Previous month:
December 2006
Next month:
February 2007

January 2007

Sunday Night Journal — January 28, 2007

Mr. Martins, From The Other Side

I had planned to write about something else this evening, but this afternoon my wife and I sat down to watch our latest NetFlix arrival, The Third Man. As I may have mentioned here before, I don’t, in general, take movies all that seriously as art. In particular, I don’t take the commercial products of Hollywood very seriously at all: even the better ones are rarely more than a couple of hours’ entertainment. Those that I would bother seeing a second time are pretty rare, and even with many of those, like The Big Sleep, it isn’t so much that I think them great art as that they establish some kind of atmosphere that I enjoy visiting now and again, or that they’re simply a big entertaining spectacle, like the first three Star Wars movies.

But this is the real stuff. Unless I’m succumbing to an over-enthusiastic first impression, it’s one of the very rare movies that can be thought of in the same way as a first-rate novel or poem, as something to which one might return now and again, and come away enriched each time. We might have watched it again immediately if we hadn’t had other things to do, and we’ll probably watch it once more before we send it back.

I had seen it once before, perhaps twenty years ago, in a rather murky VHS copy, on a rather small television with bad sound. It didn’t make much of an impression on me, which I have to attribute to some combination of the poor technical quality and my own inattention. I have to postulate the latter, because murky sound and video don’t explain why I missed the brilliance of Graham Greene’s screenplay. (Since then the original film has been restored and the DVD version is beautifully clear and rich, and although we haven’t gone in for the home theater business we now have a medium-sized TV, and the sound from the DVD player runs through the stereo, which is good enough for me.)

The Third Man is worthy of comparison with Greene’s best work. It combines utterly convincing naturalism—involving, as is customary with Greene, a pretty seedy milieu—and a great deal of symbolic resonance and power. It features a device to which Greene was drawn more than once: the encounter of a naïve American with real evil, his difficulty in recognizing it, and his clumsy response. (Unlike some of the other instances, in this case the American does not end up doing more harm than good.) The milieu is the underworld of occupied and partitioned Vienna after World War II, and the evil is, most immediately, a childhood friend of the American who is now a cold-blooded racketeer, and, more subtly, the whole sad and corrupt condition of Western civilization at the middle of the twentieth century.

In one of a hundred touches that make this picture vivid, Greene has the American, Holly Martins (a man, despite the name), be a writer of simplistic Westerns. When a scatterbrained cultural propagandist recruits Martins to speak to a literary society, he introduces Martins as “Mr. Martins, from the other side.” The symbolic weight of a phrase like that is not likely to have been an accident, coming from the pen of Graham Greene. Nor is it an accident that the topic of Martins’ speech is to be “the crisis of faith,” or that he has nothing at all to say about it. Dozens of similarly pregnant examples could be mentioned. There is fertile ground for a great deal of literary analysis here, and I suppose critics and graduate students have done it.

In addition to the screenplay, and a lot of pretty much perfect acting, there is one other major contributor to the film’s power: the marvelous black-and-white cinematography, and the war-damaged city of Vienna, its combination of grandeur and ruin perfectly suited to the story. I could paper a room with still shots from this movie—in scene after scene I had to stop myself from hitting the pause button so that I could fully take in the image, and the next time I watch it I’ll do so. “What makes black-and-white so good?” my wife asked, and then answered her own question: “It’s only about light and shadow.” Yes, and that’s perfect for a story in which moral complexity is, to use a phrase now forever associated with Greene, the heart of the matter.

I came away from this movie feeling that I’d looked deeply into the heart of the modern world. Offhand I can’t think of any Hollywood film of the past thirty years or so which has caused me to say anything of that sort. It’s not that directors don’t try—they try all too hard, in some cases. But when they do, they nearly always seem heavy-handed and crude. Perhaps it’s partly that the technical resources now available to big-budget filmmakers create a bias toward the big, loud, and dumb. It also seems fair to say that there’s been a decline in sensibility and dignity in the culture at large and in Hollywood in particular, and of course a huge distortion of the moral sense. The movie industry of 1949, when The Third Man was made, was probably pretty corrupt, and certainly made plenty of heavy-handed and crude films, but it hadn’t yet gone in for the strange combination of nihilism and manicheanism so characteristic of it now. It occurred to me after I wrote that last sentence to imagine what a contemporary remake of The Third Man would be like. A bad thought; I hope it never happens.


Music of the Week — January 21, 2007

Loudon Wainwright III: History

Here’s something different: an album for middle-aged middle-class men. Now there’s a population that’s, as they say, “underserved” by the popular music industry. Most middle-aged pop artists seem to see themselves as perpetual adolescents, or at any rate to write from that point of view. Even Dylan (who is really past even middle age now) still maintains a persona which has him scuffling for a living and chasing women like a restless and unknown young man, even though the days when he was anything other than a very wealthy celebrity are forty years and more in the past.

Wainwright makes no such pretences. He’s a middle-aged man writing about the things that most middle-aged men are concerned about: physical decline, regrets (a lot of regrets), his children, the death of his parents, his marriage (in his case, apparently broken). This is not, on the face of it, the kind of thing that generally appeals to me: it’s very mundane, a set of careful and very specific notes on his own everyday life (or at least what he presents as his own life). I tend to prefer the mythical, the mystical, the eccentric, the just plain weird. It’s easy for songs about mundane things to be merely mundane. But there’s not a dull moment here.

I complain frequently about musicians who play and sing very well but can’t write, or don’t care to write, fully-crafted songs. And I complain about songwriters who don’t really have anything to say. Here’s a man who confirms the importance of well-crafted and substantial songs. Much of this album is one man with a guitar, and where there’s a band it doesn’t get in the way of the songs at all. But I was pretty much spellbound for the entire forty-five minutes or so the first time I listened to it.

Part of the reason is that he doesn’t flinch at the difficult. He reminds me a bit of the confessional poets of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, middle-class neurotics who mixed their domesticity with heavy drinking and breakdowns and told it all in their poetry. Not that Wainwright is sensationalistic at all, or squishily intimate—just honest. I don’t suffer from exactly the same set of anxieties that he does (being, for one thing, happily married for many years), but there’s plenty here that any man, and maybe woman, of his age will connect with.

He also makes me think of the metaphysical poets, or rather of what Eliot said about their unified sensibility, their ability to integrate both wit and passion in one poem. Wry laughter, nostalgia, bitterness, affection, and grief are all mixed up in these songs, often within the same song. Offhand I can’t think of anybody working today who’s at quite his level of lyrical craft. As much as I’ve enjoyed Dylan’s last few albums, he’s not, today, remotely in Wainwright’s class as a songwriter. He makes most other contemporary songwriters seem sloppy and lazy; he’s either figured out, or knew instinctively, the truth of that famous admonition that poetry should be at least as well written as prose.

As a performer, Wainwright is exactly right for his material. He’s not a virtuoso, and not a spectacular singer, but he’s strong, relaxed, confident, and always in perfect command of the song. In short, this is a great album, and one which will probably be listened to long after more trendy and gimmicky music has been put aside.


Sunday Night Journal — January 21, 2007

Is Wagner Bad for You?

Returning to the discussion, postponed last week, of the E. Michael Jones essay “Music and Morality: Richard Wagner’s Adultery, the Loss of Tonality and the Beginning of Our Cultural Revolution,” from the December 1992 issue of Fidelity:

There is a great deal to commend in this essay; I’m sorry it’s not online, as I don’t imagine it can be found in many libraries. It’s lengthy and rambling, but entertainingly so. The gist of it can be summarized pretty easily: that Wagner was first a political revolutionary and later, after that failed, a cultural revolutionary driven by adulterous passion to develop a musical technique consciously intended to overthrow the musical order as part of the effort to overthrow the social and moral order. In a passage worth quoting, Jones sheds light on that cultural revolution:

In the modern age, there are revolutions and there are revolutions, and virtually all of them are an incongruous mixture of ressentiment against the human condition as represented by a particular political institution.

The revolutionary agenda espoused by both Wagner and Bakunin was so politically diffuse that no political reform could have accomplished it. As a result, it is only natural that its political death would only release its revolutionary soul into freer flights of fantasy, where its disembodied soul was free to posit conditions that it was safe to say could never find incorporation in any political system anywhere…..a revolution which was essentially metaphysical in its scope.

I used to be puzzled by affluent and privileged people who complained that they were not free, because there never seemed to be anything in particular that they wanted to do or to have that was not already available to them. But their complaints were quite sincere; they would feel themselves oppressed as long as it was possible for anything to be other than they wished it to be. The dream of an earthly life free from the limits of the human condition is still very much with us (Imagine there’s no heaven…).

Knowing very little about Wagner, I’m not in a position to determine the accuracy of Jones’ conclusions about him, although they seem plausible on the basis of what I do know. The question of interest to me is whether and how they ought, if true, to affect the way we receive Wagner’s work. It’s a logical inference from his harsh judgment of Wagner, and from the warnings of Aristotle and many others about the malign effects of disordered music which he applies to Wagner’s work, that he would counsel us to avoid it.

In a subsequent issue (May 1993) of Fidelity, Madeleine Stebbins takes issue with Jones. She denies any connection between Wagner’s personal life and his music, and suggests that the erotic longing in a work like Tristan und Isolde should be considered a metaphor for mystical love, invoking John of the Cross and others—all well and good, but it doesn’t address the question of whether and to what degree Wagner’s bad intentions make his music bad, and bad for you. Everyone surely understands that the personal sins of an artist do not automatically render his work unfit. But it’s one thing to be a sinner, quite another to be a propagandist for sin, which is the essence of Jones’ charge against Wagner.

I suppose I fall somewhere between Jones and Stebbins (bearing in mind that I only know Wagner by the Ring, which is not the example used by either of them). Part of the question is whether it is possible for a musical technique to be intrinsically evil in its influence. I am extremely skeptical of this. (I was going to mention some barely-remembered stuff about the tritone here, the diabolus in musica, but according to Wikipedia its name may never have been meant very seriously.) Jones quotes Greek descriptions of physical and mental illnesses produced by listening to certain modes. I doubt a scientific test would be able to demonstrate these effects. It is certainly true that music can exert a powerful influence for good or ill. But I think the question of any destabilizing emotional impact based on purely musical techniques, such as chromaticism (which Jones sees Wagner cultivating as intentionally subversive), is to a great extent a matter of culture and expectations. Today’s technical innovation becomes tomorrow’s everyday tool of expression, to be used for purposes quite other than those the innovator had in mind. You don’t have to look any further than Bruckner for an example.

None of this is to say that there are not better and worse tools, and a valid argument that the technical innovations of Wagner and others constituted a change for the worse in the history of music, but that’s a somewhat different discussion.

Still, after viewing the Ring in the mostly unfortunate Chéreau production, I’m left with a slight distaste for it, considered as an epic drama, and consequently for Wagner, notwithstanding the fact that I very much liked a good deal of the music itself. I don’t know that this is fair, and I don’t even know that it’s an impression that would survive a more extensive acquaintance with his work, or even the viewing of a different Ring. And I can’t deny that awareness of what transpired in Germany over the next sixty years or so after Wagner’s death plays a role in my view of him, as does the knowledge that Hitler (at least) thought Wagner’s music eminently suitable for his party.

But with all allowances made, there still seems to me something unwholesome in Wagner. Almost all Romanticism is at least somewhat guilty of emotionalism and self-absorption, but Wagner’s work seems to contain something more than usually unhealthy: something almost morbid, involving a desire to surrender to what it imagines to be the purer and stronger passions of a more heroic age. I assume Siegfried is supposed to be at least a somewhat sympathetic character, but I disliked him strongly (and this, too, may be unfair, as it’s all wrapped up with a single performance). He has the spontaneous and instinctive pure self-interest of an animal, and yet he also knows what it is to look in a mirror; there’s a touch, at least, of Narcissus in him. If I envision him escaping his early death I can only see him becoming ever more self-righteous and resentful, incapable of knowing himself and uninterested in knowing others, proud and humorless, capable of jeers and sneers but not wit, utterly without empathy: possessing, in short, a personality suitable for a tyrant.

As I said, I’m intrigued by what I’ve heard of Wagner and don’t mean to sound as if I’m condemning his work wholesale. But on the basis of the Ring alone, I see something in him which I don’t think I’m imagining and which I dislike: a bourgeois aesthete in a waning Christian civilization, at ease in the salon and the drawing room but weary of them and perhaps of civilization itself, looking enviously toward the primitive and the exercise of power. It isn’t fair to tar Wagner retroactively with Nazi associations, but it’s possible to see in his work, as in that of his fellow parlor-primitive Nietzsche, the early stages of a deep sickness, one which has by no means been cured.


The Christ Tree

This looks awfully interesting: a re-issue of recordings made by the Trees Community, an early '70s Jesus Freak group, drawing a rave review at AMG. The samples sound intriguing, a bit reminiscent of the Incredible String Band (a good thing, in my view, though the IBS is definitely not for everybody). I will be mildly surprised if Daniel Nichols has not at least heard of these folks. Sounds like they actually rode one of the currents of grace that were flowing along with the bad stuff in the late '60s-early '70s. Wonder if they remain Christian or have "grown beyond it"?

Music of the Week — January 14, 2007

Buddy Miller: Universal United House of Prayer

I’ve been hearing Buddy Miller’s name, usually along with that of his wife, Julie, for a while, but have only heard a little of their work. If the rest of it is in the class with this, I want to hear a lot more. (Although Buddy’s name is on it, Julie is apparently a major contributor to this album, singing and writing several of the best songs.)

I would be hard put to over-praise Universal United House of Prayer (see link below for a picture of the “house”—if you’re from the South you’ve seen its like many times). It’s so good I can hardly stand it. It’s a deep-souled and perfectly unified blend of rock, country, and gospel (both black and white), filled with the urgent exhortation and yearning of a man who surely must know what sin and salvation are all about and who has the musical skill to express them with the passion they warrant.

From the anxious leadoff, Mark Heard’s “Worry Too Much,” to Julie Miller’s imperious closer, “Fall On the Rock” (“or the rock’s gonna fall on you”—how’s that for laying it on the line?), it’s pretty much uniform brilliance—uniform in quality, that is, not sound. It’s country and it’s gospel, like I said. Sometimes it’s desperate, sometimes it’s joyful, sometimes it’s even playful. Sometimes it’s delicate, and once or twice it rocks so hard you might almost think you were listening to somebody like Tool. Miller is a great singer, and I think he’s also responsible for a lot of the smoking guitar work, like the mind-bending solo on “Shelter Me.” At first hearing I would have taken “Is That You” to be a traditional spiritual, but it, too, is credited to the Millers (both of them).

To my taste, the only moment of letdown here is Dylan’s “With God On Our Side.” I’ve never been a big admirer of Dylan’s protest songs in general, and this one seems, in comparison with the other songs here, clumsy and a little confused (were we right or wrong to fight the Nazis?). And it lasts almost ten minutes. But it is a memorable tune, and if you don’t analyze the argument too closely its caution against identifying God’s will with our national interest, or for that matter any cause, is something of which we always need reminding. And Miller gives it as good a “reading,” as the classical people say, as it’s ever likely to get.

If this sounds at all like your kind of music, do not miss it. Seriously. Don’t.

Here’s the record label’s page for the album. The review there, by Robbie Fulks, a highly regarded musician in his own right (I know him only by reputation) is informative and no hype, and you can hear a couple of tracks. And there’s a bigger image of the cover—it makes me miss the LP—as well as lyrics and a lot of other stuff, here.


Sunday Night Journal — January 14, 2007

A Couple of Miscellaneous but Not Entirely Unrelated Items

Apropos the recent discussions of Wagner here, the reader who signs himself “rjp” kindly sent me a couple of back issues of Fidelity (December 1992 and May 1993) containing some interesting views of Wagner: a lengthy article by E. Michael Jones, who edited Fidelity, called “Richard Wagner’s Adultery, the Loss of Tonality, and the Beginning of Our Cultural Revolution,” (pretty clear where the author is going there), a letter to the editor from Madeleine Stebbins, who was (I think) one of the founders of Catholics United for the Faith, and a rejoinder by Jones. That was to be the subject of this week’s journal; however, I got too distracted reading some of the other stuff in those magazines, so Wagner must wait till next week. Herewith are a few gems, unrelated to Wagner but very much related to some other interests of mine.

I subscribed to Fidelity for several years in the 1980s and always found it a mixed bag. Jones was, I thought, clearly a sharp and perceptive fellow, often brilliant, and a pungent writer, but sometimes overly pugnacious and tending toward a somewhat conspiratorial view of things, by which I mean he seemed to have a tendency to attribute to conscious malice what was probably more conventional human blundering (a phenomenon not unusual on what I’ll call, and hope you understand my shorthand, the ecclesiastical right in the Catholic Church). I really can’t remember a specific reason why I let my subscription drop, aside from a general sense that the magazine was becoming fanatical and unbalanced. At some point in the 1990sFidelity folded, and was replaced by Culture Wars.

I have never seen a copy of Culture Wars, but it is, as they say, “controversial.” I have heard it charged with anti-Semitism by people whose opinion I respect, and looking around on its web site I have noticed evidence of some kind of hostility to Jews. I’m inclined to doubt that it is anti-Semitic in the classic sense; I would speculate that this is the above-mentioned slightly paranoid style at work again.

At any rate there is certainly no sign of anti-Semitism in the two copies of Fidelity that I’ve been reading. In fact one of the pieces from which I want to quote is a very favorable review of a book by Jewish conservative Don Feder. The book is called A Jewish Conservative Looks at Pagan America; the review is titled “Real Conservatism”:

[This] book … makes an important distinction. Feder is a conservative because he is a Jew who believes in the Torah. Religious adherence to the moral law is the bedrock of the social order. Without the moral law there is no social order. The Republican Party can ignore this fact, but it will do so at its own peril….

Feder understands as a Jew what many of us have learned as Catholics: that the genius of the West is its moral genius, which was bequeathed to humanity through Moses on Mount Sinai and nourished by Christianity. Any conservatism which fails to face up to this one fundamental fact is simply a variant form of liberalism and doomed to be defeated by the real liberals anytime there is a contest….

The genius of this country, the main reason it could accommodate so many disparate peoples into one unified social fabric lay primarily in the ability of its institutions to incorporate the only source of unity in this world, namely the moral law, into the fabric of its culture…

Born in 1946, [Feder] grew up with the conviction that a political system compatible with his religious beliefs was something eminently doable. It worked then, he tells us; it can work again. The system he proposes is not only possible; it is the only possible system. The Republican Party would do well to sit up and listen. There is no social progress outside the moral law.

(Jones is quoting Pius XI in that last sentence.) This summarizes much of what I’ve been getting at in the “liberal conservative” series: not just a call for a personal reliance on the moral law, but the necessity of a cultural acknowledgement of the moral law in any effort to conserve American institutions.

Another essay, “Surviving the Sixties: How Cults Came About,” by Thomas W. Case, is an excellent addition to the attempt to make sense of the strange cultural revolution that overtook this country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s actually the opening chapter of a book about cults, Mind-Forged Manacles: Cults and Spiritual Bondage, which appears to be out of print, although it can be had on Amazon and no doubt elsewhere.

I was never a leading agent in the formless mess of the 1960s…but I was right on the spot, creating it, loving or hating every minute of it. And if there was anything good in what we did—I’m thinking of serious (if unconventional) spiritual searches, poetry and poetic lyrics, the best rock music of the century, honest dreams for a harmonious and peaceful world, intense searches for perfect love—the larger contemporary society has thrown it away while it has embraced our drugs, our selfishness, and our sexual immorality. It has taken to its heart everything we did wrong and nothing we did right, perhaps because what we did right was mostly subtle and mostly a dream. It wasn’t marketable.

As T-Bone Burnett put it in a song called “The Sixties”: “Keep all the bad, destroy the good.” I would add that there really wasn’t all that much that was truly good, either (where is the really first-rate art other than rock music produced by the revolutionary culture?) and that there were some decidedly evil things on the loose, a point which Case gets to later:

Something went wrong in the early 1960s, and I don’t know why. If we search out the philosophical corruption stemming from Germany with Kant and his progeny or look to the long breakup of Christendom over four centuries or look at ugly twentieth century changes in art and architecture and high-brow music, we will find a wealth of causes, as we see all of it percolate down from the academies and the coffee houses to the ordinary citizen. But why did teenagers stop going steady in rural towns all over America in the 1960s? Why did they stop preparing for marriage? Was it Nietzsche or LSD or the devil himself who finally broke through the firm tribal customs of small town America? Or was it Vietnam?

All of the above, I suppose, and the point has been made many, many times that the virtues of pre-revolution America were pretty fragile. But Case is one of the few writers on this topic who seems to think, as I do, that the late ‘60s in particular—I’m talking about 1968-1969—were a very dark time. Joan Didion is another: read the first essay in her collection The White Album for a sense of what those last few years of the ‘60s felt like to a lot of us. That could be dismissed as a subjective view based on my own struggles, or Didion’s, or Case’s, but I would argue, of course, that the perception of darkness was objectively accurate (and no small contributor to my problems at the time). Most people who lived through that period seem to think of it as a brief taste of paradise. I couldn’t disagree more. A while back my wife and I started to watch the movie Woodstock, I suppose in a moment of nostalgia. I had to turn it off after twenty minutes or so; it was a bit like watching the early moments of a horror movie, as the characters enter the trap which the killer has set for them.

Things lightened up a bit after 1970; I suppose the moment of greatest struggle had passed.


Music of the Week — January 7, 2007

Bob Dylan: Modern Times

Who would have thought that the latter days of Dylan’s career would see him emerge as primarily a great vocalist? His voice, always a triumph of manner over means, seems pretty well ruined as far as anything that would normally be thought of as singing is concerned. But he’s achieved a kind of expression with it that’s far richer than that of many a gifted singer.

And Dylan the songwriter, like Dylan the singer, is down to a few basic mannerisms. The days when he wrote songs that were covered by dozens of other performers are long past and not likely to return. His writing even at its very best has usually seemed rough and hasty, something delivered by a force of nature, full of both verbal and musical energy, but unpolished. Now the brilliance is gone, for the most part. You don’t find many memorable tunes or striking verbal turns in his work these days. What used to be a torrent of striking imagery is more like a series of remarks, some memorable and some not. His lyrics have always had their very sloppy moments, sometimes in the middle of otherwise great songs (e.g. the business about the fishtruck in “Visions of Johanna”). Now the clinkers are still there, but the contrast between them and their context is not as great. And musically his songs are almost like riff songs in hard rock, inseparable from their accompaniment.

Yet he has achieved the ambition he expressed early in his career: “I don't carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they're older people.” Now he’s older—sixty-five, I think—and his work carries the same sort of rich, deep individuality, transcending technique, as that of his heroes.

How does it work? Why does it work? Consider the vocalist first: the magic lives in his tone and phrasing, and their relationship to speech. Specifically, to American speech; more specifically, to the verbal rhythms of the American folk music, both white and black, that permeates Dylan’s art like the rum in my wife’s rum cake. These tones and rhythms play in and among the rhythms of the music, often overflowing the bounds of the musical phrase, in a way that can give a mysterious and powerful resonance to what’s being said. I’m not going to waste any more time trying to describe it: you can listen for yourself, and you’ll either get it or you won’t.

Then there are the songs. Joseph Shipman, in a comment on Dawn Eden’s blog, summed up Dylan’s current practice so well that I asked him for permission to quote him: “In his last three albums [Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times], Dylan has achieved a timelessness in which all eras of American music are simultaneously present.” (You can read his review of Modern Times and other things here. I had a similar thought when Time Out of Mind came out. Many years ago I read—and now I’m not sure where, but I think the author was George Steiner—an observation on the allusive techniques of Eliot, Pound, and some of the other high Modernists: that in the twilight of Western civilization they were making “a last run through the stacks before the library closes.” That’s what Dylan is doing with the American folk and popular music of roughly the first half of the 20th century. A substantial number of the songs on these three albums are in the blues form. Others seem, in an unspecifiable way, out of some mythic Tin Pan Alley. I know enough old-time music to pick up a lot of verbal borrowings and references from old songs, and I probably miss a good many more. The effect, to anyone with any knowledge of the old stuff, is very much like that of some of Eliot’s work: you don’t hear the songs as isolated units, but as linked to other nodes in a network of tradition.

None of this would work without the perfect and perfectly appropriate skills of the musicians he’s assembled for his last few albums. There was the brilliant Daniel Lanois on Time Out of Mind, and on the last two albums a varying lineup of some of the best players in the world. They provide the essential musical flesh for the spare bones of these songs; they create the deeply American atmosphere, or water—choose your metaphor—in which the songs can breathe, or swim.

Finally, there is something in Dylan’s work that can’t be described in terms of any sort of musical or verbal technique, something which keeps it interesting in spite of its many flaws. And the flaws are many: I can’t listen to Modern Times or any of these last three albums without many moments of frustration and disappointment when a good song founders on some unfortunate lyrical turn (exhibit A: “Lonesome Day Blues” on Love and Theft, which goes belly-up on the very last line). I can only call it something in the man’s soul, a sense that at bottom he is always talking about what matters and what’s true. I’ve sometimes said that Dylan is not so much a poet as a Hebrew prophet who never quite got the message straight. Except for his brief sojourn as an evangelical Christian, Dylan has kept his specific religious views fairly quiet. In fact, I doubt that he has very specific views. In an interview around the release of Time Out of Mind, he directed an interviewer who asked about his faith to the old songs. That’s good enough for me. Whatever definite views he may or may not hold, I’m convinced that he has a God-fearing, truth-telling heart. And that’s where the music comes from, and why it still strikes home so often.


News From Atmore

How tall was James Brown? To some people, it is an extremely contentious question.

I must say, it sounds like a more interesting one than the purely speculative volleying between Alabama and Auburn fans about who's going to win next year and how much difference Saban will make.

I'm familiar with Atmore. It's just up the road, so to speak, and my in-laws lived there for many years. There's something faintly comical about the name. Say it: At-more. It's actually a nice little town.

The more thoroughly researched story in the local paper, by the way, has Brown's height at about five-five or five-six.


Chomp. Chomp.

Being a provincialist by both temperament and conviction, I like to support the most local team in bowl games, and, besides, I always find myself hoping the underdog will win in a game where I have no stake. So I was pulling for the Gators in last night's BCS game, even though Ohio State was so heavily favored that I figured I might be setting myself up for another morose evening. What a stunner! There weren't too many bright spots in this past football season for Alabama fans, so this was pretty nice. I was left wondering two things: (1) Is the SEC really that good a conference? (2) Is it an especially American thing to love the underdog, or is it universal?

I tried my best to root for Auburn against Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl, but there's just something about Tuberville that makes it hard to do. It's not only that he keeps beating us, it's that irritating look about him. I think he affects Alabama fans the way George W. Bush affects Democrats.


Sunday Night Journal — January 7, 2007

The Liberal Conservative (3)

Here is a shoe. It fits far too many conservatives, I’m afraid, although we don’t like to admit we’re wearing it. Of course it fits most Americans in general, but principled conservatism, and still less Christian faith attempting to work in the world, must find a way to get rid of it, and to begin the attempt to undo some of the damage it’s done.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn recounts a series of reflections prompted by one of the movies shown in the camp every few years. The movie was about sports, and, as terrible as the camp was, it produced and in fact almost compelled, in the right sort of person, reflection:

…from the screen they kept drumming into the audience the moral of the film: the result is what counts…

..And you kept thinking about it on your bunk. And Monday morning out in the line-up. And you could keep thinking about it as long as you wanted. And where else could you have concentrated on it like that? And slow clarity descended into your brain…

He recounts the gradual encroachment of the idea into the Russian mind, and then:

…from all kinds of socialists, and most of all from the most modern, infallible, and intolerant Teaching, which consists of this one thing only: They result is what counts! It is important to forge a fighting Party! And to seize power! And to hold on to power! And to remove all enemies! And to conquer in pig iron and steel! And to launch rockets!

And though for this industry and for these rockets it was necessary to sacrifice the way of life, and the integrity of the family, and the spiritual health of the people, and the very soul of our fields and forests and rivers—to hell with them! The result is what counts!

But that is a lie!

Substitute “pragmatists” for “socialists,” and remove the reference to the Party, and it’s hard to see how one could quarrel with this is as an indictment of the present state of things in the United States and the industrialized world in general.

I consider romantic nostalgia for the pre-industrial world something to be avoided. But that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been changes for the worse, and you don’t have to look back very far at all to see it. Even in my lifetime—which, though I am not young, does not encompass the pre-industrial era—there has been a palpable decline in “the integrity of the family, and the spiritual health of the people.” (The forests are doing well enough as museums and scenery, but as for the fields, they are practically empty, and the connection between them and the food on our tables is only mythological in the minds of most people.)

Most conservatives have always acknowledged the principle that, in the words of Pope JPII, “there are many human needs which find no place on the market.” But the principle remained an abstraction in the hurly-burly of political life, especially when the opposition was more or less socialist. The predation, the commercialization, the inanities, the saturation marketing of big business were perhaps something to be sighed over—but, after all, prosperity is fundamentally a good thing, and conservatives are rightly prejudiced in favor of liberty, even when we aren’t entirely pleased with its fruits.

The time is past when that response is adequate. With corporations increasingly able and willing to sell—not just to sell, but to market with the utmost cunning and aggression—anything to anybody, and to exert the considerable power of their wealth and propaganda on behalf of “progressive” causes which attack religion, the family and indeed the person at the root, it’s time for some sort of definite resistance. There should be the potential here for alliances with political liberals in limiting corporate power, although I’m not sure how much interest “social issue” liberals have in doing such a thing now that corporations are increasingly on their side.

Solzhenitsyn goes on to say:

No one is going to argue. It is pleasant to win. But not at the price of losing one’s human countenance.

Can we really look around at our society and say it is not in danger (at least) of losing its human countenance?


Music of the Week — December 31, 2006

Roy Buchanan: Sweet Dreams: The Anthology (disc 2)

The second disc of this set may be better than the first, overall. It leans toward live tracks, including a few songs that take a bit of nerve to cover because the originals are so very well known: Neil Young’s “Down By The River,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” (yeah, I know, his isn’t the original, but it’s the best known), Booker T. and the MGs’ “Green Onions.” The last of these in particular is about as perfect an example of blues-rock as could be dreamed of—one of the greatest guitarists ever soloing over one of the greatest riffs ever—and even though it’s eight minutes long it doesn’t get boring for me. “Down By The River” doesn’t have the same scruffy melancholy as Young’s version, but, as I would hope Young would be the first to admit, Buchanan is in another class as a guitarist and gives it a different level of musical intensity.

“I’m A Ram” is a tiresome song redeemed by great guitar work. “I’m Evil,” a braggadocio blues, is probably the most unconvincing vocal in a song of this sort that I’ve ever heard, at least from a professional musician: it’s Buchanan himself, whose singing voice is just a semi-spoken monotone. But his playing supplies all the missing authority. I could do without the slightly funkified take on Hendrix’s “If Six Was Nine,” partly because it uses a particular sort of quacky-growly keyboard sound that was popular in the ‘70s and that I always disliked. I’m not sure why “Good God Have Mercy” was included—it isn’t that good a song, and there isn’t that much guitar work on it. But it’s an unhappy look back at growing up poor in the South, and maybe it had personal meaning for Buchanan.

There’s a beautiful and affecting surprise at the end of “Hey Joe.” The twelve-minute apparently improvised guitar solo “Dual Soliloquy” is impressive although not very satisfying, a series of brief workouts in different styles, a tantalizing glimpse of a side of Buchanan not heard much on record: he probably could have made a name for himself as a folky sort of soloist, somewhat in the manner of some of the artists who recorded for Windham Hill in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

I just looked at the reviews of this set on and find opinions all over the place as to which tracks are terrific and which are disposable, but only one or two think it isn’t a great set overall. I find it hard to imagine that anyone who likes electric guitar wouldn’t like at least half or two-thirds of it.


Sunday Night Journal — December 31, 2006

Losing the Christmas War

I don’t mean the Christmas War that pits the ACLU against Fox News in a war of frivolous lawsuits and inflammatory verbiage over carols in public schools, crèches on the town square, and office greetings. That one actually is showing some signs of an unexpected devolution into common sense. I mean the struggle of Catholics, and of other Christians with an eye on the traditional liturgical calendar, to observe Advent for the four weeks preceding December 25th and to observe Christmas for the following twelve days.

The carols I heard at Mass this morning—“What Child Is This?” and “Once in Royal David’s City”—made me realize that I had not heard, which means that I haven’t played at home, any Christmas music since Christmas Day. This in turn made me realize that I’ve almost given in to the commercial American Christmas calendar.

When our children were young my wife and I made a pretty serious effort to observe Advent. We had Advent calendars and Advent wreaths with candles, and a little family liturgy which alternated scripture readings with verses of “O Come Emmanuel.” We delayed Christmas decorations and the Christmas tree until the last few days before the 25th. We tried tactics like celebrating St. Nicholas Day on December 6th to give the children a brief bit of early Christmas, and, on the other side, postponing some of the present-giving until Epiphany, or stringing it out over several days.

It was always a struggle, a swim against the current which begins the Christmas season no later than the day after Thanksgiving and ends it on December 26th, and the most vexing part of it was that we weren’t resisting only the prevailing non-Catholic culture, but also the practice of most Catholics. I sometimes found it difficult to conceal my irritation with Catholic co-workers who chided me for procrastination when they learned that on December 23rd I still hadn’t put up the Christmas tree, or for laziness when they learned that on January 2nd I still hadn’t taken it down.

Was it worth the struggle? I don’t know—define “worth it.” It was the right thing to do, I’m certain. The crucial thing is that it was a struggle, and now that the children are mostly grown, the motivation to keep it up is waning. Nobody paddles against the current without a goal, and our goal, preeminently, was to teach Advent to our children, to teach them to live in the ways of the faith. I suppose we (I, at any rate) have lost sight of the connection it might have to our own spiritual life. I paid little attention to Advent this year, and acted as if Christmas was over on December 26th.

I sometimes think the general over-busyness of contemporary life is really more of a threat to Christian life than the more obvious snares of lust, gluttony, and avarice which are always being advertised to us. And there were further complications this year: an illness and a death, the complications and after-effects of which are still continuing. Next year I intend to take up the struggle again. There’s no reason why my wife and I can’t light the candles on the Advent wreath and find the copies of those family prayers, and it won’t matter if we don’t sing very well. Meanwhile, the Christmas tree is still up and maybe I’ll get a bit of time to listen to some Christmas music while I sit and look at it. And then it’s onward to Lent.