Voices November 17, 2020
From eagle’s wings to garage rock: music infuses suffering with hope
When Joe Biden delivered his victory speech, he quoted the hymn On Eagle’s Wings to express the Catholic faith that sustains him.
Composed by Father Jan Michael Joncas, the song was written to console a friend whose father had just died. It debuted at the wake.
Often derided by music snobs, the hymn has become, because of the real comfort it brings, a favourite among people in the pews, especially when sung at funerals.
In his own life, Biden has learned to bear the burden of suffering. Early on, he lost his wife and one-year-old daughter in a car accident. And his son Beau, who was particularly fond of the hymn, died at 46 from brain cancer.
Vatican II said liturgy “should be distinguished by a noble simplicity” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 34). Folk songs are marked by this quality. It is no surprise they can bring a quiet strength in our darkest hours.
“Noble simplicity” became the slogan of a musical revolution introduced in the 1760s and 1770s, writes music historian Larry Wolff. The German philosopher and poet Johann Gottfried von Herder “promoted the idea of the uncomplicated folk song as an ancient and admirable form of music, different from culture to culture but globally omnipresent,” notes Wolff.
In our day, the folk songs beloved by the masses are usually expressed by rock music. The same week Biden was elected, Canada’s TVOntario premiered another excellent documentary via YouTube.
Picture My Face: The Story of Teenage Head looks back at a Canadian garage rock band that achieved gold record success in Canada.
They were on the verge of breaking out in the U.S. market in 1980. But a tragic accident suddenly interrupted their trajectory towards mega-stardom.
Guitarist and songwriter Gord Lewis suffered serious injuries. Although he later returned to the band, they spent the next four decades playing small gigs cross Canada.
In 2008, lead singer Frankie Venom died at 52 from throat cancer, leaving the band reeling in the wake of tragedy yet again.
The documentary begins with a stark juxtaposition. It shows the band in concert at the height of their success, and then in the present day with the band taking a limo ride to visit Frankie’s grave site.
They gaze at the words on Frankie’s tombstone: “Picture My Face.” It’s the name of the band’s smash hit first single, which appeared on their first album in Canada.
But in the documentary the phrase takes on a new meaning. Exploring the impact of death and suffering upon the lives of the band members, it expresses a loving remembrance.
Gord Lewis, still reeling from Frankie’s death and his own automobile accident, is shown struggling with severe depression. The band supplements Gord’s medical treatments with efforts to get Gord to record a new album with them and play live shows.
The documentary chronicles much of this real-life pain and struggle as it happens. We root for the band as Gord plays a triumphant live show again with them at the movie’s end.
The film’s central message is supplied by Gord’s brother, Father David Lewis, interviewed at his parish, St. Teresa of Avila Roman Catholic Church.
“I believe in Gord’s calling and I believe in my own,” says Father Lewis. As he listens to Teenage Head’s music on camera, he exclaims, “I love it! Love it. It’s of God! God is part of this.”
Father Lewis explains how he believes rock music “just gives strength.” He also reveals: “Gord and I have lost our parents, so we feel like orphans. And I think Gord felt like that when Frank died.”
The importance of this type of music? “Suffering. It’s about suffering,” announces Father Lewis. “I think that’s what produces rock and roll. You learn how to suffer.”
It’s an impromptu homily on the film’s central theme. “The blues and rock and roll are about suffering and expressing it with hope,” he says.
Eminently worth watching, this documentary will lead you to reflect on the presence of suffering and loss in your own life. Perhaps you’ll even start listening to old records from the 1980s.
But, if you want to experience a contemporary expression of the cathartic power of rock and roll, check out the new album from English hard rock band Wytch Hazel, III: Pentecost.
In their Christian lyrics, Wytch Hazel joins words from Scripture together with early music influences and 1970s metal.
Every track is brilliant. By coincidence, I celebrated the U.S. election results with Wytch Hazel’s magnificent track Dry Bones turned up loud:
“Here a work restoring power has been sent / We will rise like eagles by His mighty breath.”