In the Listening Booth.

I would get no prizes for telling you that the way people listen to music has changed massively, but the blindingly obvious aside, a recent visit to a record shop, or at least the music floor of a large media store, reminded me of a visit I made to a record shop a long time ago. As a teenager I had tried to listen to ‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison and had no got it at all. I took the copy I had bought and sold it to a record exchange and immediately regretted it. Much later he released a live album (‘It’s Too Late to Stop Now’) recorded in the summer of 1973. I wanted to buy the record but wary of my experience with ‘AW’ I wanted to hear some of the record before buying. Next stop the top floor of a shop where there were loads of records and a line of listening booths along one wall. I asked the assistant (who was probably thinking ‘who is this idiot who doesn’t get ‘Astral Weeks’?’) and he put the record on. I got to the booth in time to hear the stylus descend onto the vinyl and Van went into ”Ain’t Nothing You Can Do’ and I was hooked! I am not going to say that I went home with that double LP and a copy of ‘Astral Weeks’ but ‘ITLTSN’ has remained one of my favourite albums.

As most things are cyclic these days maybe some enterprising record shop owner will re – install the listening booth (maybe this has already happened!) and restore that physical aspect to engaging with a piece of music – in my earliest experiences of listening these places provided a place where music was valued for itself. Of course the shop keeper hoped that you would buy the record (and who among us has not bought a record on the strength of one track?) but both buying and listening to music then seemed more of an occasion than it is in this age of streaming and play-listing. Nostalgia is always a strange thing and these days, although I listen to a lot of new music, I find myself drawn back to the music I first heard in the listening booths in a shop called White and Swales in a Northern town in what seems like a life time ago. Maybe age furnishes a better perspective, or maybe music was just better then (discuss!!).

But in all this talk of listening I am aware that I often hear without listening – conscious of the music and its creators, but quickly passing over it to something else. As always I am learning (or re – learning!) the value of returning and of listening carefully. As I have said before music is too precious to be reduced to a commodity or a soothing (or manipulating) background. And, as if to provide a convenient example of this, I returned to ‘Astral Weeks’ later and discovered the masterpiece it always was!

man wearing gray sweatshirt and headphones

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All good things…..

Like millions of other people on this planet I went to see the film ‘Avengers Endgame’ last week. I have already written here about my ambivalence towards the MCU behemoth and how it is light years away from the lovingly pulpy comics that I loved as a teenager. But I found the film incredibly moving – in fact the acting and writing in the first half of the film was so powerful I had a lump in my throat! (This is not surprising, I watched Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain from 1952 on the YouTube last night and the sheer exuberance of the dancing and the joyful smile on his face brought a tear to my aged eyes!). But, to return to the kostume kapers of the MCU, (there are no spoilers here!!), these films are genuinely apocalyptic, not only in the sense that there is a lot of fighting and smashing of just about everything, but also in the sense that they reveal something about what is sometimes called the endless struggle between good and evil.

But here we are light years away from a simple binary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (and this is something that I think that Marvel at its best pioneered), the good guys are prone to doubt and the struggle between Tony Stark’s ‘suit of armour’ around the world idea and the idealism/ doubt of Steve Rogers was, for me, one of the best things about these stories. And the mad Titan Thanos, for all his genocidal bluster, has to be one of the saddest villains I have ever seen – all he wants to do is retire to his farm!

Maybe one of the many messages in these films (forgive me but I am always wanting to look below the surface!), is that sometimes you have to stand up – the plain fact of the matter is that there are bad people all over the place (and the political stasis in this country seems to be bringing them all out of the woodwork!), and they have to be challenged, not just by the costumed heroes of popular franchises, but by the countless acts of human kindness that are perpetrated every day by ordinary people. These usually happen in the mundane – the place where only a person’s humanity and their need matters.

But now like all good things this phase of the MCU has come to an end and many people wonder what the next step is. I came across an interesting article today about the grief that people sometimes feel when their favourite franchise comes to an end;

“Psychiatrist Sue Varma believes that the reason we get so upset is because the heroes represent hope to us. “These characters have journeys not unlike our own. It’s a form of empathic mirroring”. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, a cultural historian and fandom expert, agrees, but places an emphasis on the escapism that becoming invested in these fictional worlds offers: “We are swept into another world for the time we are engaging with the media. Knowing that the hatch to that world is permanently shut because the show or movie has ended can feel like a loss –not necessarily because of the actual vehicle, but because that part of our life has ended.”  

When I was a child and there were only three TV channels I always used to watch the Saturday and Sunday matinees on the BBC. These films were my first encounter with cinema and I remember my sadness if the hero, or heroine, didn’t make it to the end of the film. It took me a long time to come to terms with these sorts of endings, and as I grew up I found myself in another story where the hero’s life  and death are not the end but the start of something completely new. I do not know where the MCU will go next, but I do know that death and resurrection (or beginnings and endings) are part of everyday life, from comics to headlines, to big budget blockbusters and the seemingly small every day human stories that we all know so well.

A long time ago someone wrote about the light that had come into the world and how this light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (some put it that the darkness did not understand – or ‘comprehend’ the light – sounds like a certain purple villain to me!). I suggest that in these days when many familiar things seem to be coming to an end there is hope here, not just for a new phase in a film franchise, but for the human journey – with all of its false starts, difficult endings and new beginnings.

(The article by Marianne Eloise quoted above comes from the New Statesman website from a few days ago).

All roads lead to Duluth.

opened bible on wooden surfaca

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It’s funny how one thing leads to another. For a long time I have been an admirer of the pianist/ composer/ educator Ben Sidran. He has been active for many years now from the piano chair in Steve Miller’s Band to his own solo career as a jazz musician. His albums have often occupied the middle ground between pop and jazz and his considerable abilities as a composer and soloist make each of his records a particular joy. One of his more recent projects has been the album ‘Dylan Different’ where he takes twelve of Bob Dylan’s songs and interprets them with a crack band. This record is, like all his others, a rare treat and I would recommend it warmly. But as I listened to it, I found myself sent back to the originals, or some of them.

I have lots of Bob Dylan records but I don’t listen to them as much as I should – sometimes they strike me as the product of a mind that doesn’t seem to care less about them once they are done. This does not mean to say that they are ill conceived or lyrically unconvincing, every record contains at least one or two gems. But Dylan can be capricious; he sometime discards great songs in favour of others, and his career often veers off in what seems like odd and unexpected directions. Who could have foreseen that the singer of songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ or ‘Masters of War’ could have become the latest interpreter of the Great American Songbook? I once called Dylan a master of ambiguities and I think that term is apt; he is never where you expect him to be, which I suppose is the mark of a great artist. Anyway, Ben Sidran’s ‘Dylan Different’ led me to the following songs;

‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ to listen to the original reminds me just how although these early records came out of a ‘folk’ background, the rhythm section is a frantic mix of rhythm and blues and rock and roll – and let’s not forget the voice and the lyrics!

‘Tangled Up in Blue’/ ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, two songs from a dark record, in ‘Blue’ the first line of the lyric “Early one morning” starts in the folk tradition but the story that unfolds takes me in a different direction, again there is the understated instrumentation that puts the story (and the storyteller – Dylan’s own description of what he does) front and centre. ‘Twist’ has an understated but effective bass line shadowing Dylan’s guitar and again there is a compelling story about star crossed lovers and the accidents of life and fate. The final verse sums it up perfectly;

“People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring
She was born in spring, but I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate”.

‘Standing in the Doorway’/ Trying to Get to Heaven’, two great songs from the great ‘comeback’ album. Every time I listen to it I find this record very moving, there is something about it that is hard to quantify. The songs seem to be haunted by illness and mortality, and faith. I defy anyone not to be moved when Dylan sings (in ‘Doorway’) “I know the mercy of God must be near”. Personally, I feel that that line shows a deeper faith than that exhibited on his so – called ‘born again’ recordings! ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ (before they close the door) is another gem. It’s gospel inspired piano/ organ and the slight dub – like guitar line and the singer’s fabulously cracked vocal is again, something I find really moving.

‘Changing of the Guards’ / ‘Senor (Tales of Yankee Power). Two songs from an album which I think is quite under rated in the canon. The first is an apocalyptic/ historical mash up which seems to be about the inevitability of massive change. Those in the know suggest that this song marks Dylan’s move towards the particular brand of American evangelical Christianity he was soon to embrace. And ‘Senor’ has all the hallmarks of a classic, apart from the “trainload of fools brought down in a magnetic field”, its atmosphere of (colonial?) menace reminds me of a long youthful trip to an airfield in the south of England to see Dylan (and others). All I can remember are the awful toilets and a man in a top hat on a stage in the far distance!

‘New Pony’/ ‘Every Grain of Sand’. Finally, a song from the ‘Street Legal’ album that I always skipped when I bought the record. Despite the slightly odd lyric this song has a rare sort of charm, perhaps it’s author was telling someone else’s story (Could it be true that Dylan has made the business of unreliable narration into an art form?). My final song here is an out and out masterpiece. Recorded for the album ‘Shot of Love’ it is a song that, again, I find very moving in its discussion of faith and mortality. The line about ‘every hair’ and ‘every grain of sand’ both channels words attributed to Jesus (in the context that, to quote Mother Julian “all things will be well”), and fills them with a new and urgent sense that, even for an artist like Dylan, faith is all we really have.

Bob Dylan’s life and times has been endlessly chronicled and his every move (and word) endlessly detailed and discussed, but personally I find many of his songs as moving as they are infuriating. When Daniel Lanois the musician and producer of ‘Time Out of Mind’ described him as ‘eccentric’, it could qualify as the understatement of the century! Yet the songs remain and as I was thinking about the photo I chose I obviously thought of Dylan’s use of biblical imagery, but then it occurred to me that his songs are like a map (with the story teller as the weary traveller!) that we can follow as we listen. These songs are a remarkable witness to the collision of life, fate, love and faith. It is surely the best testimony to a musician’s art to say that very time you listen you find something new, and in terms of his influence on music and culture it must be true to say that all roads (still) lead to Duluth.

The Shepherd and the Valley.

I have wanted to write something about the twenty third psalm for a long time now. As a working minister I read it a great deal and it was mostly read at funerals. Its very ubiquity lends it a powerful resonance when sitting with people who, through no fault of their own, have little or no knowledge of the bible. But it is also this ubiquity that leads to the psalm being almost ignored for the great piece of writing it is.

One way of reading the psalm is as a Lenten exercise, the Good News Bible renders the first line as “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need”. In a season (indeed, in a world!) where plenty and scarcity jostle together and where many ‘give up’ some things in order to focus on other things, the theme of confidence in the provision of shepherd Lord seems to be particularly relevant. Then there is the theme of protection; especially in the ‘dark valley’ or the ‘deep darkness’ – this experience of danger and darkness is a Lenten experience. Observance of Lent and Holy Week include reflection on death and resurrection and indeed these themes reach their climax with the stillness and desolation of Good Friday. Then there is the way that the psalmist points the reader to the overwhelming care of the shepherd God. This hospitality is described by Robert Alter in his beautiful translation/ commentary as “all the physical elements of a happy life – a table laid out with good things to eat, a head of hair well rubbed with olive oil, and an over flowing cup of wine” If that list needs to be updated than I’m sure we could all find our own alternatives. For me this is a criticism of all other pretenders to care and provision, even those in the political and, yes the religious sphere. And I am struck by the way that this care is provided “in the face of my foes” reminding us of the way that ancient customs meant that the guest was entitled to protection – the psalm offers us this picture of a pilgrim God who is a constant traveller across the hilltops and down into the dark valleys guiding and protecting – often at great cost.

Finally, I have sometimes found myself reading these words in the dark of night as well as in the midst of physical darkness and turning the song into a series of questions; Lord, will you be my shepherd? Will you make sure that I lack nothing? Will you lead me beside the still waters and will you restore my soul? I sometimes wonder whether this approach is appropriate but I feel that this song is given to be sung again and again to give perhaps a faltering witness to the God who has promised never to leave us and to travel with us regardless of the landscape and no matter where the road may lead us. This is a feeling summed up for me in the hymn by George Matheson ‘O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go’ – that sense that divine love will not let anything go;

“O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be”.

The beauty of the psalmist’s words are such that every interpretation, indeed every reading, can include these things but will also always bring us back to an image like the one below – care, dependence, the often harsh experience of the land and the sky, and the care of the shepherd.

white sheep on farm

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