An Open Heart

By

I was digging through my backpack a few weeks ago when I found a letter someone had evidently handed me after a concert (this happens sometimes, my apologies to previous post-concert letter givers). It was addressed to “TheProprietor”. I was intrigued. Here was someone familiar with the workings of the Rabbit Room. It was written by Janna Barber, and she mentioned her interest in writing the occasional piece for the Rabbit Room. I took her up on the offer and here it is, her first post, about an encounter with the legendary Bill Mallonee of Vigilantes of Love. I hope you enjoy it.

–The Proprietor

It was a warm July evening and the sun was just beginning to set. I opened the front door and wandered outside, just in case. A cool shuffle of air passed over the grass on the front lawn, and that’s when I heard it: Muriah’s soft strokes

2759179652_fd56994536 on the keyboard, mid-chorus and much slower than the version I was familiar with. Bill’s voice filled the entryway as he sang just this little bit.

Holy mother Mary when the wine gives out
and the land is parched, stricken with drought;
I’ve never seen it look quite like this before.
Yes and ask your Son cause I heard He’s strong
He’s got a real good heart and loves everyone.
An open heart is always an open door.

It was just a warm-up, but for me that’s when the show started.

I had been a fan for over ten years, since my husband introduced me to the Vigilantes of Love in college. John and I had just started dating, and at first I really didn’t like the sound of Mr. Bill Mallonee’s voice. Up to that point in my life, music had only been about pretty voices and singable melodies. This daughter of a Baptist preacher from small town Arkansas had NOT been raised on Dylan, and the only Springsteen songs she knew were soft rock radio favorites, like “Human Touch” and “Dancing in the Dark.”

Thankfully I was an English major, so although his voice turned me off, his lyrics caught my attention. I began listening more closely. What I found was poetry. What I found were images so real they were there when I closed my eyes at bedtime. Visions of me holding a hammer, driving nails into a tree, my pale arms struggling to swim in a river as big, strong and muddy as the Mississippi, and then there were the skeletons, with their white boned arms and fists that would not stop banging on the inside of my closet door.

We decided we needed to see this guy in concert. We drove six hours to Dallas with a carload of friends. We sat front and center at a round table in the Downstairs Café. We saw the long haired, overweight Native American who pounded his table the entire concert. We sang along to every song. We hung around afterward and shook Bill’s hand. We listened to Counting Crows cranked as loud as possible to keep us awake on the nauseating I-30 roller coaster home. We relived the broken guitar strings and the way Bill turned the key in his own door made of air. We wished he would not have hit himself in the head so many times. We wanted to go back the next Friday.

John and I were married a year later, and he shyly introduced me to one of Bill’s most controversial songs, “Love Cocoon.” We continued to gobble up every new album. There were so many songs. Songs of love and commitment, of traveling and touring, songs about fathers, songs about sons, and songs of disillusion, depression and freedom. Bill’s heart broke on every album as he tried and failed to find a more commercial type of success.

When we moved to Maryland for six years, our concert going slowed down a bit, but we managed to catch a couple of Bill’s solo shows. The first was with Over the Rhine at a college in PA and the second was a house show in Western Maryland, shortly before we moved to Tennessee. My teary eyes matched Bill’s that night when he sang “Apple of your Eye,” though I was barely aware of anyone’s sorrow but my own.

The source of my hurt was the end of a pregnancy by miscarriage. The source of Bill’s, we discovered after our move, was the end of a marriage, by divorce.

A year passed and we found ourselves getting ready for another house concert, and this time we were hosting. It was an early birthday present for John, and we had invited some friends from church. The concert had also been posted on Bill’s website and John had received e-mail from local fans who said they were coming. We made some snacks and cleaned the house, arranged the living room and waited.

John and I, then married for seven and a half years, had talked a lot about Bill’s divorce, how it affected us to hear those old songs, many of them written for his now ex-wife. We also read what Bill had to say, in various e-mail threads, and the follow-up comments made by fans. Some people said they could no longer support him as an artist, but we came to the conclusion that he‘d tried his best to make things right. Although, I had to admit the matter of his new wife didn’t sit well with me, and these juvenile, evil step-mother feelings made me anxious to meet Ms. Muriah Rose.

The musicians arrived around six o’clock and we greeted them with sincere smiles and awkward handshakes. As we began to help unload their run down Honda, something rather strange happened. Muriah noticed a tiny hummingbird, trapped in the garage, struggling to get out. She was visibly disturbed by its distress and I was disarmed by her compassion. We all stopped our work and gathered around to watch for several minutes, until someone finally figured a way to get the bird out. John found a long handled duster and gently coaxed the hummingbird down the narrow space of wall between the two garage doors. It was a rather long process and as we waited and watched his quiet work, we whispered about how rare it was to see this fragile creature so close and still. We wondered what in the world had brought it to our door. When the bird was close enough to reach, John cradled it in his hands and walked out to the driveway to release it.

We were all standing in a circle around him, now thinking perhaps the poor thing was dead – it lay so still in his hand. Suddenly, the bird took flight. And what a flight it was. It shot straight in the air, way past the tallest oak trees bordering the backyard. Smaller and smaller she grew, until she was gone.

It was another long while before the instruments were set up and Bill was ready to start the show, but by the time we finished, no one else had shown up. I felt a bit sorry that it might be just the two of us (six if we included our kids and my parents, hanging out together downstairs), but also thought how cool a private concert would be.

We decided to wait a bit longer and eat some of our snacks, so the guys wandered out the deck and Muriah and I sat at the barstools in the kitchen. Unexpectedly, we both began sharing our hearts as if we were old friends, recently reunited. Muriah opened up about how she and Bill were doing as newlyweds. I told her about my heartache the last time we’d seen them perform. We talked about the sadness of failed marriages and unfruitful pregnancies, how hard it is sometimes to see the good in it all. Of course John and Bill got along well, but Bill’s used to sharing his life with strangers.

Finally, we admitted defeat and our guests began to sing and play. If it made a difference to them that the living room was empty that night, I couldn’t tell. Bill’s passion came through in every song and he held nothing back from the stories he told in between. Muriah provided the perfect backdrop, and the two seemed to play for themselves just as much as the rest of us. They filled the house that night with more hope than should fit in a beat up, rusty hatchback. Hope we would need for the nine months we had just discovered lay ahead.

When they left for the hotel that night we asked about getting together for lunch the next day, but in the morning felt a little less sure of our newfound kinship, and never made the call. We were a little paranoid about looking like desperate fans, so we decided to let the final fragrance linger while we got back to our lives in the real world.

Eighteen months passed and John was leading a small group in a friend’s home once a week. We decided to have Bill and Muriah come back, hoping to give them a real crowd this time. The home we chose was much smaller, but the room was filled with many new listeners. Bill charmed everyone that night with his stories and songs and Muriah brought with her the same warm support as before. This time, we did meet for lunch the next day and there was nothing uncomfortable about it at all. At least not from my perspective, but I was a bit distracted, by my one year old and his lovely blue eyes, as he finessed his newly acquired walking skills, gliding from chair to chair.


28 Comments

  1. Eric Peters

    Janna:
    A great piece on the endurance and longevity of one of Christendom’s finest – and unknown – poets. Thank you for this personal story. It was good for me to read it.
    Welcome to the Rabbit Room.

  2. Bryan McKaig

    Nice writing Janna. Today you are my coolest friend.

    I only know Bill Mallonee by name… that’ll have to change now.

  3. Chris Slaten

    I wasn’t expecting for that to give me chills. The last line was a beautiful way to end that story.

    Without ever outright saying it, you vividly portrayed how personal a relationship listeners can have with artists who, in many ways, may never know them nearly that well.

    By the way, I think of those skeletons almost everytime I think of him, probably for a number of reasons.

  4. Arthur Alligood

    Bill Mallonee and VOL have been a huge influence for me over the years. I love his music, but honestly, what really drew me in, was the first time I saw him play live. When he knocked himself in the head during the first song I thought to myself, “Now that is passion!” Janna thanks for reminding me of his greatness this morning.

    Oh and another cool moment was when I saw him in the VOL days and he started talking about religious television. He said something to the effect of “I get confused between TBN and the Comedy channel.” He went onto describe the kind of sermon you hear when you walk out onto your deck in the morning and the sun hits you just right in the face and not a word has been spoken. I remember being really moved.

  5. hamster

    janna –

    there are many good lines here. the hatchback. the hummingbird resurrection. the final few lines that – yes, me too – created goosebumps. but my favorite line is this:

    “and the way Bill turned the key in his own door made of air.”

    i’ve always know you to be a poet. this is proof.

    what i love about this post, janna, is the way that i began reading about yours and john’s mallonee-fandom, but i concluded by reading about healing and friendship wrought in an awkward mutual need for hope. that’s good writing. that’s good poetry: starting with something broad and concrete and then descending the stairwell into something singular and true. i love it. please write more. please share with us.

    – hamster

  6. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Thanks, Janna, for the great piece. Christianity Today did a feature on Bill the end of last year that provides another great introduction for those not familiar with his work, including this paragraph that RR members will probably appreciate:

    He gravitates to books about fractured saints, so it’s no surprise that Frederick Buechner tops his personal reading list. A Presbyterian minister who has written powerful novels about the patriarch Jacob and religious con man Leo Bebb, Buechner himself could have penned the lyric, “No saints to be found in here / Only debtors, bankrupt, screw-ups, broken, bested dearly.”

    Here’s the link.

  7. E

    Janna,

    Nicely done, that warmed my heart and thank you for sharing.

    Some similar experiences caused my heart to resonate with what you’ve written, along with the rediscovered joy I’ve found in my little girl (now 4 months old).

    Thanks again

  8. Chad Ethridge

    I first heard Bill’s song Skin played on a college radio station. I was so moved by the lyrics of that song that I went out immediately to find more of his music. What I discovered was the VOL compilation album which was a good starting point. Jugular has since become one of my favorite Bill Mallonee albums because it is so sparse and raw. Almost every song on that album is a confessional and this is the kind of music that speaks the loudest to my heart. Years later I got to see Bill play live in Dallas on the Audible Sigh Tour with Kenny Hutson, Jake Bradley and Kevin Heuer. I remember meeting him afterwards and not having much to say except that “I like your music.”

  9. Rachel Smith

    I echo Bryan! You are definitely my coolest friend today. I loved this story, and I’m so excited that more people can be introduced to your lovely heart and intricate words.

  10. Emily Streett

    Janna, this is great!

    I remember when you guys went to Dallas for that concert! 🙂

  11. Tony Heringer

    Janna,

    I’m glad Barliman is a packrat who occasionally unpacks otherwise we might have never enjoyed this wonderful piece. I’ve known of VOL for sometime – I went to church with a guy who played bass for them at one point. They started in GA at UGA – Athens, GA is quite the little music hothouse for acts big and small. But, alas I’ve never listened to them. So many artists, so little time. Thanks for the recommendation and I look forward to your next post which I hope makes it to press in a less circuitous way. 🙂

  12. RM Peters

    So much good stuff out there I don’t know about! Thanks for sharing a beautiful story. Glad I have the Rabbit Room to rescue me from the ordinary life.

  13. Micah

    Great post Jana, looking forward to more. Also, just going to throw it out there that our side list of contributors badly needs updating.

  14. Greg

    I’ve been a passionate music listener since I was 5 years old and Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love are my absolute #1 all time favorites. No one has spoken more truth into my journey than Bill. The fact that he has put together the catalog he has (which seriously, is better than a LOT of bands you like… notably Wilco IMHO) and is still for the most part unknown is an injustice of criminal proportions. Do yourselves a favor and check him out.

    Favorite album: Audible Sigh… an alt-country masterpiece. The best record in that genre. Yes, in the whole genre.

    2nd Favorite: Jugular… just Bill on acoustic and an accordion player… oh, and some stop you in your tracks incredible songwriting.

  15. Mike

    Thanks Janna and welcome. I have been introduced to so many great artist on this site. I look forward to researching Bill and his music.

  16. Janna Barber

    Wow. Thank you, thank you for all the kind words and warm welcome. Chris, Arthur, Stephen, Chad and Greg – It’s great to meet more of Bill’s fans! Bryan, Pete, Tony, RM and Mike – Get thee to Bill’s myspace and listen: Blister Soul, Resplendent and Skin. In that order.

  17. Tony Heringer

    Mike,

    I’ve being in the Atlanta area for about 25 years. I only know of them because of my association with a guy who played bass for ’em. I thought the name was cool but never checked out the tunes.

    This is a great resource for all types of art, its just finding the time this side of eternity to take it all end. However, Lord willing, on the other side of eternity, I will get through my list 🙂

  18. Eric Peters

    Tony (and whomever else), please don’t wait until “the other side of eternity” to give VOL a good listen. This type of poetry and wisdom is necessary here and now. The VOL “Best Of” (1996, Warner Resound) album is stunning and includes one of my most personally cherished Bill Mallonee tunes, “Double Cure”.

    I want to drink out of that fountain
    On a hill called Double Cure
    I want to show you my allegiance, Lord
    Yes, I want to be a son of yours

    Also, “Killing Floor” (1992, produced by Mark Heard) is outstanding, especially for history geeks like me (try on “Eleanor” and “Andersonville” for size).

  19. Teela

    This is my first time to the Rabbit Room. Janna, thank you for helping me stretch and open my heart to hear truth in poetry, story and song even if it’s a bit uncomfortable and unfamiliar to this Sr. Adult!

  20. Johna

    Janna, This was a first time visit to the Rabbit room. The Lord has given you a great gift!

  21. Angie Zazzera

    I did not know I was waiting till the quiet of this Sunday morning to read your post. But I smile as I sit in this quiet and let your words fill my heart.
    I am so thankful for the gift of you.
    Here I go……I am on my way to pulling out those CD’s even though I know the feelings that come along with them.

  22. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Janna, thanks so much for that piece. I am a long time Bill Mallonee supporter too, though I’ve never been able to catch him live. He doesn’t often make it through Omaha.

    Upon reading your last few lines, I couldn’t help but think of the Mike and the Mechanics line from “The Living Years”:

    I think I caught his spirit
    Later that same year
    Im sure I heard his echo
    In my babys new born tears

    Welcome to The Rabbit Room. Please write some more.

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