Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Stocking "Song Heaven"

Any blog that launches with a bouquet for Steve Goodman's iconic "City of New Orleans" seems bound to impress, especially when its author glides seamlessly from fond remembrance of that great old song into an honest look at how frustrating a day can be when you don't have anybody to sing at least the chorus with. Posts like that are workouts for the soul. While I don't feel up to the same high standard at the moment, I was much taken with Faith's speculation about the possibility of a "song heaven" where the best stuff goes.

The "Billboard 100" and the annual lists of "Best Rock Songs of All Time" hawked by Rolling Stone are old hat, but the criterion about which Faith was speculating has more to do with genius than with sales figures. That, I think, is why the spark for her post was struck by Mr. Goodman, rather than by better-known tunesmiths like Mr. McCartney and Mr. Lennon, who were wildly popular but not always keenly insightful. Imagine -- it must be said -- is a crap sandwich. I Wanna Hold Your Hand cannot be called a Profound Comment on the Human Condition. Hey Jude aspires to greatness, but remains a crescendo in compelling disguise.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that there actually is a "song heaven." There are grounds to believe that there might be: C.S. Lewis, riffing on a suggestion offered by Thomas Aquinas, once suggested that music is the speech of the angels (not for nothing did Aquinas divide angel ranks into "choirs"). Beyond that, some of us who believe that the Good, the True, and the Beautiful all come from and return to a divine author are sure that there is a place for great music among those perfections, and that greatness ultimately adheres to or reflects an objective standard.

What qualifies something for "song heaven"? With apologies to the blogger who inspired this post, canonization of that kind can't depend solely on the reputation of the songwriter.

Any tune in the "heaven" conversation has to be durable, memorable, singable, popular, and keenly observant.

Frankly, I did not want to make "popular" a criterion, but without that, people like me would promote so many obscure tunes into song heaven that singalongs would be difficult. I think songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Claire Lynch should be famous, but they aren't, so they have to settle for heavy rotation on my own playlists rather than having their work acclaimed by the masses.

Because this is "song heaven" we're speculating about, everything on the foregoing list is non-negotiable. For example, I really enjoy the Blues Traveler song, "Hook," but it would not qualify for song heaven because it's not easy to sing, and it hasn't been around long enough to prove itself durable. I also like Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon," circa 1983 (Remember that?), but even I can't pretend it's keenly observant, or give it a pass because the harmonica part rocks.

"Let It Be," on the other hand, is a shoo-in for song heaven (McCartney was in top form there) --  and so is Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville."

If you don't think Buffett was keenly observant, then you missed the moral arc that moves the singer from "It's nobody's fault" to "Hell, it could be my my fault" to "It's my own damn fault."

That's meathead to mensch in three verses -- sounds like repentance, you betcha. I've said that for years.

Although Margaritaville ends with the shrimp overcooked and the salt shaker still missing, the singer has also come to a glimmer of wisdom, even without the "frozen concoction" that helps him hang on. Perhaps it's the same optimism that would later mark Wasted on the Way.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bookworm strikes again

Military men are often more romantic, she says, than their peers who have not served in the profession of arms. She's right. Read her post all the way through for the top-shelf insight into vulnerability with which she finishes.

Both the military man and the romantic cheer for the underdog, and both ultimately succeed only if they're willing to engage at close quarters, which is why General Lewis "Chesty" Puller or one of his brothers-in-arms from WWII once encouraged men of the First Marine Division by roaring something like "We're surrounded. They can't get away from us now!" Even aphorisms with no known attribution back Bookworm's thesis: "Only the strong can be gentle," comes to mind, as does "All's fair in love and war."

Ignatius Loyola was a romantic and a soldier. Ditto Joan of Arc, and Robert E. Lee, even if there is some controversy as to whether he was the general who said "It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it."

I know a little more about Lee than the other two worthies in the foregoing paragraph: You have to be a romantic to fight on principle for what Confederate survivors would remember as "the lost cause" -- and Lee turned down command of the Union armies to offer his services to the state of Virginia instead, even though his background as an engineer certainly gave him an appreciation for the Northern industrial might that he knew he would have to face in battle.

On the other side of the ledger in that conflict, Union hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was known both for his fighting prowess and his soft heart. You could also make an interesting case for Chamberlain's wartime boss, General Ulysses S. Grant, as being a closet romantic. Grant was stubborn and hard-drinking, to be sure, but he was also utterly loyal to anyone he respected, smitten by horses, and happily married to Julia Dent, the sister of his college roommate.

Durable wordsmithery

Neo-Neocon's close reading of lyrics in the Left Banke song "Walk Away Renee" is a treat to read.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Chesterton for Good Friday

Joseph of Arimathea did better than he knew, said G.K. Chesterton.

Chesterton's musing is of a piece with another startling reconsideration provoked by someone else's gift-wrapped insight.

Here's what I mean: The irony of "putting to death the author of life" is something I've heard priests expound on in Good Friday sermons over the years (Peter's poetic phrasing in Acts 3:15 is marvelous), but I don't remember anyone dragging Pontius Pilate into the parlor game of "who was the first evangelist for Jesus?"

That question is an occasional pastime among Christians who know just enough theology to mull it over with friends, because while Scripture identifies John the Baptist as Jesus's herald and two brothers as the first apostles whom Jesus himself called, Scripture also offers glimpses of other possible contenders for the "early evangelist" crown: John's mom is in the mix for having asked her much younger relative how she (Elizabeth) was so blessed as to receive a long visit, in that famous "Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" Similarly, old man Simeon at the Temple realized he was in the presence of the Messiah before Jesus was old enough to walk, although we don't know whether Simeon lived long enough afterward to share his joy with anyone other than Mary and Joseph.

Some thirty-three years later, the centurion who grasps the significance of the Temple veil being mysteriously torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies can't help but exclaim, "Surely this man was the son of God!" -- and that insight makes him something of an unexpected evangelist, too.

But how does Pilate -- "cowardly lion" and career politician -- come within hailing distance of evangelization? The Church Fathers explained, but I can't quote them from memory, so I'll settle for this insight from Fr. Robert Barron:

"In an absolutely delicious bit of irony, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, places over the cross, the declaration, in the three major languages of the time, that Jesus is the King, effectively de-throning Caesar and becoming, despite himself, the first great evangelist."