Archive for the ‘Departures’ Category

A Bad January

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

I am deeply bummed.

January, not even two-thirds over, has been a hard month for music fans. David Bowie, gone January 10. Dale Griffin, founding member and drummer for Mott The Hoople, gone January 17. And Glenn Frey of the Eagles, gone January 18.

Now, none of the three – Bowie, Mott The Hoople or the Eagles – were central to my musical life. But I know the music. All three of those acts are well represented on the vinyl shelves and in the digital files as well. All three of them – Bowie and the Eagles a little more prominently – were part of the background music of my college years.

And as the deaths of all three came into the news over the last week, and the tributes rolled past (especially on Facebook – the modern equivalent, as I’ve noted before, of other eras’ public square), it felt like three body blows, each of them more potent than I ever would have expected. And I wondered why.

I am not certain. I have some ideas, centering on the fact that when the folks who provided the music of our formative years leave us, part of the background of our lives is taken away, too. And we begin to feel like an actor on a stage would likely feel if the scenery, the props and the furniture began to disappear one item at a time: confused, unmoored and maybe a little bit alone.

All I know is that I listened last week to more David Bowie than I have in a long time. I’ll likely listen to some Mott the Hoople and its successor band, Mott, this week. And I’m certain that I’ll drop an Eagles CD into the player either in the car or on my nightstand late at night as well.

And here’s the track that came to mind yesterday afternoon when I got the news about Glenn Frey. I shared it here not that long ago, but that’s okay. It’s the song he contributed in 1991 to the soundtrack to Thelma & Louise, and its message applies to anyone – lovers, family, friends and yes, favored performers – that we lose: “Part Of Me, Part Of You.”

‘In My Life . . .’

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

It’s hard to believe it’s been thirty-five years since John Lennon was murdered. Here, edited slightly, is a piece I offered in this space in 2007.

It was a Monday, December 8, 1980, was. It was the second Monday of the month, which meant that I spent the bulk of the evening at Monticello City Hall, listening to the city council debate whatever issues were on its agenda. It sounds deadly dull, but I actually enjoyed covering city government; the ebb and flow of politics and policies over a nearly six-year period gave me insight as to how a city grows.

I don’t recall any of the topics on the agenda, but the meeting was over fairly early. I’d guess it was around 9:30 when the gavel fell and I walked out of the building into the chilly night, headed for my car and my home about two miles out of town. The Other Half was there, probably involved in some craft project, and there was a football game on television, Miami and New England.

And so I was seated in my easy chair, probably dipping into a bowl of popcorn, when Howard Cosell interrupted the game.

“This, we have to say it, is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” Cosell said. “An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all the Beatles, shot five times in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead … on … arrival.”

I stared at the screen, football forgotten. I recall trying to wrap my head around the weight Cosell’s words carried, not quite grasping it, the news too stunning and too fresh for comprehension or sorrow. Not long after the game ended, the result unnoticed, we retired for the night, and I lay there, still shocked. “Do you think it will be on Nightline?” she asked me.

“I can’t imagine they’d cover anything else.”

“Then go watch it. He was yours.”

I went to the living room. In a short marriage in which both of us so often got so many things so wrong about each other, that was one that she got right about me, and I am still grateful. I watched as Ted Koppel and his reporters and guests sorted through what was known and what was supposed. Then they began the first of thousands of assessments of what John Lennon and the Beatles had meant to us.

That’s a topic worthy of several volumes – what John Lennon and the Beatles had meant to us – and not all of the answers can be put into words. The next day was a busy one at work; Tuesday was the day we wrote the bulk of the copy for our newspaper’s weekly edition. But I managed to get home for thirty minutes for lunch. One of the Twin Cities classic rock stations, KQRS, was playing the Beatles’ catalog alphabetically, and as I ate my sandwich, I heard “In My Life.”

As I listened, I finally understood how those folks a few years older than I had felt during the summer of 1977 when they got the news that Elvis had died. Bent over my dining room table, I wept for John; for Yoko, Sean and Julian; for John’s three bandmates; and I wept for all of us who’d loved the man through his music.

In 1998, famed Beatles producer George Martin marked his retirement by producing In My Life, an album of favorite performers paired with his favorites Beatles tunes. For the title track, he selected one of the voices I consider among the greatest in the English-speaking world. Here’s Sean Connery and his recitation of “In My Life,” the song that finally touched what I felt about John Lennon that long-ago day.

Saturday Single No. 447

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

By now, I’m sure that anyone who comes by here knows that B.B. King is gone. The blues legend passed on at the age of 89 at his Las Vegas home late Thursday evening (May 14). And blogworld and Facebook are filled with tributes, memories and clips of King’s performances both live and in the studio. I spent a fair amount of time reading and listening yesterday.

I was lucky enough to see B.B. King in concert once; he was the headliner at a blues program offered in 1995 at the Minnesota State Fair. He was nearing the age of seventy, he told us, and so he sat down as he performed, but the notes still came clear from the guitar he called Lucille, many of them shining with that silvery vibrato wrung from his dancing left hand.

But the music he brought forth and offered the world for almost seventy years was only part of the story of B.B. King. As I read a very good account of King’s life, written by Tim Weiner of the New York Times, this caught my eye:

B. B. stood for Blues Boy, a name he took with his first taste of fame in the 1940s. His peers were bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, whose nicknames fit their hard-bitten lives. But he was born a King, albeit in a shack surrounded by dirt-poor sharecroppers and wealthy landowners.

That shack was in Berclair, Mississippi, which Weiner describes as “a hamlet outside the small town of Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta.” And by the time he passed on in his Las Vegas home nearly ninety years later, he was a multi-millionaire. That arc from poverty to riches might be nearly as important to King’s story as is his music. I say that because from everything I’ve read over the years and then over the past day, none of it – the money, the adulation – really changed Riley B. King. He was, from what I’ve seen from far more than one source, one of the nicest men a person could ever meet.

And that’s good to know. I mean, I listen to and enjoy a fair amount of music made by people who I know were mean-spirited. So it’s nice to know that part of B.B. King’s legacy is that the good cheer with which he played his often broken-hearted blues was real.

There is, of course, a fair amount of B.B. King’s music on the digital shelves here, and more in the vinyl stacks. Sifting through it to find one track to feature here this morning was a little daunting. Then I came across a track from King’s 2008 album, One Kind Favor, an earthy album of covers produced by T Bone Burnett.

“Sitting On Top Of The World” is a song first recorded in 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks (though Second Hand Songs notes that “[m]ore than half of its melody was in Tampa Red’s instrumental composition ‘You Got To Reap What You Sow’ from the previous year”). Since then, it’s been covered by folks ranging from Howlin’ Wolf and Bob Dylan to Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys and Mitch Miller. King’s version from One Kind Favor seems to make for a nice curtain call, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

Saturday Single No. 431

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

About three years ago, having run across an obscure single by Rod McKuen in a Billboard Hot 100 from 1962, I remembered seeking out a couple of volumes of McKuen’s poetry in high school:

Why? A couple of things contributed, I imagine. I’d been listening frequently to the Glenn Yarbrough album The Lonely Things, a 1966 LP of McKuen’s songs that my sister had received from a boyfriend before he headed off to Vietnam. And there was my embryonic interest in writing my own verse and lyrics. Those two bits of my life united, I think, into the realization that even if matters of the heart did not unwind as I might wish they would (and they did not, though at sixteen, how could they have done so?), something worthy might be salvaged from the sorrow.

So I read the two volumes, recognizing a few of the pieces from the Yarbrough album and dipping into those that were not familiar. I found some of them affecting, I remember, and I found some of them not to my taste. Assessing them from a distance of more than forty years – and not having read many of them for that long – I now see much of McKuen’s work as manipulative, pushing his loved (and lost) one’s buttons, as it were, instead of truly grieving. And his poems and lyrics – even those on the Yarbrough album, which I still love – all too often tap sentiment instead of true emotion.

Hmmm. Until I wrote those words, I didn’t know I felt that way about McKuen’s work. As I used to tell my reporting and writing students: If you want to know how you really feel about something, start writing about it and follow the words. But anyway, back to work . . .

And I still feel that way about the work of McKuen, who passed on in California two days ago at the age of eighty-one. But that’s (mostly) the dismissive assessment of an adult. As an adolescent, as I noted in that piece from three years ago, I found many of his works affecting, and – especially when filtered through the voice of Glenn Yarbrough – touching. Sentimental? Yes, I still think so, but I’m also aware that the reliance on sentiment – by McKuen and other writers alike – is one of the things that pushed me toward being a writer, toward using the events and feelings of my life as foundations of my own work.

And there we come to one of the points of this blog: How the music I’ve loved over the years has brought me to where I am, as a writer and a person. And the fact that I have come to be far more critical of McKuen’s work in the forty-five years that have passed since I was a high school junior does not negate the value I found in some of McKuen’s work then nor its influence since those days on my writing and my life.

That value and that influence came most of all from Yarbrough’s album The Lonely Things. So to remember Rod McKuen and to acknowledge his place in my life, here’s one of the pieces from Yarbrough’s album that I found most affecting in 1970. Even as I recognize the song’s flaws today, I still find the combination of McKuen’s words and Yarbrough’s voice a potent mix, which only means that I am both sixteen and sixty-one as I listen to it this morning. Here’s “Stanyan Street, Revisited,” today’s Saturday Single.

Another One Gone

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

They keep falling. Musicians I listened to in my youth – and for many years after, in many cases – are departing more and more frequently from this world.

Yesterday it was Joe Cocker, who passed on at the age of 70 at his Colorado home. Though I don’t think I’ve written much about him – as least not as frequently as I have other performers – Cocker holds a firm place in my list of favorites for a couple of reasons.

First, he was the headline performer at my first Twin Cities rock concert. For Christmas 1971, my sister gave me a hand-made certificate good for two tickets to any concert I wanted to see, and when Joe Cocker scheduled an April concert at the now-gone Met Sports Center, I cashed in the certificate and took Rick down to the show with me.

I’ve noted here before that Cocker’s performance that night was erratic, as frequently was the case in those years. And I guess that’s being kind; he was drunk or high or both, and the first half of the show was ragged. But as the show wore on, Cocker became more focused, and at one point about three-quarters of the way through, the band – with Chris Stainton on piano, I think – tore into the introduction of “Hitchcock Railway,” and for the first time that evening, the Joe Cocker we heard was the Joe Cocker we’d expected to hear.

Here’s the studio version of “Hitchcock Railway” from Cocker’s 1969 album, Joe Cocker!

Then, from the same album, there’s Cocker’s cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darling Be Home Soon.” From the time I first heard the album – purchased used in the spring of 1972, when I was still in catch-up mode – Cocker’s take on John B. Sebastian’s lovely song has transfixed me.

I had come across Sebastian’s lyric a couple years earlier in a book titled The Poetry Of Rock, in which editor Richard Goldstein offers with brief – sometimes very brief – commentary lyrics that he thought were worthy of more thought than listeners might put into a three- or four-minute record or even a six- or seven-minute album track. The lyrics Goldstein offered the reader ranged widely, from Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” and Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” to the Incredible String Band’s “Koeeoaddi There” and the Doors’ “The End.” Even after reading – and liking – the lyric – I’d never sought out the Spoonful’s version of “Darling Be Home Soon,” and the first time I met the song was on the Joe Cocker! album.

The combination of Sebastian’s yearning lyrics and the gospel-tinged joy that Cocker and his mates brought to the track made “Darling Be Home Soon” an anthem for me, one that I heard sometimes with joy, sometimes with despair and now – with both of us home at last – with contentment (though I still tend to play air piano when it shows up coming out of the speakers).

I kind of lost track of Joe Cocker during my college years. I caught up with 1969’s With A Little Help From My Friends and 1970’s raucous Mad Dogs & Englishmen. And then other performers took my attention, and when I went back to Cocker in 1975, I found the over-wrought “You Are So Beautiful” at No. 5, and then nothing much interested me until 1987’s Unchain My Heart, which I still enjoy.

In the past decades, I’ve gone back and checked out the years I skipped, and I’ve kept an ear on more recent releases. I enjoy some of it and find some of it tedious, but even with the stuff I like, something seems lacking. Maybe it’s not so much that the recent music has been flawed as that the first couple years of Cocker’s career were so brilliant that even the best of his later work seems pale. I rest my case on the live performance from the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour of “Cry Me A River.”

Revised slightly since original posting.

Jesse Winchester, 1944-2014

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

The broad outlines of Jesse Winchester’s life and work are pretty well known:

Born in Louisiana in 1944, raised in Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. Grew up playing music. Moved to Montreal after receiving a military draft notice in 1967. Met musicians there, including Robbie Robertson of The Band, who produced Winchester’s 1970 self-titled debut album. Became a Canadian citizen. Continued to record regularly into the early 1980s and performed regularly and recorded occasionally since. Moved back to the U.S. in 2002, settling in Virginia. Passed away last Friday, April 11, 2014.

In my brief post about Jesse Winchester Saturday, I wrote: “While regret and loss are part of any songwriter’s toolkit, they were perhaps sharper in Winchester’s toolbox than in the kits of most other songwriters.”

And where did those senses of regret and loss come from? Well, just as in literature, sense of place and a resulting appreciation of home are among the main themes of song, whether one is at home, going home or displaced from home. And in Jesse Winchester’s music I hear displacement – with those resulting senses of regret and loss – as a constant current. Part of that might simply have been his demeanor. A good portion of it is likely something Southern. And the largest part of that presence came, I would guess, from his status as an exile from his homeland.

Whatever the sources, that current runs true from his self-titled debut in 1970 to his last album, Love Filling Station, which was released in 2009. Here’s maybe the most overt expression of that displacement, “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind,” from the 1974 album, Learn To Love It.

For me, it was Winchester’s second album, Third Down, 110 To Go, that introduced me to his music. I remember liking the album a great deal when I heard it across the street at Rick and Rob’s house one evening in 1972. I thought I should maybe get my own copy, but I had other music in my sights at the time. Then Rob moved to Colorado, I went away for a while, and I saw the two brothers only sporadically for a few years. And I forgot about Jesse Winchester until the early 1990s when one of my twice-weekly stops at Cheapo’s brought me a vinyl copy of Winchester’s 1970 debut album. When I saw it and as it played it on my turntable, I thought about Third Down, 110 To Go and began to look for it and Winchester’s other work.

By early 1999, I had good copies of everything he’d recorded up through 1981’s Talk Memphis. I’ve since added his three last studio albums (but none of the several live albums). And listening to his work as a whole – as I have for a few hours over the course of the past weekend – I’m struck even more strongly by those qualities of regret and loss that seem to underlie even the lighter and sometimes humorous songs. (As an example, listen to “Snow” from 1970’s Jesse Winchester, which to me asks “How did I come to live in a place so different from my home?”)

Winchester might in the end be better remembered as a songwriter. There’s a long list at Wikipedia of folks who’ve recorded his work. And some of those covers are impressive. That especially holds true for the work on the 2012 album Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester, which includes covers from Rosanne Cash, Jimmy Buffett, Allen Toussaint, Vince Gill and others. But as good as those versions are – and I do enjoy Quiet About It – it’s hard to surpass Winchester’s versions of his own songs.

And we’ll close today with the gentle and lovely “Eulalie” from Winchester’s last album, the 2009 release Love Filling Station.

Saturday Single No. 388

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Jesse Winchester, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, passed on yesterday morning at his home in Virginia. He was 69. Rumors of his death had been flitting around Facebook and other social media sites for about a week, and yesterday they came true.

I’ll write a bit more about Winchester and his music early next week; things are a bit rushed this morning, and I want to let the mud settle down in the water before I write about someone whose music I enjoyed as much as I did his. But I also wanted to note his passing.

While regret and loss are part of any songwriter’s toolkit, they were perhaps sharper in Winchester’s toolbox than in the kits of most other songwriters. That’s evident in the melancholy strains of “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” from Winchester’s self-titled 1970 album, released after he left the U.S. for Canada as a draft resister.

Oh my, but you have a pretty face
You favor I girl that I knew
I imagine that she’s back in Tennessee
And by God, I should be there too
I’ve a sadness too sad to be true

But I left Tennessee in a hurry dear
In same way that I’m leaving you
Because love is mainly just memories
And everyone’s got him a few
So when I’m gone I’ll be glad to love you

At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
You’re literally waltzing on air
At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
There’s no telling who will be there

When I leave it will be like I found you, love
Descending Victorian stairs
And I’m feeling like one of your photographs, girl
Trapped while I’m putting on airs
Getting even by saying, Who cares

At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
You’re literally waltzing on air
At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
There’s no telling who will be there

So have all your passionate violins
Play a tune for a Tennessee kid
Who’s feeling like leaving another town
But with no place to go if he did
Cause they’ll catch you wherever you’re hid

At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
You’re literally waltzing on air
At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
There’s no telling who will be there

And “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” by Jesse Winchester is today’s Saturday Single.

‘You’re Never Too Old To Change The World . . .’

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Pete Seeger passed away yesterday. His story is well told in today’s edition of the New York Times (and told in great detail at Wikipedia), and I thought that instead of trying (and failing) to tell the whole story this morning, I’d just share a few moments of Seeger’s musical life and heritage.

Seeger was a founding member of the Weavers, the early 1950s folk group that had a No. 1 hit with Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” and was blacklisted for its liberal leanings during the 1950s Red Scare. This is the Weavers’ 1950 recording of “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song),” written by Seeger and fellow Weaver Lee Hayes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Seeger was considered by many to be a dangerous man. As Wikipedia relates, “In 1960, the San Diego school board told him that he could not play a scheduled concert at a high school unless he signed an oath pledging that the concert would not be used to promote a communist agenda or an overthrow of the government. Seeger refused, and the American Civil Liberties Union obtained an injunction against the school district, allowing the concert to go on as scheduled. In February 2009, the San Diego School District officially extended an apology to Seeger for the actions of their predecessors.”

Seeger’s songs and music were without doubt popular and important far beyond the reach of radio and pop music. Still, in the 1960s, a few of his songs provided hits. “If I Had A Hammer” was a hit for both Trini Lopez (No. 3, 1963) and Peter, Paul & Mary (No. 10, 1962). (It’s likely, for what it may matter, that Lopez’ version of the song is the first Pete Seeger song I ever heard, as a copy of Lopez’ single came home with my sister one day in one of those record store grab bags of ten singles for a dollar. I still have the single, with “Unchain My Heart” on the flipside.) The Byrds (No. 1, 1965) and Judy Collins (No. 69, 1969) reached the charts with “Turn! Turn! Turn!” And “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” was a hit for the Kingston Trio (No. 21, 1962) and Johnny Rivers (No. 26, 1965), while a version by guitarist Wes Montgomery bubbled under the chart (No. 119, 1969).

Perhaps the greatest attention Seeger got in the 1960s was when he was scheduled to perform his Vietnam allegory, “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” on the CBS television show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, in September 1967. Wikipedia notes, “Although the performance was cut from the September 1967 show, after wide publicity it was broadcast when Seeger appeared again on the Smothers’ Brothers show in the following January.” Here’s that January 1968 performance:

This morning, after I heard the news of Seeger’s passing, I dug around at YouTube for something different to post at Facebook. I came across a mini-documentary detailing how Seeger came to recite Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” for the 2012 collection Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International. It’s a piece that tells as much about Seeger as it does about the recording he was invited to make. I was especially moved at the end of the piece when one of the Rivertown Kids, the Seeger-organized choir of young people involved in the recording, seemed to sum up Seeger’s life about as well as can be done: “You’re never too old the change the world.”

‘On The Wings . . .’

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

With various winter ailments – inside and outside – still hampering the normal run of things here under the bare oaks, I’ve not had much time or energy to think about the promised look at the Everly Brothers and their place in my musical life in the aftermath of the passing of Phil Everly last week. Still that will come, even if it has to be offered in bits and pieces and shoehorned into the week’s normal duties and the preparations for a group dinner here Friday evening. Here’s a start:

The only Everly Brothers single I knew about during the time it was on the charts was 1984’s “On The Wings Of A Nightingale,” the Paul McCartney-penned track from the album EB ’84 that went to No. 50. I knew, of course, the records that I’d heard on oldies stations over the years, the classic stuff from the late 1950s and early 1960s, the stuff that started with 1957’s “Bye Bye Love” and always seemed to land on 1960’s “Cathy’s Clown.” But I wasn’t all that interested.

As a young radio listener in the years when the 1960s were giving way to the 1970s, the Everly Brothers just sounded old to me. The close harmonies sounded like something from another time and place, a judgment that turned out to be correct although I could not have said what time and place that was. “Wake Up Little Susie” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” – heard as they were wedged in between “Spirit in the Sky” and “Green River” – were out of fashion and out of touch. (The eternal romantic in the teen I was loved “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” but that only served to remind me that I was often out of fashion and out of touch as well.)

It took years for me to understand and then appreciate the heritage that Don and Phil Everly expressed nearly every time they picked up their guitars and approached a microphone. It’s likely true that that the process of appreciating the Everly Brothers began with “On The Wings Of A Nightingale” and EB ’84, but it was in fact a slow process. The history – both theirs and that of the earlier musicians that informed their style – remained murky to me in 1984 when I heard “Nightingale” coming out of my radio speakers and then again, not quite ten years later, when the album came home with me one day. The most I got from the single and the album was a hint.

The McCartney-penned single got most of my interest when I put the album on the turntable, but the other nine tracks – especially a decent cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” – gave me for the first time the thought that I needed to go back and really listen to the brothers’ more famous work. The 1984 album was a little busier – as befits that decade – than the classic Everly Brothers’ work, but the close harmonies and those voices were there on center stage. And I finally began to listen.

Andrew Greeley, 1928-2013

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

When novels by Father Andrew Greeley began popping up on the shelves at the local drug stores in Monticello during the early 1980s, I was not interested. I’d glance at the titles – The Cardinal Sins and Thy Brother’s Wife were the first two I saw – and I’d think “genre romance, at best.” That judgment was supported by the cover artwork: The first showed the bare back of a lissome lady otherwise swathed in red bedclothes and the second showed an equally attractive woman holding in one hand and between her teeth a gold chain on which was suspended a gold cross.

Those two titles left the drug store shelves and other titles by Greeley replaced them over the next five years or so. I was aware of them, but let them come and go: Ascent into Hell, Lord of the Dance, Virgin and Martyr, Angels of September. If I thought about Greeley and his books at all, I reflected only that the man had obviously found a niche and formula that served him well. Romance novels were not my deal.

I had nothing against genre fiction. Robert Ludlum was still alive and still writing his occasionally clunky but always diverting spy thrillers, and I gladly laid down my shekels every year for another one of his books. That was especially true for the three Ludlum novels that chronicled the tale of Jason Bourne, the intelligence operative struck with amnesia whom I consider one of the greatest inventions in popular American fiction.

Then, one morning in late 1987 as I looked for lunchtime diversion in the library at Minot State University, I chanced upon the portion of the stacks where Greeley’s novels were shelved. Their presence surprised me. Perhaps the man’s work was not as genre-bound as I’d thought. If that were the case, well, I was beginning work on at least two fiction projects, and I thought I might learn something about writing popular fiction as I read. Finally, I was hungry, and there was nothing that said I had to keep reading past lunchtime if I found the book lacking.

So I grabbed one of Greeley’s books from the shelf – I think it was The Cardinal Sins – and once I opened it, I found myself reluctant to close it. Once I got home, I read until early morning, and then finished the book, eyes weary, the next day. Then I went back to the university library and got another Greeley. Once I’d finished with the backlog, I looked and waited for new titles. And so it went through the years, one novel after another, until 2007, when Greeley had an accident that left him with a brain injury and the writing stopped. He passed on at the age of eighty-five during the last days of May, partly as a result of that injury from six years ago.

I’ve learned in the years since first dismissing his work, of course, that Greeley was far more than just a novelist. He was, as Wikipedia puts it, “an Irish-American Roman Catholic priest, sociologist, journalist and popular novelist.” His work at the latter three vocations often put him at odds with the powers of the Catholic church, and his relations with the church were sometimes strained. I don’t know much about his work as a sociologist nor much about his work as a journalist – I’ve told myself many times I should explore his work in both areas – but I’d venture that Greeley did at least some of his most effective work as a priest through his fiction.

A caveat: I’m not a Roman Catholic. I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I grew up as a Lutheran, and in many ways, I am culturally a Lutheran still. I did, however, grow up in a Catholic city; most of my friends when I was young were Catholic; the Texas Gal grew up as a Catholic; and, in the broad swath of Protestantism, Lutherans do not stand horribly far – even though there are some vital differences – from the Church of Rome.

What does all that mean? Just that, even with all that contradictory background swirling around my life, I know ministry when I see it. And in every page of Andrew Greeley’s novels, there is ministry. Without much preaching and with generally interesting plot lines from 1981 through 2007, Greeley tended to his readers, entertaining and guiding them through their lives by detailing crises and celebrations for his characters. The message was fundamentally the same, both in his basic fictional universe with its close-knit families of Cronins, Ryans and more and in the mystery stories that featured his two greatest creations, priest and philosopher Blackie Ryan and musician and mystic Nuala Anne McGrail.

That message? That there is grace in the world. Those would be Greeley’s words. Mine would be different: The Universe gives us what we need. (That’s not always the same as what we want, of course.) As different as the words might be, the ideas are the same: There is something that is unknowable that is greater than we are, and that unknowable something can give us the tools and opportunities to make our lives better. And I’m willing to label those tools and opportunities as grace.

Along with subtle ministry, grace was a constant in Greeley’s books, which have brought me hours of pleasure through the years. Those elements only worked, however, because Greeley’s novels also provided strong stories, interesting and vital characters, a sense of community and engaging mysteries both temporal and cosmic. And I’ll miss all of that. The end of Andrew Greeley’s writing life six years ago left a hole in the library shelves for me; the end of his physical life last month only made that hole larger.

As long as we’re talking about grace, here’s “State of Grace” by Patti Scialfa. It’s from her 2004 album 23rd Street Lullaby.