by Joel Heng Hartse
I am so interested in religion and in music and in art. Why do people feel the need to restrict themselves, to be one dimensional? Perhaps it is easier. Always a priest or always a nurse or always a mother. But who is always anything? Always a Christian is the only always worth being. – Lee Bozeman
Recently, the philosopher Stephen Webb wrote a review of Christopher Partridge’s book The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, the Sacred, and the Profane. By the look of the title, this is a book I should be interested in, but I can’t muster the time or attention such a book probably deserves. Popular music, the sacred, and the profane are pretty important to me, but I have trouble getting at these things in an academic way. I’d rather dig into popular music itself and see what the sacred and the profane are doing there.
One of the notions Webb touches on in his review – which I assume he is faithfully reproducing from the book, is this: “Rock is essentially transgressive. Christianity upholds a sacred order that excludes the profane. Therefore, contemporary Christian music cannot be true rock and roll, because it is ‘unable to establish a credible presence in [rock’s] profane affective space.’”
This seems untrue in my experience, and not only because it is impossible for me to disentangle my experience of Christianity from my experience of rock music. (You can blame dc Talk’s “Jesus Freak,” among many other songs, for this.) It also seems untrue because one of the most rock and roll bands I’ve ever heard is three clergymen and a drummer.
I sent a postcard to an Orthodox priest who ministers at a small mission in suburban Texas last year. I’d bought it at a used bookshop in Bellingham, Washington; the image was a photograph of the stained-glass art on an old Scandinavian church. This seemed a much better way to contact the priest, known to his parishioners as Fr. David Bozeman, and to me as Lee Bozeman, than by email or phone or any other method.
The most obvious touchstone or comparison for Lee Bozeman’s music is Morrissey; the band he has led, off and on again for twenty years, sounds a lot like the Smiths would have, if they had been contemporaneous with Radiohead and had not mostly ignored punk rock. Bozeman’s aesthetic is unashamedly Morrisseyan, from lyrics to melodies to album artwork (most of the his projects feature album art of faded glamor photos from bygone eras). Bozeman’s lyrics and melodies are as dramatic as Morrissey’s, though his voice is higher and he does not sing off key.
But one gets the sense that Morrissey, for all the earnest poses he strikes in concert, is perhaps not entirely serious when he sings “I Have Forgiven Jesus” and “Satan Rejected My Soul.” One does not feel the same flippancy in Bozeman’s work; there is more at stake. Where the Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” is followed by a sprightly guitar solo, Bozeman’s “Jardim Gramacho,” which expresses the same sentiment, ends in ominous, echoing piano chords. Both are pleas for desires to be granted: the former is a tossed-off wish to the ether, the other a prayer to Jesus Christ.
More, as I said, is at stake.
The centerpiece of Bozeman’s ouevre is probably “The Wedding Feast of the Lamb” from the album Love and Affection, which he released under the name All Things Bright and Beautiful. It brings together most of the preoccupations of his songwriting: sex, family, the social obligations people have to each other, liturgy, the apocalypse, and the afterlife. The lyrics are beautiful and unsettling, and worth quoting at length: after waking from his marital bed and walking to work, the speaker gets lost in an internal reverie, ruminating on his own character, until the final astonishing verse.
I’ll die smiling, turn toward heaven
Sing some old songs and claim my crown
Then I’ll go to find someone I’ve been waiting
To talk with since I read The Habit of Being
She’ll tell me her story of sorrow and suffering
She’ll tell me it’s so sad the way we’ve been acting
For we are surrounded by thousands of liars
That sing lovely songs in a river of fire
That flows from the hand of the Father
The verse is about meeting Flannery O’Connor in the afterlife, but the song is about a lot more than that; it’s about living on earth as it is in heaven, to put it in simpler terms than I should. To hear someone sing so matter-of-factly about the apocalypse is all the more affecting when you consider that he might actually, you know, believe it.
Several years ago, I tried to pitch a story about Bozeman and Luxury to some magazines, but made the mistake of playing up the novelty: Lee Bozeman, and his guitarist and brother James Bozeman, and the band’s bassist, Chris Foley, are all Orthodox priests. Priests! In a rock band! What I could not explain in my pitch and can barely articulate now is how right and natural it feels for Luxury to be (a) a sincere, wounded rock band who sing about sex, death, and decadence, and also (b) a group of mostly bearded men who largely spend their time performing liturgies, administering sacraments, and providing pastoral care.
I believe, for some reason, that beautiful rock music, played sincerely and well, is itself a form of love, a kenosis, a self-giving. I am an Evangelical who went to Jars of Clay concerts for years before I ever went to so much as an Ash Wednesday Mass. Rock bands, not prayer books or liturgies, were the ticket to God for my generation. So it has taken me a lot longer to understand traditional Christian practices — like religious vocations and sacraments and rote prayers — and to accept that there is love in these things too.
I think about this claim that rock music is somehow inherently transgressive, that it cannot succeed if it does not in some way kick against the pricks of “religion,” and I find myself agreeing with Stephen Webb, who at the end of his piece writes: “The alternative to transgression is transcendence, not docile submission to social order.” You can rage against the machine all you want, or you can look for a way to rise above both the rage and the machine, without denying either.
Because in a secular age, transcendence is transgression. To write songs that yearn for something more – not in a vague, pie-in-the-sky way, but in a sacramental, earthy, no-ideas-but-in-things way – is to transgress the spirit of the times which demands there is no such thing as spirit.
Exhibit A of the above: Luxury’s 2004 song “I Have Been Everywhere the Grass is Green, I Have Seen Everything There is to See” from their fourth album, Health and Sport. It’s a soaring, pounding, relentless song, driven by two chords and frenetic drum fills, sung – again, I am sorry I am emphasizing this so much but I just want you to remember – by Orthodox priests. This song is a transgressive transcendence. Its few brief verses describe a world-weary dissatisfaction: “though they tried to give me sight, all I’ve seen is artificial light,” one line goes. By the end, there’s a some sense of peace in grasping at things like family and kindness, but its chorus, sung in a resigned croon by Lee Bozeman with desperate, straining backing vocals by his brother, underscores a desperation and yearning that is missing from most allegedly “transgressive” rock and roll:
I’d love to believe
There was something for me
Where we could just live
Like living should be
I’d love to believe!
This straining toward a so-far unachievable paradise is as musical as it is lyrical. The song threatens to break under its own weight, and doesn’t feel fully resolved (really, it doesn’t ever feel fully resolved) until Jamey Bozeman’s final vocal slide on that last “be-leeeeeaaave!”
I have the feeling that the wrongest thing you can say about popular music – apart from the canard that writing about it is like “dancing about architecture” – is that it has to in some sense be “evil.” Sure, a lot of the best rock music in history has been prophetic, or shocking, or angry, or sensual, but above all, so much of it has been so beautiful. There is no need to restrict rock and roll to a one-dimensional caricature of 1980’s sex-and-drugs hair metal. The alleged “transgression” of so much popular music strikes me as utterly conventional, a rehashing of tired tropes about rebellion, excess, and social deviance. Maybe this is just me, but I’d rather listen to a band that makes me flirt with the idea of selling everything I own and giving it to the poor. And maybe the most transgressive thing a rock band could do is to serve the Eucharist.
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