Chapter 10 - Be Grateful for Everything and Everyone
Lesson: Be Grateful. It’s the most powerful sentiment in the universe.
This is my chapter on spirituality. This is an important chapter because it was an unexpected linchpin that emerged in the writing of this book. Even after selecting “be grateful” as an important lesson, I had no idea what I would find in the world of rock ‘n roll to support this assertion. Is the idea of gratitude addressed in the rock compendium? If so, in what ways? As it turns out, there was plenty of material, but I did have to do some reverse engineering as the messaging was not as overt as it may have been for the subject matter of previous chapters. I set out to prove my theory of hope based on biblical teachings, a dubious proposition in a rock infused autobiography. I did find enough biblical and theological material, but it felt forced. No other chapter felt that way during the writing. So, I asked the question I’ve asked whenever I hit a road block in the writing process, Why do you want to convey a message about hope? I wanted to prove that hope was more important of a theological virtue than what philosophers and theologians had heretofore determined, but the argument was not convincing enough. It became clear that there was no longer a need to keep hope as the focal point in telling this story, although hope is still important in understanding what I am trying to convey about gratitude.It became clear to me that an important connection between the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love, lay in the concept of gratitude. In expressing love, faith, or hope in something that is part of creation, you are also expressing, to some degree, gratitude towards Creation and the Creator. Whether you explicitly express thanks to the Creator is irrelevant, although it is most certainly an additional or elevated tier of expression. Gratitude is a feeling and a form of expression that is highly encouraged and greatly rewarded in all aspects of Creation. I certainly serve as a witness to rewards via gratitude based on my own life experience. In demonstrating care and concern for my children and family, in serving individuals/families in need via community service, in working to protect the environment, etc., I am demonstrating that I value something other than myself as part of God’s Creation. On top of these specific actions, I choose to “give thanks and praise to the Lord” and have faith that “l will be alright.” But, for most of my life, I performed actions of gratitude without the “thanks and praise to the Lord,” and I was still alright. This suggests to me that there is great power in such actions absent a conscious expression of gratitude to the Creator. The power is magnified when we explicitly express gratitude to the Creator, but it is not a deal breaker if we don’t include such an overt proclamation.
The Religious or Not-so-Religious Me
On the song list for this chapter, I included a reference to my favorite church songs. They are not rock songs, but they strike a nerve in me in the same way that rock music makes me feel something. Since my struggles are with my ability to feel emotion, then this section at the very least allows me to express the fact that rock music is not the only music that moved me. Earlier chapters have conveyed the fact that I have learned to embrace many musical styles, very often arriving at styles and artists whose message and music I could connect with on an emotional level. Whether it was afro-beat legend Fela Kuti, jazz pioneer John Coltrane, Tejano orquesta (orchestra) trailblazer Manuel “Cowboy” Donley, accordion wizard Steve Jordan, or guitar great Jimi Hendrix, the music hit me like a ton of bricks. When I felt that punch in the gut, then that’s when I knew I’d stumbled onto something great or revolutionary.
My Favorite Church Songs - Songlist
“Un Mandamiento Nuevo” (659 – Flor Y Canto Book)
“Un Dia a la Vez” – “One Day at a Time” (M. Wilkin and K. Kristofferson)
“Pescador de Hombres” (709– Flor Y Canto Book)
“Dios es Amor” (655– Flor Y Canto Book))
“Amar es Entregarse” (658 – Flor Y Canto Book)
“There is a Longing” (Anne Quigley)
“Be Not Afraid” (John Michael Talbot)
“We Will Rise Again” (David Haas)
“Reckless Love” (Cory Asbury)
The church songs I have listed are from different periods of my life. The first three are from my childhood, going to 7 a.m. Spanish mass with my Aunt Mary (RIP) and/or attending funerals or memorial services. The next two songs are from the time that I was a parishioner at Cristo Rey Catholic Church, and these songs were actually played at our wedding. The last two songs I associate more with the songs performed by the church choirs at our current parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. All of the songs have very powerful and instructive messages. They tend to layout in a step by step way how one is to live life or put one’s faith into practice. You might consider this book to be an amalgamation of the how-to messages I’ve received from different venues during my time on this Earth. I am really just attempting to reflect those messages back into the cosmos!
The Seven Deadly Sins and The Ten Commandments
We’ve actually touched on two of the seven deadly sins in earlier chapters, specifically pride and anger. We’ll briefly revisit these two along with the remaining five of the deadly sins: envy, gluttony, lust, greed, and sloth. I view the seven deadly sins as a way of engaging with Creation. It appears to me that the seven deadly sins may very broadly be viewed as dealing with wanting specific things and wanting things to be a certain way. I want more than I need (e.g., gluttony, sloth and greed). I want what others have or simply what I do not have (e.g., envy and lust). I want to get my way because my needs and wants supersede the needs and wants of others (e,g., pride). And, finally, if I don’t get what I want, then I have a right to be frustrated and angry. In these cases, we are simply not satisfied with what the Creator has presented to us.
Obviously, this is an extreme oversimplification, but I think it gets at why these ways of engaging with creation are seen as problematic. The bottom line is that when we feel this way, we feel that our needs and wants are more important than everything else that is part of Creation. This view of Creation is not sustainable because then we see ourselves as more important than Creation itself.
A look at the ten commandments leads us to a similar place as the seven deadly sins except that the need for gratitude becomes explicit. The commandments that deal with “wanting what we don’t have,” as with the seven deadly sins, are: do not commit adultery, do not steal, and do not covet. The remainder are commandments that, ostensibly, deal with gratitude. The first group of commandments corresponding to an expression of gratitude relate to respecting/honoring other human beings (e.g., honor thy father and mother, do not murder, and do not lie). And the second group of commandments corresponding to gratitude specifically call for honoring/respecting the Creator in particular ways (e.g., do not have other gods before me, do not have graven images or likenesses, do not take the Lord’s name in vain, and keep holy the Sabbath). From my vantage point, seven of the ten commandments relate to gratitude, suggesting that gratitude is quite important in the grand scheme of things.
Chapter 10 Songs & Albums
My Favorite Church Songs – Song List
(since these are not rock ‘n roll songs per se, this list is included in the body of this chapter)
"No Satisfaction Play List" (on Spotify)
“Satisfaction” – The Rolling Stones
“I Can’t Get Enough” - The Scorpions
“I Want It All” – Queen
“Everybody Wants Some” – Van Halen
“Rebel Yell (… more, more, more)” – Billy Idol
“Shellshock - John Robie Remix” – New Order
“Girlfriend is Better” – Talking Heads
“Why Can’t I Be You” – The Cure
“Under Pressure” – Bowie/Mercry
“Pressure” – Billy Joel
“Desire” – U2
“Rock ‘n Roll Lessons on Spirituality” - Albums
Little Creatures – Talking Heads
Everybody Knows This is Nowhere - Neil Young
Ghost in the Machine – The Police
Reload – Metallica
Jerry Garcia Plays Dylan – Jerry Garcia
Postcards of the Hanging – The Grateful Dead
Dylan & the Dead – Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead
Under the Covers – Bob Dylan
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – Bob Dylan
“Rock ‘n Roll Lessons on Spirituality” – Song List
“Anthem” – Rush
“Exit” – U2
“Born of a Broken Man” - Rage Against the Machine
“The God Who Failed” – Metallica
“The Struggle Within” – The Metallica
“Cure” – Metallica
“Of Wolf and Man” – Metallica
“Where the Wild Things Are” - Metallica
“Some Kind of Monster” – Metallica
“Hardwired to Self-Destruct” – Metallica
The New Testament
It is instructive to assess gratitude in terms of the direct teachings of Jesus Christ. By this I mean the actual teachings that he conveyed to his followers and others interested in his message. My own personal view of what Christ was trying to accomplish was to provide a simplified way of understanding Jewish teaching and religious traditions. When asked what the greatest commandment was, he answered:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. – Matthew 22:37-38 (NIV)
I interpret what Christ conveys as the greatest commandment as a directive to be grateful to God. To me, that does not mean that you must offer a prayer of thanksgiving every day or every hour of every day. If you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, then this sentiment will be at the core of your essence and your every thought, word, and deed will be infused with this love of God. The second commandment he describes as being like the first. And what exactly is the likeness between the two? What connects the two is concern for someone other than ourselves. First, put God (or what God wants you to do) above all else. Second, think about other people’s needs as much as your own needs. I feel that what Christ is communicating is that our neighbor’s well-being depends on us and our well-being depends on them. This might be from the standpoint of our physical needs but also from the standpoint of our spiritual needs (for faith, hope, and love) as I laid out in “my theory of hope” in the previous chapter.
I will now focus attention on a few of the parables of Jesus, some well-known and some not well-known, since Jesus used parables a great deal for the purpose of imparting knowledge. It is almost as if he made it a point to NOT tell us directly how things work. The old testament teachings were quite prescriptive. Another prescriptive set of rules/directives would only further cloud already murky waters. It appears that he was teaching us how to think about how Creation works. In so doing, we confront the question, “Why is the kingdom of God for some and not for others?” In asking ourselves that question and answering it for ourselves, we are able to discern how things actually work in God’s Creation. Once we’ve arrived at the conclusion about how to live life on our own, we are able to claim that insight for ourselves. I will begin with a well-known parable, the Sermon on the Mount, and end with a few lesser referenced and more difficult to interpret parables: the sower of seeds in four types of soils; the prodigal son; and the workers in the vineyard.
I begin with the Sermon on the Mount, probably the most difficult of all parables due to the breadth of issue it addresses, the depth of meaning in the passage, and the variety of existing interpretations. I will purposefully avoid a verse by verse analysis of Matthew V, but I would offer that the beatitudes offer a portrayal of the attitude one should project if one truly is committed to the two commandments conveyed by Jesus. One should not project an attitude that is prideful, envious, heavy-handed, or egotistical. One should hunger and thirst for good, be merciful, and seek to bring peace to others. I would argue that this way of behaving would comply with the commandment to “love they neighbor like yourself,” as well as Jesus’ Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” By acting in this way, one shall serve as the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”
The other part of the Sermon on the Mount that I will touch upon are what are referred to as the “antitheses.” The antitheses are the statements in Matthew V that contrast what the “old law” directed and what the new commandments conveyed by Jesus required. Jesus focuses on the internal operations of the mind and not the external actions, downplaying the unsavory actions and focusing on the state of mind (attitude) that would allow one to take such actions. Thus, instead of condemning the acts of murder, adultery, divorce, lying, vengeance, and hatred, Jesus advocates for a state of mind in which such actions would be preempted. If one does not get angry, one may not kill. If one does not desire another woman, then one may not act in an unfaithful manner to one’s spouse. If one is driven by a love for God, one may not choose to harm another person for any reason nor write them off as being lost or unworthy of mercy or charity.
What we believe drives our attitude towards life and our treatment of others, which are the key topics of the Sermon on the Mount. How do these themes specifically relate to the idea of gratitude? Our beliefs drive our actions. Thus, thinking and acting are integrally tied. Because of this, Jesus is pointing to the fact that the thinking part is what’s of greater import because thinking in a way that is righteous is more likely to lead to righteous conduct. But the righteous conduct is not something that comes easily or naturally. Once we gain a true understanding of what Jesus was communicating, then it becomes easy. It becomes the most natural thing because, as I’ve argued before, Creation appears to be designed to respond in a certain way to this kind of right conduct. When you see Creation respond, then any doubts are eliminated, and all that you want is to help others to understand. So, consciousness and understanding is what is needed to truly serve the purpose that the Creator has envisioned for our species. Being grateful for the fact that God’s Creation works in this way and helping others achieve this level of understanding can only have the effect of expanding that sort of gratitude toward the Creator.
The next three parables are difficult parables. I’ll start with the most familiar of the three, the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15). In this story, a man with two sons honors the request of the younger son to give him his share of the estate. Over time, this particular son squanders what his father has given to him and ends up eking out a meager existence in a foreign land before he decides that he will return home and humbly ask for forgiveness.
Although we tend to focus on the prodigal nature of the son, it is actually the return of this son that is instructive. The prodigal son makes a conscious decision to return and is repentant in his return. The father forgives the son and welcomes him home, while the elder brother resents the father’s reaction. If, per the Sermon on the Mount, we are to love and forgive our enemies and those who do us wrong, then would/should we not then forgive our own child, especially one who has learned an important life lesson…the hard way? To build on my previous analysis, it is the consciousness/understanding exhibited by both the prodigal son and the father that are on display here as well as the complete and utter lack of understanding by the elder brother about what truly matters.
The parable of “the workers in the vineyard” (Matthew 20) challenges our conception of fairness as the parable of the prodigal son did. In the prodigal son’s story, we can relate to how the elder brother is feeling. But, Jesus points us to the proper reaction. The point here is not that someone is MORE deserving of mercy and generosity, but that we all are deserving of mercy and generosity. What we see unfold in “the workers in the vineyard” parable is a situation where the landowner who needs labor to work his vineyard keeps accepting workers throughout the day and at the end of the day he pay all workers the same wage. Some workers worked all day and some may have only worked less than a half day, but they were all paid the exact same amount.
Our sense of fairness is put to the test since we feel that the people who put in a full day’s work deserve to get paid more than the workers who worked a fraction of the work day. In this story, the landowner is generous to people who appear not to have “earned” what they received, just as the prodigal son appeared to receive more than he deserved. If we assume that the reward to which Jesus refers is “spiritual salvation” all that one must do is love God and love your neighbor like yourself to attain salvation. How people behaved before they put their faith, hope and love in Christ does not matter. Each of us must make that commitment to Jesus and God and not worry about how easy or hard the path to salvation has been for others. In both of these parables, the point is to worry about your own actions. Show gratitude to God in the way Jesus has asked (by loving God and loving our neighbor like yourself) and don’t worry about how others wish to express their faith, hope and love in the Christ.
The final parable I will tackle, involving the sower of seeds in four types of soils (Matthew 13), seems quite different at first from the parables of the prodigal son and the workers in the vineyard. We tend to identify as the seeds in this story, some of which fall on the path, in rocky soil, on shallow earth, among the thorns, or on good soil. But in the middle part of the parable, Jesus talks about the fact that people are “ever seeing but never perceiving,” thus returning to the idea that achieving understanding is what is truly important. The final explanation given by Jesus in this parable demonstrates that the seeds represent the knowledge that Jesus and Creator wish to impart (and not people being sprinkled into different kinds of soils by the Creator). The types of soils in this story represent the different kinds of reactions that WE might have to the knowledge that Jesus is imparting. Do we fail to recognize that something important is being imparted? Do we understand the message but fail to commit to its execution? Do we fear what we might lose or what we might suffer by committing to it (and thus fail to truly commit)? Or, do we recognize and accept the knowledge about the Kingdom of Heaven, internalize it and use it to bear fruit?
Putting our God-given consciousness to good use is again what is at issue in the parable of the sower of seeds. What it means to serve as “good soil” for the knowledge that Jesus has imparted is to “hear the word” (i.e., be conscious of it) and “understand it.” If we “hear it and understand it” then we will “produce a crop yielding one hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” In this parable, to “understand” the powerful teachings of Jesus implies that we also choose to live in accordance with those teachings, otherwise we do not really understand them. If we “hear the word” but do not change our behavior accordingly, then we demonstrate a lack of appreciation for the teachings.
To summarize, we must strive for consciousness and an understanding of the purpose that the Creator has assigned to Creation, and to us as part of Creation. In earlier chapters, I have argued that advancement and evolution of consciousness appears to be the purpose for which the universe was created. Jesus’ focus on consciousness and understanding supports this claim. In the rules implicit in the seven deadly sins and conveyed in the ten commandments, the focus is on right actions. Jesus helps us to understand why those are right actions, and that is because they are based on right thinking.
But thinking is NOT the only thing that is required. Right thinking must lead to the right actions and that is how we will bear fruit, which I take to mean that this is how we will help to grow understanding in others. It is not our duty to shame people into right action or to elect politicians that will impose or legislate right action upon others. Our duty is to help others to understand the message of Christ (to love God and our neighbors as ourselves). The right actions will come when understanding is achieved. The two commandments of Christ and the Golden Rule when combined with the powerful messages from the Sermon on the Mount gives us all we need to know about how we are to live our lives. We are dependent on each other for our individual and collective progression of spirit and consciousness. Because of that dependence, when others serve us and we serve them, then we are grateful for others and they are grateful for us. Ultimately, we realize that we must be grateful to the Creator for such a wondrous and beautiful Creation.
Rock ‘n Roll Lessons on Spirituality
One of the primary lessons of rock ‘n roll is the desire for excess and the dangers inherent in pursing that desire. Unfortunately, it is from those rock ‘n rollers who suffer at the hands of excess that we learn that moderation is a virtue worth practicing. We learn to be grateful that we did not suffer the same fate as iconic and tragic figures such as Jimi Hendrix, John Bonham, Bon Scott, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. As observers to and admirers of our rock ‘n roll idols, we can embrace the mantras of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle and yet be shielded from the inherent dangers of living in reckless abandon or at a break-neck speed. The “No Satisfaction” song list is a fun list of songs that shows that we can learn from rock ‘n roll by doing the opposite of what is preached.
From the rock ‘n roll albums I’ve selected to teach us lessons on spirituality, we learn that what we are told is important in our lives is actually not very important at all. These albums could easily have been included in Chapter 3 (the Dream Chapter) in the section where I discuss the Styx album, The Grand Illusion. All of these albums call out the illusion that is portrayed as reality and offer some useful advice in the process of trying to describe the illusion that has been promulgated as well as what that illusory facade is trying to hide. We lean on these artists not just to confirm that there is a virtual reality to which we are asked to (and often do) buy into, but also to see what they suggest we do to snap out of it.
These four albums each talk about the challenges of the life we are expected to live and offer in some way, sometimes very subtle ways, advice for coping with or surviving the madness. I’ll start with Neil Young’s Everybody Knows this is Nowhere because in this album he identifies very serious barriers to achieving happiness. We have this ideal vision of what will make us happy (i.e., the Cinnamon Girl), but the reality is that this ideal may not be attainable because it only exists in our mind. He fails at love and life time and again, feeling like he is always on “The Losing End,” but keeps telling himself that he’s going to overcome these difficult challenges. Besides keeping hope alive, the only other answer he comes up with (in this album, at least) is to go back home where life was “cool and easy.” This may seem like he wants to escape from the real world, but I’d ask you to consider if he isn’t suggesting an escape TO the real world. As someone who grew up in a small town but has lived in the big city for 25+ years, I can most certainly relate.
The Police, in the album Ghost in the Machine, suggest that we escape in a different way. The themes that shine through in this album basically tell us to escape by ignoring what we see because the things that we don’t see have a greater impact on our lives: our spirit; our nature (i.e., the wiring in our DNA); our desires; and our ability to control these things. Keep your focus on what you can control rather than worrying about the onslaught of information that is thrown our way and the demands that society places on us. Maybe ignoring is not a correct description of what is being implicitly advocated by The Police in this album. It could be that the message is more accurately, “Choose to put your attention on those things that really matter.” This advice seems a bit more actionable or concrete than what we gleaned (rightfully or not) from Neil Young’s album, but I would argue that when you retreat to where life is “cool and easy” then you’ll be better able to recognize what really matters.
We’ll move on to the Talking Heads album, Little Creatures, which seems a little playful in terms of its sound but actually delivers a pretty big punch when you consider the content. The album most certainly echoes the sentients in Everybody Knows this is Nowhere and Ghost in the Machine that what passes for reality is not and should not be something that we embrace. The Talking Heads ask us to look inside as an answer. We should just be true to ourselves, but to do this we need to know ourselves. In the end, Talking Heads remind us that “we are creatures of love,” so we should love. They remind us that human beings are creative beings, and, for that reason, we should create. Let us use the gifts that have been given to humanity to do great things and let this dynamic be what drives what we do. In other words, don’t let the “television man” dictate how you live your life.
We switch to an album by Metallica, Reload, that has a very different sound from prior albums and one that focuses in on one of the themes from Ghost in the Machine. The songs on this album highlight destructive behaviors and posits whether these tendencies are innate or taught/learned. The focus of many songs on the album is on what makes us the way we are (our upbringing and our choices) and if it is possible to change. If we don’t believe we can change, then we probably won’t think it is even worth trying. If you have what may be perceived by you and others as serious character flaws (i.e., like being cocky, needing adulation, feeling insecure, feeling that you are a failure, being addicted to drugs, desiring to do evil, etc.) because of how life has shaped you, is it possible to change? If you don’t believe it is possible to change, would you even try?
“Low Man’s Lyric” and “Carpe Diem Baby” constitute the two extremes that are conveyed in Reload. In “Low Man’s Lyric,” Metallica conveys a feeling of futility. While the main character may desire to understand reality (i.e., to see beyond the illusion), his “fingers seek his veins” which I take to be a reference to drug use. It is so much easier to seek escape than to seek understanding, especially when addiction is involved. “Carpe Diem Baby” turns this around in a way. It lays out the multitude of experiences that one will encounter in life. Even if most of them are negative, some percentage of them will be positive. If we hold out long enough, the positive will happen. Their advice is to seize the day, to take control of our lives. If we “take this world and shake it,” then the facade will fall away long enough for us to see the way forward. Once “the way” has been made clear, the doubts and fears begin to fall away and making the right decisions gets progressively easier.
Rock ‘n Roll Lessons on Spirituality Served Up by Metallica
Since the Black Album, I think Metallica has been trying to search for answers to the question, “Why is the human race so f’ed up?” I think they are using musical expression to try to make sense of the madness of this world. In writing down these theories and observations, we seem to move closer to achieving some deeper level of understanding, collectively speaking.
Metallica most definitely does not profess to have the answer to the questions of, “What does it all mean?” or, “What is our true nature?” but they do put forth a few theories that suggest that whatever we are supposed to be doing as a human species we ain’t doing or we ain’t doing right. The focus on this question by the band started back during The Black Album where they highlight a multitude of irrational behaviors seemingly embraced by humanity with the final verdict being that we are a conflicted lot because of the struggle that ranges within us. In The Black Album they also begin to posit that we may be more “animal” or “monster” than sentient species with the song, “Of Wolf and Man.” Subsequent songs like “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Some Kind of Monster,” and “Am I Savage” build on this theme. In the song “Cure” from the album Load, they suggest that maybe we act in these self-destructive ways because a sickness has infected us all. Might we be “the walking dead?” That characterization may be taking it a bit too far. The term “the sleep walkers” might be more accurate than “walkers,” a term popularized in the hit show, The Walking Dead. The distinction between the two terms is important because a sleep walker can be awakened, whereas a “walker” cannot.
Metallica’s most recent theory (or theories) come from their excellent album, Hardwired to Self-Destruct. The album title is in and of itself the primary theory advanced. We do harm to ourselves and others (including standing by and doing nothing when we see others suffering) because that is how we’ve been programmed as a species. It is in our DNA. Which may mean that we are more animal or monster than an evolved species. The song, “Am I Savage,” on this album harkens back to this idea that we may be no better than the beasts when we act the way a beast would act and not the way a human being should. When we observe typically offensive or barbaric behavior of our fellow man, it leads us to NOT have faith in man. Rather, it leads us to have faith that man will act in a way that is unkind to others [as the song, “Man UnKind” proclaims] instead of having faith in human kind.
To be fair, these songs by Metallica may simply be sharing the fact that these characterizations may be true for a certain subset of people and not attempting to condemn all of humanity. However, the lyrics to “Some Kind of Monster” suggest that “we the people … are some kind of monster.” At least this one song paints with a broader brush. However, I don’t think that the purpose of this line of reasoning from the band is to discourage people or instill despair. I believe they are using reverse psychology to some degree. If we don’t consider ourselves, our families, and some other people we know and respect to be sick, savage, monstrous, or animalistic, then we can’t condemn the entire species.
The fact that Metallica continues grappling with these difficult concepts means that they are still trying to understand what life is about and how they/we should live it. My over-the-top characterizations are meant to pull back the curtain on the virtual realities that I described in Chapter 3 and that have been shared in the prior section of this chapter. If we refuse to ascribe to ourselves the objectionable characteristics that Metallica use to describe humanity, then we recognize that we have the power to resist that kind of behavior through our choices and actions. We can simply refuse to live in that virtual world where people get ahead at the expense of others. We can choose to live in a way that will help the species to advance. The bottom line is that we need to have each other’s back and not just worry about our own sorry @sses.
Rock ‘n Roll’s Dubious Relationship with Gratitude
The prior two sections confirmed at the very least that rock ‘n roll ventures into the realm of mind, body, and soul. But, does rock ‘n roll address the idea of gratitude specifically? With regard to rock ‘n roll anthems and the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, they tend to express exactly the opposite attitude (i.e., that we “can’t get enough” as the Scorpions so aptly put it). This focus on “excess” discourages the notion of gratitude by encouraging us to live for the now and for the good times. The Stones hit it on the nail when they stated in 1965 that we “can’t get no satisfaction.” The sentiment is echoed not only by The Scorpions’ “I Can’t Get Enough,” but also Queen’s “I Want it All,” Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me,” and Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some (I Want Some Too),” and even in Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” whose refrain is to cry for “more, more, more.” Talking Heads speak to my girlfriend being better (than yours) and The Cure asks the question “Why Can’t I Be You,” because we’ve embraced the notion that we should get what we desire and not what we need or what we have. And we can’t know what we need if we don’t know who we are or don’t like who we are. We won’t be able to tell that what we need is staring us right in the face because our desire is making us look in another direction.
Classic songs by David Bowie & Freddie Mercury (i.e., “Under Pressure”) and Billy Joel (i.e., “Pressure”), take us from the “we want to be satisfied” life view into the “we’re not getting what we want, we feel pissed about it, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get satisfaction” mode. We put pressure on ourselves to attain a level of satisfaction that cannot be attained because the rush we get when we are “satisfied” goes away and we want to feel that rush again. It is the “feeling of satisfaction” that we crave and not the thing that will bring us that satisfaction.
As U2 imparts in the song, “Desire,” it is desire that inspires. It makes us set goals and set out to meet those goals. It leads us to make conscious decisions but it directs our attention away from things that matter to things that make us feel good. We want to feel good to an excess, but anyone who goes down that path knows that at some point the good feeling will morph into something darker.
If you’ve gone through periods of excess in your life, you know that after a short time has passed, you get this feeling in your gut that something bad may happen if this excessive behavior goes on for much longer. In reading and writing about the rock ‘n roll superstars in Chapter 7, they themselves seem to acknowledge when the wheels are coming off or that they may come off at any second. In some instances they choose to change course and in some instances they don’t.
Maybe it is not so much a questions of changing course but of achieving a balance. As lives or musical careers unfold, conditions change. The question is do we adjust our approach to life as conditions change? We ignore the changing conditions at our own peril. The reason I believe I have gleaned so much from the groups that I’ve followed for 30+ years (Rush, U2, Iron Maiden, Metallica) is the fact that they have been around for 30+ years and must necessarily have had to adjust to changing conditions in their lives, just like fans (like me) had to do in their lives. Since we all are responding to the same “reality” or “virtual reality,” an honest reaction or assessment that is shared by the artist is going to resonate with the fan base who can relate to what’s being shared. This relevance to real experiences is what maintains that bond between artist and fan and maintains the loyalty from fans who are grateful and who, on a subconscious level recognize, that this is a two-way relationship based on truth and understanding and not just entertainment for the masses.
I believe that when we search for answers to living life that bring lasting joy and not short-term pleasure then the answers will be made available to us. If we live in accordance with the answers that Creation provides and share with others how we’ve come to the decision to live life in this way, then some of our neighbors may take note. Of the people who take note, some of those will take those lessons to heart. These individuals will cause others to take note, and some of them may take those lessons to heart, and so on and so forth. The requisite here is that we take note of the answers and that we make conscious choices to act in accordance with the answers found. We have to assess what is happening in our lives (think) and respond (act) accordingly. Fortunately or unfortunately, the act of “responding accordingly,” also requires us to “think” about what is and is not appropriate.
Many times, the life lessons being imparted by rock ‘n roll do not necessarily impart answers to living life but are offered as expressions of our fears and frustrations about the world we live in and the call to live by a different standard. The standards for living that I’ve gleaned from rock ‘n roll are those from Chapter 2. It is the uniformity of what is being shared via rock ‘n roll over many decades and the patterns in what is being shared that led me to try to articulate those informal standards. These standards are really a way to survive the pervasive madness that we perceive in the world. I believe that if we assess what a large number of people have shared via any medium whether it be music (and the arts in general), literature, philosophy, or theology, then we will absorb this either consciously or subconsciously.
We sense the standards we are asked to follow in living our lives are not appropriate or truly beneficial, but we’re not quite sure why. The code of conduct that is imbedded in our subconscious affects what we do and how we feel, thus controlling us in a way. When you unmask the code, as I’ve tried to do in this book, then you regain control of your actions. Keep in mind that this is the code of conduct that I’ve been using based on my experiences, so what you decide is the right code for you may look a little different but may have some common elements. Hopefully, my sharing will help you to identify the code by which you will choose to live.
Amidst the promotion of excess and debauchery as the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, the band, Boston, fires back that “Feelin’ Satisfied” is the way to go. This song is the rock anthem of choice for me. I have this image in my head of this song playing at a rock concert (not featuring any particular artist or band) and that a “fan cam” is hovering overhead and showing on the jumbotron all of the people rockin’ out in the arena. They’re singing along and having a good time. They’re enjoying the vibe while they wait for the lights to go down and the band they came to see takes the stage.
The message from “Feelin’ Satisfied” that I cling to can be embodied in one line from the song, “…when you let go, nothings gonna help you more than rock ‘n roll.” Similarly, the main message I am trying to impart in this book is that rock ‘n roll is what helped me make sense of the world. Had that outlet for connecting with the world not been available to me, I may not have fared as well. Rock ‘n roll was a friend when I needed a friend. It was a doctor when I needed healing. It was a vehicle by which to connect with others. It was a way to show that it is o.k. to be the way that I am and to feel that way that I do. Rock ‘n roll was the medium through which life spoke to me. Life may not speak to you through this particular genre of music, but maybe there is a different genre that does. Or, maybe, there is something else that you love through which life can and has been trying to speak to you. It is through examining what we love (and why we love those things) that we find out who we are. I would note that what I mean by the phrase, “what we love,” does not refer to behaviors that make us feel good but to things that inspire and move us to be the person we want to be, those things that make you feel alive but that are not detrimental to your survival. If something is detrimental to your survival, should it really be something to love?
Rock ‘n Roll’s Dubious Relationship with God and What’s “Good”
The Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead part of this chapter supports my claim that it is important for us to adopt an attitude of gratitude. But I figured I owed it to readers to show how I reconcile some of the more disturbing or unnerving accusations that rock ‘n roll flings at religion and the do-gooders, who I would argue started the process by flinging accusations at the rock ‘n rollers. This cultural tension is not helpful in achieving mutual understanding because everyone stays in their corners and flings the accusations from a distance. When we meet each other half-way, it is not for the purpose of understanding one another’s position but to go toe to toe in defense of our own position. In the hopes of advancing understanding, I will take a few examples of songs that I think are great but that have been problematic for me from a messaging standpoint.
In this particular section of this chapter, I will be exploring the first four songs of the song list that I’ve labeled, “Rock ‘n Roll Lessons on Spirituality.” These songs are quite challenging on their own which is why I tend to listen to difficult songs in the context of their albums. Explaining my theory of hope and my theory of gratitude in this book has helped me to view these songs in a new light. They were songs I didn’t want to share in my book because they might muddy the waters regarding the life lessons I was trying to impart to my kids and anyone who happened to want to read this rock-infused autobiography. However, difficulties that we encounter in life, if properly addressed, are what propel us forward. Thus, we should not run from these difficult situations. We should meet them head-on, as I will try to do here.
In the song, “The God that Failed,” Metallica takes a difficult idea and attempts to face it head-on, an approach that I’ve encouraged. I think Metallica best exemplified this “tackle an issue head-on” attitude when they set out to document the band’s attempt to work through some tensions and nearly captured the demise of the band, itself, in the documentary, Some Kind of Monster. Basically, this documentary was group therapy captured on film. The film crew in the therapy session sort of takes away the “safe space” that therapy is supposed to provide. This “in your face” and “I don’t give a f@ck” attitude is what comes across in “The God That Failed.” In the spirit of their approach to the film, Some Kind of Monster, I will not side-step this song but try to meet it “head-on.”
The song, “The God that Failed,” is probably my favorite song from The Black Album. Very early on, the lyrics make it clear that the subject of this song is really “how humans behave” and not “how God behaves.” The song is a condemnation of people of the Christian faith who feel special or superior because they are people of faith while others are not. They don’t necessarily live in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ, but they find comfort in the fact that they are perceived to be Christ followers, that they are part of the chosen ones. They talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. So the title of the song here is really a taunt to those who have “faith in their eyes and cries” but whose actions betray their true nature. I perceive the taunt to go like this: “yeah, sure, it really makes me want to be part of a religion where the ‘faithful’ don’t even bother to follow the teachings of their own God.” If this God was so powerful, couldn’t this omnipotent being make his followers do his bidding? Is this a failure of the God or the people who profess to be his disciples? I would argue that it is the latter.
The song “Born of a Broken Man” by Rage Against the Machine is another example of having my favorite song from an album (The Battle for Los Angeles) also challenge my spirituality. In this song, the main character in the song condemns Jesus himself for the breakdown he observed in his father who abandoned his commitment to the Chicano movement and his artistic talent to become a follower of Christ. He equates the draw of religion as a light that draws the moth to the flame but whose only gift to the moth is the burning of its wings. This changes the nature of the moth and in so doing the vehicle by which it may escape the light. The question here, like with “The God That Failed,” is … “is it Jesus that caused this outcome for the father in this story or is it the mischaracterization of his teachings by organized religion that are the true culprits here?” The teachings of Jesus were just that, a set of teachings that he shared with his disciples and those who were open to receiving the teachings of Christ. So, Jesus is most certainly the light since his teachings are a powerful draw due to their provocative nature. I think that problems arise when we decide to become involved with organized religions which have their own interpretations regarding the meaning of the teachings of Jesus, leaving little room for other interpretations.
The featured song by U2, “Exit,” appears to take us to a difficult place, to the topic of suicide. I say “appears” because there’s some debate about whether the main character is contemplating killing himself or someone else. Personally, I think the title itself gives it away. If, as the song suggests, the world is difficult and cruel, one that makes you have nightmares and cry at the howling winds, then the individual who perceives these things to be true is the one contemplating an “exit” from the situation. Why would the main character single someone else out for an “exit” from this vicious world? What good would killing someone do for this character? Now, if there was some sort of mental illness involved, it is possible that the response to this kind of stress may be misdirected. The repeated references to the “hands of love” suggests that it is likely this individual’s experiences with love that are causing the tension and not the character’s mental health.
As I’ve alluded to earlier, my view has always been that the topic of this song is suicide. This being a song by the band, U2, I struggled to understand for some time why they would include such a topic. The topic is certainly not off-base for the album, The Joshua Tree, which also covers some dark territory in the form of the songs, “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared.” The lyrical interlude bridging the songs “One Tree Hill” and “Exit” is what shaped my view of what U2 was trying to say. In the CD of The Joshua Tree this interlude is paired with the song, “Exit,” and not with the song, “One Tree Hill,” with which it shares a metaphor. One Tree Hill talks of people “flowing like a river to the sea,” with God being the greatness and vastness to which the metaphor of the sea alludes. The short lyrical composition bridging the two songs, directs people to “run to sea” as a way of counseling people as to how they can survive the madness of this world.
I feel that the pairing of this message about how to navigate life is very important. If it is paired with the song, “Exit,” then the challenging part of the song is mitigated to some degree by the reassuring message that “there is another way or a better way.” In my view, this would be a consistent way in which U2 has handled such challenging themes. Despair is balanced by hope. In “Exit,” the application of “the hand of love” can have good and bad consequences for us and others. In bad times, we should always remember that ultimately, we always have the option of moving toward the sea (the light) and not toward the darkness. Interestingly, if you download “One Tree Hill” and “Exit” on iTunes, you’ll find that the lyrical interlude providing “reassurance” between these two songs is included as the end of “One Tree Hill” and not the beginning of “Exit.” So, the basis of the view that I’ve just described may be based on an error in how the initial CD was arranged. The pairing of this lyrical interlude with the song “Exit” is my lived experience with this song and album, so I can’t dismiss a conclusion that’s 25 years in the making.
Before moving on to the last song of this section, I’ll do a little recap of the themes that have emerged in the first three songs. Metallica’s “The God that Failed” and Rage’s “Born of a Broken Man” condemn God and Jesus for how people (and not God or Jesus) have chosen to serve God and Jesus over thousands of years. Could people have got it wrong? Of course, this is absolutely possible. But I think the point is not to condemn those who accept religious traditions or directives on faith but to use our powers of understanding to decide for ourselves in whom or what we choose to put our faith. Because matters of faith are unseen, it is easy to dismiss them as fake, and as we’ve established, rock ‘n rollers have a disdain for what is fake. But if you believe that there is truth to the purpose of our existence, then search out the truth for yourself. If you don’t find truth in religion, philosophy, or science, then endeavor to ascertain what truth is for you or for humanity. The U2 song, “Exit,” conveys the fact that we have a choice (i.e., we can decide to move toward the darkness or toward the light). Like I explained in the previous chapter, “now” is the most important time in our lives. As long as we still have breath in us, we can choose to move toward the light, to do things differently than we have before. It is not too late to change if you find that you still have a choice. However, choosing differently is easier said than done.
The song, “Anthem,” by Rush takes the conversation toward the issue of self-interest or put another way, the virtue or vice of selfishness. This song is the first song on Rush’s second album, Fly By Night, and, as I’ve stated before, it is one heck of a composition. It is on the Fly By Night album that Neal Peart, Rush’s legendary drummer and composer, is first introduced to Rush fans. In the first 30 seconds of the song, the band and Peart seem to be sending a strong message to those fans who may be wondering what the band will be like with a new member, and that message is, “We’re back, and we’re seriously going to kick some @ss!” If you listen to the song, then the music will sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before. The message conveyed in the song is also not like anything you’ve ever heard before: “Don’t worry about anyone but yourself.” I would venture to say that this sentiment is antithetical to the message of Christianity and unapologetically so. What are we to make of this?
If you are devoted Rush fan, you know that Rush’s early albums with Peart as composer were influenced by the philosophy of Ayn Rand. The song, “Anthem,” itself borrows the title of one of her early works where she begins to layout her philosophy of Objectivism. I hate to oversimplify the philosophy since she was quite a prolific writer and outlined her theory in great detail in her writings and in a newsletter that she co-published from 1961 to 1964. I will lean here on a compilation of writings on Objectivism that she published under the title, “The Virtue of Selfishness.” Rand explicitly states that she seeks to redeem the concept of selfishness and to condemn the concepts of morality and altruism.
A quick aside on the book, The Virtue of Selfishness, is that I found it at a store called Half-Price Books in Austin that sells used books. This particular book was in the clearance section of the store and probably cost me 50 cents or a dollar. Until I found this book, I had pretty much resigned myself to not even make a reference to the song, “Anthem,” and other songs that I thought were great songs but were difficult to defend. Partly, I knew that the only way I could try to explain what Rush or Rand intended in defending selfishness, is if I read all of the works of Rand and then tried to make sense of it. This could take years for someone like me who is not well versed in philosophical matters. Little did I know that Rand herself attempted to make her philosophy make sense to others in her newsletter and in a compilation that drew from that newsletter. Had I not stumbled upon this book, then this particular section of this book and these songs would have been conveniently omitted.
Is Ayn Rand’s Objectivism advocating a “do what you want” mentality, which could align with the rock mantra of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll? The answer is very clearly no. Her philosophy is one of rational self-interest or rational selfishness. A quote from the introduction to this book is instructive: “Man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions. The actor must act in his own rational self-interest.” But this self-interest in derived from moral codes that are used to ascertain what truly is in our best interest as human beings. This echoes a theme that I’ve touched upon earlier in this chapter and previous chapters, specifically that we must act in a way that will advance the human species and not individual members of the human species (or individual classes within the species whether they be race-, ethnic- or income-based) which is what has gotten us in the mess that we’re in today.
I suppose here is where I come clean about the fact that in outlining my theory of hope I am also outlining how we as individuals are to act to advance as individuals and, I would argue, as a species. My theory argues that Creation works such that when we act in a way where we strengthen someone else’s spirit (i.e., help fill their spheres of faith, hope, and love) then we, in turn, have our spirit strengthened (i.e., we fill our own spheres of faith, hope, and love). Thus, if my theory holds, then it is in our “rational self-interest” to help others. In other words, it is selfish to be selfless. This odd fact throws a kink in Rand’s Objectivism and in my theory of hope. If Christ states “love your neighbor like yourself,” could he possibly be telling us to be selfish? On the one hand, it seems highly unlikely. On the other hand, maybe he was trying to tell us something fundamental about the nature of Creation, something that was not explicitly stated but that we’d have to figure out on our own.
The only way to “save grace” (or moreso to “save face”) with regard to Rand’s rational self-interest, is to state the fact that the key here is that the advancement of the human race, not our own personal advancement, is now clearly in our rational self-interest. With the threats of climate change bearing down upon us, it is now clear beyond any doubt that the only way the human species survives is if we think about preserving all of humanity, not just myself, my family, or my country. In looking out for what’s best for the human species, we are looking out for our own best interest. If we pursue our own advancement instead of the advancement of the human race, then Creation may not respond in a manner that is beneficial towards us. Our intentions matter. This, of course, presumes that Creation is designed to respond to intention and that there are certain intentions that are of greater import than others. I believe that the concepts of “demonstrating gratitude” and “helping to evolve consciousness” that have been discussed in this chapter provide a useful insight into right thinking and right acting for the entirety of the human race. Hopefully this conclusion makes some sense to others who read this given the ideas I’ve laid out.
A Grateful Example
To end this chapter, I have to invoke the Grateful Dead (with the utmost respect to those members of the group who have passed). It was my initial intention to start this chapter with the Grateful Dead since this was a chapter dedicated to the concept of gratitude, and they subscribed to the concept to such a degree that they actually chose the word “grateful” for their name. Pairing the term “grateful” with the word “dead” seems odd but I’ve always taken it to mean that they are grateful to the very end or even after the very end. In the documentary, Long Strange Trip, one of the band members explained that when they were looking to change the name of the band from The Warlocks, they came across the term, “grateful dead,” in a dictionary and immediately agreed that this would be their new name. The central concept here is to not fear death but to cherish every moment of life until the time that death comes calling, even after death has called us.
The Grateful Dead was not so much a band but an experience of which a defining feature was the symbiotic relationship between artist and fan. You cannot separate the band from the fans because it was the energy that they fed to each other that allowed for the experience to be authentic and unique. The band kept doing it for the fans. Even when the shows got so big that it was hard for the band to connect with the audience during the shows, the fact that the fans were connecting with them was enough for them to agree to continue to do it. “We can’t stop” and/or “we won’t stop” was the sentiment from the band. Even though the veneration of Jerry Garcia made it so that he could not have a public life and withdrew into a private life of isolation and self-medication through drug use, he was probably the most adamant that the band keep going. In the documentary, a band member opined that even if the band members had chosen to stop for the sake of the well-being of individual band members, that Jerry would have just continued touring and performing with the Jerry Garcia Band.
Why would Garcia want to keep doing it when it was clearly sending him on a downward spiral? I argue, based on the theory of hope that I outlined in my previous chapter, that the band, particularly Garcia, realized that what the band provided for fans was spiritual healing (i.e., they helped to fill the fans’ spheres of faith, hope, and love) and the gratitude of the fans for this gift was to offer spiritual healing for the band (i.e., they helped to fill the band’s spheres of faith, hope, and love). Regardless of what behaviors the band members engaged in, the healing process that was part of the Grateful Dead experience served as a shield that allowed the experience to continue. To disrupt that flow of healing energy could have led to a tragic ending much earlier in the process. Although the spirit is eternal, the body is not. Eventually, even if the spirit is healthy, the body will break down.
The Grateful Dead and The Grateful Dylan
You may have noticed that I have yet to reference any of the Grateful Dead’s musical repertoire. This is due to the fact that I am not very familiar with their discography or most popular songs. Whenever you hear a hardcore fan share the name of their favorite Grateful Dead song, it is never the same song as that of another hardcore fan. It is like the Grateful Dead have a song list of infinite length such that each person gets to claim their own song. The closest thing to a song that might be the Grateful Dead’s most popular song is the song, “I Need a Miracle,” because it is the sign that Grateful Dead fans flash when they are trying to score tickets to a Grateful Dead show. It should not be a surprise that we cannot easily pinpoint a “greatest hits” list since Grateful Dead fans speak of their favorite live concert recordings and not favorite individual songs.
One thing that I will note about the Grateful Dead live shows is that they almost always include a cover song or two. Since the Grateful Dead is known for compositions of vast lyrical and musical richness, it is interesting that they would look to other composers for musical material. Wikipedia lists about 100 songs covered by the Grateful Dead including songs by The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, James Brown, and many other blues, country, and rock ‘n roll artists. When a band pays homage to another artist they are ostensibly expressing gratitude to them for composing something that had a meaningful impact on them. It should not be surprising that a band with the word “grateful” in their name would express this kind of gratitude.
The song writer who is most often covered by the Grateful Dead is Bob Dylan. The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan actually recorded an album together, Dylan and the Dead, and toured together in support of that album. This particular inclination of the Grateful Dead to cover Bob Dylan songs lead me to pick “Bob Dylan covers by the Grateful Dead” as the focus of my analysis of what the Grateful Dead may be trying to convey as a band. In frequently honoring a rock icon like Bob Dylan, they are expressing the practice of gratitude in a most explicit way. The fact that an iconic group like the Grateful Dead would see fit to pay homage to another iconic artist lays credence to my claim that gratitude is a powerful sentiment.
Additionally, in selecting these particular Bob Dylan cover songs, the Grateful Dead are also telling us something about why they value the work of this prolific song writer as well as what it is that they value generally as human beings. They wouldn’t have chosen these particular songs to cover if they did not value what the songs conveyed. In analyzing the songs in my “Dylan and the Dead” song list, we’ll be able to find out something about both the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan.
Before getting to the songs, I first want to say something about Bob Dylan’s own propensity to record and perform covers of songs written by other artists. His first album was ostensibly a tribute album to his biggest influences. You don’t typically do a tribute album until once you are established and people care to know who influenced you. One might argue that the first and self-titled album of The Rolling Stones played a similar role in that only two of the selections were original compositions and that the others were “covers” essentially. However, the albums have a very different feel and the simplicity of the instrumentation of Dylan’s debut album (i.e., solo guitar and harmonica) allowed the message in the songs by Dylan to take center stage to a much greater degree. There was nothing pop about Bob Dylan’s first album, and I believe he was trying to make a bold statement about where he was coming from as a musician.
As this particular section of this chapter unfolded, I was relieved that it would be Bob Dylan songs covered by the Grateful Dead that would be the selection mechanism for songs to feature of Bob Dylan. I had begun doing an album by album review starting with Dylan’s first album. When I got to reviewing his sixth album, it became abundantly clear that it would be too difficult to select “the greatest songs of Bob Dylan” because there are so many. With every album reviewed, the level of difficulty kept rising. There was a need for some kind of filter. I could not think of a better filter than that of another great songwriter and performer like Jerry Garcia whose standard for songwriting was also very high.
Given this turn in my analysis of Bob Dylan’s music, I feel the need to apologize to the “Dylan Heads” for not focusing on Dylan’s “classic” material that served as the basis for his dedicated musical following as well as for his selection as the Nobel Prize winner in literature in 2016. There are many unique aspects to his selection for the Nobel Prize. The first thing that comes to mind is that this is the first time that the committee chose to treat musical lyrics as literature. They cited the fact that Dylan’s style derived in a significant way from American folk music and morphed that style into a new form of “poetic expression” given the deeply meaningful and powerful social commentary that he was able to incorporate into his compositions. Any Nobel Prize winner is recognized not only as an exemplar in their field but as an exemplar whose work elevates all of humankind and not just the artist being recognized. Dylan’s artistic authenticity, integrity, and consistency clearly demonstrate a commitment to truth and justice and presents a challenge to more commercial forms of expression and to present day societal norms and values.
Songs Covered by Bob Dylan
Before moving on to the Grateful Dead/Bob Dylan song list for this chapter, I wanted to note that a recent book, Dylan Under the Influence, took on the challenge of cataloging all of the songs Dylan has covered throughout his career. More than five hundred songs are included in this compendium. For someone who won the Nobel Peace Prize for literature and for someone who has so much original material, it is difficult to believe that he would have had time to not only perform 500 songs written by other composers, but also to select these many songs to cover. To pick just one song to cover, one must have presumably had to pick from a group of songs, and 500 times several other songs that were not picked is an incredible number of songs to have floating around in your head.
What this suggests is that Dylan is a student of music (in the broadest sense of the word) and that he is constantly listening to the music of other artists. He may be writing songs about his life experiences and observations, but those experiences and observations involve and are fueled in part by music written by other artists. I interpret his propensity to cover the music of others as his way of expressing gratitude to them for the influence they had upon him as an artist because that influence undoubtedly affected his own artistic expression. It seems as if the fact that so many artists cover his own songs compels him to return the favor (i.e., they are filling each other’s spheres of faith, hope, and love and thus strengthening each other’s spirit to continue the music making process). In 2015, 2016, and 2017, Dylan released an album of cover songs as a way of paying tribute to “the great American songbook.” While he has probably received a great deal of criticism for this non-original material, especially on the heels of winning the Nobel Peace Prize for literature for his original songwriting, it is clearly not out of character for him as an artist given that he started his career with a covers album and has been sharing other musical jewels with those that care to listen. I most certainly appreciate that approach.
The Dylan and the Dead Song List
I was incredibly apprehensive about what I was going to say about The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan since I had picked them as the main feature for the final chapter of my book, and I didn’t know much about them except that they each had a cult-like following and were held in great esteem for their integrity as artists. Those two points alone should probably lead someone like me to dodge the task. I am so very thankful that I chose not to abandon this focus on gratitude or to redirect my attention to other artists of life lessons. This chapter would not look the way it does if I had.
Following this paragraph, I list the Bob Dylan composition that I will be referencing here with the exception that the song, “Thank God,” was covered by Bob Dylan but was written by Fred Rose and popularized by Hank Williams. You’ll note that I group the nine songs into three trios of songs. I think each trio of songs touches on a theme about life that is familiar to both Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. This resembles the therapeutic cycle I laid out in Chapter 5 of: feeling frustrated, depressed, or confused; being angry about why these feelings are within us; being defiant of these feelings of frustration, depression, confusion, and anger; developing skills to ensure that we remain in control of our lives and not allow frustration, depression, confusion, and anger to take the reins. I would say the first three songs fall into the first of my four categories of songs and the other six songs fall into my last category of songs.
“I Shall Be Released”
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”
“Quinn the Eskimo”
“Man of Peace”
“Gotta Serve Somebody”
The first trio includes songs about how the worries of life weigh upon us and make us pray for release from this life so that we don’t have to endure them any longer. All three of these songs make me reflect on my own frustrations with life. Thus, I connect with these songs in a very personal way. While the actual subject matter or inspiration of these songs tends to involve much deeper topics such as war, drug addiction, the eroding of freedom and democracy, the lack of respect for human life and dignity, etc. I do not make an attempt to ascertain the “true intent and inspiration” of the songwriter. Because the main character in each of these songs is a single person, it is easy to put ourselves in the shoes of this character. We just insert whatever it is that is weighing us down specifically and make the appeal for relief or understanding to the Creator based on what we need. Essentially, these songs are prayers and afford us the opportunity to confess our confusion and misgivings to the Creator. While there is not an overt sentiment of gratitude in this first trio of songs, the fact that they give us the opportunity to connect with the Creator is a gift for which we are grateful.
In the second trio of songs, we begin to see a subtle turn towards gratitude. Again, I must declare that I am not attempting to get at “the true intent and inspiration” for these songs for Dylan. Because of the way in which Dylan describes the situations and characters portrayed in these stories, I view the main characters in these stories as literary characters who serve a real purpose for the other characters who come into contact with them in these stories. The Tough Mama character is a strong and attractive woman who knows who she is and gets what she wants. This personal strength excites the main character of this story who not only experiences sheer joy when he is in her presence but experiences sheer joy in bringing joy and pleasure to her. Quinn the Eskimo is another mighty character who commands the attention of everyone he encounters no matter what profession they have or how old they are. Quinn provides a kind of healing which is something that attracts our attention since we all suffer in some way. Larger than life characters like Tough Mama and Quinn the Eskimo make us be in awe of life itself and give us something for which to be grateful to the Creator.
The main character in the story being told in the song, “Joey,” is a more complex character. Joey is a larger than life character like Tough Mama and The Mighty Quinn, but he’s definitely more flawed. Joey is actually and/or allegedly all of the following: a gangster who did gangster like things; a gangster with a conscience or some degree of morality; a gangster seeking justice after having been wronged; a gangster who couldn’t leave the gangster life since a gangster was what life had molded him to be from the very beginning; and a gangster who was liked or revered by regular folks for some reason. Part of what people liked about him is that he is his own kind of gangster, that he played by his own rules and seemed to get away with this approach for a good while. There is a sense of rooting for Joey to keep outpacing and outsmarting the true gangsters, although it was clear what the end would be for him. I supposed the sentiment of gratitude here is that it is Joey who has to challenge the system and not us regular folks.
The third trio of songs are songs that try to more directly convey life lessons or words of wisdom to the listener. The first song listed, “Man of Peace,” sends a message that is a little counter intuitive. The song is not encouraging us to be men and women of peace per se, but serves as a warning against trusting individuals and institutions that use their professed support for peace as a way to manipulate and deceive. We must be vigilant. This requires that we use our intellect which is a form of expressing gratitude because our intellect is a God-given gift. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is a song that is self-explanatory and is as exhaustive in delineating who has to “serve somebody.” The message of course is that all of us, no matter how much power or resources we command, have to “serve somebody.” The final song provides a very specific call to be grateful with “Thank God.” I find it fitting that this is a cover song performed by Bob Dylan to honor another great American musical icon, Hank Williams, and the actual composer of this song, Fred Rose.
I want to offer one last note about gratitude in this song list that may get lost in going through and dissecting the individual songs. The first is that that six of the nine songs on the list are songs written by Bob Dylan but performed by The Grateful Dead in tribute to Dylan. One of the remaining three is a song written by Fred Rose and performed by Bob Dylan in tribute to Hank Williams and Fred Rose. The final two songs are part of a live album where The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan perform together in a display of mutual respect and appreciation for each other’s artistry. Both the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan covered songs by many other artists, more so than the average rock ‘n roll band or artist. Because these two sources of knowledge and inspiration are trusted messengers, then I think that the extent to which they chose to express gratitude must drive home the point about the importance of this sentiment to humanity and to Creation.
With both the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, it is safe to say that both were grateful from the very beginning. For the Grateful Dead it is clear because of their choice of name. For Bob Dylan it is because he chose to honor artists who inspired him in his very first recording. I won’t say that Dylan and the Dead are “grateful to the end,” for a number of reasons. First of all, we can’t say this because Bob Dylan is still doing his thing, and we are so grateful for that. And while the Grateful Dead is no longer a musical unit, the spirit of The Dead lives on. So, what I will say is that Dylan and The Dead were grateful from the very beginning and are grateful to this very day. We, in turn, should be grateful for that!
I can’t help but end with the words of Dylan himself. I have chosen a song that had immediately stood out for me in my review of Dylan’s early works but it’s one that doesn’t fit into the framework that I developed for selecting songs for this chapter. I decided to share it as a concluding remark because it echoes the “Siamese Dream” message from Chapter 3, the interchange of spiritual energies that is so integral to my theory of hope as outlined in Chapter 9, and The Golden Rule that was shared by Jesus Christ and to which I’ve made several references in this chapter.
Half the people can be part right all of the time
Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time
I think Abraham Lincoln said that
I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.
I said that.
Daily Prayer 5 (Beginning of Day Prayer)
To Our Lord Jesus Christ
Lord, please give me the strength to fight the good fight, to finish the race, and to keep the faith.
(Adaptation of 2 Timothy 4:7)
Note: The song by the group, Triumph, with the title, “Fight the Good Fight,” helped engrave the meaning of this verse in my teenage brain. Even though I was a bit estranged from the church for a good long while, this song tethered me to Jesus because it demonstrated to me the kind of help Jesus can provide to us as we navigate the “toil and trouble” that life has to offer.