My Musical Odyssey, Part IV: What I'm Looking For

Paul Simon slip-slid his way into my musical vocabulary right alongside gospel music. By the time I graduated from seminary, I had acquired the complete Simon & Garfunkel collection and was well on my way to a full set of Paul Simon's solo outings. With these influences in place, I was primed for the final revelation.

In the summer of 1991, I returned to Oregon, and picked up a pile of cassettes from my brother Jon's garage sale. They sat in my car, unplayed, until one day a few months later I was driving between Medford and Talent, the two United Methodist churches that made up my first Oregon appointment. Things were not going well in Medford: I was constantly butting heads with my senior pastor; he was triangulating his anger at me through my wife, who was also on staff at Medford; and there were a number of extended family conflicts that were heating up. Add to this the loss of my best tension relief, running, due to my first attack of plantar fasciitis, and unresolved stress from my last year of seminary, and you can see why I was emotionally rocketing downward. All this was preying on me as I drove. I stuck a tape in the deck, curious about what I'd hear, and was transformed.

The album was Joshua Tree, by U2, and the track was "Where the Streets Have No Name." It begins with soft, atmospheric organ music, playing a repeating progression of simple chords that culminate in a suspension. Somewhere deep in this cloud, one hears a percussive guitar track. There is a crescendo, the drums and bass kick in, and finally, after two full minutes of instrumental music, a voice cries out in the wilderness, singing with all the passion and sincerity of any gospel soloist: "I want to run, I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside. I want to reach out and touch the flame where the streets have no name." The yearning in Bono's voice resonated deeply with my own painful sense of belonging nowhere, of being trapped in the consequences of bad decisions and seeing no way out. I had never, to that point, experienced music at such a visceral level.

This was my road to Damascus. Like the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts (9:1-19), I had set myself on a path that was taking me to a far darker place than I had known it could; and, again like Paul, I had received a message that would ultimately ease my transition off that path, and into one far more redemptive. Unlike Paul, I was not literally blinded by the encounter, but it did ignite a fire within me that continues to illuminate my life more than two decades later.

I was more than eight years and two divorces away from leaving the ministry, but just by virtue of playing that tape, I was already on the road to recovery. Joshua Tree and its follow-up, Achtung Baby, were the soundtracks of my first divorce, as well as of my struggles with the Methodist hierarchy. They were also, finally, my real introduction to rock and roll. The expansion of my taste has been piecemeal--I had three decades of ignorance to make up for, and I still regularly encounter classic rock references I should, but do not, know--but it has been steady.

It's also been eccentric. I came to U2 first, before the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, or any of the acts my generation embraced (post-prog, pre-punk, mostly disco). Many of the acts contemporaneous with U2 still leave me cold: there's very little punk rock that does anything for me, I hate the mechanical irony of new wave, techno is for robots, and so on. Indy rock often works for me, but grunge mostly does not. The cover band I played with a few years ago mostly did songs of the late 1960s and '70s, though I did introduce them to--and sang lead on--a couple of U2 songs.

There are common denominators in the pop music I appreciate: passionate vocals, creative arrangements, virtuosic instrumentals, melodic and harmonic richness. I appreciate righteous anger in a rock song, but not rage. The incoherent screams of punk and grunge upset me far more than they thrill me, and don't even try to get me started on metal.

I don't deny that there is craftsmanship, sincerity, and passion in any of these genres. I just don't like the way they sound. This is the running theme in this series: I know what I like so far. There is almost certainly music out there I will like once I hear it, and just don't know about yet. But there is also plenty of music I don't like, and that's all right, too. Taste is subjective. You are entitled to tastes that are different from mine.

Almost everything is now in place. There's just one thing missing: Orff. Stay tuned.


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