Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
Although its light is wide and great,
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
-Dogen, 13th Century Buddhist Monk, “Enlightenment Is Like The Moon”
Pink Floyd: The production perfectionists, Pink Floyd, were at the vanguard of popular electronic music. In their documentary Live at Pompeii, the Floyd put on a crowd-less concert – apart from their shirtless sound engineers and cameramen – that shook the crust of the world in a psychedelic eruption of fluid waveforms beneath the looming shadow of Mount Vesuvius. While critics gave the Floyd a hard time, claiming that they weren't true musicians since they relied heavily on mastering techniques and tonal effects, the band responded with what is widely considered a listenable album: The Dark Side of the Moon. In the doc, there's a scene of Roger Waters toggling the controls of a synthesizer. Focusing his auditory acuity, he fiddles with the knobs as ominous oscillations sound in the studio until the effort insidiously culminates with the recording of the helicopter crash in “On the Run.” In my high school music technology course, Mr. McCready taught us how to translate music into language through close listening sessions. One assignment was to listen to “On the Run” and create a vivid scene using musical jargon. As a child, I fell asleep to my father's Pink Floyd tapes. Animals, Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, Wish You Were Here. As a teenager, the lyrics of The Wall echoed electrically through my myelin. As a young adult, I explored Syd's contributions and gathered the backstory of the lunatic. Now, climbing the precipice of adulthood, I hear the brazen alarm clock of “Time,” but I'd rather skip ahead and open my ears to the great vocal solo in the sky.
The Doors: Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, John Densmore, and the other guy: The Lizard King, my neighbor, Jim Morrison. Misunderstood in his time as a counter-culture sex symbol, he drank and danced in Rimbaud-emulating chaos to escape the world in which he suffered, grew fat and withdrawn to reject his social status, and died at twenty-seven without an autopsy. In retrospect, we better understand Mr. Mojo Risin as the Blakian poet with a stage presence sculpted from Artaud who desperately wanted people to “break on through” from the closed-up caverns of a Freudian Brave New World simulation where love and desire resonate louder than “the scream of the butterfly.” I could write an entire dissertation on Morrison's influence, how his anti-establishment attitude has been assimilated by capitalism in the modern pop music machine to deflect dissent against bourgeoisie values back into feeding the system of mass production, how his poetry attempted to destroy that influence and instill in listeners a superego of ecological attachment and imaginative freedom, how my friend and neighbor claimed to be the reincarnation of Jim Morrison in an illuminated world of subterranean lizard-people who puppeteer the human elite behind skin-suit facades like in the movie They Live. In reality, the puppeteers are inept and the frayed strings are ready to snap. For too long the worshippers of rational Apollo have dismissed Dionysus as a chaotic hedonist, forgetting that order and chaos maintain a duality. One cannot exist without the other's shadow lurking on the other side. Fluid equilibrium. Morrison sipped from Nietzsche's cup. After all, the lunatic was very well read.
Neil Young: While Morrison was one of the first to bring environmental awareness into the realm of music, and John Denver's tremolo and country-boy good looks swooned the seventies, it was the pronounced brow and crooked smile of Neil Young that solidified the connection between biosphere and musicsphere, as well as establishing that musical lyrics can be personal if written honestly. Now a cranky luddite, Neil Young was instrumental in the singer-songwriter scene. He sang about the suffering in his life through a squeaky soprano atop clawhammer guitar chords. We can describe his music from the eighties as a cave-man playing with synthesizers, but in 1985 he founded Farm Aid, a yearly benefit concert for environmentally-sound, localized agriculture. Two years ago, I listened to his seminal album Harvest on the drive with family to Towson for Thanksgiving – when it was revealed that the photo of Great Aunt Betty's father with some other teetotalers in Prohibition-era Atlantic City that had hung in her living room for sixty years depicted none other than Al Capone arm-in-arm with her father, the man who would buy a farm in central Maryland, cultivate crops, and later sell that land, now Lake Centennial in Columbia. As Neil crooned in the background, I started to get over the breakup. My only relationship lasted a year to the day, July 25th. She broke up with me at her favorite concert venue, Merriweather Post Pavilion, watching her favorite band, Neutral Milk Hotel, on tour for the first time in a decade. To be fair, she had told me a week before beside her parents' pool that she felt we had to break up before summer's end. I held onto hope for three months too long, my mind unable to rewire itself from emotional codependence until that car ride up to Towson. Observing the waning chlorophyll of autumnal foliage clinging to the black oaks, white birches, and silver maples lining the Baltimore beltway, Neil's candid sadness sparked a moment of crystallization in my mind. “Don't let it bring you down // it's only castles burning // find someone who's turning // and you will come around.”
Rodriguez: The first three on this list are classic rock cannon, but Sixto Rodriguez is not widely recognized in America. A homeless construction worker, Bodhisattva singer-songwriter, and later a philosophy major living in a house bought in an eroding Detroit neighborhood for $50 at an auction, he recorded two albums with Sussex Records, a branch of Buddha Records in New York. The first album, Cold Fact, in 1969, and the second, Coming From Reality, in 1970, highlighted a Bob Dylan political approach to lyrics, although unlike Mr. Tambourine Man, Sixto Rodriguez can sing. His lyrics are better too, and that's not a qualitative statement. There exists living, anthropological evidence. South Africa in the sixties and seventies was ripe with fascist governance known as apartheid. We know the name Nelson Mandela, and some know Steve Biko, who empowered black South Africans to see themselves not as a repressed minority but as human beings subjugated to racial discrimination, but who thinks of Sixto Rodriguez? The South Africans, that's who. The documentary Searching For Sugar Man details how a copy of Cold Fact found its way from the streets of the declining industrial metropolis in America to the cloistered middle-class homes of South Africa. Listening to his music was the first time the white South Africans were made aware that their government had blindfolded them from the suffering beyond the closed doors of their caverns. They couldn't believe a singer in America could say “I wonder how many times you've had sex,” or that a person could openly critique their government. Rodriguez indirectly crucified the minds behind apartheid South Africa and received no letter. He didn't make any money from the monumental record sales either. I don't want to spoil the documentary, as my synopsis cannot possibly replicate the profundity, so I'll end with this. I've shown numerous people the documentary since I found out about it, and every single one of them now listens to the effacing songs of Rodriguez on repeat, from the effacing “Like Janis” and “Cause,” the sociopolitical “Rich Folks Hoax,” to the surreal imagery in “It Started Out So Nice.”
It started out with butterflies
On a velvet afternoon
With flashing eyes and promises
Caught and held too soon
In a place called Ixea
With it's pumpkin oval moon
It started out so nice
- Rodriguez, 20th Century Bhikku, “It Started Out So Nice”
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.