Year In Review

2015 was without a doubt the busiest year of my life.

A year of singular events and signal turning points. While I got to see my favorite band on their farewell tour (Rush), they didn’t play my favorite song (Limelight). No matter, it, and they, will always be my favorite. They did, however, play my second-favorite song (Subdivisions) on the 21st of July in Portland. And speaking of “turning points”, I had to get my car’s power steering motor replaced before going up to see them—totally worth it, and essential I might add.

I also got to see my second-favorite band (Collective Soul in May) on the unofficial first stop of their new tour. Ed Roland announced partway through the concert that the red tape tying up the release of See What You Started By Continuing had been cut the day before and that the Lincoln City audience (of which I was a member) was first privy to what the rest of the world would soon hear. They released the album in October, only one of whose songs I’ve genuinely warmed to (Without Me), okay two (Exposed).

It was a year of music for sure. I got to see, not just my favorite bass player, but also the world’s preeminent: Victor Wooten. Got to meet him, too. He’s an extraordinarily humble and kind individual.

My brother came out to the West Coast, not once but twice. During the latter visit, he treated me to an evening at the Britt festival in Jacksonville; we watched The Punch Brothers. While they didn’t play my favorite song (a stellar cover of Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines In a Crush’d Tin Box), they did play his (Another New World).

Two other musical honorable mentions would be Enya’s new album (Dark Sky Island) which features the exceptional “Echoes In Rain” and Seal’s 7 which has another single I appreciate (Daylight Saving). It’s always cool to see an artist whose catalog you happen upon while they’re in their heyday, so to speak. As time goes on, you continue to warm to them and appreciate them and catch up to them (as I did in the case of both Seal and Enya in the mid-2000s) integrating them into your internal playlist. And then when they release new material that’s in keeping with the quality of their early stuff, the stuff they put out when they were hungry, you feel a circle has been completed. Music is one of the most subjective things in this world. Consider that the root of the word, when you rewind back to Indo-European, means “to think”. It’s a broad correlation from one reference title but our musical tastes are as varied and unique as are we.

William Gibson became my new favorite author in February. My other brother Jesse had read Neuromancer for his “Introduction to Cybernetics and Cyberculture” class. He loaned it to me after finishing it and while he didn’t really dig it, I did. I continued on with All Tomorrow’s Parties. Having seen that Gibson was prolific and that his dense, yet highly descriptive style reminded me of someone else (me, though I suppose this was somewhat subconscious), I elected to sink my teeth into his body of work. While All Tomorrow’s Parties thrilled, I learned it was the third in a trilogy. No wonder so much of it didn’t make sense. I shrugged my shoulders and soldiered on.

A number of years ago, I had seen his book Zero History at The Dollar Tree and thought (having seen and heard of but never read him): “Odd that an author of his caliber would have been relegated to a buck on the bottom shelf.” I remembered this and so went for a copy. I picked it up (it was still there, after all these years) and cracked it open. I found that Zero History was likewise third in a trilogy—The Blue Ant trilogy, so-named for the design firm that features throughout the three books—and I began to see a pattern. My next Gibson outing, then, would be the first in said trilogy: Pattern Recognition. So enjoyable was Pattern Recognition that I ordered hardbacks of it and its sequel, Spook Country, to complement that hardback of Zero History I’d picked up for a buck. I also read that one again, just to round out the storyline. It all made sense now. While I was reading this trilogy, I had this epiphany. I slowly realized that this trilogy, this story arc had been waiting out there in the media ether—to coin a phrase—for nearly ten years and that I was just now coming into its knowing. I took it upon myself to buy up all the copies at Dollar Tree and distribute them to passersby, unsuspecting and non (over a dozen). Needless to say, Gibson is not represented there anymore. I continued with Virtual Light and then Idoru before reading All Tomorrow’s Parties again. He published his most recent standalone novel last October and by the time I was done with his excellent essay collection Distrust That Particular Flavor (and after a little respite from his universe), I was ready to read The Peripheral. Though the paperback edition I happened upon at the book exchange in Ashland (same city in which I saw Victor Wooten) was from the UK. It was still a week before America would get to read it in that format. Good stuff!

I also read the Zanders’ Art of Possibility, a Self-Help-by-way-of-the-Business-section title on remaining open to that abstract. While possibility is all around us, if I had to posit my two cents, I would have to say that we as adults (assuming you’re past a certain age) subconsciously seek to remain in control to the neglect of what is possible. The Zanders (husband and wife) open their slim, bright yellow volume with the fiat: “A book of practices.” Twelve chapters exceptionally detail a way of thinking—illustrated with the authors’ own anecdotes and narratives, of course—that ensures the reader hold a better objective standard in their own life with reference to events and relationships. Chapter three (titled, “Giving an A”) is worth the price of admission. He (Ben) is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and she (Roz—Rosamund) is a therapist and each brings their discipline (music, counseling) to bear on the subjects addressed. Check it out (or buy it, whatever) if you feel so inclined. I probably wouldn’t have read it had it not been in the Business section, just so you know.

I lost my father this year. If all that came before were the high points, this was certainly the low. There are still people who ask how he is when they see me, not knowing he’s not with us anymore. The two offerings I give when answering that question and upon the querier’s (one who queries) hearing of his passing are: “He’s not suffering anymore.” and “He’s in a better place.”  These two statements hold true to this day, five months after the event. My time in Portland seeing Rush was a welcome relief to the busyness and stress of what happened. This was the first time my brother flew out to see me; we miss our dad.

I started college. About four years ago, I met my best friend and he and I shared coffee and conversation every week without fail (unless he was out of town) for three years. He and his wife moved away last year. While our mutual brainstorming sessions yielded the first stirrings of an unformed idea resembling a “creative center”, the horizon would look a lot different. I came to realize that without some formal education, something like that would never get off the ground. In light of this realization, I felt like the best approach to still doing what Dylan and I had discussed was to become a teacher and see where that takes me. Everything’s goes well on that front.

I drink black coffee now; this happened around Spring. My morning usual had been for years a 12 ounce americano with an artificial (pink) sweetener and about an inch of half-and-half. I had long wanted to cut out artificial sweetener from my diet and so I took that plunge, switching to one raw sugar per cup. This tasted about right, not quite that saccharine high I’d been accustomed to since God-knows-when, but more even, mellower even.

But then I had another morning-cup epiphany: why not cut out the sweet altogether? I mean (reasoning to myself), isn’t coffee meant to be enjoyed on its own? It may well have been the fact that I was probably just ready for a change, yeah. So now I got half-and-half, only, in my joe. This winnowing would continue with the elimination of cream to just black. Coffee is the bitter element in the drink and the milk fat balances that bitterness (I came upon this in a book, it makes perfect sense). Then the sweet only serves to complement that balance. This isn’t to say—barring the other two elements in my morning coffee—that I am content with bitterness, no. I appreciate the subtle distinctions to be found in each cup of black coffee (I also stopped drinking americanos, I’ll get one now for every ten cups of black, drip coffee) and I seek to savor each first sip. It is a ritual that I enjoy every morning. Thank you very much.

There remain about two-and-a-half weeks before the year ends. As awesome and momentous a year as this has been, it’s not over yet. We’ll see how it turns out! If I had one piece of advice for the closing of one season and in light of the next, it’s this: be grateful. Appreciate what you have and remain bright in the face of what comes.

Happy Holidays!

Emphasis Mine: Collective Soul/Rush

I recently came upon a quote by an anonynous individual. Brilliant stuff: “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. Songs make you feel a thought.”

I don’t think I’m the only one who has integrated snippets of popular music into their life and worldview and philosophy. If you’ve read any of my posts (especially this one), you know that I think very highly of musicians and songwriters from every walk of life and their God-given gifts and abilities.
One thing I’ve sought to explain and thereby substantiate for my life (especially my adult life) is the thought or script that accompanies feelings. I’m very skeptical when it comes to good feelings that have no corresponding thoughts–evincing themselves upon attempted detection. I’d rather feel nothing than feel good for no discernible reason (a bold statement, but when it boils down and when it’s presented like that, I stick to that assertion). I’m digressing but I think this is a valid point that deserves elucidation in the future…

I write all that to say this: two bands that have helped me do just that–translate feelings into thoughts–are Collective Soul and Rush. If you’re not familiar with them, then please read on as I attempt to explain two ideologically different bands that unite, like heart and mind, into an amalgamated prescription that makes up much of the soundtrack to my life.

I suppose I should start at the beginning. Collective Soul is from Georgia. A small suburb of Atlanta called Stockbridge. The lead singer Ed Roland and his brother Dean-the band’s rhythm guitarist-are accompanied by bassist Will Turpin. These three form the backbone of the band and have been part of it since the band’s inception. Current lead guitarist Joel Kosche replaced original guitarist Ross Childress for their 2005 album Youth and is still with them. While they don’t have a current drummer, Sevendust’s Cheney Brannon did fill in for their 2009 self-titled album (It’s their ninth and most recent album and their second self-titled album), unofficially called Rabbit. He effectively replaced Shane Evans for 2007s Afterwords who had been with them since the beginning. I’ll get into their message–or at least my interpretation of it–later. First I’d like to introduce Rush.

Rush is the darling of Toronto’s progressive rock scene. Though they outlived that simple definition decades ago. In spite of their fervent worldwide fan base and outrageous multi-platinum record sales, they have yet to be nominated (not even a nomination) for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Except for their first (self-titled) album, the three members have been together since the late seventies. They have a new album coming out in 2012 entitled Clockwork Angels. Rush is made up of lead singer and bassist (and sometime keyboardist, much to some fans’ chagrin) Geddy Lee. Lead (and rhythm) guitarist Alex Lifeson. And last, but certainly not least, lyricist and percussionist Neil Peart.

I won’t get into specifics with reference to the band members’ beliefs and ideologies (or lack thereof) because I can (almost) guarantee you that none of them believe the way I do. And I’m perfectly cool with that. And I suppose if I present the proceeding paragraphs as my interpretive license only, they’d be cool with that too.

I’ll open by saying that–for me–Collective Soul is the heart to Rush’s brain. That’s why they’re first.

Collective Soul released their first album, called Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid, in 1994. Their first single was Shine, and that’s the first song I ever heard by them that turned my head, though it took about ten years before I discovered it. A strong Christian undertone permeates the whole record and I find comfort and strength in singing along. Shine is a winner. Reach shines on its own and Sister Don’t Cry is an excellent song and one of the few that I’m aware of (from any band) that touches on the subject of men and women, boys and girls, as friends only. It’s a song of encouragement without any romantic overtone whatsoever. We need more of this (1 Timothy 5:2). Please note that Ed is the main lyricist. He writes songs that can be interpreted in many ways (all positive) without losing their strength because of a diluted ambiguity. Their second album, released a year later was self-titled. Standouts from that include December, which won a Grammy. It deals with the end of a relationship and freeing oneself from the tentacled grip of one’s ex and their manipulation. The World I Know is a wonderful and poignant meditation on the inherent tragedy of life when viewed from a higher vantage point. And the [untitled] track (#2 on the album) stresses–to my mind–the importance of receiving one’s spiritual guidance from God alone. Moving forward, another song of note is Forgiveness (about coming around to its necessity for life) off their 1997 album Disciplined Breakdown. That album’s title track and the incisive Blame-about his falling out with his former producer-are also exceptional. The whole album is a confrontation leveled at the band’s producer for cheating Ed. I’m not sure about the specifics. The 1999 album Dosage contains No More, No Less (my favorite song and favorite album), about living on the fine line between humility and proud self-effacement. 2000s Blender is superb and highly polished. The song Happiness simply rocks. You Speak My Language is one of only two (out of a hundred, plus) that they’ve covered and they do it well-better than the original. Rounding out their discography is Youth, Afterwords and then Rabbit.

Currently, each of the four members (Ed, Dean, Will and Joel) are working independent of one another on side-projects but assure the fans that they have not split up and will be recording together as Collective Soul in the future. I look forward to that day.

Collective Soul imbues their excellent musicianship and composition with two themes that resonate with me very highly: truth in relationships and honesty in interaction. I find that Mr. Roland illumines the hidden chambers of the heart better than any other secular songwriter on my radar today. His song Burn from the live DVD ‘Home’ says it best: “got the combination to my soul”. I love that. Under God, he has helped me to obtain that very thing.

Besides my being a fan, one very odd link between the two bands is the Russian philosopher Ayn Rand. “The collective soul” comes from her novel Fountainhead. Whereas Ed chose that name but espouses none of her opinions, each member of Rush had independently read and been inspired by her works prior to forming as a band. Their early music is full of her ideas and ideals. And their record label is called Anthem (as is one of their songs) after another of her books. The name ‘Rush’ was an off-the-cuff comment from an acquaintance. It ended up sticking.

Collective Soul has a penchant for one word song titles: Blame, Link (from the album Disciplined Breakdown—awesome), Bleed, Run, Gel, Giving (and Give), Generate, All, et. al. Rush, on the other hand, deals with songs with a more broad-handed approach, few being less than five minutes long. Their song titles are more representative of the themes dealt with in the lyrics. Examples include: Vital Signs, Anagram, Natural Science, Spirit of Radio, The Body Electric, etc.

Look around on any online music forum talking Collective Soul and you’re sure to hear this common complaint, the first part of which is true: “The reason you don’t hear any Collective Soul on the radio (you actually don’t, not where I live anyway) is because FM is anti-Christian!”. Hmm. Any Rush forum says (almost) the same thing: “The reason you don’t hear any Rush on the radio (hardly any) is because FM is too Christian!” Funny. They can’t both be right. In further comparing and contrasting the two bands, Ed Roland has a burly, at times gravelly, yet still musical voice. Geddy Lee’s voice (he’s referred to it before as his “yowl”) is the main reason that people are turned off by them as a band. It’s definitely an acquired taste. If you can’t abide his high-pitched pipes, try their stellar instrumentals: La Villa Strangiato and YYZ (the call-letters for the Toronto airport).

I will open by saying that Rush is definitely not Christian. They espouse a brand of secular humanism (evident in Ayn Rand’s philosophy as objectivism, more on that in some future post) that, were you to add God and subtract the godlessness (as I am wont to do), is an airtight prescription for helping with self-assertion in the big, bad world. I have no trouble sifting through much of their unpalatable ideology for the kernels of truth that pop up amidst the awesome instrumentals and drum fills. This appeals to me as a man because many of their songs are aimed at, or have protagonists who are, teen boys/young men trying to find their place in the world: Subdivisions, The Analog Kid, Tom Sawyer, Red Barchetta and The Pass speak directly to that demographic. The music videos for Subdivisions, Lock and Key, Show Don’t Tell and The Pass drive this point home. Even the album covers for Roll the Bones and Power Windows feature guys on the cusp of adulthood or young-adulthood. And this is its appeal for me as a man. Nevermind the fact that each musician is world-class. I’m still trying to figure out how three guys can make all that noise.

I won’t get into the individual albums as Rush has more than twice as many as Collective Soul. My favorite Rush album is Hold Your Fire from 1987. The album is a strong shot of encouragement for the creatively-minded individual and well worth a listen for artists and writers. Most every Rush fan’s favorite album is Moving Pictures from 1981. Hailed by many in the industry as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. I mentioned it briefly in passing here. Fair enough. My favorite Rush song is Limelight from the same. The chorus from which contains an important maxim for life: “Those who wish to be must put aside the alienation, get on with the fascination, the real relation, the underlying theme.” It draws the distinction between seeming and being.

As Christians, we need to make sure, with God’s help and guidance, that we do more than just seem like we’re Christian. We need to be. Music, when seen through the lens of God’s love and His word, and directed toward God in worship and praise can make us be. And substantiating our thoughts on the ground of Jesus, His word and His work is so much fun with this music in the background.

Thank you for reading!

Unity part 3 The Case For Conversation

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you in meekness and fear:” (1 Peter 3:15)

Dialogue is vital. No Christian need ever think that a non-believer would not want to hear about our faith, our Savior, our God. A common misconception. This is why we need to be ready to answer everyone—including our brother and sister in Jesus—about “the hope that is you”.

A perfect example: a past issue of Esquire magazine profiles a man who saved the lives of everyone in a Joplin, Missouri gas station as the tornado touched down a stone’s-throw away. The article also interviews a Pentecostal woman (though it doesn’t label her as such, should I?) who cried out “Jesus!” as loud as she could over and over and over as the tornado ravaged everything around her. The writer of the article reports the facts and leaves the reader to decide. Or not. What drew me to the issue wasn’t anything on the cover but the cascading sequence of “Jesus” in ever increasing font-size, complete with exclamation points.

Another interesting thing about this article is how it delineates the doctrines of Pentecostalism from an observer’s objective viewpoint. It speaks of this woman’s beliefs as simply that: what she believes. And it’s accepted and respected. Ironically, these very things (the distinct indwelling of the Holy Spirit as something separate from salvation, speaking in tongues, etc.) are viewed with skepticism at best and shunned and silenced at worst in other, more conservative denominations within Christianity.

If the world can talk about it, why can’t we? And not just denominational distinctions. Listen as our brother and sister share what God has done in their life, and be “slow to speak” (James 1:19). God is doing something in all of our lives. I believe that all things (including conversation) should be done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40), i.e. appropriately.

What God is presently doing in our church (and churches) is going to spill out into the world as it did in Joplin. I have a sneaking suspicion that the author of the article knows a miracle happened that day. And thank God that this woman was willing to share her faith and beliefs without shame. How will we know to answer questions about other denominations, about our faith in general, unless we’re willing to share what we believe? And how. And why.

“Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.” (Colossians 4:6)

National Resurrection

“Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” (Proverbs 14:34)

Whether you believe in God or not, the fact that you have the freedom to believe or the freedom to doubt is integral to the fabric of this nation. Ten years ago that fabric hung, tattered and knotted as we struggled in disbelief at the attacks on the East Coast. I watched from my TV, having just come back home from delivering a missed customer on my paper route. It took a long time to process what I saw and still some of the details are hazy. Like the New York skyline for weeks following.

Did God cause it to happen? Absolutely not. But I believe He was powerless to prevent it.

As it says in Proverbs (16:7), “if our ways please the Lord, He’ll cause our enemies to be at peace with us”. The pundits, preachers, poets, priests and politicians (thank you, Sting) pointed at this sin and that “sin” and blamed each other. Conspiracy theories littered the landscape like detritus from the war of ideologies. And yet, following this tack, it was indeed an inside job. Inside our hearts and minds we shut God out. All of the apathy and hate and ingratitude rising to heaven, we sacrificed compassion and conscience for hate and hedonism and as such the door was left open for the enemy. We paid the price. And as Ed Roland (of Collective Soul, in an unrelated song;10 Years Later) sings: “it’s 10 years later and still I haven’t a clue”. I see today, the same apathetic attitude we were infected with a decade ago.

God’s forgiveness is still extant and extravagant. Love, as Peter says (1 Peter 4:8), covers a multitude of sins. Any outward, behavioral sin, “a reproach to any people” (again, Proverbs 14:34), begins—towards God (Psalms 51:4)—in the heart and mind. So, too, do the virtues. A lukewarm heart, veneered over with rudimentary morality isn’t going to last. Let us turn to God again and let Him heal our nation (2 Chronicles 7:14). We need to “put aside the alienation” as Rush sang in Limelight. Only when we renew our minds (Romans 12:1-2) to the truths in God’s word will we experience real healing and prosperity. And freedom. From sin, violence and apathy. His love, mercy and grace will help us if we ask.

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

Time, Truth and Hearts

Those words are part of the chorus to a song called “All These Things That I’ve Done” by a band called (oddly enough) The Killers. These three broad-stroke keywords encapsulate the mission statement of Jesus. (Most of) the entire song too, could be sung by Him as a means of expressing His concern and desire for everyone to see “all these things that I’ve done”. This doesn’t mean that they wrote it with Him in mind. Nor does it mean they’d be receptive if you tried to tell them. To each their own.

Back in 2003 the rock band Evanescence released a song called “Bring Me To Life”. This song was certainly about crying out to God for His resuscitation and resurrection, right? Many fans bombarded them with this revisionist definition till finally one of the band members spoke out in anger and censure at the fans’ wrong opinion. Again, Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist of Rush (my favorite band) responded to a fan with “Yeah, right” when they tried to tell him that one of his songs was about his meeting God… “Yeah right.” Ed Roland, lead singer of Collective Soul (another favorite), the son of a minister no less, even shies away from the incessant pigeon-holing leveled at he and his bandmates for their “thinly-veiled Christianity”. I respect him though, for wanting his message to reach the broadest possible audience.

I was eleven or twelve when my dad turned me on to the concept of taking the lyrics to a song and refocusing their direction to God. At the time, we were packing up to move while listening to The Eagles and Wings. It was my first introduction to popular music. Up till then I had only listened to early nineties country (still my favorite era for that genre). Pretty tame and easily digestible stuff. Since then my musical tastes have run the gamut from sixties early rock and roll (CCR, Simon & Garfunkel), seventies classic rock (Eagles, Wings, Doobies) to eighties (Don Henley, Fleetwood Mac and U2), getting fewer-and-farther between up to the present. These past few years, I’ve sampled whatever sounds good and like most people I talk to, I like “most all types of music”. Across the board however, my rubric stays the same: “How can I take this song and sing it to God?” Love songs are easy. But when you get into some more obscure grey-area lyrics that certainly could be given a spiritual meaning, (but were almost certainly never intended as such) you gotta use some imagination.

The Bible says “to the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15) and elsewhere also says that he was “convinced there is nothing unclean of itself” (Romans 5:15). The meaning is what it means between you and God. If you find a song that isn’t explicitly Christian but you can twist it around in a good way, go for it. “Whatsoever things are pure…” (Philippians 4:8) sing ’em to God (Psalm 68:4,32). Don’t worry about the “author’s original intent”.

In closing, I would like to say that I feel that the contemporary Christian genre has let me down. I’m all for singing worship songs to the Lord but when all of the songs (at least the ones I’ve heard) barely scratch the surface regarding the Christian walk, I’m non-plussed to continue listening. A strange, lack of conviction and genuineness seems to pervade the entire canon. This being said, I will listen to Andrae Crouch. He communicates the love and character of Jesus better than any other artist, regardless of genre.