Suffering for Sufjan

I've bought two ringtones in my life. One was as cool a sappy ringtone as I could think of to alert me to incoming calls from my wife: "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd. (Her ringtone for me, by contrast, is the lilting voice of Lionel Richie asking "Hello--is it me you're looking for?") The other, I'm proud to say, is from an obscure song by Sufjan Stevens, which is tagged to announce incoming calls from everybody else.

My fondness-bordering-on-fanatical-obsession for Sufjan is well documented here and elsewhere. But I happened on this ringtone by happy accident--searching with my wife for ringtones based on Beatles songs. Sufjan contributed a quirky recording of Ringo Starr's "What Goes On" to a collection of underground artists giving tribute to the fortieth anniversary of the Beatles' Rubber Soul album. Lined up against the original, a straight-up Colonel Parker Memphis-rock standard, Sufjan's cover is virtually unrecognizable--which is pretty impressive, to be honest.

So yesterday I took the afternoon off to accommodate a whole host of errands, the first of which was donating blood, for which I was richly rewarded with cookies, Diet Coke, a pint of ice cream, two travel mugs, a thermos, a travel case and, presumably, a partridge in a pear tree. My cell phone (which was supposed to be turned off, incidentally) started ringing, and my phlebotomist and all her phlebotomizing friends and clients started laughing.

Apparently Sufjan is an acquired taste. I felt just a little like Peter the disciple of Jesus in the courtyard of the temple as Jesus stood accused inside, or Peter the apostle among the circumcision group as Paul the apostle advocated for the uncircumcised: suddenly I had to decide if I would defend my conviction that Sufjan is among the greatest musicians of our generation, or if I would join the mocking chorus and salvage my reputation at Sufjan's expense.

I leaped to Sufjan's defense, I'm simultaneously proud and embarrassed to say. I did so as much to reinforce my carefully cultivated reputation as a musical savant as I did to introduce this new audience to the joy of Sufjan. But at least I stood up for something; that's never a given.

I wonder occasionally how I would have done in the courtyard of the temple had a little girl accused me of fraternizing with Jesus. I wonder less often how I would have done if my friend the advocate of the Gentiles were being derided by the circumcision group in my presence. But they're both legitimate exercises, I think: who I'm willing to suffer for is a good indicator of who I can legitimately call my friend. I'm reminded of a song by Mark Heard:

What kind of a friend could pull a knife
When it's him or you and his kids need shoes?
What kind of a friend would do you in
When the bomb goes off and the shelter's his?
What kind of friends do friends become
When the musical chairs get down to one?
What kind of friend could I become?
What kind of friend am I?


Pete Juvinall said…
Yeah, I get him, but I think what really turned me on to Sufjan was a moment this winter, suffering from insomnia, I plugged in my iPod and listened to a track I had recently downloaded by him called 'Star of Wonder'; the way the song went was just divine. He had brought heaven down to earth and turned the room into something wonderful.
Becky said…
Well, you know I'm a fan of Sufjan too. I love his Christmas album so much. What a great rendition of "Holy, Holy, Holy" he has on there! And "O Come O Come Emmanuel" is great too.

My friend, who knows him and his sister, says that Sufjan grew up in a troubled home. For a while they lived in a motor home in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Perhaps it was during these years that his musical talents began to blossom. Anyhow, kudos for speaking up for Sufjan. I know how hard it is to speak up for something you believe in, especially when everyone else thinks you're crazy for thinking that way. I'm pretty sure I'd do no better than Peter did in that situation.

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