Thursday, February 25, 2016

i write the songs

The musical I've been playing on (a high school production of 'The Little Mermaid') has some harmonic and melodic material that's indebted to Bruce Johnston's "I Write the Songs." (That up-to-dating of the secondary dominant!) We associate the song with Barry Manilow, but there was a little race to get the former Beach Boy's song into the public ear. Within a few months, Manilow, David Cassidy, and the Captain and Tennille all put out versions of it. Manilow wasn't first, but he won — his arrangement and voice sell it really well, no doubt.

Cassidy is the weak brother here. I like his folk-little-bro style usually, but this time it doesn't work, and whoever did the arrangement didn't know what to do with the sophisticated harmonies.

Tennille, though! Dang! Go Toni! I remember that this song was on the only album by them that I had, the one with "Love Will Keep Us Together." The backing vocals have a cheesy choir quality at times, and the mix suffers, with the awful dead Seventies drum set too far forward, but I kind of like the fact that there's no slowdown and key change from "worldwide symphony" into the chorus: they just bam into it. It works. And all those slidy harmonies rendered by vocals remind us of Johnston's Beach Boy pedigree.

Of course, no discussion of it is complete without mentioning Toni Tennille's voice and musicianship. Man! Especially on the verses she just steps out so soulfully. You believe that she's the Eternal Mother of Song when she sings it. (For the record, Johnston said that he always thought the song was spoken by God, the ultimate author of song.)

Ultimately, though, I guess the audience wanted Manilow's soaring climaxes. His verses don't do anything for me (nor does his unconvincing bridge: no one ever made anyone want to dance or take a chance *less* than this; and the "rock-n-roll" is an outdated Hollywood stab at Beatlesyness), but when he gets into the final buildup and out chorus, the solid arrangement and his clean but rich voice provide just the right amount of grandeur.

Monday, February 22, 2016

super sounds of the 70s

A friend asks for a 70s playlist. Heavy on the rock and pop, heavy on the feel-good.

Lotsa Steve Miller Band (Jet Airliner, Swingtown, Fly Like an Eagle). White-guy-groovy at its finest.

Gotta have the one Yes song: Roundabout. Space-tastic and thoroughly rocking, with great solos and those amazing vocals. It's got that sensitive deep spiritual part, and then no end of totally fun sing-along choruses to spazz around and sing with.

Then, for easy listening with plenty of fromage, and a bit of spice just for interest: the entire album "One on One," by Bob James & Earl Klugh. Romantic, chillin', and superb. Light a candle, pour a red wine, and imagine.

One Michael Jackson above all others: "The Force (Don't Stop Till You Get Enough)." Man, that thing kicks. Please listen to it loud enough.

Also, you gotta have some semi-country: Bellamy Bros "Let Your Love Flow" could convince you that dipping is cool. Love that easy energy. Ronnie Milsap's "Almost Like A Song" is so teary-beery that it reaches a kind of grandeur.

Kind of cheating but yes-its-true: some of your favorite 80s songs are 70s songs, so... The Cars, the entire album (that was 1978, people). If not the entire album, "Good Times Roll," "Best Friend's Girl," "Just What I Needed," "Moving In Stereo," "Bye Bye Love."

In the same vein, from the Police: skip Roxanne and go to "Can't Stand Losing You," "So Lonely," "Message In A Bottle," and "Walking On The Moon." Bonus: "Bring On The Night" and "Does Everyone Stare."

OK, back to the trapped-in-the-70s 70s. How about skipping all the usual disco stuff and going to "A Fifth of Beethoven?" Tons of fun. And "Sweet Home Alabama," because also fun.

A high point: "Hold The Line," by Toto. Gets you playing air piano like no other.

Two versions of "Bridge Over Troubled Water": the original Simon & Garfunkel, and Aretha Franklin's amazing live version.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

jane mecom's social media

I was reading some of the writings of Jane Franklin Mecom, Ben Franklin's sister. She never published anything: it's all personal letters, mainly to her brother. But she wrote to other friends, too. She finally got around, in her later years, to reading her brother's political writings, but she was all along mainly interested in hearing about the lives of the people she loved.

Read this, from a letter to her niece. After telling an amusing story, she says,

but tho I am Pleas'd with this it does not give the Satisfaction I wish such Near Relation as you, and I should write more constant and circumstantially I want to know a Thousand litle Perticulars about your self yr Husband and the children such as your mother used to write me and tho I readily Excuse yr not writing more at this time I cannot so Easely Excuse yr long Silence who have it allways in yr Power to send sure without Expence or troble, it would be Next to Seeing the little things [that is, the children] to hear some of there Prattle (Speaches If you Pleas) and have you Describe there persons and actions tell me who they Look like Etc— Etc—

Here's what struck me as I read it: this woman, writing in the mid-1700s, wants Facebook.

I know people use Facebook for different things, including professional networking and business promotion, but I mainly use it for the same reason Jane would have. You occasionally hear someone speak disparagingly of typical Facebook posts, saying that we really don't want to know what you had for breakfast or that your kid won a trophy or what mood you're in. But the fact is that we do want to know those things, when it's someone we know and care about.

We often think of new technology as creating some sort of "need" that isn't really there in us in order to fill it. It's not true, though. The need that Facebook meets was always there. It was there in the 2000s, before Facebook came on; it was there in the 80s, before the modern internet; it was there in the unplugged 7th century BC, and well before, and well after; it was certainly there in Jane Franklin Mecom's 18th century, when even a few miles away from family was a real separation.

Passages like this remind us that it's now, miraculously, allways in our Power to share daily details that are the bread and butter of life with the people we love, sure without Expence or troble — and that it's as false to think new technology brings new alienation as it is to think spelling and grammar are deteriorating.

Monday, February 15, 2016

buckner fanning and the men of athens

"Men of Athens...." That's the beginning of one of my favorite sermons. It's by St Paul the Apostle, delivered at the Areopagus in Athens. Paul was a Pharisee, and a Christian proselytizer; by all rights you'd imagine he would be knocking down graven images and shouting about hell in this pagan city. But nope: he instead compliments the people of Athens, quoting their own literature and finding the spiritual aspirations in it, and remarking on how religious they are, with altars all over the place, even one inscribed "To An Unknown God" (legend: built by Socrates!). He says, today I have come to tell you about that Unknown God. To this day it chills my spine and brings tears to my eyes.

Every good sermon begins with "Men of Athens...." Every good sermon speaks to the people it's speaking to, and takes them from where they are to the cross of Christ.

It's no accident that St Paul's words strike me so. I grew up on them. I can think of few sermonizers who embodied that ideal more completely than Buckner Fanning, whom I heard roughly every week from when I was in utero to my thirties. I'm now nearly in my fifties, and it all seems like the other day: the rich chocolate voice of the man who baptized me, always pouring the Gospel into new wineskins, never changing it by an i-dot, and bringing with it a joyous demeanor that I always think is the true mark of the Spirit in a person. He had laughter in his soul that you can't fake. And he spoke to the people of San Antonio, the people of America, the people of the 20th and 21st century — the people who were who they were, and were where they were, and needed to hear the good news he brought.

He had the Shakespearean gift of speaking in a way that poor and rich, educated and uneducated, churched and unchurched would hear and respond to. He quoted generously from Shakespeare, and more generously from Browning, whose prosy spiritual grandeur-in-the-everyday most resembled him, I think. He also quoted from Kierkegaard and Pascal, Kennedy and Eisenhower, Willie Nelson and Michael Jackson, finding everywhere the human heart that yearns for God.

I just this moment learned that Buckner died. This man, the most effective public communicator I ever saw in person, this media-friendly grandpa with evangelical fire in the belly, had no precedent and no successor. In his decades of ministry he tried to get people to see that they too were sui generis, irreplaceable, and completely loved by an all-embracing God.

He will be missed greatly on this earth. I can't help but think that in the hereafter he will be greeted by ancient men of Athens, and by men and women of San Antonio, and their great-great-great-great-grandchildren, whose path to the cross was paved by so many stones laid by him.

Friday, February 5, 2016

the noah of genesis

We're all familiar with the story of Noah and the Flood, which appears in the Biblical book of Genesis.

God saw the wickedness of man, and was angry at so much evil. He told Noah to make an ark and put two of every animal on it. The people where Noah lived, not believing there would be a flood, mocked him and his family for making the ark. But, as the flood was coming, and Noah’s family was getting on to the ark, those same people begged to be let on. After forty days and forty nights of rain, the flood receded, the ark landed, and Noah’s family and all the animals got out. God made the rainbow as a sign, so that man will always know that God would never destroy the world again.

You may know the above story, but you don't know it from the book of Genesis. Every sentence in that paragraph comes from the popular imagination and not from Scripture.

According to Genesis, when God saw man's wickedness, He was sad — He felt regret that He had made man, not anger.

Noah was told to bring in 14 of every clean animal — and 2 of every unclean one.

There is no mention that Noah's neighbors mocked him, or that they disbelieved him, or that they begged: in fact, there is no mention of them at all.

It did rain for 40 days and nights, but Noah and crew floated around for months and months, and then when things dried out and they landed on high ground they spent more time waiting around before disem-arking.

And the rainbow was not a sign made for man. It's a sign for God. In making the covenant, God never says what we should think when we see the rainbow; instead, He says that it's there to remind Him of his promise. And, for the record, the promise is that He'll never destroy the world by flood, not that He'll never destroy it. (Though, to be fair, before the actual covenant is given, He mentions that it will never be destroyed period. It's just that when He gets around to making the actual promise He inserts the most staggering escape clause ever.)

So, now you know.