Tag Archive: God


The Ugly Truth

John Keats - if beauty is truth, then you must be a liar...

John Keats – if beauty is truth, then you must be a liar…

John Keats composed the famous lines “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” in his much-anthologized poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Ol’ Johnny is one of the names that even non-literary people know, even if only as “some guy I learned about in college,” mostly because of this poem. It’s famous for a reason, and that’s because it’s true.

I take that back – it’s half true, maybe not even that. An enormous amount of the truth in this world isn’t beautiful at all. Cancer; war; child slavery; sexual slavery; serial killers; planes crashing into skyscrapers. And some of the beautiful things in this world don’t communicate any truth at all. I’m reminded of Dumbledore’s warning to Harry about the Mirror of Erised: “This mirror gives neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away in front of it.”

My mother is constantly puzzled about why I like some music or some movies that are about suffering, hate, pain or other bad facts of the world. While I haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer – even to myself – I think it has to do with my relentless search for truth, regardless of how it makes me feel.  The primary source of truth for me is God, and while that’s my mother’s source as well, God leads us down different paths that often lead to different truths. Not opposed truths, mind you; just as a house divided against itself cannot stand (thanks Abe), truth divided against itself isn’t really truth at all. But some of the nuggets of truth that I discover are ones my mother is just not privy to, and vice versa.

Joy Division is one of those places I find an experience that communicates real, unflinching truth. Notice I didn’t say that truth is communicated directly from the band; it’s not. I doubt Ian Curtis knew or cared whether he was communicating truth. But his lyrics are honest – about how he felt, how he perceived things, and how things affected him. To a properly discerning mind, such honesty will always communicate truth.

And it just so happens that Joy Division’s particular flavor of truth wouldn’t be at all palatable to my mother, but it is to me. Maybe this is because I’ve gotten a little taste of death. I’ve faced the reality of shifting my existence from one phase to another, and I’ve faced the pain in that transition. Joy Division never appealed to me before I got cancer. But after my diagnosis, I gained an understanding about both this world and eternity, and suddenly there was much more truth available than before. Strange as it may seem, some of that truth lay within Joy Division’s music.

“So what is that truth?” I hear you asking. I wish I could explain it in one sentence, a pithy phrase or aphorism that people so often mistake for “wisdom.” But this truth can’t be transferred with words only, not even from a writer with my considerable but ultimately inadequate skill. But I can tell you this: it won’t make you feel good. It might even bum you out. But despite that, it has the power to make you a better person.

I don’t have a pithy phrase, but I do have a song that captures Joy Division’s essence and entire musical ethos in a mere 6 minutes and 10 seconds. “Decades” contains all the sadness, weight and depth of meaning that Ian Curtis was ever trying to tell the world. “Decades” is about being brought to the absolute brink of darkness, or “knock[ing] on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber,” and the evacuation of personhood that causes. It’s comparable to “The Hollow Men,” by T.S. Eliot, which is about the same thing. The “young men” in “Decades” have been forced into deep, dank places where they’ve had their humanity torn to shreds. The most immediate application of this theme is lads returning home after a war – in Britain, that would most likely be WWII. My own interpretation involves being introduced to death, as I was. When you come back from that, you’re changed, even if you can’t pinpoint exactly how.

But to really understand the truth Joy Division communicates, you need to actually listen to “Decades” – preferably hundreds of times over 5 to 10 years like I did. The real truth is in the music, the emotion it invokes, and the cosmic experience it sparks. And I would posit that ALL the best music is like this.

Joy Division’s career was incredibly short. They formed in 1976 (under the name Warsaw), their first album was released in 1979, and Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980. Closer and the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” were released posthumously, and the rest of the band then reinvented themselves as New Order. At first glance this seems tragic, mired in Ian’s unrealized potential. But being the optimist I am, I think that Joy Division’s destiny involved everything that happened to them and they did what they were supposed to do. And they’re still doing it; so many bands simply would not exist were it not for Joy Division. But the most important thing they did was communicate truth. Ugly truth it may be, but truth’s nature is not affected by our labeling of it with “beautiful” or “ugly.” It’s just truth.

Next: Hell IS a bad place be.

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The House That Rock Built

Last week I took a vacation to the Lake Erie area, in the vineyards of Geneva, OH. My vacation spot being only an hour away from Cleveland, I of course took a trip to the absolute pinnacle of musical geekdom, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

For disciples of rock like me, going there is a spiritual experience. I imagine it as similar to a theologian going to St. Paul’s Cathedral, a Civil War buff going to Gettysburg, or an art student going to the Leaning Tower. Walking up to that glass pyramid electrified my very soul, and for the briefest of prophetic moments, the entire world crystallized into its perfect form. God spoke to me, and all he said was, “See?”

Some highlights:

  1. Elvis had a really shiny suit – and was a Denver police officer.
  2. The double-neck guitar, despite its over-the-top ridiculousness, was very popular at one time. The Rock Hall has on display those owned by Jimi Hendrix, Mike Rutherford of Genesis, and Alex Lifeson of Rush, and they never fail to make me giggle as if to say, “oh you guys!”
  3. Soul singers in the ‘60s really knew how to dress.

    Sam Cooke's coat and hat. One word - stylin'.

    Sam Cooke’s coat and hat. One word – stylin’.

  4. Rock stars make their signatures as illegible as possible.
  5. There’s a section about protests to rock and roll. Statements from politicians, Christian leaders and activists are written on walls, followed by statements from musicians as a sort of response. The best one is from Eminem, from his song “Who Knew”: “Quit tryin’ to censor music, this is for your kid’s amusement / But don’t blame me when lil’ Eric jumps off of the terrace / You should of been watchin’ him, apparently you ain’t parents”
  6. Jimi Hendrix’s family had a really ugly couch.
  7. How did people NOT know Rob Halford was gay the second they laid eyes on him?

    "Not that there's anything wrong with it!"

    “Not that there’s anything wrong with it!”

  8. I now have to listen to every single song on the list of Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
  9. The Rock Hall NEEDS a restaurant. A microwaved cheeseburger and tater tots that taste like cardboard simply aren’t enough for hungry museum-goers.

My third trip to the Rock Hall also made me realize two things. The first is that I already know a ton of information about the science, history and art of rock and roll. The second is that as much as I know, it’s only a miniscule fraction of what I have yet to learn. Rather than daunt me, that thought fills me with exhilaration like nothing I’ve ever felt before.

Next: isolation and other fun activities

The game Rock Band 2 has a feature at the end of some songs called the Big Rock Ending. That’s where the band members, for the last several seconds of a song, can just go nuts with their notes and rhythms, and the number of points you get from the Big Rock Ending will depend on how many notes and beats you manage to squeeze into the 10 or 15 seconds of the ending. One other thing, too: you only get the points if all the band members also hit the last note with perfect timing and pitch. Otherwise, you get zero.

The only AC/DC song in the standard package of Rock Band 2 is “Let There Be Rock,” the title track from their 1977 album. Not only does the track feature the longest guitar solo – and the greatest number of them – in the entire game, it also has the longest, loudest and most bombastic Big Rock Ending in Rock Band 2. The first time I played it in the game (which was also the first time I heard “Let There Be Rock”), I was simply blown away by the utter hugeness of both the guitar solos and the ending.

I guess the Big Rock Ending is very symbolic of AC/DC’s entire musical ethos. You play your heart out, give everything you’ve got, then give more than you’ve got, until you finally explode in a brilliantly loud apex of rock and roll greatness. You burn hard and burn fast, then you burn out. That may be AC/DC’s general musical philosophy, but it’s also the trajectory that Bon Scott’s life took.

classy, Bon, real classy...

classy, Bon, real classy…

Few characters in rock history are more fascinating to me than Bon Scott. His very existence is a cautionary tale, his life a story that grizzled, washed-up rock stars tell young hotshots of their craft. “Don’t take it from me, son… take it from Bon,” they say with a wagging finger. The younger generation just rolls their eyes, not wanting to give up a life of drugs and sex and decadence. The story of Bon would seem too clichéd, too perfectly tailored to that grizzled rock star’s sermon, if it weren’t true.

Like the Young brothers, Bon was a Scottish transplant to Australia. He took over as lead singer of AC/DC in 1974, shortly before the recording and release of their first album, High Voltage. Their popularity and reputation grew steadily, and they became known as heavy rockers, heavy partiers, and heavy drinkers. This was especially true of Bon. His long streak of partying ended in February of 1980; he died after passing out in a drunken stupor and choking on his own vomit.

Bon’s songwriting style shows that he saw things as simple – one thing leads to another, like a mathematical equation. In “Highway to Hell,” the narrator is melting two candles together so he can burn it at three ends. All along, he – and we can easily infer that it’s Bon himself talking – knows that all this destructive behavior will earn him nothing but damnation; one thing leads to another. But what separates him from a southern Baptist preacher spinning a cautionary tale is that Bon’s entire inflection when talking about fast living and hell is one of a salesman trying to get someone to buy a potato peeler.

Why? I think the reason is he thought hell would be fun. As far as he had heard, hell was where all the drunkards, thieves, womanizers, and kids with spray paint cans would go. In the inverse, heaven would be a boring place where everybody sat on a cloud with a harp all day long. According to what Bon must have thought, hell was where all the cool people would be. In his own words, “hell ain’t a bad place to be!”

gag

gag

I cannot tell you how much this attitude frustrates me. When I hear people talk about how they’re atheists because they think the Christian heaven sounds incredibly dull, it almost makes me wretch. Where did anyone get the idea that we’d all be wearing white robes and sitting on clouds when we got to heaven? Where does that iconography come from? It doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. It’s described as a house (John 14:2) and a city (Hebrews 11:16), but I really don’t understand this crap about clouds and harps. It might be because of the inadequacies of the English language – the Bible, when translated into English, sometimes uses the word “heaven” or “the heavens” to talk about the sky. Kindergarten logic says if we’re in “heaven” than we must be in the sky, right? That means clouds. Brilliant! Let’s make it church doctrine!

Bear in mind that I’m NOWHERE NEAR being a Biblical scholar, so you should probably take my statements about heaven with a pickup-truck-sized grain of salt.

Bon’s direct and simple approach to songwriting takes another form, too, and that’s when he’s telling a narrative. “Shot Down In Flames” is a straight-up account of a horny male being soundly rejected by two different females. I can totally imagine Bon simply smiling and shrugging when he sings the chorus, as if to say, “Them’s the breaks, huh?” And “Touch Too Much” tells the story of a man who has stumbled into a sexual relationship where the woman’s appetite greatly eclipses his own. The one place Bon uses metaphor instead of directness in his storytelling is “Night Prowler,” where he perceives that what he’s actually talking about is taboo. What’s his solution, then? Use something that’s even less socially acceptable! What could go wrong?

Bon Scott, 1946-1980

Bon Scott, 1946-1980

Also, songs like “Touch Too Much,” “Girl’s Got Rhythm” and “Love Hungry Man” show that Bon sees nearly everything through a sexual lens. Here’s where I can really empathize with him. To Bon, life is just one big search for a better feeling – there’s always something better over the next horizon. As hot and gorgeous as the last girl you slept with was, and as good as she made you feel, there’s somebody that will make you feel better. While that logic is flawed, it makes a lot of sense in the moment. While Bon’s methods were ultimately destructive to himself and the world around him, I can completely understand his philosophy of trying to feel good always and feel bad never.

Much as some Christians say otherwise, feeling good is good. In fact, God made us to feel good – it’s in His design. But the stunted versions of good feeling we seek all the time don’t really compare with the full versions God can give us. Just like we’re designed to feel good, we’re also designed to feel best in God. If I have to make a choice between “good” and “best,” I’ll pick “best.” But consider this: if it’s possible, why not have “good” AND “best?” That’s a lesson I learned from Bon Scott.

Strawberry Fields

The Washington Arch at WSP

For those 23 months I lived in New York City, I often found myself walking, enjoying the various parts and seeable sights that Manhattan had to offer. I had several favorite places to go. Washington Square Park was an obvious and easy destination; just a block and a half from our apartment, I could just take little stroll and be there instantly.

During the summers, there were two street performers there who were there at least three afternoons a week. They were called Tic and Tac; identical twin brothers from Harlem, the only way you could tell them apart was one of them always wore an American flag bandanna on his head. They often finished each other’s sentences, though I’m pretty sure that was just a script. They did a mostly acrobatic show with lots of audience participation, and witty repartee was a huge part of their act.

Rockefeller Center was another common destination. Besides loving the architecture and design of the outside and the spectacle of the shops, there was the TODAY Show. I had started watching Matt, Meredith, Ann and Al in the mornings on TV shortly after arriving in New York, and once I got my bearings in the city (and the willingness to get my carcass out of bed, dressed and up to 48th St.), I watched the show live on the plaza many times. I even appeared on camera once; it was raining that day, so I got to be right behind where the hosts film the 8:30 segment. Meredith even recognized me when I came back, probably because I proudly wore my Red Sox hat in enemy territory (Meredith is a huge Sox fan). I’ll admit it – I fanboyed a little.

But without question, my favorite spot in Manhattan is a park bench in Central Park, on the east side at the 72nd St. entrance. There’s a circular flagstone mosaic on the ground flanked by several park benches; it simply says IMAGINE in the middle. This is Strawberry Fields, a memorial to John Lennon, right across the street from the Dakota, the posh apartment building where he lived for the last part of his life, and where he was murdered.

I went there on Lennon’s birthday, and on the anniversary of his death, but I would also just go there, just because. I found myself drawn there sometimes. Some magnetic force compelled me. It could have been Lennon’s spirit, but I think it was something bigger – music in general , maybe.

I have great respect for John Lennon, perhaps more than any other rock star. Even the term “rock star” conjures up images that Lennon seems somehow above. He lived his life as a warrior for peace and a living example of the power of love. His zeitgeist is one of enduring hope for millions of people.

That is not to say I agree with everything he said, or even match up with him in thought and deed. He is someone I greatly admire and respect, but not someone I seek to emulate. His life was filled with turmoil, and he spent most of it hurting the people closest to him. For a long time, he allowed the demons of his past to affect his present, thus determining his future. He broke away from his demons when he married Yoko Ono, but in that he proved himself even more un-emulation worthy by cheating on his wife.

Imagine – John Lennon – 9/9/1971

The biggest bone I have with his mindset is expressed in the title song of his 1971 solo album, Imagine. It’s the most popular and iconic song of his solo career, and it has become a totem and a symbol for anyone who seeks to create harmony out of discord. My own experience with it has been different, though, and my perception of “Imagine” comes a little out of left field.

I first heard the song when I was about 7 years old. I was not supposed to be watching MTV (my parents had disallowed it for me and my sister) when I saw the music video. Besides what I instantly thought was an excessively pretty piano riff at the beginning, the first lyric is “Imagine there’s no heaven.” As a 7 year-old Christian with Christian parents, I couldn’t imagine there not being a heaven. When he followed with “It’s easy if you try,” I did actually try. And you know what? It bummed me out. If there was no heaven, there was no God. Even my immature brain could make that connection. And to my young mind, an existence without God was no existence at all. That’s still true for me.

Now that I’m a grown-up (whatever that means…), I understand that the heart of John’s message in “Imagine” is tearing down all the walls that divide people and eliminating all the things people use as weapons against each other. In order to have peace, we must no longer think in a singular way, but instead have the best interests of all people at the forefront of our minds. Things like religion, country and possessions force us to focus on what is only our own and not care about anyone else. We can also use those things for purposes they weren’t intended for, to hurt one another.

So John’s approach is this: if those things cause us to be like that, then why don’t we just get rid of them? What would happen if we did get rid of them? Can you just imagine??? That, in and of itself, is a pretty positive message.

I’ve taken quite some time to come to this, but my own approach is different. John wants to get rid of those things, but I think they’re essential parts of who we are. In particular, religion is woven into our human fabric; it’s our way of understanding God. There can’t be God without there being religion, because he would have no way of talking to us, and that’s not the kind of God he is. We can’t get rid of religion anymore than we can get rid of oxygen.

So what, then? Are we doomed to a selfish, destructive cycle we can’t break out of, repeating the same mistakes over and over? Well, no. Evil things have been done by people in the name of religion, but that doesn’t make religion evil – it makes the people evil. But even people can’t be truly and completely evil. They still have a God spark somewhere inside them, and that gives hope to each one of us.

Sermon over.

I spent the first 10 to 15 years of my life with a pretty black and white idea of Christianity and the world in which it exists. Christianity was completely true and all other religions, paths, practices and philosophies were completely false. In high school, I started to perceive a few shades of grey; my mind started wandering into things that ended in question marks and ellipses rather than periods. That made me curious but uncomfortable, so I confined my search for answers to my own internal logic, what I could figure out on my own. It was a bad move.

When I got to college, the number of my questions just exploded. Uncertainties were coming at me from all sides and I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. My only recourse was to dispense with the uncomfortable feeling and barrel on ahead. It got to the point where I was questioning just about everything. When I was young, all things were certain; now, very few things were.

A couple of things stayed true: God was real, love was real, and God loved me. I’ve always been certain of that. But every other thing was up in the air, and they’ve slowly been coming down to a more graspable height ever since college. They still fly away sometimes, but I know I’ve got a firm hold on the really important stuff.

The most important thing I’ve learned since high school is that there’s not a lot of difference between Christians and non-Christians. I used to think there was this thick black line dividing them, and that line ran along who treated you well and who didn’t. What, little Ben cut in front of me in the line for the drinking fountain? He must be going to hell! But who treats you well has to do with their own battle with their sin nature, not whether or not they carry the label “Christian.” Christians can be just as vile as other people, and they even have a corner on the market of certain types of vileness. And quite often some deep truths about God, love and the nature of both come from seemingly “heathen” sources.

Since their first record and for about 10 years after, Black Sabbath had been fighting against insinuations and outright statements that they were Satanists. Every time the question came up in an interview, they flatly denied it. Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler made no secret of the fact that they were brought up Catholic. The image was brought on by their dark, doomy music and references to Satan in their lyrics, but the public took it several steps further. Sabbath eventually learned to live with it, and then to use it to their own advantage, but it had to be frustrating. And around the time of their third album, they decided to fire back.

Master of Reality contains some pretty bold statements about the goodness of God, the evils of Satan, and some unabashed references to love. The songs “After Forever” and “Lord of This World” lay the groundwork for Christian metal, even if no Christian artist under the sun will admit that it’s true. “After Forever” takes an incredibly direct approach to God and the question of his existence, even having the narrator (which would most likely be Geezer himself) say “I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways.” Furthermore, he warns the person he’s addressing against denying God in front of their friends, and  says “God is the only way to love.” Gospel message? Maybe. Something a Satanist would say? Definitely not.

“Lord of This World” takes the opposite tack, being a letter from Satan to a hapless victim whom he deceived. But rather than laughing in victory, Satan seems a little sad, like taking the person’s soul was a little too easy. There’s no longer any need for deception on Satan’s part, so he just lays it bare. His victim chose “evil ways instead of love” and made him the “master of the world where [he] exist[s].” Satan might as well be saying, “Why did you follow me instead of God? I’m freakin’ evil, dude! Get a clue!” Christian ministers who preach hellfire and damnation can’t even do it as effectively as this.

At the cap there’s “Into the Void,” a futuristic account of the few people who know the truth leaving the earth in spaceships forever because it’s too corrupt, and searching the galaxy for a place to start anew. The earth is filled with hatred, evil, misery and death, and it’s all Satan’s fault. I have a feeling those who left the planet did so because they were looking for heaven, and Earth too closely resembled hell.

There is a very important distinction to draw here, one that could make or break your decision on Black Sabbath, if you haven’t already made up your mind. Sabbath’s message on Master of Reality is pro-God and pro-love, but not necessarily pro-Christianity. Jesus is never mentioned explicitly, though God is. The principles Sabbath presents here are found in an undiluted form in Christianity, but they’re careful to avoid throwing their hat in with the Christian crowd (or any crowd).

And I can’t talk about Master of Reality and its Christian themes without also talking about a track from their very next album Vol. 4, called “Under the Sun.” It’s a cover, but it captures BS’s spirit very well. It’s a call to not let anyone’s philosophy intrude on your own, to make your own path. This is stupid, of course; everyone’s philosophy is a collection of things they’ve heard and have chosen to hang onto. The reason I mention it is that they make a reference to “Jesus freaks” in the first line, where the narrator is laying out all the people groups he doesn’t want telling him what to believe. That list also includes “black magicians,” but the slap in the face to Christians remains. “Under the Sun” basically says the singer already has it all figured out, and doesn’t want anybody telling him what’s what; a revelation of arrogance, naivety, and plain old stupidity.

Black Sabbath eventually came to accept their slightly demonic image, and in 1980 they started fostering it. Ozzy had been fired, and an essential part of Black Sabbath’s image was gone. Nature abhors a vacuum, but rather than replace Ozzy, they shifted their image and musical direction, hiring Ronnie James Dio as the new lead belter. With the addition of Dio, they started leaning into the suggestions of Satanism, or at least started embracing the devilish side of their public face.

Ronnie James Dio

The Dio Sabbath always made me uncomfortable. With Ozzy, the suggestions of Satanism were a hysterical joke, made tragic by that some people took the joke seriously. With Dio, though, they seemed somehow authentic. I fear they started dabbling with things they shouldn’t. All in all, Black Sabbath’s Lucifer influences are a lot of bluster without any substance, but they came dangerously close to making them real in the early 80s. For that reason, I’ve always preferred the Ozzy years to Dio. After Dio… well, it’s not worth mentioning.

I’m sure you can visualize the scene: two long-haired gadabouts clad in dirty black cargo pants and Slayer t-shirts go to the home of one of them to smoke a bag of weed they just scored. They go to the tool shed in the backyard, converted to a drug haven for the two potheads, with metal posters on the walls, a lava lamp and an old, smelly couch with the upholstery spilling out of the cushions. The only thing needed to complete the scene before the two wastoids light up is some groovy, crunchy tunes. One of them goes to the CD player and very ironically puts on Master of Reality, and the first sounds of Tony Iommi coughing (presumably from marijuana smoke) starts in, and the other one nods and says “niiiiice.”

There; how’s that for completely unqualified knowledge from a guy who’s never done an illegal drug in his life?

A lot of people point to Master of Reality as the birth of what’s called “stoner rock.” It usually involves very distorted guitars, minor keys and simple, repetitive figures. An entire song can consist of one riff of two measures repeated for 4 minutes.

If you ask me, I’m not sure “stoner rock” really exists; it might be no more than music scholars having too much time on their hands but needing to validate their choice of career, and thus creating sub-sub-sub-subcategories for everything under the sun. I shouldn’t speak too ill of them, though, since I definitely wouldn’t turn down someone offering to pay me actual money to invent terms like “stoner rock.” The more I think about it, the more it’s sounding like a really good gig.

Here’s my argument. In my mind, stoner rock is music that provides a good soundtrack for getting high, and it helps if there is a positive reference to the uses and powers of drugs. Under that definition, Phish would be stoner rock. So would the Black Crowes. And Cypress Hill. So would Bob Marley, Enya, the Spin Doctors and Enigma. In fact, a case could be made for almost any band having at least one song that qualifies as stoner rock, which is what makes the label so problematic.

The questionable status of stoner rock aside, Master of Reality does have plodding guitars and lazy approach to musicality (simple and bluesy, not a lot of adornment), both of which make it particularly suited to leaning back and getting wasted. That combined with the opening track being a romantic ode to marijuana and it’s easy to see why Master of Reality gets associated with the drug culture. If there is such a thing as stoner rock, “Sweet Leaf” is the quintessential song of the genre, but it’s really the only qualifying one on the entirety of Master of Reality, and arguably in Sabbath’s entire catalog.

Hippies were really ancestors of modern-day stoners, and Black Sabbath shares some lyrical commonality with them on this album, if not musically. In 1971, The music culture was reacting to the hippie movement, and acts like Black Sabbath, the Stooges and David Bowie had an opposite aesthetic to hippie bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, even if they sometimes had matching lyrical themes.

“Children of the Grave” is a breath away from being a protest song, very in line with the hippie movement. While it has very dark and doomy music, it promotes revolution through non-violence and passive resistance. The title is a little deceiving; it makes you think it’s about zombies or something, and it takes a slightly more sardonic and fatalistic tone. You might not expect it from a band so often associated with Satanism, but “Children of the Grave” is quite positive. It centers on love.

Love, believe it or not, is a big theme of Master of Reality. Metal bands nowadays have a huge aversion to themes like love, forgiveness, joy and positivity. Instead, they myopically focus on suffering, evil, torture, self-loathing and chaos. Love is uncool. Yet here, on what is largely agreed upon to be one of the bedrock albums of heavy metal, Black Sabbath are talking about not only love, but (gasp!) God.

Next up: Black Sabbath says “God is the only way to love…” wait, what???

David Bowie – The Man Who Sold the World – 11/4/1970

David Bowie’s development into the beast he was in 1970 was pretty rapid when you consider where he was a mere 3 years before. His self-titled debut album is the work of a child, sounding kinda like old English folk tunes spun by a kid with licorice in his teeth. His look was kid-like, too, since he was only 19 when he was recoding it. In my opinion, David Bowie isn’t David Bowie, at least not in the way that the world would perceive him on his next release. He was almost 23 when his 2nd album came out. Its name is complicated; it was called David Bowie in the UK (almost as a repudiation of the first David Bowie), and Man of Words/Man of Music in the US. When RCA rereleased it in 1972, they renamed it after its lead single, Space Oddity, and then changed it back to David Bowie in 2009.

“Space Oddity” the song would be Bowie’s first hit, and the album it was on bridged the vast gap between his ’67 and ’70 albums. By the time The Man Who Sold the World was released in November of 1970, ‘67’s David Bowie may as well have not even existed.

For one thing, TMWStW is as close to a heavy metal album as Bowie ever made, a far cry from the folk parody of David Bowie and the introspective weirdness of Space Oddity. The distorted electric guitar that starts “The Width of a Circle” marks a new beginning for Bowie. Out with the old, in with the awesome. The song is the first place where Bowie is really facing himself and questioning his very nature. In the first half, the narrator’s search for answers takes him to sex, to drugs, and to rock and roll. He finds them all to be unfulfilling. And then, the second half begins, in which the narrator has sex with Satan. If you can explain that part, go right ahead.

“All the Madmen” is doomy and weird. It strikes just the right balance of weight and playfulness. His half-brother, Terry Burns, was diagnosed as mentally ill and put in an asylum in Surrey; this song is about that. The roles of sane and insane have been reversed in this dystopian future, and the narrator wants to appear insane because a life among the “madmen” would be far preferable to the apparently normal life he lives now. From Bowie’s perspective, who’s to say Terry’s crazy? Aren’t we all a little crazy, to varying degrees?

Next is “Black Country Rock,” a crunchy and fairly straightforward rock and roll number. Bowie can’t resist displaying some vocal weirdness in the last verse, impersonating Marc Bolan from T. Rex because he ran out of lyrics. His vibrato sets it off-center, much like the album in general, and the song is a breath of fresh air before taking a plunge into the black water of “After All.”

In movies, the best horror is created when we see a little and imagine what more horrible things we might see. They succeed when they keep our imagination one step ahead. When the psychotic killer is stalking the teenage girl through the house, the terror is always at its best before he finds her, when she’s crouching in the shadows trying to be silent. “After All” is like a good horror film; the sense of unease this demented circus waltz has mastery of is heightened by its restraint, elevating it from unusual to creepy.

It details Bowie’s dissatisfaction with his own humanity. He longs for a transcendence beyond his human body, both in the physical and the spiritual sense. It’s reminiscent of Nietzsche and his Übermensch philosophy. Indeed, this whole album is about Bowie hoping beyond hope that there’s something beyond this temporal life. He’s right in his thinking; God has something much greater for us after this life. Where he trips up is where Nietzsche tripped up before him; he thinks some of us are destined to become greater than God, rendering God unnecessary, or impotent, or “dead.” Also, it doesn’t seem like the best thing for Bowie to be constantly at war with his own humanness. He never did get rid of that whole space alien thing, but today he seems more comfortable with just being a person.

Aleister Crowley

Besides Nietzsche, “After All” also draws inspiration from Aleister Crowley. The line “Live till your rebirth and do what you will” echoes Crowley’s famous “do what though wilt” saying. At first glance, this philosophy may seem like libertinism or license, but “do what though wilt” doesn’t refer to satisfying the everyday desires of the id, but fulfilling your ultimate divine purpose. I agree with Crowley there, but where we disagree is the source of that purpose. In a general sense, I think everybody’s purpose is to bring glory to God, but on the individual level, that purpose is given to us gradually by God, and we need to stay attuned to God’s voice everyday to get an idea for what it is. I’m not sure what Crowley thinks, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t believe in God, considering his whole Aeon of Horus thing. Perhaps if there are any Thelemites out there who read my blog (if any exist…) they can educate me about his position on that. Not holding out a whole lot of hope, though…

More about The Man Who Sold the World tomorrow!

Diabolus in Musica

I graduated from college with a BA in English, and knew I was going to be an English major ever since I was 14. Another type of no-brainer was selecting a music minor; it was a no brainer not because it was really easy and I didn’t have to even think about it, but because if I had actually used my brain, I would have said “not on your life.”

Nevertheless, I was technically a music minor for the entirety of my freshman year; I dropped it when I had my fall sophomore conference with my academic advisor. During that freshman year, I took Music Theory I and II. It was stimulating, if you can call taking an electric drill to your own forehead “stimulating.” But despite the mechanizing of something I found to be completely organic, Music Theory taught me a great deal about the craft and science of music. I learned about the diatonic scale, counterpoint, the different modes (Ionian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, etc.), and the I IV V (one, four, five)pattern.

One of the things that stuck in my mind was the interval (the amount of distance between two consecutive notes) called a diminished fifth. Now, the technical definition of that interval involves a lot of math and calculations and other things I don’t find at all interesting (and you probably won’t either).  But like music itself, it has an aspect that transcends the menial, ordinary mathematics of it.

The diminished fifth is a rather infamous interval in the music theory world. Its nickname is diabolus in musica, which is Latin for “the Devil in music.” Different from every other interval, its inherent dissonance strikes the listener as unsettling at best, terror-inducing at worst. It’s reserved for when the composer wants to portray a sense of dread and danger in his music. The Austrian composer Johann Joseph Fux thought it smacked of evil, something that could only come from Satan himself.

The most famous use of diabolus in musica in popular music comes from none other than Satan’s most loyal servants, the pinnacle purveyors of all things evil and malignant, Black Sabbath.

Sense the sarcasm, people.

The name Black Sabbath indicates all sorts of evil, unsettling things in a very cliché, stereotypical way. As a young Christian boy, I was warned about Satan and his wicked influence in the world so vehemently that he turned into a caricature, and I became skeptical that he even existed at all. In particular, I was warned about the rock and roll music I was becoming interesting in. Some even said there was a one-to-one connection between rock and roll and the worship of Satan; one inevitably lead to the other in a short period of time.

Poppycock and foolishness, all of it. Music can’t make you worship Satan any more than watching Bob Newhart on TV can make you go bald. The idea that millions of kids everywhere are falling into the “trap” of rock music is one of the more insulting things I’ve heard – not just to rock musicians, but to kids.

For the record, I do think Satan exists. In my opinion, he’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz; behind the smoke, lights and big scary machine, there’s a small, scared, pitiful person operating that machine. The difference is that while the Wizard of Oz constructed it himself, Satan’s frightening guise is our making. He only has as much power in your individual life as you yourself give him. In truth, you have power over him.

As for rock and roll, Satan finds it to be a rather useful tool; but so does God. Rock music has been used by humans to promote some pretty awful things, both obvious and subtle, but it has also been used to save kids’ lives, lead people to God, and generally uplift humanity. Rock and roll (and all music) is one of the most striking places we can see God.

1 and 9

The Beatles’ retreat to India didn’t mean they were insulated from the happenings of the world. Early 1968 saw not only the march on the American Embassy in the U.K. because of the Vietnam War, but also other major acts of protest around the world. The Beatles were never a band to get into politics or activism; “Taxman” was the extent of their political commenting, and George only wrote that because of how the government affected him directly. But John thought it was time for them to cease their silence. As the biggest band in the world, people were looking to them for a voice, whether they wanted to be that voice or not.

Nowadays, rock musicians of every stripe are airing their unqualified opinions on wars and presidents to the point where it’s “unhip” to not do so. Anti-war stances are a matter of course, and the more vocal the better. For whatever reason, rock and roll has always been the music of the anti-establishment, the rebels. All too often, that means people are standing against authority not because they disagree with anything specific, but merely to have something, anything to stand against; authority just happens to have a target painted on it. As time went by and rock musicians became more distant and removed from everyday society, that activism didn’t decrease; it increased. So now we have rockers talking loudly about an issue and knowing very little about it. More than that, rock musicians are expected to take the anti-government, anti-establishment position. When they don’t, things get ugly.

When the Beatles released “Revolution” as a single slightly before The White Album came out, there was naturally some fervor. One would think by the title that it was a rallying call for the end of “the War,” but it was actually a stinging indictment of people who use anti-war activism as a different means for destruction. Many on the political left saw “Revolution” as a betrayal. What they miss is that despite some biting language, it has a very positive message. John’s rationale behind the chorus of “Y’know it’s gonna be alright” was that God is in control of all things, and it will all work out in the end.

John thought it was time the Beatles spoke up, but Paul wasn’t so sure, and was hesitant to spark controversy, which he knew “Revolution” would do. When John said he wanted it to be a single, Paul sided with George in saying it was too slow, to which John responded in kind by recording a version that was fast, aggressive and single-worthy. Paul and George couldn’t argue with that. The original, which was bluesy and soft-sung, was retitled “Revolution 1” and remained as an album track. It was also separated from its musique concrete second part, which was expanded and dubbed “Revolution 9.”

what's with the bunny?

Now, thanks to Wikipedia, I know that musique concrete is an established recording style (I can’t call it a “musical style;” though some may disagree with me, it’s not music), but I haven’t heard anything other than “Revolution 9” which is called musique concrete. There’s probably something to get, but I don’t get it. It eludes me, and I’m pretty sure I’m not losing anything by being eluded. Listen to the track and you’ll see what I mean.

On Sunday: George writes a song chiding Eric Clapton about his love for… chocolates?