Real Religious Fervor

Written by Dan Schwartz

Real religious fervor: what do I mean by using that term, when I’m writing about music?

Nominally, I suppose one could take it to mean anything that I like. But I’m listening to Kate Bush at the moment, whom I absolutely LOVE, and don’t think it applies. Or Gentle Giant, or much other music.

This comes to mind because I had a friend over a couple weeks ago, and, well, we “imbibed”, as he was showing me his vape pens. We began talking about the Grateful Dead, who he has fairly recently gotten hep to, having first got turned onto the bizarrely associated Phish (don’t ask – I can’t account for that and don’t see any connection, but the kids do).

Very quickly I asked if he had ever heard Garcia, Jerry Garcia’s extraordinary solo album recorded in ’72, and featuring only him and drummer Bill Kreutzmann (about which Garcia said he found himself with more money than he knew what do with when it was released — so he set up a foundation to give some of it away). He hadn’t. I began with the 4th track, “Loser”, just to set up the mood — this tune features a Robert Hunter lyric sort of about a card game. This put me in mind of a famous day when Hunter was in London, drunk of Greek retsina, and in one session wrote “Ripple”, “Brokedown Palace”, and “To Lay Me Down”.

In Hunter’s words: “‘To Lay me Down’ was written a while before the others [on the Garcia album], on the same day as the lyrics to ‘Brokedown Palace’ and ‘Ripple’—the second day of my first visit to England. I found myself left alone in Alan Trists’s flat on Devonshire Terrace in West Kensington, with a supply of very nice thick linen paper, sun shining brightly through the window, a bottle of Greek Retsina wine at my elbow. The songs flowed like molten gold onto the page and stand as written. The images for ‘To Lay Me Down’ were inspired at Hampstead Heath (the original title to the song) the day before—lying on the grass and clover on a day of swallow-tailed clouds, across from Jack Straw’s Castle [a pub, now closed], reunited with the girlfriend of my youth, after a long separation.”

How is this religious music? I don’t know — it just is, to me. (Understand, I’m not playing with terminology here. Not for me are such namby-pamby distinctions between “religious” and “spiritual”; nor between the natural and the supernatural. If it’s real, it’s ALL natural. But I understand people wanting to make the distinctions)

“To Lay Me Down” is followed, after a short break in “An Odd Little Place”, by the great statement of god/otherness in the Hunter/Garcia catalogue, “The Wheel”, all in a wash of piano, reverb, and recently learned pedal-steel guitar:

Small wheel turning by the fire and rod

Big wheel turning by the grace of God

Every time that wheel turn round

Bound to cover just a little more ground

Naturally, this led in my mind  — I mean, whose mind wouldn’t lead them to it? — The Harmonic Choir’s Hearing Solar Winds, an a capella, wordless recording of eight people documented in a 12th-century abbey in France. From the notes:

“Accept that music is not tied to passion, nor to piety, nor to feelings; accept that it can blossom in spaces so wide that your image cannot project itself within them, that it must make you melt within its unique light! And only then start listening to the voices of David Hykes’ Harmonic Choir.”

I love this idea — of separating our egos and sense of who we think we are from hearing music. (But — again, in my mind, it’s only a short stretch from Hearing Solar Winds to Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices recording of the famously anti-Jewish Abbess Hildegard von Bingen’s extraordinary A Feather On the Breath of God. Music transcends, even while its composers frequently don’t.)

Does all this make sense? Think about what I wrote, some time ago, about my introduction to music. It was either classical music (long-hear music, a phrase which rapidly grew ironic) or it was like television, and not to be taken seriously: there were the Beatles cartoons, and the Monkees, and Herman’s Hermits — and then suddenly it sounded different: “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the mood and strings of “Eleanor Rigby”, and then the 1-2-3-4 punch of “Within You Without You”, and I was, and am, hooked.

Most Indian classical music takes me right to it, and if you separate the obvious differences between it and so-called western music, and pay any attention to what Ravi Shankar used to say about listening seriously (I think Copper’s readership is perfect for appreciating what I’m saying), it can apply almost anywhere. It’ll be personal — what works for me won’t necessarily work for anyone else — but there’s a state we all have in common, where it’s the music, and whatever your sense of religion or spirituality or god or God is.

To quote the late Dr. Bronner: ALL ONE!

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