Friday, November 26, 2010

Bhakti, Vol. 2

The great Clare Torry
I made this CD at a point in my spiritual growing up when I’d realized I had choices about the way I feel, when I’d realized, in the immortal Al-Anon words, that “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” So I decided to create a storyline in song about the oft-repeated cycle of feeling down in the dumps, surrendering to God, and then offering Her more of myself, deepening our love and expanding it (here’s the speculative part) until it fills the entire universe, until it is all that is. "Inflame thyself with prayer!" is the one commandment of Bhakti, and there's nothing like pop music to get those limbic juices flowing. 

Reflections of                     The Marmalade
    My Life
The most maudlin song ever? Well, there were 1974’s “Seasons in the Sun” and 1975’s “The Last Game of the Season (Blind Man in the Bleachers),” both of which are so bathetic I burst out laughing every time I hear them. But I think The Marmalade top even these cheez-classics in terms of sheer self-pity. Plus, musically this leaves the other two songs—and many songs of that pinnacle decade of pop—in the dust.

This song, of course, represents negativity and the irrationality, self-centeredness, and absurdity that grow out of it, especially in the lines “The world is a bad place, a bad place, a terrible place to live / Oh, but I don’t want to die.” It’s easy to mock this sentiment but think about it: you ‘ve been there. And it really does feel that way, and it could again, and again, until we keep a door always open in our heart for Her. 

“Reflections of My Life,” as I say, is a fine piece of music. The guy who wrote and sang the song penned a couple more hits, but never another this big. He has been successful enough, though, to have spent his entire career since “Reflections of My Life” in the music biz, and has done everything from producing and arranging to scoring TV shows and movies. You may have heard of one show he’s written music for: Thomas and Friends.

I Won’t Back Down           Tom Petty
Having elected to live, our hero now embarks on a me-against-the-world struggle to make everything right (in other words, to make the world conform to his wishes). Whatever you do, don’t back down. You’re right, they’re wrong. Go for the gusto. I have a lot of sympathy with the “don’t back down” philosophy, but it can lead further and further into delusion, further into the psychopathology of expecting the world to fit one’s expectations, which always makes a bad situation worse.

Dig Me Out              Sleater-Kinney
Everything sucks! I’ve tried to make things better and they just suck more! OK, God, I think I'm ready to surrender! 

The Great Gig In        Pink Floyd
    the Sky
Alan Parsons, recording engineer extraordinaire, knew a wonderful singer he thought should appear on the album he was working on, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Clare Torry, who frequently sang backup vocals for Abbey Road Studios, where the Floyd masterpiece was made, was paid £30 to perform this vocal. After the session, she felt her performance had been too histrionic, but the band members liked her performance and the melody she’d come up with, so she entered rock history as singer of one of the most startling songs on one of the most acclaimed, best-selling records ever made. She later sued the band for songwriting credit and won a deserved out-of-court settlement.

All of that aside, I thought this song, with its impassioned, wordless gales of emotion, was the perfect representation of a soul crying out to God-- not even “save me” or “help me” or “I give up,” but a total abandonment of the self to be, as Hildegard said, "a feather on the breath of God."  

Yoshimi Battles the          The Flaming Lips
    Pink Robots, Pt. I
Having surrendered to God, the aspirant can now attune himself to his True Will and try to evolve—without being so attached to outcomes, without his ego getting in the way every second, without constantly confusing “true will” with “Hey, everyone, give me what I want right now!” Yoshimi, the fictional warrior of the song’s title, reminded me of a saying from Carlos Castaneda’s possibly nonexistent teacher Don Juan, something to the effect that a true [spiritual] warrior sees that his task is impossible but fights anyway, sees himself as already dead and so has nothing to fear. The song’s symbolism is intriguing: Yoshimi is battling robots, creatures with no intention but only programmed responses, but they are “pink robots”—in other words, robots of flesh, humans who are asleep and who live only to act out social scripts and ego gratification. We are all pink robots until we begin the process of awakening, of creating our own cognitive space in the world, whether through art, scientific or philosophical inquiry, spiritual practice, etc. 

Silly Love Songs        Wings
It’s been a while since we had an “ultimate love song” (see Bhakti, vol. I for about a dozen) so here’s Paul McCartney with one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded. This is the pop equivalent of Bach or Mozart, with its complex continuo, its contrapuntal harmonies, and intricate structure. It’s also very mushy, to the point that one day it was playing in the car and my darling step-daughter Molly said, “You like this? You’re a sap, Kalibhakta.”

The lyrics to me are important because in them one of the great songwriters of the twentieth century admits: Love giddifies you and makes you feel silly. You can get all clever about it, but the cleverer you get, the less true the song. I embrace The Silly. The lyrics make clear the eternal divide between observer and observed, subject and object: love songs are “silly” to those not in love, yet “when [we’re] in [love] / … it isn’t silly at all.” Bhakti plays with the subject/object distinction in a subtle way, kind of like jnana-yoga does, slowly eroding the ego until one day it's no more than a crust of ice on the deep lake of Self. 

This is a song that embraces Feeling Good—not Feeling Good as getting away with something or Feeling Good at someone’s expense, but just plain old FG. Which is why tormented intellectuals always have a problem with Paul and instead prefer John: the latter caters to their inner, bed-of-nails ascetic who e'er whispers that FG comes at a price, you should only FG when everyone else FsG first, and never, ever FG without a dialectical materialist analysis of whatever, in your bourgeois false consciousness, you think makes you FG.

Devotion is love, and this song is an awe-inspiring evocation of being in love, a FG hymn, a psalm, hence here it is, kicking off a whole section of the playlist where the aspirant is crazy about God, walking on sunshine, and seeing Her everywhere. I used to worry that the FG section of the CD was too dominant, that it took over too soon, but, hell, it’s a great collection of songs. The implicit message is, I guess, that if we worked half as hard at Feeling Go(o)d as we do at feeling miserable and then justifying it to ourselves, we’d be a lot happier. Tragedy is infinite but so is bliss, so try tuning your mental radio to a better station.

I Want Your Love      Chic
Speaking of radio stations, I used to have to drive to Stonewall College at about 6:45 a.m., before daylight sometimes. That was kind of grim, especially because I often wasn't heading home until dark, but there was this radio station that played cool old songs. Most mornings it seemed they played this song, and I was so happy when its measured, stately post-disco groove came on. I'd be about a fifth of the way to work and had not yet put on the CD of my guru singing the songs of Ramprasad that I listened to every day for three years, and indeed some mornings I thought “Screw Ramprasad, screw religion, I’m tired, I want to party and go back to sleep, work is crap” ... but Nile Rodgers’s cool paean to desire got me back on track. I imagined this song going from my heart to Kali, but I knew She, too, wanted my love. 

Tanusree                  Ananda Shankar
Way back when I’d first heard of Mother Meera (in Sex Death Enlightenment) and was first starting to dip my toe in that mysterious ocean that is Hinduism, I heard this song on the NPR chill-out show Echoes late one night and it sounded exactly like what Mother Meera and Shiva the Destroyer and Kali the Creatrix sounded like to my mind’s ear: stately yet slinky, sensual and sustaining and hopeful and incensey. What Meera and the Upanishads and Ramakrishna taught me is that the shining world of mystery and miracle isn't confined to books and fables and dead saints and heroes, but is this world right now. 

Magnet and Steel       Walter Egan
A seductively mounting melody, pellucid production, and half of Fleetwood Mac on backing vocals… does it get any better? Theologically, too, I think it’s impeccable: She is the all-attracting, I am a little filament in a sea of filaments aligned according to the interference patterns of Her unfolding Shakti, the animating force of the cosmos from shrew’s hearts to black holes to the self-organizing eon-branches of evolution. This song ushers in the sexy part of the collection; during this period I was starting to understand that tantra, that the worship of the Divine Mother, wasn’t so much about making sex sacred as it was about making all of life into lovemaking with Her, trying to wake up to my essential oneness with Her in each moment.

Lorelei                   Cocteau Twins
This song has always spelled S-E-X in my musical imagination. It’s not “about” sex and it’s not “evoking” sex, it’s a direct translation of one’s neural impulses in the nonrational, supraverbal throes of carnal delight. Which aren't all that different from the nonrational, supraverbal throes of spiritual delight. Hence all that Shiva and Shakti, Christ and Mary Magdalene, Isis and Osiris imagery swirling deliciously throughout the history of religion. 

Custard Pie             Led Zeppelin
This song is a goddam saturnalia, a delirious pagan anthem. And it’s about eating pussy. So that makes it the greatest song ever.

Girls Got Rhythm         AC/DC
“She got the back seat rhythm”? The Goddess???? In my effort to make a tantric omelette, I was breaking the eggs of convention and propriety, finding the most down and dirty anthem of rut and applying it to a sacred purpose. Of course, “rhythm” has a cosmic meaning, too: several songs in this collection, either lyrically or musically, allude to chaos and order, to rhythm, to Her cyclic unfolding: “Reflections of My Life,” “Silly Love Songs,” “Magnet and Steel,” and this one. I used to play this song over and over while I was writing papers in grad school; it’s very energizing.

Living In the Past      Jethro Tull
We move from sex, momentarily, to a more devotional set of songs. This one communicates a “Turn on [to bhakti], tune in [to Goddess culture], and drop out [of mass culture and compulsory Christianity/neo-puritanism]” mentality. “Happy and I’m smiling / walk a mile to drink your water / You know I’d love to love you / and above you there’s no other / We’ll go walking out / while others shout of war’s disaster.” In other words, take the red pill. 

She Drives Me        Fine Young Cannibals
Like “Silly Love Songs,” this one revels in amorous delirium (with a little 80s angst thrown in). The narrator can’t help himself! That’s what it means to love, to be devoted… you’re magnetized, pulled in.

Love Is In the Air      John Paul Young
Few songs capture that sense of being pulled in, of floating on tides of adoration, better than this lilting disco tune: the rhythm bounces and the melody ascends and ascends and ascends, like the heart of one in love. Like “She Drives Me Crazy,” this song expresses the lover’s absolute surrender, regardless of result. The lyrics are just beautiful, describing the way that being in love transforms one’s entire world, and they certainly relate my own feelings of bewilderment at having found myself in the new world of Hinduism, of devotion, of Goddess as a living Presence rather than just a countercultural hypothesis: “And I don’t know if you’re an illusion / Don ‘t know if I see it true / But you’re something that I must believe in / And you’re there when I reach out for you.” 

For the first time, after a lifetime of chasing God, experiencing God, believing in and doubting God and rejecting God and believing again, I felt Her as “something I must believe in” not because someone said so or because it might make me happy, but because I knew she was there. It was like believing in rocks, as Starhawk once put it.
[Pop trainspotting interlude: did you know that this song was produced by the Australian team of Vanda and Young-- the "Young" being George Young, brother of AC/DC's Angus and Malcolm Young?]

More, More, More            Andrea True Connection
Now it gets sexy again. I know She is there and I want more of Her. This song seemed impossibly lascivious when I was a kid and it was on the radio, a perception possibly helped by a DJ whose intro to the song included the information that the singer was a porn star who was singing about making XXX movies. Who has ever heard of such a thing??? In this context it’s a song about sex (i.e., the eternal coupling of Shiva and Shakti) but also an allusion to Mother Meera’s saying that no matter how much of God we have experienced, there is always more. Keep seeking Her and loving Her more.

Right Time of the      Jennifer Warnes
Three 70s songs in a row? Bad DJ-ing! I can only explain the presence of “Right Time of the Night” by saying, it’s a lovely song, it’s very sweet, and it links the “stars… waking above” to earthly gettin’ it on. It also fits in with this collection’s day/night, light/dark theme.

Deep Blue Day        Brian Eno               
As does this track, one of my all-time-favorite instrumentals, a song to which I danced with my first spirit guide, the One who prepared me for my Guardian Angel, at 3:00 a.m. one wild night… don’t ask me how, as She was not embodied. This song bodies into sonic reality, as best it can be bodied, the peace which passes understanding. It is one of the collection’s “orderly” tracks (like "Silly Love Songs" and "I Want Your Love"), as opposed to chaotic ones like “Custard Pie,” “More, More, More,” and “Lorelei,” which bespeak delirium. 

Can’t Get Enough        The Colourfield
    of You Baby
When I bought the Colourfield's Virgins and Philistines back in the 80s, what hit me most about this song was its retro 1960s sound, nearly as good a job of mimicry as Elvis Costello's Get Happy!! I also thought it was awesome that they'd cover a Roches song. It seems that every word Terry Hall has ever sung is freighted with enough irony to sink the Edmund Fitzgerald, but maybe that's what drew me to this song--his faux starry-eyed delivery, in its breathless gush, is in some ways better than a straight romantic vocal . [Besides the fact that straight romantic delivery is every bit as calculated as Hall's irony.] The bhakti import is along the same lines as "More More More" above: always seek more of Her.
[Trivia: legend has it that Hall gave his band the name The Colourfield not only as an allusion to the Color Field painters but as an inversive mathematical mockery of The Monochrome Set. Draw your own conclusions.] 


  1. I am with you and without you. Our opertives click in the dark with sparks of triboluminesence.
    You must delete this comment again for salvation.

  2. So Derridean... erasure as gesture of recognition. I can only offer my own link--

    in response, though I'm sure this one is more accurate: