Music by Bweinh! — How Great

02/10/2009, 10:00 am -- by | 2 Comments

Next in the series of reflections on songs written and performed by Bweinh!tributors is “How Great” (© 2005 Dj. Maxon), as recorded live by the band Maxon.

Listen to or download the song here (for a limited time)!

“How Great” is a song I wrote in college, and it’s one of the better songs I’ve written. I’m not a big fan of the song, but other people seem to like it — so I don’t know what to say to them. I’m okay with the chorus, but there’s something about the verses I can’t put my finger on… I just don’t like them.

Looking through an old clipboard, I just found the original blue scrap of paper I wrote the song on, stuffed into the pages of an aging yellow legal pad. A pad, might I add, that’s just full of terrible, terrible songs. Terrible. If you were to look at it, which you never will (because the songs are just embarrassingly terrible and I won’t let you), you could open to just about any page and find the first verse of an unfinished song, or hastily scribbled chords that, by now, make little to no sense.

Ahhhh, the halcyon days of my youth, when scribbling chords and penning songs not fit for human consumption was how I passed the time. I wrote this song in the basement of the music building, Tyler Hall, pretty much in one take. I spent a lot of time down in those cramped, tiny practice rooms. Thank goodness now I have Left 4 Dead.

Anyway, as I said before, other people like the song more than I do, but I do like the chorus a fair amount.

Enjoy, I guess….

Music by Bweinh! — Incorruptible

11/14/2008, 3:00 pm -- by | No Comments

Opening a series of reflections on songs written and performed by Bweinh!tributors, we present “Incorruptible” (© 2005 D. Sweet [words] and S. Maxon [music]), as recorded live by the band Maxon.

Listen to or download the song here (for a limited time)!

The voice said, “Cry out!”
And he said, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.”

Isaiah 40:6-8 (NKJV)

This is the section of Scripture I had been meditating on when I wrote the words for the poem that became “Incorruptible.” It was so different from anything else I had ever read. Isaiah relates it abruptly, in the third person, with no introduction — just an announcement about what the voice had said.

And “he” (whoever he is: Isaiah, John the Baptist…) answers, “What shall I cry?” and it struck me that the burden to preach preceded any thought of what might be said. I have preached like that many times and it has been the absolute best preaching I have ever done. I have no idea what I will say when I open my mouth, but suddenly the message appears, fresh and relevant.

The message given here is one of hopelessness. It uses images of grass and flowers to explore the frailty and transience of man, and his complete lack of hope to stand before an almighty God whose standards of holiness are inescapable. This theme is also explored in the New Testament, where it expands on the hope expressed in the last verse here. For all our frailty, as Peter says, we can be “born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.”

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Flight of the Conchords

04/25/2008, 5:00 pm -- by | 1 Comment

This article is (for now) the last in a Bweinh! series on inspiring songs or songwriters. You can access the first eleven soundtrack entries here!

“I\’m not crying…it\’s just been raining…on my face…”

If I were to identify the two most common reactions to the music and lyrics of Flight of the Conchords, the guitar-toting duo from New Zealand, they would be as follows:



“Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

Maybe it\’s my penchant for asinine humor, but I do confess to being a fan of Flight of the Conchords. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, the deadpan, pop-like, folk-ish, odd comedy couple whose self-entitled HBO show (chock full of their multi-genréd, life-explaining music) has landed them in the spotlight, can just tell a ridiculous story well — and to music!

The show\’s plot inevitably winds around a few of their nonsensical songs, often half-spoken and half-sung. From “Albie the Racist Dragon” to “The Humans are Dead” to “Rhymenocerous vs. Hip-Hop-apotamus,” Flight of the Conchords\’ clever rhymes and rhythms, quick lyrics, and acoustic charm are hard to beat. YouTube can be thanked for a great deal of their fame, with many episodes and concert excerpts available for our listening pleasure (and laughs).

No, they are definitely not among the ranks of the CCM-worthy, so let that be a caveat to the new, more tender listener. But to intelligent audiences who get tired of having to act intelligent, I would say: check them out. Seriously, where else can you hear a rap entitled, “Frodo, Don\’t Wear the Ring”?

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Switchfoot

04/12/2008, 10:00 am -- by | 1 Comment

This article is the latest in a Bweinh! series on inspiring songs or songwriters. You can access the first ten soundtrack entries here!

When my family moved to southern California, I scanned the radio stations in my new town for weeks, unable to find one that suited the late 90s adult contemporary tastes I had developed during a childhood in Cleveland. I thought I\’d have to give up music altogether, until my Sunday School teacher introduced me to the local contemporary Christian station.

My parents had never set definite parameters on what my sisters and I could listen to, but I was in sixth grade, and for me contemporary Christian music was pretty much the greatest thing that had ever happened. Now I could put a stamp of acceptability, a certificate of religious sanitation, a “fit for consumption” on something else.

The first CD I ever bought was Learning to Breathe, Switchfoot\’s third release. From the odd ceramic echo on “Dare You to Move” to the retreating footsteps at the end of “Living is Simple,” I adored it. I listened to it when I did homework, right before I went to bed, when I was reading, and of course, on the radio. I internalized it, memorized every word. That their Christianity wasn\’t glaringly obvious on every track bothered me at first. Unlike most of the CCM stuff my favorite station played, Switchfoot\’s lyrics were woefully low in Christianese. But then I noticed that they mentioned God on “Love is the Movement,” and decided that was acceptable enough.

I saw Switchfoot that summer, my first concert ever. It was at dusk, on the lawn of a Bible college, a venue that, I decided, cemented them as adequately Christian. When they played a stripped-down version of “Let That Be Enough,” I was captivated. The song became my personal anthem, the soundtrack to many of the difficult situations an earnest, shrinking middle school kid could get herself into:

Let me know that You hear me
Let me know Your touch
Let me know that You love me
And let that be enough

As I grew older, the “Truth” fish eating the “Darwin” fish bumper decal wasn\’t as funny to me; the “A bread crumb and fish” sweatshirt, styled like Abercrombie and Fitch\’s logo, moved to the back of my closet. It slowly dawned on me that the strict diet of CCM I\’d resigned myself to looked a lot like legalism. I tentatively began to listen to music that hadn\’t come from Christian labels. I got a little older, and soon considered the entire industry merely a phase of my awkward adolescence.

And then a few months ago, Jon Foreman came to my campus. I have to admit I almost didn\’t go to see him; I guess I didn’t expect him to be any more insightful than I was back when I sat in my bedroom alone, slightly scandalized at the band\’s references to St. Augustine and Julian of Norwich (aren\’t Christians just supposed to sing about the Bible?). I guess being so quick to judge just goes to show how much more insightful I\’ve become since then.

He played a few songs and answered a few questions, and there was that same voice. He spoke right to me, right where I was, just as he always has. “You go to church, you go to the bar on the corner ”” you find hurting people. I think sometimes there\’s this misperception that the Christian and the one at the bar are looking for different things.”

I got a picture with him afterwards, you know, for my middle school self. I still know every word on that CD.

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Sara Groves

06/30/2007, 9:00 pm -- by | 4 Comments

Every weekend, a different Bweinh!tributor will discuss a song or songwriter that inspires or interests them. Read the first nine soundtrack entries here.

The Other Side of Something
Sara Groves is one of my all-time favorite singers; she’s an excellent singer and lyricist. Her lyrics are simple, yet in places provocatively deep. She writes about fights with her husband, funny songs with her kids, then hits you with amazing rewrites of old hymns. And she sings of freedom — one of my favorite subjects — and about getting stuck and unstuck and the processes involved, in case you need more than a placebo in your current walk. She’s brutally honest in her self-assessments at times; maybe that’s why she’s found the freedom that she has.

I was introduced to her at, of all places, a dear, dear friend’s funeral — Tim Grant. One of his daughters shared a story that day of how he had driven out to Rochester a few weeks earlier to bring her Sara’s Conversations CD because of how much it had affected him. He even kept calling her, all the way back to Watertown, to see what she thought of it. Even with that testimonial she was not overly impressed, although it did grow on her a bit.

When circumstances turned out as they did, she felt it was something we all should hear. So she played it. I loved it and looked for it right away. This was early winter, and when I relayed the story at Christmas, my sister-in-law mentioned that Sara actually attends their (mega)church! She told us how she was a school teacher, how “Conversations” came out of her many talks with a fellow teacher, and how she’d made the decision to quit teaching for a Christian recording career just recently. I felt so connected! First because of Tim, then because of Don and Jan actually going to church with her.

The CD I chose to talk about here was her fourth, “The Other Side of Something.” I believe it was birthed out of her deliverance experiences — either personal or ministerial. This is another connection because my husband and I work in this ministry in our church. I recognized her revelatory tone in “The One Thing I Know.” I know what she’s talking about when she says, “The clouds just parted, on a corner of my life, and I can see for miles. And the things I was stuck on, the things I thought would never change, they just broke open wide.” When God healed my fear, I had no idea where it went, I just knew it was gone. And with this song, she manages to connect even more with me, making her feel like an old friend I haven’t met yet.

The last thing I really like about her style is that she’s really in the Word. She sings about real characters and places, exploring and comparing her struggles with Jeremiah and Job, finding both strength and camaraderie with her brothers. Sometimes we think of our struggles as unique to today, and of the Bible as just stories, but she sees the Scripture as real-life practical help. It gives her hope and strength, which she in turn shares with us. And when she gets to heaven she’s going looking for Job, because she’s got some questions for him — like he’s an old friend, along the lines of Rich Mullins or Tim Grant perhaps? I love it. I just love it.

If you haven’t listened to this CD, give it a listen; I even have an extra copy if you need it.

And thanks for the tip, Tim. I miss you, friend.

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Barenaked Ladies

05/27/2007, 7:40 pm -- by | 2 Comments

Every weekend, a different Bweinh!tributor will discuss a song or songwriter that inspires or interests them. Read the first eight soundtrack entries here.

I’ll admit it. I was introduced to the music of the Barenaked Ladies by that New York lotto commercial where average people (just like you and me!) sing about what they’d do if they had a million dollars. Buying cars, houses, and just being rich. At the time, my father had the largest music collection of anyone I knew, and he was very familiar with the group that had written and performed the song originally. He introduced me to the full version, which was not only about cars and houses but also about Kraft dinner and pre-wrapped sausages.

From that first listen, I was hooked. Sure, the version in the commercial was nice to listen to, but the things that average, boring people were singing their hearts out about buying with their winnings were average, boring things. The full version was much more fun, and told a story about the potential use of vast amounts of wealth that I could relate to during my youth, namely squandering it on “the fanciest Dijon ketchups.” It even had a pun in it.

In a broader sense, I suppose that’s why BNL is near the top of my list of preferred artists. Their music isn’t so dense and esoteric that I can’t relate to it, but it also still sounds as though the group actually enjoys writing and singing it. In a word, it’s fun. (The full text of this article was originally going to be one sentence about how much fun BNL is, but we in the stable of Bweinh!tributors are paid by the word, or so I’m told.) Sure, some of their music slithers its way into Lotto and car commercials, but it still doesn’t sound anything like another boy band trying to churn out another hit single about how its collective girlfriend left forever to be with someone new. Sniff, sniff.

For one quick example, take “Be My Yoko Ono.” In the words of Wikipedia, “in the song the narrator explains that he would be willing to give up everything to be with the person he loves by comparing their relationship to the one between Yoko Ono and John Lennon.” Certainly unique, and enjoyable enough to merit a listen. Barenaked Ladies: still one of the best things ever to come out of Canada.

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Aaron Sprinkle

05/19/2007, 12:00 pm -- by | No Comments

Every weekend, a different Bweinh!tributor will discuss a song or songwriter that inspires or interests them. Read the first seven soundtrack entries here.

I still remember the day during my freshman year that one of my roommates, Erin, burst into the room giggling with a CD in her hand. “Look, look at this guy’s name!” Robin (my other roommate) and I examined the CD. It was Lackluster by Aaron Sprinkle, and it had a big brown fish on its powder blue cover.

“Sprinkle?” I said. “That’s unfortunate. You would think he would change his name to sell more records.”

Erin giggled some more and nodded. “It was only five dollars at the Campus Store, so I had to get it.” She put the CD in, placing it in the annals of roomie history and forever cementing in our hearts a love for Aaron Sprinkle. This man with a ridiculous name was good. He reminded me of Elliott Smith, minus the emo lyrics and eventual suicide. Sprinkle is happy, and even “Colorblind” (a song to an ex-girlfriend who left him, took everything and ruined his reputation) features a friendly harmonica and an upbeat tempo.

My roommates and I fell in love with him. On the first night of snow, which both Robin and Erin considered my first real snow, Erin turned on “Sweeter than Me,” a soft, meandering song about an elderly woman losing her mind. It was a perfect first snow, staring out the window with two dear friends and listening to “You’re much sweeter than me by far:” Perhaps what was even better about Aaron Sprinkle was that he was the only artist we were aware of who would sing a song about someone suffering with Alzheimer’s.

We later learned that Sprinkle, currently employed with Tooth and Nail Records as a record producer, not only sang and played guitar for his album, but also did much of the bass, keyboards, programming, percussion, mixing and production.

Talented doesn’t quite seem to capture him.

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Michael Card

05/13/2007, 7:05 am -- by | 1 Comment

Every weekend, a different Bweinh!tributor will discuss a song or songwriter that inspires or interests them. Read the first six soundtrack entries here.

Those of you who know me well know that I like music that sounds authentic. It could be almost any genre, as long as it feels pure and grounded somehow. I also like a clever turn of a phrase, and informed, nuanced lyrics.

So it may be somewhat surprising that I hadn’t really listened to Michael Card before I won a cassette tape copy of his “Poiema” album from a radio show at Houghton. If I’m not mistaken, the show was hosted by Bweinh!’s very own Josh Jones and his roommate, Hubie Hostetter. (If I’m mistaken, guys, I’m sorry–it’s been 8-9 yrs.)

I fell in love right away. Now I own a lot of Card’s music, and still have a lot more to collect. Of all his work, I’ve grown to like his album with John Michael Talbot, “Brother to Brother,” the best. Here, the two perform duets of the songs that each wrote independently. Card took quite a hit in the evangelical community for this album; many canceled concerts and wrote harsh letters decrying him as one who compromised and sold out. But for Card, it was a chance to work with a musical hero as well as someone he admired in the faith. The step looks downright prophetic today, as evangelicals and Catholics continue to discover areas of common concern and ministry while still maintaining sharp differences.

My favorite Michael Card song is “In the Wilderness.” It is a meditation on how God calls his children to “wilderness times”–painful times in our lives that we cannot understand. But he believes that God calls us to those wilderness times to shape us and change us more radically than any other way can.

It is reminiscent of the idea of the “Dark Night of the Soul,” as St. John of the Cross put it: we are given times of suffering in order that we might learn to love God and not merely the things God gives us. God is so good at giving gifts that we often fall in love with the gifts and forget the Giver. When the gifts are removed, only the Giver remains and we are thus trained to love the Giver more completely and fully.

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Rich Mullins

05/5/2007, 12:30 pm -- by | 9 Comments

Every weekend, a different Bweinh!tributor will discuss a song or songwriter that inspires or interests them. Read the first five soundtrack entries here.

The Day The Music Came Alive Again
It was the mid-’90s. Michael W. Smith had wimped out on national TV, doing everything he could to avoid being seen as a Christian artist. Amy Grant whined in a Good Housekeeping interview about missing all the good parties in college because she was a Christian (this was before she dumped her husband for a country singer). Dion DiMucci followed Bob Dylan’s lead and returned to secular music, Michael English had an affair with the girl from First Call, and Sandy Patty took up with her backup singer. I wasn’t yet mature enough to view these as fallen soldiers on the front lines, so I just despised them all, and called them “Temporary Christian Artists.”

So I turned off the radio, I put away the tapes, and the music died.

All that survived was my wife’s music, which consisted mainly of a whiny guy named Rich Mullins whose tapes droned on endlessly whenever we got in the car. She played it too low for me to hear well, so I just endured it — until one day when I heard the end of Jacob and Two Women and asked my daughter, “What the heck is he talking about? Who stole the moon and must be made to pay for it?”

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“And her friends say ‘My, that’s tragic,’ and she says…’Especially for him…’?”

“Especially for the moon…” My 8-year-old daughter corrected me.

“Oh… especially for the moon. And that’s the world as best as I can remember it? What is with this music your mom lets you listen to?”

She just stared back at me.

She didn’t have any answers either, but together Rachel, Philip and I set out to figure out what that song was about. We never did find out, but we found Rich Mullins, and music meant something to me again. At first it was the beauty of The River, by far the loveliest piece of music I had ever heard. Then it was Jacob and Two Women and Boy Like Me/Man Like You. I was hooked.

And the more I read, the more I found out about Rich himself. He lived what he preached and sang. He never saw his large royalty checks; they went to an independent ministry that paid him only what the average guy in America was making. He sang barefoot in work shirts and blue jeans. He started a group called Kid Brothers of St. Frank, named after Francis of Assisi, where they took an oath of poverty, chastity and the third thing that always goes with those — they lived their faith.

He singlehandedly ended my self-imposed exile from music and gave me back something I had loved and lost.

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Keith Green

04/29/2007, 1:30 pm -- by | 7 Comments

Every weekend, a different Bweinh!tributor will discuss a song or songwriter that inspires or interests them. Read the first four soundtrack entries here, here, here, and here.

Scene: Three teenage boys huddle together in their dark living room, illuminated only by the colorful strobing of their television. There are three sources of noise in the house: the boys, their television, and a dust-covered record player.

Our parents were involved in just about every ministry our church conducted. Worship, children’s church, youth group, cleaning ministry, “Special Touches” ministry for those who were sick, prayer chain, elders’ meetings, ministers’ fellowship meetings… you name it, they pretty much did it. And it’s not like they didn’t want to be home. But church meetings kept them out of the house anywhere from one to three nights a week.

Sure, we got into our fair share of trouble, but eventually we fell into our groove. And half of our groove was Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo. Still to this day, Steve, Tom, and I are some of the fiercest Mario Karters you’ll ever meet. (P.S. — Don’t even *think* about challenging me to Vanilla Lake 2. Seriously.)

The other half was Keith Green.

Though I’m sure he’ll correct my remembrance, Steve was poking around my parents’ room (like many teens) and discovered a dusty, forgotten box of our parents’ old records — like Bob Dylan, 2nd Chapter of Acts, and Keith Green.

And from the time we discovered the box, it was Keith Green every night we played.

So while other kids were zoning out to 90s grunge rock, we had (and still have) almost every Keith Green song memorized, down to the skipping of the individual records. When we drive and “He’ll Take Care of the Rest” comes on, each of us will sing: “He’ll take care of the rest / bum bum Ju… / bum bum Ju… / bum bum Ju… / bum bum / Just believe, and you’ll receive / that comfort you need…” Just like we learned from the record.

From the orchestral, soaring highs of the Prodigal Son Suite, to the musically minor, theologically major Sheep and the Goats, Keith Green’s influence on my brothers and me cannot be overstated. His were our first and most played CDs. Steve got the entire Ministry Years collection; I bought the Songs of Devotion, Songs of Worship, Songs of Testimony, and Songs of Evangelism collections.

Being told I sounded like Keith Green on the piano was probably one of the greatest compliments I had ever received. Sure, it’s not true by any stretch of the imagination, but it was nice to hear.

If you’re looking to be challenged in your walk, your faith, your devotion, your evangelism, your worship, or your life, listen to Keith Green.

And play Mario Kart.

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Crash Test Dummies

04/22/2007, 6:00 pm -- by | 6 Comments

Every weekend, a different Bweinh!tributor will discuss a song or songwriter that inspires or interests them. Read the first three soundtrack entries here, here, and here.

Growing up, my parents discouraged listening to secular music, concerned about the influence of the negative themes so prevalent in the genre. There wasn’t any radio play in our house, and I didn’t own my first album until I was sixteen. That was the year my best friend lived with us, and he convinced my brother and me that the three of us should join Columbia House together. We could each get three free albums up front, and then each be on the hook for one additional album in the future.

I knew next to nothing about music at the time, and simply picked groups that produced one song I remembered liking. Through this blind dart throwing, I ended up with a cassette that would help shape my taste in musical style, vocal quality, and lyrical ingenuity. In fact, I ended up with one of the best albums you’ve probably never heard — God Shuffled His Feet by the Crash Test Dummies.

You may remember their one hit, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.” At the time, this song led me to believe that, if nothing else, they were a safe choice with no swearing or explicit content. And there was just something about them that caught my interest.

Their lead singer has an incredibly unique voice, so unusually deep that a few years later Steve theorized that perhaps the reason they never had another hit was that he had died of lung cancer. Although there was lyrical support for this theory (“How come I just smoke and smoke and smoke, and curse every butt I spit out?” ; “I’ve had my lungs checked out with X-rays” ; “Maybe I can change the test results that I will get back”), it was decidedly untrue. His voice was unlike anything else I’d heard, captivating, resonating, and decidedly non-pop.

The music relies heavily on acoustic guitar and piano (two of my favorites), and alternates between haunting and happy, with a sound all its own. But what sets the album apart the most are the lyrics. Sometimes they were just plain goofy, but ultimately, this was an album that made me think, that made me question. They covered everything from the pretentiousness of art (“Which should be my favorite paintings?”) to unexpectedly running into an ex (“Like catching a sniff of tequila in the morning, but I’ll try — try to keep my food down”) to psychics (“Would she keep it secret if death stood before me?”).

While they’re clearly not a Christian band, several lyrics suggest a level of Biblical knowledge. My favorite example is the title track, a twist on the creation story. While not meant to be consistent with the Biblical account (God creates blankets and sits in the shade having a picnic with his newly created people), there are many other allusions. At one point the people question God: “If your eye got poked out in this life, would it be waiting up in heaven with your wife?” This reminds me of the Pharisees questioning Jesus about a woman who married several brothers who all died, trying to trick Him. In the song, after God answers the question with an unrelated story, the people still don’t understand, asking, “Was that a parable or a very subtle joke?” The band continues this struggle to understand in a more serious vein in other songs with lyrics like, “Why does God cause things like tornadoes and train wrecks?,” and “When everything seems nicely planned out, well the human race will come and smack your face.”

With this last sentiment I actually couldn’t agree more. We as humans have done a great job messing up the world. Like the Crash Test Dummies, this often leaves me with lots of questions and uncertainty. But this album has also reminded me how glad I am that even when I don’t have all the answers, I know the one who does.

I know the Truth.

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Death Cab for Cutie

04/13/2007, 8:31 pm -- by | No Comments

Every weekend, a different Bweinh!tributor will discuss a song or songwriter that inspires or interests them. Read the last two soundtrack entries here and here.

Disclaimer: As a man living in modern American society I can, without taking too many liberties, uninhibitedly offer constructive criticism to the collective members of that elite fraternity.

The most obvious unifying characteristic among most men in our society is a simple one — insecurity. The kid who drives a truck with tires taller than he is and tailgates minivans on the interstate. The middle-manager who throws over his family for an attractive secretary, showing the world he’s “still got it.” The twentysomething who takes perverse pride in the number of girls he can manipulate into falling for him. The business man who’ll stop at nothing to get his piece, just to stay ahead of the Joneses.

Take a look at the advertisers paying for any television programming with a largely male audience. Alcohol, a noted social disinhibitor, playing a large role in the happiness of attractive men, with strong hairlines, frolicking with generously-endowed women in sunny locations. Bobs ranging from Dole to Smilin’, and other pillars of virility, announce that you can get the better of your advanced age, questionable exercise regime and poor dietary habits. And historically, cigarettes — a product designed, on first use, to command some measure of respect from others. These are our birthright as American men in our society.

And this song our anthem.

A lonely, soothing piano intro begins, coaxing us into the melody. The simple theme repeats, gaining momentum and complexity as the strains pour out of the secondhand speakers we’ll replace with those Bose numbers we’ll save up for after we get a new muffler on the Duster. A pause, then a simple, soft, yet strangely driving beat ushers in lead vocalist Ben Gibbard’s revealing first verse’s lyrics.

You may tire of me as our December sun is setting
‘Cause I’m not who I used to be
No longer easy on the eyes; these wrinkles masterfully disguise
The youthful boy below

Who turned your way and saw
Something he was not looking for: both a beginning and an end
But now he lives inside someone he does not recognize
When he catches his reflection on accident

As a man young in years, you may not think these words speak to me in particular. But I am also a fellow referred to by many since my 20th year as “Ol’ Tom,” who styled his hair with a Bic in a pointless race with heredity for a time, six times, and half a time. I feel a strong sense of kinship with the song’s imaginary protagonist.

On the back of a motorbike
With your arms outstretched trying to take flight
Leaving everything behind
But even at our swiftest speed we couldn’t break from the concrete
In the city where we still reside.

And I have learned that even landlocked lovers yearn
For the sea like navy men
‘Cause now we say good night from our own separate sides
Like brothers on a hotel bed

Some of us run from it, into the welcoming arms of Coors, Corvettes, and Cialis. Some fight it with arduous exercise, wheatgrass shakes, and ginkgo biloba. And some embrace it, as I have. I am a man, not Hollywood and Madison Avenue’s version of one, and I proudly take my place among my fellows.

Won’t you join me? We’ll all scoot over; I’m sure there’s room for one more.

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Billy Joe Royal

04/7/2007, 1:00 pm -- by | 3 Comments

Read last week’s soundtrack entry here.

I grew up along the cherry-blossomed banks of blacktop in our nation’s capital. It was a typical urban upbringing; the ice cream trucks were rigged up with bullet-proof glass and there was always a willing stray dog to feed some of that ice cream. My first home was a brick building in line with an endless row of others just like it, a dirty red river that ran on and on Billy Joe Royal into the ocean of the setting sun. The only thing that seemed to differentiate our brick home from the others was that it was a parsonage. This difference only amplified itself as I grew older, till I realized this difference was the most fundamental of them all.

Besides being a Sunday-schooled lad named “Job” in a decidedly non-Christian environment, I was all city boy. I could swear and moonwalk, I could hear the car that would interrupt our street football game before I could see it, and my mom worried about my four siblings and me to the point that she put us in God’s hands and hoped for the best.

Despite being so urban our home really only picked up two radio stations — Q107, which played rap and other “edgy” music, and Magic 104, the oldies station. Naturally, we patronized Q107 with extreme prejudice, as the Beastie Boys fought for their right to party and the Sugar Hill Gang decided to bang bang the boogie, say up jumped the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat. We engaged this music and its culture with reckless, giddy abandon until one of my brothers explained to my parents that “they just didn’t understand” — quoting a young Fresh Prince. This brought a very fast, very sound and very thorough end to our Q107 days. It was announced over a very somber meal that we would no longer be allowed to frequent the most northern end of the dial because it had begun to poison our minds. Although there was much protest, the oldies era was thus ushered in.

I remember being violently reluctant at first, feeling like I was committing some form of adultery by listening to the Four Tops harmonize, or Sly and the Family Stone jive. But I remember, with equal violence, the day I caved. It was a hot summer day — they all were in Washington; hot, I mean — when Billy Joe Royal banjoed his way onto the airwaves to explain through folk melody the tale of his pained love. Even at my tender age I could sympathize, and immediately, with this man’s alienation, and his high self-esteem in the face of such ridicule.

People put me down ’cause
That’s the side of town I was born in
I love her she loves me but I don’t fit in her society
Lord have mercy on the boy from down in the boondocks

There’s something really special about this song. Its mix of sadness and defiance is totally disarming; it musically captures a mood in a manner most other songs could only hope to emulate. The echo of the slide guitar and the fully enunciated southern twang in his voice make you feel like you’re walking in the Bayou at dusk, swatting away mosquitoes and flexing away a hard day’s work, listening to your friend’s woes.

It’s a perfect song.

I began listening to Magic 104 just to hear it again and again, and in the interim, soaked up Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Rolling Stones, the Tremeloes, and Simon and Garfunkel, until they too began to fill my conscience with a deeper love for instrumentation and lyrical cohesiveness. It’s been a weird, if somewhat predictable, path since then as I’ve gone on to fall in love with alternative rock and her British Isle-infused melodies and melancholy.

But I trace the whole journey back to one song that unlocked the gates to an entirely different world, one song, that — whenever I hear it — demands my entire artistic taste fall on bended knee. The hero who broke me free from the shackles of simple beats and inane rhymes and led me into the full, flush garden of real artistic talent.

Billy Joe Royal, you are that just that to my ears.


Bweinh! Soundtrack — Randy Newman

04/1/2007, 2:18 am -- by | 2 Comments

Every weekend, a different Bweinh!tributor will discuss a song or songwriter that inspires or interests them.

Judging from his lyrics and statements, Randy Newman and I disagree on most everything. One of his latest songs compares the Bush administration to Hitler and Stalin and implies that Clarence Thomas’s constitutional jurisprudence has somehow made him no longer black. Even a song I like — “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” — is sung from the perspective of a deity who laughs at prayers and “recoils in horror” from mankind, which “means nothing” to Him. “You all must be crazy to put your faith in me,” he (He?) sings. “That’s why I love mankind.”

But I don’t need to agree with someone’s politics or theology to recognize their brilliance, and Randy Newman is undeniably a brilliant songwriter — in music and lyrics. Part of the reason I like him so much is that he doesn’t care about making popular music. His themes are often dark (“Sail Away,” “Old Man”), he makes frequent use of irony (“Jolly Coppers on Parade”) and satire (“Political Science”), and his only real hit song (“Short People”) dared to admit the harsh truth that the vertically challenged — who make up a significant portion of American music buyers — have “grubby little fingers,” “dirty little minds,” and “nobody to love.” He even wrote “Lonely at the Top” — a bouncy denunciation of the emptiness of fame — for Frank Sinatra, who unsurprisingly passed on a song that ends, “Listen, all you fools out there — go on and love me, I don’t care. Oh, it’s lonely at the top.”

Randy Newman writes songs that are real, and I value that more than almost anything else. Whether it’s the low-key piano of “Old Man on the Farm,” the strange electrified meanderings of “Last Night I Had A Dream,” or the full orchestration of “In Germany Before the War,” Randy couples memorable melodies with thoughtful, conversational lyrics, too subtle and unorthodox for the radio, but perfect for the person who likes to think and listen. And if, at times, music can be a tool to produce an emotional response, to create in the listener’s mind the world of its lyrics, few use it better.

My favorite song of his might be the haunting “Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father.” Under 3 minutes, it starts with soft strings, leading into the stark and simple melody of the verse, which fulfills its own request (“sing a sad song, for a good man; sing a sad song for me”). And another musical interlude comes, before the last few lines carry the song out.

“Here I am — alone on a plane. The sun’s goin’ down. It’s startin’ to rain.”

“Papa, we’ll go sailin’.”

The last chord on the piano.

And I’m there.