Friday, August 28, 2009

Surfing with Aphrodite's Child

OH MAN, if you thought January Tyme were hip...

666 is the most notable album by Aphrodite's Child, and it's a concept album based on the book of Revelation, not unlike the album W.A.S.P. will unveil this fall:

Oh that's right! They're a WHOLE other story.

Aphrodite's Child were an early-'70s Greek prog band, notable for showcasing some early work by Vangelis, who'd later secure his retirement with the Chariots of Fire and other soundtrax. But here he's just rocking like a mother. The St. Louis Real Rock station, KSHE, still plays "Loud Loud Loud" into "Four Horsemen" off this album, and not always during designated deep cutz hours, so you KNOW it drops bombs.

Here, lead singer Demis Roussos is singing like an angel. Specifically, he's embodying the angel in Revelation 18, who utters the famous and mighty shout, "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!" The rest of AC's lyrics, pasted at bottom, take some fairly large liberties with the rest of the Biblical text. That is to say, the wander rather far afield from John the Revelator's original words. Which is to say, they're pretty much totally made up. But that's OK. For our purposes, made-up Babylon words are more interesting.

That leaves us with a couple things to consider. First, where'z Babylon? Biblical scholars take different views, big surprise, but the consensus mainly boils down to a two-step interpretation:

1. Babylon is a symbol of civilization opposed to God's people; and
2. At the time of John's revelation, the biggest enemy to God's people was Rome, i.e. the Roman Empire.

Note that point 2 is a corollary of point 1. Which means that it's a mistake to characterize Babylon as Rome in every time and place. Since the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400s, the people who define John's Babylon as Rome typically mean the Roman Catholic Church, and thus denigrate Catholics with the book of Revelation as their scriptural "evidence." No no no. Point 1 is the key--John's Babylon the Great is a more general symbol, of those forces which oppose God's people and, in true apocalyptic fashion, will be obliterated by the Kingdom of God.

Equally problematic are those scriptural interpreters who wayyyy over-literalize John's Babylon as, you know, BABYLON, or Iraq. This leads to the problematic interpretations that our invasion of Iraq is either hastening the Kingdom of God, by leading to Babylon's fall; or postponing the Kingdom of God, by securing Babylon so it doesn't fall; or exempting Americans from the Kingdom of God, because we're occupying and thus identifying ourselves with Babylon. No no no. Our invasion of Iraq has to do with our oil interests and some misplaced naivete about democracy. It only relates to Babylon inasmuch as "Babylon" can be seen to symbolize "Empire," and inasmuch as our invasion of Iraq was an imperial move. The second inasmuch is debatable, the first not so much, but John's Babylon the Great is not modern-day Iraq and has nothing to do with specific Gulf Wars.

Of course, even if you only accept point 1, that John's Babylon is a general symbol of opposition to God's people, you could still create plenty more problems for yourself and the world, because God's people can be whoever you want them to be, and thus their opponents can be whoever you're pissed off at. I wrote elsewhere that John's "Whore of Babylon" symbol has been variously decoded as Islam, Satanism, Jerusalem, the Soviet Union, the United States, the Statue of Liberty, anyone who's not a Jehovah's Witness, and both Barack Obama and John McCain. No no no. Well, maybe. As much as I hate the concepts of "paying your dues" and "earning the right" to do something--because such concepts would probably prevent me from writing about any of this stuff--you've got to pay your dues to Biblical scholarship before you can earn the right to just go around calling people "Babylon." Otherwise you're not a prophet, you just have bad manners.

For instance, the book of Revelation didn't just fall out of God's brain (or whatever God thinks with) into John's pen (or whatever John wrote with). John's Revelation is the culmination of the turn-of-millennium apocalyptic genre, the other most well-known example of which is the Old Testament book of Daniel, which also traffics in Babylon symbolism. Apocalyptic was a genre just like the Western is a genre. In each Apocalyptic work, there are certain things you can count on, and certain unique details that set the work apart and emphasize the expected elements. The Apocalyptic version of the Western's "high noon showdown" might be the Kingdom of God's complete obliteration of God's enemies, which tend to be oppressive regimes characterized as whores or beasts or other monstrosities. The unique element in John's apocalypse, and the element that makes it the culmination of the genre, is Jesus. This is what makes it so meaningful to Christians, and what makes it a book of hope, despite all the nasty stuff that goes down. But that doesn't change the fact that John was essentially writing genre fiction.

Why should any of this concern our study of Babylon songs? Excellent question! I think I'm basically saying that Babylon the Biblical symbol has the same generally applied meaning as Babylon the pop music symbol, and that you literalize the symbol, or even narrow its meaning--"Babylon = Rome"-- at your peril. On the other hand, we go to religious literature for truth. We go to pop music for truth sometimes, but sometimes we go for other things--laughs, titillation, a break from boredom. And what could be less boring than, say, a man named Dirt guest-rapping on a POD song and literalizing Babylon to demonstrate that America invaded Iraq by divine mandate? The peril is not the same for musicians, because the job description isn't the same. Nobody with political clout is going to Dirt for military advice, but I fear they sometimes consult John's Revelation, without knowing how to read it.

Lord, I was born a rambling man. The OTHER thing to consider, besides "where'z Babylon", is what Aphrodite's Child do with it. They basically turn it into a sex anthem. (Bear in mind I read EVERYTHING as a sex anthem.) "We don't know the reason [the world's ending], but I need you madly [and I don't want to die a virgin] and you need me too and we need each other..." Hold up there, hairy Greek man! You ever consider that there's no place for fornicators in the Kingdom? Oh, you have? Just wanted to make sure, scumbag!

No no no, I'm sure they need each other because they're part of the church and we're all the body of Christ and they recognize their inter(co?)dependency in this time of earthly apocalyptic turmoil. That's my generous out-of-context reading. I so need to get this album. And the forthcoming W.A.S.P. (So nice we got to show it twice!)

Fallen fallen fallen
is Babylon the great!
Space is getting bounded,
time is getting late!

Masters fall and wonder,
people rise and wait
Fallen fallen fallen
is Babylon the great!

You don't need a coin,
I don't have to shine
We don't know the reason

But I need you madly
and you need me too
and we need each other...
and we need each other...
and we need each other..

Friday, August 14, 2009

Surfing With David Gray

I trust you've heard this one. What I DON'T trust is you telling me, "Oh yeah, dude, I know exactly what this song's about," because you don't. No one does. It belongs to the world of myth, and we can't fully understand, at least not in ways expressible in words that are not the words of the song. Probably not even Mr. Gray, if asked on an edition of VH1 Storytellers to explain his song, could explain his song, but that's what he gets for grappling with myth.

If it weren't played on Hot AC radio formats, or if I weren't so prejudiced against same, I'd call it "visionary" or something. I do love Mr. Gray's visions of changing colors and the chemicals rushing through his bloodstream. Often when I get up in the morning, I feel that chemicals are rushing through my bloodstream and the ghosts of electricity are howling in the bones of my face. This is before I drink my coffee, so I don't think the chemicals in Davey's blood have anything to do with "drugs" or "meth" or anything seedy like that.

Though maybe... in verse 1 he's watching late night TV and thinking of HER; verse 2 he's "running wild" on "reds" (not unlike Faster Pussycat--hmmm...) and thinking of HER; verse 3 he's finally detoxed, strolling through nature, and he gets home and SHE appears ("I turn around to see you smiling there in front of me").

But is it really HER? I don't think so. He's just hallucinating HER, because the pleading refrain is the same both times, before SHE appears and after "SHE" appears, and it doesn't seem recontextualized at all, the way final refrains are often recontextualized in country songs--so if the smiling person in front of Mr. Gray really is HER, it's not that great a final refrain.

Maybe what's preventing her from loving him is some excess of caution, and he wants her to let go, to embrace her inner Babylon by just ignoring all the superego crap that gets in the way of their love. "Let go your heart! Let go your head! And FEEL it now!" Because really--he's a doled-out British singer-songwriter recording albums in his bedroom, probably got bad teeth--what's she doing with him? And he doesn't give himself much credit for his behavior in the relationship. He's a fool, he made bad mistakes, he's afraid to own up, but why can't she just LOVE HIM? Get rid of your puritanical Judeo-Christian hangups and get all Babylon with me, baby!

At least, that's how I hear it. I don't think he lives in Babylon, either literally or figuratively. Babylon isn't the place where the lights change colors. Even in the hustle of verse 2, with its running, changing, pushing, rushing, there's a kind of stasis--we're seeing the activity from within the stillness of his head. It's like one of those time-lapse photos where the car headlights and taillights are smeared into blurry lines.

Rather, Babylon is where he wants to be, and where he wants HER to want to be, and he holds out Babylon as an incantation--"Look, this is where you could be. Let go." Babylon is the culmination of every verse and refrain, and should be the culmination of his life with HER. Is it the antithesis of his everyday "correct, better, or Right civilization" (our working definition of Babylon)? He certainly offers no other explanation for his use of the word. It's more like he's trying in vain to explain to HER why they should get back together, and in desperation he reaches into the pop/rock canon and pulls out the word that most closely resembles his feelings about what's gone wrong and why, and about how the situation could turn around--and he throws the word at her and us. It's lyrical shorthand borne of helplessness. He can think of no rational reason, or even emotional reason ("let go your heart"), for them to be together, but nonetheless their togetherness must be--and so, in a flash, Faster Pussycat and the Dolls and Boney M and Garveyism and hopefully-not-Steely-Dan-but-maybe-even-they flash through his mind and he spits out the only word that will stand a chance of making her appear on the stairs:


And he hopes she understands.