I’m changing the name of my blog.

So it looks like last night I lost the blogging challenge with Cyrus St. Rid. Humph. We’ve discussed it and probably we will continue to hold each other to an every-other-day schedule, since the impetus to continue churning out content that seems at least marginally worthwhile is a positive pressure on both of us. We’ll have to set another challenge goal, and certainly suggestions are welcomed, although I have some doubts as to whether this competition has any followers or interested parties aside from Cyrus and myself.

I’ve been working pretty hard (and I hope, continually harder) at pursuing my musical vision for about the past year. It was in August of 2008 that my good buddy Leif helped me record my demo “Music From And Inspired By Our Doomed Love Affair” at his then-recently acquired Studio 1510. Since then, I’ve been working my way through open mics, cafe shows, and on Wednesday, my first show with the possibility of earning me a small amount of cash (which of course would never be the driving factor but is definitely welcome). But what was I doing between when I graduated with my degree in music in 2005 and August of last year? Some of you know, of course, but I want to document it and reaffirm my commitment to this path that I’m on.

(NOTE: I’ve been sleepwriting now for three hours. I’ve just got to go ahead and publish this imperfect account now and worry about tweaking the history later. You understand.)

Let’s go back to my last two years at Oberlin, when I was in the midst of receiving an excellent music education and well as undergoing a profound transformation of my political consciousness. It was in this time that I realized that my life was and would always be governed by three forces of apparently equal (and immense) strength: the need to work for social improvements, the need to create meaningful art, and the need to pursue personal relationships. More plainly: to fight the good fight, rock out, love and be loved. That last one, Love, had been driving me from an earlier point in my life than either of the others, and I understood that it would always be necessary when working towards either of the other two. But at this point I was torn as to which deserved to be my priority. The simplest way to reduce my qualm is the question, “As much as I love art, how can I justify spending my time creating it when there is so much injustice and oppression in the world?” When I talked about it with other people, whether artist, activists, peers or teachers, the most common response was, “Maybe you can combine them”; a nice thought, although I was and remain skeptical of a lot of art superficially aimed at social change, which, when it fails to inspire, fails doubly, both as an agent for change and as truly moving creative expression.

After graduating, I reasoned that since I had spent four years earning a degree in music, I owed it to myself to pursue that goal, and at the beginning of 2006 moved to L.A. to start a band with S.A. Bach. Although we only played one show, we were totally decent and I’ll always be a little sad that this didn’t work out. Without getting too much into the boring details, by August of 2006 I was working thirteen-hour days, six days a week for an awesome small nonprofit working to provide rehabilitative and support services to homeless women, children and families. This was the beginning of a three-year long ‘career path’ in nonprofit work (specifically fundraising) that came to define my everyday life. In the year between August 2006 and August 2007, I wrote only two songs, and performed not once, nor played music with any other soul. In early 2008 I went to a different (equally worthwhile) organization and worked less insane hours, but my existence still seemed to revolve around my work, where I would often put in extra hours as well as fret about once I went home for the day.

I eventually left nonprofit work, at least for the time being, in May. I realized that as important as the work being done at these agencies was, it wasn’t where I needed to be spending my time and energy. For three years I had been valuing their mission and vision above my own. I had somehow gotten into me the belief that creating art was less valuable than plain honest shoulder-to-the-wheel social justice and activist work. But what I’ve come to realize is that I have a gift, and that (despite my own self-criticism, as well as criticisms from other people of my work) my art is the single most valuable thing I have to offer this world. I’ve known for awhile that I find no other pursuit more personally satisfying, but I would not feel justified in devoting myself to music if it were for that selfish feeling alone.

Although sometimes I feel frustrated or as though I’ve got to make up for lost time, I’m very grateful for the path that I did take through the nonprofits: the crazy hours, the constant self-sacrifice. I learned so much about myself, what I was capable of, and ultimately I credit the journey with turning me from a scrappy, awkward kid into a (still young) man. This journey brought me here, to the Bay Area, where I know I need to be. I’m finally starting to understand what it really means to believe in yourself and commit to your dream. No matter what kind of difficulties I might be facing on my path, I never wonder, “Is this what I should be doing with my life?” So here’s my mantra, and what I’ll be renaming my blog:

No Gods Before Music.

“The Rose” and the oft-attempted, rarely well-executed ‘message’ song

Lately I’ve been really into “The Rose”, penned by Amanda McBroom but made famous by Bette Midler. For a long time, this song carried an aura for me of something that was closely associated with childhood and at one time quite familiar but hadn’t been brought into my consciousness for over half a lifetime, like a lullaby or old family photos in storage. I was reminded of it last month at the Starry Plough open mic, when Cortnee Rose did a chilling version of it.

Some say love it is a river
that drowns the tender reed
Some say love it is a razor
that leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love it is a hunger
an endless aching need
I say love it is a flower
and you its only seed

It’s the heart afraid of breaking
that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking
that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taken
who cannot seem to give
and the soul afraid of dying
that never learns to live

When the night has been too lonely
and the road has been too long
and you think that love is only
for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
far beneath the bitter snows
lies the seed that with the sun’s love
in the spring becomes the rose

In thinking about what tags I will be using in this blog, I have the notion that it may come to resemble an amateurish taxonomy of songs. This song is definitely what I would call a ‘message’ song, a generic speaker urging a generic listener to embrace a particular lifestyle or belief that will ostensibly lead to a happier, more ethical, or more enlightened existence. I feel it’s safe to say that I think most message songs convey some pretty terribly contrived and dumbed-down ‘messages’ (e.g. “Let Love Rule” by Lenny Kravitz): the songwriter, entertaining no small degree of narcissism, wants to pen something that will be universally recognized as a beautiful rendition of a central truth in our human experience, but from fear that their own song won’t be celebrated similarly, makes certain that the gospel imparted is something that the listeners already know, or think they know. (Super important note: “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is amazing, but not a message song by my criteria, despite its name).

One of the challenges about writing a message song that’s actually good, besides having to actually possess some wisdom about life, is that for the tone to be right, it almost requires that no personal experience, trial or struggle, whether first- or third-person, be related. In “The Rose”, the speaker only enters the song once (“I say love, it is a flower”), but this declaration could easily be that of a detached commentator; there’s no admission of vulnerability or of her own experience of heartbreak (female songwriter + female performer = feminine pronoun). Far more intimate and disarming is when the second-person enters the song in the third verse: “And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong”. By using the second-person, we are pulled into the song and made vulnerable: it is not Amanda’s or Bette’s but our faith that has been shaken.

There are a number of other elements here that makes this song deeply moving to me. I love the characterizations in the first verse of love as an amoral, unconcerned agent of nature (not unlike my own “Plant Food”, although somewhat less apocalyptic). Maybe even more effective to me is the repetition of “Some say love…” because it gives me a pretty tragic image, of dreary, jaded masses of a society brusquely rumoring about love, like it’s a mythical creature or a fugitive like Emmanuel Goldstein. I’m not sure if it’s known whether there are more of these types of people than the other kind, that is, those who have been drinking the kool-aid since at least adolescence (count me among their numbers). But by portraying a world populated mostly by the latter, the speaker creates an environment where her message is especially dire and perhaps even a bit radical (as opposed to the well-worn saw that it often is). And certainly when considering the scared, hurt soul of the third verse, who believes on some gut level that they are not worthy of loving and being loved (and there are many of these), the message does seem quite urgent.

Finally, the central metaphor of the song, love as a blossom, is quite beautiful, and not just because flowers are purdy. What she is saying, in essence, is that each of us is empowered to let beauty spring forth from ourselves, for our sake, for the sake of others, for its own sake. And while the song is quite gentle and kind to the damaged heart, there is to me a sort of an imperative call-to-action (“you, its only seed”). As if to say, ‘You must sacrifice and make yourself vulnerable so that beauty may flourish.’