Life comes to us in instances, in images, in sounds. Then we process all that and turn it into a tale of happenings that we are able to express to others. Have you ever noticed that some people are better story tellers than others? This comes from the ability to pinpoint the moments that matter, the moments that make a narrative what it is and an ability to recreate those moments as images. The stories that grab hold of us are the stories that are able to recreate moments as images of sight, sound, smell, emotion, etc. and allow us as the listeners/readers to connect these images. It is the connection of these images that makes a story, but without the precisely crafted images the process of connecting the images falters, even if only in degrees.
I’ve been listening to Iron & Wine for a few years now, since a friend of mine introduced me to the quirky song “Jesus the Mexican Boy.” Then Iron & Wine seemed to blow up with the Garden State soundtrack. But I hadn’t seen I&W live until this past Friday when I caught Sam Beam (who is Iron & Wine) performing at Wheaton College. Like any good concert Beam’s live performance added a whole new level to the music. It turns out that Beam’s slow, rhythmic guitar playing on the albums is an artistic choice, as he proved on Friday that he is an absolute ninja with a six-string (the only other person I’ve seen live get more sounds out of a single guitar is Jose Gonzalez).
While the guitar playing was impressive, it was the experience of hearing Beam sing his lyrics without the tin-can production that fills most songs on I&W’s earlier albums that made this such a memorable experience for me; hearing new intonations as he told stories with his lyrics and with his entire show. Beam’s lyrics are crowded with images and instances, but it is left up to the listeners to connect these dense (and sometimes confusing) images and to make a narrative out of them. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise since before music became a full time gig Beam was teaching Cinematography at Florida State University. Film is narrative, built by image, and in many ways Beam’s music functions this same way.
One of my favorite images of Beam’s is from the song “Upward Over the Mountain,” a song about/to his mother in which he writes: “Mother remember the night that the dog had her pups in the pantry? Blood on the floor and the fleas in their paws and you cried till the morning.” This song is essentially a litany of images connected by the chorus, which is a beautiful abstraction followed by another strange imagistic simile: “So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten. Sons are like birds flying upwards over the mountain.”
This creation of stories using images and instances doesn’t seem to be limited to a micro scale for Beam though. As the Wheaton show wore on Bob Davidson , who I was with, and I started to notice a sort of arc to the songs that Beam had chosen that night. These were not just individual songs placed together on a set-list, rather Beam was telling a story with the entirety of his performance. Initially I wasn’t sure if I was making this up myself or if there was really something to the idea that Beam was telling a story with his set-list. When Bob leaned over to ask if I was paying attention to the songs that were being played I felt pretty confident that some commentary on religion was being made from the stage of the Wheaton College chapel, not with just a single line from a song, but with the entirety of Beam’s performance. Beam has had a rocky history with church, and obviously felt a bit uncomfortable performing in the chapel at Wheaton College.
Beam had been asked to refrain from swearing during the concert, so in obliging he would simply pause for a second when he came to a “curse word” (as he put it) in any of his songs. The irony is that while the show was “clean” on a micro level, the larger story of the night, when all the songs and lyrics were connected, seemed to be Beam’s own personal critique of Christianity. And it seemed that not nearly as many people noticed that story of the night as noticed the swearing (or lack thereof).
I think this says something about stories and narrative and about how we see our life in general. Do we see our lives as simple, isolated micro events or do we see each event in a large way, as fitting together with the story arc that is our life? Judging by most of the crowd at Iron & Wine’s Wheaton College show is seems that the answer is mostly the former.
Author Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy, says, “We are becoming who we will be forever.” Willard is urging us to see our lives, not as 24 hour short stories, but as novels, where each event has an affect on every other event and in turn has an affect on who we are and who we are becoming. So how do we begin to see our lives this way, as a novel and not just a series of short stories? Try picking up Iron & Wine’s song “Upward Over the Mountain” and attempting to piece together the images. Or watch a movie like Babel or Amores Perros to practice making connections. Start telling people your story, sorting out the connections that has made you who you are (becoming forever), and ask someone to tell you their story. A friend just told me about this group in New York that formed to tell stories… you can listen to their stories and check out their website here.
Also This American Life on NPR is always good for a story.