My Uncle Lennie died six months ago. He had a profound influence over my life and that was mostly due to music. He introduced me to a world of music that is still with me today. I started listening to the improvisational jam-prog-band Phish when I was ten years old. I saw my first show at sixteen and I saw my latest shows this summer. I’ve only seen them about thirty times (if you know anything about Phish culture that puts me on the low end of the obsessive totals). Among a few lessons, Lennie’s death has shown me that so many of us are indebted to musical legacies, that is, music which is passed down to us from others—often family members.
When I think of the people who have had the most impact on my life from a musical perspective it is family. Lennie is there at the top if for no other reason than my two decade-plus excursion with Phish. But my dad is also right there. I stole most of my dad’s record collection when I got into vinyl (Jackson Browne, Michael Jackson, The Beatles, solo projects from Beatles, John Denver, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, among others). And when I think of other artists I listen to there is almost always a connection to another family member—another uncle or a cousin for example. Music is important. And if the family is foundational and there are bedrock connections to music inherited from family, then music is foundational.
Music is foundational because it even creates communities that function like family. Rabid fans of a certain musical act or style of music can attest to this. In many cases this is the—for all intents and purposes—actual family a person enjoys. I find it hard to write about foundational things because they need to be experienced. How do you explain what your family is like? How do you explain what a close group of friends is like? These are things that necessitate experience. The real experience is sharing music with others and one of the reasons I commandeered my dad’s vinyl collection was because of shared experience. You can place a record player in the middle of a room, you have to flip the disc, and it becomes a conversation piece. There’s a physical connection to the music and the people listening. The ultimate in shared experiences for me—even more so than vinyl in a living room—is seeing live music. Live music is the payoff for the hours and money invested in a particular group. I think there is something similar happening with music in worshiping communities. It’s hard to explain to someone why hymns, psalms, or spiritual songs do something for you; it’s just something that needs to be experienced in the context of community. It’s hard to sell the liturgy to someone by explaining it, in a similar way it’s like trying to describe how beautiful the star-lit sky was last night. You may appreciate that I apparently appreciate it, but you’re not experiencing it yourself.
When we started focusing on doing things more intentionally with music at my first parish we made a rule that whatever we did it would be live. Previously, out of necessity, we recorded some aspects of the music that was played in worship. We arrived at a place where we felt that was no longer necessary and it was for the good of the whole community that our worship music be played live. And so we did. I understand that it isn’t always possible to have live music; it seems musicians are sadly in shorter supply these days. But for us it was possible and, for those parishes where it is possible, live is always better.
Music—live music—is the stuff I live for. And Christianity itself is a live experience. The liveliness is what people live for when it comes to the church. It is an in-person-flesh-and-blood experience of a community of people who follow Jesus who is alive. Christians who celebrate the Lord’s Supper often also participate in a live experience with the in-person-flesh-and-blood Jesus. At a concert time can feel malleable as connections are made across generations, and in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper time operates similarly. “On the night in which he was betrayed”—suddenly past and present are brought together as we hear these words and recall our Lord’s passion. And just like at a concert when a lot of the fun is anticipating what’s next, so at the Lord’s Supper we participate in anticipation of the wedding feast of the Lamb in his coming kingdom.
If you’re reading this you’ve more than likely participated in a concert and a liturgy of the Eucharist and so, whether you thought of it or not, you’ve been a participant in something live.
As an avid sports fan there are few things better than when your team wins—especially when you’re there in person. The highs of seeing a win is balanced (or overtaken if you’re a Met fan) by the lows of seeing a loss in person. Due to this one of the first things that dawned on me seeing Phish live was that it was like going to see your favorite team play and never lose. You always left with a win. Besides using this as an opportunity to say some more weird things about Phish what I’m getting at is joy is a big part of experiencing something live. America seems pretty joyless these days, especially for those Americans who spend an inordinate amount of time online. There is something deeply ironic about the live connection that high speed internet brings us while at the same time stealing away our joy. More than anything else right now I think Americans need to reconnect with joy.
The cool thing about joy is that it naturally coexists with the full-range of human emotions. Happiness is not a prerequisite for experiencing joy. Joy can fully exist alongside something like sadness. And joy is needed in a big way these days. We seem to live in a society full of people who have challenges processing their emotions in relation to their experiences. Joy is the antidote.
When I saw Phish in Camden, NJ on June 30th they opened with a song called The Curtain With. The last time I saw Phish with Lennie was at Madison Square Garden on July 30, 2017. They opened that show playing the very same song. I really wasn’t sure what to expect seeing Phish for the first time with Lennie at rest but I figured I’d experience some emotion. When Phish began playing the notes to The Curtain With what I felt was joy. Was I contemplative? Was I sad? Sure. But I was overcome with joy. Every time I come to the Eucharist I think of Lennie and other loved ones who have gone before us. And in addition to feelings of sadness I am overcome by joy. Joy doesn’t rob me of processing sadness, it just carries me along. And in the Eucharist I encounter joy personified, in the flesh-and-blood of Jesus.
A lot of my writing contains advocacy of some kind. There is a time and a place for that, but I think I sometimes miss the simple joy of writing just to write. This is one of those times. I don’t feel like I’m advocating for anything (other than live music). I’m just in a contemplative place and I want to share a little joy. If there’s one thing I think the church can learn from live music it’s the experience of enjoyment. And enjoyment—ah, there I go again. I’ll just speak for myself and say I need to spend more time enjoying life, even if that comes with a range of emotions. Maybe you do too. So go catch a show while it’s still summer and let a little joy into your life.