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So, quick caveat: this song has nothing to do with my tenth wedding anniversary yesterday. Just putting that out there.

It has everything to do with me having a shitty day at work and feeling tense and taut like a wire. My first year here at the Firm was pretty rough: I was absolutely miserable and stressed constantly, to the point where I was sick all the time. Things have gotten better, but sometimes a day is nothing but a series of minor disasters and it feels like my first year again.

A lot of things got me through that first year when it was rough every day. My amazing wife. My wicked cool kids. Counting down the days until I could quit my job and not owe money to the Firm. Stuff like that. One of those things was Waylon Jennings.

I discovered Ol’ Hoss last summer when I got in a mood to throw more country music into the mix instead of just all metal all the time. I was starting to read western novels, and I was starting to get homesick for the South, and both of those deserve a country soundtrack. But I don’t really like suburban pop-country (I’m talking to you, Keith Urban), so I set about discovering all the old outlaw country legends, and Waylon Jennings jumped out at me like few things ever have.

You know how sometimes you hear a song and immediately, right from the first listen, you know it just knocked about three other songs from your top ten to just make room for it? That’s how it was with “This Time.” I first heard it on the bus on the way to work in the middle of one of the worst times of last year–I had an absolutely disastrous year-end review that I had been mortally dreading for months, and I was insanely busy right around a holiday when I had made plans to spend time with family. But this song came on my headphones and it changed my life.

So here it is, because today’s the kind of day when I need this kind of song.

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Gods damn this is such a good song.

I’ve been listening to a lot of early rock and rockabilly for the last couple of days. Learning to play the guitar has made subtle shifts in the music I am interested in. Also, I got a new haircut, grew my sideburns back out, and started using pomade. I’m not going to lie; it looks sharp. Also, my beautiful and sexy wife bought me a beautiful and sexy electric guitar this weekend: an Epiphone Les Paul Special II in classic cherry sunburst. It sounds amazing and I think I love it more than I love anything but my wife and kids (sorry brother).

My point is, I remembered this song last night and went and looked it up and gods damn this is such a good song. There is nothing about it that I do not love. There is no reason to not listen to it over and over again.

Rest in peace, Roy.

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We’ve been playing some Townes Van Zandt songs in my Thursday night guitar class at the Old Town School of Folk Music: first “No Place To Fall,” which is just a gorgeous song in 3/4 time and fun to play with the ol’ capo on the second fret. Listen to it here (played by Townes, not played by me; I’m not nearly good enough to impose myself on you yet):

My guitar teacher also brought in “Pancho and Lefty” for us to play, which made my day. I have previously expressed my massive appreciation for that song.

So anyway, I have those two songs in my head now. And I’ve been practicing them. Seriously, if you have never listened hard to Townes Van Zandt, you are missing out like you have no idea.

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He’s the wolf screaming lonely in the night;
He’s the blood stain on the stage.
He’s the tear in your eye being tempted by his lies,
He’s the knife in your back; he’s rage!

You want to experience the Horned God right now? Go and grab a copy of Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil and put it on the record player. Turn it up. Listen to it. Feel it. Get into it. There he is—lurking under the surface of the music, ready to burst out at any minute with a raging hard-on and an urge to do violence. This is the music your parents were afraid you would listen to, and for good reason. This is Pan’s music, and Pan is everything they were afraid of.

Rock music has a long tradition of flirting with the Devil, but with a few notable exceptions, these musicians don’t worship the actual Devil of Christianity. The Devil of rock and roll is not really anything like the Satan found in the Bible or in modern Christian theology. Some Christians might be bothered both by the content and the imagery of rock and metal, but not actually because they accurately represent the Christian Satan in a theological sense. The Christian Satan is a fallen angel who is miserable because he is separated from God, and as a result, he wants to make humanity as miserable as he is by tempting them to sin against God and thereby separate themselves as he is separated. That same motivation is often ascribed to the Devil of rock and roll, but it is falsely ascribed. It is a reaction, a fear-motivated impulse that rock and roll deliberately provokes because it pushes people’s boundaries and forces them to confront everything that rock and roll and its Devil stand for. But under the surface, it has nothing to do with Christianity’s Satan.

The Devil of rock and roll is a different Devil: he is instead the Devil of the occultists, the magicians, and the romantic poets. And whether the Christian Devil was in fact deliberately distorted in the Middle Ages to look and act like a pagan horned god or whether that idea is a modern conceit, the romantic occult Devil, who came much later, was most definitely and intentionally modeled on the pagan Horned God. This intoxicating devil inspired the poets and magicians who inspired the musicians of the twentieth century. It’s no accident that the first real heavy metal album, Black Sabbath’s self-titled record, is completely and totally immersed in the imagery of Satan. This Devil was a god of libido, of power, of freedom, a god of fear and lust, a god of the revel, of nature, of the night, a god of secrets and rage, a god who stands as a guardian of or even a living embodiment of the inexhaustible wellspring of the universe’s raw, primal, and sublime essence. His worship ran counter to the Church and its theology, but not because he was a part of the Church or its theology. He was a Devil, but he was not Christianity’s Devil: he was in fact Pan. Pan, the horned god of the Greek shepherds, whose music inspired fear and panic and sexual lust, Pan the god of the wild places and the lonely, magic, dangerous corners of the earth, the Great God Pan. When the romantics and occultists looked to the gods of the ancient pagans, Pan stood out from all of them because he represented a direct, divine connection to that raw stuff of the universe that the Church of the Middle Ages did its best to monopolize, control, and intermediate. Pan stood out and invited the occultists to come and feel his power directly, through ritual but most importantly through the revel. And heavy metal gives us both, in spades. Heavy metal gives us the real Devil, the Devil that human beings hunger and thirst for.

He’ll be the love in your eyes, he’ll be the blood between your thighs
And then have you cry for more!
He’ll put strength to the test, he’ll put the thrill back in bed,
Sure you’ve heard it all before.
He’ll be the risk in the kiss, might be anger on your lips,
Might run scared for the door…

People fear Pan because Pan cannot be controlled. Pan is wild; Pan is free. Pan is unpredictable and the unpredictable makes us uncomfortable. It doesn’t fit in our neat categories; it doesn’t follow our made-up rules.

By invoking his imagery and creating music that is a perfect channel for his divinity, heavy metal has served him and worshipped him more purely than perhaps any other modern human endeavor. Heavy metal stands as a dangerous and powerful testament that despite Plutarch’s report and the wishful thinking of Milton and Browning, Pan is not dead at all. Like nature itself, and like his sometime father Dionysus, Pan can never die. Pan returns and demands that we deal with him. Pan has a hold on all of us, whether we like it or not: we are all dark and dangerous, we all have the urge to create and destroy, we are all animals playing at being human. And when we hear a song like “Shout At The Devil” we can’t help but feel who we really are.

But in the seasons of wither we’ll stand and deliver—
Be strong and laugh and
Shout! Shout! Shout!
Shout at the Devil!

Feel the swagger, the sexuality, the aggression in the music. Feel it in your body, as your body answers. That is Pan. Pan’s music is rough and savage, but no less powerful and intricate than Apollo’s hymns. Apollo calms us, but Pan arouses us. Pan shows us a side of humanity that is frightening but real, and even essential. It’s not evil—it’s who we are. Modern pagans shy away from talking about the Devil because they are afraid of being misunderstood or maligned. And maybe that’s fair, but I think it’s a mistake. Pan is the Devil, and that’s a good thing. He is the Devil in the best way possible, and I say embrace that. Put the record on. Turn it up. Throw up his sign. You know how it’s done.

Listen to it! Listen, and shout at the Devil!

(Article originally published in Hoofprints in the Wildwood: A Devotional Anthology for the Horned Lord; song lyrics from Mötley Crüe’s song, “Shout at the Devil” written by Nikki Sixx)

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Allison Moorer, “A Soft Place To Fall.”

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Before you dismiss this post as just being about music and not spirituality (again), hang with me for a few minutes, because I’ll get there. “Pancho and Lefty” is a song written by Townes Van Zandt, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and like Jim Morrison, one of the tradition of young musicians who bit into something too intense somehow, too young, something too big for them to handle, and it raged through them, used them up, and left them dead too soon. If you haven’t listened to Townes Van Zandt much, shame on you.

This song is the kind of song that worms its way into your head and just gets more interesting the more you think about it. The lyrics have a gloss of conventionality, but it’s a trick–Van Zandt wrote a song that comes across as simple but is anything but. Once you get past the impression of the words, you see that the songwriting is far more complex and poetic. This is not a generic ballad. This is something interesting:

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath’s as hard as kerosene
You weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
That’s the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

Most interpretations of this song that I have encountered seem to assume that it is about two different people: Pancho, the Mexican bandit who is betrayed and killed by one of his own men, Jesse James-style, out in the desert, and Lefty, the one who killed him, who fled Mexico and settled down to an ordinary life in Cleveland, Ohio.

But I think they’re wrong. That’s much too easy, and it’s also not clear from the lyrics. Nobody heard his dying words. His death was told of by the poets, not the witnesses. Pancho “died” out in the desert, after a hard outlaw’s life, and then, from nowhere, this Lefty flees to Ohio. What’s Lefty fleeing from? Where did Lefty come into the picture? Was anyone chasing Lefty? Was anyone after him to get revenge? Does Lefty live his life nervously like the Ford brothers, reviled for killing a popular outlaw? The song says nothing about that.

That’s because Lefty is Pancho. Pancho let the poets tell of his death because it was the only way out. And he moved to Cleveland and lived under an assumed name and spent the rest of his life living in a cheap hotel with his demons and his regrets, wondering who he is and what could have been. And if anyone could have tracked him down, nobody tried too hard. They let him go because it was enough.

So what’s spiritual about this? Why does this matter? The thing is, this story is mythology. It’s not non-fiction, but there’s a bite and a life to it that crackles with something more than just a made-up story. It might not have actually happened, but it’s certainly true.

Wrapped up in this mythic ballad is some powerful stuff about strength, manhood, what it means to be human and alive, and living life close to the quick. More importantly, it’s about the hard choices that lead a man to give all of that up, and what’s left when he does, for better or for worse. There’s an authenticity to Pancho and Lefty that radiates significance because at the end of the day it cuts into the heart of the big things, the raw, the stuff that makes us remember we’re alive. And I say this over and over again, but that’s what spirituality is really about: making sense of mortality.

And then there’s this, from an interview with Van Zandt: “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it’s a real nice song, and I think I’ve finally found out what it’s about.” This song came to him from out of the blue. He put it to paper but he didn’t make it up. Don’t believe in the Mousai? This stuff comes from somewhere. Someone out there is trying to tell us something important and they are using people like Townes Van Zandt to do it.

Chew on that while you listen to a live version the song:

And then there’s the popular version by Willie Nelson and Merle haggard. Listen to it, too:

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1. Are you a Christian?

In the sense that most people probably mean when they ask that question, my answer has to be no. I like Jesus just fine, but I do not believe that Jesus is the only-begotten son of the One True God, or the One True God uniquely made flesh. I believe in good and evil but I don’t believe that I am guilty of sinning against the One True God, and I don’t believe that I am in need of salvation that only God can provide. I don’t believe that a contemporarily obscure greco-Jewish messianic figure was the central pivot point in the spiritual history of the cosmos (not that there’s a specific reason he couldn’t be; just that I don’t believe he is). I don’t believe that the Jews are the chosen people of the One True God. There are many parts of the Bible that I do not believe are scriptural or inspired writing. I am not personally committed to the person of Jesus in any way.

2. Why not?

I’m just not. I don’t think it makes sense for me to have to affirmatively have a reason to disbelieve Christianity. Quite the opposite: I am not Christian because I don’t have enough sufficiently compelling reasons to be Christian. The burden of persuastion is squarely on the religion, and in my case, the burden just has not been met. I am unpersuaded. I find Jesus compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling. I find Christianity compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling.

I find value in culture and tradition, and I recognize that Christianity has played a pivotal role in my culture’s history, but it’s not the only spiritual tradition in the mix (look at our great art and literature and see for yourself: classical mythology may be out of favor on Sunday mornings, but it has stayed the course pretty fucking powerfully in our cultural consciousness). And given my own personal religious background–born and raised Mormon but gone apostate–it’s hard for me to claim “Christianity, generally” as my own personal cultural tradition, especially given the pluralism of the society I live in now. As great as I think it would be to identify with a particular tradition and to feel like my spirituality was connected to firm cultural roots, I just don’t, and I never really have.

3. Have you read the Bible?

Yes. I’ve read the Old Testament all the way through once, and different parts of it a number of other times. I’ve read the New Testament at least twice all the way through, and individual parts of it many times. I’m not a Bible scholar, but I know my way around the book really well. I have mixed feelings about the Bible, as indicated above, partly because I think it’s sometimes a mistake to think of the Bible as one work. It’s not one work; it’s an anthology of works by different people at different times and in widely different cultural circumstances. Parts of the Bible have the character of scripture to me: they resonate mythologically (Genesis, 1 & 2 Samuel) or they are profoundly mystical (the Psalms, the gospel of John, Revelations, many of the Prophets). Other parts just don’t feel holy to me. The epistles may be complex, masterful and fundamental works of theological wordsmithy, but that doesn’t make them have spiritual weight. I’m basically familiar with the process of selecting what went into the canon, and I conclude that the canoneers were simply evaluating the books with different criteria in mind from what I am using. I’m comfortable with that.

I think there’s wisdom and relevance in the Bible. Maybe not uniquely so in an inherent sense, but certainly given the Bible’s place in western civilization for the last 2,000 years, it has a preeminent or at least prominent place in our cultural, philosophical, and spiritual history. The Bible is beautiful, resonant, and generally has a lot to offer, and I don’t think that being a non-Christian changes that. It may change the way I approach the text, but it doesn’t dissuade me from approaching it in the first place.

4. Do You Go To Church?

Absolutely. I like going to Church. I like going to Church with my wife, and I intend to keep on going for the rest of my life. And though I’m not much of a believer, I find value in community, and I intend to be active and involved. I don’t feel the need to attract attention and be the center of attention because I’m a non-Christian going to a Christian church. I’m happier to just be quietly heretical. But like I said, I like Jesus, I like the Bible, I like Church. I don’t agree with everything that gets said, but nobody should, about anything, ever. So I’m comfortable with that.

We don’t have a church we go to right now, but that’s a temporary state of affairs. When we find a church we like, we’ll go to it. And it will most definitely be a Christian church.

My kids will be raised Christian. I’m comfortable with that. They’ll know I’m not, and they’ll know that not being a Christian–or that being various shades of Christian–is a live option for reasonable people. I want them to be able to make up their own minds, but I’d also like to give them a decent tradition to be raised in and to be able to fall back on when they need to without feeling that they are forced to conform to it. And I’d like them to grow up seeing that vast differences in approaches to faith are ultimately reconcilable and mutually compatible.

I don’t really attend any other kind of non-Christian spiritual gathering, either. I’m tangentially affiliated with a group of revival Druids in Chicagoland, but I have never actually met with them in person. And revival Druidry isn’t necessarily incompatible with Christianity anyway.

5. What do you think about Christians?

I like ’em just fine. I’m married to one. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be Christian. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to commit to a faith or a tradition. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take a stand and decide what you do and don’t believe. I understand completely that someone could find Jesus uniquely and supremely compelling, even though I don’t necessarily. I understand completely that someone could believe in One True God: sometimes I kind of do, too.

What I think is arrogant, though, is to pretend that you can be absolutely certain about any of it. There’s just no way. There is no way to know something without the possibility that you are wrong. We’re nervous systems floating in a dark jar, and we put a lot of faith in the data our senses feed us and the way our brains process that data. We could be wrong. We could be misled. We could be in the Matrix, and we would not know it or have any way of knowing it. The whole world could be a convincing illusion (some Hindus certainly think it is). Not only is it a possibility, but its a possibility that we can’t even judge how likely it is, because we have no frame of reference.

I’m not saying you have to waver or be wishy-washy. Practical existence means that, despite the possibility that it’s all an illusion, you have to act like it’s not. There’s virtue in taking a stand, and value in making sacrifices for what you believe. But at the same time you have to keep in mind that it’s possible you’re wrong, and find a way to weigh that against your convictions. In my mind, that’s faith. Unwavering certainty is just foolishness and self-deception. Going forward despite the possibility of being wrong is faith. What’s more, unwavering certainty makes people make bad decisions. The possibility of error allows us to act in faith but temper our actions with the consequences of error. It doesn’t mean paralysis. It just means our decisions, even the ones made on the basis of faith, are better decisions, because they are decisions we have weighed and considered properly.

6. Will you ever change your mind?

Maybe. Who’s to say? I change my mind about a lot of things, all the time. I try to live an authentic life, and sometimes that means backtracking and taking things back. I can live with that.

7. What would it take to make you change your mind?

Anything that would make Christianity and/or Jesus somehow uniquely or superlatively compelling. I don’t think it’s possible for Christianity to be objectively proven, and even if it’s theoretically possible, I think that Christianity has managed not to do it for two millennia, and I’m not optimistic about it’s chances of being objectively proven anytime soon.

So it would take something personal and subjective to make me into a Christian. A powerful mystical experience? A spiritual need uniquely filled? Something to make Christianity stand out and above everything else that I find just as compelling or more compelling. It’s a kind of spiritual economics. The value of being exclusively Christian would have to outweigh the costs, including the opportunity costs of the rich extra-Christian spiritual landscape that I would have to forego.

8. Haven’t you already had powerful spiritual experiences confirming the unique truth of Christianity?

Yes but no. At one point in my life I said I did, because it was important in my faith tradition to be able to say that, to be able to testify publicly that you had received a personal spiritual witness of the truth of Jesus Christ. So I went looking for this witness I was supposed to have, and the first powerful emotional experience I had that was Jesus-related, I labeled personal revelation. It was not intentionally dishonest. The cornerstone experience I had was an emotional breakdown in a set of circumstances effectively designed to be a lab for spiritual/emotional breakdowns. It is suspect because of the setting, and because of the effort and desire I put into getting a specific result that I believed I would get.

The point is, no emotional experience is objective proof of anything. At best, it’s proof that you’re having an emotional experience, that’s all. Spiritually emotional experiences are relevant, but how we weigh them, the creedence we give them, and the conclusions we draw from them are not necessarily straightforward. An experience that was compelling to me under one set of circumstances may simply no longer be compelling to me, for any reason.

I had an emotional experience, but I no longer find it sufficiently compelling to believe in the unique truth and exclusive divinity of Jesus.

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Ronnie James Dio, a heavy metal legend, died today of stomach cancer. The world will be a worse place without him. If there is a rock and roll heaven, he will definitely be there.

I was just talking to my brother about how Pete Steele from Type O Negative had just died, and i was thinking about Ronnie and the picture of him I saw in Revolver from the Golden Gods awards–he did not look good. I thought to myself “how much longer before I’m talking about how Dio is dead too?” And as soon as I got off the phone I checked my feed reader and saw the news. It hit me hard.

I’m glad I got to see him live with Heaven & Hell last fall; it was an amazing show. And I’m glad he was able to record an album with those guys again before he died. The Devil You Know is an amazing record and a fitting last testament: Ronnie James Dio in top form, just doing what he always did best.

Thamus, are you there? When you reach Palodes, take care to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.

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I clearly had “Stairway to Heaven” on my mind yesterday, and I still do today.  I think the song is absolutely amazing, and I think it’s unfortunate that so many people regard it as played-out or cliched.  I’d be willing to bet that a staggering number of young people have heard someone disparage “Stairway to Heaven” more times than they have actually heard the song.  In fact, I think that insisting that “Stairway to Heaven” is a cliche is itself far more of a cliche than the song is.

Anyway, I think the song is powerful, mystical, and magnificent.  My dad always talked about how he thought certain songs seemed to tap into some kind of cosmic energy or some power source out there, implying God or Heaven or something like that.  I think he might be right.  There’s something about the way this song is put together, the words, the phrasing, the musical arrangement, the instruments, the guitar solo, the crescendo and decrescendo, something about the architecture of this song that makes me think of occult architecture, of buildings and statues built specifically to channel otherworldly supernatural power through symbolism.  Somehow this song is like that.

I’m not even sure what all of the words mean, and I’m not even convinced that if you broke them down and analyzed them like you would a piece of literature that they would come out the other end seeming very profound at all.  It’s like the pieces of this song are combined in such a way that the song itself–not specifically the words to the song or their meaning–works like a magic spell.  But a spell meant to do what?  Something is being invoked here, but what is it?  If this song is a key, what door does it open?

What is this taste of infinity that rolls around on my tongue every time I hear this song?

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There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying
For leaving

In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those
Who stand looking

And it’s whispered that soon
If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason

And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will
Echo with laughter

-Led Zeppelin

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