Listen to the Voice of Experience

u2 songs of experienceU2 has been doing what they do for a long time. Now they’ve finally released their follow-up to 2014’s Songs of Innocence with their 14th studio album Songs of Experience.

To be honest, I previewed it online and thought, “Meh!” In those brief excerpts, my first impression was not very favorable, there was nothing that grabbed me, nothing that stood out and said, “You need to listen to this!” But it’s U2! This is the band that has reinvented itself over and over again and I can’t think of a better name for this latest offering of theirs than Songs of Experience.

I remember the Fall of my freshman year of college when Achtung Baby came out. It was a little hard to take at first. It seemed like such a leap from The Joshua Tree that I wasn’t completely convinced. As much as I can be a change junkie, more often than not, I can be a creature of habit who loves the comfort of those warm and familiar things, like a band who knows how to ride a winning formula.

But I listened to it, then I listened to it again, and I kept listening to it over and over again. In fact, between Achtung Baby and Metallica’s black album, the sonic world of my first semester of college was filled. I could have been complete with just those two albums alone (but there was more).

Songs of Experience, like its predecessor was an album that needed repeat listening for me. I wasn’t fully convinced. As I listened, I was reminded of a scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus. The main character has just been told by his wife that she is pregnant. He is imagining all of his dreams drifting out the window with this sudden change in his life. His wife is upset at his less than enthusiastic response to this news. After a moment, he recounts the story of his introduction to John Coltrane after a recommendation from the guy at the record store. After his initial listening, he hated the album, but he listened to it again. Then he listened to it again and again and again until he couldn’t stop. In that moment he realized that he had fallen in love with the music of John Coltrane. He tells his wife that learning about her pregnancy will be like falling in love with John Coltrane all over again.

I kind of feel like this is a similar experience with U2. Listening to this album, I mean really listening to it and digesting it, picking it apart, spending time with it, wallowing in it, and hearing every word and every note. It is like falling in love with U2 all over again.

Bono was involved in a bicycle accident in 2014. After the accident, he embraced the challenge shared by poet, Brendan Kennelly, that if you really want to get to the heart of writing, you need to write as if you’re dead, writing retrospectively and introspectively. When you factor that in with the political landscape after the election of Donald Trump and the consideration that U2 recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of their album The Joshua Tree, Songs of Experience feels almost like an honest and reflective journal entry.  This album is an intimate and introspective exploration, asking more questions than offering answers. It doesn’t feel preachy, which I think Bono has been accused of in the past, it feels more like advice offered from the experience of mistakes and even regret.

Like the album cover from their last offering, this one offers a more intimate connection to the band. The cover of their last album, Songs of Innocence, showed the band’s drummer, Larry Mullen, Jr., hugging his shirtless son around the waist as if he was pleading with him not to leave his innocence behind. The cover of Songs of Experience depicts Bono’s son and Edge’s daughter (the latter donning the soldier helmet from their Best of 1980-1990 album). They stand there on the cover barefoot, hand in hand, dressed in black. It’s almost a paradox in a picture, the juxtaposition of youth and experience shrouded in black as if they are marking the death of something. Ready for the battle with life that is ahead of them.

The songs:

– “Love Is All We Have Left” – Bono sings, “Love is all we have left” to begin the album. It acts as a Call to Worship of sorts, inviting the listener into the liturgy of the next hour as U2 engages them with their thoughts on the state of things. The double negative that, “this is no time not to be alive.” Defiance against improbable odds, against death itself, love will carry us.

– “Lights of Home” – “I shouldn’t be here ‘cause I should be dead” referring to his bike accident that sidelined him; asking Jesus if he’s still his friend; launches right into this uptown, driving song. “I believe my best days are ahead.” It ends with Bono singing, “Free yourself to be yourself.” A reminder of where we can go to find hope, in the eyes of those we love, there we find the hope to push on. We move forward as we remember where we’ve been.

– “You’re the Best Thing About Me” – Bono makes reference to not only the band’s past album, “Boy,” but also himself as he explains more of the album’s title, saying that he is no longer who he used to be. Paying homage to those around him who have helped him become who he is today, those whom he loves and who have loved him. It’s a humble statement of acknowledgement that we become better by the people with whom we surround ourselves.

– “Get Out of Your Own Way” – Listening to the interview that Bono and The Edge did with Howard Stern, Bono talks about how he wrote this song for his daughter. It’s a love letter from a father who is offering words of wisdom as much to himself as he is to his daughter. He is offering to her from his own experience. The end transitions into “American Soul” with words that play on the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the arrogant, the superstars, the filthy rich. Tongue firmly planted in cheek.

– “American Soul” – “Blessed are the bullies for one day they’ll have to stand up to themselves. Blessed are the liars for the truth can be awkward.” This song continues where the previous one left off with the alternative Beatitudes. Appropriate considering who this song is to: America. This could easily have come from All That You Can’t Leave Behind or How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Bono says this is a love letter to America who is. “still inventing and reinventing itself.” It feels like he is lamenting what America has become, painting a picture of what it was, at least in his mind. It’s a sound of drum and bass, a though that offers grace, a dream the whole world owns, it’s not a fantasy but a call to action. America is rock and roll. Having lived through the political turmoil in Ireland, this is not just facsimile, this is personal.

– “Summer of Love” – With the subtle nod to the 60s and even The Beach Boys, it seems that Bono is using slight of hand even as he sings, “I’ve been thinking ‘bout the west coast, not the one that everyone knows.” It’s a nod to the Syrian refugees who were leaving everything behind and believing, hoping, that their best days were ahead of them, something Bono wishes for himself elsewhere on this album. “When all is lost we find out what remains.” It feels a little like a sequel to “Walk On” when he sang of all that you can’t leave behind and then proceeded to encourage his listener to leave it behind.

– “Red Flag Day” – This one feels a little like early U2, like Boy and October, especially on the chorus with the backing vocals repeating “Red flag day.” The Edge’s guitar has that post-punk feel to it just like their early stuff. It speaks of the turbulence and uncertainty of where we are going. Meeting where the waves are breaking, that place that feels at one moment calm and safe and the next it knocks you off your feet. But we’re doing it together, we aren’t alone, and we step into it doing our best to not let fear drive us, or our fear of fear hold us back. Inspiring and encouraging himself as much as he is the one to whom he is writing.

– “The Showman (Little More Better)” – What’s it like to get up in front of thousands upon thousands of people and bear your soul? A love letter to anyone who falls for a performer, Bono and U2 included. He admits that you probably shouldn’t listen to performers when they aren’t singing. After all, “I lie for a living, I love to let on but you make it true when you sing along.” It’s cheeky but it’s the audience that makes him look a little more better rather than just a pompous and egotistic artist.

– “The Little Things That Give You Away” – “It’s the little things that give you away, your big mouth in the way.” A confession of sorts, that sometimes I’m full of anger, grieving, far from believing and realizing that the end us not near, it’s here. But he never stays there, it’s only sometimes, it’s temporary, but it happens nonetheless.

– “Landlady” – A love letter to his wife, Ali, Bono writes of how he is better with her. In his effort to avoid too much sentimentality, his terminology may be lost. I’m not sure what wife would like to be called a landlady considering that most people’s experience with landladies (or lords) have probably not been the most favorable. I get what he’s saying though, she’s kept him stable and sheltered, especially in those moments of instability.

– “The Blackout” – As soon as the bass kicks in with the drums in the beginning of this song, it feels almost like you’ve stepped back in time. This one feels like it could have come straight from Pop or Zooropa. It’s a political statement about where we are. With lines like, “Democracy is flat on its back” and, “A big mouth says the people they don’t want to be free” Bono is calling his listeners to adjust their eyes to the darkness, to begin to see. In that adjustment, things become clearer. As Bono writes, “It’s in the dark is where we really see ourselves, where we find out who we are, when we’re left with nothing.”

– “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” – It’s safe to say that love seems to be not only one of the biggest topics on this album but in U2’s entire catalogue. Again sharing his own experience with the next generation, assuring them that, “If I could I would come too, but the path is made by you.” These songs are letters to sons and daughters, as Bono admits, telling them to lean into love. Love will propel you, even acting as a bulldozer, strongly moving everything and anything that gets in its way. Idealistic? Yes. Hopeful? Even more so!

– “13 “There Is A Light)” – This is where the regular version of the album ends and it acts as a Benediction, closing the album in a very similar way that it was opened. It completes the liturgy with the admission that it is a song for someone like him. There is hope, you might not see it, but it is there. Things may not turn out the way that you thought they would, but you don’t let the light go out just because you encounter the darkness. Keep pressing on with love because love makes the difference.

The Deluxe Edition:

– “Ordinary Love (Extraordinary Mix)” – This is from the film Mandela: Walk of Freedom. It was a film about a man who showed his ability to endure, to fight, to walk in the ordinary of the day. Mandela showed his ability to walk in this ordinary love, especially having been imprisoned for 27 years. Can you handle the day in and day out of love, the common ordinary occurrences that happen after the honeymoon? Bono asks the question of himself, of those he loves. Are we tough enough? As an extra track, this fits well.

– “Book of Your Heart” – The experience of marriage, moving beyond just the vows and the contract. “There is a cost to the pledges made in young love but in the end the cost is never high enough, is it?” Bono asks. In an age and era where commitment means little, where marriage seems to be as expendable as a commitment to brand loyalty, this offers hope that in the mundane of life, things can still be sustained even if it’s not easy.

– “Lights of Home (St. Peter’s String Version)” – The addition of strings.

– “You’re The Best Thing About Me (U2 VS KYGO)” – Nice remix.

Bono writes towards the end of the liner notes, “I wanted to take my skin off. Performing is always a striptease but in writing you uncover stuff you didn’t know you were wearing.” He continues, “At the far end of experience, through wisdom, we hope to recover innocence.” Here is a man who is self-aware. Listening to the interview with Howard Stern, Bono expresses his dissatisfaction with his singing in some of the best music U2 has had to offer. While some may be sick of the swag with which Bono carries himself, he never seems to come across as self-righteous, at least to me, and these songs reveal a man who has come to a midway point in his life. He is looking behind and looking ahead and sharing his humble gleanings.

After my countless listening of Songs of Experience, I feel more connected to these recordings than I did with my initial listening. Isn’t that the way of relationship, though? We dig intimately deeper into another human being, we expose ourselves, revealing the good with the bad, the beautiful with the raw, and we connect.

In a world where connection seems to be confused with something that we can do digitally, I’m glad that U2 has embraced the idea of pulling songs together with cohesion and intentionality rather than simply seeking out a hit. This is a record that invites multiple listening. As someone who doesn’t always impress or astound in my initial meetings and encounters with people, I’m grateful for the grace of those 2nd and 3rd meetings and encounters. That same grace should be extended to these songs. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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Essential Worship – A Book Review

essential-worshipThere may be nothing more contentious within the church than the worship ministries. What music should be played? Is it too loud? Who should lead? How close (or far) are we to God’s plan for corporate worship? The questions go on and on and it seems that there are all kinds of answers from every possible direction.

“Essential Worship” by Greg Scheer is a helpful handbook for leaders. Whether those leaders be pastors, worship leaders, worship directors, worship pastors, or whoever, Scheer has done a thorough job of putting together a handbook that can be used by these leaders to help them in leading their ministries.

This book is divided into five parts: Principles, Past, Practice: Music in Worship, Practice: The Arts in Worship, and People.

In the Principles section, Scheer starts with the primary and most important topic: what is worship” He leads the reader through other principles such as what is Biblical worship, who is the audience, and what does worship do. He moves into the Past section and invites the reader to look at the past as well as various methods and modes of worship that have been used throughout the history of the church.

Parts three and four are a helpful foray into the practice of worship within the church. Scheer does a very good job of remaining balanced by offering thoughts and suggestions from both past as well as current repertoires and methods. While it seems that his experience may be in traditional forms of worship, it does not seem to bias his viewpoint.

Part five is about the various people involved in worship leadership within the church: pastors, leaders, musicians, and the like. Scheer offers some beneficial advice here on how to move through potential conflict.

There are nuggets of information scattered throughout this book. It’s not necessarily a book meant to be read front to back but can instead be used as a resource. After all, it is called a handbook. Scheer’s experience, wisdom, and thorough research into this book is apparent and it will serve church worship leaders well.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

The Boy Who Could

bowie aladdinI came into the world of pop music late in life. Well, late in life in comparison to many of my friends. In fact, there were two things that shaped my infatuation with music that would continue for the rest of my life.

The first was my parents’ prohibition of anything outside of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) and easy listening such as The Carpenters, Andy Williams, Percy Faith, Perry Como, and an assortment of other treasures you can find in your local Goodwill’s record collection. I just wasn’t allowed to listen to “secular” music and was even brought to one of those “Rock Talks” that were so popular in the 80’s where some “expert” stood up and went on and on about all of the popular music groups and what kind of satanic and hedonistic messages they were promoting. Sadly, I probably got my list of “What To Listen To” from that talk.

The second thing was General Music in 8th grade with Mr. O’Donnell. I didn’t actually take the class, I played trumpet in the concert band, but on the days when the band director was absent, I was fortunate enough to have Mr. O’Donnell as a substitute for my class. I had heard the stories of what they did in General Music class over and over again, so I was pleased to finally get a taste of it firsthand.

I remember the day that I walked into class and saw O’Donnell (as we affectionately called him) with the stereo out, all ready to start playing “Name That Tune.” I was so excited….until we actually started playing. I realized just how far I was from the reality of pop music when song after song was played and my ability to identify any of them was virtually non-existent. I think there was a part of me that died that day and another part that made a secret vow to never find myself so humiliated again.

Those two things really shaped the way that I see music to this day. My collection is eclectic and large. It’s hard to pin me down to a favorite style as I like a lot of stuff. Some people say that and then you find out that their so-called “eclectic” style is much more narrow than you thought. When I say “eclectic” though, I mean anything from Iron Maiden to Andy Williams, Anthrax to The Carpenters, Megadeth to Les Miserables, and everything in between.

I’m not sure the first time that I heard David Bowie. I have a feeling that he must have been named at one of those “Rock Talks” I went to during my formative years. After all, he was an androgynous spaceman who had been rumored to be bisexual, why else wouldn’t he end up on that list?

Regardless of my first hearing of him, I remember listening to “Space Oddity” and wondering about Ground Control and Major Tom. I remember hearing his collaborations with Freddy Mercury and Queen on “Under Pressure,” with Mick Jagger on “Dancing in the Streets,” and with Bing Crosby on “The Little Drummer Boy.” When I finally came to the place in my life when I heard his song “Heroes,” I’m pretty sure he had me at, “I will be king.”

While I’ve never been a huge fan of Bowie, I can say that I have appreciated his versatility and talent over the years. This past Friday, on the occasion of his 69th birthday, Bowie released his 28th studio album “Blackstar.” That’s quite a career considering he could never be fully pinned down, never lingering in any one thing for long enough for anyone to pigeon-hole him. He was constantly reinventing himself, in fact, it seems that over and over, the headlines are posthumously labeling him “The Master of Reinvention.” He understood the notion of reinvention before Madonna was even a blip on the pop culture radar screen.

As I woke to the news of Bowie’s death on Monday morning, there was a bleakness and sadness that I felt. January is a hard time for me as it marks my mom and dad’s anniversary as well as the date when we discovered that my mom had cancer. Hearing the news of Bowie’s passing from cancer reopened old wounds that never seem to close.

Over the course of the days leading up to Monday, I had been watching Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (a blog post in and of itself) and had been feeling the heaviness and poignancy of that film, so the news of Bowie’s death fueled the fire of melancholy that had already been lit.

I think the sadness that came from knowing Bowie was gone was multi-faceted. He is a dying breed, there are not many true artists who are willing to shun public opinion to do their own thing. In these days of Auto-tune, 3 minute songs, and drippy lyrics, artists are a dying breed.

Another aspect of it is that there is something to be said about taking a chance and being willing to fail. All of us, whether we are willing to admit it or not, are too willing to play it safe, to do the thing that is comfortable and familiar rather than trying something new. Bowie is an inspiration to try something new and different, regardless of whether everyone rejects you and criticizes you. It’s a reminder to me that taking chances should be second nature to me, especially as someone who claims to follow the King of Creation who knit everything together.

David Bowie proved to the world that taking chances is worth the risk. He never seemed afraid to try something different and he was never afraid to abandon something that no longer seemed to fit. He proved himself a boy who could in the midst of a world of boys who “know that they can’t.” His artistic spirit will be missed and I can only hope that others might find that same adventurous and risky spirit in order that it might live on.

The Carols of Christmas – A Book Review

The Carols of ChristmasFew things will generate such an emotional response as one’s opinion of Christmas music. It seems that when it’s played, how it’s played, and what is played are among the most contentious of issues when it comes to holiday musical fare. Everyone has their thoughts and favorites when it comes to Christmas songs and hymns.

It’s interesting to dig down a little into some of the songs and hymns that have become so well-loved and cherished over the years and hear a little bit about the stories behind them. How did they originate? How have they evolved? Who wrote them? Where do they come from?

It’s just that kind of background information Andrew Gant shares in “The Carols of Christmas.” Gant, a composer, choirmaster, church musician, university teacher, and writer, has done his homework in putting together a thorough (but not exhaustive) and enjoyable compilation with stories of some of these Christmas songs that many have come to know and love throughout the years.

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to “O Holy Night” to “Away In a Manger” and even “Jingle Bells,” Gant shares information about these hymns and the journey that they have been on from origin and through their evolution to the songs that we know today. It’s interesting to read the background stories here. Some songs have evolved from ancient and pagan roots to eventually be connected to the Christian holiday. Other songs have questionable theology or history (did the baby Jesus really not cry and did three ships come sailing into Bethlehem?).

Gant uses images throughout the book to show some of the history in these songs. He also includes full versions of the songs for those whose musical inclinations would allow them to play the songs themselves. It’s a helpful tool to be reminded of what it is that you’ve been reading about throughout each chapter.

While it’s not necessary for one to be a musician to read this, it certainly helps. Some of the terms and phrases that Gant uses may go over the heads of those with little to no musical experience or training.

“The Carols of Christmas” is not exhaustive, and Gant admits that. While there are 21 songs covered in here, Gant mostly sticks to those that would be familiar to anyone who would open up a hymnal in a church. For the casual reader, musician, or hymn singer, I would be hard-pressed to believe that he hasn’t covered what would be expected. While there were no songs that were as surprising as Gant’s subtitle (“A celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs”) might suggest, it was an entertaining read that I may very well refer to every year when I find myself singing these songs throughout the season once again.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Among the Best

2015-02-27 10.22.3315 years ago today, I made one of the best decisions of my life. Well, technically, the decision was made before that day, but the culmination of that decision happened on that day. On March 3, 2000, I asked my wife to marry me. My life has never been the same since, and for that, I am grateful.

Now, granted, I’ve made a whole lot of bad decisions in my life, but I’d like to think that some of my better decisions might counteract those bad decisions, and this is certainly one of those decisions that I’d like to think that about.

She was still in school at the University of Connecticut at the time, so I had conspired with her roommates. Although there were a number of people present, it was only her roommates and me who were in on the plan. It was not uncommon for us to have game nights with our friends. She wasn’t into the party scene by the time that she got to college, so hanging out with friends was a perfectly acceptable way to spend a Friday night. So, we planned it out that her sister, who was at the same school, and her brother, and a few other close friends would come over to the apartment on that Friday night.

I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to do it all so I was talking to one of her roommates who informed me that she was expecting that music would be involved, in other words, she thought that I might sing her a song.

No pressure, right?

Forcing creativity is a bit intimidating, but I concocted the whole plan assuming that it would come at some point. We would be playing a game where I would make up a question and then sing a song that I had written. No problem at all, as long as I could actually get the song written.

I’m generally a planner, so this was all in place about a month or more before the date actually came. I would set aside time every week to work on the song in hopes that it would be finally ready by the time the date came.

But time ticked on. 4 weeks……..3 weeks………2 weeks………1 week…….

It came down to days before this whole thing was to take place and the well continued to be dry…..I mean, BONE DRY! Nothing would come. I couldn’t get anything written, I mean, nothing. It seemed that the harder I tried, the harder it became. At that point, I knew that I needed some diving intervention.

I wasn’t going to settle for using somebody else’s song, it just wasn’t “me” to do something like that. It seems fitting, in retrospect, that the place where I would generally do most of my writing was in the sanctuary of the little Baptist church where my dad served as pastor for nearly 40 years. I would spend many a late night in there, playing the piano or guitar, hoping that the “muse” would find me. I had a key and would come and go as I needed to and I wasn’t afraid of disturbing anyone but the church mice.

So, I prayed and prayed for something that would be acceptable….

And it finally came, on February 29, 2000, just three days before the planned date. Talk about cutting it close. At some point, in the wee hours of the morning, ideas began to flow and they kept coming until I was finally finished.

Over the next few days, I did what I could to polish things up. I practiced until my fingers ached to get it just right. Everything was in place.

At the last minute, things always get even more hectic. This was no exception. M I practiced until my fingers ached to get it just right. Everything was in place.2015-03-02 08.14.43

At the last minute, things always get even more hectic. This was no exception. My wife’s sister decided she wasn’t so certain that she would be coming at the last minute. I told her that she really needed to be there, it was important, but I still never revealed the truth of what would be happening.

The day finally came, after coaxing and convincing, everyone was there, a few showed up a little late, but we were all there. We finally got around to the game and as we were going around playing, my brother-in-law nearly won the game right before my turn. Hadn’t thought of that possibility. My turn came and in the form of a question in the game, I asked my wife to marry me and told her that she needed to listen to a song that I had written.

When all was said and done, she said, “Yes.” We celebrated with our families the next day. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The other day, I found the notebook in which I had written the song. It’s always fascinating to watch the genesis of a song, especially one like this that meant so much to me. Good memories and I am grateful that I have a record of it all.

All along the way during the evening of the engagement, I had her roommates taking pictures to document the moment. I was so glad that we did that. Not long after we were engaged, my mom put together a collage of the pictures surrounding the words of the song that I had written for my wife. This is a picture of it. And in case you can’t read the words, here they are:

 

Your Love Makes Me by Jon Gibson

Chorus

Your love makes me more than I dreamed of

More than I wished for or ever thought I could be.

Your love makes me more than I could ever imagine

Your love is setting me free.

I always knew that God’s promise was true

When He said He’d provide all that I need.

But I never dreamed I could find such a love

That come straight from a story you’d read.

There was a day when I looked at you

And I saw a girl, no more than a friend.

Then something changed, how I looked, how I felt,

And I knew I’d found a love with no end.

Repeat Chorus

In your eyes lie the answers to questions

I ask of myself about who I should be.

You’re always there with the words

That can show me all of the things I can’t see.

A gentle touch or a warm embrace

Can change stormy skies from gray to bright blue.

Nothing could replace or compare to the love

That I am sharing with you.

Repeat Chorus

Bridge

When the seasons grow cold

And the storms cloud our way

When we can’t find the words

Or the right things to say

I will be there for you

I’ll show you my love by the things that I do

‘Cause your love is making me into all I can be.

When I open my eyes to the sunset

And see all the beauty of God’s mighty hand

I realize that the gift I’ve been giv’n

Is a woman intended to complete this man.

I see in you the true reflection of the One

Who once died to make us His own.

I stop and think what the world might be like

If I had to face it alone.

Repeat Chorus

 

Funny to look back at those words 15 years later. Some of them make me cringe at the “cheesy” factor while others seem as appropriate today as they were back then.

Today I am grateful for that day and the outcome of it. I’m glad that it turned out the way that it did and I’m looking forward to celebrating this day again and again, along with all of the other days that we can share together.

I love you, Carrie!

Open the Gates

2015-01-04 14.56.14Call it the letdown of the holidays. Call it the pent up emotion of the past four years. Call it simple nostalgia working its magic on one who’s a closet sap. Whatever you call it, I have to confess, something happened to me this weekend.

As a child of the 70s, I grew up on vinyl records and 8 track tapes. Vinyl has made a major comeback, but 8 tracks met their demise and haven’t reared their ugly heads since. Not sure who thought of that technology to begin with, but listening to 2 songs at once (unintentionally) was probably not the best end result for what they had expected.

I grew up in a split level house, meaning you come into the front door and can either go upstairs or downstairs. Up the stairs was the living room, an open and spacious room with cathedral ceilings. The faux beams on the ceiling were actually made from Styrofoam, at least that’s what I think they were made of.

A lot happened in that room. As big as it was, it’s a bit ironic that the Christmas tree my parents chose for there was a three foot fake, plastic tree which sat upon a cedar chest that held quilts, blankets, and a sundry of other stuff.

The piano that I grew up playing was in that room, decorated with little nic nacs and ornaments that my mom had acquired over the years. It was still in pristine shape when my parents got rid of it. In all of the 36 years that my parents were in that house, I think they only were on the third generation of furniture in that room. If my mom had had her way, she would probably have had the original furniture; that would have meant she had taken care of it well enough that it didn’t wear out.

In the corner, by the railing next to the drop off that led to the front door, was the stereo. I only remember 2 or 3 of those as well. Mom didn’t like to part with things, not because she grew attached to them, but simply because she was a child of the Depression who cared for things as if you could never replace them. In fact, her family probably never had the money to even consider replacing some of the extraneous stuff that people acquire.

The stereo wasn’t anything special, not even a brand name that I can recall, maybe a Soundesign or something like that. The stereo wasn’t so much the point as was the music that was played upon it. I remember a lot of Andrew Sisters, Perry Como, Andy Williams, and the Carpenters. There were some Christian records by family friends and some obscure performers of the 70s.

I remember so much about sitting in that room, taking in the sounds that Mom would play on that stereo until I began to find some sounds of my own. I remember Christmas mornings with Evie’s “Come On, Ring Those Bells” playing in the background. I remember rainy days and Mondays when I would listen to Karen Carpenter sing about those very two things. When I was homesick in college, I asked Mom to send me a tape of the Carpenters. I think the snap, crackle, and pop of the record’s recording was enough to assuage my aching heart.

Over the years I’ve maintained a healthy little collection of records, nothing compared to the 2000 plus CDs that I have, but enough to not give up hope that I would one day have a turntable upon which to spin these records again.

Through 3 states and nearly 14 years, I’ve carried these records and turntables. Not exactly the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness into the Promised Land, but a journey nonetheless.

While visiting family in Connecticut, my wife discovered some of the record albums from her own childhood and all of a sudden, the impetus to find out how to make this happen became greater for me. I’d put it off before, maybe thinking that my wife wouldn’t be as supportive of the idea. Maybe, now that she had her own little store of nostalgia, she would be more supportive than I thought.

I took to the internet to do what cheapskates like me do best: find a deal!

And find a deal I did.

Just like those credit card commercials from a few years ago, what I found was priceless. Sure, there was a dollar amount associated with the receiver that I bought from a friend, but it was almost like I had purchased a time machine. Just call me “Marty McFly!”

Instantly, I was transported back to that living room, hearing the same sounds. I was fairly unprepared for just how it would hit me. Tears were coming to my eyes and it was hard for me to really understand why. Like I said at the beginning, you might just call it the culmination of the last few years and the last few weeks. The holidays can have that kind of nostalgic affect on me.

So, there I sat, in my own version of a Man Cave, listening to vinyl on my “new” record player and receiver. I couldn’t just do it randomly though. What good DJ (or former DJ) would ever consider randomly picking albums to play.

At first, it was only one song at a time:

Steve Winwood’s “When You See a Chance”

Star Wars “Main Title Theme” (at the request of my middle child)

But then, I had to listen to whole sides:

Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisted” Side 1 (to which my middle child announced to his friend, “This is Bob Dylan” [this writer wipes tear from eye]

Dan Fogelberg’s “Souvenirs” Side 1

Petra’s “Washes Whiter Than” Side 2

And so began my journey into further nostalgia. Here’s to more Sunday afternoons listening to those snaps, crackles, and pops!

Savoring and Soaking

2014-12-04 18.52.57When people say, “Christmastime” it conjures all kinds of images in people’s minds. Candy canes. Stockings. Santa Claus. Black Friday. Trees. Presents. Fires. Family. The list could go on and on. But when I think of Christmas, I can’t help but think “Andrew Peterson.”

Some of you are scratching your heads and wondering, “Who’s is Andrew Peterson?” When I first heard his name and listened to his music, I was not impressed. That’s not so unusual for me, it takes me a while to latch onto things that are unfamiliar. A friend told me about Dave Matthews a few years before he hit the big time and I just didn’t get it. Same thing with Jars of Clay. Now I’m a big fan of both of them. Back to Andrew Peterson, though.

I’m always trying to find new and different Christmas music. While many people are fine with the usual Christmas music fare of Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, or Dean Martin, I’m always trying to reimagine the Christmas season in the musical realm. I mean, how many ways can you hear some of these songs done, redone, and then done again? Just a search in my music library and I find that I have 26 different version of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Seriously?

A few years back, a friend and I were driving in his car and he put a CD on while we talked and it was enough to distract me from my conversation with him. I kept getting drawn to the music. He sang along as well, completely out of tune and off key, but I started paying attention to the words. Curious as I was, the natural question for me to ask him was, “Who is this?” When he told me that it was Andrew Peterson, I was both surprised and intrigued. Yes, I had heard the name before but I didn’t remember hearing him like this.

As I began to pepper my friend with questions, he told me what he knew about the album, “Behold the Lamb of God.” It was a song cycle, which always excites me as a musician and hack songwriter. Weaving and forming a group of songs together with a common theme is not an easy thing to do and be successful, it’s a challenge. Artists have done it (or attempted to do it) for years, artists all across the map. But a song cycle about the Gospel message, that was even more intriguing to me.

I purchased the album and began listening to it……and I just couldn’t get enough. This was all before I went to seminary as well. Now that I have seminary under my belt and now that I’ve grown even more in my faith over the past few years, the story and its power as well as the way that Peterson tells that story are powerful. With wit, wisdom, eloquence, and craftiness Peterson tells the story of the Messiah starting way back with Moses. While all of the songs are good standalone songs, when you put them together, the sum of the parts is equal to something magnificent on many levels.

Once I was hooked, I shared the music with everyone that I knew. As I followed Peterson more and more, I found out that he toured the country performing “Behold the Lamb of God” with his friends during the month of December ending up with a few shows before Christmas at the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. I immediately began to search where this tour would be going to see if there was any chance that I might be able to catch it.

Sure enough, on Friday, December 3, 2010, Peterson was scheduled to be in Richmond, Virginia. I found out when the tickets were going on sale and told everyone that I knew and bought a bundle for myself. My parents had just moved to Williamsburg a few weeks prior to the concert and I thought that they might enjoy the concert as well. They didn’t seem to keen on the idea, so I enlisted them as babysitters. Turns out that it would be the last Christmas that I would have with my mom.

For 4 of the last 5 Decembers, Andrew Peterson has been coming back to Richmond. I’ve been there every time. In fact, it almost seems like the perfect way for me to usher in the Christmas season. I look forward to it every year and look forward to the day that I can go to Nashville to experience it in an historic venue like the Ryman.

Last night was the night to share in this experience once again, and it did not disappoint. I felt just like a kid on Christmas Eve, even more so when I found out that Thad Cockrell was on the tour as well as Caleb Chapman (trying to make it on his own outside of the shadow of his dad, Steven Curtis Chapman).

Peterson has the same format on the tour every year. Since there are other artists traveling with him, he shares the stage with them for the first half of the concert, going through the cycle of them twice to allow for everyone to get a feel for who these artists are individually. As the musicians played, I continued to anticipate the second half of the concert where Peterson and friends play the entire song cycle of “Behold the Lamb of God” from beginning to end with no stops (except for applause).

For the hundreds, if not thousands, of times that I have listened to the song cycle, I always find myself sitting enthralled as I find myself in these repeat listenings. In fact, as each song waves into the next one, I find myself feeling a bit of regret and sadness over the fact that the songs will end as will the concert. But there are moments to simply savor and soak in all that surrounds me in the aural realm. There are moments that I simply want to pause and hibernate in for the winter, such sonic goodness that I want to capture and bottle up.2014-12-04 21.32.07

But alas, the night does end and the feeling passes, but what is left behind is the impetus for me of what will become the Advent season. It spurs me into the season in a way that no Black Friday sale or Bass Pro Shop Santa Claus ever could. It sets the trajectory of the season in the right direction, not assuring perfection, but helping me come pretty darn close to it.

Peterson doesn’t have any hits, as he even jokes about in his own self-deprecating way, at least not in the formal sense, but to me, this whole album is a hit. It’s a hidden treasure that’s just waiting to be found out, dug up, discovered. I’m glad to have discovered it and look forward to kicking off my Christmas season each year with it. I guess I’ll savor that for as long as I possibly can!

Finding Your Rhythm

2014-12-01 13.49.58I’m a musician. Sometimes I play by myself. Sometimes I play with other people.

When you play music by yourself, you only have to keep in rhythm with yourself. When you play music with other people, not only do you need to keep in rhythm with everyone else, but each person who is playing needs to find the rhythm and keep time together. Sometimes that’s an easy task while other times it’s downright frustrating, maybe even excruciatingly painful.

I’ve experienced both of those situations in the past. I’ve experienced playing with people with whom you fall into rhythm easily, almost effortlessly and seamlessly. I’ve also experienced playing with people with whom it seems that the rhythm is elusive, impossible to find. Those situations are difficult and frustrating.

I’ve taken a few days to step away for the sake of planning and looking at the upcoming year in my own ministry. I’ve been blessed to have had access to a house in the Outer Banks, just a 3 minute walk from the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. While I was there, I took advantage of the time and sat on the beach.

The beach has always been a special place to me. I grew up along the coast of Connecticut on Long Island Sound. The beach was always a big part of my summers. I can easily conjure up mental images of my mom sitting in her beach chair at one of the two beaches in my hometown. Those days felt endless, in the best way possible. During those days, it seems there was an unbreakable link developed between me and the water. I always find myself going back to the water, the Sound, or the ocean to center myself again.

As I walked towards the beach the other day, I began to hear the waves gently falling on the shoreline even before I could see them. The gentle lapping of the waves reminded me of the beat of a drum with whom I am trying to get into rhythm. This rhythm continues whether I am here or not and in many ways, it was a reminder to me of God’s rhythm.

Oftentimes, I find myself “playing music” alone. I find what I think is a good rhythm and stick with it. Then I come back to the Master Musician and find that the rhythm that I have had all along is not as good as I thought it was. In fact, my rhythm is out of time, it’s misaligned, it’s frustratingly off from the rhythm of the Master Musician.

As I listened to the waves and watched them come upon the shore, as the water crawled up and then retracted itself from the shoreline, I was reminded who was the chief timekeeper here. Despite popular belief, it’s not me. As much as I might try to make my rhythm the rhythm of the day, that fight only results in frustration, it results in bad rhythm and messy music.

How often do I find myself out of sync and tempo with the Master Musician. I get ahead or fall behind, mostly getting ahead. I rush, I push the rhythm, trying desperately to make the other musicians keep up. Who are those other musicians? My friends. My family. My co-workers. My teammates. My God.

The rhythm of the sea and its waves is a reminder to me of the need to keep time with the Master Musician. It’s a metronome of sorts, directing me towards what is perfect, especially when I think that I’ve achieved that perfect rhythm on my own.

When faced with my own arrhythmia against the rhythm of the Master Musician, I have a choice. I can either keep fighting that rhythm, which results in frustration and bad music. Or I can get in step to that rhythm, follow it, take the lead of the rhythm which is perfect.

Will I follow that rhythm? Will I keep in good time?2014-12-01 14.25.09

No matter what, I will find myself falling out of step with the rhythm of the One whose rhythm is perfect. When I find myself in those times, I need to find my back into rhythm again, I need to say, “I will follow.”

May the times between my rhythm synchronization be short. May I find myself constantly coming back to the perfect rhythm to find my rhythm in the One whose rhythm is perfect. May I not fight it but just follow it in order that we can make beautiful music together.

 

There’s Just Something About It

baby listeningListen……I get we’re in the digital age. Everything comes in a hard copy form or in a digital form. Sometimes you can buy one and get the other for free. When you have limited space, the digital form is really beneficial. But, hey, there’s just something about going to the store to buy a brand new book or a brand new CD. If you’re a real purist, you can’t wait to open up the latest 180 gram LP. There’s something about the real thing that you just don’t get from digital.

I’ve been a Coldplay fan since well before Mylo Xyloto, going back to the days of Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head. I was excited to get Ghost Stories when it came out this week and I contemplated going digital with this one. After all, I had just done a major purge (which means getting rid of anything, for me) of my music collection and am always looking at ways that I can keep from bringing the clutter back into the house.

But, alas, Target had a special release with 3 extra songs which always seems to grab the fans, at least it grabs me. So, it was off to Target that I went to pick up Ghost Stories. After standing in line, I walked quickly to my car. I should tell you that I have become an expert at opening CDs, Blu Rays, and DVDs. It’s become its own art form to me, slicing through the plastic wrap, negotiating the sticky label off without leaving its traces remaining on the case. I quickly unwrapped it and pulled the CD from its clear case. The CD player stood there before me, awaiting the silver goodness that I was ready to put in its mouth. It almost anticipated the beats and rhythms that it would soon be spewing out once I fed it.

Anticipation. What will it sound like? Will I like it? Will it meet my expectations? How will they start? How will they end? What will be in between? These questions and many more are the questions that run through my mind as I spend these seconds which seem like an eternity anticipating what will come out once I have fed the monster.

Sure, I could have bought the digital download and put it on my MP3 player, blasted it equally as loud in my car, and enjoyed every minute of it, but it just wouldn’t be the same. There’s something about opening up the CD and pulling out the CD insert for the first time. It has that smell, not quite like a new car, but almost like a new book. You turn the pages, you read the notes and words, and the smell creates for you an experience. Music should be more than listened to…..it should be experienced.

So I listen, I ingest, I process. I put aside my preconceived notions of what I would hear and do my best to listen with an open mind, to listen with an open spirit. As I listen, I like some of what I hear and dislike some of it as well. But after I listen, I listen some more. The CD spins around and around as the monster in my dashboard continues to spew out beats, rhythms, and melodies. One listen……two listens……three listens…..and it’s happening, it’s beginning to grow on me. All of the things that I expected and didn’t find are replaced by the newness of what is and what’s playing all around me.

Yes, music needs to be experienced, and though I’m doing it less often than I did before, part of that experience is the purchase of a CD or an LP. If you haven’t tried it in a while, you might want to give it a whirl. Choose wisely though, one false step or disappointment could not only ruin this experience but any future experiences that you might consider as well.

Happy listening!

Drawing Attention

Katy-PerryDid you hear the one about the former Christian recording artist and daughter of a pastor who sold her soul to the devil?  Well, at least, that’s what the rumors are.  Katy Perry’s recent performance on the Grammys has some people talking about whether or not she is one of those who has made a deal with the devil.  Some are claiming that the rituals that she took part in during the performance were satanic.

The whole notion of one “selling their soul to the devil” goes back to the story of blues legend, Robert Johnson.  It was down at the crossroads that the whole thing went down, and since then, there have always been rumors of one artist or another who, in desperation, has made a deal with the devil.

This is nothing new to the world of pop music.  I remember growing up and hearing about the evils of rock and roll music.  Back in the 80’s there was a phenomenon that was under the microscope called “backmasking.”  People claimed that if you listened to certain records backwards, you could hear secret messages that had been placed there, either intentionally or unintentionally.  Of course, the possibility of unintentional messages lying within music only confirmed some people’s suspicions that these groups were evil.

I think that sometimes people forget that music is a business just like so many other things.  The primary driver behind business is making money.  Some might actually say that finding new and different ways to make money and being willing to do whatever it takes to do so is equivalent to selling one’s soul.  But the old adage is true, no publicity is bad publicity.  Whenever you can somehow get your name in the news, you are always going to draw attention to yourself, and when you’re an actor or a musician or someone who is in the public limelight, you’re going to seize every opportunity that might come your way.

So, is Katy Perry a devil worshipper who sold her soul to the devil?  Or is it that she simply wants to shock and draw more attention to herself?  Attention and exposure sells records, and that seems to be the bottom line.  Controversy sells, it gets your name in the papers with big headlines, so why not do things that will make that happen if that’s your bottom line?

There has always been and most likely always will be a fine line in the arts community, be it music or painting or writing, between doing things for yourself and your art versus doing things to make a living and actually sell product.  Depending on where you look, it’s fairly evident that the arts community as a whole has struggled with this, embracing the controversial in the name of “art” while knowing full well that the controversy draws attention.

Over and over again, I need to remind myself when I write that it’s not so much about the quantity of people reading it but about the quality of what I write.  It’s a constant struggle that I don’t always get right, but at least I am aware of the struggle.

There are many more things that can be said about Katy Perry, especially regarding the influence that she is to so many thousands of young girls.  She can claim that she is not a role model, like so many other before her have claimed, but that claim just doesn’t stick.  She’s just trying to sell records and in many ways is the proverbial prodigal child, trying to shock her parents in swinging the pendulum to the extreme of how she was raised.  Pastor’s kids are different animals though, but that’s a post for another day.