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À votre santé

Prunellaoilwhand_2
(Above: The pressed marc from prunella vulgaris infused in olive oil. I'll use it to make a Venusian salve!)

A quick update before I leave for Lammas weekend on the farm (and, hopefully, some lemon balm and motherwort harvesting):

Finally! Jan. 1, 2008 is going to kick off a terrific year for Illinois. Go Blago!

On the other hand, don't go in the water.  Outrage.

Last night Lugh and I hung out with Ceci and Stu and talked about the difference between the counterculture of the '60s and our generation now. Forty years ago people were able to unite to form a movement to create the change they believed in, and so many aspects of culture (art, music, film) supported and created the revolutionary signs of the times. I can only speak for myself, but it is hard not to feel completely disenfranchised and powerless to change anything these days. I don't think my generation is apathetic; perhaps we are just too jaded. We are certainly the best informed youth about so many issues today, but the inundation of cool media (I tip my hat to you, McLuhan) probably stuns us into paralysis. I hate to say it, but maybe the martyrs of the '60s were the best catalyst for revolution. What could be ours?

Lammas is, in part, about sacrifice, dismembering and remembering, and preparing for harvest -- that last great push before we can rest and reap the rewards of a productive season. If you look at trees in the Midwest in August, they begin to look tired. But there's still a lot of time before they earn the rest and release that autumn brings.

I certainly don't want to cut summer short here! But one must always be aware of the season and its subtle changes.

Turn, turn, turn.


Brian May, dreams, and the iron-clad laws of hero worship.

Bri32306_3
Brian May plays to a darkened stadium in March 2006

Of all the strange, and some might say, outlandish things I discuss on this blog, it seems ironic that I should ask that you give me leave to dream a little today. Suffer me to be sentimental, to be starry-eyed, to hang up my adult skin, just for one essay.

I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamic between celebrity and adoring fan, between performer and audience. (Apparently, to examine this closer, I married a performer.) In particular, I find extremely interesting the fine and distinct thread that connects a single member of an audience to a performer, who expands his or her aura to touch many at once. It’s an incredible phenomenon: It’s impossible for any performer to be aware of each individual person who has come to experience his or her talent, be it at a show or behind the privacy of their own earbuds. Yet, every single member of an audience is hyper-aware of the artist in the spotlight. Without one there would not be the other. Furthermore, it is not so much the talent as it is the emotional connection behind the talent that sustains the relationship. I’ve come to view this as a symbiotic balance; any artist who says he or she does not create for an audience is probably lying. I believe that all expression is based on the assumption that someone or something is going to bear witness – even if what results is the repression of a certain kind of expression. Music is meant to be heard, art is meant to be seen, food is meant to be tasted and eaten. As Forster said, “Only connect.” That’s what art is meant to do. Teaching, too. You may say, I suppose, that you choose yourself to be your own witness. But really, it all comes from a need to share – with others.

Where was I? Oh yes. Dreaming.

Let me tell you a story.

How a Big Scary Robot Changed My Life

When I was little, I would often sit on the floor in the living room, flipping through my Dad’s massive record collection. I’d spend hours this way, while he’d listen to music for what seemed like an eternity. (Only three artists stick out in my memory: Pink Floyd, the Incredible String Band, and Leonard Cohen; to a small child, this is the uncut soundtrack to Eternity.) I’d pull out the records – much to his chagrin, as they were meticulously alphabetized by artist – and just look at the art.

I could never pass up the opportunity to pull this one from the shelf...:

Notw

...Which most people will remember was one of those records that flipped open to reveal much larger artwork:

Notwinside

... And I’d look at it for a long time, a bit scared of it but also perhaps morbidly attracted.

Then, one day when I was six, I decided I was brave enough to hear what such an album would sound like, so I asked Dad to play the record. (He was a real stereophile then, and I knew that I was never to touch anything, especially the record player, much less take records out of their sleeves. In truth, the real obstacle was that I was too short to reach the turntable.)

Now, you can’t have existed very long on this planet without having heard “We Will Rock You.” I think it is an unwritten natural law. I certainly recognized it as the needle played it through Dad’s woofers and tweeters. I felt ‘cool,’ now knowing the words to what I heard at school basketball games and televised sporting events.

At that tender age, I didn’t care much for the song that followed it, and certainly not at all for the one after that. But then, in stark contrast to the first three tracks came one like a soft, cool hand to a fevered forehead – a ballad by someone named Brian May entitled “All Dead, All Dead.” Until that moment, it was the song I most dreaded hearing, because I was sure it would have something to do with the bloody album cover.

But it was soft, and lovely, and kind of made me want to cry. I loved it. I listened to it over and over – when Dad would let me.

That was my Dad’s only Queen record, and in fact it was given him by a friend. I wouldn’t hear it again – regularly, anyway – until years later:

I was 14 and in high school. The battle of identity raged within: was I a goth or a neo-hippie? I cared too much about the planet, peace and the Beatles to be your garden-variety apathetic goth, but I liked the Cure, Siouxie, and wearing black clothes and lipstick too much to be a proper hippie. When you’re a teenager, your taste in music is what defines you, and in the early ‘90s there was a lot to choose from (and strangely, it all devolved into ‘grunge').

One day I was in my boyfriend’s car – I don’t remember where we were going or if I was a goth or a hippie that day – when from out of dead air on Q101 came the words “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” The (now) unmistakable opening to Bohemian Rhapsody. And what a rhapsody it was! My world suddenly shrank to this infinitesimal point, where only myself and the music existed. It was unlike anything I had ever heard, it was so good, MY GOD that guitar solo, those voices, and not only did I want to hear more of whoever the hell this was, I wanted to live inside the song.

Borhap_2 Most of us have been blessed with experiences like that. However, not so many of us are blessed with a sustained version of such an experience, which, little did I suspect, was exactly where my ears were leading me.

Imagine my surprise as I discovered that this was Queen, the same Queen I’d been so superficially fascinated with as a child. Out came the Big Silver Scary Robot again, to remain in rotation permanently for the next few years. Out came all the spare cash from my little job as a detail clerk in an auto shop going right into the till at music stores, all for 20 years’ worth of Queen records, purchased in chronological order.

 That summer, I had a fantastic dream. In it, I was a guest at a crowded, lavish ball held in a great hall. I decided to leave the lights and the dancing for some quiet. I walked through wide, high-ceilinged, stone-floored hallways, following the sweet scent of blossoms in the cool night air. I arrived at a pair of doors that opened to a giant balcony overlooking a large pond and ancient trees, thrown into silvery relief by the stars and crescent moon overhead. I walked forward to a wrought iron railing at the edge of the balcony. I delighted in my secret find and looked contentedly at the vista before me. Then, I heard the latch turn behind me. I turned around just in time to see none other than the afore-mentioned Brian May, whom I now knew as Queen's guitarist, emerging into the moonlight. Through the open door, faint strains of the music sailed out into the night. Both of us were dressed to the nines (I can’t remember if this was set in the present day or not). He asked me to dance. I said yes. We danced. Then, I woke up.

I floated through the day, fresh on the memory of this sweet (albeit rather formulaic – oh, there goes my 30-year-old critic!) dream. That afternoon, I accompanied my dad on a shopping errand which included a visit to the music store. I picked up a copy of “Jazz.” There is a song on that record, written by Brian, called “Dreamer’s Ball.” I don’t need to recount the reaction of an adolescent girl to hearing that song for the first time the day after she dreamed it.

But there weren't only Queen albums. There were also Queen videos.

(Let me pause to state the obvious: since the dawn of MTV, image and image-making have claimed ever-increasing importance in the trajectory of musicians’ careers; that is, how you look is almost as important as how you sound – which certainly allows a lot of mediocrity to get through, at the expense of the solid talent out there that’s less, shall we say, modish. Now, thanks to reality TV and the Internet, almost anyone can be a “celebrity.” (Big, BIG quotes around that one.) Here’s what I’m getting at: Simulacra is simulacra, but back before photos of celebrities were flashed in front of you every five seconds in every conceivable setting, images actually had power. There’s no such thing as an icon anymore. Now it’s all fodder for post-modern detritus.)

Back to those Queen videos then.

Queen had their own style. A look, a crafted image. It changed a lot and I certainly favored some periods over others in their 20-year career, but while it was always over the top, it never eclipsed the quite unbelievable talent of the members of the band. And it was this guy in particular who took my breath away, time and time again:

Thegame_6
Yup, that's Brian. All right, let’s have an image that makes him a bit more accessible, shall we?

Brismiling_3
 

So, fueled by these videos and images made extra powerful by Queen's attention to grandiose and flamboyant visuals, at 14, I fell in “love.” Not with some hunky dude on a sitcom or a pop star, but with the man you see above. And the more I found out about him, the more I fell in love, because he just kept getting better! I’ll get to that in a moment.

Close Encounters and Close Calls

Looking back, it was such a strange time to become obsessed with Queen. Freddie had just died, the Concert for Life had not yet happened, and “Wayne’s World” (the film), which was about to bring Queen into focus for so many people of my generation, was not yet released. Stranger still, past and present began to slide together when, just before my 16th birthday in 1993, Brian would release his first solo record, “Back to the Light.” I was still slowly savoring my way through the Queen catalogue. My favorite albums were the first two. There were no guarantees that I’d like the new stuff. (I have to say I enjoy his solo work more now because I understand it better now.)

When I found out that Brian would be coming to town for a concert in late 1993, it was a big deal. A VERY big deal. I’d never been to a concert before. That year, I was invited to see bands I loved – James, Depeche Mode, Radiohead. Turned ‘em all down because I wanted to lose my concert ‘virginity’ with Brian May. Yes, I said it (or typed it, rather, which is probably worse because now it’s here for all posterity).

It was an amazing night. (It was weird, too – seeing him with a totally different band, including two young female back-up singers.) I was right in front. He was still completely untouchable, and he certainly never looked at me, but I had a feeling this was as good as it was going to get, because I’d never be this close again.

Starstruck, when I got home I started to write him a letter. I wanted to tell him what an impact he’d made on me, how thankful I was. I worked on it, illustrating it (as only a teenager would), making it perfect, selecting the right paper, etc., for a week or so. Then I handed it to my Mom to put in the mail. She asked me if she could make a copy of the envelope. Here’s some of it:

Lostletter

And after two weeks I began the anxious ritual of compulsively checking my mailbox several times a day.

Nothing ever came.

Looking back, I’m sure he never saw my letter, to which I say, “Thank GOD!” I never made a copy of the actual text, but if 20/20 hindsight serves, it was full of your typical melodramatic teenage prose. As a writer now, I’d rather die than have anyone see some of the cringe-worthy material I put to paper back then; and here I was, sending a nice fat slice of it off to the one person in the world whose opinion I valued over all else. I shudder to think what he might have thought, had his eyes seen the thing. And I never thought I’d say this, but if someone out there screened it and tossed it into the recycling pile before he could get at it – Thanks.

Vitamin May

My first year of college, not satisfied with the grueling schedule and demands of journalism boot camp, I decided to take a basic astronomy course. Why? Well, because, Brian May is an astrophysicist, don’t you know. I hold no less wonder for the stars and planets after having taken that course, but boy did it spoil an up-til-then stellar GPA. Pun intended.

So this brings me back to why finding out more and more about Brian May made him better and better. In other words, livinglegend/rockstar/guitargod &c. &c. aside, here is why he inspires me:

1) Let’s start with the brainy stuff.

Britenerife

Brian May was pursuing a Ph.D. in astrophysics and stopped short of finishing that degree when Queen hit it big and went full time. He designed and built a telescope to collect data for his dissertation on zodiacal (interplanetary) dust, which, to my knowledge, is still collecting data on the Canary Islands. (Picture above of Brian and his telescope, circa 1968 (?) used without permission but hopefully with forgiveness from Brian's Soapbox on www.brianmay.com.)

There’s more. If ever there were anyone who might have earned the right to rest on his laurels, it could be Brian. But after 30 years exploring stardom of a totally different firmament with Queen, he decided to return to his notes and complete his thesis, which he did just this year. He has received multiple honorary degrees but will receive the one he truly set out to earn next May, assuming his thesis is approved. Here he is from just last week, capped and gowned in the robing room and ready to receive an honorary doctorate from Exeter University:

 Brirobing

(Photo by Phillip Webb, also used without permission but hopefully forgiveness from Bri's Soapbox.)

Brian also co-authored a book on the history of the universe with astronomy colleagues Sir Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott. “Bang! – The Complete History of the Universe” was published late last year.

Good Lord. Sometimes, I can’t even finish a crossword puzzle.

2) I talk a lot about magic and intention on this website. For all intents and purposes, Brian built, from scratch, a magical tool of his own, the famous “Red Special” guitar.

Redspecial

That’s right, Queen’s signature sound comes from a home-made guitar. Luthiers and techies will appreciate the detailed information here, but most people who read this blog will be content to know that the Red Special was created with mahogany from a 19th century fireplace (plus oak for the body – mahogany and oak being fiery trees, elementally speaking); the body and neck were shaped by hand; the position inlays are made from mother-of-pearl buttons; the tremolo is made from an old bicycle saddle bag carrier and a knitting needle; and he plays this guitar with sixpence coins instead of a regular pick. Most magical of all, I think, is that Brian built this guitar with his Dad, Harold. They began work on it in 1963.

Brivox

 

I haven’t been able to get much into the discussion of the importance of creating one’s own magical tools yet because that is not something I’ve had to do much of this year, but if the “Red Special” doesn’t inspire one to make one’s own tools, I don’t know what will. The immense amount of energy, creativity, intention and love that must have gone into the making of that instrument is staggering to me – not to mention where it has taken its owner. Magically speaking, it is on par with a wizard’s staff or fire-forged sword (or in this case, ‘axe’). It is an illustration that “the little self inside the creation” fosters a bond that renders the tool and the bearer together quite powerful. (And I promise that that is about as Dungeons and Dragons as I will ever get on this blog.)

3) And then, there’s the music.

Most people who’ve seen Brian as a part of Queen know him as the reserved, quiet guitarist cultivating a healthy aura of mystique. Women find him attractive, in part, because he seems shy and like he might need a bit of mothering (I should say that this perceived quality applied to him 30 years ago, not now). Men find him attractive because his guitar playing can rock the paint off cars.

Behind all that is a brilliant composer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter with remarkable range. He’s the guy behind the testosterone-saturated “We Will Rock You,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and “Tie Your Mother Down.” If you know Queen’s catalogue you’ll also know the blistering “Stone Cold Crazy” or “Dead on Time,” the apocalyptic (but hopeful!) “Prophet’s Song” and driving “Headlong.” In his solo career we have examples like “Resurrection,” “China Belle,” and “The Guvnor.” Allow me to remind you that he has been called one of the fathers of heavy metal.

But he also penned some of the most lyrical, elegant, delicate and, well, sensitive songs ever. Brian has a constellation of compositions linking almost every album (Queen and solo) that warp time and space, or exist on a liminal dreamlike plane, and/or are bound in a certain kind of melancholy longing, often for something or someone untouchable or lost along the way. I have to admit that these pieces are the ones that form a running soundtrack perfectly matched to what I call my vast interior life. It’s a place, perhaps unfortunately, where I live too much, but at least I can say that it’s never boring. These compositions are the ones guaranteed to send me there, leaving my body here with a faraway look on its face.

They’re also the ones that bleed into reality in strange ways, like my experience with “Dreamer’s Ball.” In 2000, “Another World” pulled me out of a particularly dark place. In May of 2006, having the Beltaine opportunity to touch the world of the White Queen breathed life into that song, though from a totally different perspective.

Brian_mysteriousBest of all of these came again in dream form last year, extraordinary also because it happened on a single island of sound sleep in an ocean of insomnia. In this dream, I was watching Brian in an intimate, uncrowded concert. (This was Brian as he is now, not circa 1975 as the picture at left may suggest.) After he finished playing, he stepped down from the stage to mingle with the fans. Enough of them thinned out for me to be able to talk to him, and he greeted me as though he recognized me. I asked him, “Brian, how did you become sure that this was your vocation?” I motioned to the stage and the idle instruments. He put on a thoughtful face for a moment and then signaled to me to come closer. He looked into my eyes and said, “Pay attention now, because I am going to sing you the song of your becoming.” And he leaned forward, put his lips to my ear, and began to sing. He was still singing when I woke up.

I stared at the ceiling of my tent (I happened to be camping in the forest that day), feeling simultaneously blessed and overwhelmed. Also, totally exasperated because the song completely evaporated, as dreams often do in the sunlight. While the words and the melody were gone, the feeling of it remained, however, and it reminded me of another of his songs in real life. When I got back to the city I listened to it closely for the first time in years, and discovered a whole new meaning.

To be clear, I’m not saying I believe this man ‘visited’ me in my dreams or anything like that; but I believe he is certainly the instrument my subconscious uses to remind me to continually evolve into the best me I can be, invoking balance and harmony all the while. There is a something and a someone that I will one day be, as yet untouchable, and perhaps that is why I connect with Brian’s songs of longing. I guess that through the example of Brian May-the-man comes Brian May-the-archetype, who represents to me a kind of ideal – a harmony of empiricism and intuition, science and art, reality and surreality, the ancient and the unfolding.

Well.

If this essay hasn’t jumped the threshold of hero worship yet, it never will.

If at first you don't succeed...

Brian and Roger Taylor, plus Paul Rodgers as a new front man for Queen, came here for a concert in the spring of 2006. I got second row seats, stage way, WAY right. (Note to self: If they ever come back to America, get tickets stage left next time because where his fretboard is, his face follows.) I was a tiny individual in a throng of really big (yes, I’m talkin’ sizewise) audience members. At the end of the concert I jumped on my chair so that I could actually see Brian as he came forward on the catwalk to say good night. (The picture at the beginning of this post shows how far away that was.) I flailed my arms around and shouted, surely undiscernable from the cries of the stadium full of people. One of the staff at the venue asked me to step down from my seat because it might break.

Bri032306i_2

I came home after this wonderful concert and pounced on my computer to e-mail Brian. Less melodrama this time. Short and sweet. (Contrary to the idea you might get, dear reader, from this unabashedly self-indulgent essay, I am indeed capable of terse verse). Remember how I said that any expression assumes or anticipates a witness? That holds true for e-mails to rock stars too, but the difference was that this time I knew the odds were against that assumption.

And here we are.

Hey, at least I saved the cost of international shipping!

Another World?

Occasionally, in my weaker moments, I still sing the lament of the teenager who wrote the rock star 15 years ago:

How can it be that, on a ribbon of time stretching millions of years in either direction, and in a universe chock full of galaxies containing countless suns and planets, two beings of the same species may be allowed to be born within the same lifetime, on the same rock, within a few thousand miles of each other … but then not be allowed to know one another?

Maybe it’s just that ever-increasing awareness of limitations that comes with adulthood but I look at it now and more and more I begin to think that there’s an order that just should not be rearranged, or a veil that cannot be parted. I leave it up to the guys at Pixar to prove me wrong, but all the old myths seem to mostly preserve a kind of set of natural laws that even the gods could not pervert. Not without great effort and consequences, anyway.

And in truth, that veil is necessary to holding the whole thing together, you know?

Britelescope

So, back to that crazy phenomenon between performer and audience I referred to at the beginning of this article, and which I illustrated shamelessly here with my own story. There is the hero we create in our own mental and emotional landscapes, and there is the hero sitting at home clipping his or her toenails. There is a very real place where the two overlap, I think, but it exists in the Twilight Zone. It is no less real, however.

Today is Brian’s 60th birthday. He spent part of it receiving an honorary fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University. Another day, another accolade! He continues to be a shining example of how to follow one’s dreams and make them come true. I don’t know Brian May-the-man at all, but what I know of his work and life brings out something special in me – he inspires me to aim higher and to work harder, to be the best, motivated not by competition or fear but by following those things about which I am passionate – my tropism, my true vocation (which I am still figuring out... late bloomer). He inspires me to have the courage to dream big as long as I have prepared a good anchor ahead of time. He also gives me a spectacular soundtrack by which to work and play.

Ah, my inner teenager wants to say something:

He’s also still one of the most handsome men in this solar system.

Happy birthday and God bless you, Brian. Thanks for being a continual teacher and inspiration, and for all that magnificent music, veil notwithstanding.

...

Finally, God bless you readers who stuck with this essay all the way to the end. And now, a real life paper calls – if only I knew half as much about the life of 17th-century herbalist/physician/astrologer Nicholas Culpeper as I do about Brian May!

Aside from the ones from Brian's personal website, the concert photos I took, the photo of the centerfold of "News of the World" from an eBay auction, and the last one of Brian in red with the telescope, which bears a copyright to David Burden, all images here are from the fan gallery at QueenZone.


Country Mouse, City Mouse

Enkiducloseup First, meet Enkidu, the tiny peridot-green frog I found sleeping on the beebalm in my Netzach garden last weekend. Here he is, perched on Hermit's pinky.

I was on the fence about spending a weekend away from home again, but I had just as many responsibilities in the country as I had in the city, and a new tent to christen (disastrous), so off to Ima's farm I went. I toiled mightily in the hot, HOT sun all weekend, weeding and harvesting yarrow, self-heal and calendula for a salve I'm making. I pulled out most of the beebalm in Netzach, lovely in bloom but covered with an unsightly mold, and planted some Veronica, pinks, hibiscus and cosmos. I fertilized the rosebushes with worm casings (worm poo). I weatherproofed my garden statue of the Venus de Milo. I laid a path of beautiful old apricot-colored bricks to the center of the garden where she will eventually stand.

Ima's farm was in bloom, a garish profusion of petals and scents and insects. It was beautiful. It was exhausting. It was renewing. I praised the virtues of Gatorade and the humble garden hose.

We lost power and barbecued in the dark outside Hermit's house. Star Farmer fell into not one, but two holes (notably, not in the dark). In a move completely out of character, he toppled out of his chair as we sat around the fire talking about resale shopping. My wonderful classmate Claudia brought her lovely friend Jose, who completed a rather hypnotic painting inspired by the farm on Saturday. When Star Farmer suddenly found himself with his chair gone from beneath him, I thought Jose would never stop laughing. I still chuckle when I think about it.

Prunellaclose It was a great time, unstructured, full of hard work, intimate community, and green, green, green. I feel ever more confident about my path, financially uncertain as the practice of herbalism is. Recent research shows that a walk through nature can alleviate depression. I can vouch for that.

If you're in the city most of the time, nature still offers up its summer wonders; just do like my friend Stu. In fact, I could have just left this whole post blank and subbed in Stu's July 11 entry. He captures it perfectly. Well. Of course he would.

Don't miss the season, folks. It only comes once a year, and every year is different.