Songs or any kind of writing may seem to be about something “out there,” but they are always about the writer’s experience or impressions of that thing. So in that sense they are always personal. Some of my songs over the years have been overtly autobiographical — even if couched more in mythic than literal terms. So this collection is devoted to most of those songs.
We begin with a song about my childhood, “The Dude” (2017, from Man of Irony). Just as the song tells it, this was the nickname my older brother, “Ace” (Mike) gave me at a young age. The name stuck among the family, even into my adulthood. But if the name suggests a man of the world, then it was bestowed with a good-natured sense of irony. “Was he a mystic or a space-cadet?” sums me up pretty well. I had a happy childhood, but it was spent mostly in my own world. The mournful tone of the song just turned out that way. Either my childhood wasn’t as happy as I think, or I wish I were that happy now. Or maybe it’s just an extra topping of irony.
I went to college thinking to be a zoologist, because I loved the natural world. But that plan was interrupted by a call to ministry (a change of kingdom, you might say) completely out of the blue one evening in September 1968, alone in my dorm room. Nine years later, I wrote my first song about that experience. “Knock-Knock, Who’s There?” (1977, from Chronicles of Babylon, Vol. 2) established my approach to songwriting. It mixes those old “Knock-Knock” jokes with Jesus standing at the door in Revelation 3:20, and with some musical inspiration from “Sweet Virginia” by the Rolling Stones. The song mythologizes the dorm-room scene in country & western terms. It isn’t one of my best songs, but I’m still fond of it and I can’t leave it out from this collection.
Since I’ve introduced my first song here, this might be the time to tell “The Legend of the Brothers Doug” (2020, from A Musical Personality Disorder). The story begins in the subjunctive — they couldn’t, shouldn’t, and wouldn’t be — but then blurts out their tawdry story, albeit in legendary terms befitting their shadowy existence. Poe’s raven tries to stop them, but “how can they repent of it till every Doug agrees?” They tried to stop with their next CD, Every Doug Agrees. But that still wasn’t the end of it.
“A Messenger of the Lord” (2016, from Man of Irony) was written on a bus, on my way home from some teaching in England. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the first inkling that the long years of ministry since my call in 1968 were moving toward an end. The song relates in some ways to “The Dude (“a mystic or a space cadet”), in that I had little sense of aim or objective in ministry. I simply tried to be a messenger of what was given to me. Thus, “guided by a gentle hand, with no thing toward,” “I had all the answers to questions nobody asked, I was an ironic romancer in love with a pointless task.” I trusted that the Lord had some purpose in the messages I was given, even if I didn’t know it. There are no regrets here, just perplexed gratitude.
“I Didn’t Have to Stand in Line for This” (2019, from Moments of Truth), isn’t overtly about my vocation, but about the singular life it led me to live. There was no template that seemed to fit — “I had to find my own way home.” I think the title must have come to me subliminally from Moby’s “Extreme Ways” (2002), which contains the line, “I would stand in line for this.” That song accompanies the credits at the end of the Jason Bourne films. My life has been “like Jason Bourne in slow motion . . . in the mystery of who I am.”
When I was a boy, the barber’s electric clippers sometimes bogged down as they went over the top of my head. But my mother had a lot of bald uncles, so my brother and I knew from an early age our follicular destiny, and we embraced it. But I can still enjoy someone else’s hair — “better there, where I can see it.” Thus, “Hair Envy” (1997, from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon).
“The Fever” (2019, from Moments of Truth) reflects on another side of all my unknowing, the sheer drivenness of my itineracy over the years. By 2019, after a year or more of retirement, I had some perspective on it. In this song, I immerse myself again in those decades of “heat-waves on my brain.” “Some old cat named William James” makes an appearance at the end.
“Am I Tragic Yet? (2002, from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon, rerecorded 2022) came to me in my fifties, those “long, strange years of middle age,” where you begin to wonder if you’ve lost the plot somewhere. I’d also been studying Greek tragedy with its sense of divine providence, and the growth of wisdom through tragic events. The tone here is melodramatic, but only half-humorous.
I had retired at the beginning of 2018, to return to Richmond, Indiana and help support my demented mother through her last eleven months of life. Not having made provisions for retirement, I was surprised to discover that I could just about make it on Social Security and subsidized housing in a town like Richmond. “Baby, I’m Retired” (2019, from Moments of Truth) has the air of someone who has begun to feel a bit irrelevant to the younger generations with their different concerns. “I guess it’s time to take my rest, I wish you all the very best.” The song takes some inspiration from “Look for Me, Baby” by the Kinks (1965).
Not surprisingly, much of The Last of the Brothers Doug? is taken up with aging and mortality. Two songs from that CD will suffice here. “Better with Age” (2021) is a pulsating soul stomp with plenty of conviction, but an undercurrent of irony. I think I’m channeling the great soul shouter Levi Stubbs here.
“Down the Hall” (2021) is based on a dream I had in 2019, where I leave some rooms full of people and am walking alone down a hallway. I can see that it ends in nothingness, but I go ahead and walk off the end. I then see my dead body lying on concrete two or three floors below. An angel chorus accompanies me here, “as I walk on down the hall.”
Finally, in 2005, as I watched my parents move through their 80s and my mother drift further into dementia, I wrote “Time Is Like Wine” (from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon). We get drunk with time as the years roll on faster and we’re “really gulping it down.” Now in my 70s, it seems all the more true to me — though “Pandemic Haze” (see the Pandemic Collection) has accelerated the process.
Some of the songs in this collection could have just as easily gone into the Mystery Collection, and some those could have gone here. Apocalyptic is where mystery meets history. Perhaps because my calling to ministry came in the cataclysmic year of 1968, I have long had an interest in the apocalyptic texts of the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation. Studying the early Quaker leader George Fox, I learned how to interpret these texts in terms of my own experience, both personal and social — and to interpret my experience in light of those texts. (On my other website, douglasgwyn.life, you can find several books devoted to this perspective.) The exotic imagery of apocalyptic literature has patterns I would call fractal. That is, they operate on any scale of experience, in any age. As such, they are not predictions of the future, as usually assumed, but revelations of present tendencies, with implications for faith and action. The songs in this collection have arisen from that understanding and from my experience over half a century of watching “the form of this world passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31).
“In the Flow” (2008, from A Musical Personality Disorder) is probably the place to start. It begins with the Holy Ghost “burning me down to the ground” as she drives me on in following the call. It ends with life in the heavenly Jerusalem (from Revelation 22), “a riddle in the middle of this great big mess.” Rimbaud’s visionary “Drunken Boat” even makes a brief appearance in the song’s bridge. But the title and concept of the song come from the world of basketball, where players experience periods of being “in the flow” of the game. As an unskilled but passionate player, my experiences of that flow were few but enlightening.
“Babble On” (2015, from The Political Unconscious) follows from “In the Flow,” but was probably prompted by the unraveling political conversation of the time. From its do-wop (or pentecostal?) opening, this song moves into a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem (from Revelation 22), not from the outside but from the inside. Actually, that’s the only place where it can be seen. Everywhere else, Babylon’s babble, the world’s uproar, renders it invisible. Some kind of synaesthesia, I suppose. As suggested by “In the Flow,” the heavenly Jerusalem is “a riddle in the middle” of Babylon. The passage from Babylon to Jerusalem comes by way of a mysterious act named at the end of the song.
“Dreams and Visions” (2021, from The Last of the Brothers Doug?) was inspired by a review of my dream journals over most of my lifetime. Many of the dreams had apocalyptic, visionary dimensions, either hopeful or dismal. Jung suggested that there is a collective unconscious with millennia-old archetypes from which dreams form. We tend to emphasize the individual’s dream and ignore the larger reality Jung meant to suggest. The dream participates in the larger reality of a vast human and planetary history, much as apocalyptic spirituality understands personal spiritual experience as participating in cosmic and historical reality. The Book of Daniel, the only fully apocalyptic book in Hebrew Scripture (and the primary template for the Book of Revelation) mixes dreams and visions fluidly. This song attempts something similar.
“Noah’s Anarchy (a Fable for the Nineties)” (1995, from Moments of Truth) takes the Genesis legend of Noah’s ark and mixes it with Isaiah’s vision of animals in the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11), to create a “fable for the nineties.” It’s a satire about Americans finding all sorts of personal reasons to ignore the growing danger signs in society and the environment, and not “get on board” with a more just and sustainable life. At eight and a half minutes, this is easily my longest song — it takes a while to portray a good range of our excuses. But Mr. and Mrs. Serpent will have the last say.
“The Future Perfect” (2019, from Moments of Truth) explores that strangest of all tenses, which puts the future into the past, from the present moment of the speaker. I have always been intrigued by the future perfect, perhaps owing to my utopian tendencies, which are confessed here. There’s a brief echo in the last verse from John Lennon, the modern patron saint of dreamers. This grammarian song deplores the subjunctive mood, which is deplored at length in “Subjunctivitis” (2010, from A Musical Personality Disorder). That song unfortunately didn’t make it into this collection. Maybe it woulda-coulda-should’ve.
“Seven-Sealed Scroll” and “James Nayler 1660” (2020, from A Musical Personality Disorder) belong together in sequence. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph to this collection, I see the visions in Revelation as fractal: that is, they can be interpreted on any scale from personal to social, and in any age of history. They are not about the end of the world, but they can help us see an end of a world, a given socio-economic order and our participation in it. This song takes its language and imagery from Revelation 5-6: the revelation of the Lamb and the breaking of the seven seals on a scroll which contains the destiny of the world. You may recognize some of the images at play in this present time of conflict and transition.
In Revelation 6, the breaking of the seventh seal brings silence — hence, the song abruptly stops. “James Nayler 1660” follows. It is the testament of that early Quaker leader, who was savagely treated by Parliament for enacting a sign of Christ’s coming in the flesh of common people like himself, a Yorkshire farmer. He survived long enough to describe the sublime space where he had emerged. His words are spoken here in quiet cascades, with Steve Roach’s electronic soundscape, “Slowly Revealed” (2009) as background.
“Living in the End” (2013, from Terms and Conditions, rerecorded 2022) is more directly autobiographical or confessional. As some of the songs in the “Memoir Collection” suggest, my calling to ministry in the apocalyptic year of 1968 formed me in particular ways. The original recording was influenced by Neil Young’s “Running Dry” (1969), which gave it a more mournful tone than seems right. This rerecording comes closer to the song’s intention. It has a riff loosely inspired by Mick Ronson’s great guitar riff on David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” (1972), but played here on a synthesized koto.
I might have called this the mystical collection, but mysticism has rarified connotations that don’t fit very well with my songs or my experience. But there’s plenty of mystery in my experience of God and the universe, and the songs in this collection range far and wide in that mystery — with irony always in the mix. After all, our experience of the divine always seems to arrive at some ironic distance from our expectations and agendas.
We begin with the cosmic — “Dark Matter/Dark Energy” (2019, from Moments of Truth), a playful mix of astrophysics and theology. Modern physics suggest that over 90% of the universe is made up of “dark” matter and energy, undetected by any existing instruments. Only this overwhelming preponderance of unseen matter and energy can account for the gravitational dynamics that hold galaxies together and make them spin. This undetected realm is where “we live and move and have our being,” to use the phrase of the ancient Stoic philosophers, which the apostle Paul borrowed when visiting Athens (Acts 17). While dark matter/energy exerts a gravitational force visible on the scale of galaxies, it’s influence extends down to smaller scales. This song suggests that it may be what Paul in Galatians 6 calls the fruit of the Spirit, drawing and holding humans together wherever we attune ourselves to it. This song is neither astrophysics nor metaphysics, but analogy. Musically, the song is inspired by “White Heat/White LIght” by the Velvet Underground (1968). But while theirs is an ode to amphetamine, mine aspires still higher.
“An Epiphany Waiting to Happen” (2011, from Terms and Conditions) took some inspiration from Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” (1965), then took a turn through the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” (1970), but then moved into territory all its own. It expressses God’s invitation to “turn round and see me,” which is always in a direction we weren’t looking, even if we were seeking. I think I’m channeling Waylon Jennings here. In addition, the Hound of Heaven offers a solo howl.
“The Foot of the Cross” (2015, from A Musical Personality Disorder) draws upon the early Quaker understanding and my own experience of the cross of Jesus as a place to stand and see oneself and others in a new light, a place where profound personal transformation can take place. It is also a place where the institutions and norms of the world seem less self-evident and inevitable. Not an easy place to stand, but the only place, once you find it.
“The Disorient Express” (2009, from The Political Unconscious) follows from “The Foot of the Cross” in logic if not in time. When you find that place to stand, you are disoriented from what passed for reality before. The world does all the moving, while “this train is going nowhere.” You don’t need to go looking for conflict — it will come to you. All you have to do is stand fast. I had to channel Leonard Cohen to find the voice for this song.
Of course, no one can just hang out in eternity during this life. Events and the demands of an engaged life routinely pull us off our center in that place. We have to learn over time how to keep getting back to that place and acting from there. “Swing by Eternity” (2020, from Every Doug Agrees) reflects on seventy years of life between eternity and time.
“Maranatha High” (2018, from Moments of Truth) draws upon the Aramaic word meaning “Come, Lord,” or “Our Lord has come” (at the end of 1 Corinthians and of Revelation). Thus, the song plays with the ambiguity between future hope and present fulfillment. In my Quaker tradition of worship, silent “waiting upon the Lord” is an expectation that invites revelations in the present. The structure of the song’s verses is chiastic — that is, they proceed from the center, mirroring in opposite directions. That structure is found in a variety of ancient biblical texts, perhaps intending to suggest the structure of mystical experience. You can also find it in “Questioningly,” by the Ramones (1978). Musically, this song drew inspiration from “Pay No Mind,” by Beach House (2018).
“Party in the Godhead Tonight!” (2016, from The Political Unconscious) was inspired by “Wang Dang Doodle” by Willie Dixon/Howlin’ Wolf (1960) about a big party tonight and who’s going to be there. In the political unconscious, this is the party you want to join. Musically, the song came out somewhere between the blues and Southern boogie. It may be the only rave-up the Brothers Doug ever achieved.
There are many other mystery songs scattered through the CDs on this website. But we will wrap up this collection with “Ride That Alpha Wave” (2016, which concludes The Political Unconscious), a surfer-song from the ocean of love. Like “Maranatha High,” this song has a chiastic structure, with Yahweh at the center and verses mirroring out from there. Meanwhile, consonants give the words form, but life breathes through the vowels. I don’t know much about alpha waves. They seem to be the low background hum of the nervous system. The divine presence isn’t alpha waves, but has a similar quality, easily missed. Musically, this song draws inspiration from drone effects of “Venus in Furs” by the Velvet Underground (1967).
The life of Jesus plays out between two Marys — his mother Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala, who was there at the cross, and then at his tomb, according to all four New Testament gospel accounts, most prominently in the Gospel of John. These four songs briefly trace the arc of those three lives.
We begin with “Honky-Tonkin’ in Nazareth” (1978, from Chronicles of Babylon, Vol. 2), which has offended some people. Some others thought it was a hoot. I guess both took it to be a sacreligious romp. But it isn’t that to me. The gospels mythologize the birth of Jesus along lines of the miraculous birth of Samuel in Hebrew Scripture, with perhaps a bit of ancient Greek anti-materialism mixed in. Thus, while Isaiah 9 prophesies that a “young woman” will give birth to the Messiah, she becomes a virgin in Matthew and Luke. I was still in my twenties when I wrote this song, remythologizing the story in terms of a country & western story-song, from the Father’s viewpoint. I admit some of the lines of this early song are a bit jokey, but the overall intent is serious. All the gospel stories are potentially parables for our own experience. Indeed, each of us is a virgin to the love of God. And each of us is chosen to bear the Messiah into the world. And from there, “everything turns to irony.”
“Jesus Anarchist!” (2011, from The Political Unconscious) explores the politics of Jesus, which are basically anarchist. His movements and sayings, his parables and comments about the kingdom of heaven all have an indeterminate social and political thrust. We may try to “bottle” it all in what we believe to be appropriate institutional arrangements, but God’s realm is always moving over, under, around, through, and beyond them. Whatever one’s religious or nonreligious affinities, faith must remain open to those movements and ready to move with them. (The Brothers and I probably should have waited until we were fully past a sinus infection before recording this song, but the Spirit moved and there it is.)
“The Good Is a Merciless God” (2021, from Every Doug Agrees) looks at Jesus’ refusal to be called “good” — “Only God is good” — and his story of the Samaritan in Luke. The song challenges our tendency to put “good” in place of God, and to subordinate God to our ideas of the good.
“The Magdalene and the Nazarene” (2011, from Terms and Conditions, rerecorded 2022) is another long story-song. The relationship between Mary the Magdalene and Jesus the Nazarene remains mysterious. They grew up only about fourteen miles from each other in Galilee and could easily have known each other before his ministry began (with “the descending dove”). Luke’s gospel comments that Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary. That might suggest what we today would call mental illness. But that might simply be the perspective of the male disciples, whose “minds are clouded by semen” (that is, men’s vexed perceptions of women). In any case, what we often label as mental illness often includes perceptions that most of us miss. Mary is the pivotal figure (especially in the Gospel of John) in recognizing the risen Jesus. As such, she is sometimes called “the apostle to the apostles.” Her experience opened the others to the new revelation. This song explores those possibilities, inspired in part by experiences of my own.
Finally, “Event Horizon” (2021, from Every Doug Agrees) again features Mary Magdalene, who takes me to the empty tomb of Jesus. Here we remythologize in astrophysical terms, taking the empty tomb to be an “event horizon,” a term used for the threshold of a black hole, beyond which nothing that happens can be seen from this side. Or at least it cannot be seen from our normal perspective on this side. Mary is the guide who takes me fully through an experience I had only glimpsed earlier. (This relates to a prose piece, “Tomb with a View,” included in my memoir, Life in Gospel-Space, 2020).
I haven’t written many love songs over the years. There are some great ones and a lot more mediocre ones already out there. The ones I have written may not be great, but they’re different.
We begin with “Jungian Love Song” (2009, from Terms and Conditions), which celebrates my love for my wife Caroline. The “dorm” where we lived was not in college but at Pendle Hill, the Quaker adult study center where we met in 1994. Of course, any of my songs, including love songs, is going to be rife with ironic twists and theological perspectives. I’m not against heart-felt expressions of healthy emotion, but it’s not where song-writing takes me. And how many love songs include a line from “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?
“Aw, Darlin’” (2017, from Man of Irony) is a confession of my emotional inarticulateness. Like many men, I find it difficult to put words to feelings, especially at close range. (Women seem able to go on at length.) I wish I were better at it on a consistent basis. But often all I can utter is something like “Aw, Darlin’.”
“Judy Iscariot” (2014, from The Political Unconscious) is about when love goes awry, when our romantic projections upon each other don’t match reality, when a man or woman “is not exactly what s/he seems.” To quote Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.
“Draped Across My Mind” (2015, from The Political Unconscious) is about lost love. I wrote and recorded it before I read Freud’s theory of grief and melancholy. He suggested that the image of the lost love-object falls like a shadow upon the psyche, and that the ego is formed in part by lost love-objects. In the last verse, the song shifts from the singular woman to the collective feminine of Jerusalem, as grieved by the Jewish exiles in Babylon (Psalm 138).
This collection of songs focuses on our identities and our differences, viewed within the perspective of our common life. I have listened and learned much from theorists and activists on issues of gendered, racial, sexual and other identities. I have little to add to their important insights. But I believe that as we come to terms with our different identities on a more equal and respectful basis, we shall come to see our common life in new ways. That is true horizon of our many present struggles, I believe. So the songs collected here follow a sequence toward that horizon.
“The Blues of Heaven” (2016, from Man of Irony) needs a little unpacking. I came to love the blues when I was in college, running a coffeehouse we called The Morgue. I was fortunate to get to know one of the early bluesmen, James “Yank” Rachel. I also met the great blues poet, “Sleepy” John Estes a couple times. I felt a transcendence in the blues unlike anything else, and it offered a certain kind of entree to the African American experience. Yank shared with me some of his early experiences playing for house parties and fish fries in rural Tennessee in the 1920s. Twenty years later, an acute illness landed me in the ER for three days and nights. The first night, as I skirted rather close to the other side, I heard the most sublime blues. (Isaiah and Elijah add their witness to this song.)
“Let the Captives Go Free” (2014, from Political Unconscious, rerecorded 2022) is an old-time protest song, in a country-blues vein, inspired by reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The song’s bridge was inspired by black liberation theologian James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. He suggests how those two spectral images interpret one another: Jesus was lynched, and African Americans have been crucified by American society. And there’s some of Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory of culture in the mix. The last verse is informed by George Fox, who wrote in 1658 that so many innocent Quakers were being imprisoned for their faith at that time because God’s witness was still imprisoned within England’s rulers. Years after writing the song, I read Bob Dylan’s comment that a protest song shouldn’t be preachy or one-dimension. “You have to show people a side of themselves that they don’t know is there.” That’s what this song tries to do.
“Crossroad Blues” (2016, from Man of Irony) reworks a song from the 1930s by the great early bluesman Robert Johnson. The African American theologian Thandeka, in Learning to be White, suggests that even European Americans have to learn how to “pass for white,” according to a WASP-dominated culture. Even as a white Midwesterner with Welsh roots, I experienced something of this when I lived a couple years in New England, still the most WASP region in the fifty US states, even today, in more secularized versions. There was racism there, of course, but I discovered even the anti-racism carried a certain white normativity. I wrote this song while living at a crossroads, with a flashing light that shone through my window at night.
“Grandma Was a Klingon” (1999, from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon) sprang from waking up one morning, feeling the supra-orbital ridge on my forehead, and wondering, “Could I part Klingon?” I like the way science-fiction uses other worlds as an “alienation effect” to look at social questions on this planet. This is a little foray into that realm, to explain why I “feel so alienated.” The tune owes something to the Beatles’ “Don’t Pass Me By.”
“Frigidaire” (1997, from Chronicles of Babylon) came toward the end of a hot, dank Philadelphia summer, when I felt captive to air conditioning. It made me wonder what goes on inside a refrigerator while the door is closed. It somehow relates to the conversation about multiculturalism in those days. It seemed to me that the conversation unfolded mostly in the air-conditioned comfort of the academically educated middle-classes. That subliminal cultural captivity can make such conversations edgy at times. We’re “afraid to go out there.” (“Frigidaire” was an American appliance brand-name of another era.)
Or is it a parlor instead of a refrigerator? “The Parlor of No Return” (2013, from A Musical Personality Disorder) came to me as I reflected on my itinerent life as a Quaker minister. Whether I was among evangelical Christians or liberal humanists, it seemed I was part of a polite parlor conversation, shaded a bit differently in each case, but always with “more good manners to learn.” This is not just a Quaker phenomenon but broadly true of middle-class America, while “in the street Lazarus tells a different tale.” You may recognize a brief echo from John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” (1970) near the end.
As I suggested in the introduction to this collection, I hope that as we come to terms better with our different identities, we will begin to see our common life and common good more clearly. This commonality is surely rooted in the earth itself and in renewing our connection with the earth and its species. Reading literature about the commons has inspired some of my more recent songs. “Common as Dirt” (2018, from Moments of Truth) came to me that Indiana summer, when instead of turning on the air conditioner, I just walked around my apartment naked. The song draws upon the story of Eden to uncover the naked truth about all of us.
“All Life Is Human Life” (2019, also from Moments of Truth) is a further meditation on our earthly commonality. Like “Adam,” “human” means from the earth. That definition implies not just our own species. Some other species join in on this song. The song’s down-home style just seemed right, somehow.
Finally, I live in hope that all of us will live into our common reality, before we damage ourselves and our planet any further. “The Common Is Coming On” (2020, from A Musical Personality Disorder) concludes this set on a cheerful note. It was written in February that year, just before the pandemic descended upon us — more evidence of our common life-and-death.
I have long had an interest in systemic approaches to social issues. Economics offer some helpful perspectives on some of the dilemmas of our modern world. Economic life also impinges upon our spiritual lives more than we often imagine. Here are some songs that have occurred over the years.
We begin with “Cheeseburger Deluxe” (1980, from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon), an early song that ponders my love of cheeseburgers within the context of an increasingly addictive consumer society. The song spun off from listening to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” from Highway 61 Revisited (1965). But while Dylan’s great song presciently describes the end of one world, as it was taking place in the 1960s, my song anticipates another world closing in on us in the 1980s, a commodity-driven existence within a globalizing economy. The “Joe’s” mentioned in the song was the Greek diner near where I worked in New York at that time. They served a really juicy burger!
“Mall Story” (1990, from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon) is another early song, inspired by wading through too many commercial breaks during the NBA playoffs that year. I kept noticing how they utilized various romantic images and story-lines to sell things like cars and tires. This little satire developed from there. Television ads still portray “the converging credit-lines of love” today.
I once read a remark by Robert Greenleaf, business consultant and author of the popular book, Servant Leadership (1977), that “the corporation is chattel.” It puzzled me. But later, the US Supreme Court affirmed that corporations are legal “persons” and free to skew the political process by contributing huge amounts of money to political campaigns. But it occurred to me that corporate personhood can cut both ways. “Liberate the Corporation Now!” (2016, from Man of Irony) explores the implications.
“The Wreck of the Economy” (2005, from The Political Unconscious) works with the ship-wreck theme, popular in traditional folksongs. You will notice some echoes of the sinking of the Titanic in this song. Only here it’s the global economy. It came to me in 2005, ahead of the financial collapse of 2007-08. But it didn’t take clairvoyance or a PhD in economics to see it coming. The “irrational exuberance” of the markets and the hubris of Wall Street’s self-proclaimed “masters of the universe” had exceeded all bounds. The ghosts of Karl Marx and Adam Smith make cameo appearances as the song goes on. The year 2023 isn’t necessarily a prediction. But I heard that number in a waking moment at the time I was working on the song, so I put it in at the end.
Speaking of going underwater, “Higher Ground” (2007, from Terms and Conditions) can’t decide whether it’s about the hole in the ozone layer or the national debt. In any case, it takes off from an old revival hymn by that title to ponder how personal salvation (religious or secular) has “become our besetting sin.”
I was living in Richmond, Indiana when the Great Recession set in by 2008, and small rust-belt towns were hit harder than some other places. A wave of business closures swept over the town, prompting “All Along the Strip-Mall” (2012, from Terms and Conditions). The title was inspired by Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (1967), but here the watchtower is laid on its side.
“Prostitution by Other Means” (2017, from Man of Irony) wraps up this cautionary set. One day, I thought, if politics is war by other means, what is employment? It all just flowed from there. Later that year, I decided it was time to retire.
I am a Christian theist. It’s not a personal choice for me, but the result of direct, life-changing experiences of Christ and the living God. It would be false for me to try to be anything else. But I am also aware that Christian history and tradition carry baggage that has been harmful for many. Meanwhile, as I have listened for divine intuitions and studied the Bible over the years, I find a rich interplay between masculine and feminine images and energies of God. I have also come to terms with my own experiences and biblical expressions of God’s absence.
The songs in this collection have come to me over the years, out of my own personal experience, study, and dialogue with others whose experience is different from mine. God-Goddess-Godless is a living dialectic that keeps faith alive, at least for me. To settle into one position against the others would become static, dualistic. One definition of irony is “undecidability.” The ironic bent in my songwriting attempts to keep all terms in play.
We begin with “Oh, Shekinah, Baby!” (2020, from the Musical Personality Disorder CD on this site). Shekinah in the Hebrew Bible is the feminine word/name for God’s Presence or Light. My own Quaker tradition doesn’t use that term, but has much to say about following the Light’s leadings. The song’s title is clearly playful, but the song itself is a serious, if ellipitical expression of my experience.
Masculine gendered words, names, and images of God predominate in the Bible and in Christian tradition. This is much bemoaned today, but masculine images and energies are vital, in a living interplay with feminine ones. “Hi-Yo Yahweh” (December 2016, from Man of Irony) started very early in my song-writing, in 1978. But it finally came together nearly 40 years later. Again, the title is playful: the God of ancient, patriarchal Israel meets the Lone Ranger. But the song is a serious meditation on God holding a plumbline among the nations, assessing their truth and justice. This song was written in the weeks following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
“Paloma” (2016, from Man of Irony) or “dove,” is a biblical image for the Holy Spirit, another way of speaking of divine presence. Both Ruah in the Hebrew Bible and Pneuma in Christian Scripture are the feminine-gendered words/names for Spirit. But again, “I’m a witness”: I sing from experience. In the bridge, is that scat or singing in tongues??
“Sophia, Sophia” (2017, from Man of Irony) plays with one more feminine image/energy. Hochma in the Hebrew Bible and Sophia in Christian Scripture are the feminine-gendered words/names for divine Wisdom. In Proverbs 8, she is there with the Lord creating the universe. In Luke 7, she is verified by all her children, not just some. Musically, this song started out from the blues standard, “Corinna, Corinna,” and took off from there as a playful expression of my experience. She’s still “a mystery to me.”
The title of “Goddess Wants Me for a Moonbeam” (1991, from Every Doug Agrees) takes off from a song I remember singing in Sunday School, “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.” This is a rather strange song. Ostensibly, it’s about the breakup of the Trinity, when the Holy Spirit gets fed up with the patriarchal Father and the captivity of the Son on Christian TV. She goes out on her own as a “godless goddess, for goodness sake.” I’m a “codependent son,” torn by these developments, still believing that “God is One.” Actually, the song was occasioned by the breakup of my first marriage that year, so the theological reflection is driven by an acute, existential pain.
“My God” (1988, from The Best pf Chronicles of Babylon) takes off from the Temptations’ “My Girl” (1965) and predates the “My God” sung by Whoopi Goldberg and the nuns in Sister Act (1992). It lampoons the tendency in religious seeking in those times to merge with consumer culture. That is, mixing and matching what religious ideas and practices one likes, to create a God that “fits me like a glove.” The song suggests a comfortable, middle-class setting: “Why should I kneel and pray? I’ve got money, I can pay.” The “personal God” was the last stop for some on the way to no God at all.
“I Don’t Really Exist” (2003, from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon) came to me while I was teaching at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, England. I encountered more nontheist Friends there than I had met in the US. I found much to admire in many of them, especially ethically. So I kept listening and learning. In this song, I extend as far as I can in that direction. Later, I discovered Kierkegaard’s pithy remark, “God does not exist; God is eternal.”
“Nietzsche in Heaven” (2007, from Terms and Conditions) imagines the surprise poor Friedrich might experience finding himself in heaven and meeting the God he had declared dead. The Lord greets him warmly (“Now it’s you that’s dead, can I call you Fred?”) and invites him to settle wherever he wants. Heaven is for everyone. But that’s just the problem for Friedrich, who had disdained Judaism and Christianity as resentful “slave religion.” He favored of the subtle insights of the ancient noble Greek and Roman philosophers. This song was inspired in part by a dream I had in my late teens, with me much like Nietzsche.
“The Good Is a Merciless God” (2021, from Every Doug Agrees) reflects on the way we tend to judge God according to our ideas of the good — and often find God wanting. But our ideas are not the measure of all things, least of all divine mysteries. Everyone thinks they’re doing gppd, by some reasoning. Some will even kill in defense of the good. Good versus good is a bloody history.
Like some people I talk to, I have doubts about where continuous technological disruptions are taking us. Many seem to be primed for whatever comes next. But I have long been convinced of Jacques Ellul’s critique that technological means have a way of imposing their own unforeseen ends upon those who utilize them. Nothing is just a tool. Techno-capitalism is an especially potent interplay of two kinds of means: financial assets and technical know-how. Many good things generate from that interplay. But in my lifetime we have tended increasingly to equate progress with technological innovation. Especially with the digital revolution, much “progress” amounts to speed, efficiency, and proliferation — not necessarily to the benefit of all people or the planet. Here are some songs that muse on this dilemma.
We begin with a song about a relatively low-tech tool, the gun. It’s been around for centuries, but it seems to have taken over the minds of so many in America and beyond, despite the terrible toll on human life and happiness guns take. “The Gun” (2018) comes from the Moments of Truth CD included on this site.
The instantaneous global Now of the internet seems to be swallowing up our sense of history. Not just the past but even future, except for near-term questions like what’s next? how can I avoid it? or make the most of it? “Real Time” (2021) from The Last of the Brothers Doug? takes a deep dive into the “continuous reptilian reflex.”
The internet used to be called the Information Highway. But by now, informational technologies have so enclosed us we hardly think about it anymore. We just Google our next question. But there are bigger questions that are not simply a matter of information. The accumulation of facts, statistics, data, forestalls questions of value, morality, meaning, the life of the Spirit. At a certain point, information becomes “Miss Information,” the goddess who always beckons us on (2020, from Every Doug Agrees).
The perpetual drive toward the new and the next produces an “Aspirational Culture,” the pervasive affects of promise, ambition, hype, advertising, and political manipulation. Besides our own personal aspirations, we may easily become mesmerized by media bombardment. Borrowing from Isaiah 6, this song’s refrain utilizes paradoxical intention , encouraging us not to see or hear what’s actually coming. (2021, from The Last of the Brothers Doug?) In this recording, a voice emerges somewhere between Leonard Cohen and “The Monster Mash.”
Memes “go viral.” “Me-Me, Me Be a Meme” (2020, from Every Doug Agrees) adopts the personality of this “virus desirous” and the toll it takes upon actual thinking. Undeniably “cute” or “clever,” memes “seem to mean, mean to seem,” putting the “mind in a kink.” They short-circuit the larger-scale reflection and invention that humanity and the earth so desperately need.
Finally, these concerns are not new for me and some others. As I followed the stampede into cyberspace in the mid-1990s, I sensed the gnostic, anti-material potential of this noosphere. Even as we busily interconnect to work for peace and justice, and save the earth, the internet draws us further away from the earth, its species, and our neighbors. “My Love Dwells in Cyberspace” (1998, from Chronicles of Babylon, Vol. 1, but not included in The Best of Chronicles of Babylon on this site) is the satire of a man for whom “beyond the surf, something beckoned.”
The pandemic has given us all a workout of one kind or another. I managed to stay healthy, and so did my muse. This has been the most prolific song-writing and recording period in my life. Four songs are directly about the pandemic experience itself.
First, a little fun with pandemic precautions. I’ve been fully vaccinated, boosted, masked and distanced. But I also notice how our political polarization has driven us into competing orthodoxies. Orthodoxies may be true, but it’s healthy to play a little with them, to keep them from becoming legalisms. I’ve always liked those old dance-craze songs, like “The Twist” and “Locomotion.” This song follows in that tradition. “Do the Social Distance,” was written and recorded in the first months of the pandemic, April 2020.
The same month, I also wrote this song, “COVID 19, What Does It Mean?” It encapsulates an essay I wrote at that time by the same title. The subtitle is “A Virus Goes Allegorical.” It is included in my book Into the Common: A Journal in Eighteen Essays (2021). Allegory is a way of exploring different levels of meaning of a text or phenomenon. This song explores the medical, economic, political, and environmental levels of the pandemic. It ends with the poor little pangolin, now an endangered species in Asia, hunted for its scales, which have doubtful health benefits for humans. Scientists have been speculated that covid traveled from bats to pangolins and to humans via a Chinese meat market.
A year later in March 2021, two more pandemic songs hatched. The first muses on the way many of us have found our usual reference points disordered by the pandemic. Time has become especially fluid — especially for a retiree like myself. The lyric to “Pandemic Haze” is a minor rewrite of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” Psychedelia meets (temporary, I hope) dementia.
The other song that month reflects on the second round of stimulus checks issued by the federal government, to alleviate the pandemic’s financial stresses. Where I live in subsidized housing for seniors, the checks made a difference and were a frequent topic of conversation among us. This is the first song I’ve ever written with the words “prevenient grace.”
At the time of this writing (February 2022) I hope there will be no more pandemic songs to write. Maybe I can start writing endemic songs.