Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lent and Tony Bennett

I Left My Heart in San Francisco
The loveliness of Paris
Seems somehow sadly gay
The glory that was Rome
Is of another day
I've been terribly alone
And forgotten in Manhattan
I'm going home to my city by the bay.
I left my heart in San Francisco
High on a hill, it calls to me.
To be where little cable cars
Climb halfway to the stars!
The morning fog may chill the air
I don't care!
My love waits there in San Francisco
Above the blue and windy sea.
When I come home to you, San Francisco,
Your golden sun will shine for me!

San Francisco has always been a special place for my wife and me. We got engaged on a hill by the Golden Gate Bridge at sundown. So, our house and my study at the church are peppered with Golden Gate pictures. On top of all this, Jamie and I got to see Tony Bennett--whom Sinatra called "the best g.d. pop singer in the world"--a few years ago and, of course, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is one of his signature songs. Many good thoughts of my dear Love.

Lent is about getting back to our “first Love." Over the course of the year, and my life, I have wandered through many experiences. Those experiences have often left me feeling sad, alone, forgotten, looking at lost glory, and longing for something real. My true home is with my first Love, the God who purposefully made us and all that is.

Sin competes for our affections, and we have too often strayed from true love. Lent is the time when we consider our mortality and the mortality of the things we chase after. It all turns to dust—we will turn to dust—and there is no life apart from God. Nevertheless, there IS life in God—life abundant and eternal.

We fast and/or "give something up" to remind ourselves that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. God is our life. God is our love. We should long to hear a word from our Love, to find ourselves captured in his gaze and held forever in his embrace. But he isn't the one who wanders.

So, at Lent, we tear up our "little black book" of competing affections. We drag ourselves off the streets where we've been trolling for something more. And we come back to the doorstep of our first Love. "When I come home to you, San Francisco, your golden sun will shine for me!"

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I Wish I'd Written That (#15-11)

Here are numbers 15 through 11 of the songs that plunge me into the sin of covetousness every time I hear them. Again, I'm not saying they're the best songs ever written or even the (technically) best songs by the particular artist. They just capture something that I (and millions of others) connect with and, when I hear them, I say to myself, "I wish I'd written that." Numbers 20-16 can be found here . Look for #10-6 soon...

*Why not start with another brilliant Don Henley song? In addition to the fact that I'm a fan of the simpler, more "zen" westerns (e.g. Clint Eastwood spaghettis and Cormac McCarthy books), this song has a personal connection for me, perfectly conveying for me--even as a child--what I wanted to say to a wayward father.

Also, just a damn fine piece of songwriting. The piano and lyrics give it that "western" feel, the vocals are expansive and pleading, and the brilliant lyrics could be about an "old west" desperado or just a 21st century lost soul.

*Well, forget all I said about my father on "Desperado." This song about a kid blowing himself away at school has nothing (or little) to do with my upbringing. This is just a perfect mix of lyric, music, and performance.
That opening line, "At home drawing pictures of mountaintops / with him on top, lemon-yellow sun, arms raised in a V. / And the dead lay in pools of maroon below." Amazing! The music matches the lyric in moving between major/carefree and minor/angry. And Eddie's performance...sheesh! I sang this for fun with some friends once and felt as if I'd been through a year of therapy. Very cleansing, yet troubling. And the fact that this pre-dated Columbine, Va. Tech, etc., is also a testament to the prophetic power of the arts. "King Jeremy, the Wicked, ruled his world!" Heavy stuff.

*In 1979, two full years before MTV debuted, my big brother and I watched this video on a show called "Video Concert Hall." In my 8-year-old bones, I knew this was rock n' roll. To this day, whenever I hear this or the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" on the radio, I have to crank the volume! That guitar...that scream (which many know from TVs "CSI" incarnations)...primal!

The song is plenty, but to watch Roger Daltry swing that mic and Pete Townshend swing that arm and jump is pure rock swagger. If Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" is Songwriting 101, this is Rock n' Roll 101. Also keep in mind, this band held the Guiness Record for loudest band. So, imagine what it sounds like in an auditorium when Pete's guitar comes in. "The exodus is here!"

*When the title itself paints enough of an image to sum up the whole song, you know you're onto something. Anyone who has paid attention on road trips knows what Mellencamp is talking about. And anyone who has paid attention to politics and the devolution of the American dream the last 30-odd years knows what Mellencamp is really talking about.
The perfect marriage of lyrics like "They told me when I was younger, / they said, 'Boy you're gonna be president.' / But just like everything else / those little crazy dreams just kinda came and went. / Aw, but ain't that America..." and a great acoustic guitar riff. Mellencamp has many great songs, but this is the one that really put him in line with Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.

*This is the song I'd use in the Songwriting 101 class after "Sweet Baby James." It defies my comments.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I Wish I'd Written That (#20-16)

There are songs all around us. As a songwriter, I've written songs about seeing a girl "sitting on a park bench, stringy hair and buckled knees." I've seen two people walking in the mall wearing Kurt Cobain and Pillsbury Doughboy t-shirts, which yielded the line "If it came down to hanging with Kurt Cobain or the Pillsbury Doughboy, / I'd take the Doughboy every time!" I came up with a melody based on the rythm and intervals of the constantly-churning printer at a "day job" I once had. You get the idea.

Not only are there songs all around us waiting to be written, there are also A LOT of great songs already written. This doesn't prevent me, however, from wishing I'd been the one to write them. These are not necessarily the most popular representations of a specific songwriter or era, just that blend of lyric and music that perfectly captures a mood. (Be warned, that mood for me is most often melancholy.) I don't know if non-songwriters think this way, but I think we can all imagine the joy of being onstage wind-milling across a guitar or twirling a mic stand with thousands of watts of energy around us.

This started as I was driving with my wife on a weekend getaway recently. We were listening to Don Henley's greatest hits, I was thinking during his masterful "Sunset Grill" that I wish I'd written that, then "The Boys of Summer" came on and I said, "Damn! That guy can write a song!" And on it went through "The Heart of the Matter," "End of the Innocence," "Dirty Laundry," the lesser-known but awesome sequel to "Hotel California"--"The Garden of Allah," etc.

So here, without further adieu and in no particular order, are the first five of twenty songs I wish I'd written. Others will be posted in coming days. I hope giving bite sizes will encourage some to check out the songs (some are linked to videos), and maybe even purchase a few. The joys of iTunes.

20) "Boys of Summer"--Don Henley
*(Figured I'd get it out of the way.) Perfectly yet realistically articulates the coming of age of a generation ("Thought I knew what love was.../what did I know?"), but also wonderfully expresses that end of summer romance we all know.

19) "Sweet Baby James"--James Taylor
*JT is one of the best ever, but this one is textbook craftsmanship. If I were teaching a course on songwriting, I would use this to teach about lyric structure. Masterful use of internal rhymes:

There is a young cowboy who lives on the range.
His horse and his cattle are his only companions,
he works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons,
Waiting for summer, his pastures to change.

Look at that! "range/change, cattle/saddle, companions/canyons" and on it goes, verse after verse of perfection.

18) "Kashmir"--Led Zeppelin
*Talk about capturing a sense of space! In both lyric and music this song transports you to a whole other place. Someone will say "Stairway" or "Whole Lotta Love," but "Kashmir" is the one that most gets to me. Led Zep definitely did their own thing.

17) "Synchronicity II"--The Police
*You've got to be pretty amazing to write a top 40 song based on Jungian psychology. But Sting is always up to the task. This song effortlessly moves between a musically upbeat day in the life of a suburban family ("grandmother screaming at the wall. / We have to shout above the din of our Rice Krispies."), and the haunt of something crawling from the slime of a dark Scottish lake. Synchronicity indeed!

16) "Bittersweet Symphony"--The Verve
*This is a beautiful, haunting mixture of strings, huge production and rock n' roll attitude. Because of industry and band struggles, The Verve had trouble really breaking through. But this song was enough of a statement for a whole career. "'Cause it's a bittersweet symphony, this life. / Trying to make ends meet, you're a slave to money then you die... / I'm a million different people from one day to the next, / I can't change my mold, no, no, no..." That's powerful stuff! And the video with the lead singer just walking down the street past people is an equally fine piece of art.

Take time to enjoy and digest. More to come...

Thursday, February 5, 2009


In a study I'm leading at our church, we just finished a section on the disciplines of “slowing down” and “celebrating.” It is impossible to know God if we do not understand this principle: God is the most joyful being in the entire universe. And God created everything with joy and satisfaction, calling it “very good.” By way of contrast, John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted offers this alternate rendering of the creation story in Genesis 1:

In the beginning, it was nine o’clock, so God had to go to work. He filled out a requisition to separate light from darkness. He considered making stars to beautify the night, and planets to fill the skies, but thought it sounded like too much work; and besides, thought God, “That’s not my job.” So he decided to knock off early and call it a day. And he looked at what he had done and he said, “It’ll have to do.”

On the second day God separated the waters from the dry land. And he made all the dry land flat, plain, and functional, so that—behold—the whole earth looked like Idaho. He thought about making mountains and valleys and glaciers and jungles and forests, but he decided it wouldn’t be worth the effort. And God looked at what he had done that day and said, “It’ll have to do.”

And God made a pigeon to fly in the air, and a carp to swim in the waters, and a cat to creep upon dry ground. And God thought about making millions of other species of all sizes and shapes and colors, but he couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm for any other animals—in fact, he wasn’t too crazy about the cat. Besides, it was almost time for the Late Show. So God looked at all he had done, and God said, “It’ll have to do.”

And at the end of the week, God was seriously burned out. So he breathed a big sigh of relief and said, “Thank Me, it’s Friday.”

Thankfully, this is not how the story goes. God sings and dances over his creation, over you. He delights in you and has wonderful purpose for you. But we must slow down and listen to God and to those around us. We must enter into the celebratory dance of life. There, we will begin to find the joy that is much deeper than giddiness and silliness. Because there, we will find Jesus, whose dying wish was that his joy might be in us, that our joy might be full.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Not Fade Away

50 years ago today, the true King of Rock n' Roll died when Buddy Holly (et al) was lost in the snow and wind of a fallen midnight plane flight. There's Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis and the list of rock pioneers and champions could go on. But Lubbock, TX's Buddy Holly, from his use of the Fender Stratocaster as his primary instrument to his use of the celesta, from his employment of multi-tracking technology to his signature glasses, Buddy Holly was a true original.

Elvis sounded black, but Buddy actually won over the crowd at the Apollo Theater. Lennon and McCartney were honored to meet "the King," but they named their band "The Beatles" in part to honor Buddy's band The Crickets. Bob Dylan spoke reverently of seeing Buddy at a gig just a few days before the crash, of the mystical moment that they actually made eye contact. The stories of influence and respect go on and on, but in the end it's the music.

Watch this 1958 performance and notice how much Buddy does NOT fit in with the stiff white people around him. Feels like he's about to jump out of his tuxedo. Now THAT'S rock n' roll. Just listen to the alienation and longing of "Peggy Sue" and "Maybe Baby," the elation and joy of "That'll Be the Day" and "Oh Boy," and the flat-out rocking of "Rave On" and the Bo Diddley hambone of "Not Fade Away." Treat yourself to some Buddy Holly on this 50th anniversary of "the day the music died." He deserves it...and it's good for your soul! Rave On!!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Divorce Diary*

June 3, 1977--

It was odd, but my dad seemed more excited about what lay ahead than troubled by what he was leaving behind, namely my mother, my brother and me. He had finally sold the beautiful, ivy-covered family home in Columbia, South Carolina, where he had briefly been a promising young psychology professor, and he had recently joined us back in my mother's small hometown in Texas. He had come to help us get settled among my maternal grandparents and other family, and then he would set out to travel the world.

For the last few days he had been assembling his gear: canteen, cut-off shorts, binoculars, lots of books, sleeping bag, yoga mat, all gathered into a brand new, aluminum-framed backpack the likes of which I'd never seen before. He was very proud of that backpack.

We got up that morning and got in the car. I wasn't sure what exactly was going on, being only 6 years old, but I knew dad was about to leave on a trip. We drove down our street, out past the high school and the field of cotton across the street, onto the highway and out past the John Deere dealership, and we continued out of town for about ten minutes. We pulled onto a crossover and headed back toward town for a minute. I wondered what this meant.

We finally pulled onto the median, under a line of three trees. We all got out of the car. My dad hugged and kissed my mother and my big brother and me. He walked to the trunk and got out his brand new, aluminum-framed backpack. He hugged us again. I smelled his jojoba shampoo, the mildew of the books in his backpack, his nylon sleeping bag. Trucks roared by us.

We got back in the car and pulled onto the highway. I looked out the back window at my dad standing by the highway, his thumb stuck out to hitch a ride...somewhere. It would take another year for me to realize he would never be back to stay.

*A series of reflections I've begun upon realizing I'm now about the same age my parents were when they divorced. You may read Part 1 Here. You may or may not have a comment. But if you or your family have gone through a divorce, please feel free to share your own feelings. If you are considering divorce, please stop and consider the long-term ramifications of this decision, especially if children are involved. Consider giving counseling a chance, or I am happy to dialog with you from my own experience as a child of divorce and as a pastor (e-mail me). To be continued...

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