Monday, April 18, 2011

The Man in Black and the road to Damascus (Hey Paul)

Johnny Cash

It is skirting close to cliche these days to love Johnny Cash. But I am comfortable with that. While it is his music that keeps me coming back, I find myself equally fascinated with his complicated relationship with spirituality and religion.

In fact, some of my favourite of his tracks are the gospel ones. They seem to ache with hope and anguish in equal doses. Sometimes they verge on the ridiculous (The Greatest Cowboy of Them All), sometimes they are apocalyptic (When the Man Comes Around), sometimes they are downright terrifying (God's Gonna Cut You Down), and others are steeped in tradition (I'll Fly Away). No matter what, the thing that catches me is the authenticity and honesty that he brings to the performance. It disarms me every time.

It is irrelevant whether the listener shares his faith or not.

This is because Johnny manages to remain remarkably human when dealing with the divine.

My father bought me Johnny Cash's book "The Man in White" which retells the story of the apostle Paul and his experience on the road to Damascus through the eyes of the Man in Black. As the story goes, Paul (who was at the time called Saul) had made it his life mission to persecute and kill Christians. On his way to Damascus, he was struck from his horse and blinded by Jesus who asked him, "Why do you persecute me?". Well, Saul changed his name to Paul and became an advocate instead.

In the "Man in White", Johnny identifies himself with Paul. The blurb of the book sums up the connection:

Johnny Cash. The Apostle Paul.
Passionate. Controversial.
Fiery. Destructive. Redeemed.

Johnny sees the human side of Paul. Celebrates his weakness and shares in his victories. I like how Johnny grounds this story in a human experience, and connects it to his own.

While Paul's letters have never been my favourite part of the New Testament, I can't help but feel jealous of him and Johnny. They have complete certainty of purpose. Absolute conviction.

This quality is scary in the hands of the wrong people, but can become admirable in those have perception, tolerance and a genuine sense of direction. The problem is that the ideas too often turn sour, the plans go astray, the attention span wanes, the vision is inevitably diluted by the passing of time, the conviction shattered by doubts, and the person makes themself more important than the purpose.

I'm happier treading water in the mystery these days, but every now and then, I catch a glimpse of Johnny and Paul's certainty and wonder.

This song is a my own letter to Paul. The first version is a live recording of 'The Dickens' in May 2010. The second clip is of 'Savage Adams'. My band mate and collaborator Dan Adams wrote an extra verse to this song (which he sings at the beginning), and played a crucial role in arrangement.

Hey Paul (Live w/ The Dickens May 2010)
(Words: Andrew Savage & Dan Adams Music: Andrew Savage w/Adams, King, Eastwood & Rhoades)

Hey Paul (Live w/ Savage Adams 2010)
(Words: Andrew Savage & the first verse by Dan Adams Music: Andrew Savage w/Adams, Eastwood)

Hey, Saul
We never questioned you
Because we'd come to know the bitter truth
Till you fell
Split your lip
And you bloodied the road
I guess you felt kind of small, Saul
As you had to depend on us sychophants
And fair weather friends
As you stumbled
Along that dusty road

You were so blind
A bit like me

Hey Paul
I envy you
With no doubt at all
And half the truth
I think of you
On that road

And I can't say I like all that you wrote us
But I envy you
On the road to Damascus

Blind and seeing
At the same time
And the thorn is deep in your side
But doubt's a deeper thorn in mine

And I can't say I like all that you wrote us
But I envy you
On the road to Damascus

Were you blind like me?

Were you blind like me?
But I'm still seeing
Won't you dance for me?

Are you leaving? 
I'm still seeing

1 comment:

  1. thanks for a cool listen-back tonight mate. so often we sorta just put music out into the world and get on with whatever else we are doing. stopping to enjoy one's work, and to reflect on what is going on at those deeper levels for us as writers and for our characters who sing to/through us, is rare - almost counter-cultural! but if it's truly a work of art we've made, we will be rewarded by this as the work will stand up after the initial romance with 'newness' has flared and gone, and it still keep speaking to us as we grow and change alongside it. Was it Elvis Costello who said "writing about music is as futile as dancing about architecture". Well Elvis, tonight I disagree :)