The Best Concert I Ever Saw and the Forgotten Years

In 1990 I saw the Australian band Midnight Oil at the Bronco Bowl in Dallas, Texas. They were touring in support of their release Blue Sky Mining, which was probably their most popular record in the US. This was the peak of true “alternative music”, when many radio stations were still free and DJs were spinning all manner of exciting new bands, and I was introduced to Midnight Oil—and tall, bald-headed lead singer Peter Garrett’s crazy dancing—through their 1987 record Diesel and Dust (I made a brief Spotify playlist). However, since I was just out of high school, and shaking off the last remnants of 1980s hair metal, I really didn’t get the band. I spent a lot time mocking Garrett’s limited vocal range and his entirely awkward dance moves. However, 3 years can make a lot of difference in a musician’s life, and by 1990 I was ready for Blue Sky Mining. 

So when they went on tour later that year, me and my good friend (and lead singer in my band) Kevin got tickets to the Bronco Bowl, a vintage venue in Oak Cliff, just outside of Dallas. The Bronco Bowl was a great place to see a show: intimate enough to be close to the band but large enough to pack some legit numbers in. We sat back and waited for the show to start.

I still remember the lights coming down as the band played the first notes of “Stars of Warburton”, the second song of the album. Garrett walked to the center mic and sang the verse and chorus with an intensity that I had seldom experienced. The crowd (me included) erupted when the band left the first chorus behind and, as they headed towards the 2nd verse, Garrett started doing his dance. His movement set us free, and we began to move and jump and dance right with him. It was a singular event: we were not observing the band; we were somehow with them, doing our part to create an experience. They provided the soundtrack, but we were all united and together in the same time and space.

It was incredible; this was rock and roll. Garrett and Midnight Oil showed me what can happen when a singer and band hold nothing back and give themselves over—without restraint—to an idea, a song, a movement, an event.

Ninety minutes or so, the band finished with a rendition of Elvis Costello’s song, “What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love and Understanding)?” We drove the 30 miles back to Fort Worth inspired and spent.

The fourth song on Blue Sky Mining is called, “The Forgotten Years,” a song about the rhythm between years of war and years of peace. It’s anthemic and powerful, a reminder that we should never forget what peace costs. I still love singing this song around my house—sometimes I even dance like Garrett does (thought you’ll never see it)—but recently it has really struck me when I consider that my country has been at war now for almost 15 years (since we started bombing Afghanistan in October, 2001). It seems as if war has now become the normal state of affairs for the United States, and I wonder, “What is this doing to our mentality as a society?” We have declared the “end of hostilities” a few times now, but still we seem to be mired in low-level war.

Do we remember what peace feels like?

I wonder how easy it is to celebrate, as Garrett calls them, “the years between”, when the years between no longer seem to come. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I hope we remember that war should not be the normal state of affairs. 

I was reading my Bible this morning, and I stumbled across these words in Isaiah 32:

“The fruit of righteousness will be peace,
and the outcome of righteousness,
calm and security forever.
Then my people will live in a peaceful dwelling,
in secure homes, in carefree resting places.” (vv17-18)

These words remind me that as much as it seems as if war is the normal state of affairs, it’s not. God is a God of peace, and actually peace should be the outcome of our spiritual life.


Do Not Seek the Whirlwind

In 1990 I walked to campus reciting this prayer: 

“God bring me the whirlwind. Bring the me the storm. Tear me up. Bring the pain.” 

Though this particular prayer was a response to a ridiculous relationship that was ending, it also reflected what was a deeper truth for me at the time: 

That pain and trauma was necessary to art. 

As an angst-y 20-something musician (and let’s face it: what 20-something musician isn’t angst-y?), I cultivated and curated pain like a miser. It was virtually the only emotion that I could easily recognize, and that fact alone made it the most accessible to me as a guitar player and fledgling songwriter. 

I was reading this article today on the Huffington Post and it made me think of that prayer, and that time in my life. 

It was hell. 

It was hell, and it makes me sad to think about the myth that is still so pervasive: that only tortured/addicted/troubled/solitary (the list goes on and on, but you get the point) make art. 

What’s even more troubling to me is when I think about how I actually sought out pain and drugs and rejection because I thought it would make me a better musician. 

Eventually, somehow I started to wake up. I realized that the rock and roll mythology that I believed in was not quite accurate, and that:

  1. there are quite stable people who actually make quite exceptional art, and
  2. there are actually quite troubled “artists” who make horrible, unexceptional art. 

In other words, there is no correlation. 

Now, what I do still maintain is that great struggle can produce great art: when you read the stories of Michelangelo, di Vinci, the Beatles, or U2, or Wilco, etc., it’s easy to see that some kind of struggle occurs in the midst of producing art, but that struggle does not have to be emotional. 

It can be a struggle with pushing the boundaries of technology, whether it’s the number of tracks available in a recording studio or the types of paint pigment that are available. 

It can be a struggle with keeping a band together in the midst of losing record deals or changing consumer tastes. 

It can be the internal struggle of a writer who is struggling to put into words the vision that is burning inside of her. 

But it does not have to mean personal drama. 

It does not have to mean pain. 

It does not have to mean depression. 

(Obviously, for those of us who struggle with depression, we know that sometimes the isolation and melancholy that swirls around us can sometimes give rise to thoughts and feelings that lead to songs or books or poems or paintings… but the point is we don’t need to seek it out.)

Don’t cultivate the pain for the sake of “art”.

Don’t pray for the whirlwind just because you think you need to suffer to create. 

Sometimes life is indeed hard; the whirlwind will come on its own, and art may or may not come out of it, but that’s another question.

As We Come To It …

I won’t be posting on Christmas Day, and as we all get ready for the last push to get Christmas gatherings prepared, gifts bought, parties prepared for, here’s a note about peace from Brennan Manning…

When we are in right relationship with Jesus, we are in the peace of Christ. Except for grave, conscious, deliberate infidelity, which must be recognized and repented of, the present or absence of feelings of peace is the normal ebb and flow of the spiritual life. When things are plain and ordinary, when we live on the plateaus and in the valleys (which is where most of the Christian life takes place) and not on the mountaintops of peak religious experiences, this is no reason to blame ourselves, to think that our relationship with God is collapsing, or to echo Magdalene’s cry in the garden, ‘Where has beloved gone?’ Frustration, irritation, fatigue and so forth may temporarily unsettle us, but they cannot rob us of living in the peace of Christ Jesus. As the playwright Ionesco once declared in the middle of a depression: ‘Nothing discourages me, not even discouragement’ (from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas).

Peace—real peace—to all of you over these next few beautiful days.