Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Anti-Eucharist – Al Stewart’s “Electric Los Angeles Sunset”


Al Stewart, Scottish folk balladeer, is one of my all-time favorite musicians.  I’ve been listening to his song “Electric Los Angeles Sunset” (off his album “Zero She Flies,” 1969) recently.  And it has struck me that in Stewart’s description of this scene, presumably symbolic for him of the Los Angeles of that time, we have an “Anti-Eucharist” (surely unintended) which artfully and powerfully captures the tragic urban ethos of own time and the sacrifices necessary to sustain it.   

Shots split the night, a bullet lodged in his brain
He must have died instantly, he felt no pain
A crowd quickly gathered to the feast of the gun
Waiting for the ambulance and cops to come
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Sirens wail in the concrete
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Electric Los Angeles sunset, the sunset, the sunset, oh-o-oh

          The imagery here is fascinating.   The “feast of the gun” is what suggested “Anti-Eucharist” to me.  This death seems almost sacrificial.  The crowds (congregation) assemble, the “ambulance” and “cops” (officiants) process in, the ambulance provides the service music.  The setting of “sunset” (the loss of light) casts a pall of darkness over this Anti-Eucharist.

Headlight lit the faces by the tabernacle door
Gazing at the bloodstains on the damp sidewalk
As the crowd turned to go, a man was heard to say
"He must have had it comin' to him anyway"
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Blood wagon rolls through the dragnet
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Electric Los Angeles sunset, the sunset, the sunset, oh-o-oh

“Tabernacle” furthers the sacrificial, Eucharistic imagery as does the congregations “gazing” (adoration) on the bloodstains.  There is proclamation, or rather, “anti-proclamation” as well in the “counter-Eucharist” announcement that this death was deserved ("He must have had it comin' to him anyway").  The egress of ambulance (“blood wagon”) concludes this Anti-Eucharistic service and provides a transition to the general cultural reflection in the remainder of the song.

Mega-cities with their urban jungles are necessities of late-modern consumer capitalism.  Grim deaths, deserved or not, are inevitable in this situation, pervaded and oppressed by economic disparity, ecological destruction, corrupt religion, underclasses, and dissolute culture.  Stewart captures all this “anti-culture” wonderfully in the last verse.

Cadillacs roll through the smoggy perfume
The buildings are choking on oxygen fumes
Evangelists praying in rented rooms, in the afternoon
Which way do the signposts read
African eyes in the sunrise
The gates of the city are rusted over and mouldering
The violence of the evening decays into the night
While shadows press like moths against the neon light
Movie queues diffuse into the Cinerama haze
While libertines read pornozines in street cafes
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
The madman swings in the pulpit
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Electric Los Angeles sunset, the sunset, the sunset, oh-o-oh

This Anti-Eucharist contrasts with the Christian feast and the vision of new creation it evokes in every way imaginable.  The Eucharist is a feast of light and life.  The first disciples awake to a new day in every sense that first Easter.  Eucharist means the dawn of light not its setting into darkness.  The sacrifice we celebrate is not the grim tragic death of an unwilling victim but a fate willingly embraced as an act of love by an innocent dying for the guilty for their salvation.

The culture created by a Eucharist community stands also in stark contrast to what Stewart’s song describes.  Jesus’ death creates a community of justice – economic, ecological, and social. A community that faces reality rather than being immersed in “the Cinerama haze,” that channels its desires and energies in constructive and life-affirming ways (“libertines read pornozines in street cafes”), and that announces and lives the genuine good news of the new freedom to love God and one another through Christ’s death and resurrection.

This song from long ago, “Electric Los Angeles Sunset,” has taken on new life for me as I have re-listened to it in recent months.  Interesting how works of art have the capacity to continually generate new meanings and picture new creation beyond the interests or ideas of their originators.  Maybe as you read the lyrics and perhaps listen to the song itself, other meanings and insight may flow from it as well. 

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