Sunday, August 14, 2005

Chuck, the Lord and Me

Spiritually, I don’t call myself anything anymore. For a three year stretch, however, I was a born-again Christian. I “received Christ” when I was 17 and officially “fell away” while I was studying in France at the age of 20. Nothing like a little Parisian existentialism, and the hope of carnal rapture, to steer a kid away from Bible-thumping Christianity.
In other words, though, I was a born-again Christian during the same period I first met and began to play with Chuck the summer of 1978. Chuck was always open about his beliefs and his take on Christianity. He never put me down for my association with Gospel Outreach, the charismatic fellowship I involved myself with.
Chuck recounted how he had been involved with Bible study groups when he was young. He had ultimately been asked to leave when the group leader found out he had written a blasphemous piece of literature entitled “the Book of Oswald”. Chuck always maintained that he counted the Bible, along with Moby Dick, among his favorite books.
While Chuck freely called himself an atheist, he consistently drew upon his Catholic heritage and the Bible for inspiration. Among his songs are “Wedding at Canaan”, “Jonah & the Whale”, “Three of Them and One of Us”, “If Nobody Loves You in Heaven”, “The Four Horseman” and countless others.
Although Chuck referred to himself as an atheist, spirit was very real to him. Spirit was what you saw in a person that made you connect with that person. Spirit was what people displayed in the frenetic dancing at White Caps and Experience gigs. What Chuck once said to me was that he believed “life is God”. I believe that what turned him off about Christianity was its insistence that God and Life were separate and that the former created the latter.
What attracted Chuck to me more than anything was my absolute obsession with the guitar. This was a period where, like a lot of young musicians, I had both the drive and the freedom to practice from sun up to sun down. Chuck always liked weirdoes and outsiders and I think I fit the bill. I think he liked the fact that although I claimed to be a Bible-reading Jesus-loving born-again Christian, anyone could see I loved my guitar more.
The semester before I left for Paris, Fall 1978, was one of huge contradictions and conflicts for me. I studied the works of Camus, Sartre, Genet, Ionesco and others in Dr. Smirnoff’s French Literature class. I lifted up my arms to praise Jesus and attempted to speak in tongues within the fellowship of Gospel Outreach. I drank beer with the Water Street regulars, staggered home drunk and missed class the next day. I smoked pot whenever it was available and I played guitar as often as possible. I prayed on my prayer rug, read verses and spoke in tongues in the privacy of my home. And I really wanted to get laid.
Even the music I played and practiced displayed big contradictions. I was freeing my love of Chuck Berry, BB King and George Harrison with Chuck’s music while at home I was trying to learn to speed through dorian and myxolydian modes faster than Al DiMeola. I would listen to Elvis Presley’s Sun Sessions and then Romantic Warrior by Return to Forever. Except for some of Phil Keaggy’s work, I was having a hard time finding any Christian music that was listenable. But I had cut-out LPs by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters that were rawer and harsher than anything I had heard before and I was growing more fond of them with each listening.
Chuck had discovered the punk music and pub rock that was coming out of New York and London right around 1975/76. Because of his collection, I started listening to the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Graham Parker & the Rumour, Ian Dury & the Blockheads and others. Chuck was the first person I ever met who literally had a floor to ceiling wall of record albums.
Chuck’s favorite, and soon to be mine, was Elvis Costello. Chuck had bought 10 copies of “My Aim is True” when it was released and gave them away to his friends. He hitchhiked through a blizzard in '77 to Utica to see Elvis play in a small club where local heroes "the Frogs" opened up for him. Most of the club-goers that evening were there to see the Frogs. "After playing under the glare of bright white lights, Elvis left the stage and on his way out of the club turned to Chuck (or so legend has it) and asked "How was it?"" (quoted from -anonymous)

One evening I made a critical decision to go to a Gospel Outreach prayer meeting instead of a party where everyone would play music together. As Chuck and I were unofficially band-mates, he was furious with me for opting prayer over music: one an exercise in pointless and false fellowship and the other an opportunity to do what you were put on this earth to do. My sister revealed to me some time later that Chuck’s response was an absolute “I’ll never play music with Phil again.” It was not the last time Chuck would speak in absolutes.
For the time being the Lord had won. I played briefly with a Gospel Outreach group that called itself Vessel. With all due respect, the music was as horrible as anything I had heard on 100% Christian vinyl.
My time in Paris the following semester would prove to be the end of my fundamentalist period and the beginning of a time in my life every bit as tumultuous and unsettled, if not more so.


Michael said...

Sounds like exactly the kind of spiritually conflicted upbringing that lots of the great rock & rollers went through. Of the "four original rock & roll greats" (Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee, & Chuck Berry), all but Chuck were brought up in the Pentecostal church and experienced profound spiritual tension in their desire to perform secular music...and Chuck was just a delirious loony, so he didn't need any religious conflict.

Anonymous said...

actually Chuck saw Elvis Costello in Utica and I believe the Frogs were the opening act that most of the locals had come to see that night. After playing under the glare of bright white lights, Elvis left the stage and on his way out of the club turned to Chuck (or so legend has it)and asked "How was it?"

Phillip Henry Marshall said...

Thanks for the corrections/comments. I had forgotten that there was an actual exchange between Elvis and Chuck. I'll make corrections in the 'Chuck/Lord' post.

david D. McIntire said...

This posting has provoked a lot of thought and reflection for me. Phil and I are almost exactly the same age (five days apart), and we have gone through a number of similar life-shaping events at nearly simultaneous points in our lives, aside from playing together. I too had a passing relationship with evangelical Christianity, at about the same time in my life. Like Phil, I tried hard to embrace it inalll its aspects, including the dreadful Christian rock of the late '70s. Like Phil, I even had a bunch of Phil Keaggy records, along with some other groups whose names I have blessedly forgotten. For myself, it was an evening of listening to Frank Zappa that somehow clarified my true values, and I quickly sold all of those awful albums, without a trace of regret. It had dawned on me that Frank, with his scatalogical lyrics and fierce wit, was in fact a more moral and honorable individual in his art than were these others who unfurled their smarmy righteousness like banners.

I never had an experience like Chuck's being "cast out" of his group for writing The Book of Oswald, but I was acquainted with enough folks of the casting out stripe that I could easily imagine its effect. I remember well Chuck relating the whole thing to us at a rehearsal, during a break. If memory serves, he was ordered by the group's leader to destroy the book (he said that in The Book of Oswald he'd distilled the wisdom of the Bible into a kind of Mad Magazine format), and he agreed to do that. He later decided that he'd done nothing wrong and rewrote his book from memory. Apparently, the leader later found out about Chuck's insubordination and ordered him "cast out." From that point onwards, Chuck had no use for any organized form of Christianity. It certainly did not stop him from reading the bible or pondering its contents, however.

I am personally a little conflicted about the term "atheist" in relation to Chuck. It was certainly how he himself described himself on a number of occasions, but I found it hard to square with his actual actions, and I always suspected that his true beliefs were a little more complicated than that. As Phil relates, he was very inspired by his Catholic upbringing and the Bible. My own take was that Chuck was in fact very angry over his rejection, and he certainly felt that Christianity's real meaning and message had been cruelly subverted over the years. ("Three of Them and One of Us" reflects this, one of Chuck's most bitingly bitter lyrics...) And personally, Chuck fit my own idea of whatever it meant to be a Christian more closely than anyone else I'd ever met, whatever his own declarations on the subject were. We played many songs of Chuck's that had biblical or Christian themes, as well as a raft of gospel material by others like Blind Willie McTell. Also, many of his songs ("If Nobody Loves You in Heaven" is a good example) are striking for their dual layers of meaning--one can interpret them in a highly ironic and cynical fashion, or one can read them more directly. To me, this was a telling choice on Chuck's part.

I do think that the sort of folks that are inclined to "cast out" free-thinkers like Chuck are deeply insecure, terrified by ambiguity and irreverent humor in equal measure. Chuck on the other hand, had no fear of either. One of my favorite lines from his songs that encompassed both qualities was this one:

Oh Lord, it makes me feel so good
When I don't know where I stand.

Phillip Henry Marshall said...

Amen, Brother. Your quote from "Colorblind's Night Out" is a perfect example. While I generally like to avoid drawing comparisons between Chuck and a certain savior, I do think Chuck was much happier holding court with the misfits, oddballs and eccentrics of the world than merely preaching to the proverbial choir.