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justin rosolino:
 live at smithe's

Ralph Borsodi has argued that the Industrial Revolution was sinister not in the proliferation of machines but in transferring the utility of machines from domestic production to the mass production of the factory which infected all areas of life. In short, Mr. Borsodi states: “We have a great market only for the mass-producers of culture – for mass-art: rotogravure; for mass-literature, newspapers and magazines; for mass-drama: movies. This is the ugliest crime for which the factory, not the machine, is guilty.” He further states that the factory mind-set has turned our focus primarily to making money while ignoring quality and craftsmanship. It wouldn’t take much of an argument to show how the factory technique or the assembly-line method of production has been applied to music, especially the “pop” genre today.

Enter Justin Rosolino. I had the great fortune of seeing him perform this past October at Smith’s Old Bar in Atlanta. There was absolutely no manner of pretense. From beginning to end, a sheer honesty and an easy transparency permeated between the artist and audience. There was no extravagant set and no band. There was simply Justin with his exuberance, voice, and guitar.

The first selection he performed demanded your attention instantly. Yes, it contained a catchy, infectious rhythm. When he sang you could tell he did not require any electronic manipulation. He could carry a tune. But, most impressive in this simple song were the lyrics and setting. Contrary to modern pop, which delves the depths of tripe or drivel, Justin touched upon such heavyweights as human nature and the existence of evil. More subtly, the song treats the sovereignty of God, which must always accompany a discussion of evil.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. While the song touches these topics, it does so without being oppressively dark. It is incredibly upbeat. The title of the song is “Oprah.” Can anyone think of a more appropriate representative of our touchy-feely, humanistic, you-just-need-to-talk-to-Dr. Phil culture? The setting is a conversation between Oprah, St. Augustine, and the writer of the song while sipping coffee in Amsterdam.

The juxtaposition between Oprah and St. Augustine is brilliant. Oprah is the representative of our age and its tepid understanding of goodness and wickedness. Her understanding is similar to the “Rich Young Ruler” in the parable of Jesus. It’s an understanding based in humanism. “We are all good and have unlimited potential to excel in goodness. Goodness, in fact, is defined by us. Wicked people are simply the product of their environment, upbringing, or some other sort of lack.”

Oprah asks:

Why do bad things have to happen to good people like Stedman and me?

And further states:

I just do what my heart tells me to and if it feels right, then it must be true, but wicked things are what wicked people do.

St. Augustine, who grows “visibly uncomfortable,” represents the view historically held by the Christian Church. This is the view of the fall and Original Sin. God alone sets the definitions. Wickedness is a condition of the heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jer. 17:9)” Augustine answers:

No one ever thinks that they’re the wicked one, so just how honest do you think we can be?

Amsterdam can represent the movement between these two positions, the movement from Augustine’s day to ours. Amsterdam was built around a church and produced great thinkers in the Augustinian tradition. Today, one can visit that church, still standing in Amsterdam, turn around, go directly across the street and have their heart lead them window-shopping for a suitable prostitute.

Justin’s artistry was further displayed during the cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I was only familiar with the cover done by Jeff Buckley on “Grace.” The juxtaposition between Justin and Jeff may be as pronounced as that between Oprah and Augustine. The song could be classified as one that makes good singers tremble. Simply put, I would not want to follow Mr. Buckley after he sang it. Justin more than held his own (and live at that). His voice seemed effortless. More than this, the beauty of the song was not overshadowed by an overbearing and unnecessary darkness. This difference, the juxtaposition, is clearly seen by contrasting the ending lyrics of Cohen with the doctored Buckley version.

Buckley’s last stanza ends:

Well maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Where Cohen’s original version reconciles an earlier angst:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Justin’s staying with Cohen’s original lyrics says a lot about him.

Mr. Borsodi also lamented that our society did not use machines to free our “finest spirits for the pursuit of beauty.” Here’s hoping that Justin Rosolino is so freed in his pursuit.

Derek Monjure

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