Layers of Meaning: Music as Mediator of Spirit

I spend a fair amount of time driving around in my car.  Every now and then I choose an artist on my Ipod and listen to everything I have from them for a day – sometimes more, depending on how many of their albums I have.  Yesterday, it was Billy Joel’s turn and I listen to his Greatest Hits Volumes 1, 2, and 3.  The song that caught my attention in particular was “Captain Jack,” an old favorite of mine that I hadn’t thought about in years.  Along with some images that dated me because I understood them, there were characters I could really identify with – mostly because I have known several versions of them in my life.  First the images that the rest of you old farts will appreciate, and you not as old farts may scratch your head about:

So you decide to take a, holiday.
You got your tape deck and your brand new Chevrolet.

A tape deck!  Not just a cassette player, mind you, but a tape deck.  Am I the only one who remembers tape decks or that the first ones were 8-track tape decks?

If you don’t remember 8-track tape decks, the whole thing is kind of hard to explain.  Think about a cassette, only much less convenient with much lower sound quality and a much higher likelihood of being eaten by the tape deck.  If you don’t know what a cassette is, please find your mother and tell her you are on the internet again without her permission.

Which one of us didn’t know, or have in our family, or were, this guy (I didn’t have any sisters, so it couldn’t have been me):

Your sister’s gone out, she’s on a date.
You just sit at home and masturbate.

Thankfully, I don’t have any pictures of that!  I do have one of this, however:

So you stand on the corner in your New English clothes.
And you look so polished, from your hair down to your toes.
Ah but still, your finger’s gonna pick your nose
After all.

Maybe that’s why the Cowboys can’t win the big game – Jerry’s [draft] picks leave something to be desired!

On the surface, of course, Captain Jack is about heroin use among the bored middle class on Long Island when Billy Joel was growing up:

But Captain Jack will get you high tonight,
And take you to your special island.
Captain Jack will get you by tonight.
Just a little push, and you’ll be smilin’.

There are also some pretty wild, amateurish interpretations of what the song means if you but do a Google search.  By the way, kids,  for those of you too young to remember, the middle class – which became extinct under President George W. Bush – used to be the socio-economic status of most of what we today know as the working poor.

So, on the surface Captain Jack is an anti-drug song, but as I get older….er, more mature, I have developed a sensitivity to other levels of meaning in the song.

So you play your albums, and you smoke your pot.
And you meet your girlfriend in the parking lot.
Ohh, but still you’re aching for the things you haven’t got.
What went wrong?
And if you can’t understand why your world is so dead,
Why you’ve got to keep in style, and feed your head.
Well you’re 21 and still your mother makes your bed,
And that’s too long.

There is a universal search for meaning in every human being.  We want to know why we are here on this planet and what life means.  The 1960s marked the beginning of a period we are still struggling with, a time when the institutions that had previously given us meaning started failing us profoundly.  We now recognize that these were the early years of the Roman Catholic Pedophilia scandal.  The Korean War ended without a victor, though nobody seemed to notice much, and the powers that were hastened to get us disastrously entangled in Vietnam to try to prove that we could still win a war.  President Kennedy was assassinated, as was his brother five years later, and Dr. King, and Malcolm X, and countless others in the struggle for Civil Rights – a struggle which continues to this day and now encompasses groups that weren’t much on the radar in the sixties, but the struggle is the same, isn’t it?

Artists know, very often long before the general public, because art is an undeniable expression of the Spirit.  Perhaps that’s why institutional religion is often so critical of art – art often does a better job discerning the Spirit than the Church does.  If you change the tape deck to a CD player, this could be written about American society in 2012:

So you decide to take a, holiday.
You got your tape deck and your brand new Chevrolet.
Ah, there ain’t no place to go anyway.
What for?
So you got everything, aww, but nothing’s cool.
They just found your father in the swimming pool.
And you guess you won’t be going back to school

It’s never too late to start listening, or re-listening, for what the Spirit has been saying all along but we have been too deaf to hear.

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