Prayer was a staple of my childhood. My family always said grace before dinner, and I recited the Lord's Prayer aloud before my parents tucked me in each night. For many years, my mom had a yellowing poem tacked up on our refrigerator, in which Anonymous suffers through an uncharacteristically grim day, only to realize at bedtime that he or she forgot to pray as usual upon rising.
As I more or less understood it as a kid, prayer was a conversation with God where you thanked him for myriad blessings and humbly beseeched him for continued assistance ( i.e., asked him for stuff). But ultimately, it seemed prayer was more complicated than that, as I learned one Christmas, around the age of 5 or 6, when all I wanted was a Big Jim Sports Camper.
Big Jim, for those of you who aren't hip on vintage action figures, was a swarthy bachelor who, along with his buddies Big Jack and Big Josh, was the epitome of 1970's manhood cast in molded rubber and plastic. Today, you can easily draw a direct line between Big Jim and my adult fixation with the hirsute he-man porn studs of Colt Studios. From the first Saturday morning I saw the Sports Camper advertised on TV, I fantasized about Jim, Jack, and Josh cruising through the mountains in their rugged rig, fishing in the rowboat that came included, grilling the day's catch on the barbecue set, and sleeping under the stars. I had to own one.
A few days before Christmas, Mom noticed that I was lingering in silent meditation after completing the requisite Lord's Prayer. She asked what was on my mind. I admitted I was making sure God took note of my good behavior and passed that info on to Santa, thus guaranteeing that I would receive the coveted toy. Mom said, rather sternly, "That's not what prayer is for." Thus began my lifetime of unanswered wishes involving handsome, perfectly formed men—and my diminished interest in prayer.
As I grew into adolescence, I was far more apt to turn to music than prayer when I needed answers or sought solace. Among my favorite artists were the Roches, three oddball New York sisters who overhauled my opinion of a cappella vocal groups after I stumbled upon them performing "The Hallelujah Chorus" on Saturday Night Live. As it turned out, it would not be the first time the Roches inspired me by putting their unique spin on liturgical material.
Zero Church, the new album from two of the sisters, Suzzy and Maggie Roche, is billed as "an unusual collection of prayers." The 18-track set of uplifting vocal harmonies and discrete, folk- and rock-influenced arrangements sprang from the sisters' involvement in a seminar at Harvard University's Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue. The institute concentrates on using collaboration to explore issues of community, diversity, race, and identity; Maggie and Suzzy's project was to set prayers offered up by core members of the institute's community to music.
"When we began our search for prayers, I wasn't sure what we were doing," admits Suzzy in the liner notes. "Now I understand. Something real about compassion, kindness, and tolerance. This is one of those rare projects that comes along and defies categorization."
Zero Church incorporates words submitted by an AIDS patient, a former slave from Sudan, and a Vietnam veteran alongside texts from a Mexican poet and the Shaker hymnal. The settings are equally eclectic. The disc opens with "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray," a rousing spiritual featuring Sweet Honey in the Rock member Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell. "Sounds," a paean to hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard and his mother, features Suzzy's astonished, almost childlike delivery framed by accordion and African drums. "New York City," added to the completed disc after Sept. 11, is reminiscent of "The Hammond Song" from 1979's The Roches in its simplicity.
My personal favorite is "Anyway." Based on a poem attributed (amidst much speculation) to Mother Teresa, it speaks to my hardheaded, judgmental temperament. "People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered," sing the sisters over a lilting beat. "Forgive them anyway. . . . If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous/Be happy anyway."
The other day, I was trying to make a DJ mix CD for a prospective employer, and I kept making stupid mistakes. On the fifth or sixth pass, weary of working with the same songs for hours, I turned to a photo of my late friend who first inspired me to DJ and asked him to steady my hand. On the next attempt, I nailed a near-perfect take. Maybe I wasn't talking to God directly, but I still consider that prayer. Prayer takes whatever form you need it to, and Zero Church is a powerful reminder of that.
Zero Church is out now on Red House Records, www.redhouserecords.com.