It’s been something around a year since I last sat down with the serious intention of composing a new song, and almost two years since I completed what I knew would be my last album–my enduring reservations regarding which have still not allowed me to release it. I have, in the meantime, thoroughly ceased to think of myself as either a songwriter or a musician–however much the dozens of albums cataloged under my name may seem to contradict that sensibility. I am at best an ex-songwriter, an ex-musician; these are aspects of myself and my legacy that have, as it were, been already laid in my grave in anticipation of the rest of me joining them.
Feeling as I do about this now ghostly and unfamiliar former identity of mine, I have had little occasion in the past year to take up my guitar and revisit any of the hundreds of songs which once seemed woven into me like arteries–always waiting, always pulsing to be opened. It hurts and bewilders me now to sing them, as it hurts and bewilders me to look at a photograph of myself standing beside my ex-wife. Nor can I seek diversion or expression through reciting the songs of others, for the simple reason that I don’t know any, and have never troubled myself to learn–being always too occupied with writing my own; always seeking in my own creations what I felt to be lacking or absent in the creations of others. My self-assigned mission from the outset of my songwriting career was not to emulate the songwriters that I most admired, but to be as original and idiosyncratic as possible in a field that gave me astonishingly few examples worthy of either admiration or emulation. This rather isolationist perspective of my work made the bond between myself and my songs only more vital, more desperate, thereby making the realization that my muses had at last deserted me all the more heart-crushing and unthinkable. Imagine a Descartian experiment in which one wakes up and finds that he has disappeared–that he is nothing. He raises his hand and sees no hand; he peers down at his feet and sees no feet. And yet when he races to the mirror, his reflection is entire and unchanged: visible, but intangible, out of reach, illusory. With the elopement of my muses, this has been the metaphor of my existence. I am nothing–but my songs, my recordings, continue to reflect me as if I am still there.
I confided to my oldest friend last night something that I have heretofore kept mostly secret. Since 2007, when I recorded (among many other albums) Make ’em Scream and The Prodigal EP, I have indulged in a potentially unhealthy romance with old country gospel records, such as I have happened to come across in the back rooms of thrift stores and consignment shops. My delight and ravishment with these recordings betrayed themselves shamelessly on the two aforementioned albums, but henceforth managed to keep themselves in abatement, until my final (unreleased) album, in which they figured centrally. At the time of my recording that album, however, in the early months of 2012, I was a semi-orthodox devotee of Santa Muerte, and it was thus to “Holy Death,” and not to any member of the Christian Trinity that my lyrics on that album were devoted. While being inspired by gospel songs, they were not, in themselves, gospel, and they did not benefit from the naive and vulnerable simplicity of the songs that Hank Williams and Gene Autry sang about the honest old Bible, and the little white chapel on the hill, and the gentle, steadying hand of Jesus, etc. I did my best to make Death, as personified by the “Bony Lady,” into a sympathetic figure of mercy and salvation, but in the American context and the English tongue, it translated merely as bitter, suicidal irony. Such are the misgivings that have withheld me from making the effort public.
What I confessed to my friend was that, if ever anything were to induce me to pick up my guitar and venture again into the world of performing (if not composing–I couldn’t hope for so much), it would be the realization of my private scheme, long cherished but never spoken of, to immerse myself in learning those same old country gospel tunes that have so often brought me to tears and laid my heart bleeding before me. I have imagined myself, in my fondest moments, playing before little crowds of earnestly swaying gray heads, in the fellowship halls of crumbling country churches, losing myself (and my nothingness) utterly in the valiant expression of a faith that I no longer profess, and that, in itself, can offer me no answers and no comfort. And yet the songs bring me comfort, and that by itself is an answer to something. I could see myself–as a singer and guitar-player–devoting myself to these songs that I love and that make me weep, though I am long past devoting myself to the constrained and adulterated Protestant faith that inspired them.
It may be to my credit, considering my Christian upbringing, that I am a reluctant hypocrite and an unwilling dissembler. As much as I want to sing these songs, and to experience and convey the immensity of solace that they bring to me, it troubles me that I would be seeming–in performing them–to be conducting some manner of ministry. More disturbing yet, is that the audiences demanded by such a repertoire would inevitably assume me to be a Christian like them, and I would be threatened with the impulse to obviate confusion and offense by falsely confirming this supposition. I would be two times a “false witness”–first to the songs and their authors, and second to myself and the Memorialist beliefs that I am not only responsible for defending, but for defining.
Still, there must be a reason that I am so viscerally affected by these songs that I adore, despite my knowing intellectually that I can never again accept or return to the faith from which they’re sprung. A reason beyond, it may be supposed, my deep nostalgic longing to be reconciled to the figure of Christ who was once so real to me, and whose legend and teachings remain so meaningful. The unifying impulse that underlies nearly every country gospel song that I have ever heard is a sort of remorsefully penitent contemptus mundi, accompanied by a dreamy but fervent desire for heaven–that is, for death. There are, certainly, more earth-bound lyrics, concerned with the sorrow of having sinned and the jubilation at being forgiven, but these come with the implicit understanding that redemption came with the death of Christ, and that one’s soul is ultimately only redeemable at the time of one’s death. The love expressed in these songs is an otherworldly love, the joy an otherworldly joy, the grief an otherworldly grief: all of it points outward, away from life, beginning–as it were–at the point of life’s termination. Their concerns, in this way, are the concerns of Memorialism–however averse our own doctrines may be to such injurious ideas as “heaven” and “eternal life.” A Memorialist devotional song, such as I endeavored to devise for my unreleased final album, would not be materially different in tenor or intention from that of a traditional country gospel tune. Its principle purpose would still be to exhort the listener to reverse his culturally-imposed perceptional polarities, so that he was living life in the context of death, rather than situating death in the context of life.
Someday soon, I think, I will exhume my guitar from its resting place, knock the rust from its strings, and try to find out whether I can do for “The Old Rugged Cross” what that song has done for me–and perhaps even see, after some practice and meditation, whether I can make it do the same for others. I have said many times, in defending those religions in which I do not myself take credence, that I believe in belief. What I believe is as much the result of my need for belief, and my belief in belief, as it is for any other believer of any other walk. Though I am dedicated, through my writing, to proclaim Memorialism, I am just as dedicated to advancing the human capacity for faith, in all of its forms, that is our only weapon against scientific materialism and disillusioned amorality. That, more than anything, is why “that old rugged cross, so despised by the world, has a wondrous attraction for me.” On it hangs one of our best examples of a man who helped the world by giving up on it, and whose greatest triumph appeared, for all without eyes to see, a lamentable and unnecessary failure.