Slain in the Spirit of Father John Misty

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Author screenshot of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

I don’t go to church as often as I used to, but I always attend Father John Misty’s services when he is in town.

For a Father John Misty concert is a religious experience, one I have witnessed time and again, most recently September 20 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. Onstage, he morphs into every kind of spiritual persona I’ve ever known. He is as cerebral as a Presbyterian who rules the pulpit with scripture and reason. As emotional as a Nazarene tent preacher speaking in tongues. As provocative and socially conscious as a Jesuit priest. Father John Misty, the stage name adopted by musician Josh Tillman, is partly the product of a troubled but important spiritual past. His ability to draw on his past to create compelling music makes him an artist, not just an entertainer.

Image source: Lynn Lippert.

I first noticed Father John Misty late one evening a few years ago when I was watching a livestream of the Coachella music festival on my laptop. He prowled the stage like a lion, twirled his arms above his head, and gyrated so wildly that I thought he was going to burst out of my screen.  Who was this guy? I was reminded of when I was a child and my mother took me to church tent meetings in dusty fields of central Illinois to watch preachers whip an audience into an emotional frenzy by waving Bibles in the air and shouting scripture to occasional bursts of music from horns and organs. Those worship services were exciting and a little scary. And so was Father John Misty.

Author screenshot of Capitol Theatre livestream.

The next day I bought a copy of Fear Fun and got to know him better. His lyrics — sophisticated, honest, and droll — made me think of Bob Dylan. His song phrasing was like a cross between Frank Sinatra, Jim Morrison, and Harry Nilsson on acid. Here was someone who was breaking through to the mainstream without sounding like another American Idol finalist.

Fear Fun LP cover art.

Since then, I have fallen more in love with his music and eagerly awaited the release of each of his albums. I have followed his thoughtful news interviews and eccentric social media behavior. I have not always understood him, changing his name on Twitter to Farmer Jah Mis’ry, Feather Jam Ministry, Jon “Trxxxth” Misty, posting stream-of-consciousness tweets, deleting his Twitter and Instagram, reinstating his Twitter, then deleting his account again. Maybe his social media actions have simply reflected his self-proclaimed LSD use. Maybe he has been just fucking with us or himself. I don’t know — but I like not knowing.

I Love You, Honeybear LP cover art.

Father John Misty once said that entertainment is about forgetting about your life, and art is about remembering your life. And his spiritual past informs his art. It’s widely reported that he grew up in a restrictive Christian home that traumatized him. As he told Rolling Stone, “It was the most suburban, bleached-flour kind of scenario you can imagine — aside from the Messianic-Judaism, Pentecostal, speaking-in-tongues, getting-slain-in-the-spirit, having-demons-cast-out-of-you stuff. For my parents, heaven and hell were real. It’s bizarre to contemplate eternal damnation as an eight-year-old.” (Author’s note: “slain in the spirit” is a phenomenon in which worshippers fall to the floor in a state of spiritual ecstasy.)

Pure Comedy LP cover art.

His spiritual upbringing has also informed the writing of music such as Pure Comedy. As he told Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio:

I think the way that I grew up really plays heavily into [Pure Comedy]. On the one hand, there is Ecclesiastes, which is my favorite book in the Bible and in that way a positive. And on the other, just the alienation and confusion that I experienced as a child growing up in this really Pentecostal environment. Every adult I knew was deeply suspect to me. And they were telling me just insane things. I grew up speaking in tongues and slain in the spirit – but also being told none of this is real. So, having to make these really non-intuitive decisions about life. When everything you are told is inverted in this way that nothing you can touch, see or feel is real. This is all just some sick joke, and we all go to heaven and sing forever, which sounded horrible to me. The idea of just singing all the time? No, I don’t want to do that. But I think I brought a lot of that perspective I felt growing up into this record.

And therein lies the irony, of which he seems to be fully aware: experiences that alienated him also helped make him the shamanistic Father John Misty.

Like any good preacher, he delivers a message based on scripture (his own). At the Auditorium show, he comments, “Some of my songs challenge you, and some of them wrap you up in a warm blanket.” For instance, the exultant “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” soars like a glorious Psalm, and he delivers the song with his arms upraised, as if to ask the audience to join him for an altar call.

On the other hand, “Ballad of the Dying Man” evokes Misty’s favorite biblical book, Ecclesiastes, with its existential heartbreak:

Eventually the dying man takes his final breath
But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss
And it occurs to him a little late in the game
We leave as clueless as we came
From rented heavens to the shadows in the cave
We’ll all be wrong someday

Now compare the lyrics to Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1, verses 16-17:

I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.

The parallels between his work and the Bible are easy to find elsewhere, including an album sleeve for Pure Comedy, which quotes Ecclesiastes. The title song “Pure Comedy” confronts society in the tradition of Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah, with lyrics like,

Their languages just serve to confuse them
Their confusion somehow makes them more sure
They build fortunes poisoning their offspring
And hand out prizes when someone patents the cure
Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?
What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable?

Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” with its apocalyptic vision of a self-imploding world, evokes the book of Revelation through Father John Misty’s eyes.

These are powerful songs that, at turns, inspire, delight, and sadden me. They always move me. And how he delivers them! One moment he calmly holds the microphone and stands still, as if pausing to reflect on the meaning of his own words. During those times, he captures your attention and holds it. You notice how tall and lithe he is, like El Greco’s painting of John the Baptist assuming human form to gaze at an auditorium of supplicants.

Image source: Ryan Egan.

But then he explodes, running across the stage and waving those arms, then lying down on his back, emotionally spent, like being slain in the spirit.

Image source: Ryan Egan.

But he’s not just performing. He’s sharing his gifts. In doing so, he creates a bond with his audience, sometimes unspoken, sometimes overt, as when he strokes the head of a concertgoer in the front row and accepts a beer from a fan taking his photograph.

Image source: Lynn Lippert.

There is preaching to be done, too. At one point during the Auditorium show, a voice from the audience cries out, “I feel a connection with you!” Instead of running with the comment, Misty pauses his singing to introduce the Democratic Socialists of America, who are at a booth in the lobby. He encourages people to talk with them and learn about their message, which elicits a polite but reserved response from the audience. He then asks, “Did I lose the connection?”

His angst, lamentations, and wry confrontation of society all cry out for a connection. You feel his longing for the hand of another in tender moments such as the end of “Pure Comedy,” when he sings, “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got.” You feel that desire to bond, even for a fleeting moment, if you meet him in person after a performance, as my daughter and I did after the Auditorium show along with a cluster of fans. He is warm, gracious, and appears to be genuinely happy to be with people who want to be with him. When I shake his hand, I introduce myself and my daughter. He responds simply, “Hi. I’m Josh.”

Author photo.

Before he came out to greet everyone, I thought maybe I’d be lucky to get one selfie with him, but it becomes clear immediately that he will accommodate everyone. I take as many photos as I’d like, get an autograph, and, most importantly, enjoy watching him have a conversation with my daughter. He even brings his own Sharpie to sign autographs. No handlers. No formality. Just people sharing – with him and each other, including some incredibly cool members of the Facebook Father John Misty Can Flub (they are the source of the photos used in this post unless otherwise noted). What strikes me the most is that he seems to want to be with us, to achieve closure to the evening. He wants to accept our warmth and linger awhile. And you want to hug him.

All of us, gathered together in a Chicago alley closing in on midnight, are all we got, creating our own spiritual moment.

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