The Rocky Mount Sermon Opera

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And seeing the multitudes, He went up onto a mountain; and when He was set, His disciples came unto Him. And He opened His mouth and taught them. -Matthew 5:1-2

It was the greatest sermon of all time. To put it in rock-n-roll terms; kind of like the Beatles last concert. On January 30, 1969, the boys from Liverpool decided to perform an impromptu concert on the rooftop of the Apple studios in London. It was to be their last public performance. Some say one of their best. And soon thereafter, the Beatles were no more. They played only 5 songs.

The-Beatles-Rooftop

So, if Jesus were around today, and he was preaching His last sermon as a concert, what might that sound like? I’m not George Martin, but I’ll give it my best shot. Here’s what I’m guessing His 5 songs might be:

Matthew 5:3-12

These verses – known as the Beatitudes – are all about our need to be of a certain type of character in order to be blessed and happy in our lives. Some of these characteristics include meekness, humility, love and compassion. And there is no one better at sharing the love and compassion better than the Reverend Al Green. Something to get the crowd going, grooving and on their feet.

Happiness is when you really feel good about somebody
Nothing wrong with being in love with someone, yeah
Oh, baby, love and happiness (love and happiness)

You be good to me
And I’ll be good to you
And we’ll be together
We’ll see each other
Walk away with victory, hey

 Matthew 5:13-16

These verses dealt with our value as God’s people and disciples of Jesus, and the concepts of being Salt and Light. That we are truly to be “the salt of the earth” and a “light unto the world”. These passages compliment and complete Jesus’ picture of who we should be, even as I’m sure he knew we never really would be. Like any good Father though, he wanted His children to be the best that they could be.

To be, as Van Morrison said, someone exactly like you.

I’ve been searching a long time
For someone exactly like you
I’ve been traveling all around the world
Waiting for you to come through.

I’ve been traveling a hard road
Looking for someone exactly like you
I’ve been carryin’ my heavy load
Waiting for the light to come
Shining through.

Matthew 5:17-48

This – the longest section of the Sermon – is where Jesus compares the Old Covenants and Laws with the new teachings about salvation through belief in Him. Some people think this was  in contradiction to the Old Testament, but really it’s a fulfillment of those teachings through the body of Christ.

Yes He says, you’ve got to make a choice and decide. Stick with the old or embrace the new. And I think what He really was asking was: Are you gonna go my way?

I was born long ago
I am the chosen, I’m the one
I have come to save the day
And I won’t leave until I’m done

So that’s why you’ve got to try
You got to breath and have some fun
Though I’m not paid, I play this game
And I won’t stop until I’m done

But what I really want to know is
Are you gonna go my way ?

And I got to got to know

Matthew 6:1-18

By now the crowd is jumping and Jesus gets a little fired up Himself. In Matthew 6, He’s calling us all out for our deceitfulness, our materialism, our black hearts and good deeds done only for appearances sake. He urges us to look not to  look only for gains in this world, but to focus more on the rewards to come in Heaven. And it’s clear that the Man in Black knew exactly was He was talking about.

The wealthiest person
Is a pauper at times
Compared to the man
With a satisfied mind

When my life has ended
And my time has run out
My friends and my loved ones
I’ll leave there’s no doubt

But one thing’s for certain
When it comes my time
I’ll leave this old world
With a satisfied mind

Matthew 7:1-29

The final chapter of the Sermon is a stern warning on two topics; judging others and believing in false prophets. Again, like any good Father, He wants to give us this final bit of advice before sending us out into the night, on our own, to muddle our way through this life.

The crescendo has peaked and the concert is winding down…c’mon people now, get together.

Good night everyone; Jesus has left the building.

Love is but a song to sing
Fear’s the way we die
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry
Though the bird is on the wing
And you may not know why

Some may come and some may go
We shall surely pass
When the one that left us here
Returns for us at last
We are but a moment’s sunlight
Fading in the grass

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now

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Let’s Do It Again

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The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.- Ecclesiastes 1:9

It’s automatic when I
Talk with old friends
The conversation turns to
Girls we knew when their
Hair was soft and long and the
Beach was the place to go

As we slide towards the end of summer (odd how summer’s end seems nearer just because the kids are back in school) even though the weather gives us no such indication, one turns nostalgic and yearns for just one more tango with the ocean.

And as we think of the ocean, the mind tends to trip lightly through memories of beaches past. We can see them clearly in our minds and the summer sun is never the one of harsh heat and burning white sand, but that of softened and shadow cast late afternoons and early evenings.

Suntanned bodies and
Waves of sunshine the
California girls and a
Beautiful coastline
Warmed up weather
Let’s get together and
Do it again

We all love to reminisce, basking in the memories of what has been and what once was. I think even more so as we get older and begin to realize that the years ahead of us are probably fewer than those behind. And as the Bible says, there is nothing new under the sun. Surely not to God’s eyes.

What a beautiful portrait this song painted, when I first heard it splashing off the airwaves in 1968. It was in stark contrast and a welcome diversion to much of the music coming out that summer with the Vietnam war still smoldering after the Tet offensive.

As a youngster living in Winter Park, Florida – just a short 45 minute drive to the beach – this was a home grown vision. You knew the Beach Boys were the choirboys of the West Coast, but that didn’t stop Floridians from claiming them as first cousins.

The brothers Wilson (Brian, Dennis and Carl) along with cousin Mike Love and pal Al Jardine had perfected a sound and harmony like no other before them. They truly were “America’s Band” and created a culture way beyond just music.  Every guy I knew was wearing Levi’s cords, desert boots sans socks, and super cool Hang Ten shirts.

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And their conjured images of suntanned young ladies with silky hair and tiny bikinis made all of us guys apply another coat of wax to our ‘boards – surf, boogie or skim – and seek out rides from older kids to get back to the beach.

Well I’ve been thinking ’bout
All the places we’ve surfed and danced and
All the faces we’ve missed so let’s get
Back together and do it again

“Do It Again” was at the bridge between the Beach Boys early 60’s surf sound – which I think ended with their 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds – and their more progressive “Beatle-esqe” works of the early 1970’s (“Sail On, Sailor”).

It lived in the thin air between what they used to sound like and what they would sound like in years to come. Critics panned the single as a sellout – they really had given up the pure “surf” sound by 1965 and had suffered a resultant drop in popularity – but to those of us who had grown up on that sound and their standard themes (the beach, the girls and the cars) the return was triumphant.

It starts out with this low driving beat and bass line that led you to believe this was going to be just another in the style of most of their newer material.  But then it builds and crests magnificently into that trademark 5-part harmony and “Help Me Rhonda” hand claps. It literally makes my neck hair stand up to hear it even today.

The Boys were doing a bit of reminiscing of their own here; not simply hit-seeking, but perhaps just a bit nostalgic for the way things used to be. As Carl Wilson noted in Melody Maker magazine:

“Yes, I suppose it has got the old Beach Boys surfing sound. It’s back to that surfing idea with the voice harmony and the simple, direct melody and lyrics. We didn’t plan the record as a return to the surf or anything. We just did it one day round a piano in the studio. Brian had the idea and played it over to us. We improved on that and recorded it very quickly, in about five minutes. It’s certainly not an old track of ours; in fact it was recorded only a few weeks before it was released. We liked how it turned out and decided to release it.”

“Do It Again” was co-written by Mike Love and Brian Wilson shortly after a trip to the beach by Mike to go surfing with an old friend. He came back inspired with the main lyrics and sat down with Brian to flesh it out.

According to Keith Badman’s book The Beach Boys. The Definitive Diary of America’s Greatest Band: On Stage and in the Studio, Brian Wilson said the song was probably the best collaboration he and Mike had ever worked on.

So, while there’s still a bit of heat in the air, crank up the Woody, strap on the boards, grab your huarache sandals and get ready to take a trip to the beach.

Even if only in your mind.

Listen to the masters here in this fantastic 50th anniversary version. It’s 2:45 of made-in-the-USA pop perfection:

Compare to the original studio version here:

 

 

We’ve Got To Find A Way

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The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. – Mark 12:31

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

Nothing changes under the sun. And certainly not the way we treat each other.

“What’s Going On” was the first track on Marvin Gaye’s album by the same title in 1971.  It was the same year that i remember distinctly, the busing of hundreds of inner city black kids out to my suburban junior high school in Jacksonville, Florida. I remember the resultant clashes between the blacks and whites and got to experience some of them first-hand; up close and very, very personal.

I was taught at home that you did not judge a man by the color of his skin. People were people and you should get to know them before forming any opinions. And we were all equal in the eyes of the Lord…just separate. What a paradox.

To give me a little life perspective, in 1972 my Dad put me to work – at age 15 – in a warehouse distribution center where I was the only white worker. My Dad was the GM there, but my supervisor was a black man named Willie Reynolds. And Dad must have clued Mr. Willie in, because I got no special treatment. To Mr. Willie, I was no better – or worse – than the dozen other workers on the floor.

It was good duty. Honest work with honest sweat, loading and unloading trucks in the Florida summer heat, and learning that people really are just people. And I learned a bit about the lives of those folks that lived “across the bridge” from the lily white suburbs of Jacksonville.

Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate

Yes only love can conquer hate, and from the looks of things, we – as Neil Young sang – are gonna need a lotta love. Jesus said our two greatest commandments were to love God with everything we have, and to love our neighbors as much as – or more than – ourselves.

Tell that to the people today in the Gaza Strip.

Tell that to our troops on the ground in Iraq.

And, most of all, tell that to Michael Brown’s family out in Ferguson, Missouri. And if you don’t know about what happened to him, you should just Google “Ferguson’.

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on

“What’s Going On” deals with a lot of problems relative to the human condition, but was originally inspired by a bloody police brutality incident witnessed by one of the song’s co-writers, Renaldo “Obie” Benson (the bass voice for the Four Tops). Benson originally offered the song to his Four Tops band mates, but they turned it down.

“My partners told me it was a protest song”, Benson said later, “I said ‘no man, it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting, I just want to know what’s going on.'” So, he took what he had to Marvin and the rest is history

A few interesting tidbits about the song:

Marvin was good friends with Detroit Lions football players Lem Barney and Mel Farr. “What’s going on” was a common greeting between the three and Marvin invited them to sing backing vocals on the recording.

In the book Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves & Demons of Marvin Gaye, it says that Motown owner, Berry Gordy, didn’t want to release the song, calling it the “worst record I ever heard in my life.”

Take that, Berry – the single sold over 2 million copies and was ranked #4 in Rolling Stone’s  2011 list of the greatest songs of all time.

Father, father, everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

That was 1971 and almost 45 years later, nothing has really changed much.

Oh  sure, nobody pays much attention to hair length – or even color – anymore. And tolerance is all the rage, in all forms and fashion.

And the Bible says judge not, but we still do.

And we still can’t seem to find a way.

In the meantime…

Right on, baby
Right on

Listen to the original here:

Cyndi Lauper cover:

A Clear Blue Morning

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Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. – James 4:14

Stand up in a clear blue morning
Until you see what can be
Alone in a cold day dawning
Are you still free
Can you be

Each day dawns full of sunshine and brimming with opportunity. Right?

Wait…not so much you say?

I keep pulling lines from the film, American Hustle, but I can’t help it. So many life lessons to be found.

There is a scene where FBI agent Richie DiMaso says to Sidney Prosser, “You ever think, like, how did I end up here? Like, how did my life become this? Do you ever think that?” Sydney simply looks at him and softly says, “Yeah, I do.”

Sometimes life may seem like a very random series of events.

But it’s not.

If you look back closely, you will see a perfectly painted masterpiece. And that masterpiece is a self portrait. Good or bad.

When some cold tomorrow finds you
When some sad old dream reminds you
How the endless road unwinds you
While you see a chance take it

Ah yes, the road not taken. As old blue eyes, Frank Sinatra, sang: “Regrets. I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

And sometimes those regrets can come along on the road we did choose. You just never know. But Steve Winwood was so right with this; when you see a chance, you gotta take it.

Don’t you know by now
No one gives you anything
Don’t you wonder how you keep on moving
One more day
Your way

The Bible reminds us of the fleeting existence we share here in this world. That this life is short. To not worry too much about tomorrow’s troubles today. And yes, to take those chances.

When there’s no one left to leave you
Even you don’t quite believe you
That’s when nothing can deceive you
While you see a chance take it

Find romance, fake it
Because it’s all on you

Yup, you are all alone in this world. And you have to reach a certain clarity to really perceive it. Yet, we have the power to make a change.

After leaving Traffic, Winwood was struggling to find success as a solo artist. Steve decided to take a chance of his own collaborating with lyricist Will Jennings (Barry Manilow, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, The Crusaders and many more) on most of the songs on 1980’s  Arc Of A Diver. It turned out to be a fantastic pairing and Steve had a breakthrough hit on his hands.  There’s not a bad cut on the entire album and the cover art was beautiful, too.

ArcLPCover

“While You See A Chance” was Winwood’s first Top 40 hit as a solo artist, reaching #7 on the Billboard Hot 100.

His solo success continued on with 1982’s Talking Back To The Night and especially with his 1986 release Back In The High Life (single “Higher Love”), but I think Arc Of A Diver remains his greatest solo work.

And that old gray wind is blowing
And there’s nothing left worth knowing
And it’s time you should be going

One interesting tidbit: the keyboard intro to the song came about by accident. Steve played all the instruments on the album and somehow deleted the original drum track he had recorded for the opening. When he realized what he had done, instead of re-recording the drum part, he used a keyboard sequence he had recorded instead. Wonder what it would sound like the other way? I can’t imagine the song opening differently!

“While You See A Chance” is all about taking on personal responsibility.  It’s on you. If you want it – whatever it is – you have to go out and get it. You may have to take a few risks and get burned a few times, but it’s all there for you.

One more thing: The Bible says, “God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”

And that’s definitely one thing left worth knowing.

Listen to the original here:

Live version with former Blind Faith bandmate, Eric Clapton:

A Bag Of Beans

bagofbeans

Let us tear off their shackles from us, and cast off their chains. -Psalm 2:3

You’ve got me sewed up like a pillow case
But you let my love go to waste so
Unchain my heart, oh please, please set me free

Why do we hold on to things that are not good for us? Why do we languish in prisons of our own making. Why can’t we simply “walk away, Renee”?

Our strongest attractions are often riddled with contradictions. Like sweet and sour pork.

I was watching “American Hustle” the other night and it struck me that the whole movie was built around not only the “hustle” itself, but a scene where Irving Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn says something to Carmine’s wife about her favorite nail polish: “There’s something, the topcoat. It’s like, perfum-ey, but there’s also something…rotten. And I know that sounds crazy, but I can’t get enough of it.”

That just about sums it up.

Every time I call you on the phone
Some fella tells me that you’re not at home

We’ll even go so far sometimes as to suffer humiliation. We just take it and go back for more. We can’t help ourselves. I can’t even begin to count the number of songs written from that book.

I’m under your spell like a man in a trance
But I know darn well, that I don’t stand a chance

Sometimes those closest to us, hurt us the most.

Jesus knew before the cock crowed about Peter’s denials. And surely He knew what Judas was going to do. He stuck with them, though. And we all know where that led. Of course, in this case, it was all just a part of the plan.

Unchain my heart, let me go my way
Unchain my heart, you worry me night and day

Do we secretly savor the pain and the love mixed together? Does the occasional bad grape make the wine even better? Does the combination of heart-break and heart-race make the love even sweeter? Does the bad feeling make the good feeling that much stronger?

Why lead me through a life of misery
When you don’t care a bag of beans for me
So unchain my heart, oh please, please set me free

Though it was much later in life that Frank Sinatra gave him the label, the “genius” of Ray Charles actually began when he first started playing the piano at the age of three. It’s a good thing he got a jump on it, as Ray was totally blind from glaucoma by age seven.

The “genius” label stuck (and certainly well deserved if you ask me) but Ray himself deflected such acclaim, saying: “Art Tatum, now he’s a genius…and Einstein, not me.”

The genius of Ray Charles spanned over 6 decades of recording over 60 albums and 127 singles and bridging every musical genre available.

And certainly Ray was no stranger to holding on to things that were not good for him.

His drug addiction problems were well known. And his rehab stint in 1965 was followed by the release of the songs “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned” on his very next LP (Crying Time) in 1966.

He was twice married and divorced, and fathered 12 children with 10 different women.

Musicologist, Henry Pleasants, once summed Ray up this way: “Sinatra and Crosby before him, had been masters of words. Ray Charles is a master of sounds. His records disclose an extraordinary assortment of slurs, glides, turns, shrieks, wails, breaks, shouts, screams and hollers, all wonderfully controlled, disciplined by inspired musicianship, and harnessed to ingenious subtleties of harmony, dynamics and rhythm… It is either the singing of a man whose vocabulary is inadequate to express what is in his heart and mind or of one whose feelings are too intense for satisfactory verbal or conventionally melodic articulation. He can’t tell it to you. He can’t even sing it to you. He has to cry out to you, or shout to you, in tones eloquent of despair — or exaltation. The voice alone, with little assistance from the text or the notated music, conveys the message.”

Once during an interview, Ray was asked if there was any particular element in his musical style that had been most essential to his long running popularity. “Yeah”, he replied, “Me.”

So let yourself off the hook and take comfort in the fact that it happens to all of us. Sometimes, even when a thing is really, really bad, it’s very, very good.

Listen to a little of the genius here: