Thursday, 24 December 2015

I Wonder If This Christmas...

When I was looking for Christmas songs for church earlier this month, I came across my words and chords for this little gospel music gem we used to sing way back in the early 1980s.

It's got a pretty, catchy tune and simple words, and it's easy for a ham guitarist like me to play.  Plus back in the day we were heavily into trying to convert people (not very successfully) and this song really tried hard to do that.

Here's the thing though.  It never struck me as odd that although it calls itself 'A Christmas Song for All Year Round' it's actually an Easter song.  Look at the words.

I wonder if this Christmas they'll begin to understand
The Jesus that they celebrate was much more than a man.
Cos the way the world is I don't see how people can deny
The only way to save us was for Jesus Christ to die.

And I know that if St Nicholas was here he would agree
That Jesus gave the greatest gift of all to you and me
They led him to the slaughter on a hill called Calvary
And mankind was forgiven when they nailed him to a tree.

But most of all the children, they're the ones I hope will learn
That Jesus is our saviour and he's going to return.
And Christmas isn't just a day, and all days aren't the same
Perhaps they'll think about the word and see it spells his name.

No angelic announcement, no stable, no manger, no magi, no virgin birth.  Sure St Nick gets a go, but even he has to travel without his reindeer and as for elves, well, best not to mention them.  Not a single line based on the New Testament stories of Jesus' birth, but no less than three lines about his death on the cross, not to mention one about the Second Coming.

Randy Stonehill is not alone.  This year I've been noticing how embarrassed many Christians are about Christmas.  Despite all the hoo har about the 'war on Christmas' we can't wait to skip forward to Easter.  Sure, we do sing some Christmas carols in December but they are almost always mixed with Easter songs right up until the day itself.  Our sermons, even on Christmas Day, keep slipping across to Easter as we feel obliged to remind people that the child in the manger became the man on the cross.  As soon as December 26 rolls around the Christmas carols are put back in the folder and normal service is resumed.

On the other hand, like Randy Stonehill we see Easter songs as being 'for all year round'.  In fact, this is so much the case that we don't even realise they are Easter songs.  We see nothing unusual in singing, say, 'The Mystery of the Cross' or 'The Servant King' at any time of year.  No-one would bat an eyelid if we sang these songs in December.  If I were to put 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' or 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night' on the program in April people would want to know what I was up to.

I've been so acculturated to this that I never noticed it until this year.  Now I have noticed it, however, I can't unsee it.

The thing is, our wider culture is much more excited about Christmas than the Christians.  Carols have been playing in our shops since October.  Decorations have been up in public places for weeks.  Australians have been indulging in their customary Christmas splurge of charitable donations and acts of mercy.  People have been buying gifts for one another and travelling across the country to be with loved ones on the special day.  Even in Buddhist Thailand the streets of central Bangkok are lit up for the season.  Our culture gets that Christmas is special, even as Christians are embarrassed by it.

So what's the problem?  Why don't Christians embrace Christmas more wholeheartedly?  Why don't we celebrate it all year round?

I think we are uncomfortable with the idea of incarnation.  We have come to live by a version of Christianity that is shaped and determined by Easter.  It is about sin and salvation, about atonement, about getting to heaven and avoiding hell, about our wellbeing in the next life.

In the process the spirituality of our present life which Christmas symbolises is increasingly neglected.  Christmas tells us a number of things that we struggle to hear.
  • It tells us that this life matters, that God is so intensely interested in it that he chose to live it himself.
  • It tells us that it is a glorious thing to be human, reminding us that we are made in the image of God and that despite our failings this image is still alive in us, ready to be healed.
  • It calls us to practical compassion.  Our mission is not merely to drag people out of this world and into heaven, but to continue the work Jesus began, creating a kingdom of heaven here on earth.
If Christmas sometimes seems worldly it is not because such worldliness is evil, it is because we have abandoned this world.  We have given up on it and focused our sights on the next.  This is just the opposite of what Jesus did.  He didn't come into the world simply to die for us, but to live for us.  As his death approached the thought of leaving this life behind caused him such distress that he sweated blood and begged God to find another way.

The fact that we are uncomfortable with this highlights the weakness of our faith.  If we only focus on Easter, it becomes easy for us to lack practical compassion.  We become blind to the need for it.  Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats that "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me", and conversely, "whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me".  This is the practical outworking of the incarnation, but in our Easter Christianity we find it so easy to to skip over this clear, simple message and use this parable as a weapon in our arguments over heaven and hell.

How is it that committed Christians can oversee our current punitive asylum seeker regime?  This is Easter Christianity with no Christmas.  How can church authorities be blind to the suffering of children abused in their care?  These are Christians who have forgotten that God was also a child.  How can we spend millions rebuilding our churches and cathedrals while there are beggars at our door?  It is because we have become blind to the fact that these beggars are God himself, pleading for our help.

So, with due respect and apologies to Mr Stonehill (who no doubt also has a more mature view 35 years on) I have attempted a rewrite of 'A Christmas Song for All Year Round'.

I wonder if this Christmas we'll begin to really see
The Jesus that we celebrate was just like you and me.
'Cos the way we set our face away from all God has to give
The only way to turn us was for Jesus Christ to live.

And I know that if St Nicholas was here he would proclaim
With hosts of angels, shepherds and the travelling wise men
The greatest sign in history that God is still our friend
Is a baby in a manger in the town of Bethlehem.

And all the children playing on this great and glorious day
And all the people mourning for the ones who've passed away
And every tiny sparrow, every single grain of sand
Are shown at their true value because God became a man.

Have a lovely Christmas and a compassionate beginning to 2016!

Thursday, 17 December 2015

How to Write a Music Memoir

As you know I like a good music memoir.  I don't even mind a bad one.  Being a music obsessive I like the insight a memoir can give me into the songs and the times, the way you can get a little way into the head of the person who wrote the songs or performed them and see the process of their creation.  Many of my favourite musicians are getting on in years and are not as prolific as they once were and are turning to writing as way to fill their time, boost their income or secure their legacy, so I have plenty to choose from.

Of course the down side is that the skill of writing a book is very different to that of writing a song.  A song is pithy, allusive, with a compactness that disciplines the composer to say what they need to say in a few short verses.  A memoir stretches out over thousands of words and lots of years.  It needs good (or at least adequate) writing to keep the reader engaged, characters with depth and resonance and a story that keeps you reading.

The most obvious way to write a memoir is to begin at the beginning, with the writer's parents and childhood, and work through to the end.  It seems the easiest choice as the life itself structures the book.  However, it's not necessarily as easy as it looks.  You need to be strict with yourself about what to include, what to leave out.  how much to reveal and how honest to be with yourself.  I was frustrated by Graham Nash's smugness and lack of candour because it made him seem so unlikeable.  On the other hand I enjoyed Bruce Cockburn's memoir despite its excessive length and slightly pedestrian prose because he was prepared to be honest with his readers.

If you are more ambitious you can try for something more arty - stream of consciousness, multiple points of view, leaps back and forward in time and so forth.  David Crosby, for instance, although he sticks to a roughly chronological framework, recruits a large cast of friends and collaborators to help tell his story in their own words, and allows them a fair bit of rope.  He also has a good co-author who keeps a firm rein on the whole.  The result is a highly engaging read.  Neil Young, on the other hand, crashes and burns spectacularly, as only he can do.

I've just read two more, both by seminal Australian singers and songwriters, which pretty much sit at opposite poles on the memoir spectrum.

Richard Clapton's The Best Years of our Lives is, perhaps, an object lesson in how to fail at memoir writing.  This is not because it's badly written - Clapton is no prose stylist but he writes well enough.  Nor does the story itself lack interest - Clapton was at the centre of the Australian music scene in the late 70s and early 80s, writing classic songs and albums soaked in Australian beach and pub culture.  He can tell us about his own music, about the inner workings of the industry, about close musical friends like Inxs that we all want to know about.

Yet despite all this it's hard to stay interested to the end.  The reason is that Clapton has made a strategic decision not to tell the reader much about his life.

It's not hard to understand why.  Clapton's life has not been easy, and everyone wants some privacy.  Still, if you really don't want people to know about you, perhaps it is better not to write a memoir at all.

Clapton begins his story in his late teens as he left school and headed first to the UK and then, after a couple of years, to Germany on a typical Aussie young person's pilgrimage to the northern hemisphere.  Right here is the beginning of the problem.  He introduces himself to us as Richard Clapton, the young nascent musician, making a choice in his late teens and early 20s between a stable career in graphic design and following his muse.  It is if he sprung up fully formed, at the age of 17, in a prestigious Sydney boarding school.  His family rates a single phrase in the entire book when he tells us he was "estranged" from them.

Yet any reader who knows a little about Clapton knows that this is not the story.  "Richard Clapton" is the stage name (using the surnames of his two biggest musical idols) of a man whose birth name is either Terry Goh or Terry Gonk, depending on the source.  He was born in 1949, the son of a Chinese doctor and an Anglo-Australian night nurse.   His parents' marriage was short-lived and bitter.  The first years of his life were spent in a series of rental properties interspersed with periods of homelessness as his mother battled mental illness before her death (from suicide, perhaps) in the early 1960s.  Young Terry met his father for the first time at the funeral and from this time onwards was technically in his care, but it was a distant kind of care, outsourced to a prestigious Sydney boarding school with minimal personal contact.

Little wonder, then, that young Terry fled the country as soon as he could, and changed his name.  Little wonder, either, that he doesn't want to talk about it.  Yet without its beginning the rest of his story makes no sense.  Having failed to be candid with the reader on this crucial point, other pieces of information just rattle around in an unconnected way.  His alcoholism (about which he is only minimally honest) his clashes with authority figures (about which he is quite explicit and with good reason - after all his record company blocked his chances of US success by refusing to license his recordings for US release) have their own emotional power but become hard to understand.  There are some gems here and his songs are still great, but I was left hungry and dissatisfied.

On the other hand, Paul Kelly's How to Make Gravy is a masterpiece of the genre, a true gem which I could hardly put down.

How to Make Gravy started life as a series of shows in which Kelly sang 100 of his songs over four nights, starting with titles beginning with A and working through to Z (he had to write a Z song specially for the show).  In between the songs he would tell stories, and these eventually became this book, published in 2010.

There's no question this is an ambitious way to write a book and the possibilities of it going wrong are endless.  What if the reader gets lost?  What if Kelly can't think of anything interesting to say about one of the songs?  In the wrong hands it could so easily become a catalogue of recording sessions.  None of this happens, and I think there are a few reasons.

First of all, this structure puts the songs front and centre, and songs are what Kelly is good at.  He leads with his strength.

Second, and perhaps surprisingly, he is very candid.  I say surprisingly because he is known for his reticence in interviews, for being reluctant and even surly with those who want to write about him.  Yet here, where he has control of the story, he is ready to put himself on show, to talk openly about his family, his relationships, his personal failings and successes, his songwriting process, his friendships in the music industry, the causes about which he is passionate.  There's also some off the wall curios - lists, quiz questions, Shakespeare sonnets.  Of course there are no-go areas.  He keeps his children out of the story, he doesn't slander anyone, he is kind when perhaps privately he may be a little more cruel.  But these things are acceptable, even proper, and you leave the book feeling you really know him, that he has been honest with you.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Kelly is a brilliant writer.  He knows how to tell a story, how to select just the right words and just the right incidents to make a point, how to lead readers on and hook them into the story.  Like his songs, his prose is tight and pithy, he doesn't say too much but what he does say is completely engaging.  This book is a long way from Neil Young's rambling opus and much more like that Australian literary classic, Clean Straw for Nothing, in which George Johnston tells the fictionalised story of his adult life in a series of episodes leaping back and forward in time, the story emerging in bits and pieces as the reader is drawn on to assemble the complete jigsaw puzzle.

The picture that emerges is rich and complex.  We see his grandparents and parents, the sprawling and supportive Kelly clan, the Catholic upbringing, the wrench of his father's premature death and his mother's heroic efforts to raise a large family on her own, his early wanderings and struggles with stage fright, his emergence as a singer and songwriter, the people who helped him along the way and some of those he helped in his turn, his engagement with the Aboriginal community, the life of a touring musician, and through it all his songs and their performance.

A couple of tales stand out for me.  The first is the story of his drug use, a tricky subject on which many others have foundered.  Clapton and Nash are inclined to sweep theirs under the carpet.  Crosby talks so much about his that you sometimes feel you're in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.  Kelly deals with his in a single, arresting story of his relationship with heroin.

Heroin was the one for me, the recreational drug of choice.  Its molecules and mine seemed made for each other.

He describes how he was introduced to the drug, and how he used it on and off for years.  He describes his marriage to a rehabilitating fellow user over the resistance of her father and their mutual falling off the wagon.

I didn't take heroin because I felt bad, or because I had an unhappy childhood. I just liked it. It suited me, freed me up inside.  There were long nights of funny, dreamy, storytelling sex.  Heroin was a lovely secret with a lover.  A big warm blanket in winter.  Shooting up together was intimate, tender, sacramental.

There is so much more along these lines.  A reward for hard work.  An aid to boring household chores. A tool to make you that bit more entertaining, that bit more fun at a party, a way of keeping going.

The trick was not to take too much, to get the dose just right so that people wouldn't notice anything different about you.  So your voice wouldn't be too draggy, your pupils too pinned, your eyelids too heavy.  Maintaining the balance was its own satisfaction.  I'm getting away with this! you said to yourself, purring along.

And you think, "oh no, it's another self-justification, another fake functioning-addict story".  Or else you think, "so, maybe I should try that".  Until Kelly bursts his own bubble.

But of course you weren't getting away with it.  People knew.  Or suspected.... You knew that they knew but you convinced yourself that they didn't.  Heroin rewires your brain.  It's a beautiful brainwasher that makes you believe the dumbest things.  

You weren't getting away with it at all.  What you thought was your witty charm caused intense annoyance, worry or fear (or all three) in those close to you.  You saw friends, long-time recreational users like yourself who'd kept it under control for years, suddenly go under.  The black dog was always snapping at your heels.  The hangovers got longer, roughly double the period of pleasure....

Your children knew when you were acting differently.  You and your wife, soon to be divorced, were like two people on opposite shores of a wide river.  She was waving but you pretended not to see.  You were ashamed of yourself, ashamed of wasting money, sick of deception and alarmed at the shoddiness creeping into your work.

I got lucky.  I met a woman who said, "It's me or it".  She gave me the number of a counsellor who made me write a list.  I threw out certain phone numbers, said goodbye to all that.  I thought about 'it' every day for along time.  Less now.

All this is told, without explanation, next a song called 'Coma'.  He goes on to describe how the song was written and how it developed over time with the band he was playing with, but he makes you wait until the last line to show you the connection.

...with Sian Prior, the 'me or it' girl, playing the clarinet.

You just want to draw breath, go back and read it again.  David Crosby's endless mea culpa can't pack anything like this emotional punch, the highs, and lows. the tentative happy ending and the depths of unspoken love and gratitude packed into those five pages.  And then it resonates through the book and through your mind as you see the story echoed, without comment, in other songs - 'Careless', 'When I First Met Your Ma', 'Stories of Me', and so on gain new meaning once you know this story.  He doesn't need to say any more.  You already have enough.

Other stories are more light-hearted, and he has a wry way of both expressing gratitude, and letting you see something of people's personalities.  One of my favourites is his account of his friendship with Don Walker and the writing of 'From St Kilda to Kings Cross', one of his earliest successful songs.  Walker is the keyboard player and main songwriter in Cold Chisel, already rich and famous when Kelly was still finding his feet as a singer and songwriter.

I played him some songs in the early 80s.  The songs didn't last but what Don said did.  Not that he said much - he's a man who chooses his words - just told me to keep writing.

All of those songs ended up on the scrap heap but Kelly took Walker's advice.  A few years later he ended up living with Walker for a short time in his Kings Cross house.  He wrote a number of songs on Walker's lovely white grand piano, including 'From St Kilda...'.

The day it came I couldn't stop humming it and by sunset a set of words was attached.  When Don came home I said, "Can I play you something?"  He listened and said "You've got your own thing now."

Eight understated words from a man famous for his reticence and his brilliant songwriting.  "Keep writing".  "You've got your own thing now".  Plus the use of a house and a beautiful grand piano.  You can feel Kelly's gratitude in the care with which he tells the tale, as much as in the explicit thanks that follow.

There's so much more but you should read it yourself.  You won't be sorry.  If you happen to be a famous musician and you're thinking of writing a memoir, read this one first.  Or maybe don't.  It will only make you weep at your own more pedestrian efforts.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Concentric Circles and Grid Patterns

If you've been reading, you'll know that I'm on the hunt for simple diagrams that can explain the entire world at a glance. Here's another one

A couple of years ago I did a piece of research for Shelter NSW on the redevelopment of public housing estates.  If you're a real nerd you can read it here, but unless you're especially interested in the literature on public housing renewal you'll find it very tedious.

One of the many reports I read involved the researchers interviewing residents who had lived in the midst of a redevelopment project in Minto, Sydney.  They suggested that a large part of the reason for the disconnect between the plans made by the redevelopment authority and its contractors, and the preferences of the tenants, was that they view the neighbourhood very differently.

Redevelopment professionals - architects, planners, project managers and so forth - see the suburb as a grid, as if viewed from the air, and for them all parts of the grid are of equal priority.  Residents see it in a more personal way, in a series of circles centred on their own home and radiating out to their immediate street and neighbourhood and then the wider suburb.  The planner wants to know, "How can I deliver this entire project in the most efficient and cost-effective way?"  The resident wants to know, "When will be able to turn my taps on again?  When will I be able to get back into my driveway?"

The more I think about it, the more this idea has grown on me.  It seems to me that it applies to much more than redevelopment projects.  Each of us in our personal, community lives view things in concentric circles.  Most of our attention is focused near the centre, on ourselves, those who are close to us and the people and places we know well.  As issues and events get further from this centre they become more abstract and distant from us and it becomes much harder for us to take any interest.

On the other hand, people who have responsibility for the wider systems - government ministers, senior officials, planners and so forth - tend to see the issues from a greater distance and are obliged to think about the system as a whole.  They tend to view things as if they were looking down from a great height, to see the whole picture and the way the parts of it interact and interrelate.  In the process, it is easy for them to lose sight of the individuals involved and to become exclusively focused on the whole system, to make abstract calculations about gain and loss, to sacrifice some people for what they see as the greater good.

A couple of examples illustrate how this might work.

First is the story of Mojgan Shamsalipoor.  Mojgan is a 21-year-old Iranian woman who was completing Year 12 at Yeronga State High School, just a kilometre or so from where I live.  She was applying for Australian residency after fleeing Iran and had recently married.  However her application was refused and in August she was arrested at the school without prior warning by armed Immigration Department officials and sent to the detention centre in Darwin.

The staff, students and parents of the school were shocked at her detention and have been protesting vigorously ever since.  They have protested at the office of the Immigration Minister, they have spoken about it in the media, they have made formal requests for ministerial intervention and a review of her case.  A couple of weeks ago they staged a half-day strike at the school to remind everyone that they haven't forgotten.

They believe Mojgan when she says she will be in danger if forced to return to Iran, but they also say quite clearly that her detention doesn't make any sense.  She is a popular, intelligent young woman, she studies hard and does well at school, she makes a positive contribution to the wider community, she is newly married to a young man of Iranian descent who has Australian residency.  What could make more sense than to let her stay?  What danger does she pose to anyone?

All these protests have predictably fallen on deaf ears.  Minister Dutton has provided his usual brick wall response to their requests, she remains in detention in Darwin.  Both Department and Minister are determined to deport her as soon as they are able to.

Now, it's only fair to point out that Yeronga High has quite a few refugee students and so their staff and supporters are sensitised to the issues involved.  However, they are not professional advocates or political activists, they are ordinary teachers and parents.  They are simply responding with common humanity, standing up for their friend, pointing out the opportunity for an act of mercy which will cost nothing and add a valuable member to the Australian community.

It's tempting to ask why Minister Dutton and his advisors and officials can't see this.  Is it simply that they are heartless psychopaths?  I suppose it's possible, but unlikely.  As far as I'm aware, Dutton is a kind husband and father and a fairly normal, if highly conservative, human being.  However, as Minister he is tasked with overseeing the wider system.  He is virtually unable to see Mojgan Shamsalipoor because he sees the thousands of asylum seekers in camps around the world, the thousands who have attempted to reach Australia by boat, the vast scope of the global refugee challenge,

He sees threats to the orderly management of Australia's humanitarian programs.  He fears lost political capital from any failure to stem the flow of asylum seekers coming by boat.  After consideration and advice he and his government have chosen a policy based on deterrence and they know for that to "work" he can't afford to show a compassionate face.  He sees the map, the grid, not the individuals who people it.  It's all a question of perspective.

You won't be surprised to hear that I'm firmly on the side of Ms Shamsalipoor and her school in this dispute.  I agree, it doesn't make any sense to detain her.  As a local resident I'd be more than happy to have her and her husband as neighbours.  Yet I also acknowledge that Dutton and co are dealing with a real problem.  Our planet has a huge refugee problem, and it needs to be solved.  I don't agree with their solution.  I think it attempts to solve a symptom while leaving the problem untouched, and victimises innocent people in order to achieve an abstract outcome.  However, in this debate it is not enough to appeal to compassion, we also need to develop an alternative systemic response to the needs of refugees.  Not bombing and invading their countries of origin might possibly help there, but I digress.

The point is that both perspectives have things to say to each other.  The staff and students of my local high school have a message of compassion which Mr Dutton needs to hear.  If he can't hear it and make a reasonable response (and it is clear that he can't) then his approach is flawed and needs to be changed.  However, he also has something to say - asylum seekers do drown at sea and this needs to be prevented.  We do need to retain some reasonably orderly process for receiving and assessing applications for asylum.  If we want to participate in this discussion we have to be prepared to address these issues.

In this case, the local concentric perspective yields a greater measure of compassion and humanity, but it's not the same for every issue.  Climate change is once again on the front page thanks to the Paris talks this week and the nations of the world - including us - are once again stumbling towards an inadequate response.

I suspect that in this case it is the concentric view of the world that makes us slow to act.  Here in downtown Brisbane, the impacts of climate change don't seem all that bad.  The weather is a bit less predictable (and hotter!), but we still have plenty to eat and drink, the occasional weather incident is covered by our insurance (I even got a brand new roof out of the last one!) and overall it seems quite minor.  Australians obviously think this way - the Liberal Party's campaign against the Carbon Tax was based almost exclusively on an appeal to our self-interest, and it was resoundingly successful.  If we show an inclination to respond to the problem, as we did in 2007-08, our commitment is shallow and easily reversed.

Yet the science, and the representatives of poor countries, tell us that climate change is anything but minor.  Some Pacific Island nations have their very existence threatened by sea level rises.  Millions of poor Indian and African farmers have had their livelihoods destroyed by drought and flood and are forced to move to increasingly overcrowded urban slums.  A multi-year drought was one of the most important triggers for the Syrian civil war that has given us Islamic State and our recent spike in terrorist attacks.

All these things - scientific theory, the plight of poor African and Indian farmers, the war in Syria, the fate of Pacific nations whose location we can't point to on a map - are on the very outer ring of the concentric circles.  It takes a lot for them to penetrate into the circle within which we are impelled to serious action.

In this case, we need to listen more carefully to the insights of the grid view, the view from above.  The danger in climate change is precisely the things we in the West don't see locally right now.  The people suffering may be far away, but they are still people just like us and they are knocking on our door in increasing numbers.  Furthermore, the scientists tell us that climate change is a slow burn - even if we stop emitting now, the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue to warm the planet for decades and our own environment will get worse.

This creates a big communication challenge.  What will motivate us to act, in the absence of a local impact that makes us take notice?  Perhaps it's real stories of climate change in other places to help us put a human face on the issue.  Perhaps it's future scenarios for our own communities.  Perhaps it's a shift in our mindset which helps us think more globally and see the planet as our home, rather than just our suburb.  Perhaps there is an element of self-interest we can play on.  Either way, those who see the climate change grid need to find a way to insert that knowledge into the concentric world-view that we mostly live by.

As I say, neither view is right or wrong.  They are different perspectives on the same thing.  We use both in our lives, and which one is dominant depends on how we engage with each particular issue.  We need both if we are to solve problems and make our world a better place.