As I’ve gotten older (read: lazier), I’ve had seemingly less time to scour the internet for hours for new music. I think I’ve consumed less and less music each year after college to the point where I always feel the need to play catch-up this time of year when websites start publishing their end of year lists and roundups. I spent a lot of time in 2014 though just trying to enjoy the albums I enjoyed again and again without the need to seek out and explore all the albums that I was “supposed to listen to” (this is not…
There’s one particularly ‘seasonal’ portion of A Mess of Help, and here it is (minus the copious footnotes). Longtime readers may recognize portions, but this is the published and much-expanded version, which comes in the book’s final chapter, track nine of “Sing Mockingbird Sing: The Alpha and Omega of Annotated Playlists”. Enjoy:
I am quite proud of my office. It has taken a decade or two, but I finally feel like I’ve collected a suitable constellation of mementos to display. There’s the foldout from the ET: Picture Book record, which has Michael Jackson posing for what appears to be a school…
George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was originally an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses “without Hoops” in order to make “Room for more company.” Handel’s superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then embroiled in a scandalous divorce.
The men and women in attendance sat mesmerized from the moment the tenor followed the mournful string overture with his piercing opening line: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Soloists alternated with wave upon wave of chorus, until, near the midway point, Cibber intoned: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” So moved was the [Anglican clergyman] Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
Four and a half months ago, Charlottesville, VA was named the happiest city in America. As the happiest blogger in the happiest city, I feel like I should do some commenting.
In the original paper for the happiness study, the researchers are careful to note that they’re measuring only “self-reported” happiness, a qualifier lost in some of the news outlets which reported it. To oversimplify things, we could view one’s self-reported level of happiness as consisting of three factors: (1) happiness itself, (2) pressures to lie on the survey, and (3) self-deception about perceived happiness. Since the survey was anonymous and Sandford,…
Last year’s gift guide was so popular that we’ve decided to make it an annual tradition. Apologies in advance for once again not straying too far from our books/movies/music wheelhouse.
For Those About to Host a Christmas Party: A Very Love and Mercy Christmas by Sam Bush and Kathryn Caine
For Your Friend Who Is Always Complaining About How Bad the Sermons Are at Their Church: Sermons of Grace by John Zahl
For Anyone Looking to Spice Up Their Office or Bring Their Inner Child to Work: An assortment of Funko’s “Reaction Figures”. Recommendations include Chunk from The Goonies, Zoe from Firefly, Kane…
A yearly Christmas pleasure is King’s College at Cambridge’s famous Festival of Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, nine lessons and nine carols with a beautiful choir and traditional music. For those who just can’t wait, here’s a bit of the rationale of the King’s College service, followed by an Mbird-friendly, fresh and down-to-earth spinoff to tide you over:
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first held on Christmas Eve 1918. It was planned by Eric Milner-White, who, at the age of thirty-four, had just been appointed Dean of King’s after experience as an army chaplain which had convinced him that…
An exciting day for yours truly! My brand-new book A Mess of Help is finally available for order on Amazon (and Createspace, where Mbird keeps more of the revenue). To celebrate, we put together a little Q&A about the project below. There’s also an interview about the book over at Key Life, along with a sample chapter (MJ!). Help us spread the word!
What is A Mess of Help and how did it come about?
A Mess of Help is a book of essays that split the difference between music, memoir, and theology. I’d been encouraged to collect some of my writing, and when I looked back at seven-plus years of it on the site, the subject of music had inspired much of what I was most proud of. So almost all of the eighteen chapters (click here for the table of contents) started out as posts for Mockingbird in some form or another. I took those as the skeleton, and then spent that last year rewriting and expanding everything, doing my best to weave it all together like an album. The end result is more than twice as long as those original posts, roughly 80,000 words, and a whole lot more polished, thank God.
When I reread it as a whole, a number of non-musical plumb-lines stuck out. This is a book about creativity and grace, identification and sympathy, law and pressure, hope, religion, self-sabotage, success, sin, as well as my own life and faith. Also, since most of the characters I deal with are pretty eccentric, a certain amount of humor was inescapable. I suspected it would be a fun project, and it was.
What does the title mean?
The title refers to one of my favorite Beach Boys songs, “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone”, which hopefully speaks for itself. The subtitle “From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll” refers to how many of the artists profiled in the book point to some sense of strength being found in weakness, of inspiration being bound up with suffering rather than apart from it. The more precise word would probably be “cruciform” but that’s too academic to go in the title.
Will I enjoy A Mess of Help even if I don’t like music that much (or the music you write about)?
That’s certainly my hope! The task of an essay is to make its subject interesting to those who might not be otherwise drawn to it, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. Again, I think if you appreciate the Mockingbird “voice”–the breadth, the perspective, the playfulness–you’ll enjoy this book greatly. Of course, it won’t hurt if you like some of the music already, but it’s not a prerequisite by any means. Here’s how I explain the focus in the introduction:
“For better or worse, pop music became my way of making sense of both myself and the world around me… So perhaps it should come as no surprise that when Christianity took root in my life, I not only found its core message of grace so exciting and enlivening as to be compelled to write about it, but music would become one of the primary lenses through which I came to do so. Not just music but culture itself—high, low and in between (T. Van Zandt).”
So it’s a book about Christianity and culture? Or a Christian approach to popular culture?
Not really. I hate to say it but that phrase “Christian approach” often implies an agenda, unspoken or unconscious, that culture is valuable only insofar as we can harness it in some way, or how it stacks up against the standards of our faith. But to quote someone I admire, I’m convinced that “any goodness, beauty, truthfulness, or enlivening candor we have the wit to discern is something for which we have God to thank.” That is, that it’s already been harnessed. So this isn’t a Christian “take” on secular music, at least as I see it. The artists I wrote about are the ones that have spoken and continue to speak to me rather than vice versa; I talk more about what I’ve learned from them than how their work filters through a pre-existing framework. That said, I gave myself plenty of room to explore, so who knows–“preacher brain” is not the easiest thing to shut off. Again from the introduction:
“It wasn’t that I set out to write about the intersection of Christianity and culture; it was simply that music was the most honest language available to me—the lingua franca of my inner life, my immediate vocabulary for understanding what was happening to me. In fact, so immersed in it was I, that to avoid pop culture would have been to embrace precisely the kind of phoniness that permeates so much religious “engagement” with it these days.”
Any parts you’re particularly proud of?
I’m really happy with the whole thing, actually–mainly cause I had such a great editor in Will McDavid. But if you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked which sections I like best, the 15,000-word annotated playlist that closes the book (“Sing Mockingbird Sing”) is probably a favorite. It gave me an opportunity to be a bit outrageous, going on long tangents about ecclesiology and aging and failure and addiction, to name a few. The Michael Jackson essay was the most ambitious, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. The Beach Boys may be the funniest, with ABBA and Elvis tied for second.
Can you decipher the cover for us?
Sure. Stephanie Fishwick, who’s designed a number of our covers, really outdid herself with this one. All the elements of the crest allude to bands that are covered in the book. The surfboards and “woody” wagons refer to The Beach Boys. The “TCB” lightning bolt was the slogan and logo (“Takin’ care of business”) of Elvis Presley’s entourage, also known as the Memphis Mafia. Michael Jackson’s sequined glove occupies a central place. The surfboards are flanked by upside-down Hofner basses of the kind that Paul McCartney is known for. The dice are the “tumblin” variety, immortalized in song by The Rolling Stones. There’s some English mod regalia courtesy of The Who. The platform boots were added with Mott the Hoople, David Bowie and ABBA in mind. The guns and roses and big stars should be self-explanatory. And those flowers are gladioli, the kind that Morrissey would carry in his back pocket during the early years of The Smiths. Oh, the sunglasses are Phil Spector’s trademark. Finally, the (crowned) lamb of God presides over the whole affair with a banner that reads “Vobis Petrum Deus Dedit”, or “God gave you the Rock”, making a St Peter-Argent-KISS triple entendre.
Why this book now?
Well, as cliched as it may sound, it’s the book I most wanted to write because it’s the book I most wanted to read. I genuinely don’t think that something like A Mess of Help exists, something that combines music and theology and coming of age in a way that’s both honest and entertaining. My fear is that it’s overly niche—too much of a stretch for religious audiences and too theological for secular ones. But that’s out of my control. Plus, Mockingbird has put out quite a few books at this point, but almost none about pop culture–which is a tad ironic, since “pop culture” is a term that’s often used when people describe our work, even though I don’t see Mbird like that at all (which I spell out in the book). Still, it was time for that part of our scope to be represented in the publications, and the MoH direction was where the inspiration felt most genuine and free. The next one will likely be about social media, we shall see.
Order your copy today on Amazon or Createspace! And by all means write a review if you feel so led.
This reflection on the 78s of great price comes to us from Nick Rynerson:
If you’ve ever spent a Sunday afternoon moseying through the rural late-modern labyrinth that is an antique mall you’ve probably seen a 78. Hidden behind the over-priced spice racks, odd smelling jackets, and empty (“collectible”) coke bottles is usually a box or two––almost always on the ground––of 78 rpm records. Unplayable on most modern turntables, heavy as hell, and comically breakable, 78s sit untouched.
By the 1960’s 45 rpm (“singles”) and 33⅓ rpm (LP’s) had all but eradicated the bulky shellac 78. In a few short years, the…
Growing up the son of a liturgical Episcopal priest, Christmas music was verboten in our house until after the 4th Sunday in Advent. So, it makes me nervous when Dave makes me post my Xmas mix right as December dawns… Anywho, Jing Jing A Ling! Let me know what rings your bell.
In his debut book, Mockingbird founder and editor-in-chief David Zahl riffs on the intersection of music, memoir, and theology to create a fresh and colorful series of essays that truly stands alone. Constructed like an album, A Mess of Help surveys some of pop’s most eccentric icons in hopes of finding answers to both the small questions (“Who am I?”) and the big ones (“What about Michael Jackson?”), unearthing timeless wisdom even as it entertains. So if you’ve ever wondered how fundamentalism sparked Guns N’ Roses, what ABBA can do for your marriage, or why Brian Wilson built his sandbox, open your heart and drop the needle.
Order your copy today on Amazon or Createspace!* And by all means write a review if you feel so led.
Table of Contents
II. Teenage Angst Paid Off Well: Growing Up with Nirvana
III. Get Back: The Ever Present Past of The Beatles
IV. “You Need a Mess Of Help To Stand Alone”: Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys
V. Crying ABBA: An Annotated Playlist
VI. Belle and Sebastian Go Off and See a Minister
VII. Searching Low and High For the Who Behind The Who
VIII. The Secret History of William Axl Rose
IX. Jesus Rides Beside The Replacements
X. Even The (Rolling) Stones Cry Out: An Annotated Playlist
XI. Big Star Talks to God
XII. Lindsey Buckingham Walks a Thin Line
XIII. Paging Dr. Carpenter: Elvis Presley’s Change of Habit
XIV. Scott Walker Is Dead! Long Live Scott Walker!
XV. Hated for Loving: The World According to Morrissey
XVI. What About Michael Jackson?
XVII. Confessions of a Former Music Critic
XVIII. Sing Mockingbird Sing: The Alpha and Omega of Annotated Playlists
“David Zahl writes like a true believer in the healing power of music, and one with a deep understanding that, at its most sublime, what music wants most is to mimic God’s voice. Each chapter of A Mess of Help reads like one side of a lengthy discussion with an old friend… who might be even more obsessed with your favorite band than you are! His passion for the subject is infectious. Highly recommended!” – John Davis, musician and songwriter (Superdrag, The Lees of Memory)
* Mbird keeps more of the revenue if you order via Createspace.
[Mild spoilers follow.] As a writer, I’ve found, you’re always searching for material. A friend’s talking to you about a bad breakup, years of religious doubt and self-recrimination for doubting, a car wreck, DUI, or lost job. Suddenly, once an insight seems to hit you – or even a situation with a certain intellectual appeal – the ideas become all, and their textures, contexts, and the unfortunate people living in them become pared back, leaving you with what feels like the beginnings of a great article, essay, even poem. The real world fades away, and all you’re left with, all you…
Many thanks to Josh Encinias for arranging, carrying out, and writing up this interview with one of our all time favorites, John Davis.
Last Wednesday was Christmas morning for true believers. John Davis (The Lees of Memory, Superdrag) dropped demos for his scrapped third LP. While the 20 demos on Heart Medicine: Hypothetical Solo Jamz Vol. III: 2007-2013 aren’t a cohesive bunch — ranging from gospel tunes to hardcore — Davis didn’t pick these tracks from the musical scrap heap.
I was introduced to JD when he opened for the OC Supertones’s “final” show back in 2005…