Way, long ago, in the middle of the Reagan years, I was discovering that there was a shitload of music in the world that I had not previously been aware of. It was exciting, but also kinda scary, because delving into the underground meant separating myself from the values and aesthetics I’d grown up with as well as alienating myself from most of my peers. I knew some kids who were into some of what I was digging – Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, the Clash – but a lot of what I was discovering was simply beyond the pale as far as my corner of the conservative, rural South was concerned. Wasn’t nobody at my high school into Sonic Youth, Live Skull or Einsturzende Neubauten.
There was a record shop in Harrisonburg, on Liberty Street, where the county jail is now. I would go there sometimes to spend my lawn-mowing and dish-washing money on vinyl. I never had much money and was always worried about blowing $7.99 on a dud. One day, flipping through a bin, I found Bongwater’s Double Bummer. I’d never heard of Bongwater. The cover art – a decayed doll on the front, a Hindu idol on the back – creeped me out. I stood there for some time, trying to figure out the mixture of conflicting emotions evoked by this strange album. The record store guy was no help. I reluctantly put Double Bummer back and left.
That night I was suddenly seized by an irresistible urge to own that fucking album. The creepy cover art, the drug reference, the potentially dangerous contents, all became overwhelmingly desirable. I went back the next day, afraid that someone else might have purchased Double Bummer, that it might have slipped from my fingers. He who hesitates is lost.
It was still there. I got it. It seems weird now that something as benign as an album could have caused such anxiety and fervor in my sixteen-year-old self, but such is the nature of sixteen-year-olds.
Double Bummer was and is an awesome record. I no longer have that vinyl copy – my massive record collection fell victim to my poverty along the way – but I do still enjoy Bongwater. I discovered Roky Erickson via Bongwater’s cover of “You Don’t Love Me Yet”, a song which still has the power to make me dewy-eyed. I somehow identified with Ann Magnuson’s Bongwater persona – the self-centered, neurotic urban socialite with a seedy past, lousy with drug abuse and unbridled sluttery that perhaps wasn’t really in the past, being myself a self-centered, neurotic rural antisocialite whose lousy drug abuse definitely wasn’t a past endeavor and who had little hope of ever attaining to anything like sluttery. I took it as somehow a vindication that she hailed from some godforsaken holler in West Virginia. I got all Bongwater’s albums as they were released and found much to love on every one.
The last track on The Power Of Pussy, “Folk Song”, has the refrain “Joseph Campbell gave me hope and now I have been saved”. There’s a mention in there of The Power Of Myth, which obviously inspired the album’s title. I didn’t know who Campbell was, but I understood that he meant something to An Magnuson and I was vaguely curious about him.
Years went by and my relationship with Bongwater continued, as my relationship with bongwater became more and more intense. My life spiraled out of control. Things went from not so great to really fuckin’ shitty. Early in ’97, I read an article about how easy it was to abuse the medical marijuana program in California. Anyone who had any one of a huge list of ailments, including unipolar depression, could obtain legal marijuana.
I had been diagnosed with unipolar depression. A cartoon lightbulb appeared over my head. If I went to California, I would be able to get on the medical marijuana program and stay high on high quality, legal weed. I knew a few people who were living in the Bay Area, all of whom would let me crash with them for a while, all of whom would know all about the medical marijuana program and all of whom would certainly be able to set me up with connections for all the other drugs that I was on which were not yet approved for medical use in California, but which would surely be better quality there. I somehow managed to convince my girlfriend, who was insane, that we should quit our jobs, load up the rolling total that I was driving and head out west.
She wanted to visit her mom in Maryland before we rode off into the sunset, so we spent a week in Cumberland, fucking, fighting and eating her mom’s food. I smoked a lot of pot out behind the goat barn. Maybe she smoked some pot too. I don’t remember. At some point, we were looking through her mom’s video cassettes and found The Power Of Myth, which her mom had recorded from PBS. We watched it, thought it was cool, fucked on the floor and smoked some pot.
The trip to California was a bad idea. ‘Nuff said.
February, ’98, I was back in Virginia, homeless, put off, put down, strung out and stoned. The girlfriend had split, gone to live with her mom. Some guys had broken one of my fingers – left forefinger and actually they dislocated a joint. I’d been trying to kick the booze &c. for a few months but couldn’t endure the withdrawals. I managed to get myself a bed in a state-funded twenty-eight-day rehab where it was suggested that I adopt a spiritual way of life. I was open to the idea, having been thoroughly beaten into submission by chemicals, but had no idea where to start. There were more pressing issues: finding a place to live, food to eat and a job. The album collection got sold during that time.
It took me a few months to get around to really beginning to develop a spirituality. I started that process by checking out The Power Of Myth. In that series of interviews, Campbell comes across as bubbling over with joie de vivre. The guy was eighty-three or so and knew that he was not long for the world. He mentions it in the series. The fact that he was near the end of his span didn’t seem to bother him at all. I wanted that. I wanted to be so enamored with the process of living that death held no fear. My spiritual life started then. In the years since, I’ve read just about everything Smokin’ Joe had a hand in writing and followed up many of his sources. Campbell taught me how to read myth. I remain forever in his debt.
The point of all this is that a decision I made in ’86 had a profound impact on my life. Bongwater led me to Joseph Campbell who led me to mythology which has become the center of my life and the foundation of all my creative endeavors certainly including BDSR. Actually, I shouldn’t say it was a decision I made; it was more like a decision that was made for me by some unknown force. I’ve had this experience repeatedly over the years. At times, I have resisted or refused to follow the guidance of strange urges and disembodied voices, but that never worked out well. In a few instances, I thought that I’d been wrong to heed the call of the intangible, but it always turned out well in the long run. It has never turned out the way I expected it would. When I enrolled in community college at the age of thirty-six, I expected to graduate and get a job in the mental health field. Instead, I graduated with a brand new baby that my classes had thoroughly prepared me for. I also got the idea and name of The Big Drum In The Sky Religion at Blue Ridge Community College. I have no intention of ever getting a job in the field I studied, but my Associate’s Degree does qualify me for guaranteed acceptance into any state college in Virginia, so I may use that to get a Bachelor’s in comparative religion, which would hardly lead to financial success, but I’m not really interested in big bucks anyway.
I should stress the importance of learning to the difference between following the directions of unseen forces and self-justification. Before I kicked the habits and started getting effective treatment for my emotional/mental problems, I heard voices frequently and it’s a dang good thing I didn’t do what they told me to do. It is very easy to delude oneself into believing that crazy ideas are somehow not only not crazy, but divinely inspired. Many of the ideas that I’ve followed seemed crazy at the time – becoming a father at forty? – but turned out to be the best things I could’ve done.
Exposure to the myths of the world’s religions has opened my consciousness. I am now able to perceive the guidance of the unknown powers more easily. This is part of what myths are supposed to do – to increase our awareness and appreciation of the world we live in and the world(s) behind/below/above.
I actually found Ann Magnuson on a social media site a couple years ago. I was at that point working on a project which had a sample from Bongwater’s “Obscene And Pornographic Art” and I wondered what she was up to. I sent her a brief email about how Bongwater had played a role in my spiritual development. She responded. It was nice to be able to tell her that. Smokin’ Joe died a year or so after filming The Power Of Myth, the same year I graduated from high school. Maybe he’s someplace now and knows how he affected my life. I hope he doesn’t mind that I refer to him as Smokin’ Joe.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.