Skip to comments.Requiem for a Rock Musician
Posted on 05/12/2004 4:24:49 PM PDT by Land of the Irish
My name is Jacob Michael, and I'm a recovering rock-n-roll musician.
Yes, I know, the above formula is more appropriate for an AA meeting, or for some other such "addiction recovery" support group. That's exactly the point.
As time allows, I hope to be writing a series of small articles for The Remnant, dealing with the subject of rock-n-roll and how Catholics ought to regard this style of music. My reasons for doing so are manifold: I have some rather strong (if newly acquired) convictions about rock-n-roll; at 25 years of age, I'm hardly an "old fogie," and so I hope my peer group won't immediately write my opinions off as "outdated"; I am a 14-year veteran of music theory and composition, so I have at least some idea of what makes music "good"; I have personally played in rock-n-roll bands as a lead guitarist, recorded a few albums, and done a fair bit of live performance in other words, I know from personal experience what are the attractions, distractions, ups and downs of living the rock-n-roll lifestyle; finally, I am a traditional Catholic, so I also know a thing or two about Gregorian Chant, sacred choral music, traditional piety and devotion, and the definition of a "near occasion of sin."
I will, in future installments, be dealing with some of the more "objective" reasons for my decision to shun rock-n-roll completely (or, as completely as an addict can), but in this initial introduction to the subject, I would like to share a slightly more subjective account of my experiences.
I was raised in a Baptist home. When it comes to lifestyle and culture, Baptists are a somewhat mixed bag, as I'm sure some of you are aware. There are some flavors of Baptist denominations that shun drinking, smoking, cards, movies, dancing, etc., as sins to be avoided. In my case, these activities were not frowned upon, so I grew up watching movies, playing cards, drinking beer (when I was "of age," that is), and smoking cigars from time to time. In between rounds of Euchre and Rummy, I listened to rock music.
I received my first guitar as a Christmas present when I was 12 years old. As a home-schooler (this story gets better all the time, doesn't it?), I had quite a bit of free time to devote to the instrument. My parents will tell you that I have a naturally addictive personality, and when I find something I enjoy doing, I do it 110%. This certainly held true for my guitar playing. I would finish my schoolwork for the day, and then lock myself in my bedroom for four and five hours at a stretch, practicing my chords and scales.
My dad was an avid Beatles fan growing up, and so it was almost inevitable that I would cut my musical teeth playing along with old Beatles records. I have been blessed with a good musical ear (I have what musicians call "perfect pitch," which means I can hear a note or a chord being played and tell you what note or chord it is without looking), so I was able to learn to play Beatles songs (and later, anything and everything off the radio) just by listening to them a few times. One of my favorite challenges was to sit down and figure out George Harrison's solos note-for-note, until I could play them at the same speed he did.
As I grew older, my musical tastes changed ever-so-slightly, and I began to gravitate toward more modern rock-n-roll tunes, especially those that featured challenging guitar licks. I liked Eric Johnson, Extreme (Nuno Bettencourt is still one of my favorite guitarists), Stevie Ray Vaughan, Michael Hedges, Joe Satriani, Phil Keaggy, and other guitarists who could "wow" me with their abilities. As I listened to these players more and more and slowly learned to mimic their styles, I eventually acquired a skill level beyond what most professional guitarists achieve (you'll forgive me if I sound like I'm patting myself on the back but I still feel as though I have to demonstrate my credentials).
As I developed this rather "raw" talent, I simultaneously began taking formal music classes and learning about music theory. I loved (and still love) being able to understand the theory of music, to know why a particular chord progression sounded good, or why a certain scale variation "worked." As I progressed in my formal knowledge of music theory, I began to explore my creative side by writing compositions.
By the time I was 16, I was writing hymn variations for the organ, re-writing and arranging choral pieces, arranging pieces for male quartets, and composing variations on well-known hymn themes for solo piano. As you can see, I love music in general, and quality music (read "complex music") specifically.
This makes me a bit of a music "snob," and so I have to honestly tell you that I've never really liked much of what passes for music in the mainstream pop world. It's far too simplistic and predictable, and most of it is nauseatingly cliché. Come to think of it, I really detested the music I heard in the Novus Ordo for the same reasons Marty Haugen and David Haas just don't cut it for me.
I only take the time to point this out because it underscores a point I'll make in the future: considered purely for musical merit, rock-n-roll (and I include mainstream pop as well Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Madonna, etc.,) is really sub-standard stuff. Studies have been done to show that listening to compositions by Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and the like can actually make you smarter. By contrast, I can only conclude that mainstream pop music can only make you stupid and that's purely on a subconscious level.
My musical journey finally culminated a few years ago when I, along with three other very musically-inclined friends, formed a four-piece rock-n-roll band. We are all, taken as individuals, very creative, very talented, and very demanding when it comes to musical standards. When we finally hooked up and started working together, the dynamic was such that we were able to crank out a lot of very good music in a very short period of time. Our bass player is one of the best I've ever seen, and a very talented composer; our vocalist is also a very gifted singer, as well as a clever lyricist. All three of us can sing, and so our brand of rock-n-roll revived something not often found in today's mainstream: complex, lush, three-part vocal harmonies.
We recorded our music on a few different occasions, and also did a good bit of live performance. I really think we had a good chance to succeed as professional musicians.
However, as I attached myself more and more to traditional Catholicism, complete with all of its classical standards of piety, devotion, holiness, morality, etc., I sensed a growing tension in my own spirit. The contrast between the Catholic me and the Rock Star me was impossible to ignore. How to elaborate on this point?
It's difficult to explain perhaps because the underlying problem with rock music is spiritual, and hard to put into tangible terms. All of the members of the band are professing Christians, although I was the lone Catholic; still, when we would get together to play or compose, somehow we brought out the worst in each other. Our language deteriorated (profanity, etc.); our humor deteriorated (off-color jokes and innuendos); I would come away from practice or writing sessions feeling "dirty," and in need of confession, even if I couldn't quite put my finger on why.
On a more practical level, going to perform live in bars and clubs seriously affected me in a negative way. I don't know when you last visited a local bar, but the women who frequent these venues are dressed to kill and ready to be "picked up." I'm a married man, but that did absolutely nothing to prevent my mind from going to all the wrong places when I would play in these clubs. Add to that the fact that we would usually do a fair bit of drinking before and after our shows (not enough to get drunk, but certainly enough to put a little "buzz" on), and I am certain that my inhibitions and sense of proper judgment got compromised on more than one occasion. No, I never cheated on my wife; but I know I mentally entertained the notion, if not seriously and for long periods of time, at least fleetingly, in fantasy, and frequently. As I said, I would leave these events shaking my head and thinking, "What's wrong with you? Why are you even thinking in those terms?"
If you're thinking that these near occasions of sin are only incidental and have nothing to do with the rock-n-roll environment that always surrounded these lapses, allow me to disabuse you of that error. Just try to imagine a slinky night club environment that only played Mozart over the house PA system, and you'll start to get the picture. It could never happen, could it? Of course not there's something in the music itself that is conducive to these less-than-honorable inclinations.
It was with great difficulty (and, I might add, after reading Gods of Wasteland [by Michael J. Matt and available from The Remnant Bookstore for $10.00 by calling 866-308-5341] and discussing the situation with a traditionalist priest) that I finally told my band mates sometime late last year that I would have to be bowing out of the band. I still haven't fully recovered from that. Not only do I miss the camaraderie, I also miss the creativity, and the way my band mates brought out some of my best composition work. What I don't miss, however, is the price tag that came with these benefits. I don't miss feeling guilty coming home late at night from a show, finding my wife and children asleep (after having not seen them all day), knowing that I had been (even for a moment) secretly hoping that I might get to flirt with some attractive bar kitten. I also don't miss having to make weekly trips to the confessional, struggling to articulate in words exactly why I thought I might have committed a mortal sin, even though I never willingly or physically did anything wrong.
All of that is behind me, for the most part (aside from the residual cravings and tremors I get when I contemplate calling up my band mates to see if we can put things back together on a less-intense level). As a result, my devotional life has gone through the roof, so to speak. The only way I can explain it is to say that somehow a major obstacle to grace has been removed, and many of my lower impulses have slowly faded away.
Again, the question can be asked: does any of this have to do with the music itself, or is it simply the result of hanging out in the wrong places (sometimes with the wrong people)? Make no mistake: it's the music that is the foundation. Without that style of music, there would be no "bar life" of the kind that I am describing. In some very basic and biological fashion, rock music perhaps because it is, by nature, sensual and passionate to the extreme stimulates your concupiscence and creates an environment in which near occasions of sin can freely present themselves.
There are many things to be considered in this regard, not the least of which is lyrical content (I don't know of any rock band that is purely instrumental) and the "packaging" in which rock musicians present themselves to the public (Britney Spears and Esquire Magazine need I say more?) but for now let me simply make a few summary points, and leave the rest for future installments.
Rock music is the institutionalization of an inverted musical order. Rhythm, which is meant to be the invisible undercurrent that keeps the melody in motion, is over-emphasized in rock music. This ongoing inversion (perversion, even) of right order is not a good foundation upon which to build; because music speaks to the spirit and stirs the emotions, it only makes logical sense that inverted/perverted music will corrupt the spirit and stir up the wrong kinds of emotions.
The message of rock music, presented in the attractive packaging of clever poetry and catchy phrases (of which I am a master, if I do say so myself), is thoroughly at odds with the message of Catholic truth. Rock is almost entirely narcissistic and egocentric, which sentiments (I hardly need to point out) are not compatible with the constant teaching of our faith, namely, that we must be daily crucifying ourselves. I will be covering this more thoroughly, God-willing, when I take you through an analysis of the lyrical content of some of the "tamer" artists.
Rock and roll was and is the musical drug of adolescents. The fact that more and more young adults in my age group (20-30) are listening to rock music is evidence of only one thing: the majority of people are still thinking, speaking, and behaving like adolescents. Rock-n-roll perpetuates a culture of prolonged immaturity and irresponsibility.
Rock and roll is becoming more and more introspective, and has less and less of anything of value to reflect upon. As my spiritual director so insightfully pointed out, in order for art (and music is most definitely art) to be of any value, the artist has to have something to communicate. If you're going to write music, you have to have something to write about, usually in the form of relating some experience. What happens, then, when an artist turns his art into a career? He has nothing to write about except his own writings. This constant inward spiral eventually results in boring art the artist has ceased to live a life worth reflecting. This is why most of today's rock music is about the artist's angst, frustration, depression, etc., which doesn't exactly make for uplifting or edifying meditation. There's a reason why rock musicians turn to drugs, alcohol, and suicide.
The quality of rock music gets worse and worse every year. I said it earlier, but I'll say it again: rock music is, for the most part, downright insipid and boring, musically speaking. While that may not be a sufficient reason for shunning rock music altogether, it is one more aspect that needs to be taken into consideration. If you're on a steady diet of rock music, I guarantee that you're slowly dumbing-down your own intellect.
Additionally, rock music is historically connected with the spirit of rebellion and revolution. Michael Matt covers this aspect of rock quite adequately in Gods of Wasteland, so I won't spend much time on this point. The trouble is, there's not nearly as much to rebel against today, and thus, rock music is very much a fish out of water in our culture. There 's no Vietnam war to protest, there are no women's rights to fight for, certainly institutional religion (read, "the Catholic Church") is hardly a thorn in anyone's side, and so, rock musicians subconsciously have to manufacture reasons to be angry, or the music will die. What are they angry at? Who cares something, anything. "Rage Against the Whatever" would make a great name for a band or an album, or so I've always thought. Of course, what am I suggesting here, if not that rock music, by its very nature, requires a mindset of discontent be mad at your parents, be mad at the "authorities," bear a grudge towards your ex-lover ... whatever it takes, find some reason to be unhappy about something. Need I point out that this prerequisite to rock music is the antithesis of St. Paul's exhortation to be content at all times, in whatever state you find yourself?
The mantra of the 60s (the age of rock and roll) was "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." That's an unholy trinity that cannot be dissected and separated. Why anyone entertains the notion that rock and roll can be imbibed regularly without reference to the sex and drugs is beyond me. Show me a man who has trouble keeping himself chaste and pure, and I'll show you a man who's been listening to too much rock and roll. God forbid that you should be able to remember viewing on-screen images of fornication or blatant immodesty, but if you do recall seeing such things, remember the music that was played in the background. Rock music is a natural soundtrack for impurity, and do you know why? Because the two are inseparable. I don't recommend that you go looking, but I dare say you won't find a single strip club that features Gregorian Chant or baroque-style compositions as the "house music."
In future installments, I will also be examining the question of so-called "Christian rock." This area in particular needs to be addressed, because an awful lot of Catholics are listening to this music and thinking it's a "safe alternative." It isn't. Aside from the fact those most CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) artists are Protestants, and thus, are only capable of providing a musical presentation of heretical catechesis, the musical foundation is the exact same foundation that is found in secular rock. If the essence of the thing is unwholesome, certainly dressing it up with "Christian" lyrics isn't going to make it any more palatable as a whole.
I will conclude here by sharing the end of my personal story. I gave up rock and roll, as completely as I can (being a guitarist, I can't say I don't still pick up my instrument and play some of the old Beatles tunes I learned as a youngster). I have replaced it with Gregorian Chant and classical music, with the occasional smattering of "easy listening" instrumental music (I'm still a sucker for talented guitarists, especially those who can work wonders with an acoustic guitar). I have discovered that there is a world of good music out there that will take me the rest of my lifetime to explore, and I can do so without endangering my soul. Mozart was a genius; Palestrina can send your thoughts straight to heaven; Bach is uplifting and challenging to mimic; Gregorian Chant is conducive to prayer. If you've ever looked at the catalogs of a given classical composer, you know just how prolific some of these guys were. I've been listening to classical radio and CDs for almost six months now, and 98% of the music I hear is still brand new to me.
The benefits of my decision have been numerous as well. The music is infinitely more satisfying to me than the hum-drum junk to which I'd been exposing myself; I can listen to it while I meditate, read, and pray; my lower impulses have been drastically curbed; my intellect is much more "awake"; I'm creating a healthy musical environment for my children, as well as instilling in them a love for the more "refined" things in life; and overall, I feel 100% more spiritually "healthy." All of this is well-worth the sacrifice of ignoring my rather large collection of rock-n-roll CDs.
It's actually rather amazing. Having been away from rock-n-roll for this long, I have developed a greater sensitivity. Now and then I'll be in someone else's car, with rock music playing on the radio, and my body instinctively cringes; it's like sour milk to my ears! I find myself thinking, "how did I ever listen to this stuff before?" I suppose, as with any harmful substance, your body gradually learns to adjust itself to the intrusion, and you begin to slowly waste away.
This, then, is my experience. Having lived in both worlds, I can most confidently affirm that rock-n-roll and true Catholic piety that is, the long path towards sanctity are not at all compatible. If you want to take some major steps forward in your spiritual life, take my advice and try this little experiment: get rid of the rock music completely and go without it for a solid three months. I can almost guarantee that you won't want to go back.
Good point. That presumption sounds like a cousin to spiritual pride.
Personally, I'm a Caedmon's Call kind of guy. I don't know if you're familiar with their style -- it's almost country, which is okay with me (now), but the depth of their lyrics continually astounds me. They even quote Augustine in one of their CD's.
(iTunes has four of their albums; I'd suggest Back Home, 40 Acres, or In the Company of Angels. Long Line of Leavers is good, but has a little "quirky" sound.
Get a "Third Day" album. You'll LOVE it.
If its made out of plastic and spins in circles as it plays music, it is an album.
For almost as long as I can remember, we've had a CD player.
Here's where this whole CCM thing started.
Does anyone still have any of theses?
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