The Profound Powerless of Mondo Cozmo’s “Shine”

I’m still a sucker for a heart on its sleeve…

(and a good hook…)

I stumbled across this song a few months ago, back in the spring. I was listening to some Spotify “New Music” playlist, and all of a sudden I heard familiar-but-new sounds: echoes of The Verve and other Brit Pop bands that I’ve always loved.

And then the lyrics started:

Stick with me Jesus through the coming storm,
I’ve come to you in search of something I have lost
Shine down a light on me and show a path
I promise you I will return if you take me back…

Did he just say, “Jesus”? Okay, now I’m really interested…

I confess: I’m not above getting pretty excited whenever I hear someone flirting with the powerful intersection of art and faith. I get even more pumped when I hear someone drop Jesus’ name with some kind of sincerity.

So now I’m definitely hooked.

But then the chorus took me back a bit:

Let ’em get high, let ’em get stoned,
Everything will be alright if you let it go…

Hmmmmm….

So now I’m not so sure.

But the verse lyrics! Still so sincere, so out there (and again with the Jesus!)

My friends are so alone and it breaks my heart
My friends don’t understand we are all lost
Shine down a light on them and show a path
I promise you they will return if you take ’em back

And finally, verse 3:

Come with me Mary through these modern lines
Stick with me Jesus til the end of time
Shine down a light on me and let me know
And take me in your arms and never let me go…

Seriously; what am I supposed to do with this?

When the record came out, I listened, and quickly got taken in. The whole thing really paid off the taste that was “Shine,” with more heart, and vulnerability and a lyrical/musical references and touchpoints that I could easily recognize and resonate with.

But, again… what is up with this tune?

Well, though I believe in lyrical mystery, and I affirm the rights of artists to hold their cards close to their chests, something hit me hard on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks back, and so I’m going offer up my interpretation of this tune.

I had preached that morning on “Powerlessness“, and what it meant to surrender our desire to control our environment and our lives.

And then I remembered that a huge part of our lives and our environment is people.

Spouses. Family. Children. Co-Workers.

Friends.

Spouses, family members, children, co-workers, friends, etc. who might choose to “get high”, or who might choose to do any number of things that we really wish they wouldn’t do.

And we are powerless to stop them. (Human beings have this sticky way of eluding our efforts to control them.)

When we are confronted with this ultimate test of our desire to control, we really have to choose:

Am I willing to be powerless over the people who are (a) supremely important to me and yet (b) may make choices (in fact, they usually DO make choices) that at the very least I may disagree with, and at most may be harmful?

It sounds impossible but there is a way out, and here’s the deal:

It’s not simple, but it’s easy. 

We can choose to (a) love them, and (b) cling to our faith.

One of the most powerful ideas I cling to is that *God is infinitely more invested in my friends/family/co-workers/church than I am. *

God loves them more than I ever could.

And that means that I can surrender them. I can be powerless over them…

… And “let it go.”

 

As usual: thanks for reading. I’d love it if you help me grow this space, so please help me by:

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Peace and blessings…

+eric

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When I Grow Up

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In late 1988 (more from “The Vapor”) a folk singer named Michelle Shocked released a single called “When I Grow Up.” Since she was “home grown” (from Texas, where I was raised… mostly), we heard a lot of the song in Fort Worth. At the time, I thought it had a pretty solid groove, and a unique perspective, but at the same time a little quirky.

Here are the lyircs:

When I grow up I want to be an old woman
When I grow up I want to be an old woman
Oh, an old, an old, old woman

Then I think I’m gonna find myself an old man
Then I think I’m gonna marry myself that old man
An old, an old, an old, an old, a really old man

We’re gonna have a hundred and twenty babies
A hundred and five, ten, fifteen, twenty babies
Uh huh, that’s what I said a hundred and twenty babies

We’ll raise ’em on tiger’s milk and green bananas
Mangoes and coconuts and watermelon
We’re gonna give ’em that watermelon when they starts yellin’
Here’s what they’ll yell…

In the summer we’ll sit in a field and watch the sun melt
In the winter we’ll sit by a fire and watch the moon freeze
Me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies
Me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies
I said, me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies
Oh, when I grow up I want to be an old woman
When I grow up I want to be an oooooold…

Pretty cool.

Now, as I stare down a 49th year walking this planet, I’ve been thinking a bit about this song, and I hear it a little differently now. The lyric asks me questions now that I’m not sure I heard 30 odd years ago.

When I hear the song now I think about how being an “old woman” (or in my case, an old man) is so much more than an age:

Now I think about elders. 

More specifically, I wonder two things:

  1. Are people willing to seek out the wisdom of the elders?
  2. Where are all of our elders?

But here’s the deal: Question 1 is a bit out of my control, and frankly I’m just not that interested today in “complaining about the young generation”.

So, older people, I’m talking to US today.

Are we aspiring to be ELDERS? 

(For clarity, I’m not talking here about a position in a church. I’m using the term in a more global, traditional sense, of men and women who have…

… walked the paths of life

… probably fallen down once or twice (or 14 times)

… chosen to grow beyond their own egos and agendas

… (and consequently) have walked the road to die to themselves

… have begun the journey to separate from their earthly concerns and choose the peace that comes from detached loveing

… understand that life is more about what you can give than what you get…

THAT kind of “elder”.)

So, yeah, that’s what I’m wondering. The older I get, the more I look around me and wonder, “Where are the elders?”

I’ve been blessed to stumble across a handful here and there, but make no mistake, there are a lot of people out there who, even as the decades fall away behind them, are deciding not to grow up and be “an old woman/man.”

(And without going on another rant, our culture really doesn’t help much to discourage this resistance… Sometimes it seems that if you choose to remain immature and bound to your ego, and your agendas and small-self concerns well into your 60s, 70s or even 80s(!), then there’s an APP or a 24-hour news cycle or an echo chamber that will help you do that.)

But for me, the cost is too high. I think that I’m with Michelle on this one: “When I grow up I want to be an old man.”

The cost is just too high. I’d rather have the peace. I’d rather have the contentment. I’d rather have the patience. Maybe that would help someone younger; but that’s not up to me. What I can control is my availability to God and those closest to me.

God, make me an elder.

 

As usual… thanks for commenting and sharing …

 

 

Music From “The Vapor”

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Image via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/27613359@N03/6211307788

It’s always fun when streams in life start to bleed together.

My church has been journeying through the book of Ecclesiastes for a few weeks now, and one of the key concepts that emerges almost immediately in the book (indeed the first 2 verses) is the Hebrew word hevel. 

Most English Bibles translate the word as “meaningless” (the King James calls it “vanity”) but the Hebrew is more literally “vapor” or “breathe”. In this context, “The Teacher” of Ecclesiastes is not so much declaring that everything is “meaningless” in an absolute way, but that it is vapor: ephemeral, passing, impossible to control (if you want to see and hear of the implications of this idea, you can check out our Vimeo E3 Vimeo Feed or our E3 Church Podcast).

Lately, as I get close to my 50s (WHAT!?!?), I’ve been thinking of some of the music and bands of my 20s, when I was a young and growing musician, learning the basics of my craft and discipline. For a good decade plus, I absorbed everything I could in order to reach “the next level” of my musical development, and during that search I ran across a multitude of bands and artists and songwriters and guitar players who, for a relatively brief period of time, were considered masters of their craft (and therefore, worthy of my time and attention).

But guess what: they were vapor. 

Even more than than other areas of life, music and art can be truly passing, as tastes change and evolve (listening to almost any music produced in the 1980s can show how much entire sonic palettes can dominate briefly, only to sound almost ridiculous—thanks, cocaine—a mere 5 or 10 years later.

But nonetheless, there were a few bright spots in an often dark age of music. The vast majority of these bands never entered the public consciousness outside of their immediate context; put another way,

If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t know. 

I got lucky: I was.

So, since the digital world now makes it easier for us to “grasp the vapor” a bit, I wanted to offer you all just a few sounds from the past—mostly from the 80s and 90s—that you probably wouldn’t know about (but maybe you should).

And now, the introductions:

Hothouse Flowers

For sometime in the late 80s, U2 had a record label. This was one of their first signings. Hothouse Flowers were some strange blend of folk, soul, along with some unmistakably Irish leanings. This is the sound of my freshman year in college (at least until the cassette wore out).

The Call

Immediately, two thoughts enter my mind regarding The Call: the first is the unfortunate …. of …. (WORSHIP SONG>>>>) FLATTENING …. The second is that it must say something about the quality of your music when a young singer from a pretty popular band agrees to sing backup on one of your singles (this is long before “collaborations” became synonymous with “new ways to make more dollars”). In this case, a young Bono from this upstart band called U2 can be heard singing backup on “What’s Happened to You.” What’s more “The Walls Came Down” features Garth Hudson (from The Band) on keys.

The BoDeans

Three things you’d have to know: First, they opened some dates for U2 on The Joshua Tree tour. I saw them on the first of the first of a two night stand in Fort Worth, Texas (On the second night BB King opened the show; that night included the filming of the live footage of “When Love Comes to Town” for Rattle and Hum… it’s all about the stories.)

Second, almost more than any other of these acts, The BoDeans (really just two dudes from Wisconsin whose surname is not “BoDean”) suffered from some of the more unfortunate sonic choices of the era: gated snares, gratituitous reverse reverb, and an overall emphasis on the crystalline high end (again: thanks, cocaine!) at the expense of the guttural visceral mid-range.

Third, in my opinion, this is where some of the more proximate roots of “Americana” can be found: in the late 80s and 90s, various midwestern bands were discovering the beauty of stripped-down production (at least, when their record companies let them have a voice), harmonies, and the beauty of songwriting. In just a few short years, a little band from southern Illinois called Uncle Tupelo would take up the mantle, releasing a few records, and even more importantly eventually breaking up, forcing Jeff Tweedy to start Wilco and Jay Farrar to start Son Volt.

The Jayhawks

I first read about this Minneapolis band in University of Texas at Arlington school newspaper, when they rolled through the Dallas/Fort Worth, circa 1992/93. This band was similar to the BoDeans (sans the phony last names) with one huge difference: Rick Rubin produced their debut record. In other words, gone were the awful sounding drums and studio tricks, and in their place was the raw and very natural recording sound that Rubin would bring to everyone from The Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash. This was a game-changing record that showed a lot of us how music was going to sound in the very near future. They sung amazing harmonies with each other, and just made honest, heartfelt music.

Around 2001 or 2002, I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with the band, and Teri Gross referred to the band’s 2000 release Smile as “the best record of the year.” It’s just full of one concise, pointed, economical song after another.

Ricki Lee Jones

This is some vapor music from a slightly earlier time (her first record came out in 1979), but I still think that Ricki Lee Jones’ 1981 record Pirates may be the best singer-songwriter record that practically no one under 40 has ever heard. Jones was cinematic and dramatic, but the thing that really hooks me about this (and her first record as well) is the studio band. This is the way music sounds to my ears: real, and immediate, like you sense the guys in the room together. It is organic and coiling, and her voice is weaving in and around the rhythm section, and the moment on “We Belong Together” when what you thought was 6/8 was really a deep swing… I mean…

It still catches my breath 30 years later.

 

No, you can’t hold the vapor… but boy if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, there are some real special moments that come our way.

If you want to actually hear this stuff, the “Vapor” Playlist can be found at: https://open.spotify.com/user/1219088576/playlist/0dVi7R8lqmEXSIBuxuqRWE

 

Song Stories: “Thank You”

So a few weeks ago I released a record (or whatever they’re called nowadays) called After All(,) This

It was really nothing more than a little exercise in musical creativity and exploration, and it was deeply satisfying to me. What’s more, some of you actually paid money for it, and that was a great blessing to me as well.

One of the songs on that release is actually a cover of a song from the early 1990s by a guy named Dennis Jernigan. On the surface, it may have been an odd choice, but there’s a story and a connection to that song.

In 1995, my wife and I moved from Texas to Chicago, Illinois to begin what was the first of many little “adventures” that we’ve undergone. At that time, I was an electric guitarist in my mid-20s, with some miles behind me as a fairly focused musician from Texas. I played on 6th Street in Austin, in Deep Elllum in Dallas, and a few other places in the Lone Star State. What’s more, I was imbued with the notion that electric guitarists from Texas were a breed apart: our legacy included Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Johnson, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top (not to mention Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson).

I took this legacy seriously, and that combined with a strange gumbo of Duane Allman, the Edge, David Gilmour and even a little 1980s hair metal all produced an attitude that was all about making a statement and making an impact on whatever was going on around me musically.

(Occasionally I even had the chops to pull it off LOL.)

Though I’d grown up in the church, I’d done my share of wandering (and wondering), and by the time we made this move to Illinois, I’d already hit my first of a few (unfortunately it took more than one) “rock bottoms” in my life, and I was beginning to re-explore my faith. I grew up in a strictly “hymns” church, but during this time Shana and I started to encounter something called “Worship Music”, which was (supposedly) Jesus music set in “contemporary” arrangements.

The lyrics were spot on, obviously, and they touched the part of my life that longed for a deep, passionate connection to something or someONE higher.

However, the music was another story.

It was supposed to be “contemporary,” but I often sat wondering, “Contemporary for whom?”

Though the lyrics reached me, the recordings did not: the compressed, chorused, polite guitar sounds left me feeling empty.

When we arrived at Willow Creek Community Church, through an amazing set of circumstances and beautifully serendipitous conversations, I ended up volunteering with the music team there. All of a sudden, I’d gone from clubs in Texas—and an occasional church gig to 75 people—to playing before 5,000 at a pop, 10,000-15,000 total on a weekend. What’s more, the musicians there were mostly killer. Just amazing drummers (always my favorite) and bass players and keyboardists and singers, etc., etc.

(And they were filled with this amazing, joyous, celebratory love and passion as well.) 

And other guitar players too…

But not so many like me.

(NOTE: Sitting here, I know now how damaging it can be to my soul for me to ponder ways in which I am different from other people, but at the time, this seemed pretty real to me…)

  • They were established family men and women … Shana and I had been married for a few years, but were still a few years away from being able to have children (another story for another time).
  • They wore dockers and polo shirts … I had jeans and thrift store t-shirts (or that amazing relic of the 1990s: the gas station work shirt).
  • They played the aforementioned chorused and compressed Stratocasters through multi-effect units … I played a Les Paul through a handful of pedals attached by velcro to a piece of plywood.

In addition, I brought this southern, Allman Brothers approach to what they were doing…

And, sometimes, it just really seemed to work.

What was also fun and helpful was that I really didn’t know any of these records that they were covering. Instead, I played with instinct and improvisation. I listened to what they were doing in rehearsal, and then just started playing “what made sense”.

… And, for their part, they tolerated it.

(NOTE: Musicians and guitarists, if you want to do this, please… well… please be good. This approach is decidedly NOT recommended unless you’ve spent upwards of 4-5 hours a day of “deliberate practice on Wikipedia” for about 7-8 years.)

Anyway, “Thank You” was one of those early songs. I loved it’s simplicity; at its core was something essential and elemental to faith, and what’s more there was a soulfulness that I was able to find underneath the somewhat safe (and overly “white”) production. I remember being on that stage at Willow, tuned to “Drop D” and just hammering that low D against a wailing high slide. I remembered digging down deep, SOUL LEVEL DEEP and trying as hard as a human being could try to MAKE THE NOTES I PLAYED = THE EMOTIONS I FELT.

Looking back, it might have worked. It might have been a disaster. Truth is, it was probably somewhere in between.

There are other songs, and maybe they are for other times.

But that’s why I covered “Thank You.”

(OH: And it’s ALSO because… I’m thankful.)

For all that You’ve done I will thank You
For all that You’re going to do
For all that You’ve promised, and all that You are
Is all that has carried me through
Jesus, I thank You

And I thank You, thank You, Lord
And I thank You, thank You, Lord
Thank You for loving and setting me free
Thank You for giving Your life just for me
How I thank You, Jesus I thank You
Gratefully thank You
Thank You.

– “Thank You” by Dennis Jernigan (c) PraiseCharts

Born at the Right Time

Almost every morning, I wake up hearing music.

Not from an iPhone or an alarm clock, but in my head. I’m sure that this isn’t rare, so surely someone out there knows exactly what I’m talking about: as I begin to stir and feel the pull towards the time to wake up, the strains of a song, or sometimes just a part of a song, begins to cycle in my head, over and over again. In addition, I suspect because I spent so many years of my life as an active musician, these songs aren’t just background music to my yawns and stretches and the daily battle to get up and get going. Nope, not at all. These songs take center stage; they play in the center of my mind, edging everything else out as I greet the day.

It’s entertaining, occasionally, to try and figure out why a particular song comes to me: sometimes it’s more obvious, like when I’ve been listening to something in particular, or when I was anticipating listening (or playing) to an artist or song that day. Those are the easy ones.

Other times, however, the songs are obviously coming from a deeper place, messages from the deeper levels of my soul and consciousness. They may trigger an unresolved conflict, or be a vehicle to express joy and contentment (something with which I’m still struggling).

So this morning, I woke up to the sound of “Born at the Right Time,” which is the 7th track off of his Rhythm of the Saints record (released after Graceland). 

This morning, I also woke up to my 48th birthday.

As I “treated myself” to a four-mile run, I let the record play in the background (it’s really amazing, and I actually prefer it to Graceland, but that’s another story), and tried to figure out what the universe may have been trying to tell me this morning.

Now (a) I can’t pretend to know exactly what the lyric is about, and (b) I can’t pretend to completely understand the depths of my soul, but here’s what came to me…

“Ever been lonely, ever been lied to?
Ever had to scuffle in fear, nothing denied to?
Born at the instant the church bells chimed,
The whold world whispering, ‘Born at the right time…'”

For some of us, the older we get, the easier it is for us to see our brokenness and cracks and failures. Sometimes, it’s also easier for us to see how the world has contributed to that brokenness. Some of us were loved badly; some of us weren’t loved at all. Some of us should have been protected and sheltered at a young age from the darkness of the world. When we become aware of these injuries, great or small, it’s tempting to overly focus on what was done to us, or what was lacking in our past. This is a healthy part of growing and maturing, but this isn’t where the process ends… 

I have come to believe that the point of life is to come to terms with our past, however painful it may be, and then to learn from it. (Easier said sometimes than done, I know.) A huge part of my own life has been a journey to stop pointing the finger at my past to justify “why Eric is the way he is,” and start to focus on just what Eric can learn from it. In this way, I know that what I am called to is to accept my past and my existence and the whole of my journey and to bring it into the protective umbrella of grace and trust that God can teach me something from it, however rough or even malignant it can appear.

Anger, resentment, and even sadness and mourning can only carry me so far in my journey. Eventually, I know that the universe is calling me to declare that there were no “accidents”—though there may have been some bad or ill-equipped people—and accept that the past cannot be changed, only learned from. I cannot go back, I only have this moment, this day, this time to throw myself into the arms of grace and “present-risenness” to say, “I am here, and I am living in hope.”

My life is not a mistake, and everything can be redeemed. There is nothing that the Light cannot penetrate and heal and redeem. I was not born at an inopportune time; my life is happening now, which means there is always hope to grow and change and lean into the Universe that is here, right now.

Yep: forty-eight years ago I was born at the right time, and everything that happened since then, both good and bad, is my teacher, to help me be available to this time today.

Here’s the track:

And this time, live (with shoulder pads):

 

+e

 

 Soul Music

I was 9 or 10 when my maternal grandfather died. We made the trip from Texas to North Carolina to celebrate his life and to lay him to rest. I knew him as a kind, soft-spoken southern gentleman (my mother has different memories, as usual).

I’m not sure how a 10 year old interprets “death”. Though I had visited him and spent a little time with him, we grew up in Pennsylvania before Texas, and so I didn’t have the connection I had with my dad’s parents, who grew up two houses down the road (my uncle lived in between us). My mom was pretty devastated, and it hurt to see her so torn up, but we did our best to keep it together and to mourn in a healthy way. Meals were brought; hugs were given and received; stories were through moist eyes and shaking voices.

There was a viewing; I’d never been to one before (my maternal grandmother died when I was probably 4 or 5, and I don’t remember anything about that except hearing my mother receive the phone call and knowing instantly as I heard her cry, “What?!?!?!” that something was seriously wrong. (Is there a word for that tone of voice? The tone where the unthinkable has happened? It’s not “sad”; it’s not just “shocked”; it’s something from beyond. Beyond the pale of normal, “safe” human interaction.)

Anyway, the viewing. To say it disturbed me is to understate things. The casket was open, but I was, well, horrified, as I realized what I was supposed to do: walk up and look and “pay my respects”. Shamefully, my parents had to virtually drag me up to the casket; I’m sure my mom was so embarassed, but something irrational had captured me, and I couldn’t get past it.

Somehow we got through that night. The next day was the funeral proper. I remember a typical rural southern church: white wooden walls, vaulted ceilings, pews with cushions, everything very clean and arranged. I sat down next to my mother and the service began. Everything was fine until…

… They started playing, “How Great Thou Art,” an old hymn. I don’t know if it was one of my grandfather’s favorite hymns; I don’t know if it was an afterthought: “Hey everyone knows this one!” All I know is that as the music began and people started singing, I lost it.

I mean, lost it. 

I mean, not like you get the, “Fa-fa-fas” or the tears stream silently down your face. I mean irrational, super ugly, uncontrollable wailing. 

Even to this day my mom says, “We didn’t know what was happening! It was just beyond the normal level of human weeping; you were unconsolable!”

I couldn’t tell you what had happened, except that in that moment, I realized the power of music. I was experiencing something that was communicating to me beyond words, beyond speech, beyond even a human embrace. There was something in the combination of melody, rhythm and words that drilled its way so far beyond my defenses that I was devastated before I even knew what was happening.

It was like being attacted by emotional/spiritual ninjas.

That, my friends, is “soul music.”

Believe it or not, I think in that moment I was captured by music: its power and its ability to break down walls and defenses; to speak the unspeakable and express the unexpressable.

Once you touch a moment like that (theologians might call it numinous or transcendent) you really can’t go back. It changes you; lets you know what’s truly possible, beyond this world that we can see and touch. There was something beyond all of that, and I wanted it. Not only did I want to experience it again, I wanted to be a part of creating it for others.

It’s been a long road since then, but a few days ago I stood up in a small chapel—only 45 people or so—where family and a few friends had gathered to remember “Grandma Alice.” Alice passed away at 94, the grandmother of some friends of mine from my community. Amazingly, I was also Grandma Alice’s worship pastor. Somehow, this woman in her 80s (at the time) worshiped under the leaership of a rock and rolling, guitar playing, melancholic and introspective pastor (that’s me). She was great at giving hugs and giving encouraging words, and I was honored to be a part of remembering her.

The family chose two songs for the service. I don’t know if she had a part of picking them or not. The last song in the service was “I’ll Fly Away.”

Any guess as to what the first one was? IMG_4153

+e

Beck Spills Some Musical Truth

“It’s never for the glory, it’s for the satisfaction of blowing up a gig. a lot of people are satisfied with a video. Those who aren’t satisfied with a video will buy the album, and then there’s a few who get the album who will go to the show. That’s where it’s human beings, and that’s what we live for. That’s where it gets sick. If it’s all on video or all on record everything is proper and everyone is minding their manners. We like to get in there and cause a commotion. That’s music; that’s the way it’s meant to be.” Beck.

I love this quote. It actually came off of a show called Sessions at West 54th that used to air back in the 90s. It featured really great bands and musicians  playing absolutely live and in the round. It was an intimate venue that allowed great artists to put killer abilities on display.

At some level I will always be a live musician. I used to be intimidated by the studio, but got over that fear (thanks to a lot of work with a metronome, amongst other things), but it still always comes down to the live event, the exchange of sweat and blood and volume and energy that happens when you’re just pouring it out on a stage, and people are soaking it up and nodding their heads up and down and moving with energy. It’s always great to just let the moment take you, to throw aside perfection in favor of the power of a moment.

That’s still where it’s at.