This song is called “Old Guitar” which is strange because I hate songs that mention guitars in them. It is creepy- like a painting of a paint brush. I don’t trust artists that are so into art that they actually write songs about it. It feels masturbatory when artists set art too high on a pedestal. If artists are going to worship anyone, it should be the people who make it possible for them to pursue lacy ephemeral things- people like lumberjacks, soldiers, carpenters, farmers, moms etc. It is only thanks to these practical people that the ones like me can exist.*
Also, I sort of believe that- as much as possible- artist should try to be soldiers & lumberjacks themselves, not just sit around fingering a guitar all day. Otherwise, they are like cut flowers that don’t have much to draw upon.
Now that I have gotten disdain for books out of my system, I would like to share some of my favorites. The two things I look for in a book are a) that it be an autobiography and b) that it not be written by a writer. I don’t want to be impressed by someone’s writing ability; I just want to understand what they are saying. The more simple, the more I like it.
I like books by strange people and books by normal people. Books by “great” people and books by ordinary people. Although ordinary people write books about themselves less frequently, when they do it is a treat. I would prefer a book about a day at the office to a book about the conquest of Rome.
A couple more thoughts…
I hate it when autobiographies begin with endless details about a person’s ancestry.
Many autobiographies are spellbinding in the beginning but become vomit inducing once the person achieves worldly success. Pre-success self lives in a fascinating little world of dreams and struggles, while post-success self inhabits a dry, bloated reality in which they have become an object even to themselves.
So anyway, here are a few favorite books…
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
I love books about people who must endure circumstances beyond their control. Two other things that make this book amazing to me…
Freddie’s fate is changed by a magic root.
He finds the “keys to his destiny.” What do I mean? Well, I have this theory that everyone has one- or possibly several- keys that unlock destiny for them. But these keys differ from person to person. One person might need to read every book they get their hands on to tap into their latent powers of luck, while another person might need to focus on growing their hair into long, golden locks.
Freddie had two keys- literacy and fighting. He knew he must learn to read at all costs and- and after receiving the magic root- he realized he must always fight back, even against his master, returning each blow with a blow.
As he admits in the book, this course of action would generally have guaranteed a slave’s death. But since it was his destiny, or perhaps because he held the magic root, it worked for him.
Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
Once again, a person who endured hardship and found the keys to their destiny. In the case of Booker, his destiny was unlocked through a devotion to practicality and manual labor. At a time when former slaves were being encouraged to learn French and run for office, he realized the value of learning a practical trade- one that would meet the true needs of humanity. He figured that a man who serves a necessary role will have a secure place in any community, while the fortunes of the high-falluting man will wax and wane.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
I don’t know if Harriet ever found the key to her destiny, but anyone who has the will to spend 7 years curled up in a box to escape slavery is cool in my book. This made me feel better about all the years I have spent in near confinement.
The Crystal Horizon by Reinhold Messner
This book- about Reinhold’s first solo climb of Everest- helped me see how the road to glory is paved with drudgery, pain and hallucinations. I appreciated his simplicity and his willingness to risk his own life while not the lives of others. A cold, high & empty feeling pervaded the whole book, which I found very stimulating.
How I Found Livingstone by Henry M. Stanley
Now for a man who was completely willing to let others die in his quest for glory. But keep in mind that Henry was a soldier himself, risking his life for both the Confederates AND the Yankees, constantly putting himself in danger- not for a social cause- but in the name of Manhood and Adventure.
This book is also an interesting glimpse into Africa of the 1800s, though through a traveler’s perspective. People offended by the racism of days gone by should avoid this book, since Henry believes in the superiority of his own race.
Growing up with Draja Mickaharic by Luke Cullen
A simple book in which Luke recounts his childhood training with a magician. It is not fantastical, however. Even his teacher-the magician- explains to him that magic can only alter the odds by 20%. Eventually, the author decides this advantage is not worth the cost and forsakes magic for an ordinary life.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Not an autobiography, but probably the best book ever written. Timeless animals doing timeless things. What more could you ask for?
The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi
A good book for those wanting to take a more extreme approach to life. Drinking his own urine is just the tip of the iceberg. I may have been better off never having read this book, since it fed some of my own extremist tendencies and sent me down a strange path for years. I never drank urine of course, but did develop self-torture routines of my own for the purpose of… actually, I can’t remember exactly what the purpose was supposed to be. To be stronger, I suppose?
But I have come to the conclusion that self-flagellation only works as a spiritual path if you are a man. Because it is the nature of man to rise above his emotions, whereas it is the nature of woman to glean wisdom from hers. Only men should try to conquer themselves.
Eight books is enough for now, but I may be back with more later…
Oh, and do you happen to like songs about books? Here are a couple to consider…
Ok… well, I suppose this is a song about the pirate Blackbeard.
I first heard this song (in my head) five years ago while walking along the banks of the Ohio River in Owensboro, KY. But the next day I returned to Louisville and was working in my garden when I heard another song (this one about flower fairies) set to the same melody. I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to write two songs with the same melody, because I dreaded the moment someone would say, “Hey, those songs have the same melody.” I was playing open mics around Kentucky, where the presumption was that you must suck, or else you wouldn’t be playing open mics, you would be dancing on a golden stage. So, I was feeling a little sensitive, and to avoid potential criticism, the Blackbeard song was buried and forgotten.
Until yesterday, when I heard it again, and decided to write it down, because if God can write multiple songs set to the same tune, then so can I.
So this is a song about Blackbeard. I have written a number of songs about people on boats, although I don’t know why. I have no interest in boats in real life. I also write a lot of songs about soldiers, and even gay love between soldiers, although once again I have no idea why.
But, I suppose the world of the unconscious is different from this world and the meaning of things aren’t the same. In this world, my favorite activity is shopping for scented soaps, but I will probably never write a song about that. Nor would I write a song about how much I appreciate special people in my life. That would be weird and nauseating, not to mention bad luck. Songs seem to come from a world that is upside down and backwards to this one. Their ways are not our ways.
I’ve written a lot of songs that involve a character crossing an endless stretch of frozen land, because I feel a lot of my life has been about perseverance and trying to outlast unbearable situations without going insane- or at least without going insane in a way that is irreversible.
So this song is about a soldier/spice salesman, who uses the warmth of spices to help him and others survive (emotionally & spiritually), a hard, barren, and relentless lifestyle.
What can I say? By the time I wrote this song I was basically a red giant, flaming out from having taken such a martial approach to life for so long. I would burn cayenne pepper as an incense, even though it made me cough like a crazy person, hoping it could revive my passion for life and will to live.
This is a morality song about the Vanderlus, an ordinary confederate couple with the classic southern problems of over-exuberance, intolerance of boredom, and a proclivity for jumping back and forth between the fire and the frying pan.
I used to believe in “Silver-haired soldiers,” which is more or less the notion that older men are wiser and more benevolent than younger ones. Unfortunately, while they may be wiser, I have learned the hard way that they are by no means more benevolent. Personalities can soften and harden, hearts can open and close, but wolves never seem to turn into sheep, no matter how much time you give them.
But I do think older predators tend to take on more lofty and benevolent personas than younger ones. They are more subtle and shrewd, and very rarely seen outside of their sheep’s clothing.
As for whether or not people get wiser over time, it is hard to say. Time brings perspective and experience, but also pain and unresolved emotions which can thicken into phlegm and finally dry into a hard crust inside our hearts and brains.
But still, I do think we have faculties that continue opening up to us throughout our life, including psychic and supernatural ones, even though many of these may be outside the vision of our culture.
“Let no one beneath the age of 84 years call himself a man.” -Confucius
At the time I wrote this song, I was very into soldiers. I had recently read Gandhi’s biography, and he talked about how he thought of himself as a soldier and tried to live accordingly.
I also tried to be a soldier, and pushed myself to be brave as much as possible, which caused me to have no respect for men whose primary goal in life was to pleasure themselves.
But, being by nature shy and cowardly, it took A LOT of work to be brave, and in the end wasn’t worth it… just like a naturally plump person trying to be super thin, or a skeletal person trying to be obese, it is bound to cause some strain when you try to diverge too much from your nature.
So, I had to come up with many crutches to help me push beyond my emotional comfort zone, such as taking ice cold baths (covering my whole body, including head dunks), and eating insane amounts of ginger. I disliked ginger, but found that if I ate enough (and it took a LOT) I was no longer able to feel butterflies in my stomach, just a warm gingery sensation.
I guess the Shanghai Trio were the embodiment of who I was trying to be- three beings dressed in red, made of fire, and afraid of nothing.