Noticed in November, Pt 7 :: “I Don’t Wanna”

Hear all the songs here.

So… I started playing guitar probably in 1982 or 1983; this means that I am, more or less, a musical child of the 80s. This means a couple of things: first, I definitely know how to play guitar solos. It was like essential musical knowledge for us. A lot of that changed literally after Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but before that, the notes and the fingers were a-flyin. 

Secondly, I’m influenced by the way music was played in the 80s. To make a long story very short, the 80s were a study of musical contrasts. On the one hand, some bands were very distant and style-conscious. Music could be very cold and precise. On the other hand, there were a handful of artists that rebelled against that detachment and chose to wear their hearts boldly on their sleeves. In a documentary on the making of U2′s The Joshua Tree, Brian Eno said that U2 recognized that “being cool was a sort of detachment from yourself,” and they decided to reject that. Their music is full of vulnerability and “grand-ness.”

But they weren’t alone.

There were other bands who leaned into this engagement. They decided to make music that was big and emotive. In ways it was very un-pretentious, and it lacked self-awareness. It just… was. People jumped around on stage; there was no shame in “being into” the music. Enthusiasm was welcomed.

The other two bands that most readily come to mind that made this kind of music were The Alarm (from Wales) and a band from America called The Call. (If you listen to The Call’s, “What Happened to You“, you can actually hear a young singer from Dublin who named himself Bono singing backup.)

Neither of these bands achieved anywhere close to the longevity of U2, but for those of us who were there, we realized that bands like these were touching something inside us that was innocent and excited to be alive.

Sometimes I wonder where music like that is now; it seems like bands—and music in general—exist in this calculated, “always on” zone where “being cool” is always necessary. At its extreme, it can feign humility and flirt with some kind of false embarrassment about being in a band, like enjoying art is some kind of crime.

The Call’s “I Don’t Wanna” is about as simple of a song as they come: it’s two chords, for crying out loud. Over a tribal drum beat, singer Michael Been sings tortured lines to someone or something. 

Truth be told, I don’t know the exact story behind the lyrics, but they are powerful to me, particularly these:

I ain’t here to tell you what you need
I ain’t gonna take a noble stand
I ain’t here to look you in the eye
Or beg for you to understand
I can only tell you what I’ve seen
I can only tell you how it felt
When my heart was crushed so bad inside
Till I felt the hatred slowly melt

I need this, have felt it once or twice, that moment when something presses down on you so heavily that all of a sudden the walls come down and you feel something break and release inside you.

It’s sort of what it means to be alive, I think.

Enjoy.

The video below is their first single, “The Walls Came Down”. (The studio track surprisingly featured Garth Hudson from The Band on keyboards, whom I wasn’t to discover for another decade.)

*Postscript: Singer Michael Been tragically passed away just a few years ago at the age of 60. However, his son was in one of my other favorite bands from the early 2000s: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. He did some shows fronting the Call in a tribute to his father. Legit. 

 

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Noticed in November, 6 :: “Queen of California”

Here’s the latest; hear the rest here.

For a long time, I had a … “tension” with John Mayer. The guy could play guitar; I mean really play. The guy could write songs; I mean really write songs. 

In a word, I was probably jealous. As someone said once, I felt like Mayer was a version of me, only better.

However, there was something else. Though I had tremendous respect for him as a player and writer, there was something about him that just seemed to rub me the wrong way. He had a certain wry wit about his success, and at times he said all the right things about art and music and humility and respect and all that… but frankly, I just didn’t by it. I opened the door slightly on 2006′s Continuum, largely because I felt like it was slightly more stripped down and more “open and honest” (fuzzy words, I know, but they are the ones who really fit).

Then something happened. First, Mayer fell from grace due to a few really mis-handled interviews (warning: that interview is not very pleasant to read) and very public romantic disasters. These really just seemed to confirm everything I discerned about him.

But then, something else happened. Basically he lost his voice for about two years.

Two years. 

I told everyone I knew that I thought he was done.

But I was wrong.

In 2012, Mayer released Born and Raised, which sounded like some kind of love child between George Harrison, Neil Young’s Harvest, and a whole lot of 70s California rock.

(This is a good thing.)

What’s more, his writing had changed—at least to my ears—a lot. 

He could still turn a phrase without much effort at all, but now there was something else present in his songs…

I call it humility. 

Admittedly, I was going through some pretty tough times during 2012-2013, so I could have just been  hearing what I wanted to, but I heard depths of honesty and humility (again that word: there’s just not a good substitute for it) that, to my ears, weren’t there before. That record—in particular Shadow Days and Born and Raised—became lifelines and inspiration of sorts for me during that time:

I’m a good man, with a good heart
Had a tough time, got a rough start
But I finally learned to let it go
Now I’m here, and I’m right now
And I’m open, knowing somehow
My shadow days are over now, my shadow days are over now…

 

Then all at once it gets hard to take
It gets hard to fake what I won’t be
Cuz one of these days I’ll be born and raised
And it’s such a waste to grow up lonely…

Those words. Wow. They were my life.

“Queen of California” starts the record off, and it definitely sets the tone for the rest of the release: sonically it’s like a big pleasant pillow of restraint and warmth. Great tones. Lyrically, I hear wonder and gratitude.

I need more of that.

Noticed in November 5 :: Going to the Church

Here’s the latest in my series about music I’m noticing in November.

I have no idea how I discovered the Red Devils. I think I’d read some obscure article about a hard-core blues band in LA that Mick Jagger was watching at some club. At any rate, I bought this CD when it came out, and I’m glad I did because they only made one, a live one that is so raw and joyous. It is certainly one of my top 3-4 blues CDs. It’s sweaty  and smoky.

Here’s what this track tells me:

  1. There’s a difference between going to “church” and going to “church-AH”. I’m not sure what it is, but I know it’s real. In fact, I have been to both, but I’m not always sure how to make the “-AH” happen. Maybe someone should create a conference that teaches churches how to “add the -AH.” Someone get on that. Credit me when it’s done.
  2. You don’t ever need to change chords in a song.
  3. (Guitarists) You don’t ever need effects pedals.
  4. Simple music can be powerful.

I just love this stuff. It’s so stripped and, well, honest. You just don’t hear much music like this anymore. These guys tore it up, and did it about as close to the bone as you could.

There are actually YouTube videos of these guys, but make sure you check out the CD track. They really captured some mojo on that one.

 

Noticed in November 4 :: “Head On”

The latest song in November is by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Hear it (and the others) on Spotify.

In so many ways, and for better or for words, I “came of musical age” in the 1990s. Even then, my musical tastes were pretty wonderfully diverse: from Pearl Jam to Paul Simon, and lots in between.

Musically, I’m decidedly an anglophile—slap an English accent and sensibility on it, and I’m prone to give it a second listen.

In 1989 or 1990, I picked up Automatic, from The Jesus and Mary Chain, largely on the strength of the music video for “Blues From a Gun”. For some unknown reason, I’ve always been fascinated by music that brings together electronic and decidedly human elements. The Jesus and Mary Chain did just that: they layered loud, distorted guitars over really basic drum machine patterns. From a songwriting perspective, they sounded like they were reinterpreting the Velvet Underground and classic rock and roll melodies and themes through much louder amps.

I was listening to this the other day for the volume and energy of the whole thing, but I also got to thinking about that point of intersection between humanity and electronic elements. It reminds me a lot of my own spirituality, in a way.

“Being human” is always a dance between divine and being, well, “not-so-divine.” That’s an uncomfortable notion for some of us: we’d rather be all of one thing (or the other), but life just isn’t that. We are electronics-meeting-guitars; divinity meeting blood-and-guts. Saints meeting sinners.

(Ironically, my first band didn’t realize that a human drummer doesn’t sound the way a drum machine sounds; we tried to cover a few of the songs on Automatic, and just couldn’t figure out why they didn’t sound right.)

The collision is exhilarating, but sometimes frustrating. I really wish I could just get the whole “saint thing” right and be done with it, or just surrender the “saint thing” and just admit my humanity, giving up on the idea of ever changing.

For some reason I can’t. I have to keep heading back into that tension.

Makes you wanna feel // makes you wanna try
Makes you wanna throw the stars from the sky…

 

Noticed in November 3 :: Gimme Something Good

My ongoing effort to blog about music I’m listening to in November. You can check out my list on Spotify.

Generally, I don’t like to listen to loud music in the morning. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I actually like to “wake up slow” and start quiet. I don’t usually hit my stride, rock-wise, until about 10:30 or 11:00AM. Early morning drives are usually accompanied by Sigur Ros; maybe The National if I feel like pushing the boundaries.

But the way my week has been—and considering I had to drive an hour to class this week—I decided to bend those rules a bit.

Ryan Adams has long been an inspiration to me. His run of releases—11 between 2000 and 2014—is simply amazing. The man knows how to “to the work.” (In fact, it’s a fairly known fact that he and Stephen King, another guy who knows how to sit down and get to work, are fans of each other.)

I’d venture to say that not one of those records was a flop. Maybe there were some “B-” records, with some C- songs on them, but on the whole the whole catalogue is just solid. 

(BTW, this is no way mean to say that the man cannot turn a phrase; he’s an absolute master at it.)

When I was writing for Maida Vale, Adams was my bar: each year I’d set out to write somewhere between 25 and 30 songs, starting around 5:30 or 6 in the morning and taking advantage of every spare minute. When Maida Vale stopped playing in 2011 (?), I stopped listen to Ryan Adams; the association was too strong.

But I started again when he released his latest, and I haven’t been disappointed. He has a way of making music that I’m convinced I’ve heard before, but really haven’t. Someone once told me that the best music is like that: it simultaneously sounds like classic rock and yet utterly new at the same time. It’s simple, and just solid, and consistent.

I’ve been moved by a couple of his songs—”Dear Chicago” maybe, and “Friends” probably the most—but mostly what Adams does for me is inspire as an artist/creative person to sit down and write. Not care too much about “innovating” or making something radically new. Just get it out the door… 

… And for where I’m at in my life right now, this is healing. Music is still very much my craft, my release, and when I get to make something, to create it, it touches something deep inside me that is still pure and youthful and innocent. It is relatively untouched by all the egoism and self-laden burdens that plague so much of my life.

 

Noticed in November 2 :: Discipline

Again, inspired by my sister, I ‘m taking a season to write about songs that I am “noticing”. Here’s the Spotify list of the songs (in development).

I think it’s one of the great truths of music and art that the best songs are generally written by folks who are either running firmly towards God or firmly away from God.

(Bono said that, by the way, so you know it has to be true.)

I don’t know really know Trent Reznor, but at the very least he (a) has the reputation of running away from God, and (b) writes some awesome, forceful and violent songs.

Most of them are very much NSFW; police yourselves.

I wrote that I was pretty much in the pit on Nov 3, and on Nov 4 I woke up still fighting a bit of shame and sadness.

But then I got mad.

I’m not proud of my temper; most of the time it expresses itself in hurtful and even embarrassing ways. Nevertheless, it’s there. It’s a part of me.

And on November 4 I decided to get pissed off at the things that drug me into that pit.

Whoever Reznor really is, he writes pretty profoundly about (what I consider to be) spirituality and even health. He kicked a pretty rough heroin addiction back around 2005. Since then he’s created some pretty insightful songs about some of the emotional and psychological demons that haunt some of us.

The chorus of “Discipline” is,

“I need your discipline // I need your help
I need your discipline // I know that once I stop I cannot stop myself…”

Doesn’t get any more real than that.

I cannot and will not vouch for all of Nine Inch Nails’ work, but there are sometimes that I need to hear something that is loud, intelligently aggressive, and also grooving. 

So as I drove around central Florida (still in Orlando for class), I just blasted NIN’s music and allowed some of my anger and frustration to fuel my crawl out of the depths.

Johnny Rotten once sang (well, sort of, Rotten never really “sings”), “Anger is an energy.”

Sometimes our anger can help us fight against the “dark stuff” in our lives.

 

 

Into the Desert: Intro

 The Desert

Welcome to “The Dry”…

This spring, I dreamed up a teaching series for my church called, “Fierce Landscapes” (inspired by the book by Belden Lane of the same name). It was a journey through “desert spirituality”, which continues to be a really powerful idea in my life. I thought I’d turn it into a blog series, so for the next few weeks I’m going to explore what Israel’s journey through the desert means to us today. Please let me know how you like it. 

The Exodus is, without a doubt, the central event of the Old Testament. If you remove the actual freeing of Israel from Egypt, pretty much the whole story of God’s people will come unhinged. It is the center, the spoke, that holds Israel’s self-identity together. Remove the fact that God—YHWH—tangibly intervened in history at one point, and you the whole operation is in jeopardy. It’s simply that important.

So it’s worth thinking about.

If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s a brief summary. After God calls this one man—Abram—and his subsequent family to become a part of this great rescue operation, God’s great redemptive plan, at one point (namely, at the end of Genesis the first book of the Bible) that family ends up living in Egypt. Most Genesis 37-50 tells the story of how Israel’s sons—first Joseph and then the rest—end up living in Egypt. Joseph rises from a place of imprisonment to a place of power in pharaoh’s household, and at that point, even though the “rescue operation” isn’t necessarily moving forward, the family is safe and secure and waiting for the next unfolding of God’s plan.

Unfortunately, things veer south, and the book of Exodus opens up with this phrase:

“Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph… The Egyptians put foremen of foxed work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work” (1:8, 11a).

Basically, Israel, the descendants of Abraham and thus the focal point of God’s work in the world, has been made captive by the Egyptian empire, and things in no way look good for their release any time soon.

One day, Moses, a Hebrew who has been basically raised as an Egyptian, is out tending the flocks of his father-in-law when he has a supernatural encounter with God. Appearing in a bush that is burning but is somehow not consumed, God tells Moses that He has heard the cries of Israel, and that He is about to act to free them. He is going to step into history in a very real and tangible way, and get the rescue operation back on track. (Along the way he gives Moses the first details of how He is going to do this: “Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. So get going, I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt; 3:9-10).

Through a series of miraculous and devastating plagues, YHWH forces Pharaoh to relent and release Israel. They are free to head towards a land that God will show them: a place of security, of peace. A place where they will be free.

In other words, the place that every slave desperately wants to get to.

However, in between Egypt and this “promised land” is the desert. The wilderness. The unknown.

And Israel has to go through it. Like it or not, there is no detour, no shortcut around the blistering sands and freezing nights of the desert.

It’s also the same for us.

God promises the same things to us that He promised the Israelites: rest, peace, and mission (note that I didn’t say “a Cadillac, a new house, and a great job”). God absolutely wants us to have, as Jesus puts it, “the eternal life now.” He wants to see His Kingdom come in our lives and in our world.

But only if we are willing to go into the desert and allow ourselves to be shaped by it. 

The desert is decidedly “in between”. It is neither-here-nor-there. It is not slavery, but it is not the promised land. It is not bricks, but it is not rest. It is a wilderness, a frontier.

Why?

Why doesn’t God just take the Israelites straight into Canaan, the place He promises them?

Why doesn’t He just instantly change us into peaceful, compassionate people?

Succinctly, because what God wants most of all is for His children to grow and mature. To be ready for the promises (land, freedom, rest, peace, etc.)

The desert is what’s known as “liminal space.” It is frontier space, borderland. It’s the place where the old no longer makes sense, but the new is not yet realized.

Liminal space is the place of change. The governing image is that of a threshold and an open door. As you stand in the frame of the door, you are between two rooms, or between inside and outside. You are (quite literally) neither here nor there.

It’s the space where things happen, where we are the most open to change and growth (if for nothing else than nothing seems to make sense any more).

Later in Israel’s story, God compares His people to His bride, and says this about her and the desert:

“Therefore, I will charm her,
And bring her into the desert,
And speak tenderly to her heart.
“From there I will give her vineyards,
And make the Achor Valley a door of hope.
There she will respond to me
As in the days of her youth,
Like the time when she came out
Of the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:14-15)

What this scripture is saying essentially is that in the spiritual life the desert is a place of positive change, of growth, of spiritual encounter.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable, only necessary. 

Do you want to grow? Do you want to be free? Do you want to change? To mature, to grow up? Then the simple invitation rolls out to you: come into the desert. Come into the “space between”, and get ready. Sure, it’s dusty. And dry. And confusing. And anything but comfortable.

But if you were to be honest, the alternative is simply to stay in Egypt, to stay a slave, the “same old way you’ve always been.”

Most of us don’t really want that. We want what Moses and the children of Israel wanted: a life that’s somehow a bit bigger, a bit more peaceful, a bit more engaged, a bit more “on mission” than what we are currently experiencing.

But to do that, we have to be willing to go through the place where we may really not want to go.

Are you willing?

 

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