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October 2017


Arlene and Michelle

So, this week we had our two leading ladies, Arlene and Michelle, fighting over whether Northern Ireland was British or Irish. It has been a century long argument that seems likely to go on for decades, no matter what happens constitutionally in between. At the moment our intrenched fighting over orange and green has caused a political inertia that is frustrating a general public looking to be governed with everyday needs. 

Into such a scenario I hear the lyrics of Bangor boy Gary Lightbody in the Tired Pony song All Things At Once:


“It’s not one thing or the other

It’s all things all at once...”


Here is the offer of a hopeful alternative in the midst of the seeming impossible. For Northern Ireland to find the shalom, that deep down everyone would love, we need to conjure in our wildest imaginations a society where it is not the victory of our way over their way or the defeat of their way over our way but “all things all at once.”

I personally love the “all things all at once” of living on the island of Ireland in the middle of what I term the Venn Diagram between Ireland and the UK. I love being able to cheer for Andy Murray as a fellow Brit but also get excited when someone like Katie Taylor wins a gold medal for the Republic. 

When it comes to soccer I love another Gary Lightbody song, this time with his other band Snow Patrol, “Ireland in the World Cup/Either North or South.”  Again, “all things all at once.”

It becomes much more difficult when we start thinking of the symbols, icons, heroes and history of the “one thing or the other”. We find in Northern Ireland that a flag is not so much about celebrating an identity as much as having a go at the other community. The flying of flags over communities is so indelibly engraved in the psyche that the other’s flag can raise deep seated hatred. 

It gets even more difficult when a hero on one side killed the ancestors, or even contemporary family members, of the other. I remember, while I was living in Dublin, sitting in Kilmainham Gaol watching video footage of a history that seemed so alien to what I had grown up with; heroes celebrated that my default position saw as terrorists and the enemy! My mind, heart and soul were fried. It took some time and soul searching to realign!

So, I am not being naive in how this works out but it needs to work and we need to move on. It needs to work out in how we tolerate and, dare I dream to suggest appreciate, each other’s parades. The reality is that neither side is going away. Both sides are going to continue to live on this small, and beautiful, piece of land. 

So, it is does not have to be one or the other. Good academic research would probably tell us that we are not as British as those in England, Scotland or Wales or as Irish as those who have lived their lives on the other side of the border. Whatever, the old defaults need smashed. Gently of course! Imaginations need to get fired up as to how we live as one blended and blurred mix in the Venn Diagram rather than the  binary tribal sectarianism that has dealt us nothing but pain and grief for far too long. 


Permanent peace might be found in the “all things all at once.” Come on Arlene and Michelle!


Petty and Van

There is a moment in the middle of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ version of Van Morrison’s Mystic Eyes that not only showcases the wonder of transcendence in art but if you listen more carefully you might even sense the very reason for rock ’n roll. Petty slows the band down and brings a little dramatic hush before going into a spoken word...

“And I thought to myself... wouldn’t it be great if just for one moment everything was alright... I want to give that to you babe, I want to give you a moment... where everything is alright... a moment where everything’s good, everything’s safe, everything’s warm... where everything is alright...”

As Petty assumes the role of preacher you can sense that this is indeed what rock ’n roll has always been about. It has been people who played to turn things alright. Whether it was the bluesman needing to fix what was so badly wrong, the young pop lovers gazing into each other’s eyes or the social justice agenda highlighted in Live Aid or Live 8 music has had a liturgical role at putting things right. 

Many trees have been cut down to feed the books that have called rock music destructive, and there are no doubt times when it has been used as such, but Petty somehow touches its very essence here and reveals its transformative hope and function.

That Petty should choose Van Morrison to attempt the transcendent should not surprise. Petty is obviously a fan of Van the Man. In 1992 he released a live version of I’m Tired Joey Boy as a b-side to Too Good To be True. Petty gives it a beautiful southern accent and twang, drawing out its melancholy and seeking of pastoral serenity and healing. In the book with the Playback box set he is quoted as saying, “I love that song. I love the whole Avalon Sunset album.”

Petty covered I’m Tired Joey Boy just two years after Avalon Sunset was released. Mystic Eyes goes way back to the first track on Them’s first record The Angry Young Them in 1965. It would not take too many listens to Gloria or Baby Please Don’t Go to see the Morrison influence across Petty’s entire career. 

Morrison has been making the ordinary little back alleys and chip shops of Belfast seem transcendent for years. Indeed when I heard Petty’s cover of Mystic Eyes for the first time it was his Thirtieth Anniversary Concert from his hometown of Gainesville, Florida and I was even more excited at the lines “I was walking on University Avenue...” 

My old college room at Queens’ University Belfast looked out onto that very avenue, just about twenty yards from the Fitzroy that Morrison made a little less ordinary on his Astral Weeks record. I was buzzing for weeks that Petty had declared the purpose of rock as he sang about my street and how it made my street a lot more extraordinary. 

Then I sought out the Them version and there was no University Avenue in their lyric. So where did Petty get Morrison’s geographical streets? Eventually having googled ‘University Avenue’ I found one right in the heart of Petty’s own Gainesville. Petty was contextualising it in his place not mine. Still, about a year later I became the minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church and it, as already mentioned, is canonized so I can rest easy!

What Petty is doing, and what Morrison was the king of, was lifting the ordinary mundane streets of any town and giving them a significance way beyond the temporal. There is something going on that can be caught if we are acutely aware. If our souls are spiritually sensitive to the moment then heaven can peek out from Recife, Casa Dega, Depot Street or Fitzroy, Sandy Row and Orangefield and illuminate life and eternity. 

Oh to have... or to look into those Mystic Eyes. Oh to see rock ’n roll making everything alright!


TOM PETTY (1950 - 2017) A TRIBUTE

TomPetty  dead

It was on Twitter. David Bazan Tweeted, “Bless Tom Petty.” I wondered had Petty made a pastorally helpful contribution to the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas. Googling for information I discover he has been found at home unconscious, in cardiac arrest. After some confusion on social media and perhaps hope against hope… I brought this tribute down off my blog. The first words on the news this morning, however, confirmed that Tom Petty had indeed passed away. He had only come off a tour a week ago.

When I first heard the news of Petty’s cardiac arrest, the visceral reaction deep inside me and the shouts of “NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!” told me all I needed to know about how much I loved Tom Petty. We have lost a lot of major rock stars in recent years including Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen but none since George Harrison has hit me as hard as hearing of the loss of Tom Petty.

It was in 1979 that a school friend, Gregory Clements, handed me Damn The Torpedoes and started raving about Petty. I had bought the American Girl single when it came out but Gregory was making a claim on Petty as being more than couple of singles.  I loved Damn The Torpedoes immediately and my fandom grew after Hard Promises, Long After Dark and Southern Accents. He and his Heartbreakers then became Bob Dylan’s backing band for goodness sake! My wife gifted me Tom Petty’s Playback box set on our wedding night!

There was a decade or two though when I have to admit I did not give Petty the place in rock history that he deserved. I even foolishly questioned his credentials to be alongside Harrison, Dylan and Orbison in The Travelling Wilburys

It was the incredible 4 hour documentary film Running Down A Dream that made me re-assess. That re-assessment was not just the music but the role that Petty played in the industry and his authenticity as a human being that played itself out when he reformed his pre Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch to give the guys who missed out their moments under the big venue spotlights.

In recent years his whopping 5CD Live Anthology, the bluesy Mojo and the brilliant Hypnotic Eye reminded us both who he was and what he had left to play and say. I am particularly thankful tonight that I got to see him in Dublin’s O2 in June 2012.

As always when someone passes my pastoral thoughts are with his loved ones, Petty’s wife and children and his band of 40 years. As I remember him over the next few weeks I will bask in those songs I have long loved dearly and probably find new ones I have missed across his vast catalogue. 

I will feel the Florida and Californian sun as I listen. There will be joyous rock n roll and poetic celebration and critique of the America he lived his life in. I will also here deep calls to my soul. No more so in the song Fault Lines from Hypnotic Eye: -


“See those fault lines
Lay down like land mines
It's hard to relax
A promise broken
The ground breaks open
Love falls through the cracks

And I've got a few of my own
I've got a few of my own fault lines
Running under my life
Running under my life”


Petty had lived in California for some 40 years and that idea of the San Andreas Fault lying beneath you all the time could be a frightening thought if you allowed it to linger. Over 200 people have lost their lives in earthquakes in that State since I was born in 1961. 

Petty’s song though is not about tectonic geographical shifts. He is using the image to dig deep in his own life. Another song on the same Hypnotic Eye album goes, “Meet me tonight at the Red River/And look down into your soul…” There is a lot of soul searching going on here and so I looked deep down into mine. I have pondered and prayed about my own fault lines regularly since I heard that song. I have preached and blogged about this helpful spiritual insight. 

As I type I am listening… and remembering… and giving thanks for music in general that has been my constant companion for 45 years, helping me make sense of the world and God and my place in God’s world. And particular thanks for Tom Petty… who has kept me very good company for so long. As my friend Chris Taylor Facebooked last night, Tom Petty was my friend. He didn’t know it but we spent so much time together.” It is a strange relationship between the rock star and the fan but the grief going on inside me this morning tells me that I held Tom Petty very dearly. 

I am gutted!



October Leaves

And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care
And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on.”

Perhaps U2’s first moment of controlled and crafted genius, Edge’s piano changes the band’s soundscape entirely and brings to the early catalogue a song that is sophisticated, economical and deep; Eno before Eno! Christian hymn writers have often used few words for impact – Taize would be a good example – but it is more likely that Bono, with his lyric boos stolen and the album deadline pending, simply didn’t have the time to elaborate. However, what might be nothing more than a sketch at the time begins to feel perfectly complete as the time goes by.

October is a haunting piece that sits in the vortex of change and a change that is not a welcome. Bono often speaks of having the title first and of thinking that the hopeful spring of the sixties had given way to a colder, bleaker time in 1981. As well as that global vortex of change the band were in their own personal vortex. Camped out with the Shalom Christian community on Portrane beach just north of Dublin, Edge and Bono were wrestling with rock stardom or not; was it compatible with the intensity of their Christian commitment. The trees were bare in their own souls and it worked its way into this piece of lament. 

Holed up in a caravan, fasting, praying and reading the Bible it was inevitable that Scripture would creep into the creative process. October is very much in the lament tradition of the Psalms or other Old Testament books, that would find their way into their next album War. October is Psalm-like while 40 on War would be an actual Psalm. Isaiah would feature a couple of times on that follow up album too. In October’s lament comes hope; in the midst of tossed about confusion comes truth; in the midst of negative change comes the constant to be trusted in. God doesn’t change. The seasons do, the politics of history does but God... “you go on and on.”