Have you ever looked to musicians and their work as a pathway towards insight on life and transcendence? ANDREW JOHNSTONE on the two artists who influenced his search.
From 1977 through to 1982 Van Morrison had a neat run of radio hits in New Zealand that included ‘Wavelength’, ‘Cleaning Windows’, ‘Full Force Gale’ and ‘Bright Side Of The Road’. I liked them all, especially the last one, and decided to add some Van to my album collection. I was going through a heady Flying Nun thing at the time, so musically this was quite a departure.
Before I go on I should acknowledge the apparent paucity of my Van choices. I became friends with an avid Morrison fan a few years back and said over a beer “Oh! I like Van too!” Interest piqued, he asked what my favourites were and as I listed the aforementioned songs his falling expression said it all: I had it wrong. Very wrong. “What? No Moondance? ‘Brown Eyed Girl’?, Astral Weeks?, ‘Gloria’?” Etc. (It was a long list).
He decided I needed educating, and over the next weeks proceeded to play me some ‘proper’ Van. His pot was good and he had a fridge full of Mac’s Gold, so who was I to complain? Did he change me? No, he had missed the point. The thing that had connected me to Van had less to do with music than with the message.
I look back on those years and a series of albums that include Beautiful Vision, Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart, A Sense Of Wonder, Into The Mystic, Enlightenment and No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, and it’s all about the artist searching for meaning – something to explain himself to himself while exploring the overarching mystery of existence that was drawing me in.
If I were to sum up the overall mood of this loose collection it would be ‘reaching for the transcendent’. Through these years Van was a seeking spiritual truth/enlightenment and his songs were asking similar questions to the ones that were swirling about my psyche. While I liked Van’s tunefulness it was his lyrics that struck a chord with me, a kid who was in the process of casting aside the Catholicism of his youth and embarking upon new adventures of the mind and spirit.
At this juncture I should pause for a moment to consider what it is I mean by enlightenment. After some thought I have settled on a series of words: perspective, knowledge, informed understanding, insight, and clarity. In a classic spiritual sense, someone who is seeking ‘enlightenment’ is exploring the workings of the mind in order to better understand suffering and unhappiness.
The literature tells us that that desire, attachment to worldly things (including inherited tradition and possessions), expectation and ambition imprison and limit us. Enlightenment is the liberation of oneself from this psychological imprisonment. Once free of our cultural programming we are able to experience life in unique and exciting new ways.
I purchased No Guru, No Method, No Teacher on the title alone. It was ‘Guru’ that caught my attention. Except for some Beatles references with regard to their passing flirtation with Indian spirituality, I knew little else about the term but felt that there might be something worth exploring here. My first task was trying to figure what it was Van was trying to say with this title, and being pre-internet days it meant scouring whatever music magazines were on offer at the library looking for information via reviews and interviews.
There wasn’t much, but I did find a review that suggested Van was a Gnostic Christian, though it didn’t elaborate. I learned that Gnosticism referred to a kind of Western esoteric mysticism that emphasised letting go of worldly preoccupations in order to achieve a ‘higher’ form of understanding about life, the universe and everything – yeah, just like Eastern Spirituality. I also learned that within the many wisdom schools (that exist in parallel with most every major world religion) there are numerous ways of seeking enlightenment that do not always include a method or guide.
The no guru, no method, no teacher approach is all about using a combination of self-reflective analysis and research to find your own peaceful accord with the mysteries, but it is a controversial approach and not popular with those who declare that enlightenment cannot be achieved without assistance. The cynical might suggest that lack of financial gain or institutional control may have a role to play with this perspective. One especially virulent guru proponent declared, “This way is just anarchy. People require guidance – no ifs or buts about it”. As for the word ‘guru’, it is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘master teacher’ as opposed to a ‘generalised teacher’.
Christian Gnostics did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, more an enlightened teacher. This put them swiftly offside with the early Christian church and they were literally rubbed out of existence. The survivors became secretive and hidden – they had to, and it’s a tradition that has endured to this day. These sects often shroud themselves in mystery and use arcane symbolic language to conceal their message. (Check out the situation of the French Cathars in 1209 to get a more complete picture of the psychology at work.)
Gnosticism is from the Greek word Gnostic, meaning ‘knowledge’, and the emphasis is on intuitive knowledge rather than intellectual knowledge. European Gnosticism was probably influenced by ideas picked up from merchant trains out of the East (Buddhism is another notable influence) and has been at large before the Greek gods were even a twinkle in the historical firmament. Later, they grafted Jesus into their belief system and evolved in new directions, though older forms have persisted.
Gnosticism, as I discovered, is no different from other belief systems, fractured into a multitude of parts, each claiming pre-eminence over the others. I got in deep for a year or so before waking up to the reality that I had swapped one belief system for another, and was exactly back where I did not want to be when I had left the Catholic faith of my youth.
But it wasn’t all a dead loss. The sect I found myself in taught me a few useful things like: “Tear down the mental constructs inside of you and rid yourself of everything you think you ‘know’ and here on the empty landscape of the mind discover your true self”. It has proven a useful method but one has to be very wary of erecting a whole new set of constructs in place of the old. Otherwise, the system of reflective self-analysis they taught has helped me to evolve as a person.
Van makes mention of numerous Western esoteric traditions in his music, including metaphysical treatise The Golden Dawn and the Theosophical movement (Theosophy is a mash-up of spiritual ideas drawing from diverse sources). Well-known spiritual philosopher Alan Watts gets a song, and esoteric Irish poet WB Yeats is ticked off on the track ‘Rave On John Donne’ (Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart) along with a host of other esoteric luminaries, including Walt Whitman.
Then there’s the more mundane and less exciting Christian orthodoxy (his ghastly 1989 Christian duet with Cliff Richards, ‘May God Shine His Light’, was probably the nadir of this period). On his recommendation, I explored them all (except for the Jesus loves you stuff, as I had been there and done that) and found value as well as a whole lot of jiggery pokery.
But it wasn’t just Van who was teaching me stuff. In 1977 I wrote to former Monkee Mike Nesmith (remember fan mail?) telling him how much I liked his song ‘Rio’, which had been a huge hit across Australasia. But more than the song itself was the title of the album it was off: From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing. Now, what was that all about, I thought as my mind conjured up strange images of landscapes beyond the confines of space and time. Mike wrote back and with the letter came a box full of records he had made, including one called The Prison. He explained nothing, but seemed grateful some kid was taking notice.
A book with a soundtrack, The Prison was my first introduction to the album as a conceptual device, and I loved it. It was the first vinyl record I wore out. The album opens with the words: ‘Life is the unsuspecting captive of a million dreams, chains of desire bind so vastly to the earth. Seeing the attachment born, of knowing all those things, being alone and at one with the joys of rebirth’ – ‘Opening Theme: Life, The Unsuspecting Captive’.
I had no idea what this all meant but it resonated with me and I sang it to myself over and over trying to get to grips with the ideas at play. Later, Van led me to Gnosticism and Gnosticism to the Tao De Ching (our particular sect was very big on the Tao De Ching, a Chinese philosophical text dating back some three thousand years), which led me to the ideas outlined in The Prison. Nesmith was big on the Tao (or ‘the way’) and metaphors alluding to it abound throughout his music catalogue.
Tao is the essential, unnamable process of the universe and The Tao De Ching instructs us in the art of letting go and learning to roll with the nature of things and in the process how to discover peace and fulfilment; resistance is not only futile, it is counterproductive. Nesmith’s potent 1972 contractual obligation album, the ironically titled And The Hit’s Just Keep On Coming, even features a track called ‘Roll With The Flow’ featuring a series of narratives linked by a refrain that goes, ‘I roll with the flow wherever it goes and it’s rolling out of here’. Otherwise filled out with lyrical flourishes like ‘he was a didactic minister/she was a lacklustre lover’, he also taught me a lot about lyric writing, wordplay and phrasing.
Beyond his pop superstardom, movie production (he was the brains behind classic cult film Repo Man), esoteric mysticism, car-racing and business career (he is a successful entrepreneur as was his mother, who invented Liquid Paper), Nesmith is a progressive thinker dedicated to all manner of causes like The Council Of Ideas- a forum dedicated to solving the great problems of our times. He is interested in technology and his Video Ranch is a pioneering online shopping and recreational site.
Much like Van, Nesmith has maintained a singular musical career and has been beholden to no one, including The Monkees, sidestepping most of the reunion tours and associated activities. “I am too busy,” is his standard reply to questions on this subject. He also refuses to sign autographs. The Prison is an allegory about the cultural constructs that imprison our minds and blind us to the vast potential beyond perceived reality, and I will be ever grateful to Nesmith for opening that particular door for me.
Eamon, a guy I know from Belfast – Van’s base and hometown – told me that he was selling natural gas for the home on the phone and the next name on the list was a Mr V. Morrison. “Can’t be, I thought to myself but the feck it was,” he said. “So what did he say?” I asked. “Told me feck off then thought better of it and asked how much then signed up.” How many people can say they have sold natural gas to Van Morrison?
Another story concerns his father who was doing backstage security the night Belfast threw a big concert to celebrate Van’s 70th birthday back in 2015. “My Da said he was drinking before the show and being a difficult cunt but they got him on-stage in one piece and he was brilliant”. I took everything Eamon said with a pinch of salt because he had a fair share of the blarney about him. Still, he was entertaining and played the consummate Irishman abroad well.
In his biography Testament Band, guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson tells about rehearsing with Van for the concert film The Last Waltz. Nervous, anxious and prickly (and a little drunk) throughout, Van turned up late on the night dressed in an Elvis one-piece, and armed with Elvis-style karate kicks, proceeded to knock the roof off the show. Complex, unfathomable but when push comes to shove…
He often alludes to the difficult aspects of his nature in song and has clearly struggled with life and living at times. But enlightenment, when you distil it down, is mostly about learning to ‘know’ yourself and coming to terms with who and what you are. I get the sense he found peace with himself and has moved on from his restless searching. Grumpy and contrary are a better fit for the man than smiling over at Cliff Richards while singing about Jesus the lord and saviour.
We are what we are and for many of us the best we can do is recognise the worst about ourselves while keeping a firm eye on the good. So much of human life is bulldust. Eschew the crap, cast aside the clutter of ideas and learn the value of silence and everything will be as it should be. This is enlightenment according to Lao Tzu, the composer of the Tao De Ching.
Flowing robes, a serene countenance, adoring devotees – yeah, probably not so much. That’s more like cheap perfume. And as for music, sometimes it is nothing more than a catchy tune. Other times it can be a life altering experience. Whatever, as an art form its ability to influence should never be underestimated.
‘No guru, no method, no teacher, just you and I and nature, and the father in the garden’ – Van Morrison.