Sunday, June 14, 2009

Managing the Malaise

It seems like everything I'm doing or not doing lately hinges on my level of inspiration. On one hand, this is a pretty cool way to operate. On the other, it can be extremely unproductive when not inspired. As I'm not trading dollars for hours, and the only boss I really have to please is myself (and my wife, who enlists me for household tasks that simply MUST be done) I can often while away the hours preoccupied with endeavors of little real substance or accomplishment. Somehow I justify that anything worth doing must come from and inspired perspective and not from self-reproach of "what must be done". Since this winter past, little inspiration has been forthcoming. This motivation constipation, or 'the malaise' as I call it has infected my creativity, income and general happiness to some degree. Yeah, there's no one to blame but myself for this but still I feel it's better than doing things you don't want to do when you don't want to do them. I know that in the past, pushing myself to work when I wasn't motivated did not produce significantly better results, especially on the creative end of things. Then again, being uninspired to step beyond the bounds of the hum-drum sometimes requires a catalyst. Such a catalyst took form by the recent renewal of acquaintanceship with a dear old friend.

My friend, who I will refer to as Bob, posted a comment on my blog that was like getting a wake-up call with a silken feather. I was tickled pink! It had been 20 years since our last contact with each other, and my previous (although admittedly half-hearted) attempts to track him down in the interim were met with no success. Being ever the wanderer, I though he had moved to some distant country and and become enmeshed in a foreign culture and lifestyle. Not so distant though was he I soon found out, after now having a way to contact him, and all at once it seemed like old times again.

Our friendship really began at the beginning of our senior year of high school, and although we had known each other a few years prior, I ended up attending a Catholic HS, largely at the whim of my parents, who (Mistakenly) thought it would be an advantage to getting into a better college. Meanwhile, Bob soldiered on in public school, having a blast, no doubt. In my junior year, I knew that my ideas were turning too radical for the stricture, scripture and structure of the Jesus-driven educational system. I wanted to grow my hair long, wear flowered shirts and bell-bottom pants. I wanted a girlfriend who wore miniskirts instead of a frumpy uniform, I wanted to smoke pot, take L.S.D., spew forth my radical philosophy, make music and hang out with the 'hippies'. None of this was happening in the cloistered world of the parochial school. So I finally rebelled, my folks relented and I spent my last, and best year even in public high school.

From the first day he wandered into my basement playing a flute back then, Bob and I became fast friends. He introduced me to J. R. R. Tolkien, and I introduced him to the Incredible String Band. (Only the latter would end up being "literally".) Our love of eclectic and exotic music was the glue that cemented our friendship and actually forged a vehicle for mutual creativity. At the time, there was no more eclectic and exotic ensemble in pop music at large than the Incredible String Band. The ISB have been described as a psychedelic folk band by those who know little or could care less about their music; they are no easy outfit to pigeon-hole, and most attempts fail to do justice. From their Scottish/Celtic roots, the instrumentation and form reaches into Asian, Afghan, Moroccan, Indian (India), Tibetan, and even American Blues and Rock. It was "World Music" of a sort before the term as such was even coined. Yes, for a period of time their lyrics may have seemed psychedelic, but their songs carried tales mythic import, and bespoke of wisdom well beyond anything else being done in the rock/pop genre at the time. Cryptic, yet seductive and inviting.

"O second self, o gate of the soft mystery
I'll love you if you'll love me;
O guide me
with the gold of Gabriel's wing
Grant me the tongue
That all the earth does sing-
Vibrating light, forever one the sun
The book of life is open to us
There'll be no secrets left between us..." - Three Is A Green Crown, Robin Williamson

And yet, they were often very whimsical too. That was a big part of their unique charm, which did not carry over very well into the decidedly non-whimsical '70's, at least as far as the critics and the general record-buying public were concerned. But I digress too much. Suffice it to say that the ISB was the core influence of the musical collaboration (along with other folky acoustic oddities like Dr. Strangely Strange, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Forest, etc.), the not-so-incredible string band, that Bob and I embarked on which we eventually named Pilgrim Quiggle. As such a collaboration, it was founded on inspiration rather than perspiration, or any illusions of working toward a goal of fame, critical or public acclaim, or even monetary compensation for our efforts. Unlike previous 'band' efforts (on my part at least), we never had any set rehearsal schedule, disciplined practices, or truly public performances. We got together and improvised when we felt like it, played for our small circle of friends, and had a jolly good time of it.

Bob had no formal musical training. I had some, which helped a bit with the structure, but was only enough to get by. Bob was good at percussion; he had a natural ability for rhythm and a knack to be able to pick up unusual instruments and make them sound interesting. My guitar and mandolin formed the base, while Bob dabbled in various hand drums and bongos, whistle, flute, jew's harp, ocarina, shakuhachi, bowed gimbri (primitive Moroccan string instrument), shenai, or chanter (Indian reed instrument), castanets, finger cymbals and whatever else he could get his hands on to make interesting sounds. Eventually, a sitar even crept into the mix, but I could not wrap my head around it and gain enough skill to make a good go of it, so I sold it to another friend.

We actually did write enough songs in our own ramshackle fashion that were nearly an album's worth of material but we had no Joe Boyd (ISB producer) to take us into a legitimate studio and refine our sound. Even if we did, I'm sure we would have come off as Incredible Wannabes and would have quickly sold our way into the cut-out bin had any record label been foolish enough to sponsor our 'act'. Had we gotten serious, stuck with it and gained some discipline, who knows? We might have gotten good enough to at least play Renaissance Festivals, and would have been prouder of it than the band guys.

The important thing here though is INSPIRATION. It is what fueled our little collaboration in spite of its deficiencies. We might occasionally play an ISB song, or a T-Rex song but the overwhelming majority of our material was original, and often bizarre, but it had a magical and whimsical quality to it. Hearing some of those songs now, as ambivalent as the listening experience can be, I hear glimmerings of brilliance amidst the averageness of amateurism. We had a lot of fun, and I'm sure we both learned something about inspiration and creativity along the way.

Our association continued into college where we were roomates. Perhaps that was a mistake, as familiarity tends to breed contempt, and our lifestyles were not necessarily compatible in the long run, or the small room. Although we saw each other occasionally over the years following, with the exception of the DNA Theatre project (another coll-abort-ive effort we experimented with), there was little in the way of co-conspiratorial creative efforts between us. I had gone the way of rock musician, being involved with one band or another. Bob would pop us as an actor in a play, a musician in a gamelan orchestra, a juggler, and likely a whole lot of other roles I don't know anything about. When I finally moved away from our local area, we lost touch. For 20 years. Until he looked me up again.

That contact was both nostalgic and inspirational. I discovered that his interest in eclectic music had not dissipated but expanded. He's collected more exotic instruments, and learned how to play the fiddle. Through our correspondence I've had sort of an awakening and renaissance of ideas that I've been meaning to put into practice, but never could seem to get the motivation to realize. Now, a bit of synergy from afar has wakened a desire in me to attempt to truly syncretize my influences. Possibly, the answer to the malaise, which is where this post all began. I know it won't happen overnight, and Bob and I may never get the opportunity to collaborate on another Pilgrim Quiggle, or any such musical squiggle, but the seeds have been sown.

"...You know what you could be.
Tell me my friend,
Why you worry all the time
What you should be..." -You Know What You Could Be, Mike Heron