come to take you home.
Wait. That eagle—is it God?
A fifteenth birthday present to myself. Black-sleeved cassette, cellophane unwrapped before I enter the room, slipped into the player before I kick my shoes into the corner. U2’s Rattle and Hum opens with “Helter Skelter" (The Beatles nowhere in sight). But then “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” rises, gospel-lifted by The New Voices of Freedom. I feel music for the first time—in my center, where belief, pain, and joy begin.
At college, “Creep” by Radiohead becomes a new favourite, spurred on by a hammered guitar riff and Thom Yorke’s hatred of his own smash hit. “Fuck off,” he says to a Montreal fan requesting the song, “we’re tired of it.” Again and again I go back to the second time through the chorus, how he leans his weight into the despair. I think the swearing is beautiful.
I want you to notice when I’m not around. You’re so fucking special— I wish I was special.
Church words begin to matter. The music, secondary. I begin to chafe at the jarring distraction of bridge-formulaic praise music, the isolation of mere noise. The emptiness of repetition without reflection—a preference for silence instead of ineffective song. The occasional kernel among the chaff.
…that he should give his only son to make a wretch his treasure.
…but you don’t really care for music, do ya?
The new millennium brings mobile phones and full-time internet access. Media consumed in strobe-lit flashes. At 33, I’m forced to my knees by a migraine, my first, that swells in the quiet of summer vacation, much needed after a stressful first year of international teaching.
Say something, say something, anything— Your silence is deafening.
All I can do is rest in a darkened room, eyes closed, and fight the urge to vomit.
Alahu akbar! Allahu akbar! Ash-hadu anla ilaha illah Allah.
From our Maidan Hawally apartment, I can see at least twenty mosque minarets piercing the Kuwait skyline. Through bad microphones and tinny PA systems, muezzins call out the adhan five times a day without fail, the words settling in every crevice like the fine dust blown in from Saudi Arabia. I am writing regularly now, accompanied mostly by silence. That call, though. Always there, like an itching, grimy skin of faith. I’ll be sweating it from my pores long after I leave.
The plan, abandoned. A careful playlist for the labour and delivery room never used, forgotten against 36 hours of agonizing back labour. My wife, in control and superhero strong, breathing and moaning through every contraction, while me, her co-pilot, fetches water and ice. The navigation all her own. The fetal heart rate monitor becomes our steady, rhythmic soundtrack. When it falters, the tune and the plan changes. Again.
A quiet surgical team. Low voices and indifferent machines.
And I have to speculate that God himself did make us into corresponding shapes like puzzle pieces from the clay.
Then, those first, raging cries. Girl. Ten fingers, ten toes. Pink and hungry. Eyes wide open.
Mornings, before sunrise, before our house begins to move, are my writing time. I create in silence, the only sounds the hush of a family at rest and the occasional crackle of the baby monitor. Our five-month-old is a watcher and smiler, crying only as a last resort. From upstairs, her big sister, now three, wakes up singing.
On for Christian soldiers, marching as to ore. With the cross of Jesus going on a four…
I detest the song, a simplistic anthem that feels like it’s forgotten Christ. But I listen to my daughter belting it out at full voice, the sublime, misguided noise of it. Her version. Not worrying about the words so much.
I pretty much went back to work. Nothing beats reality. —Sixto Rodriguez
It isn’t really his music, though to my mind, this talented musician holds his own against any modern artist, thanks to his potent lyrics and Dylanesque voice and aura. It isn’t even his unusual story, though the course of his life journey is the kind of Cinderella tale that just doesn’t happen in this calloused world, but only within the mythic cosmos of our wildest dreams.
It’s something else that makes me want to be like Sixto Diaz Rodriguez when I grow up, and that is his attitude after mysterious casts of fate prevented what should have been a rocket ride to stardom. Instead of the American dream, the Detroit native went back in his home city for the next thirty years, doing demolition work, living in relative poverty, and trying not to wonder too much what went wrong. The highs and lows of this magical tale are told in the award-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Though the film is not the full account, by any measurement except the most cynical this is still a refresher course in miracles.
The world is rumored to be full of celebrities. Attitude alone sets Rodriguez apart as a great man and genuine grownup. When all was obscured and shadowed, he had the grace to accept his reality as good and acceptable instead of growing bitter over what could have been. At some point, he went from “being the outcast to… who he really was,” and this is where his story becomes our own. Every human being knows instinctively that what he appears to be in this transient life is far from the whole truth. The Christian faith is crammed with compelling arguments about just why this is so, and the apostle John lifts us out of our finite grasp of ourselves to remind us of what lies beyond the shadowed present:
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (I John 3:2)
Until that appearing, I look to people like Sixto Rodriguez to remind me that the temporary struggle is as much a part of the Big Picture as any eternal outcome will prove to be.
“Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now." —Bob Dylan
My brother began listening to Dylan when he was 17. That means I heard iconic lyrics like: “Well, they’ll stone you when you’re tryin’ to be so good/They’ll stone you just like they said they would” and “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” drift through the house when I was 14. The guitar and harmonica, Dylan’s sometimes smooth, sometimes raspy voice wove their way through my mind and for years resided in the grooves of fond memory. I was immersed in “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “Tamborine Man,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as they spun their familiar sounds from the turntable. Recently, feeling homesick for those songs, I listened to them again. I was surprised to find that the Dylan I knew opened to new and deeper levels.
It wasn’t just that I was older. During this same time I went back to listen to other music I inhabited as a teenager. Returning to Carole King and Carly Simon, for instance, felt just the same as it did in the past. But Dylan’s music now spoke in ways I never heard before. How is it that even his old songs can still be fresh today? Italian author Italo Calvino offers a simple point about what makes a literary classic: “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.” Dylan’s work is new over time because it is deeply meaningful.
It continues to have something to say because Dylan has always been open to change, not holding himself to a constraint others wanted to impose. He got a lot of grief for it. He was constantly moving artistically, from writing topical songs like Woody Guthrie’s, to protest songs, to flashing image songs, and he famously switched from acoustic to electric guitar. He probably would never consider himself brilliant, but there is brilliance in his lyrics, music, and knowing not to hold onto categories, but to allow himself the freedom to chase change and ambiguity.
Dylan’s style could change because he is true to his inspirations. Among the many are Herman Melville, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Rimbaud (“When I read [Rimbaud’s] words the bells went off.”), and Paul Verlaine.
After passing through the familiarity of nostalgia, I found in Dylan so much of the poetic soul of the Beats. When he was 18, someone gave Dylan a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues. Dylan said the book blew his mind. When poet and friend Allen Ginsberg asked him why, Dylan told him, "It was the first poetry that spoke to me in my own language." Ginsberg continues to explain Kerouac’s influence on Dylan: “So those chains of flashing images you get in Dylan, like ‘the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen and her silver studded phantom lover,’ they're influenced by Kerouac's chains of flashing images and spontaneous writing.” In Dylan’s “Desolation Row” (1965) he blends these images and more: beauty parlor, circus, Bette Davis, Romeo, Hunchback of Notre Dame, iron vest, Noah’s rainbow, Einstein, a monk, pennywhistles, and mermaids. The Beatles were taken with Dylan’s lyricism and style. George Harrison says of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album, "We just played it, just wore it out. The content of the song lyrics and just the attitude—it was incredibly original and wonderful."
As his audience attempted to confine him, Dylan resisted with all his creativity. In a 1966 Playboy interview, Dylan is asked, “Mistake or not, what made you decide to go the rock-'n'-roll route?” Dylan responds with an explanation that was more like an improvisational riff. He spun a tale of images that included a card game, crap game, pool hall, Mexican lady, Charles Atlas. It flows in a pastiche of people and plots and scenes. When he’s finished, the interviewer says, “And that's how you became a rock-'n'-roll singer?” Dylan replies, “No, that's how I got tuberculosis.” Dylan talks in imaginative circles and was often considered “contrary” by journalists because he knew that many people were not willing to listen to, and probably would not understand, his views on the artistic process.
In the same 1966 interview, Playboy reminds Dylan that he told someone he had done everything he ever wanted to do. “If that's true,” the interviewer asks, “what do you have to look forward to?” Dylan replied, “Salvation. Just plain salvation.” Dylan’s work, as it continues to speak, does offer a kind of salvation. As one author puts it, “it is in the nature of beauty to suggest the divine and the eternal.” I’m so glad I followed nostalgia’s pull to Dylan and found more of the place where beauty saves the world.
And every one of them words rang true And glowed like burnin’ coal Pourin’ off of every page Like it was written in my soul from me to you — Bob Dylan
You know what it’s like to be a literary voyeur. You see a photo of someone in front of a bookcase, and what’s the first thing you do? Tilt your head and read the titles on the shelf. And if you’re a serious voyeur, you make a list of books to add to your collection. In addition to being a literary voyeur, I’m a musical voyeur. I have always listened, over the shoulder, to other people’s music. Growing up as the youngest of five, there was no way I was going to get to the record player first. This set the pattern for being a passive music collector. Music is like a dandelion that sends its seeds on the breeze; even though I didn’t search it out, music always found me. Because it’s the heartbeat of varied people, my music over time has become a colorful and eclectic collection.
If left to myself, I may still be singing along with this, the first song I picked out myself, and the first 45 I ever remember buying. See how it’s a good thing that I’ve been a musical voyeur?
At first, my voyeurism led me into things like Broadway musicals. I’m pretty sure I can still sing the songs from West Side Story and Funny Girl. I vividly remember tucking away in my room and soothing my moody teen blues with Carole King’s Tapestry, or wearing the grooves down on Jesus Christ Superstar, feeling a little reckless singing with Herod.
Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs still sow seeds through my day, as I continue to discover the sacred – mystery and brokenness, wonder and longing – in a broad scope of music. I return to some of the artists whose music travels on the winds of home. Dylan, for instance, whose simple, expressive metaphor for longing, “tangled up in blue,” still captivates me. Even after time, it’s as resonant as a song should be that took “10 years to live and two to write.” Then there are the Beatles’ hard to surpass imaginative lyrics, like the ones flowing from Lennon yielding to his Alice in Wonderland muse:
Picture yourself in a boat on a river With tangerine trees and marmalade skies Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly A girl with kaleidoscope eyes
There are the “sweet and lovely” intricacies of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk in this. I glean from the harvest of those listening to music around me: Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, David Bowie, Alan Parsons, Neil Young, Beethoven, Debussy, Sufjan Stevens, Aesop Rock. The only genre I haven’t enjoyed too much is rock and roll. Mostly for the reason Dylan notes, “The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough. . . There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms... but the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
Listening to these deeper feelings makes me a better listener as I lean into someone else’s musical perspective. Picking up music from others almost always involves interesting conversations because people love to talk about the music that is “written in their souls.” This connection leads me to identify with the music in a different way than I would on my own. It fills my life with the nuances and layers of new musical languages.
This year I discovered some music on my own and welcomed more that I picked up from others, making it a great musical blend that I love for many reasons: joy and pathos, simplicity and complexity, lyricism and artistic experimentation (someone asks if this might be the first hip hop song). There is also recent music from artists I am privileged to know personally, like these songs as described in one word by the artists themselves: licentious and manic.
And now I wait, for new favorites to drift through an open window. As Donne says,
The heavens rejoice in motion, why should I abjure my so much loved variety?
Just last week, during prayers at bedtime, my youngest son thanked God that piano lessons were over for the summer. I’m not sure when it became law for upright pianos to be stationed in every household, to break the backs of the fathers who move them there and to break the minds of children who, coming home daily from school, find not freedom but piano lessons, but it’s a law I resent even as I continue to abide by it. In one corner we, too, have a breaking-down piano like a hulking mushroom.
I took piano lessons from third to sixth grade—until I broke my arm, thank God—and honestly never played one song that had life or actual music in it. For me, the piano was a parallel art: it was an art that ran parallel to my life and never once broke into my own playing. One night, after I tearfully struggled through my lesson, going through the motions, I got out our old typewriter and began happily copying encyclopedia entries. First, I did “Temperate Forest” followed by “Desert.” Climate descriptions, animal lists, whatever. I plunked them out and felt every one of the clicks and thunks, felt the energy transferred from my fingers to the simple levers of the keys that punished the paper with staccato precision, marking it with elegant letter after elegant letter. That rhythmic mechanical process clicked off something in my brain. I loved it.
Dad was a musician, or rather a musician turned farmer, with short muscular fingers at least a key-and-a-half wide from milking cows for forty years. The night of the plunking typewriter, he scolded me sharply for my miserable attempt at the piano while I could type out meaningless stuff easily enough. He was right. There was certainly no music to the words, nothing like he could do on the old upright. He’d modeled what music might sound like, playing from memory an old ditty in which his hands jumped from the keys with life and verve, his thick torso swaying back and forth, a conduit of emotion and energy even if he didn’t hit all the right notes. In a man of his size, it was something to behold.
As I sit this morning and wonder what it is I’m doing at this keyboard, I can’t conjure as much emotion as he did for those little ditties. It wouldn’t be safe. Or sustainable. And yet it’s exactly what I want in a way—to grasp and hold lightning for a minute like he did, for meaning to flow through the conduit of my body and out these ten tangled fingers.
So I get up morning after morning, sit before the keyboard, and bend myself to the lessons, waiting for lightning to strike.
Jack White found the pulse of “Seven Nation Army” at a sound check in Australia. "What do you think of this?" he said to a friend who was passing by, before launching into what would become one of the most famous guitar riffs in history. ("It feels less like someone wrote it than it was unearthed. It's something that's always been there," Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine told the BBC in 2014, a decade after the song's release). The song that, in time, was to come of that riff has been blasted from stadium loudspeakers across the world, has stood atop Billboard's rock chart, and now holds a place in Rolling Stone's Top 500 Songs of All Time. "It's all right," White's friend said.
“It’s almost great when people say that,” White continued, "because it makes you get defensive in your brain and think, no, there’s something to this. You don't see it yet. It's gonna get there. You gotta have some imagination, you tell yourself."
White’s story, recounted in the documentary It Might Get Loud, brought to mind a passage from In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, by Walter Murch, in which the Oscar-winning editor of Apocalypse Now and The English Patient likens the dynamics at play between a director and his editor to those found within a certain kind of dream therapy:
“In dream therapy there is a technique that pairs the patient—the dreamer, in this case—with someone who is there to listen to the dream. As soon as possible after waking, the dreamer gets together with his listener to review the dreams of the previous night. Frequently there is nothing, or just a single disappointing image, but this is usually enough to begin the process.
“Once the image is described, the listener’s job is to propose an imaginary sequence of events based on that fragment. An airplane, for instance, is all that is remembered. The listener immediately proposes that it must have been an airliner flying over Tahiti filled with golf balls for a tournament in Indonesia. No sooner has this description been offered than the dreamer finds himself protesting: ‘No, it was a bi-plane, flying over the battlefields of France, and Hannibal was shooting arrows at it from his legion of elephants.’
“In other words, the dream itself, hidden in the memory, rises to its own defense when it hears itself being challenged by an alternate version, and so reveals itself. This revelation about bi-planes and elephants can in turn prompt the listener to elaborate another improvisation, which will coax out another aspect of the hidden dream, and so on, until as much of the dream is revealed as possible.”
“We are mysteries to ourselves,”poet Geoffrey Hill found himself saying when questioned by The Paris Review. What could be more true? If we knew ourselves as God is said to know us, we’d have no need of art. Negotiating resistant distance is central to the creative act.
When a poet like John Keats is composing, for example, as literary critic Sven Birkerts once observed, “it is not a case of the poet’s inventing lines, but rather of his finding sounds and rhythms in accordance with the promptings of the deeper psyche. The poet does not rest with a line until he has released a specific inner pressure.”
And perhaps because it is born of resistance, art can engender meaningful resistance in others. “Tyranny requires simplification,” Geoffrey Hill says in the same interview. “[A]ny complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.”
In 2011, White’s song became an anthem of the Arab Spring; it was featured on a Democracy Now! broadcast after Egyptian-born writer Mona Eltahawy opened an influential column this way:
“As the people of my homeland, Egypt, stage a popular uprising against the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, the White Stripes keep singing in my head: ‘I’m gonna fight ’em off /A seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back!’
“I don’t know if Jack and Meg of the White Stripes are watching the breathtaking developments taking place in my country. However, their thumping, pumping ‘Seven Nation Army’ is a perfect anthem for the defiance and adrenaline-fueled determination that must be propelling the tens of thousands of courageous, protesting Egyptians.”
In It Might Get Loud, White is telling his story to Jimmy Page and The Edge. He was thankful for his friend’s resistance. It helped him find his song.
“I kept at it,” he said.
A few Decembers ago, I saw Handel’s acclaimed Messiah oratorio in concert for the first time. From our side balcony seats at the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, my friends and I had an overhead view of the choir as well as the orchestra stage. We could only see the backs of the interchanging soloists, which worried me a little. Would the experience be lessened by this limited view? A few minutes into the show, however, I realized that we could see something that the coveted, pricier center section below could not: the face of the conductor.
This conductor was, in a word, animated. He waved his arms and wielded his baton with a wizard-like flourish to guide the skilled group of musicians. His face is what caught me, though. His features echoed the emotional tone of each movement—tight and serious in moments of lament, open and bright in moments of delight. He smiled during that famous chorus.
Anecdote has it that Handel’s own face was wet with tears after he wrote the Hallelujah chorus. His assistant came upon him crying at his desk and asked him: “What’s wrong?” To which Handel replied. “I thought I saw the face of God.”
After such a splendorous vision and satisfying creation, it is a wonder that Handel went on to write another act at all. Yet he did.
In Philip Yancey’s reflection on Messiah’s “bright and glistening theology," he recalls the various theories behind King George II standing during the Hallelujah Chorus at the oratorio’s London premiere. Some believe did so because he was emotionally moved. As Yancey points out, however, there are also those who suggest that the king in fact rose to his feet because he mistakenly believed the show was over. Apparently novices in the audience have been known to make the same error today.
“Who can blame them?” says Yancey. “After two hours of performance, the music seems to culminate in the rousing chorus. What more is needed?”
Handel had an entire act of “more” to add. A heavy act. This brilliant composer, this creative man of God, recognized that as heavenly as his chorus sounded, it was still a chorus of earth--a place where so much is wrong and so much is needed.
In what Yancey heralds as “a brilliant stroke,” the final act begins with words from a stricken Job. It seems a steep fall from ebullient Hallelujah to a story of such tragedy. But there is a brave hope in Job's persistence of belief. The Christ that Handel then dwells on is the Christ of Revelation 4-5—the slaughtered Lamb, the humble sufferer whose victory comes through surrender.
“The great God who became a baby, who became a lamb, who became a sacrifice—this God, who bore our stripes and died our death, this one alone is worthy,” says Yancey. “That is where Handel leaves us, with the chorus "Worthy Is the Lamb," followed by exultant amens.”
Messiah’s expansive view is shown in its refusal to skip over wounds and tears to get to exultations. There is anxiety. There is uncertainty. There is blood. Handel acknowledges that here, in this sin-wrung world, our cries to the Lamb do not always sound like Hallelujahs. Sometimes they sound like weeping, or groaning. Like…ache.
As Handel’s “bright and glistening theology” swirled around me live that first time, my enjoyment of the piece was rimmed with specific aches. Ache for Opa (grandfather), who passed away a few years earlier and used to see Messiah in concert with my Oma, year after year. Ache for a coworker who was, at that very moment, stricken with the pain, exhaustion, and delirium of leukemia. In years prior I heard him loudly singing along to Messiah in his office. That was to be his last Christmas; a month later he would pass away. I ached, too, with awareness of the painful arcs in so many people's lives—persecution, loneliness, war, depression, disaster. The list goes on. As does the ache in our world.
Handel’s Messiah is as honest in its agony as it is in its joy. Its chords anticipate a world restored without diminishing the woundedness of living in the not yet. This is its gift: a true vision of Emmanuel, a Lord who is not just visible to us, his children, but present with us. He rejoices with us and carries our sorrows. May we look closely, sing boldly, and listen well as we seek His face.
Blessing, and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. Amen.
A few Christmases ago, I heard Johnny Cash’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy” for the first time—and heard words in the song I never had before. That gravelly voice brought a certain realistic cadence to the carol, the cadence of a human soul before the Son of God, lying as he is in a container that holds food for cows and donkeys. And it’s also, I realized, the cadence of a musician, an artist, giving what he has. (The video of Cash singing the carol is well worth watching.)
How can I not picture the man we know as Johnny Cash into the persona of the drummer boy? For here is Cash, singing first-person about the little drummer boy who had nothing to give but his drum-playing. When Cash sings the line “I played my best for him,” it’s hard not to compress all the songs he sang in all those jails into such passionate, self-giving words. This is the privilege when craftsmanship and faith infuse—they spur each other on, with whatever material we’ve got—paints, words, muscles, pebbles, flour, sound.
But there is a line in “The Little Drummer Boy” that says more about this faith-craft connection. The drummer boy, in the first verse, is called to bring a gift to the king. The second verse starts with the drummer despairing—
Little Baby, pa rum pump um pum I am a poor boy too, pa rum pump um pum I have no gift to bring . . .
I am a poor boy too. When Cash sings this line, he somehow gets the whole meaning of the word poor—not just without coins or trinkets—but poor as in poor in spirit, in need of help and courage and a way forward.
There’s days when I have a kind of zest for the craft work of fiction writing—figuring out a plot, re-tackling a dialogue exchange for the twenty-third time, researching how beeswax candles were made in the fourteenth century. But other times it frightens me how empty my well is. Exhaustion seeps into the edges of the page, turning my words into inky and confused puddles. Ideas feel brittle and old. Why is the story so frayed, my vision so fuzzy? Will I be able to make what I yearn to? What do I really have to give?
After the drummer boy admits his poverty, he picks up his drum and plays. Any craftsmanship I’ve practiced is certainly a gift I can give—but I wonder if I’m wrong to assume I should give from my strengths. What if I were to create from my poverty? What if it’s okay to make, fashion, create, labor, from a place of having very little? I am poor. I am in need. I don’t have the right words or the right story; my opaque heart makes it hard for me to be honest, even on the secret white page. But all this, the blurred edges and scared inadequacies, is part of the gift.
To create from this place of being “a poor boy too”—what else does it yield?
Maybe a gentleness towards ourselves, working as we can in the edges of the day. Maybe a gentleness towards others making what they can, be it poems or children’s lunches, in tiredness and constraint. Perhaps too, to create from a place of lowliness means creating out of a deeper human awareness towards those who feel they have nothing to give. The little drummer boy, empty of a gift, saw that Jesus was poor too, and this gave him courage to play.
This meekness of Jesus at birth curls into the heart of craftsmanship. We can pick up our worn drums and play the best we can, and play whatever we can, under the stable’s low eaves.
Joy Williams’ recent release, VENUS, received lukewarm reviews. Rolling Stone claimed Williams’ voice couldn’t “hold the space" of her orchestration. NPR, not unkindly, labeled the album “Lilith Fair 90s'."
I can see where they’re coming from. But I’m still into it. It’s music that makes me want to scale a mountain in a glittery sports bra brandishing a fist and shouting “Womanhood!”
Or, you know, fold a giant pile of laundry on a Saturday morning.
I’d rolled about half my mountain of socks when I realized something was off. Spotify was shuffling through all of Joy Williams’ records, and not just VENUS.
That explained the Prozac-fueled ballad (“It’s all good/ask me to explain it and I could/ I’ve got the love of my Lord and I could/it’s all good”) next to the warbled lament (“I’m gonna stand here in the ache / until the levee of my heart breaks”).
On shuffle, Joy Williams’ canon is…unnerving. It’s odd to hear her so giddily sure of herself and then immediately so devastated. It made me think of the Psalms.
Her album covers reflect this tonal shift. Her three early albums all feature a toothy blond in a cute sweater, squinting at the camera through sun-rays. On VENUS? A naked brunette, hunched over and in shadow, face obscured.
Williams herself, of course, is aware of the changes. She left a blossoming career as a Christian artist because of its limiting nature. In 2009, she said, “Everyone sees life through a grid. Part of my grid is faith. When I was in CCM, I was just singing about the grid. I’ve come to a point where I want to sing about what I see through the grid. In CCM, I was always pushed to sing about faith from a “victorious” angle, when I feel like so much of faith is wrestling through questions.”
In Case for the Psalms, N.T. Wright echoes this, saying when we “invent non-Psalmic ‘worship’ based on our own feelings of the moment, we risk being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.”
Clearly, Williams knows her early records would benefit from a more emotional honesty. I’d argue, however, that she might have “filled that space” better in VENUS if she’d balanced those emotions with one less lament.
Balance is hard. Just a glance at Williams’ album covers show they are packaged to sell an image. Shorthand for “Christian artist” seems to be is soft-focus grinning blond who will breathily assure you that “it’s all good.”
This is a frustrating image to every Christian woman I know, but especially to artists. It’s natural to want distance from that. But I also know (from experience) that if my art is only created as a reaction against that “it’s all good” girl, I quickly veers into melodrama and navel-gazing.
Wright reminds us that the Psalms encourage us not only to write out of the “truthful, sincere outpourings of who and what we are” but also to “trust that we will be remade". This Advent, I’ll be reading them through again as a reminder that high highs and low lows—hatred and the contrition and ecstasy and shame—can all exist together, as sacred text no less.
I had a really good idea a few weeks ago. I was going to dance, teach dance, and sell brightly-colored spandex thereby reinventing and mastering the concept of a triple threat. I was already doing the first two, and was spending the few minutes before a job interview meandering around a store of overpriced workout attire so I could accomplish the third. The hiring manager rounded up two other hopefuls and led us to an empty table in front of a Nordstrom’s Cafe.
“Did you know this was going to be a group interview?” one of them asked quietly. “I had no idea,” she said. “But maybe we’ll all get hired together.”
“That would be so cool.” The other girl said. I smiled and nodded wondering just how many positions there were to be filled.
“So this is a super casual interview,” the manager said smiling. “As you guys probably know we are all about helping all types of women. We really want every woman to feel comfortable from the outside in, and we just want to get to know and figure out where you’d fit within the company. So just go ahead and introduce yourself and just tell us why you want to work here.”
That is a question I have always hated. "I like to eat food, and my landlord won't let me pay him in experience and bragging rights," though perfectly true, isn’t exactly the answer potential employers want to hear.
During a mock group interview, in college, the presenter posed a question, “If you could be any type of tree what kind would you be and why?”
"I'd be a Christmas tree,” I said, “because it's a symbol that represents a time of year that makes a lot of people happy regardless of whether celebrate the actual holiday."
The boy next to me answered, “I’d be a carrot tree because I’m unlike other you’ve ever seen.” He was pleased with himself, and the workshop leader thought his answer was memorable and clever. I disagreed. The reason you have never seen a carrot tree is because carrots do not grow on trees, and if they did it would be an entirely different plant. The fact that he didn’t know this mean that he either did not absorb or retain information or didn’t eat vegetables which would result in a host of health problems and neither of those things would be very useful to the company.
That, however, is the type of thing we do in those situations. We try to be remembered and impressive. We paint a picture of ourselves that adheres to what we think people want to see. I’d argue that one of the most detrimental things you can do in an interview is believe them when they say, “We want to see that real you.” In most cases, what they really want is to see if you fit into the strangely snapped box they created before they knew that you ever existed. And we want to fit. No one seems to grow out of the elementary school need to fit in with the kids who have what we don’t, and so, like the line of dancers, in the musical, A Chorus Line, we step-kick-kick and smile on cue all while singing “I really need this job. Please, God, I need this job. I’ve got to get this job!”
“Tell us about a time when you received great customer service at. It can be at any store. It doesn’t have to be here," said the manager.
“Starbucks,” I said, automatically. I told them how the baristas knew my name, would notice when I hadn’t been in for a while, and how they knew that something was wrong when I ordered a white mocha. “I know they aren’t my friends,” I said, “but I would go out of my way to go to that Starbucks because it felt like they knew me.”
The other girls nodded and hummed, and then they proceeded to say that they loved shopping at the very establishment that had gathered us together that afternoon for an interview. As an explanation, they both offered individualized versions of what sounded to me like “Blah blah blah blah blah bloppity bloopity bloop bloop.” The manager applauded the other applicants for their answers and said how their experiences were really what the company was about, “We just want to help each person find that one item of clothing that makes them feel beautiful on the outside so they can start to make changes on the inside.”
I felt so betrayed and annoyed, naming the company you are interviewing for as your favorite store is the equivalent of reminding your teacher that he forgot to give you homework. It is sucking up 101. It is deplorable behavior that warrants being ignored at recess, and for the life of me, I cannot tell you why I didn't do it.
In the introduction of Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings: Fictions and Disturbances, he writes, “I find myself, at the start of each flight, meditating and pondering the wisdom offered by the flight attendants as if it were a koan, or a tiny parable, or the high point of all wisdom.” With a mother as a flight attendant and the Philadelphia International Airport on my list favorite places I grew up hearing the pre-flight instructions, but until that moment they had never been about more than oxygen. Secure your own mask before helping others. “I think about the need to help others,” Gaiman writes, "and how we mask ourselves to do it and how unmasking makes us vulnerable.” He goes on to describe people who “trade fictions for a living.” He was talking about authors, but sitting in the group interview answering questions that aimed to prove that I would be of some value to this national corporation, I’m pretty sure everyone does it.
The manager rolled our applications into a tube and shoved them into the pocket of her jacket. “It was nice to meet you girls.We will call you by Monday if we have a place for you.” Instead of walking back to my car, I rode up the escalator and walked to Starbucks.
“Hey!” the barista said pulling out sharpie and preparing to mark the familiar green and white cup. “What are we doing for you today?”
“Hi,” I said, “Can I have a grande white mocha, please?” he nodded, scanned my phone, and told my drink would be ready soon. When the cup came, I took a swig. On the white lid was the shape of my mouth printed in a wine-colored shade of lipgloss called "Desire." I took another sip and sighed.
So few grains of happiness measured against all the dark and still the scales balance. - from The Weighing by Jane Hirshfield
When my siblings and I were kids, we observed the attributes of mercury on our kitchen table. We must have gotten it from a broken thermometer (and I’m not sure how we escaped its toxicity). We watched the mercury bead up and roll ahead of our fingers, always propelling itself away from our touch. The silver gem held its shape, in spite of being a liquid, due to its high surface tension. It was lovely and fascinating. Now, all these years later, I see it as a metaphor for longing; a soul leaning toward something precious that’s just beyond reach.
Longing resides in future tense and past tense. There is either something we yearn to have or something we used to have and want back, such as love, peace, adventure. We either reach toward something before God gives it, or reach back for something taken away.
Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Fado” speaks of yearning. The poem is titled after a type of Portuguese music of longing made popular by sailors who missed loved ones while away at sea. In the poem, Hirshfield paints a portrait of a woman in a wheelchair singing a fado in a “half-stopped moment” when dawn is just beginning to light the skies. Those in the club with her are silent as she sings her song. The wheelchair imagery suggests brokenness at the heart of the poem. It ends this way:
and a woman in a wheelchair is singing a fado that puts every life in the room on one pan of a scale, itself on the other, and the copper bowls balance.
What is this balance? Maybe it’s balance between brokenness and song, or between the audience’s empathy and the singer’s longing. We might say that the beauty of fado, and what balances the scales in the poem, is how the woman inhabits both wanting to be made whole and accepting brokenness.
Longing has its own vocabulary. It’s not resignation (it’s not what I want but, whatever), or exasperation (I’m so tired of this mess I just don’t care anymore). And it isn’t really just acceptance (it is what it is). Longing speaks the language of prayer, thy will be done. Its language resides in the tension between not wanting God’s will and holding it close. Jesus’ prayer in the garden, take this cup, balances on a word; nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done. No matter how much we want out of one circumstance or into another, don’t we really long for God to have his way? The word fado translates as “fate” which is apt if we think of fate in the sense of a heavenly father who balances in his heart the precious things we long for.
It’s the sacred harp—the voice. It’s also the eponymous title of a choral music book, first published in 1844. What’s odd about this book is that the music within it, from traditional hymns, appears in shape notes: Fa, a triangle; Sol, an oval; La, rectangle; and Mi, diamond. The book reflects a style of choral hymn singing, associated with the American South. Except now, it’s making a comeback, not only in the South, but in New England, the Midwest, and the West, as well as in Europe and Australia.
In July, two friends and I had gone to visit the Pineywoods Herb Farm in Kennard, in East Texas. Driving into Kennard, one friend called attention to a wayside sign in front of a plain, clapboard building with a wide garage: “Sacred Harp Singing, Tuesday. Covered dish supper 6 – 7 pm. Singing 7 – 8 pm.” A second sign attached to the building itself read “Kennard Auto Service.” My two friends had heard of such singing before, but didn’t really know what it was. For me, it was a complete mystery. And why was it at the Kennard Auto Service building?
As I soon discovered, monthly Sacred Harp singings take place regularly in East Texas, where the tradition has thrived for many years, although now the singings occur in all the major Texas cities, including Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. The East Texas Sacred Harp Convention (founded in 1855) is one of two of the oldest organizations in the country; the other is the Chattahoochee Musical Convention (Georgia, 1852). The singings in Kennard occur monthly in the old Kennard Auto Service building, which Jerry and Margaret Wright, bought and renovated inside as a singing venue. They decided to keep building’s original name, because people in the area know the structure by that name.
What has made Sacred Harp singings so enduring and pleasurable? Well, for one thing, the singer doesn’t need to be near-perfect or near-professional. Pitch isn’t absolute; it’s moveable to accommodate the voice of the song leader. The shape notes also help the average singer, who may not be familiar with a tune, to sight read. These singings are democratic; they’re participatory, reflective of the structure of many American Christian sects. Each part—treble, alto, tenor, and bass—is “singable” and “tuneful” by itself. The tune is often carried by the tenors, deemphasizing the melody that in traditional hymnody is carried by the highest notes (the trebles). The detail that has fired my imagination is the arrangement of the singers. Because the singings aren’t for an audience, but for the singers themselves, the four sections are seated in the hollow-square arrangement:
In this arrangement, singers often experience the power of their singing intensely. The singers take turns leading the hymns, and inside the square’s hollow is the greatest experience, participants say. All the voices, usually in harmonies of fourths and fifths, sing toward the song leader, lifting up their voices to God. The power of their singing becomes a felt experience of joyful noise. I have been listening to clips of Sacred Harp singing at texasfasola.org, fasola.org, and YouTube, and I feel drawn to it. You see, I am a failed choir member who loves to sing (I’ll tell that story another time). I believe Sacred Harp singing might just be where I fit in and I have hopes of attending a singing this fall. Stay tuned.
“U2 is what church should be”; so read a line in Time Magazine when I was 13, a line that confirmed my fledgling belief in U2. I certainly felt elated and worshipful listening to The Joshua Tree, though I wasn’t entirely sure it was right to feel that way. This was just after The Joshua Tree had broken U2 worldwide enough to reach rural Minnesota, and just as the album and film Rattle and Hum, according to most critics, showed they had feet of clay.
Personally, I loved the black and white concert footage of Rattle and Hum. I loved the impassioned diatribe in “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” so much I used it to pump myself up before junior varsity basketball games.
I first got to see U2 live during the Zoo TV tour, a very different animal. Bono licked the camera; Bono pulled the camera up to his leather-clad crotch; Bono came out dressed up as Mephistopheles. It wasn’t very churchy. Critics loved it. I was 16 and in the tenth row and unsure about these rock and roll antics.
I missed the Pop Mart tour, noted for its spectacle, and the props I saw on later tours—a laser-laced jacket, a swinging microphone, a stage like a spaceship—were perhaps not as grand or silly as the giant lemon.
This time around the U2 tour is called Innocence to Experience and, via home movie and songs new and old, concert-goers are invited on a trip down U2’s own memory lane while live tweets and fan-cams attempt to keep us in the present.
I was also struck by the emotions that I went through at this U2 concert. There was still the old elation, this time consciously tied up with surrender: at one point Bono went to his knees and said that very word (“Surrender to what?” I can hear my catechism teacher say). It sounds contrived, but to be fair, as Joshua Rothman points out, surrender is where U2 lyrics have been pointing all along.
And there was conviction, as usual. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is still like an open wound that brings me into the present moment and forces me to give a shit. Then, too, I’m not sure what American can listen to “Bullet the Blue Sky” and not consider it a call to repentance.
Perhaps more than in the past, though, this concert invited introspection, because if anything “Innocence to Experience” is memoir. Some have called that self-important, but it’s also just plain risky. You don’t go to a rock concert to introspect. It’s also rare. Rock concert memoir is simply not very common, the half-life on rockers being less than the average pair of jeans.
As good memoir does, I to E also provided leaping off points to consider where our own stories might intersect with the one being told on stage. For me, that moment was when confetti in the form of book quotes fell from the ceiling. I found myself gathering them madly, like veritable manna from heaven, to see what works they might be from: Alice in Wonderland, The Divine Comedy, the Psalms.
Over the years, U2 concerts have put me in the moment, moved me to care, frightened me with tongues and crotches, confused me with Mephistopheles, asked me to surrender, connected me to Alice in Wonderland. Is U2 what church should be? I don’t think so. U2 concerts are their own space, the artistic space of a rock and roll concert.
Contemporary music is often painted in broad strokes. Countless references to lazy lyrics, automated melodies, auto-tuned vocals, and inane content have plenty of merit, sure, but there are many, many musicians that are writing compelling, intricate music. Pale Horses, the newest album from mewithoutYou, an indie band from the Philadelphia area, is a testament to that fact.
I understand that mewithoutYou is not everyone’s cup of tea. For me, though, their combination of heavy guitars, intricate drumming, delicate riffs, and lead vocalist Aaron Weiss’ style of blending singing, shouting, chanting, and muttering into his songs has made them one of my favorite bands since I was in high school. Pale Horses is creating plenty of buzz in the indie music scene for getting back to the spoken-word style of music that dominated their first albums—a style that generally combines shouting and chanting more than the folk-driven singing that characterized their more recent albums—but I think the content of Pale Horses is even more significant than their unusual style.
Weiss comes from a religious background that is unorthodox, to say the least. He and his brother, Michael, are from Jewish backgrounds. Their father, a Jewish man, and their mother, an Episcopalian, converted to become Sufi Muslim. All three religions are explored in mewithoutYou’s work, and symbolism from all three are used in the band’s vivid lyrics. Pale Horses, as its title implies, explores the concept of the apocalypse and the end of the world, along with other themes like guilt, hope, doubt, and the fear of being abandoned by God.
Whether Aaron is wrestling with his fear of being abandoned by God in “Birnam Wood”:
Would you take a bound-up Isaac’s place Are you a God, and shall your grace Grow weary of Your saints?... Come untie your sons Before the little angel comes
Or struggling with religion:
Then last night I was somewhere near Virginia Rebuking satan with ironic faithfulness” And satan turned to me: ‘Have you thought much about that cry?’... Eloi, Eloi Lama sabachthani
Or pondering the end of the world and time itself:
At the opening of the fourth seal The sky, I’d been told Would roll up like a scroll As the mountains and islands moved from their place And the sun would turn black As a dead raven’s back But there’d be nowhere to hide From the Judge’s face
His vocals and lyrics and compelling music combine to make a vulnerable, emotional album that forces listeners to question their own beliefs, experiences, and feelings.
Pale Horses is not an easy album. Its driving melodies, shouted vocals, and ever-changing tempos are not the preferred background for most people's’ dinner parties or morning cups of coffee. Aaron’s tendencies to mix terms and narratives from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is understandably startling for many listeners. The raw fear, anger, and hope evident in the music may elicit uncomfortable emotions if you’re paying attention. But it’s a beautiful album, and a frightening album, and a thoughtful album, and it’s definitely an album that defies attempts to paint it with the same broad strokes used for music these days.
I’ve recently fallen headlong in love with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I was swept up by the video of Proms musicians playing its complexities. Beyond the power of its rhythms and sounds, I was captivated by the orchestra's energy, and its intense and graceful movements. The piece is dynamic in passion and work. So dynamic, it has me considering the correlation between work and joy. Will we work in heaven?
We often consider work on Earth to be a result of the Fall. Roberto S. Goizueta speaks of the benefits of aesthetics and how they enhance life, but he leaves work off his list of activities that are integral to fulfillment. “Play, recreation, and celebration are the most authentic forms of life precisely because, when we are playing, recreating, or celebrating, we are immersed in, or ‘fused,’ with the action itself, and those other persons with whom we are participating. Thus, we are involved in and enjoying the living itself.” It’s as if he’s saying, while we all know work is important, we only find joy in these other aspects.
In the language of Genesis, God established the pattern of work and rest before the Fall. He “finished the work he had been doing,” and “he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” As Philo of Alexandria put it, "God never ceases to work; but as it is the property of fire to burn, and of snow to cool, so of God to work.'' And Jesus said, "My Father is working until now, and I am working." Adam and Eve worked in the garden and cared for it before the Fall. Wouldn’t these points make work, in a sense, a grace of God, and a gift?
The poet Wendell Berry challenges a claim that “more free time” might increase our happiness. “The old and honorable idea of ‘vocation’ is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.”
If work and happiness are interrelated as Berry suggests, wouldn’t they be integral parts of a perfect heaven? The fact that God himself “worked” might be the greatest reason we can anticipate joyful work in heaven. But the Proms Rite of Spring is a close second.
"Thus, writing narrative—and reading it—is an act of faith that places us in time and space, locating us in a chronology that suggests by its very order both the cause and meaning of our lives." —Leslie Leyland Fields in Christianity Today.
Lubomyr Melnyk has spent his life pioneering a new kind of music for piano: continuous music. "The basic concept," he says, "is that it's a continuous stream of sound, unbroken. There are no phrases of slow notes, rapid notes, and pauses, the way other music is built.”
Listening to continuous music takes some getting used to. (This is especially so when you hear the music live. The sounds move through a room and bounce off walls differently than they do in a recording.) It requires a kind of attention that I, at least, had to cultivate, not unlike meditation. Melnyk himself has spent decades cultivating these skills: he’s trained his hands to play almost twenty notes per hand per second, and some of his pieces last forty-five unbroken minutes or longer. The effect is fundamentally different than classical and other conventional forms of music. It’s music to get lost in—you must get lost in it in order to follow it.
Continuous music is not built around the traditional structure of melody; rather, it is a sonic space Melnyk creates in which the sound of the piano itself flourishes. Notes build upon and interact with one another in a way that is fluid and almost out of control, almost like chaos. Once you get used to this, classical piano compositions start to feel stiff and incomplete in contrast. Melnyk compares himself this way: "Classical pianists, they live in the music they're playing. They live in the sonata; they live in the piano concerto. They don't live in their fingers."
Continuous music fascinates me in part because it seems like an antidote to an over-emphasis on story. I’m suspicious of story, of the popular push to understand our lives as part of a larger narrative. God’s narrative. In part, story is an alternative to the conception of Truth as propositional—laws, dogma, rational systems, assertions to be proved or disproved. When Christians understand their faith as participation in a divine story, Truth can operate in many different ways—experienced, incarnated in individual lives, unspeakably complex.
But I suspect that the idea of life in a narrative structure—even if it’s a structured unknowing—is shaping my expectations in a way that stops me from being entirely present. I wonder if, when I imagine my confusions, pains, encounters, and observations as material to one day be grasped and threaded together into a coherent arc—I wonder if I’m stopping short of a threshold where life is more unwieldy, but also deeper and more luminous.
When he plays, Melnyk keeps his foot on the sustain pedal, lifting the dampers away from the strings, allowing them to vibrate freely and the notes to decay naturally. With the dampers lifted, surrounding piano strings can also vibrate in sympathy with strings whose vibrations are mathematically related to their own, meaning that many strings vibrate without being struck. New patterns emerge from their interactions. At times, it’s difficult to tell if their swells are real or imagined.
When I live in anticipation of divine narrative in my own life, I suspect I’m living in the sonata, in the concerto.
I want to know what it’s like to live in my fingers.
Instead of a melody, a progression of notes, the notes in Melnyk's music are a shimmering mass, accumulating and undulating through the space around him. When you are in a room with Melnyk playing piano, you are in a room where sounds and harmonic relationships are bouncing through the space and compounding one another, creating swells and ripples in the air. There is Melnyk, alive in his fingers, and there is the music, continually escaping structure, continually expanding.
What else is there to do but listen?
Paintings above by Alex Kanevsky
On May 1, we settled into our chairs at The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, waiting for Mandolin Orange to take the stage. Mandolin Orange, a folk duo comprised of Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, is well known for their introspective, often sad, songs and precise harmonies. We, like our fellow concert-goers, were sipping beers and chattering lightheartedly, expecting our fair share of sad songs—the duo has plenty of those—but not anticipating the grief of their newest song, “Blue Ruin.”
Frantz introduced the song, saying, “We’re going to take you to a dark place… but I promise we’ll bring you back again.” She told us that Andrew wrote the song after the tragedy of the Newtown shooting in 2012, and that they were unsure that they’d ever play the song live. The crowd immediately went silent, and the whole atmosphere of the room changed. I’ve never heard such silence in a concert hall—the couple’s music went uninterrupted even by a sneeze.
“If Jesus had been born just eleven days before, would the world have stopped to see—at least those on the street headed for Newtown?” sang Marlin. “And of all those on their way, could the miracle have made one lay his guns down?” The song covered heady ground in just a few minutes—anger, sadness, and society’s role in the tragedy, among other things—and included the heartbreaking question, “Well for now, who’d like to tell me that, on that morning when 27 fell, how any lesson and count could ever, ever amount to watching them fall? And why, worst of all, come Christmas morning, they’ll still be gone?”
A stunned silence followed the song until, sure enough, the pair led us into a happier place with their next song. But the gravity of “Blue Ruin” stuck with me, and I think it’s an especially important song now. On Mandolin Orange’s website, Marlin explains the purpose of the song:
I was thinking about all those kids who wouldn’t be there on Christmas morning. People can get so heated and so serious about change and addressing gun violence when something that traumatic happens, but a month or two afterwards, they've all cooled down and it's not in the forefront of their thoughts anymore. But two years later, those kids still aren't around on Christmas morning and their parents are still dealing with that.
It’s an important reminder, especially now that there are so many other tragedies in the public eye. Police brutality, shootings, murders, bombings, civil wars, and other tragedies of every scope imaginable dominate the headlines and 24-hour news channels. It’s easy to get caught up in placing blame, passing legislature, and hotly debating nearly every aspect of each calamity. I catch myself doing it, too. It’s hard to remember that the events we’re discussing affected real people—that they still affect real people—and that responding to those events with animosity instead of compassion won’t fix the issues.
By all means, please discuss the tragedies happening all over the world. Think of ways to help. Think of ways to prevent those tragedies ever from happening again. Keep them in mind as you prepare for the change in leadership here in the States that is coming next year. But do it earnestly, do it compassionately, do it with the human victims of each and every disaster at the forefront of your mind. Discussion and legislature and opinions are important, but it’s easy for us to forget that those victims are real people who are still dealing with the aftermath of each tragedy in a very personal way. Don’t forget.
The days that I write start like this: I drop my girls off at school, and as I drive away I turn on the song, “Time” by the Abstract Giants. I know a few of the guys in band. I grew up with them. I know Andy Lempera, the drummer, from junior high band where our director promised that if we worked hard, Andy could free style while we cleaned up our clarinets and oboes, trumpets and trombones during the last five minutes of the period. I never had so much fun cleaning the spit out of my flute than when Andy played.
Matt Conway and Cary Kano are some of my brother’s childhood buddies. I think I’ve known them since before their voices changed. And Andres Roldan, one of the vocalists in the band is the sibling of my best friend from junior high and high school. There were very few days when I was over and Andres and most of these guys weren’t: playing basketball in the alley, or video games in the basement, or running after the ice-cream truck—Celena and I running with them.
I play the song because I’ve watched the years of revision these guys put into getting their songs together. I’ve listened to them riff in smoky bars in Chicago (when smoking in bars was legal), when the words were there, but the melody wasn’t. When the beat was catchy, but the words needed to be figured out. When everything fit together and the crowd let them know their music was perfect. Watching and listening to them was a lesson in writing: the more I practice laying down words, the more triumphant the story becomes, the more I believe in it. So I play their song for courage: if these guys can do it, so can I.
I crank the song because I love loud music and also because I love the looks I get when people hear the bass booming down the street. They expect someone else, and what they see is an almost 40-year-old woman driving a Mazda 5 with two car seats in the backseat. “Surprise!” or “Gotcha!” is what I want to yell out the window, and this is the sentiment I carry to my writing: What will I surprise myself with when I write today? What will I be brave enough to tell? What will I find out? I love the moments when my story grabs me by the ears and pulls me towards its words and yells, “Gotcha!”
While I’m writing, I listen to music that’ll keep me in my seat: Miles Davis, Sujfan Stevens, David Gray. I can’t call these guys my friends, but their music speaks to things I try to figure out in my writing. They’ve created a setting for me to sit with the things that make me wonder and what makes me uncomfortable, and I aspire to do the same thing with my stories.
That is, until a group of boys come walking down my street. Truth be told, they strut. There are usually five or six of them, and if it’s warm, they’re wearing undershirts with flannels or sweatshirts slung over their shoulders. In the cooler weather they’re wearing sweatshirts and knitted caps. Never jackets, though it hasn’t been terribly cold in DC yet. Their pants are always low. I can usually see their underwear. I’m old enough now to see the baby in everyone 21-years-old and younger, so I can’t tell if they are school age or not. They hold no book bags if they are going to school. They hold nothing. They saunter down the sidewalk, taking up all of it, the grass, and enough of the street that cars would need to slow and swerve around them.
They are always rapping. Usually it’s one of the boys in the group, and the rest are silent while the one articulates precisely each word, as though it’s liturgy. I always stop writing and listen. I wince when they drop “f” bombs. I get afraid when the tone suggests violence. If these boys were walking down the street when I was in my car, I’d probably wait in it, pretending to check my phone, until they passed. But from my desk on our second floor, I listen intently with my head bowed and my hands folded.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if one can pray without knowing that is what one is doing. Is God at work when we hear a song that makes us bop our heads and swivel our hips before we know we are doing it? Is He there when a song names something we don't understand? Is God the spark that ignites an urge for us to create something beautiful in a world that baffles us?
And what about the times when we are so angry, or so scared that all we can do is walk down the street shouting words we’ve clutched onto because there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do? Are we heard when we are calling and reaching towards a God we don’t know?