Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Vashti Bunyan, Tim Leary & Carthusians

She's one of those cult figures, like Anne Briggs or Davy Graham for folk-trad, or Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart for psych-rock, who dropped out due to drugs or temperament or both, and became reclusive. Mojave Desert for CB, Cambridge house for SB, I guess London flat if not some Moroccan souk for DG, and the Hebrides or the North for AB. (Image credit: representative LP cover.) It took CB longer, fifteen or so years, than the rest, to make his escape, but all four and more have in common the ruralist dream of the intellectual or artist, to flee the city to hear the voices in the wilderness, live on locusts & wild honey, and I guess cloak one's self in rustic garb: think of Scorcese's "Last Temptation" as the repulsive John the Baptist emerges encrusted from his Essene-adjacent digs as any anchorite must have been, logically. They all did what the rest of us urbanites daydream about, and as my mind keeps skipping back to the dell and the waterfall and the sight in my mind's eye of Niall aglow in sun-dappled dazzle in Zayante Creek, the pull of such a rural idyll tugs mightily if delicately.

Here's the NY Times review "Back From the Bucolic Life After Decades Without Fans" by Ben Ratliff of Bunyan's (is Vashti her real name or her assumed?) return to the spotlight, of B0wery Ballroom--a truly gritty urban opposite to her bucolic hideaway?--Sept. 16:

When the first act on a triple bill appears on stage in a red robe and a baritone ukulele, and the first lyrics out of her mouth are “Fairies softly singing,” and the crowd reacts not by ignoring or revolting but by patiently waiting, you may be sure that you have reached the deep end of a special-interest zone.
Thursday night’s show at the Bowery Ballroom was headlined by the 60’s-era British singer Vashti Bunyan, the great rediscovery of the current fairy-folk contingent. But the opening slot was given to Danielle Stech-Homsy, a young American who played rather plain, medieval-sounding figures and sang in a light, steady voice. One of the rules of this subcategory of folk is a rigorous kindness toward all things in creation. (Another of Ms. Stech-Homsy’s songs contained the violently twee line “Sometimes a mountain’s too gentle to climb.”) Yet the subgenre has a hierarchy of patience and kindness, and performers like Ms. Stech-Homsy are essentially Vashti Bunyans in training.
In 1968, Ms. Bunyan made her first album, “Just Another Diamond Day,” between two legs of a horse-drawn journey through England, northward from London toward an artists’ colony on the Isle of Skye and then, upon finding that the artists’ colony had already run its course, to the Outer Hebrides. It was a 700-mile journey, and it took two summers. Her story — or what is known of it from her interviews and her songs — is a perfectly preserved hippie tale, full of ideals, heartbreak and sleeping outdoors, and not arriving on time.
But she had children and stopped making music, defeated by a lack of interest in her work. So the narrative has a long break. It picked up again only after her rediscovery, when she finally had a sufficient number of admirers to persuade her to make a second album. She did; it was called “Lookaftering,” and it came out last year, 36 years after the first one. (Now she is 61, and has left the bucolic life for Edinburgh.) The lyrics in “Lookaftering” are wiser, and address her own feelings rather than presenting animistic visions of the outside world, but they are sung the same way: in a quiet, slightly frightened coo. It sounds as if she found her singing voice at night, in a small house, trying not to wake anyone up.
If in between Albums 1 and 2 she had led a life like any other — or at least more like any other than a medieval person — that was no part of Thursday’s concert. The crowd was there to look at a woman who had made a heroic act out of patiently waiting. Ms. Bunyan, now as then, is tall and beautiful, transparently and charismatically kind, and her empathetic young band sat quietly around her, communicating deference in body language. She gawkily introduced every single song, unable to get over how strange it was to be wanted at last.
Her songs are slender, miniature things with simple guitar-picking patterns, but they have been made bigger through collaboration. Most of her recorded work on both albums was done up handsomely by the same arranger, Robert Kirby, and the seven-member band for her show on Thursday night adapted those arrangements, for flute, piano, cello, violin and guitars. Some of them were arranged in rounds, and they were carefully played. Her music couldn’t have been presented better, but sharing in her shyness and vulnerability — as well as her approval-starved reaction to all the applause — became curiously exhausting.
Between Ms. Stech-Homsy and Ms. Bunyan came Espers, a young sextet from Philadelphia, playing and singing droney songs with electric guitar filigree, similar to late-60’s Fairport Convention but without the spark of life. The two singers, Greg Weeks and Meg Baird, seemed disembodied; the band’s sound grew bigger and deeper, but never quite exploded. There was no relief. When they moseyed off stage, and a few Bowery Ballroom tech guys walked on and started swiftly moving cables around, the atmosphere of the room changed: this, by comparison, was real charisma.
Now, I still am saving the Espers II CD I bought naturally in back-to-nature emporium Santa Cruz for close headphone debut, so I cannot comment on Ratliff's take yet, but I will. Ms. Stech-Homsy (what a cumbersome clunky surname, out of early T.S. Eliot or later David Lodge: the name says it all as it did for Dickens or, for that matter, George Eliot) will not have to worry about a place in my music queue. Nor will Miss Bunyan, no offense to her undoubtably winsome talents at last shown now to be evidently worthy of rediscovery. I find Sandy Denny about the extreme of what I can take in this female-folkie songstress direction, and when I criticized June Tabor's latest disc, "At the Wood's Edge," for Amazon, I got chided by some of her acolytes. Going back to Santa Cruz, how many who tuned in and out made it this far back, Rip Van Winklish, to our crueler and craftier decade with their sensibilities intact and still refined?

Well, I am now in the thick of the Tim Leary biography, around the time he claims Harvard kicked him out for LSD but the record shows he seems to have ditched his classes and headed West, as he was wont to do, with two kids in tow after mom killed herself in the garage and the family car that night in Berkeley a few years earlier, after Tim's mistress showed up to wish him a happy 35th. Quite the Pied Piper. Is he to be honored or blamed? Or, like Piper (if not always at the Gates of Dawn, thanks to Messrs. Grahame & Barrett), are the children to blame for their own gullibility or idealism?

Leary's calculated charm reminds me of Mick Jagger as observed chillingly, circa Performance filming, by a cronie in Shawn Levy's account of Swinging London, "Ready, Steady, Go!": he knew consummately when to step from observing the edge to participating with those who tipped over the abyss, but Mick always darted back and away at the exact moment, perfectly timed, even as his new and evanescent friends would perhaps plunge, wondering where the Stone had rolled off too so suddenly.

A background interest and partially why I'm reading it: with such a moniker, I have always wondered about his cultural background. West Point chapter's engrossing, in its inherent tension between one seemingly so suited to any but the life of martial discipline. He did have gumption, and even when "silenced" stood his ground well, and morally I might add, in the face of overwhelming pressure. Prepared him for his scrapes with the Establishment, in and out of Harvard, in the coming decades. Bit of Holy Cross before his fateful year-and-something as a plebe, but due more to stereotypical ma and uncle the big shot in the Church's pull, which helped in later scrapes as well with the Man. Not much similarity on the surface at all of what I'd have expected of a kid the same age (gulp) as my own parents--born around 1920. Strange, no treatment of "his grandfather emigrated from County Cork in 1849" sort of intro, either. Just his grandfather being the real character and the influence for rapscallion lad. Tim's father ran off, as would the son, from the women who evidently would not remain compliant enough. Which I suppose has to be, as he was the one who kicked against the pricks. Hard to place this guru next to one's parents and parents-in-law and think all five of 'em were raised the same time. No generation gap, but certainly for Leary a rebellious one, the kid who sasses back, the smartass who the quieter if equally resentful students cheer on as the principal fulminates and pastor fumes.

Well, West Point dropout, Berkeley PhD in only three years: the best psych program in the country and Dr Timothy Leary--as the marquees would proclaim his bonafides--seems to have simply wandered in and sailed through. Would students in today's fanatical applicant race have been admitted to the top grad school if they had been booted from the academy? Or cobbled coursework for the MA together willy-nilly while serving (sic) in a semi-bogus posting in the military that kept him, Ronnie Reagan or GW Bush jr or Clinton-ish-ly out of the fight? Bright, obviously. Driven, but not to be the doting father he imagined himself but the intrepid daredevil, the one to challenge Freud and behaviorism and ticky-tacky boxes, despite his own comfortable manse once upon an early time of his career (and who could afford such an aerie at such a time now?) in the Berkeley Hills. One of the first to pop the mescaline, the magic mushrooms, to send to Sandoz a note and get back a bottle of lysergic acid gratis for his research. If you discount first wife's suicide, mistress-second wife's rapid failure in matrimony, he gets an endless string of partners, male and female, fawning acclaim from the get-go except for his Harvard department, who can't get hip to the persistent fact that he seems not to be the objective, detached researcher as he conducts his orgies, forms his cult of personality among the grad students, and generally's zonked albeit managing I cannot fathom how to sometimes drive, walk, and teach. Frequent jaunts to Europe, Mexico, the West.

Not much Irish Catholic influence, as he was pretty petit-bourgeosie, son of businessman, if failed one, from the families who were lace in Springfield Mass and not shanty.
Leary, like Mick, apparently could entice the best of the countercultural bards; tellingly, when Kerouac declines to hop on to the "psylocibin pony" (a phrase from the first Cars album), he then falls out of sight as far as the 60s go, while Ginsburg, Burroughs, Corso, and the Beats manage to hang on to become the hippies' elder statesmen. Leary could too step aside when the going got rough and sidle out of town on the night train; the bio's only about 30% into his long strange trip.

The hazards of seclusion vs. the rat race are many, but what of its comforts? Leary and beats and some of those hippies musically talented or not went into the sanctum by means of chemical alteration as well as natural stimulation. And, often, accompanying spiritual exaltation. Catholic men and women today, on the surface the opposite of hedonistic hipsters but also surely much truer as a persistent if quiet and self-effacing counter to today's secularized European culture, still vie to enter the most austere observance of a way of life that goes back if not all the way to Elijah on Mt. Carmel (bombed in the most recent of the anciently-spawned strife for that same contested corner of the Mediterranean) than at least to the Desert Fathers who fled Rome's colonized Middle Eastern, Vegas-like, bread--Doritos? Big Mac? Starbucks? --and circuses--CNN? MTV? You Tube?-- urbi for a true Outward Bound experience, exploring the inner vastness while enclosed in remote fastness.

St Bruno founded an order that for nine centuries, "never reformed because never deformed," remains the toughest in the Church with a 98% attrition rate, the Carthusian hermits. After viewing "Die Grosse Stille," the astonishingly rendered nearly three-hour documentary of La Grande Chartreuse by Philip Groening, earlier this summer, I have been intrigued to return to reading I had rummaged in first when working on my diss. about this legacy of medieval, and ancient, renunciation of the fleshpots of Egypt then or Paris now. What can explain except determination --perhaps shown by the West Point plebe who also endures "silencing" and mental exertion and physical exhaustion-- this attempt by a few men to live among silence, amidst hardship, and to endure until the end in one severely built if not ungraceful haven, each day the same rhythm, each night the same purpose, broken in sleep halfway for three hours of prayer, a practice unlike any other community and one surely to test the sound sleeper and the persistent insomniac alike? And, despite the cider, the largest penance at least for me of all: a vegetarian diet, and from Advent to Lent (at which time I doubt the fare improves). usually in a mountain monastery in wintry Europe, one small meal a very long and exacting day. (I review three books on Amazon about the Order: "An Infinity of Little Hours," "Halfway to Heaven," and "Sounds of Silence." The quality of the respective titular quotes follows the general merit of each book accordingly.)

From a link from the Carthusian-centered Yahoo group at IFSB, a link to a priest from England, Fr. Tim Finegan. In his "The Hermeneutics of Continuity" (a reference to our current Pope of more in another post by me here to come soon) blog he narrates briefly a well-illustrated visit to the world's biggest Charterhouse (memorably evoked in Nancy Klein Maguire's "An Infinity..."--self-promotion, if for her good cause: she asked if she could quote for her own site from my Amazon review, which is humbling since I gave only a measured four stars to this evocative if rather lopsided account, astonishing all the same as its best sections are) at St Hugh's, Parkminster: http://tinyurl.com/jv77n

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