Music has always been my church. I might go to buildings and participate in rituals and even make a living by involvement and engagement with more traditionally understood examples of church/religion, but in my heart music is my religion, my church, my heart. it was in music that I found a space to voice and hear voiced my desire, my melancholy, my sexuality, everything. I remember with a fondness not reserved for many other things in my heart, when I bought my first record player, a Dansette, very similar, if not identical to the one in the image. It wasn't the machine itself, it was what it represented--liberation from the family 'sound system', the radio choices of my parents, the tyranny of a world shaped by ideas, values and aesthetics that meant very little to me as I tried to give voice to my own. That record player became a shrine upon which I sacrificed faithfully the artifacts of my faith--the blues, gospel, r+b, soul, reggae--with a fervour and zeal that was a visceral response to the thing that offered me freedom and a path to knowing and finding myself.
I've just started reading a book about Nick Cave called The Art of Nick Cave: New Critical Essays--its edited by John H. Baker. Its a collection of essays about Nick Cave, his music, his writing, his persona etc., divided into five sections: songwriter, murder ballads, film and theatre, influences and sacred vs. profane. It might just be that those five categorizations of Cave's life and work sum up in some way the way music functions as church or religion for me--if nothing else they highlight the issues and challenges which inform and affirm aspects of my life as I journey through it.
I haven't got too far into the book yet, but so far, it is rich with things about Cave, but perhaps more importantly, about music and about life, which I am finding helpful and hinting at things I might want to revisit, redress and rethink in terms of my own life vis-a-vis, what I do, why I do it, and how I broker some obvious disconnects which I am finding very troubling and difficult at the moment.
I think it is fair to say that I am in something of a vocational, if not life, crisis at the moment. Crisis seems a harsh word when I write it, there might be other words that could capture my present state, but I'll let it stand.
In his introduction to the book, John Baker explores the role that Cave, as actor and musician, plays in Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire. He also links Cave's dichotomy of desire and the emotional, psychological and existential cost to human existence to the central characters in that film. In naming Cave a version of Damiel, the central angel in Wender's story, Baker likens Cave's songwriting to a fallen angel, whose fall if you like, allows him to explore empathy and catharsis and invite insight and release to himself and the listener to his work. There is a line the author writes that grabbed me,
'He (Damiel) recognizes that the only way in which this desire can be fulfilled is through a kind of radical reinacarnation: his transformation from angel into human. In that sense he risks, like Lucifer, a form of fall from the spiritual into the material world.' This is beautiful imagery, I am sure to some who hold a different view of things religious, where the idea of 'fall' is endowed with ideas of disconnection with the sacred, the act might seem disastrous, but to me the fall is the only way Damiel can realize his desire, the only way he can discover love. The path to 'salvation' to reincarnation-re-birth-lies in this kind of provocative and dangerous act of counter-move. Richard Rohr's book of last year, Falling Upwards puts a safer spin on it, but that sheen of positivism is the essential thing I am trying to overcome in terms of my own relation to the sacred.. I keep having these images of falling to the ground, they have been inhabiting my dream world for a while. At first I was a bit worried, it seemed somewhat final, destructive, but lately I am beginning to see it in a different light, as pathway to my own radical reincarnation--I have been falling dramatically into the material world over the past few years, it often seems to be viewed as the 'wrong direction' by peers and by religion in general, but for me, this 'form of fall' heralds a way to realize a certain desired transformation.
Having spoken of coming to terms with a certain redirection, at least internally, I must also speak of my continuing belief that satisfaction will remain elusive for me, and again, perhaps I am coming to terms with some things about myself, but perhaps also about life in general. In a chapter of Cave's music, not just the lyrical preoccupation through which most address him, there is a quote from Giorgio Agamben that meant something to me the moment I read it. The author of the chapter, Carl Lavery makes a distinction in his offering between Cave the person and Cave the singer,
"To use Giorgio Agambens' vocabulary, the name, 'Cave,' in this chapter, is posited as an authorial 'gesture,' a proper noun that 'marks the point at which a life is offered up and played out in the work. Offered up and played out, not expressed or fulfilled. For this reason the author can only remain unsatisfied and unsaid in the work.'
Two things, one is that I think this is why my favourite songs/artists and those whose work expresses dichotomy, tension, paradox and melancholy--whether it is the plaintive joy of blues and gospel or the apocalyptic musings of Radiohead, it is more often not, the ache in popular music that most speaks to me when it all comes right down to it. It is not that I need to be continually reminded of what is missing or lost (I love 'happy music' too, but there is always that 'thing' lurking beneath the surface) but that inherent tension and release mechanism in some music is what drives my love for it-- I just don't always need sheen and veneer to make everything pretty and ok.
That melancholy, rooted at the heart of music that emerges from dislocation, disorientation, despair, desire, is what keeps music church for me and it might just be why I struggle with the institutional expressions of church/religion. It lacks melancholy and therefore, for me, it lacks the one ingredient that makes it vital, necessary. As Richard Kearney has written, melancholy brings us to the limits of reason--which for me is ultimately the place where communion with the sacred truly begins. Guardini declares that melancholy issues from 'the very ruptured depths of human nature whose disquietude is a sign of the eternal.' So there's that.
The other thing with regard to this statement is that I too have a name (much lesser of course), a voice, a role, that is public, that is performance--in academia and establishment--and both are difficult. I have spent a long time attempting to merge both public and private voice, and that hasn't proven easy--there are some serious obstacles in both environments that have to do with assumptions, perceptions etc. and I think I have spent way too much time trying to be 'heard' rather than judged or analyzed or critiqued--and I don't mean that in a 'victimy' way, I just mean that the liberation of a musical voice is that it is 'otherness,' the melancholic preoccupation, is almost a given,whereas in the church/theological worlds I inhabit it tends to be viewed as something peripheral, again, at least in my own experience which is the only perspective I can hold with deep conviction. Part of this is the need to find one's audience--not something that I have been too good at, I seem to have been capable of putting myself in environments, that, for want of a better word, are more conservative in both perspective and practice than I, which then heralds tensions and troubles, both great and small. The 'gesture' voice, the public voice for the performance of theology and religion, is one that I have spent many years working on. I came across a quote from John Wesley that every (man) should strive to be a voice and not an echo, which is lifework and maturity, but once the process of discovery has begun that voice then has to find it's hearing and that I'm still working on--not that people don't listen, or that I even need them to, I need to hear my voice in its right place in both inside and outside.
System to the Sacred
"Cave's sacred is part prophetic Jesus, part Father in the Christian tradition, part Old testament force of retribution, part metonym for human love and sexual energy, part violent power with unknown capabilities, part absence, part extension of the Cave ego. Is there a system to Cave's sacred?" Lyn McCredden.
Does my 'system of the sacred' fit? Fit in the containers I attempt to put it in? Fit in the worlds I seek to express it in? Yes and no, that's probably true of all systems I imagine, but before that perhaps I have to ask if I even have a system? Or if I even know what it is. Increasingly I do--it is not the same as Cave's but there are crossovers for sure. What I cherish particularly about Cave's work is that it is both church in and of itself and it often addresses the other church in my existence--the institutional religion of Christianity--and I sense affinity between he and I on many things not least of which is his conviction that institutional religion is more often than not an unhelpful container. But he is out of it, and I am in it. Am I better or worse for that positioning? Lately, I have been feeling that I am completely fucked by it--it has been my working life--which raises complex issues of material need versus vocational practice-desire, sublimation, games without frontiers in some ways--but it is a continual source of concern, worry, a beast that refuses to be tamed and wants to eat my heart out at times, or at least that's how it feels. And of course, it could just be that it is not a suitable container for me, for my system of the sacred, as I realize that it is still viable for many people--and I don't mean this to be a broadside moan about church etc. I am speaking purely of myself. I am not sure it is necessary to state fully, or as fully as I able, my system, but I can say that after many years I find that much of it is not the system others around me are working from, and that's fine, but ...
"how can inspiration or for that matter God be moral?" Cave's question resonates deeply. I am sick of moralizing religioisity, sorry just am, I find it completely unhelpful, unimaginative, constricting, inadequate, shallow, easy--do I believe in morality? Of course, but morality that has been rooted essentially in reason doesn't work for me and that is what I encounter much of the time.
I remember musical moments perhaps more than any other, they are inscribed on my heart in a way that other encounters are not, it has always been that way for me--they are the ritual experiences personal and public that have shaped me in deep and abiding ways--I find myself in music, I find others, I sometimes find god-although 'finding god' has never been my primary preoccupation, maybe when it comes down to it, as Jack Caputo says, God doesn't exist, God insists, and music might just be the principal insistence conveyor for me.
(musical accompaniment to this post: trouble will find me, the national-on repeat--gorgeous)