‘The Way Things are Going…’

Thursday’s post, complete with Beatles tune at the end, got me thinking about the weekend playlist, so I have decided to get a jump on the Shuffle Daemon and create my own theme for some Saturday tuneage.

For some reason, I always closely associate Ob-la-di Ob-la-da with The Ballad of John and Yoko.  Likely because they are both on the same side of the same record in the 2-record ‘Blue Album’ compilation of hits from 1967-1970.  I played that particular album a lot at one point in time.

Like those long-haired weirdos themselves, the song attracted its share of controversy, given John’s history of self-comparison with Jesus.  Even if it is the story of John and Yoko’s honeymoon.

‘Christ you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be

The way things are going they’re going to crucify me’

John’s line about being “more popular than Jesus” in 1966 was made in the context of a discussion that had been happening in the UK since the end of WWI regarding the decline of Christianity.  It came out of John’s own studies about the phenomenon and was an expression of an opinion that was pretty well supported by academic evidence.  The comment provoked no reaction in the UK.

But the States?  Whoa boy.  As is their continuing wont, America over-reacted and started banning the Beatles from the airways, burning their albums and accusing them of blasphemy.  Over a decade later, a born-again Christian who had been a Beatles fan until John’s comment about Jesus, murdered him in Central Park.

The 1969 Ballad of John and Yoko was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the hoopla caused by a comprehensive interview being taken out of context.  I love the song- not just because it is snappy and fun, but because John and Paul recoded it together- just the two of them- when George and Ringo were tied up with other responsibilities.  They played all the instruments and provided all the vocals.  It was the probably the last great blast from a musical partnership that has yet to be matched.

This one is great for so many reasons.  Some pretty wicked fiddling happening there (and I’m not generally into the fiddle tunes) but I love how it plays with themes from myth and folklore while paying respects to a number of different traditional ditties in Johnny’s performance (in contradistinction to the Devil’s heavy guitar-based rock and roll).

The motif of the ‘Deal with the Devil’ is played with and made into a competition, which Johnny wins.  Interestingly, he is hardly the poster child for virtue- his vanity/hubris is pretty spectacular.  Even if it is an accurate assessment of his talent.

The best line in the song was unfortunately *blanked* out/changed for radio/television airplay.

‘I done told you once you son of a bitch I’m the best there’s ever been.’

The confidence- and lack of fear- is a pretty neato variation of the whole Faustian bargain thing.  And the fiddle prowess at the centre of it all evokes the legend of Paganini.

The Devil and music are often found together.   Blues musician Robert Johnson made a deal with Satan at a crossroads that led to his mastery of the guitar.  Love the liminality of that particular story.  And crossroads demons have gained some contemporary pop cultural revisiting on Supernatural.

Deals with the Devil for advancement or powers beyond ordinary ken are cautionary tales having to do with the dangers of vanity, hubris, greed and any other vice/deadly sin that you can think of.  Typical mythological motif.

The idea that the Devil can be beat though… so very human in its optimism.  And it takes the edge off the power of Satan when people manage to win every once in a while.

Well done, Charlie Daniels.

Wall of Voodoo- with new lead singer Andy Prieboy, who replaced Stan Ridgway in 1983- combined both Jesus and John Lennon in Far Side of Crazy.  The song is full of historical-cultural references that go along with the characters drawn from myth/history.

It’s quite a clever song, lyrically. The protagonist self-describes as both Pilate and Jesus and then goes on to talk about relating to both John Lennon and his murderer, as well as would-be Presidential assassin John Hinkley and his victims (‘I shot an actor for an actress’).  The tension between fandom/obsession and violence as well as religious (and literary- both shootings had associations with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye) manifestations of mental illness, is clearly expressed in the tune.

And the video is pretty trippy.

Even if that clown is terrifying.

Depeche Mode’s 1989 song demonstrates a shift in cultural mores- enough so that a title- and theme- like Personal Jesus can slip into popular culture without much outcry.  Martin Gore has said that the song was influenced by the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla Presley, as described in her memoir Elvis and Me.

It’s about the imbalance that can happen in relationships, when one partner is both lover and leader/teacher and becomes the totality of the world.  The analogy certainly doesn’t present the relationship between deity and adherent in all that healthy a light either.

They will be in town in a couple of weeks, and you know that this song will make the set list.  I’ve seen Dave Gahan sing this song live at least 4 times, and the experience remains electric.  His charisma- always pretty emphatic- really becomes transcendent when he performs this tune.

I wrote here about two Don Henley songs that have impacted my life, and this is another one that resonates in so manymany ways.

1995 was a weird year.

Shortly after the song was released I heard an interview with Don in which he described it as something of sequel to Hotel California.  Like that classic, The Garden of Allah is social commentary.  In a big and pretty condemnatory way.  He critiques music, fashion and the media, in particular citing the media circus and the debasement of the criminal justice system (including some unscrupulous ‘expert witnesses’) in the travesty that was the OJ Simpson trial.

It is told from the point of view of a very disgruntled Devil, who is feeling completely superfluous as humanity surpasses even his capacity for evil.  The Devil recounts happier days, going all the way back to the Garden and times of relative harmony in Heaven- when the gods (note the plural) valued him (for his ‘talents and creativity’).  Even once the Devil and his companions are tossed at the end of the war, the earth remained a viable playground for his ministrations.

Not so much anymore.  This world has become far too much like ‘home’ and there’s nothing left for him to do or ‘claim’.  A Devil without purpose in a world without soul and in which notoriety and fame have become inseparable.

Can’t say that things have improved since 1995.  That slope has proven far too slippery.  Once again Don’s vision, couched in the language of myth, went ignored.  Sigh.  The wilderness is still swallowing the most important of our voices.

Of course, since nothing he writes has only one layer or meaning, the Garden of Allah references more than just the abandoned Eden we can no longer access.  Don is also evoking the Golden Age of Hollywood, and an apartment complex built by the actress Alla Nazimova.  The site was the scene of notorious parties and housed all kinds of celebrities over its lifetime (including F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1937-38).

Man, that guy is just tootoo fine a lyricist.  Every time I hear this song its nuances hit me in the gut.   

Still, it is the weekend, and a good playlist shouldn’t be ALL about thought-provocation and insight.

Tenacious D.  Jack Black and Kyle Gass.  Tribute is thematically similar to The Devil Went Down to Georgia except that the duo is given no choice but to perform “the Greatest Song in the World” in order to avoid having their souls eaten by the demon who accosts them on the road.  The demon is, naturally, Dave Grohl (who played drums on all of Tenacious D’s studio albums).

They comply, and save their souls, but they are unable, afterward, to remember just which song it was that they played.

It’s silly.  And fun.

Music and Myth.

Getting the weekend off to a great start.

Enjoy.

Devil’s Advocate

The other night, while out for dinner with friends, our discussion turned to television and the viewing patterns of people we know.  It got me thinking about cultural mores and how changeable they are- and how relatively quickly those changes can come about.

Not to sound like some ancient geezer who waxes philosophic about the good ol’ days, but the truth is that there is programming being broadcast over the airwaves (public, cable, pay-per-view and the interworld) that would not have been allowed to see the light of day even a very few years ago.

Between the voyeuristic idiocy that is most reality programming and the sex and extreme violence that is found on HBO and the like on a weekly basis (did you SEE that Red Wedding?!?  WTF was that?!?!), many of the shows that were once strongly criticized now seem incredibly innocent in comparison.

When The Simpsons first premiered on Fox way back in 1989 (!) it came under loudly-expressed fire for it’s presentation of ‘degraded’ ‘American family values’.  Then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush spoke against the show, suggesting that what America needed was a family ‘more like the Waltons than the Simpsons.’  Bart was widely criticized as being terrible role model for children.

Those who took the time to actually watch the show soon discovered that, along with solid, witty writing, the Simpsons and their neighbours offered up some of the best-natured, morally stable programming out there.  This is a family who, even with all the admitted dysfunction, stick it out and make it work while doing the best for their community.

There are certainly voices of institutionalized morality (Flanders, of course, and Reverend Lovejoy are the obvious examples) but generally religion is dealt with as being something that is present- and integral to the lives of the residents of Springfield- without it being preachy or judgemental in any way.

Apu frequently exhibits frustration as his neighbours refer to his religion as ‘other’, but Marge and Homer throw him a traditional Hindu wedding and adopt the personas of the avatars of his gods when he and his wife are dealing with marital stressors.  Krusty deals with the abandonment and rediscovery of his Jewish faith in an effort to reconnect with his Rabbi father.  Lisa struggles with concepts of belief, dabbles in Wicca and ultimately embraces Buddhism.

The microcosm of Springfield, USA exemplifies a community working the way one should work.  A town where those of different faiths, races and ethnicities get along and do their best at every turn.  Even with its myriad issues; the corruption of its mayor (although I’d take Quimby over our incumbent any day), the evil Republican power mongers (headed up by Mr. Burns), giant sinkholes, the eternal tire fire… Springfield really is a pretty  ideal town to call home.

Another show that got a very undeserved bum rap at its get-go was the sadly short-lived God, the Devil and Bob.  The animated sitcom showed up on NBC on March 9, 2000.  It was pulled March 28, 2000.  Only 4 episodes- out of the 13 that were produced- aired before it was removed from the line-up, largely as a result of pressure from religious activists.

Watching the show again recently I was struck by the complete innocence- and ‘niceness’, for lack of a better word- of the star-studded half-hour program.  God (James Garner) is charmingly laid back and reminiscent of Jerry Garcia.  He enjoys having a beer, playing a round of golf and generally being around and involved with his creatures.

That the state of his creation has driven him to consider getting rid of it all and starting over again is a function of humanity’s poor use of their collective free will, rather than any sort of unreasonable wrathfulness or vengeful tendencies (as he explains in the intro, he’s ‘not that kind of god’).

The Devil (voiced by Alan Cummings) encourages God to destroy this world and begin again- providing he still gets to play a role in the new creation (in which marsupials would be the dominant life-form this time ’round).  They have something of a dysfunctional and co-dependent- yet still respectful and reciprocal- relationship.

Lucifer’s feelings are hurt when God forgets his birthday, or a scheduled golf date, and reacts rather badly.  Like a sulky adolescent, actually.  One who just happens to have the resources of Hell at his disposal.  Yet there is no animosity between them- there is definite affection (and understanding) there- as God repeatedly mollifies the Devil, apologizing for hurting him and letting him know that he is, in fact, appreciated.

I imagine the criticisms about the show- likely led by those who never took the time to watch it but who were ‘offended’ by the title itself- were sourced in the ‘humanness’ of the portrayal of the deity and his ‘evil’ counterpart.

The trouble with that is the plot- and the interactions between God and the Devil, and God and Bob (who is a blue-collar, porno-watching, beer drinking, father of two who works on the assembly line of an auto plant in Detroit- played by French Stewart), and the Devil and Bob- are very much in keeping with the original mythology.

Think Job.

Or any of the Prophets.

The show is decidedly Old Testament (Jesus is nowhere to be found- except in very brief passing) and it is likely therein that the problem lies.

Those who have read the whole OT shebang (and not just in order to be able to cite random passages out of context to condemn various things that personally offend them) would certainly see that the story of the relationship between God and the Devil/Satan/Lucifer (certainly among the most unfairly maligned characters in mythology/literature/history) did not originate with wars in Heaven, or with falls from that same locale and eventual punishment in the abyss.

The satan began as an emissary- lackey/gofer/PA- of Yahweh, and one that fulfilled a vital role in the bureaucracy of Heaven.  The assumption of later cultural traditions saw the satans meshed with demons and/or vanquished gods to become beings that were set in opposition to the presiding deity.

The strict black and white dichotomy of good vs. evil is a later development in the mythology- one that very much leads to a lack of assumption of responsibility for one’s own actions- that is not at all in keeping with the foundational premise behind the earliest biblical myths.  What WE do- as individuals and collectively- matters.  Our actions and ideas affect us personally, our families, the larger community and the nation.  Every once in awhile, when we seem to be straying too far off the desired path, the deity sends a mouthpiece to guide us back to the straight and narrow.

IF we are willing to listen to said prophet.  Historically (according to the stories), we haven’t been much good at that.  As a result, the deity sends the appropriate punishment our way.  There was, initially, no emphasis on any sort of external being showing up to tempt us down the garden path.  Our deeds- and the results of those deeds- were completely our own look-out.

God, the Devil and Bob very much demonstrates the wisdom of this earliest message in the mythology as is can be applied to 21st century life.  The characters are funny, endearing and very human in their actions and reactions.  While the Devil does try to interfere with Bob’s attempts to make the world a better place (on behalf, and in defence, of ALL humanity), the characters on the show do the right thing- not out of fear of divine punishment (since no one- other than Bob’s six-year-old son, Andy- believes in his prophet-hood) but because they truly know right from wrong.

Compared to the sophomoric humour that is the norm in the crop of myriad animated shows out there now (looking at YOU Family Guy et al), and certainly when placed against some of the ridiculous ‘unscripted’ programming that crowds the tv listings, God, the Devil and Bob reflects basic values and morality in an entertaining and light-hearted manner, while acknowledging the realities of life in our particular cultural context.

Along with being ‘smarter’ than a great deal of the shows on offer these days, it is a very positive and responsible use of the mythology- with familiar characters made more sympathetic and less-vengeful- that reminds us that we humans need to be charting our own paths without constantly relying on any form of divine guidance or intervention.

It deserves a closer viewing.  One that isn’t dictated by the hysterical posturing of those with a literalist agenda- and no sense of humour.

If you’re interested, you can find the episodes on YouTube- or you might be able to find the whole 13-episode season on DVD.  I have it- it’s fun.