We passed the equinox on the last full moon, replete with a once-every-twenty-years “super moon.” and my wife and I observed the occasion with our neighbor Ed Haggard and his posse of drummers, singers, and dancers, who are known around Nashville as “The Love Drums.”
The gathering was very sweet, if a little bizarre–it was held at a private hunting reserve about an hour and a half west of Nashville, in a well-appointed lodge decorated with stuffed animals, isolated in the middle of 2,000 hilly, wooded acres, very private and quite lovely. I suspected, and our hostess confirmed, that this was unlike any other gathering the lodge had ever witnessed. It felt like a tribe of barbarians partying in a Roman villa.
But there was nothing debauchy, raunchy, or even uncouth going on, just several dozen people celebrating life, the end of a long, cold winter, and the beginning of a wide-open spring, as we enter a time when it is increasingly obvious that unintended environmental effects are snowballing and there is no telling what once-in-a-thousand-years catastrophe will surprise us next. In that situation, the best way to be prepared is to stay loose, and dancing and other forms of celebration are an important part of staying loose.
A huge, sturdy coffee table the size of a small stage dominated the “dance floor,” and the first dancers on it were perhaps a half-dozen 7-8 year old children, gradually joined by adults. This all-ages, inclusive vibe (there was plenty of silver hair present, too, and all ages in between) is one of the things I enjoy most about Ed’s “Whizbangs,” as he calls them, and one of the reasons I feel much happier dancing at a “Whizbang” than at a bar–and, believe me, I’ve done my share of dancing in establishments that sell alcohol. (One of my favorite singer-songwriters, James McMurtry, says of himself, “I’m not a musician, I’m a beer salesman.”)
Ed and the central core of the Love Drummers were at one end of the room, but many “audience” members also drummed, adding their own flourishes to the music. That’s one of the things I appreciate most about the Love Drums–the all-too-common separation into “audience” and “musicians” is blurred, if not erased. This is not “entertainment,” in which a passive audience hopes to be impressed by the performers’ charisma. This is a participatory event, a–dare I say it?–communion. Of course, rock n’ roll has long delighted in the energy that cuts loose when an audience gets up and dances. That’s some of the magic of the Grateful Dead, just to name one band strongly affected by their audience. In the Dead’s case, the scene outside the venue frequently turned into a heavily countercultural “temporary autonomous zone,” and was as much a part of the show as the music. At the Love Drums’ equinox gathering, I felt that same sense of community.
Here’s a story for you. In the late summer of 1970, I went to a Grateful Dead show in San Francisco, and was dismayed to find most of the audience sitting on their asses, expecting to watch the Dead play. I got yelled at by people behind me when I stood up to dance. They were mad because they couldn’t see the band. (There’s a word for people who like to look but not participate. Not my kink, thanks.)
The Dead settled into “Lovelight,” and who popped out on stage to duet with Pigpen, but–Janis Joplin. And what did she and Mr. McKernan do? They chewed the audience up and down for not dancing, but to no avail. I finally migrated to the back of the room where a few people were moving to the music and enjoyed the last half of the show, anyway. Just a couple of weeks later, Janis was dead from a heroin overdose, a broken heart, and too much, too soon.
That was forty-one years ago. Janis, Pigpen, and Jerry are all gone, but the Love Drums remain, and ya gotta work with whatcha got. So there we were, one big happy family, dancing the night away.
Next day, when I opened myself up to news from the big bad world outside, I found out that Aashid Himons, best known as the focus of a band called “Afrikan Dreamland” here in Nashville back in the eighties, had died on that full moon day. He had been ill for years and hadn’t played in public in a very long time, but in many ways he was the spiritual father of Ed and the Love Drums, and a great practitioner of informal, participatory music.
“African Dreamland” consisted of Aashid playing guitar or keyboard and singing, backed up only by a couple of drummers, for most of the history of the band. This made for very simple but deeply moving music, music that benefited from, but did not depend on, the modern miracle of amplification. Another dimension of their music was its subject matter. Aashid liked to say that he played “message music” rather than “mating and dating” music–not that a fair amount of mating and dating didn’t go on to the infectious grooves he laid down, but his music helped propagate his vision of a just and peaceful future, not just the continuation of the species.
Music: Afrikan Dreamland, “Apartheid” (excerpt)
And that’s where we get to yet another core difference between music like The Love Drums, Aashid, and the Grateful Dead, and the music you are likely to hear in a bar on a Saturday night. Most popular music is unreflectively about “mating and dating,” but some musicians are aware of the close link between music and magic, that songs are not just poems set to music, they are also incantations, spells that help create a certain state of mind, for better or for worse. To me, it was not coincidental that Janis Joplin, for example, who sang so many songs about heartbreak, died young, or why somebody was killed at Altamont while Mick Jagger sang “Sympathy for the Devil.” What you pay attention to, you get more of, as a teacher of mine used to like to say.
These qualities, conscious intention in the music and conscious fusion between the musicians and the crowd, are, to me, defining qualities of the music of “the new paradigm.” And, as I said, those of us who play and appreciate this new paradigm music are, in a sense, barbarians to America’s Roman Empire.
The Empire depends on people who are willing to be cogs in a vast machine. We are not.
The Empire depends on people who will not challenge its authority and priorities. We do.
The Empire depends on people being good consumers. We realize that “consumption” is a fatal disease, and do not look for happiness through the accumulation of material goods. Whoever dies with the most toys is not the winner.
The Empire depends on people accepting shallow, dysfunctional relationships and mediating their emotional pain with pharmaceuticals. We insist on listening, expressing, and feeling deeply, and on giving people the room they need to go through their changes, even if it means they get a little weird for a while.
Differences such as these are very threatening to an empire whose established religion is, as I have said many times before, radical fundamentalist materialism. The Empire fights back by finding material ways to push against the influx of barbarian sensibilities. One way they do this is through building codes, such as the complaints that have just trashed Sizwe Herring’s Earth Matters community garden. (More on that next month!) Another way the Empire fights back is through the war on some drugs.
Let’s face it. The real reason our government is so unswervingly, unscientifically opposed to the legalization of marijuana, mushrooms, mescaline, ecstasy,and LSD is because these are the portals through which barbarians enter and undermine the Empire. These substances unleash the unfettered inner barbarian in those who take them, and that is more terrifying to the empire than bomb-toting Middle Easterners..
For instance, in the 80’s and 90’s, our government spent 10 years infiltrating a circle of chemists who were making LSD and ultimately sent them all to jail. The government has not exhibited this kind of diligence against the alleged threat from Al-Qaeda. If that had been the case, those airplanes would never have hit the twin towers. Similarly, the DEA massively infiltrated those “temporary autonomous zones” at Grateful Dead concerts, sold people blotter paper with no LSD on it, and then arrested them for intending to buy an illegal substance.
The DEA’s entrapment of young, open-minded, overly trusting American youth sent tens of thousands to jail, where some of them remain to this day. Even the ones who are no longer incarcerated remain scarred and scared, “rendered infamous,” often unable to vote or find employment because of their “criminal record,” their life paths thrown into disarray by the time and money sucked from them by the legal system.
Since “the war on some drugs” was declared, America’s prison population has quintupled, with nearly half a million prisoners incarcerated for drug related “crimes.” We’re talking about 2.3 million people behind bars, with an additional five million on probation. The US now has a higher percentage of its population jailed than any other country in the world, although I suppose you could argue that some highly repressive societies, like China, North Korea, Burma, and Singapore have effectively incarcerated their entire populations.
I would like to submit that the many voices who urge an end to America’s Inquisition against the inquisitive because it has ruined so many people’s lives don’t understand the Empire’s logic. The Empire wants to ruin the lives of the inquisitive, because it’s easier and cheaper to simply exclude people than it is to actively imprison them. Just as China periodically “lets a thousand flowers bloom” in order to identify and silence dissident voices, so the Empire has a vested interest in using the “war on drugs” to identify and neutralize those who oppose its policies. Even if someone who appreciates the virtues of marijuana manages to avoid legal strictures, he or she is effectively barred from running for public office because of the danger should an opponent uncover the candidate’s “dirty little secret.”
The Empire’s offensive against our barbarian invasion will, I believe, ultimately be in vain. As radical fundamentalist materialists, the Empire’s minions don’t understand that the material substances they have outlawed are, in a way, merely catalysts, catalysts that have set a process in motion that cannot be stopped by even the most draconian enforcement of the drug laws. (By the way, I have never seen or smelled any marijuana at a Love Drums Whizbang.) Once it has been opened, a human mind is almost impossible to close, because the memory, the feeling, of openness persists, and never stops protesting any attempt to shut it down or close it off. The “barbarian” mindset, I believe, is of a higher order of being than the anthill, cog-in-a-machine state of mind demanded by the Empire, whether in English or Chinese. “Barbarianism”will out.
Now, many people will say, “This all sounds very noble, but you doped-out hippiedippies aren’t the real barbarians, you’re just play-acting, spoiled, naive, children of the Empire. The real barbarians are in the slums of Mexico City, Rio, Lagos, Cairo, Kolkata, Beijing, and Capetown, and if they have half a chance they will eat your vegetarian lunch and then barbecue you for the meat course. Face it, without that ‘Empire’ you love to hate, you’d be toast.”
I think that’s off-base in several directions. The first thing we have to understand is the interplay and differences between “third world” and “fourth world.” Fourth world people are tribal, and live in balance with nature. There aren’t a lot of them left, but, in the best-case scenario, that’s what we barbarians will recreate here in the heart of the Empire.
Most traditional fourth-world people have been sucked out of the fourth world into the third world, which is the vast belt of urban and rural poverty that characterizes human life on those parts of Earth’s landmass that lie, roughly, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn—that part of the world where you don’t need a well-insulated house to survive the winter, and are thus free to live in greater poverty than you can get away with in colder climates.
But, as so often happens, I am digressing. Fourth world people don’t have much money, but don’t feel poor. Third world people don’t have much money and do feel poor. Many of these third-world people retain the social and survival skills of their fourth-world heritage. Give them half a chance and they’ll go back to fourth-world life. They all know they were happier that way. It’s just that the Empire, the first world, pushed them out of their sustainable lives by expropriating their tribal lands and forcing them into a money economy. I believe that, if they were ever given the choice, the people of the third world would rather grow, hunt, or herd their own lunch than eat yours or mine.
What the Empire fears when it looks at the third world is not the people, but its own greed and suppressed guilty conscience. When we who are undermining the Empire complete our mission, the Empire will release its hoarded and ill-gotten wealth and the people of the third world will be able to transition, in place, not backwards but forwards into a new, even more fully conscious, fourth world.
I wish I could say I think the process will be all rosy and peaceful, but there are so many people, and so many resources that have become so depleted, that I think widespread strife and loss of life will be part of the great readjustment. I’m not happy about that. Every human being is precious, unique, and capable of deep insight, and it is a tragedy when a life is extinguished, with or without those amazing capabilities being realized.
Does it seem as if we have wandered a long way from The Love Drums and the equinox, from Aashid and Earth Matters? From a “Deep Green Perspective,” we haven’t moved an inch. We’re just gazing in (hopefully!) wonder at the macrocosm that contains those microcosms. You can’t look at it this way all the time, but it’s important to see it this way some of the time.