The Spotted Opossum’s preschool does show’n’tell in small groups, a few kids every Wednesday. Her turn is coming up, so today when I picked her up I suggested we go out to the woods to find something for show’n’tell. “Or, we could…”
“Woods! Woods! Woods!”
So that decision was made. The whole way out to the George Washington National Forest, she chattered away about the silly boys in her class, cartoon characters and our dog who died a month or so ago. She asks me to explain the dog’s death every so often, and to tell her about where the old, blind, deaf, spotted dog is buried.
“Why is Trudy buried there?”
“Do you mean why is she buried? Or why did I bury her in that particular place?”
“Anything. Just why?”
So I just start explaining. Sometimes she wants me to tell her things. It could be about death or not. I’m not always sure I know what she wants, but I do what I can with it. Most of the time she seems satisfied with whatever I come up with.
All this past summer, we went to Rivenrock two or three times a week. There’s a road there that crosses the river and it’s a good place for little people to run around squealing and kicking up water. We found a couple other places there – the waterfall and “where the dam is” – where we went to hang out on multiple occasions. A few times, we went to Rawley Springs, a couple miles downstream. For some reason, the girl decided to prefer Rawley Springs to Rivenrock, so we went there today. It’s not much, just a wide spot in the creek, a few feet deep.
When I go to the woods, I want to go way out, far away from any sign of humanity, as far as I can run, naked and feral, sucking in the oxygen-rich air. I want to see bears and rattlesnakes, scale cliffs and get lost, find some big rock to sit on, smoking a pipe and contemplating the billions of years that rock has seen. The girl isn’t into it. She likes to stay near the creek, where she’s been before and feels comfortable. I convinced her it’d be fun to walk around a bit and agreed to carry her. We followed a trail a ways, found some footprints in the sand, deer, dog, raccoon, saw some tadpoles who better get changed to frogs soon. She wanted to go back to her comfort zone then, so we went, chattering about cartoon characters and silly boys. She likes to build “houses”, which are mounds of dirt, sand and rocks, and then decorate them according to her own inexplicable aesthetic. It’s my job to provide materials for the decorating. I spiral out from her, picking up leaves and pine needles, flowers and seed pods, some of which she carefully arranges, the rest of which she throws away. I don’t know why some leaves are better than others. Today, I went one way and she ventured off in the other direction, hunting for things to decorate the house. She was brightly dressed, mostly in pink, so I could pick her out easily. I kept her in sight, but left her alone as much as possible. I want her to feel at home in the woods, as I always have, to know the dangers but not to fear. She’s getting it. She knows not to mess with snakes – I’ve drilled that in: if you see a snake, don’t get near. Call me. I want to see the snake, too. We’d wander away from each other and then return to the little house. At one point, she was wobbling around on some rocks in the creek. I asked her to not do that, but she could tell it wasn’t a big deal. She knows my tones. If I’m not using the danger-voice or the angry-voice, she doesn’t feel compelled to listen and that’s okay. It wasn’t me who was about to fall in the creek and it wouldn’t have been a disaster if she had, which she would’ve, but I caught her. I haven’t caught her every single time, but my record is good enough for her to assume I will.
“Daddy, I have to go potty!” Always an urgent announcement. At home, I say “You know where it is”, but out in the woods, she needs more help. She won’t just squat. The grass might tickle and buggies might crawl on her bottom.
After a couple hours, she was ready to go. We gathered up her things for show’n’tell – pine needles, a stick, an acorn – and headed home, where she barged into my room and claimed a little antique cream bottle. I was going to give her a sandwich bag to put her show’n’tell things in, but she wanted the bottle, which I found in a wooded part of the city a few years ago, so I let her have it. She crammed the pine needles in, added some plastic beads and gods-know what else. We painted a postcard for one of the silly boys in her class and then it was time for her to go to her mommy’s and me to go to work.
“The most sublime act is to set another before you”, is one of William Blake’s Proverbs Of Hell, from The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell, and it’s my parenting style in a nutshell. The girl is more important than anything else I know and if what I feel for her is what love is, then I’ve never loved anyone else. This should not be unusual. Every child should be the center of their parents’ universe, for they’re the future and we’re just caretakers, worn and world-weary, damaged beyond repair. To protect and nurture the small ones is the best we can do.
After the girl was born, a few weeks after, I was hit by the sudden realization that I had to get my shit together. I’d been fiddling around with art and music for years, getting nowhere slowly and not making any money. I saw that I had to quit daydreaming, get a real job, start bringing home the big bucks. Art and music could wait. And just as suddenly, I saw that for what it really was and these words came to my mind: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedth out of the mouth of God”, which is from the Gospel of Matthew, 4:4. It was Satan, the Deceiver, who put that thought in my head, who whispered, in effect, “You’re a father now. You have to provide for your daughter. Give up what you are and pretend to be something else, to make money.” Satan will use what he can, even a father’s love, to corrupt and destroy, but I knew too much to fall for that. I took a class in college – childhood development – and learned that children learn by example. It isn’t what the parents say that matters, but what they do. If I had shelved the guitar and the art supplies and gone to work in some office or factory, I would be teaching my daughter to give up her dreams, to sell her soul, for filthy lucre, just as her daddy had done. No. Fucking. Way. The mission of Christ, which He knew all along, was the Cross. All His sermons and miracles and witty asides were just events on the way to His triumph over death. I, too, have known my whole life that I am an artist – the music, which is another form of art, came into it later – and I have never been able to imagine me doing anything else. Of course, I have a job: a part-time job that pays just enough and doesn’t occupy much of my brain space. I’m good at my work, good enough that I do more than anybody else and have downtime to work on music or write this or sketch, but my occupation is not what I am. I’m an artist and I suddenly saw that what I needed to do was quit fiddling around with it and get to work. In the year that followed, I banged out recordings, one right after the other. I released some of them myself, found micro-labels for others. I contributed tracks to compilations, did split cd’s and cassettes. I worked on music after work, after I got home around 1a.m., cutting and pasting, plugging electric guitars directly into the computer, sampling and mixing with headphones on because the baby and her mommy were sleeping in the next room. I’d stay up ‘til four, then get up at eight to watch the girl and take her out to play so her mommy could get some sleep without a suckling at her teats. I’d have the Spotted Opossum ‘til five, eat dinner, go to work, day after day. It seems strange now. My memories of that year are blurry with exhaustion, but somehow I kept on going. Actually, it was closer to two years that I kept up that pace, until BDSR titles had been released on four continents and labels were contacting me. I’m still not making any money, but that’s never mattered. I have established a base now, solid ground. There are labels all over the world willing to take the chance and back a BDSR release. Somebody wants whatever it is I’m currently working on. And I learned a hell of a lot. The stuff I did those first couple years still stands up – I’m surprised how well I did then, considering how little I knew – but the more recent stuff blows me away. I don’t know how it happens, but it does. The chunks just fall where they should.
Here lately, I’ve slacked up a bit. I’m doing more drawing these days, actually getting some sleep once in a while. I’m getting involved in a religious community, doing some fundraising for charitable organizations, setting up shows. I’ve actually only got one full-length BDSR project in the works at this writing, which is unusual. There are three or four planned out, but I haven’t started recording, partly because I’m waiting for a guy to send me some bass tracks for one of them. (Yo, Joshu, send me those bass tracks.)
The paradox is that the Spotted Opossum is the reason that it’s so important that I do art and music and she’s the reason why it doesn’t really matter if I do art and music. The contribution that I make to the world will not be a cd of experimental music or a series of illustrations based on Yup’ik tales. It will be that I did the best I could to raise my kid, but I have to do the music and illustrations to teach my kid to be true to her own self, which is what God wants us to do.
See what I did there? I’m saying that what God wants is for every one of us to find the thing He put in us, the thing that makes us who and what we are, and then to bring that to fruition. Christ’s thing was the Cross. Parzival’s thing was the Graal. Arjuna’s thing was the throne. My thing is art and music. I dunno what the Spotted Opossum’s thing is. Today it was building a little housed of river rocks and sand and then decorating it with pine needles and an acorn. Maybe she’ll be an architect.
Whatever she turns out to be, she’ll have learned that money isn’t important. She’ll know that the Voice of God is within her and that following the instructions of that Voice will give her life, her own life. The life that only she can have. The life that the Artist of the Universe intended for her alone. All of us have some thing, some calling, some unique blessing and curse, placed within us by our Maker. Mine happens to include holding a little girl up so she can pee in the woods.
“The Universe is making music all the time.” – Tom Waits
Aye, and what a strange and terrible music it is: omnirhythmic, omnitonal, omniphonic, reverberating eternal through and through the inconceivable distances, burning, roaring, throbbing, whining, screaming, colliding, pounding, whistling, humming, groaning, booming, shrieking and echoing, echoing, echoing endlessly, infinite and on and on, coda, refrain ‘til the end of timeless time. Let the god be praised who made our ears so small to save us from hearing the aweful sound of Creation’s constant symphony. Such sounds were not meant for such as we, mere parasites on Gaia’s green skin. Like lice under Mozart’s wig, we may, at times, sense some sound beyond our ken and strain to understand, but we ain’t a-gonna get it, so there is little point in even trying. Then again, why the heck not?
The Big Drum In The Sky Religion assumes chaos as a starting point, as chaos is the starting point in all Creation stories, then attempts to impose some form of order, as Creators make the world. That’s the theory, at least, and generally it does kind of happen that way, but chaos has a wonderful way of spreading, especially when you make little or no effort to check it, and imposing anything on anything is incompatible with the general BDSR lifestyle. Hence, though there is, usually, some kind of vague concept or theme, it’s not rigidly adhered to.
There are two basic forms for BDSR releases: straight studio recording and a combination of studio and live. The straight studio stuff is fairly easily kept within pre-determined confines regarding tuning, mode, key &c. The ones that include live material less so. I don’t have any interest in telling people what to play or how, so I don’t. I invite people to participate based on my assumption that they will bring something to the mix and then I encourage them to bring it. Some people want a hint as to how they should proceed, a key or something. I give them as little instruction as possible. I know going into a show what I’ll be doing with the recording; I know what instrument I’m playing, how I’m tuning and what mode I’m using to fit the overall dynamic of the title I’m working on. Most of the time it works; others, the recording is terrible, but even then I usually use it, low in the mix or processed beyond recognition. Honest to gods, I start every show in tune and with all good intentions of staying in a mode, then my brain shuts off and whatever happens is what happens.
That, in a betel nut, is Shamanolodics. There is intention, but spontaneity is more important. Frets are useful. Keys make it easier to start. Musical traditions exist and can be drawn from. Reality does not happen in regular time. The spheres do not sing in fifths. God is not equally temperamental.
Within Shamanolodics, I employ a method I made up and named the Fauxdal System, outlined below.
The Modal System is based on ancient Greek music theory. There are seven modes: Aeolian, Locrian, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian. Each mode divides the octave in a different way. Ionian, for example, divides the mode thus: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step, completing the octave and starting over. On a fretted instrument such as guitar or banjo, tuned to a modal tuning, DADGAD for instance, Ionian would be played using the following frets: open, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, completing the octave. So far, this is standard fair. It starts to get a little off the beam when one tunes differently. Dropping the A’s in the above tuning to G’s would alter the sound, creating more of a drone effect, but would still be in the mode.
At some point, before receiving the vision of BDSR, I started using non-modal tunings, but kept the modal frets. This is Fauxdality. It’s also contrary to how it’s “supposed” to be done. A guitar tuned C#G#C#FG#C# and played using the frets determined by the intervals of Dorian mode – 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12 – sounds weird. Some would say it sounds “wrong”, “bad” and/or “nightmarish”. Meh. The human ear is a surprisingly malleable organ and can adapt pretty quickly to anything if it’s owner isn’t determined to hold on to the arbitrary preconceived notions ground into their grey matter by music teachers, pop culture and other soul killers. It’s amazingly easy to learn other ways of hearing, seeing, thinking and experiencing if you wanna.
One time, at work, I was hit with an inspiration which knocked me off-balance. I said it out loud, “What if I recorded a full-length cd with all instruments tuned DD#GG#?” There was someone there who had enough musical knowledge to know what that meant and her response was quite amusing: a mix of shock, disgust and patronizing superiority, “Oh. My. God. That would sound horrible.” I went straight home and retuned the mandolin to DD#GG#DD#GG#. Sure enough, it sounded fucking terrible. I used that as the foundation for The High Lonesome Zounds Of The Big Drum In The Sky Religion. “Open Zounds” is the only tuning I can claim to have invented. (Open Zounds = all strings tuned to I I# V V#. The High Lonesome... is in D, but it could be any key.) All others I’ve used have been established tunings, some, such as G6, slightly modified. (Any asshole can throw together a random string of notes and call it a tuning, but A#BEA#GC# is going to be pretty hard to get on a guitar without re-stringing and it’s going to sound like shit, not in a good way. I won’t claim to have “invented a tuning” unless it’s significantly different from any established tuning, is practical and I’ve recorded with it.)
So. I show up at a gig carrying a tenor banjo which I have tuned to whatever tuning I’m using for whatever I’m working on, intending to improvise using the intervals that I’m using for whatever I’m working on. There may or may not be other tunable instrumentation at any given show. If there is, I may or may not tell the other musician(s) something about what I’m planning to do – if I’m tuned DGDGA#D and using the frets for Lydian, I might just say I’m playing “in G”, which isn’t a complete lie and will force the other(s) to either try real hard or just give up and do something else. Then, in the heat of it, I’ll almost certainly space out and completely forget whatever intention I had when I started. This is desired. Nothing I plan will ever be as good as what happens. Chaos is the starting point and chaos reigns. I also have a heavy right hand and even though I use the thinnest picks available, when I use picks, I bang and bend the strings all out of whack. How it’s tuned at the outset ain’t how it’s staying.
Improvised music is a small version of life. One shows up with a plan, communicates more or less with the other people involved and then forges ahead. Try too hard to stick with the plan and it probably won’t work. Even if it does work perfectly, it’s merely the plan. A life that only includes what I’m capable of planning isn’t one I want.
Under it all, Shamanolodics is a vehicle for spirit travel. BDSR aims for otherworldly adventures and I, for one, have and enjoy them, which is why I can’t possibly stay with a mode – sometimes, I’m not there.
See ya on the other side.
The Big Drum In The Sky Religion came into being in the Sun of the Ram, in the year of the Fire Pig (April, 2007), unlooked for and without warning. It happened like this:
A nondescript and somewhat uninteresting individual, having returned to college in his mid-thirties, was sitting in a classroom doodling instead of taking notes. The class had some relationship to the role of mental health care workers within the larger, admittedly troubled, society and was referred to by all involved, including the professor, as “Social Problems”. The professor, a delightful old crone with a passion for good gin and her retirement in sight, was holding forth on the necessity of the mental health care worker to withhold judgment and personal opinion when dealing with clients, specifically with regards to their religious beliefs.
“You might be a Christian and your client might belong to the big drum in the sky religion…” something something about not letting that get in the way, I dunno. I was the aforementioned uninteresting clod and at that point my careless margin doodles had become frantic writing: THE BIG DRUM IN THE SKY RELIGION – NEXT BAND NAME. My handwriting is all caps.
That’s how it came about. Random, unexpected, sudden. Inspiration happens; explanation follows. I knew in a flash The Big Drum In The Sky Religion (BDSR) would be experimental improv, that it would consist of myself and whoever happened to be moved to be in on it at any given moment, that the working premise would be Shamanism in this post-modern era. Either the Devil or God or some combination of the two is reputed to reside in the details, but those basics were in place at the outset.
It is the thunder, obviously. That’s the big drum in the sky, the rolling boom of Celestial Blue Heaven, the hammer of Thor, the mallet of Lei Gong, the vajra of Indra, the beating of the wings of the Thunderbirds. From Job, “God thundereth marvellously with his voice; great things doeth he, which we cannot comprehend.” (37:5; KJV - all Biblical quotes here come from the KJV). Ominous when heard from the next county over, when it tolls close, the sound seems to come from all directions and within, jolting bones and throwing the consciousness back and back to the dawn of the human consciousness, some distant instant in the long ago, when the wisest were as children gripped by the fear of the unknowable unknown. Even with our modern understanding of weather patterns which explain, our statistics revealing the rarity of people struck by lightning, our smug assurance that we are developed and civilized, worldly and not given to petty superstitions, we feel the magnitude of the thunder with fear and excitement, with awe. Our children and dogs go squealing for cover and we comfort them, hold them in our arms while looking up, wondering, waiting for what may come. The thunder stirs these feelings in all peoples and has through all time and these feelings link us to them.
This is the moment of clarity: when the petty, little claims of our egos are pushed aside and we are only feeling, experiencing reality unclouded. This is satori – the flash of enlightenment, when the delusions contrived by the ego vanish allowing a glimpse of Nirvana.
“A thunderclap under the clear blue sky
All beings on earth open their eyes;
Everything under heaven bows together;
Mount Sumeru leaps up and dances.”
is how Wumen described his awakening, attained after six years of focusing his mind on the koan “Joshu’s Dog” (some sources transliterate the name “Zhaozhou”).
“A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?”
Joshu replied, “Mu.”
Wumen attained and that was his goal. Good on him. Six years isn’t long and many have taken longer, but what a long time he took to understand a moment.
The moment of orgasm, when the muscles contract and the mind shuts down. The moment the car goes out of control on a mountain road. The moment the halo’d moon is glimpsed. The moment of falling. The moment the newborn is placed in the parent’s hands. The moment the battered electric guitar is turned toward the overloaded amplifier and the feedback shrieks. The moment the stick on the trail coils and rattles. The moment "when the doors of perception are cleansed,” to paraphrase William Blake, and we “see things as they truly are, infinite."
We chase the experience, terrified we will have it. Drugs, fast cars, roller coasters, rock’n’roll, combat, give us the sensations, but not the sense. The adrenalin rushes, we laugh it off, regain our composure, walk away waiting for the old inevitable empty to return so we can find some relief from it again.
One time, I took acid with a girlfriend. A thunderstorm blew up and it somehow seemed like a good idea to go out onto the roof and fuck in the rain. We crept out the window, ridiculously overcautious about getting too close to the edge and falling into the yard, out around back where the streetlights didn’t reach and were driven scurrying back inside when the air was suddenly furious sound. Gasping on the kitchen floor, wide-eyed and shaking we stammered what we’d both seen: a lightning bolt had cut the sky and exploded a miniature white sun between us. We drank some Night Train and found someplace safer to fuck: bed. Too close to the truth.
It would take me longer than Wumen to wake up, but I didn’t have Gatsurin Shikan for a teacher. Yes, I meant to say that. I have waked up. I have been to that yonder shore. I have swum in the cosmic waters, diving deep. I met the Buddha on the road and I killed him and the bees made honey in that liar’s head. Thomas tells us Jesus said, “ He who drinks from my mouth will become like me, and I will become like him, and the hidden things will be revealed to him” and I have drunk. It isn’t hard. It isn’t some rarified gift, attained only by shaggy saddhus performing austerities in Eastern mountain caves. Enlightenment is everywhere at once and it’s no work at all to see it; it takes constant work to not see. Seriously, the sound of one clapping is obvious. Just try it. Clap with one hand. That’s it. There is no magical mystery. With all respects to Josiah K. Alwood, “that land far away, where the tree of life in eternal bloom sheds its fragrance through the unclouded day” is right here, right now.
The stories and rituals of religion can have many effects – or none – and among them is the cultivation of awareness of the moments of clarity, which allows them to linger and their memories to stay. Meditation on these experiences expands them further until they grow together and become one’s normal state. Of course, the other businesses of life may sometimes distract, but the focus can always be shifted from reality to Reality.
The Spotted Opossum came into being in the Sun of the Fish, in the year of the Earth Ox (March, 2009), looked for and with considerable effort on her mommy’s part. There was blood to be mopped up and entrails to be put back so a nurse handed me the little, pink fruit of her mommy’s labor. I wanted to be out of the way so I stepped back and looked down and I knew that my life as I had known it was over. That never again would I be the man I had been. I felt myself cross a threshold from one state of being, with its attendant form of consciousness, to another one, as if I had died and been reborn simultaneously. I had had similar experiences, had been transformed through several transformations, but that time, Holy Shitfire, I was aware of it. I knew a world was falling away. Scary? Yes. And thrilling. A vast new infinity of possible opened out before me, so exhilarating, awesome and sublime that I wouldn’t trade the worst of it for the best of what came before. Again. That has happened to me many times and will happen again. And it will happen, again, as it has happened, to you. Life is bounded by thresholds and there many between the bounds. We pass through gateless gates whether we will or no, whether we know or no.
Well, I’d rather know.
Back to the beginning: I had by then been studying myth and religion as an avid amateur for ten years. I understood that all paths lead to the top of the mountain and that my own was most decidedly pagan/animistic with a heavy dose of Zen (“panentheism” was a term I hadn’t yet encountered; now I claim it). Mircea Eliade had turned me on to Shamanism, but, between my concerns about cultural insensitivity and my aversion to putting on airs, I was a bit hesitant to claim the title. I got over it. Shamanism is a world religion, possibly the first such. It’s been practiced in countless forms in every corner of the globe, by every kind of people. The earliest archeological indications of Shamanism are in caves in France (Lascaux, Trois Freres) and those were painted at about the same time the first major wave of Native-Americans-to-be were skating across the Bering Strait. My own Germanic forebears were scrying and getting wigged out on moldy bread and mead for millennia. So my pasty white hide has no relevance. Anybody and everybody has a right to seek the Spirit World using the basic techniques, which Michael Harner dubbed “core Shamanism” without specifying whether they were hardcore or soft. And Hell, if I’m gonna call myself a “musician”, I might as well be a “Shaman” too.
“Brown Hat” was a pseudonym I came up with a couple years prior, while reading Black Elk Speaks by Black Elk and John Neihardt. All those Lakotas – Black Elk, Black Kettle, Medicine Hat, Big Foot, Kicking Bear – and then my eye fell on that battered, brown leather Outback hat I’ve been wearing for years and I thought, “If I was an Indian, my name would be Brown Hat”. There’s a bit of foul punnage going on in that name that any old punk can appreciate. The “Espresso Shaman” bit came about when an earlier band I was in decided to do a cd with a cover parodying Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.’s Absolutely Freak Out (Zap Your Mind), which almost required us to come up with titles referencing theirs and since I was the guitar player, I grabbed Makoto Kawabata’s “Speed Guru” and changed it to fit.
The logo came from the ether in the first few months too, but that should be its own chapter.
So The B. D. In The S. R. was begun.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.