Nonfiction, U2, & The Truth; Or, How U2 Was Uncool Before Being Uncool Was Cool

February 23, 2013

This morning, prepping for a class I’m teaching called Writing about Film and Music, I stumbled across a YouTube clip of the legendary Brian Eno, producer of U2’s 1987 The Joshua Tree, talking about his role in the making of that iconic album:

I got the sense that U2 was capable of making a real marriage between the two things I was talking about, between something that was self-consciously spiritual to the point of being uncool—and uncool was a very important idea then, because people were being very, very cool, and coolness is a certain kind of detachment from yourself, with a certain defensiveness, actually, not exposing something, because it’s too easy to be shot down if you’re exposed…

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Later, Eno says that U2 was never a critical darling, because they were perceived as wearing their “hearts on their sleeve.” Recall the way Bono has used arena stages as a bully pulpit for his various causes: El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and gun violence. I confess I’ve always loved this about Bono, though I know it makes lots of people squeamish.

Later in the same clip, The Edge reveals that during the writing of The Joshua Tree, the band was inspired by the work of the New Journalists, especially Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song.

In other writing, I’ve suggested that perhaps narrative nonfiction is the most important art form at the moment, as it helps us to engage in and express our spiritual selves. I see an opportunity here to push a little more on this notion that spiritual nonfiction is our most culturally relevant form of writing.

After teaching class, I ran across another reference to coolness and detachment in a recent American Scholar column, in which William Deresiewicz defines the “upper middlebrow” as an aesthetic that is neither middlebrow nor highbrow where feelings are “hidden by a veil of cool.”

According to Deresiewicz, the upper middlebrow is “edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive”—and is produced by a variety of un-reproachable figures and institutions, including Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, the HBO series Girls, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, The New Yorker, and This American Life.

Like Deresiewicz, I see those asking for a closer inspection of these arguably “cool” artists and works, those who sense that their perceived value is based on how fully they affirm our world view and the nearly limitless spectrum of values that secular humanism embraces, are not just seen as uncool, but as oppressors.

I’ll admit it: I spent years chasing after cool before I finally settled down into an un-ironic pursuit of truth. Quite unexpectedly, this search has manifested itself in becoming a nonfiction writer.

Nonfiction seeks to remove that veil, or in some cases, multiple veils, of distance and detachment. And the New Journalism, whose first-person reportorial techniques have been thoroughly absorbed into the other sub-genres of personal essay and memoir, is credited with being the form that cut through the bureaucratic double-speak of government officials, the public veneer of celebrities, and the biases all reporters harbor.

The personal essay appeals to me right now because it’s where we can attempt to stop lying to ourselves—no more posturing, no more hiding behind a house style—though we may stumble in the attempt.

To be clear: I’m not calling for a boycott of novels or short stories. I still believe that fiction has the power to transform hearts and minds like no other medium. The genius of fiction is in grappling with characters who seem so unlike us, but who are actually holding up a mirror.

So here I am, an Irish Catholic boy, a Notre Dame grad no less, holding up U2 as the antidote to our detachment. But we must find inspiration where we can, and I am inspired by the determination to remain awake at the expense of being cool. I laugh at Colbert and Stewart, and even Girls.

But I’m tired of upper-middlebrow detachment. Like Deresiewicz, I yearn for works of art and culture that will challenge rather than affirm our views about the world, and what we believe to be our essential nature. I want to hear it from the mouths of the lost and the confused. I don’t mind that it sometimes feels like the blind leading the blind. Cool just doesn’t it do it for me anymore. –David Griffith

David Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. He teaches at Sweet Briar College. A different, longer version of this piece previously appeared on IMAGE’s blog Good Letters, hosted by Patheos. You can find it here:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/goodletters/2013/02/becoming-uncool-in-the-pursuit-of-truth/

Mumford & Sons Return to Brooklyn with Unabashed & Very Welcome Sincerity Intact

February 10, 2013

Bleeding-heart sincerity is uncomfortable for many people. Makes a weaker person turn away, ashamed for the feeler. Second-hand embarrassment and all that. As if honesty is something to be ashamed of. Be it in a moment of unabashed joy, unimaginable pain or just looking deep into someone’s eyes to deliver an apology or hard-to-swallow truth. It’s easier to turn away and pass judgement instead of attempting to understand. Or respect the torrent of emotion and tribulations involved.

We’re all just trying to be better people, sincerely. Or be better at being people.

I first laid eyes on Mumford & Sons in October 2009 when I was one of the few and first American reporters tasked with covering them during the annual CMJ Music Marathon. Their indie buzz was positive (and not divisive) then, and my friend Fred (who accompanied me to the show) corroborated their cachet with a resounding thumbs-up. It had been an important band for he and a former girlfriend, and he was certain I too would walk away a believer.

The Mumfords shared a packed bill that night at the Blue Flowers showcase at the Music Hall of Williamsburg with hypey also-rans The Temper Trap and Golden Silvers. They opened with eponymous album title cut “Sigh No More” and 10 seconds in, I was in tears. I looked at Fred and said, “this is devastating.” I would go on to opine of the show in my review: “…from first blush and foot stomp to the last joyful harmony, an undeniable, unimaginable victory.” Also tellingly, I said this: “Fans of Damien Rice, the Avett Brothers and BRMC’s ‘Howl’ will freak if they haven’t done so already. My larger hope, of course, is that everyone else will, too. That’s right: Mumford and Sons is your new band to believe in, kids.” “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” would own millions of brains (including many of my dearest friends) just months later.

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In February of the following year, in the dead of winter, I was confirmed to design and manage my very first photo shoot with the band at a Victorian-themed bar in Union Square. A brilliant photographer friend of mine agreed to take it on, and the bar confirmed they’d allow us use of the back portion of the place for 20 minutes so the guys could have some peace. No rest for the weary gentlemen of the road, unfortunately, and myriad reasons prevented them from making their initially scheduled flight, and thusly the whole production was cancelled on the day of the shoot. The lighting, the mirrors, the antique furniture, it had all lined up perfectly. All it needed were four English blokes who were just starting to know what royalty checks look like. That night, however, the show would go on at the venerable Bowery Ballroom — their first headlining stop in Manhattan — where they played a barnstormer of an album-release party. Gone forever were the days when you could happen upon ruddy-faced Hemingway-esque lead singer Marcus Mumford outside the front door of the venue next to the band’s gear truck, laughing broadly, enjoying a smoke and beer, and high-fiving anyone who dared approach with well-wishes.

To wit, as I reported then: “I’ve watched plenty of bands achieve ‘full flight’ before. That’s what following U2 around the country for years and admiring Fanfarlo during CMJ will earn you. But the fiery, banjo-wielding Mumford & Sons showed the capacity crowd truly something special last night, and the crowd – a foot-stomping, hands-in-the-air, doin’ a jig, hugging your neighbor mass of winter coat-wearing strangers – sang back every word. ‘Awake My Soul’ became less an album track, and more a pathos as the night wore on.”

Much has been derisively said about the Mumfords’ “alt-folk” tent-revival schtick. As if was actually a falsehood. A come-on. A bit of pretend. As if they were trying to insert themselves into a scene they categorically and factually had no part of, like Vanilla Ice in Miami, purporting to be some kind of banger. Just because they were well-educated and London-based and not rural-dwelling sheep herders, clearly this wasn’t an honest band. But see, the discerning music lover is smart enough to sniff the shit from the soap. Watching the other audience members have profound reactions while taking in Marcus and the boys was no lark — this was a band doing something important, much-needed and significant. Sounding and answering their own clarion call with the fury of an army armed with little more than banjos, dobros, elbow grease and a lot of passion and sincerity.

Sure, audience members can be given to spontaneous celebratory noodling and hoedowns at a Mumford show, just as industrial fans have the Pavlovian desire to slam against each other. This isn’t an emotional display to be critical and suspect of; I reserve much judgement for a human being who can side-eye another human being wrapped up in the unbelievable joy that washes over you when a turn of phrase fixes your heart, leading your outstretched arms to signify “FINALLY,” because someone had the big beautiful gall to say it. Whatever IT is for you.

Last night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, I was blessed to witness FINALLY on a grand, arena-sized scale as thousands sang along to “Babel” (“Cause I’ll know my weakness, know my voice/And I believe in grace and choice”), “Thistle and Weeds” (“Plant your hope with good seeds/Don’t cover yourself with thistle and weeds”) and “Awake My Soul” (“In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die/And where you invest your love, you invest your life”) among other joyfully rowdy tunes such as ” I Will Wait,” “Lover of the Light,” ubiquitous wunderkind hit “Little Lion Man” and “Roll Away Your Stone.”

We’re all just trying to be better people, sincerely. Or be better at being people.

I don’t know about you, but lately, I’m tired of hiding. And since Hurricane Sandy wrecked my life up something fierce in late October 2012 (I remain displaced from my downtown Manhattan apartment as I write this), I’ve had no choice but to be alternately sincerely troubled and sincerely hopeful, with sometimes disastrous results the last four months. While looking out at the thousands with arms outstretched in their own private Idahos of FINALLY last night, I closed my eyes, sat still as a rock, and just listened to the newly impassioned soulful voices around me. Everyone has their own Sandy.

Excavation is exhausting, but one of the most necessary tasks we have inherited in this mortal coil. How else can you get to the heart of any matter or complication if your knee-jerk reaction is to turn away from the mud that comes with an uncomfortable truth? This is the question that Mumford & Sons seek to answer, sincerely. –Carrie Alison

Carrie Alison is a former editor, music journalist and publicist. She lives in New York City.

Phil Keaggy: “Yes, There is such a note.”

February 10, 2013

Judging by the size of the crowd in the back room performance area of Nashville’s World Music store, it’s hard to believe that the man taking the stage is a seven-time recipient of the GMA Dove Award for Instrumental Album of the Year and twice nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Gospel Album. The seating is limited to sold-out crowd of 100. Performing his one man show is Phil Keaggy, Christian musician and undeniable legend of guitar.

To say that Phil Keaggy is a good guitar player is something of an injustice to the man’s ability. He is commonly ranked among the top three finger-style and finger-picking guitarists in the world, but that is only a portion of what makes the man so incredible to listen to and to watch.
Phil took the stage, wasting no time of the hour and a half he planned for his set, jumping right in to a frenzy of acoustic guitar that can only be described as awe-inspiring. His finger work is almost difficult to comprehend as he strings notes together in a delicate series of tones that resonate to fill the entire room.

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The stage in front of him is filled with pedals, which he continually plays with, using loops and delays to create what any rational person would assume is a quartet of guitarists playing together. Phil used his setup to create rhythm behind his playing, throwing loops of harmonics and pseudo-bass lines into the mix, and even shouting and singing into the body of his acoustic, laying tracks of his voice down with the rest to create his own harmony with. He did this without missing a single beat and kept a smile on his face through the entire show. It’s refreshing to see any performer who seems to enjoy their work quite as much as Phil Keaggy does.

One of the incredible things about Keaggy’s performance is his transformation of a cover. Most artists are well-accustomed to spinning their own take on a famous song, but Keaggy goes far beyond that. Half way through the set Keaggy calls a friend, Mike Pachelli, to the stage to perform a few songs together, leading in with a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love.’ It is truly astonishing how Keaggy can take something as comparatively simple as a Dylan song and turn it into something so rich and layered. He utilized the skills and techniques he is known for but did so in such a way that he didn’t overpower Pachelli’s playing. The two blended their sounds together to create something new and complex, but simultaneously recognizable as the original song.

There is a noted playfulness as Keaggy continued the performance. He launched into a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “Take My Love With You,” which he prefaced by saying he had “learned this yesterday,” expressing, tongue-in-cheek, that at his age it takes a little while to learn a song, earning ripples of laughter from the audience. His performance of the song, much like his cover of Bob Dylan, was unique, flawless, and showed no indication of unfamiliarity with the song whatsoever. The same unique exploration of the sound was present in a later cover of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”
There is emotion in the sound that Keaggy creates. He prefaced a later song, entitled “Let Everything Go,” by telling a short anecdote about riding his bike and chasing hot air balloons on a sunny day. As the last notes of the symphony he alone created floated through the air, it’s almost impossible not to feel as though you yourself are standing in the sun, watching those balloons float away into the sky. It’s an awe-inspiring experience, to say the least.

Time flies by when you’re watching someone as enthralling as Keaggy perform. Before we know it, 90 minutes has passed and the set ends. Phil approaches the mike, thanks the audience for attending, and makes a simple request that the crowd help support the Blood Water Mission in their efforts to combat water crises in Africa by buying an album, from which a portion of the sales will go directly to help missions overseas.

Naturally, none of the audience wants to leave without hearing more. The performance is personal, and when the request is made, Phil graciously accepted and approached the mic again to perform a song titled “True Believers.” There is nothing held back. He purposefully and wonderfully combines trapping, high-flying moments and more traditional acoustic styles. Coming back again to his light-hearted nature, on the last chord of the song, his fingers stretched like a circus contortionist over the frets of the guitar, he looked up at the audience, smiled and said, “Yes, there is such a note,” and finished.

At his heart, Phil Keaggy is purely a man of God. His humility onstage and simple enjoyment of the sounds he can make are inspiring enough. It’s fair and fitting to call his sound ‘divine.” If there is any proof that there is a God, it’s that someone so imbued with the message he believes can create something so beautiful as a result. Maybe God decided it was high time to break into the music business. –Jordan Frye, Contributing Writer