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Saturday, December 1, 2018

I'm No Hero; That's Understood | All the Redemption I Can Offer is Beneath This Dirty Hood

Charles de Foucald - Monastic & Martyr (1916)

This week I read an interview in Esquire with Bruce Springsteen, in which the iconic rocker describes his mental health journey as well as his lifelong struggle to process his complex relationship with his father. A remote, hard-edged drinker, the elder Springsteen was enraged by what he saw as the weaker facets of his son's character.  It wasn't until he was near death that he tacitly, sparingly acknowledged Bruce's better points, saying only "You've been good to us."
“All I do know is as we age, the weight of our unsorted baggage becomes heavier . . . much heavier. With each passing year, the price of our refusal to do that sorting rises higher and higher. . . . Long ago, the defenses I built to withstand the stress of my childhood, to save what I had of myself, outlived their usefulness, and I’ve become an abuser of their once lifesaving powers. I relied on them wrongly to isolate myself, seal my alienation, cut me off from life, control others, and contain my emotions to a damaging degree. Now the bill collector is knocking, and his payment’ll be in tears.”
That constant, unfulfilled quest for validation took its toll, and the rocker described two breakdowns, the more recent just ten years ago, and credited decades of therapy and the unwavering support of wife Patty Scafila with his survival.
Springsteen on Broadway
I could say more about that, but the interview tells it far better than I could, and you could find more detail in his autobiography.  Later this month, his Broadway stage show, an abridged version of the book interspersed with a dozen or so of his songs, will air on Netflix.  

Having learned these things about him, a man whose music has contributed so much of the soundtrack of my own life, brought back many of the same feelings I wrote about earlier this year. 

As an ardent music fan, I've realized I have a tendency to fill in the blanks in what I know about artists' lives; their characters get shaped in my mind by their lyrics, their stage banter, and whatever they choose to share with the media.  When they do or say something that departs from who I've decided they are, it's jarring.  The rash of premature deaths in the past year notwithstanding, this happens in smaller ways more often by the occasional revelation, misplaced statement, or decision.

Something like this happened this week.  I learned something about another artist whose music I love, which suggests that we'd be in a pretty fundamental conflict on certain social issues if we actually knew each other, which we clearly don't.

And I don't know what to do about it. Unlike some artists, this person's convictions are not widely known, and thus I have little to go on other than scant facts and assumptions you can draw by association. I don't know enough about the situation to decide if it changes how I feel about this individual as a person. If it did, it would change my relationship to the music, which felt yesterday like a house that had been robbed. That would have a follow-on effect on how and with whom I spend my time, especially over the past year.

Part of me wants to go hardcore, only because of the time I spent fighting on this particular issue and in this particular space.  On the flip, I'm reminding myself that no promises were made or broken here.  We are not friends; I do not have the right to expect my values to be shared or my allegiance to be reciprocated.  The music is out there, take it or leave it; anthems by flawed heroes for flawed fans, maybe that much sweeter because of the wrinkles and scars we can compare to our own.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant


Yesterday a lot of people were introduced to the Episcopal Church, the American* cousins of the Church of England, when our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry preached at the wedding of Prince Harry, now also titled the Duke of Sussex, to actress Meghan Markle, herself a descendant of King Edward III.

This break from tradition caused Episcopalians the U.S. to watch news of the wedding with more-than-typical interest, although--truth be told--anything with roots in antiquity that also involves funny hats is likely to get our attention.  In our increasingly unchurched culture, the folderol of Anglican worship must have looked to many viewers like Downton Abbey Goes to Hogwart's.  I joked yesterday that we should start a rumor that Episcopalians wear those hats to church every week, and then sit back and watch what happens.

I would like to believe that would have gotten a chuckle out of my friend Paul Lane, who--although raised a Roman Catholic like me--found a home many years ago in the Episcopal Church. Under normal circumstances, he would have had more than a passing interest in the goings-on in London this week. Well-versed in his own family's history in Europe going back generations, Paul spent a good deal of time in France and Spain, taking the sun and soaking up culture. Like many Episcopalians I've met from all backgrounds, he shared that common gene which manifested itself with an appreciation for arcane historical detail.

He also knew a thing or two about liturgy done with care, which is probably why he--despite living in Jersey City--made St. Luke in-the-Fields in the West Village his spiritual home.  Worship at St. Luke's leaves very little to chance: from the choir to the incense-bearer, people go about their roles with what looks from the pews like easy precision, although I have been to enough post-Eucharist brunches at the bar formerly known as Dublin 6 to hear that making the service look that effortless was no mean feat indeed.

While Bishop Curry is very at home behind a pulpit or microphone, Paul's ministry was more behind-the-scenes, but no less effective. Besides his work at St. Luke's, Paul was the driving force of the LGBT Concerns committee for the Diocese of New York.  His principal responsibility there was coordinating the Episcopal presence at the NYC Pride March, which takes place every June. Under Paul's tutelage, people from more than a dozen parishes on both sides of the Hudson River--an entire city block full of people--makes its way down Fifth Avenue leading a giant float proclaiming The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. 

Imagine how many LGBT people saw that small army and that float over the years, and thought, Wait, what?  A church wants me? All I've ever heard from church people was what an abomination I am. Be they a teenager scared to come out to hir parents, or an older person who finally came to grips with a lifelong secret, this witness affected people on the sidelines: I know, because I was part of that march many times, and they told me, sometimes with tears in their eyes.

Paul made that happen, through cajoling, negotiating... maybe some vague threats, he did grow up in Trenton, after all.  But most of all through his own quiet example. This was his gift to the church, and the treasure it yielded can't be counted.

We lost him today, with little warning. Just weeks before the March, on the Day of Witness, he was taken from us. I cannot begin to guess how we will fill his shoes, as organizer, mentor and friend.

The Presiding Bishop's wedding sermon was focused on the overwhelming power and importance of love, without which the most carefully-executed expression of piety assails the ears of the Almighty like a blaring kazoo chorus. Instead, the prophet Amos tells us:

"let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

In a few weeks, when we again line up to deliver that message of love and invitation to the city and the world, may our steps be guided by his voice and our feet propelled forward by his example.

Let's roll.

NOTE: Besides the United States, the Episcopal Church has a presence in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Taiwan, Venezuela and the Virgin Islands.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Don't Die; Don't Disappear. I Swear to God We Need You Here

I started to write this when Chris Cornell died.  I tried again when Chester Bennington died. Ultimately I realized that I didn't have anything relevant or specific to say about those two gifted but deeply troubled artists that hadn't been more adroitly expressed by others who knew them better. Now again I'm hearing friends express loss about an artist (Scott Hutchison of the Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit) whom I didn't get the chance to appreciate while they were alive. And I'm realizing these stories are coming out at alarming intervals.

The thing that each of these deaths brought out for me is a sense of threat for a community that I've been blessed to stumble into, probably later in life than most people would think is normal, beginning with a concert in Philadelphia in the summer of 2010.  I attended to see a band called Chamberlain which had reunited briefly after a long hiatus to tour with The Gaslight Anthem. I only knew the latter's radio hits going in, but I came away a fan of both them and pre-opener Tim Barry, and have since been drawn into a community of their fans, a core group of which I have come to know as friends.

I have found myself spending more and more time at shows by a handful of bands whose fans seem to overlap quite a bit. Gaslight and their lead singer Brian Fallon are at the nexus, but I've checked out new bands just based on the t-shirts of the people around me and rarely been disappointed.  Thus I've come to be familiar with the music of The Bouncing Souls, The Menzingers, Hot Water Music, The Loved Ones, Lucero, and others.

This is a little bit of a different experience than following an act like Bruce Springsteen who can sell out Giants Stadium for multiple nights (or a Broadway theater five nights a week for six months).  That is a great atmosphere, but a fairly anonymous one; you only interact for the most part with the people who came with you and maybe the tall guy who keeps blocking your view. The likelihood of seeing them again is pretty much nil.

Rather than stadiums, these gigs tend to be in smaller theaters and even bars. You start to see familiar faces, and become one yourself. I made friends with the tall guy at a subsequent show and he made sure I could see. And in between shows, you can go online and quote lyrics, brag over autographs, answer endless polls, and generally bond with your fellow fans. To my surprise, my age and general awkwardness didn't set me apart

The artists in venues like Crossroads in Garwood, The Saint in Asbury Park, and any of a dozen clubs in downtown NYC are often a few yards away, and some, like Chuck Ragan and Dave Hause, come out and talk to fans before and after.  The up-and-coming acts that open for them frequently staff their own merch tables and carry their own gear in and out, and sometimes look to you for help. Sometimes they stay for a drink or four, and you have the opportunity to actually interact as, if not "friends" exactly, still more than just performer and fan. You might catch a glimmer of recognition in their eyes (it helps if you have something unique like my friend Beth's cool boombox purse) and you exist, if even for just a few seconds, as something beyond the aggregate of ticket sales and chart positions.

Someone asked me, after I mentioned seeing Jared Hart of The Scandals perform live for probably the tenth time, how I can see the same act over and over (particularly if they are fairly new and have a limited catalog from which to build a setlist). I had to think about that, and the truth is that the repetition doesn't bother me. Every show is different, with a different energy and banter, and there is even something comforting in the ritual of hearing your favorites again.

On that note, I had an epiphany during a recent set by Tim Barry, who opened that show in Philly: these shows are, in a sense, a similar experience to church when it's at its best. Whether it's shout-singing the lyrics of your favorites or the chaotic society of the mosh pit, I wondered if the a generation growing up in an increasingly irreligious time finds at these shows some of the community and energy a faith community might have otherwise provided. At a time when the pews have become somewhat of a no-man's land for me, I know I certainly do. While there is little in the way of "preaching" I've been relieved to discover by following them on Twitter and Instagram that I can feel good about being associated with them based on the worldview they put out there.

Thus when these guys share, either through lyrics or between-songs banter, anything that suggests they are struggling, it is unsettling. As much as you think they "get" you, you don't really know what's going on in there, and feel like you can't really help. Fallon in particular keeps a pretty solid barrier between his work and his personal life, probably wisely.  But when you've trusted someone to contribute to the soundtrack of your life, it's hard not to feel at least a little protective in those moments. I won't pretend to understand what drives so many creative people to these dark nights of the soul: maybe it is a heightened perception of this troubled world that seems like too much to bear. And, perhaps selfishly, I worry for the fragile sense of togetherness these fandoms provide.

So even though I've never been in the crowd at an Avicii or Frightened Rabbit show, I mourn with their fans tonight. I can keenly imagine what they're feeling. I never want to hear the news they got this week.

The title of this post is from "I Just Died (Like an Aviator)" by Matthew Ryan, another of my musical finds.  That is my message to the artists, both the ones whose work I love and referenced here, and the ones who are just as important to someone else. We need you here.

In the wake of Bennington's death, Music Minds Matter was launched in the UK. The group offers 24/7 mental health services to not only artists, but anyone involved in the music industry, with a 24-hour helpline. By using this link to listen to Tyni's song "Fighter", fans can contribute to the organization. I pray that any artist who is struggling finds the help they need.