Tuesday, September 1, 2015

the Dickey lick in Catholic theology

Not a dirty-minded title! This post does not involve clergy sexual abuse....but you sure thought about it, didn't you?

"lick" -- a particular musical phrase, rhythm, or melodic pattern; not quite a hook

"the Dickey lick"  -- a particular chord or passage in an Allman Brothers Band song written by, played by, or performed in the style of, founding member and guitarist Dickey Betts.  The phrase comes from Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, the band's guitarists and musical directors for the group's final decade.  Haynes, who joined the group in 1989, and Trucks, who joined in 1999 and the nephew of founding drummer Butch Trucks, faced a conundrum perhaps common to many who perform classic songs written by another hand. Do you remain faithful to the song's original format and style, and to what extent are you, the current performer, allowed to improvise?  Haynes and Trucks, both exceptionally accomplished musicians, recognized the necessity--for the band's fans as well as the band's own legacy--to perform "the Dickey lick" as Betts crafted wherever it might appear in a song, even though they themselves might want to, and could quite easily, play it differently.  "The Dickey lick" is part of what makes particular Allman Brothers songs what they are.

  Thus an old-school entry:

 and a more recent example:

 Betts wrote and sang both songs (and that's him in the second video tab)

All this comes courtesy of the 2014 book One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band.  In oral history format--the band's members and agents speak for themselves--the book covers the band's entire history except its final concerts in October 2014 in New York City. An interesting read if you're a fan of the band or that type of jamming-Southern rock.  It is interesting to recall that "Rambling Man," containing perhaps some of the most recognizable "Dickey licks," was recorded after the death of founder, spiritual guide,and lead guitarist Duane Allman.  In fact, the band played for several decades after Duane Allman died, expanding and changing all the while yet maintaining spiritual and stylistic ties. From pages 371-3:

HAYNES:  It was really different to record an Allman Brothers album without Dickey, and playing in this band without him has led me to alter my style quite a bit. His playing is marked by a very clean tone and a beautiful melodic sense, so I tended towards a nastier approach playing with him. The melodic thing and the clean-versus-dirty tone contrasts both have to be there to sound like the Allman Brothers, so I've taken some of things on myself. To go too far against the grain just wouldn't be right...which is why you hear those ascending lines on songs like "Firing Line" and "The High Cost of Low Living."

TRUCKS:  "The Dickey lick."

HAYNES:  If Gov't Mule [blogger's note:  this is Haynes' side-project formed in 1994] was recording the song we probably wouldn't put that lick in there.  It's there because it's an Allman Brothers riff, and you need things like that to keep the thread going from 1969 til now--though I must say that Gregg [Allman] wanted it out.  He said, "We've been doing that shit for thirty years.  Can we take that lick out?"

TRUCKS:  A lick like that is the band's sound.  The rhythm section and Gregg's organ sound lend themselves to certain guitar lines and you play them almost without realizing it. When you're playing a tune, you think "This is what the Allman Brothers would do."  You just happen to be in them.

And that, folks, summarizes basically the story--tensions, crises, and triumphs--of American Catholic theology since the Second Vatican Council.  To what extent do we, who did not write the songs we play, remain truthful to "the Dickey lick"--a particular melodic strain--to keep the thread going?  To what extent do we create and continue a tradition even as we criticize it?  Because we are in the song we're playing.

Something similar appears throughout postconciliar Roman Catholic theology, especially in its American voices.  "The Dickey lick" here are particular methods and perspectives that, for whatever, academic theologians cannot and will not play or perform as they should.
     **  Ever since Cardinal Bernadin coined the phrase "consistent ethic of life" (December 1983 for those keeping score at home), Catholic social justice has suffered from divisions right and left over who's more pro-life.  Hence Joan Chittister's recent old saw "being pro-life means more than opposing abortion."  No, it's been made abundantly clear by the universal Church (not just a couple learned folks in the United States) that pro-life begins with opposing abortion.  Hard to claim you're pro-life when you're willing to kill it in the womb first.

      **  Of course, the Catholic left as such, since it's "Catholic," celebrates other elements of Catholic social teaching, such as solidarity and preferential option for the poor. Hey, recognize and celebrate this--it is part of the tradition. However, Anthony Esolen has made this clear recently:  "pro-life" means concern for the unborn and then continuing that through childhood and into adulthood.  This also involves, he bravely reminds us, Catholic sexual teachings.  In other words, it's the same old chord:  you can't be a cafeteria Catholic.

     **  Third Dickey lick: the ongoing media misinterpretation of Pope Francis' declarations.  Quite frankly, this will only worsen in the short term as the Pope's American visit approaches.  Again, the Church has a way to play it--but many Americans, Catholic or not, simply get this through their heads.  They want to play the song's licks as they wish at any given time, not as intended and how it's been played previously.  Remember, Trucks and Haynes recognize that somebody else's songs need to be played a certain way.  Effectively, American Catholicism, or at least certain elements therein, cannot or will not come to this same recognition. She'd never connect Pope Francis with the Allman Brothers, but here's Elizabeth Scalia's wrestling with the issues I'm discussing in this post.  Sometimes the song pulls us in difficult directions, but you need to play it a certain way.  Scalia--and so many others--do understand.

Now, whatever the reasons for his departure from the Allman Brothers Band (and One Way Out indicates there were several), Dickey Betts doesn't deserve to get thrown under the bus with some theological styles that only graduate students one hundred years from now will know and read.  But the Allman Brothers Band do illuminate a way to understand contemporary Catholic theological studies.  At some point you must confront, and in some way embrace, "the Dickey lick"--a tradition's particular phraseology, ethics, and even world view.  You can make it your own, but only in reference to the songwriter and bandmember who came before you.  You are not chained to everything in that person's legacy, but to the lick--that memorable, melodic feature--you are.  When Pope Francis' successors--and there will be popes after him--we should all bear that in mind.

Otherwise, we become an odd assortment of bad Protestants (because some Protestant theology is good--hey, we're ecumenical here on this blog!).  The postconciliar era has already seen years of that...as well as the restoration of some sense of order.  Just look how far we've come!

Yes, yes, yes, I know.  Pope Francis doesn't do things that way.  I'm also not a fan of demonizing Pope Paul VI, but this video does make an important point.  The SSPX is what happens when you only play the Dickey lick--when all you can do is mechanically repeat what came before you.  I.e., a tribute band, not the band (Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, etc.) itself.   Benedict XVI restored our faculty for playing the Catholic song (probably should be plural "songs" there--the tradition's nothing if not diverse).  He didn't repeat Bugnini and the progressivists' mistake of obliterating what came before.  That is, at a very basic level, a Protestant move.  The Catholic tradition is something else, a celebration and veneration of the past...without idolatry.  After all, nobody in the traddie crowd seems to mind much when Pope Francis prays, as he routinely does, in Santa Maria Maggiore.  That, too, is part of the Roman Catholic "Dickey lick."

What is fascinating is that American Catholics, many of whom appreciate the gifted, multivalent music produced by bands like the Allman Brothers, desire when it comes to theology and ethics a much more minimalist, quite frankly puritanical style.  Instead of the Allman Brothers the choices suddenly become mindless pop music or angry, violent punk.  Both of those, though, reject the entire tradition of a "Dickey lick"--a certain melodic style set against a grittier rhythm.  And such a single-minded diet leads to, you guessed, various forms of spiritual diabetes.

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