Bruce Springsteen, “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle”

Bruce Springsteen, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle

Humanity is ultimately summarized by two themes: life and death.  The rest is just drapery.  What else is there?  Even heavy metals like Eros and Ploutos eventually melt into Zoe and Thanatos.  What is it that we fear if not death, the fear behind other fears, and what fuels our deepest hopes and laments besides, irreducibly, life?  Nothing against Eros, Ploutos, or drapery, but art that doesn’t get around to grappling with death and life is sooner or later unsatisfying.  That’s why I love Bruce Springsteen music.  It’s death and life, all the time.

Which is also why some people hate the Boss.  The Bruce haters, even ones that agree with his politics, will cite his grim determination to continually address Big Themes, give a state-of-the-union address with every album, and play working man blues despite his millions as reasons to respect Springsteen (at best) more than enjoy him.  Case in point was the 12.12.12. Sandy benefit last week; aside from a closing “Born to Run” singalong with a Bon Jovi lookalike, Bruce’s setlist consisted of topically appropriate but less well known tunes all drawn from the past ten years.  Surely casual fans were yelling for “Freebird” instead, but the Boss had work to do.  “Heavy lies the crown on Bruce Springsteen’s head,” a music critic has recently opined.

My 20 gigs of Bruce on my iPad notwithstanding, I’ll grant the premise that sometimes the Boss can turn unenjoyably dour.  Springsteen’s six studio albums of the last decade have brilliant moments—and at least Magic and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions stand nearly side by side with “classic” Bruce albums—but they also have their share of clunky moments.  For example, on the Rising, the 2002 meditation upon 9/11, it’s fine for Springsteen to commemorate the sacrifices of NYFD firefighters, but when he sings about their going up the stairs “into their smokey graves,” one wishes for less literalism and more metaphor.  It’s life and death, sure, but the song doesn’t need to scream, “This is about life and death!”  (And the less one says about Working on a Dream, the better.  I’m still waiting for Bruce to fess up and tell a reporter, “That song was the centerpiece of a nursery rhyme project that went horribly, horribly wrong.  I trashed the album and told Columbia that it was ‘in the can,’ but the label thought I was telling them to release the thing.  Then Obama started asking me to play the song at his rallies, and I knew I was screwed.”)

Those that may be interested in hearing a Bruce Springsteen whose crown weighs less heavy should check out his second album, 1972′s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.  It’s all life and death, but all of it obliquely.

It’s impossible for a pop singer to be totally unselfconscious—the ego thing—but there’s still a difference in musical writing and execution when an artist believes she’s making a record that will be heard by hundreds of people versus by millions.  With the former, you’ll hear an unvarnished earnestness (despite however much irony may stick to the ribs) that sales success will erase.  The Wild, the Innocent is the audience’s last chance to hear Bruce Springsteen before he became BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN.  His next record, Born to Run, drove him to the top of the charts, as he knew it would.  But what Born to Run gains in breadth of vision, it loses in intimacy.  Nick Hornby once remarked about “Thunder Road,” the lead track to Born to Run, that redemption songs shouldn’t include the word “redemption” in them.   He’s probably right. The Wild, the Innocent, on the other hand, finds a young artist swinging for the fences without thinking anyone was taking notice.  The result is a record at once looser and more ruminative than anything Springsteen has released subsequently, save perhaps Nebraska, which not coincidentally was recorded as a set of demos not intended for public release.  I think of how Greil Marcus described The Basement Tapes, and how his words apply here: “So much of the basement tapes are the purest form of speech: simple free speech, ordinary free speech, nonsensical free speech, not heroic free speech.  Cryptic free speech, a voice that can say almost anything while seeming to say almost nothing, in secret, with music that as it was made presumed no audience but its players and perhaps its ancestors, a secret public.”  Such is The Wild, the Innocent, as we hear free speech about boardwalks, alley fights, street urchins, hustling musicians, and circuses.  It’s an album that’s found its secret public who happens to hear Zoe and Thanatos whisper through its grooves.  Big themes are always best left buried in the details.

Personal aside: I discovered The Wild, the Innocent in high school and loved it without quite knowing why.  While my friends were going whole hog into grunge—not that there’s anything wrong with that—I was checking out older music.  My brother-in-law went to college in the 1970′s and had Bruce’s first four albums on vinyl.  I liked The Wild, the Innocent’s LP cover the best, so I asked him to dub that record onto cassette.  For the first half of 10th grade, I listened to two thirds of The Wild, the Innocent every day driving to and from school, picking up where I’d left off each morning.  I memorized not only the songs but also the from-vinyl skips and pops on my taped copy; my clean CD version doesn’t sound the same without them.  You only listen to music in high school once, kids.

The two best known songs on The Wild, the Innocent are “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).”  They may also be the two least resonant tracks on the album for me.  That’s not to argue the party anthem par excellence, “Rosalita,” is a bad song, however.  It’s an “Only the Good Die Young”-style plea for the girl to come out of the house and go out with the guy, complete with enough guitars, horns, fist pumps, and interesting turns that it’s 7:05 running time feels too short.  Bruce used it for years as a set closer for good reason.  Then again, party anthems will only ever be party anthems.  “Sandy” is “Rosalita’s” quiet counterpart, all acoustic guitars, tremolo leads, droopy accordions, and strings.  Thematically, it slows down “Born to Run” to 33 r.p.m.  The guy wants the girl to cut her losses, quit the local scene, and hop in the car toward something better.  (Later on into The Wild, the Innocent, the elegiac “Incident on 57th Street” strikes a similar pose.)  What makes Sandy strange and compelling, though, is that Springsteen is far more romantically inclined toward the beach town he’s leaving behind than the girl he’s taking with him.  Listeners learn very little about Sandy but lots about Asbury Park—fireworks over “little Eden,” fast “switchblade lovers,” boys “from the casino dancing with their shirts open,” fortune tellers, a waitress “bopping down the beach with the radio,” and so on.  Ostensibly a love song, the more deeply one listens to “Sandy,” the less clear it is that the singer is pulling out of town to win.  Born to run bleeds into born to lose, and things start to get interesting.

“Kitty’s Back” is all Van Morrison via the Jersey Shore.  The early 1970′s were possibly the best time to listen to the radio, when stations would play rock back to back with funk, then soul, then pop, then back again.  Individual songs were also elastic enough to capture various genres without sounding contrived, and “Kitty’s Back” is one of the best style-benders.  Anyone whining that all Bruce Springsteen songs sound alike should listen to this track.  It begins with a bluesy, languid guitar line with some lazy horns that sound like they’d protest if pressed to played any faster.  The first verse begins with Bruce painting an alley rat street scene against funk organ before the music breaks into an uptown shuffle.  The song stays all over the map for the duration, including a long instrumental break that owes more than a little debt to “Moondance.”  “Kitty’s” lyrics are also worth more than a glance; the titular character has burned out on her hometown and instead hooked up with a “city dude,” only to come back again.  The song finishes with a slow build as Springsteen keeps looking down the alley, wondering if Kitty will come back to town.  The high point musically is when she does, while the singer sits back and sighs, “What can I do?”  The horns lift up one last time before “Kitty’s Back” comes to a climax with a concert ending.

It would be easy enough to write off “Kitty’s Back” as an early ‘70′s pastiche with its influences too overt and the story off Broadway, but such a criticism misunderstands why we listen to pop music in the first place, namely that the small stuff matters and is even beautiful.  (Greil Marcus once located the power of Otis Redding’s “Respect”—the original version, equaled by Aretha’s stratospheric interpretation but not necessarily bettered—in its earthiness.  Otis isn’t asking for the stars, just a little respect when he gets home.)  The fact that Kitty’s come back isn’t really anything in itself and not a story worth telling, but the fact that someone is singing triumphally  about it makes it so, and it becomes beautiful.  Kitty’s departure was Thanatos, and her return Zoe.

The end of side one of The Wild, the Innocent supplies the album’s weirdest track, and the one that had left me cold for years, “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”  If the calliope organ of a Mississippi steamer were divided into three equal parts and moved to Jersey, it would be the acoustic guitar, tuba, and accordion of this song.  The title isn’t a lark, either: this really is a song about a kid named Billy joining the circus.  His “Circus Story” is stuffed with characters; in five minutes, the listener meets the machinist, the fire eater, the sword swallower, the fat lady Missy Bimbo, and many others.  Billy enters this self-contained world with a sense of haunted wonder, and as he’s finally asked by the circus manager if he wants to “try the big top,” it’s a question full of love and fear.  Billy becomes an Ichabod Gatsby.

It’s taken a long time, but “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” strikes me now as the truest song on the album, as the crazy carnival characters become somehow more recognizable to me as my friends, neighbors, and myself.  Long before Springsteen’s populist commitments became explicit in his songs, “Wild Billy’s Circus Song” is populist and American in the best but most terrifying sense.  Springsteen confronts us with the notion that our community is irreducibly strange but for that same reason altogether lovely.  (I nominate “Kitty’s Back” to be the official song of Collingswood.)  A line in the middle of the song gives both the contradiction and the promise of the American (and human) endeavor: “The highway’s haunted by carnival sounds.”  It’s not a poetic statement, but it’s profound in its fusing of our desire to ramble off alone (the highway) and the conviction that we can never be alone, nor should we be (the carnival).  The road leads us into the circus, even if the last line, “All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop,” suggests that the circus leads us back to the road.  Properly living out the script of this song means not that we resolve this tension but find joy and discover beauty in its dialectic.

The bookends to The Wild, the Innocent tie all of this life and death together.  The album kicks off with “The E Street Shuffle,” which Springsteen wrote as a semi-autobiography of his band.  (Yes, Bruce’s group takes its name from the location of an old garage where they rehearsed: E St. in Belmar.)   After a discordant horn-tuning that attempts to show that Springsteen isn’t taking himself too seriously, the musicians snap into an uptempo funk groove, and Bruce is all swagger up through the soul freakout coda.  If lifted from the context of the entire record, though, “The E Street Shuffle” is little more than six (or a hundred) characters in search of an author; Power Thirteen, Little Angel, Easy Joe are only the beginning of an endless stream of street people to come and go, aimlessly gravitating to a party.  But the first half of the first line sets up the drama of everything to follow, as Springsteen exclaims, “Sparks fly on E Street.”  That’s life, but it’s not just that there’s some kind of light on E Street; sparks are light that come from friction or collision.  Sparks are both life and death.  Same with the song’s conclusion, when melancholy intrudes on the party as we’re told that “sweet summer nights turn into summer dreams.”  You can’t have the dreams without the details to seed and ground them, but the dreams themselves gain both beauty and fragility in their transformation.  Summer’s over before you know it.

“New York City Serenade” ends everything.  In an album of long songs, it’s the longest at 10 minutes, in part due to David Sancious’ piano introduction that’s reflective but also much more sad and less romantic than the previous songs.  That extended opening lends a depth to the two young lovers that promenade around the Big Apple.  Clarence Clemons’ saxophone imparts some jaunt to their journey, and strings sweetness, although in oblique language the pair separates, and the guy remarks, “Sometimes you just gotta walk on.”  After all of the strange community encountered in The Wild, the Innocent, that particular line would at best be a false victory.  The urban cowboy may ride into the sunset, but he’s alone.  Midway through “New York City Serenade,” it sounds as if this couple were dancing on graves, but then it seems that at least one of them is going there.  We’ve heard sound and fury, it may have signified something, but in the end death wins.

Original versions of “New York City Serenade” halted there, but deep into the recording process for The Wild, the Innocent Springsteen appended another song to it, a slightly obtuse piece about a jazz crooner busking on the corner.  All the character does is sing, over and over again.  However, when placed at the end of “Serenade” (and the album as a whole), the singing jazz man is the counter to the broken community just before (i.e., the lover just walking on).  Unlike just about everyone else in The Wild, the Innocent, this jazz singer isn’t named.  As the album’s camera pans across the city one last time, it’s the one completely at the edge of the frame who receives the final close up and gets in the last word.  The music lulls one last time, and then Springsteen proclaims that his final protagonist is “singing, singing,” and he repeats the line countless times as the music swells.

Why does he sing?  Because as humans we want life to win, and that’s part of the victory.  (This is also why I’m a Christian: Jesus, eternally whole yet broken for us, sings our broken songs to life.)  “New York City Serenade” (and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle with it) fittingly and finally closes, after the singer keeps singing, with a gentle violin and piano coda that properly gathers the album into rest.  By some inspiration, over the fading strains Springsteen does something remarkable: he whispers.  There are a handful of notions that I’d defend at great cost, and one of them is that the last two minutes of “New York City Serenade” are the best 120 seconds of recorded music in the history of the world.  Aside from a couple of phrases, you won’t be able to make out what Bruce is saying (and believe me, I’ve tried).  I think that the secret of the universe is in those raspings, but the key wouldn’t be to decipher the words.  It’s instead that through the whispers comes the intimation that after all that there is, there is still something worth saying, and it’s a song.  That it’s indecipherable also makes sense, if you think about it, and that’s about as far as we can go.   Although indecipherable doesn’t mean the same thing as unknowable: what if there is an author to the song, and a singer who will one day make the secret known?  What if the song has already begun?

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“Can’t Buy Me Love”

Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America

Periodically, there are bands I avoid simply because everyone else loves them.  For example, Mumford & Sons (and before them Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, The Shins, Coldplay, etc.) may make great music, but can they really be that good?  I imagine their catalog to include such titles as“Sheep Off a Cliff,” “Lemmings,” “Kool Aid,” and “We’re Big in Europe!”, but I wouldn’t really know for sure.  I’ll hear Mumford’s hits in a doctor’s office soon enough.  “Moon river!”

(When I was in tenth grade world religions class, Mrs. Robertson explained that there were four kinds of people in the world—builders, traditionalists, idealists, and individualists—and subsequently asked each of us to signify which we were.  No one raised their hand for builder, no one for traditionalist, I was the only idealist, but then everyone else said they were individualists.  My attempt to remark upon the irony of the whole situation failed to gain traction, as all the individualists resented my nonconformity.   I consoled myself with the knowledge that there’s a difference between pridefulness and simple realism.)

The ur-band of my popularity aversion has been the Beatles.  (But Jim, why the love for Elvis, you might ask?  Answer: because he was so popular that everyone ended up hating him.  This never happened with the Fab Four.)  I’ve known some stone cold music lovers who worship the Beatles, but also plenty of buy-CD’s-at-Starbucks types too.  50,000,000 Beatles fans can’t be right, can they?

Add to all this that I grew up listening to “classic rock” radio in the 1990′s, where all the Beatles stations ever played was the soft stuff—“Let It Be,” “Strawberry Fields,” “Yellow Submarine,” and so on.  Worst of all, “Hey Jude” seemed to taunt me harder with every false fade out, while my anti-Beatle desultory philippics became less and less brief.  These guys were many things, but they weren’t rock and roll.  And hey, there’s no “me” in “iconoclastic.”

Years later, I got pregnant with my fourth child.  Rather, my wife got pregnant, but I was involved, and therefore I deserved a pick-me-up present to self.  Looking around for something suitable, I realized that the Beatles mono boxed set, released a couple of years earlier, was just beginning to come down in price.  I remembered the respect that I had for certain music afficionado friends who revered the Beatles, and I decided to sink my bid with them.

This fourth pregnancy was particularly difficult physically, however, and it included some particularly grueling backrubs I had to administer to others.  My fingers were aching so badly that I bought an Amazon Kindle.  Armed with one-click purchasing power, one of the first e-books I bought was Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America.  Amazon reviews ushered me towards this one as the best of (a large) bunch.  Thus I began to listen to every Beatles song one by one, with Gould’s book as a guide to each.

First the Beatles, then the book.

(I like Mumford & Sons, by the way.  It would have ruined my intro to have admitted it earlier, though.)

For the band: they’re actually rock and roll.  How could a secret this big have been kept underground for so long?  For years I’ve amassed 1960′s garage rock collections (Nuggets, Nuggets II, Pebbles, Back from the Grave, band comps, label comps, regional comps), and about each one I’d say, “These guys blow the Beatles away!”  The Beatles are better.  Don’t you hate it when you’ve been wrong about something for years?  Some groups may have rocked harder, but John, Paul, George, and Ringo rocked smarter, more melodically, and more consistently than any of them.  (I could blame myself for making such an egregiously wrong call for so many years, but instead I’ll blame ‘90′s classic rock radio for mindlessly gravitating toward the flaccid.)  One of the garage compilations I enjoy is called Garage Beat ‘66; all fine and good, except that the Beatles were garage beating as early as 1963, and earlier if you count Hamburg.  Even their later albums contain tracks that need to be played loud.  I’m a convert.  Shuffling through songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” John’s “Twist and Shout,” “Tell Me Why,” “Ticket to Ride,” “The Word” would keep me happy for a long time.  I’m still not ready to nuzzle up to some of the later, slower Beatles tunes, but at least I now understand them better—the Beatles went to schmaltz by the end because they were bored and had already exhausted the rock and roll idiom.  (Alternatively, you might listen to “Hey Jude” not as an exercise in anthem but in exhaustion; it plays much better that way.)

Which leads me to say, I’m sure that for many Beatles fans that are roughly the same age as the band itself, listening to these albums brings a sad nostalgia that recalls an era that’s lost forever.  I myself feel sadness in listening to the Beatles, but for a different reason.  They were great fans of rock and roll but also synthesizers of the nascent tradition.  None of the 1950′s American rockers really knew what they were doing, except maybe for Buddy Holly (who was, not coincidentally, the Beatles foremost ‘50′s influence).  Bands contemporary to the Beatles tended to see themselves as carrying on the cause, whether the Stones or Kinks in Britain or garage bands stateside, but somehow the Beatles achieved a balance between a deep appreciation for rock and roll and also a certain critical distance that allowed them like no other to improve upon the form.  50′s Elvis was mannered but unknowing; the Beatles were mannered but the opposite, and the difference palpably registers.  Consequently, the meat of the Beatles’ catalog play as songs of innocence and as songs of experience at the same time—the earlier sides more the former, and the later, the latter—the beauty and toughness of which together add a depth of melancholy to their recordings.  (Dylan’s joke upon the world was that he was rarely serious, while the Beatles’ curse was that they were rarely joking, even when they were very seriously trying.)

Not surprisingly, their center could not hold.  The Beatles gave us rock and roll’s apotheosis, and also (necessarily) its last will and testament.  There were plenty of intra- and extra-band factors that caused the Beatles to crumble, and Gould catalogs them well in Can’t Buy Me Love, but what made their albums wonderful also sealed their demise.  Even without the pressures and stresses, the Beatles would have fallen; the fruit itself would have weighed the bough to breaking eventually.

All of this makes me think of Jesus, but not because the Beatles are him (nor John the anti-Christ, for that matter, despite fundamentalist screeds to the contrary).  Jesus was the only one whose experience didn’t taint his innocence, and that’s an innocence that he shares with us, the all-too-experienced.  In him, innocence and experience no longer stand in tension anymore; the one enhances and deepens the other.  With this in mind, I’m then able to listen to the Beatles not only with melancholy but with hope that the bough will become unbroken once more.

Now to Can’t Buy Me Love, the book.  It’s my first Beatles tome, but hopefully I’ve read enough volumes about other artists to be able to identify the poser writers.  Gould isn’t one of them.  In fact, he writes the best kind of pop music history, which combines facts, bio, musical analysis, and cultural reflection into one.  By and large, the worst offenders here skip the analysis and cultural significance and just go for the juicy personal bits.  Gould instead takes the higher road.  (Although if you wade into Can’t Buy Me Love seeking ammo against Paul on behalf of John, you’ll find it.  But you’ll also find ammo against John, not to mention scads of unflattering stories about Yoko.  Yoko, it’s hard to be a sympathetic character when you come across as completely the contrary.  Perhaps she and Colonel Tom will share a hotel room in Dante’s inferno?)

Not only does Gould tell you exactly what power chord George Harrison strikes at the beginning of “A Hard Day’s Night”—plus oodles of other geek-out music factoids from the Beatles’ catalog—but he communicates why any of this mattered to us, and still does.  When the Beatles’ broke in the States with “Please Please Me,” they didn’t sin into a vacuum: the previous fall, JFK had been killed, and TV enabled a generation of young people to mourn communally in a way never before possible.  Against that shared anomie, the Beatles brought sunshine.  One could do what-ifs forever, but Gould makes a plausible case that had not the knoll become grassy, the Beatles may not have been the Beatles.  Fascinating stuff, and a music- or bio-only approach wouldn’t have turned it up.

Intriguing as well to me is Gould’s recounting of the cultural context of 1960′s hipsterism in Britain.  It’s striking to me that even back then, the Mods, the Teds, and so on were already aping previous trends in ironic fashion.  I don’t intend that statement as a knee-jerk “nothing new under the sun” type of thing; it’s only that between the older generation in England that wrote off the Beatles as pandering and/or prefabricated, younger Brits that went in for the Beatles nevertheless listened to them with some detachment and were mesmerized by their celebrity as much as their craft.  Gould remarks,
“Even as significant numbers of readers, viewers, and listeners found themselves drawn to unexpectedly appealing qualities in the Beatles’ music and their public personalities, they assumed that somewhere, somehow, the group’s fame was being expertly manufactured, and that their principal talent lay not in their ability as musicians and performers, but rather in their ability as celebrities to command the attention of the press and the public. This explains why, from the moment it began, the question that dogged the Beatles and their phenomenon was the question that applies to all hoaxes, spells, and popular delusions: How long will it last?”
The tragic thing about living in a fallen world is that to ask the question, “How long will it last?”, is also to know the answer.  Most of the Beatles’ audience was never able to listen to their music as John, Paul, George, and Ringo did to their heroes: as new.  Something has made it bad.

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“Feelin’ Bluesy”

Peter Guralnick, Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the “King of the Delta Blues Singers”
Greil Marcus, “Robert Johnson,” in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music
Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
People joke about Elvis still being alive.  I believe so strongly that the King is still around that I make jokes about his death.

That’s not true, the part about me thinking Elvis never kicked the can.  Anyone and everyone around Elvis the couple years before he died would tell you that it was a wonder he didn’t pass away sooner.  And besides, if Elvis were alive, it wouldn’t fit his story: an idiot savant who does one thing well (sing) walks into the right man’s studio at the right time in 1954, records “That’s All Right,” and unleashes a power upon the world that he only vaguely grasps—if he had grasped it, he wouldn’t and couldn’t have sung it.  Year after year later, the more Elvis tries to sing, a) the more poorly he does so, b) the more remote or forgotten his brilliance seems, and c) the more he becomes his own grotesque caricature.   Elvis’ downfall was that he couldn’t escape the conviction that he was his own morality play, all the while blind to the fact that his was actually a tragedy.   His decline was too perfect not to be consumed by it.  Elvis had to die, so of course he’s still dead.

The old, dead bluesman Robert Johnson is the one that may yet be around.  He died in 1938 at 27 years old, but he was a man of mystery even before his death; since then, he’s become the largest enigma in 20th century popular music.

Consider: Robert Johnson released only eleven records (78 singles) in his lifetime, and they didn’t sell very well.  Still, many considered him the greatest blues performer of his generation, although others were skeptical of his talents.  Robert Johnson was murdered by poisoning, but there are differing accounts as to the murderer and motive; was it a juke joint owner whose wife Johnson preyed upon, a jealous husband, or an accident?  Johnson is buried in three different places, each claiming it’s the one.  We do have his birth certificate, except that it was found 30 years after he died.  He was never interviewed during his life, and contemporaries that spoke of him decades later gave widely varying accounts of him: he was boisterous, he was withdrawn, he performed with bands, he preferred playing solo, he’d stay in one city for a long time, he was always train hopping somewhere else, he was underrated, he was overrated, he was a best friend, he was a rascal.  (All of Johnson’s contemporaries are dead now, too.)  As white college students rediscovered blues music in general and Johnson 78′s specifically in the 1960′s, Columbia issued an LP of his sides; Johnson was then declared “King of the Delta Blues Singers.”  But why did some blues singers that actually performed in the old Delta barely remember him, even if others lionized him?

Is Robert Johnson simply a product of revisionist history?  Were his singles themselves mastered at the wrong speed, so that we really have no idea what he sounded like?  Why was a major and supposedly authoritative biography of Robert Johnson, in the making since the 1970′s, never published?  How is it that the liner notes that accompanied Columbia’s 1990 CD box set of Johnson’s recordings are considered full of falsities by many other blues scholars?   Are the two known photographs of Johnson really him, and what to make of the new one that surfaced in 2008, which may or may not be authentic?

Oh, and the only thing that Robert Johnson’s friends could agree upon about him is that he made a deal with the Devil at the crossroads.  At least no one questions whether he sold his soul in order to learn guitar.

If anyone would fake his death just to laugh at the decades of reflection upon him to follow, it would be Robert Johnson.  Who was this guy?   It’s fitting that such a mysterious presence lingers on so long in our collective, musical unconscious: only a person that never lived can never die.

In truth, so little can be established about Robert Johnson that scholars’ opinions about him reveal more about the latter than the former.  Nevertheless, we still have these 20-odd songs recorded (and presumably written by) a man named “Robert Johnson,” and those tracks are chilling.  Songs like his “Me and the Devil Blues” leave little to the imagination but much for us to fear.  On the other hand, a lyric such as “I have a bird to whistle, and I have a bird to sing / I’ve got a woman I’m loving, but she don’t mean a thing” (“Stones in My Passway”) combines pathos with an exquisite delicacy and lightness of feeling that serves to highlight the heartbreak that creaks through the melody.

My two favorite resources for learning more about Robert Johnson are Peter Guralnick’s Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the “King of the Delta Blues Singers” and Johnson’s eponymous chapter in Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.  Guralnick offers a brief account of Johnson with a whiff of romance and mystery, while Marcus majors on the romance and mystery while sprinkling in a little fact.  Take both of them and call me in the morning.

If you spend some time with Johnson’s songs, two aspects immediately grab you: alienation and space.  The two go together.  No one has ever communicated the sense of being alone and yet made it so personal and singular like Robert Johnson.  Marcus comments, “The power of [Robert Johnson’s] music comes in part from Johnson’s ability to shape the loneliness and chaos of his betrayal, or ours.  Listening to Johnson’s songs, one almost feels at home in [a] desolate America; one feels able to take some strength from it, right along with the promises we could not give up if we wanted to.”  At the same time, it’s the very isolation of his songs that opens the vistas to larger questions; Marcus again: “Robert Johnson lived with. . . intensity, and he asked old questions: What is our place in the world?  Why are we cursed with the power to want more than we can have?  What separates men and women from each other?  Why must we suffer guilt not only for our sins, but for the failure of our best hopes?”  These are good questions, ones which Johnson doesn’t attempt to answer, although he’s either crazy or brilliant (or both) to raise them.

Many scholars, including some religious ones, have attempted to frame Robert Johnson’s blues in some type of spiritual, or even Christian, system.  I believe these endeavors to be highly misguided.  I have no idea what Johnson the man believed, and it’s not my place to guess, but his music only shows Christianity in a photo-negative; with his lyrics and music, Johnson paints a picture of nothing more than a vacuum, albeit a vacuum well suited to be filled by Christ.  Marcus is correct in writing that “Johnson’s vision was of a world without salvation, redemption, or rest; it was a vision he resisted, laughed at, to which he gave himself over, but most of all it was a vision he pursued.  He walked his road like a failed, orphaned Puritan, looking for women and a good night, but never convinced, whether he found such things or not, that they really were what he wanted, and so framing his tales with old echoes of sin and damnation.”  The blues of Robert Johnson create a world that God has left behind and which the Devil now owns.

Well, if this is true of Robert Johnson, what should I say about it?  Ought I to proclaim, “Don’t listen to him, he’s tetched!”?  Not at all; I’d have trouble completely disavowing any art as resonant as Johnson’s.  Instead, I’d suggest that few have excelled like Robert Johnson at portraying the Fall.   What’s more, he never exults in a broken world for long; even at his most bawdy, Johnson’s songs of release are filled with regret.  Greil Marcus understands this when he writes, “All the beauty of the world and all the terror of losing it is there. . . Robert Johnson’s music is proof that beauty can be wrung from the terror itself.  When Johnson sang his darkest songs, terror was a fact, beauty only a glimmer; but that glimmer, and its dying away, lie beneath everything else, beneath all the images that hit home and make a home.”  I’d want to follow up with Marcus, however, or Johnson, and ask, “If our world is only darkness, why are we terrified of losing beauty?”  Or Marcus again, “The moments of perfect pleasure in Johnson’s songs, and the beauty of those songs, remind one that it is not the simple presence of evil that is unbearable; what is unbearable is the impossibility of reconciling the facts of evil with the beauty of the world.”  But I’d wonder, “But why then does beauty exist at all?  Doesn’t Robert Johnson’s darkness only make sense in the context of a world that God created as good and beautiful?”

Which brings us to the cross of Jesus.  The cross tells us many things: Our good world is worth sacrificing for.  Suffering, pain, sorrow, and sin are not illusions but realities that demand a reckoning.  God finally deals with evil in such way that he absorbs its pain and price in himself (Jesus crucified) and yet triumphs over it (Jesus resurrected).  A new world of beauty is coming, and has already begun.

Robert Johnson gives us a world without Jesus, but still a world that cries out for him.

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“Dead Elvis”

Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession
Two years ago, Sony Music released a box set of Elvis Presley music that purported finally to have everything: all 711 original Elvis masters released in his lifetime plus 103 rarities on 30 CD’s, a 240-page hardback book, and a “display case.”  According to the Sony website, “THE COMPLETE ELVIS PRESLEY MASTERS is an indispensable piece of music history and the one collection no true connoisseur should be without.”  All told, THE COMPLETE ELVIS PRESLEY MASTERS could be mine for $749.00, not counting tax and shipping.

The website description had me with “connoisseur.”  Am I an Elvis connoisseur?  Answer: did Elvis love his mama?  So, I began to wonder to myself, Even though at last count I already have 419 of the 814 songs on THE COMPLETE ELVIS PRESLEY MASTERS, don’t I still need the remaining 395?  Aren’t my 419 remastered Elvis songs the old remasters compared to the new remasters?  Could there be hidden treasures within such as yet unprocured Elvis tunes as “Yoga Is As Yoga Does,” “No Room To Rhumba in a Sports Car,” and “Song of the Shrimp”?  Would it be ok to ask my family not to eat on days beginning with “T” and “S” in order to free up the cash to buy this set?

Evidently, I haven’t named and claimed enough dough to justify the expense of 30 more Elvis CD’s, albeit with commemorative book and display case.  For the moment, I’ll just have to admit that I don’t have what it takes to be an Elvis connoisseur and settle for “aficionado” or (worse) “dilettante.”  The fact remains, however, that I’m often obsessed with Elvis Presley—not with Elvis the man, but with the music of Elvis, and even more powerfully, the idea of Elvis.

Given this fixation, Greil Marcus’s Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession immediately grabbed me.  Dead Elvis isn’t a biography of the King—for bio purposes, try Peter Guralnick’s wonderful two volume work—as much as a rumination on his troubled legacy.  Everyone knows Elvis, but how many people like his music?  If so few in fact do (or can name more than a couple of his songs), however, why does everyone know about Elvis and have an opinion about him?  As the years have trickled by,  Elvis has turned into the ultimate interstate car accident that obligates compulsive rubbernecking.  We watch with a mix of fascination that it happened, and condescension that we were able to avoid it.  Worst of all in this case is the sinking, sad knowledge that the accident couldn’t have been avoided; it’s hard to imagine a world in which this accident hadn’t occurred.  Elvis carries with him a tragic inevitability that is larger than the man himself, or even than his music.

Is it crazy for me to say that in some mysterious way Elvis is America?  Marcus wouldn’t think so.  He writes,
I found, or anyway decided, that Elvis contained more of America—had swallowed whole more of its contradictions and paradoxes—than any other figure I could think of; I found that he was a great, original artist; and I found that neither of these propositions was generally understood. . . I understood Elvis not as a human being, but as a force, as a kind of necessity: that is, the necessity existing in every culture that leads it to produce a perfect, all-inclusive metaphor for itself.  This, I tried to find a way to say safely, was what Herman Melville attempted to do with his white whale, but this is what Elvis turned out to be.  Or, rather, turned himself into.  Or, maybe, agreed to become.  And because such a triumph had to combine absolute determination and self-conscious ambition with utter ease, with the grace of one to whom all good things come naturally, I imagined a special dispensation for Elvis Presley, or, really, read it into the artifacts of his career: that to make all this work, to make this metaphor completely, transcendently American, it would be free.  In other words, this would of necessity be a Faustian bargain, but someone else—who cared who?—would pick up the tab.
If you peel back the layers from Elvis the movie star or from Elvis the strung out, fat Vegas lizard and instead listen to his Sun recordings and Memphis sessions, or watch his 1950′s TV appearances and the comeback special, you’ll find something strangely and absolutely irreducible.  His 1955 “Mystery Train” compresses the emotional history of at least this country into two and a half minutes, which would have been amazing enough, but then right at the end of the song, Elvis laughs!  The cackle is astonishing—doesn’t Elvis realize what he had just recorded?  Doesn’t he care?  Is it all just a game?  The astounding and infuriating thing about it is that Elvis sang “Mystery Train” as if life and death itself were rumbling around the tracks but then jokingly shrugged it all off as if it were nothing, and he meant both.  For Marcus, it’s this contradiction that enables Elvis as Moby-Dick to have swallowed America whole.

Dead Elvis brilliantly fingers the paradox that I’ve felt for a long time: Elvis is omnipresent but universally misunderstood, neither of which is mere coincidence.  As for the former, of course Elvis is everywhere; no pop star in the last fifty years has truly come close to dominating disparate streams of popular culture, or selling as many records, as he has.  But with the latter, it’s easier to dismiss Elvis as the original tabloid celebrity than to ask fundamental questions about why his music cut so close to the bone.  Comparing the best Elvis cuts again with Moby-Dick and Lincoln’s second inaugural address, here’s Marcus’s take:
With each of these examples there is a presentation, an acting out, a fantasy, a performance, not of what it means to be American—to be a creature of history, the inheritor of certain crimes, wars, ideas, landscapes—but rather a presentation, an acting out, a fantasy of what the deepest and most extreme possibilities and dangers of our national identity are.  We read, or we listen, or with Lincoln we read and we imagine ourselves listening, then and there, on the spot, and we gasp.  We get it.  We feel ennobled and a little scared, or very scared, because we are being shown what we could be, because we realize what we are, and what we are not.  We pull back.
The closer we come to our nobler instincts and deeper yearnings, the more crucial it is not to look down, but we can’t help it.  It’s easier just to shuffle through Wal-Mart.  It’s easier to remember fat Elvis.

(One item that Marcus frequently mentions but has no answer for is how, especially in the South, Elvis and Jesus are sometimes nearly interchangeable figures.  I think that the Elvis-Jesus connection is one that can be played in any number of unfortunate biblical directions, but there’s at least one that makes sense to me.  Elvis’s most enduring music gives voice to a longing for a better country, but one way to read the Presley biography is that the idea of the music couldn’t help but kill the man behind it.  It was too much, so Elvis had to die.)

For those less inclined to consider what Melville, Jonathan Edwards, Poe, Lincoln, and Elvis might have in common, Dead Elvis could prove to be a tedious read.  Greil Marcus has his fair share of haters, and even for me, a Marcus aficionado (connoisseur?), sentences like “irony [is] the alibi of desiccated modernism” come across as a little purple.  Then again, Elvis had that gold lamé suit, didn’t he?

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“How Fiction Works”

How Fiction Works, by James Wood
From the beginning of my first year in college through about three or four years out of seminary, I didn’t read any novels.  I went through a lot of other stuff—philosophy, history, and especially theology—but I considered my hours too precious to waste on fiction.  After all, I reasoned, fiction is fake, but those other disciplines seek what is real.  Shouldn’t Christians concern themselves with reality?

I don’t have many regrets about my life, but my years lost to enjoying fiction is one of the major ones.  My soul was smaller then, and reading has grown it.

Like millions of others, I owe my transformation all to Oprah.  When Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections appeared a while back, I was tickled that the author a) ridiculed the selection of his book as an Oprah book o’ the month (club motto: “I feel like she’s reading just to me”), and b) the press picked it up as a major news item.  If Franzen was willing to question and even disparage the radiance of the “O” sticker on his new book, then that seemed like a book worth looking into.

So I read The Corrections, and the book was both real and recognizably human, which fairly shocked me.

This isn’t to say that The Corrections is entirely realistic.  In one scene, early middle aged Chip, desperate to throw a good party but short on cash, pilfers a salmon steak from a grocery store, slips it into his pants, and tries to make his getaway.  The only problem is that Chip, almost out of the market, is flagged down by an annoying acquaintance and is forced to have a conversation—as the fish slithers down his trunks and salmon juice trickles down the inside of his leg.

I’ve done a lot of things that make me blush in retrospect, but I can say with a clear conscience that my pants have always been, and will be, a seafood-free zone.  Still, Chip’s gaucherie highlights something essential about the comedy and tragedy of life.  Know thyself: I’d never (knock on wood) pull Chip’s stunt, but who doesn’t nurse his or her own inner Chip?  It’s reality.

Literary critic James Wood’s How Fiction Works stakes a similar claim.  This is an odd volume, an extended, nonfiction essay about fiction, but the book both confirmed to me my unexpressed convictions concerning the importance of literature and also gave me tools to better appreciate what I read.  Wood argues that fiction chronicles what is true:
We are likely to think of the desire to be truthful about life—the desire to produce art that accurately sees ‘the way things are’—as a universal literary motive and project, the broad central language of the novel and drama: what James in What Maisie Knew calls “the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed there curled the blue river of truth”. . .  And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to its foundations.
To have the foundations of my “habit’s house” shaken startles me, causes me better to perceive the strange mixture of the luminous and the turgid that surrounds me each day.  Fiction frees me to appreciate life more fully and lament it more completely.

Novels are held in suspicion by many Christians, but I think that this impulse is fundamentally misguided and perhaps even ruinous.  No good work of fiction, whether premodern, classic, or postmodern can truly be against life.  (Yes, I do nevertheless recognize that there are many bad books.)  The late David Foster Wallace, for example, was the poster child for postmodern fiction, and his works were (admittedly) pretty weird.  Still, for all of his characters’ hip rants and wild digressions, Foster once said that he only ever wrote about what it is to be human.  How Fiction Works affirms the irresistible impulse to life and to the real that draws me to good writing, including fiction that is “unrealistic”.  Wood writes,
Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or life-sameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. . . For realism of this kind—lifeness—is the origin.
In the years I spent away from novels, I look back and sense that my life was lacking in lifeness.

Between all of the different counseling and pastoral situations I encounter, people’s problems tend to conform to certain tropes—marriage problems, depression, sickness, money, and so on.  Sometimes I struggle to remain vulnerable and exposed to the particular textures of specific sufferings and as a result callous myself to the pathos.  Reading novels reminds me of the particular wonder inherent in the universality and individuality of human experience.  Every affliction is notable and noble, as long as we’re brave enough to consider it an affliction.  I wouldn’t say that fiction helps me to provide “answers” to these problems—that’s what the gospel’s for, after all—but it aids me immeasurably in diagnosing and appreciating people that I’m called to love and serve.  I think that Wood would agree: “Of course, the novel does not provide philosophical  [or, I’d add, theological] answers.  Instead, it does what [Bernard] Williams wanted moral philosophy to do—it gives the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric.”  I believe that much good Christian advice can sound bad because it is delivered without an apprehension of “the complexity of our moral fabric.”  This is why pastors must read fiction.  Wood remarks in How Fiction Works, “Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.”  I want to be a reader of life.

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“A Meal With Jesus”

Tim Chester, A Meal With Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, & Mission around the Table
Somewhere in a parallel universe, there exist shelves and shelves of theological books that are well written.  Unfortunately in this regard, we live on earth, where good theology is often poorly expressed (and sketchy theology reads like buttah).  Throw in the Z-axis of quality missional reflection, and you’re seeking the holy grail hat trick of Christian literature.  But hey, anything’s possible.

Enter Tim Chester, from the parallel universe of England.  On a steel horse he rides across the pond to give us A Meal With Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, & Mission around the Table, and he serves up said hat trick.  Chester has apparently written many books for IVP and others in Great Britain, but I only became aware of him last year with his You Can Change, which is a wonderful work that details the dynamics of gospel growth in our lives.  For all of You Can Change’s strengths, however, I agreed with a perceptive critic that thought the style of the book rather pedestrian and decried, “Unfortunately, Chester writes more like a butler than a buccaneer.”  I wouldn’t have put it in such a stroppy way—horses for courses, and all that—but it seems that Chester has taken that criticism to heart with A Meal With Jesus, and what we have is a remarkable short volume that blends deep biblical theological reflection with a bracing call to mission, all produced in a manner that is neither overcooked nor underwritten.  Bob’s your uncle!
I loved A Meal With Jesus so much, in fact, that I’ve invited all of us at Providence to buy a copy, read it, and open their homes to others this summer for the purpose of joy and mission.

Chester builds his book around the gospel of Luke and notes how frequently there Jesus is at a meal.  “How did Jesus come?” Chester asks, “He came eating and drinking.”  I never quite thought of it that way, even though I spent years preaching through Luke, but Chester is sussing out something important: “Jesus spent his time eating and drinking—a lot of his time. He was a party animal. His mission strategy was a long meal, stretching into the evening. He did evangelism and discipleship round a table with some grilled fish, a loaf of bread, and a pitcher of wine.” This might not feel like a stonking revelation in itself, but the implications that Chester builds from this premise are striking.  For example, argues Chester, Jesus’ meals are a strategic way to throw a spanner in the works of the religious establishment and engage in kingdom mission:
Jesus is called “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” This is why eating and drinking were so important in the mission of Jesus: they were a sign of his friendship with tax collectors and sinners. His “excess” of food and “excess” of grace are linked. In the ministry of Jesus, meals were enacted grace, community, and mission. So the meals of Jesus represent something bigger. They represent a new world, a new kingdom, a new outlook. But they give that new reality substance. Jesus’s meals are not just symbols; they’re also application. They’re not just pictures; they’re the real thing in miniature. Food is stuff. It’s not ideas. It’s not theories. It’s, well, it’s food, and you put it in your mouth, taste it, and eat it. And meals are more than food. They’re social occasions. They represent friendship, community, and welcome. I don’t want to reduce church and mission to meals, but I do want to argue that meals should be an integral and significant part of our shared life. They represent the meaning of mission, but they more than represent it: they embody and enact our mission.
I believe this is true.  Sharing a meal is a great equalizer—just like grace itself—which is precisely why the Pharisees couldn’t stand Jesus.  Have you ever been in the house of a friend (or an erstwhile stranger) for dinner and not wanted the meal to end?  Isn’t there something intuitively correct in Chester’s assertion that “around the table we offer fellowship and celebrate life”?  When Christians practice such simple hospitality with a true sense of joy and inclusion, “Our meals offer a divine moment, an opportunity for people to be seduced by grace into a better life, a truer life, and a more human existence.”

If Christians want to engage in mission, then, better perhaps than entering an evangelism program or attending a conference on the subject is simply opening their homes and dinner tables to others.  According to Chester,
Jesus didn’t run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events. He ate meals. If you routinely share meals and you have a passion for Jesus, then you’ll be doing mission. It’s not that meals save people. People are saved through the gospel message. But meals will create natural opportunities to share that message in a context that resonates powerfully with what you’re saying.
I wish that I had encountered this message years ago—and yes, ironically enough, this message really just derives from the Bible, which I’ve read before—and have done a better job of doing mission in this way and of communicating this vision to others.

Alas, here is also the problem: all of this theologizing is brill, and suddenly Chester makes mission sound so much easier than the hair shirting alternatives, but why don’t I share meals with others more than I do?  Because I’m often a Pharisee.  It was those in the religious upper class that lorded their status over others and only practiced hospitality to buttress their own status and reciprocal gain.  Jesus, however, gives the toodle pip to that way of thinking and says instead, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brother or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”  This teaching is hard for anyone to practice, but when it happens, it’s beautiful.  Then I turn back around to gaze in upon my own cold heart, and Chester warns me, “It’s easy to love people in some abstract sense and preach the virtues of love. But we’re called to love the real individuals sitting around the table.”  Or again, “Our meals express our doctrine of justification. It’s possible to articulate an orthodox theology of justification by faith, but communicate through your meals a doctrine of justification by works.”  This is profound.  My meals really do express my “vision for life,” and whom I invite and how I practice them says more about me than I want to admit.

Nevertheless,  A Meal With Jesus holds out hope to me on two levels.  First, getting on the Chester bandwagon is as easy as giving someone a quick call or email to come over for dinner.  It’s not rocket science.  In addition, Chester continually draws the reader back to the grace of Christ, grace that forgives, grace that renews, grace that says, “Try again.”  That’s what I want to do, and I believe that the ethic of A Meal With Jesus could transform Providence and its mission in some permanent ways.  And best of all, as we press ahead with sharing hospitality, we are orienting ourselves to abiding, future joy.  Chester one more time:
What are the Christian community’s meals for? They achieve many things. They express so much of God’s grace. They provide a glimpse of what it’s like to live under God’s reign. They express and reinforce the community that Christ has created through the cross. They’re a foretaste of the new creation. They’re a great context in which to invite unbelievers so they encounter the reality of God among us. But they’re not “for” any of these things. It’s a trick question. Everything else—creation, redemption, mission—is “for” this: that we might eat together in the presence of God. God created the world so we might eat with him. The food we consume, the table around which we sit, and the companions gathered with us have as their end our communion with one another and with God. The Israelites were redeemed to eat with God on the mountain, and we’re redeemed for the great messianic banquet that we anticipate when we eat together as a Christian community. We proclaim Christ in mission so that others might hear the invitation to join the feast. Creation, redemption, and mission all exist so that this meal can take place.
Well said.

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“The Sun Also Rises”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
What a scoundrel, that Ernest Hemingway.  At least that’s what I think that many people think about him: Hemingway was a lush that had all the best times and travels, enjoyed more fun than anyone (except for the suicide part at the end), but was lucky enough to have won the cosmic lottery and received extraordinary gifts of prose that enabled the sun never to set upon his rambling, moveable feast.

Then the backlash: Hemingway was a lush, etc., but was lucky enough to trick everyone into believing that he had won the cosmic lottery and gained extraordinary gifts of prose, etc.  The Hemingway has no clothes.  On this contrarian view, Hemingway is only well regarded by his male readership because they wish they could be like him, and female readership with him.

Thank goodness for Words of Angehr, so that this whole mess will be sorted out once and for all.

This is my first Hemingway.  On the basis of The Sun Also Rises (1926), billed as his first masterpiece, is he a great writer?  The answer requires me to dip into Beatleology.  Ringo Starr, the drummer of the Fab Four, is considered one of the finest of the kind in rock and roll, and a distinctive one at that.  The problem is, Ringo apparently lacked some basic drumming skills for which he had to improvise alternate techniques that would hide his faults; these Starr cover-up moves were hailed as genius by legions and generations of imitators, although most of the imitators knew meat and potatoes drumming better than Ringo.  Sooooooooooo, is Ringo a great drummer?

Sure he is, and Ernest Hemingway is a great writer.  But not the greatest.  It’s his minimalist prose that makes some readers into true believers, and yes, Hemingway must have had bad experiences with adjectives when he was growing up.  The Sun Also Rises has a spare beauty of style that gives a toughness and clarity to its characters and narrative.  (I actually think West Texas is beautiful, so maybe I’ve been set up to be a Hemingway fan.)  At the same time, I suspect that his bag of writer’s tricks is smaller than some of his contemporaries’.  But hey, I’m beginning to really dig the Beatles.

Most importantly, however, the style of The Sun Also Rises serves the story magnificently.  A gang of disaffected, not-so-young-anymore Americans maraud around post-World War I Europe, looking for diversions as they hen-peck each other to death.  If that sounds a little bit nasty, it is.  The central axis of the novel is the doomed relationship between Jake, for whom a vaguely-described war injury has left him impotent, and Lady Ashley, whose beauty is failing ever so imperceptibly but inexorably.  This doomed, unconsummated affair attracts other “friends” that are animated by the sadnesses that spill over from Jake and Ashley.

Aside from Hemingway’s gifts as a writer, I’m glad I read The Sun Also Rises because despite (or perhaps because of) the meanness, the book is true.  I relate to Jake as he relishes the obvious anxiety of his friend Cohn:
At the station the train was late, and we sat on a baggage-truck and waited outside in the dark. I have never seen a man in civil life as nervous as Robert Cohn—nor as eager. I was enjoying it. It was lousy to enjoy it, but I felt lousy. Cohn had a wonderful quality of bringing out the worst in anybody.
We all have our Cohns, don’t we?

Still, Jake is honest enough to realize that the problem isn’t Cohn at all.  After Jake learns that Cohn and Ashley have become lovers, he ruminates,
Why I felt that impulse to devil him I do not know. Of course I do know. I was blind, unforgivingly jealous of what had happened to him. The fact that I took it as a matter of course did not alter that any. I certainly did hate him. I do not think I ever really hated him until he had that little spell of superiority at lunch. . .
Jake hates because he wants to.

I’ve heard people criticize Jake as facile and ill-formed, but in Jake, Hemingway comprehends the difficulty of staying hateful all the time and the inconsistency of the contrary.  It’s easier to dabble in genuine spite and then hide behind masks.  Later in the novel, at a dinner of the same crew that has occasionally savaged each other thus far, Jake relents: “There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.”

If only life were that simple, but Hemingway knows it’s not, which is why the book cuts as deeply as it does.  All of the characters in The Sun Also Rises end worse than they began—older, meaner, more dissolute—but at least they have the dignity to be sad about it, which is itself rather an act of courage.

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W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
Recently at church I remarked that to comprehend sadness requires great courage and resolve.  I admit that I’m often a coward, whether in relation to taking in the scope of the hurricane destruction of my hometown, New Orleans, the tsunami that brought havoc to Japan, or something like the Holocaust, the subject of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.  Too much.

Schindler’s List, another Holocaust remembrance, was a wonderful movie, but I only saw it once.  For all of the tragic beauty of the film, why would I endure witnessing panels from that genocide again?  So I’ve avoided Holocaust fiction, which is a large genre, for the same general reason.  Individual sadnesses seem easier to comprehend than mass ones.

I’m puzzled that I’ve now read a representative of Holocaust fiction—Sebald’s—but I suspect that Austerlitz itself gives the clue.  The title character of this novel—published here in translation from the German in 2001—is an old British academic strangely drawn to train stations.  One time, as Austerlitz wanders through a particular Paris depot, a sudden flashback overtakes him.  He vividly recalls sitting in the same area as a four year-old child waiting to be adopted by a childless Welsh couple.  Austerlitz has known that he was not native Welsh but had known very little of his previous life, where he was from and why he was given away.  The recognition of the Parisian train station, however, causes him to excavate his own past.  After psychologically torturous reconstructions, he finds his way back to the Czech Republic and to the now elderly nanny that long ago had set him on a train ultimately to Wales.  Austerlitz was Jewish, and as Hitler tightened his grip upon Eastern Europe, his parents spirited him away to safer shores; his father, an anti-Hitler agitator, was hunted down by the SS in occupied Paris, and his mother, a stage actress, perished in a concentration camp.

Before coming to understand his true identity and past, Austerlitz was a man haunted and distracted.  At the beginning of the novel, he tells a confidant “about the marks of pain which, as he said he well knew, trace countless fine lines through history.”   Full knowledge of his beginnings, however, turns this distant person into a devastated one:
In the end I was linked to other people only by certain forms of courtesy which I took to extremes and which I know today. . .  I observed not so much for the sake of their recipients as because they allowed me to ignore the fact that my life has always. . . been clouded by an unrelieved despair.
What a strange novel.  How strange of me to read it.

I know next to nothing about W. G. Sebald, who had enjoyed a long literary career but died before Austerlitz was released.  Why would he tell such a story?  Why does Austerlitz compulsively seek knowledge that will unravel him?  And less importantly but still interestingly for me (of course), why would I read such a book?  I think the answer is the same for all three questions, namely that human beings possess the peculiar quality of desiring ugly truths over pretty falsehoods.  At least the (sometimes) courageous ones do.  Why live if we don’t want to know?

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“Original Sin: A Cultural History”

Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History
I’ve read a few books on sin, but Alan Jacobs’ Original Sin: A Cultural History is unique in a particular regard: it’s funny.  John Calvin on the subject of sin, for example, is many wonderful things, but he’s devoid of any ha-ha’s.

Thank goodness, then, for Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College, who’s enlivened a rather moribund genre.  He himself admits, however, that he’s starting from a deficit, as he attempts to make a plausible case for such a hoary doctrine to the contemporary skeptic, but I think he succeeds in his task as much as anyone ever could.  (Realistically, there’s only so much one can do in order to make the doctrine of original sin attractive, but Jacobs very nearly emerges from Original Sin with the silk purse.)

I’m all about cold and relentless logic here at “Words of Angehr,” so let’s break down the title into its constituent parts.  So there’s the Original Sin part.  This is a traditional Christian teaching which holds that when Adam and Eve fell, the power of sin and the curse of sin was transmitted to their posterity (i.e., to all of us).  As a result, humans are not born inherently good nor as a tabula rasa, but instead as sinners predisposed to selfishness and evil plus already under judgment.

Obviously, original sin would be something of a drag to bring up at cocktail parties.  Nevertheless, Jacobs argues persuasively that we need a concept of original sin in order to make proper sense out of our world and of ourselves.  His driving query, for you Latinists out there in blogoland, is, “Unde hoc malum?”  (“Where did this evil come from?”) I think that’s a great question, and one that I would place before any religious skeptic.  Is it just an unfortunate coincidence that people do terrible things, or that our tabulae probably remain rasae for just such a little while before selfishness fills us up?  Alternatively, is “evil” simply a function of our biological programming so that we then aren’t able to call anything evil or wrong at all?  After the bloodiest century in the history of the world, is optimism about humanity the order of the day for 2011?  Calling Dr. Pangloss!  Unde hoc malum?

Original sin might not go down any easier than Ovaltine, but that doesn’t mean it fails to get the job done.  Those that would dismiss original sin may be setting themselves up for a fall.

But the title, Original Sin, continues into sub-, as all current titles inexorably must.  What we have in this book by Jacobs is a Cultural History.  In other words, Original Sin isn’t a systematic theological treatment of its subject, nor historical theology.  Instead the author details major proponents of original sin (Augustine, Edwards, Whitefield) and its detractors (Pelagius, Wesley) but even more interestingly traces echoes of the doctrine through cultural artifacts (literature, music, politics) so that he might construct a compelling plausibility matrix for a belief that few of us would prima facie wish to accept.  Unde hoc malum?  Answer: original sin.

Truthfully, it’s the “cultural history” part of the equation that drew me to this book.  I’m not an expert on the subject, but I feel like seminary and study have already imparted to me a good-enough understanding of the basics of original sin.  What I haven’t given nearly as much thought to is how original sin has surfaced consistently throughout cultures around the world and across the centuries.  Original sin is always there!  In service of that thesis, the breadth of Jacobs’ reading is breathtaking.  We have here Shakespeare (of course) but also Marlowe, C. S. Lewis but also Whittaker Chambers, George Whitefield plus the Duchess of Buckingham, Reinhold Niebuhr with Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Scholastic Protestantism with Kabbalah Judaism, Solzhenitsyn and Rebecca West, Mike Mignola’s  Hellboy comics-cum-film and (say it ain’t so) Nicholas Cage’s Ghost Rider movie, and so on.  Alan Jacobs probably reads a lot.

The downside of this type of history, in my opinion, is that it can tend to be so impressionistic that the thesis becomes irrefutable by default.  On the other hand, the mind behind “Words of Angehr” really isn’t that logical after all, so I prefer “cultural” history anyway.  The method (and to a lesser extent) style of Original Sin reminds me of the writings of music critic Greil Marcus, who can be eclectic to a fault, sometimes dead wrong, but never less than fascinating.  With Jacobs and Marcus, occasionally a reader may think that correlations between their sources only cohere in the mind of the author, yet I’m enough of a postmodern to wonder, Isn’t all history like that anyway?  If you like history as a timeline, Original Sin: A Cultural History probably isn’t for you.  But if, conversely, you’re an interesting person with a curious and energetic mind, you’ll love it.

And did I mention the stuff about funny?  This book about sin is funny—funny in ways that are rather profound, funny also as in humorous, and sometimes both.  After a lengthy discussion of the clash between Augustine (who fervently believed in original sin) and Pelagius (who thought he was good enough, smart enough, and gosh-darnit people liked him), Jacobs comments, “Pelagianism is a creed for heroes, but Augustine’s emphasis on original sin and the consequent absolute dependence of every one of us on the grace of God gives hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, putz, the schlemiel.”  Life is funnier in yiddish.  And let’s face it, we’re all schlemiels.

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“Saints and Sinners”

Edna O’Brien, Saints and Sinner: Stories
During the falls of my freshman and sophomore years of high school, while then-athletes and soon-to-be couch potatoes banged into each other with football pads, I ran cross country instead.  Preferring the thoughtful elegance of basketball—my winter sport—to the pseudo-Darwinism of the gridiron anyway, I was glad to have passed on the sport of mules.  (Just kidding, you former football players and current couch potatoes, and could you please pass the French Onion dip?)

Still, I hated cross country.  It’s a great sport, builds character, separates the men from the boys (unless girls’ cross country), etc., but there sure was a lot of running involved.  Plus, cross country always began in August.  In New Orleans.  At 3.30pm.

Dave Rice was my cross country coach, and he was a great guy.  He lived right across the street from my school, had coached since the 19th century, and truly dedicated his life to generations of students.  Coach Rice also had a very peculiar command of the English language, as is the case with many New Orleanians.  One word that in particular sparked reaction occurred on days where instead of steady jogging, we’d do long series of sprinting, then jogging, then sprinting, then walking, the sprinting, then fainting, then sprinting, then “Clear!!!” [zap] “Clear!!!” [zap], then sprinting, then driving home.  On such days, we cowered before the prospect of certain exhaustion that leered before us, but the sheer despair that enveloped us was slightly ameliorated by the fact that Coach Rice called this sprint-stop-sprint routine “fartleks.”  “Fartlek” is pronounced just like it’s spelled, and we were astounded and delighted that “fartlek” was one word that Coach Rice nailed.  The spasmodic laughter that struck us 15 year-olds every time Coach Rice pronounced “fartlek” was thunderous.  “Time to do fartleks, boys!”  “Do what, Coach?”  “Fartleks!”  “I thought that was for Tuesdays?”  “No, today we’re fartleking!”  “Doing what?”  “Fartleks!”  “How long?” “One hour of fartleks!”  “By ourselves or together?”  Et cetera, for as long as we could put off the misery of interval training.  The roar of our laughter was only dampened by the sobering knowledge that we were wasting oxygen that would have come in very handy later on.

Adolescence aside, fartleks were excruciating.   You fully invest in an all-out run, exhausting yourself, but then you only have moments to recover before doing the same thing all over again.

I find reading short story collections to be like fartleks.  I can handle novels far more easily: they’re a leisurely jog with only gentle inclines, merciful slopes, steady pacing, then kick it up at the end.  Books of short stories, on the other hand, require me in the space of only a few pages to give myself over to a set of characters, a plot, and a setting that will soon end, and then I take a deep breath just for a moment before sprinting ahead into a completely different fictional world.  I’m spent many times over by the end of the work.

For all of my giggling and grousing about high school fartleks, however, I still do interval training every week or so when I jog in Tech Terrace Park.  Sure, there’s nothing as tiring, but regular jogging isn’t as exhilarating as fartleks, either.   I guess that’s why, despite the debilitating demands, I love to read short story collections.  (Life is short; read hard.)

Casting around for a book of short stories, I found Saints and Sinners: Stories, written by Edna O’Brien, a grande dame of Irish literature.  O’Brien has written many things, including the controversial-for-the-time The Country Girls in 1960, and is a master of Irish English.  (I would have loved to have overheard a conversation between her and Coach Rice.)  So many things came together to turn me into a homer for this volume: the short story genre itself, verdant prose, Irishness, a title that appealed to my hometown sensibilities and current vocation, Kindle friendly.  I’m in!  Saints and Sinners is wonderful.  I’m working through piecemeal John Cheever’s Pulitzer-winning short story compendium, and while it’s longer than Saints and Sinners, I’m not sure it’s better.

For starters, short stories are sour if they don’t get the details right.  Interestingly, I tend to believe that Irish writers in particular have an ear for the little things.  In “Send My Roots Rain,” a vignette about an aging single woman, with a boyfriend one night she “watched a video of Elvis that she had rented, sitting in her front room by a warm fire and drinking red wine from the good glasses.”  Now, Mrs. Siegel taught me in fifth grade that using the word “good” in fiction is banal, but the “good” in this O’Brien sentence is sublime.  We have here close third-person narration, in which the voice of the narrator approximates the perspective of the main character.  Consider, then, that rich people don’t differentiate between the “good” wine glasses and “bad” wine glasses.  It’s just wine glasses to them.  Ditto, actually, for the truly destitute: it’s just a glass, and be thankful you have one.  But imagine, however, a woman rich enough to have a couple of “good” wine glasses, yet poor enough to have to save them for special occasions, and aware enough to know that every time she enjoys a Cabernet there’s a choice to me made.  Envision this woman, as her boyfriend pops a video (Elvis, no less) into the VCR, being called to the couch just as she opens the cabinet and quickly calculates whether the evening will be a “good” glass or “bad” glass kind of night.   Picture the pathos and loneliness that must be woven into a life beset by such decisions.  Finally, understand that what took me three sentences to explain, O’Brien captures simply in “good.”

Another example of O’Brien’s mastery of detail: “Green Georgette” tells of an impoverished young girl who chances into a car ride with the wealthiest and gaudiest woman in town, whom the girl has always idolized from a distance.  Who else but a small girl in this type of situation would reflect, “I try to maneuver a seat in front of her, so that I can turn round and stare at her, and take note of her little habits and how often she swallows. She blinks with such languor”?  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago at church, I’m still relatively new to the world of girls, but I know that if either of my daughters would as pre-teens be enraptured by a genteel lady, they alone and they in particular would notice the languor of her blinking.

Details aside, O’Brien likewise possesses a sure hand when it comes to place, as seemingly all Irish writers do.  (What is it about Ireland that makes Irish writers so Irish?) Strangely, though, Irish attachment to place seems to me consistently and deeply ambivalent.  One character in Saints and Sinners observes, “The odd thing was that you can be attached to a place, or a person, you don’t particularly like, and [I] put it down to mankind’s addiction to habit.”  I’ve never read an Irish fiction or poem that doesn’t say something like this.  At least from an outsider’s (read: my) perspective, the remarkable aspect of Ireland-as-place in the eyes of its natives is its givenness.  By contrast, seldom is Ireland a comfortable proposition, but neither is anyone else.  One person in “Shovel Kings” speaks of another, “He doesn’t belong in England, and ditto Ireland.”  Of course, the man in question is Irish.

Perhaps it’s this sense of unease yet connection to place that draws me to Irish literature.  Place-but-displacement is a profoundly Biblical idea.  Ireland may be wretched, but it’s home, except that it can’t be.  Ditto England, or America, or wherever.  In a fallen world, our connection to place always transmits with static, the clear signal just beyond any twist of the dial.  Most people in Saints and Sinners wrestle with this dialectic, and one even registers that ambivalence for place is actually a reaching for a better country: “Soon as I can walk I will set out.  To find another, like me.  We will recognize each other by the rosary of poppies and the speech of our eyes.  We, the defiled ones, in our thousands, scattered, trudging over the land, the petrified land, in search of a safe haven, if such a place exists.  Many and terrible are the roads that lead to home.”  It’s no coincidence that the woman voicing these words—the story is “Plunder”—has been sexually brutalized to death.  There must be a better place for us.

It takes some audacity to title a book Saints and Sinners; it’s pulpy to a fault, unless the meat of the book is anything but.  I’m glad that Edna O’Brien took the risk on a could-be-bad title.  I don’t know if she harbors any religious convictions, but that’s really beside the point; fittingly, Saints and Sinners through short fiction tells a meta-story of creation, fall, and redemption.  Truly we are sinners, and it’s a symptom of the disease that we may not even know it.  The tragic spinster of “Sinners” has died before her death, for “her heart had walled up a long time ago, she had forgotten the little things, the little pleasures, the give-and-take that is life.  She had even forgotten her own sins.”  This person is walking dead, and guilty.

Another story in Saints and Sinners ends with a vision of heaven.  In “My Two Mothers,” a middle aged-woman mourns the loss of her surrogate mother, but she experiences a grieving not untouched by hope.  She muses, “I wait for the dream that leads us beyond the ghastly white spittoon and the metal razor [of a hospital], to fields and meadows, up onto the mountain, that bluish realm, half earth, half sky, . . to begin our journey all over again, to live our lives as they should have been lived, happy, trusting, and free of shame.”  This is a universal longing and hope, I believe.

The tragedy, however, is that our hope of heaven is assailed by our own guilt and despair.  Can we ever somehow return and  live our lives as they should have been lived, and can we ourselves truly live as happy, trusting, and free of shame?  Is that possible, and—haunting to consider—would we even deserve it?  O’Brien answers these questions in a different story than “My Two Mothers,” as the answer must come from a different story, this time from “Black Flower.”  And could the answer come in anything but a prayer?  “How beautiful it would be if one of us could step forward and volunteer to become the warrior for others.  What a firmament of love ours would be.”

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