Preamble to an Odyssey

Preamble to an Odyssey

An excerpt from a forthcoming memoir by Charlie Peacock.

I am an artist. I make things.

I make songs and recordings, poems, and picket fences. I made a house out of a church. I write.

Sometimes I write to know, to put flesh on bones, or to make a fleeting and flighty intuition circle home and land. Sometimes I write because writing is the oxygen that keeps me alive. I have a perennial belief that there’s always something out there yet to be discovered. I believe that if I put pen to paper or click-clack to keyboard, mysteries will unfold. Tales will be told. For all these reasons and more, one morning in Seaside, Florida, the summer of 2004, I began to write a book, of which this essay is a part.

Here’s what I remember:

My Florida morning had a rhythm — cars on the road, a radio playing. I laughed at myself. It’s impossible for me to write the word rhythm without spelling it out in my head: R-H-Y-T-H-M. Rhythm is a word every musician should get right. By sounding it out, letter by letter, you yield to its internal rhythm — two groups of three letters each, two eighth-note triplets to be exact, each residing within one quarter-note in a single measure of 2/4 time. Because my brain delights in rhythmic memory, I haven’t misspelled this word in forty-plus years. When I’m laid to rest some stoic soul will remind the mourners: “Who can forget how this man spelled the word rhythm with such stunning and consistent accuracy?” Mine will be a legacy won or lost by a thimble full of letters, R-H-Y-T-H-M.

A loathsome malaise accompanied my first brimming thoughts at Seaside. My head ached. My left ear rang.

I was getting used to being unwell, both physically and spiritually. I’d been on a merry-go-round of fairly minor ill health for a decade. In my creative life I would imagine something big, create it, then overwork, get sick, imagine something big again, create it, overwork, get sick. In a ten-year period I produced nearly fifty CDs worth of music, wrote and published hundreds of songs, toured America and Europe several times, built studios, wrote a book, went to the top of the pop charts, earned gold and platinum albums, started a non-profit, and founded a record company (re:think/EMI) that signed and developed the modern rock band Switchfoot (their pop hits include “Dare You to Move” and “Meant to Live”). After all that, I’d started to wonder out loud, “Am I one of those people who creates stress to feel alive?”

I tried to break the cycle by going to seminary. The idea came to me that I should get a Master of Divinity and become a pastor/teacher of the Christian variety. This was not an improbable notion. The intersection of arts and Christian theology had been a passion for two decades. Plus, I’d had the idea twice before. Once when I was a sophomore in high school and again in 1982. The first time it happened, John Coltrane and the pleasure of teenage sex put me off the idea. I didn’t know much at the age of fifteen, but the thought of trudging through my remaining high school years as a fornicating pastor-in-waiting was more than I could bear. Better to abandon the pastor part of that idea altogether. Besides, I knew musician John Coltrane was a spiritual man, but I just couldn’t see his music welcome at the First Christian Church in Marysville, California, circa 1971. I had somehow deduced this fact with my laser-beam powers of perception. This insight into the hearts and minds of the parishioners served my desire. It gave me a tidy backup excuse for slipping into the shadow-world of secrets and grown-up decisions about my sexual and religious destiny.

A decade passed and the pastor/seminary subject came up again, this time with serious vigor since I was now born again, which in 1982 was apparently something different than becoming a follower of Jesus in, say, the 1st century. Many other contemporary musicians had gone before me, all fascinated with the Jesus story, trying to step into it with some manner of conviction and honesty — artists such as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Al Green, Phil Keaggy, T-Bone Burnett, Joe English (Wings), Donna Summer, Bono, Richie Furay (Poco), Barry McGuire, and Larry Norman.

The second time I considered Bible school and pastoral training, the artist/photographer/musician Jimmy Abegg talked me out of it. I met Jimmy in 1982 at Maurice’s American Bar (later renamed Melarkey’s) in Sacramento at 15th and Broadway. He came to hear me play, me being the odd curiosity and exception — a popular local musician who became a Christian yet still headlined local clubs playing his own music. Reflecting on this uniqueness now, in the light of today’s religious pluralism and Christian spirituality in the public square, it seems so far in the past, as if I’m contrasting a world of horse and buggies against 21st-century automobiles. My insistence on playing my music in clubs and concerts where anyone could enjoy it gained me a derogatory mention in former rock-n-roller Jimmy Swaggart’s 1987 book on the perils of rock music. Among our tiny tribe of rebels this was a badge of honor. I would eventually become close friends and collaborators with several other people mentioned in the book, including Amy Grant and Steve Taylor.

Jimmy Abegg and I quickly become close allies. Though he had only traveled the faith-and-art road just a little longer, I considered him my elder and guide. I listened to what Jimmy had to say.

Jimmy argued that my musical contribution to society would be sufficient, that I need not worry about carrying the pastoral burdens of the Church, too. Though relieved, the idea never completely left me. For the next two decades I became a voracious autodidact and student of the arts, culture, and Christian theology. Along with my wife, Andi, I learned to love learning, and the two of us poured ourselves into self-study and the spiritual/intellectual nurture of artists, especially since the founding of our nonprofit, Art House America, in 1991. 

The third time seminary came up I thought I’d heard the audible voice of God (not surprisingly at Seaside). I tested this voice with many trusted people. Not one person said, “Pastor? No, that doesn’t make any sense at all.” This time, I had 100-percent support for the idea. Besides, pastor sounded like pastoral and pastoral sounded restful. Not only did I need rest, I needed to learn to rest.

Third time’s a charm and all that. We went. Covenant Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, home to the Schaeffer Institute and up-close access to men and women who had studied with Edith and Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri in Switzerland, an enigmatic couple of Jesus followers who had greatly inspired our life, especially with respect to a theology of the arts and hospitality.

I quickly found out that learning seminary Greek does not bring rest; it makes you anxious and miserable, even desperate. As S.M. Baugh, author of our Greek textbook, makes clear, “If you cannot parse Greek, you cannot use Greek.” True story.

I arrived at seminary in St. Louis with a strong sense of calling that quickly became an acute meaning and identity problem. I’d been a successful musician my entire life. I had repeatedly overcome major obstacles, progressing and succeeding again and again. But Greek made a mockery of my prowess and invincibility. And as a matter of course, I got sick, too. All of a sudden, I didn’t know who I was or why I was there. This was a familiar feeling, though one I had not felt in a long time. For ten years I had been the conductor on a runaway train of success. Every musical dream I’d ever had as a child or young musician had been fulfilled. Write hit songs. Check. Work with people I grew up listening to. Check. Tour the world. Check. Play Radio City Music Hall. Check.  

Success and achievements are not empty, but they contain far fewer nutrients necessary for good health than you can possibly imagine while you pursue them. With every achievement you learn the lesson ever more precisely. There isn’t anything you can hold that’s enough to sustain you, heal you of your perceived inadequacies, or satisfy the hunger of your heart. Ironically, as any honest, decorated person will tell you, success and achievement can lead to an overwhelming loneliness.

Too often when you reach the top of anything, a mountain or a career, you find yourself standing alone or with very few others. Attrition travels the length of the ascent. It may be that only the highly skilled and the very wounded make it to the top. The highly skilled arrive because they’re more prepared for success than anyone else in the world. The skilled-but-deeply-wounded arrive not because they’re so majestically prepared for success but because they cannot stop moving. Even the peak does not stop them. Space is their next frontier. Final frontier? Hardly. If you’ve ever cut or burnt yourself badly, you know the phenomenon I’m alluding to. You rock in place, then you move about the room. You run in circles. The point is, you keep moving. It’s the same when your insides are battered and bruised. Movement is all you have to count on. I’ve trusted in movement my whole life.

Still, it’s very difficult to read the signs along the road when you’re speeding. At a pedestrian tempo you see them more clearly. If seminary did nothing else, it slowed me down enough to see. De-acceleration — a cure for blindness.

Ultimately seminary wasn’t about becoming a pastor at all. It wasn’t about getting an MDiv. It was about finding contentment and rest in the uniqueness and complexity of my particular callings. My ethos has always been to do many things, to experience life at its fullest. A patient satisfaction with doing one thing well has never interested me. I’ve learned that if you live long enough you can do several things well. At seminary I found the permission to live into this and stop fighting it. My drama aside, an unexpected consequence of seminary was my dear wife Andi earning her Master of Theological Studies. I remain among the non-credentialed.

Thanks to the counsel of several good people, I left seminary after a short seven months. Some key issues were resolved — sort of. One thing for sure, I would not find rest as a pastor. Or much rest otherwise. More cycles ensued. I lost an appendix and raised my blood pressure. I wrote another book. I passed a kidney stone and started recording a couple of jazz/improvisational albums. Creating improvisational music helped me break the cycle of my old day job: producing too many pop/gospel records and writing too many three-minute pop/gospel songs with the same form, function, and predictability. Just the imaginative task of naming instrumentals was so freeing it almost felt noble: “Be Well Johnny Cash,” “Downstairs Room of You,” “Dodo’s Whim,” “The Brightness of Peter Berger,” and “Frank the Marxist Memorial Gong Blues.” This work became my first measured steps in finding the flow of real and truthful music again.

Fact about music and me: At one point in my career I gave up something in order to be successful at the music game. Not everyone has to. For some reason I thought I did. As a result, I lost the music that gave me an audience in the first place — my own melodies, lyrics, and musical surprises. While playing the music game, I turned my head for just a second and the business captured my soul. I got my mogul on instead of my music. Shortly thereafter, and rightly so, the music crept out to the shadows where it waited for my soul to return. Fair enough.

At the beach in Florida, small planes fly along the rim of the ocean with banners flowing behind them. They draw your attention to restaurants with extraordinary deals on shrimp and steak, or boogie boards and flip-flops. You can’t help but notice. You hear the little putt-putt aircraft motor before you see anything. When the plane appears you look up from your beach book, and you give the advertisement two seconds of your life. Then you go back to reading or tanning or both. I had the idea of renting one of those planes and getting my own banner: “Come home, Music. My soul is lonesome. I’m sorry I took you for granted.”

At Seaside, Florida, I had a tiny sense of the moment I was standing in and couldn’t get out of. Like Dante in The Divine Comedy, midway through my life’s journey “I found myself in a dark wood.” Yes, in the same way you can smell rain approaching, I knew that a journey was about to begin. It made sense. Many of the best stories are journey stories. Stories are the food we eat. They make sense of life and provide the nourishment to carry on. Think of Exodus, Huckleberry Finn, On the Road, The Odyssey.

T-Bone Burnett invited me to the studio for the making of the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou — a story based on The Odyssey. I watched and listened as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings deftly shaped music for the Baby Face Nelson getaway scene. The three chain-gang escapees were about to come into some money. What is an odyssey? Nothing short of an eventful journey marked by many changes of fortune.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ebb and flow of fortune these days. Not just fortune as wealth but, rather, all that blesses. Or in turn, all that befalls us and reveals misfortune. I don’t know how long it will take, but I will write this odyssey down for my children and my children’s children. However long it takes, it will be done. I am an artist. I make things.


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