Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Gospel According to Neal

Religion and spirituality has been on my mind a lot these days, and after giving it some thought, I've decided that I can't really talk about my spirituality without also talking about music.  Both are deeply connected to my psyche and my emotions, so much so that they're almost tangled up in one another.  That isn't a problem for me, in fact I enjoy it quite a bit and it brings me tremendous benefits.  It plays into my obsessive nature and my means of regulating myself.  As such, while I want to talk about religion and what it means to me, this post is probably going to turn into a musical review of sorts, because I can't really talk about my religious practices without talking about the prophets of my religion, and one prophet in particular who goes by the name of Neal Morse.

Sorry, Neal.  I love you, but you still look like a church boy.
That's Neal on the right there.  Neal was not the first musical prophet of my life -- in fact, he's one of the most recent.  The first belongs to Jimmy Buffett, the object of much obsession for me as a child.  Jimmy gave way, strangely enough, to Metallica, Metallica begot Corrosion of Conformity, who begot Arcturus, who in turn begot Opeth, then the metal bands Mercenary and Katatonia joined Opeth in a pantheon, who in turn yielded influence to Dream Theater, then Ayreon, which lastly brings me to Spock's Beard, and the man behind Spock's Beard, Neal Morse.  Sound convoluted?  It's enough to make a Yoruba practictioner's head swirl.

For the longest time, I felt trapped when I talked about music.  Like any teenager, I tended to believe that my personal opinion was objective truth, and that led to many an argument over music between friends and enemies alike.  What I've come to realize about music is that it isn't necessarily the quality that makes it for me (though I do primarily listen to progressive rock, so take this with a grain of salt), but rather what it means to me that makes it good.  I used to be one of those metal snobs who wouldn't listen to anything they played on American radio, but for most of my life I probably couldn't tell you what made the bands I listened to good.  Ultimately, what I decided, after I had fully converted to my cult of Ayreon/Arjen Anthony Lucassen- and Spock's Beard/Neal Morse-ism was that it was music's power to affect me positively that ultimately determined its relative strengths and weaknesses.  Had you asked me two years ago what I listen to, I would have unequivocably told you "Metal."  Now, I'd simply say anything that happens to move me, regardless of genre or label.  Arjen Anthony Lucassen, the man behind Ayreon, will get his own post tomorrow, because it's Neal whose personal story compels me more, and that story is reflected through his music.

Like me, Neal was a struggling artist for most of his youth, a musician of immense talent who couldn't quite put it all together into material success until later in his life.  His band, Spock's Beard, became one of the most successful acts of the late 90's prog revival, along with Dream Theater, The Flower Kings, and Porcupine Tree.  In fact, Neal has frequently worked with former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy.  Don't get me wrong, I like Dream Theater too, but unique among all the prog bands of that era was the amount of himself Neal put into his music.  He alone wrote almost all of Spock's Beard's songs, and many of them are not only quite technically complex and beautiful, but also mesmerizing in their ability to stir my emotions.  His singing voice, deep for a prog singer and nasal, has always had a tremendous capacity to soothe me.  Over the course of five albums in the span of six years, he poured his heart and soul and all of his energy into some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard.  Then, in 2002, immediately following the release of his magnum opus, the double concept album Snow, he seemingly very suddenly and abruptly became a born-again Christian, left the band, and moved to Nashville, Tennessse to pursue a solo career in gospel and Christian music.

I came to Spock's Beard in the fall of 2010, shortly before I attended Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity (another fulcrum point of my life, which I will write more about as the narrative unfolds).  Spock's Beard has gone on to release another four albums without Neal (drummer Nick D'Virgilio took over the job of vocals), and the change to me was very abrupt.  It had seemed, if the lyrics and Wikipedia were any guide, that Neal had simply gone crazy and had an epic meltdown.  As it turned out, there was a public record of this, as he then recorded a double-album about his experiences becoming born-again, which to me only seemed to deepen the mystery, not solve it.  It wasn't until literally the past month, when I gained access to the album's sequel (and, I came to understand, Neal was ready to tell the rest of his story).  What it told was a story of self-loathing, frustration, hearbreak, longing, and self-doubt that could only be gained by simply listening to what he had to say, rather than trying to study notes or websites.  What astonishes me the most about his story is how close to my story it seems to be.

I know very few people who have as much access to as much of themselves as Neal appears to, and even fewer who can so ably and directly express it through their art.  It is a skill I've had no choice but to learn as I try to fight my own demons.  And yet still, the way in which Neal appears to have broken to me under the weight of his burdens makes me deeply uneasy.  It serves as both a testimony and a reminder that life is not an upward spiral -- that at any moment there can be both a tremendous breakthrough or enormous damage.

I think it's very hard to manage life's complexities and tribulations without having some sort of mythos or spiritual system.  I've yet to meet an avowed atheist who was happy about life or the world they live in.  Most seem to treat nonexistence as a release from their misery, which at least to me seems like kind of a bummer.  Which is not to say that I think their position is any more or less reasonable than living this life for immortality in the next.  Life presents us a great many different existential problems, which we all try to solve in our own way as we live.  But there's a particular kind of self-loathing many born-again Christians seem to embody, and a particular kind a cynicism that seems to go along with it (though which comes first to me is a chicken and egg problem), and while I decided on a different solution to it, I appreciate Neal, his story, and his music and can connect with it as deeply as I do precisely because he can communicate it so well.  Every person I've ever met has had some inclination towarsd nihilism and some inclination towards hope, and it's how exactly the two are balanced (both quantitatively and qualitatively) that seems to shape one's outlook the most.  The two can often be confused for each other, as well.  The Rapture is a story of hope, but that hope is based upon a tremendously nihilistic premise.  Buddhism, my chosen religion, is not immune to this phenomenon, either.  I've used the Dharma both to secure myself and inflict pain on myself.

Whatever the reason, it's clear to me that Neal Morse spent most of the past two decades in unimaginable pain, and he found an outlet for it through his music.  At the end of the day, (incidentally, also the name of my favorite Spock's Beard song), what matters more in life are the outcomes more than the processes themselves that led to them.  I may not know Neal Morse, but I feel like I understand his pain, and I feel like if we met, he could understand mine, too.  For that, he occupies a place in my spiritual life, despite the differences of our respective religions.  And his music always moves me, even his Christian praise songs (for more on my views of God, consult the post "The Day I Met God").  So, to sum up both my feelings on music and religion and tie this all together: in the end, it doesn't really matter what you like and what you believe, as long as it gets you where you need to go.  It's a difficult answer to a complex question, but I believe it to be the truth nonetheless.

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