Aug 7, 2012

The Other, Unknowable Side

When I saw The Choir, one of my all-time favorite bands, earlier this year with my wife and The Pretender, their bass player, Tim Chandler was along with them and I got a chance to talk to him for just a moment.  I murmured something to the effect of 'Thanks, not just for the Choir, but for all the music you do'.  You see, he's also played bass for Daniel Amos, Swirling Eddies, and other groups that have been influential in my life.  He said thanks, too.  But I thought I'd write this blog entry to truly get out what I was haltingly trying to get across that night.

"In not-quite-earth, and not-quite-Heaven- I'll imitate love- like lovers do... In not-quite-art, in not-quite-living, I'll pray that writing it down is part of loving you"- Darn Floor, Big Bite

Let's start at the very beginning.  There is a rock group named Daniel Amos.  Their name perfectly captures the mysterious explanations that will always accompany fans of the group when they try to talk about the band to those not familiar.  Daniel Amos will always confound.  Are they a "Christian band"?  Well, yes.  Are their songs "Christian"?  Yes.  Do they consider their work a "Ministry"?  Maybe, maybe not.  You'd have to ask them.  I would say certainly, but it is just this line of questioning that has led so many of us to teeth-gritting frustration with judgmental Christians.

Daniel Amos is NOT a person.  Daniel and Amos are both prophets in the Old Testament, with Daniel in particular being quite visionary.  As in, seeing visions.  Why they exactly chose this name I will perhaps never fully understand, but like Pink Floyd, their choice would follow them forever ("...And by the way- which one's Pink?")

When I was immersed in a culture that somehow said to me that I needed some sort of singing intermediary between myself and heaven (as was well captured by another Taylor- Steve- when he wrote "What?!  You're still a babe- you have to grow, give it 20 years or so, 'cause if you want to be one of His, gotta act like one of Us!"), along came a vinyl album called Fearful Symmetry that defiantly said that it was okay to say something other than JESUS!  JESUS!  BE AN EVANGELIST! and be a Christian.  If Christian music was a sort of ghetto, DA was without a doubt that mysterious kid who has a job in another part of town and is slightly suspect as a result.  I heard he works downtown!  I heard heÕs a mobster!
I first heard songs like Neverland Ballroom and The Pool on Jeff Dunn's Alternative Radio Show in my hometown.  I'd go out back and lay on my kick-turn ramp with my walkman or my boombox and listen.  They were like gifts left in the tree by Boo Radley in Harper Lee's novel. 

So when I planned a church dance later that year with Jeff as DJ, and he offered me an album for my trouble, I didn't hesitate a second in requesting Fearful Symmetry.  It was like taking the pill that lets you out of The Matrix.

And though they have plenty of funny, sarcastic, and meta-aware songs such as Mall (All Over The World), Big Warm Sweet Interior Glowing, and Return of the Beat Menace, I think the greatest contribution that Daniel Amos has made to art is the mystical hints and glimpses of Terry Taylor's lyrics.  I've tried to quote some fine examples here, but they are too numerous to list, and would not be well-served by a simple list anyway.  Suffice to say that even after years and years of listening, a DA song can still raise the hairs on my neck upon re-listening.  

"A lump in the throat and a bush on fire, dove coming down from the sky, an itch in the feet, and a helpless hunger...Moonlight falling on the blistered glass:  someone whispers 'Here at last'.  That's when I saw Your shadow pass."-Hole In The World

As another song says, I may or may not have seen an angel or had visions.  That's the beauty of their mystical point of view.  DA perfectly captures the mixture of true divine occurrence and doubtful incredulousness that I for one resound with wholeheartedly.  ("It could have been a dream, I guess it could have..."-Darn Floor, Big Bite)

But that's still not to the heart of what I'm after here.  What did Daniel Amos mean to me personally, playing Vox Humana in my same walkman as I went on school field trips where all the farmers would bring their boomboxes along and play Pour Some Sugar On Me at top volume?

"My longing: not to be a god or hero, but to change into a tree that grows for ages, hurting no one- When I told her this, she could not see at all"-She's All Heart

They were certainly a glimpse of another world.  One beyond the expression of each Christian as a drone in 'God's Army', a vision that many musicians and pastors portrayed more like 'God's Anthill'.  Everyone needs to look the same, act the same, wear Christian clothes, have Christian friends, and on and on.  (Christian sports, etc.)  You should "reach out" to the Unsaved (and feel incredibly guilty if you didn't), but clearly it was as a short-term condescension, not as a friend in the true sense.  When you got home from your labors in the field of the Lord, you'd put your polo shirt and khaki pants back on and drive over to the Christian cookout with your true brothers and sisters in the Lord.  ("Now she bake chocolate bibles- a witness to my unsaved father"-Home Permanent)

But still, so far I've talked only in negatives, and my whole experience of this band has been not one of negatives, but of a positive freedom- not in musical styles, but in my understanding of what art was and what faith in Jesus was.

Much like The Rivendell Reader made me feel about my riding when I discovered it much later in life, Daniel Amos' music made me feel like it was okay to express MYSELF as part of my faith.  I had no problem accepting the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity and the ilk, but to be told that what I felt was an interwoven part of my faith felt both totally obvious and shocking at the same time.

Needless to say, as someone who thinks in an abstract sort of way and understands things better through metaphor than by club-like repetition, it made so much sense to me to become a tree that hurts no one.  It spoke of the peace that passes undertanding in a way that Christianese could never speak to me- things like "quiet time".   The baking of 'chocolate bibles' was a perfect statement of the goofy guilt of witnessing to someone.  (That it would be someone so intimately close as a spouse would make things even odder and sadder)  It has taken me another half of my life to put into words what I understood clearly about evangelizing others through that one sentence.

But when Terry Taylor (and any lyrical collaborators he may have had) is in my opinion at his absolute best, is when he is describing the Lord Himself.  Of course, Terry may have no better idea than any of us, indeed probably does not.  But even the fact that he's able to articulate some of the pictures he does simply astounds me occasionally.  Songs like "Soon" and "Hole in the World" capture something unspeakable about Jesus.  Something personal and beautiful that so many seemingly more pious artists can't approach.  And unlike my feelings on evangelism, this quality continues to defy definition for me.

Perhaps I must end by combining these last two paragraphs.  When some authors, preachers, and singers would tell us that they have God figured out, and easily quantified into 5 clear points, into black and white rules and charts and statistics... When so many Christians seem to forget that the Bible is a book about love and sacrifice, in their zeal for rules.  For that matter, when some "Christians" don't even seem to care much about the Bible, but instead are most interested in their own human-made rules, along comes Daniel Amos talking about becoming a tree, about glimpsing the shadow of Jesus, about feeling sick about the poor staring in the window while we go on pursuing Christian Pop Culture.  And thank God for that.

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