One of my regular gigs to put food on the table is doing vocals on publishing demos for an older guy who lives in my 'hood. This irascible fellow, who I'll call Jerry White, has a long history recording in the old school, working with the Four Seasons and the like. Nowadays he churns out demos and songs-for-hire in a little home studio with a bare bones ProTools set up. He has a regular cast of musicians he brings in to flesh out the songs he's hired to do. My brief is vocals. In a four hour session, I'm expected to learn the song and do the lead vocal and layer all the background harmonies, usually to Jerry's specifications. If I'm not doing a lead, I usually have to do the harmony vocals on two songs. I'm expected to instantly arrange the harmonies in my head and execute each one, and double-track it, with a maximum of two takes. My Beach Boys training certainly comes in handy here.
So does my long years clinging to analog, because Jerry has made a VERY uneasy peace with digital recording. He has an extreme distaste for using the edit window while laying down tracks, which means no playlists or cross-editing between takes...you get one master take and you have to get it right, and if we run into the next section of the track or miss a punch, we don't go to the edit window and fix it. You do it again, just like the old days.
What's been great the last few weeks is I've got a new regimen to deal with some old health problems that has cleared up some congestion in my head that's made my singing unpredictable the last couple of years...I've got a lot better control and pitch lately and it's really helped on these sessions, which usually take place in the early afternoon not long after I've gotten up.
The quality of the songs being recorded varies pretty drastically. Some of it isn't half-bad, though it might not be music I'd choose to listen to, while on the other hand there are some things that would qualify for an "MST3K of music," and it can be a jarring experience hearing my own vocals back on a final mix weeks after I've blocked out a particular song (think Raul Julia in "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank"). Still, this kind of work has a noble pedigree -- Elton John, Lou Reed and Harry Nilsson all did the exact same thing, though at the beginning of their careers as opposed to, um, the mature stage -- and my attitude these days is if you pay me, I owe it to you to do the best work I can do with what I'm given, so I judge my work on how quickly and how well I get it done, and I don't make a distinction between tracks I like and tracks I don't.
And this week I was really smoking, some of the best vocals I've ever done on these sessions. My brief? Backing vocals for a clutch of Christian ballads done by a rural Texas minister. If you're old enough to remember TV commercials for Cleo Laine, you get the idea. There was one uptempo tune as well -- and by uptempo I mean Anne Murray when she's not in slow dance mode -- and growing up in the '80s with no access to good radio really paid off here. I stole a few licks from an old Dan Seals record, pulled off a perfect "Good Timin'" Beach Boys on the bridge of one of the ballads, and in general managed to be perfectly slick and purty throughout. One of the songs had an unexpectedly clever acid-era Beatles reference in the second verse, and I insisted on doing a harmony to that as well, since I wanted the client to know that someone out there got the joke (as I doubted his parishioners would).
I have to sing all kinds of lyrics I would never write on these sessions, and I have to admit that singing "Praise the Lord" at one point gave me pause, and I took a second to mentally analyze why. After a moment's reflection I realized it wasn't the religiosity that bothered me. Put me on a mountainside on the east face of the Sierra looking into the canyon below and I have no problem saying "Praise the Lord." And it occurred to me that it wasn't the sentiments expressed that bothered me, but the simple-mindedness implicit in it.
I was even more disturbed when Jerry's devoutly religious wife misheard a vocal and, perhaps sensing some ambivalence I was trying very hard not to put out there, accused me of changing the lyrics to amuse myself. I hastily assured her that I came from a family of believers (two preachers, a guy who hangs out in Buddhist monasteries, and my late brother who converted to traditional Russian Orthodoxy before he died) and I would never mock someone else's faith. And I wouldn't.
However, if someone's faith leads them to say or do something really asinine, stupid, intolerant or illogical, I have no problem mocking that. That is a distinction that is lost on many people. Believing something really hard, and having a lot of other people believe the same as you, doesn't mean you automatically get a pass for how you perceive that belief leads you to act -- I don't care if you're a Christian, Muslim, liberal or conservative or whatever. Criticism on the basis of your words and actions is not persecution. It's holding people accountable for their behavior. And our moral basis for that is, guess what, rooted in religious tradition.
It occurred to me recently that, ironically, to the extent I have liberal beliefs it's rooted in my Christian upbringing (I'm the only one in my family who was affected this way, apparently, which is interesting anthropologically I suppose). I'm not a practicing Christian simply because you have to believe in the Resurrection for that, and I don't, but many of the tenets of the belief are very much at the core of who I am.
What bugged me about "Praise the Lord" is that, to me, it reduces the concept of an all-seeing, all-knowing Higher Power who is bigger than the universe, which itself is bigger than anything the human mind can begin to comprehend, to a three word slogan. OK -- I get the argument that the simple is complex and sometimes that's the best way to express what you can't comprehend, but I really don't believe that's what "Praise the Lord" means to most people. It's a totem, an easy way to say you belong to the group, that you've found an ordering point for how you view the world. It doesn't convey the east face of the Sierras to me. It's something closer to a McDonald's hamburger. And that's what bugs me about singing it. It's not because I don't have faith. It's because on some very deep level, I do. And slogans cheapen it to me.
There's a reason why people consider the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds -- an album that only peripherally talks about religion, and lyrically is most concerned with romance and personal growth -- one of the most spiritual albums ever made, and that is because Brian Wilson was able to combine sounds in such a way that hinted at the vastness of all-encompassing nature of a Higher Power -- and this was not an accident. Brian Wilson wasn't God, but he did have, in his own way, a very intuitive and gut-level understanding of what spirituality is. To have hemmed it in with words would have been to cheapen it. Van Morrison understood this too...if I had to pick a lyric to express What God Is, "Inarticulate Speech of the Heart" comes pretty close. The rest of that song, if I recall correctly, is pretty much an instrumental. And so there you go.
On the topic of cutting God down to a man size (which, unlike Burger King, is to make Him much smaller) I've never understood how religious belief can lead many people -- some of them not at all stupid -- into moral certainty, intolerance and raving leaps of illogic, because the core of Christianity is the idea that we're all flawed before God, and God alone is Absolute Truth. If each of us is flawed and we can never possibly know the entirety of God's Will, then doesn't that call any practicing Christian to self-reflection, first and foremost? There's so much in the Bible to underscore this idea...every skeptic who is ready to play "Gotcha" with a religious person knows the "judge not lest ye be judged" bit but I prefer Matthew 7: 1-5, which reads "Why do you observe the splinter in your brother's eye and never notice the great log in your own."
Self-reflection is at the very core of Christianity. The idea that any one human being "knows" the will of God is, to me, deeply sacriligeous. Again, it's cutting something way, way, beyond all comprehension and not only shrinking it to our size, but claiming it as our own personal property. The point of religious faith is to clean up your OWN act -- not somebody else's. Because you DON'T have God's perspective, and to adopt it for yourself is an act of extreme hubris.
There's been something really spiritual for me in letting go of a lot of my artistic aspirations and just focusing on the simple pleasures of making music. Did I sing in tune? Did I play in time? Does the sound I make resonate in a way that moves me, and moves other people? There is something to me about the dance of a musician with a metronome that is fundamentally spiritual. You can never completely lock in to the beat, but you can get so close to it that you enter a trance not unlike focusing on your driste (third eye) in yoga, and that I suspect is very similar to the peace that comes with prayer. You do, indeed, find God in the simple and most fundamental places. But the minute you start yapping about it, you push it further away.
And so, in my own way, I sang my heart out for Jesus. The faith being expressed in the lyrics may not have been my faith, but there is a spiritual aspect to giving yourself over to a song, accepting it on its terms without trying to control it, and doing as good a job as you can on it.
Oh, I almost forgot...this week's session wasn't the only time I discovered a hidden ability to really kick ass at an unexpected genre of music. The last time I was singing high, screeching background vocals on a set of grunge metal power ballads. And I was scary good at that.
God gave rock 'n' roll to you, indeed.