Thursday, January 31, 2013

Neil Young, After the Goldrush (1970)

After the Goldrush (1970) probably vies with Harvest as the most critically acclaimed Neil Young album and for good reason. The thin vulnerable fragility of Young's barely twenty-year old voice captures the self-introspection of the era of the singer-songwriter as much as Leonard Cohen's deadpan delivery or Bob Dylan's nasal poetry. 

Tell Me Why opens the album with a series of existential questions set to a rollicking acoustic guitar arrangement. "Sailing hardships through broken harbors / Out on the waves in the night / Still the searcher must ride the dark horse / Racing alone in his fright / Tell me why, tell me why." The apocalyptic title track with its sparse piano setting boasts a beautiful melody into which a French horn suddenly breaks. Yes a French horn. (makes another appearance in "Till the Morning Comes" the little single line ditty that closes side 1) Young sees "Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s" and envisions a science fiction scenario to avert the ecological disaster (or at least give the human race a fresh start elsewhere).

Well I dreamed I saw the silver
space ships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun
There were children crying
and colors flying
All around the chosen ones
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun
They were flying Mother Nature's
silver seed to a new home in the sun.

Southern Man with its blistering electgric guitar workout is in the same genre as Harvest's 'Alabama' which drew the ire of Lynyrd Skynyrd in Sweet Home Alabama
"Well I heard mister Young sing about her / Well, I heard ole Neil put her down / Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / A Southern man don't need him around anyhow.' And Young is certainly unsparing in his condemnation.


I saw cotton
and I saw black
Tall white mansions
and little shacks.
Southern man
when will you
pay them back?
I heard screamin'
and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?

Southern man
better keep your head
Don't forget
what your good book said
Southern change
gonna come at last
Now your crosses
are burning fast
Southern man

The ragged glory of Young's frenzied distorted guitar work mostly around two or three notes jabbing and biting like he really means business.

The cover of the country standard Oh Lonesome Me takes the jauntiness of the original and transforms it with a more downbeat depressive arrangement more in keeping with the lyric. Birds must surely be one of the most beautiful songs Young has written. Its chorus: 'When you see me fly away without you / shadow on the things you know / feathers fall around you / and show you the way to go / It's over. It's over.' The rocking When You Dance (I Can Really Love) is reminiscent of Buffalo Springfield-era Neil. The plaintive I Believe in You positively aches  - 'Now that you've made yourself love me do you think I can change it in a day? How can I place you above me? Am I lyin' to you when I say that I believe in you?' The album closes with Cripple Creek Ferry bringing to mind Huck Finn on the mighty Mississippi a tribute to Young's adopted country. He is after all the most American Canadian alive.

I give this stone cold American classic 5 stars!
Original gatefold cover to vinyl LP

Seeing and Believing: The Eye of Faith in a Visual Culture

The following is a talk I gave at the Book Launch for my colleague and friend, Stuart Devenish.  Seeing and Believing: The Eye of Faith in a Visual Culture (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012)

On 7 January 1839, members of the French Academy of Sciences were shown the first rudimentary photographs thus changing the visual arts forever. This remarkable invention was the work of the Parisian painter and printmaker Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre who manipulated light to capture unique images on highly polished, silver-plated sheets of copper. The “Daguerrotype” as it was humbly dubbed by its creator was superceded around 1885 when the American inventor George Eastman managed to create a portable camera that could transfer an image onto celluloid film. Of course this remarkable technology was itself superceded and the Eastman Kodak company filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2012, a victim of the digital revolution. 

When the Lumiere Brothers invented the cinematograph in 1895 pictures suddenly came alive with movement and audiences gasped and screamed and fled away from the screen at the strain of registering this new experience. The eye had let light in but it took a while for the soul to catch up with what it all meant. The stage was set for a new era of visual culture that is still with us.   

Of course the delighting of the eye (and the soul to which it is a window) is an ancient as well as a modern experience. The rich mosaics and tapestries of the ancient world and the kaleidoscopic narratives captured in medieval stained glass delighted the eyes and thus the hearts and imaginations of the ancients just as surely as the cinema has captivated moderns. Stuart Devenish has linked both the ancient and the modern together by drawing us engagingly into his theme of “the eye of faith in a visual culture.” His book is infused with the awareness that seeing is a profoundly spiritual business. He reminds us that faith is something deeply visional, of the need to look at the world through Jesus’ eyes, and that the Bible is a visionary text that brings into being a wide-eyed people. Just as the camera manipulates light to give us fresh visions, so Christianity is a way of light whose wisdom enchants the imagination, produces spiritual vision and turns us into focused disciples.     

Seeing things is not just about a passive reception of stimuli upon the optic nerve. I once insulted the theologian Alister McGrath (a man I greatly admire) by telling him that a good speaker doesn’t need a power point presentation.  My comment wasn’t aimed at his presentation but was my attempt to make the point that a good public speaker uses words to create pictures in the minds of the hearers and does not need to rely overly much on visual aids. This is why video did not in fact kill the radio star.  When we listen to the radio our brains get to create their own pictures rather than the somewhat more passive delivery of ready-made images offered by television and film. We are, it seems, created as image making beings. 

Though our physical sight may be lacking, our spiritual sight can remain strong. I have known several sight-impaired women in the congregations I have served and most of them have had a spiritual vision that far outstripped the rest of us. Fanny Crosby was born blind, but do you think the woman who wrote the hymn To God be the Glory Great Things he Hath Done had no vision?  Do you think she never saw Jesus?  It was this blind woman who wrote:

Redeemed and so happy in Jesus 
No language my rapture can tell

I know that the light of His presence

With me doth continually dwell

I know I shall see in His beauty,

The King in whose law I delight

Who lovingly guardeth my footsteps

And giveth me songs in the night.

In fact, physical sightedness can often be a hindrance to true vision.  In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, the monster who is hated and hounded by the villagers because of his ugliness and frightful appearance, stumbles into the cabin of an old blind hermit.  Unaware of his ugliness the hermit offers him food and gentleness motivated by both loneliness and the demands of Christian charity. He is the only character in the book who offers the monster anything like the milk of human kindness. This blind man could see something in this pitiful creature the sighted people could not see. Where the physical eye saw only a figure of horror and revulsion, the spiritual eye saw a creature deserving of compassion. Only after Samson had his eyes gouged out, did he gain the vision he needed to see that romantic alliances with Philistine women could only lead to disaster.  It was as an eyeless and tragic hero that he gained his greatest victory over God’s enemies. He stood between the pillars of the Philistine temple and pushed against it until the whole building toppled. He had a spiritual vision when “Eyeless in Gaza” that he had never possessed before

In his tenth and final chapter Stuart writes of the temptations present in the absence of spiritual desire and the ever-present potential to be blinded by sin. He provides us via Bruce Haddon, with a “postmodern catechism” designed to sharpen our focus. Such training of the eye in spiritual sight has a long and honoured history in the Christian spiritual tradition.     

The Authorised Version of the Bible renders Matthew 6:22-23 in the following way:

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

These words are part of the Sermon on the Mount and come after Jesus has warned against religious hypocrisy. Modern translations render the Greek word aplous as “sound” or “healthy” rather than “single” but there is a good argument for the older translation given that the Greek word can carry the meaning of simplicity and unification of purpose.  

Earlier generations spoke of the “single eye” in terms of such purity of intention.  To have a single eye was to have a pure motive.  In the famous definition of Soren Kierkegaard, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” John Wesley’s sermon “On a Single Eye” followed the holy living tradition of Jeremy Taylor and William Law in understanding the “single eye” in this way. The sermon seems partly to have been motivated by concern about the tendency among Methodists to marry their sons and daughters into wealthy families regardless of the personal piety of their partners.

You, whom God hath entrusted with sons or daughters, is your eye single in choosing partners for them? What qualifications do you seek in your sons and daughters in law? religion or riches? Which is your first consideration?...Which will you prefer? - a rich Heathen, or a pious Christian? - a child of the devil, with an estate; or the child of God, without it? - a lord or gentleman, with the devil in his heart…or a tradesman, who…has Christ dwelling in his heart? O how great is that darkness which makes you prefer a child of the devil to a child of God! Which causes you to prefer the poor trash of worldly wealth, which flies as a shadow, to the riches of eternal glory!...Repent, repent of your vile earthly-mindedness! Renounce the title of Christians, or prefer, both in your own case and the case of your children, grace to money, and heaven to earth! For the time to come, at least, “let your eye be single,” that your “whole body may be full of light!”

Here Wesley draws on the Christian spiritual tradition of the “single eye” to address a very practical issue – what should be our relationship to money? Should financial security for our loved ones be given priority over their spiritual well-being? Stuart Devenish’s Seeing and Believing stands in that same tradition.  It directs us to the deep wellsprings of the Christian vision so that we can “disciple the eye” in making the smaller daily decisions that contribute to the tapestry of our whole lives.

The book is well written, thoroughly grounded in Stuart’s area of scholarly expertise without ever being arcane, and it breathes a remarkably Catholic spirit. It draws upon the riches of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions with respect and genuine appreciation; the same is true when dealing with other faiths as he points out genuine differences between the Buddhist and Christian meanings of the term ‘enlightenment.’ I recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand Christianity as a living spiritual tradition that provides insight into the nature of reality.  Perhaps the citation in the book that captures the centre of its concern best is that of C.S. Lewis. “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”    

Seeing and Believing is available for purchase at this link


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