I remember visiting my friend Dave Zahl once when I was passing through Charlottesville, Virginia. I’d been hanging out in the Episcopal parish house, reading, while Dave was working on something for Mockingbird–the combination think tank, publisher, and conference organization that he runs. At one point, I joined him for an errand: depositing a check at the bank, I think. We rode in his car through the oak-lined streets, and his car stereo pumped a mega-cheesy layer of saxophones, a shuffle drumbeat, and slabs of bright vocal harmony: yes, it was late-stage Beach Boys. I protested, mildly; Dave defended, enthusiastically. But it wasn’t long before we found something we agreed on. Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, maybe. Or Paul Westerberg.
I don’t visit Dave just to nerd out. I know him from a Bible study he ran, which I wandered into at a snobbish time of my life. Dave’s approach to the study let me speak honestly, ask unsophisticated questions, and be clear about my confusions.
I’m telling you about this friendship because you should know I’m not an unbiased reviewer of Dave’s new book, A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll. But I’m also telling you this because the book distills, and brings out the qualities, of this treasured friendship: honesty, sincerity, and a passion for pop music in its simultaneous triviality and depth.
Let me back up a little bit. A Mess of Help is a volume of essays about rock ‘n’ roll and pop music, with a healthy dose of a kind of Lutheran theology. There are fourteen essays, not counting the introduction, and all but one explore the work of particular band or singer. Some chapters are about the megastars: Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, The Who, the Beach Boys, or the Beatles. There’s a tendency, though, to focus on what most people consider to be the fallow periods of the artists’ careers, like the weird solo projects, the flubbed reunion albums, the album finally released after far too many years of perfectionism and substance abuse have been inflicted on it. Yes, there’s a section on Axl Rose’s Chinese Democracy. Other chapters feature acts with large cult followings, Morrissey and Big Star, etc. Sprinkled among the essays are annotated playlists, too, which are basically mix CDs for the YouTube era, along with track-by-track song descriptions. The book closes with a real monster of an annotated playlist, which doubles as a way to sneak in mini-essays on some musicians who are even more obscure (Bill Fay, John Davis, and Tommy James) among tracks from more famous figures that didn’t fit elsewhere in the book.
And then there’s the theology. The book weaves discussion of theological concepts in and out of chapters structured around the artists. In this review, I’ll take the theological framework—sin, law, grace—and dress it out with examples from the book. So let’s begin at that: the condition of brokenness, failure, and imperfection common to all humanity.
“We are our own worst enemies,” Dave writes, “and suffering, both self-inflicted and otherwise, is the tie that binds our species.” He hears this condition expressed in what I’d call “cry-from-the-heart” rock songs.
Dion of “Runaround Sue” fame was pulling out of a heroin addiction when he recorded the song “Please Make the Woman Love Me.” It’s hugely fragile, an anthemic prayer for a romantic miracle. Or there’s Pete Townshend’s self-accusing “However Much I Booze,” in which Townshend sings “the truth lies in my frustration” and “however much I booze, there ain’t no way out.” These songs acknowledge a fundamental powerlessness in their singers. And often, the first authentic response to original sin is to acknowledge your emergency, to let go of your comforting illusions of self-sufficiency. The poet of kicking away his own crutches, though, turns out to be Morrissey, the singer and lyricist for The Smiths. Morrissey has a repertoire of works that do so. But even he turns out to be a cautionary tale about the limits of mere self-awareness, untransformed, in a song.
The second concept at play is Law, which, for many Christians, means the impossible demand that we save ourselves from the first concept at play, our sin. Law is an accusatory voice, an impossible standard that generates not peaceful conformance but rebellion, anxiety, shame, frustration. Now, for most everyone there is a fluidity and a surreptitious nature to our burdens. In our shame, we often hide what truly bothers us. But if the burden laid on your shoulders is way out in public, on a huge album like Pet Sounds or Thriller or Abbey Road, it’s much clearer what’s going on.
Dave discusses the pressures that the Beach Boys or Michael Jackson or Paul McCartney put on themselves as an analogy for the more shadowy laws that the rest of us struggle under. It helps that these artists’ struggles were eventually filtered through the sieve of genius. I was amazed at how directly certain songs addressed the weight of past successes. This is especially true in the cases of Brian Wilson—who, Dave observes, cataloged on Pet Sounds with brutal honesty a series of compulsive psychological evasions—and Michael Jackson, whose 90s work becomes frighteningly revealing as soon as you assume that he actually means everything he’s saying: “I can’t take it ‘cause I’m lonely,” “when you’re alone and you’re cold inside,” and “stop pressuring me!”
There are a few figures who seem to have escaped from the Law by a path of self-negation. “The tempting response to the law is redoubled self-assertion,” Dave writes at one point, “but the only honest one is humility.” So we have George Harrison, who seemed to find a good-humored way to shrug off his history as a Beatle and follow his own musical and spiritual path. We have Scott Walker, a pop star whose experimentalism derailed his career until he learned how to bury his ego and follow only his muse. And sometimes even Morrissey wanders into this category.
But it’s not clear if we can actually get to this kind of humility of our own power, which brings us to the third concept in play, Grace. Dave defines grace as “love in the midst of deserved judgment.” Apparently Stuart Murdoch of the band Belle & Sebastian wrote a movie that is nearly a thesis on grace in pop music; this book’s description of the movie is more than enough motivation to watch it. Many of our tortured pop geniuses only manage to hint at the full power of grace: The Who in the garbled last verse of “Who Are You,” or Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac singing that “love runs deeper” on a recent solo album, or David Bowie’s thankful, prayerful “Days.” There’s a lot of “vague uplift” in pop music, which can be a form of self-assertion or self-delusion, but Dave’s selections for the closing annotated playlist prove that he’s got an ear for authenticity when it comes to redemption.
I don’t mean to give the impression that the book is just a treatise. Humor and passion practically drip from the pages of A Mess of Help. Love of paradox is said to be Lutheran trait. You’ll find it here, especially in an amazing essay that rediscovers the bizarre Elvis movie Change of Habit in all its kitschy glory. Dave writes, “Elvis Presley was not ridiculous, then amazing. He was both at the same time.” Dave’s collection of bizarre Elvis anecdotes is rivaled only by his collection of bizarre Brian Wilson anecdotes, like the one where Wilson tells a reporter something amazing and profound about God’s love as the power behind the universe, and then totters off into the kitchen to squirt Reddi-Whip into his mouth.
I also don’t want to miss the theme of identity. The one essay in the collection that’s not about a specific artist is “Confessions of a Former Music Critic,” in which Dave considers how often our tastes in music are weaponized for games of social status. It’s hard to keep the things that have become part of your story from becoming standards by which you judge others. Often, what was initially joyful and freeing—finding emotionally stirring music—becomes a part of a rat race of insiderism and “cool,” in a way that’s weirdly parallel to how Axl Rose’s initial bout of creativity and joy curdled into decades of control-freak obsessiveness and paranoia.
How can we be free to enjoy good things without assuming the burden of being people who always like the Right Things?
It’s not that I wouldn’t quibble with any of what’s in this book. I have some reservations. One of the annotated playlists is all ABBA songs that didn’t make the singles collections. I listened all the way through and, well, I’m still not an ABBA fan. Lyrics that Dave describes as “slightly comical,” for example, the line “when fate reared its ugly head and took my dog Clown” in Rod Stewart’s “Blind Prayer,” I hear as unlistenably silly. The brilliant “Big Star Talks to God” essay takes a potshot at Calvinism; I’d personally want to speak up for the Reformed. But these are all things I’d much rather hash out over drinks, inconclusively, than dive into in print.
But is theology “really there” in the songs, as the book claims? You might say that Dave is reading things into the music that aren’t actually there. True, this is a danger in criticism, but it usually comes in two forms. Either someone examines something superficially, misses its ironies and subtleties, and declares it to support something they already believe, sort of like when Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s lyrically bitter “Born in the USA” as a patriotic campaign anthem. Or someone starts finding hidden meanings in something they’ve paid way too much attention to. What’s going on here is different: Dave Zahl believes something about the fundamental truth of reality, and he believes that these artists also see that reality, to various extents. One can acknowledge the partial view form a particular song, and still look through that song to the world beyond, in other words.
So when Dave looks at pop music, he can see deeper truths of suffering and struggling, and of love and forgiveness, “the tragedy of human life and its possible redemption” in the words of those singing. Pop music, on its own terms, is often an ephemeral pleasure, but A Mess of Help shows us how to look at it and then through it to things that really matter, the words that could be, in so many songs, a message from outside our narrow selves, from someone who loves us.
This Saturday night William & Dave had the opportunity to chat about the book in person at The Olmsted Salon. Listen to the interview here.