Friday, 31 January 2014

When People Become Things

I often ride my bike past the Seventh Day Adventist church on O'Keefe St in Buranda.  This week the sign in front of the church read "Love People. Use Things."  I'd like Scott Morrison and co (including their Labor colleagues who are just as bad) to read this sign.

I haven't posted on refugee issues for a while.  I've been too depressed about it to write anything.  Our current government has ratcheted up the deterrent to a point where it has become absurd - a military style intervention whose sole purpose is to repel boatloads of asylum seekers and return them to Indonesia from where they have generally departed or, failing that, send them offshore to detention facilities on Manus Island or Nauru where they can expect to stay indefinitely no matter what their refugee status. 

The result has been a growing number of horror stories and embarrassments - pregnant women and newborn children interred in terrible camp conditions or returned there soon after; the Australian Navy "accidentally" breaching Indonesian waters, accusations that naval officers deliberately burnt the hands of a number of asylum seekers.  The Australian Government's response to these various scandals is to refuse to provide any information "for operational reasons".  Truth, as I alluded to last week, is the first casualty of war, even if the war is against helpless unarmed civilians in leaky boats seeking refuge from much more serious wars elsewhere.

The problem we have here is that successive governments, starting with Howard in 2001 and escalating ever since, have entrenched a political and policy approach that treats these people as things.  Tony Abbott went into the most recent election promising to "stop the boats".  Notice what is being stopped?  Not asylum seekers but boats, inanimate aquatic vehicles.  "Stop the Asylum Seekers" does not work half so well as a slogan.  "Stop the People" is out of the question.

The same thing applies to the enthusiasm of our government for calling these asylum seekers "illegals".  There has been plenty of discussion about this term.  Under international law it is not illegal to seek asylum.  Despite numerous breaches, Australia is still a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees.  But accepting for a moment that they have broken the law, their crime is a minor one.  They have entered Australian territory without the appropriate paperwork.  Their crime is equivalent to parking in a no-parking zone.  This does not make them criminals.

The appropriate response to this minor administrative offence ranges from a modest fine (if they have a legitimate reason to be in the country but just messed up the paperwork) to deportation (if they have no legitimate reason to be here).  Why, then, does the Australian government not send these people back to their countries of origin?  The answer is of course that they can't because it's not safe for them to go back.  They are seeking asylum for a reason.  Up until very recently this was essentially the end of the story in relation to the vast majority - once their lack of safety in their home counties was established, they would be granted protection here in Australia and become part of our communities.  They become our neighbours and co-workers.  All of us know a few people who came to Australia like this and can verify that they are indeed normal people, just like us save a few physical or cultural details.

In order to undermine our willingness to see them this way, the government is trying to make them invisible.  Hence it is towing them back before they reach Australian waters, keeping media and cameras at a distance, refusing to give details of boat numbers, people numbers, nationalities, circumstances - anything that might humanise them.  Calling them "illegals" defines them purely in terms of their relationship to the Law - they are outlaws, outsiders, transgressors.  They are not law abiding citizens like us.

The reason we treat them like this is that none of these laws and policies are about them.  Instead, current policy uses them purely as a medium to send a message to someone else - to those potential asylum seekers who are considering setting out on the same journey, and the illicit business people who profit by selling them passage on dodgy boats.  The message is, of course, "don't bother, you'll be wasting your time".  The harsher the treatment meted out to those who have already made the journey, the louder the message to others not to make it.  If you send the message loudly enough, the boats will stop.  Or so the theory goes.

The trouble is, the message has to be very loud, because the people who need to hear it have their hearing dulled by gunfire.  They are fleeing soldiers, secret police, fanatical insurgents and ruthless dictators.  How can you top that?  Only with naval officers, and indefinite detention in concentration camps located in countries with fragile, unstable governments.  Only with the cries of imprisoned mothers and children, and the sound of rioting.  Only by making what they are heading towards as bad as the thing they are fleeing

Stopping the people smuggling trade is, in itself, not such a bad objective.  People smuggling, unlike arriving in Australia without a visa, is a crime with serious consequences.  Hundreds of people have drowned, probably more than we know about.  The trouble is we are punishing the victims, not the perpetrators.  Success comes at the expense of innocent lives, the re-traumatisation of people already severely traumatised by events in their home countries.  It's just not worth it.  We can only think it is if we forget that these are people.

I still think highly enough of my own compatriots to think that this "solution" is not sustainable.  We are trained from childhood to be compassionate, the support the underdog.  We will only be able to sustain our blindness towards these people for so long.  Our media will find ways to bring us their stories.  As it did prior to the 2007 election, the tide will turn and the voices of compassion will once again become louder than those of objectification.  But what damage will we have done in the meantime?  And how can people's lives be rebuilt after we have traumatised them so needlessly?

We should just stop now.  Every day we keep doing this is a day too long.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Graham Nash and the Problem of Ego

Graham Nash has just released a memoir, Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life. 

I'm quite a fan of Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young).  Their heyday was a bit before my time but Neil Young was the first musician to make me think that perhaps I could do that, as opposed to just think it sounded great.  (As it turned out I couldn't, but I'm still trying.) Of course once I cottoned onto Young it was only a matter of time until I followed the trail that led to his most famous collaborators.

I've seen CSN live twice in recent years - a good but not great show at Brisbane's River Stage in late 2007, and an electrifying set at the Byron Bay Bluesfest in 2012.  Sadly, one of the reasons the Brisbane show was a bit flatter was that they attempted to play some newer material.  Fair to say the audience didn't enjoy it much.  The Bluesfest set didn't include anything recorded after 1978.  Still, it's pretty impressive that they can still hit those beautiful harmonies in their 70s despite all the dangerous things they did to themselves in their youth.

Sadly, Nash's book is largely a disappointment.  He doesn't seem to have much to say.  You won't read anything much here that's not already on the public record, and even that is told fairly superficially. And despite being published in 2013 the story largely peters out after 1989.  If you want to read about this stuff in a really fascinating way, you'd be much better off finding a copy of David Crosby's 1988 memoir, Long Time Gone.  Still, there are a few gems here you won't find in Crosby's book, many of them unintentional.

Nash started his life as a working class lad from Manchester in the north of England, born during the second world war in an upstairs room in Blackpool later immortalised in his song Military Madness.  In his teens he started playing music with his childhood friend Alan Clarke, inspired by the harmonies of the Everly Brothers.  By 1963 this collaboration had blossomed into the Hollies.  Playing an infectious brand of pop music, the group had hit after hit through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, many co-written by Nash, Clarke and guitarist Tony Hicks.

By 1967 Nash was over the Hollies.  He wanted to write and play more musically and lyrically ambitious songs.  However, after his King Midas in Reverse had only limited chart success the rest of the band refused to go with him, preferring to stick with the pop formula that was earning them so much money.  The breaking point finally came when the they refused to record Marrakesh Express, a song which later appeared on CSN's debut album and is still part of their set list. 

There was more to it than that, of course.  On a Hollies tour of the USA Nash, unhappily married back home, met and fell in love with Joni Mitchell.  He also met various others of the Los Angeles Laurel Canyon set including Cass Elliott of the Mamas and Papas and, of course, David Crosby.  By the end of 1968 he had quit the Hollies (ending his friendship with Clarke in the process), called time on his marriage and decamped to LA where he moved in with Mitchell.  A year later Crosby, Stills and Nash were releasing their debut album and the rest, as they say, is history.

Apart from the music three things characterised CSN, CSNY and its various subsets - outsized egos, absurd levels of drug consumption and rampant promiscuity.

Their name tells you everything you need to know about the egos.  Superstar collaborations are of course quite common but even the most high profile musicians understand that in a band the individuals need to submerge their egos in the collective.  Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech formed Blind Faith.  Years later The Travelling Wilburys incorporated such big names as Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Tom Petty.  However, Crosby, Stills Nash and Young elected to keep their individuality.

It's not even like they were that famous.  All of them had played in successful bands but none had solo careers to speak of - indeed, while they all eventually did solo projects only Young became a genuine star in his own right.  Yet they acted like they all were.  They rarely collaborated on songwriting, and negotiated hard to ensure equal exposure on the albums.  Their live performances included solo spots for each of them as well as band performances.  When Young was with them, he and Stills would compete on stage over who could play the longest and flashiest guitar solo.  And if Young wasn't having fun he would just go home and leave the rest to carry on as best they could.  One of the reasons their recording output was so intermittent was their chronic inability to fit all their egos into the same small 1970s recording studio.

Stills and Young are the usual candidates for the title of hugest ego.  When the blow-ups came, the depths of drug abuse aside, Crosby and Nash would always fall back on working as a duet.  But this memoir shows (although this might not have been his intention) that Nash is no slouch in the ego department either.  For one thing he claims that he, Crosby and Stills invented three-part harmony the first time they sang together at Joni Mitchell's house.  I can hear Bach, Beethoven and the Blind Boys of Alabama laughing in their graves (except that some of the Blind Boys are still alive) - not to mention that the Hollies themselves were already doing it.

And then there's the matter of drugs.  Nash makes no secret of the fact that all of them, including backing musicians, support staff and a large entourage of hangers-on, took ridiculous quantities of drugs - particularly marijuana and cocaine.  He credits these drugs along with a little LSD with opening up his mind and allowing him to create more adventurous music - standard excuse of addicts the world over.  He also records the day in 1984 when he finally decided to stop taking cocaine, when during a riotous end of tour party he looked at all the people coked out of their minds and realised how fake their jollity was.  No tales of therapy and withdrawal here - apparently after almost 20 years of absurdly heavy use he stopped, just like that.  Excuse my scepticism.

He is also extremely coy about the long-term impact of all this use on him and those around him.  He certainly talks about Crosby's life-threatening addiction and dramatic fall from grace.  Then again, Crosby has already spoken frankly of these things in his own book, so there's really nothing left to reveal. Indeed the accounts are so similar that it seems likely Nash has used Crosby's book as a source.  You can understand that he's more coy about Stills and Young.  Stills was apparently an alcoholic while it's impossible to be sure about Young, but both have so far kept the details to themselves.  Given that Nash still works with them it's understandable that he wouldn't spill the beans.

However, it would have been a little more authentic if he'd been more open about his own use.  The closest he comes is his 1984 revelation, and his comment about how much of their earnings had gone to drug dealers over the years and what huge rocks of cocaine they consumed so absurdly quickly.  Yet he seems to want us to believe that in his case he could do this without consequence.  What part did his own state of mind play in the regular tensions, bust-ups and misjudgements that litter CSN's history?  And did it never occur to him, as he watched his best mate come as close as you can to death without actually dying, that it might help if he himself didn't have the stuff constantly on hand?  This seems to be taking the ethos of individuality a little to far.  No man is an island.

Which brings me, finally, to promiscuity.  Once again, Crosby's sexual proclivities are the most famous.  He even wrote a song called Triad about the joys of the ménage a trois.  Yet as with drugs Nash doesn't seem far behind.  In 1964, at the age of 22, he married a nice Manchester girl called Rosie Eccles.  However, the Hollies played over 200 shows a year and after every concert they had young girls throwing themselves at them.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to Nash to say "no" and even now, when you could expect him to be older and wiser, he remains unrepentant.  He is equally unrepentant about decamping to LA and moving straight in with Mitchell, and about untold encounters between then and 1977 when he married his current wife Susan.  At that point the curtain falls and we can only speculate on the cause of his vague allusions to later marital problems.

Crosby's book, once again, is much more enlightening.  Where Nash's memoir is conventional, written entirely in his own voice, Crosby gives room to a large cast of participants in various aspects of his life.  Hence, in the midst of his boasting about his youthful sexual prowess and his ability to satisfy two women at once he inserts some words from a former girlfriend who quickly gives him the lie about her level of satisfaction. 

Such a glimpse is all too rare in the testosterone-filled world of CSN, and completely absent from Nash's book.  Generally, if the men are happy, the women are assumed to be so as well.  Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to play you two songs written by Stephen Stills.  The first is one of his most famous, that anthem of the free-love 1970s, Love the One You're With.  The key line, "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with", requires little explanation.

The various members of CSNY did just that all around the world, apparently with not a single twinge of compunction and in fact with a good deal of pride as they encouraged others to do the same.  However, it seems to have been a different matter if their wives and girlfriends chose to follow suit. 

To show you what I mean, here's another song by Stills, not quite so well known, called Change Partners.  Apparently when wives and girlfriends feel the need for a change and choose the one they're with over the one touring constantly on the other side of the world and loving the one he's with, this is a sign of a deficiency in their upbringing. 

And so it goes.  These men made beautiful music, but the harmony was all on stage.  Off stage, they left a trail of broken hearts and broken lives.  The closer you got to them, the more likely you were to get hurt.  You could be a sacked manager, a jilted lover, a companion fed cocaine until you collapsed, or a collaborator destroyed mercilessly to feed someone else's outsized ego.  If Nash is any sign, to this day they seem to have only the haziest understanding of what they did.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Governing Like an Opposition

Last night Tony Abbott treated the world to the unedifying spectacle of his use of a global forum (the World Economic Forum in Davos) to criticise his Labor opponents

There's a lot else to dislike about his speech.  It was a classic of simplistic dry economics - low taxes, deregulation.  He also made the breathtaking claim that "stronger economic growth is the key to addressing almost every global problem", conveniently ignoring the fact that decades of growth have done no such thing.  If you keep doing the same thing, you will get the same results.

However, I was most interested in the way he used the speech to criticise the Labor Government's economic stimulus program, suggesting that this program was unnecessary and caused the economic problems we are facing now by pushing the government into debt.  Doubly interesting when in the same speech he urged the US to exercise caution in winding back its much more ambitious stimulus program. 

You could see this as simply a government making a transition, still getting into the headspace of being in government.  After all, it's only been three months since the election.  However, here in Queensland we've had the same stuff grinding on for the two years since our last state election.  The not-so-new LNP government never misses an opportunity to sink the boot into its Labor opponents.

Health Minister Laurence Springborg is one of the worst offenders.  Here's an example from a press release this week on the ongoing efforts to fix the Queensland Health payroll stuff-up.  In the midst Tuesday's press release about the government's supposed success in recovering overpayments to staff which were the less dramatic part of the problem (the real drama was about staff not getting paid), we find this.

Mr Springborg said under the former Labor Government overpayments reached a staggering $120 million dollars.  “The human consequence of Labor’s payroll debacle was that while some staff received overpayments, many went without pay for weeks on end,” Mr Springborg said.  “This was not fair to Queensland Health staff and was not fair to Queensland taxpayers."

At least Springborg is talking about a problem that occurred under the watch of the Labor government, although after two years we are entitled to wonder why the LNP has still not fixed it.  But how about this from a press release on Monday from Communities Minister Tracey Davis, in a press release announcing funding for the Council on the Ageing Queensland?

“Unlike the former Labor Government which historically funded the most vocal groups, we have used an open and transparent tender process to select the best organisation to partner with, to improve frontline services for seniors.”

Or this, also from Monday, from Acting Treasurer John McVeigh.

Mr McVeigh said while good economic policy was delivering growth for Queensland, the state’s finances were still being constrained by Labor’s $80 billion black cloud of debt.

You don't have to look very far in the State Government's press releases to hear this sort of stuff.  It's like the steady dripping of a tap, a relentless background noise that has you on edge, an obsessive hatred or resentment that poisons everything.

Of course Labor politicians are not immune to this.  Bill Shorten was not slow to call Abbot's speech "embarrassing".  Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen also leapt on the bandwagon.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said Mr Abbott's speech suggested he was ''addicted to being leader of the opposition and [hadn't] adjusted to being Prime Minister''.

''What we saw from the Prime Minister in this speech was a pretty tired old recitation of . . . slogans, and frankly, continuing attacks on the Labor Party for domestic political purposes,'' Mr Bowen told ABC radio on Friday.

Perhaps its always been like this and I'm just noticing it more, but I find it increasingly disturbing that politics is framed as a competition.  The object is to beat your opponent.  Nothing else matters that much.  If you are in opposition, the aim is to destroy their credibility by attacking them at every opportunity.  Once that has succeeded and you have won the election, the object is to keep them down as firmly as you can.  Everything else is secondary.

Perhaps I'm overly idealistic, but I like the think that actually the purpose of politics is to govern.  It is to set policy and direction for your country or state, to administer the services it delivers in the best way possible, to protect the weak from the strong, ensure the rule of law and appropriately manage the financial resources needed to do all that. 

This means that in government, of course, you should be focused on what you are doing and why that is good for the people.  In opposition you should be focused on the same thing - what is best for the people of this country?  In government, a party is obliged to use the levers of power to these ends.  In opposition, they are obliged to keep the government honest, critique them when they go wrong but also praise them when they do right, suggest better or fairer ways, present a different viewpoint.  A good government will leave a legacy of good governance and social fairness for their state or nation.  A good opposition will contribute to this.

As Aeschylus said, truth is the first casualty of war.  The war doesn't have to involve actual shooting for this to be the case - only a state of partisan conflict in which one party must win at the expense of the other.  In a war ordinary people always lose out and certain elites win.  I don't think that's what we want.  I'm waiting for an alternative to vote for which doesn't deliver us this outcome. 

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Gift of Cleaning Toilets

So everyone, here's the gist of tomorrow's sermon. Readings are 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 and Romans 12:1-13.

But first, a story about Mohandas Gandhi.  In the 1930s and 1940s if you wanted to do anything in the Indian independence movement it was important to have Gandhi's blessing. So when Shriman Narayan returned to India from England in the early 1930s with a PhD in Economics and a head full of schemes for economic reform, he went to visit Gandhi in his ashram.  He explained his ideas and plans and asked Gandhi for his blessing.  Gandhi, however, said that first he wanted Narayan to clean the ashram toilets.

This was not a pleasant job. The toilets were not water closets they were latrines, and cleaning them involved a shovel and bucket. Narayan had probably never done it before. Traditional Hindu society has a strict caste system. Higher caste people, like Gandhi and Narayan, do important things like running the government and trading. Lower castes do less important things. The dirty and demeaning jobs, like toilet cleaning were done by "untouchables", people at the bottom end of the social scale who high cast people would hardly even notice.

Nonetheless, Narayan went off and did as he was asked. The next day he went back to see Gandhi again. "I've cleaned the latrines as you asked," he said, "now can I have your blessing?" Gandhi replied, "You will get my blessings only when you satisfy me that you are capable of cleaning toilets with the same enthusiasm as changing the economy of the country.”

All of which is very relevant to the subject of my bible readings, which is that thorny old subject of spiritual gifts. Here's the first,the opening paragraphs of 1 Corinthians.

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Often when we think about spiritual gifts we dive straight into the lists of gifts and start to think about what ours might be.  However, this passage is a much better place to start because it tells you how these gifts fit into the bigger picture of God's calling of his church.  The first point is that we are "sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints".  Saints are those who are sanctified, and to be sanctified is to be set apart for some particular use.

Ancient Jews were big on ritual purity and this involved a lot of washing - before meals, when entering the house after being out for the day, before praying or visiting the synagogue, etc.  The water containers used for this washing were different from those used for drinking out of or other uses - they were set apart, or sanctified, for this particular use.  This did not mean there was anything special about them in themselves, or that they were any better than the other containers.  It was just that this is what they were for.  We're the same - we are set apart by God for a particular use - to further his kingdom.  We are not better than other people, we've just been given a particular job.

So then, to fit us for this job God has done three things.  First, he has given us his grace through Christ Jesus.  I don't want to go into this subject in detail or we'll be here all day.  The short version is, he has sent us Jesus to bring us to himself, to show us God's love and to call us to repentance so we can start to live in the light of that love.  We have heard and answered Jesus' call, and so here we are.

The second is, he has given us all the gifts we need for this job.  The word we translate as "spiritual gifts" is the Greek charismata which means grace, gifts or favours given freely without us deserving them.  It is used very broadly in the New Testament to describe the various things God has given us, from the gifts of eternal life and forgiveness to the specific gifts he gives each of us to help us in our work.  He assures the Corinthians that they "are not lacking any spiritual gift" - they have all they need to do what he has called them to do, and to be what he has called then to be. 

Finally he gives us reassurance that he is with us and will not abandon us: "He will also strengthen you to the end....God is faithful".  We are not left to labour alone.

This is all very well but quite theoretical.  To bring it down to a more practical level, we move on to Romans 12:1-13.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers

The first piece of practical instruction Paul gives to us here is that we should "Present our bodies as a living sacrifice" and that we should "not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of (our) minds". To understand this metaphor, we need to get our minds into what ancient religious sacrifice was all about.

Virtually all ancient religions had some kind of sacrifice as a key element of their practice. The way it worked was this - people would generally go about their daily life as they chose. However, when significant things happened - a planned journey, a major business deal, a sickness in the family or whatever - they would seek help or relief from their god or goddess. They would take something - usually an animal - to the temple or shrine where it would be killed before the god as a gift.  The gift having been given and the request for the god's aid made, the person would then go back to their life as before.

We don't do sacrifice these days but often we do something similar.  We do our religious duty from time to time - going to church, giving thanks at meals, praying before we go to bed, or whatever - and then we get on with out lives. This is what it means to be "conformed to this world". Paul is asking more of his readers. For him, our worship does not consist of bringing something external to God and then leaving again, it consists of giving God the gift of ourselves. We bring ourselves to God, and if we give our worship to him we can't leave unchanged, we have to be transformed, devoting ourselves to God's work.

I believe this teaching applies to everything we do - our work, our family life, our relations with our neighbours, our politics, all should be transformed in this way.  However, in this passage Paul applies it specifically to the life of the church, to the way we function as a community.  The key image he uses is of the church as a body.  "For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another."

There are two dangers we face in the life of the church. The first is the danger of hierarchical thinking.  We are often tempted to see some gifts and roles as more important or more prestigious than others. We idolise people who have those roles (especially teachers and preachers) and strive after them ourselves, so that the church becomes a vehicle for ambition. At the same time we despise other roles in the church - like cleaning the toilets - and disregard those who do them. For some of us, this may mean that the church becomes a kind of competition. For others it may make us passive - we are not leaders or important people, so we can just leave it up to someone else.

The opposite danger - and this is a particular one for us Western Protestants - is the danger of individualism. We often see ourselves as isolated individuals, responsible only to God. God has given us particular gifts and we are determined to use them as we see fit. If that doesn't suit other people that's their problem. Or we may feel ourselves to be carrying the entire burden of the church on our shoulders, and burn ourselves out trying to make everything work as we believe it should.

The image of the body shows us how to avoid both of these traps.  A body requires many different parts, all performing different functions, to work properly. Although superficially we may value our heads more than our bums, we need both to survive.  The church is the same. For it to be healthy it needs all of us doing our parts.

Now when people talk about this passage and its counterparts in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 they often dive into the detail of the lists of individual gifts - in this list, prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading and showing compassion. This subject is fascinating but I think it's beside the point. Whenever Paul lists a series of gifts the list is different. This says to me that the lists are not a catalogue, they are examples used for illustration.  The important point is not what the individual gifts are, but how we use them.

He has two key things to say about this. First, whatever we do, we should do wholeheartedly, to the best of our ability. Secondly, all our actions and our use of our gifts should be motivated by love - "love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour." These two things go together. No-one much enjoys cleaning toilets and it its easy to do it in a half-hearted and resentful manner. However, if we remember that this act, even though it may not seem so, is an act of love for those around us, we will do it diligently. It will also be made much easier if the rest of the church honours its toilet cleaners as much as its preachers, instead of ignoring them and pretending they are not there.

So in closing, let me tell you another toilet cleaning story.  When I was young the church youth groups I was a part of used to often have retreats up on Mt Tamborine. We would go up there for a weekend, spend time in Bible Study and prayer and have a lot of fun together. Then at the end of each retreat would come the clean-up. All the campers would be asked to volunteer to help clean up various areas of the site before we left. The toilets, of course, were the least popular job. Then one camp, a couple of us hit on the idea that we should just volunteer for the toilets right up front and get that out of the way. We made a bit of a show of it, jumping in early as if the job was a prize we coveted.

I'm not claiming that we did this because we were hugely spiritual.  We were adolescent males and we were showing off.  But thing was, once we had taken that step we found that doing the toilets at the end of each retreat was something we enjoyed and looked forward to.  Did we discover that cleaning toilets is actually fun?  No we didn't, it remained a smelly and unglamorous task.  What we discovered is that doing things with other people can be fun, even if the things you do are not that pleasant in themselves. We were not enjoying cleaning the toilets, we were enjoying cleaning the toilets together.

Isn't that the same in all our areas of service.  If we feel that we are left on our own with a thankless unwanted task, whether it's preaching, playing music, managing the finances or making supper, it will be a burden. Yet if we get to do something in an environment of love with our brothers and sisters sharing the load together, and if others encourage us and get joy from our service, then it's fun and the burden becomes lighter than air. This is what the church, Christ's body, should be like. This is what we should pray for.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Wall

More Pink Floyd ruminations for you...

You could divide Pink Floyd's work into four periods. The first, spanning 1967 to 1969 and including their first album Piper at the Gates of Dawn and some of the second, A Saucerful of Secrets, was dominated by guitarist, singer and chief songwriter Syd Barrett and involved experimental, off-the-wall songs and musical pieces with strange sounds and bizarre lyrics.

The second began when Barrett's mental illness made his ongoing participation impossible. It involved the remaining members - bass player Roger Waters, drummer Nick Mason and keyboard player Rick Wright along with replacement guitarist Dave Gilmour - trying to work out what they should do next. The result is a number of interesting musical experiments - quirky extended songs and musical pieces which tested the limits of late 1960s and early 1970s recording studios but which these days are more curious than compelling.

In the third period they finally found the answer. Beginning with an extended piece called 'Echoes' which appeared on 1971's Meddle, blossoming to full flower with Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, and extending across Wish You Were Here in 1975 and Animals in 1977, they made the music that defined them and secured their legacy.

In the fourth and final period, the band fractured and various combinations of its members tried to recapture the magic with limited success.

In between the third and fourth periods came The Wall, the album which many (particularly Roger Waters) consider their masterpiece and also the work which brought their simmering tensions to a head and broke their partnership.

After Barrett's departure, Pink Floyd had basically functioned as a collective.  They spent long periods together in the studio and on the road, working together on each others' ideas.  The resulting work was carefully constructed, many-layered, unfolding for the listener slowly and carefully over extended pieces which showcased each member's contribution while showing that the whole was more than the sum of its parts. 

This is not to say all members were equal.  Waters was the most prolific songwriter and the most forceful personality, Gilmour the most accomplished singer and instrumentalist.  Like Lennon and McCartney in the Beatles, the dynamic between these two tended to squeeze Wright and Mason to the margins.  Wright's quiet and often withdrawn personality mirrored George Harrison's underestimated genius while Mason, like Ringo Starr, did whatever it is drummers do when they're not hitting things.  Still, these tensions were managed and the dynamic they created was responsible for the sound we all associate with Pink Floyd.

The Wall was a startling departure.  While officially a Pink Floyd album it is in fact very much Roger Waters' work.  While Gilmour gets a couple of songwriting credits, Mason and Wright don't even get their names on the cover. 

The genesis of this dark masterpiece was a moment during a live performance in Montreal, Canada when Waters became so incensed with rowdy fans in the front row that he spat on them.  The moment crystallised the increasing alienation Waters felt during live concerts, and he began to think about creating a show in which he would physically build a wall between himself and the audience. 

Yet there is much more to the album than that.  The outbreak against his audience was just the tip of the massive iceberg of Waters' anger.  As he wrote it all bubbled to the surface - the loss of his father in World War 2; his overprotective mother; his sarcastic, destructive schoolmaster; his harpy of a wife (from whom he had recently separated); the loneliness and isolation of the travelling musician.  All are told in a series of songs and song fragments, linked by demented spoken word interludes, until on the last of the original four sides of vinyl 'Pink', the composite character who stands mostly for Waters, is brought face to face with all these various influences in a surrealistic courtroom scene before the wall is dramatically and cathartically smashed.  It is a harrowing, over-the top melodrama, a piece of frightening pop psychology enhanced by Gerald Scarfe's weird animations which danced across the wall during the stage show and formed the basis for the subsequent film.

Waters arrived at the recording sessions with the concept fully formed and proceeded to impose his will on his band-mates.  In the process, their already fragile relationships fractured beyond repair.  Frustrated at Wright's passivity, Waters forced him out of the band altogether although he played on the subsequent tour as a hired musician.  Waters and Gilmour clashed continuously and even though Gilmour occasionally got his way he never entered a recording studio with Waters again.  Mason did his best to bridge the gap and remain friends with everyone, but ultimately went with Gilmour when the band split.  Waters felt he didn't really need them and perhaps he was right.  Although the initial live performances featured all four, Waters has toured the show without them on and off ever since.  Although loyal fans miss them, the music doesn't need them.

In many ways The Wall takes their music in a new direction too.  Certainly it retains some elements of their sound - the trademark pounding bass, Gilmour's slide guitar, the spoken pieces tucked in behind the music, the reprise of key songs through the work.  There are even some deliberate references to their early work used for dramatic effect.  The whale song sounds from 'Echoes' that appear in 'Is There Anybody Out There?' make it seem like you are at an earlier Floyd concert.  Naming the central character 'Pink' reprises a joke from 'Have a Cigar' in which a fat cat record executive asks '...and by the way, which one's Pink?'. 

Yet the differences are greater than the similarities.  The lyrics, and the story they told, had never been this important in their work before.  Nor had the multi-media elements of the show - what had previously been background to the music was now integral to the whole package.  The Wall is not just a record, it is a theatrical spectacular.  The long, carefully constructed pieces that feature in most of their work are replaced by a series of fragments tied together by a few traditionally structured songs.  The long instrumental segments are replaced by Scarfe's images and the quiet reflective tone of their earlier work is replaced by a harder edge, with distorted guitars and jerky rhythms.  At times it almost sounds like punk.  It even gave them their only post-Syd hit single, 'Another Brick in the Wall Part 2', the lyric of which was gleefully chanted by school children across the English-speaking world.

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher leave those kids alone

Perhaps with all this anger lurking just below the surface it's surprising the other band members put up with Waters as long as they did.  However it's also possible, given the strange dynamics between the four and their inability to communicate openly with one another, that The Wall was a gigantic and elaborate resignation letter from Waters.  Certainly a huge part of the anger is directed at his experience of being part of Pink Floyd.  I'm guessing that when it was finally over and the lengthy legal disputes ironed out, everyone was pretty relieved that they could get on with the rest of their lives.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Pink Floyd

Many people can tell you exactly where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot.  For myself, I'm not quite sure but most likely I was safely tucked up in my cot on the other side of the world, totally unaware that there even was such a person.

I do remember clearly the moment I first heard of John Lennon's murder.  I was working in the dingy upstairs office of the Maryborough Housing Action Group, and the guy whose business rented the next office popped his head in to tell me about it.  I was sad, of course, but not deeply affected.

A much more significant moment for me is the time I first heard Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.  I must have been about 14 years old, riding my bike along Breton Street in Sunnybank.  It was evening.  On one side of the street was the railway, on the other a row of houses.  The chorus of 'Brain Damage' rolled across the street from one of these houses. 

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon
And if there is no room upon the hill
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.

Transfixed, I pulled my bike over onto the grass verge and listened as the song segued into 'Eclipse' and rolled to its explosive finish.  It was love at first listen.  The stately, measured rhythm, the carefully constructed arrangement and lovely vocal harmonies, the beautiful melody were streets ahead of anything else I had listened to.

It was the start of a lifelong love affair, one I shared with millions and to which I remained faithful through the ups and downs of musical fashion.  When Johnny Rotten performed in an 'I Hate Pink Floyd' T-shirt a few years later I was unimpressed.  I soon learned it was a pose - my punk friends may have disliked Dark Side-era Floyd, but they were huge Syd Barrett fans.

Over this holiday I've been catching up on this particular piece of my musical history by reading Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, by Nick Mason, the band's drummer.  Mason is a witty and humble chronicler, generous towards his band-mates and their many collaborators, self-deprecating about his own contribution, honest enough to provide an insight into the group's often fraught dynamics, especially if you are able to read in the considerable spaces between the lines.

It's interesting that Pink Floyd's music has stood the test of time while that of many of their prog rock contemporaries sounds decidedly dated.  It's not because they were better musicians in a technical sense.  The members of Emerson Lake and Palmer, for instance, or of Yes, were much more accomplished instrumentalists.  Yet these days their music is little more than a curiosity.  It just goes to show that technical mastery will only take you so far.  You still have to have something to play.

In my ignorant youth I was awed by the complexity of Floyd's music, yet what impresses me most about it these days is its simplicity.  I can be amazed by Keith Emerson's long, incredibly fast keyboard solos but after a while I find myself getting bored.  By contrast, I never tire of the four notes which introduce the second part of 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond', gradually building in volume and intensity, picking up guitar, keyboard and drum parts as they go.  You feel you are going somewhere and indeed you are, into the evocative and beautifully sung lyric mourning Syd Barrett's descent into mental illness.  Floyd's music bristles with melodic and harmonic ideas, each piece carefully shaped into its own distinct identity.  Certainly there was a 'Pink Floyd sound' but they were careful not to keep repeating themselves.

I think perhaps part of this uniqueness comes from the path they took into the music business.  They neither paid their dues on the pub and club circuit like most of the blues and rock musicians of the 1960s, nor studied classical music like Rick Wakeman or Elton John.  Instead, they cut their teeth in London's radical underground, playing their spacy improvised pieces at happenings where blissed-out hippies sat on the floor and waved their hands in time to the music.  These events were early essays in multi-media, the music accompanied by primitive light shows projected onto screens behind the band.  As Pink Floyd became more famous and played bigger venues the visuals got more elaborate until they reached the absurdity of The Wall, the stage show for which was so elaborate that even with sold-out stadium concerts the tour lost piles of money.  The result of this left-field approach to making music was that Floyd didn't sound like anyone else, although later many people tried to sound like them.

They also had something to say lyrically.  Not that their words are great poetry.   Roger Waters, who wrote most of them after Barrett's departure, has been known to dismiss the Dark Side of the Moon lyrics as "sixth form stuff", with some justification.  Still, their explorations of madness, mortality and human frailty make a refreshing change from songs about love, seduction and playin' in a travellin' band.  Waters' dark wit can cut to the bone and if subtlety is often sacrificed to dramatic effect, the interplay of words and music draws you in to a strange, yet strangely recognisable, world.

Some bands seem to keep on keeping on, touring the world playing their hits long after their creative energy has ebbed.   Not Pink Floyd.  Including their two film soundtracks Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason made ten albums together between 1968 and 1979, before the tensions between them became unsustainable and they went their separate ways.  Although they have continued to perform alone and in various combinations since, their sole appearance on the same stage since 1980 was their one-off 2005 appearance at Live 8.  It won't happen again in this life - Rick Wright died in 2008.  I think I prefer it that way.  When you have finished you should stop and move onto something else.  But I still love what they created, it's part of me and I guess always will be.