H / U
Aged two years, the story goes, I wandered into my parents’ bedroom and asked, “Who’s God?” That question, it turns out, would shape the rest of my life.
It was a Sunday morning. Or maybe a Saturday afternoon. I’ve heard a number of variations of this bit of lore. In one, my parents were warming up for lovemaking. In another, they were arguing. No matter, the question had been asked.
My father’s family, insofar as they defined these things, were agnostic. My mother’s family were traditional Protestants. As with many from her home province, they were attached to ‘The Army.’ This causal precedent meant we began with a visit to a Salvation Army Corps, which is what they call a chapel, or church.
Before long, we were regularly attending The Salvation Army, Cedarbrae Corps. Eventually, we would be attending twice each Sunday and once during the week, band practice. I can still remember the smell of the place. It was a pervasive combination of floor wax, old paper and wood polish. With accents of urinal cake.
As part of their religious journey, my parents bought into the credo of the Army — No Alcohol, No Gambling, No Drug-taking, No Homosexuality, No Pornography, and No Premarital Sex. Really, it was more a ‘no fun’ diktat than rules for living. Sermons were nearly always on the virtue of abstinence of some kind, particularly the value of self-denial.
We would attend this glorified social control sandbox until my father died, aged forty, the summer of 1988. But let’s return to the fallout of that question.
Among the immediate consequences of our family joining the Salvation Army was a decision taken by my parents. It’s something I still find hard to understand. They took all of their LPs, their 8-Tracks and vinyl, all of the music, the rock ‘n roll they’d been collecting for years and removed them from the home.
All that music, gone. That’s right. Eventually we’d have nothing but some children’s music and some Christmas albums. We did still listen to the hits on radio, periodically, but no music in the home. Talk about a dull revolution in dull dullness.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had difficulty connecting with music. How and why other people are so engaged by it has always puzzled me on a level where I ought to be connecting with it. Lyrics, melody, rhythm. All that is misfit, foreign to me. Notwithstanding an undiagnosed spectrum ‘disorder’, the decision my parents made to exclude a contemporary musical experience from the home is, I believe, the reason for this minor dysfunction. Not to lay blame, really. They were young, hardly more than twenty-five years old.
That’s not to say I don’t know what music I do like. Only it takes me some effort to find it. No matter the genre, the popularity, the branding. So often, I just don’t care. Recalling the lyrics of a song I like? Probably not. Changes in timing or theme? You’re joking. Dance moves? What the fuck are you talking about?
When I do find something good, it’s really very good. Birdsong. Percussion. Moog demo recordings. Boards of Canada. Anglicized Latin rhythms. Latin versions of American pop songs. Trini Lopez. The Traditional Music of Japan. Quadrophonic calibration recordings. Event-themed albums of cover songs. The seemingly endless Verve Jazz sets. Speeches from old political rallies. Fight Club Soundtrack. Crooners of the 1950’s. Jesus and Mary Chain (Psychocandy, yes, and fuck the rest.) Beastie Boys. Polka reminiscent of Canada’s Wonderland circa 1987. Elissa Mielke. Female singer-songwriters of the 2010s. Early 2000’s Dirty South. The Acid. Some classic rock. Eric’s Trip. Dinosaur Jr. Nirvana. Watch Paint Dry. Billie Eilish/Finneas. Sigur Ros. Sufjan Stevens. Jingles and themes songs of the 20th Century. U2, before the sunglasses. Atomic Age-themed compilations. Rozi Plain. The Doors, once upon a time. Most anything Patti Schmidt featured on late 90’s Brave New Waves (as long as it’s played while driving at night). The Beatles. Paul McCartney. Led Zeppelin, back when. Noam Chomsky in conversation about any topic whatsoever. These things and more, I feel. But not more than the sense I am missing so much of a universe of music.
Music is a human thing. Scientists, thinkers — they tell us it’s known to conjure physiological benefits, positive effects. It’s like some kind of magic, they say. Why, so often, do I find it uninteresting, bland, unmoving?
Looking for the answer, I take in the overview, the broad strokes, get a sense of where it’s all come from and where it’s going — that’s always been my way. Look at things from outer space. Music, really, is only one element of the experience of living. Is it even a big deal? For some, yes. For me? Are these questions compatible with the beating heart of a pop song?
An alternate version of me exists, living in a different reality. He loves music. It doesn’t occur to him to ask why. He gets it and doesn’t ask so many questions. Could’ve been me, I suppose. Meh. Chasing a counterfactual version of the past is of limited utility. That’s not to say the past has ceased to exist. Nor is it to say imaginings, theories, and should’ve-beens are without the power to shape the future. Ambition takes many forms.
The things which I’ve missed, the things I’ve done, the things I’ve opted out-or-in on, these are so much more significant than feeling like I have a connection with — name a musical celebrity. Pretty far along the course of my life. Those things I have fought for, the wins and the losses, the drive to live to my own idea of who I am and all that goes with that — these are irrevocable, and I own them without regret. Shame is not a thing I possess, not any more. I have no apologies to make, no guilt to expurgate.
Wait, is that it? Is that the answer? Am I missing some of the basic human emotions? I don’t think so. No, really. I’m totally normal, totally totally normal. I’m just like you, but without the appreciation for music. I like all the same things you do, don’t worry. We’re the same.
As I write this, there’s a war in Eastern Europe. A former superpower is fighting for possession of it’s former satellite. It’s a complex situation, and dismissing it as the result of madness or ignorance is dangerously stupid.
The war in Ukraine is the kind of war that serves as training ground, as a beta test for the tactics, weapons, and maneuvers that will feature in other wars to come. New ways of killing, new ways of fighting, new ways of deploying classic tactics of war are being shaped and refined every day. New lines have been drawn, and redrawn. Nuclear weapons have been moved into a neighbouring state. Even if we dismiss all that, in many other ways the world might abruptly end. Asteroid strike. Solar flare. Systems collapse. Rogue dumb AI a la the 2010 ‘flash crash.’
As the global balance of power is tested, shifts, and is recalibrated, we may see the third global war. I hope not, but here we are. Would we survive? The species, I mean. All the plans and dreams for a just society, for new generations on the moon, environmental rehabilitation, the trips to Mars — name any grand project — all of that quickly becomes meaningless when we’ve rolled the dice on nuclear exchange.
We are sailing treacherous waters. Ups and downs, yes. Systems, people, outcomes, consequences. Perhaps the world we will get is the one we’ve not imagined. Or perhaps those doing the imagining aren’t interested in our survival. Bah. Could be we’re living in a simulation. If that’s the case, I’d say the divine is not to be found here. Is or is-not leaves no space for the actuality of faith, or living the transcendent.
I sometimes wonder if there is any purpose to faith, belief, forbearance, patience. I have to say the offerings those acts of devotion have provided are of a very limited sort.
As does any reasonable person at about the time they reach biological adulthood, I spent some time thinking about religion — God, faith, universals, all of that. It was during that time I had reason to seriously consider my mortality. Both a gift and a curse, that process.
Music didn’t get me through. Metaphor and candy-coloured imagery didn’t boost my spirits, didn’t strengthen my resolve. It wasn’t a belief in God, or an understanding of science. It wasn’t crystals, voodoo, or shopping for a new stereo. Lifestyle products didn’t save me. It was the desire to live, to understand, to unearth context. Those events, in turn, shaped decisions I would make later.
The hard times I’ve seen these years homeless, getting me through has been comedy. Laughter. It’s more potent for me than any cat video, any pretty smile, any dramatic tale, any boiling rage. Laughter. Laughing alone, late at night, more times than I can count it saved my life.
At two years old was I contemplating the divine? Probably not. I was a child. Was I thinking about the magic which rules a child’s world? In some way, yes. Had I discovered prayer, beyond a bedtime ritual? Could be I had. Was I simply processing an overheard conversation? Impossible to know.
What is undoubtedly true is that my world was about to be taken over by a morally compromised set of beliefs. Those beliefs were larger than me, and beliefs against which it was impossible for me to truly struggle. Over time, my young self began to adapt, internalize, believe. But not for long.