IVP - Strangely Dim - March Music Madness: Out Like a Lamb

March 31, 2011

March Music Madness: Out Like a Lamb

Seems like only days ago it was the first of March. And it was only days ago--thirty-one, to be exact.

This month we gave ourselves over to "music madness"--a month of turning each other on to the new and novel, the old and overlooked, and everything musical in between. I confess this is about as self-indulgent a theme for a blog as I can imagine for myself; I've been labeled a music snob in a variety of settings (even though true music nerds would scoff at my limited palette), and writing about particular songs and artists makes me feel somehow joined to them, as though their artistry and mine intersect and somehow validate one another. I realize that I'm the one who gains from that interaction: Van Morrison and Sufjan Stevens and Cat Stevens (no relation) and the Spares and Florence and the Machine and the Beatles and REM and Sam Phillips--not to mention the many musicians that won us over gradually rather than immediately--don't need validation from us. But neither do we do them harm by riffing on their lyrics and wowing over their music. So I remain happily defiant, throwing in my lot with these artists and daring you to disregard them.

So much of our identity is caught up in the arts and entertainment we simmer ourselves in. Charlie Sheen is banking on that axiom as he tries to create a culture out of his exploits and excesses. Did you like Two and a Half Men? Then you'll love Charlie Sheen's "My Violent Torpedo of Truth" tour! "Don't be a troll; be a winner!" (Christa, incidentally, thinks the tour should be renamed "vapid narcissistic swirling cesspool of gratuitous depravity." Might sell more tickets, actually.) But such identification works better with musicians, because they provide anthems to rally us and soundtracks to punctuate our own imagined epics. We can emulate musicians by our own creative writing and music-making; the music that moves us isn't merely a passive entertainment medium but a path that we enter on.

When I was in high school, I was hopping from path to path with schizophrenic regularity. The band I was in was eclectic, equally comfortable playing songs by Muddy Waters and David Bowie; the school jazz band pushed me toward foundational artists like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington but indulged my interest in pop jazz acts like the Yellowjackets and Weather Report; I tried to build underground pop cred by tracking down early offerings from REM and the Violent Femmes; and Iowa radio being what it was, I got a fair bit of exposure to mainstream hair metal like Whitesnake and Bon Jovi but also classic rock such as Pink Floyd and Queen. But when I was feeling especially weird, or when I wanted to let my geek flag fly, I listened to Genesis.

Not Phil Collins-era Genesis, although I indulged pretty freely in that stuff too. But the really good stuff came when Phil Collins was stuck behind the drums and Peter Gabriel was out in front, dressed like a flower and singing "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway."

peter gabriel.jpg

This was the age of the LP, and so listening to the full concept album led off by that title track, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, was a major commitment: more than ninety minutes of music, spread over two vinyl records, two sides each. You'd listen to side one of album a; then flip it over to listen to side two; then replace album a with album b, side one; then flip that over for side two. The liner notes for the album were extensive and told the story of Rael, "imperial aerosol kid"--a graffiti artist in New York trying to come of age. You were committed, mind and body, to following Rael throughout his adventures.

I wasn't always committed, to be honest. My favorite tracks were on album a, side one: the folksy "Cuckoo Cocoon," the introspective "Fly on a Windshield," the driving "In the Cage," and the aforementioned title track. By the time I got to "The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging," I was generally overdue for homework or chores or band practice, and the other three sides of the epic went untraversed.

I don't feel too terribly bad about that. Especially in an era of cheap, instant downloads of individual songs, any commitment of any length of mind and body to conceptual music might be counted as an act of extreme discipline. Compared to the ephemeral engagement of music today, I was like Francis of Assisi up there in my bedroom, flipping records over and listening intently before exiting into daylight--just like Rael, my musical avatar.

lamb lies down.jpg"The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" was the first song I ever noticed "sampling" in; Peter Gabriel ends the song and announces the theme of the whole album by borrowing a line from a song made famous by jazz guitarist George Benson: "They say the lights are always bright on Broadway; they say there's always magic in the air." Peter Gabriel made me believe it, and I daresay I paid better attention to the rest of my life when I left my room with those words in my head.

Believing there's magic in the air makes you notice things like a bush that burns without being consumed, a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending it, a sacred curtain tearing from top to bottom rather than from bottom to top. "There are more things in heaven and earth," Hamlet reminds us, "than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The things that matter most can't always be discerned or dissected; sometimes you have to simmer in them. Sometimes they have to be sung.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at March 31, 2011 6:38 AM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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