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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Creativity and Self-Destruction: The Lives of Wounded, Gifted Artists

I used to be addicted to the biographical stories (and the various myths that grew up around them) of the many wounded and gifted artists throughout history. I had the sense that I was staring into some kind of over-sized mirror, which offered me a reflection of a more cinematic self, as I followed their lives.

It scarcely bothered me, at the time, that so many of them had died young, or that the time they did spend here on Earth was often filled with suffering. Their otherworldly creations seemed to justify such sacrifices, and it seemed appropriate that their incredible bursts of inspiration could only be sustained for so long.

But if creativity is meant to be life affirming, then why should one expect that the creative impulse will inevitably destroy whoever serves as its conduit? And why do the stories of countless burnt out artistic lives seem to confirm that theory?

We need our artists to demonstrate how one can live with a creative vision, even thrive because of its presence. Thus far, as history has demonstrated, the arrangement has seldom worked out that way. Is this failure symptomatic of some dysfunction within the artists, some lack of self-love or belief, or rather a consequence of a society that gives them little space to breathe and feel at home?

We may also have to consider the possibility that these great creators planned their destinies this way all along. Perhaps they never intended to be long for the world. It may have been their soul missions to express what they needed to - in one conflagration of inspiration akin to the passing of a comet before our eyes - and then disappear before the world and its ways began to make too much of an impression upon their peculiar innocence...

I spun the core of my story, What Casts the Shadow?, around a young artist both brilliant and (seemingly) doomed. I wanted to explore the question of whether he could be 'saved'. Could he somehow keep his vision intact and yet still enjoy a balanced anf fulfilling earthly life? Could he sidestep the ‘live fast, die young’ credo and cliché of rock'n'roll?

I knew that, in order to do so, he would need guidance.That's how his mentor Saul came to be.

Saul snapped his fingers. “Easier to pretend not to give a shit. That’s the posture of many a hard rocking band, as you know. But you never really wanted to
be in that sort of a band, did you?”

“No. But this is a cynical age we’re living in, Saul.”

“And since when do you care about the spirit of the age?” he challenged me. “Aren’t you guys the band that discards convention and bucks every trend? Haven’t you put your finger on it yet, what you’ve been seeking ever since you jettisoned all your old songs and started reinventing yourself?”

“I wanted the music to be an outlet for
everything that we feel,” I said, “not just the anger and aggression.” 

“Yes! And a big part of that, I’m willing to bet anything, is that you’ve been looking for an outlet for your idealism. Yes, being cynical and jaded is the order of business in the modern world. And you listen to a lot of cynical bands, too. But there’s that part of you that wants to say, ‘Screw it – I believe in humanity; and I believe in myself.’ Even if it means that you won’t look so tough in the arena of hard rock swagger and insouciance.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

Identifying with the Wild

Modern society encourages us to live our lives at "one remove". Our efforts are transformed into a paper symbol that can be traded for food derived, oftentimes, from produce that someone else grew or meat from animals that others have killed.

Actually, it's easy to see that the source of our livelihood is generally a few times more than "once" removed when you consider how many steps are involved for food to move from the land all the way to our dinner tables.

We lay that paper symbol down for homes that others have built according to plans even others have drawn. Sometimes I think that the ground is trying to whisper its wisdom to the human race; but we've laid a pile of mattresses on top of it and gone to sleep.

Once we enter the mountains, forests and jungles of the world, though, the masks come off and our real beings emerge. Maybe it's because we're reminded of the ancient conditions of our race, when nature's bounty was all that we dreamed of and sought. In those days, our relationship with the sources of our sustenance was more direct. If we successfully hunted and/or harvested we thrived. If we failed, then we either suffered privation or starved.

Such a picture of life is stark and arduous but it's also straightforward. And to feel that direct relationship, somehow, is no doubt necessary for the nourishment of the soul. Primitive people knew hunger, strife, cold, and fear of predators, but neurosis is a modern invention.

We need a connection with wildness in order to be healthy and feel truly alive. The abundance of life around us feeds our inner being. We identify with all that comes from the Earth, the source of physical life. Watch the river rolling its course and you can get in touch with a sense of your own flow. When we venture out into the untamed vastness there is a shift in our identities our identity becomes something more immediate and primal. We're simply, yet incredibly, human.

What Casts the Shadow?  features a scene where Brandon Chane (the narrator) questions his girlfriend Janie McCabe about her very personal relationship with the natural world (her hobby is creating clothing and jewelry out of natural materials, and in this she is inspired by various indigenous peoples) while they are camping under the stars.

Janie needed no time to compose her answer. “It’s another approach to living, one that’s more direct. Like this.” 

She waved to encompass the fire, the trees and the sky. 

“All sorts of people inevitably got marginalized or absorbed by some more, quote, civilized cultures. But then the irony is that civilization keeps going in its direction to such an extreme that people long for the simpler ways. They feel trapped; and they start thinking about how they can break free and start over. 

"Indigenous people remind us of other ways of being in the world. It’s a one-to-one relationship: You and the earth; Self and Other. Whereas in our society there are always middle-men. But it’s like you were talking about earlier, about taking personal responsibility. There’s no point in blaming society when society is our creation.”

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Magical Ritual and the Power of Music

If we were to trace back to the original roots of the blues, gospel, R&B, jazz and rock’n’roll in America, it would be around 1619 when the first twenty Negroes were sold into slavery from a ship arrived in Virginia.

Thus began one of the ugliest eras of our history – and a harrowing experience for the original African-Americans.

To keep their oral traditions alive and lift their spirits in the face of this immense suffering, they turned to the music that had been an integral part of their everyday lives in Africa – and which was, itself, steeped in magical ritual and voodoo.

In West Africa, the “professional” music-makers had been known as the Griol. They related the ancestral tales and served as the keepers of the tribes’ myths and history.

Their function was much like that of the shamans or medicine men of the Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. Likewise, their art was associated with magic and healing.

Because the slaves had brought nothing with them from their old world, they were obliged to draw upon their own memories to re-create their music. They utilized everyday items to craft new instruments. The banjo, for example, was modeled after a West African gourd guitar.

The white men, with their guns and whips, had the power, so the slaves had to vent their anger and frustration in their music. Their songs found homes in churches, juke joints, downtown squares, and among prison gangs.

With the evolution of the delta blues, a sound inspired largely by suffering and deprivation, the musicians found a lyrical formula to mirror the voodoo implications that had always lived within the music itself. Consider Robert Johnson, who recorded such songs as “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Hellhound on My Trail.”

Along with the songs went the classical delta blues myth: a midnight meeting with the Devil at an abandoned crossroads, selling your soul for musical greatness. This sort of mythology, and the haunting sounds that accompanied it, became an indelible influence on the development of rock'n'roll and all its various permutations in the decades to come.

My protagonist Brandon Chane describes, early in What Casts the Shadow?, the creation of his first proper song and the inexplicable sensations that it evoked in him. Having made (as yet) no kind of formal ventures into esoteric studies, he doesn't think to label the sacred dimension of life (is not all of existence sacred?) with words like voodoo, shamanism, magic or the occult

Considering how limiting and distorted labels can be, this is no doubt fortunate. He just feels something very deep and powerful at work within him; and he responds to it.

It was mean and primitive; and it succinctly echoed the collective mood in the garage that night. I could tell that the other guys felt it too. Music and dreams can really tear away the fabric that seems to partition off the other worlds from our view. 

... I’ve always got at least one foot in the other world as it is. Sometimes I can just be looking at a landscape, or playing with Rachel, and I’ll feel that the surface veneer just rolls back to expose the life force, naked to my senses. 

I’ll never be able to describe it to my satisfaction. Language isn’t built to hold it. When you feel this sensation you know; and then there’s no need for words. Those who don’t know aren’t going to feel it no matter how well you convey it anyhow. Music, for me, was the surest vehicle. It united the physical and the intangible in a way that cast them both in sharp relief. Then everything else in my world made sense.

There were maybe two or three dozen songs in all Creation that could work that alchemy for me, and I held them sacred. Tommy and I could neither write nor perform on a level that would bring us to that state yet - and neither of us would be satisfied with ourselves or our band until we did. If we failed to break through the veil and expose the magic that underlies everything then there was no point in even making music. We never perceived ourselves as mere entertainers...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Where is God's Lover?

Whether or not one follows the actual doctrines of Christianity, its mythology is hard to escape. It permeates so many areas of our culture. And it may well be that many of us have experienced rocky times in our intimate relationships because the God that is present in that myth seems to frown upon intimacy in the first place. At any rate, He does nothing to model it.

Throughout our history, we human beings have used myths to help orient ourselves in the world and better understand ourselves and our challenges. A working mythology provides us with a mirror for our inner lives; through it, we get a glimpse of our own depths. Also, myth imbues us with hope that the obstacles we face along life's journey can be overcome. In the West, the most popular mythology has long been embodied in the Bible of the Christian religion. For example, many who crave an end to the widespread violence in the world seek inspiration and comfort in the figure of Christ, the "Prince of Peace".

But the Bible does not provide us with models for all of our earthly experiences: Two places where it is particularly deficient are the areas of femininity and intimacy (the relationship between the sexes).

There is simply nothing in the cosmogony of the Bible to model for us what healthy sexuality and romantic involvement could be. The Divine order is patriarchal: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God the Father is a bachelor in his heaven; consider his solitary status alongside lovers in the Greek and Indian pantheons like Zeus and Shiva. What are we to derive from this circumstance of our most popular mythology, if not the idea that there is something inherently "un-spiritual" about human love and its physical expression? Human beings measure their ideals by their deities. If we find no divine sanction of our sexuality, is it any wonder that many people experience physical love as a source of confusion and shame?

This mysterious absence of male-female relations is reinforced further in the New Testament with the coming of the Son of God. Zeus the All-Father was promiscuous and unscrupulous, and this may not be an ideal model for human behavior either - however, he did find the daughters of the Earth fair and made no bones about expressing his desire, which provided the people who had inherited that particular mythology with an affirmation of their own sexual desires. Jesus, however, was the product of Immaculate Conception, created without intercourse. Again we have the idea that God does not approve physical love - i.e., that it is not Divine.

This all works to create a sort of mass hypnotic suggestion to the effect that the sensual and the spiritual are at odds in our world: That they do not, and can never, meet. Even many of us who've formally renounced any religious affiliation may discover that we have some strong vestiges of this belief lurking around in our psyches. It's tenacious and hard to root out. It's reinforced in a thousand subtle ways.

Is it perhaps a worthy calling for the artists of this age to work to create a new kind of cosmogony, one that affirms the sensual and the spiritual both (not to mention the masculine and feminine together) - that perhaps even depicts them as different expressions of the same inner Being, proclaiming that the divisions that have thus far been made between the two are erroneous?