Unchained Melody: Tunes from an 8-Track in an iPod World

My thanks go straightaway to the Righteous Brothers for lending me the title of their great 1965 hit song, “Unchained Melody.” In the era of my youth, its haunting score was the sheet music upon which many a romance was written. As I pondered its use for this post, the mesmerizing tune was mercilessly trapped in my mind for an entire day.

Before it was an ode to love, however, “Unchained Melody” was about the agony and crushing loneliness of prison. The music was written by Alex North as the theme for the obscure 1955 prison film, “Unchained” starring Todd Duncan. Lyricist Hy Zaret added the lyrics, and the haunting song was first performed in a prison cell while other prisoners listened in silent desperation. The song was about a prisoner who longs to be free, who dreams of being reunited with his wife and family. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Musical Score in 1955. It became known as “Unchained Melody” solely because of its association with the prison film.

In 1965, “Unchained Melody” was produced anew by Phil Spector and made famous by a hauntingly alluring rendition performed by the Righteous Brothers. In 1990, it gained fame in a third wave as part of the score for the box office hit film, “Ghost” starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. The prison roots of the song never quite left it despite its popularity as a love song. Unlike any other piece of music, its verses capture the brokenhearted loneliness forged by years in prison, and the Righteous Brothers’ masterful rendition immortalized it on the Pop Charts. Take a moment to listen, please, as the Righteous Brothers perform this soulful longing for liberty and love:

MY BROTHER, JOSEPH

Right on cue this morning, along came my friend, Joseph, to ask what I am writing about. You’ve met Joseph before on These Stone Walls in “Disperse the Gloomy Clouds of Night,” and “E.T. and the Fermi Paradox.” Joseph likes to stop by to help with my TSW titles. He brags that every recent title that “was a hit” had his hand in it. So when he asked about this post, I told him I wanted to call it “Unchained Melody” after the great love song. “Never heard of it,” said Joseph. “Can’t you find something that isn’t pre-Roman Empire?” I tried humming a few bars. Surely this kid has heard this great song. “Nope!” said Joseph. “Way before my time! That’s why you need my help,” he insisted. “You’re kind of like an 8-track in an iPod world!”

iPod3

Ouch! That little gem – uttered from just beyond my reach, of course – just had to make its way into this week’s post about writing from prison. Joseph liked it so much he insisted on putting it in the title. Joseph and Skooter – whom you’ve met in “The Tale of a Prisoner” and “Pre-Apocalyptic Prison Paranoia” – have become friends, and sometimes collaborators in my writing. They are the same age, 25, which means that I was already five years a priest when they were born. They have set out to rescue my writing from – as Joseph put it this morning – “the literary obsolescence of your geezerhood.” Lord, grant me the grace to endure my blessings!

Every Monday morning, Joseph and Skooter come to my cell to have a cup of instant coffee and settle in for what they now call our “TSW Title Conference.” I’m fortunate that Pornchai is away at his woodworking at that time. The triumvirate of their combined running commentary is sometimes more than I can bear.

Joseph especially likes to come up with clever TSW titles. I wish you could be a fly on the wall for some of these conversations. They’re hilarious, but there are also some gems of wisdom – the experience of the streets, mostly – hidden in their banter. My weekly challenge, they agree, is to write of prison without ever letting my writing stoop to its true level. “A lot of news from inside prison isn’t worth writing about,” said Joseph, “and of course most of it CAN’T be written about.” He thinks you would be utterly shocked and scandalized if I filled These Stone Walls with a day-to-day description of the darker things in prison life.

Joseph is right, but the nature of prison itself is something that must be written about. Sometimes readers ask me to write of the darker side of prison, but I resist it. Some of it is dark indeed, darker than you imagine, and the challenge is to live within it without being changed by it. Our friend, Pornchai once wrote a day-in-the-life essay about one of his darker days in prison. It was widely noticed, and published by the prison watchdog site, Solitary Watch, entitled, “Welcome to Supermax.” If you take a moment to read it, you’ll understand why I never let Pornchai clean our cell!

That dark side feels overwhelming sometimes, and it pushes relentlessly for headway against all hope that we are not changed by it. Of course, being an “8-track in an iPod world” actually makes it a bit easier not to be at the center of any of the daily prison trouble brewing all around me. It’s a far greater challenge for Joseph. He was 17 years old when he first arrived in prison. He turned 25 two months ago. As a young African-American man, Joseph belongs to a subset of American culture that is vastly over-represented in prisons throughout the United States. As I wrote in “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men” (another of Joseph’s titles) African and Latino Americans represent 30% of the U.S. population, but 60% of the U.S. prison population.

THE MARCH OF FOLLY

In eighteen years, I’ve learned a few things about prison. The most basic lesson is that integrity and respect are essential qualities, not only for the men in our culture, but for the culture itself. The lack of integrity and respect is what typically lands young men in prison, so it would seem that the first duty of a society is to teach it to those who have, for whatever reasons, missed its lessons.

The folly of prison seems so basic, however. Integrity cannot be taught by force, nor can it be taught by persons who seem wholly unprepared to ever demonstrate it. Respect cannot be infused solely by fear of further punishment. If it could, we would not now be looking at a dismal 50-percent recidivism rate in our prisons. As I wrote in “In the Absence of Fathers,” this one prison released a startling fact just a few weeks ago. Of 1,095 prisoners released from this prison in 2007, 512 were back in prison by 2010. If any other public service operated with a 50-percent rate of failure, taxpayers would demand that it be restructured or shut down. Most American taxpayers, however, are satisfied with not knowing.

The near total absence of integrity and respect in our ghastly expensive prison system, and the modern day renewal of the uniquely American urge to punish at the expense of restorative justice, is why our prisons are such a dismal failure. The focus of prison is not to learn the lessons required to live out there in the world. The focus of prison is to merely survive in this world – the world of prison that over time in the punishment of inflated sentences becomes the only world many of these young men know.

Already, at age 25, Joseph has spent a third of his life in prison. Pornchai has been inside for over half his life. That the world’s greatest democracy continues to maintain unchallenged such an expensive dismal failure is a travesty. That this nation now routinely seeks to throw young lives away in a growing trend toward privatizing prisons for profit is a national disgrace. Prisons for profit require that their host states guarantee that the prisons will remain at 90-percent capacity to satisfy its stockholders. This disgrace has global consequences for America’s integrity on the world stage. As astute TSW reader, Jamil Malik wrote of America’s prison system in a comment on “In the Absence of Fathers” a few weeks ago:

“Meanwhile, America is in my country demanding democracy and human rights. This is a global example of removing the splinter from your brother’s eye while ignoring the plank in your own.”

“Amen!” Jamil

THE GENESIS OF JOSEPH

In the meantime, I’ll keep writing, and despite what Joseph says, I’ll do my best not to bore you. It’s not easy writing my own unchained melody while being an 8-track in an iPod world. I thank Joseph for that little gem of wisdom now immortalized on These Stone Walls, but I also have a challenge for him.

Rule infractions in prison result in further punishment through what is called a Disciplinary Report or “D-Report.” Joseph’s most recent list of “D-Reports” is eight pages long, and that includes only last year. In fact, he collaborated with me in the writing of “E.T. and The Fermi Paradox,” but by the time it was posted on TSW, Joseph was in “the hole” and had to read a copy of it there.

When Joseph came to see me this week for our “TSW Title Conference,” he boasted of something entirely new. He has gone eight months without a single “D-Report.” If you trust me on nothing else, readers, trust me on this: This new thing for Joseph isn’t because of prison. It is in spite of it!

Joseph has a great mind, and a widening capacity for the integrity and respect needed to reach its potential. So I am issuing a challenge to him to write his own unchained melody, and to write it free of the fetters of prison, free from the prejudices of a system that expects nothing better of him, and fosters even less. As an African American, Joseph owes it to his great struggling heritage not to settle for captivity, but to be resolved to step from its bleakness onto a higher plane, the one I know is within his reach.

I have hope for Joseph, just as fate had hope for the Joseph of Genesis whose own brothers cast him into a prison from which he emerged with greatness. For it was there in prison that that Joseph lost himself, and discovered God.

“Prison and the authorities conspire to rob each man of his dignity. In and of itself, that assured me that I would survive, for any man or institution that conspires to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure. I never seriously considered the possibility that I would not emerge from prison one day. I never thought that a life sentence truly meant life and that I would die behind bars. Perhaps I was denying this prospect because it was too unpleasant to contemplate. But I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a free man.”

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (New York: Little, Brown Co. 1994), p. 341.

8 Track Tape

 

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE

Comments

  1. Mary Fran says:

    And I have been thinking all along that YOU are the one responsible for the ingenious titles. So, it’s Joseph and Skooter? Or WAS. Now that they are both gone, who is doing the clever mental work? I’m sitting here laughing out loud at some of the remarks in this post. You provide me with so many smiles from behind your stone walls, Fr. G. I owe you a lot.

  2. Bea says:

    “The most basic lesson is that integrity and respect are essential qualities, not only for the men in our culture, but for the culture itself.”
    I would like to add to those qualities the 5 P’s that served Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Canada’s premier landscape architect, well over her long career: Patience, perseverance, politeness, professionalism, and passion.
    I bet behind TSW you all get plenty of opportunity to practice at least the first two!

  3. Shayna says:

    Father Gordon, great song choice!! I am 2 years younger than Joseph, so this song “Unchained Melody” being way before his time is no excuse ;-)

    I find myself getting lost in your writing, I am so greateful that Joseph has met you…Thank you for being there and giving him guidence when needed.

    Joseph-You’ll always be my strength, Today, Tomorrow, Forever.

    <3

  4. Joan Ripley says:

    Beautiful, Father Gordon! You are a terrific writer and a first class communicator! You are in my prayers and I think of you often, just desolate that you are still in there. Do hope you are not perishing of heat.

    In May some in our parish went on a pilgrimage to Israel and we visited the holy sites in Jerusalem like Gethsemane and the places where Jesus was held prisoner including St. Peter in Gallicantu where the ‘pit’ is, the Via Dolorosa, and Father celebrated Mass over Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Very hard, as in painful, to meditate on institutional injustice; yours or His. Happier visits to Mount Tabor, site of the Transfiguration, Ein Karen near Jericho, site of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, sites around the Sea of Gallilee, Masada and the Dead Sea. And there are stone walls everywhere as the Israelis are digging everything up and exposing ancient cities, like Megiddo and King David’s palace in Jerusalem; quite exciting for them and us. Wish we could have taken you… Next year in Jerusalem?
    Shalom, dear Father Gordon.

  5. Liz F says:

    God bless Joseph. I am praying for him and I sometimes wonder how Richard is doing. God bless him too!

    Oh, 8-track tapes! As amazing as our technology is I sometimes (actually frequently) long for the simplicity of those days. There was nothing like the kids piling into the VW camper with my dad and popping an 8-track tape of the Carpenters or something and singing at the top of our lungs. We really felt like we were at the top of the world. Good times. (Now I will spend the day driving my kids crazy with my singing. Ha ha!)

    I sure hope it’s not so beastly hot there, but I fear it is. Ugh. Prayers for all of you, Father.

    p.s. I am always amazed with Suzanne and the pictures she finds. It’s incredible!

  6. Edward.Fullerton says:

    We’ll Fr Gordon I will keep praying for you.I use the media to publicize your plight,IHS.

  7. gemma says:

    Dear Father,

    I’m happy to be back home and able to read your email again. You have absolutely no idea how they inspire me to go on with my chores and daily routine with courage and a happy heart as I remember you within those prison walls in New Hampshire. I pray for you every day that you may continue to do God’s work behind those walls

  8. Sarah says:

    Praying to dear St. Joseph to intercede for this featured man Joseph, that he may uncover and fulfill his profound purpose in his valuable life. Pray for us, Fr. G. Greetings to Pornchai & Skooter, and appreciation to Charlene and Suzanne for their many works.

  9. Jeannie says:

    Father, you have no intent to be a ‘haunting’ voice and if you look in the mirror or see yourself it’s unlikely that you understand that aspect of yourself. You are a weary flame that somehow keeps renewing, finding oxygen in little pockets of hope that come to you sometimes from the most obscure of sources.
    Unfortunately, most of our elected officials and most government programs DO run in the red and our Senate has had a 0% return on giving us a budget, a Constitutional mandate, in 3 years. The tax payers shrug. But they have been so dumbed down and made desensitized by the national MISeducation of the last 50 years that it’s no mystery why.
    The division between the enabled on welfare and those that crack and end up in prison is so tenuous because more than ever before these kids are not likely to find father figures or heroes among their peers or leaders. What is even more startling is the tenuous division between the thinking of an entitled on welfare and a middle class or even upper class person.

    We’ve taken away their families, our politicians have deliberately drummed up ethnic and gender entitlement and feminists have confused rights for women with the disappearance of rights for the unborn.

    Where would any of these young people find integrity on the outside these days, except for role models increasingly attacked by a subversive media, academia and politburo? You heroes who would speak up are increasingly undergoing the extreme hypocrisy of the day, the malicious silencing of the righteous by the unrighteous who project upon you their worst attitudes and habits and behaviors…and get away with it while their transgressions continue, unrestricted and unrepented.

    Never would I say there is no difference between the incarcerated and the outside world but we are, or would be were it not for the miraculous surge of faith that seems to be rising within young people, nearly as empty of hope and inspiration outside as within. No wonder there are so many lost souls in there, but they are just a condensed and more focused message of bleakness than what our young people face out in the real world, a world wherein they pursue a million distractions to avoid having to face the stark wasteland of current civilization that you there in prison cannot avoid.

  10. Lynda Finneran says:

    Thank you, Father, for your great priestly ministry both inside and outside the prison. The Church is very blessed to have such a good priest as you, who shares the fruits of great personal sacrifice for the salvation of our souls. I continue to pray for your intentions daily. I look forward to the day when you will continue your ministry outside prison, the wholly unsound verdict against you having been, finally, quashed. God bless you, Father MacRae.

  11. Beautiful! thank you!

  12. Blackie says:

    Having done some time myself, I know what you mean Father. Hang in there and know that you are always in my prayers. One good thing that came of my time “down” was that now I single-handedly run a prison correspondence ministry for Catholics. I discovered that (especially) in the new Faith Based prison programs, we Catholics were targeted for proselytizing as non-Christians. Ultimately it made me really study our most holy faith and brought me home to the Church after over 35 years away. It has, as the poet said, “made all the difference”.
    Pax tecum.
    Blackie

  13. Mary Jean Scudierl says:

    Hi Father Gordon! I have a feeling that you play a big role in Joseph’s reprieve from the hole. You may be an 8 track t phapods too fast and too technical and needs the slower pace.It’s all about the message getting through. God bless you for the difference you are making in these young men’s lives. I pray for you always! Your friend, Jeannie

  14. Maureen Braun says:

    Dear Father,
    As Catholics, we are to perform the works of mercy, one of which is to visit the imprisoned. This is one work of mercy that is hard to accomplish if you don’t know any incarcerated people. Is there a way to write to lonely prisoners in your system? I am a Catholic wife and mother who feels very sorry for these poor lost souls! Yet, it is scary too, because I don’t want to have them stopping by to visit when they get out!
    Any suggestions to fulfill this work of mercy, safely?

    God bless you and praying for your release!
    Mrs. Maureen Braun

  15. jacquie Miles says:

    Hey Fr G,
    Each time I read one of your missals (homilies?) I am more impressed with your writing ability, your purpose or God’s purpose & how your have reached people who need you. How horrible it is for you but how wonderful that you have risen to the challenge God has given you! I quit wondering a long time ago why?. I now know. I am still hoping that I will get to see you again while I am still on this earth. Hope lives eternally.

  16. Cheralyn says:

    O Almighty and Eternal God, look upon the Face of Thy Christ, and for love of Him Who is the eternal High-priest, have pity on Thy priests. Remember, O most compassionate God, that they are but weak and frail human beings. Stir up in them the grace of their vocation which is in them by the imposition of the Bishop’s hands. Keep them close to Thee, lest the enemy prevail against them, so that they may never do anything in the slightest degree unworthy of their sublime vocation.

    O Jesus, I pray Thee for Thy faithful and fervent priests; for Thy unfaithful and tepid priests; for Thy priests laboring at home or abroad in distant mission fields; for Thy tempted priests; for Thy lonely and desolate priests; for Thy young priests; for Thy aged priests; for Thy sick priests; for Thy dying priests; for the souls of Thy priests in Purgatory.

    But above all I commend to Thee the priests dearest to me: the priest who baptized me; the priests at whose Masses I assisted and who gave me Thy Body and Blood in Holy Communion; the priests who taught and instructed or helped me and encouraged me; all the priests to whom I am indebted in any other way, particularly (your priest’s name here). O Jesus, keep them all close to Thy heart, and bless them abundantly in time and in eternity. Amen. Mary, Queen of the clergy, pray for us; obtain for us many and holy priests. Amen.

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