Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Word

Q: Are you a Mod or a Rocker?
Ringo Starr: No, I'm a Mocker.

I feel like I just lost my best friend, as the Beatles broke up yesterday, and then, in the contracted time of Jonathan Gould's group biography Can't Buy Me Love, John was shot to death on the street in New York. And that was it, no going back, the work was done and destiny inexorable. I've been thinking so much about John; he has been teaching me in my dreams, in my subconscious. He was in a big hurry to be big, and said that talent has nothing to do with it, nor does education, but only desire and a bit of luck. Think of it: so many people around him - perhaps, it seemed to him, all the people he loved - popped off without warning: his Mum, just as he had got her back again, his Uncle (who was like his step-Dad), his soul mate Stuart Sutcliffe, who died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. Here today, gone tomorrow. Perhaps these were the spurs, combined with his own amazing life force, that drove him. And now he has been instructing me: it's alright, don't be stupid, don't wait, take a risk, risk everything, but mostly: go ahead. Keep going ahead, shine your light boldly into the dark. Speak.

Why is it so very pleasurable to read a perfect, knowledgeable description of each of the songs in the Beatles' canon? Jonathan Gould nails it, and like all great art, you can't figure out how he does it, but his sleight of hand exposes their sleight of hand. Maybe the delight of it is in, first of all, knowing the songs so well, and then having an expert along with you, explaining what's going on from the inside of the song as it plays out.

Is the inevitable outcome of proceeding steadily into truth, martyrdom? John seems to say, on the other hand, there's no safety in holding back, as that way is only death. Can the love of someone who is already a star (I mean in Heaven) lead you forward when you are frightened to go on? Of course. Dante had Virgil. I know I've grown tired of the details of my own ego - the minutiae I hang on to, the story I keep on telling - first I did this, and then I did that. Who cares? So dull. Time to go forward to the next level, a more generic reality from which the ego is barred. Who dares?

So talking about the Word, I was thinking about how, by the 1960s, poetry was a dead language. No one except poets was really reading it aloud any more. It had become an internalized symbol of projected thought, as dead as Latin. But humans need poetry; they can't live without it. How interesting that the Beatles came along to resurrect the role of the troubadour (didn't any one make this comment about their hair at the time?), where the Word is served up straight to the heart, speared on a blade of music, side-stepping intellectuality and hitting the guts and the feet and the conscience, bringing poetry back to life.

And the one who goes ahead, who leads with the Word, is a - prophet.

Now this commentary really does tail back to the topic of parenting for artists, but it begs the question, are we taught parenting by art, or art by parenting?

My son, who is eleven, is a big talker, but he rejects writing; he avoids dotting his i's and crossing his t's, even though he's generally super detail-oriented and perfectionistic. His reports read more like lists. In discussing this, his teacher mentioned in passing that Mr. C., the Eurythmy teacher (Eurythmy is a therapeutic movement invented, like everything else at Waldorf schools, by Rudolf Steiner), had something important to say about people who are oriented to talking and resist writing. And there was Mr. C. in the parking lot when I came out of my meeting, so I seized the day and asked him about this tendency. He said that people who are big talkers but can't get into writing are leaders in the making. Think of Gandhi, he said, or the Buddha, or Christ: these men didn't write their thoughts, they spoke them, and someone else (a scribe, a functionary) wrote them down. There is a direct connection between thoughts that change the world, and the Word. (He pointed to his mouth.) Look at me, he said, a Russian ballerina (he pointed a small, perfect foot in his clog-like shoe), all my expression is in my - feet. But Yeats, William Butler Yeats ("one of my favorites," I chimed in) - he was a brilliant talker, and his masters brutally forced him into the written form, and what he achieved was maybe a third of that which he was capable.

I'm paraphrasing now, but Mr. C.'s point, emphasized slowly and with care, was that forcing writing too early, especially for someone who is musical and verbal, can be more of an amputation than an education. "It doesn't matter where that talent comes from, we know it is there - he shook his head - and we can't be sure who it is we are dealing with in the child's soul. That talking is leadership. Let him talk! Let him grow! Don't force it! The writing will come on its own!"

By the end of the book, through the pain of the Beatles' "divorce," Gould's workmanlike description of their songs began to wear on me. It created a kind of vacuum: all the writing in the world about their songs is not the songs themselves. So, more knowledgeable and with my heart aching, I went back to Revolution. A revelation, every time.

During his "guru in drag" days, John Lennon told the press corps, "I don't know why you always want to write what I say, but since you do write it, I'm saying Peace."


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