Desolation Row

“The legionnaires’ interests, and those of the increasingly important women’s auxiliary, lie in the bands and the parades and the junior baseball teams and in the comfortable feeling of belonging so necessary to people now that small-town life is broken up and the family is crumbling and people live so much by themselves in agglomerated industrial masses, where they are left after working hours with no human contact between the radio and the car and the impersonal round of chain stores and picture palaces.” – John Dos Passos – “Big Parade – 1936” published in The Nation

“The system is an implacable machine which one might call the objective spirit of the United States and which over there they call Americanism – a huge complex of myths, values, recipes, slogans, figures, and rites. It is something outside of the people, something presented to them; the most adroit propaganda does nothing else but present it to them continuously. It is not in them, they are in it; they struggle against it or they accept it, they submit to it or reinvent it, they give themselves up to it or make furious attempts to escape from it; in any case it remains outside them, transcendent, because they are men and it is a thing…Perhaps nowhere else will you find such a discrepancy between people and myth, between life and the representation of life.” – Jean Paul Sartre – “Americans and Their Myths” The Nation 1947

“When our fears have all been serialized, our creativity censured, our ideas “marketplaced,” our rights sold, our intelligence sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned; when the theatricality, the entertainment value, the marketing life is complete, we will find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen darkly.” – Toni Morrison, “Racism and Fascism” The Nation 1995

* * * *

And here we are.

I’ve been reading through the 150th Anniversary edition of The Nation, America’s oldest continuously published journal of progressive thought, and picked these quotes, separated by decades, to represent my perception of the landscape in which I currently wander. Between 1936 and 1995 and today nothing about America has much changed other than perhaps the fluctuating mood of a populace that varies between extremes of idealism and anger, sympathy and prejudice.

After 250 years we haven’t learned the lessons of intolerance and bigotry. Our politics are driven by fear and anger. The young mostly pass out of their brief fantasy of living in a land of possibilities into one or another state of confinement. Most of the faces I see on the street are haunted by scarcely hidden shadows of desperation when they aren’t caught up in some form of distraction.

When I look at our current political crisis and our inability to deal with the looming problems immediately before us I see their reflection in the words of I.F. Stone, written in 1944, pleading for some action to save the victims of the European Holocaust: “Official Washington’s capacity for finding excuses for inaction is endless, and many people in the State and War departments who play a part in this matter can spend months sucking their legalistic thumbs over any problem. So many things that might have been done were attempted too late.”

Climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, war; wherever one looks the collective imperatives are overridden by self-interested sloganeering waged on behalf of an illusion of ‘individual freedom’ thinly disguising a superstructure of greed and paranoia.

A friend of mine scolded me recently, telling me to stop ‘whining’ and take advantage of the fact that I live in a state where marijuana is legal. I should relax, enjoy myself, watch a Broncos game and stop focusing on all of this darkness and cynicism.

What a fascinating term is ‘cynicism.’ I’ve been accused of it often enough that I’ve had to measure myself frequently against it, to gauge the degree to which I find it applicable. At its basis I suppose is a feeling of discontent, of being always outside of that which is commonly considered expected or predictable. It’s a feeling that has been with me always, as if I made a choice at some point, perhaps before I was ever conscious, to ask the world for something that is never directly forthcoming. The feeling manifests primarily as questions, questions, questions, and rarely an ability to accept fully the answers that are given. But where the attitude of cynicism to me appears stuck within the limitations of the present, an attitude of eternal questioning suggests some sort of faith in alternative possibilities.

I must admit that during the political season my inherent skepticism propels me more deeply toward a somewhat cynical response to the hyper-inflated rhetoric that drives the population into frenzies of unrealistic expectation that rebound against an irrational collective angst. The truth of the matter is that although I’m both a firm believer in a state of continual revolution I’ve grown extremely skeptical that any form of authentic revolution can be gained through politics. The political process may reflect broadly certain trends of popular enlightenment or stupidity, but authentic revolution is a process of cultural change toward which politics at best offers a tardy endorsement.

I am, in fact, a firm believer that human civilization has advanced and will continue to advance in the long run. I suppose that makes me an overall optimist. Particular civilizations come and go, they thrive and then grow decadent and sometimes they entirely collapse, or else they recede like glaciers to be reborn in a later season. Is it unreasonable to think that ours is no exception? Yet, in the grand scheme of things ours is a relatively young society. Although it has spread its influence all across the globe it has yet to fully and conclusively consolidate its power over every human life. It is quite an impressive machine and like every civilization that has gone before it has radically altered the relationship of humans with each other and with the natural world. Perhaps in this regard it has gone much further than those that have gone before, and in a shorter amount of time.

As the Phoenicians brought us the language of trade and the Sumerians the alphabet, Asians brought us paper and the first cities, Africa brought mathematics, the Greeks and Romans brought us roads and the law and the colonial pirates united the hemispheres and gave us a global language of commerce. The current phase of civilization has eliminated the factor of time and space in global human communication.

Humanity has always paid a steep price for every step forward. It may be that due to the breathtaking speed of its advance, the present global society will pay the biggest price of all. Besides the inevitable social disruption that every innovation brings about we are witnessing mass extinctions, vast environmental degradation, countless global wars and the resulting migration of millions of people, and we are only at the beginning stages of what could be a very steep curve of accelerated change. Many will be displaced and many will perish. No nation or state or city or village will be exempt. Our consciousness and our sense of collective ethics will be profoundly challenged, It’s going to be one hell of a ride, no matter who appears to be in charge.

Therefore, in light of all this, to expect that any single politician or leader can turn the thing around is folly. This isn’t cynicism, it’s merely realistic. I’ve lived over half a century to see every political victory shadowed by retreat and reaction, every enlightened advance accompanied by fear and loathing. I find it difficult to put my faith in ‘the people’ for the people inevitably follow the pathways of the expedient, for better or for worse.

My move from a small tourist town to a major megalopolis has made the vast and interwoven complexity of American society starkly clear. We are all caught up in the machineries of commerce whether we like it or not, and those machineries show little signs of slowing down. As crazy as this makes our day-to-day lives we have little choice but to support the collective movement to which we’ve tied our very survival. The source of both my cynicism and my hope is that on the one hand we’ve come to be a civilization that has long since fulfilled the prophecy attributed to Chief Seattle: “The end of living and the beginning of survival,” and on the other hand we continually surprise ourselves by our capacity for changing the way the game is played.

I believe in revolution by design. Just as every civilization has arisen out of an advance in technological innovation linked with spiritual revelation, so has this one and will the next one. We are steadily and collectively gaining a sense of our interrelationship with everything around us. When humans are faced with a problem or a limitation they are compelled to innovate a novel solution. That solution spawns more problems and complexities of unintended consequence and we innovate some more. Our world thus becomes more complex, more populated and our situations more interwoven with the total web of life. We are now the source of the biggest environmental feedback loop, and are now faced with the total responsibility for our own salvation or destruction. Will we be ready in time?

The signs are encouraging to me. When one looks beyond the world of politics and war the rate of change in both cultural advance and design innovation is breathtaking. In virtually every advanced society there are experiments in new ways to build cities and sustainable networks of transportation and communication. In societies where the means and options for communication have increased, despite the inevitable reaction of those who feel culturally threatened by change, the overall tolerance of people for difference and nonconformity appears to grow despite the reactionary efforts of those who see political gain.

The next stage of our social evolution will be shaped in relation to vast environmental disruptions. There is no longer the possibility of turning this around, and our political and social realities will bring us face to face with it sooner than later. The climate will continue to grow warmer. the oceans will rise. The weather will become more extreme. The planet’s ability to sustain the human population will be severely strained. Our cities will have to contract. We will no longer be able to claim the right of unlimited expansion and sprawl. We will have to surrender some of our rights to ‘private’ transportation. More of our lives will be lived underground and we will have to find ways to take collective shelter in an environment that grows increasingly harsh. The containers of our lives will be subject to greater regulation that serves the collective good over individual freedom. At the same time we will be forced to forego activities devoted to mindless tasks performed more efficiently by machines. Above all we will be faced with the necessity of leaving behind the relentless and wasteful demands of a society based purely on unbridled consumption of the resources upon which we all depend.

I don’t suggest that any of this will not be a struggle. The so-called American Dream will have to be sorted between the aspects that support individual initiative and a personal quest for fulfillment and those that emerge from the sloganeering bullshit supporting endless greed and acquisition. Sounds impossible, but many have already made moves in this direction. More and more the resistance to change will be from an aging and dying generation represented by demagogues and fear merchants while the future is constructed by the young people who will have to live in it.

As I see it, the present political struggle in America is between idealists and pragmatists. The idealists are angry at the speed and slowness of what they see as absolutely necessary and long delayed change. Pragmatists are frustrated at the unrealistic expectations of idealists which lead to political marginalization and defeat. All parties are faced with similar struggles. I respect both positions, but lean more toward the latter (a function of age). I tend to evaluate the message of each position by both the message and the tone in which it is delivered. If you are rude and angry on the Left you are as little likely to get my support as your ‘evil’ twin on the Right.

My advice to all is to step back on occasion from the struggles of the moment and to take a longer view. The longer and broader the view the more grounded one is in the ‘real.’ The political present is a result of endless chains of complex cause and effect. To understand the present one must have a sense of the past. Never panic, because the pendulum swings both right and left, and the main danger is loss of patience.

As I look over the skyline of Denver I see the implacable wall of the Rockies rising up at its outskirts. I see the ridiculous congestion and atmospheric haze that’s a result of uncontrolled sprawl as more and more people rush back and forth to shop, to work, to survive. A city of warehouses, suburban shopping centers and housing developments that cover the countryside, this is a city grown beyond it’s own consciousness, like almost every American city. Like a person suffering from a bad diet and overconsumption the clock is ticking while the mountains look on. Sooner or later I believe that, in the words of science fiction writer John Brunner, “the sheep will look up” and begin to get a real handle on their future. In the meantime I’ll proceed along my own path and voice my discontent, and every once and a while my hopes, along with a little bit of humor. When I pass the hopeless and homeless and desperately confused on the streets of America I will never be able to turn my head away and refuse to see.

Finally, Bob Dylan in 1965 described a city that resembles the one I perceive and that hasn’t changed that much since then:

By Bob Dylan – “Desolation Row” – 1965

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown,
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town.
Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance,
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants.
And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one,” she smiles,
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style.
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you better leave.”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row.

Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide,
The fortune telling lady has even taken all her things inside.
All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love or else expecting rain.

And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show.
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row.

Now Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window, for her I feel so afraid.
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid.
To her, death is quite romantic, she wears an iron vest.
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness.
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row.

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk,
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk.
He looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
As he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet.

Now you would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world inside of a leather cup,
But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up.
Now his nurse, some local loser, she’s in charge of the cyanide hole,
And she also keeps the cards that read, “Have Mercy on His Soul.”
They all play on the penny whistles, you can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains, they’re getting ready for the feast,
The Phantom of the Opera a perfect image of a priest.
They’re spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words.
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, “Get Outa Here If You Don’t Know,
Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row.”

Now at midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.
Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row.

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune the Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting, “Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers.
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation row.

Yes, I received your letter yesterday (About the time the doorknob broke).
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame.
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name.
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more
letters no,
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row

Songwriters: BOB DYLAN
Desolation Row lyrics © BOB DYLAN MUSIC CO

Here I Am

Here. Here I am. My first weekend here in this beast of the city. The snow has fallen and encased the new apartment. The maze of the city closes in around me. I’ve left Elysium for an engagement with the edges. To the West the wave of mountains rises against the plain, houses are sprawled across in patchy subdivisions from here all the way to the northern farmlands. The city is always growing, already too big for itself.

Elysium the Beautiful breeds insanity. One loses touch, drifting into the mind of strange paranoias and bizarre scenarios of good and evil. I’m happy to be away from all that nonsense. The secret life of farmers and suburbanites. Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Everywhere the Word goes out, “I own this, as far as I can imagine. This is mine. No government or people will take it away.” Yet, wildfires rage, with no satisfactory explanation, for we know no history and only want life to be simple.

I have been assured, by those who claim to know, that I am the victim of a strange conspiracy and here I sit in quiet winter solitude, contemplating that possibility. It occurs to me that I’ve been around for too may lifetimes not to be able to smell evil when I encounter it. After all, evil’s really just a mirror of myself, or a part of me anyway. I know it too intimately not to recognize it in others.

There’s plenty of evil in this world, mostly pushed by ambitious hucksters with boring agendas, something about telling us who to fear and who to hate. Then they sell us books and dvd’s and lure us to their online sites where the major promotion is themselves. They are mostly paid very well by the very people they claim are the ‘adversaries,’ those whose interests are served by turning people against one another. They point at the Jews or the Blacks or the Chinese or the ‘Socialists,’ or whoever is leaving those ‘mysterious’ con trails in the heavens, seeding our precious air with their filthy mind control.

Oh shit, I’m just tired of all this. I’ll just walk away from it now, away from these helpless fears, away from useless arguments that ignore history and are only angry frightened screaming into darkness. The people downstairs are my companions, shouting mindlessly at the t.v. while their Broncos win. There is no place to hide from the world here and it’s somehow soothing to be alone, away from anyone that can be trusted.

You once complained about a teabag that was folded beautifully in a paper pyramid – a waste of paper, time and energy! – you said. You only felt compelled to complain. “Where is the ocean,” you said, “Where are the trees?” “Where is the desert?” What is the real question?

When I came to the city I thought that I was leaving a refuge and returning to the edges of the world. I was wrong to think so, to find out that the vast maze of city provides the only real refuge of anonymity. I am totally submerged in the great darkness that’s civilization with all of its pain and glory. Every face that I see is a lie and there is little possibility for truth, only acceptance, abandonment and perhaps some ultimate contentment while surrendering to the oceanic flow.

I don’t know where this life has taken me. I am both pirate and defender of this realm and I bellow from within a font of night jewels. I no longer need your company or your approval and I will do what I must to see us to the end. Your spies and secret sailors, those who reveal all of the hidden plans are useless now. The plan is older than the wind that blows above the deserts and will continue at all costs and we will either serve or fail given our own particular gifts.

Welcome to the new world order.

Hearing Voices (Revisited)

In the fall of 2001, under a harvest moon on the last weekend of September, three weeks after the bombing of the World Trade Center, a group of musicians and artists of various sorts gathered in Rangely, Colorado for an extraordinary event. I drove up from Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the invitation of my friend Michael Stanwood to be initiated into what was then called “The Order of the Tank” The Tank was a large water tank built on a hillside just above the town, where a railroad had been planned but never completed. Never used for what was intended It had been abandoned for years, a destination for teenagers and their dates or a target for graffiti, until one of the teenagers introduced a visiting musician from Denver to the unique soundscape contained within. 

 The nation was still in a state of shock and it was the dawn of a new state of paranoia. On my approach to the site I stopped to take a photo and was interrogated by the local sheriff because of some public buildings that happened to be in the foreground of what I was shooting. On the way home I was stopped once more near the border of New Mexico for a reason so obscure I can’t even remember what it was, other than it had to do with “suspicious” driving conduct of some sort. 

 After talking my way past the sheriff and reaching the site I entered an entirely different dimension, where the burdens of the world, the fear and paranoia and the drumbeats for war had no reality or relevance. What follows in an account of that weekend. This was the first recording session in a project that became teh album Portal, produced by Michael Stanwood. Here is a slightly revised version of a piece that appeared originally in Volume 16 of Fish Drum Magazine.

 Hearing Voices (Revisited)


The approach to this small corner of western Colorado from the south, once you’ve accomplished the steep escarpment called Book Cliffs, is through Canyon Pintado, a long winding flat bottomed valley full of cows, ranchers and Indian petroglyphs. I needed to reach town by dark and didn’t really have time to stop for anything between dodging wandering herds of cattle and following the weaving dust of pickup trucks. But something caught me as I drove by a series of national park pull-offs; it was a sign reading “Kokopelli” and a pointer up toward some rock paintings just beneath a steep cliff face that overlooked the road. I resisted at first, driving on about a quarter mile. Something tugged me back, and I stopped and turned back. The hump backed flute player was too close to the theme of the journey for me not to stop and pay homage. 

Pulling off to the side I let another pickup truck pass and got out to climb the stone pathway up to an overhang. I could actually glimpse from the road a figure in red beneath the leaning stones, bent beneath the hump carried on his back, gazing back along the valley, the flute or didgeridoo he’s holding pointing along his gaze. I’d never seen this figure drawn so large or colored in such a deep red ochres. Below his feet was the inevitable spiral that traces a path from origin through migration and back to the center of the world. 

I’d traveled that day more than 400 miles, leaving a country of burning forests around Los Alamos, then up one of the most beautiful roads in north America, Route 84 through the Chama Valley. The evening before I stood with my ten year old son across from a gambling casino where we could watch the long dragon tail of the Cerro Grande fire as it wound it’s way through the canyons and over the slopes above the town of White Rock. The next morning I left behind the vanilla smell of burning yellow pine and the dangerous ghosts that emerged to haunt the birthplace of the atom bomb. I came up through Ghost Ranch country, past the red cliffs and standing rocks and natural amphitheaters by Canjilon Creek, turning west at Chama. Turning west, I entered Indian country, winding through the woods and canyons guarded by the Jicarilla Apache, passing the town of Dulce and then into the vast northern reaches of Navajo land. Across the Navajo Dam, it’s reservoir stretching off between the mesas, I crossed the border of Colorado, continuing through Durango and Creede following the white waters pouring through gorges. Leaving old mining towns transformed into tourist destinations I climbed out of the Navajo desert and onto the Colorado plateau and into the high northern country.

I gazed at this Kokopelli, placed here before the first Spaniard came looking for gold, looking back along the trails of natives and explorers, miners and gamblers, fluting his remembrance that once we emerged from a world destroyed by darkness. I remember thinking that we could easily lose our world to deadly darkness once again.  

At the end of that long canyon where the southern road joins the northern route that follows the White River is the town of Rangely. I had been told to look for a water tank, and the whole dry valley was full of water tanks. Here in a parched corner of Colorado I found myself in another high desert, more desolate than the desert from which I’d come. Rangely is an oasis among the gray mesas, a town filled with trees and trailer courts built all along the river and the encroaching bluffs. Once through the town another expanse of desolate hills begins and marches off to the horizons to the north and west. 

I was told that the tank was on the far edge of town and that it couldn’t be missed. After being the town’s main street, Route 64 turns to the north and just to the right one looks up and sees what appears like an enormous silver painted art deco spaceship overlooking the bottom land that lines a creek and a winding dirt road that slithers its way back between the hills. A rakish Rio Grande Railroad logo is painted in black letters up near the top and around the bottom up to a tall man’s height is a multi-colored ring of graffiti 

At the base of the bluff just across the dirt road sits a couple of dwellings built around a converted house trailer. I pulled up and parked, walking up to the porch door of the main house where my knocking stirred the interest of a couple of enthusiastic dogs, more interested in wrestling with each other than with bothering a stranger. An energetic woman in her 60’s appeared at the screen door, grabbed the dogs firmly by their collars and welcomed me loudly over their frantic yipping, “You must be Ralph from Santa Fe…your friends are already here. Come on in and have some food…you wanna beer?” 

The enormous front room was filled with knickknacks, a bar, a full size store dummy dressed like a rather effeminate looking cowboy, and the biggest television screen I’d ever seen. A game show is on and the image is so impressively huge that I’m temporarily transfixed in the glare of the faces, voices larger than life, diving for dollars across the virtual wall of phosphors. Rescue came with the sound of familiar voices and the smells of a feast issuing from the kitchen.   

Over the next hour or so I listened to country gossip: Chevron, the town’s biggest employer was set to move on and a good chunk of the male population would be out of work, the vacation business was growing, the black folk up at the Community College had started to wander into town. I heard an extended commentary on the vices and virtues of the nearest big towns of Craig and Vernal, where there was a new Walmart and a shopping center. We urban types got plenty of good-natured ribbing from the hostess and her husband, but it all came as a piece with their amazing generosity. 

After a while it was time for the four of us who’d arrived from the cities to climb up the hill to the tank and embark on the ceremony to which we’d been invited. 

Denver musicians had been coming up here for 14 years, ever since, on a Chataqua concert tour, one of them was turned on to the sounds of the Tank by a local teenager. Visits became increasingly regular over the years, attracting a growing circle of inspired sound explorers. In the early nineties recordings made inside the Tank became an album called Leaving Eden. It featured a host of instruments and voices, including hand drums, whirl tubes, autoharps, a viola, Synclavier and a child’s chorus.  

For a short time in the mid eighties the graffiti on the Tank took a turn toward rage and racism felt by teenagers who were being displaced, perhaps fueled by the climate of Reagan’s America. Eventually a heavy-duty lock was affixed to the outside hatch and most of the verbal ugliness got painted over. The Mormon businessman who’d assembled the Tank as part of an anticipated business venture turned ownership over to a musician who was willing to take on the property taxes. In this way a vessel that was moved here in the fifties from another state to hold water became instead a wonderfully unique temple to sound.  

As dusk approached Michael removed the padlock, and one by one we crawled in through the round bolted hatch about two and a half feet across, where a large pipe would have entered to conduct the flow of water in and out of the container. Now a long electrical cord climbed the hill from the house below and climbed into the opening. Grasping the bolted edge of the hatch we slid in feet first to find ourselves at first in total darkness. As our eyes gradually adjusted we first noticed a dim blue-green glow emanating from what appeared to be a mixing board set in a square metal case occupying the center of the floor. The space inside the Tank is about 45 feet across and 75 feet high. A faint circle of daylight leaks in around the circumference of the conical roof high above. A ladder goes up one side to a hatchway opening to the outside. A slim pipe near the ground bridges the middle of the floor from wall to wall, providing a place for sitting down. Several fat candles burned at either end and in the center. The walls of the Tank are black except for about 10 feet of white around the bottom and up along the sides of the ladder where there was once graffiti.

Immediately upon entering one realizes that this place is in love with sound. The smallest scuffle of footsteps or the sound of a dropped whisper are taken up and whirled around inside the container to be transformed into awesome and numinous voices. A single note launched by voice or instrument is sustained for up to 35 seconds. The Tank is a place of perfectly circular echoes, every sound transformed into pure ambient presence, unveiling its inner dynamics like the unfolding of a flower. This is a soundspace that can’t really be duplicated by electronic means. Like the world’s great cathedrals it attracts those who hunger to be in the middle of the sound, exploring it like the landscape of another planet. Entering the space one finds oneself immediately in a state of trance. 

For an interval our company drifted around the circle, making sounds, stopping to listen, adding overtones, shaping new notes, replying to our own voices vibrating in the air. A couple of wide PVC tubes were propped against the pipes with bundles of cloth stuffing one end and an extra large kitchen sponge resting near the other. I learned that these make an instrument of deep ethereal rhythm dubbed the “whirl tube”. When one claps the sponge against the open end of the tube a deep ethereal harmonic booming is created.  A row of didgeridoo are propped next to the entry hatch. Almost the entire floor is covered with blankets and the blankets are covered with musical instruments and noisemakers of every kind. Turning back toward the entrance, one glimpses the outside world through the circle of bolts that line the open hatchway. Another world out there that has been utterly left behind. 





At the beginning of the evening a neighbor from down below brought her teenage daughter and we invited her to crawl inside and have a look. She was very young and quite shy among these strange older men, but she was fascinated and curious. The array of instrumentation spread over the blanketed floor was like nothing she’s ever seen. Jeremiah showed her how to get a sound from blowing into a conch shell and this inspired her to ask that her mother fetch from the van outside the French horn she played in her high school band. Tentatively she lifted it to her lips and blew a couple of clear brass notes that filled the space like the sound of trumpets in an angelic choir. We were all a bit overwhelmed at power and beauty of the sound. The girl, overcome by shyness and weirdness, retreated outside to her mother and they left. The memory of that excellent sound stays behind and is in some way resurrected in the sound of Michael blowing into conch and pipes, calling the proceeding into formal commencing. As the full moon rose above the tank no one doubted that spirits would be pulled out of the air and come down into this place to play and echo and improvise through the persons of all of us. 

As the evening proceeded each of us was merged with a collective voice, made up of every sound seamlessly woven into one in the magnificent chamber of air. As the sound was woven and blended and as it rose and fell I found myself joined in the chorus with a loud clear voice, a vocalization brought out of me as an improvised language made of pure sound, responding to every nuance in the ever evolving breath of the evening. I felt my whole body moving with the changing character of the sound, becoming part of a whirling dance gracefully moving  and swirling around the circumference; Jeremiah and Mark and I circling Michael with shakers and strings, pipes and drums.  

Occasionally Jeremiah would crouch over the digital console, face dimly lit by the green LEDs, concentrating on capturing whatever sonic messages he found circling in the air. Both images and abstractions became consigned to the nether darkness. We were like denizens of the ancient Lescaux caverns, finding refuge and ceremony to enter a world beyond dream. There were no words or images inside, for the sound in the Tank is more primordial than language itself. All sound blends and swirls and transforms like the waves and ripples washing over sand patterns at the bottom of a tide pool. Underneath the far off canopy of moonlight the candle flames flickered. Shadows were dimly discerned against the black walls. The sounds of voice, rhythm and breath beckoned the spirit toward ecstasy. Four clear male voices rose in chant and song. The deep booming of the Whirl Tubes echoed in unearthly rhythm while in counterpoint Michael strummed the delicate silver strings of an autoharp. Mark played runs on a guitar while chanting in tongues and Jeremiah marched around the circle to the beat of an African djambala. The dancing and singing and playing wove and pulsed in and out of the hours with an occasional silence as a cycle discovered its natural conclusion. Then another song began, and a new ceremony with another theme, another rhythm and a new harmonic. 

Once, as we sang and danced and played we heard the sound of a great booming descending upon us like the ghost of a passing train, or an earthquake. We are struck silent and then realize its the sound of a great evening desert wind, striking the sides of the Tank and rising against them like the herald of another angel of the air. The immense sound played on the sides of this tall metal ark as if in response to the exuberant voices rising from within.

After several hours we were exhausted, and the sounds of wind and voices declined with the descent of the moon. We crawled outside beneath an incredible star canopy and stood together wrapped in a blanket of absolute silence. Then the musicians scattered to their bunks and trailers and Jeremiah kept vigil in the tank until morning.  

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The next day I stood over the gray hills that sweep northward under the hot dusty breezes of the desert. The rising and plunging of oilrigs dotted the landscape like huge insects drawing sustenance out of the rocky soil. Farther north are dinosaur bones near the source of the Green River that soon merges with the Colorado in an impossible landscape just south of the Four Corners. There are the Canyonlands known by migrants, Navajos and Mormons. Golden angels trumpet from the tops of white churches and ancient carvings appear in the rocks. Still farther south is Monument Valley and a landscape that turns brick red and the twisted shapes of enormous gods that parade over the desert. At the end of a long spiral around this Indian Country are the Hopi villages where the dramas and contradictions of human life on earth are played out in the timeless costumes of a yearly round. In square stone structures built into the earth the ceremonies unfold, passed on through generations, going back to the emergence of the People out of the destruction of the fourth world 

As the morning grew late we began packing up the instruments and moving them outside. In one last sing before we emptied the place Michael vibrated a long droning breath through the didgeridoo. Again the sound builds and climbs and is sustained. I’m inspired to climb the 75-foot steel ladder hugging the side of the miraculous cylinder, to where the air grows hot in the presence of a sun climbing into another day. Hugging the rungs with one arm I turned around to gaze straight down on our magic circle. Michael set down his instrument and his strong clear voice poured over the rhythm of someone’s drum. On the other side of the circle Jeremiah once again attended the green glowing meters of the mixing board. Michael’s voice chanted through the intense vibrating tones of air while Mark was captured and taken by the rhythm of the tribal drum and I found myself calling out into the air suspended from above. The powers we summoned had been waiting through the night for our spirits to totally surrender and now, miraculously, they’ve caught us by surprise in the dark of the day.  

Finally our voices allowed themselves to fade into silence and in the middle of the silence Michael softly wept, overcome by the feeling his own clear singing called up in him. Then, each of us in turn laid our hands upon him, letting him know that we had all ridden the sound, and although we will never know, we all somehow understand.  


“There is sanity and madness, but the key to creativity and life lies precisely on the boundary between.” – R.D. Laing 

…and Orpheus falls…and the children dance…and no one can doubt that there are angels in the symmetry of these sounds…the grail that we seek is direct, unmediated experience.  

In the beginning we hear voices. After a time the voices shape themselves into words. The words then shape themselves into stories and the stories become our reality. These narratives help us form the web of wonders we call human society. By the tone and the colors of the words we discover an identity amidst the undifferentiated weave of what we see and hear and allow ourselves to perceive. 

We learn to make symbols for these sounds. We learn to scratch letters in the sand and find ourselves cast out of the garden and into our own heads. Comprehension becomes a matter of interpretation and we are well on our way to the burning times; a long adolescence that stretches from the 13th through the 19th centuries. From the invention of the printing press to the total segmentation of mind and god, logic and morals, science and religion, through seven centuries of war and struggle, suppression, revolution and atrocity, the adolescent makes war upon the world in order to differentiate from it. Culture tears itself from culture while philosophy battles with desire 

Then comes the photograph and humanity is transfixed in its own shadow like a beast on the highway frozen in the headlights. Blink…Blink…Click …the Civil War…Blink…Click…World War One…Blink…Click…the Second…Click…Flash…the photographic age transfigured into the nuclear age…the colonial age replaced by the digital age…the age of pirates is swept aside by the age of programmers… 

We are lost in images…hopelessly confused by them. We live in urban containers where all reference to anything other than ourselves has been excised. We can no longer tell what is spirit and what is mirrored shadow. We no longer particularly care. Unlike previous empires that fell to conquest, our own culture dissolves into the sea of its own chaotic artifice.  

There is a moment in the Caribbean religion of Santeria when the presence of the god comes down to the worshipper to ‘ride’ them like a horse, displacing personality and taking over form, moving voice and body like a divine puppeteer. Santeria is a religion descended from Africa, made of sound and rhythms and dancing. When we dig down through the layers of representation and meaning that fill our lives and we contact the body of the earth there is something we discover that’s beneath our personalities and that unites us with everything. This is what I came to the Tank to discover. This is the secret within the sound.  

Relevant texts:


Odland, Bruce. 

        Leaving Eden. Arcadian Recordings, 1991

Stanwood, Michael. 

        Arc of a Buzz. Babyjane Records, 1999

Stanwood, Michael

         Portal, Pansy Productions, 2001



The Beasts

In these days of mighty CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) and 3D and IMAX and stadium sized theaters and all of the other efforts to bring people into the cinema it’s remarkable to see a movie that makes us rethink the way we see movies and the role of art itself.

All movies are to some extent fairytales in the ways they relate to what we know as the ‘real’ world. Even documentaries are fairytales in the sense that they capture events within the mythic frame of the camera lens and organize them into narratives designed to capture our hearts and minds.

Since the invention of the camera we have used the images captured and purposefully arranged by storytellers to make sense of our world. In the age of technology we interpret our lives though the mediation of the lens and the screen.

Technology has reshaped our lives to follow its own designs. We’ve built mighty barriers that separate and protect us from the natural world. The effect has been to divide us from our own bodies and from the body of the earth that sustains us. Living in this disembodied state we suffer from diseases of separation that devastate our environment and drive us insane.

The waters that we have held back are now rising. The time has come for us to re-unite with the sources of our being. The earth itself cries out and sends us signals through our dreams. For those who are ready to listen here is a dream from the soul of the earth.
The Beasts of the Southern Wild sings the power of the body returning. Through our bodies the universe speaks to us and we awaken to our connections with everything there is. In a time when cinema weaves fairytales by the dozen here is a fairytale that brings us closer to the world in which we actually live.

It’s difficult to describe this movie. It isn’t quite like anything else I’ve seen. At times it looks like a roughly cut fable assembled out of fragments of debris washed up by the flood. At times it moves with soul stirring beauty and grace. It offers a heroic and defiant journey that surprises us with magic and miracles at every turn, and yet it never leaves behind the gritty realities of life and death. The whole story swirls about the figure of a six year old girl called Hushpuppy and her father Wink, who live in a place called The Bathtub, where people of all races and ages live in natural harmony with each other and with the world around them. It’s a place outside of the world of machinery we’ve constructed that allows us to rise out of the flowing waters of life and change. In the words of Hushpuppy’s father, “…the most beautiful place in the world.”

When the storm comes and the waters rise the inhabitants of the Bathtub who stay behind are faced with the struggle to survive in a realm that’s been both devastated and poisoned. They are being forced to leave by those who would ‘rescue’ them and write them off as forgotten remnants of a world that is no more. Instead of submitting to the rules of the ‘civilized’ world the people who carry the Bathtub’s soul rise up to resist, and in their resistance summon nature’s most powerful creations to be their allies.
Here is a fable that evokes the world in which we live and the choices each of us will have when faced with the storms that are coming. In a sense this is a prayer for survival and a hymn to the true nature of who and what we are, not apart from anything, able to live and walk in beauty over the earth that is our mother and rejoicing in the magic that gives us the gift of life.

The Rise of Another World

In light of the irrelevant squabbling that characterizes the fear based struggles of the west, particularly the current election cycle, we should be aware that in important ways the world is ‘moving on.’ As a culture we will either learn to ride the waves or we will fail. 
My generation woke up in the sixties to the horrors and injustices of a world overtaken by colonialism and the machineries of global capitalism. We came of age in the first decades of television and the rise of electronic media. The shock of seeing the world from a whole new perspective than that of our parents drove us into a quest for the future that was both hopeful and desperate. We created the hopeful dream of a future dominated by peace and love. We tried to transcend the forces of history and in the process created unfortunate blind spots in our view of the present. 
Things have turned out differently than many of us dreamed, at least in the short term. Instead of an Age of Aquarius we appear to have arrived in a world where the dominant reality is one of fragmentation and fear. Instead of universal brotherhood we’ve become isolated into paranoid camps dreaming up ways to attribute our woes to others. Many ‘New Agers’ that I know have taken refuge in bizarre fantasies of persecution and/or redemption that are drawn out of thin air to ‘explain’ the bewildering complexity of the world. We are unable to give up our destructive addictions, so we turn them into religions and defend them with a passion born of fear.    
In our struggle to deny the reality of the situations we collectively face, we’ve been caught up in a confusion of contrarian visions, each defending its own turf against all others. The Internet, while opening us to a world of almost infinite diversity has also been a mixed blessing, particularly in the so-called ‘developed’ world. In the domain of ‘social networks’ (read ‘tribes’) we tend to gather into closed networks that reinforce our preconceptions while excluding input from contrary points of view. 
In spite of all of this the world continues to change and humans continue to imagine and create. What we need more than ever is the ability to pay attention, to listen to other points of view and other ways of perceiving the reality we face. More than ever we need to be detached and fluid as the world reshapes itself. My advice to us all is, “don’t sweat the big stuff.” We can only effect the enormously complex forces that are reshaping the world by the quality of our everyday interactions.
As an illustration of the factors that will effect our future, I offer a link to this important TED talk on China by Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World

Understanding China

Mr. Jacques presents a historical outline of the important aspects that we in the western world tend to miss when we assume that a country like China approaches the future in a manner that merely replicates our own and that the Chinese are motivated in the same way that we are. 
The main points of his talk:
By the end of the next decade China will have an economy twice the size of the United States. 
The speaker warns that “the West has lost the sense of the future.” He makes a case that the world of the future will be shaped more by the developing world than through the weakening influence of the long dominant western models.  
China’s problem: A huge number of people and no space. 
Three crucial differences in China’s sense of itself and the factors that shape its decisions:
The concept of the Civilization State (as opposed to the Nation State).
The notion of Race (the absolute primacy of a single dominant race: the Han).
The State as the defender of Civilization (the state as the guarantor of Unity).
The Chinese invented Golf. 


Notwithstanding Chris Matthew’s comments this week referring to Republicans who believe in Creationism as Troglodytes” (a view with which I share some sympathy) the arguments waged between biologists about the true nature of evolutionary processes are vastly more intriguing (and relevant) than the abstract arguments between science and religion. In some ways the disputes between biologists resemble the friction between religious factions, but in more important ways they represent the very manner in which science progresses toward new conclusions, which then lead to new discoveries and new arguments, ad infinitum. 

One of the most important arguments being waged is between the selfish gene theories of neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and theories of symbiogenesis pioneered by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock. It is important because it challenges scientists to think beyond the conventional linear boundaries of simple cause and effect and to embrace much wider possibilities of complex systems involving interactions on a multitude of levels where cause and effect become so enmeshed as to be indistinguishable. This view requires that our approach to knowledge comes against traditional boundaries between disciplines and thus it has met resistance from those who hold those boundaries sacred.
A recent essay discussing the life and work of Lynn Margulis appears in the Lindisfarne Cafe section of The Wild Rivers Review. An eminent biologist and wife of the late Carl Sagan, her theories and experiments into the mysteries of life’s origins challenge the conventional views of natural selection. She died on November 22, 2011.
From the essay: 

Lean Forward, Stand Back:

The Worldview of Lynn Margulis (Scientist)

by Andre Khalil 


Many neo-Darwinist concerns circled nervously around words like “Gaia” and “cooperation” (which Margulis did not like to use). They were, perhaps rightly, concerned that these terms were ripe for religious appropriation. But Margulis herself was outspoken against such mishandling of her research.

Some new-agers love to grasp symbiosis as signifying “altruism” between organisms. But it’s much more complex than that—there is something “in it” for every symbiont, just as a state beneficial in some way arises out of each symbiosis.  Terms like “altruism” had no scientific value, because they are too single-minded to describe the phenomenon.

New age thinkers also use Gaia as a blanket term. They’ve appropriated it to mean that the Earth is a living organism. Or they refer to Gaia as a “goddess.” This turns Gaia into a sort of Stepford planet by containing its complexity in a simple and inadequate metaphor. This no more grasps reality than “selfishness” does our genes.

Margulis expressed her solution to the error once by saying, “Gaia is not merely an organism.”

The Earth is beyond stale conception. It is more magnificent and active than we can imagine. Gaia is object and process. Gaia houses volcanos and every book, every word on volcanos ever written, and at the same time is those volcanos. It is where our greatest loves live, and where every human heartbeat has ever rhythmically pulsed.  In this new understanding, that something can pulse with life and yet be beyond our concepts of living, those concepts begin to change.

If Gaia is conscious, it possesses a consciousness of a different magnitude, probably of a different order all together.

Richard Dawkins and his pre-cursors like John Maynard Smith, as well as other neo-Darwinist thinkers, could not and cannot understand this lesson: this complexity is impossible to incorporate in a linear and reductive understanding.

Part of their failure lies in a misunderstood version of cause and effect that plagues science.  At a certain level of complexity, somewhere just above a billiard ball clanking into a another billiard ball, cause and effect begins to change its shape.  This change may be real—that is, it may actually shift in its laws and patterns in nature—or it may be imagined. In other words, it may demand a different sort of thinking.  Effectively it doesn’t matter, since we need to contend with the shift in our thinking. To encompass complex systems with our thinking, we must imagine a model that is less like “cause-effect” more like “being-manifestation.”  That is, multiple layers and numerous agents of forces unconsciously conspire together, and their conspiring is so intermingled, that it is simultaneously cause and effect, and thus beyond both.  For example, the being, or process of Gaia manifests itself as an unstable, constantly correcting level of oceanic salinity.  One cannot be said to cause the other, since the oceanic salinity interacts so deeply with the beings and environs from which it arises. Symbiosis and biological forms demand the same sort of thought.




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