Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Churchill &Trump: Separated At Birth?

I recently commented to an old friend that I didn't like President Trump – I offered no specific criticism or rationale; I simply didn't like the man. My friend responded, “Then you wouldn't like Winston Churchill, either,” or words to that effect. I assured him that I had read a number of books about Churchill, whose only real rival as the greatest man of the 20th century is probably Albert Einstein. After the conversation I thought hard: Churchill, Trump – am I missing something? Having concluded that yes, I was, I humbly submit a few parallels I have tried to draw between the two men: 

‌• Both Churchill and Trump are men steeped in history. Churchill was an historian of considerable achievement, having written, among many other things, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples and the six-volume The Second World War. Donald Trump himself has occupied history, having lived at the time of the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Space Race and the Arab Spring, all of which are historically important historical events in history. He too, has written books, including How to Get Rich and Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life.

‌• As a young cavalry officer and war correspondent, Churchill gallantly served his country in combat. In South Africa he was captured and interned in a POW camp, from which he escaped, which made him a bit of a hero back in England. Trump was also captured, in 2005, on tape. Both men went on to become heads of state in spite of the adversity of having been captured.

‌• Winston Churchill's wit was legendary. When he met Labour MP and Tory-hater Bessie Braddock at a party in 1946, she told him: "Winston, you are drunk." "Madam," he replied, "you are ugly, and I will be sober in the morning." Trump also is known for his razor keen witticisms. Referring to the 9/11 tragedy, he quipped, “I was down there, and I watched our police and our firemen, down on 7-Eleven, down at the World Trade Center, right after it came down.” “7-Eleven” ? Get it?

‌• Churchill married Clementine, the love of his life, in 1908, and they remained married until his death in 1965. Not to be outdone, Trump has been married three times, in addition to his various extra-marital affairs, thus proving his love over and over again.

‌• As an orator, Churchill has had few equals in modern history. His speeches, seasoned with phrases such as “their finest hour” and “blood, toil, tears and sweat” galvanized the will of his nation to stand agains the evils of Nazi Germany, and have become part of the English language. In Trump we have a latter-day Churchill, giving us such stirring statements as “Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich,” and “I’ve said that if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her."

‌• Doubtless in response to countless observations made to him by mothers about their offspring, Churchill was wont to respond, “All babies look like me.” Trump has also been likened to a baby.

‌• Like many of his time and station, Churchill was susceptible to the paternalistic racism and perceived European superiority common among such men, having once referred to Mahatma Gandhi as “that half-naked fakir.” In order to combat charges of anti-Mexican sentiment leveled against him, Trump was compelled to insist, “The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!”

‌• Their countries both menaced by the Third Reich, Churchill and the Russian dictator Josef Stalin formed an uneasy alliance, each aiding the other materially and militarily until the Axis was defeated, leaving Britain and the Soviet Union to square off in an ideological standoff that would last for decades. Trump likewise shares a controversial relationship with Russia's Vladimir Putin. Warning against the Russian president's ordering the killing of journalists, Trump cautioned, "He's running his country and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country. I think our country does plenty of killing also." That a great deal of killing takes place in the U.S. cannot seriously be questioned.

‌• Winston Churchill's record of service in public office was extensive well before he became Prime Minister, having been, among other things, Lord of the Admiralty, a member of Parliament, Minister of Defense, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for War, President of the Board of Trade, and Home Secretary, among many others. Trump's political aspirations are also the stuff of legend, he having considered running for Governor of New York. He has been a member of several political affiliations, including the Republican, Democratic and Reform Parties, thus establishing his credentials as a public servant.

‌• Trump's respect for Winston Churchill is attested to by his reinstatement of Churchill's bust to a prominent place in the Oval Office. While I have been unable to unearth any direct quotes by Trump on Churchill, he has nonetheless expressed admiration for Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Un, Benito Mussolini, and Bashar al-Assad, also national leaders, as was Churchill.

is not a scholarly work; rather, I wished to independently affirm my friend's assertion that my distaste for President Trump must translate into an equal disdain for Churchill. I am now faced with a choice: Either admit Trump's greatness as a visionary, courageous statesman and historical figure, or relegate Churchill to the status of an ignorant, narcissistic, lewd, pompous ass. To some this dilemma may seem insuperable, but history must ultimately judge. Out of respect for the office of President of the United States, I hereby abstain. Time will tell. And tell it will.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


"We're baffled," say scientists

Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” - J. B. S. Haldane, 1892 – 1964

Professor Haldane, an avowed atheist, frequently made observations that any thinking theist could eagerly embrace as God's truth (remember, all truth is God's truth.) At the age of eight, before I could think clearly about my own faith in philosophical or metaphysical terms, I experienced a phenomenon that should have at once put me firmly in his camp. But not the atheistic one. Oh, no – this little episode spilled the beans about something apparently outside the Universe altogether. 

Before I ask you to give credence to the recollections of a middle-aged man about something that happened in 1969 (there, I just carbon-dated myself), I will attempt to establish my admittedly subjective credentials. My long-term memory is not infallible, but surely far better than my short-term one. I can remember being baptized as a baby in the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, but I have no idea where I put down the cordless drill two minutes ago, and will, if unchecked, waste the next hour looking for it in vain. My friends are frequently surprised by the details and accuracy of my recollections about our collective past. It's how I'm hardwired. The following recollection of a glimpse into the future cannot be scientifically verified, but it has remained unchanged for decades, and is very simple in sequence.

As a child I was obsessed with birds, and any close proximity to, or better still, interaction with them filled me with delight. Our family had moved from San Diego, CA, to Bozeman, MT in the summer of '69, just in time for Neil Armstrong to invent that future dance craze, the Moonwalk. I was crestfallen to find that Montana had civilization, and worst still, schools, but I was up for any adventures my new home would offer. Conveniently enough, our first Montana home was across the street from that of three brothers who were the same age as myself and my two younger brothers, with whom we could play or feud with as the moment dictated. One morning, right at that moment when we are most likely to recall a dream accurately, I dreamt the following:

I had gone across the street to our friends' house, to find a magpie sitting on the fence in their backyard. It didn't outwardly appear to be injured or sick, but it apparently couldn't fly, either. It just perched on the back fence, defiantly emitting the standard magpie call, which I gleefully returned. Back and forth we went, until other activities took over, or, in this case, until I woke up.

Which I did. I got up, dressed, and went across the street, that being my standard procedure at the time. And there, right out of my dream, sat the magpie. It couldn't fly, or I'm sure it would gladly have done so instead of hanging out with the likes of me. It squawked. I squawked back. This went on for a few minutes, and I told the kids there that I had, just minutes before, dreamed that “I was having an argument with a magpie!” I don't remember whether they took any notice of this, or whether they believed me. Eventually my eight-year old attention span faltered and I spent the rest of the day in the freedom a child enjoyed in those politically incorrect days of summer autonomy.

I didn't closely analyze this brief-yet-uncanny sequence of events, first dreamed, then realized. I was at an age at which a child has yet to adopt a skeptical attitude toward the Universe, and had indeed been brought up on a mashup of Roman Catholicism and New Age weirdness, either of which might admit a child's dream as a conduit of the supernatural. I didn't read anything into it. I just accepted that my dream had foretold an actual event, and what of it? Didn't we live in a Universe fraught with infinite possibilities? 

Or did we? I had yet to experience the Materialist view of things, which rules out the supernatural in all its forms. No spirit world, no God, no reincarnation, no Karma, only those things that can be observed and documented using the Scientific Method. Many years passed before I ever met a proper atheist, at least in the U.S. (The ones I encountered in China nearly twenty years later didn't count, having themselves been the product of mass indoctrination by a totalitarian state.) My Universe presumed a God, held me responsible, and, worst of all, threatened to make me reincarnate until I got it right. But it also seemed to allow for less stringent manifestations of the supernatural, in this case a prosaic, pedestrian preview of the immediate future. (My dreams tend toward the wildly irrational and random; this one stuck unimaginatively to the unadorned facts.)

The skeptics, acting on the assumption that no dream could accurately forecast the future in such concrete terms, have the answer. Billions of people dream every night, for thousands of years on end, dreaming every kind of dream that can be dreamt. (Uh oh, we're going to run out of new things to dream.) Why couldn't it be that one child out of billions might accidentally dream an uncomplicated event that just happens to occur – verbatim - minutes later? (This is known as The Law of Large Numbers.) Oh, and might not I, between waking and dreaming, have heard the distant magpie distress signals coming from across the street, and constructed a dream around them? (A few years later I developed the questionable habit of sleeping with the radio on, and that did in fact interfere with a few dreams.) And wouldn't a boy who loves birds dream about them anyway?

Enter William of Ockham (1287 – 1347), and his secret weapon, Occam's Razor. (The spelling must here remain unexplored.) His Razor states that “among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” In layman's terms, the simplest explanation is often (though not always) the best. The specific details of my dream varied so violently from my “normal” visions (which might range from eggs hopping along a conveyor belt and singing in three-part harmony, to terrors too unspeakable to write here) that I can't simply ignore them. Might I not simply dream I was in school, or, as I sometimes do now, that I'm at my day gig making guitar straps? I bet most of us have useless dreams - I mean, if I'm going to do schoolwork or factory work, I might as well at least get a grade or a paycheck. 

But a flightless magpie is something few people ever see, and if I'd seen this one before, there's no way I could have forgotten it. And the location – my friend's backyard fence. The squawking back and forth. Okay, I could have gotten that from the dream, but, caught up in the moment, I was more interested in my interaction with a wild bird than I was in the dream I'd just had. Not everything can be boiled down to such a pedantic sequence. Quite simply, my dream accurately foretold a future event.

For those who insist that my experience cannot be scientifically verified, I say, Amen. No scientific study of clairvoyance or any form of ESP has shown any scientific basis for such phenomena, and indeed, any scientist who ever undertook such an investigation in the first place should have his slide rule broken over a knee, his pocket protector ripped from his lab coat, and be banished to Ken Ham's Creation Museum, forever to wallow in the silliest of pseudoscience. For a case such as my own, we must look somewhere besides science.

What? Isn't science the basis for, well, everything? Tax codes, Thai kickboxing regulations, bluegrass etiquette, literary criticism, the Geneva Convention, the Golden Rule? So far, so bad. Some things fall squarely outside the realm of scientific inquiry, and, as one who loves science, I will insist on this as firmly as I insist that music theory does not apply to nuclear fission or plate tectonics. To maintain that everything that has ever happened in recorded history has a purely scientific explanation is to prostrate one's self before a false god, one deaf and blind to what it means to be human, conscious, free. The transcendent works of Bach, Beethoven, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Tolstoy - strictly determinist animal behavior. The selfless courage of Mother Theresa, Nathan Howe, Oskar Schindler - nothing but higher animals obeying their herd instincts. To someone who actually believes in such a world, I have much pity, but very little to say.  Nothing I say here will concern them, so they may feel free to read something else.

Much heavy weather has been made of late concerning the question of whether the existence of God, or any other supernatural entities or phenomena, can be proved or disproved by science. Here I will enlist the input of Stephen Hawking, whose scientific credentials cannot be seriously questioned. In spite of his recent atheistic stance, he nonetheless has yet to recant his statement in A Brief History of Time, where he states, "As far as we are concerned, events before the Big Bang can have no consequences, so they should not form part of a scientific model of the universe. We should therefore cut them out of the model and say that time had a beginning at the Big Bang." (emphasis mine.) If God initiated the latter, science can have nothing to say about it.

Some occurrences can be proved, but not specifically via the scientific method.  But no proof, scientific or otherwise, will convince one whose assumptions will not admit truths they find unpalatable. In Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the upstanding defense attorney Atticus Finch conclusively proves the innocence of a disabled black man falsely accused of raping a young white woman. Nonetheless, the all-white jury returns a guilty verdict, not because they have any reason to fall for the plaintiff's obviously fabricated testimony, but because this is Depression-era Alabama, and no black man could be believed over any white person. (To his credit, we later learn that one of the jurors dissented vehemently from his fellow white men, and only under duress cast his vote against the innocent–yet-doomed Tom Robinson.) I will here attempt to illustrate how a proof could be ironclad, yet without the aid of the scientific method:

Suppose you and I are driving down the road in my battered Crown Victoria, and a song comes on the radio – in this case, “Shattered”, from the Rolling Stones' Some Girls album. My band played this back in 1979, and I know all the words, the lament of an Englishman navigating the perils of New York City. (And you thought Sting came up with that idea! For the record, P. G. Wodehouse was writing on that very subject 100 years ago, with hilarious results.) It's mostly a rap, just a bit of melody here and there.

Well, I can't be prevented from rapping along with Mick Jagger, perhaps a major third lower, just for fun. “My brain's been battered / Splattered all over / Manhattan.” I'll also hammer out Charlie Watts' drum fills, note-for-note, on my steering wheel (while you wish I'd just steer the car instead.) I nail everything in the song, either to your amazement or to your annoyance, but one thing is clear to you – This guy has heard this song before. My driver's seat performance is absolute, ironclad proof that I've heard the song at least once previously.

Or is it? Doesn't the Infinite Monkey Theorem prove that a Universe full of monkeys, provided with typewriters and reams of paper, will eventually type the complete text of Shakespeare's Hamlet? Mathematically, yes. (Maybe in Brazilian Portuguese, if they have the right sort of typewriter.)

This, as any idiot can see, ignores the element of improbability entailed by our humanity. What if one of the monkeys, on a roll (“Get thee to a nunnery!”), accidentally starts typing the text of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas​ instead? Now we have to start over. Bad monkey.

We needn't look to Shakespeare to give this asinine theory a decent burial. The chance that any of the monkeys, individually or in concert, will even (in the course of nine hundred billion trillion years), give us the words, “CLOSE COVER BEFORE STRIKING” misses the point in most impressive intellectual fashion.

Back to my car: If you had some motive for supposing I could not possibly have heard “Shattered” before, you might start looking for alternate explanations for my faithful rendition: He studied the sheet music. (I like that one – I can read music!) Or perhaps I heard some other band do the song exactly like the record. Nice try. (Too close to my having heard the original.) Okay, Large Numbers to the rescue! In this, or perhaps another Universe (Multiverse is a hypothesis intended to include any possibility whatsoever), wouldn't it stand to reason that I might just happen to make all the right sounds with my mouth, and hit the steering wheel in perfect sync with Charlie's lovely, quirky drum fills? Émile Borel, with his proposed legions of monkey typists, might think so. Any court of law, however, could only convict me of having accidentally performed “Shattered” by their violating not only Occam's Razor, but by bringing a really stupid assumption (i.e., that I improvised along with the song, predicting the entire lyric and much of the drum part) to the courtroom.

By attesting to the single most supernatural-appearing event of my life, I am not here attempting to prove Christian doctrine (to which I have nonetheless devoted much of my life) – I am merely asserting that there is more to the Universe than, well, the Universe. Science cannot prove me right nor wrong, but I can think of nothing that could possibly convince me that my dream was not informed, accurately and deliberately, by something completely outside of time and space. Not just something, but (I cannot believe otherwise) Somebody.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Belated Book Review: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Ever since I read Dr. Francis Collins' statement that he keeps the complete works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on his bookshelf (“One must dig deeply into opposing points of view in order to know whether your own position remains defensible”), I've been nagged by the feeling that I was behaving somewhat like a Hobbit (who, according to J. R. R. Tolkien, “like books which tell them what they already know.”) I sustained a blow to this mentality many years ago when I read The Creator and the Cosmos by Hugh Ross, which made short work of my fundamentalist “cosmology” (such as the idea of an Earth which is thousands, rather than billions of years old.) I was relieved, rather than shaken – who really enjoys defending the indefensible? Dr. Collins' The Language of God, which helped me to reconcile biological science (including Natural Selection) with my Christian faith, completed for me the basic process, including a firm repudiation of Intelligent Design (ID), which negates the scientific method whenever a difficulty is encountered, replacing it with a miraculous default.

We live during a time in which battle lines are now drawn not only between “Creation vs. Evolution” or “Science vs. Faith”, but, ever increasingly, “Young Earth Creation vs. Theistic Evolution”, in which Christians themselves are divided over whether a literalistic interpretation of Genesis trumps all the disciplines of mainstream science. Over and against this stands Richard Dawkins, the Chuck Norris of militant atheism, for whom any belief in God or the supernatural is not only wrong, but at best misguided, at worst evil incarnate. His magnum opus, The God Delusion (henceforth TGD), has become sort of an atheist Bible, and its enormous popularity is significant in an age where atheism has lost much of the stigma that has dogged it for centuries and kept it largely underground. Along with books such as the late Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, TGD has emboldened millions of people to abandon beliefs they held for reasons other than deep personal conviction (i.e., family tradition, indoctrination, etc.)

Church, we had it coming. If half of Dawkins' observations about religious faith are true (I didn't try to keep score), then we are facing a massive reformation of our intellectual, moral and spiritual integrity. My decision to read TGD was, as I indicated, encouraged by Dr. Collins' fearless admonition to face alternate viewpoints head-on. Since there are numerous rebuttals, and even entire books challenging or purporting to refute TGD, the easy way would have been simply to read one or more of these and use it as ammunition against the atheistic onslaught.

Having read TGD cover-to-cover, I'm glad I finally took the high road. Dawkins writes well, has a keen sense of humor and does his best (mostly) to be fair and objective. He is an eminent scientist with keen sense of the marvelous, and he makes many fascinating observations about nature, the universe and humanity. Much to my astonishment, I began to find Dawkins likable, and I found myself laughing with him far more often than at him. He is as worthy an opponent as a thinking person of faith is likely to cross swords with.

And here I must unsheathe my own. But wait a minute - me, an electric guitar player, take on one of the world's most formidable atheists? Who do I think I am, anyway? I'm no scientist, nor philosopher nor theologian. I don't even have a college degree (which nonetheless didn't prevent me from once creating a university course.) My audacity usually extends as far as taking on musical challenges that I'm not 100% sure I'm qualified for. My confrontation with Richard Dawkins must be of the David vs. Goliath variety, or perhaps merely Quixotic.

There are other ways to confront him – he is justifiably predisposed to quote the various cases made against himself, especially since they are frequently hate-steeped invectives made all the more disagreeable by their ignorance and outright stupidity. Nobody wants to look bad in a public showdown, and by reprinting his own hate mail, Dawkins underscores his own perceived moral, as well as intellectual superiority by demonstrating the ethical and logical bankruptcy and hypocrisy of some of his more virulent foes. If I am to score any points against him, I'd better leave smear tactics to those who possess no other weapons.

That's not to say that Dawkins never resorts to unfair tactics himself. He tries hard not to sling too much mud, except at Yaweh, the deity of the Bible, against whom he unleashes his most contemptuous and hostile assault. Incomplete and one-sided though it may be, Dawkins' case against the biblical God should be answered, although it has elsewhere been treated by thinkers far superior to myself. Where he skewers statements by Augustine, Martin Luther and many others, I often find myself nodding in agreement. There is seldom, if ever, total agreement in any camp, even Dawkins' own. Far worse, to me, are his frequent attacks on straw men. Many of his favorite victims (i.e, baptism of infants, a mystically-addled Hitler, young earth creationism, experimental prayers for healing) are soft targets against which nearly any thinking religious person could make an equally compelling case. A cursory perusal of the works of C. S. Lewis would have eliminated the perceived need to include many of these in any rational attack on religious faith.

Unfortunately, Dawkins doesn't face his most formidable adversaries head-on. His only mention of C. S. Lewis, the “apostle to the skeptics”, occurs in a cursory dismissal of Lewis' 'Trilemma' argument (Jesus as liar, lunatic or Lord), asserting that Lewis “should have known better.” Likewise, Dr. Collins, our foremost advocate of Biologos (the harmony of faith and science), warrants only passing mention, with no real attempt at refuting any of Collins' arguments for faith, despite his wholesale agreement with Dawkins on the question of evolution. Here would have been excellent sport, but Dawkins either dodged these bullets or didn't bother to notice they'd been fired. I will give him the benefit of my doubt here, since the latter seems at least intrinsically plausible. Nobody's perfect.

My own quibbles with Dawkins involve the farthest-reaching questions, which he seems to have attempted to answer but repeatedly comes up short. He argues that religion is not the source of morality, but he needn't have looked any further than Romans 2:14-15 to find that not even Christianity makes such a claim (“For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.”) Likewise, his attempts to explain traits such as altruism as holdovers of herd mentality, or misfirings of genetics, fail to address the moral dilemmas posed by something as subtle as cheating on an exam, or on your income taxes. Still worse is his total failure to address perhaps the Greatest Question(s) of All: What is the meaning of life, or of the universe?

I can cut Dawkins no slack here. That is not to say that he has never pondered the question, or that he is in any way shallow – to the contrary, this guy is deep. I love his sense of awe at the beauty and complexity of the universe, and his insistence upon unraveling as much of it as he, and we, can. Before I pull the metaphysical trigger, I wish to reaffirm my agreement with him that we should aggressively oppose virtually all attempts to limit scientific research and knowledge. I share his contempt for small-mindedness, and no person of faith should fear any advance in scientific knowledge, since any such advance should automatically bolster our faith as it adds to our understanding of creation.

Dawkins repeatedly insists that the existence or nonexistence of God is a scientific matter, but in no way can I fold, spindle or mutilate my brain into agreeing with him. Since what the Theist means by “God” is by definition something outside of time and space, it can never be detected by using the tools of science. (Here Dawkins declares himself to be at variance with fellow evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who insisted that science has nothing to say on the matter.) Never say never, but I say never. Dawkins rightly insists on the picking apart of everything that can be observed, detected or hypothesized. Unfortunately, when something falls outside the realm of observation or other forms of verification, its hypothetical existence must be determined by other means, (i.e., revelation, which Dawkins open-mindedly dismisses out of hand.) The Hot Big Bang model of creation, that most mysterious and yet foundational of natural phenomena, can and should be subject to the most rigorous research we can devise. But even if it can be shown to have resulted from a random fluctuation in a quantum anomaly, we are forced (if we are brave enough) to ask where those came from. Stephen Hawking's assertion that it all came from the Laws of Physics (“which have always been there”) ignores the fact that laws can do nothing without a patient to act upon. Gravity cannot be the apple it causes to fall. I have long maintained that any child could see this, but not even a wall full of academic credentials can force their recipient to see what they wish not to see.

TGD makes blessedly little of wishful thinking as a source of belief in God (or a lack thereof), but it should be acknowledged that for every person “deceived” into believing in God through wishful thinking, there might equally be a person hoping like mad that He doesn't exist. As C. S. Lewis observes, the question does nothing to move us toward a logical conclusion, since there are plenty of wishes on both sides. Of far greater portent is the Anthropic Principle (the narrow spectrum of conditions in which carbon-based life can develop), about which Dawkins makes a good deal of heavy weather. The existence or nonexistence of planets with the right moisture, temperature, gravity, etc. to support life is the subject of extensive research and conjecture, but only enters into the theological realm as regards the likelihood, or lack thereof, of life arising spontaneously from non-life. The now-popular Multiverse scenario (in which an indefinite number of universes existing outside our own, elevating the probability of matter morphing into life somewhere) cannot be tested, verified, nor falsified. The vastness of our own universe surely provides scope enough for life (which we know to have occurred in our own backyard) to materialize, whether accidentally or intentionally. As a straw to be grasped in the attempt to indicate that anything might happen, given enough time and material, Multiverse is (to borrow one of Dawkins' pet names) a cop-out of unimaginable proportions, or, at best, irrelevant. Life already happened; deal with it. We must look at the final chapter of his book to see the unhinged lengths to which he will go in order to defend his position.

In his invocation of the miraculous-as-theoretically possible, a marble statue of the Madonna could theoretically, through a random flash mob rebellion against normal molecular movement, wave its hand. (While somebody reliable was watching.) Rather than delve into the near-infinite absurdity of this scenario (conclusively trashed by authorities on all sides of the issue, even his own), I will simply state that Dawkins-as-final authority is a chimera, just one more example of wishful thinking, of which most or all of us are equally guilty. This colossal cock-up should serve as a warning to those who would set up any man, be it Dawkins, Darwin, C. S. Lewis, Stephen Hawking, Einstein, Karl Marx, Francis Collins, the Dalai Lama, or the Pope as bulletproof. (I plead guilty myself.)

I hasten to add that Dawkins is, barring his foibles, an important figure in the worldview debate. Iron sharpens iron. One of the more delightful surprises awaiting me in TGD was his vast appreciation of P. G. Wodehouse, to his mind and mine, “the greatest writer of light comedy in English”, not the least reason being (for both of us) his profound biblical, and therefore cultural literacy. Dawkins justly, and admirably, points out that an ignorance of the King James Version of the Bible as a vast source of our culture's rich verbal heritage would be an impoverishment. For example, Wodehouse's bumbling hero Bertie Wooster comparing his own hangover to Jael driving a tent peg through Sisera's temple (the side of his head, not a building) would ruin the inside joke, lost on a biblical illiterate. Dawkins gives us a veritable laundry list of biblical tropes, including “my brother's keeper”, “coat of many colors”, “kill the fatted calf”, “the stars in their courses”, and “the patience of Job”, among dozens of others. Though these concessions in no way diminish his contempt for religion, they, perhaps unwittingly, give it more importance than he intends.

I believe Dawkins' most glaring oversight to be his total failure to address the greatest questions ever asked: Who am I? What is the meaning of life, and of the universe? Does the universe have a purpose? Whether by brushing these aside or merely forgetting to treat them, he makes, what seems to me, the worst blunder a man on such a mission as his could possibly commit. I plead an unlearned man's ignorance of the minutiae of various schools of thought regarding the meaning of the universe, but with America's Founding Fathers (for whom Dawkins professes boundless symathy), I subscribe to the proposition that certain truths can “be self evident”. If an accidental, irrational universe can somehow “acquire” meaning and purpose, somebody had better spell the process out for me in language that even I, and others even stupider than myself, can understand.

I applaud Dawkins for his commitment to the values of honesty, compassion and decency, even as he saws off the branch he's sitting on. To those who attack him with far more hatred and violence than he himself allows himself toward even the most contemptible or misunderstood of his adversaries, I had best not say what I really think of them. My surprise at being able to enjoy so much of TGD will probably lead me to read his other books. I should very much like to meet him. If I condemn some of his more unkind characteristics, I likewise condemn them in myself (tact being a wildly variable resource in my Asperger's-infested toolbox.)

I challenge every thinking Christian or theist to read The God Delusion; likewise I challenge all agnostic or atheistic Hobbits to venture beyond the familiar and comfortable and read C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity or Francis Collins' The Language of God. And I would encourage us all to read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, a Jewish atheist who demonstrates more courage and fairness in evaluating opposing sides of the ideological spectrum than I would have dared dream possible. It's a lot of work seeing both sides of the story, but for the Biblical theist it isn't supposed to be an option - “The first to put forth his case seems right, until someone else steps forward and cross-examines him.” (Proverbs 18:17). And as for the atheist or anti-theist? What have you got to be afraid of?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Requiem For a Smoker

Smoking used to be cool. Humphrey Bogart, the iconic tough good guy, the cigarette between his lips extending his world-weary cool beyond his actual person. Jimmy Page or Keith Richards, stalking the stadium stage, guitar slung low, cigarette protruding defiantly from the rebellious rock 'n' roll sneer. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cigarette holder jauntily jutting from his confidence-inspiring grin, leading his nation through Depression and war. General Douglas MacArthur, swaggering ashore to liberate the Philippines, RayBan™ shades and corncob pipe underscoring exactly who had returned. Winston Churchill, facing the camera with his bulldog scowl and pinstripe suit, chomping his Havana cigar and wielding a Thompson submachine gun.  (The Nazis tried to use this photo as propaganda, portraying Churchill as a gangster; this backfired, partly due to the perceived glamour of the Depression-era mobsters.)

If I have left out your favorite smoker (likely), then that only serves to point out the traditional cultural acceptability, yea, even the respectability afforded tobacco use for centuries. Even historic Christian figures including J. S. Bach, Charles Spurgeon, Dietrich Bönhoeffer, C. S. Lewis and Chuck Colson were known to light up on a regular basis. Conveniently, it would seem, there is no reference to smoking in Scripture. Instead we are left to draw inferences from passages referring to 'destroy(ing) God's temple' (conveniently “countered” by Jesus' assertion that “(W)hat goes into a man's mouth does not defile him” (Matthew 15:11). Since the perceived morality of smoking is not my focus here, we can happily move on.

At my workplace there's a gentleman on maintenance staff, possibly in his mid-60s, but appearing to be possibly as old as 70. (He can fix anything I break, so I tell him that, as long as I work there, he'll have job security.) He's a wiry little guy who fought in Vietnam, and he smokes whenever the opportunity comes up. Here in Montana it sometimes gets down to -20º F. or even colder in the winter, and yet he dutifully steps outside and lights one up, as do his fellow co-workers/smokers. Now here's a guy who defied the odds and came back alive from 'Nam, choosing (I use that word loosely) to kill himself slowly, on the installment plan. But to add insult to injury, smoking is no longer permitted in the break room, nay, in the building at all. Not even a separate lounge for the smokers, just banishment to the great outdoors, even for one who honorably served his country, in a war he was too good for.

It's easy to confuse legitimate health concerns with political correctness, since in this case they often overlap. What could easily pass for some sort of ideological hysteria turns out to be not only good science, but a blessing for those of us who endured years of secondhand smoke in order to play or facilitate live music. I quit smoking at 22, four years after I started, which had the unexpected effect of making me much more hostile to the presence of cigarette smoke than I had ever been before I started smoking. I never knew that one day the official consensus regarding tobacco would one day follow suit, kicking the hapless smoker out-of-doors, and making the memory of lighting a cigarette in a movie theater or on a commercial flight seem like the memory of performing a minstrel show in blackface and a nappy wig.

I can think of no comparable fall from grace experienced by any other cultural phenomenon, good or bad. (Except maybe the Record Business.) The tobacco industry went, in a relatively short time, from claiming the health benefits of cigarettes, to rubbing our noses in the mortal perils of the same. That which was proudly advertised by everybody from Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble to future president Ronald Reagan is now a vice for pariahs. Can you imagine anybody telling George Burns, Audrey Hepburn, Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra or Mark Twain to 'take it outside'?

The good (?) news is, nearly everybody I listed here is dead, a few of them even due to of smoking-related causes. No need to be an iconoclast – the iconic smoker is history, perhaps never to be replaced.

Thirty years ago I smoked my last cigarette, scraped the cigarette burns off the headstock of my Fender Stratocaster (thanks to Eric Clapton for making me think my guitar should join in the fun) and survived the process of becoming an ex-smoker. And yet, thirty years later, not a day goes by that I don't find myself taking a drag from an imaginary Marlboro. It's not about the nicotine – I was never seriously tempted, say, to chew tobacco. Rather, it was the act of lighting up, something to do with my hands, something that was somehow relaxing. (The imaginary cigarette usually turns up when I'm faced with some uncomfortable or embarrassing memory.) And yet I pity those next to me in the store who lay out exorbitant sums of money for something I used to get for $10 per carton, who will likely not be permitted to smoke even in their own homes, let alone an airport, a nightclub or a restaurant.

I'm not the least bit conflicted about the wonderful, ubiquitous freedom from secondhand smoke we experience today, just amazed at the sea change that sank such a mighty ship, now replaced by a tramp steamer, its trail of smoke disappearing forlornly over the distant horizon. May it never return, but thanks for the memories (I think.)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Death To Originality

(For its own sake)

Those who know me personally may find such an injunction coming from me to be either ironic or crazy – I don't consider myself particularly original, but many who know me do in fact find me unconventional, even uncomfortably so. My two-part heading may be taken either to mean a) that one should not try to be original simply for the sake of being original, or b) that originality itself must perhaps not even be attempted, lest something inferior result from the attempt.

I've been stewing in this juice all day, ever since I traced it to my bungled attempt to play a particular guitar figure correctly in church this morning. By 'correctly' I mean duplicating the intro as played on the original recording of the song we were playing. The intro in question consists of playing a simple eighth note pattern against a triplet echo produced by a black box at my feet. The result is the same sort of figure heard in a song like 'Where the Streets Have No Name' by U2 or GNR's 'Welcome To The Jungle, the kind of thing I've been playing ever since Barrett Golding gave me my first digital delay line thirty years ago. But the song in question has an intro whose note sequence bears only a shadowy relationship to the song's actual harmonic content. Hearing it would cause any listener to expect the song that follows to be in the key of 'F', not the key of 'C' the rest of the song is actually in. (You may not even know what I mean by 'key', but you would nonetheless be adrift until the vocal comes in and establishes what's really going on.)

Sounds like I'm whining, doesn't it? Well, if you don't read certain Psalms because they're “whiny”, then you needn't read this either. Still, I should have immersed myself in listening to this well-recorded, well-played bit of musical disinformation instead of listening to Frank Zappa while I cleaned the kitchen, right? (Frank himself would have something to say about that.) Should have practiced it instead of going to Barrett's barbecue? Well, that might have counteracted the lackluster intro I played today, which I attributed to a) having a cold, which always affects my ability to do anything right, even if it's easy, and b) the part's inherent semi-musicality.

I'm so unoriginal that I'm going to pass the pen to C. S. Lewis for a minute, since, if I've ever been guilty of letting someone do my thinking for me, then he's the one I trust to do so:

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

“Well, that's alright for him,” someone may say. “He's already original to begin with!” Well, yes. (He was also one of the best-read men in England.) Having an imagination is one thing, but as soon as I start thinking about my imagination, I run out of ideas. So rather than bore you, I'll try to make my point and let you get back to whatever it was.

Originality is almost universally hailed as a virtue. And so it is. When a creative work takes us to new territory, challenges our preconceived notions and opens our eyes to new possibilities or shows us timeless truths in a new light, then originality becomes the unobtrusive servant of art. But even the most startling originality in the arts can nearly always be found to have deep roots in its medium's storied past. Pablo Picasso leaps to mind.

It's almost cheating to cite Picasso, but nowhere is there a better example of what I'm trying to say. For many, Picasso is nearly the only 20th century artist they can even name, let alone describe. His pioneering work in Cubism, collage and sculpture are among the most easily identified departures from the status quo during the 20th century, and their fragmentation of conventional visual themes virtually defines the word “original”, as though it all sprang without warning or precedent from the mind, heart and hands of one Spaniard. Which it didn't.

Those for whom the name “Picasso” only conjures mental images of people and objects with noses and eyes in the wrong places or pointed in wrong directions are usually ignorant of his earlier works, in which people and things are treated very realistically  . He didn't break the rules until he knew them, and then not until it was time to do so. He earned the right to innovate, which he did gradually. But even his innovations, from Modernism to his fabled 'Blue Period' to Cubism andy beyond, had roots. The Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco influenced him, as did African tribal masks and sculpture. I feel like I've already opened Pandora's can of wasp worms by dragging Picasso into our discussion, but I hope I've made my point. His influences are too many and varied to be ignored, but, filtered through the Picasso grid, they combine, crossbreed, tangle and weave into a body of work that has brought boundless vitality and joy to each new generation that discovers it.

What does this mean for the contemporary artist, musician, dancer, writer or filmmaker? I hope it means that doing good work comes to be more important than reinventing the wheel. This came home to me several years ago when I was playing bass in my church, with a drummer whose traditional vocabulary seemed quite limited, but who nonetheless seemed determined to jettison what little he had. Instead of keeping time on the ride cymbal or hi hat (two instruments, BTW, that have lent themselves to daring innovation by many great drummers from Tony Williams to Travis Barker), he tended to wander off into attempts to change it up by tapping his sticks on the rims or shells of the toms. That itself has been a useful technique for occasional use by great drummers, but in our context it only served a) to call undue attention to itself, and b) to make me (and probably others) long for a regular, solid rock drum groove that would give the song, the congregation and the band the foundation we needed to drive the message home. There's a REASON that you only seldom hear that sort of thing. Why drive a nail with flashlight when there's a hammer nearby?

I also had a very dear friend years ago who was a very skilled electric bassist, and had been regularly performed this gig with a nationally known Christian artist. But, once free of her constraints (it was children's music), he decided that his mission was to to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. Now, if you'll scroll down a bit you'll see my essay, “How Low Should You Go?”, in which I try to make the case for the bassist's job being that of making sure everyone else sounds good. My friend cared little or nothing for that – every constraint was to be thrown off, every note tried, every musical style explored, whether in or out of its natural context. I love salsa bass lines (more correctly, the tumbao pattern that helps define much afro-latin music), but not so much when it doesn't correspond to the rock groove the rest of us are playing.

Musical styles are indeed born of cross-pollination – reggae, latin jazz, highlife, western swing, none of these genres could have been born in a vacuum. Curiously enough, though, they are not the results of somebody's attempt to be original. They are, in fact, the results of the time-honored musical practice of stea . . . um, borrowing from other musical traditions. Many years ago in China I was mesmerized by the background music accompanying a Chinese acrobatic routine – someone was playing some plaintive, Chinese melodies on a notch-position Stratocaster. (The same sound you hear on 'Sweet Home Alabama' or 'Sultans of Swing'.) The result was somehow ancient and hip at the same time. Alas, I had no tape recorder with me at the time. (I have since made it a point always to bring a recording device to any country I visit.)

Chances are, your favorite music and songs are likewise Frankenstein'd together from the artiste's collective musical background. One need look no further than The Beatles to see how this can work. And while the Beatles were purposeful in their creativity, the latter was mainly the result of their simply trying to create good music with the resources at hand.

And then there's Christian worship music. How often do I go into a situation where the drummer has taken what would have been a good hi hat groove and instead transferred it to the bass drum for 64 measures, where it fascinates those whose idea of classic rock is 90's worship music, but for us old-school curmudgeons only points up the song's lack of craftsmanship? If the song is good enough, you don't have to do screwy things to the drum part to compensate for shoddy songwriting.

I'm not being completely fair. Some of these songs are reasonably well written, and as such would be at home in multiple musical genres. My old friend Karen Lafferty's standard “Seek Ye First” has thrived in classical, death metal, bluegrass, electronica and bebop settings. (I'm afraid to ask her what other styles the song has sported.) She wasn't trying to be original, she was simply expressing musically what she felt God wanted her to express. The result? Millions of people worldwide hiding the words of Christ (Matthew 6:33) in their hearts, in whatever musical heart language they love best.

Well, that paragraph didn't help me to be any more fair to anyone, so I shall instead apologize to those who may have been offended (at least I didn't name any song titles, in order to protect the guilty.) Please, feel free to innovate. Just remember, though, that innovation means begging, borrowing and stealing creative ideas anywhere an everywhere you can find them. And hopefully becoming as knowledgable about them as you can. Then “you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Twilight of the Four-Headed Monster

(Or, Why the Beatles Phenomenon Can Never Happen Again)

This just in: Emeli Sandé has just broken the Beatles' record for the longest stay by an album in the British Top 10. Please Please Me spent 62 weeks there; that feat was recently eclipsed by Emeli Sandé's Our Version of Events, 63 weeks and counting.

Wonderful! Congratulations. But my first question was: Emeli who? Is she the new 'next Beatles'? Dare we hope?

Short Answer: Are you kidding?

The Beatles phenomenon, from Beatlemania to Sergeant Pepper to university courses on the Fab Four, cannot be duplicated or even paralleled for the same reason that the American Revolution can't happen again. The circumstances leading up to, surrounding, creating and shaping the Beatles' musical and cultural impact on global society are gone. Extinct. History.

There's more to it than that, but assertions by my generation (the Baby Boomers) that today's music lacks creativity, originality and depth come dangerously close to claiming that the currently upcoming generation is uncreative, unintelligent, untalented and shallow. This seems to me highly improbable. I read many years ago that the fall of the Roman Empire was linked to the Romans' use of lead pipes in their plumbing, subjecting the best and brightest minds of its last few generations to lead poisoning and its attendant decline in mental competency. I have no reason to believe that recent, vapid assertions by teenage beauty contestants
(“…some people out there in our nation don't have maps…”) have any connection with ingestion of toxic waste, inbreeding, hereditary mental illness or anything else that could serve either to condemn or excuse said generation, or its forbears. Said generation has, however, been dealt a very different hand than the Beatles were dealt 50 years ago, and no matter how well they play that hand, the pile of chips can never again be as high as that raked in by John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The set of circumstances that allowed the Beatles to dominate pop culture could be likened to a once-per-millennium planetary alignment. European, African and Latin cultures had combined in the American Melting Pot to produce a wild hodgepodge of new sounds which gradually drifted back across the Atlantic, this time to a bleak seaport called Liverpool. The generation that had fought and won World War II now fought for personal peace, albeit a suburban peace of subdivisions, picket fences, station wagons, and patriotism (a well-deserved peace, by the way.) The generation born during and soon after the war knew little or nothing of the sacrifice and struggle that had defined their parents' world, and the 'generation gap' that had been widening since before the war now became a chasm, questioning, judging and rejecting traditional values.

A rare point of agreement between many of both generations was the election of President John F. Kennedy, who had himself fought in WWII, yet embodied the hope and vision of a young generation anxious to move forward. JFK barely had time to champion Civil Rights, the Space Race, the Peace Corps and other vital issues before being gunned down in Dallas in November of 1963. A nation was now bereft of its charismatic young leader, and countless hearts were empty, waiting for God-knew-what.

Rewind to the late 1950s, when John Lennon and Paul McCartney met fortuitously and pooled their talents, passions and lives for the sake of rock 'n' roll. The Beatles' story has been told and retold too many times to warrant even the briefest recap here, but I need to revisit certain key elements in order to force my point down your throat. The multicultural musical gumbo that American sailors brought to England on precious phonograph records was now being listened to and learned from by kids whose earliest listening experiences were largely European, particularly in the British music hall tradition. As Lennon and McCartney tried their hand at writing their own songs, the trans-Atlantic cross-pollination of musical styles was inevitable. While America coped with the Cold War and early rumblings of Vietnam, The Beatles, by now honed razor-keen by lengthy stints as a cabaret band in Hamburg, Germany as well as Liverpool, were taking England by storm with their unusual image (yes, their hair was actually considered long in 1963,) electrifying music, and an interpersonal chemistry that made them greater than the sum of their parts.

In January of 1964, into the emotional void left by the JFK assassination, a strange new song called “I Want To Hold Your Hand” became a hit in the U.S., paving the way for the Beatles' first visit to America. Their appearance on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' was like nothing we'd seen before. A rock and roll group (it wasn't yet 'rock' music) with its own collective personality? Before, you'd had 'Bill Haley and the Comets', 'Buddy Holly and the Crickets', 'Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons'. But now - a drummer with a name and a personality? Ringo? As if the 'long' hair weren't enough, the songs themselves could polarize any mixed gathering of young and old (“Yeah, yeah, yeah” arguing for banality; the eight or so chords in 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' or 'All My Loving' raising the bar for baffled garage bands everywhere).

Perhaps any major fad or fashion could have swept America in the void left after the Kennedy assassination, but the Beatles were too appealing, too controversial and too otherworldly to have been a mere fad. Their early hits, although sometimes displaying more sophistication than most standard three-chord rock songs had shown up until then, barely hinted at the groundbreaking creativity that would soon have critics and public alike grasping for words to describe it. Their first film, A Hard Day's Night, proved that they could act as well as sing and play. Lennon's first book, In His Own Write, extended the Beatles' reach to the literary realm. Lennon and McCartney's collective songwriting prowess inspired such aspiring writers as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to try their hand, with far-reaching results.

Few aspects of the Beatles have been as hotly debated as their musicianship. Part of the problem stems from so many people's confusion of being 'good' with being 'great'. To call the Beatles 'the Greatest Rock Band Ever' immediately raises the hackles of those who rightly point out the nascent virtuosity of their peers – Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who, The Yardbirds, and the next wave of British rockers like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. The Beatles never aspired to be able to play circles around guys like Eric Clapton or Ginger Baker; they simply wanted to express themselves and create good art. I side with those who assert that the Beatles' secret weapon was their chemistry - the inexplicable interaction between them that caused them to spur one another on, to compete with each other and champion one another at the same time.

As a professional musician and music teacher, I know firsthand exactly what the Beatles had going for them as instrumentalists. John Lennon is possibly the most underrated rock guitarist ever (try duplicating his blazing intro to 'Revolution' or his lilting jazz solo on 'Honey Pie', and report back here.) Paul McCartney took the humble electric bass to dizzying heights of creativity, tone and taste (I could eat his work on 'With A Little Help From My Friends' for lunch), while his occasional forays into six-string territory produced such landmark tracks as the acoustic rite of passage, 'Blackbird', and his snarling east-meets-west solo on George Harrison's 'Taxman'. George himself rose through the ranks, going from minimal competence (his barely-passable intro to 'Roll Over Beethoven') to delightful creativity (his tangled descending runs on 'Help!') to indispensable (his timeless contributions to 'Strawberry Fields Forever'). His forays into Indian classical music infused his guitar playing with sitar-hardened discipline – witness the exquisite solo on his Abbey Road masterpiece 'Something', and the flawless microtonality of his slide guitar work thereafter.

Ringo gets his own paragraph (sorry, taller Beatles.) He holds the distinction of being almost certainly the most underrated and overrated drummer of all time. He deserves it, too. A southpaw, forced as a child to write with his right hand, Ringo brought a secret weapon to the table, one generally reserved for highly trained percussionists: A recessive hand that could keep up with his dominant left. Thus his two-handed unison fills that created the sonic illusion of two drummers playing the same thing on two different drums. (The “so-in-love-with-you” climax of “Tell Me Why”, as seen in the film A Hard Day's Night, is a perfect example of this difficult technique, effortlessly executed by this self-taught inspiration to thousands of young drummers.) Others have written at length about Ringo's musical importance and vast influence, so I turn reluctantly from an in-depth analysis of same to the incidental fact, alluded to above, of Ringo's instantly identifiable persona – for many early Beatles observers, he was the only member they could pick out at once. (I myself couldn't tell the other three apart at first, even in the cartoons.) The once-humble drummer was now a star, an equal partner, receiving the most fan mail of the Four, and paving the way for the Phil Collinses, the Dave Grohls and the Don Henleys who would silence those who long considered drummers to be somehow less than musicians.

This dynamic, combined with the Beatles' unequalled impact on music and culture, led many to assume that the drummer of in the Greatest Band of All Time must therefore be the Greatest Rock Drummer of All Time. John Lennon, in response to this assumption, allegedly alluded to Paul's considerable drumming prowess with the quip, “He wasn't even the best drummer in the Beatles!(Note: This quote has since been debunked. Ed.) Still, greatness trumps mere virtuosity, and Ringo's status as Most Influential Drummer Ever is rivaled only by his friend and colleague, Led Zeppelin's John Bonham.

The Beatles, more than anybody before or since, raise a chicken-or-the-egg question: Did they shape culture, or merely reflect it? The Sixties, that turbulent decade of war, protests, innovation, discovery, creativity, social and cultural upheaval, ad infinitum, surely would have happened anyway. It could be argued that the Fab Four were both agent and patient, standard bearers of both their own revolutionary brand of creativity, and that of their contemporaries. The Beatles did in fact frequently pay homage not only to their early rock 'n' roll influences (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc.) but also to their peers and rivals. The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Bob Dylan, and even Fleetwood Mac provided inspiration for stylistic experimentation as the Beatles themselves turned influence into originality.

The world in which record labels would invest in new artists, allowing them to develop over the course of several albums, is gone. So are the days of the album cover, that square foot of cardboard that allowed artists to boldly express themselves in a way that the measly CD insert or mp3 artwork can never hope to equal. Boy bands rocket to stardom, then plummet to punchline status in the same amount of time it took the Beatles to discover, then abandon the electric 12-string guitar. Not even Michael Jackson's stunning rise and fall could ever equal the Beatles' status as game-changers whose influence will forever extend far beyond mere music (as though music could ever be thus trivialized.)

So, the Grand Funk Railroads and Spice Girls and Emeli Sandés of this world will forever be hyped as “outselling the Beatles”, “more popular than the Beatles”, “staying on the charts longer than the Beatles”, and “having more #1 hits than the Beatles” (remember the remix of Elvis' “A Little Less Conversation”? Me either.) The Four Headed Monster (as Mick Jagger dubbed them) continues to roar from the highest mountaintop, challenging all comers. And eating them for lunch.

Monday, June 24, 2013

To Drum or Not to Drum

(That is the question)

I just came off the road last week, playing drums for an up-and-coming Americana/Country artist. Thing is, I'm a professional guitar player. I'm not at all sure how the band member who asked me to do the tour even found out I played the drums, since every drumming gig I've had since the mid-80s has been either church or missions related. Nonetheless, I've been playing drums for 35 years, and I thought it would be good to get out and be responsible for keeping the dance floor full and the band happy, gig after gig. I succeeded, albeit with a renewed appreciation for what professional drummers have to do every night (especially those who don't have roadies to set up and tear down their gear for them.) I'm grateful for the experience (and the income I earned, which was more than I would have earned doing my day gig), but I have happily resumed the guitar and vocal chores with my regular band, with my little brother capably manning the drum throne.

Meanwhile, a friend texted me this morning from his church gig somewhere back East, playing electric guitar, and lamented, “Bobby Brady on drums”. For those too young to remember, there was an episode of the early 70s sitcom 'The Brady Bunch' in which little Bobby decides to take up drums , which he attacks with the abandon of Keith Moon and the talent of Rebecca Black.  This came to mind when my friend tried to describe the frustration of having a 'drummer' either incapable of or unwilling to play an appropriate musical accompaniment for the worship service. There are a number of people who would not be bothered by this, but I fancy (unless I flatter the general populace) that such people are relatively rare. There are many who know nearly nothing about music, but there are virtually none who regularly listen to music in which the drums slow down, speed up, lose the beat, play irrelevant fills and fail to provide an adequate rhythmic foundation for the song. (Except at church.)

I have long maintained that a band is only as good as its drummer, and I cite two instances that (hopefully) make my assertion axiomatic: The first involves a team of musicians I was preparing for a month-long outreach in Venezuela. The musicians I had were, shall I say, minimally competent, but in no way remarkable. We also suffered from the absence of a drummer; by the time we finally found one, we only had one week of rehearsal left. But this was no ordinary drummer. José proved not only to be the best unknown Christian drummer I'd ever worked with, he also had a personality that catalyzed the rest of the band into a living, breathing, seven-headed monster. His musicality ranged from delicate finesse to raging, in-your-face thunder, causing the rest of us to sound much better than we actually were. The outreach proved to the both the most effective and the most enjoyable I've ever been on.

Instance two: My wife and I were assembling a band for a tour of hispanic churches in the U.S., mainly in Texas. We had assembled an uncommonly good group of musicians for the tour, but again, we couldn't seem to fill the drum throne. I found an audition tape of a guy playing drums in 5/4 to a Joe Satriani tune, and convinced myself that his ability to maintain an odd time signature while playing along with a recording might translate into the ability to play drums in a touring band. Initial rehearsals, however, confirmed my worst fears, and the drummer (a young man of unusually high Christian character) offered to bow out. For whatever reason, though, I decided to make it work, and I built a contraption consisting of two boxes connected by a long cable – one box on the floor by my guitar pedals, with a green button and a red one; the other box secured to the top of the bass drum, with a green LED and a red one. If the drummer was losing the beat (more often the case), I'd step on the green button, which lit up the green LED on the bass drum. Then I had to wait for him to notice and pick up the tempo until it was right for the song. Rarely, he'd play faster than the song called for; the red LED signaled him to slow down. Still, we played some high profile gigs (including a TV show taped in Houston and broadcast over much of Latin America) in which our otherwise fine band was compromised by a subpar drummer. Fortunately for me, his patience and humility enabled him to endure much of my frustrated micromanagement – this, by the way, was an anomaly. Rare in my experience is the mediocre drummer with the ability to receive corresponding amounts of correction and criticism.

Which brings me to my original point: A band is only as good as its drummer. In most popular music, both in the West and in non-Western cultures, drums and percussion form the backbone of the vast majority of musical expression. Sure, many bands occasionally find expedient to give the drummer a break from the kit in order to express musical delicacy (i.e., the Beatles' “Yesterday”) or corporate callousness (Pink Floyd's “Welcome to the Machine”), but these exceptions have no place in this discussion. I'm after a harder truth here, one that will not sit well with everybody.

Most of us have heard many different drummers playing live – some good, many average, some bad. The problem I address is that of drums in corporate worship settings. In most such situations, the musicians are volunteers, usually unpaid. Compare this with the world of semi-pro and professional music, in which you may find a bad drummer playing in a nightclub. Although such situations are not uncommon, the other band members (and their audiences) are rarely satisfied with the situation, and as such bands become more successful (and thus better paid), the groove-challenged drummer is almost never heard from again, jettisoned in favor of one who can drive a dance floor or make a studio recording come alive. By the time a band was signed to a record label (back in the day of record labels), even a drummer who was competent often found himself spelled in the studio by the producer's favorite session cat, since the quality of the record could make or break the band. Even Ringo Starr, who went on to become one of the most influential drummers in history, was replaced on the album version of the Beatles' 'Love Me Do' by session veteran Andy White, since producer George Martin wasn't yet convinced that Ringo (who had only recently replaced the minimally competent Pete Best on drums) was ready for the big time.

Survival of the fittest, right? Well, only in the real jungle of professional music, in which there's only so much money to go around. The church is another matter.

I can only speak for myself, but I have heard from others as well, that amateurish musicianship on a worship team can be a distraction from, or even an impediment to, the flow of worship even as experienced by non-musicians. I'm terrible – every missed bass note I hear, every out-of-tune string, every wrong chord (usually suggested by a randomly downloaded chord chart), every botched drum fill, they all make me wince (or worse, laugh, earning me withering glances from my wife, who is herself a beautifully gifted musician.) But of all these foibles, the one most likely to stand out to the untrained ear is the drumming. Even an unmusical person may notice that the drummer has lost the beat and is now playing the snare on 1 and 3, even though they may not be able to articulate it in those terms. I fancy that a significant percentage of the congregation may find it distracting or even unpleasant, while a few of us would rather be in the dentist's chair than in that church, hearing this awkwardness being served up in the guise of corporate worship.

How many of us would tolerate the same incompetence on the music we listen to on the radio, on our iPods, on TV? Well, we don't have to think about it, since it doesn't APPEAR in those formats. I can think of a few instances on well-known recordings (almost all of which were made in the 1960s or early 70s) where the drum groove wavers a bit, but still makes it to the final recording, reflecting the limited time and studio budgets that were often the rule in those days. But the drummers in question (I'm thinking here of wonderfully loopy English drummers like Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon) were generally admired and imitated; their rare studio inconsistencies were mostly due to the factors listed above. If they had gotten saved and become part of your church worship team, they would have blown the roof off the joint, that is, if you could even keep up with them.

The drummers I'm chiding here are of another stripe altogether: They know just enough to be dangerous. In my experience as a drum teacher, I have taught scores of kids to play, say, a basic 4/4 beat (such as the one heard on Michael Jackson's Billie Jean' and AC/CD's 'Back In Black') – I teach this as a confidence builder, meant to motivate the student who might otherwise become discouraged if only initially allowed to play snare rudiments on a practice pad. (Some drum instructors swear by this method, which admittedly might weed out some of the dilettantes I'm about to mention.) The mechanics of this beat are so simple that I have only had a very few students fail to execute them for at least one measure during the first lesson.

This pattern, unfortunately, can be performed by many people of highly questionable musical skill, resulting in the grossly oversimplified observation, “Hey, I (you, he, she) can PLAY THE DRUMS!” No chords to learn, no scales, no strum patterns, just play that beat and a few fills (often improvised by novices who have never in their lives listened with care to a real drummer playing a real fill), and Hey, We Have A Drummer! (Actually, you don't – if the available instrumentation needs drums but an adequate drummer isn't available, better to scale back to perhaps a solo keyboard or acoustic guitar than to 'try to make it work anyway'.) Another way to describe this situation might be 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.'

Granted, this could just as easily be the way a great drummer starts out, but it just as often leads to problems. A beginner studying with a drum teacher might have just as much (or as little) musical talent as one who is self taught (as I was), but the former may have the advantage of a teacher who can provide guidance as to when and where to play, as well as what. A young drum student of mine recently played 'Twist and Shout' at a talent show with two other kids (and a grizzled music biz veteran on bass) – it was an appropriate setting for a nine-year old kid who's been playing drums for about six months. Other than the random cymbal hit at the end (“We're done now”), it was cute and harmless, enjoyed by the parents in attendance, of whom only a very few could have done as good a job on the kit.

I would not, however, send that same kid to play for a church service – not for a long time, anyway. I consider the responsibility to be too great. He's not ready. Corporate worship is not a recital. But I don't attend his church, and I'm not even usually in charge of who plays at my own. If I were, I could have avoided the following worst-case scenario:

Some years ago in Venezuela, a new drummer turned up at my church. “Francisco” was a handsome young man, with the build of a serious weightlifter. I wasn't consulted, only informed that he would be playing drums for some services. Francisco could play a rock beat on the drums, and knew a fill consisting of a close flam followed by a couple of tom hits (splat/ka-SPLUT), which always sounded somehow louder than it probably was. He had no finesse, no dynamics, and two fatal flaws that should have immediately ruled him out as a church drummer: a) He would often come out of a fill with the beat reversed, but he couldn't tell it was wrong, and he couldn't change it even if you asked him to, and b) he couldn't adjust the tempo if the song was too fast or too slow. Imagine singing “Blessed Be Your Name” at the tempo best reserved for “How Great is Our God” - with no way to get it up to speed, no matter how much you plead with the drummer – and you'll get the picture. Add to this mess my negligible interpersonal skills, which rival those of a honey badger, light fuse, get away. My attempts – during the actual worship service - to get Francisco to play the correct tempo or stop hitting the snare on 1 and 3, were interpreted by him as malice on my part, and he eventually declared he would never play with me again. I wish I could say I was saddened by this development, but the only sad thing for me (besides his drumming) was that I couldn't have achieved this in a more diplomatic fashion. (I'm also grateful that he didn't decide to beat me up, which he surely could have done far better than he played “Eres Todopoderoso”.)

This sort of thing can happen on different levels. One of the most common, which I observed in one of the best-known churches in South America, involved a young man who, shall we say, knew too much. He clearly had some talent and skill, but he was determined to make sure everybody there knew it. Time for a fill? He approached this as if he were being paid by the note. Now, I like a cool, impressive fill as much as the next guy, but at the expense of the groove? Yes. He'd lose the pulse, and force everyone else to follow him. Now, a drum fill should advance the song, like the turning of a page, or the beginning/end of a paragraph. It might ramp up the intensity, put the brakes on the same, or set us up for a totally new musical expression. It is not an interruption of the groove, it is an extension of it. (One exercise I've inflicted on many a drum student is to take a fill they'd executed poorly and make them play it eight times in succession, looped, as though it were the groove itself – after that, their execution of said fill, in context, often recouped its musicality.)

Contrast this with the world's greatest drummers – one of these, Vinnie Colaiuta, can play the most outlandish polyrhythms, the craziest solos, and the most intricate drum parts ever written. But when he plays a tune like 'Asa' (Lee Ritenour with Djavan), he throws down that basic 4/4 groove with nothing more than a couple of well-placed 16th note triplet fills to even hint at the snarling drum beast within. And when he plays for worship (Vinnie has been a Christian since 1998), he uses his stunning musicality not to call attention to himself, but to God. I believe my best moments as a church drummer are when, with Vinnie as my role model, I seek to apply all my skills – timekeeping, vocabulary, teamwork – to laying down a groove that will help to focus God's people on Him, not me. That's not to say I don't cut loose – I'm an energetic drummer, and many songs call for all the energy I can muster. If the comments of the congregation are any reflection, then a lot of people are facilitated in worship by my approach. Soli Deo gloria.

As long as the church consists of imperfect people (which I predict could be a while), worship leaders and musical directors will appoint drummers who are either unaware of, or incapable of, the drummer's responsibility to make everybody else sound good. I'm writing this in hopes that some will read it and take seriously the drummer's enormous responsibility and make wise choices, whether to keep unqualified drummers off the platform, or in the case of said drummers, to keep themselves off the platform until such a time that they are able minister on the drum kit in such a way that will edify everyone in the congregation, including oversensitive people like myself.