Guitar Heroes.

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A few posts ago I wrote about guitarist Larry Carlton and his many appearances on sessions by some of my favourite groups. This got me thinking about other six (or twelve) string wizards that I admire; first up is Pat Metheny. He is more than a jazz guitarist, although he takes his inspiration from Wes Montgomery, his approach and breadth of experience mark him out. Apart from the records he has made with The Pat Metheny Group starting in 1978 with their self titled debut right up to 2005’s magnum opus ‘The Way Up’, he has made solo records with all sorts of musicians, recorded with Ornette Coleman, Joni Mitchell and David Bowie. I saw his ‘Unity Band’ tour in Manchester a couple of years ago and the concert was superb. I look forward to his new ‘Side Eye’ project and maybe hearing some of the music he made with the pianist Gwilym Simcock.

And then there’s Jim Hall, another great stylist (who has recorded with Pat). His ‘The Complete Jazz Guitar’ was released in 2011 on Essential Jazz Classics and it is record full of great playing, not only from Hall but also from Carl Perkins (no, not that one!) on piano and bassist Red Mitchell. Three players listening to each other and making great music!

Finally, a rediscovery for me. I first heard Derek Trucks on his album ‘Joyful Noise’ back in 2002 and I have returned to that record and its successor ‘Soul Serenade’. Trucks is a player steeped in the blues and jazz but who also makes interesting detours into what is sometimes called ‘world music’ (on ‘Joyful Noise’ he features the Pakistani ‘Qaawali’ singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan). His lineage is in Southern blues – he played with The Allman Brothers and his uncle Butch was one of their drummers. I am looking forward to exploring the music he is making now with his wife Susan Tedeschi and their ‘Tedeschi Trucks Band’, an eleven piece powerhouse if ever there was one!

What was that about finding a guitar and making it sing?

A Book that changed my life.


This post was sparked by two things; a suggestion from my daughter that I write about a book that changed me, and Neil Gaiman’s brief (but affectionate) reference somewhere to his “one volume copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings'”. I have a ‘one volume’ copy, it was given to me by a  friend with the hopeful inscription ‘I hope you like it’ and it is well read and well travelled – even as far as Iceland (surely a ‘Middle – Earth ish landscape!). I first read it, as Gollum might say “ageses ago” and I have returned to it many times. When the (rightly) celebrated Peter Jackson film adaptations came out I enjoyed them and I wondered whether I could ever return to the books because Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Aragorn, and Ian McKellen’s of Gandalf would supplant the characters that were living in my head. But such is the alchemy of this story that, one autumn (for this is surely an ‘autumnal’ book), I re – read the books and found them just as enchanting as the first time.

But ‘a book that changed my life’? Well, yes, and for at least some of the following reasons; first there is the story. Everyone loves a good story and these days there is a great deal of emphasis on the importance of everyone’s story – I read in a theological journal recently about the rediscovery of story in evolving leadership strategies in the church. And this book is a cracking story, one that draws you into its characters and landscape, I have in my mind a remark by the critic Bernard Levin who suggested that the story contained everything a reader would need. I also like the way that Tolkien wrote about the way the tale “grew in the telling” and described posting extracts to his son serving with the RAF in South Africa. Then second, there is the journey and the choices involved every time you set foot outside your door, as Bilbo points out very early in the story; “Its a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door….You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to”. This is a journey through a fully realised landscape, but it is also an inner journey as the characters make the choices that allow them to travel with integrity and achieve their destiny.

Third, if you have to undertake a long and difficult journey you will need companions. The Company of the Ring, the Nine Walkers, are chosen to be set against the forces of darkness that will haunt their journey. They represent a lot of things in the story but for me they celebrate fellowship and friendship and all that goes with travelling; good times of laughter and light are set against sacrifice, choice and the threat of overwhelming darkness – OK maybe not whilst going to the shops but I hope you get my meaning! And fourth, there is the struggle. ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ is a story about many things, I think that like all great literature it contains ‘multitudes’, but it is essentially about the dangers of absolute power and the struggle between good and evil. It is also a story about the importance of choice – almost every character in the tale makes important choices – even Sauron, because as Elrond points out “For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so”.

Of course there is a great deal more that I could say about these books but the thoughts I have offered here are the things that strike me as I read the books. Every time of returning I find something new, and whilst there are many books that can help with understanding the world that Tolkien created, they do not really compare with the books themselves and the way they make me feel. Story, journey, companionship and the endless choices we are called upon to make are things that I see all around me – ‘The Lord of the Rings’ can be read simply as a fantasy masterpiece, but the things it has to say about the business of living remain true in every age, perhaps more so these days. Reading it made me more aware of these things and their importance my own life and so in that sense they can be described as book (s) that changed my life.

(The description of ‘The Road’ by Bilbo Baggins and Elrond’s description of the Company of the Ring both come from ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. Two books about Tolkien’s world which have been helpful to me are Paul Kocher’s superb ‘Master of Middle Earth’ (Penguin 1974) and J.E.A. Tyler’s ‘The Complete Tolkien Companion’ (Pan 2002). The Kocher book is a good read in its own right, and given the interest in Tolkien I am surprised it has not been reprinted. I should also recommend ‘The Silmarillion by the man himself).

Comic Book Heroes….

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I practically grew up reading American comics. I am not sure when I was introduced to them exactly but they quickly became an important part of my imaginative universe. Over the years I have returned to the genre (Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight’ books etc) and I am very interested in the way that these comics have been transformed into multi million dollar film franchises leaving behind (to their detriment I feel) their original ‘pulpy’ origins. Watching two films recently brought these memories back into my mind. ‘Avengers – The Age of Ultron’ was made in 2015 and is part of the continuing story line that is approaching a climax in the ‘Infinity War’ series. It is fairly standard exercise in CGI ridden film making full of ‘sturm und drang’ which I find oddly exhausting to watch. For me the best bits of this film were the burgeoning romance between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov and Captain America’s self doubt. Then, yesterday I saw the new animation ‘Spider – Man Into the Spider Verse’ – this is in a differed league altogether; it is fast, colourful and witty. The self referencing that is all over these films is cleverly done. I particularly liked the appearance of the ‘Comics Code’ stamp that once appeared on all comics. I also enjoyed Nicolas Cage’s voice performance as a monochrome ‘Spider Man Noir’ from the 1930’s who is endlessly fascinated by the colours on a Rubik’s Cube which he takes with him back to his own dimension at the end of the film. This highly enjoyable and intelligent animation made the ‘Age of Ultron’ look like a lumbering behemoth convinced of its own importance – too heavy, too long and really over weight.

Comic books have always struggled to gain literary credibility which is a shame. This is because at their best they combine a powerful ability to tell a good story with arresting and equally powerful images. Such images remain in the imagination like the after image of light on a retina. The growth of the MCU has brought this art form into the mainstream (completing a journey that began a long time ago) and has reminded people like me of its power and purpose. But it  reminded me of another thing, and that is, that again at its best, this is a literature of hope, and about the victory of good over evil – and as the quote from Stan Lee that appears at the end of the ‘Spider Verse’ film explains, these stories remind me of the vast human potential for change. It may come though loss, sacrifice and the everyday heroism that goes largely unreported, but it is surely better than a lot of the other ideas that are currently available. The quote goes like this;

“That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed, without a doubt, a real superhero”.

Let that tape keep rolling….

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Whilst walking home I was listening to the radio on my ‘phone and I heard an item on a BBC consumer programme about the high number of albums on cassette that were sold last year – growing by 90% over the first six months of the year. The conversation ranged over the various formats in which music is available these days, and their attractiveness to collectors and the $64,000 question; whether the humble cassette will ever make a comeback. Serendipity (or something) strikes again – last week I dug out two music compilations I made in the year 2000. They are simply called ‘Music and Songs’ and contain tracks taped from the radio and from my own collection – everything from ‘Jump, Jive and Wail’ by Louis Prima to the Senegalese musician Wasis Diop, Henry Thomas’ Bulldozer Blues (accompanied by his ‘quills’ or panpipes!), Gilad Atzmon’s ‘Orient House’ project (with Frank Harrison’s luminous piano) and random African and Central European choirs and percussion, and, as they say ‘many others’.

These music compilations were made for two very good reasons; one being my voracious musical taste and second, the way that individual tracks often stick out from the other material on any given album – the energy and drive of the Louis Prima track jumps out of the speakers and the Henry Thomas track has that deep weirdness that is conjured up by old American country blues. Both compilations are also full of tracks that make me wonder ‘why did I tape that’ – Brian Eno’s ambient electronics and a weird thing called ‘Metals’ by someone called Paul Schultz which sounds just like its title? But then even the most unpromising music can yield unexpected riches and take you back to another time. I have a lot of cherished tapes; music and drama and spoken word programmes that I have returned to with pleasure through the years. These include classic drama and also other gems like the poet Seamus Heaney reading his ‘Station Island’ sequence and, rare gems, the writer China Mieville in conversation with the late, great Ursula Le Guin and Rowan Williams reflecting on the importance of silence (if that is not too great a contradiction!).

I am just waiting for the cassette tape revival, after all everyone has, in their turn, said that CD’s and vinyl are dead but they have returned. As Mark Twain famously said “the rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. It seems that even in these sometimes dark days, writing something off as finished is only the prelude to its return. What was that about serendipity?

(This is the second post to carry the title of a song by Larry Norman – purely accidental –  I think!)

The Rock that doesn’t Roll.

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This post could easily be entitled ‘Isn’t it funny what you find on YouTube’ because I have just rediscovered an album on that channel that I have not heard for ages. It’s called ‘White Horse’ by Michael Omartian and it fell into a musical category that still has considerable influence in America – Contemporary Christian Music. When the record came out in 1974 I was listening to all sorts of music and as a convinced Christian I was also listening to what was called then ‘Christian rock’. This fascination started with an album by Larry Norman called ‘Upon This Rock’ – this music was exploring faith and practice in a way that didn’t insult the musical (or any other) imagination. Although a fine singer and writer Larry Norman came from the tradition of protest singers and campaigners – the ‘White Horse’ album came from a different place altogether. When this album was recorded Omartian was also in the studio playing keyboards on Steely Dan’s album ‘Pretzel Logic’, and its mix of jazz rock, R’n’ B and funk was right out of the Dan playbook and the lyrics reflected biblical themes. Apart from Omartian there were other Dan alumni on the record; Larry Carlton and other members of The Crusaders and Dean Parks featured prominently. When you add to that great arrangements and funky playing it was the compete package and I loved it although I don’t know where my original vinyl copy went – changes in musical taste and moving house will do that!

As I have written before listening to ‘Christian’ music soon lost its shine for me – like others of my generation I soon became disillusioned with the idea that it was possible to listen to ‘Christian’ music, read ‘Christian’ books and live in the ‘Christian’ bubble – and the quality of this stuff was variable at best. Norman, Omartian and others could deliver the goods but some other stuff was just a bit passe. By then many of the musicians I admired (Bruce Cockburn for example) were exploring life and time though a Christian lens but quietly (Cockburn said that he stopped referring to himself as a Christian in the US because he didn’t want to be confused with the Moral Majority there). I was also finding music (by other  ‘secular’ artists) that was exploring spiritual themes – Dylan of course, but I could add Leonard Cohen, Laura Nyro and Van Morrison and others to that estimable list!

The business of living faith is never an easy option – it is so open to misunderstanding and even danger. I recently watched a documentary about the Waco siege in the 1990’s and the eventual immolation of the Branch Davidian sect led there by David Koresh. Listening to him preaching I wondered what the difference was between his millennial rantings and the language I have used in sermons over the years. Of course I know what the difference is but it reminded me how easily people of faith can be stereotyped as crazy. But then I believe that living itself is a spiritual quest and this has never been the domain of exclusively Christian artists, and some of the best insights here come from people who would never describe themselves as Christian in any ‘conventional’ sense. I will always be grateful for the music I listened to in the 1970s’ like the ‘White Horse’ album and it was great to rediscover this music again but I would like to think that I have moved on a little bit – in faith and in hope…… the music remains but would I take it to my desert island? (file that under ‘questions still awaiting an answer!).

Houses I have lived in….

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Moving to Ireland has been a momentous decision, no matter that we took it when we first married over 30 years ago – I was thinking about this this morning looking at the house from the street after a morning walk. It reminded me of the places we have lived as a married couple and where our children were born and brought up. This journey started when we left our first home (after modernising it!) and swapped it for a one bedroom flat at the theological college where I trained to be a minister. We were fortunate to have some good neighbours but the flats were so close it was almost impossible to have an argument!

Five years later we moved to rural Lincolnshire and our first manse just outside a small rural village. This was our introduction to manses and to the administration of your home by others – although the introduction of a gas boiler to replace the solid fuel dinosaur that had to be de – coked every Saturday morning was a real bonus! It was also our introduction to eccentric DIY and the other eccentricities of ‘tied’ living. But our children were born in Lincolnshire and brought up in that house and it retains many happy memories. Then to the seaside near Blackpool and another house full of other people’s choices and ideas of what a comfortable house should be. After seven years we moved from seaside suburbia (with ‘gold’ taps and an corner bath(!)) to a Cumbrian town and yet another house of two stories and a capacious basement which opened onto a sloping back garden with apple trees and a five minute walk to church on a Sunday. From there and teenage years to another house in County Durham with rattling trains at the back and more fruit trees in serious need of attention – then two houses in quick succession, from the North East to County Londonderry and a new place to hang my hat. My wife came to this experience with her own set of moves and so was much better at that alchemy that is achieved in turning a house into a home and her part in this crazy adventure is not to be under estimated. Everywhere we have lived we been comfortable and despite the bizarre situation of having your home presided over by a ‘committee’ we have known the support and kindness of many good people.

It may seem fatuous to reflect on houses and homes when there are so many in this world who do not have either, and how now governments have now started penalising those who simply want what this post takes for granted – a safe place to live, to grow and a place from which to begin the many journeys that a human life is composed of. T. S. Eliot wrote “Home is where one starts from”, but it is also the place to which we return – looking for solace, healing, or just a place to stop and be. Perhaps we are all a little like Ulysses, forever searching for home, knowing it is there but having to avoid many pitfalls and diversions to arrive. As a Christian I am assured that I have “no permanent city”, and that the life of faith is one of “looking for the city that is to come”, but in the meantime everyone needs a place to hang their hat!

(Eliot’s words come from ‘East Coker’ in his poem sequence ‘Four Quartets’. Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ is a rattling good story, and an unknown Christian writer reflects on ‘home’ in Hebrews 13; 14). Thanks to Heather for the alchemy!!)


Entertaining Angels…..(watching ‘The Bishop’s Wife’).

Strangely enough, Christmas films have been all over the place lately (!). Even though I did not watch ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ this Christmas as I usually do I did watch ‘The Bishop’s Wife’. It is a very entertaining film full of all sorts of delights – the omnipotent wiki will give you the detail – directed by Henry Koster in 1947 with cinematography by Gregg Toland, remade with Denzel Washington in 1996 and directed by the late Penny Marshall – but even wiki will not convey the joy that this film will give to even the most cynical viewer. Once you get over the idea that Cary Grant is an angel (and David Niven an (Episcopalian?) bishop) you have not only a classic ‘Christmas’ film but also a fine meditation on what happens when the transcendent collides with the material. Niven’s bishop is trying to raise money for a cathedral and to do so he has to deal with some rich and self serving people who want the building to reflect their status and power. In a moment of doubt he prays for help and lo, an angel called Dudley turns up in the shape of Cary Grant -with magnificently hooded eyes! ‘Dudley’ puts things in order and falls in love with the Bishop’s wife as well as filling the house with light and peace. The film ends with a Christmas sermon (delivered by the Bishop but written by the angel!), the cathedral is not built but the money raised is given to the needy, and Dudley is called away as his work done and everything set right.

Hollywood has a way with the transcendent, but although the mawkish and sentimental is never far way there is sometimes an astringent touch of reality there too. In this film Grant’s angel almost has a look of a film – noir detective in hat and overcoat, and his confrontations with temptation reveal an angel prone to human doubt. David Niven’s Bishop struggles with the age old struggle between God and Mammon and his wife struggles with her feelings for Dudley. In the midst of all these struggles I was reminded of the place of angels in Christian theology and practice – some books treat angels like some sort of new age help-meets, but the bible reminds us that angels are always literally ‘messengers’, bringing some new word from God and acting in an intermediary role between God and humanity – their role is mysterious yet there are clues to their appearance and nature. The psalmist speaks of the way that humanity has been made “little lower than the angels”, or in a modern translation “a little lower than God” (or the ‘Elohim’). St. Augustine is not really much help when he writes; ” ‘Angel’ is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit’; if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel’: from what they are, ‘spirit’, from what they do, ‘angel’.” Personally I find the words of the hymn writer Henry Burton a great help;

“He is breaking down the barriers, He is casting up the way;
He is calling for His angels to build up the gates of day:
But His angels here are human, not the shining hosts above;
For the drum-beats of His army are the heart-beats of our love”.

I think that there is a sense that angels represent the unexpected, like Dudley turning up in the film as an answer to prayer, or the angel that Mary saw before the birth of Jesus, or even the angels that Philip Pullman writes about. They also represent the question of how open we are to the unexpected because so often we expect God to act in totally expected ways. Yet the mystery of Christmas should instruct in us a new way (like the ‘new thing’ the prophet Isaiah reflected on) and be ready for the unexpected to change everything. Surely that is a resolution worth making and keeping for this new year.

“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13. 1).

(‘The Bishop’s Wife’ is worth watching at any time of the year. St. Augustine’s reflections are always worth thinking about. Henry Burton’s hymn ‘There’s a Light Upon the Mountains’ is a particular favourite of mine. You can read about the exploits of Bathamos and Baruch in ‘The Amber Spyglass’ by Philip Pullman).