‘I had a vision tonight that the world was ending’

It’s a weekend for stories – in particular ones that have, historically, shaped beliefs and ideologies and provided guides for living life. Of necessity, the sharing of those stories has a different form right now as the rituals that accompany them have to be amended for our safety and the safety of all of those out there dealing directly with this virus on behalf of us all.

We lost a great storyteller this week, so my thoughts have been straying in the direction of how and why we create the tales that keep us entertained and provide us with models for living this life – or help to point us in the direction of things that we can do to make it all better.

I’m listening to one of my fave contemporary storytellers right now. @thebrianfallon’s album was released two weeks ago, and since he can’t get out to present it to us in person, he’s been streaming from home and sharing his thoughts and stories on all the social media. He’s overcoming the strangeness of playing to an empty room so that we can participate in some check-in time and share feelings about the physical distancing that will be our collective situation for the foreseeable future. It’s a lovely indicator of the ways in which we can maintain our connectedness in this time of enforced disconnection.

John Prine was a master of the story song. He created characters and embodied and expressed their individual voices when he told us about their lives. Brian’s songs are likewise relatable – and hit hard and close to home because we can see ourselves in some element of the slices of life he presents in his lyrics. There is an optimism and comfort even in the mundanity and loss and the day-to-day struggles presented in the songs that may not have direct equation in everyone’s life, but which share the commonality of being human and the joys and pain that accompany that condition. I don’t think I’m alone in my feeling that stories like this need airing more than ever at this point in time.

For those who might need a reminder (or who might not have known), I deal in apocalypses. Most of my adult life has been about reading them, and interpreting them, and putting them into appropriate historical, geographic and cultural contexts. I’ve been writing one of my own for the past couple of years, as a matter of fact. As far as literary genres go, the apocalypse ranks among my personal faves and takes up an inordinate amount of my head space.

That’s creating some issues for me right now. This global pandemic we, as humanity, are enduring as part of our shared experience is more than disconcerting in its scope and uncertain outcomes, so thinking about the end of days… that’s a bit of a slippery slope if I want to keep myself from depths of despair and the inactivity that accompanies that condition.

Since I can’t let go of the apocalyptic thinking, I’m going back to my primary sources and thinking about what we can learn from it – as pattern of thought that arose from the need to cope with circumstances that are less than ideal (to massively understate the severity of the here-and-now. It’s a rhetorical device I’m using as way of keeping panic at bay).

Apocalypticism, as a literary genre and as an ideology,  is a reflection of societal discontent and disconnect – something called anomie, if you want to get all sociological about it. The stories that come out of this discontent – often presented as dreams or visions of future events and an undoing or redoing of the world – are creative revelations about what will happen if things continue along a particular trajectory of wrongness.

The Wikipedia insists upon a religious connection – and yes, most apocalyptic envisioning accompanies a particular mythology – incorporating its motifs of good vs. evil (angels, demons etc.) and all the various players in the dramas that make up the foundations of belief systems around the world.

In more contemporary times, the players in the end of days dramas are just as external as angels and demons – aliens, AI run amok, zombies and the like – and still set one group – ‘us’ – against another – ‘them’.

Apocalyptic ideation is a way of coping the world that is an inherent part of Western interpretations of experience.

Intrinsically – if not always consciously – we are conditioned to think about ‘next things’. We are told that in order to get this job, or to earn that reward, or make it through a global pandemic, there are certain steps that need to be taken.

As human as this inclination may be, it’s symptomatic of the fact that we slip into the habit of striving exclusively for the future and neglecting to acknowledge the moment in which we are, right now, living. This creates a certain tension that leads to a great deal of personal discomfort, if I’m honest with myself.

Historically and sociologically, apocalyptic thinking develops as a response to the perceived disparity between expectations and societal realities. When we are unhappy in our current situations, we project a better scenario at a future date.

In historical literary and religious traditions, the better scenario generally comes after a cataclysmic and status changing event of some kind that trashes the social or cultural system that is causing the disconnect between expectations and reality. The new reality is posited to be one of justice – as perceived by the person who is unhappy with the current status quo. Religious apocalypses promise salvation as the aftermath of the period of trial and unhappiness.

We still think in these terms in our secular environments, even if all religious underpinnings are removed. We are the product of millennia of this approach to dealing with societal realties – and it has become part of our inherited way of approaching our world and managing our existential discontent.

For all that I love the myths that have been created in accordance with this particular worldview (some of the best stories are apocalyptic in nature (go reread that one about The hand, writing on the wall, if you doubt me) from a philosophical and personal perspective, it can be a problematic construct. Apocalypticism, by its very nature, negates the life we are living now, in favour of the life that might come along at some point in the future.

It can be a very useful coping mechanism – when things are stressful and deadlines need to be met, or when we are told to hunker down and remain isolated for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s a well-used and generally effective management technique – we’ll get through this period of uncertainty and then things will quiet down and get back to normal.

We’re all experiencing this kind of anxiety now. We are conditioned, on some levels, to think that we need, sometimes, to suffer in the moment so that the next things will be better.

Those who fully accept this paradigm may be handling all this better than I am right now. I tend to want to appreciate and be thankful for those things that are of the moment – so the future-striving as central tenet is distasteful to me. Simply enduring the right now with the hope of something better coming along seems both wasteful and somewhat lazy.

Time may be a construct, but as we’re seeing all too frequently right now, it isn’t endless and we don’t have much of a say as to when ours will come to an end.

I need to reach a happy medium between the acknowledgement that whenever we come out the other side of this pretty much everything is going to be different and using the time confined to the house to some purpose and level of productivity. Sitting and doing nothing but waiting for this to be over is not going to be sustainable for me or for my health.

One of my favourite bands has a song that’s all about visions of the literal end of the world that strikes some of that balance. Spending whatever hours might be left in conscious awareness of the minutes passing, with gratitude for what we have. I love listening to this song as the sun sets over the Big Lake on that rock at the Cottage on the Bay.

I had a vision tonight that the world was ending
Yeah the sky was falling and time was bending
We spent our last night in the moonlight
Baby it’s so bright we’ll be up all night
I got a helluva view for the end of the world
I’ve got a bottle of booze and a beautiful girl
If I’m a’­goin to die I’m gonna go in style
What if the world dies with the sunrise?
Baby it’s all right we’ll be up all night
What if we’re unmade when the stars fade?
Keep me going ’til the night turns into the day

 

Until the Night Turns is one of the connected story songs on Lord Huron’s Strange Trails album. It’s a loosely-woven series of fairy tale-esque interactions with the other, supernatural, world and its impact on those it touches. It’s my kind of mythology – and in keeping with the direction of my thoughts and the ways in which I’m coping with things right now.

For me, listening to Lord Huron, and to Brian, and John Prine as I mourn his passing, permits a means of reflection and appreciation of the past, a method of coping with the present, and acts as guidance as I engage in some future planning – and hopes as to what might take shape as we re-evaluate what is important as we live in society and in community.

It is clear that things will be very different on the other side of this. Taking lessons on board – about inequity, and struggle, and anachronistic biases and prejudices – as taught by our storytellers can help with the reshaping of the world if we don’t turn away from the evidence of disparities that this crisis is highlighting.

We speak in apocalyptic terms without giving it much thought. One of my Dad’s favourite things to say when I was making mountains out of emotional molehills (i.e., being a drama queen) was ‘it’s not the end of the world.’ Right now it feels like we’re as close as we’d care to come to it being, in fact, the end of days. Instead of dreading the inevitable changes, we need to take this time to build our true apocalyptic vision of what those better days to come will look like.

Whatever stories you are celebrating this weekend – whether of deliverance from destruction, rebirth and salvation, or the return of the fertility of the land that keeps us fed – I hope you do so in safety while maintaining whatever level of connectivity you can.

Regarding mislaid hats and passing realisations

“ummm — I just checked and — wow — just — wow. The Monkees Good Times is Number One on Amazon — solid 5 stars — and I’d just like to say — wow — and ummm just — you know — thanks. no kiddin’. Played a song and someone’s listenin’. I gotta find my hat.”

Michael Nesmith, Facebook post (May 28, 2016)

For those of us who love music, 2016 has been, thus far, a rough year. After sharing some thoughts about the loss of David Bowie and Glenn Frey, I couldn’t bring myself to do the same for His Majesty, Prince. I just couldn’t.

I started to do so – there’s an abandoned draft in the folder – but the words I could come up with didn’t seem adequate descriptors of the talent and impact of the man. He was of ‘my’ generation in a way that the other two weren’t. Whilst David and the Eagle(s) were always and forever a part of my awareness of things that are good and wondrous about this life I lead, I met Prince at about the same time as the rest of the world did so.

I can remember the first time I saw him so distinctly…  and every little bit of the video for ‘Little Red Corvette’ remains highly detailed in my memory (oddly-functioning encyclopedia that it is).

There is, and can be, no one like him. I know that I wrote that about Bowie, too. Two icons – lost to us (save through the catalogues they left us , and the impact of those songs and their other, myriad, contributions) months apart.

He visited my hometown (a place he loved and where he lived, for a time) shortly before we lost him. I was in the midst of the move and setting up house so took a pass on the show. Chatting about it with a friend, we both agreed that we’d catch him next time he comes through town.

Sigh.

And then, just a short time later, Gord Downie announced to the world that we are losing him too. The Tragically Hip will tour one last time – in support of their latest studio album and to give all us Canadians a chance to say farewell to our most Canadian band. Ever.

(Don’t agree with my assessment? I’m happy to discuss. But I’ll win. Certain things are inarguable. This is one of them.)

I’m not going to talk about the whole debacle surrounding ticket sales to said concerts – although I loathe the giant ticket conglomerates only slightly less than I despise those vultures who cry ‘free market’ and are benefiting from Gord’s illness – and the loyalty and love of his fans – and reselling the tickets at exorbitant prices.

Instead I’ll say a little something (in passing, since I’m not going to eulogize someone who remains amongst us) about my deep affection for this band and all that they have meant and represented to me over the manymany years I’ve had the good fortune to be part of their sphere of influence.

I hung out at Queen’s University in Kingston a fair bit when I was a younger me, so I got to see the Hip, on more than one occasion, in bars and small clubs as they began their climb to dominance over cottage-and-campus playlists across this country of ours.

I saw them in large venues, too. A couple of nights in that place in Ottawa where their hockey team plays, (they keep changing its name), for example, the second of which featured nothing but B-sides and a 20-minute version of ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ that was classic Gordie.

Since I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a fair bit of time with them, I’ve decided not stress too much at my inability to see them on this last tour. I’ll happily pay for the album when it is available, and hang out with them on my own, and in carefully-chosen company (non-believers in their status as our national band need not apply), whenever I have the chance. On my back deck, or in front of a fire or down by the lake at the cottage.

I’ve mentioned before that, for me, in many ways, ‘Last American Exit’ remains the definitive Hip tune. It very much speaks to their unconcern about the development (or lack thereof) of a huge fan-base in the States, and their eternal presence in their home and native land. It’s also the first song of theirs I heard – and the first Hip vinyl I purchased. Still love it (and have it back in my hot little hands after the years in storage).

Lately, though, the sentimental/nostalgic tune that keeps hitting me in the heart is this one:

(WordPress won’t let me insert videos any longer. Unless I want to pay for the privilege. Not going to happen.)

First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal, this is our life…

You are ahead by a century (this is our life)
You are ahead by a century (this is our life)
You are ahead by a century

And disappointing you is getting me down

Like all their songs (there’s an entire history of Canada in their lyrics to be learned, if you listen closely), ‘Ahead by a Century’ speaks to a particular time-and-place, while being – simultaneously – universal in theme and scope.

(I can see that hornets’ nest. Been there, been stung by that.)

It’s hard not to feel that his voice – a voice I’ve known and loved for almost 30 years – is speaking to me directly. Through this song (through all their songs, all their talent) and through the reality of the health situation that may rob us of Gord.

There isn’t enough time, folks.

2016 is bringing home that message in a bigbig way.

Recently I realized (and expressed the realisation in an email exchange with one of my oldest buds) that I am doing the absolute wrong thing with my life (and that is saying a whole lot, given that I have spent most of my life avoiding subscription to most of those things that many people would deem ‘absolute’).

Part of that realisation stems from frustration and feeling under-appreciated and under-utilized and, simultaneously, over-burdened, to be sure. But more of it – most of it – comes from the awareness that we are sinking, as a species, and I’m not doing much of anything to help us swim.

I need to do better. I need to use the talents I can call upon to impact and influence as best I can.

I’m not doing that right now.

I’m trying to figure out how to change that.

I need to stop disappointing. That’s something that’s most certainly bringing me down.

‘When it starts to fall apart, man it really falls apart.’ True dat, Gordie.

But. In the midst of all that dissolution, we don’t always have to look that hard to find the inspiration to (re)build.

When Davy Jones passed away in 2012 he took a big piece of my heart with him. I love The Monkees. I always have done. (I’ve written about them before, too, but I’m not even going to try to link the posts. Not enjoying the ‘updates’ to the composition page here in WP).

So when rumours started that the remaining three guys were thinking about a 50th anniversary album… Be still my holey heart.

With contributions from all kinds of interesting peeps (including XTC’s Andy Partridge, and my beloved Paul Weller), and recordings from back-in-the-day that let Davy’s voice yet be heard, this album makes all of me smile in a reallyreally big way.

Suddenly, everyone seems to be talking about The Monkees. I couldn’t be happier about that. They’re getting some much-belated and well-earned props (not that they’ve ever felt the need to bemoan their heretofore lack thereof), which is awesome. More than that, they’re demonstrating the power of well-crafted songs that can transcend genre and era, both.

In a world of increasingly-auto-tuned ‘musical’ acts, I can’t help but smile at the irony that the original ‘manufactured’ band of the 60’s is topping the charts in 2016. I. Love. It. I’m gloating and glowing, all at the same time. And getting shivers listening to songs like this one:

While I do love them all, Papa Nez has always been a personal hero of mine. He has invented and reinvented himself so many times (invention must run in his family) – always pushing against whatever envelopes he might encounter – creating new and different means of expressing those things he feels some examination.

His innovation and refusal to be categorized or compartmentalized are inspirational to the Nth degree.

In a recent interview about all this, Michael was asked about his thoughts on what, exactly, might be driving this particular resurgence and receptiveness to what a bunch of old(er) guys have to offer a somewhat jaded and superficial music-buying public (forgive my admittedly-biased editorializing).

His response? Well, the real answer is, “I don’t know.” It’s obviously plugged into something that’s very deep. People who come to it at an early age get impressed by it in a way you wouldn’t if you discovered it when you’re older. But it certainly speaks to a kind of innocence, something that does endure. Those are spiritual qualities that don’t go away. You may lose your innocence, but you don’t lose your sense of innocence, is what that means. It’s a nice thing to revisit.’

(The whole chat can be read at: http://www.soundandvision.com/content/new-sounds-and-good-times-michael-nesmith-monkees#OHyg02rLMKQQdds8.97)

That depth of which he speaks? For me it’s about a connectivity, linked to an appreciation for and understanding of the absolutely (there’s that word again) required role of art and craft – and the important, if not always tangible or quantifiable, vitality and progressiveness that inform and permit the appearance in our world of the ensuing results, given to us by those who have the courage, and the innovation, and the talent, to show the rest of us how they see things.

I won’t, likely, have an opportunity to see, live, this most recent demonstration of a lifetime of that art and craft as presented by my remaining Monkee-dudes. I won’t see the Hip that last one more time, either.

Instead, I will get back into the world of music and its magic when I go to see Lord Huron next month. Tickets for their show don’t require taking a second mortgage on the house (or putting cash into the hands of scalpers), and, after more than a year of loving their flavour of creative input, I’m looking forward to participating in its appreciation, as they bring their tour to Toronto.

(check out this one – my current fave from their most recent album – if you’re curious about them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TGld4a5Mb4)

When I showed him Michael’s Facebook post about the success of their new album, my friend, the incomparable Len, said: “FIND YOUR HAT, MIKE. STAT.”

Len’s plea, that Papa Nez might be able to navigate his competing responsibilities and commitments (his explanation about his inability to join Micky and Peter for the tour’s duration involves a deadline to be met for his most recent novel, among other things) and provide us with the opportunity to be a part of something new and old and complete just one more time, resonated more than I can explain.

If Michael Nesmith, with everything that he does already to improve and inform and entertain us all, can find some time in his schedule… I need to step up and sort myself out.

So I’m going to have a look for my missing headgear – such as it is, and set aside for too long though it may have been – with an eager ear tuned to the sources of dedication, inspiration and example upon which I can call.

Not enough time for disappointment and disengagement.

Where did I put that hat?