I love listening to songs first thing in the morning. I have a habit of waking up in a very emotionally vulnerable state, both raw and easily triggered: put on something loud, Bratmobile or Fugazi or, admittedly, Marilyn Manson, and I’m angry and pumped and in a do-or-die mood for the rest of the day. (Which is sometimes useful — when I have 3-page to-do list, for instance.) On the other hand, when I start off with something tender and brooding, like my beloved John Denver, I expect to have an easygoing, restful, hakuna matata sort of day.
This morning, the song that popped on walking to work* was a tremulous, moody song. It started out quiet, with a sort of automatic drone in the background and loud, sustained notes wrenched more than plucked out of an acoustic guitar. I remember when the Ani Difranco album Dilate came out, and the first song came on for the first time. We’d all known the song before. We’d heard Ani perform it live in concert countless times before. It was a breakup song called Untouchable Face, raw, angry, belted-out between a slammed guitar and a throat that was always sore by the end of it. That was the Ani Difranco we loved: raw, pissed-off and self-righteous.
Only, on the album, the song didn’t sound like that at all. It was quiet and reflective. It was tempered and thoughtful. The lyrics, which onstage she sang as if it was the moment she realized the relationship had gone to pot, were, on record, withdrawn, introspective, even hopeful. This wasn’t the heat-of-the-breakup passion, which is red-hot and then fades: this was a new, taking-it-in-stride passion. It was a reserved passion, a long-term passion. The kind where you look back on an old relationship and, as stupid as it was, you feel pretty good about it.
So that song came on my headphones this morning. And then, as the vocals began to trickle in, I realized: the song that popped up now on my phone wasn’t Ani Difranco at all. It was the song “Ata Kadosh,” the theme from the film Ushpizin, which wasn’t an Ani Difranco song at all — it was sung by the Hasidic rock star Adi Ran.
Adi Ran, in my head, is the physical embodiment of doing teshuva. He used to be an Israeli rocker — a big guy, massive beard, massive gut and a serious penchant for wild guitar solos. He never speaks of the vices of the lifestyle, but you can pretty much imagine them.
These days, he’s a total devotee to the faith. He’s the epitome of what Christian musicians talk about as the “God-girl” complex — where you’re writing songs that could be to a girl, if you replace “girl” with “God.” But Adi Ran doesn’t write toned-down nice-guy songs designed by a Hollywood conglomerate to get a girl in bed; he writes ZZ Top-like, balls-out RAWK songs about God. Live, he shouts these things into a mic and gets nasty on his guitar. He even has the same backing band as when he wasn’t religious, which — as someone who’s been around bands who need to “frum up” and ditch any traces of the secular world, either people or sounds — but you know this guy is writing the kind of quality cheese that only people who honestly believe in this stuff can write. His work is not laden with subtle metaphors or pointed comparisons between pretty girls and vintage picture shows. He’s heartful, honest, old-school rock. He is the Bruce Springsteen of religious music.
And that’s why “Ata Kadosh” is so amazing. Because not only do the beginning echoey-guitar notes mirror Ani’s, but so does that restrained passion. You know that, when two people fall for each other and want nothing more than to kiss and grope and get gross the minute they meet, it’s tremendously hotter to withhold it, to wait and let the passion build and keep every single level of the expectation and excitement alive. That’s how “Ata Kadosh” is. You know, with every rippled vibration of electricity, that he could be soaring out and rawking, going crazy on the fret board and letting his fingers run wild. But he doesn’t — not until the very, very end of the song, where he does this intricate little wogga-wogga number that isn’t what we expect at all. With this song, anyway, Mr. Ran doesn’t go straight for the jugular, where he would be sure to hit — like Ms. Difranco** and her uncharacteristic restraint in “Untouchable Face,” it’s holding back that passion to reach a new and deeper passion.
Which is kind of the thing we do, transitioning from the Hebrew month of Av to Elul. In Av, we were pulled back, mourning all over the place. In Elul — the month has lots of acronyms, the most common of which is Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am to my loved one like my loved one is to me” — we start to remember the good things in life, and why we love God. And to do it in new and different ways.
Someone told me that Adi Ran says Vidui backstage before every concert, confessing to God, and that’s what makes him so wild. I don’t think it’s as easy to pin down as that. But I do think I get it. That idea of delayed gratification to our Creator is the reason that both Adi and Ani holding back is so powerful and amazing…and, when they really let it roar, it’s like amazing squared.
Pronounced: eh-LULE, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish month usually coinciding with August-September.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.