Music and Spirituality: A Real Sticky Wicket. | Solid State

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Music and Spirituality: A Real Sticky Wicket.

Posted By on Tue, Oct 24, 2006 at 11:21 AM

Brooke and I have been whiling away these colder evenings by reading aloud from the newish book, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. It's been pretty fun, even though I already know the story inside and out. When Brooke is reading, I sometimes stop her to tell an anecdote related to the subject she's on. Nine times out of ten, the info is revealed in a subsequent paragraph, with a similar amount of hyperbole. If this is annoying to her, she keeps it to herself. One of the many reasons I love that woman.

The book itself is so-so. There are enough word redundancies to drive a writer (especially two of 'em, as is the case in our household) completely batshit. Brooke actually threatened to "throw the damn thing across the room" the next time she encounters the phrase "interlocking harmonies." Personally, I'm more put off by the author's use of the word "band" three times in a single sentence. But I digress.

Despite its faults, the book has reminded me of the intensely spiritual nature of Wilson's songcraft. As an often vehement opposer of *organized* religion, ie The Judeo Three, I'm aware that my love of his devotional-sounding productions contradicts my otherwise polemic views on religion. Many BW works display strong Christian convictions; why am I forgiving of this but annoyed by other displays of faith?

With a ruling percentage of humanity skewed towards believing in some kind of Santa In The Sky, I find myself increasingly at odds with not just my own culture, but the majority of the species. It's cool, I'm kinda used to it. Still, I figured it was time to examine where my own attitudes toward art and spirituality intersect.

Music history is chock full of expressions of faith, from sacred chant to U2. And don't get me started on visual arts. Anyone who has wandered the Renaissance rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art knows what I'm talking about.

I'm also in the middle of a book about Toltec, Mayan and Aztec civilization, and the specific reasons behind their rampant use of human sacrifice. The author's thesis is that these cultures moved progressively from direct mystical experience as directed by their local shaman, towards a kind of mechanized system of offering in order to appease of the hungry demons of their cosmology. In even more ancient times, these metaphysical foes had been forces of positive transformation. Well, according to this dude, anyway.

So what does Quetzalcoatl have to do with sunny Californian pop? I could surely find a link, but you wouldn't want to read a post that long.

Here's a footbridge:

There's a spiritual longing in the artist that's comparable to the desire for religious transcendence. Practitioners of both spiritual trance and applied creativity experience similar states when in the throes of their respective ecstasies.

Unfortunately, there are obstacles.

The priest seeks to canonize, dogmatize and chasten the unpredictable otherness of spiritual revelation; market forces seek to streamline, repackage and uniformly distribute artistic dynamism.

But what's good for the artist is good for the mystic.

Solitary investigation and development is definitely key, as is failure and humiliation. Success, in as much as it can be quantified, is bitchin', too.

Desire is important, but not to the degree that it becomes superficial ego enhancement. Ever wonder why modern radio sucks? Everybody wants to play rock star. Donning the trappings of a sonic superhero or putting on priestly vestments is empty unless the true charge of spirit is underneath.

If you can't become entranced by your undertaking, stop. You aren't fooling anyone, not even yourself. But do try again.

OK. Enough with the lecture. Let's get back to the Beach Boys and Christianity. I was raised semi-Catholic (one of my grandmothers was Poped to the Extreme) and have a fairly good grasp of the origins of the religion — dare I say better than some of its adherents? Anyway, it's not like I have any problem with the teachings of Christ, whether or not he was a real historical figure or an amalgamation of several wild-eyed Judaic visionaries. I could write a lot about what I believe JC was up to during his self-imposed desert exile; let's just say it's consistent with the transformative experiences cataloged in nearly every spirit tradition.

I'm an intermittently lapsed Buddhist, meaning I believe that meditation is just the best damn thing ever. This in and of itself is not incompatible with Christianity.

But there's a major difference between following the advice of a pacifist Kabbalist and believing that you should abuse women and hate homosexuals. How 'bout we burn an ox tonight? I hear it delights Jehovah's nostrils. Yeah, that's in there, too.

I'd like to think that Brian Wilson was more interested in the compassionate teachings of brotherhood than a close-minded doctrine of prejudice and control.

Ergo, I'm cool with the Christian connotations in his music. But keep that Jesus Camp pseudo-goth shit away from me!

PS: Check out Undead Molly's epic pumpkin-carving adventure. What skillz!


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About The Author

Casey Rea

Casey Rea

Casey Rea was the Seven Days music editor from 2004 until 2007. He won the 2005 John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.

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