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Hip Gnostics: Visions of Jazz:The First Century by Gary Giddins

N.B.: This was originally published on What’s Left In The Church?, November 26, 2013. It has been edited for content because, well, I’ve changed my mind about some things.


Duke Ellington and his great Cotton Club Orchestra from the 1930's.

Duke Ellington and his great Cotton Club Orchestra from the 1930’s.

No one knows the rules of jazz like Gary Giddins.  No critic has written so voluminously about jazz.  No critic since Nat Hentoff in the post-bop 1950’s has been as big a booster of our national art form, working diligently to put before the public this style he loves, believing despite evidence to the contrary that we as a people will fall in love with it with the same fervor if we would only give ourselves to it the way he has.  The long-time jazz critic for The Village Voice, Visions of Jazz:The First Hundred Years, publish by Oxford University Press in 1998, is Giddins magnum opus, the attempt not so much to tellthe story of jazz but to give, as the title suggests, his “vision” of jazz, defending his positions with the accumulated knowledge of decades combined with a musical acumen one finds in abundance among jazz critics.

The story of jazz, like all music, is complicated, rooted in social, political, economic, and our peculiarly American racial matters.  Born in clubs in the most dangerous part of America’s most multicultural city, New Orleans, most chroniclers, Giddins included, date the music to a single performer, the trumpeter Buddy Bolden.  In many ways, Bolden’s story – one of legendary prowess on an instrument; of uniqueness of style; of the excesses of a life spent too long in quarters harboring vice – is the story we know not just from the long history of jazz, but popular music in general.  It has been repeated ad nauseum, become a cliche so scripted we have our current crop of public figures – Lindsay Lohan being the best example – ready to play their designated roles if only they would allow themselves.

Giddins is both wise and thoughtful, along with knowledgeable of this particular music’s provenance.  He doesn’t start with Bolden.  In fact, he starts with the longest-lived form of popular entertainment, one wiped from our collective consciousness precisely because of its association with our racist national id.  I am speaking, of course, of minstrelsy.  The very first essay – and this book is little more than the collection of 79 essays – pairs two seemingly unlikely gentlemen: Bert Williams and Al Jolson.  Bert Williams was one of the first popular African-American recording artists, putting songs on record while the First World War was breaking out in Europe.  He was also one of the last great and popular minstrel performers.  What makes this latter so troubling for so many, however, was the fact that Williams was black.  He just wasn’t black enough, forced in all his public appearances to darken his skin with burned cork, a humiliation he accepted with increasing rage over the years.

Jolson became famous both as “The Jazz Singer”, which he never was, and as part of the last gasp of minstresly, which he never was.  The first performer to sing in what had been a silent medium, Jolson did so in black face, becoming at once the focus of much attention and the icon of a half-century of American popular performance.  The thing is, Jolson’s appropriation both of the skin color and the music of his more talented and original partner in this essay adds yet another layer to the story of jazz – the uneasy, sometimes hostile, always freighted with America’s sad history, dance between black and white performers.  Like the best musicians in jazz, Giddins doesn’t so much come out and pound the theme in to our heads as he does show us, giving to the listener the work of figuring out what’s going on based upon the evidence.

Giddins’s book won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award, the Bell Atlantic Jazz Award for Book of the Year, and it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (1998).  One can be forgiven, then, if as a reader you come to it expecting greatness.  Like a jazz fan listening to a new piece of music from a favorite performer, a reader who scans the following among the blurbs on the back jacket, would be excused for believing Giddins has written something masterful: “A remarkably nonideological critic, Giddins has long demonstrated a passion for jazz in all its guises. . . . His writing, like the music he loves, is joyously polyphonic, with history, legend, musicology, biography, and performance all rising out of the mix.”  This was from an uncredited review in The New Yorker.  My problem with this description, however, is it gets pretty much everything wrong.

Giddins is profoundly ideological, if by ideological one means taking sides in the many debates and discussions that surround jazz.  On the other hand, if by “ideological”, one means “racial” – taking sides in the debate that has been around since the music was first recorded and disseminated to the broad public that jazz is primarily an African-American art form, one few whites can penetrate well – then being “nonideological” is not necessarily a good thing.  This is not an inconsequential matter, and discussions, debates, arguments, even the occasional knife-fight that break out over it are rooted precisely in that very first essay described above: white folk stealing and making their own this beautiful, sad, joyous, raucous art form is yet another indignity African-Americans have had to bear.  It is one thing to “play around” the melody of race, as Giddins does several times although not as beautifully as in the first essay; it is another thing, however, not to state that melody clearly.

Another thing that made this book a far more difficult read than it might otherwise have been is Giddins style. If one spends one’s life as a critic, being limited by editorial insistence to 800-1,000 words, it might demonstrate one’s acquiescence to this habit that creating a longer work benefits from writing a series of critical-style essays.  Yet, at times Giddins attempt to write either cogently or clearly about his subject matter fails so utterly, one wonders if he will find it again.  The best example comes from what seems to me to be a too-long attempt to give Coleman Hawkins’s 1940 recording of “Body and Soul” its due.  Giddins sets the scene like any master story-teller would, noting that, like so many great moments, it was born of the humdrum of a musician’s life, i.e., yet another recording date, and one song among several scheduled for that day’s studio time.  The following is from p. 127, one of four or five paragraphs in which Giddins attempts to talk about what can only be heard listening to the song, after having acknowledged both the originality of Hawkins’s accomplishment and the fact that, despite its popularity (the record sold quite well), it changed little to nothing in jazz.

If Hawkins’s “Body and Soul” isn’t the single most acclaimed improvisation in jazz’s first hundred years, it is unquestionably a leading contender.  Nothing was changed by it.  Hawkins’s station had long since been established, and Lester Young’s time was at hand no matter what.  At least one critic professed not to understand the hoopla – Hawkins played like that all the time, he made fifty records as good, didn’t he?  Not quite.  What elevated “Body and Soul” was its purity, its perfection; here, in one spellbinding improvisation, was the apogee of everything Hawkins achieved thus far, an uncompromising example of his gift, a work of art.  In his own way, he demonstrated what Lester Young was also in the process of demonstrating: a scheme to penetrate the presumed boundaries of conventional harmony.  And he did it with his patented arpeggios, compensating for the absence of identifiable melody with his drive, warmth, and coherence.  The public approbation was significant, if puzzling.  The record was a sophisticated abstraction of a popular song, yet Hawkins’s variations were embrace to the degree that he had to memorize them to satisfy clubgoers, who insisted he play the famous solo, not a fresh improvisation.

Here we have everything that makes this work so difficult to work through, distilled to one paragraph.  How can arpeggios be “patented”?  In what way is “Body and Soul” “pure” or “perfect”, beyond a description of the recording – an abstract meditation on a popular song?  If nothing was changed by it, is it well known just because of its beauty, its simplicity, its “perfection”?  If nothing was changed by it, why does it stand out so much?  None of the questions raised by this particular paragraph receive any answers in Giddins’s text.  And this is just one of a couple dozen examples where Giddins’s prose fails not so much himself as the reader.

Which leads me to the title of this post:  One of the things about jazz, at least in its past half-century or so, is the cliqueishness that seems to surround the music.  Its most ardent publicists and fans insist at one and the same time its accessibility and its complexity; its familiarity (if one is “American” enough) and its strangeness.  Giddins is no less given to betraying this particular vice (if it is one), in particular demonstrating a willingness to toss out terms from musicology that, it appears, he assumes his readers will understand.  This tendency becomes blatant in two esssays, the one on Charlie Parker and the one on Dizzy Gillespie.  Giddins includes transcriptions of music from each man, and attempts to use them to demonstrate . . . what, precisely?  Musical scores should illuminate, giving the reader a sense of what the performer is playing, even if the casual reader can’t read a note of music.  One problem, however, is that notating a jazz solo illuminates nothing.  One in particular is more confusing the more one looks at it, or listens to the solo so notated while trying to follow along: Parker’s solo from “Koko”, one of the gauntlets bebop threw down before more traditional jazz in the year or two after the Second World War.  The notation lacks both the underlying chords Parker was soloing over as well as an explanation of the rhythmic subtlety that made Parker singular in his approach to the music.  Giddins does little to dispel the sense that, to “get” jazz, one needs access both to a vocabulary and a personal style that elevates one above the normal run of music listeners.  The picture of a bunch of white hipsters, berets at jaunty angles, sitting in a smoky club snapping their fingers carries throughout the book.

Yet, these frustrations hide many virtues, not the least of which is Giddins’s utter lack of sentimentality.  Scanning the late decades of his story, Giddins finds much to recommend to the reader.  While dismissing fusion as an attempt at broad popularity this particular style failed to achieve, he nevertheless grants to some musicians who included electric instruments in their ensembles pride of place as he places before the unknowing reader performers as diverse as Henry Threadgill, Gary Bartz, Dave Murray, and the great Cecil Taylor, whose virtues require attentiveness to appreciate.  While far too many writers and fans yearn for the “Great Men” who have passed and whose like we won’t see again, Giddins is insistent that jazz still lives, thriving in a variety of musicians who continue the music’s individualistic ethic while navigating the waters between a stale traditionalism and the outer reaches of the avant garde that left too many listeners wondering if such things as harmony or rhythm would remain.

Despite its faults, I would recommend Giddins’s book, with some provisos.  Listen to jazz first.  Familiarize yourself with the standards, the men and women who shaped the music in the past, their idiosyncrasies and personal touches that make it easy to tell the difference among so many performers using the same instruments.  To get used to Giddins’s style, get a hold of Weatherbird, a collection of Giddins’s review essays from the late 1980’s, 1990’s, and early 2000’s (also published by Oxford University Press).  Finally, open yourself to the possibilities that exist within and through the music – the possibility not just of freedom and joy, pain and tears; but the possibility that you, dear reader, might become one among the initiates, a hip gnostic who understands that, in the words of British drummer Bill Bruford, “America is jazz and jazz is America.”


Judas With Strings

The darkness around [Charity and Roy] had taken on the hue of blood. As Charity stared, numb with fright, the blood resolved to a smoky, ingernal scarlet. With a deafening whoosh the room seemed to implode. The light went garish fire engine red as the far wall spranc up in a solid barrier of flame.

Charity screamed. Roy tried to.

Against the wall of fire, amid the choking stink, two nightmare images were silhouetted. One of them Charity knew in every detail from God-fearing childhood: the horns jutting from the narrow, saturnine head, the pointed beard, eyes like hot coals. The lashing tail and hooves. Her deepest fears incarnate.

“Heel, Damocles!”

The huge figure of Satan jerked at the chain wound on his wrist. Straining at its check, something scaly with large bat wings gurgled uncleanly and slavered at Charity. As she and Roy cringed on the bed, Satan stroed his bears with the back of one claw and smirk at his leashed minion.

“I call him Damocles because, like the mythical sword, he hangs over wretches like you..” An exquisite sneer. “Just waiting to fall. And you yourselves have cut the thread.” – Parke Godwin, Waiting For The Galactic Bus, p.67


Imagine for a moment awaking from death and finding yourself precisely here. Then imagine (a) a symphonic soundtrack fitted to the ambiance; (b) the presence of well-lit exit doors with signs encouraging their use.

Imagine for a moment awaking from death and finding yourself precisely here. Then imagine (a) a symphonic soundtrack fitted to the ambiance; (b) the presence of well-lit exit doors with signs encouraging their use.

It was spring, 1990, and I wanted something to read. I found this book among so many others, just piled up. I liked the cover – a chimpanzee with something like the Divine Hand from the Sistine Chapel ceiling descending toward it – and the title was just too interesting to pass it by. So, I picked it up to see what it might be about.

I had no idea my life would change forever.

Mixing science fiction, fantasy, religion, politics, sex, violence, ethics, and human destiny is difficult for any author. To do so in 244 pages sounds impossible. Yet fantasy author Parke Godwin did just that. Filled with humor and death, with terror and two very different brothels, a cast of characters including John Wilkes Booth and Judas Iscariot, a talking dog who used to work on Wall Street and two stranded aliens mistaken for God and the devil, this book offers a simple yet profound parable on what Christian orthodoxy calls “original sin” and what might well constitute true redemption.

Godwin is both subtle and not-so-subtle. The three main character are Charity Stovall, Roy Stride, and Woody Barnes. As I pointed out to my brother at the time, Godwin’s smacking the reader across the face with these names: Charity [S]to[v]all; Roy Stride – King or Cock-Of-The-Walk; and I do so hope that “Woody Barnes” needs no explaining about reliability and solidity. This hardly detracts from the beauty and power of this novel; in fact, it sets expectations for the reader, expectations that aren’t disappointed.

The novel begins with a graduation party. Students from a distant galaxy arrive on earth several million years ago, drunk, exhausted, and filled a bit too much with themselves. Two among them aren’t graduates. Brothers Barion and Coyul, sophomoric in so many ways, are left behind in a moment of vindictive pettiness by their fellow partiers. Stuck, the two decide to indulge their species’s basic task: life and intelligence seeding. There is abundant life on earth, including Australopithecines wandering the African plains. Barion decides too give them an intellectual boost, resulting in moroseness. Coyul, angry because what his brother has done is both unethical and illegal on their home world, decides to help out this proto-human, offering yet another boost in a slightly different spot, which alters the morose primate to one who can both laugh and find joy.

Over time, however, this basic dualism in our emotional make-up creates, um, problems, particularly after life. Because energy can neither be created or destroyed, as Coyul says, they just keep going. This results in what Godwin wittily calls “post-existent energy pools”. One, called Topside, is overflowing with the self-righteous, those brimming with the joy of a salvation usually purchased on the cheap. Among the more annoying denizens is Augustine, whose insistent demands for the beatific vision pushes Barion over the edge, offers a glimpse of how it might be possible to create an ulcer in a being who has no physical existence. Coyul, on the other hand, offers a wide variety of entertainments and scenery for those who arrive Below Stairs. After reading Dante, he even offered something like Dore’s bleak hellscapes. Still, as he tells Barion, he at least has far more colorful residents.

In to all this come Roy and Charity, two nothings from nowhere, whose coupling could, according to Coyul, create something even far more horrific than the National Socialists: A child with Charity’s intelligence (an intelligence not challenged; yet) and Roy’s fear, envy, and hatred. In a country like America, knowing it is in decline and both fearful and enraged at the prospect, such a child could very well spell doom. Deciding to intervene for the first time since that fateful afternoon at an African watering hole, Barion drags Coyul along on a well-planned conspiracy to separate Charity and Roy, allowing Roy the opportunity to destroy himself while offering Charity something she never had – a challenge.

Their adventures Below Stairs, from something like Dore’s interpretation of Dante through high rise luxury apartments (offered in a chapter entitled “This Can’t Be Hell, The Plumbing Works”) to a bar/brothel with the best food in the after life near the special hell for bureaucrats , Charity experiences it all. In particular, she experiences “The Late, Late Show”:

The child was her at age ten. She remembered the picture her new parents took when they adopted her, before her hair darkened to brown. But undeniably her in the picture, screaming for help from her dead mother.

And then not screaming at all.

The child looked up at the guard, mute. The only sound came from Charity herself, a wordless whine of empathic terror as the Paladin pointed his pistol at the tiny face. Her own child face but changed forever. More than horror in those wide yes, a terrible knowledge that there was no help anywhere, no pity or escape. For those few slow-motion seconds, the child was not mad but her eyes knew madness, swallowed it whole and recognized it as the truth of existence. Knew it as her head disintegrated and spattered blood and brains over the twisted flesh bad of her mother, and – . . .

Faster and faster the loop ran: Charity at ten, screaming, then no voice left to scream, only her own eyes lifting to the gun, knowing what a child shouldn’t have to know but so many did and had and would. . . .

Until at last the film froze on the eyes and their final recognition of horror. The child, with one second, one century or an infinity to exist, would never again look on anything or anyone unshadowed by that terrible knowledge.

Obscene . . . I never used that word, always thought it meant dirty movies. But this is obscene. I could scream from now until the end of time, every dirty word I ever knew, they wouldn’t be as obscene or dirty as this. No that you kill a child, but that you could put such a knowledge into her. (pp.127-129)

This is the heart of this book: A naked look at the truth of existence, a truth we deny at the peril not only of our own sanity, but at the peril of all existence. In that moment, Charity sees in the eyes of this child – herself as a child – a truth she recognizes but had refused to acknowledge or name. In that moment, she assents to this terrible truth, knowing that the only real security we have are the tenuous ties of love, ties that are so fragile yet so necessary. Ties that defy our all too human need to draw lines around who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad. Only when we see ourselves in the faces of the victims of our collective desire for security can we ever begin to realize how fake that security really is, and at what a terrible price it is purchased.

Now Roy has a bit of a different revelatory moment, courtesy of Barion.

Reeking of smoke and burrito, Roy Stride booted open the door to Coyul’s salon and invaded with Drumm behind him. He’d left his Luger behind, not trusting any weapon that read BANG instead of doing it. Right now his fury was a more formidable threat.

“Where is he?” Roy fumed. “Where’s the Devil?”

“Ah, Mr. Stride. Just a moment.” Coyul paused to feed a notation to his computer with two fingers, orchestration with the remaining three. “We were expecting you. Good of you to be prompt.”

Roy dismissed the ineffectual little man with one contemptuous glance. “I got no time for you, pussy. Wanta see the Honcho, you got it? The Devil.” . . .

Two men entered the salon – one dark, about Roy’s size, who looked like he didn’t have a single spot in his body without steel springs, the other big as a Redskin lineman in jeans. One of those blond college jokers he always saw in soft-drink commercials, making out with prime tail. Fucking big fag with muscles. He sat down across from Roy. . . .

“You said I ain’t dead,” Roy blurted. “I don’t get it. What’s all this about?”

“Shut up. You’ll get it. Believe me, you’re going to get it.” Barion’s tone chilled Roy to the bone. His skin began to crawl under that merciless scrutiny. The son of a bitch looked like . . . eternity. . . .

. . . “Like higher math to that monkey at the water hole. His whole cosmos is drama, magic, fable. A vision of Christ and salvation awash with melodrama, God as a white man, himself as hero. Minorities for villains. But he’s going to believe it.” . . .

Coyul ran an arpeggio into a Gershwin phrase. “I did this with a snake once. Ready or not, Mr. Stride – it’s magic time.” . . .

[Roy] was pure mind, pulsing in space, no division between sight and comprehension. He saw the solar system, then the galaxy dreaming through its eon-slow revolution. His view pulled back and back to encompass the unimaginably vast, wheeling universe, video-split with the movement of atoms within a molecule. Clear, painful intellect himself, he saw everything Coyul or Barion had ever seen – world men would not contact for thousands of years, if ever. Civilizations, concepts of God undreamable by humans. He knew horrors beyond simple brutality or destruction, complex beauties, a peace in being one with the universe, and the loneliness of being inexpressible small, apart and insignificant. . . .

Roy’s cry of horror filled the universe, more horrible for the indifferent silence that swallowed it up. He wept with double pity, for himself and a knowledge of tragedy too huge for expression; whimpered in his smallness and fear, shrieked through the soundless void –

– put his hands to his face, shattered in the chair while the Devil played Gershwin and God spoke quietly to him. (pp.206-212)

The novel winds down with Barion going back home to face punishment; Coyul stays behind, trying desperately to hold Topside together; Judas is left behind to run Below Stairs, only to have his Second-In-Command arrive, an old friend he hasn’t seen in two thousand years, with a wry smile and a chessboard in tow; Roy chooses the ignorance of death to the madness of life, all the action provided for him to keep him from breaking the furniture. Charity? Well, Charity arrives where it all started, a McDonald’s in her home town, Woody waiting for her, a chance to live a quiet life without too many expectations and certainly no fears other than the banal ones we all face.

We live in a historic moment when the Roy Strides of the world demand a hearing. Some of them are even running for President. So many reject the vision of reality both Charity and Roy come to know. Yet how can we deny it? Our politics, our churches, our world all suffer because far too many would prefer the bliss of blindness to the weight of the light. The deaths of others are the blood sacrifice they make to keep the truth from shattering their own fearful lives.

Godwin offers that most rare gift – something that both offends everyone yet can enlighten everyone if given half a chance. It’s available at Amazon. Treat yourself if you dare. I bet you won’t be disappointed.

Impure And Uneasy: A Review Of Who I Am By Pete Townshend

If there’s a song the embodies the best of 1970’s rock – its power, its energy, its politics, its purity – it’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

Filmed just a few months before drummer Keith Moon died from a drug overdose, this clip has everything that made The Who special.  Roger’s powerful voice and stage presence.  Bassist John Entwistle standing firmly in place, stock still except for his fingers flying over his instrument.  Drummer Keith Moon, even at this late date, mugging for the camera, doing his best to his everything all at once, making a mockery of “rhythm”.  Then there’s Townshend – dancing, jumping, his arms pinwheeling as he hits power chord after power chord.  The combination, larger than the parts due to the physical force of the volume they produced together, made for something more than music.  It defined an ethos, perhaps even an era.  Roger’s final scream, after an interminable keyboard solo, with some drum flourishes, is the primal scream of all those who, as the 60’s melded to the 70’s, that they’d been cheated.  For all The Who were a unit, originally brought together to play Cliff Richards & The Shadows covers by a teenage tough named Roger Daltrey, The Who’s musical leader was their gangly guitar player and principle songwriter.  Over the decades, he would leave The Who, get back together with them for one-offs, nostalgia tours, or charity events, release several solo records, one of which – Empty Glass – is this author’s pick as favorite album of all time, father three children, overindulge in rock cliches from drugs to booze to groupies, get arrested in a kiddie porn sting, and, finally, find some inner peace in his late middle age, even as too many around him were gone.  In his memoir, Who I Amwe at last hear the voice behind all that noise.  The voice – sometimes manic, sometimes confusing, sometimes self-abasing – bears little resemblance to the wild man too many saw on stage and thought of as “the real” Pete Townshend.  In fact, it wouldn’t be too much to say that there are far too many Pete Townshend’s to be captured in a singular voice.

Peter Townshend was born to a musical family.  His father played horns in an RAF musical outfit that, after the Second World War, played a summer residency on the Isle of Wight under the name The Squadronairres.  His mother was a singer and piano player.  Due in part to their devotion to the musician’s life – a trend Pete would follow with his own family decades later, leaving the raising of his children largely in the hands of his wife Karen – at seven, Pete was shuffled off to his maternal grandmother, a slightly odd character who lived across the street from a bus terminal, often having bus drivers over for tea.  It was during this year’s absence, abandoned by both his mother and father, little cared for by an eccentric woman, that Townshend would suffer serial sexual abuse, events that would haunt him throughout his life.

As a teenager, he received no musical training from his parents.  His mother insisted he didn’t have any kind of singing voice.  His father was too busy practicing.  With what little money they made going to feed his mother’s growing wardrobe, the Townshend’s didn’t have a piano in their home.  His Aunt, however, did.  On a visit, Pete sat down at the piano and, not knowing how to read music or even the names of the keys, fumbled around until he constructed chord sequences that he enjoyed.  His Aunt Trilby, hearing him tinker, turned to his mother, and said, “He’g got real talent!”  Pete’s mother sniffed.

Receiving a second-hand guitar, he taught himself some rudimentary chords, playing along with the skiffle songs that exploded on British radio in the wake of Bill Haley & The Comets triumphant tour in 1957, when Pete was 12.  He and a school friend, John Entwhistle, would get together and jam, John having constructed his own bass guitar.  Entwhistle started working in a band with a tough kid kicked out of the school Townshend and Entwhistle attended.  After a year or so, Pete received an invitation to come around Roger Daltrey’s house.  His audition consisted of being asked the following questions: “Can you play E?  Can you play B?  Can you play Cliff Richards?  OK, you’re in.”  Calling themselves The Detours, they played covers of R&B and skiffle songs at parties, high school dances, wherever they could find work.  At the time Daltrey was both leader and lead guitar player, with Pete being a back-up guitarist.  Soon, however, it became clear who was the better guitarist, and Daltrey set his aside and concentrated on singing.  With another band named The Detours having a very minor hit, the teenagers had to come up with a name.  Pete didn’t like it at first, but Roger was the leader and Roger liked it, so in 1964, The Detours became The Who.

Ten years later, they were playing stadiums in the United States.  They had recorded not only the best but the loudest live album, The Who Live At Leeds.  They had recorded the first rock opera, Tommy, and had just released a second concept-album-cum-opera, Quadrophenia.  They had almost not performed at Woodstock because their manager had been told that, due to gate crashers and logistics problems, most of the acts were performing for no fee.  Once they were on stage, Pete Townshend had to physically assault political activist Abby Hoffman, who had tried to take over the stage (a few months before, at the Fillmore East, in what would be a dress rehearsal for events at Woodstock, Townshend kicked a stage crasher in the crotch; the stage crasher was a fire marshall who wanted to alter the hall to a fire in the building next door and that the building was in lockdown to prevent injuries; Pete was later arrested and fined).

Through it all, he consumed massive amounts of Remy Martin cognac – his preferred potable – cocaine and heroin.  He indulged in the young ladies who threw themselves at rock stars, including getting a nasty case of gonorrhea from one young lady who was determined to infect the whole band.  He bought houses and studios and boats.  Lots of boats.  As a child, young Pete had a musical epiphany while walking along the River Thames, and ever since water had been a source of peace and inspiration in what was an otherwise chaotic, work-a-holic life.

Unable to face the horrors of his maltreatment as a child, Townshend was a moody, sometimes depressive, sometimes impossible with which to work individual whom long-time collaborator Roger Daltrey once called a pathological liar.  It wasn’t that Townshend was a liar.  It was more an instance of a gifted, talented artist and musician unable to give himself space with which to cope with horrors in his life.  For all the violence of his stage persona, Pete was a quiet, gentle man, endowed with few emotional resources to cope with the many pressures of his life as a song writer, performer, rock star, husband, and father.  Balance would only be achieved late in life; too late to save his marriage to his wife Karen; too late to deal coherently with the deaths of his friends and band mates Keith Moon and John Entwhistle.

I came away from reading this memoir/autobiography feeling that Townshend had at least been honest about one thing – he wasn’t sure there was an “I” so much as a multiplicity of “I”‘s that went by the name “Peter Townshend.  Chaotic, manic-depressive, prone to addiction, avoiding his family during the time his daughters were young and The Who’s power and popularity were at their height, what shines through is that, despite the often hectic life, Townshend recognizes the messes he left behind him in his struggles to reconcile all the facets of his life, facets that could never be reconciled.  He wanted to be an artist, yet wrote pop songs; he settled down and married and had children, yet spent much of his time not on the road in his home studio writing and recording music; he wanted to control the excesses of his bandmates, particularly drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwhistle, but was often caught up in their craziness, which included getting banned for life from any and all Holiday Inn hotels worldwide.  I have an even deeper appreciation for the beauty and power of the music he wrote and the band created when they were at their height; I have a great deal of respect for his attempts to combine rock music, theater, and even film as he did in his solo work in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  I even am happy that, late in his life, he has found love and some semblance of peace and balance, not least through the clarity brought about by writing so much about his own past.

One more personal Who anecdote.  Early on the afternoon of June 26, 1983, I was trying to get myself roused from a graduation night that ended as the sun had come up.  Our family was going to an event in Binghamton, Pops On The River, and I had to get myself ready.  On the little radio, the DJ’s voice cut in to some song I forget, and said, “This next song is dedicated to all those who graduated last night at area high schools, inlcuding my alma mater, Waverly High School.”  Then this song came on.

For thirty-one years, this song has always brought me back to that moment when I realized it really was over.  That my life was different now.  That things would never be the same.  Pete Townshend’s song gave me a bittersweet gift that day, one I’ve carried with me in the decades since.  For that moment alone, I will always be grateful to Pete’s genius, his power, his art, and his madness.  All that and more is waiting in Who I Am, and I would invite anyone who would like to get to know someone who doesn’t even know himself.

Stuck In The Muddle: Music As Theology: What Music Says About The Word


Among a group of works on music I received as Christmas presents, I was eager to read Maeve Louise Heaney’s Music As Theology: What Music Says About The Word precisely because it offered itself as addressing a central concern of mine: Is it possible to understand music as offering people of faith a way to grasp the Christ-event for their lives?  Before I finished the Introduction, I knew I would be disappointed.  By the end, I came away wondering how a book as poorly organized, incomplete, and filled with errata as this even came to be published.  This is not just a poorly written book.  Presentation is important, and carelessness on the part of editors and publisher have left readers with more to struggle through than just bad writing.  I have since learned fault for this last, the errata, lies squarely at the feet of the publisher, Wipf & Stock.  The other errors, sad to say, lay wholly at the author’s feet.

On one level, the organization of the text seems intriguing.  Heaney explores the limits of understanding music as language, although in such a way as to leave the reader wondering why this is an issue.  After all, if as she also insists aesthetics has always claimed a way of understanding that sidesteps the many and varied offerings of philosophy, science, and theology, this question itself should be set to one side fairly quickly.  Rather than jump in to aesthetics, however, Heaney offers first a chapter on hermeneutics without discussing hermeneutics or its role in understanding music.  Instead, she starts talking about semiotics, rehearsing the distinction between “semiotics” and “semiosis”.  In the next chapter, on semiotics, she does this again, in almost the same language, leading me to wonder if I had made some kind of mistake and was reading the same section again.  By this point I think I looked a bit like this:


When she finally discusses aesthetics, I wasn’t at all surprised to find each author received a shorter treatment.  By the time she reached Don Saliers, she seemed exhausted by the idea of presenting his many and varied contributions to the topic, giving him less than a full page.  Considering Saliers has also written book-length considerations of music and theology, one would think he deserved more than the not-even-cursory treatment he receives.

What was most frustrating of all?  In the midst of this organizational confusion and poor writing, Heaney occasionally offers glimpses of insight that seem to float out of the fog.  I would think, “Hey!  Now she’s getting somewhere!” And then the fog would descend again, and I was once again groping through the mists for something, anything, that showed she not only knew where she was headed, but was tossing bread crumbs to readers lost along the way.

I was sad reading this book, but as I told my wife, I was bound and determined to finish it.  I had no intention of being defeated by a book.  When I reached the end, I was satisfied that, at the very least, I knew not what to say should I ever try to write about music as theology.

Palimpsest: Mimetic Criticism And The Gospel of Mark

Late in life, the 19th century British statesman William Gladstone decided to write a long work demonstrating the ways Homer – described by Gladstone as “good old Homer”, a daily read in the original Greek along with Scripture – influenced the authors of the New Testament.  Gladstone’s most recent biographer, Roy Jenkins, offers the idea that Gladstone did this in part to bring together two distinct parts of his life that otherwise seemed incongruous.  That he failed miserably is more the fault of the material than any of Gladstone’s prodigious gifts brought to bear.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and we continue to see attempts to relate Scripture to contemporaneous Greco-Roman literature including, as noted by Joel Watts in Mimetic Criticism And The Gospel Of Mark, Homer.


Watts offers a thoughtful, even intriguing alternative.  Rather than Homer, what if the author of Mark’s Gospel had another text either in hand or in mind while constructing his narrative?  Specifically, he offers up the Roman rhetorician and subversive poet Lucan. While I would not say that the whole of Watts’s presentation hinges on the success of his attempt, it is important to remember that many of the questions he asks and attempts to answer remain, to me, unanswerable.  Just as John Gardner attempted to write a biography of Geoffrey Chaucer largely from silence, so to Watts attempts to present a non-traditional view of Mark’s Gospel relying on contemporaneous reading and critical habits, as well as placing the Gospel within the context of Jewish life wracked by the destruction of the Temple and what that meant for their future.  Whether or not Lucan’s subversive poetry – he was made to commit suicide by his childhood friend Emperor Nero because of Nero’s horrid tenure – was a source for the Gospel writer, Watts’s work adds much to the literature of Biblical criticism, demonstrates a critical technique that opens up possibilities both for reading and appropriation that should bear much fruit, and handles the multiple sources and complex methods with skill, appreciation, and a deep understanding.

Generally accepted as the earliest Gospel account set in writing, much ink has been spilled over the date of Mark’s Gospel, the original audience, the influence it had on the other Synoptics, along with the text itself.  From antiquity through contemporary scholarship, much has been made of the poor koine Greek on display; the lack either of a proper beginning and ending (the opening and closing of the earliest and most authoritative manuscripts are incomplete sentences); geographic errors that are not easily explained away; and much else.  Watts takes these cumulative problems and, in an act of reversal, offers the intriguing possibility that all of this, in fact, fits in a larger strategy the author is employing to make clear the centrality of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus for a people who, having lost a war and a Temple, are in need of guidance through an existential crisis.  The guide, claims Watts, is Lucan.

A renowned poet, owing much to the great poet of early Imperial Rome, Livy, Lucan subverted Livy’s triumphant praise, offering anti-Imperial (specifically anti-Nero) polemics disguised as poorly-written broadsides.  His popularity was such that killing him outright was impossible, so Nero appealed to Lucan’s sense of honor and Lucan committed suicide.  The damage to Nero, however, was done.  Upon his death followed what historians call “The Year Of Three Emperors” as the succession, already in doubt, became a battleground not least because Nero’s neglect of the city of Rome and its citizens had left the whole Imperial apparatus in disrepute.

Just prior to Nero’s death, the Jews in Galilee and Judea rose up.  Nero sent his most trusted and able general, Vespasian, to end the revolt.  After some initial victories that removed the threat from the fringes of the Jewish world along the see of Galilee, Nero died and Vespasian halted the campaign as he waited for the political situation in Rome to settle down.  He was astute enough to understand that a new Emperor might want him and his legions to move elsewhere.  Within a couple years, however, as the situation in Rome didn’t resolve itself.  Vespasian succumbed to flattery, sailed to Rome, and after some struggle became Emperor.  In the interim, the war against the Jews resumed.  The Jews retreated to Jerusalem, closed the gates, and a struggle between factions within the city retreated to the Temple while the city’s inhabitants, pressed on all sides, succumbed to debauchery as death in the shape of the X Legion surrounded the city.  The walls were breached, the Temple surrounded, then burned after the contents of theHoly of Holies, including the Gold Menorah celebrating the Maccabean Victory over Antiochus, was confiscated.  After the leader of the Revolt, Simon bar Giora, was brought to Rome and executed, Vespasian – who knew something of Jewish life and culture – declared himself the Jewish Messiah (as opposed to the defeated, and dead, Simon).

This background, insists Watts, weighs heavily on the minds and hearts of the community the author of Mark’s Gospel addresses.  His commentary focuses on two movements within the text: Jesus against Vespasian, first, in the parts of the Gospel set in Galilee; then Jesus against Simon bar Giora, as the narrative moves to Jerusalem.  Just as Lucan used poor writing and grammar, subversive anti-authoritarian reversals, and even humor in an attempt to disparage Nero, so, too, claims Watts, did the author use poor writing and grammar, subversive anti-authoritarian reversals and even humor (that would be lost after so many generations) to discredit the Messianic claims both of the Emperor and the Zealot Simon who brought not only the Revolt but the Temple to an end with such finality.  Presenting Jesus as the one in whom and through whom the Jewish hopes were embodied and lived, Watts focuses attention on how Mark not only creates a new understanding of “Messiah” and “apocalyptic”, but perhaps in and through his presentation created a community who would accept the author’s presentation.

I will leave it to the reader to gauge Watts’s success at the specific argument.  I will say that there is little doubt Watts’s understands his subject, in all its complexity, fully.  He can also explain it clearly and simply.  He masters a wealth of source material in the original languages with little fuss or muss.  Finally, whether he succeeds or fails, he certainly offers both scholars and faithful readers intriguing possibilities for reading familiar material in new ways.

I will note one thing.  I was frustrated by a number of errata in the text.  Having recently finished another work from the same publisher, Wipf & Stock, I lay these firmly at their feet rather than the author.

For Freedom’s Sake: A Review of From Fear To Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls

Full disclosure: I was invited to contribute by one of the editors.  I declined, while feeling honored to have been asked.


How many times have we heard the stories of people lost in addiction or some other pathology, their life transformed in a flash, now deep in the workings of some self-proclaimed “Bible-believing” church or ministry?

The stories in Travis Milam’s and Joel Watts’s collection, From Fear To Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls aren’t those stories.  Milam and Watts have collected reflections of people raised in fundamentalist, Pentecostal, or other rigid faith traditions who found themselves straining against the teachings, social and cultural practices, and attendant personal, family, and interpersonal pathologies that resulted from their lives within these churches.  Along the way are two excurses, including one by contributor Joel Watts on “King James Onlyism”, a phenomenon that is both strange and fascinating.

The reflections seem to follow a pattern, one that becomes clear after reading one or two: An introduction in which the author situates his or her family within a particular faith tradition; a sketch of the beliefs and practices; a detailed description of a time, or event, that planted the seeds of doubt in the person’s mind about those beliefs and practices; a somewhat longer description of a time or event that watered those seeds, having them grow.  A wrap-up, sometimes with a confession of affection for those still within the tradition, sometimes not, sketching their current position, whether on a particular issue (a person moving from creationism to an acceptance of evolution, for example), or their changed position (from fundamentalist to vague pantheism).

The stories are varied enough to maintain either interest or curiosity while still following a pattern closely enough to keep readers intrigued.  I, for one, would have preferred a bit more reflection; some of the stories, being confessional – perhaps “memoir-like” would be an even more apt description – have a raw quality about them that, while not off-putting, leaves little room for more sober reflection that comes with a bit of emotional distance.  Also, with only one or two exceptions, most of the stories describe very little in the way of “fear”, at least textually.  It seems to be the intention of the contributing editors that readers explore how moving from a tradition that emphasizes textual primacy, limits the exploration of meaning beyond simple correspondence, and denies the expression of moral ambiguity is expressed in and through these stories.

The “to faith” part also seems a bit misleading.  With only one exception, the contributors do not seem to confess a movement “to” “faith”.  Rather, they talk about how their faith changed over time as their experiences brought them to reflect on the inadequacies of their previously-held beliefs.  This isn’t so much a journey “to faith” as it is a faith journey.  Or, perhaps, I am reflecting my person, Wesleyan, bias here, including a reliance upon that grace that is active in our lives before we even know it is there.

These, however, are quibbles.  This is an excellent jumping-off point for any individual or group wanting to explore the ways the Spirit moves in the lives of the faithful.  Moving from fear to faith can be scary, as these stories attest; it is also what God wants for us, for as St. Paul says: We are freed for freedom’s sake.