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In Friday’s print edition, James McKinley Jr. reported in the New York Times on the new music of Dr. John, including what sounds like a substantial reconsideration of some of the costs of the life he has lived.
Having inhabited a “psychedelic voodoo stage persona” for four decades, Dr. John is ready now to be known by his real name, Mac Rebennack. In religious stories, changes of name are often significant; maybe this change back bears symbolic weight, too. The article is here. It sounds like there is a lot more to the story.
His new album is “Locked Down”:
Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
It has been a little while since I posted to the Rock and Theology blog because I have been working hard to finish a book I am writing on the theology of suffering. Alas, I still have one chapter to finish, but I needed to interrupt my book writing to share with the R/T readers (who may already know this) that Leonard Cohen has announced another world tour for his new album Old Ideas. 2012 summer dates are scheduled for Europe and available at http://www.leonardcohen.com/us/news/leonard-cohen-announces-“old-ideas-world-tour-2012. North American dates for fall 2012 will be released soon. I really cannot express how much you should see Leonard perform, if it is at all possible for you to do so. The experience is entirely edifying.
In writing on the theology of suffering, I became inspired to read the biblical prophets in the original Hebrew. I picked up the language study again and have a gracious and generous orthodox rabbi as my teacher. He not only teaches Hebrew but delves into theology and Judaism at regular intervals. In one class, Rabbi Adler explained the significance of the Hebrew word “e-ved” (Ayin, Bet, Dalet). The word means “slave” but it also means “servant.” Rabbi explained that being a servant of the Lord was the highest goal and driving purpose of Jewish life. During my class, I could not help thinking of track three of Cohen’s Old Ideas, a song called “Show Me the Place.” Here, Cohen refers to himself as slave, singing, “Show me the place where you want your slave to go/Show me the place, I’ve forgotten, I don’t know/Show me the place for my head is bending low/Show me the place where you want your slave to go.” This song suggests to me that Cohen is describing the experience of being an “e-ved” of G-d, of his music, of whatever it is that calls and keeps on calling him. There is something merciful and even liberating in Cohen’s statement of surrender to God, which is a persistent theme in the record. And, I mean this quite seriously, you will see him perform this “servanthood” before your eyes if you go to his show. It’s a ways off, but something to look forward to…
Until then, may it be a blessed Passover and Easter to those who celebrate and a time of deliverance and new life for us all!
Posted in: General,Interviews,Race by Tom Beaudoin on March 29, 2012
I recently conducted a short email interview with Sheila Hardy, the producer of the forthcoming film, “Nice and Rough,” an exploration of the contributions of black women to rock and roll. (Visit the website if you are interested in learning more about her project, or would like to contribute to its completion.)
Beaudoin: How did you get interested in this project?
Hardy: Next to the amazingly complex and wild women, and their powerful music, the biggest thing that interests me about this project is the fact that this history is little known. I am a champion of the untold story. And this is an aspect of music history that has yet to be examined and shared.
B: What are you finding about religion and/or spirituality through your work on “Nice and Rough”?
Posted in: General by Jeffrey Keuss on March 27, 2012
The 1970s may be remembered in current zeitgeist as a time and place of white slacks, young Jimmy Carter, and music adhering to the ABC’s (ABBA, Bee Gees, and Cat Stevens to name a few) of AOR (adult-oriented radio) focus. This was a period that saw the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Led Zeppelin’s Fourth album, and other big records from T. Rex and Rod Stewart hitting the airwaves with force. But when I was living through the 70s, it wasn’t force that I needed most, it was empathy. As I tried to embrace Robert Plant in seventh grade, it was Elton John’s subtle sound, coupled with Bernie Taupin’s catchy lyrics that continued to capture the broadest audience and to speak of loneliness in ways I remember needing to hear. Of Elton John’s early albums, two continue to stand out: Honky Chateau, a masterpiece that included Mona Lisas and Madhatters and Rocket Man, and Madman Across the Water. The latter is named for a cut that originally appeared on his Tumbleweed Connection album and yielded some of Elton John’s earliest AOR staples. Tiny Dancer, like the previous Your Song, was introduced and carried by John’s masterful piano composition. The song’s sense of longing also employed the falsetto chorus that would become as much of a trademark as his costumes. Levon, another entry into the John-Taupin “ballad of” category, is one of their finest pieces. Interestingly, there are references to God, Lord, or Jesus on six tracks on this collection. I wouldn’t say any of these six songs had an overtly religious theme, but it is interesting how Taupin folded in these references on this album.
Tiny Dancer is an ode to Bernie Taupin’s wife and celebrates the Elton John Band’s highly successful first trip to the USA in 1970, after which rapturous popular and critical acclaim soon saw John become the pop chart star of the decade. It is about the power of music and the joy of being a fan. The magic of the song is a celebration of being “in the zone,” that moment we all find ourselves in when for three minutes and a half we are “in” a pop song. Time stands still, yet it soars, and everything becomes possible. For me, Tiny Dancer is about getting up the courage to ask a girl to dance with me at a Junior High fall dance. (The attempt was a failure—“You wanna dance?” “Ahh . . . no.” *Sigh* Hey… nothing ventured, nothing gained.) But every time I hear the song, I feel some of that courage come back nonetheless and pull to join in the song remains.
This is captured brilliantly in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie Almost Famous which is his ode to the 70s. In a great scene from the film where Stillwater’s lead guitarist and iconic figure Russell Hammond (played by Billy Crudrup) has had a falling-out with the band and are sitting in painful silence on the tour bus, Tiny Dancer starts to play. Slowly, each member of the band begins to join in, singing along with the tune with grins spreading across every face. There is a sense of euphoria as the volume rises in the bus, enfolding members of a family that had become so lost in their own agendas and ego that they had forgotten, literally forgotten, the joy of the songs that they sang together. In that moment of release and restoration, they belt out the lyrics—“Jesus Freaks out in the streets / handing out tickets for God / turning back, she just laughs / the boulevard is not that bad.” I remember looking around the dark movie theater at that moment and seeing people silently mouthing the words to Tiny Dancer along with the joyous reunion of Stillwater on the flickering screen. The benedictus of the scene comes when Patrick Fugit’s William Miller whispers to Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane, “I need to go home.” As the audience and Stillwater continue to sing along with Elton’s chorus, “Hold me closer, tiny dancer . . .” Penny Lane’s reply cuts to the quick: “you are home.”
Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on March 26, 2012
For those interested in the Occupy movement and its interreligous and intersecular engagement of major social concerns, I have just put up this post about my recent trip to the Occupy Faith National Gathering in Berkeley, California, last week.
Posted in: Christianity,General by Tom Beaudoin on March 25, 2012
As a reminder, participant bios, and now audio of the whole session, can be found here.
Erik Davis, of the fascinating esoterica/magic site Techgnosis, and also a doctoral student in religious studies at Rice (working with Dr. Jeffrey Kripal, natch), had several interesting things to say.
Following on Alison Fensterstock’s presentation, where she alluded to the ambiguous line between a real investment in voodoo/magic and mere play-acting for attention on the part of musicians, Davis suggested that the ambiguity between “real” and “fake” is central to the way that the discourse of the occult works. One is never quite certain what is “real” and what is “fake,” and the “fake” draws attention because it conjures a possible “real”, and the “real” is itself always a production of sorts.
Davis focused mostly on the 60s/70s rediscovery/reinvention of occultism in rock culture. He went through many good illustrations (listen to the audio mentioned above), including Mick Jagger and a symbolic top hat; Jimmy Page’s interest in Aleister Crowley and his ritual “calling the quarters”-style gestures in “The Song Remains the Same”; and David Bowie’s evocations of Crowley in his 1970s music. Davis also discussed bands interested in making music as a magical activity, as well as the “goofy… pop culture occultism” of bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, who never took it that seriously.
He concluded with an interesting observation that brought his presentation around to its beginning, suggesting that “The question of whether the trick is real or not brings you further into the labyrinth.” (This seems to me to apply not only to the occult but also to all sorts of theological claims in what are regarded as mainstream religions; for example, questions about miraculous items or miracle healings, however dubious they may be, keep alive the very tradition that is put in question.)
The final presenter was the musician Andrew WK, who said that when he writes music, it is as if it “comes down”
Posted in: Christianity,General by Tom Beaudoin on March 24, 2012
In part one of this blog series, I introduced a panel I attended at South by Southwest last week, and summarized the presentation of Joshua Sharp, a practitioner of the arts of magic.
Following Sharp was Alison Fensterstock, an accomplished music journalist and critic in New Orleans. Her presentation emphasized the New Orleans context as an essential root of US popular music. Given how much of pop music can be traced back to this city, she argued, we have to pay attention to the “New Orleans voodoo” influence through Afro-Cuban-Haitian religion and music. She suggested that many revered rock and roll musicians picked up on this heritage, from Dr. John and Jesse Hill to Earl King and Alex Chilton.
Here is Dr. John:
And Earl King:
This New Orleans legacy, she suggested, shows itself in pop music’s ritualism, its call-and-response dynamic, and its status as a “magical-religious experience.”
I think this is an important provocation. So often, rock and roll’s ritualism, responsivity, and ‘religiosity’ get accounted to its Christian background instead of (or instead of being counted in addition to) its extra-Christian backgrounds. I will follow up this post with a further discussion of the rest of the panel at SXSW.
Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Last week I was interviewed for an on-line podcast called “In Good Faith”–you can listen to it here. We discussed my book, some of the links between rock music and theology, and included some great song clips too.
I would like to thank Regina Snyder Heater for preparing me for the hour-long interview and for being so kind to me! I would also like to thank Sr. Julie Vieira, IHM and Sr. Maxine Kollasch, IHM for being such wonderful interviewers. I was concerned about having enough to speak about for an hour, but their intelligence, wit, and excitement made the time fly by!
It seems appropriate, perhaps even necessary, that I include this video!
Dave Nantais, Scottsdale, AZ
Posted in: Christianity,General by Tom Beaudoin on March 20, 2012
The South by Southwest festival features not only gi-normous helpings of live music, but also a good many panels on topics of interest to academics, activists, industry, artists, and more. I went to the “Blood, Music, Sex, Magick” panel to learn more about the relationship between magic and/or the occult and rock and roll history. The SXSW session description and participant bios are here. This is of particular interest to the intersection of theology and rock culture because secular/popular music has so often been placed on a continuum, from distracting to dangerous to spiritually threatening, by theologically-minded people in religious and academic venues. And concern with music’s alleged involvement in the occult is often only a step or two away from those concerns.
The first speaker on the panel, Joshua Sharp, is a practitioner of the arts of magick (spelled with a “k” as apparently per the medieval spelling). (By the way, this is my layperson’s way of summarizing simply what I don’t want to otherwise misrepresent. Please see his bio at the link above.) With reference to Faust, J.G. Frazer, and Aleister Crowley (the most commonly cited source during the session), Sharp very helpfully laid out a basic theory of magic: it is the study and practice of that which opens the depths of the soul to an influential communication with and influence on the world (my summary). It fights against traditions that encrust the strange mystery of the person when they cloud the ability to know all parts of one’s inner sanctum and have that knowledge set free and set others free, by, as with Faust, “enchanting” the world.
He quoted Crowley on magic as the liberation to “respect, love and trust what you scorn, hate, and fear,” and through the knowledge of one’s “true will,” one sees the value of magic as “the science of understanding oneself, and the art of applying that understanding in action.”
He then suggested that musicians are modern magicians insofar as they use their bodies and instruments to channel their “true will,” and that helps explain the hold that rock and roll has on its listeners. He concluded by summarizing his own extensive personal spiritual search, which has led him to the conclusion that magick gives him entree not to a world of external beings or forces, but a way to “dance with the psyche,” to excavate his unconscious.
As a longtime student of religion, there are many items that interested me in Sharp’s presentation. One was simply the delight in learning a little more about what is, to me, a foreign “religious” (or nonreligious, areligious) landscape, one that has been the object of so much Christian scorn and so little Christian understanding. Another was the seemingly very modern sensibilities Sharp associated with magick: freedom from tradition, entry into the unconscious, a battle to meet and befriend inner forces, an individual quest for singularity. To associate this constellation as modern is not to dismiss it, but to try to locate its way of putting reality together. In Sharp’s rendering, it seems there are a lot of similarities between modern liberal religion, modern psychology, and magick, but clearly I need to read and experience more to understand better what those might be.
I also noticed how much the quest to handle oneself with care and searching consideration in magick parallels the traditions of what are now grouped together as “spiritual exercises” found in the ancient world and taken into so many religious traditions. Coming from a theological background, I found a lot of overlapping sensibilities between the “technologies of self” in the Christian tradition and those desired by magick’s practitioners. This is, clearly, not to fold them into sameness.
Finally, I wondered anew at the spiritual power of musicians and how that gets communicated live and in
Posted in: Christianity,General,Is This The New Face of Religion? by Tom Beaudoin on March 18, 2012
While I am working on an update about my time at SXSW this week, here is an interesting story on an Episcopal priest, Rev. Bertie Pearson, who used to be a punk rock drummer and sees no need to cut off that part of himself now that he’s a full-time minister. He must be in the .000001% of clergy who know about Minor Threat. And the .0000000000000001% who like them.
I think it is important that church workers are public about Holy Thuribles! Take a look at the EpiscoDisco that Rev. Pearson and others at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco helped organize in 2010:
That is Daniel Higgs of Lungfish playing there. Does anyone know of any other examples of punk musicians playing in churches or other self-identified religious spaces?
And in the video, listen to Rev. Pearson’s striking vision, which he reports is shared by his bishop, about making the church “permeable to people outside [their] religious tradition.” This is exciting theological thinking/performance, and if the video is any indication, it was tastefully undertaken. As I argue at the end of my most recent book, Witness to Dispossession, the opening up of Christian churches to their interreligious/intersecular past and future is one way of thinking about how Christianity can creatively inhabit its own history in the service of the larger world.
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