Tag Archives: autobiography

The Secret Undertown Ministry

“FROM THE DARKNESS, A VOICE SINGS OUT: I disagree, I disagree – I cannot understand at all; Which doesn’t mean I cannot understand it if I tried to understand it but I cannot stand to stand and understand it when it hurts to stand beneath it, when it falls and cannot stand under its power.”

So here’s a holiday offering for those who are interested in such things. In 1994, when I was 29 years old, I wrote a semi-autobiographical, cut-up, stream of consciousness novel called “The Secret Undertown Ministry” – much of it made up of pieces written for or around the Thursday night open poetry readings at Java Cabana Coffeehouse in Memphis. I originally distributed it to a number of close friends, but otherwise serialized portions of it to various blogs and other websites. It’s never been assembled in its complete form – UNTIL NOW. Anyway, for those who ARE interested, here’s a link to the novel in PDF form: http://www.radicaldruid.com/PDFs/TheSecretUndertownMinistry.pdf. Good luck!

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On Reading Benjamin Franklin

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, I find that on the whole my life has been “felicitous” enough to suggest that I would, if given the opportunity, live it again exactly as it has been to again reach its current point – assuming that although perhaps desired, an author’s prerogative of certain rewrites in a second edition would likely be denied. Admittedly, one usually only says that sort of thing if the point at which they are currently arrived is agreeable to them. In my case, that is relatively accurate – although there are parts of my present life that I would like to change, on the whole my life is a good one. Its faults are entirely my own, and mine to correct or put up with. Besides, “agreeable” is such a subjective word. What is agreeable to one person is anathema to another. What you might find absolutely intolerable, I enjoy if not for its comfort, then for its familiarity – and ultimately, we each seek out what makes us comfortable, in the end, regardless of any desire, obligation, or imagined destiny to push beyond our perceived and respective envelopes. We each have our own personally defined “veneers of responsibility”, those public-facing masks we wear so others, as quick or quicker to judge than ourselves, can “understand” who we are without all that much effort. If, as Julian Jaynes suggested, the definition of civilization is any group of people gathered in large enough numbers than no one knows every other on a first name basis, then it follows that the premise of society is a subset of that civilized people who are comfortable enough with each other’s masks that they need not invest too much energy in finding out the details of their neighbors’ lives.

Once again, it’s tempting to succumb to no small degree of vanity. If I am so important, it’s only natural that my neighbors and in fact almost anyone falling inside my circle of influence would be infinitely interested in not only the agreeable, but admittedly and egregiously disagreeable segments of a lifeline starting at my birth and ending at the right here and right now. Again I think of Franklin, who suggested that vanity might be a gift from Providence worth nurturing.

So if it is to be utopian fiction, at least let it stop some distance short of hagiography. An “honest” appraisal by a devil is always more entertaining, at least, than an overly generous gloss by a saint – again, two terms far too subjective in their definition to be of much meaning, anyway.

This is then a semi-autobiographical work of utopian fiction. It is not, as Stanislavsky titled his biography, “My Life in Art”. My own experience is more like a “life around art” wherein the primary milestones perhaps appear musical or artistic, but those really make up a kind of “musical busyness” that surrounds and often obfuscates the point that the life creating that music is supposed to be making: the evolution or constant evolving of the person, and how to whatever extent the making of music enables that evolution, that both the musical creation and the life that surrounds can be deemed a success. And where that is not the case, both the life and music are less than extraordinary – at least in my subjective opinion.

But where does the music begin? At birth? Or somewhere later down the line when conscious thought becomes one of the primary motivators for action? My maternal grandmother swore that my first word, at six months, was “elephant.” No one believed her – including me, when I was later told the story, although I must admit a romantic notion of some spiritual connection to India persists in me to this day. My family was always “musical” in a sense. Our house in Michigan had a “music room” which housed a baby grand piano and the various other instruments I discovered later, in other houses, but must have been present at that early date as well. I don’t remember playing the piano at that time (we left Michigan when I was seven) but I do remember being awed by its size, its intricate construction – I often crawled underneath and looked up at it from between the giant pillar legs, and what seemed to me to be a gigantic amount of sound it produced, particularly when the lid was fully opened.

I also don’t remember music or the radio being played. Of course, there were likely television programs, Saturday morning cartoons and movies of the week, but most of my free time was spent outside playing or inside reading books.

It seems to me that any story describing a lifelong battle between art and commerce must inevitably be either a tragedy or comedy, both in the ancient Greek sense, with the comedy not necessarily funny or humorous in a happy way, but more abstractly sharp to a degree up to but not quite serendipitous. Like life in general, I suppose, the amount of sorrow or joy depends entirely upon the participant – because what may seem a precipitously jagged set of manic to depressive interludes to one person may seem of little consequence to another. It is not just beauty, but the absence of it as well, that lies in the eye of the beholder.

It may be in the way we’re made up – that we focus on the negative or positive throughout our lives, and remember best those episodes we believe are the formative forces in becoming who we are at present. That focus may in fact be our undoing, the reason why at some point or another almost everyone seems to lose their balance, perspective, “moral compass” or rudder, and for at least a short time float or drift aimlessly – until we “find ourselves.” We inherit the courage and timidity of our parents to a large degree. After all, their prejudices, fears, confidences, talents, and weaknesses are the stuff of the gods to our infant perceptions. They are our Zeus and Hera, and their relations, our Poseidon, Hades, etc. Any older siblings or relations, until we better understand and are able to exploit their human frailties to our own advantage, serve as our Athena, Diana, Ares, and even Aphrodite.[iii] Like all myths, our initial worldview serves not as an explanation of things, but more as an introduction to the explanation, a framework or morphology within which our instinctively curious selves, particularly if encouraged to do so, seek out and create a working definition of reality that both encompasses and steps outside the mythos of our infancy.


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Preamble to a Dream

The past is but a dream, a dream:
a palimpsest where writ, the scene
fades in and out of nothing, fast;
seems permanent, but cannot last
beyond the span of just one breath.
Each life begins and ends in death,
and like as not leaves little trace:
no name, no song, no deed, no face.

You often suppose that when someone sits down to write their personal history, autobiography, or memoirs, it is because they have at least in their own mind (or at the suggestion of some influencing other) achieved some sort of milestone in their life, reached a certain point at which they might feel that others would be interested in how they got to that place.

You assume a certain level, or at least type, of success prompts the need to trace your now self-satisfied steps back to their point or origin.

There’s the humble beginning, the rough start, the middling trials, and the glorious outcome, right? With an extraordinary bunch of hindsight applied to what probably is, taken individually, a completely ordinary and commonplace series of events. There’s a certain amount of hubris required, in any case, since relaying one’s own story without unnecessary embellishment, laying on the mortar and brick without laying it on too thick, is far from the humblest act one can undertake. Much like taking a vow of humility is often the vainest statement a person can make, writing about oneself under the assumption that anyone else would be the least bit interested is quite a self-assessment from the get-go.

How many who have achieved any degree of wealth, power, or fame are really in a position to spend too much potentially dangerous time with truth, insight or self-examination? Interesting reads, memoirs, but quite often the truer view is found in autobiographical fiction. After all, when the diarist creates a character or caricature of themselves, the result is often a more telling portrait of who they wanted to be, rather than who they are – which gives the attentive reader an infinitely clearer picture of the writer than an “honest” exercise in non-fiction.

No matter what genre you purportedly start out in, every book ever written eventually glides or morphs, intentionally or not, into utopian fiction. Because, after all, whether you’re making up the world or not, what you describe is either the positive result of some horrible thing or the horrible result of some seemingly positive thing. A memoir or dystopian post-apocalyptic vision in that respect are the same. You write about what you know: the good, the bad, and the ugly; the bold and the beautiful; the long day’s journey into night; the light at the end of the tunnel; the cloud of unknowing, or the voice of god. In any case, if you’re describing how wonderful things turned out to be, chances are you start out with a picture of how they began in much direr straits. On the other hand, if you’re waxing philosophic on the pile of shit the world’s become, odds are good you can point to some idyllic past moment when the fulcrum tipped irreversibly from roses and sunshine.

And every written work, whether a guide book to the inner secrets of programming in Ruby on Rails or a fanciful account of the secret life of a covert operative, presents itself in a world that either is, or is not, like the one that currently exists – and in either case, then perhaps its details differ from those personally known by the reader. Because after all, the world “as it is” or “as it is not” is a matter of perception. And the only perception forming that subjective interpretation is the writer’s.

No matter what the writer describes, no matter how “truthful” to their own reality, that description may read like complete and utter fiction (or fantasy) to a reader whose own personal life experience is nothing like it. And the agenda the writer is spinning? That’s an alternate ending to the “fate” doled out in this life, whether in the “real” or fictional world. Whether the fiction or instruction ends up as utopian or dystopian depends on whether or not the reader takes the writer’s advice, and changes the things that the world requires be changed to evolve into something better. Or at least changes, to prevent the stagnation that apathy and inaction tend to breed. And isn’t that the point of life, after all? To change, move, and grow, until you can’t do that anymore – at which point, depending on how you’ve done to that point, you serve as either fertilizer, or poison, to what comes after.

26 SEP 2016

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Music and me

There are those who imagine “magical” places like they are scenes from the “happily ever after” part of a fairy tale: in a strange twist, they believe the hereafter, the great beyond, and the future tense of once upon a time to be like the world initially encountered by the young Siddhartha Buddha, one without care, disease, want or sorrow. But the truth is these places are just like right here, with their absence from our immediate view the only advantage given their fabulous and dazzling marketing brochures.

Music is one of those magical places. People say music is a language, a conduit, a means for connecting. Those metaphors make it seem like another world, or at least a foreign country. Extending that metaphor, people don’t really talk too much about the place whose natives speak that language as their first tongue: there’s not a lot of information on its geography, customs, and government, nor its climate, flora or fauna, be they beneficial and friendly, or poisonous and otherwise harmful.

I’ve know a lot of people who have visited, including myself, but I don’t know if I’ve met anyone who actually “lives” there year-round or calls it their original homeland.

There is no authoritative guidebook or CIA fact book about this foreign place – although to some it may seem one is necessary. A lot of people THINK they understand musicians, sometimes, but at other times must be content to shrug their shoulders, shake their heads and walk away, puzzled and confused.

Think of this as the beginning, then, of a travelogue, a descriptive narrative of these travels to the land of music. Because music, especially singing, CAN transport you to another place, where your body, mind and spirit are entirely wrapped up in a universal current. The danger is that when you come back from that place, you cannot communicate what you found there, because it does require a different language, a non-language. And getting back there is hard. It is tempting, so tempting, to fake your passport to that land, or at least grease a few officials’ palms, by artificial means. But those artificial means only make you think everyone else understands you while you’re there. And then, at some point, the artificial means can betray you, leaving you standing at the border only able to look in, but not cross over.

10 SEP 2014

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