“O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation/Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.” – Psalm 95: 1-2
I don’t care what your view on religion is, you have to love the psalms. No one knows what the first music was, or who wrote the very first songs (it wasn’t Barry Manilow; it wasn’t even some-time Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who wrote “I Write the Songs”), but it’s clear that a primary purpose and subject was praise to God or gods, using melody, meter, and rhythm to come closer to the unknowable. Sure, there are spoken prayers and unspoken pleadings, but it was well understood that to cut through the clutter, you needed a trumpet, a timbrel, a tune.
How important were songs to the ancient Israelites? Let’s glance at another psalm:
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion/We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof/For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion/How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” – Psalm 137:1-4
This one, of course, was written during the time of the Babylonian Exile. It is an extremely mournful psalm, no less than a dirge. They sat down, they wept. Further, they hanged their harps on the willows! Their instruments were of no use anymore, so inconsolable were they. And to add insult to injury, their captives, their tormentors, made them sing their songs, like a cruel overseer standing before a group of African slaves demanding to hear a song of celebration from the land in which they were taken, the land where their ancestors are buried. How indeed can they sing such a song in a strange land?
And yet, how has any group successfully made the transition from one country, one culture, to another, whether the move was voluntary or forced? By hanging onto their traditions, of course. Their cuisine, customs, clothing; their language; their holidays; their music. It’s why the Jews have survived everywhere they’ve gone, it’s how Asians, Africans, Latinos, Europeans, and all other groups maintained their identities regardless of where they are transplanted. By bringing their songs with them into the strange land.
As an art form, as a mode of communication, music cuts deeper than anything else. I suppose it, like anything else, affects different people differently, but throughout history music has been shown again and again to serve as soother, motivator, convener, wooer, and consoler. It’s everything you need it to be, and it has served all those roles and more for me throughout my life.
Like anything that excites the chemicals in your brain, music can also act like a drug. I certainly have felt high while listening to music, and the best part is that it’s readily available and doesn’t cause bad come-downs. Back when I used to indulge in such behavior, I always knew that when it came time to marry and start a family, I would do so cleanly. And in fact, the last time I smoked pot was the night before my wedding. I was solid in my decision and confident that I could close one door while opening the other without wanting to turn back. The one thing that concerned me, though, was whether I could enjoy music as intensely straight as I had stoned.
See, one thing pot does to you is to give you immense powers of focus and concentration. Taken to an extreme, it can leave you totally fixated on something or nothing to the extent that you look and act catatonic. That’s why when you’re straight and you’re within a group of stoned people, you realize how boring they are when they’re stoned. But I loved listening to music stoned, feeling every note and beat pulsing through my entire being. I felt like the music was consuming me, or that I had consumed it, the music and I were one, intertwined and ecstatic at this magical union of sound and spirit. I used to close my eyes at such moments and visualize the music as being a silver rope dancing in dark space like a cobra to a charmer’s flute in a street market in India.
Happily, I found – and am all too happy to promote the idea – that drugs don’t make the music listening experience so satisfying, the music itself does. Drugs really don’t add anything to the mix, other than allowing you to ignore everything going on around you, which isn’t always the best thing for you anyway. I still feel the ecstasy of music, still seek it out like any addict would his fix, and am grateful for those experiences when it all goes beyond simple enjoyment into another realm of deep spiritual fulfillment and inspiration. When it becomes, in other words, a religious experience.
I remember seeing the documentary The Gospel According to Al Green – actually I’ve seen it a few times, but the first time I saw it I was this close to converting. There was footage at the end of the movie where Reverend Al, still as sexy and sultry as when he sang secular hits like “Let’s Stay Together,” was singing in his church. And the sweat was pouring down, and people in the congregation were swaying and shouting and near to passing out with the sheer pull of the music, and as I sat there in my seat I could feel the tingling in my legs and it was all I could do not to stand up and be overcome with the spirit, shouting to witness and pleading for a blessing of salvation.
I was in a bookstore once, one of those places that has stacks and stacks of discontinued titles for small money. And I saw a book with a cover photo that made me stop and look closer. It was a black-and-white photograph of a long-haired cellist with a look of pure ecstasy on her face – not at all the composure of a typical classical musician. It was a biography of Jacqueline du Pre, whom I’d never heard of. But I was so compelled by that photo (and the low price) that I bought it and began reading it immediately. By the time I was halfway done with it, I’d already bought a 3-CD set of her cello concertos. She was touched with a gift beyond quantification, an intoxicating combination of the sheer joy of creation and the sheer force of spiritual awakening. I was hooked on the book, the music, and the person, who tragically died young, no doubt by the incredible weight of all that musical feeling.
In light of that, there have been times I have seen Brian Wilson in concert and been reduced to tears at the miracle of his endurance; without music, he could not live. Whatever brain damage he may have from his years of drug abuse and mental illness, it has not affected his capacity to make music and his ability to sustain his artistry when so many others of his generation are gone is testament to the life force that music is to him. There are those, among them unknown autistic savants as well as professionals like Brian, Andy Pratt, and jazz trumpeter Tom Harrell who only seem “normal” when they’re playing music. When the playing ends, their ability to successfully interact with the external world is hindered to some extent. What is it about me that envies people like that?
One more. My wife, when we were dating, would ask me lots of probing, difficult questions to learn more about me. It was like doing a psychological intake. One of the questions she asked me was, “If you had to give up either your sense of sight or your sense of hearing, which would you give up?” I didn’t even think twice about it. I’d rather be blind than deaf. Apparently, most people answer the other way, believing that not being able to hear is less of a handicap, especially in terms of personal safety and happiness, than not being able to see. But I didn’t see it that way; blind I could still enjoy music. And as tangible proof for why I need my hearing more than my sight, I offered up the 20 seconds of Aretha Franklin’s song “Angel” from about 3:37-3:57 where she sings, “There’s no misery – aaaaahooooow – like the misery I feel in me/Gotta find me an angel in my life.” That “aaaaahooooow” sums up every ounce of pain and loneliness in the singer’s heart and it’s a howl at the moon, a cry in the dark, and a shriek in the woods lost alone at night that seizes my own heart and makes me feel exactly what Aretha’s feeling. I can only imagine that I would be able to visualize that feeling even more without the sense of sight. But to not be able to hear her sing that again – even just that 20 seconds – is simply unimaginable to me.
So where is all this coming from? I was driving in my car this morning, listening to a Van Morrison live album called A Night in San Francisco. The track was a 16-minute medley of Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You” and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.” I can’t even describe to you how the performance progresses, but it builds with intensity, then the band pulls back a bit, inserts a piano solo, then builds it back up, eases a little, then plows ahead and when the music seemingly hit its peak it just kept going and I was going with it – going crazy with ecstasy, that is. I started getting chills, literally, goose bumps up and down my arms. Then the background singers did this funny chant, “Van is nooooooo prima donna” over and over, but instead of being funny it was totally fucking true and another wave of chills and goosebumps came over me. Then one of the band yells out, a reference to another Morrison tune, “Did you get healed?” and now my goosebumps have goosebumps (“Hell yes!” is my enthusiastic response) and the music’s not giving an inch, it keeps on pounding and suddenly I was overcome with that feeling of such intense pleasure where it’s almost too much of a good thing, like when a woman keeps licking your knob after you’ve shot your load and I just had to shout out loud and I did and thank God my windows were closed and thank God for ears that hear and good Lord what a joyful noise that was and I could sing this song in any land. And at that moment, no drug and no religion and no woman could have given me the feeling that that music gave me. And like a junkie has to find that high, and Aretha has to find that angel, I have to keep finding that feeling from music. And the good thing is, I know I’ll find it, again and again. And that’s why I’m a music nut. Hosanna.