Everybody knows, or should know, that music is one of the most powerful ways of generating compassion, of remembering it. I’ve been singing to myself the song embedded below a lot lately, as I think of this unspeakably precious suffering world, as I think of the Buddhist community I used to be a part of — now imploding (deservedly) in scandal — and as I work with (or try to) my own pain.
Ordinary compassion in Tibetan (vajrayana) Buddhist circles seems to be too easily forgotten in the climbing of ladders, the hope of being seen as an “advanced” practitioner. It’s an endlessly sobering thought to me that virtually all of the most heartless people I have known have been Buddhists. Something so deeply wrong there.
Well, I’m still a Buddhist, at least at the core. But it’s clear that some major work needs to be done in reforming systems which were transplanted more or less wholesale from one culture to another, extremely different one. The extent and depth of the scandals we are witnessing are going to require a lot of wisdom and diligence to properly understand, and heal.
One thing always needed: the experience of ordinary old compassion. Nothing tricky there, no cleverness or “advanced” practices required. Just that automatic human ache in the face of suffering. That almost unbearable longing to remove something so intolerable. This is where we start, and it’s our middle, and it’s our end.
Sade’s “Pearls” is such a beautiful and pure expression of compassion. On a deeper level, it is about the truth that any of us could have been, could be, anyone else. “She lives a life she didn’t choose…”
there is a woman in Somalia
the sun gives her no mercy
the same sky we lay under
burns her to the bone
long as afternoon shadows
it’s gonna take her to get home
each grain carefully wrapped up
pearls for her little girl
Another one from the radio show — do songs get any more “classic” than this? Ray Davies had lost his old bandmate Pete Quaife only days or weeks before, so these songs, dedicated to him, hit so hard.
those sacred days you gave me
Discovered this one last night and can’t stop listening to it… The sax player on Bowie’s last, stupendous LP, formerly mostly a jazz guy, recently — as you see — exploring different directions.
As unbearable as it is to think about the man who currently dwells in the White House, fouling the office he holds to a degree no one could have begun to imagine, and every single day, it’s good also to remember another time. Here was one: Usher getting “Mercy Mercy Me” so very, very right that Marvin couldn’t have been more touched. In the presence of the Obamas and their guests: this is who we are.
children will want them
mothers supply them
as long as your killers are heroes
A few nights ago I saw the film “Call Me by Your Name” and am still entirely lost in its spell. A film I’ve kind of been waiting my whole life for, which, miraculously, did not disappoint but was even better than I could have hoped. Review coming soon, but for now, this song — featured towards the end of the film — captures its purity and great beauty. This film shimmers with goodness and I bow to all who made it possible.
what happened here?
the butterly has lost its wings
the air’s too thick to breathe
and there’s something in the drinking water
the sun comes up
the sun comes up and you’re alone
your sense of purpose come undone
the traffic tails back to the maze on 101
and the news from the sky
is looking better for today
in every single way but not for you
Earlier today I had a conversation, with an apologist, about our so-called president’s recent remarks on Haiti and Africa. The depth of sophistry, the mindless shuffling around of words, the unthinking pure reactivity and inability to acknowledge straightforward facts, left me actually shaking in despair. It really has felt like the very death of civilization over the past year and a half. Without at least some level of good faith and commitment to truth, nothing works, nothing is possible. There only remains a bottomless fall into barbarism.
More specifically, this subject can render me a bit ballistic. I keep trying to imagine what it must be like arriving in an alien country with, typically, very minimal proficiency in the native language to start with, where every day contains all kinds of logistical, communicative struggles someone like me never has to think about for a moment. Doing many of the hardest, most unpleasant, most poorly-paid jobs, generally working exceptionally hard, navigating frequent subtle and unsubtle slights — and worse.
These are simply heroes in my book, and this is supposed to be the country that recognizes and welcomes them more than any other on earth. It breaks my heart to see this moronic, astoundingly uneducated, surreally self-obsessed, endlessly foul, utterly lawless man who has never had to materially struggle a day in his life say such things — and be defended, always, by virtually the entire congressional delegation of his party. Really beyond the pale disgusting.
Listening to Sade’s “Immigrant” is helping restore some sanity:
Isn’t it just enough
How hard it is to live
Isn’t it hard enough
Just to make it through a day
The secret of their fear and their suspicion —
Standing there looking like an angel
In his brown shoes
His short suit
His white shirt
And his cuffs a little frayed
Coming from where he did
He was such a dignified child
To even the toughest among us
Don’t you know that would be too much …
He didn’t know what it was to be black
‘Til they gave him his change, but didn’t want to touch his hand
To even the toughest among us
That would be too much
Happy 2018 (gulp) to everyone and to our deeply ailing, unspeakably precious world. May we do much better this year. May we really, really do much better!
My tiny blip of a contribution to world peace this 31 December is to pass along a rediscovery. Was traipsing through YouTube last night trying to cheer myself up and came across a band I haven’t thought about in a long time. But they were the best of the “acid jazz” scene in Britain and I got to see one of their joyous romping gigs once, just before they broke up I think — was it in Leeds? Sheffield? alas those were days when I had THC for blood… (cf. song number three: “skunk funk, in my bo-o-ones…”) I do remember, as here, that at the end there were as many people on stage as in the crowd!
Honestly, if everyone could go to a gig like this even once a month or so, I do believe we might have world peace. Music gets there. Music cuts through all the confusion and nonsense and division and hatred and stupidity. More music!
As the old Tibetan chant goes: “May all beings without exception on this earth enjoy peace, happiness, and complete prosperity.” Cheers!
so this is a schoolyard and no one survives
the terrible beauty of being alive
let it move you, let it come through
the stream is never-ending …
breathe … breathe …
eternity is written into time
there’s nothing but the light
Driving back home this evening I tuned into the excellent q, with Tom Power, a CBC program we get here on Vermont Public Radio, and heard an interview with Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean. I’d not come across her before. The interview was a rebroadcast, originally airing in April when her latest album, Metaphysics, had just come out.
She tells an extraordinary story in it of finding herself alone on the train home one day, and deciding to fit in a meditation session. At a certain point the door to the compartment suddenly opened, someone sat down across from her, and she immediately experienced a sense of menace, a distinct chill in the air. She opened her eyes and saw a man who, indeed, seemed hostile, even scary. In part, she thought, because she’d been doing a practice, or perhaps purely instinctively, she didn’t freeze but immediately said hello to him, rather cheerfully. He was quite taken aback at this and she sensed him trying to work her out for awhile. For a time he slouched on the seat in silence. His coat opened slightly and she saw he was carrying a gun.
Eventually they began an intermittent conversation and then … he told her his life story. It was full of pain and a sense of hopelessness — dealing drugs, unable to contact his family, not knowing how to change anything. He cried, in front of this complete stranger. When it came time to part, they hugged and exchanged numbers and email addresses, and as it turned out corresponded for two years. She said his emails were always stream of consciousness, nothing spelled right, but she understood him.
Then one day, when she was in the midst of a great deal of turmoil in her life, doubting her life as a musician which she’d been pursuing at that point for almost two decades and seriously considering giving it up, the phone buzzed. She didn’t recognize the number but picked it up, and heard this fractured voice which turned out to belong to her companion on the train. He’d been gravely ill, nearly lost his life, and had had half his larynx removed. He had phoned to tell her that while he was in the hospital a nurse had brought him books of poetry, and he discovered a love for words. Now, he realized, he had a passion himself to write. Poetry had given him a new strength.
She concludes the story in an online interview this way: ““A guy with a literally broken voice had found his voice, and was excitedly telling a singer (who was at that moment, taking it all for granted) that he wanted to write… It completely blind-sided me – the beauty and power with which the universe can speak to us.” And shortly after that she wrote the song “Every Rhythm Is the Beat,” inspired by the encounter, which appears on the new album.
After getting back home I did some listening and came across this jewel from the same album, which I’ve already listened to half a dozen times. I think it’s one of those songs which can give hope to people in a dark place. Just the way her voice shapes so purely the words “breathe … breathe …” I hope it touches ya!
I’ve been immersing myself in the Shostakovich quartets again lately. Some of the profoundest and most extraordinary music I know. I have four sets — the Borodin, Brodsky, Emerson, and Fitzwilliam — and keep meaning to write something up about their respective strengths.
Honestly, I love them all. But there are a handful which I love even a little more than the rest, and tonight it has to be the fifteenth that I cue up, written in his final year. Wendy Lesser, in her really excellent book Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, says that she has personally witnessed audiences walking out during this piece. (The first movement, roughly 12 minutes long, is meant to be played so deliberately, according to the composer himself, “that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience start leaving the hall from sheer boredom.”) ! In reality it is so sublime. My favorite recording here, of those I’ve heard, is the Fitzwilliam, but it is unavailable on YouTube, so here’s a live recording from the Emersons:
On this inauguration eve, like so very many in this country and around the world, I am feeling an overwhelming, inarticulable sadness. Often it does feel as if we learn nothing whatsoever as a people — ever — that we have to continually reinvent the wheel.
But I am trying to remind myself tonight of what is in fact the truth: that so many, many millions know there is a vaster, more reverent and celebratory and sublime way to live, beyond the prison of tribalism and fear. We have, in fact, grown up in many respects as a people. As Mr. Charlie Chaplin reminded us in 1940:
We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful.
But we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men which will pass, and dictators die. And the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
So a deep bow to all those who had a hand in producing the bottle of junmai daiginjo I am drinking, and a bow to Mr. Sibelius, whose 7th symphony — one of the greatest pieces of music there is or could ever be, in my view — I am listening to right now. And a reminder that the times call upon us to be the very best we can be.
And one more in honor of Leonard today:
“I don’t know which side anybody’s on anymore, and I don’t really care. There is a moment, there is a moment when we have to transcend the side we’re on and understand that we are creatures of a higher order. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wish you courage in your struggle. There is, there is on both sides of this struggle men of good will. That is important to remember. On both sides of the struggle. Some struggling for freedom, some struggling for safety. In solemn testimony of that unbroken faith which binds the generations, one to another, I sing this song: “If It Be Your Will.”
you can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
you can strike up the march
on your little broken drum
every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee
like a refugee
ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack, a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in
We lost a deep and true soul yesterday.
Baruch dayan emet
Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ
All great and vast enjoyments.
You don’t need to believe in the efficacy of prayer to be moved by the overdub in Marvin Gaye’s original of “Mercy Mercy Me,” a love song for the Earth, wherein he repeatedly sings “have mercy Father, please have mercy…”
And “What’s Going On” (the song, and the album) remains one of the great testaments of compassion in contemporary music:
there’s too many of you crying
brother brother brother
there’s far too many of you dying
you know we’ve got to find a way
to bring some lovin’ here today
we don’t need to escalate
you see, war is not the answer
for only love can conquer hate
you know we’ve got to find a way
to bring some lovin’ here today
picket lines, and picket signs
don’t punish me with brutality
talk to me, so you can see
what’s goin’ on, what’s goin’ on
yeah what’s goin’ on, what’s goin’ on…
The originals could never be topped, but this acoustic version was a sweet discovery.
Songs our world desperately needs these days. Send them round —
At the full moon, so the astrologers say, this seems to have been the day I came into this life. That means I get to send a post out to myself.
I haven’t heard it all yet (got my order for the CD in today), but there’s this…
A succession of bardos, saying goodbye over and over and over, and finally a bit of warmth at the loneliest top of the world.
To have shared a realm and an age with such pure exquisiteness…
The Cocteau Twins were so sublime that my “best of” compilation represents over one quarter of everything they recorded! I spent a lot of time trying to make this flow immaculately from beginning to end, and listening to it in sheerest bliss some weeks ago driving through the mountains as late afternoon faded into twilight into evening has convinced me I could do no better.
Just the playlist for now, but hopefully soon I can put together a YouTube playlist of the whole thing (they are all there) and embed it here. For now, this post is mainly addressed to those who are already familiar with this unspeakably exquisite music.
One of these days I would like to write a proper appreciation of this band (Liz Fraser, Robin Guthrie, and Simon Raymonde). There will never be another like them. There are even times when I find myself thinking that the greatest privation of death will be being unable to hear these songs again…
- Pandora (Treasure)
- Cico Buff (Blue Bell Knoll)
- I Wear Your Ring (Heaven or Las Vegas)
- Throughout the Dark Months of April and May (Victorialand)
- The High Monkey-Monk (unreleased, bonus track on The Box Set)
- Cherry-Coloured Funk (Heaven or Las Vegas)
- Athol-Brose (Blue Bell Knoll)
- Know Who You Are at Every Age (Four-Calendar Café)
- She Will Destroy You (The Moon and the Melodies [with Harold Budd])
- Hitherto (Sunburst and Snowblind EP)
- Otterley (Treasure)
- Great Spangled Fritillary (Echoes in a Shallow Bay EP)
- Primitive Heart (Tishbite single)
- Aikea-Guinea (Aikea-Guinea EP)
- How to Bring a Blush to the Snow (Victorialand)
- Theft, and Wandering Around Lost (Four-Calendar Café)
- Smile (Violaine single)
- Donimo (Treasure)
- Squeeze-Wax (Four-Calendar Café)
- Millimillenary (The Pink Opaque [compilation, otherwise unreleased])
- Crushed (Lonely Is an Eyesore [4AD label compilation, otherwise unreleased])
- Iceblink Luck (Heaven or Las Vegas)
- Feet-like Fins (Victorialand)
- Alice (Violaine single)
- Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires (Heaven or Las Vegas)
- Evangeline (Four-Calendar Café)
- Heaven or Las Vegas (Heaven or Las Vegas)
- Serpentskirt (Milk & Kisses)
- Rilkean Heart (Twinlights EP)
- Carolyn’s Fingers (Blue Bell Knoll)
- Bluebeard (Four-Calendar Café)
- Those Eyes, That Mouth (Love’s Easy Tears EP)
- Pur (Four-Calendar Café)
- Pink Orange Red (Tiny Dynamine EP)
- Seekers Who Are Lovers (Milk & Kisses)
- Golden-Vein (Twinlights EP)
- Calfskin Smack (Milk & Kisses)
- Touch Upon Touch (Volume 17 and Splashed with Many a Speck compilations)
“If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me…”
I was interested to discover a couple of years ago that David Bowie had briefly studied with Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama whose writings have probably made the single greatest impact on me of any buddhist teacher. Bowie had made the trek up to Samye Ling in Scotland in the late ’60s, before Rinpoche had migrated to the United States. And just today a brief article was posted quoting Bowie on his time there: “I was within a month of having my head shaved, taking my vows, and becoming a monk,” he said. It was 1967, he was 20 years old and already a recording musician — this would have been either just before or just after the release of his first LP, David Bowie.
He was conflicted about whether or not to stay at the centre and asked Trungpa about this, who told him to carry on being a musician. So now we have another thing to thank that man for…
The last two songs on Blackstar are the most direct leave-takings. They’re really hard to listen to today. Dollar Days with its wailing sax from Donny McCaslin and final repeated alternations, “I’m trying to, I’m dying to, I’m trying to, I’m dying to…” is wrenching. Both phrases had appeared in a different context earlier: “I’m dying to/Push their backs against the grain/And fool them all again and again/I’m trying to.” And: “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.”
And finally the last one on the album, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” where he kind of sums it all up:
“Seeing more and feeling less, saying no but meaning yes: this is all I ever meant, that’s the message that I sent”
He was one of the most endlessly innovative artists of our time, and one of the most complete artists, because his mind was attuned to music, art, design, film, and dance in almost equal measure. He influenced nearly everybody across two generations to one degree or another — and he’s not done yet.
What more to say? Blessings, Mr. B. Please come back as something equally amazing.
… for making his entire life (and now, we realize, death too) into a work of art.
Blackstar — what a gift to leave as the last one. To know it would be the last and to go out as innovative and protean and inspired as ever. That breathtaking title track: one of the most astounding things he ever did. I have watched the video of it multiple times today, along with listening to the rest of the album (released three days ago on his 69th birthday). Filled with moments of brilliance and unforgettable images: the astronaut concealing a skull laden with jewels; the juxtapositions of glowing cosmos, stylized Middle Eastern towns, shadowy loft, gyrating figures; a skeleton flying towards an eclipse… The refrain with its fragment of medieval chant, the driving breakbeat, and that sax…
“in the centre of it all, in the centre of it all…”
And then (as if you thought that was it!): a big hush. What on earth is next? It’s an image almost indescribably perfect: the camera panning Bowie holding a leather-bound book reminiscent both of a Bible and a Communist catechism (but note his left arm against hip…), its cover bearing only the eponymous black star; the previously gyrating figures (one white, one black, one female) staring with him in the direction the book/star is pointing; the sun comes out. The lighting and tableau remind me of that opening slow-motion shot in Blue Velvet somehow in its sense of wonder, innocence and the technicolor quality of the blue painted sky alternating with ground level shots of vegetation.
And then … we are back in the loft, and Bowie is clasping his hands, as if in prayer. He sings, and his falsetto is as gorgeous as ever, the voice childlike at first: “Something happened on the day he died…” Followed by — what genius — gazing back on his whole life, he makes a kind of declaration, but more about what he’s never been rather than what he “is.” The backing singers provide this (as far as it goes and in wonderfully murky harmony): “I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.” But he thumbs his nose at the line “you’re a flash in the pan,” and his dancing — 68 at the time, and very ill — is still elegant. You want to bow.
“I see right so white, so open-heart it’s pain/I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes/(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)”
And the trio of scarecrows, lined up as the Crucifixion: what startling composition and colors in that frame, and the subtle slow-motion swiveling hips of them, fantastic…
“at the centre of it all, your eyes, your eyes…”
Evidently part of what the song (and video) are about, according to someone who spoke to Bowie, is the Islamic State. In the latter part of the video we see a group of women reacting instantly to the jeweled skull, which has reappeared: whenever it is held in front of them they gyrate, hop, or raise their fists (I found myself remembering that ceremonial scene in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut also). And the opening music returns, but this time without the breakbeats. It has followed on from the middle section so seamlessly that you hardly notice. But the song is about much more than that, and I could keep going on about it, but I’d rather just let it speak for itself.
And Lazarus… Few words. It’s too raw. No one has ever put out anything like this before: Bowie sings from, as it were, his very deathbed, and he sings about what it feels like to die.
And then he stands, and even makes a dance move or two, and gets inspired, and writes, and finally fades into the wardrobe. Is it a Narnian wardrobe? Where is he going? None of us can say, and that is what he gives us as our final image of him.
Apparently Bowie was often too ill to attend rehearsals for his musical Lazarus (his other final project), but according to the director, Ivo van Hove: “Bowie was still writing on his deathbed, you could say. I saw a man fighting. He fought like a lion and kept working like a lion through it all. I had incredible respect for that.”
(More in the next post.)
“The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams…. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. And dreams come true. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe….
“So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It is called life. This is who you are. Second question: Who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules?…. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. Our innate nature is to create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep, innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.
“Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.
“This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe…. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.”
— Paul Hawken, “The Earth Is Hiring,” speech to the graduating class of the University of Portland, 2009, from The World Is Waiting for You, edited by Tara Grove and Isabel Ostrer.
In memory of Greg Tyler (7/27/92 – 12/30/14):
Nearly the only photo in which I’ve seen the great Shostakovich appear cheerful.
Oh to have been a fly on the wall listening to what he and Ben Britten had to say to one another…
I’m currently learning one of the fugues from DS’s stupendous “24 Preludes and Fugues,” Opus 87 (the one in C-sharp minor). And remembering the performance I attended of Alexander Melnikov playing the second half of those at Middlebury College. (I can’t recommend highly enough his recording of the complete set, by the way.)
And here he is again, doing that other thing he does. Check out these beats, the delivery, those final take-no-prisoners lines — this one’s scorching!
Also part of the tribute to Lou Reed in Rolling Stone are twenty or so contributions from various people in music and the arts. The one from Michael Stipe is interesting, pointing out something I wasn’t really aware of:
[Lou Reed] was the first queer icon of the 21st century, 30 years before it even began.
As early as the late 1960s, Lou proclaimed with beautifully confusing candidness a much more 21st-century understanding of a fluid, moving sexuality. He saw beyond – and lived outside – a society locked into a simplistic straight/gay binary division. Through his public persona, his art and music, he boldly refused labels, very publicly mixing things up and providing a “Whoa, that’s possible?” avenue of sexual exploration and identity examination, all with whip-smart nonchalance. He was indefinable, he was other, he was outside of society. He spearheaded a new cool, and he did not care if you “got it” or not. Lots of people did get it…