Any promise of a release by the Roches is always looked forward to with much honest anticipation. Their new album Zero Church is unique by any standard, resulting from their participation in a seminar at Harvard University’s Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue. Founded by the playwright/author/actress Anna Deavere, the Institute focuses on artistic collaboration while exploring issues of race, identity, diversity, and community. Together, the community set to music a collection of personal prayers. Usually, such writing is created in a religious context. Knowing all of this after the CD made it into my hands, I confess this really is not the sort of record I would seek out on my own, even though I enjoy the Roches and their exquisite harmonies.
So I gave Zero Church the critical thrice over, and at first had the impression a few things were a little saccharine, some seemed out of place, and a few were merely kind of nice. Then someone whose opinion I respect dug in his critical heels and refused to buy into any part of this record, and I was inclined to believe much of what he wrote. But the next time I played Zero Church, in that shifting emotional landscape we call being alive, I found some of the songs which I had paid little attention to before to be profoundly moving now.
As I listened to the simple words of “A Prayer”, which I had not really listened to until I was ready to hear it, not halfway through the tears welled up and spilled out my eyes and down my cheeks. At the time, I didn’t know fireman Bill Barbeau, who also saw service in Viet Nam, wrote the words. But they perfectly expressed the spoken and the unspoken sensibilities carried by some people I’d been spending some time around as we all work in the chronic good-deed activities we share in common.
The whole point of “A Prayer” is asking for help to become a better human being. Carried aloft by Maggie on piano and both Suzzy and Maggie singing, this is a simple heartfelt expression, specially addressed: “This is to the being I know as God”. Like the beginnings of an intimate conversation, the direct words lay out for all to see who he was and what he did (“As a young man, I killed a lot of people for no good reason!”), acceptance (“I would love to blame someone else, anyone else for how I feel about what I did, the killing”), trying to explain some of the reasons why he might have done these things (“What I thought I had to do to survive to be a good American like my dad”), personal responsibility for his actions (“I must have had other choices, I know I had other choices”), regret (“Forgive me”), and the promise to do all in his power to do right (“I will try to do good things to my fellow human beings like nursing, fighting fire and save lives. It’s what I know”) until the day he dies (“God: you can take me anytime”). But in the meantime some understanding, a little comfort, and freedom from pain would be welcomed, too.
As the tears were dripping off my chin, I found that I am now very thankful I am not a sophisticated big city critic.
Once my heart had cracked open a bit, I was willing to listen more carefully. Another prayer, “Sounds”, was written in response to Matthew Shepherd’s murder. According to the song’s writer Karen Bashikrew, “more specifically in response to hearing the grieving sounds of his mother in a fragment of television coverage. As a mother . . . I felt shattered by those sounds . . . I began to imagine the place those sounds were coming from and the distant places they might go.” They go on infinitely, deep into space, “shattering stars” . . . “Can you imagine the sounds they made, pistol whipping, shattering his skull / Can you imagine the sounds he made / As he hung tied to a fence, broken and bleeding / Through the bitter night, and the whole next day / Can you imagine the sounds she made / When she heard what they did to her child.” If modern physics is right, and the sounds we make “will travel through space forever / Through the wheeling disc of our galaxy / Through what we imagine our universe to be” what if God hears them? Never mind God for now, what if you happen to hear some of the sounds that humans in their ignorance and cruelty are responsible for creating?
Part of the power of any music is tonality. A poet or a writer just has the sound and meaning of words, but put a tone with that word and it can resonate louder, sometimes impacting people more than a mere written or spoken word ever could. For that reason, some musicians say that learning to handle sound is an important responsibility, one not to be taken lightly, and several more spiritual musicians advise against ever imparting any negative emotion or anything ugly in music. The critic I spoke of earlier implied the people associated with this project might believe that God would listen more closely only if prayers are delivered by exquisite voices. Barring a discussion of the unknowable, that’s a little like complaining that a singer has a good voice. As for me, I don’t mind that the Roches sing together well and play their instruments beautifully, in fact that just makes their music all sound a little better.
“This Gospel How Precious” is a short, sweet (and sweetly sung) Shaker prayer. The Shakers you probably remember “trembled in the sight of the Lord” and their form of worship (singing, shouting, and shaking in their fervor and communication with God) was roundly rebuked and scorned, considered profane by the traditional Christians of the time. As far as I can figure, the Shakers had something down right: “I know how to pray / I know how to be thankful / For God has blessed me with a broken heart / And true godly sorrow for sin”.
Zero Church will not be for everyone, it very nearly wasn’t for me. But the more I listen, the more I appreciate the spirit behind the record. Just now “Allende”, a migrant’s prayer sung in Spanish by author Ruben Martinez, has become my current favorite from the album. I’ll leave Suzzy’s prayer “New York City” for someone a little closer to Ground Zero to write about.