Posts filed under ‘music’

that’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen has been called “The poet of the heart”. He’s certainly written some stunning love songs! But, for my money, he’s also written some of the most profoundly true theological lyrics I have come across. Take his song Anthem, for instance. It’s a song that deals with brokenness and grace. Cohen understands more clearly than anyone I know what Paul means when he talks about God’s strength “being made perfect in weakness”. Look at the words of the chorus:

Ring the bells that still will ring.
Forget your perfect offering –
there is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in!

Isn’t that something? Forget perfection – you’re on a hiding to nowhere! And if God demands perfection as an “offering”, we’ve had it – we’re doomed to failure. It is of the nature of things that they are cracked and broken. Perfection is a fruitless quest. It’s the counsel of despair for broken, sinful human beings. It’s unattainable and unsustainable. And yet there’s hope, because God is a God of grace. Grace means that we are not abandoned to darkness, brokenness and despair. There is an offering to be made – an acceptable offering. It is made in brokneness but in celebration of what is not completely broken (“the bells that still will ring”). And what about the cracks? Why, that’s how the Light gets in!

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30 August, 2006 at 10:57 pm Leave a comment

forever young – bob now and then

dylan ... now  dylan ... then  The man turned 65 yesterday.  That's when normal people are retiring, or when people normally retire.  But Dylan is neither normal, nor does he show any signs of retiring.  "You should be able to go on for as long as you want to go on", he once told an interviewer.  Bob clearly wants to go on going on.  This is the man who wrote Forever Young – his prayer for a generation that cared.  "May you build a ladder to the stars/and climb on ever'y rung/and may you stay/forever young!"  Bob wasn't into everlasting life for just anybody.  It's a prayer for people who thought the world ought to be changed and could be changed.  It's his prayer for the generation that set out to make a difference on behalf of others.  Listen to the words!  "May God bless and keep you always/may your wishes all come true/may you always do for others/and let others do for you …"  Not for Bob the WIIFM (What's In It For Me) self-obssession of post-Thatcher western life and culture!  If you're not up for changing the world, this ain't a prayer for you!  Bob the Ruthless: "…the order is rapidly changin'/so get out of the new road if you can't lend a hand/for the times, they are a-changin'!"

When he wrote those words (bob … then), the train of the new world was just around the corner.  He could hear the whistle and the tracks were humming.  Some years later, newly converted to Christianity, Bob realised the train was perhaps a little further away than he'd anticipated.  It was a Slow Train – but it was "comin' down the tracks".  Only now, the Train was Jesus.  You see, sadly, Bob found Jesus … and lost the world!  If only he'd found the Jesus of the gospels, rather than the Jesus of right-wing American fundamentalism!  I reckon Bob and Jesus have a lot in common when it comes to the state of the world.  Both of them get highly pissed off with injustice, war and prejudice.  Jesus is far more likely to listen to All Along the Watchtower than All Things Bright and Beautiful.   He's got to like Ring Them Bells more than The Old Rugged Cross!  And John Brown vs Onward Christian Soldiers?  I mean, are you seriously suggesting there's a competition here???  Dylan "gets" Jesus on the world far better than most Christians.  He just falls apart when he goes into "Christian" mode!  Bob's at his most Christian when he's at his angriest and saddest with the way the world is.

And bob … now?  He's given up neither on Jesus nor the world.  Still hasn't got the necessary connection between the two, mind, but he's definitely on the side of the angels!  Everyone's allowed some blindspots – especially when you're young!  And Dylan's forever young – which suits me fine!  Way to go, Bob!  Happy 65th birthday!

25 May, 2006 at 12:41 pm Leave a comment

his bobness: what would the boy say to the man?

Surfing through bobdylan.com, I found some of his rare performances (http://bobdylan.com/performances/). Have a listen to his April 17 rendition of "I dreamed I saw St Augustine", from the Orpheum Theatre, Boston, Mass. Here is Bob singing one of his greatest songs – in a way I've never heard him do it before. The words are often indistinct. He sounds as though he's recovering from a sore throat – or hasn't quite hit recovery yet! – and slips into his lazy performance-mode "talkie-sing" mode (ie when he's coasting and just can't be bothered to interpret his material). And yet … it's great! It's beautiful and moving. He sings it with the love of the familiar – he's lived long with the song. It's never blase, although it hovers on the edge. Instead, he manages to hold on to that dynamic of a familiarity that speaks of deep, deep knowledge, and yet is aware of further mystery. But Bob is the Gnostic – these are secrets only he knows, and he almost plays with us, exciting our envy and longing for a similar depth knowledge.

Ok, ok, this is sounding far too … something! Pretentious? Sentimental? I mean, it's just a man singing a song. And yet Bob manages to do that sort of stuff with his music, doesn't he? Listening to Bob sing his old songs is to be drawn into the narrative of his journey with the music. There's a crossover somewhere: Bob interprets the songs/the songs interpret Bob. What the songs become is what Dylan himself has become.

So I found myself listening to an old man sing an old song, while looking at a photo of him at the Newport Festival. And I wondered what the young Dylan would say to the man he's become? Would he like him? Would he regret the way it all turned out? If he knew how he'd sound 40 years down the road … would he do it all differently?

Now, call me sentimental and uncritical, but I reckon he'd be fine with it all. He started out knowing he had something to say – and found that he didn't have a clue as to just how much! He's "followed the river down to the sea" and the beach is pretty good. He's learned to live with his regrets (more than a few, and certainly enough to merit more than just a mention!). You can hear it in the songs. The world ain't what he probably hoped it would become, but it's a better place for having given him space and recognition. He's "just tryin' to get to heaven before they close the door" – and that ought to do just fine!

8 March, 2006 at 10:17 pm Leave a comment

born to run

Talking of music, here's my latest present: the 30th anniversary release of Born to Run. The boxed set consists of the remastered CD and 2 DVDs – the Hammersmith 1975 concert and the making of Born to Run.

It's not just the music – it's the stories. Born to Run has a special assocation for me, because when my cousin died last year (2 years older than I am), they played this at the crem. And of course, this song -and album – has a seminal place in Bruce's career. He made it when he was on the edge of the huge success he's become – it was the album that tipped him over that particular edge.

Listening to him describing his relationship to the song was very moving. He was aware of all the latent talent he had, but not sure of where it would take him. Just knew he was born to run …

18 February, 2006 at 4:46 pm Leave a comment

everybody needs a tame ..

(a) car mechanic, who won't rip you off by telling you you need to replace your steering wheel; (b) all-round electrician, plumber, builder and carpenter who can help you out when basic tools and ineptirude reach their limits; (c) computer consultant and (d) – most importantly – music expert, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of what's happening and who, and can point you to stuff you ought to be discovering!

I'm incredibly fortunate in all 4, but none is as amazing as the guy who runs Action Replay in Bowness! His shop is a veritable treasure trove of any kind of music you might like – or learn to like. He's also an enthusiast who will spend hours talking about music, playing stuff, and his advice is pretty well infallible. He put me on to such delights as the Be Good Tanyas – required listening. He also dug me out some suitable non-sacred sacred music, which led to a fascination conversation about his atheism.

But the one to get is the new album by Neil Diamond, 12 Songs. Now when someone like Diamond produces Uncut's album of the month, something is happening. And the something is the producer, Rick Rubin. When Johnny Cash was washed up and had been dumped by everyone, Nick Rubin (who usually produces hard urban music) took him in hand and made him a legend before he died. And now he's taken Neil Diamond into the studio and treated him as new discovery, unencumbered by his past career, and made him produce the best album he's capable of. 12 Songs is the result – and one helluva result it is, too! Stunning!

And if, like me, you've got a nostalgic and embarrassed love of old songs like I am, I said, Holly Holy, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull … well, here's one to buy and play unashamedly!

Talking of blasts from the past, a close second is Janis Ian's new album, Folk is the new Black. Can't wait until payday now.

18 February, 2006 at 4:29 pm Leave a comment

bob the articulate? must be some mistake, surely …


Did you watch His Bobness on BBC2 at 9pm last night? What a treat! Nearly 2 hours of Dylan's early years. It was great to watch classic footage of the early Dylan – highlights for me being Newport and the 1966 tour – but also to see his musical biography come to life. There was Pete Seeger, who's grown into the thoughtful, softly-spoken, articulate yet committed gentleman he always threatened to become. And Suzie Rotolo, talking with her hands – the girl from that album cover who hasn't lost her impish mischief or obvious affection for The Man over the years. The biggest treat, though, was to see Joan Baez, then and now, who is always conspicuously absent from these bobfests and yet was so seminal to the emergence of Dylan's own writing voice. The chemistry was obvious and a joy to see – not least because Dylan we got to see plenty of those rare events: Dylan actually enjoying himself!

The reprise of those early years drove home just how enormous a change Dylan not only lived through but effected. Michael Gray and others who insist that the music scene must be divided into two eras – Before Dylan and After Dylan – are right. The Greenwich Village scene that hosted the young waif in Cafe Wha transformed itself within a remarkably short space of time. Dylan was both the catalyst and the prophet who showed the way.

Most surprising, though, was Dylan himself, as interviewee and commentator. He was uncharacteristically giving and articulate. He gave straight answers to straight questions. The familiar irony and multiple masks behind which he hides when being asked to talk about his work were notably absent. Dylan talked about music – and about his music. He spoke about what grabbed him and didn't. He talked about what he was trying to do with his music.

Two things struck me forcibly. When Dylan spoke of his first album – a collection of covers which were planned in the studio as he was recording – he talked of the dynamic in him that instinctively held back what was most important to him and best in terms of what he had to offer. What distinguishes this album is the absence of original material (though not arrangements). This is surprising because Dylan was already writing prolifically, constantly and easily. It wasn't shyness that silenced the (lyrically) unique voice of Dylan (the man who is held up as the voice of his and subsequent generations), but an instinctive dis-ease with self-disclosure. Dylan writes and plays primarily for himself and for other musicians. He is hyper aware of the fickleness of the general public and their appetite for the banal (if any proof was needed, we had only to listen to some of the huge number of anodyne covers of "Blowin' in the Wind" that sold more than Dylan's own punchy, uncomfortable renditions). It struck me again how, if we want to "listen" to Dylan, we ought not to try and force him into the straitjacket of second-order commentary. The Man is not the explanation for the Songs – if for no other reason that he cannot and will not be!

The second related point was the refrain that ran through nearly every point at which Dylan spoke about musicians he admired and what musicians were about. He kept saying, "(S)he was really saying something – and I wanted to say it!" Dylan writes and performs to say something. Music is his chosen vehicle of expression. Music doesn't exist to be frozen in time and space like a photograph. It exists to say something. The beauty for Dylan is its polyvalence and acapacity for reinterpretation – to say something new to a new context. Hence Bob's refusal to bow to audience pressure and recreate the recordings in performance. Dylan, as has often been noted, constantly reinterprets his songs rather than re-performing them. He changes lyrics, beat, tune, accompaniment, tone, phrasing and emphasis to the bewilderment and fury of his fans. It was wonderfully ironic to watch that bewilderment surface when he went electric in 1966. Devotees of the man's music spoke on screen of their anger at Dylan for daring to own and rework his own songs. Dylan had broken the contract. That's not how music "worked"! Performers were supposed to create something that the public liked – and then it became public property! The job of the live performer was just that – to perform to order. Reproduce the recordings like some live hologram. And that was how it was Before Dylan. It was Bob who broke the mould.

Dylan has always "said something". He's always insisted, too, that "the songs are the message". You can't penetrate behind the songs to get at a "deeper truth". The truth is inextricable from the medium – the song, which is the lyrics, the music, Dylan's voice … and Dylan himself! Those of us who whine at his lack of self-giving have simply not got that point. If it's Bob we want, we must go to the songs. It is Dylan's presence and re-interpretation that make Dylan's music an encounter with The Man himself – even when he's having an off-day or an off-decade or two! Scorcese managed a rare feat. He got Dylan to talk easily about himself and his music. Yet did he "penetrate behind the mask"? Or was this articulate, comfortable-with-biography Dylan just another mask for the inexhaustively re-inventive Bob, created to deliver what was needed? I didn't learn anything "new" about Bob from Bob. It was a joy to listen to him, but it was commentary, not self-disclosure. He still peddled some of the old myths of origin that he'd created in the first place – or at least, made no corrections to them! He didn't contradict or shape what was said about his musical development – he merely commented. For me, I'm prepared to buy what he's always said. "The Songs are the Message!" That's when I "get" Dylan (as much as I ever do) and when I'm constantly delighted, surprised and shocked. That's when I feel the power of the untameable and recalcitrant genius of the man, and when I reckon I get closest to whoever Bob Dylan really is. I buy into it as an act of faith and appreciation. And hey … it works for me!

27 September, 2005 at 11:08 am 4 comments

rock & redemption


Some of the most suggestive and creative theology is to be found outside religious texts. It's certainly where some of the most insightful and surprisingly rich reflections can be found. Those of us whose professional tools include the Bible and the tradition need to recognise that our theological imaginations are shaped and limited by these tools. That isn't to say anything bad or critical – it is to acknowledge reality. We look through a lens which has been polished by the medium in which we work. Musicians look through a different lens. Theirs is the lens of lyrics, the symbol systems of musical traditions, rhythms, sound, cadence and rhyme. And it colours their theology. That's why find the theology in certain songs to be far more exciting and creative than much of the very worthy stuff I read in theological text books. It's not usually the content so much as the vehicle. There are startling things to be discovered.I reckon few do it better than the (not-very-holy) trinity of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. That's why I'm running a course at the Windermere Centre on Rock & Redemption (21-24 November). It's an opportunity to do some very serious theological exploration – but also to listen to some good music on the way. I'm not doing it alone.I'll do 3 sessions on Cohen's music. It will be a straightforward case of using songs as an entry into theological areas. So we will look at brokenness & grace ("Anthem"), sex & sacramentality ("Hallelujah") and kingdom & eschatology ("Democracy"). Peter Noble, Moderator of the URC Wales Synod, is looking at Springsteen as a way of exploring the gospel and evangelism. He will look at Bruce's treatment of the American Dream (see my post "The Boss & Gethsemane") as an example of how to understand the gospel and evangelism. He will look at the construction of a redemption narrative which first of all exposes and confronts the present "bad news" prophetically, moves through the evocation of an alternative reality of promise (Hope & Dreams?) and then to a summons to discipleship. It yields an understanding of gospel and evangelism that is prophetic and passionate but not pietistic. It is radically communal rather than individualistic, yet utterly self-involving.Lance Stone, former lecturer at Westminster College, Cambridge, and soon-to-be minister of Emmanuel URC, Cambridge, is looking at Dylan's music as providing an interesting window in the nature and function of the Bible in preaching and faith. Taking some of Brueggemann's insights into post modern, postliberal views of the Bible, Lance sees the open-endedness of Dylan's lyrics and their ever-retranslatable quality as an important parallel to understanding the Bible's function. Because the songs never allow closure, their meaning can never be frozen buit is always able to open new vistas in a different time and place.So if you want to do some serious theology, or if you like the music, or the Lake District, you can't go far wrong. If all three of those are your "thing", you can't fail. Meatloaf was right when he said that "Two out of three ain't bad"), but I reckon any one thing on its own will be a good enough reason to be here! So download the Booking Form and get registered while there are still spaces …

24 August, 2005 at 2:28 pm Leave a comment

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