Friday, November 22, 2013

Still somber 50 years later: Memories of a sad, sad day

2 PM, Nov. 22, 1963.  Those of us that are around my age and older can probably remember where we were and what we were doing at that moment.  Besides personal triumphs and tragedies, there are probably only a handful of other events in our life spans that take permanent residence in our memory banks.  For instance, the moon landing in July of 1969 and the 9/11 attacks come to mind with relative ease.  Specifics come to the fore pretty quickly.

In my case, I was at the very tail end of my 7th year, attending Wycliffe Elementary School in Upper Arlington, Ohio. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, and for some reason, there was a delay in heading outside for our afternoon recess.  My third grade teacher, Mrs. Swanson, had a worried look on her face.  An announcement came over the school P.A. system requesting that every class of the school was to proceed outside and line-up behind each of our teachers in single file rows on the playground next to the north entrance. As we were gathering our coats and shuffling down the halls, I noticed the adults talking in hushed tones with each other. Some of them were crying. It was still Indian summer, and was probably around 50 degrees and cloudy as we gathered outside. The school principal had a bullhorn to address everyone.

“Something very sad has happened today in Dallas, Texas with President Kennedy.  We think it is best to dismiss school early so you can go home immediately to be with your families,” came the amplified declaration from the lady in charge (When I think about this now, I realize this would’ve never flown in today’s world.  But back then, nearly all of us walked or rode our bicycles to school, and in practically every case, there was a full-time mom awaiting each of us when we would get home each afternoon at 3:30).  “Please, children, no running or playing as you leave…it is VERY important that you go home immediately.  No dawdling.”

Of course, every child is bubbly with excitement when school is cancelled because of weather…but this was the first time any of us could remember that it was called off right in the middle of a day. And what the Principal shared, along with the distress shown on the faces of the other teachers, we knew this was something very bad.  I located my little sister, Joyce, who was a kindergartner, then found my older brother Jim, a 5th grader, and we began our eight block walk. It seemed like every one of us hurried our ways homeward much more quickly and quietly than I could ever recall. Several times, Joyce whispered, “Why are we going home early?” Jim and I just kept telling her, “We’ll find out as soon as we get home.”

When we rushed in through the front door, my mother had an ironing board set up in the living room—which was not the norm--and she was pressing clothes while watching Walter Cronkite (the news anchor of choice in the Hollingsworth household).  

“What’s happening, with the President, Mommy?” Jim blurted out.

We could tell she had been crying, and she replied, “President Kennedy was shot by someone in Dallas.”  Then, with a catch in her voice, she said, “They are afraid that he is dead.  Let’s pray that the doctors can help him.”

It was odd to see the normally stoic Cronkite taking his reading glasses on and off as sheets of paper were handed to him.  He wasn’t wearing a suit coat, and was speaking from a work desk surrounded by telephones, files, and scurrying people in the background, as opposed the more formal look of his nightly newscasts.

I guess it was around 2:30 PM when we saw Cronkite give the official, heartbreaking news (at the 5:00 mark of the video below). Even today, I can remember him pausing several times, as if to stifle tears. 

For a family that didn’t watch much television, we spent a lot of time over the next several days being bathed in those cathode rays.  Everything seemed so much more subdued.  A pall fell over our house, the whole neighborhood, and indeed, the nation.  We asked questions to our parents, but ultimately, none of their answers made sense, and I think they realized it as well.

My birthday was the day after the assassination.  While my mother made me my favorite meal of spaghetti with meatballs and a warm chocolate cake, there was no sense of joy to the proceedings.  

During the funeral procession two days later, the joint military band played “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” also known as “The Navy Hymn,” as they marched with the coffin from the Capitol Rotunda to Arlington National Cemetery. It was Kennedy’s favorite, and he had heard it plenty himself as a WWII hero in the Pacific when fellow sailors were laid to rest. The third verse seemed particularly apropos for the scene:

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood

Upon the chaos dark and rude 

And bid its angry tumult cease 

And give, for wild confusion, peace 

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee 

For those in peril on the sea 

It was in the midst of that long, somber march, that the slain President’s toddler son, John F. Kennedy Jr., gave his father’s flag-draped coffin the formal salute he had been taught to do by his daddy.  It was his third birthday.

I don’t normally dwell on these things, nor do I think many Americans alive to remember it ponder on it, either.  It was an especially sad chapter in our nation’s oft-violent history. But it lingers in our collective consciousness, and on this 50th anniversary, I felt the need to open up.  Perhaps you have memories as well.  Feel free to share them…

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The long-awaited return of Rick Elias with Jōb

It was a chilly April night in 1990 when I met Rick Elias for the first time. The venerable Exit/In rock club in Nashville was hosting a showcase of various artists as part of the Gospel Music Week convention.  A few weeks before, I had received an advance copy of Rick Elias and the Confessions from Frontline, a small west coast label, and was quite fond of what I heard.  It was guitar-driven Americana with gritty vocals…akin to Springsteen, Mellancamp or Petty…not comparisons often heard in Contemporary Christian Music.  But it was the penetrating, gutsy lyrics that were so honest that really set it apart. Most CCM was rather banal when it came to its message…you really didn’t want the “gatekeepers” to question anything about one’s reality in sharing the gospel message thru song.  It was always best to keep hard questions, doubts, and insecurity out of the equation.  That’s what made this bold album from this unknown entity so compelling, And it only grew with repeated listening.

Rick was kind of hard to miss when he sauntered into the loud music room. He was an imposing 6’ 6” with flowing black hair in a sort of pompadour cut, chiseled features, and covered head-to-toe in black (well worn leather jacket with tassels, frayed jeans, and scuffed biker boots).  He looked like his music sounded: ready to fight for what he believed. Once again, not your typical preppy-looking Christian pop act.

His handlers had flown him in for the convention, but hadn’t landed him any performance slots.  So he was just trying to understand this whole new industry.  He’d been in the southern California club scene for years, close to some major label deals on several occasions, but never quite consummated.  His disappointments had been punctuated with some severe substance abuse issues, and it was in recent years that he had been able to find some peace and hope via a renewed faith that he had abandoned in his late teens. All of this led him to be somewhat flummoxed by all the professional Christians he was encountering at this Music City confab. 

Recognizing him from the cover of that debut CD, I walked up to him and introduced myself, telling him that I thought his album was truly terrific. We talked on and off throughout several sets by other artists, and at one point stepped outside so we could better converse.  He asked what I did, and I shared that I worked with musicians who had a concern for the poor who might like to partner with Compassion International to find sponsors for needy children around the world.  He was intrigued. Thus began a long friendship.

Within weeks we began phone conversations, and I was able to get him added onto an Artist Vision Trip to Guatemala several months later. I thought this particular grouping had great potential to bond significantly.  Rich Mullins and Geoff Moore had both been friends of mine for five years, but had never met. I thought their Midwestern sensibilities to their music along with their desire for realistic discipleship would blend well.  Chuck Tilley, a famed concert promoter, and my boss, Devlin Donaldson (also a much-published rock critic) were also along. My hope was Rick would find some cohorts in his yearning for honest communication, too. We all had a meaningful time engaging with the poor of Guatemala, but also in the fellowship of our own poor-in-spirit conditions. Everyone hit it off right from the get-go, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Not only did deep connections begin across the board, but the seeds for the “ragamuffin band” idea that Mullins had rolling around in his head were birthed on that excursion.

Within a year, Rick and Rich were heading up said band, touring across North America and recording award-winning albums. Rick also did two more solo albums of his own, and made major alliances on soundtracks for films like That Thing You Do, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, as well as TV shows. His notoriety as a producer grew as well.  After Mullins’ tragic auto accident five years later, Rick helped carry the flame with several more Ragamuffin Band albums. 

But with the demise of the CCM industry and ever-tightening playlists at Christian radio in the past dozen years, Rick has been unable to move forward as an recording artist.  He continues writing, producing, and occasionally playing live shows. He’s also a professor at a music school here in Nashville, passing on his deep knowledge of art, craft, and business sense to younger musicians. 

It’s been 13 years since Rick has been in a studio to work on any of his own compositions. Seeing some of his contemporaries launch successful Kickstarter campaigns to raise money for self-released projects, he decided it was time to give that a shot.  The money came in from eager fans that have waited well over a decade to hear more from Elias. And, despite a serious tumble that caused a debilitating shoulder injury in the midst of production, he was able to get his first solo album in over 15 years finished this year, and it is releasing to the public this week.

It is entitled Jōb, and the moniker is appropriate, not just for the long-suffering chronicled above, but also Rick’s desire to probe a thorny theological issue. It isn’t just the ancient Old Testament story that is examined, but also contemporary--perhaps even autobiographical--musings on the purposes of pain and disappointment that are brought to the fore.

Opening with “Do Ya,” Elias serves as a guide of sorts, leading us into places none of us would choose to go. The plaintive acoustic guitar is joined by a slowly building cadre of instrumentation and layered voices blowing across a dusty soulscape.

Who am I?
Do you know me?
If you know
Well then tell me
Ring those suffering chimes
Tell me whose fate is mine

Do ya feel like an angel?
Or a pawn in a fable?
Son of Jōb
Son of betrayal
There are no strangers at this table

Ending with one of the coolest chords since the beginning of “Hard Day’s Night,” the stage is then set for the ripping title track, which is easily the top rock song of 2013.  Delivered with the edginess of late 60s Rolling Stones but the ferocity of  mid-tempo Metallica, this slide guitar-fueled cruncher lifts the downtrodden questions into a realm of righteous anger.

Naked I came from my mother’s womb
And naked I will return
My serpent skins shed in the tomb
And a lover’s heart that still burns

A spoken word section halfway through, reminiscent of Bono’s laments in “Bullet the Blue Sky,” was written and voiced by Rick’s old high school chum, the illustrious Luis Alberto Urrea, now a Pulitzer Prize nominated and New York Times Best Selling author.

Templars in the alley performing esoteric rites
Junkies howl their hosannas in the galleries of night
Gathering upright citizens running from the light
Just another blind boy, blessed and cursed, with visions instead of sight
And I’m still walking…

If I fell down in the city would I make the slightest sound?
One the sidewalk where the saddest of the seraphim can be found
Where the children of the morning chalk their scriptures on the ground
And sing their hymns with the voices of the drowned
I hear them talking…

“When It All Comes Down” follows next as protestations begin to turn inward, examining how sometimes we help create our own quagmires. The sophisticated arrangement and cool elements like a backwards guitar, stark keyboard textures, and Tim Chandler’s lyrical bass figures broaden the pallet that provides paint for the picture.

I watched the level rise
Debris brought me to my knees
With all my crimes
And all my lies
I circled the drain
Like a spider going down the sink

When it all came down
It was like a mist that tuned to rain
Until the rain
Became a stream
The stream a river
An open vein
Bleeding out across the lowlands
Swallowing summer and spring
When it all came down
It took everything

Willing inner deception is also spoken of in a lament about divas and drama queens, and the men who are pulled under their spells in “A Kind of Brilliance.”

Critics, fakes, and cheap alcohol
Clumsy, mumbled dialogue
Would never bring her down
She’s lost in her soliloquy
Her lonely, bittersweet elegy
To love lost, not found
While here in the shadows I am bleeding, baby
But you can’t even hear my voice

And I admit
It requires
An exquisite
Kind of liar
A kind of brilliance
To believe

Melancholy and nostalgia soaked in resignation characterize the aching account of the years of a marriage; good, bad, and indifferent. Surely “When We Built This House” is one of the frankest songs I’ve heard about the ongoing challenges of life-long commitment.

Those were the days
When grace threw long shadows
And light filtered through
Now we see through a haze
Smoke and dust from a battle
Ghosts wander from room to room
I told you, “Love is never abstract
It will break your heart and never look back”

Then you ask me how I am
Well what do you see?
One heart left to chance
And the other to bleed
Two souls in a dance
A fait accompli
Then I remember
Your eyes, your laugh
You smiled and the world was right
And I still remember
When we built this house

A reworking of “Help Thou My Unbelief,” originally on the Prayers of a Ragamuffin album, continues the flow of recognition within the heart of Jōbs and Thomas’s everywhere that there is, indeed, a loving God in the midst of the trials and apprehension. A gentle, earnest plea for anyone that is wrestling with uncertainty.

Father you led me as I crossed the wasteland
Conquering the mountains, the rivers, the lowlands
But you would not conquer me

Abba you touched me, you heard all my cries
I sat at your table, I lay by your side
But as Thomas, no Judas
It’s you I denied
Still, you loved me

Bringing everything to a close is “Jōb, Naked,” and addendum to the title track that starts as an edgy acoustic Steve Earle-like thumper. The ultimate questions still resound, but there’s an allowance for clemency from the great beyond, and a hope for the coming redeemer.

Well, yer straight out of luck
The hand’s dealt from the bottom tonight
Deals have been struck
And the seersucker suits came to buy

After all their manipulations
Yeah, all those clever moves
Comes a single act of mercy
As a child in a young mother’s womb

The final several minutes morph into a middle-eastern whirling dervish, reminiscent of the eclectic instrumentation utilized on the Page-Plant Zeppelin Unledded tour back in the mid-90s.  The interaction between Elias’ frenetic guitar and drummer/percussionist Steve Hindalong’s accents builds in hypnotic intensity.  The rising string section adds to the mounting crescendo, that ends with an Olympic droning sustain that washes over the whole procession.  As it fades, one is reminded that Yaweh does speak, usually as a whisper, through the howling winds on occasion.

Sonically, Jōb is by far the best sounding album Elias has done. Rich in texture, warm when needed, stark in the right places.  Little instrumental flourishes and sweeteners from accordion, organ, piano, vibes, mandolin, etc. lend just the right grace notes. The contributions of the aforementioned Hindalong and Chandler, who make up the rhythm section of The Choir, are stellar. Their band mate, Derri Daughtery, does a premium effort engineering and assisting on the mix. But it is Elias, who plays nearly every other instrument, and blends in many intriguing harmonies alongside his ardent lead vocal, who carries the day.

All said, Jōb is such a satisfying listen, and worthy of the wait.  It is certainly one of the strongest releases of the year.  And all of it combined begs just one more question: how long until the next one?  I’m confident that Rick has much, much more to offer, and can hardly contain myself in anticipation of more to come. Lord knows, we need his brand of literate, seasoned, and fervent rock to help us navigate the thorny questions.

You can buy Jōb as a digital download here (as well as hear samples):

You can also purchase it at iTunes (as well as hear samples):

If you want a physical CD (and maybe some other swag such as a signed album art poster, autographed B&W pic, comp CD, etc.) go here:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

My wedding advice: Proverbs 31 and Solomon are dubious marital guides

Six years ago I was privileged to be the Best Man at the wedding of Curtis and Kristen in Chicago.  He was a former intern with my music management company, then a co-worker at a record label, and eventually a business partner on an internet merchandising site.  We had many a long talk over his gourmet popcorn blend and lengthy power walks on the outdoor track when we would workout at the Y.

For years he had been fixated on the idea of relocating to a major metro area like New York, Boston, or Chicago.  He had evolved into a talented computer and internet techie and felt he would have a better chance at long term work in an area like that.  Besides, he wanted to feel more of the cosmopolitan buzz of places like The Loop, Greenwich Village, or The Hub.  So he set off on visits to each of those places to soak in the ambience and explore the job market.

He eventually settled on the idea of Chicago, applied for work up there, and landed a great gig with a software consulting firm there.  We’ve continued to stay in touch, and always get together when either of us travels into our respective towns.

On one such visit over Thanksgiving about ten years ago, we had Thai food near the “L” (elevated railway) station where he lived in the Wrigleyville neighborhood of the north side.  He introduced me to his new friend, Kristin, who he’d met through the church where he was finding community. 

She and I hit it off immediately.  She was also a Wheaton College grad with a faith that had been thoroughly examined.  She was well read, and drawn to thoughtful film, probing music, and other creative art forms.  Kristin had spent much of her youth in Europe in her missionary family, and had a good grasp of international politics. Her sarcastic wit was a terrific bonus.  I could see that there was tremendous potential between the two of them.

As the next few years passed their friendship grew deeper.  It was obvious to all they were quite fond of each other, and when they finally announced their engagement, it made sense on every level.

The wedding was a fun gathering of family that rendezvoused from all corners of the country, and there was a huge contingent of friends from Wheaton and Belmont Colleges and First Evangelical Free Church of Chicago.

As we were finishing up the scrumptious reception dinner that featured ribs (I told you they were a unique couple), I got up to offer a toast.

“Curtis and Kristin, it’s been a blast growing in friendship with you over the years, and I’m honored that you asked me to be with you here today.

“I’d like to address Kristin first:  I know that as a God-fearing young Christian woman you would very much like to impress your hubby by being a stalwart, modern example of a Proverbs 31 woman.  However, as most of the females here can attest, a lady like that has most likely never existed. 

“And to Curtis: I bet you would like to mold your romancing skills around all the vivid concepts outlined in The Song of Solomon.  However, since the author of that tome happened to have five hundred freakin’ wives and countless more concubines, I’m not so sure that is the most trustworthy source when you are focusing on a monogamous relationship with your lovely bride.

“As you define your union from here on out, you will most certainly find times when the differences between genders will become pronounced.  But don’t fall for all the psycho babble that’s so prevalent today.  I saw a bumper sticker not long ago that perhaps should be our credo: Men are from Earth.  Women are from Earth.  Deal with it!

“But enough comedy jokes!  Seriously, one of the cornerstones of your lives individually and corporately is your honesty.  Please don’t ever lose that with each other. You two both have loving families represented here, many straight-shooting friends, and a fantastic church community.  Please, please, please be honest with us and rely on us when times get tough…as they most certainly will in changing seasons.   Allow us to listen to you, to cry with you, and to stand with you during the trials that marriage will bring.  And we will certainly celebrate with you in all the good times as well. We want to be there for you…no matter what…and we commit to that firmly on this day.

“A songwriter friend of mine was struggling to come up with a better way of saying ‘I am so in love with you.’  We all know that phrase has pretty much lost all meaning in a society fixated on self-centered romance.  I think he came up with a phrase that defines what I’ve seen growing between you both in the last several years…and my sincere prayer is that it will be your mantra as you forge something meaningful together from  here on out. 

“When he wrote of his beloved he said: I am wild with care for you.” 

Then I raised my glass and everyone else in the room extended their flasks in their direction.  “So, to Curtis and Kristin: may you two be consumed with the idea of deep, ongoing passion for each other and for that incredible bond that this day has launched…through thick and thin…may you always be wild with care for each other!  Salud!”

Postscript: Curtis and Kristin have since relocated to Vermont, where they have started a small farm, emphasizing organic vegetables.  He still does web consulting, and she is an amazing mom to their precocious toddler son, Ezra.