Archive for the ‘Heroes’ category

The White Album

November 20, 2016

For most of my life, or at least for the greater two-thirds of it, if somebody mentioned “The White Album,” everyone knew immediately what was meant.

It had to mean the only double LP the Beatles released during their existence as a band, in November 1968.  I was in the 12th grade in the very small town of Smithers, in north central British Columbia.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” had been released the year before.  That album exploded into public consciousness.  I remember reading Time Magazine praising it at the time (in the issue that had the Beatles on the cover in September, 1967).  That was unheard of for a mainstream publication to pay such attention to the evanescent and juvenile world of rock music.  My mother was even impressed, who typically preferred Broadway musicals and Louis Armstrong.

We played Sgt. Pepper’s over and over again on on the little battery record player in our log cabin.

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And the album “Abbey Road,” which is my favorite of the Beatles’ works, arrived a year after The White Album, in September, 1969, just after I graduated high school.

It would be hard now for anyone not of that time to understand how important the music of the counterculture, and especially the Beatles’ music, was to many of my generation.  It wasn’t just music to us multitudes who were affected.  It was promise and hope and an undercurrent of something profound stirring.

The Beatles themselves were even caught up in it:  the self-referential lyrics, mysteries associated with Paul, obscure ideas about the egg man….  I think John Lennon’s vehement rejection of the Beatles’ mythology after the band fell apart was mostly because he had been captured by the force of that mythology as much or more than anyone else.

But back in the fall of 1968, the Beatles’ creative power was still flowering and on display in The White Album.

The summer and fall of ’68

That summer I had worked hard with my younger brothers and with the similar aged sons and daughters of a neighbouring prosperous farmer on his large spread.  Us kids (teenagers now) all went to school together.  Hired for a few bucks an hour, we labored long into the hot summer nights putting up hay bales in a number of barns, sweating, covered with chaff, falling about with the bales as we stacked them.

With the summer’s efforts over, my brothers, mother and I visited the farm family one evening that November.  My mother and the mother of this large brood of earthy children were friends who made wine and canned meat together.

The oldest son of the family was a renegade.  I think he dropped out of high school several years before, and supposedly was working in a local mill, but he had a reputation for being involved with drugs and local criminals.  He drove a flash pick-up.  He always seemed to consider us younger ones, including his siblings, as beneath his notice.

But I remember his long greasy hair in a red handkerchief bandana as he beckoned us unexpectedly and excitedly up the stairs of the farmhouse to his room on that evening visit. Young and old, the kids of his family and my brothers and I hurried up.   He had The White Album!  In his large bedroom there was a fancy turntable all ready to go.  He was eager to play the first LP for us.  The barriers among us of age and attitudes fell away a little.  And that was the first time I heard The White Album.  We were all amazed by it.  It was an event. “Listen to this!”

I’ve recently found a  remastered CD version of the album, after a long time of it being completely unavailable in that format. After the excitement of the album’s reception that long-ago winter, I never played it nearly as often as Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. Even the Beatles’ last album (in terms of release) of “Let It Be” was listened to more often.

So it’s been a pleasure listening and rediscovering it again.

the-beatles-pr-608x408From what I’ve read, most of the songs came from a period when the Beatles went to India to follow the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation.  The band had come out of a period of ingesting LSD and smoking a lot of pot, and decided they wanted to get away from that experimentation and play it (mostly) straight.

But they eventually became disillusioned with the Maharishi, apparently in part due to rumours of the holy man’s sexual escapades, and returned to the studio with a wealth of songwriting material instead of enlightenment.  Unfortunately, there was often great tension between the members of the band, and the sessions were often difficult.

There is a lot of material online (for instance at the Beatles Bible) about every song that the Beatles ever did, including those on this album, so I won’t repeat that.

But I would like to note the songs that appeal to me and make a few observations.

The Ukraine girls really knock me out

Of course the opening song on Side 1, Back in the USSR, remains a complete rocking pleasure with its Beach Boy borrowings (apparently Mike Love of that band was in India with the Maharishi at the same time as the Beatles) and “the Ukraine girls really knock me out.”

Dear Prudence, the next song, is apparently John Lennon’s plea to the sister of Mia Farrow, who also was in India with the Maharishi, to come out of her cabin where she isolated herself while she meditated furiously in hope of some kind of swift awakening.

There are quite a few songs on the two discs with female names as their inspiration, and every one has its own personality.  They aren’t bland love songs, possibly because they are not always about what you might think.  For instance, the Martha in Martha, My Dear, was Paul McCartney’s old English sheepdog.

And the Julia in Julia, is about John Lennon’s mother who had left him as a boy and reconnected with him when he turned 17, only to die sometime later in a car crash.

One of the dominant impressions of listening to the entire work now is how astoundingly diverse and creative it is.  The moods shift from joy and celebration (Birthday) to deep depression (Yer Blues) to domestic bliss (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da) to Why Don’t We Do It In the Road.

I’ve grown to prefer the swinging doo-wop tempo of Revolution here rather than the faster rockier version that came out as a side on a single with Hey Jude (not on this album).

Quite a few songs, even back in the day, were rarely or never heard on the radio.  I’m thinking of Rocky Raccoon, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, and Cry, Baby, Cry (which really sticks with me now).

And of course there are the songs of greatness: Blackbird, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Revolution, Back in the USSR, perhaps I Will; and I’m sure others might have different candidates for that status.

I still don’t get why Helter-Skelter, which was written to prove the band could rock as hard as The Who, should have appealed to the demented, murderous, and failed songwriter Charles Manson so greatly.  He probably could have twisted around any song to fit his predilections.

Number 9, Number 9, Number 9

And then there is the track Revolution No. 9, a sound collage, which as teenagers we were impressed by, but couldn’t be bothered to pay any attention to.  It was mainly famous for the voice intoning, “Number 9. Number 9. Number 9.”

I had the impression back then that the track was quite short, perhaps a minute or two.  Maybe that’s how fast I tuned out when it came up.   I’ve realized now, it goes on for over eight minutes.  And, surprise, it’s quite interesting to try to understand what’s going on in it.  There’s everything from orchestral remnants of “A Day in the Life” to honking, conversation scraps, sport chants, and even Yoko Ono’s voice (I know now) quietly saying “You become naked.”

It used to be that following up anyone’s chance statement about a number 9, by saying “Number 9. Number 9.” was immediately recognized as a reference to the White Album and that infamous track.  Not any more.  I did that the other day at work, and the young man looked at me quite blankly, and seemed bewildered about what I could possibly be going on about.

It’s amazing to me to realize that the White Album is almost 50 years old now.  Back in 1968, a similar look back would have made music from 1918 or so of interest, which it didn’t seem to be, even for those who could have remembered it at that time.

It does become bittersweet that all the music I grew up with, and which brought meaning to my younger years, is headed towards the mists of history in the same way, although it’s taking a little longer.

The Beatles.  They were a force.

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The Perennial Music of the Grateful Dead

June 21, 2015

It’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it’s just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

— “Box of Rain”

The last hurrah of the Grateful Dead, the 50th anniversary concerts in July by the surviving members, is a cultural moment.

The band will be joined by Trey Anastasio, of the band Phish most famously, filling in for Jerry Garcia (gone since 1995), and Bruce Hornsby will also be there for the farewell in Chicago.

Dilapidated and grey, like most of us who began to grow up in the 1960s, the Dead still evoke a time and a musical atmosphere that has long faded. After July, those times will only flare again into light for a few minutes when visiting the musical and visual record.  It will be a second-hand way, but the only way, for those born too late.

I was never a Dead Head — my favorite bands were the Beatles, the Who, CSN&Y, CCR and Dire Straits.  But I also listened to a lot of other bands, and I did buy The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa — the 1969 album with “China Cat Sunflower,” a song long appreciated by the Dead’s fans. I remember that at the time I didn’t like the album that much.

grateful dead aoxomoxoaBut now I’ve begun to listen to the Grateful Dead to understand what I missed.  I remember when I lived in San Francisco for a year as the 1970s rolled into the start of the 1980s, that the Dead came to town on at least two occasions.  Suddenly there were wildly painted VW vans and bugs all over the place, and long-haired fans in unfashionable clothes everywhere.  Crudely painted signs on cardboard asked for tickets to the shows from those who had them to give or sell.

I was living pretty close to the bone, trying to write, and to learn and practice aikido and t’ai chi ch’uan.  I didn’t have extra money for a band that from a distance even at that time seemed a relic of the past.

I’m coming to revise that opinion now.  Of course much music from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty and the Allman Brothers Band, among many others, will persist beyond their times.

But there is something even more timeless about the Grateful Dead, in a much different way than say the long-lived popularity of the Doors’ music, who seemed to have a sensibility acceptable to those of this millenium.  There’s something both quaint and perennial to be heard in the Dead’s music.

Sun went down in honey.
Moon came up in wine.
Stars were spinnin’ dizzy,
Lord, the band kept us so busy
We forgot about the time.
— “The Music Never Stopped

You listen to the Dead’s recordings, you hear something of the time the band came into being, a shimmer of the west coast explosion of the Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and all the rest.

But the Dead’s roots go further back, to old-time blue grass music, folk, country and gospel.  The Dead’s main lyricist Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia played together in very early days in blue-grass bands such as The Tub Thumpers.

Although mainstream understanding has always denied this, the impact of psychedelic drugs, including LSD and marijuana, was to open a portal of creativity that transformed those influences into something new.  Many of the bands of that era had their doors of perception opened that way, including the Beatles and many others, and with the impetus of natural musical talent, incredible music flowered.  Of course, those drugs and others not so creatively inspiring such as heroin and cocaine were also a source of great danger, and Garcia himself fell victim.

Robert Hunter, who supplied the words and worked with Jerry Garcia for many of the Dead’s best songs, was according to Wikipedia paid to take LSD, psilocybin and mescaline and report on his experiences at the University of Stanford in a CIA-sponsored program in the early 1960s.  He sees this as “creatively formative.”

Now that I’m in my mid-sixties, a lot of the Dead’s lyrics speak to me in a significant way, from “what a long, strange trip it’s been” to “let it be known, there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men.”

I’ve become enthused enough by the Dead’s music to acquire a couple of books of their music for guitar, so that I may learn it.  Just looking at the words, tabs and notes, their music starts playing on my internal jukebox.  “Sugar Magnolia….”

The most popular songs, like “Truckin'” and a “Touch of Grey,” always remain listenable to me.  The song “Box of Rain” though has become one of my favorites, along with “Ripple.”  I anticipate that there will be others that I come to appreciate greatly as well.

But it’s “Uncle John’s Band”, a song that I always thought was catchy but disposable, that I want to learn how to play for myself now.  Its structure, looking at the music on the page, is surprisingly complex. But the lyrics are evocative and meaningful to me as the band immediately begins to play in my mind.

I hail the Grateful Dead as they pass.

Come hear Uncle John’s band
playing to the tide
Come with me or go alone
he’s come to take his children home.

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Growing Up With the Weavers (and Pete Seeger)

February 16, 2014

“For songs are the heart of our memory and let us live the search for meaning in our lives again and again.”
Judy Collins

I wrote about aspects of this a couple of years ago (Coming of Age with the Folk Music Revival), but with the recent passing of Pete Seeger, musician and human being extraordinaire, I wanted to revisit The Weavers.

The Weavers were the arch folk group of the 1950s and even into the 1960s, with Pete Seeger as one of the main quartet, along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.

In essence, they sparked the entire folk music revival which in time led to the emergence of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and many others such as Dave Van Ronk (apparently inaccurately portrayed in the recent film Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers), of folk rock and of rock itself in the cauldron of the 1960s.  The Weavers could even be seen as precursors of “world music” with their willingness to interpret and sing songs from many nationalities and traditions.

220px-The_Weavers_at_Carnegie_HallIt’s odd to me how little one hears these days of The Weavers or the songs they made famous, such as “Goodnight Irene” or “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”  It’s true they are the songs from a slightly older generation than mine, and I’m getting old too.  But I would still like to hear Beyoncé or Lady Gaga give them a try….

I won’t go on too much about The Weavers’ or Pete Seeger’s history — there is a lot of detailed information about all that online.  But I would like to write a little about The Weavers’ meaning for me, and about Pete Seeger’s worth and appeal.

After my father died of a stroke when I was twelve in 1963, my younger brothers and I were introduced to the Weavers when our mother brought back three LP albums from a trip to Seattle.  She had gone there to see her mother  and to apply for veteran benefits from my Dad.  There was a My Fair Lady recording of the original musical, an album of swinging Bach and other composers by the Swingle Singers on the album Going Baroque, and The Weavers At Carnegie Hall, from a 1955 live performance still considered to be one of the best and most stirring by any folk group.

In central northern British Columbia where we lived on slim pickings after Dad died, it was exciting to have these brand new long-playing records.  Unfortunately, at first we had nothing to play them on, and resorted to bothering some church-group friends by always taking those three albums with us and insisting that we had to listen to them.  It was probably with the first veteran benefits’ cheque that Ma went out and purchased a battery-powered portable record player to listen to first those albums and then to all the many more that we, mother and boys, collected in the next few years.  The record player had to be battery, because we lived for quite a few years without electricity.

Sierra Exif JPEGIt strikes me now, as I recall some of this, how important recorded music was to the four of us, in a way that wasn’t quite so strong for many of our neighbours or friends.  None of us in our small family were particularly musical: I struggled to play the guitar poorly, and although we all sang boisterously along with “Wimoweh” and other such songs, we were out of tune mostly I’m sure.  But music is crucial to the memories of my boyhood and our lives together, and it began with The Weavers.

As the three boys grew into teenage-hood, our tastes in music changed of course, to the Ventures, the Beatles, then Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and of course eventually Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks!

Pete Seeger After the Weavers

So after those early times, although we might still go back to listen occasionally, The Weavers and Pete Seeger faded from our preferred listening.

I would hear about Seeger from time to time through the years, usually as an activist during the civil rights and anti-war movements in the States, with his anthem “We Shall Overcome” (derived from a gospel song), and would sometimes listen to his songs “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, usually performed by others.

Later, in the last few years, his status as the grand old man of folk only grew.  Bruce Springsteen produced the “Seeger Sessions” and tour, dedicated to many of his songs.  Seeger’s album At 89 won a Grammy in 2008.

If you put “Pete Seeger” into a search engine now, you will run across many obituaries recounting his incredible influence as a musician and as an activist through the generations.  A good one is at the New York Times: “Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94.”

But among the references to him I like best are ones like Bruce Springsteen’s introduction at Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration, where he finished off his remarks, noting Seeger’s toughness, with:

“The very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He’ll be on this stage momentarily, he’s gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.”

Bob+Dylan++Pete+Seeger+2943980698_ec9703aeec_oThere are the performances on Youtube like a rousing one from 1993, “If I Had a Hammer”, with Arlo Guthrie.  He could always get audiences to respond to him, to form impromptu communities of song around his presence.

And then there’s this performance from the Johnny Cash Show in 1970 that illustrates, to me, that same point in a magnificent way.  The clip shows Seeger’s versatility as he chats with Cash while singing and playing with a fretless banjo and a guitar.  Then he gets up and starts to rouse the audience with “It Takes A Worried Man to Sing A Worried Song.”

At first the audience is hesitant and quiet.  We look at Seeger from the rear, a lone wooden chair on the stage, a spotlight beaming down, the audience in darkness beyond him.  The audience begins to join in a little; Johnny Cash comes striding into the scene with his guitar, adding his voice.  Pete waves his arm briefly at the audience, but so sure, as if it would automatically connect him with the people in front of him, and it does.  They begin clapping, they start to smile, their voices rise.  Pete calls out “You know, these old songs, they’re never going to die…. This song, it’s the whole human race!  …But you got to have hope….”  The two men tear into the last verse, playing face to face, and the audience claps and cheers as they finish.

You can see Pete vibrating with song, moving his feet a little, bending his knees, singing his heart out.  For those moments, he embodies the song, and its recognition of struggle and perseverance shines out of him.

He’s gone now.  That embodiment has given way.  The songs go on.

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Note:  The photo of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger is from the Broadsheet website.

Thoughts on Aikido Promotion

January 17, 2014

I wanted to mark the occasion of promotion to 2nd Dan or Nidan in aikido by writing a few words here.

First, it’s an opportunity for a mild pat on my own back, and if you can’t do that on your blog, well, where can you?

Second, it’s led me to think more about why do I practice aikido, anyway?  What is the nub of it that has kept me at it over the years?  (Although I do practice less now than I used to.)

I came to aikido through t’ai chi chu’an (as a martial art, and some of which I’ve chronicled in the post Adventures in T’ai Chi Ch’uan).   I boxed – very amateurishly – and wrestled in high school.   I also did a little judo in university, and a lot of recreational Western fencing afterwards.

While I was in San Francisco for less than a year in the late 1970s and making like a t’ai chi bum in parks and various studios, I got a copy of the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere by Westbrook and Ratti.  Published in 1973 in hardcover, it was one of the very few books available on aikido.  It has the most wonderful, flowing diagrams of the art.  I still have that book.

aikidoI had to give aikido a try, so for about seven or eight months I joined the old Aikido of San Francisco on Turk Street as the rankest of beginners in the midst of what seemed like hundreds of students.  The dojo was run by three of the most famous non-Japanese teachers of their generation, although perhaps not so well known in those days:  Robert Nadeau, Frank Doran, William Witt, all sensei’s of the highest calibre and with different stylistic approaches to aikido.

Robert Nadeau was the most “California” of the trio, with some unorthodox training exercises and discussions of energy in the body.  Nadeau is featured in books related to aikido by human potential pioneer George Leonard such as The Ultimate Athlete and Mastery.

Frank Doran was a practitioner of almost magical technique, who could be quite severe in his teaching.  This reflected his background as a former hand-to-hand combat instructor in the US Marines.  He always moved and pivoted with such an erect, precise, and effective manner — watching him (as I’ve just done on You Tube), I’m inspired again by how he moves.

William Witt always seemed the most accessible to me, with his often humorous and down-to-earth straightforward way of teaching.

After I left San Francisco to return to British Columbia and resumption of life as a reporter and photographer for small newspapers, I wouldn’t practice aikido again for a number of years until later in the 1980s.  Even after that there could be interludes of a year or more between dojos and teachers as I moved around from job to school and back to work again.

I used to say, after returning to practice after being away for one of my lengthy periods, that aikido “gets in your blood.”  I’m not quite sure what that means, other than to indicate the attraction is not purely rational or intellectual.

In some ways, I am almost a reluctant aikidoist.  Japanese culture does not intrigue or attract me very much, although I fully appreciate the instructive helpfulness of aikido’s Japanese nomenclature.  Attending seminars now that I’m in my sixties is not something I push myself to do.

But I do enjoy teaching beginners which I’ve started to do on a more regular basis under guidance of my sensei.  I have no inclination at all to be a “teacher” but I do find satisfaction in helping people who are newer to the art than I am.

I am blessed to still be relatively light on my feet and with a range of motion only minimally curtailed as yet by sore toes and tight hamstrings at almost 63 years old.

I think the attraction of aikido comes down to interaction, which is a cerebral word for the very physical experience of throwing and being thrown, of understanding where the other person is in space by touch.  (This is a wonderful and subtle process of learning, one shared with t’ai chi — and even greater there.)  There is a great deal of satisfaction in executing a throw properly at speed, or even slowly, and in receiving one well too.

It’s something to do with that touch and relationship with the person you work with on the mat.  It can make you smile.

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Notes:

The illustration is by Oscar Ratti from the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere.

I’ve written before once or twice about aikido.  One such post is called “The Irony of Aikido”.  There are a number of aspects to that title, the main one being that my father fiercely fought the Japanese in the Pacific during WWII.  He died when I was quite young.  I often still wonder how he would receive my participation in aikido.  I like to think he would be okay with it.

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside – A Book Review

January 1, 2014

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, 1985, by Doris Lessing
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The writer Doris Lessing died recently in November.  She was 94 — born just after the end of WWI, only 15 years or so after the Wright brothers made their first airplane flights.  She lived on into our days of computers, the Internet and smartphones.  Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.  The Nobel committee described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”

She is perhaps best known for The Golden Notebook in 1962 which was embraced by the feminist movement, and which is said to chronicle the life of women in a fragmented society, as they struggle through emotional and intellectual chaos.  Interestingly, Lessing refused the feminist label.  She was to write, “Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women?”

My familiarity with her writing is not through that book or through some feminist lens, but by bumping up against her more esoteric and science fictional writings.

Back when I was reading William Irwin Thompson’s works, and listening to his talks while at Lindisfarne, he often cited Doris Lessing’s novels as examples of “planetary culture.”  (See notes at the end if you’re curious about what “planetary culture” might mean.)

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Lessing’s novel Briefing for a Descent Into Hell was her work that most influenced, and reinforced, Bill Thompson’s thinking.   In Bill’s book Passages About Earth, he writes: “Whatever failings the book has as a novel…, it is an incredible act of seership and clairvoyance.”

He goes on, “Lessing moves out of our conventional world view to see a different universe, a universe that is, in fact, the paradigm of the new science and the new world of our emerging planetary culture.”

Lessing herself has called the book “inner space fiction — for there is never anywhere to go but in.”  In brief, the story is about an educated man, a sensitive man, sensitive and perceptive perhaps of a wider universe than we are usually aware of, and his treatment by psychiatrists and the medical establishment with drugs and contradictory methods that reflect the narrow world of the conventional in society and science.  There is much more to it than that, of course, which the reader may determine to examine on their own.

I did read it, and to my recollection did not understand all that she meant to say.  But it made enough of an impression on me that in later years I went on to read several of  her Canopus in Argus series, which although deliberately set out as science fiction, were what she called a framework to “explore ideas and sociological possibilities.”  (She reminds me of Ursula Le Guin in this way.)

The first novel of that series, for instance, called Shikasta, has been summarized as: “A secret history of Earth from the perspective of the advanced Canopus civilisation that is thinking in eons rather than centuries. The history spans from the very beginning of life into our own future. The book ends with a metaphorical telling of the trial of Socrates.”

The Prisons We Choose

When I heard of her death, I realized I wanted to experience again the unadorned clear independence of her voice.  I came across this series of lectures, a collection of essays really, from 1985, called Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, only 76 pages long.  They form one series of what are called the Massey Lectures, which are in part sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), analogous to Britain’s BBC.  The Massey Lectures typically are a venue for various intellectuals and writers, such as Margaret Atwood, R.D. Laing and John Ralston Saul.  They were, and are, something like TED lectures before the Internet allowed that forum to be.

The first lecture is entitled “When in Future They Look Back On Us”, and sets the tone for the other four essays.

A lot of her focus is on the irrationality of what we humans choose to believe and to act on.  She tells stories of a farmer who slaughtered a prize bull for in effect, being a bull, or a tree  “executed” for being associated with a disgraced general.

“I think when people look back at our time, they will be amazed at one thing more than any other.  It is this – that we do know more about ourselves now than people did in the past.  But that very little of it has been put into effect.  There has been this great explosion of information about ourselves.  The information is the result of mankind’s still infant ability to look at itself objectively.  It concerns our behaviour patterns.”

She wants to strengthen her historical, objective eye, she says, so she has considered long and hard this matter of how we might seem to people who come after us.

She notes that the passionate and powerful convictions of one era can be completely overturned in the next.  Lessing gives the example from the Second World War, while the Soviet Union was deemed an ally against Hitler, how affectionately that country was regarded in popular opinion.  During the ensuing Cold War, of course that kind of feeling became completely un-American and considered treasonous.

Lessing, although born in what is now Iran, grew up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in southern Africa.  She moved to London when she turned 30.

The Enjoyment of War

She returned much later to Zimbabwe after what was in effect a race war there “that was very much uglier and more savage than we were ever told.”  Lessing found that many, especially former combatants on both sides, appeared to be in stunned, almost blank states of shock.  She attributed this to the participants’ knowledge of what we as humans are capable of, and the difficulty of taking this in.

But for the purpose of her discussion, the more interesting fact was that many fighters on both sides, black and white, had thoroughly enjoyed the war. It enabled them to put qualities they valued to full use in the midst of extreme brutality.

“People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first, secret, unacknowledged elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating … an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad.   Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.”

I have even experienced this, or something like it, on the verge of a riot, although still far away from the strength of passions that give rise to war.

After wars of course, everything becomes sentimentalized, and no one really speaks truly of the physical and psychological damage caused both to the soldiers and civilians.  Perhaps a sign of the damage is how difficult it becomes to address it.  We are left with the subtle glorifications of war that go on constantly and culminate each year in such rituals as Veterans Day.

Lessing says: Beware talk of “blood” in public or political discourse — it is a sign of reason about to make its departure.

Lessing notes psychological experiments that were well known even at the time of these essays that show how easily people can fall into the traps that catch mobs.  She cites one experiment where a large number of people from a town adjoining a university were invited to a large open area by a team of psychologists.   The townspeople showed up, but the psychologists couldn’t be found.  Two camps formed as to what the situation was and what needed to be done.  Conflict arose, tempers flared.  Young men started pushing and shoving.

After this rather arrogant social experiment, one of the psychologists came forward.  As Lessing describes it, the psychologist said, “You, the crowd, have only been here for a couple of hours and already you are separated into two camps, with leaders, and each side sees itself as a repository of all good, and the other camp as at the best wrong-headed.  And you were on the point of fighting about absolutely non-existent differences.”  And there are similar experiments that come to my mind about how simply putting a colored armband on people easily leads to division, strife and suffering.

“You are Damned, We are Saved”

The entire point of her lectures, Lessing says, is that we should not be surprised by this behaviour and all the examples of similar mis-applied passion.  This should be expected.  But we should “build what we know from history and from the laws of society we already have into how we structure our institutions.”  Unfortunately she does not go into great detail into how this might be done.

She does rely on the minority who do not always join the herd, who are not afraid to be independent in thought and deed.  She recommends that we should be thinking of ways “to educate our children to strengthen this minority and not, as we mostly do now, to revere the pack.”

Lessing describes her own time as a young woman when she became for a while a devout communist, and the groups of which she was a part believed that because of communism, everyone in the world could soon be living in harmony, love, plenty and peace, forever.

“This was insane.  And yet we believed it.  And yet such groups continually spring into existence everywhere, have periods when such beliefs are their diet, while they hate and persecute and revile anybody who does not agree with them.  It is a process that goes on all the time….”

“Switching Off to See Dallas”

She points out that all of us to some extent are brainwashed by the society we live in.  “We are able to see this when we travel to another country, and are able to catch a glimpse of our own country with foreign eyes.”

Brainwashing goes on all the time, through three common processes.

The first is tension followed by relaxation, as in the example of the Good Cop and the Bad Cop alternating during an interrogation.

The second is repetition, saying the same thing over and over again.

The third is the use of slogans or catch phrases — the reduction of complex ideas to simple, easy repeatable, sets of words.

Governments, corporations, religious groups use these all the time.

“The point I am making is that information we have been given about ourselves, as individuals, as groups, as crowds, as mobs, is being used consciously and deliberately by experts, which almost every government in the world now employs to manipulate its subjects.”

This has become almost a common place observation, now, in our world.  It can be observed in every election.

And what, we might ask cynically, is a possible response to this?

“It means, and I hope that this won’t sound too wild, choosing to laugh…. The researchers of brain-washing and indoctrination discovered that people who knew how to laugh resisted best. … Fanatics don’t laugh at themselves…. Bigots can’t laugh.  True believers don’t laugh.  Tyrants and oppressors don’t laugh at themselves, and don’t tolerate laughter at themselves.”  I think of Putin here, for some reason.

“Group Minds”

Lessing observes: “It is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion, as a member of a group.”  There are many psychological experiments which show how easy it is to sway the individual when a group thinks differently but is incorrect.

As her own experiment (and as a good example of her rebellious and contrary spirit), Lessing wrote two books under the assumed name of Jane Somers.  The books were submitted to publishers and critics.  She says that she deliberately sent copies of the books to all the people who considered themselves experts on her work.  Not only were the novels not recognized as Doris Lessing’s works but they were described in the most patronizing ways.

In the end as she predicted, when the farce was revealed, the British reviewers who were fooled decried the novels as no good, while critics in other countries thought they were quite wonderful.  It ended up leaving her sad about her profession: “Does everything have to be so predictable?  Do people really have to be such sheep?”

She goes on to mention the famous Milgram psychological experiments where people comply with instructions to give increasing shocks to people who eventually start shrieking with (simulated) pain behind a curtain before they fall ominously silent.

“Can you imagine this being taught in school, imagine it being taught to children: ‘If you are in this or that type of situation, you will find yourself, if you are not careful, behaving like a brute and a savage if you are ordered to do it.  Watch out for these situations.”

She later goes on:

“Imagine us saying to children: ‘In the last fifty or so years, the human race has become aware of a great deal of information about its mechanisms; how it behaves, how it must behave under certain circumstances.  If this is to be useful, you must learn to contemplate these rules calmly, dispassionately, disinterestedly, without emotion.  It is information that will set people free from blind loyalties, obedience to slogans, rhetoric, leaders, group emotions.'”

She notes that it is hard to imagine any government or political party allowing an education that might help to free people from governmental and state rhetoric and persuasion.  On the other hand, there don’t appear to be any democratic movements either that make a point of educating their membership about what is well-known about crowd psychology, group psychology.

In the end, Lessing was hopeful that as was happening in some places during the eighties, some countries that were tyrannies and dictatorships were moving to democracy such as Spain, Brazil and Argentina.

There is much more nuance in her discussion than I am able to indicate here, but what struck me the most was that if we really cared about democracy, the environment (which Lessing doesn’t touch on at all), and an equitable economy, we would be teaching our children what is already known in quite factual ways about the human animal and how it behaves and how it is influenced.

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Notes:

The photo of Doris Lessing is from a site called Tacno.net.

For a good overview of the ideas of William Irwin Thompson, an article by him called “It Has Already Begun” at the Context Institute website shows off in fairly concise form some of the insights and surprising turns of Bill’s “mind-jazz.”  It was written at about the same time as these lectures or essays of Doris Lessing.  To me now, it reveals two things: 1) the great optimism and breadth of Bill’s vision about “planetary culture”, and his hope for it despite ourselves and 2) how sometimes he would force events or trends he observed into a vision that he would have to twist around to accept those observables.  This article was written in the era of Reagan and before the Soviet Union succumbed.  His observations about Reagan, as one example, are pretty thin to me….  But “civilization as militarization” certainly rings true.

For more on Bill and his Lindisfarne Association see his site.  (For free recordings of talks from Lindisfarne, including Bill Thompson’s, see this site at the Shumacher Centre.)

For a little more on my experience of Lindisfarne, please see the posts “Of Warbikes and Wind Harps” and “The Art of Tony Stubbing.”

And as a side note, let me refer you to an article on The Twelve Virtues of Rationality, by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky.  My own …feeling… is that reason needs to be checked by gut feeling, and feeling checked by reason, but in this description of true rationality, I was struck by the twelfth virtue that comes before the other eleven.  Yudkowsky calls it the nameless virtue or the void:

“More than anything, you must think of carrying your map through to reflecting the territory.”

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Quotes That Strike a Chord

October 23, 2013

“What if you could make humans do the wise thing, like the way you could make them laugh?”
— Joan Slonczewski

“I’ve recently been diagnosed as fashion intolerant.  I can’t wear anything good in case I develop style.”
— Simon R. Green

“I’m a firm believer in the indigestibility of the individual.”
— Don DeBrandt

“What was American education anyway, that they could all grow up and not be steeped in Emerson and Thoreau and Audubon and Church?  It was like inheriting billions and then forgetting it.”
— Kim Stanley Robinson

“If you want to create work that will touch people the way you were touched, you have to become elegant in your capacity to feel….”
— Stephen Harrod Buhner

“There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
— Wendell Berry

“I saw eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light
All calm as it was bright
And round beneath it time in hours, days, years,
Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved in which the world
And all her train were hurled.”
— Henry Vaughan

“They are not brethren: they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners in the splendor and travail of the earth.”
— Henry Beston, on animals

“Have you come across the word ‘velleity’?  A nice Thomistic ring to it.  Volition at its lowest ebb.   A small thing, a wish, a tendency.  If you’re low-willed, you see, you end up living in the shallowest turns and bends of your preoccupations.”
— Dom DeLillo

“We linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they are half forgotten ere we have learned the language.”
— Henry David Thoreau

“Such is the irresistable nature of the truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.”
— Thomas Paine

“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves in it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.”
— Wendell Berry

“Language is the veil that can pierce itself.”
— Colin Browne

“Some men’s words I remember so well that I must often use them to express my thought.  Yes, because I perceive that we have heard the same truth, but they have heard it better.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Note:  November 20, 2013, added the Henry Beston quote….

The Power of Song – Goodbye to Gerry Rafferty

January 7, 2011

Out on the street I was talkin’ to a man
He said “there’s so much of this life of mine that I don’t understand”
You shouldn’t worry yes that ain’t no crime
Cause if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time (next time).
— Gerry Rafferty, “Get It Right Next Time”, from the album Night Owl

The Scottish songwriter and singer Gerry Rafferty died the other day at age 63 of liver failure, after a long battle over many years with at first fame and the bottle, and then mostly just the bottle.

I’m writing about him because his songs mean a lot to me, and his albums from the late 70s and into the 80s — City to City, Night Owl, Snakes and Ladders, and especially Sleepwalking helped keep me emotionally afloat through some difficult times of my own. I still have all those albums in the LP and cassette collection I never play any more.

Rafferty is best known probably for two songs: “Baker Street” from City to City, and the earlier “Stuck in the Middle with You” co-written with Joe Egan when they were the principals of the band Stealers Wheel. The latter song has that memorable line: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”

The song “Baker Street” alone was so popular that it is said Rafferty earned about $125,000 a year in royalties from it until his death.

Here is a video of Rafferty performing “Baker Street.”

And another with Stealers Wheel:

Now those songs are alright, but it is mostly the songs that never became big hits that really reached out and touched me. It’s partly his voice, soothing and searching, partly the words that always seemed to probe at his pain, and ours, and partly the music itself, the guitar work and catchy rhythms. (Of course, that saxophone solo in Baker Street by Raphael Ravenscroft is considered by some to be the best of its kind in popular music.)

Ken Emerson of Rolling Stone wrote in his 1978 review of City to City that:

“Indeed, there’s a prayerful quality to the entire LP, a quality reminiscent of the dim dawn after a dark night of the soul.”

And later in the same review:

“For all their rhythmic variety—from the suave Latin lilt of ‘Right down the Line’ to the thump of ‘Home and Dry’—these are uniformly majestic songs.”

The comment about prayer is insightful to me, for it captures squarely the shading of Rafferty’s voice: his prayers in song to the Universe-At-Large over despairing self-realization, and his sorrow and hope.

Here is a YouTube version of his song “Right Down the Line”:

The Personal Connection

In the late 1970s in New York City, I lived for awhile with an odd, neurotic and attractive Montessori teacher named Jill. I seem to get involved with strong, or perhaps more accurately, volatile women, and in Jill strength embodied itself largely in anger. She had some health problems, a difficult relationship with her father, and was prone to impulsive short-term and intense romantic liaisons, among other things.

After quite a few extended bouts of her radically furious anger over what should have been minor disagreements, I gave up and moved out of our small apartment on the Far Upper West Side.

I kept in touch with her foolishly when I lived for a short time in San Francisco just after that. Then when I moved back to British Columbia and got a job in Merritt as a reporter/photographer for that small town’s weekly newspaper, our romance revived over long-distance telephone calls.

Then even more foolishly and naively I invited her to the small town of Merritt to marry me. Incredibly, she accepted, made plans to travel all the way to BC from Manhattan and arrived in little old Merritt.

Now you have to realize that this was a cosmopolitan young woman, who had gone to a toney Eastern U.S. college and was used to living it up in the clubs of Greenwich Village and dining at posh establishments on the East Side of Manhattan.

You also should realize that I am a plain guy who grew up in a log cabin in northern British Columbia and walked three miles to elementary classes at a two-room country school in Quick, BC.  Quick is not really a town, or even a village, but a sort of spread-out hamlet in the rural Bulkley Valley. You can’t even find it on a map, unless you’ve got a really local one.

And my job as a small-town reporter in Merritt meant I could only afford to rent a house with one of the town’s rising young lawyers as roommate and drinking buddy. Other than that I had no particular savings and no particular prospects. What the hell was I thinking?

Yet Jill and I began cohabitation in this house. It was only a matter of a couple of weeks before she became bored and angry and took up with my lawyer housemate, who I had come to think of as a friend. I moved out before I felt compelled to do something I might regret to either one of them.

I rented a small studio on the main street of Merritt above a hair salon. It often reeked of the odor of permanents. One Saturday afternoon in particular I remember being on the roof to escape the smell. I looked down the main street in the direction of the house where I used to live. There I could see Jill and my former friend from behind as they walked a couple of blocks away, holding hands, Jill’s enormous riot of curly black hair still so clear to me today. That was almost the last time I saw her.

It was in this context that the darkness and hope in Rafferty’s music and albums affected me so much. I would drive my Mazda 626 (bought, or almost given to me, from my mother) too fast on silent roads in the middle of the night when I was too restless to sleep, listening to the cassette of Sleepwalking.

(I finally stopped that after I scared myself spinning out on gravel while negotiating turns at too high a speed in careless anger.)

From “Good Intentions” on that album:

I asked my heart to talk to my mind
They said don’t worry, oh well you’re doin’ fine
I went to the doctor, I said I’m misunderstood
He said ‘Don’t worry, why your intentions are good.’

Now life is a hard school, when you’re living a lie
Tell me who’ll bring you water, when your well runs dry?
Ah but there’s always tomorrow, you’ll do the things that you should
You’re just a sad eyed dreamer, but your intentions are good.

My friends and acquaintances came to see me as somewhat strange, though eventually I passed through my extended funk.

From “Whatever’s Written In Your Heart”:

I heard us speak but all the words were dead
Talked all night and left it all unsaid
So we agree to disagree
At least we got our memory.

Whatever’s written in your heart, that’s all that matters
You’ll find a way to say it all someday (yeah)
Whatever’s written in your heart, that’s all that matters
Yeah, night and day, night and day.

Rafferty entered his own funk after the success of Baker Street. From all accounts, he was extremely uncomfortable with the fame and attention that song brought him, and he came to despise the machinations of the music industry. He hated to tour.

Apparently he spent most of his later years fighting alcoholism and depression.

Still I remember Gerry Rafferty’s hopefulness and the wry wisdom expressed in his songs. Here’s a video link to his song “Get It Right Next Time”:

I can only hope that maybe in one of the multiverses somewhere, that he, and we, will have the chance to get it right next time….

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