Friday, July 17, 2009

Learning the Songs of Boanerges

"Any poet, if he is to survive beyond his 25th year, must alter; he must seek new literary influences; he will have different emotions to express." So says T. S. Eliot and I pretty much agree. For me it was my 27th and 28th year. Two things happened at about the same time: I married Jennifer and the music scene changed into something incomprehensible to me. This is not the place to deal with the blessings, challenges, etc. of marriage. I'll just simplify matters by saying that when Paul is offering advice about marriage in I Corinthians 7, and suggests that young men and women not marry, he is not against marriage; he is just stating a reality: if you marry, you will be taking on responsibilities that might conflict with your personal mission. True enough. I married the woman God had for me (I knew the moment I saw her, but that's another story). The fact is, when you marry, your world changes. It should change. My position of solitary troubadour and lonely artist changed. Jennifer filled an enormous hole in my heart. I wasn't just writing from a new place, I was having trouble relating to my own songs.

The second thing was the music scene. My greatest influence in the late seventies was a group of L.A. singer-songwriters, mostly on Asylum Records: Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Warren Zevon, the Eagles, Lowell George and Little Feat. The lyrics resonated with my own experiences and feelings. Then came disco and punk. I could understand punk--back to the roots of rock'n'roll--but I couldn't participate. I wasn't 20 and I wasn't angry. Disco was mindless fun. Not where I was going. The closest thing I could find by 1980 was a cluster of country writers who were still writing and singing worthy songs. Rodney Crowell and Roseanne Cash were at the top of that list. Here I was, listening to country music.

Musically, I was lost. I really didn't see where Christian music was going or what its purpose was. By now, CCM (Contemporary Christian Music as "Jesus Music" came to be called) was a force in the music market. There were still good records coming out, but the glitz and polish seemed to be taking over. And by now the stated mission of many in the field was to provide a Christian alternative to popular music, "the kids" would have something "wholesome" to listen to instead of what was on secular radio. This "protect the kids" logic became what I call "bunker" mentality. Let's build a family life center with a gym so the kids won't be exposed to the heathens at the rec center. We'll pipe music that sounds like the radio hits but with antiseptic (often downright anesthetic) lyrics and keep 'em safe. Well, it is a dangerous world, but I could not see myself as a provider of background music to the basement scenes of "Night of the Living Dead."

So, I didn't do much except the occasional spot at Skylight, the Christian Brothers coffee house. Around 1988 and 1989, I played with my brother David and Michael Bynum as The Guise. [Note: Had a blast playing a reunion gig with them at Moonsong last month. The recording's not bad either.] That was fun and got me back into playing. Then came Permanent Wave.

Permanent Wave started as one of the bands at Seventies Night at Skylight. Late 1991, I think. We put it together to do some of our old '70s songs. That night Nori and I were both on guitar, Michael B played bass, Kenny Young played drums, and Diane Johnson on keyboards. It was such a success that we decided to practice and become a real band. Diane had to back out, but Debbie Handy took over keys and brought some of her songs. By the way, everyone in the band could sing. We were a band for the rest of the decade. We backed other artists at Skylight including Don & Faith Peters, Joanna Stockard, and Barry Goss. We played several times at the coffee house and even did some road trips. Probably the greatest time as that early band was playing behind Pearl and Larry Brick. That was a night to remember. After the gig, Larry Brick said we had the "Allman Brothers anointing." I took that as a good thing.

By this time I had found my musical purpose--worship. Hanging out at the Vineyard (which met at Skylight on Sundays but was not affiliated with Christian Brothers), I began to experience the Presence of God in worship. Often in was instrumental worship. Permanent Wave, besides being a performing band, was also a worship band, often an improvisational worship band. Back around '98 or '99, one of my students volunteered to do sound for a gig in a new coffeehouse opening in Attalla. It was a long, narrow building, but very cool. We set up the gear and Wes, the student, moved the faders, and we all had a fine time. Often songs would last ten to twenty minutes as they "took off" and we "flowed" (if you've ever experienced those two apostropheed terms, you know what I mean). As we were packing up, Wes, who had never heard us play before said, "You guys are like Widespread Panic Gets Saved." I said, "What?" He returned, "O.K. Grateful Dead Gets Saved." For the people in the coffee house, maybe we were background music. Back where we were, we were having church.

Nori married Barbie in 1993 and left the band shortly after that. Kim England joined. Now we another singer-songwriter-keyboardist. The dynamics changed immediately. I remember the first practice. I brought a new song and the band was all over it. We probably played it for 30 minutes, most of the time in instrumental improv. Improv is what this band did best. Kim and Debbie might start playing something, Michael would pick up a bass line and Kenny the rhythm. I might lay out for a while, or do fills, or--when the Spirit moved--soar into a solo. When it would get really hot, Michael and I would find ourselves playing off each other's lines with harmonies, echoes, or counterpoint. We practiced one weeknight every week whether we had a gig coming up or not. It was a time of experimental music and experimental worship. It was reason enough.

Around 1997 I started a morning service at the Vineyard. It was a small service, and at first I led the music worship portion by myself or with Jen. Later, I put together a worship band. It was exciting because most of the band was so young. I led with acoustic or electric guitar and voice. Liz played acoustic guitar and sang. Zach Abercrombie played bass. Tiffany Holliday played violin. Matt Lipscomb played my Hammond-clone Korg CX3. We didn't have a regular drummer, but Chad Bynum played more often than not. Sometimes Jen joined us with vocals. I got a chance to push Liz out front now and again and give Tiffany some room to play. Liz and Zach have gone on to be first-class worship leaders themselves. Liz and Tiffany would be playing again starting around 2000 in my favorite band--Even So.

These days I play on other worship leaders' teams or lead myself. Liz and I are backing Todd Bagley's alt-country-flavored worship for a 12-step recovery meeting. Last Sunday backing Bruce Cornutt was a great time with God. When I was young, the image of angels forever (and I mean forever) praising God sounded sort of, well, boring. But when God is there...all I can say is I can see how they could do that forever.

I've started singing some of the old songs again and I'm working on some new ones. I'm listening to a wide variety of music, everything from Radiohead to Lucinda Williams. Mostly, I've enjoyed watching both of my children in the process of surpassing me as musicians. But, after being chided by Joy (Pippin) Wells, self-proclaimed Extortioner of the Saints, I have had to admit that I ain't dead yet. There's that story about the guy who buried his talent. Didn't work out so well.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Climbing Dante's Ladder

This post is not about musical influences and experiences as much as it is about what experiences influenced the music.

C. S. Lewis entitled his autobiography Surprised by Joy. An early encounter with an inexplicable delight led him, ultimately, to the source of true joy--God. In my case it wasn't joy, it was love that was the great mystery and desire. It's difficult to explain why. I grew up in a household full of love, so it wasn't a sense of deficiency that drove me; it was a sense of wonder. I learned in elementary school that there was something magical in infatuation. Even as an adolescent, I found the emotional sensation more alluring than the physical. I'm not suggesting that the physical drive wasn't there--I was a boy, after all--just that the "in love" feeling had something transcendent, something spiritual, about it. I like the way Lewis said it in The Four Loves: “Sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved.” So, I thought about love a lot. I had crushes. But I had no girlfriends. I had a few friends who were girls, but I had no girlfriends. I had what we called in those days an inferiority complex. I didn't think any girl I was interested in would be interested in the likes of me. I never dated in high school. But I thought about love a lot. I began to experience some real relationships (not many by most standards). Love seemed to offer both exhilaration and suffering, the stuff poems and songs are made of. I began to write poems and songs.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it wasn't the direct love of God that I felt in that small prayer group that turned me to Him; it was the indirect love of God these people were showing each other. I began to see that all love comes from, and leads to, God. Yes, there are perversions of love just like there are perversions of every good thing. But love, like every good thing, comes from God. Again, Lewis: “Love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god.” Anything flowing from the Source that we put in the place of the Source, we make a god, and we pervert. Anything. It's a violation of the First Commandment. But God isn't just full of love, He is love (1 John 4:8). Seeking love, to know what it was, what it felt like, what it cost--these things were leading me to a deeper understanding of the nature of God and his intentions for human relationships. Looking around at our culture, I couldn't help but notice the absolute stupidity of a society that made sex and romance it's religion and left behind broken-hearted people who could not understand how some guy or girl could not make them whole. But I was finding love. I had friends and family I could trust. I had a few romantic relationships that I didn't have to feel ashamed of: you love, you lose, you hurt, but you didn't do anything wrong; you just weren't a match. We really were "brothers and sisters in Christ." Sometimes the boy-girl relationship would border on romantic. So? Sometimes it crossed the border. So? It was sweet and fun and, well, innocent. Not innocent as in naive. Innocent as in not guilty. Anyway, know of a better pool of potential mates? Beats dating.

So the mysticism and mystery of love drew me into grace. Grace drew me deeper into love. My music reflected that journey. I was no good at writing a "praise" song (as we called them then) unless it was about something I had experienced. I wrote the simple little chorus "Gather Together" because I had found it profoundly true that we need each other in the Body. I would not have survived without my brothers and sisters. I had tried before and failed, but plugged into an organic body, I could thrive. I wrote "How Could You Be So Good" right after Jen and I were engaged to be married. I was used to God the Mighty, God the Teacher of Life Lessons, Jesus Lover of My Soul, but meeting, getting to know, and falling in love with Jennifer was the fulfillment of years of hopes and desires. I met the Lord Who Loves the Lover.

Not everything I have written has been about love per se, but it's at the core of what I have written because it is at the core of me. For the first three decades of my life I was a discoverer, a sojourner of love. Since then I have been learning how to put love into everyday practice. That's a bit more prosaic, so there hasn't been much poetry or music about it. Except maybe the best song I ever wrote, "Moment of Wonder."

Once all my life was visions
And all my friends musicians
We would spend those fertile hours waxing wise
With the syncopated drumming
And the air conditioner humming
In the innocence and glory of the guise

We were the things we had to be
As refugees from reality
But purer hearts a man could never find
If I knew then what I know now
I know I'd have done it all anyhow
'Cause no one can hear the music like the blind

Wasn't that a moment of wonder
Weren't those the days that saw us free
How could we have ever come closer
To being the hungry artists we wanted to be

Now all our wives are women
And our skill is in our living
We've seen a certain change, a change of heart and mind
And as my dreams become reality
And reality more clear to me
I can see that only love can outlive time

I know there is temptation
In reliving a situation
Where you hold the past like you'd hold a dying friend
But living friends grow older
And only the living can shoulder
The things our dreams give rise to in the end

Isn't this a moment of wonder
Isn't love worth learning how to see
How could we have ever come closer
To being the contented lovers we wanted to be
Tobeing the contended lovers we needed to be

(Copyright 1983 H W Finlayson Jr)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Band Days

Definition of terms: To me, a band has a bass player and a drummer. Add one or more instruments, and you have a band. You can have a "group"--even a group with a name--without a rhythm section, but you can't have a real band.

For me, involvement in bands was gradual. As I have previously mentioned, I had been in a real band before I became a Christian, but we only practiced, never played. The duo that Don and I had grew as the coffeehouse grew. While Emory was around [check out for info on Emory] we had a group that consisted of Don and Jennie Rakestraw (married Feb 1974), Emory Boggs, Irene (nee Finlayson, now Elrod) playing bass (Emory found her a Wurlitzer 200 electric piano, but I don't remember her playing it with us), and myself on acoustic (later electric) guitar. We played our coffeehouse, the Albertville coffee house, churches in Birmingham and around here, a weekend revival somewhere in south Alabama with a preacher with the funniest "road" stories. We went to New Orleans for a youth meeting. I'll never forget that trip. They all have their own stories that I would love to tell someday. Not today.

That group evolved into Christian Brothers Band by 1976 (see David's 5/29/08 blog at Still no drums, so not really a band in my book. Then I met Nori Kelley and around 1977 we started working on the band Precious Little. We had heard each other's material and were adequately impressed to try to form a band. Mostly, we liked each other and enjoyed each other's company as well as the music. Although we played several times as an acoustic duo, we never got to play as a band. We did record some things on a Teac four-track with Fred Ryan (R.I.P.) and a bass player named Bobby something. The tapes sounded good. Later, in 1978, Larry Sanford (drums) and Barry Goss (guitar/bass), both formerly of Psalm, joined us for a summer of rigorous, disciplined practice (Nori's influence), but in the end, no gigs. This band was being developed while Barry and I were on the road doing sound for Terry Talbot and others. The touring experience was a terrific tutorial with lessons I have never forgotten. Travel light, as economically as possible, get the most sound from the fewest people and least gear, and remember what you're doing and why you're doing it.

Although Nori and I shared admiration for many of the same artists, he also opened my ears to a lot of new influences. One in particular was Robbie Robertson and The Band. Of course, I had heard their radio hits and liked them, but Nori helped me see the potential in that vibe--the personal application I could acquire. Soon I would have the perfect opportunity to use it.

In 1978 Don and Faith Peters (with Joe Pfau on drums and Rick Reed on bass) came and played at our new, improved coffee house on Seventh Street. I loved their songs, harmonies, rhythm, and funky-country-rock. But the whole time I was sitting there thinking "They need an electric guitar." Then, "They need me." I don't mean that arrogantly. I just mean that I could hear the parts. I approached them and Don said that would be great if I didn't mind practicing in Birmingham. Didn't mind at all.

At the first practice, I carried a notebook and wrote down all the words and chords. That week I ran over the chords and worked out what I could remember. Next practice I was on top of it. Everything just fit. We started playing quite a bit. At first, I struggled with serious stage fright, something that didn't bother me in a "group," but somehow terrified me in a "band." Slowly, I got over it. We got a chance to record an album. I think I did some of my most tasteful playing with that band, and it doesn't bother me at all to listen to that stuff now. In fact, as is so often the case, the pre-overdub version was better than the release version (my opinion). Nori sat in with slide guitar and became a member of the band. Somewhere in there Jim Pollard had joined as well. With two drummers and two lead guitarists, the band took on a heavier dynamic, but could play the earlier things just as well.

Playing with Don and Faith was just plain fun. Why did it end? Well, by September 1979 I had married Jen, Rick had decided to accept work in a band doing beach ministry in Virginia Beach, VA, and, well, it was that point where you commit heavily to the band or you pull up stakes. Everybody was suddenly on different courses. There was no conflict; it was just time. But I will always very fondly remember those days. And it was great to see Don and Faith down from Memphis for The Guise reunion and to reconnect via Facebook.

Gear note: 1976 Fender "hardtail" (non-vibrato) Strat and Music Man 210-65 amp. Acoustic for three decades: Sunburst 1976 Martin D-28.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Toward a Christian Aesthetic

For any artist--I use the term in the broadest sense--there are influences, even obsessions, with a virtual mentor bordering on idolatry. I was no different. I could name them: Pete Townshend as a writer and guitarist, Eric Clapton, especially Bluesbreakers, Derek and the Dominos, and his 461 band days, Jackson Browne as a writer, David Lindley as a player of infinite taste and nuance. T. S. Eliot as a poet. Evelyn Waugh as a fiction writer. In the early days, when I sang a Neil Young song, I vocalized like Neil Young, same for George Harrison. Gradually, I began to develop my own "voice"--not just vocally, but my own style. Musically, I was absorbing aesthetics that were part of a pretty hedonistic culture and that bothered me. Jesus Music had posed the question (via Larry Norman): "Why should the devil have all the good music?" Why indeed.

There comes a stage when you have to strike out on your own and come to your own conclusions. In 1973, Susan, the girl I was dating, and I decided to forego secular music. Susan had a great stereo her older brother had put together. It was a pleasure listening to music in her living room, and that's what we would often do--just sit there and listen to music. After listening to the Allman Brothers "Live at the Fillmore East," we both felt sort of depressed, or more accurately, oppressed. So, we decided to give it up for a while. I was playing every weekend and there was good Christian music available both live and on record. For several months we held out, and I'm here to say it was a good thing. There was a purging of sorts. It was like a fast. I can't really explain it, but it brought things into sharper focus. I wish I could be more specific, but I can't. The results played out over the coming years and was not a momentary epiphany. I began to explore the Why of the music I would write and sing.

For some reason our musical fast came to an end. I remember listening to "Dark Side of the Moon" and "Quadrophenia" at Susan's. I began to notice that secular music could somehow be "anointed" (a term that I didn't use at the time). And "solid," Biblical Christian music could be, well, lame. I had to know why.

I don't intend to answer the theological/philosophical question to everybody's satisfaction here. At the time, I only had to do it to my own satisfaction. One thing I noticed about songs of mine that seemed inspired, or anointed, or bore fruit--whatever: They were often songs about people and real events that somehow touched me. One of my earliest songs, "Gordy," was about a guy I didn't know, but whose death touched me because it touched someone I cared about. It was about a mysterios, intangible bond of love that seemed uniquely Christian. But the song was not a Christian song per se. A song I wrote a couple of years later, "Rhonda's Song," was about a friend who confessed that she felt ugly because she had acne. She had looked beautiful to me and I never noticed the acne until she brought it up. I wrote the song for her and sent it to her (on 8-track!) but never intended to sing it in a Christian setting. One Saturday night at the coffeehouse I felt that I should sing it. After a brief argument with God, I gave in and sang it. You have to understand. Singing a non-"spiritual" song there was like getting up in a traditional church for a solo and starting out "Jeremiah was a bullfrog..." But I sang it. Afterward, two young ladies came to talk to me about how God spoke to them through that song and told them that they were beautiful.

Reading T. S. Eliot's essay "Religion and Literature," which happened to be in a lit textbook I was using for a course at the time, reading C. S. Lewis's statement that we don't need more Christian writers (i.e., propogandists) but more Christians who are writers (artists), and my own experience that, generally, my most effective songs were not on a specifically Christian theme, led me to my own aesthetic. Whatever I wrote or sang, it had to be real. I could not do a "cover" version of any song, still can't. At first, I thought it was because I was undisciplined and lazy, not willing to go to the trouble. I found that I wouldn't go to the trouble because it wasn't worth the trouble. On the other hand, I would steal any good idea I could find and bury it in my kit bag. I ran across a quote that helped me reconile this theft. T. S. Eliot: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." Yes! And thus my motto: "Copy nothing; steal anything." There's a difference between the 1983 TV remake of "Casablanca" starring David Soul(why? why? why?) and James Joyce or the Coen Brothers "stealing" the plot and/or characters of Homer's "The Odyssey." Eric Clapton stole every good lick from every good bluesman that anybody went to the trouble to record. But the way he strung those lines together made them his own.

So, I guess the best way to describe my aesthetic is that I will try to absorb anything that seems good without trying to test its Christian utility, just its beauty or sublimity. If my heart and mind are in the right place, and I am sensitive to the Spirit, then what comes out may seem spiritual or not, but it will be real. My job, really, is not to make holy things, but to make art. And the holy thing is not a holy thing because it resembles other holy things; it is a holy thing because God has sanctified it--set it aside from the mundane for his divine purpose. He can do that with whatever He chooses.