In a way, our podcast is “How To Have A Conversation With People With Whom You Fundamentally Disagree” lessons. Note — this title should never appear in the “For Dummies” series. Dummies are people who can’t get past their fundamental differences in order just to talk to each other. At some point, that inability to sit and have a conversation will have truly terrible consequences. That’s why it’s best to start down this necessary road with a subject matter that won’t make you want to kill the person you’re traveling with.
Last podcast, we suggested “Three Movies We Love And One We Don’t” as a conversation starter. This podcast — in a similar vein: “Three Songs (we love) and One Book”.
Even getting a list of songs one loves down to ten songs is a Sophie’s Choice kind of labor but — for the sake of a good conversation, here we go…
Movies are not the only “low hanging fruit” that can build a relationship between people who are coming from very different places. Music and books can do this as well. The biggest challenge is to decide which ones to talk about. That has been my challenge for this podcast.
Of course, there are many songs and books that inspire me. Some make me laugh (Spinal Tap, for example), some are inspiring in their brilliance (G.K. Chesterton Essays, Led Zeppelin drums and guitar) others are the perfect complement to a road trip (Boston, Fleetwood Mac, True Grit), and still others are perfect for high energy workouts (Daft Punk/Skrillex remix and the Wonders of You) and thought projects (Wittgenstein and the Bible).
But for this podcast I have decided to focus on 4 songs and 1 book which I have come back to again and again for many, many years and in different times of my life and they always satisfy. Why they do could help Alan to get to know me better (not to mention my gaining more understanding about myself).
So, here they are:
- Song of the Angel (1994) by John Tavener, sung by Jane Sheldon.
- Be Thou My Vision, based upon a Irish poem (6th or 8th century), sung to the melody of an Irish folk tune, translated 1912.
- O Holy Night (1847) from poem “Minuit, chretiens” by Placide Cappeau, sung by Kari Jobe.
- The Cause of Christ (2016) written by Kari Jobe et al., Also sung by Kari Jobe
- The Sacrament of the Present Moment is attributed to Jean Pierre De Caussade (1740), translated from the French by Kitty Muggeridge (1984).
Why do they have a lasting impact in my life? They all reconnect me with my core mission, with the meaning and purpose that color and animate my life in this world that we share. They do so in slightly different ways.
Song of the Angel opens my mind again to the awe and wonder which is the basic experience of my spirituality (and at the core of our conversation together in The Faitheism Project.) It doesn’t need words, just beautiful sounds, instrumental and human, because it expresses an experience that is beyond words. It is a hope, a longing, but it is more than that. It is a connection with something that is just beyond our reach and yet we can experience a taste of it.
Be Thou My Vision defines that sense of wonder and awe. It moves it from something outside of me to something that is generated internally to connect with that thing which is outside of me. That connection with the Transcendent reconnects me with my core sense of meaning/purpose.
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light
O Holy Night urges me to confidently and joyfully share the awe and wonder, the power and the beauty of this transcendent experience with others in a way that calls for justice and peace.
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease
The Cause of Christ is my personal call to more radical action flowing from my core purpose.
For this cause I live
For this cause I’d die
I surrender all
For the cause of Christ
All I once held dear
I will leave behind
For my joy is this
Oh the cause of Christ
This may all sound very “pie in the sky”. But “The Sacrament of the Present Moment” grounds all of this in everyday life. It is a simple and daily guide to spirituality in words and phrases which, in themselves, intrigue and inspire me for the next step in my spiritual journey. I not only learn from De Caussade, but I seek to emulate his way of writing, of living and of seeing the world.
Divine action cleanses the universe, pervading and flowing over all creatures. Wherever they are it pursues them. It precedes them, accompanies them, follows them. We have only to allow ourselves to be borne along on its tide.” p. 2
What songs and books have stuck with you over many different chapters of your life? Why? Do they reveal something about your core purpose? Do they reveal a sense of purpose and meaning that persists beyond the vicissitudes of being a human on this planet?
Three Songs, My criteria:
- A song that can cut through whatever I’m doing and cause me to stop and listen to it.
- A song that speaks to something deep and essential inside me but also inside everyone else — a profound experiential truth — an abstraction articulated perfectly in a way mere words never could.
- A song whose truth is so universal, other artists can cover it and bring something special to it.
It’s the universality that’s the highest bar of all. In each case however, the original artist’s take remains the best (in my opinion) though others have truly made it fly.
Does anyone write better lyrics than Paul Simon? His most covered song is, of course, Bridge Over Troubled Water — a great, GREAT song, but this one has spoken to me more profoundly and continuously over the course of time.
It nails our disappointment in ourselves but also a smoldering hopefulness. It spoke of the disappointment and hope when Nixon resigned because of Watergate (Simon wrote it just AFTER Nixon was elected!), of our feelings after the Challenger Disaster. It’s a song that gives you a reason to keep-a-going without bullshitting you.
It also plays like a “bookend” (ironically) to a song on the Simon & Garfunkel album “Bookends” — “America” — a longing, youthfully hopeful song about searching.
So, I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine,
And the moon rose over an open field.
Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
All come to look for America
When you play that song then”American Tune” immediately afterwards? You could get depressed possibly forever. In a good way.
And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong
But, there is hope —
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
I can’t think of a more timely song.
Live on Late Night With Stephen Colbert, November 29, 2015.
Best Cover Versions:
The band Crooked Still — their instrumentation captures the “Americana-ness” of the song — makes it feel even more profound.
The best song ever written about how love can destroy you like nothing else.
It raises the scorned lover’s agony to Biblical proportions because, damn if that isn’t how it feels when you’re in the midst of that torment and someone else has control of your heart’s happiness.
Cohen apparently wrote as many as 80 different verses for it. The singer Jeff Buckley (his version’s the most played) added a few also.
Maybe there’s a God above,
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya,
It’s not a cry that you’ll hear at night.
It’s not somebody who’s ‘seen the light’,
It’s a cold and it’s a broken ‘hallelujah’
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, halleljah…
Best Cover Version:
Buckley nails the ecstasy and the agony. Here’s a YouTube of his live version. Get ready for chills…
His own personal story (he killed himself before his version became a screaming international hit) adds even more emotional heft to the song. But Leonard Cohen’s original version has a moment, right up top, that gives away what Cohen’s thinking: It’s at the end of the very first line of the song —
“Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord,
That David played, and it pleased the Lord,
But, you don’t really care for music, do ya?
The way Cohen sings it — it’s angry. You can picture him, a scorned lover, sitting naked (literally and figuratively) on the edge of the bed, guitar in hand, explaining how the song he’s writing speaks to his pain —
It goes like this — the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall, the major lift,
The baffled king composing ‘Hallelujah’
The face staring back doesn’t “care for music”. Cohen writes as the “baffled king” whose “composition” is the agony and ecstasy of the love he feels with every atom of his being. ”Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya”.
Cohen mixes in elements of the Samson and Delilah story for good measure —
She tied you to a kitchen chair,
She broke your throne, she cut your hair,
And from your lips she drew the ‘Hallelujah’
That “Hallelujah” she draws from his lips — that’s the sound of love’s torment.
Also noteworthy — Rufus Wainright’s emotionally stripped down version. It plays the song’s emotions without “playing them”. It gives the song’s “religious” side — love as a metaphor for life — more weight.
Another song that captures the agony & ecstasy of love but from a blues perspective. This song may have the best opening of any song in the history of song. In Al Green’s original, you can hear co-writer Teenie Hodges setting the beat by tapping his foot (apparently on a cardboard box) to get everyone started. After Al Green’s bluesy intro, the song starts BETWEEN the sixth beat of an eight-count and then “loop-de-loops” into the next eight-count while kicking the song into gear. You can’t NOT get pulled into this song.
This isn’t a “lyrics” song. That said, every artist has their own approach to singing the line —
Something’s going wrong,
Someone’s on the phone,
Three o’clock in the morning
Talkin’ about how she can make it right, yeah
“Three o’clock in the morning” and heartache’s afoot. Yeah, we’ve all been there.
I’m about to cheat. Openly. I’m naming TWO books, a non-fiction work and a novel.
The Novel: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre.
I am a hard core Le Carre fan. I’ve ready almost everything he’s written. While one could lump Le Carre’s stuff into the “spy novel” category, Le Carre’s world of spies feels authentic because Le Carre spent a career working for English Intelligence. His spies live in a grey world where no one can ever really be trusted — including yourself. The theme that runs throughout his work: “love is the thing you can still betray”.
And no one has been more betrayed by love (for a woman and, to a lesser degree, for his country) than the novel’s hero, George Smiley.
My professional goal is always to create characters with the depth, detail and visceral authenticity of a George Smiley. It’s George that takes TTSS into the realm of actual “literature”.
The non-fiction book: Sapiens by Yuval Harari
Harari sees human history and humans in an extraordinary way. He cuts us zero slack. We keep forgetting, he points out constantly, that we have invented most of what we “believe”. That’s not a knock. It’s just a fact. The knock comes from the fact that we’ve forgotten that we made it all up — our religions, our politics, our everything.
The runner up here was Bill Bryson’s excellent A Short History Of Nearly Everything. I adore that book (and would actually kill people to get Bill as a guest on our podcast) but, while Bryson’s book confirmed things I thought, Harari’s amazing Sapiens actually changed how I thought.
I will always be down with that.