I am not a huge John Lennon fan. I used to be in spades - and love hearing his voice and guitar on Beatles' recordings. But I lost interest in most of his later work due to his staggering self-importance. Give me love, give me love, give me peace on earth and a whole lot more George Harrison, too. The creativity of the so-called "quiet one" abides. It nourishes my musical and spiritual interests 17 years after his premature death while the work of John Winston continues to cool off. I still get a buzz hearing "You Can't Do That." And Lennon's rock and roll scream is iconic. I sat for hours mimicking the master back in high school and periodically pull out my version of his primal paean to a sold back beat every now and again just for good measure.
But besides "Working Class Hero," let's say that for me: the thrill is gone. The reason for this trip down memory lane has to do with music-making at this moment in time. The United States is currently consumed with fear and loathing. White culture is anxious, resentful and uncertain about our future as an ethnic and numerical minority. We see enemies around every corner and terrorists in our dreams. We are paranoid. Belligerent. And self-absorbed. Whether in culture or politics, therefore, we don't need more of what ails us.
My sense of the sacred invitation of the artist is to evoke a healing alternative to the status quo. Of course, there are artists who are called to be blunt about the human condition. The wisdom of the 12 Step movement testifies to this truth: most of us will not be ready to quit our addictions until we've hit rock bottom. Think Kendrick Lamar, Ani De Franco or Beyonce in this era. Or Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone and Frank Zappa in days gone by. These musicians are in-your-face provocative. They are hard-hitting and demanding. They are poetically and aesthetically confrontational. But they are never self-absorbed.
And that's the test: can our music open hearts and eyes with beauty? Can we create an alternative to the bone-crush belligerence of the dominant culture that simultaneously evokes hope and solidarity? Can we musically point to a way of being beyond the bravado? Can we give George Harrison his propers for a season rather than John Lennon? People gravitate to Lennon's "Imagine" in times of protest. After the bombing in Paris, I too was moved when a performer dragged his piano out to the streets to sing, "They may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." Nevertheless, Harrison moves beyond slogans and sentimentality. Listen to either "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or "Isn't It a Pity." They sound like the alternative the Spirit is calling for at this moment in time. They give shape and form to our lament. They help us to weep. To feel the anguish of our self-centered, bullying culture. To ache for a way of living that no longer treats precious sisters and brothers as a means to an end.
When I read Jean Vanier's words in my morning meditation, I knew I had to put it in the context of music-making. It resonates for artists as well as servants of compassion:
Community is the place where people grow in love and peacemaking. That is why it is imperative for communities to grow, expand and deepen; and for many new ones to be founded and supported. To-day war has become too dangerous; it could bring an end to our planet and to the human species. We are all called to grow in love and forgiveness.
I hear more and more artists of every stripe exploring the pathos of compassion and vulnerability. I give thanks to God that they are doing so in ways that build, strengthen and encourage solidarity.
Tuesday, April 24, 2018
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