Paul Kelly, Salvador Dali and the Crucifixion of Jesus
Over the summer I read Paul Kelly’s ‘mongrel memoir’, How to Make Gravy. It was a lot more insightful than many rock autobiographies, mainly because Kelly is a very intelligent and thoughtful man. I found it particularly interesting because he was raised a Catholic, but like other artists such as Martin Scorsese who have also jettisoned the faith of their childhood, Paul Kelly’s imagination remains baptised, forever shaped as it were by the faith he no longer holds. That is, perhaps even despite himself, he still sees the world through the prism of the practices and doctrines of Catholic Christianity, even though he no longer practices his faith or describes himself as a believer. And then this Catholic imagination is given expression in his music.
One (and only one) of the ways this Catholic imagination is manifest in his music is Kelly’s frequent recourse to Scripture. In How to Make Gravy Kelly explains that he often opens up the Gideon Bible in a hotel room for inspiration when he is looking for a lyric. One such example of this is the haunting ‘Meet me in the Middle of the Air’, a song he composed for the film Tom White. The lyrics of the song are largely taken from Psalm 23, perhaps the most famous passage in the Bible which begins: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want’. The refrain that runs through the song: ‘come and meet me in the middle of the air, I will meet you in the middle of the air’ is actually an allusion to 1 Thessalonians 4:17 , but when Kelly uses it he is drawing upon a line that he says has been around for a hundred years in blues, Gospels and spirituals. Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Led Zeppelin have all used the line, asking God/Jesus to meet them in the middle of the air. It has become a key phrase in the history of American music for expressing the human being’s desire for God.
This is where Paul Kelly’s use of the line takes a significant twist, because in the past it has been used as an invocation, as as prayer that the singer prays expressing his or her desire for God, his or her desire to be met by Jesus. But in Kelly’s song, the protagonist is not the human person, it’s God. It is God who is saying, ‘come and meet me in the middle of the air’. It is God telling us that he is our true Shepherd, who will lead us home. In this lyrical twist Kelly is being deeply faithful, perhaps more faithful than he realises, to a critical scriptural insight: that our desire for God is superabundantly surpassed and fulfilled in God’s desire for us.
This is because God really does meet us in the middle of the air… he meets us on the Cross, where Jesus is lifted up as the place of union, in his own racked and tortured body, between God and the human race. “When I am lifted up”, Jesus had prophesied, “I will draw all to myself”. This is fulfilled in the middle of the air as he is suspended from the Cross between heaven and earth. This image of the crucifixion as the bridge between heaven and earth is perhaps most powerfully captured by Dali’s famous painting of the Crucifixion, based on the drawing of St John of the Cross. In the painting, we are as it were looking down from above Christ as he hangs upon the cross, down to the earth below. This is the mystery of Good Friday, that our desire for God is surpassed by God’s desire for us, most powerfully manifest in the Crucified.
The cover version of ‘Meet me in the Middle of the Air’, below is by Eddie Perfect and Tripod. Have a listen: