Passion or Pastiche: The elephant in the room (part 4)

Part 1 –  Part 2 –  Part 3

I’m just going to come right out and say it.

The elephant in the room is you.

Don’t feel bad about it. Being an elephant in the room can feel lonely, certainly, not least because of all these blind men running around stating with such certainty that they know what you are based on their tiny observations of you, but it does have its upside.

Like you, I’m an elephant in the room too. Probably the best thing I can do from here on in is to explain how I deal with it over here in my world, or as I call it, Entropy House. And, boy, is there an upside.

For a start, you can think exactly what you want on any given topic. You can change your thoughts on said topic to the polar opposite the next minute if you want, and no-one can actually stop you from doing so. However, being quite so cavalier with your thoughts can lead to a very incoherent world view if not attended to with the utmost awareness. I personally have therefore found it wise to try and base my thoughts on actual experience, but there are other models available to you. We live in a neo-liberal world, after all.

I very rarely make new year’s resolutions, but in the new year of 2012 I resolved to give up opinions. I’m still trying, and failing quite spectacularly as I would not have need for a blog if I was succeeding in any way. But it has been the most valuable exercise, possibly one of the most thought-provoking I’ve ever done. I would go as far as saying almost everybody bases their worldview on their opinions, and then filters their perception accordingly to bolster their opinion – but then, I may be projecting!

So, when I said I was trying to give up opinions, what I meant was that I wanted to try and actually experience what happens in my perception in its raw perceptual is-ness. I wanted, indeed I still want, to have a worldview that is based on things as they are and not things as I would have them be. The longer this goes on, however, and the longer my biases seem to inform how I perceive the world, the more I question how possible such a goal really is. And I’ve recently come up with a fairly new hypothesis, and I’m looking for how to test it.

Hypothesis: Because I have yet to see any convincing evidence to the contrary, I’m treating my life as a complicated initiation ritual that exists to show me something(s) that I need to know. In many ways, this worldview may seem like solipsism, but my current thoughts are more like solipsism with co-stars – in other words, I’m not the only one going through this initiation ritual, and we can all help each other to get through it, or we can hinder each other. Some of the co-stars are here to play a part, though, and that part is to make it harder. I mean, it wouldn’t be an initiation ritual if it was easy. However, I am open to the idea that we just make it hard for ourselves without any extra help.

One of my learning curves has been about the need to rely on other peoples perceptions for an opinion and what I have learnt is this: no opinion is worth having if it hasn’t been formed by my own direct observation and/or interaction and, more importantly, my own instincts and perceptions are the most valuable thing when formulating whether or not something is useful to me or not. I may sometimes say that such and such an issue seems to be quite thorny and if only we meddling western bastards kept our noses out and stopped trying to treat the entire world as its own resources mine then the world may be a better place, but as I haven’t actually been to, say, the Ukraine, it may be that the view presented to us by our darling truth-telling media who never, ever lie is in fact correct, and the people of Ukraine really do want us to meddle in their lives and impose a government of outsiders in part of ‘our’ plan to dismember Russia into a series of vassal states. I mean, something has to be true. Maybe it’s that.

This reliance on others statements probably comes from over-identification with a particular way of doing things, or a subculture, or maybe just a particular in-crowd. Let me give you an example from my own life: in 1996(?) Beck released Odelay and because I had taken leave of my senses for a while and actually credited the opinions of the New Musical Express with some respect (it was a brief spell that lasted about 4 years, maybe 5), I really, really wanted to like the album. I bought it, I bigged it up, I put it on when friends came round. About a year later, maybe longer, I listened to it again and thought – ‘you know what? It’s shite. It’s aimless, it has nothing to say, and doesn’t actually have any fucking songs on it.’ I have never had cause to change that perception, although opportunities to do so since then have been limited because why would I play an album I stopped liking? And since then I’ve gradually leant less and less on the opinions of others. The last NME I bought was in 2000 when I moved house – I’d been going through the motions with it for quite a while but my local newsagent (who I quietly fancied) kept putting a copy aside for me, otherwise it would have stopped sooner. I only ever bought a music mag afterwards if it had a free CD with it so I could listen to the music myself. And indeed, my primary source of new music after then became late night radio, especially John Peel who I didn’t really discover until 1998ish.

Of course, once you lose faith in something as being a reliable guide, that faith pretty much goes completely. Whilst Beck himself went on to make some decent albums after that, the NME will always remain a marketing tool for major record labels as far as I’m concerned because of my experiences as a reader. I found the same thing with Kerrang!, particularly after they were bought out by EMAP and simply put the biggest artists on the cover from that point on – before that they used to take risks with putting unknown bands on the cover. Whether you like the bands in question or not is irrelevant, the fact was it was a genuine foot in the door for some acts. I just know someone is going to talk about the bottom line, though. Also, I am so clearly not their intended audience.

So in many ways, over-identification gets in the way of being you. Let’s swing back to where I started off this series and say I’m into psych-rock music, amongst other things. Over-identification with that label makes you then go out and try/buy every thing that gets released under that label, especially if lots of chatter goes on about how ‘excited’ people are about an upcoming release, which in itself generates an excitement in others. That excitement itself will predispose you to favourable initial impressions.(The Anticipation Effect?) It may take a little while before all the marketing bullshit  excitement wears off, by which time you’re getting uber-excited about another major upcoming release / reunion tour. BUT – as in my NME example above, it carries dangers. Once someone loses respect by getting really ‘excited’ about something that’s actually shit, you stop taking them seriously. And then they may recommend something that you actually would really like.

However, as I mentioned earlier, you’re the elephant. In my case with the above example, that means that if the NME actually started only featuring music for reasons of quality and not commerce, I would miss out. I’m comfortable with that. I am aware that my freedom has consequences and I choose to accept them nonetheless. Not every elephant seems willing to do that, but then, their initiation ritual may be for a different purpose. My concern is for mine, and making sure I go through it the right way.

So then, what else have I learned, and just why is it that this idea of being true is so important to me?

I’ve noticed that fakes (for want of a better word) in other fields of endeavour don’t always get quite the same vitriol once exposed, or even suspected. For example, I remember reading, again back in the 1990s, that a certain percentage of premiership footballers didn’t even like the game. There were some, and I admit I initially thought this because I used to follow football back then, who thought this something of a travesty given how many passionate footballers there are out there. But would you judge a carpenter harshly who didn’t especially like wood but made thoroughly useful cabinets? A security guard who wasn’t passionate about saving the company’s property, but did it better than anyone else? A librarian who fell into the job by accident and discovered it was the least shit thing he’d done so far so may as well stick around til the urge to move on manifests, not least because he became pretty damn good, pretty damn quickly (hello!)?

And by them same tokens, if someone makes good psych-rock but is only doing it to put bread on the table, should they be judged harshly? Should they be judged at all?

There’s doing what you have to in order to get by, and all of us do what we have to do in order to get by because our initiation rituals have that built into them. But there’s more to it than that. And music is probably one of the best areas where this tension between doing what you have to do and there being more to it than that is played out.

For me, music is a fundamentally spiritual pursuit, particularly when creating (i.e. channeling) / playing, but also when listening. It is a way of making ‘sense’ of the world I inhabit, at least, the world I inhabited that day. It provides a language of unbelievable depth to express as best it can the unexpressable, the noumenal, the nagual, that huge part of my perceptions and experience that I cannot find words for.

The fact that music has always accompanied rituals and worship speaks to me. It tells me that music is a fundamental part of the divine, one of the most powerful keys to understanding life itself, and therefore why I’m here, and therefore more about the exact nature of my initiation ritual.

I am, in fact, a very lucky elephant. I’ve ploughed my own furrow for many, many years now to almost no acclaim, and yet I still do it anyway, mainly for the reasons noted above. Yet I have been rewarded. I enjoy my music more than I ever have done. Each year I discover even better music than ever, I find songs/artists/performances that resonate with me stronger than has ever been the case previously even though this resonance has always been very strong for me anyway. This is telling me that the simple act of being on the right path is reward in itself, and it gets reinforced by the fact that I get to channel better music, and receive better music than ever before. For those of you who are unafraid of teleology, entertain the following notion – the reason I have never been rewarded with any fame/recognition/notoriety/money for my music is because I don’t need those reinforcers. I would do it anyway. (Yes, there is an alternative hypothesis, and that says its because the music is shit or mediocre. However, I’m the fucking elephant and this is my fucking room. Also, there are a plethora of counter-examples).

You ever met any musicians who are really really impressive but utterly boring? Awesome hand/eye co-ordination, tremendous knowledge of scales and relationships, but you don’t hear them play music, you simply witness a high mastery of the instrument. I have come to think of such types as ‘instrument technicians’ rather than musicians. This is not to say that anyone flash is not a musician, oh no, far from it. To get that good to start with you must care at least a little bit about actually making music. The best musicians always allow themselves as many tools and avenues for expression, and increased ability with an instrument allows for a greater range of expression. For example, Jimi Hendrix; say no more.

Get a bunch of instrument technicians together, though, and you rarely have music, you have a designed and moulded product which emulates music. Thinking of music as a language, it is the sort of language where words that go together on paper might get bundled into a paragraph but when analysed don’t have any coherence. Would you seriously consider having a conversation whereby you didn’t care how much sense you made? Would you really seek out conversations with people who were clever but incoherent? Surely not. The purpose of communication is to communicate.

So, when I get really sniffy about an artist not really meaning it, maaaaan, I’m saying that the music falls into the category of ‘product’ and not music, pastiche, in other words, and without a meaning to the message. It’s a box ticking exercise whose primary purpose is not communication, but probably money generation or ego-glorification/self-indulgence (very often the two go hand in hand) . For people who think of music as simply something to listen to whilst waiting to die, of course, such objections won’t matter (also, and most importantly, they will not have read this far). Whilst music does indeed double as fantastic entertainment, it is not its primary purpose. And to my mind, it’s a waste of a good legominism if you haven’t encoded some genuine content in the medium. It becomes an empty vessel. And an empty vessel isn’t what I need to help me with my initiation ritual.

John D. Niles, in his book Homo Narransuses the concept of a ‘tradition bearer’ as a way of tracing how traditions, in this case oral narrative culture, carry on through the ages. His example is Duncan Williamson, a man so thoroughly into the storytelling medium that he not only is a great storyteller, he hoovers up all new stories and tellers and ideas with utter passion and total dedication. What do you think he would say to someone who came along simply trying to look good, a chancer? He’d say nothing because there is no actual need to. But he’d know that there is unlikely to be much of value there, so would move on. It’s a perfect example of what I’ve been trying to find the right combination of words to say over these posts, but the tag ‘tradition bearer,’ whilst technically not inaccurate, seems a little bit limiting. I think it makes Duncan and others of our ilk seem conservative, and that somewhat misses the point. It is done simply for the joy of doing it. We don’t throw out the old unless it no longer serves a purpose, but we don’t simply concentrate on the new either – we assimilate it to find out how useful it is to our overall approach. Is it useful tech? And if it is, it goes in.

For this reason, I prefer to use the term ‘torch-bearer,’ a decision I made last night. You can re-purpose the description above by saying that we look for the fuel that helps the torch burn brighter; once it is no longer useful as fuel for our torch we discard it.

Because this need for stories – musical, verbal, visual, whatever – is much deeper than entertainment. They are an integral part of our world picture and the world you think you see would not be the same without the stories in your head. And to do your head justice, you need to allow it to have the best stories, stories that have room to grow and evolve with you as you complete this section of the initiation ritual. And…there’s only one person who knows what those stories are.

One of the many synchronicities in my life was reading this post this morning which had this quote which again puts things much better than I could – ‘in an age when almost everything is genre, the insistence upon genre forms, often carefully outlined, is regressive.’ If respecting conventions comes at the expense of navigating your journey, it’s time to question the conventions. By the same token, though, if it ain’t broke…

Of course it’s a fine line. That’s why you should attend to it carefully.

Times change – the trick isn’t to change with the times so much as it is to navigate the landscape as it changes using the most appropriate tech to do so. And you can only do that by experience. So a good ‘torch bearer’ will always be open minded, but will also have enough self-belief and nous that anything which doesn’t keep the torch lit won’t get in. There is no room for passengers. Chuck as many marketers as you like at them, their bullshit detectors are impeccable.

Such people, however, also have quite an uneasy relationship with their society at large. They are valued because their skill is recognisable and obvious, but they also seem to make people feel a bit intimidated. It is one of my fundamental beliefs that there is nothing special about me that could not also be the same level of special about any other human being given the right circumstances, opportunities and inner desire, but one thing I have learned is that people don’t do things just because I tell them they are capable. They have to want to do it, and they have to believe it is worth doing. There is no point trying to harangue people in this regard; people can get really quite hostile to being informed how much personal power they already have but don’t use. It’s best to light a few beacons here and there in the parts of the map that you pass through so that fellow travellers can see a bit better, and make their own judgements accordingly. A true torch bearer seeks no reward; it is enough to know that the torch remains lit.

Just because some one might not necessarily meet my exacting standards does not mean they are not conscientious or doing their damnedest to seek excellence in what they do. We all of us go through the territory using maps and beacons of varying usefulness. Most people who have passed before and who have left markers have done so honestly. There may be the odd exception but by and large people are doing their best and are trying to do what they think is right. Do you know many people who purposely do things wrong? How’s their life working out for them?

So what, after all this rambling, is one to do when confronted by the latest sensation whose upcoming release is getting people ultra-excited, even though they haven’t heard it yet?

Well, you’re the elephant. You decide.