Friday, September 14, 2018

Comedian


Some songs are so good it is almost irreverent to interpret the lyrics. Steve Taylor says that he worked twenty years on one of the songs on his Goliath album. There was not a week went by when he was not rolling this one around in his mind and coming up with better ways to say things. The result is astonishing. Not only are the lyrics an impeccable piece of poetry but the melody and the building of arrangement and presentation are highly emotive. I find that “Comedian” hits me at a number of levels and speaks to the challenges of being human and the mistakes we make as we take seriously the call to give honour and power and gratitude to the ultimate King and Lord of our lives.

Many have asked questions about what the song is about and Taylor has allowed the song to speak for itself without giving much interpretation. As with all art, the artist gives one side of the communication, and the one who appreciates the art allows it to speak to her or him and completes the other half of the conversation. With any form of art, what it impresses upon the recipient is a valid part of the exchange. Even when an artist did not explicitly intend for a piece to speak in a certain way, it may do just that in the life of the receiver.

I encourage you to listen to the song as you read these lyrics. Ask yourself, what does it do to your soul? After you have listened to the song and read the lyrics, I offer some of my emotions, understandings, and interpretations. They are certainly not the final word on this impressive work of art.

Comedian
(Music and lyrics by Steve Taylor)

The saints came marching in this morning
And they marched back out the door
Wholly offended
No pun intended

They gave up God for Lent and liked it
Declared Civilian War
No one's relented
No pun intended

I'll be doing stand-up
Here all week
I've learned to sign
So the deaf can watch me speak

The saints came marching back this evening
And they fell right through the floor
That number's ended
No pun intended

The Amen Corner's marching orders
Got nailed to my front door
They're all amended
No pun intended

The King of the One Liners
Had us thrilled
Then came the punchline
Now we want him killed

And when he's gone
Gone
Who gets the mic
If it's on?

The buzzards are attacking
Our prayer kites
We lost the air war
Now we're losing squatter's rights

And when they're gone
Gone
We'll need a new
Comedian

Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs

The King and I began a feud
That time will not erase
Until he wipes that
Omniscient smile
Off his face

The King and I are in a feud
That time will not erase
Until you wipe that
Omniscient smile
Off your face

And when it's gone
Gone
It's open mic
Is this on?

And didn't I thank you from the dais?
And didn't I do you good?
And didn't I take up all your crosses
That were made of balsa wood?

I've kept my demons pent up so long
The devil himself lost track
I've since repented
No pun intended

We stormed the stage
And occupied your place
To wipe that all-forgiving smile
Off your face

It's been there so
Long
Please welcome back
The first, the last
Comedian

Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans

(white-noise of a mic left on – the sound of a blade pulled from a scabbard – silence)

How this song affects me:

The puns throughout the song are subtle and sometimes hard to catch. They also cause me to pause and seek understanding. They have the effect of a “Selah” at the end of the line in a Psalm. “The saints came marching in this morning and they marched back out the door, wholly offended,” or were they “holy offended?” Thus, begin the questions in my mind. Steve Taylor has always been a controversial figure in church circles and in the recording industry. He is very much aware that he has wholly offended many of the holy, and not so holy, people in his life.

“They gave up lent … no one’s re-lented.”
“… kept my demons pent up … I’ve since re-pented.”

Court Jesters, a common person in the courts of Kings and Queens of the past, often over-reached and insulted the court in which they received their employment. Kings were known for allowing a jester to go so far and then throw them out (or worse). Taylor has a certain court-jester style about him in this song, and in his life. Sometimes he is going after the people of the court, sometimes himself, and sometimes his barbs are aimed at the very one who gives him life. There is mockery, confession, confusion, repentance, and shame in these lyrics.

I had to look up the concept of the “amen corner” to be sure I knew what it meant. One writer said that the “Amen Corner” is “the place where the most difficult and devout congregate.” Their “marching orders” get an official and collective “amen” even as they reserve the right to amend - so clever!

"I've learned to sign so the deaf can watch me speak." Is that a reference to film-making? Man shrugs and walks away.

Who is “the King of the One Liners?” Well, one might expect it is the song-writer and to some degree he does identify with this person, but more importantly, the “King of the One Liners” represents Jesus - in my opinion. The people of his time saw him as a great teacher and they loved his pithy stories and statements. But his punchline was that he would not be controlled by the preconceived ideas of the Scribes, Pharisees, or people. Jesus chose to lay down his life for the people rather than overthrow their Roman oppressors and no one knew what to do with this. Near the end, they cried out for his death. Taylor seems to be able to relate to the adulation, the “not being controlled,” and the cries for his death (or at least the death of his music).

Throughout the song, Taylor asks questions about who will ask the questions. Who will be the next comedian? He will not always be around to challenge the status quo and act the fool. Who will pick up the mic? “If it’s on!” “Is this on?” Can you hear me now?

“Man makes plans, God laughs,” is one of those statements that almost sounds biblical but is more accurately rabbinical. Its essential meaning is similar to what James 4:13-15 says. 

“Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.””

If we fail to take God’s will into our plans, our's are foolish plans. All the plans I have for my future must be considered within the will of God and must be encompassed in his plans for my life. Otherwise we become foolish comedians and God laughs at our naivety.

As God laughs and our self-centred plans are frustrated, we might even become angry with God; but the feud with God cannot have a pleasant outcome for us, as he smiles at us with omniscience and forgiveness. Still we take up the feud and storm the stage where he and/or his followers have been given the mic.

After the anger comes the self-righteousness. Didn't I do this and that for you? Didn't I carry your cross? Or at least the light piece? Why haven't you given me all I want?

The white noise at the end of the song begs us to answer the question: “is it on?” The mic is clearly on. Who will pick it up and be the next court jester asking the important questions and poking fun at the “amen corner.” The mic will not be on forever. One day the King will draw a sword from his scabbard and cut the cord, or perhaps - cut the chord.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Ambition


It may be a surprise to hear a Baby-Boomer analysing his own ambition and the ambition of the rest of his demographic cohort. Put a group of us together and you will always have more “horsepower” than people in the room. Yet, we have not always been very good at introspection. We have traditionally left that to other cohorts.[1] Perhaps as we age toward senior citizens, we may find that we are prone to a little more self-analysis and questioning of our ambition. This allows us to see better how we might play nicely with the rest of the people in the work-force of the world, even as we begin our slow exit from that work-force.[2]

I return to one of my favourite artists, a Baby-Boomer himself, for an example of healthy introspection regarding our ambitions. Steve Taylor expresses himself in song-writing and film-making and has the reputation of a court-jester in the Kingdom of God. He speaks the questions we are all thinking and challenges our complacency about the things we have been taught but have not thought through for ourselves. Taylor, along with his band the Perfect Foil, released an album entitled Goliath in November of 2014. I wrote about the album at the time. Today, we return to the album for a song entitled, “Moon Shot.” Here are the lyrics (watch as you listen here):

I'm building a rocket
Been working so hard
Getting ready to rocket
Straight outta my backyard

I'm building a rocket
It's bigger than me
It's my gift to your future
My mega legacy

Ready, aim
The stars are aligning
Ready, aim
I've been sweating a lot
But I persevere
The hopes of a nation ride
Everybody gets one moonshot

I'm building a rocket
The neighbors are tense
When they point and they laugh
I don't even take offense

Ready, aim
A quiet confidence
Has been my mark
Since I was a tot
I've been sent here
To show you people how
Everybody gets one moonshot

I'm building a rocket
It's totally mine
It'll spell out my name
Where the sun don't ever shine

My motives are pure
I've untangled the knots
I'm ready for sure, Lord
Now give me all you've got

May the planets align for you
Hold steady and taut
If you're face down
In desperation, know
Everybody gets one moonshot

I'm building a rocket
It's not about me
You'll be thanking me after
I've saved humanity

I took steel and a feather
And welded them together
I took hellfire and ice
And made them play nice

The musical style of the song is right out of 90’s alternative and punk music and grabs my attention from the first drum beat and grind of the bass line. Steve Taylor’s two vocal styles within the one song (sweet and high; and scream growl) keep me listening and following the themes as I realize that the song is about more than a moon shot.

The song is about ambition and the crazy pursuit of fame. The singer is looking for a way out of his own back yard and he will do nearly anything to see his name spelled out in lights in some far distant place. He dreams of Andy-Warhol-type notoriety where he will get his fifteen minutes of fame. He senses the tension of organic fame rising up from those who admire him and the hard work he is doing to achieve his fame.

The singer wants to leave a mega-sized legacy and he believes it can be done, but there is still a questioning doubt as he wonders why it hasn’t happened yet. He tells us that his motives are pure, even as we the audience wonder if he is being transparent with us. He’s untangled the knots, a reference to the Gordian knots of ethical puzzles, and we sense there is still some ethical confusion and mixed motives, even as he says, “it’s not about me, I am saving humanity.”

The words that end the song are a tribute to the hard work of economics, performance, and art:

I took steel and a feather
And welded them together
I took hellfire and ice
And made them play nice

The person who could truly take the cold, hard steel of making a living and weld it together with the feathery beauty of art would be a "fortunate son." The only other question would be the staying power of that individual and so the video for this song nicely addresses the question of longevity. The entire song focusses on the band and the singer while the world revolves around them. Then, at the end, a small, young upstart shows up and crashes into the singer’s world. The upstart brings the singer toppling to the floor with a big crash. Cue the “New Kid in Town” and stand back. It’s their turn for the next “moon shot.”


[1]The concept of generational cohorts is a helpful, though incomplete, tool for discussing the driving forces of large populations. Although it is a poor representation of individual personalities, it provides a framework for discussions such as this blog. For a list of some of the major demographic cohorts of western thinking see these and other resources: “From Baby-Boomers to Generation Z,” Psychology Today, Ralph Ryback M.D., “The Truisms of Wellness,” 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-truisms-wellness/201602/baby-boomers-generation-z; “8 Important Characteristics Of Baby Boomers eLearning Professionals Should Know,” Christopher Pappas, https://elearningindustry.com/8-important-characteristics-baby-boomers-elearning-professionals-know; “Baby boomers,” Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_boomers.
[2]My goal is to use the generational-cohort tool without relying too heavily upon it as we look at individual expressions of personality and ambition. If we press too heavily upon the tool, we will find that it readily breaks down with our analysis of individual motivations and natural tendencies.