Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

Easter is a pagan celebration with only a tenuous connection, if even that, to Biblical events. Good Friday, however, is meaningful to me even if it, too, has questionable roots in Scripture.

Jesus may not have been crucified on a Friday, but I’ve always responded to the somber tone of this day. I remember how, as a young boy in Catholic school, class would be dismissed early every Friday during Lent and we would walk the short path to the church for the Stations of the Cross. I was more interested in being freed from the classroom, and was rather impatient to reach the last of those stations when I would also be free from my teacher and classmates. Still, I was touched by the retelling of our Lord’s journey to Calvary.

I was touched more deeply by King of Kings. In the late '60s, the 1961 film starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus often aired on Good Friday in the late night slot that Cleveland’s WJW usually reserved for horror movies hosted by Houlihan and Big Chuck. Once the movie concluded sometime around 2 a.m., I’d peer out the window of my family’s home on the city’s near west side, and the sky would always be red. It seemed symbolic of the Lord’s blood washing over His wretched, unworthy subjects. It was actually pollution from the city’s then thriving steel mills, but, no matter, I was moved.

The red would fade from the sky by Easter morning when I attended mass at St. Procop Church. Now the sun poured through the stained-glass windows as if to acknowledge the risen Christ.

He is risen!


© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, March 22, 2013

The Pagan Holiday of Easter

A Lutheran minister on the radio expressed the wish that Easter have a fixed date like Christmas. That's not possible, he said, because no one knows the date of Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb. That’s a foolish statement, of course, since no one knows the exact date of His birth either. We do know it wasn’t December 25th, the date on which the world celebrates Christmas.

For a long time, I was convinced that Jesus died on the cross on a Friday and that Good Friday was one of the few dates on the calendar with a genuine significance for Christians. After all, Scripture tells us that His body, and those of the criminals crucified beside Him, had to be taken down before the start of the Sabbath which begins Friday at sundown. I have since learned that there are some questions about that belief. Jesus’ body was removed from the cross prior to the yearly Sabbath, but I wonder if those who promote that theory possess more accurate information than those who accept the view that I’ve long held.

Does it matter?

If the date of Jesus’ death and resurrection were really significant, the Bible would clearly report them, as it would also report the date of His birth. It’s certainly no surprise that Easter has no connection to Jesus, and its practices are rooted in paganism. Holidays or Holy Days, a booklet from the United Church of God, reports that many Easter customs pre-date Christianity and honor various false idols, such as Ashtoreth, goddess of spring and fertility whom the bible calls “the abomination of the Sidonians.” The Easter bunny and the eggs that compete with religious imagery as symbols of the season are representatives of fertility and the return of spring.

Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs notes that fertility rites and customs began to be interwoven with religion soon after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Having rejected God, humanity needed to find alternative explanations for the beginning of life. Man created his own gods and found them in forces of nature. “The pagan nations made statues or images to represent the powers they worshiped,” reports Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. These idols included men and animals, such as the owl that the elites worship at Bohemian Grove, but also the sun, the moon, the stars, and even the sea and rain. “Many pagan cultures believed that the god of fertility died each year during the winter but was reborn each year in spring.”

Jewish people continue to celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, but Catholics and most professing (if not always practicing) Christians choose Sunday as the day to attend religious services and to take a rest from work. But Sunday celebrates the sun, yet another pagan deity. According to R.K. Bishop, anti-Jewish sentiment may have played a role in the rejection of Saturday as the Sabbath day, and the embracing of Easter in place of Passover in commemorating the death of Jesus Christ.

Prior to A.D. 70, the Roman government regarded Christianity as a “branch of the Jewish religion,” Jesse Lyman Hurlbut says in The Story of the Christian Church. Following two Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire, however, Jews faced persecution, and their religious practices were suppressed. Many Christians responded to this persecution by abandoning any customs or practices connected to Judaism and replacing them with pagan practices of which the Romans approved. So, Easter took the place of Passover for Christians wishing to celebrate the resurrection, and Sunday became the Sabbath.

Celebrating the resurrection was itself a new concept, according to Holidays or Holy Days which states that Scripture (I Corinthians 11:26) encourages Christians only to remember the death of Jesus. The resurrection gives us hope that we, too, will one day be resurrected, and was necessary in completing God’s mission, but it was His persecution and death that demonstrated God’s love and willingness to forgive mankind.

It may not be important to know the dates of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but the belief that he died on a Friday and rose from the grave on Sunday is not supported by Scripture where, in Matthew 12:38, Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees that He would be “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” If He was crucified on Friday and rose from the tomb on Sunday, He would have spent one complete day and no more than two nights in the grave. It’s a serious matter because Jesus’ statement about the amount of time He would be “in the heart of the earth” was a prophecy, the fulfillment of which proved He was the Messiah.

Holidays or Holy Days presents a chronology of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in which they state that Jesus shared a Passover meal with His disciples (The Last Supper) on a Tuesday evening. Following the meal, He was betrayed by Judas, arrested and brought before the high priest. He died on the cross on Wednesday at 3 p.m., and was entombed before sunset. He rose from the dead near sunset on Saturday, three days and three nights after His burial.

The choice of Easter Sunday as the day to celebrate the resurrection helped Christians to distance themselves from the Jews, and also fit in well with the theme of rebirth and fertility that was central to pagan beliefs, but Easter, like Christmas, is not truly Christian, and should be celebrated with caution by true believers.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Green Day

It's St. Patrick’s Day and the revelers will be out in cities throughout the country to watch parades, drink green beer, and wear green, even on their faces. Although I am Irish, I am also a confirmed non-joiner, so I make it a point not to wear green on this day. Although I am not offended by the wearing of green, nor am I insulted by the shamrocks and leprechaun hats, I’m kind of surprised that such stereotyping of the Irish hasn’t come under fire. I sometimes think it’s comparable to wearing an Afro wig on Martin Luther King Day. The bars are always packed on this unofficial holiday, and the serving of green beer perpetuates the stereotype that the Irish are drunks.

I loathe crowds, so I tend to avoid parades, but they can be interesting to observe. A parade is actually two shows in one. There's the main parade. This takes place in the street where cheerleaders in short skirts twirl batons, firefighters beat on drums, and other participants wave at the crowd standing along the curb and sidewalk. The other parade, the one on the sidewalk, is often more entertaining. The people who gather there are officially observers, but there's little doubt that they want to be seen. Teenaged boys, their hair dyed assorted bright colors, strut by, as do girls, teenaged and younger, who, despite breasts no bigger than those on the boys, behave as if they are desirable.

And there's a third parade that few people stick around to see. That's when the street cleaners come out to sweep up the mess.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Wandering Among the Dead

If the cemetery has a name, I couldn’t see it on the only sign visible from the street. It was merely meant to inform visitors of its hours and rules for placing flowers on the graves. It’s doubtful there are many visitors these days other than one like me who spent his lunch break from teaching wandering among the dead rather than interacting with the living. I’ve always felt more at home with ghosts. It’s a small graveyard, easy to overlook unless you stumble upon it while roaming about on foot. The last burial probably took place no earlier than the 1940s. Of the hundred or so tombstones, many tell sketchy tales of lives cut short long before their time.

Raymond Mallet was born in 1900, and passed on only 16 years later. “Gone But Not Forgotten,” the stone reads, but I wonder how true that is now, almost a century later?

Mallet was an ancient soul when he left the earth compared to Karl Hoff whose marking bears the word “Son” and the years 1887-1888.

May Youngmen entered life in 1915 and left it swiftly in 1916.

One of the biggest headstones memorializes the Osterlan family: Christian 1829-1909, Charlotte, his wife, 1830-1908, and Augusta, wife of Wm. Engelhardt, 1855-1889. On the stone’s reverse side are more names – William, 1858-1865, Karl, 1863-1866, Edward, 1866-1891, and Louise, 1820-1871. These names are likely those of Osterlan children, one of whom made it to 51 and another to 25, while the others were cut down in childhood, one living only to age seven, another to age three, and one making it through one year or less.

What explains so many early deaths? Life expectancy for males at the start of the 20th century was only 47 years. For women, it was 50. I suspect influenza or inadequate medical care was the culprit, but what does it matter? There's no such thing as a survivor in this life. Some of us endure longer than others, but no one survives.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Music for a Desert Island

A cynic is nothing but a bruised romantic. I remember Kris Kristofferson making that observation once, but it sounds like the kind of remark quoted without attribution by those attempting to sound wise.

But I digress.

I am a cynic, as cynical as they come, yet I must be a romantic, bruised beyond healing but a romantic nonetheless. It is why of the ten tracks on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album, I listen only to “Wild Horses,” the most gorgeous of the rock and roll band’s many ballads (and there are many lovely Stones ballads, including “As Tears Go By” and “Ruby Tuesday”). “Wild Horses” is not mentioned in Nick Tosches’ essay (cumbersomely titled “The Sea’s Endless, Awful Rhythm, and Me Without Even a Dirty Picture”) in which he considers the album he would take with him to a desert island. Tosches picks Sticky Fingers, but admits he is bothered by the “dullness of my choice.”

Tosches’ musings inspired some musings of my own. Of course, the question was always hypothetical, and in the age of so many high-tech gizmos, it’s downright silly. Why take an album when you can fit a dozen or more on an MP3 player or some other device? How the hell would I end up on a desert island, anyway? The question is still fun to ponder.

I wouldn’t take Sticky Fingers no matter how much I love “Wild Horses,” and I wouldn’t take anything else by the Rolling Stones. I like them, but I don’t love them. Therefore, I’ll leave them.

Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in the West may very well be the disc that I listen to the most, at least at the time that I’m writing this, and its melancholic mood would be an appropriate companion for my own melancholy. But except for the whistling in the “Cheyenne” theme and that operatic ooohing on the title track, there are no human voices to be heard on Morricone’s masterpiece. Misanthropic though I am, I would probably want to hear a human voice.

Of all the great film composers, Morricone’s only competition for my admiration is the late John Barry whose scores for the early (I prefer to say “classic”) James Bond films have been imitated but never duplicated or improved upon by 007’s composers in the Pierce Brosnan/Daniel Craig era. You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are Barry’s masterpieces. Still, even something as haunting and evocative as the latter’s “Journey to Blofeld’s Hideaway” is still James Bond music, and not really appropriate for the solitary journey on which I am embarking.

The score for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon was adapted by the late Leonard Rosenman who won an Oscar for his efforts, but except for a few tracks by the Chieftans, the music is the work of Handel, Mozart, and other long embalmed classical composers. It’s as magnificent as the film itself, but, again, it’s purely instrumental. I would want to hear a voice. I would want to hear some words.

Would I want to listen to Christmas music? I doubt it, but the Rotary Connection’s Peace would be the album I’d take even if it doesn’t include a version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” my favorite Christmas carol.

Gospel music? Something by the Clark Sisters might make the grade. The members of the Rotary Connection were black, and the Clark Sisters are black women, so their inclusion, though not an intentional nod to political correctness, prevents this list from being exclusively white and male.

Getting back to the white guys . . .

I’ve always loved Elvis, and of his many albums my favorite is his second RCA Victor release, the rather unimaginatively titled Elvis. Other than “Love Me” (“Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel”), it doesn’t include any of his famous hits, but this eclectic mix of rock and country is my choice as his best collection. “How Do You Think I Feel” and “How’s the World Treating You?” are exquisitely performed country ballads, and on the other side (you remember album sides, don’t you?), the King rocks at his 1950’s best with a version of “Long Tall Sally” that sounds like it was recorded on a sweltering night in Hell.

There was a time in the mid-1970s when I, like many others, was a fan of Elton John. I remember he once described “pop” music, including his own, as “disposable.” Wading through his album catalog, I’d have to agree. His best album remains his first U.S. release from 1970. The somber cover photograph captures the mood of the music which, for Elton, is uncharacteristically downbeat. There’s a classical atmosphere throughout with the harpsichord-dominated “I Need You to Turn To” and the cinematic “First Episode at Hienten” the highlights. With each progressive album, John’s music became lighter just as his persona changed from serious singer/songwriter to glitter-drenched clown.

Another glitter queen was David Bowie whose albums from 1971-1980 are among my favorites, but the best, 1977’s Low, might wear out its welcome on a desert island. It has a distinctly chilly, even cold atmosphere, perfect for hearing on a bleak winter’s day, but like a bleak winter’s day, its cumulative effect is depressing. Lou Reed’s 1973 album, Berlin, is the best thing that the Godfather of Punk has ever done and I rank it as the greatest concept album ever, but its songs detailing a dysfunctional love affair are even bleaker than Bowie’s album and might make me want to drown myself.

Who doesn’t like the Beatles?

Well, Nick Tosches, the man who inspired these musings, claims to be immune to their charms (“with those silly little suits and silly little haircuts and silly little songs”), but he’s as rare in that respect as he is in many others. Despite recording for only seven years (their first British album, With the Beatles, was released in 1963, and though Let It Be hit the shelves in 1970, it was recorded before 1969’s Abbey Road), the Fab Four’s output is unrivaled for its diversity. It’s hard to believe the group that recorded “Tomorrow Never Knows” in 1966 had been singing “She Loves You” only three years earlier. Choosing a best from their discography is a daunting task.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
is generally regarded as the Beatles’ masterpiece, but there are plenty of listeners who would reserve that honor for Revolver or Abbey Road, or the two-disc set from 1968 that everyone, even Paul McCartney, calls The White Album (but whose official title is The Beatles). Certainly, no other album in history, by the Beatles or anyone else, was an event the way that Sgt. Pepper was, but as a collection of songs it falls short in my opinion to the American version of 1965’s Rubber Soul (which replaced some of the UK version’s tracks and added some others). But Rubber Soul is altogether too upbeat for a solitary desert island experience. Sgt. Pepper has its share of good vibrations (“With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Lovely Rita”), but you know that it ends in despair. “A Day in the Life,” the album’s brilliant climax, though my single favorite Beatles recording, casts a gloomy pall over the proceedings. I’m a serious guy, but “A Day in the Life” is somewhat sinister, eerie, and, when heard in the dark at a high volume, even a little frightening.

If the Beatles are out, that leaves Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, lone men with guitars which automatically increases their appeal to me, a loner who shuns groups and prefers to go his own way.

I maintain that 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, rock music’s first two-record set, is Dylan’s greatest album, but other than “I Want You,” I don’t really listen to it all that much. I prefer 1976’s Desire with Scarlet Rivera’s somber violin and those duets with Emmylou Harris, especially the long ballad about Joey Gallo that moves me in spite of the fact that I know the song is one of the most dishonest that Dylan ever wrote (in collaboration with Jacques Levy). I probably listen to 1981’s Shot of Love even more, but of its 10 songs, only the hymn-like “Every Grain of Sand” seems to possess desert island durability.

Like Dylan, Leonard Cohen originally reached listeners through other artists. Judy Collins was the first singer of note to record his songs, but no one ever covered Cohen as superbly as Jennifer Warnes whose 1986 album, Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, is the only collection of Cohen covers equal to the man’s own discography.

Cohen was once described as “the poet laureate of pessimism” whose songs were “music to slit your wrists by.” His third album, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, is as dark and gloomy as it gets, but songs like “Avalanche” and “Joan of Arc,” though ineffably sad, have a comforting quality, as does most of Cohen’s work. I love it, but I think I would take Cohen Live, his 1993 concert album. Cohen’s voice may be the most human of all. This is a man who understands all there is to know about heartbreak and solitude, and communicates his knowledge better than anyone ever has. “Sisters of Mercy,” the live version (not the callow-voiced studio cut from 1967), could help me survive innumerable lonely nights, and “Suzanne,” with its lyrics about “Jesus was a sailor,” would be perfect when surrounded by a vast body of water.

Leonard Cohen’s Cohen Live it would be.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Of Stones and Angels

A documentary of the Rolling Stones’ tour of the United States in late 1969, Gimme Shelter features dynamic performances, some intriguing behind-the-scenes glimpses of the quintet at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Studios (where we hear an early version of “Wild Horses,” the beautiful country ballad that became a highlight of 1971's Sticky Fingers), and, finally, the frightening climax at Altamont Speedway where on December 6, the Stones staged a free concert that ended in violence and murder.

Altamont is now seen as the symbolic conclusion to the era represented by the Woodstock festival only four months earlier. A film by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter is unique for its genre. It helps to have an appreciation for the music of the Rolling Stones, but it’s not a prerequisite. It is a great documentary that captures the counterculture of the late 1960s at a pivotal moment. Woodstock became famous for supposedly demonstrating how 400,000 dope-smoking, acid-ingesting young people with a love of rock music and a hatred of the war in Vietnam could congregate for “three days of peace, love, and music” (the tagline for the poster of the subsequent film) without major incident. Altamont was the reverse: a hastily organized free concert by a superstar group with a sinister reputation (owing to such hits as “Sympathy for the Devil”) at which San Francisco’s Hell’s Angels, paid in beer to provide security, clashed with the flower children of the era. In excerpts from a radio program that aired a day after Altamont, Sonny Barger of the Hell’s Angels defended the actions of the motorcycle brotherhood which included punching out some concert goers and even Marty Balin, a vocalist with Jefferson Airplane. Barger insisted that those pseudo-hippies could be just as violent as the Angels. Certainly, these “children,” as Jagger calls them when scuffles and other misbehavior continue to interrupt the show, were not innocent. Most of them were out of their heads on drugs.

The supporting players in the real life drama are as interesting to watch as the leads. There’s big, fat Melvin Belli, the headline hungry attorney who is seen negotiating with the owner of the Altamont Speedway to secure the site for the concert. His office is crammed with objects that Albert Maysles, in his DVD commentary, calls “junk.” Belli was a notorious skirt chaser with a fondness for very young women, and he probably met a few willing to bed down with him at the concert which he is seen attending. Then there are the Hell’s Angels, one of whom is seen staring contemptuously at Jagger as he gyrates on the stage as if wondering who this faggot millionaire thinks he is.

We also see Tina Turner who performed at Madison Square Garden as an opening act for the Stones. Her fingers caress the microphone stand, gliding up and down as if giving it a slow hand-job. Back then, it was Ike and Tina Turner, and her husband, whom she would later vilify as an abusive, violent man, recites the lyrics first:

“And baby I’ll buy you anything you want me to buy
’cuz you got what I want and you got what I need
and I want you to give it to me.”

She then sings the same words in her breathy, passionate style. She clearly seems to be taking direction.

The musical performances are probably the best ever captured of the Rolling Stones in concert with the bluesy “Love in Vain” a particular highlight.

In one of the more curious moments in Gimme Shelter, the Stones stop playing, as they must several times, because of a disturbance in the audience. Jagger pleads with the crowd to stop fighting and Keith Richards is seen making the sign of the cross, a rather odd gesture for a man who isn’t known to be a believer and who was playing “Sympathy for the Devil” a few moments earlier. The Rolling Stones were always the bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll, but that was mainly in contrast to the Beatles who were smoother, both musically and personally, than their rawer, more ragged colleagues. But it was probably Altamont, and the violence and murder that occurred there, that sealed their outlaw image which their songs, particularly “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man,” and the sinister “Gimme Shelter” only enhanced.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks