One reason I will never be a music journalist is because I really do believe what Martin Mull said (or at least what I think he said) that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I know the good ones, the Lester Bangses or the Greil Marcuses of the world, can do it without showing the dotted lines between their steps, but I don’t know if I have the chops. Still, here I am again, trying to hack my way through it. Like that silly Kevin Bacon game, there usually are six degrees, or less, of separation between different forms of music or musicians. Just last week I found out, from reading the 33 1/3 edition of the making of Big Star’s second album Radio City, that Alex Chilton didn’t care for (or “get” as he put it) Led Zeppelin, but he did like Todd Rundgren and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Forget the Todd Rundgren-Runt-Healing-Something/Anything?-rabbit hole that I went down a few days ago. That’s the subject of another post.
I started listening to the Burritos, which lead me to Gram Parsons , which lead me to the International Submarine Band, which lead me on a detour with Emmylou Harris (not a bad place to run off the road), which lead me to the Byrds and to the “country” album they did with Gram Parsons, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I say “country” in quotes because although the songwriting and musicianship is off the charts, I’m still not sure that Gram and Roger and Co. aren’t just putting us on. Maybe the same way five British guys called the Rolling Stones haven’t been playing one massive joke over the years, with their “rock and roll” and all. (Remember, Mick Jagger has a degree from the London School of Economics. That should cause you some worry, right there). Maybe the fact that Gram Parsons grew up a privileged white kid who dropped out of Harvard makes me think he couldn’t have had the street cred to write songs like Sin City, Christine’s Tune, or Do You Know How It Feels. No way he could have suffered that much. But maybe it’s the fact that he dropped out of Harvard instead of graduating from Harvard that gave him all the cred he needed.
Which brings me to the third song on Sweetheart. It doesn’t even matter that Roger McGuinn sings lead vocals or that the song was actually written by the Louvin brothers. It’s Gram (and Alex before him) who lead me to the gold-plated door, knocked, and opened it for me. Again, the dancing about architecture thing. I’m not going to say too much about it because you should listen to it for yourself. But there is one line that resonates with me deeply, even though I laugh out loud every time I hear it, and I’ve heard it now at least fifty times in the last three days. It goes: “Others find pleasure in things I despise/I like the Christian life.”
The line means so much to me now, because even though I don’t consider myself a Christian (Whatever that is. Ask a million people and you’ll get a million answers. Gandhi famously responded to a question that he wasn’t a Christian because he never met one), I’ve chosen to eliminate alcohol from my life. ( Again, another subject for another, much longer post. Maybe even a book-and-movie deal) To live a life of temperance, of self-control, even, yes, of purity. I don’t judge others who drink. God knows in my forty-six years I’ve drunk enough for five lifetimes. I certainly don’t “despise” what others find pleasure in. I have my own freaky pleasures that I’d rather not be judged on, thankyouverymuch.
Even though Roger is singing, I can see Gram’s knowing wink and wry smile in the corner of that studio in Nashville. He’s actually winking at me, in his hand-made, rhinestone-covered Nudie suit (no, it’s not what you think), across the grave (and his half-burnt coffin in the Joshua Tree National Park. Look it up.) and across the years. With that flick of his eyelid, the Grievous Angel is telling me to chill.
“Dude”, he’s saying, “Don’t mess with the alcohol. Do you want to end up like me? You’re twenty years older than I was when I died. Think about it.”
Well, I did.
Can someone live a Christian life without being one? I guess I’m about to find out.
I subscribe to a newsletter from the Satipanya Buddhist trust in the UK. The guiding teacher there, an English monk by the name of Bhante Bodhidhamma, usually posts a short column called the Tip O’ the Day. Here is today’s post, titled Impulsive or Spontaneous?:
“When we act impulsively, we do so out of habit. A thoughtless reaction. There’s no reflection involved. And the word impulsive suggests that it is not skillful. We often regret what we have done. Somebody asks us to come and help in the garden. And we find ourselves saying, ‘Yes, I’d love to!’ And immediately comes that sinking feeling that we really didn’t want to do it. And that we don’t have the time. We would prefer to be doing something else. It scratches on the mind and we think of excuses. It can lead to fibbing. ‘Woke up feeling terrible. I’ve got a job to do. Someone I must see. Forgot all about it.’ Of course, we are prolific in our apologies. But it leaves an uncomfortable feeling. That’s the dread of being found out. The shame of it. There’s a Mullah Nasruddin story. He is tired of his neighbor asking for the use of his donkey. So on the next request, he tells him the donkey is being used by someone else. Just then the donkey brays. And when his neighbor raises his eyebrows, he asks, ‘Who are you going to believe? Me or my donkey?’ We all want to be spontaneous. It suggests skillfulness and joy. And we think that spontaneity should arise spontaneously! But it’s hard work to train ourselves towards a genuine, unaffected naturalness about what we do. Consider sport! How many times do tennis players practice their shots? And in the immediacy of the game their strokes are spontaneous. Not that they are always as accurate as they would want them to be. Consider performance artists whether actors or musicians. Although their performance seems so natural, there has been an enormous amount of practice beforehand. So it is with virtues. We need to consciously develop them – goodwill, generosity, patience and so on. And then every so often we shall surprise ourselves at our spontaneous, wise and joyful response.”
I recognize myself in Bhante Bodhidhamma’s words. I am the chronic promiser. I promise to call, to write, to send the package, the card, the email, the thank-you note. I promise to pick up someone else’s children. Call me if you need me, I say. We should get together some time, have dinner. I’ll cook. But like the man with the braying donkey, I usually get found out. I want to be perfect first, and only after I have attained perfection will I be ready to help others. Reading this essay made me think of Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey, which touches on the the notion that the only person you can save is yourself. There is a constant struggle within me between selflessness and selfishness. There is a Buddhist idea that we can’t save all beings until we save ourselves. But an equally forceful Christian idea is that by saving others first, we simultaneously save ourselves. What do you believe?
I was only partially joking when I called myself a Buddhist, Rastafarian, Gospel-of-Thomas Christian a few posts back. Over the course of my absence from this blog, I have been doing some reading (what else is new?) and I’ve learned a few things. My belief in the truth (for me) of Buddhist psychology has become stronger. That is to say, our notion of self is an illusion, and attachment to things that are impermanent (including our beliefs) is the cause of all our suffering. But if we can forget the self, as Dogen advises, the we can become enlightened by all things. I also read Bob Marley’s biography, Catch a Fire by Timothy White, a few months ago and although I don’t subscribe to his belief that Haille Selassie I was God incarnate like many Rastas do, I can find truth in his commitment to a healthy lifestyle (minus the ganja): Eating mostly fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, not eating animal products, not drinking caffeine or alcohol, and getting plenty of exercise. (Easy to read, hard to follow) Our image of Bob Marley as the patron saint of dope smokers is a narrow-minded interpretation of the life of someone I’ve come to believe is a true prophet. Read the book, and you may be amazed by the deeply religious human being you find there. I’ve also continued to try and come to terms with the Catholicism of my youth by studying the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of the sayings of “the living Jesus” that were supposedly written down not long after he spoke them. This gospel is more of a wisdom book, and very unlike the stories of Jesus we find in the Bible. In this gospel, no mention is made of original sin, virgin birth, or divine retribution during some future apocalypse. Just simple words pointing his listener towards enlightenment. The most important message I took away from Thomas was the idea that the kingdom of heaven is “spread out upon the earth, but people don’t see it.” I think this a strong tonic to the idea that we will see heaven in some future life or alternate dimension. In Thomas, Jesus is telling his followers to find paradise right where they are, and not look for it somewhere else. Right now, in the present moment, is where life happens and where we find the true kingdom of god. How we treat one another as human beings is the key to unlocking this kingdom, I think.