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Your Comfort Food was My Salvation

Posted in: Fandom,General by Tom Beaudoin on April 18, 2009

For years, I have gotten crap from friends and colleagues about my love of Rush. While often known as a “musicans’ band,” this Canadian trio has never quite reached the level of cool in popular culture (with the possible exception of a cultural moment around 1980 or 1981) and never been accepted by music critics. There are many articles on the outrage of their continued exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The more time I spend in educated, self-aware, and cultured circles in academic life, the more conscious I become that a good deal of my rock tastes are declasse. I will go on about Billy Squier, Winger, Journey, Styx, Rush, or the like, and can anticipate a more-or-less masked eye-rolling. Let me add, for the record, that I try to keep up with lots of other bands across the rock spectrum, from much-maligned “corporate rock” to local bands in the cities where I’ve lived in the last twenty years (Kansas City, Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, and New York City). And as you can see from the “Somatica Divina” series on this blog, I drink from many rockish wells.

But the longer I sit with rock and theology coursing through my veins, the more aware I am of the influence of social class on my particular inhabitation of these worlds. Most formative for me was living in lower-middle/working-class public housing during much of my teenage years. Like many others in the early 1980s, my family could not afford to keep the house we had in Independence, Missouri, and my father started working two and three jobs to keep a family of six afloat as we moved into a small HUD townhouse, also in Independence. This was the era of my awakening to rock and that familiar adolescent experience, lived my own way, of owning and disowning my Catholicism. For a while I was on the government’s free/reduced lunch program. Some of my neighborhood friends came from families where someone had been in jail. People were barely hanging on to what we imagined was the middle class, but my friends from the nice neighborhoods who went on ski trips and real vacations, and wore name brand jeans, shoes, and t-shirts were the ones I knew were comfortably middle class. I am not betraying my neighborhood when I say that lots of people would count a certain amount of what went on as “white trash” lifestyle. (My graduating high school class (1987) of about 350 people, which drew from many different parts of Independence, reflected the mix of working-class, lower-middle, and middle-class zones from which we came: we’ve ended up with one medical doctor (as far as I know), a handful of professionals like attorneys and engineers, and a lot of lower- and middle-management folks and a fair amount of blue-collar laborers. I think I’m the only one who got a Ph.D.) I ended up hanging out a lot with the kids of middle-class-aspirant families, but lived unavoidably in the larger social matrix of that public housing world, which had its fill of low-aspiring and narrow-minded scenes. That’s where I got my first semi-adult lessons in racism, homophobia, and misogyny.

But that’s also where I got the keys to the way out: rock music. All the bands I mentioned above, plus AC/DC, Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Sabbath/Ozzy, and many more were crucial for our imaginative landscape. They gave sounds and words for naming what was frustrating about the smallness of our world, and energy for the wanting of another land. These rock musics gave me friends, inspiration to learn an instrument, and sages who lived an orbit that relativized all that threatened to keep my universe so tiny, even if these rock personages themselves were not savory in every way. To be sure, there were other important ways out: traces of a Catholicism with which I might be able to live, loving parents, a father with a real theological education, lots of books in the house, peers who were clearly going to transcend that place. Still, it took many years to learn what excellence might have to do with my life. I still remember the shock of arriving at Harvard Divinity School for graduate studies to meet people who had gone to Ivy League undergraduate schools and for whom HDS was a natural next step. Some of my grade school and high school friends, maybe some reading this blog, have not broken out of those public housing complexes. A lot of that is beyond our control, and there is no shame in that; still, I know we want more for our kids.

So today when I write about rock and theology, it is hard for me not to hear echoes of social class in my own musical tastes and theological proclivities. Those pasts still live in me, making me favor certain musics over others, and therefore also no doubt certain theological experiences over others. Those pasts help me find good reasons for my work today, and help me find the goodness of my reasons for working. My “cultured” and ironic side knows that I should strive only to represent rock music that gives the most edge, social distinction, or cultural capital, but I cannot keep from letting that other side through, as well, which will look to some readers like spiritual-rock comfort food.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York


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