The Gospel of Maximum Joy
Spirituality is not something that comes naturally to me. Gnosis, “spiritual knowledge”, has never been a part of my life, which informed my previously combative attitude toward religion. Yet I cannot help but feel an uncanny affinity with certain mystics from the Abrahamic traditions. These sages (who can be found amongst Kabalistic, Gnostic and Sufi schools of thought as well as the medieval alchemists) espouse the idea that residing within all men is a divine spark, some aspect of the Godhead that yearns to shake free of this banal reality and be reunited with I Am.
In Nick Hornby’s essay Pissing in a River he describes a feeling that Patti Smith’s music creates where it, “leaves you wanting to read, or write, or paint, or go to a gallery, or run fast,” (Hornby 154). This feeling that I can only begin to describe as the rapture, is perhaps the prime motivator for my continuing existence. It is a feeling that we are all too often embarrassed by, a feeling that we’re absurdly ashamed of, as if unabashed joy is something we should shy away from.
It is in a desperate search for this type of experience that I have developed a number of specialties, including early 20th century postwar European authors, the art produced by Canadian comics company Drawn & Quarterly and the subgenre of music referred to as post-punk. These obsessions tend to develop after I have encountered a piece of art of such incredible beauty and power that it leaves me awestruck. Wanting nothing more than to recreate the philosopher’s egg I track down the contemporaries of the artist and hope that they also possess that gnosis that propels me beyond my senses.
Unfortunately, it’s only natural that there’s only so much gold that can be extracted from a single mine and so while post-punk has provided me with a significant number of nuggets that I greatly cherish (Felt, Echo and the Bunnymen, Orange Juice, etc.) I have been returning from crate-digging expeditions with ever-poorer results. After several recent purchases I found myself only half-heartedly listening to them for the purpose of extracting a single or two for my radio show. I had started to think that perhaps it was time to call off the alchemical wedding. Therefore I felt a supreme and childlike delight when, borne on the wings of divine providence, the Maximum Joy single Stretch fell into my lap. The song resembles I’m Like a Bird in the way it makes no pretensions about being anything other than a pop song and it will not be able to beguile me for long. However, in that moment of discovery I felt as if I had discovered the Seven Keys of Solomon and that I was about to be set upon by revelation.
It’s funny how the Demiurge can bedevil you. Many times I have found that the works that move me to the greatest degree will resist my initial advances. Great novels can be slow to engage and music that is first dull and ugly to your ears ends up on every mix tape you’ll make for the rest of your life. As I my prepared for my radio show Thursday evening it seemed that the program would be fairly unremarkable. I was happy to have picked up some new material from a Rough Trade compilation that I could use but none of it seemed to possess any enduring value.
Yet, when I was in the studio I felt myself happily tapping my foot to Stretch and noted a subtle blend of funk, jazz and worldbeat that had escaped me during my first listen. Then, inexplicably, it came upon me: that sensation of expansion in your chest when the pleasure-pain of the soul welling over with emotion is so intense that the earthly shell is barely capable of containing it. It makes you want to dance, to cry, to tear your clothes and scream with madness and joy. For that brief time it seems like there’s a thinning of the firmament between the sky and the heavens and you are but moments away from tearing away the curtain and ascending into that primal plane.
Afterwards you have to catch your breath as your feet once more settle on the ground. The feeling of elation’s still there but that majesty fades all too quickly, leaving you hungry to know it once more. To tell the truth, Maximum Joy hasn’t managed to bring me to that point again and with every listen there’s a diminishment of its power over me. Still I will feel a fondness, a sentimentality about the song that is usually only regarded for old lovers.
There’s a common misconception that people seem to have about me. I’ve developed quite the reputation of being egotistical, of looking down my nose at others based on their tastes and generally being a real prick. As my good friend Daniel Mollet recently put it, misquoting the film Thank You For Smoking, “Michael Jordan plays basketball. Charles Manson kills people. You hate stuff.” I can’t fault him too much for this belief as I certainly don’t strive terribly hard to endear myself to my fellow human beings. In fact, I can become downright insulting when it comes to my true passion – the arts. Yet this isn’t because I’m looking to give my self-esteem a boost by attacking the aesthetic values of my peers. Instead, if I am overly harsh it is because of a deep-seated desire to seek out that which will turn my heart towards God and, as such, find little patience for entertainments that fail to stir my soul. Of course, I accept that the divine can be found in many places that may be hidden from me and so, while I might dispute the merits of the Eagles’ catalogue I do not consider it to be a terrible blemish on your character if you think otherwise, although I’ll admit that in my weaker moments I’m not above having a laugh at your expense for it.
If you can’t sympathize with all this talk about ecstasy and the rapture then you’ll probably think that what I spent most of this essay describing sounds pretty insane. I’m sorry you’ve been denied this sort of experience and can only hope that one day you’ll be similarly blessed. Luckily for you, Nick Hornby and I aren’t the only people who understand this type of experience and there are plenty of artists who strive to recreate it. For example, in his excellent 2-disc set Leon Live, Leon Russell doesn’t try to hide his intentions when, in a show that has a greater resemblance to a revival than a rock’n’roll concert he ecstatically sings, “I’ll take you there.” I don’t doubt for a single moment that Leon knows more than a little about revelation and he’s just being kind enough to try and share a little with us.