Jesus Calling: Religion in the Songs of David McComb
[This week sees the launch of two books related to the late David McComb and the Triffids. To commemorate the event I post a second extract from my essay, "Jesus Calling", in one of the books, Vagabond Holes, edited by Chris Coughran and Niall Lucy and published by Fremantle Press]
Late in 2006, Australian author Nikki Gemmel wrote of feeling her expatriate “eyes prickle” while reading the lyrics to “Wide Open Road” in Meanjin during an agnostic celebration of Christmas in London. McComb’s lyrics and music have that eye-prickling effect for many people, not least for Australians of a certain age but apparently for Scandinavians and Belgians too. Their evocative power is usually connected with yearning involving love, distance, or time, the capacity to open up some infinite horizon and our distance from it. These lost horizons and flashes of nostalgia always suggest transcendent questions, which if not institutionally religious are inevitably theological.
Overtly religious themes and images do sometimes play an important part in McComb’s construction of that “eye-prickling” distance between the human being who is both singer and hearer, and a horizon, various constructed geographically (infinite distance), historically (nostalgia), and at times more explicitly theologically. The specific character of that religious imagery, unsystematic and sometimes surprising, sheds some light on the curious and powerful character of his songs generally.
From Treeless Plain onward, a lyric strategy emerges where some aspect of God, the Church or its accoutrements emerges—sometimes quite in passing—to evoke a sort of religion curiously alien to the world the Triffids’ music arose in. Treeless Plain and Raining Pleasure speak to the baby boomer Australians whose experience of religion is itself a wasteland. The songs have little connection with the tired suburban Protestantism of late twentieth-century Australia, but flirt with religious images drawn from American musical traditions that McComb had absorbed for years, and which were also a common part of his Australian contemporaries’ experience of popular culture. This world of chapels for crying and convents to find refuge in, of flawed priests and whooping preachers, of ecstatic prayer and grovelling penitence, waits in the background of his lyrical constructions and occasionally bursts through the lines of his writing.
The power of these religious images, whether sporadic or sustained, comes in part from their own strangeness to the Australian ear. They belong in large part to the world of popular culture which post-war Australians had discovered, through television and radio, as a sort of wonderland. At a distance where detail was unimportant, McComb was even less constrained than Hollywood myth-makers in combining elements of American religiosity (or anything else) that belonged to traditions as disparate as New England Puritanism and frontier revivalism. The result is a world still partly Western Australian, but with Nashville and New Orleans neighbourhoods of a former generation just around the corner.
McComb’s best-known use of religious language and images is also one of his most explicit quotations from any lyrical source, the use of “The Three Bells” in “Bury Me Deep in Love”. The borrowing is unapologetic:
And the little congregation gathers,
Prays for guidance from above;
Hear our meditation;
Lead us not into temptation,
But give us some kind of explanation…
“The Three Bells” evoked a white-washed chapel among hills in Maine or Michigan, where the French original (“Les Trois Cloches”) had envisaged Roman Catholic ritual and practice in rural Europe. Although the English translation is relatively faithful, the more commonly-recorded and truncated version erases references to infant baptism and a priest—less attractive to the mindset of the New World’s implied audience. Yet the two versions present the same neat and cyclical view of an unchanging world, whose religious institutions exist to mark and bless the safe and secure transitions of its collective life.
McComb’s use of the song drags it from the neat depiction of a life-cycle into a ragged existential quest. The Chapel is now set in a valley framed by a precipice, from which a “lonesome climbing figure, slips and loses grip”. Its spire stands not to summon a rural community, but as a guide “for travelling strangers in distress”, embodied by that fallen unknown. The contrast between the two images, of pastoral piety and desperate searching, drives the song, and the plea of the chorus and title is then far more than that of an average love ballad.
The chorus is addressed to an unnamed ultimate reality, first called upon to take the fallen seeker and “bury him deep in love”. The cry to “take him in, under your wing” is a biblical allusion (see, e.g., Psalm 17:8), yet at some points in the song the plea is transferred from the divine to a more immediate and human desire for love, as the singer asks “bury me deep in love”.
Yet a continued theological strand appears in the addition to the chorus of “The Three Bells”, where the congregation goes past its modest prayers about meditation and temptation to demand “some kind of explanation/Bury us deep in love”. The inhabitants of this rural religious synthesis have broken out of their caricature and improvised, a little shockingly, on their own script. As they do so, they seek a theological as well as an existential or affective response. The thick texture of symbolism manages to coexist with an element of protest, and of profound doubt.