Thursday, January 28, 2010

Old Man Salinger (A Tribute)

If you really want to hear about it, The Catcher in the Rye is responsible for more first-person, angst-driven, teen-oriented literature than any other piece of fiction out there. And don’t get me started on movies, television, plays and other forms of prostitution that feature a young rebel protagonist all hell-bent against the establishment, you know what I mean? Bunch of phonies. I hate phonies.

Rock songs are okay. I wish we had Green Day, Third Eye Blind and The Offspring back in the 1940s. Those guys know angst. All we had when I was a kid was that goddam Sinatra who made the bobby soxers scream and swoon like nobody’s business. “Frankie! Frankie!” I’m not kidding. I’ll take Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” any day over Ol’ Blue Eyes’ “I’ll Never Smile Again.”

You know what’s the best thing about Catcher in the Rye? No movie version! That means no dilution of Old Man Salinger’s pure vision, if you want to call it pure. All the hacks came knocking on JD’s door, from Sam Goldwyn and Billy Wilder, to Steven Spielberg and Tobey Maguire and even Marlon Brando, for chrissake. JD just laughed in their faces and told them where to stuff themselves. That killed me.

So all these high school English teachers have ol’ JD to thank for giving the world a literary classic their students have to actually read instead of taking the coward’s way out and watching the movie. Yeah, there’s always the Cliff Notes version, but everybody knows Cliff Notes suck, you know? Once teenagers started actually reading about my adventures they entered into the magical world of books. No lie! JD, take a bow!

Anyway, Old Man Salinger did it his way. Sure, the guy was reclusive as Big Foot, but what rule says an author has to prostitute himself with marketing and merchandising? With absolutely no media adaptations to speak of, Catcher in the Rye still sells 250,000 copies a year! I’m not kidding. And the book is on just about everybody’s list of Top 100 novels of the 20th century, including Time and Modern Library, if that means anything to you.

The fact of the matter is, Catcher in the Rye succeeded solely on the basis of its merit as good literature. That’s it! What more could a writer want?

So rest easy, JD. Me and Phoebe and DB and Allie and Mr. Antolini all exist in the collective subconscious of several generations of teenagers, because of you! That’s all I’m going to tell about it.

Holden Caulfield

PS: I’m still wondering where all the ducks in Central Park go when winter hits. That kills me.

Catcher in the Rye author hailed

Unpublished masterpieces? JD Salinger's secret safe

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Spot-on analysis of Holden Caulfield's unique "voice"

Just-released Salinger letters offer revealing glimpse of reclusive author

Monday, January 11, 2010

John Fischer: The Ecumenical Bridge Man

It was 1970 and I was a junior at Queen of Angels High School Seminary in San Fernando, California. The Folk Mass had just been approved in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and we seminarians were tearing through the exciting new repertory like hungry high school boys at a barbecue cookout – which, come to think of it, is exactly what we were.

Please understand that our archdiocese was apparently one of the last in America to jump on the Folk Mass bandwagon. So my first two years in high school and, in fact, my entire childhood’s church music experience, was with the organ and with Gregorian chant. Oh, we were singing in English, make no mistake about that. Our hymnal was the popular Peoples Mass Book published by World Library of Sacred Music. Our favorite hymns included such titles as “Where Charity and Love Prevail,” “Sing Praise to Our Creator,” “Star Upon the Ocean,” “O King of Might and Splendor,” “Keep in Mind,” and other organ standards of the 1960s. But once we were empowered with the Folk Mass everything changed.

I actually started learning to play the organ as a sophomore just so I could be musically involved in the liturgy. In junior year I decided to learn guitar as well. That early music was fun and easy to perform: Bro. Gregory Ballerino’s “Come, Let Us Worship;” Peter Scholtes’ “They’ll Know We Are Christians;” and, of course, the flood of songs that flowed from Ray Repp.

But we seminarians quickly tired of playing just four-chord songs that seemed like they were written for children. We wanted something cooler and groovier. Hey, it was the early 1970s! We wanted to sing music that spoke to us like the secular music of the time, when the Beatles were singing “Let It Be,” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was soaring over the airwaves. Yeah, we tried to sing those songs at Mass but got in trouble for it with our music director.

So one Saturday a bunch of us musically-inclined students piled into the seminary van and attended a “New Repertory” workshop sponsored by the archdiocese at Mt. St. Mary’s College. I was hoping to actually see some composers like Ray Repp or Paul Quinlan but they weren’t available. Instead, we got some local parish music directors (adults) who led us in mostly organ-driven repertory. My classmates were visibly disappointed although, as a school organist, I was secretly enjoying myself.

Then, a group of high school musicians took the stage with guitars, bass and percussion. The guys suddenly sat up and took notice, but I’m not sure if it was because of the music or because of the cute girls who were in the group. (Um, did I mention we were high school seminarians?) Anyway, after all these years, I forget where this group was from but when they launched into a song called “The Road of Life” my buddies and I beamed at each other with approval. This song had a good rockin’ groove and awesome lyrics about looking for meaning in life.

The group leader took the mic and told us about the composer. “We like to sing the songs of John Fischer. He’s a new composer for FEL Publications and he rocks.” I could see some of the older priests and nuns in the audience starting to get uncomfortable. “Here is one of our favorite songs by Mr. Fischer.” They started playing a song in 3/4 time that had a very interesting chord sequence.

Have you seen, Jesus my Lord?
He’s here in plain view.
Take a look, open your eyes.
He’ll show it to you.

It wasn’t really a fast song but it wasn’t slow either, with an undeniably catchy groove that I later in life came to identify as gospel-blues. But that song was it! The guys and I were sold. We snatched up the Fischer songbooks and records and rode the van back to the seminary, eager to try out this new music at Mass.

“Jesus, My Lord” was an immediate hit at the seminary, although one English professor challenged me to explain the antecedent to “it” in the refrain. I was at a loss to give an explanation and, frankly, I didn’t care. I was just happy to have some cool new music to play and sing at liturgy.

I composed my very first Mass setting, Liturgy of the Fire of Love, for our graduation Baccalaureate Mass. But the highlight of that liturgy was our baccalaureate song, John Fischer’s “The Road of Life.” We joyfully sang it for the Sending Forth Song and even marched out of the church while singing, guitars and all.

Walkin’ down the road of life,
got a cause to sing.
Happiness is in my blood,
my guitar will ring . . .

I later found out that John Fischer wasn’t even a Catholic, and I thought it was so cool to sing a Baptist composer’s songs at Mass. As the liturgy evolved and grew over the decades, Fischer’s songs were no longer sung at Catholic liturgy, the fate of most of the original Folk Mass repertory. But I did listen to Christian radio and was always pleased to hear John Fischer’s latest songs. He was apparently doing well in the new contemporary Christian music field and I was happy for him.

Fast forward several years. In the early 2000s I decided to write a book about the Folk Mass, mostly because nobody else had done so yet; and also because I had actually lived through a lot of those heady days, not only as a young musician but also as a staff person for FEL Publications, a job I landed in my college years almost by pure luck. I had the monumental task of gathering research material, tracking down the composers, and interviewing them. One of my biggest thrills was finding and interviewing Ray Repp, and perhaps I will write about that in a future blog.

But there was one favorite composer who I really wanted to connect with: John Fischer. He was mostly forgotten in Catholic circles. And, as I started digging through the Internet, I found that Fischer’s Protestant audience had no inkling of his roots as a Catholic Folk Mass composer. There was a good story here of a man who bridged both sides of the Christian community. I eventually found Fischer’s email address and wrote to him to see if he was interested in an interview. To my grateful surprise, John sent me his phone number.

I called a couple of times, nervous about what I would say to this composer whom I had admired for so long, but I only got his answering machine. The third time was the charm. John answered the phone himself, happy to speak with me. I flipped on my tape recorder for a revealing hour-long conversation.

You can read what I wrote about the man on pages 94-95 of Keep the Fire Burning. But one thing I didn’t include was John’s surprise that Catholics remember him at all.

“Are you kidding, John? We sang ‘Road of Life’ at my high school graduation. Many of my parishes sang ‘Trust and Obey’ and ‘Death Is Swallowed Up.’ And ‘Jesus, My Lord’ became a theme song for the ecumenical Cursillo retreat movement in San Francisco in the 1980s.”

I closed our conversation with thanks, not only for the interview but for all he has given to the Church – the larger Church that includes all Catholic and Protestant Christians. John was very moved, and that’s another reason I wrote the book: to let those original Folk Mass composers know how much we remember them and appreciate them.

Hear John Fischer’s music on my latest Keep the Fire Burning podcast, accessible in three ways:

Keep the Fire Burning is available on

More information on John Fischer from his own website: The Fischtank