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April 2014

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour

I did listen to this over the weekend, as I had hoped to do. I loved it.

Most of the first side is great, and it does have a kind of unity, though maybe that's an illusion created by the Sergeant-Pepper-style intro. "The Fool On the Hill" is as beautiful a tune as McCartney ever wrote. "Blue Jay Way" is haunting. And "Flying" connects them very evocatively. I think "Your Mother Should Know" would have been better placed as the second cut, and it could have used a bit more in the lyric department, but it's an engaging contrast. I agree with Robert Gotcher that "I Am the Walrus" is seriously damaged, almost ruined, by its lyric, which is mostly nonsensical and unpleasant, without the resonance that Dylan was able to get into his equally obscure lyrics. But musically it's very strong. 

And the second side contains five of the very best tracks the Beatles recorded during their psychedelic phase, or for that matter ever. Each one is at least as good as anything on Sergeant Pepper. They had been released as singles, but their juxtaposition here only increases their appeal and the impression of something like genius at work within the limits of pop music (much of that no doubt the work of George Martin). They make the album feel like two distinct suites of related songs, each one very strong.

As my reference to "sides" indicates, I listened to my LP copy, which is not a relic of the '60s but of the '80s, my original copy having vanished somewhere along the way, and which had only been played a few times. I was a little disappointed in the quality of the recording, in some songs more than others, and would like to hear some of the remastered ones. I realize most people these days won't hear the "sides" I referred to, at least unless they make a conscious decision to. But the division really works. This is definitely one of my three or four favorite Beatles albums.

The Canonizations

I always feel a little embarrassed about admitting this, but the official cult of the saints is one aspect of Catholicism that I've never really taken to. I don't have any argument with the theology involved in the honoring of saints, and the practice of seeking their intercession; it's strictly a matter of temperament and culture, of something that doesn't come naturally to me, and it's not a big part of my devotional life. I don't mind if you call it a residue of my Protestant background. I do pray sometimes to a few saints, and I do have my favorites, but they tend to be those whose fame rests in some large part on their writings, and I'm more interested in the writings than the persons. That's one reason why you rarely see a post here taking note of a saint's feast day: I usually haven't noticed it until it's already here, and too late to write something.

And so I haven't really paid that much attention to the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. I have no serious reservations about either man. I'm reasonably well persuaded that the Second Vatican Council was needed, notwithstanding the many abuses which followed it. And  John Paul II was a great light to the whole world. The serious complaints about him seem to involve his management of the internal affairs of the Church, and perhaps the criticism is justifiable. Certainly his support for the evil Fr. Maciel is is a mark against his judgment, but not necessarily against his virtue. I am more or less of the same mind as William Oddie, who says in the Catholic Herald that John Paul achieved nothing less than the rescue of the Council from its abductors.

But I am a little worried by the procedure. John Paul's canonization has been swift, and John's has proceeded without the usual second miracle. Since canonizations are supposed to be infallible, it seems like an awfully big investment of the Church's authority, and caution is in order. I was bothered by John Paul's speeding-up of the process, and no less so by its application to him.

What do you think?

52 Guitars: Week 17

Richard Thompson

When I decided to do this series I immediately started a list of people I wanted to include, and I got up to about thirty or so entries about as fast as I could type.  Richard Thompson's name was among them. But I've actually been sort of dreading the post on him--not because I don't like him a great deal, but because I knew it was going to be difficult to pick two or three things to post, and for that matter just to focus on his guitar work, and not discourse at length on his songwriting.

At this point in his career I think it's very justifiable to put him in the rank of popular musicians that includes Dylan and Cohen and Waits, those who have created a body of work that has remained of high quality over a span of decades (ok, Dylan has some lengthy lapses, but he still makes the grade). I don't think I've heard more than half of Thompson's work, perhaps less. But on the basis of that, I think the songs he wrote when he was half of Richard and Linda Thompson represent his absolute best, which means they're among the absolute best, period, with later work perhaps not quite as consistently good, but still better than most everything else out there.

Back to Thompson the guitarist: his playing is usually at the service of a song, so you can't find a lot of stretched-out jams or purely instrumental pieces among his work. And how do you pick, out many?...a couple of hundred?...songs that he's recorded, two or three that really show off his guitar work? And you want to do justice to his writing while you're at it.

As it turned out I got lucky when I started looking on YouTube, and found these three videos almost immediately. I didn't want to concentrate exclusively on the Richard and Linda Thompson period. But it would be a shame to leave it out, too. And here is a live version of a song which is one of the best-known of that period. It happens to be one on which Linda plays a lesser part, and partly for that reason is a perfect instance of RT's own sensibility, or at least of his harder-rocking side (not to mention the grim theme). I don't know how you'd describe his vocabulary but it doesn't sound like anyone else's.

"Shoot Out the Lights"


To head off any impression that his guitar skills aren't what they used to be, here's a recent performance of a song from Hand of Kindness, his first post-Linda album.

"Tear-Stained Letter"


Had he chosen to, he could have made a career as a folk-acoustic guitarist like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Here he is live at the Cambridge Folk Festival, 2011, acoustic.

"Uninhabited Man" and "Johnny's Far Away"


I figure he wears that beret all the time because he's bald.

I do have one reservation about him, and it's probably caused me to listen to him less than his songs deserve: I don't care much for his voice. A lot of people love it, and I've tried, but I just don't care a great deal for it. He's perennially described as "under-rated" and "under-appreciated," and I've wondered if perhaps part of the reason for that is that a lot of people have my reaction. Well, in any case, I think by now most serious music fans recognize his achievement, and there are enough people who appreciate his work to keep him doing it. 

There's a reason, by the way, for his appearing immediately after Blind Willie Johnson. When he was with Fairport Convention (you know them, right?--the greatest of the folk-rock bands), they did a thing based on "Dark Was the Night" which they called ""The Lord Is In This Place...How Dreadful Is This Place":


A Little More Blind Willie Johnson

I was going to say, about "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," that it's a sound that's sort of stereotypical for the blues in a movie or TV way. I know, it's not a blues at all, either musically or thematically--it's religious. But sonically it's the kind of thing a movie or TV producer throws in to suggest blues, and/or the rural South or maybe West of the first half of the 20th century. And in that respect it's very misleading. I have a fairly wide, though not encyclopedic, acquaintance with the country blues--the acoustic blues recorded in the 1920s and '30s--and I don't know of another recording from that period that sounds anything like this.

In fact the blues is as likely as not to sound pretty upbeat, even when the lyrics are bleak, and the lyrics often contain a lot of humor. It wasn't played only on street corners and in the fields--it was party music as well.

Anyway, the same is true of gospel, which was mostly what Blind Willie Johnson played. Here are a couple of much more typical tracks. 



 I'm pretty sure he didn't write either of these, as they show up fairly often in the repertoire of other artists, including '60s folk revivalists. You can read about Blind Willie Johnson here. In case you don't want to bother with that, here's something fascinating that I learned from it:

"Dark Was the Night" was also included on the Voyager Golden Record, copies of which were mounted on both of the Voyager Project unmanned space probes. Carl Sagan, who was involved with the selection of the contents of the record, chose the song as he believed it properly encapsulated the essence of loneliness that mankind often faces. 

The fact that Carl Sagan chose it is interesting, and a bit touching, really. But Blind Willie Johnson could have taught him something more. It's a good example of God hiding things from the learned and revealing them to the little ones, intellectually speaking.

Well, it looks like TypePad's crisis may really be over this time. Let's hope so. This was reportedly an extortion attempt: pay us and we'll leave you alone, but there's no word on who or where it came from. Pretty despicable. Makes me think of stocks and flogging.

Remarkably, Lent Has Ended Again

I did a bit more for Lent this year than I usually do--not a great deal by any means, but a bit more. And I found it almost too easy, and over more quickly than I expected. I do not love Lent, and agree with the priest I heard on Ash Wednesday, that it really ought to last twenty days instead of forty. It's along about the fourth week that in years past I've felt that it really ought to be about over, and that I didn't think I'd be able to maintain for another three weeks what meager discipline I had so far managed.

This year it just didn't seem to last that long. And that's in keeping with my general experience these days, which also seems to be the common experience of people getting well up in years. The past ten years, which have seen my transition from late middle to early old age, went swiftly. It's hard to believe that I've been doing this blog for ten years, and that it's been eight since my youngest child left home. From ten years old to twenty was an epoch, and from twenty to thirty an age, but from fifty-five to sixty-five an afternoon.

Also related to the relatively easy time I had with Lent is an apparent paradox of aging: although time seems to pass more quickly, I'm more patient. It's only apparent, though, and only at first glance: though it might make sense that the consciousness of how little time remains would make one less tolerant of delay, one also sees time spent waiting for something as much shorter and more bearable. At five a child in January feels a deep grief that Christmas is past and hardly understands that it will ever come again; at sixty-five one knows that it's just around the corner.

But the sixty-five-year-old doesn't feel the same intense joy as the child, either; repetition and apparent frequency dull the experience. Suppose one were immortal, and could have the old person's sense of time passing ever more swiftly, without losing the child's thrill at the approach and arrival of some longed-for event: the times between would shrink toward zero, and one might arrive eventually at a single point of ecstacy.

Could we endure it? Not as we are, no. Christ is risen: alleluia.

I had something partly written that I was going to post, but TypePad has been down much of the day. Apparently they've been the object of a denial-of-service attack, which renders a web site inoperable by flooding it with computer-generated traffic. So, later, but I do want to wish everyone a happy Easter. Or, since it's late in the day now, a hope that yours was a good one.

The arrogance that would make God an object and impose our laboratory conditions upon him is incapable of finding him. For it already implies that we deny God as God by placing ourselves above him, by discarding the whole dimension of love, of interior listening; by no longer acknowledging as real anything but what we can experimentally test and grasp. To think like that is to make onself God. And to do that is to abase not only God, but the world and oneself, too.

From this scene on the pinnacle of the Temple, though, we can look out and see the cross. Christ did not cast himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. He did not leap into the abyss. He did not tempt God. But he did descend into the abyss of death, into the night of abandonment, and into the desolation of the defenseless.

--Benedict XVI, whose birthday is today (via Magnificat)