Four-Track Mind: The True Story of the Brothers Doug by Doug Gwyn

with Chuck Fager

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course…

Opening line of Homer’s Odyssey (Fagles translation) 

My first attempt at multi-track recording was during the summer of 1999 at Pendle Hill.  My friends, Peter and Annie Blood-Patterson, well known folk singers and producers of the Rise up Singing songbook, lent me their four-track recorder and effects box.  I spent hot summer nights with the windows closed (to keep out the roar of crickets and katydids) and the loud air conditioner turned off, sweating profusely as I learned how to overdub harmonies and vocal sound effects along with my faltering guitar and singing.  The recording persona “The Brothers Doug” came out of that experience. 

I recorded sixteen songs from my first two decades of songwriting.  I wanted to produce a CD but could only afford cassette tapes, which were already fading from use by then.  The singing could have been better, but I still like some of the production ideas from that first collection.  The cover, combining Fritz Eichenberg’s “Peaceable Kingdom” woodcut with Eduard Munch’s “The Scream,” still makes me smile.

My early songwriting tended to be more jokey and satirical than more recent efforts.  But from the beginning in 1977 to the present, I have worked with irony and paradox, humorous or not, to explore my experience of grace and my understanding of God as someone who subverts and overturns my human categories for the better.  I was drawn by the irony and paradoxes in Jesus’ parables of the kingdom.  I had read the comment by John Dominic Crossan, In Parables (1974), that “paradox is to story as eschaton [end] is to history.”  In other words, not only do the parables sensitize us to the paradoxes of divine interventions into our personal lives, but they can also open our eyes to God’s larger purposes (providence) in history.  This resonated strongly for me at a time when I was starting to study early Quaker apocalyptic preaching and the way early Friends understood their personal experience in relation to their liberationist social struggle.  (That work came into print with Apocalypse of the Word in 1986, The Covenant Crucified in 1995, and The Anti-War in 2016.) 

My experiences traveling and ministering among Friends provided good material for songwriting.  And I count it a sign of spiritual health that Friends enjoyed laughing at these satirical lyrics when I sang them.  Here is one of the Quaker songs included in Faith and Frenzy:

Yonder Stands the Quaker
March 1997

yonder stands the Quaker
the one with peace buttons on his coat
looking slightly confused
like he just stepped off some kind of boat
or like God promised to meet him there
quite some time ago
and he wonders whether God is dead
or only hopelessly slow
yonder stands the Quaker
quaint as a box of Quaker Oats

yonder stands the Quaker
the one with the placard in her hands
in the rush hour crowd
looking for a place to make a stand
she’s standing for peace and justice
she’s standing with the oppressed
a standing example to the upstanding
and a standing joke to the rest
yonder stands the Quaker
big as life and twice as right

yonder stand those Quakers
on the far side of the back of beyond
misfit mystics, a boil on the bum of Babylon
they’re too few to make much difference
too peaceful to break many laws
an endangered species of spiritual life
practiced in the art of lost cause
yonder stand those Quakers
singing “We Shall Overcome”
yonder stand those Quakers
God help those poor fools carry on
God help those poor fools carry on

The irony here is that the song adopts the perspective of someone in the cultural mainstream, pondering Friends from the outside.  We Quakers sometimes forget how odd we can seem to others.  The Quaker in the first verse is probably some version of me – a bit lost in this world, still holding out for God to do something with this terrible mess.  The woman in the second verse is a stalwart Quaker social activist, “big as life and twice as right.”  Finally, the third verse looks at us as a group, still singing those old movement songs, “an endangered species of spiritual life, practiced in the art of lost cause.”  In spite of the song’s cynical tone, the bemused observer still affirms, “God help those poor fools carry on.”

“An endangered species of spiritual life” was originally just a rhetorical flourish.  But it gestated in me to become something more over time.  In A Sustainable Life: Quaker Faith and Practice in the Renewal of Creation (2014), I suggest that the spiritual and material practices of Friends constitute a unique “species” of life.  This relates to other things we’re learning today.  We’re learning how “race” a social and cultural construct more than a biological given.  Therefore, whatever our “race,” our shared Quaker faith and practice can recreate us together as a unique form of spiritual and material existence.  

Actually, the ancients already understood this.  They defined race and ethnicity primarily as cultural practices.  And then, as now, those definitions tended to form binary oppositions, often mutually hostile.  Ancient Greeks divided humanity into Greek versus barbarian, as defined by Greek thought and culture.  Ancient Jews divided their world into Jew versus gentile, based upon their faith and practice of the Torah.  Then in the first decades of the Christian movement, the First Letter of Peter calls the movement “a chosen race,” when it was already comprised of a growing array of people from Jewish and other Eastern Mediterranean backgrounds.  But their Christian faith and practice was forming them into something new.  By the second century, Christians were sometimes called “the third race” for the way they transgressed and transcended the ancient boundaries.

Today, perhaps our growing racial awareness will lead on to a greater species awareness.  A serious commitment to Quaker faith and practice recreates us in more conscious, peaceful, and just relationship with people of different cultural practices, and with other species of plants and animals.  One of my most recent songs suggests that “all life is human life, we all come from the earth; we’re life from birth to death, we’re earth from death to birth.”  After all, “human” (like the Hebrew Adam) means “earth” or “earthly.”  Clearly, it will take us a while to grow into that awareness. 

Here’s another Quaker song from Faith and Frenzy:

Eighty-Weighty Friend

the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers,
question authority of every sort
they’ve even been known to second-guess their maker
and protests and sit-ins are considered a sport
they don’t care if you’re dipped or if you’re sprinkled
you can talk to them till you’re blue in the face
but sometimes they’ll listen to white hair and wrinkles
maybe it makes them think of the Ancient of Days

no, you don’t have to be eighty, friend
to be considered a weighty Friend
but it helps, Lord knows it does

like a fine, aged cheese, all covered with mold
Friends get a whiff of something they call spiritual
when they come to know a well-seasoned soul
time is the next best cure in the absence of miracles
so if you’re looking for a spiritual advisor
better look for a head with at least a few gray hairs
for the time-tested combination of older and wiser
look for a face that shows a little wear and tear


they say that a thousand years are only an instant
in the infinite, eternal mind of God
they also say that the wisdom of the ages
is mostly buried six feet under the sod
so listen up good and take whole lot of notes
when you see an elder coming your way
’cause in this gerontocracy we call the Quakers
you may have to pass for wise one of these days


I wrote this song for the eightieth birthday of my friend, Barbara Graves, matriarch of the Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley.  I was pastor of the Berkeley Friends Church at the time.  The San Francisco AFSC office wanted to celebrate Barbara’s many contributions to AFSC work and to local Friends over the years.  She asked me to write a song for the occasion, to keep it from getting “too reverential.”  I enjoyed writing this song for such a good friend and valiant Friend.  The original third verse was more about Barbara in particular.  But since the song went over so well, I rewrote the verse in more general terms.

It’s both a satire and a serious reflection on the Society of Friends as a gerontocracy.  The leadership of elders is logical to a group that relies so radically on the authority of the Spirit to lead us, both individually and as a group.  We need people with enough life experience to recognize the ways wishful thinking or unexamined motives can draw us away from the Spirit’s leading.  True elders may be young in years.  And older Friends may make fools of themselves.  But age “helps, Lord knows it does.”  And if you persist as a Friend for long, “you may have to pass for wise one of these days.”

The country & western song “Achy-Breaky Heart” was a hit at that time and provided inspiration for this song’s title.  Musically, I this was the first time I really began channeling my inner Johnny Cash. 

One more Quaker song from those earlier years:

A Process in the Wind
November 1996

how many monthly meetings does it take
to choose a carpet for the floor?
and how many recording clerks does it take
to make one minute last an hour?
and how many second-guesses does it take
to change the Light within?
the answer, my Friend, is a process in the wind
the answer is a process in the wind

and how many Friends does it take to define
what Quakers really truly believe?
and why does it seem that the answers they give
come in terms that are mostly negative?
and how many weighty Friends does it take
to find a synonym for sin?
the answer, my Friend, is a process in the wind
the answer is a process in the wind

oh, we used to believe in human progress
but the atom bomb blew that all to hell
so now we believe in a process
we do good by doing it well

how many years do you think it will take
till we rewrite Faith and Practice again?
and how many faiths and practices add up
to a faith we are ready to proclaim?
and what does it mean when the means become the end?
does it mean committee meetings without end?
the answer, my Friend, is a permanent case of wind
process without end, Amen!

This song combines Bob Dylan’s classic with those light-bulb jokes that were still current at the time.  It came to me while serving as a Friend in Residence at Woodbrooke, the Quaker study center in Birmingham England.  I was impressed with British Quaker processes of decision-making, even at the yearly meeting level with hundreds of Friends participating.  Yet at times it felt like “arranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” as the saying goes.  The Quaker enterprise is failing, even as “we do good by doing it well.” 

Meanwhile, Faith and Practice revisions keep coming, each one a larger proliferation of postmodern, multicultural perspectives.  To be sure, these reflect important growing edges among Friends.  Nevertheless, to what end is all this striving?  “What does it mean when the means become the end?” 

The bridge reflects on the confidence Friends once had in progress, from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth.  Chuck Fager’s history of Progressive Friends, Angels of Progress (2014), and my history of Friends General Conferences from 1896 to 1950, A Gathering of Spirits (2018), follow the growth and refinement of Quaker faith in progress.  Much of that confidence was inspired by scientific and technological advancement.  “But the atom bomb blew that all to hell.”  The growing environmental crises of the latter twentieth century only added to our ambivalence about progress.

Moreover, “progress” was typically reckoned primarily according to Eurocentric, androcentric, and Christocentric perspectives.  The shift to faith in good process is related to the postmodern, multicultural awareness that grew during the second half of the twentieth century, in response to post-colonialism, the civil rights movement, the women’s and gay rights movements, and others.  Today, good processes combine multiple perspectives in a wider and more respectful conversation.  This is important – a kind of progress in its own right.  And yet, all our good process can amount to “the art of lost cause” (returning to “Yonder Stands the Quaker”), where we lose at every turn to techno-capitalism and militarism – forces with clear ends in mind and not fussy about the means of achieving them.  I’ve been refreshed recently by George Lakey’s How We Win (2018), which combines good processes with sustained purposeful action for justice and sustainability.  Anyway, the song is not meant as a put-down of “process Quakerism,” but leaves us with uncomfortable questions.  That’s what irony tends to do. 

Songs of Faith and Frenzy is no longer available.  The songs were folded into a double-CD, Chronicles of Babylon, Vols. 1 and 2, in 2006, also no longer available.  But most of those songs and many more down to the present will soon be available for listening or download through a yet-to-be-created website (search for Brothers Doug).

Album: Moments of Truth

The Brothers Doug

We jump twenty years now to Moments of Truth, my 2019 CD.  I shared this new work with Chuck Fager in November 2019.  He posed some helpful questions to get me started explaining something about them.

Blue Is the Color of Hope
August 2018

I’ve seen optimists come and go
I’m taking none of their dope
those suckers can suck on that rosy glow
but blue is the color of hope
I’ve seen the gray fill day after day
in depressingly long succession
and I’ve seen rage fill page after page
with the senseless red ink of expression
but blue is the color of hope

say what you will
I say blue is the color of hope
I’ve seen envy turn people green
their drool is unbeseeming
and if caution is all that yellow means
why are the cowards all screaming?
black and white is the color of fright
where everything has to be clear
where the left can’t talk to the right
and the right can’t even hear
but blue is the color of hope
say what you will
I say blue is the color of hope
I’m not talking ‘bout so-called blue states
I mean the very state of blue
where only the blues articulate
the blue of a deeper hue
where the bitter taste of the grail
comes through like sweet vermouth
and the sorrow of love’s betrayal
borrows on tomorrow’s truth
blue is the color of hope
go on, say what you will
I say blue is the color of hope

I’m not talking about so-called Blue States,
I mean the very state of Blue,
Where only the Blues articulate,
The Blue of a deeper hue
Where the bitter taste of the Grail,
Comes through like sweet vermouth,
And the sorrow of love’s betrayal,
Borrows on tomorrow’s truth . . .
Oh, Blue is the color of hope,
Go on. Say what you will . . . .

Chuck Fager: Tell me more about why “Blue Is the Color of Hope.” I gather it’s “Blue” as in “The Blues.” In which case, what’s your take on this venerable genre? Many blues songs I’ve heard didn’t strike me as very hopeful (“If I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all . . .”) — but maybe I’ve missed the point.  I don’t get how the Grail, vermouth, betrayal & tomorrow’s truth fit together beyond the flow of the lines. Of course, I’m innocent of vermouth, except as a name on some outdoor cafe table umbrellas. Can you say more about the flavor, the influence, and the associations for you?

Doug: I have always had a predisposition toward melancholy.  I was sick a lot as a small child.  When my first love broke up in college, I really took a dive.  But my experience of calling to ministry came out of that wreckage, in September 1968.  The break-up seemed to open the space in me to hear the call.  So “blue is the color of hope” comes out partly out of that experience. 

But there are other bits of background.  For two years, 1969-71, I ran a coffee house (“The Morgue”) on the Indiana University campus.  Several times we featured James “Yank” Rachell, one of the original country blues greats.  He had recorded with “Sleepy” John Estes in Memphis in the late 1920s and ‘30s (some of which is in the Smithsonian), and with Sonny Boy Williamson up in Chicago in the 1940s.  By the time I knew him, he was living in Indianapolis and working as a custodian.  A wonderful man.  The Morgue earned enough money from coffee houses to put on an outdoor blues festival in May of 1970 and 1971.  John Estes came up and played with Yank at those.  My personal and musical connections with the blues continued from there. 

I guess I connected with the blues at some deep level.  In 1989, I had a ruptured appendix.  After emergency surgery (Halloween Night, no less), while I was recovering in ICU, heard the most amazing slow blues for a good part of the night.  It felt like I had moved close enough to “the other side” to hear the music there.  These experiences inspired a song that’s included on my preceding CD (Man of Irony, 2018), which I include here –

The Blues of Heaven
September 2016

There are troubles in this world, and none shall be spared
And Lord you know, I’ve had my share
Some fall like pianos on our unsuspecting heads
Some we bring on ourselves instead

But no eye has ever seen
No ear has ever heard
Nor the human mind ever conceived
The blues of heaven

In the realm of delusion, things may appear like magic
Then end up something more like tragic
The beginning of wisdom
Is no illusions left to lose
That’s when you learn to love the blues


Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell
These men walked the earth in my time
They sang and the lived, and they still give me hints
Of the blue sublime

I felt a great earthquake, I heard a mighty wind
I saw a fire that had no end
But the Lord was not in them, just a lot of such and such
Then came a deep, pentatonic hush….

Refrain (without “but”)

Borrowing from Isaiah/Paul, the refrain suggests that the blues of heaven are beyond anything we know, but the African American blues tradition gives us “hints of the blue sublime.”  Then Elijah drops in, and the “still, small voice” becomes a “deep, pentatonic hush” (the power of the blues is partly its pentatonic modal scale).   

So “Blue Is the Color of Hope” is a sequel of sorts.  The last verse refers to the Last Supper.  When Jesus shares with his disciples the cup/grail of wine, he interprets it in terms of his imminent death.  The bitterness of that moment “comes through like sweet vermouth.”  That’s a sherry flavored with herbs and sometimes absinthe, with a bitter-sweet effect.  The “sorrow of love’s betrayal,” the betrayal of Jesus to the authorities that night, “borrows on tomorrow’s truth,” the rising to new life.  In my experience, the blues have a paradoxical effect of making me feel better.  Something about the “state of blue” keeps energizing me to go on.

October 2018

How did we get here?  How soon can I go?
Are you for real?  How would I know?
Where did that come from?  What’s your excuse?
Is it just me?  What is there to lose?
FAQ, frequently asked questions (2x)
Where is the restroom?  How much is enough?
How will the end come?  Which end is up?
Does he still love me?  How much does it cost?
Why did she do that?  Could we be lost?
FAQ, frequently asked questions (2x)

Welcome to earth, we’re the human race
We’re here to help you navigate the place
Could it be cancer? What does it all mean?
Was that a joke?  Is this what it seems?
What planet are you from?  What’s that I smell?
So what is your point?  Is there a hell?
FAQ, frequently asked questions (2x)
Who asked you?  Will I be missed?
So what’s the difference? Does God exist?
What did you say?  How can that be?
What else is new?  Why me? 
Why me?  Why me?

Chuck: Where did “FAQs-Frequently Asked Questions” come from? The device is familiar enough, as a concise way to deal with familiar queries that cluster around novel topics. But here it seems put to quite a slyly subversive purpose, as much theological as lyric.

I can’t always remember just how these songs (or whole books) got started.  Some sequence of divine nudges and/or intuitive connections initiates a more intentional train of thought.  In this case, the point of departure had something to do with the way websites offer answers to users’ frequently asked questions, to help them navigate.  I guess I jumped from cyberspace to earth, from the informational to the existential.  I thought about all the questions we humans ask on this planet.  The bridge adds some framing: welcoming someone from another planet maybe, offering help to “navigate the place.”  I guess it’s partly a reflection on how life on earth is so much richer, ambiguous, confusing, painful, and hopeful than life in cyberspace. 

The Fever
March 2019

this ain’t ninety-eight-point-six
I got heat-waves on my brain
am I living the apocalypse?
or just going insane?
somewhere there’s a sender – I’m a receiver
some kind of contagion – I got the fever

when the fever starts to raging
I’m a bundle of raw nerves
I’m no longer a free agent
I’ve been called – I’m gonna serve
somewhere there’s a sender – I’m a receiver
some kind of contagion – I got the fever

on the outside I’m on a mission
on the inside I’m standing still
it may look like my decision
but I’m just doing the will
somewhere there’s a sender – I’m a receiver
some kind of contagion – I got the fever

the world has so many ways
some of them are crooked games
the world thinks it’s here to stay
but what I see is all in flames
somewhere there’s a sender – I’m a receiver
some kind of contagion – I got the fever

some old dead cat named William James
said the mark of a true believer
it ain’t habits, it ain’t mind-games
it’s relentless, raging fever
somewhere there’s a sender – here I am a receiver
some kind of contagion – I got the fever

This song reflects on life since my calling in 1968.  From the outside, I’ve always seemed easy-going, even lethargic.  But on the inside, there’s a fever most of the time.  It’s like my body is on thorazine while my brain is on amphetamine.  My call to ministry came in the apocalyptic year of 1968: the Tet offensive, the King and Kennedy assassinations, the Democratic convention meltdown, Nixon’s election, Prague Spring, the Paris riots in May, the Chinese cultural revolution, and so much more.  My love life was just one more casualty.  When I started reading George Fox eight years later, I quickly resonated with his apocalyptic reading of his experience and his times.  Ever since 1968, I have felt like I’m “living the apocalypse or just going insane.”  It keeps me going, in any case.  And it makes everything around me appear in flames.  When I first read Paul’s comment that “the form of this world is passing away,” I knew where he was coming from.  The song’s clincher is the comment by “some old cat named William James” (somewhere in The Varieties of Religious Experience) that true religion is not a dull habit but an acute fever.

I Didn’t Have to Stand in Line for This
January 2019

I didn’t have to stand in line for this
I had to find my own way home
but there’s no way through the wilderness
it’s wilderness down to the bone
breaking the chains of cause and effect
God leading by intuition
showing me ways to intersect
the mirrored halls of fixed position
no, I didn’t have to stand in line for this

like Hitchcock appearing as an extra
in someone else’s story
stepping quietly off that bus
with the sign, “bound for glory”
passing the bonfires of vanity
with crowds gathered around
they all agreed it was insanity
but they marveled at the sight and sound
no, I didn’t have to stand in line for this

like Jason Bourne in slow-motion
always on the lam
one step ahead of success
in the mystery of who I am
crossing the streams of influence
careful not to get swept away
skirting the oceans of affluence
and the ways they make you pay
no, I didn’t have to stand in line for this

like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
no one’s idea of a hero
stumbling on, eyes wide open
visibility approaching zero
passing by the house of mirth
I had a good laugh or two
But I could see it wasn’t worth
The mess they can make of you
no, I didn’t have to stand in line for this
I had to find my own way home
there’s no way through the wilderness
it’s wilderness down to the bone

This song is probably another spin-off from memoir-writing over the past couple years (the main product, Life in Gospel-Space, came out this year).  I was reflecting how my leadings have kept me following routes no one else was taking: “I didn’t have to stand in line for this.”  In some respects, it’s been like wandering in a wilderness, keeping “one step ahead of success.”  At some point, I began to realize that “there’s no way through the wilderness, it’s wilderness down to the bone.”  I like it out here. 

I’m not much into action movies, but I love the Jason Bourne trilogy.  I resonate with Bourne’s vulnerability and confusion as he tries to piece together who he is and what happened to him.  And I love Hitchcock’s habit of inserting himself as an extra in his own movies.  In The Man Who Knew Too Much, you see him stepping off a bus.  “The House of Mirth” is a Henry James title, but it goes back to Ecclesiastes, which is truly “wilderness down to the bone.” 

The Future Perfect
April 2019

in the future perfect, everything will have worked out for the best
old grudges will have been forgotten or at least given a rest
in the future perfect, love will have melted all our hearts of stone
we will have fallen in love with each other and not with our phones

in the future perfect
in the future perfect
the future is perfect now

because the future perfect will no longer have been a complicated tense
it will have become a matter of simple common sense
oh, If I had a grammar, I’d hammer out that old subjunctive mood
I will have stammered my way into the future perfect for good


well, maybe none of this will have proved to be the case
but I’ve always been an incurable utopian
ever since I went sailing down the fallopian
tube to meet my parents face to face
the future perfect will have been on earth as it is in heaven
it will have been like meeting the Lord at the Seven-Eleven
you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
the future perfect comes to everything under the sun


I’ve always been intrigued by the future perfect tense.  Perhaps I’ve been influenced by early Quaker “realizing eschatology,” the conviction/experience that end-time promises are already being fulfilled here and now, if we’re paying attention and doing our part.  The most creative and revolutionary phase of Quaker history was that initial, apocalyptic movement.  We Friends have been riffing off that first thirty years ever since (with fading conviction and effects). 

Biblical eschatology (beliefs about last things) inevitably mingles with human utopian hopes.  I have always felt a kindred spirit with groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They are too literal in reading the Bible, but they long for a better world and they understand that it won’t come solely by human imagination and effort.  On the other hand, it won’t come by a mere wave of God’s hand either.  That’s why Marxist utopianism also draws me.  I’m not comfortable and satisfied in a world of exploitation and injustice.  Clearly, the Russian and Chinese revolutions turned Marxist dreams into nightmares.  But continuing Marxist analyses of capitalism and its militarist enforcers are among the most penetrating I find today. 

I guess this song is partly a laugh at my own utopianism.  You may recognize a line from John Lennon’s “Imagine” in the last verse.  Lennon also remarked somewhere that “reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”  His life was a beautiful example of that principle.  Walter Brueggemann’s little book, The Prophetic Imagination, explores how human imagination, divine revelation, and reflection upon Scripture interact to lift the human spirit beyond both satisfaction and resignation with the way things are. 

One fun part of song-writing is searching for a word that rhymes.  It forces me to make connections that would never have occurred otherwise.  In writing this song, I ended a line with “utopian,” and was then at a loss for a rhyme.  All I could think of was the “fallopian” tube that connects the ovary with the uterus, offering passage for the ovum to be fertilized.  Like Jeremiah witnessing that he was called to be a prophet while still in the womb, here I imagine myself on a pre-natal voyage “to meet my parents face to face.”  “In the future perfect, the future is perfect now” – it’s gestating in each of us.  The future perfect is the perfect union of heaven and earth, the sublime and the mundane, like “meeting the Lord at the Seven-Eleven.” 

Dark Matter/Dark Energy
January 2019

dark matter – in between everything
dark matter – makes the Milky Way swing
dark energy – everywhere, but it can’t be seen
dark matter – keeps me in the shape I’m in

ooh dark matter
in between everything
dark matter – a force that no one detects
dark matter – reconciles and inter-connects
dark energy – everyone can feel feel its effects
dark matter – where space and time intersect

ooh dark matter
forever doing its thing

dark matter – a strange attractiveness
dark matter – love and joy and kindliness
dark matter – patience, peace and faithfulness
dark matter – self-control and gentleness

ooh dark matter
can’t see it but I know that it’s real
ooh dark matter
it’s a presence I can feel
ooh dark matter
between every woman and man
ooh dark matter
I am that I am
ooh dark matter
the great I am

Dark matter and dark energy have intrigued me for years.  Neither is detectable even with today’s instruments.  But physicists calculate that together, they account for something like 95% of the matter and energy in the universe.  Spread throughout the universe, dark matter exerts the gravitational field that causes galaxies to hold together and spin.  A physicist friend told me that while the effects of dark matter are more obvious on that vast scale, they extend down to a smaller scale too, in subtler ways.  I’m not suggesting that dark matter/energy is God, but it certainly has theological qualities.  So that’s what I’m playing with here.  I even worked Paul’s fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5) into the mix.  The Spirit is the force of coherence, integrity/integration, perhaps like the “strange attractor” of chaos theory.  Musically, the song plays with “White Light/White Heat” (1968) by the Velvet Underground.  But while their song celebrates amphetamines, mine aims even higher. 

Baby, I’m Retired!
January 2019

I’ve been hired and I’ve been fired
and jumped through every hoop required
‘til my sell-by date expired
and now my very soul is tired
so I’m putting on that cardigan sweater
and I’m already feeling better
Baby, I’m retired!

the cybernetic Rapture has left me behind
I don’t want a phone to replace my mind
or to live my life through a little screen
not after all the worlds I’ve seen
I don’t need another app
to tell me it’s time for my nap
Baby, I’m retired!

I started out to make the world
maybe a little bit better
now before long I’m gonna be
just another old bed-wetter – is this really happening to me?

I’ve got the memory banks of an elephant
but it’s ninety percent irrelevant
to all the big money corruptions
and technological disruptions
I guess it’s time to take my rest
I wish you all the very best
Baby, I’m retired!

In September 2017, forty-nine years to the month after my initial calling to ministry, I had an equally sudden moment of clarity/revelation: “I’m done!”  The following January, aged sixty-nine, I left Pendle Hill for Richmond, Indiana to help support my mother through her last months of dementia.  This song came to me exactly one year later.  It balances a sense of misgiving with a greater sense of relief. 

The popular Left Behind series of Christian novels dramatizes the coming of the Rapture: who will be taken and who will be left behind?  But in my song, “the cybernetic rapture has left me behind,” and I don’t mind.  I don’t care to keep pace with social media and smart phone technologies.  And I’m living where many others have been left behind – people who stayed on after the better-paying jobs left this rust-belt town.  In my case, what I know and find important is “ninety percent irrelevant” to where “big money corruptions and technological disruptions” are taking us.  So I’m just stepping aside and letting others get on with it: “I wish you all the very best.”  Musically, this song plays with an old Kinks tune from the mid-1960s, “Look for Me, Baby.”  They were great.

Maranatha High
December 2018

I wait and I wait
I contemplate
You’re already here
And I’m almost there

You rock my body
You rock my world
I’m your dervish
you’re my whirl

I come to you
You come to I
We come together
Maranatha high

You rock my body
You rock my world
I’m your dervish
you’re my whirl

I wait and I wait
I contemplate
You’re already here
And I’m almost there

Chuck: At first, I took this as something to hum with dreamy anticipation as you approach your reunions with Caroline.  Then on another hearing, my mind made a little burp and “Maranatha High” momentarily became “Marijuana High,” and it all sounded different, and yet somewhat similar . . .

Yes, the title was a joke intended to provoke that little burp.  As you probably know, maranatha is Aramaic for “Come, Lord” (1 Cor. 16:22, and perhaps underlying the Greek in Rev. 22:20).  This song is a meditation on the practice of “waiting upon the Lord.”  The paradoxical effect is that waiting for becomes waiting upon.  That was the early Quaker breakthrough that gathered a lot of religious and political radicals who were waiting for the kingdom of heaven on earth.  Through the practice of sustained stillness, the future becomes present in certain limited ways (“you’re already here and I’m almost there”).  Waiting upon also implies taking orders, like waiting tables in a restaurant.  There are nudges and leadings to follow (“I’m your dervish, you’re my whirl”).  I was fortunate to attend a rare appearance of Turkish dervishes in New York in the early 1970s.  Even just watching, I was transported.  Samuel Terrien, my Old Testament professor at Union Seminary in those days, had traveled and studied in the Middle East in his early years.  He was once invited to attend a dervish gathering in a tent.  They went on for hours, with a pot of boiling hashish in the middle.  Talk about atmosphere. 

The structure of this song is chiastic – it has a forward/backward sequence.  Chiastic structures are found all over the Bible.  The Book of Revelation is itself a chiasm.  Chiasm intimates that the key moment is in the middle, not the end – or that the end is decisive in the present (back to the future perfect, I guess).  Musically, the song is influenced by one of my favorite current bands, Beach House, from Baltimore. 

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