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“I Can’t Hear the Difference Between the Sacred and the Profane”: Notes on “Passing Strange”, Part One
Two years ago here in New York, the musical “Passing Strange” drew considerable attention, and its final performances were recorded and made into a film by Spike Lee released earlier this year. This past summer, I watched the DVD several times, engrossed by its mixture of rock and theology.
The musical, by Stew and Heidi Rodewald (see the Wiki page here for some background; and for their current projects see their website), is apparently Stew’s semi-autobiography. It tells the story of a young middle class African-American man leaving Los Angeles in quest of “the real,” taking him to Amsterdam and Berlin and a constant reassessment of his relationship to his doting mother and his blackness, as well as to his black church upbringing. Theological language, images, questions, and desires are infused from start to finish, and the musical is at the same time a travelogue of rock styles and influences.
The “pilgrim,” as the musical calls him (and as Ignatius Loyola calls himself in his autobiography) undergoes several “conversions” and “deconversions,” and I would like to briefly mention them in some upcoming posts. As I see them, they are: intertwined deconversions from ontological blackness and from the Christianity of the black church, and intertwined conversions to music, to the life of desire, and to race as performance, which are also his yes to the sacred, to “God”.
These deconversions and conversions are, for me, encapsulated in a powderkeg of an affirmation contained in a heated exchange between the pilgrim and his mother, when she asks “Don’t you know the difference between the sacred and the profane?” And he replies: “I can’t hear the difference.”
There is much more to say, and I’ll try to say at least a little of it in future posts.
For now, here is a New York Times video report on the musical (apologies if any ads precede it), and below it, a trailer for the film.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
In his recent post, “Waiting (for Advent) with The Rentals,” Michael Iafrate mentions that he was “pondering fitting Advent tunes to post here at R&T.” That got me thinking about songs that have “waiting” as a theme which then led me to contemplate the act of waiting itself. When you think about it, we spend a good portion of our lives waiting. It occurred to me there are two different kinds of waiting. One type involves positive, excited anticipation of some future event like Advent when we await the celebration of the birth of Jesus. In fact the word advent comes from the Latin word adventus which means “a coming.”
There are lots of examples of advent-like events. Waiting to go on a vacation, waiting for the birth of a baby, a marriage, even waiting to go to see that rock band you’ve always wanted to hear in person. Our lives are filled (hopefully) with anticipation for events and experiences that we’re looking forward to, things that enrich our lives, make our futures exciting.
There is another kind of waiting which isn’t so pleasant. It entails trying to get through something we don’t want to experience. It might be a rather mundane event such as waiting to get out of the dentist’s chair or waiting to leave a 2 hour long performance of The Nutcracker in which, for the third year in a row, your young daughter is dancing the part of one of the mice.
However, waiting can also be immensely difficult and painful, even horrific or impossible. Hospices are full of people waiting to die. Church pews, counseling offices and support groups are overrun with individuals trying to recover from grief, tragedies, traumas and addictions. Hospitals are overflowing with people waiting to be healed.
The Dave Matthews Band has become iconic in the world of rock. Although there have been long breaks between album releases, the band tours year after year, and their fan base continues to grow. Beyond the unique beat and brilliant tones produced by this eclectic band, the lyrical focus and continued grappling with life’s mysteries is a significant draw for the listener.
A continuous theme found in the music is the idea that focusing on the afterlife, or what is beyond us, has left humanity failing to recognize the sacred that is in the here and now. We are so preoccupied with trying to attain what comes after this physical life that we fail to notice all that surrounds us in the present. In the song “Don’t Burn the Pig,” DMB poses the question, “Is this blessed sip of life not enough?” Without debating the existence of a life beyond the physical world, these lyrics have demanded that we take notice of the beauty in our daily lives and experience God as God is present.
I can’t help but think of Catholic Imagination when I hear this song which views creation as sacramental. Creation in all its forms reveals something about God and thus brings God among us. Consequently, this life is “blessed” and should be embraced as such. Too often we waste away our days in search of something that should remain a mystery and fail to recognize the divine that permeates our everyday lives. The music of the DMB acknowledges this calling its listeners to realize and be conscious of the sacred in all its forms and to have gratitude for all that is experienced in this “blessed sip of life.”
A few weeks back I overheard Terri Gross interviewing Keith Richards on the Fresh Air radio show on NPR. The whole episode is worth your time, but the highlights are especially notable. Gross makes several attempts to get Richards to dish dirt on Mick Jagger, or to talk about the tensions in the band. Richards, to his credit, demurs repeatedly. Finally, there was this revelatory exchange:
GROSS: So, just one more question about this, which is, when you were performing on stage together during this period of great friction, do you feel it on stage? Did you try to prevent the audience from feeling that friction?
Mr. RICHARDS: No, get out of here. This is a bunch of guys that have been together for yonks, you know, I mean, you don’t carry stuff like this onto the stage. These are things that just happen and you deal with them and you get it over with, you know, forget about it. It’s, I mean, this is not angst or big deal, you know.
You know, of course, guys have fights. Brothers have fights all the time. That’s what its all about. It’s, you know, to pick one thing out and say, like, oh, it’s a festering wound, what rubbish. No, you know, we’re brothers. We get along and we fight sometimes and I don’t think I can express it any better than that. Mm-hmm.
A year and a half ago, I proposed the idea of a “rock bestiary” that could be filled in over time with the animals — or the animalities — of rock, inducing wonder about the relationships between rock performers’ lived, bodied characteristics, features, wherewithals, and escapades, and their power to communicate some real claim to attention. In this way, I was inspired by the earlier Christian theological bestiary tradition, and still am. So one task of such a bestiary is to catalogue such animalities.
Toward that end, Grinderman’s recent show at Best Buy Theater in Manhattan gave much material. Or rather, Ben Ratliff’s splendid review of it did. Warren Ellis, guitarist and violinist, apparently showed why he deserves his own bestiary entry. Here is Ratliff’s vivid report about Ellis, who is a “brilliant performer, a muse, and a demolition expert”:
“Mr. Ellis, with a beard out of Leviticus, created half the band’s sound on Sunday whether he was touching an instrument or not. He played solos, some on a four-string tenor guitar, of such constant textual warping and concentrated messy power that they lighted up each song. He ran a violin through a wah-wah pedal and made an overwhelming throb, almost unpitched, then laid it down and quickly adjusted the sound while the little instrument screamed on. He held two maracas in one hand and hammered them down at perfect accent points on a clenched high-hat cymbal.
“And he practiced … lurching and hunching, whip-around leg kicks to turn his back at the audience. During ‘Evil!’ he lay flat on the floor, raising his head to shout the song’s key word in a kind of gasping situp. He shook his violin bow at us, raggedy with broken horsehair; this was all part of the music, too.”
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Posted in: Basswork,Eschatology,General by Michael Iafrate on November 24, 2010
When pondering fitting Advent tunes to post here at R&T, it didn’t take long for “Waiting” by The Rentals, featuring ex-Weezer bassist Matt Sharp, to come to mind. Technically, though, the song is about the process of waiting that is often a part of good songwriting. Perhaps the experience of that kind of waiting might offer insights into the “spiritual” waiting associated with this liturgical season.
The Rentals, by the way, were at least a decade ahead of their time and far underrated during their initial run as a band from 1995-1999. Which may explain the current rediscovery and popularity of the band since they reunited a few years back. In addition to the live video above shot in 2007, hear the studio version here (you will have to sit through a commercial before you do, courtesy of Warner Music) and see if there isn’t something eschatological going on with the song’s freshness even fifteen years after its initial release.
Parkersburg, West Virginia
Posted in: Fandom,General,Guest Entries by Tom Beaudoin on November 24, 2010
The following is a guest entry from Aaron Kerr, lecturer in philosophy and theology at Gannon University, with a Ph.D. from Duquesne and a dissertation on “the Eucharistic lyrical poetry of Charles Wesley.” In his own words, he is “a student of rock and former United Methodist minister converting to Catholicism.” In just the kind of claim we like to knead here at R&T, he has suggested that “Methodist hymnody shares rock’s populist strains.” Here is Dr. Kerr on the Grateful Dead:
I wrote a paper in seminary for Ruth Duck (hymn writer, liturgics scholar) on the use of rock in the liturgy. I turned in the paper along with a cassette full of music and my own commentary. I got an ‘A’ on the paper, but Professor Duck had a problem with rock in general, the way it cultivates an unhealthy attitude toward women, among other attitudes. I have since changed my mind about using rock in liturgy for other reasons, mostly because the particular form and language of the music in the Mass specifically integrates a profound fusion of prayer as embodiment.
But I have become more convinced of rock’s religious import. Its religious significance can be seen (and heard!) most vividly, I believe, in an enigmatic band, the Grateful Dead. Everyone has heard of the Dead, yet their capacity to “tradition” variant genres, their communitarian ethos, their artistic integrity — all pertaining to the religious quest — have remained under-resourced in theological discussions of rock.
My biblical scholar colleagues tell me that there is no Hebrew word for “religion.” This may be because, for the Hebrew people and the ancient Jewish consciousness, there was no objectification of practice. (Is this not true of Native American perception as well?) The Grateful Dead fuse music and mystical awareness, story and the energies of community into an “environment” fit for discovery. It is difficult to theologize (objectivize) when participating in a theological environment. The experience of the live concert, no matter who is playing, has religious significance for that reason alone.
The Grateful Dead’s primary lyricists are religious people.
Posted in: General,Reviews,Secular Liturgies by Tom Beaudoin on November 23, 2010
I was sorry to realize that I missed quite an event at St. Paul’s in Manhattan (right across the street from Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus) last week that was a ready-made case for examining the overlap or interrelation of rock and theology. As Steve Smith recently reported, members of the band Sigur Ros performed there with choir and orchestra to a “capacity audience.” As you read Smith’s review, don’t fail to take note of the provocative final sentence: “When Mr. Birgisson added his signature coo to the choir’s glorious sound as spotlights beamed down from on high and a smoke machine billowed what might have been a censer’s fog, a sensation of intense spirituality was inescapable.”
Check out this famous censer and the subtle affinities to rock aesthetics that the church takes on as the censer takes over. Then view Sigur Ros in concert.
I have not considered thoroughly enough the idea of fog machines at rock shows as modern censers or thuribles, those swinging liturgical implements that puff incense out into the sanctuary when so conducted in the Christian traditions of more formal ritual sensibility. But there at St. Paul’s we also have the dream of a fog machine chugging incense at a rock-inflected show in a majestic worship space. And of the Paulists, no less, that Catholic religious order specializing in mission to North America. The multiple missions crisscrossing in that moment are almost enough to create a Dionysian vertigo — somewhere between the Dionysus of 19th century Nietzsche and the 6th century Dionysus of the Mystical Theology.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Saturday night, I saw Earl Greyhound live at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. This show was in some ways the opposite of the Aquabats, whom I saw Wednesday night (and about whom I recently posted). Earl Greyhound is a band from Brooklyn on the ascendant, catching the wave of a 1970s-conjuring hard/blues rock revival (see any of Jack White’s recent bands like the Raconteurs or the Dead Weather, for example). Melodic yet heavy, avec fog machines, gravelly basses, bombast. Irony placed back on the coat rack.
But I was saying that this show was the opposite of the Aquabats, and not just due to musical styles (1980s-90s atmopsherics vs. 1960s-70s). Earl Greyhound drew a more diverse crowd, age-wise in their 20s-50s, and also somewhat more diverse racially (based on my informal roaming of the Ballroom). And where Aquabats hung everything in quotation marks, Earl Greyhound adopts a great many of the rock god(dess) poses and musical arrangements of power, banishing quotation marks to invisibility. The co-lead vocalist/guitarist Matt Whyte and co-lead vocalist/bassist Kamara Thomas and the drummer Ricc Sheridan have, they show you, serious work to do, something to accomplish of cultural import. As Thomas announced before even the first song was played, “You know what we’re here to do, and we need you to help us do it.”
There were screaming guitar solos center stage with the guitar perpendicular to Whyte’s torso; and…
This is soundtrack mashup brilliance!
Loye Ashton, Hot Springs, AR