How Not to Get Spat Out

James Parker

I saw the Who the other night at Boston’s Fenway Park. What’s left of me saw what’s left of the Who. Pure magic. Full moon over the Citgo sign, and my face molten with tears as seventy-four-year-old Pete Townshend, in a red boiler suit, windmilled at his guitar, clanged it over his raised knee, forced gorgeous unpredictable sounds from it. They did the best bits of Tommy, then the hits, then the best bits of Quadrophenia, then some more hits. Jesus Christ, what a band. What a story. (Somewhere in there they also did a new song called “Hero at Ground Zero.” Cue mass piss-break.)

            Opening for the Who was Peter Wolf, formerly of the J. Geils Band. I never liked the J. Geils Band. In fact, as a younger man I would have taken this opportunity to write something virulently shitty and vaguely militant about the J. Geils Band. But not today. Because as I watched Wolf and his band, the Midnight Travelers, perform the J.Geils hit “Must Of Got Lost”—Yeah I musta got LAWST… —I was granted a precious insight: this, this kind of comfortably catchy mid-paced mid-brained blues-based chugalong singalong, is what all of rock’n’roll would sound like if there had been no geniuses in it. No one to make it new. Kevin Barry, guitarist for the Midnight Travelers, is very very good: he peeled off a couple of exquisitely shapely solos. Talk about playing it right. But the surrounding music, the surrounding dynamic, was resolutely genius-free.

            Pete Townshend is a genius. He’s a possibility channel, a conductor for the ineffable. It’s still visibly pouring though his gangling high-tensile body: even though he’s seventy-four, you wouldn’t want to get in a fight with Pete Townshend. Who-music has not dated. Why? Because the entire agon of Townshend’s creativity has been to connect the base elements of rock to the transcendent, to wire them up to the unearthly, the beyond time. The beyond the J. Geils Band.

            So am I coming down on the Charles side of things? Am I, finally, of the pro-make it new party? I don’t think so. I will explain.

This is a tricky position for me, and yet it’s one I am very used to. I always seem to end up here, in the middle, at the dull heart of the dialectic: Charles has his shining radical thesis (“Make it new, ever new!”), Carlo has his barbed antithesis (“Play it right, goddammit.”), and I have my spongy and vitamin-deficient synthesis (“Uh, how about a bit of… both?”)— Zzzzz. The intellect moulders at room temperature. Revelation 3:16: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” 

            But what if, what if, we took this discussion away from boxing and free jazz and into the realm of the personal, into the realm of (say) ME? My life. I wake up in the morning and I bloody get on with it: cold shower, bring the wife her tea, rouse the boy for school, eat the oatmeal, boil the egg, walk the dog, get to work. I love it. “Very easy to assassinate me,” I say merrily. “I do the same thing every day, ha ha!” I luxuriate in routine. The liturgy of habit. I wedge myself into layers of familiarity and sleep there like a beetle. I play it right.

            And then, every few months or so, I don’t. I wake up with a demonic desire to—yes—make it new. I say “demonic” because it possesses me: it gets me between its teeth and shakes me like a dog shakes a rabbit. Shred everything. Rip it up and start again. There’s a riot in the nervous system. Shearing silver volleys of Charles Farrell piano-notes are coming at me. From the inside! It’s a wild feeling, not to be accommodated. And at such times I have to manage myself quite carefully—I have to, if possible, play it even righter than I was playing it before. There’s brimstone in the air. Head down, plough the well-worn groove.

            Does that make sense? (Have you noticed how everyone is always asking that these days, as if we’re all on the verge of a catastrophic failure of understanding, a Babel-esque breakdown?) I think you know what I’m talking about, reader. The nice man who just served me my coffee advises me that this is a Taurus thing—but not exclusively. Repetition adds value, builds significance, stacks on power: it’s the science of a good riff. But something in us, with exactly equivalent force, seems to demand the opposite: the scream of ungovernable feedback. What’s to be done? Cultivate the old Keatsian “negative capability,” perhaps—the capacity to flourish in tensions and contrarieties. Or in my case, as I once heard the poet Don Bajema say (he was opening for a spoken word set by Henry Rollins): “Try like fucking hell to be a man.”

I’ve been meditating/trying to meditate, on-off, in-out, up-and-down, for eight years. Like (I assume) every other meditator, I am the worst meditator in the world. Which is to say, the most feckless, fidgety, carnal, trivial, incipiently schizoid, obsessively woolgathering and tail-chasing person ever to attempt the noble practice of meditation. I’ve felt this way for as long as I’ve been doing it; I feel this way every time I sit down to meditate. I claim it and I wear it—the wobbly, wobbly crown of worst-ness. And so (I assume) does everybody else.

            It was my friend Tina, a priest, who taught me to meditate—who transmitted a technique to me (the inner repetition of a word), and steadily renewed the invitation to practice it. The introductory sessions left me quite rattled. Tina calls it “the first gift of the spirit”: this dramatic, instantaneous acquaintance with your own fragmentation and restlessness. What the second gift is, I haven’t yet found out.

            But I have gained, in fits and starts and fallings-away, a sort of education. I’ve learned that you can’t stop thinking. The brain is a thought-generator, that’s one of the things it does, so here come the thoughts, one after another. (Don’t attach, let ’em pass, yeah yeah.) I’ve learned additionally about the physicality of thought: with what speed something that starts immaterially, up in the rafters of your skull, moves to un-ghost or embody itself. A thought, an idea, just a little waggling of the wires, can tighten the chest and coat the gullet with nausea and drench the system in adrenaline. Drizzlings of sadness, elation sparks, roaming anxiety bubbles, a rumble in the underpants. When you meditate, you watch these things happen, over and over again. And cycle by cycle you cultivate, I suppose, I hope, a certain perspective.

            That’s me and meditation. By no means a hero’s journey. The point is that trying to meditate puts you right between the antlers of the make it new/play it right dichotomy. In following your practice—the word, the watched breath, whatever it might be—you are doing your damnedest to play it right. Doggedly you sit down, doggedly you settle. Your brain, meanwhile, insists on making it new: What about this? How’s this? Did you ever think of this? And so on. I think there’s beauty here. I believe that reality is the second-by-second self-renewal of the Logos, the first powerchord of Creation ringing through us with eternal sustain. All new, from beginning to end, from the utterance to the eventual silence. And playing it right—maybe—is developing an ability to get to the edge of understanding this. Does that make sense?

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