Music

The Longest Day, The Shortest Night: Summer Solstice

Kunthisurya A couple of days ago, the woman who, with her husband, is doing the work of exploring the divine male and female at our mystery school asked me:

"What should I be concentrating on for Summer Solstice?"

I gave her an off-the-cuff drill:

This is the height of the male (solar) force, which draws most strongly upon the expression of female fertility to bring creation to the surface.

It is the zenith of what started as the romantic Beltaine energies. No longer wild, it is focused, and no shadows are cast. The Sun pulls straight upward while the Earth arches toward it accordingly. It seems like surrender, but actually the two hold each other in balance (an even, powerful balance of attraction; not quite the thrall of Beltaine) and see each other most clearly. To draw a metaphor, the mystery lover of Beltaine is now your known partner and most powerful ally.

The Sun brings the Earth to the peak of its industry; but, as with all things cresting, the high point of a cycle heralds its inevitable decline. And as the power of the Sun begins to wane and the days get shorter, the Yin grows and Earth produces her nourishing harvest.

We move so much to the surface of ourselves at midsummer. Every nerve, every sense, seems to be electrified. And as any straight channel will demonstrate, it is the time to receive and give pure, unadulterated and efficient energy because there are no twists and turns to slow or otherwise shift the flow.

This is the definition of what happens at high noon on the day of the Summer Solstice: Become a battery and charge up when the getting's good!

Meditating on Darkness at Summer Solstice

That's pretty much what I told her. But here's what I didn't:

Everyone talks about Summer Solstice as the longest day. Well, it's also the shortest night. That brief night is a vigil in itself, a trembling wait for a day of glory and light.

But what happens to nights after the solstice, at that very fine turning point of energies -- is also very important.

My theory is this: You receive the height of Yang energies at Summer Solstice. These energies are so Yang, they have the ability to penetrate to deepest Yin. This means that you receive the seed of light to sustain you through the greatest darkness -- Winter Solstice. That very first night after Summer Solstice, that night when darkness takes over just tick more... should be given just as much meditation and contemplation because it is the first night, the first expression of Yin, that will anchor and nourish that Yang.

In non-Chinese terms: The first night after the Solstice sets the tone for how well you feed the fire that will carry you through another year, much of it in cold and darkness, until the warmth of the sun begins to grow again. What kind of fuel will you use? How often will you need to stoke the flame? Will you be a good steward of your energies so that they are available to you when you need them most?

As quickly as our attention is given to expansion and heightened activity (Yang, the Sun, the Summer Solstice), in an instant it must shift to conservation (Yin, the Earth, the harvest and eventual sustenance through slumber).

But Why Listen to Me When Hrithik and Aishwarya Can Show You?

But gee, you know, simulacra is the way to reach the masses these days, isn't it? So here's a music video of sorts which kind of illustrates my point. It's from the film Jodhaa-Akbar, whose absolutely gorgeous (you guys: GORGEOUS) soundtrack by the incomparable A. R. Rahman has had me obsessed for months. In fact I bought the soundtrack before ever seeing the film, and I still think that in some ways the movie does not do justice to the music!

I won't spoil the film by giving too many details, but know that you must get over the fact that the pair in this clip are probably two of the most beautiful people on the planet before you can absorb any other meaning.

But in light of Summer Solstice, notice how Emperor Akbar "brings" light into Princess Jodhaa's room -- literally filling it with the rays of the Sun. Of course, it was his event to plan. But the point is, he brings the light that penetrates the feminine space. After a slow build of romance throughout the film, this is the point where they finally see each other for who they are and acknowledge their mutual power -- Yang and Yin.

The display of chemistry is pretty vivid here and the device used by the filmmakers to highlight the strength of this pair's trance-like attraction is that glorious day suddenly becomes night. In absorbing the sight and energy of each other, they exhaust the daylight. And here's the mystery of Summer Solstice: watch as Akbar lights the candle and brings Jodhaa's night-time (Yin) self to life.

Or, don't think at all and just enjoy this stunning clip with its beautiful, beautiful music. Make sure your speakers are turned up. Much, much better yet: plug in your headphones to really appreciate the song. Happy Litha everyone.


P.S. A fine English translation of the song from the Urdu is found here; scroll down. Devotional picture at the top of the post is of Queen Kunthi summoning Lord Surya, the Sun god.

Seems like all I really was doing was waiting for love

Bulkherbs2 I'm sitting on the floor in San Jose Airport, having just finished a week at my school's annual herbal seminar. This was my third and final one, and it was a stressful week of monitored herbal clinic and the usual group dynamics psychodrama exacerbated by the pressure to perform. Gratefully, I had friends around me to whom I could show my own weaknesses and for whom I hope I provided support in kind.

On the way to the airport I began a sort of free-association whine with my long-suffering buddy Pam about all my going-away angst -- a feeling of incompleteness, naive expectations that weren't met, my own foolish illusions, what in the world the future might hold, anticipating missing my friends, and wondering if I'd ever be back to this beautiful place.

"You're saying pretty much all the same things you said when we left for the airport last year," Pam pointed out. "You're pretty much in exactly the same place."

Oh fer Christ's sake. Let's hear it for progress!

I'm still processing a lot about this week, which in effect was the culmination of about three years of study at East West. But I do want to share with you the following, which is an e-mail I sent my fellow herbalist friend Tom about what happened the day I landed in California. I think it sums up the whole experience.

-----------------------------

Hey love --

Got in this afternoon and met up with my girls. We were waiting for the last of our party and decided to go into Santa Cruz to hang out. My friend Pam had a stuffy head and lingering cough from a bug she got three weeks ago. I said "Maybe you need some Minor Bupleurum" and we thought we could stop in at Michael's clinic to buy a bottle.

I called him to alert him we might come in. He told us to come on by and sit in on him doing an intake. A chance to watch the master in action -- Hurrah!

But then his 3 p.m. canceled. So he decided to make my friend the intake and I became the student clinician. "Fine, I can handle this," I thought, mostly because I had no choice.

So he did the intake and asked a few questions, then did some acupuncture on her. How awesome it was for me to know some of the points by heart! (They were easy ones though.)

Then he had to do a phone intake and left me to come up with assessment and treatment principle.

I was a mess at first but finally came up with Six Gentlemen plus magnolia bud, platycodon and some damp-draining herbs. Pam gave fine suggestions from the slab, stuck with needles as she was and without the benefit of a book to boot -- sign of a fine herbalist.

Michael came back in after 30 min or so and asked what my result was. I started to report my assessment: "Lung Qi deficiency, Spleen Qi deficiency with damp, corroborated by pulse and tongue..."...

He said, "No, you have to state your assessment in terms of her complaints, not what you THINK her TCM assessment is. It has to be 'sinus congestion due to...' or 'rundown energy due to...' etc." OK, so I tried again. He asked why I chose these patterns. I began to explain my proposed etiology, knowing her previous history of illness.

He interrupted me again and said, "Did you look in the books?" I said "Yes, but they didn't have the same patterns so I went on my own." Again I began to tell him my ideas about how she came to manifest these symptoms while he looked in the books under related patterns, which turned up the EXACT SAME ASSESSMENT as my original one.

"Lung Qi deficiency, Spleen Qi deficiency --" he began.

So I looked up at him and I said impatiently, "But Michael, I just SAID that!"

And his face fell and he said "I'm just trying to show you how to use the books; you'll need them one day, you know."

Extractpowders Not wanting to waste any more time on my impertinence, he asked me my proposed formula and I told him... he said it was perfect and what he really wanted to hear was that I'd choose to use magnolia bud in there somewhere. He un-stuck Pam and sent us off to the pharmacy to mix up powder.

My tail was between my legs as I slunk out of the treatment room.

After he finished with his next client he came out to the waiting room where we were gathered to say thank you and goodbye. He saw the pained look on my face and said:

"You did a great job. You're ready. But stop being so defensive. You don't have to be right all the time. It stands in the way of your learning.
You are a student now and you should enjoy this time of your life."

Sound familiar, Tom?

xoxo

---------------

Fast forward 10 days later to today.

Feeling sad and disconnected (as well as empowered, oddly) when I got to the airport, I realized that I'd left my still-hot cappuccino at the curbside check-in when I was already halfway through the TSA line. Geez -- what else could go wrong? I threw my head back and looked at the ceiling in exasperation when some very comforting recognizable muzak came on. Huh.

A few minutes later at the newsagents I looked for the mindless comfort of non-herbal, non-medical tabloid dreck. Lugging my carry-ons, I ambled slowly to the right, scanning all the celebrity 'news' headlines I'd missed in my week of media deprivation. Then came summer hemlines, outdoor entertaining, Bob Dylan on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Before I knew it I was at paperbacks and a hefty tome jumped out at me: "The Rainbow" by D.H. Lawrence -- one of my favorite books in college and one whose passages I remembered spontaneously when I met Michael Tierra and was reminded of why I'm on this path at all.

I bought "The Rainbow." I'm going to re-read it. It's my second copy, about half the size and a quarter of the weight of the copy I bought in college almost 15 years ago. I don't think it's any accident that the Universe sends you your favorite music and literature in swift succession just when you're feeling disappointed and free-falling in a small California airport.

No need to be afraid, Ursula Brangwen. It's real love. It's real.             


WE are James

Timsmiling

Me, txt: hey, guess where i am

Yahms, txt: where

Me: at the vic waiting for james to go on stage. just thought id let you know since the last time i saw them was with you, 15 years ago

Yahms: i wonder if you and booth will make eye contact this time

Me: im in the balcony. doubt it

Last year, I found out that one of my favorite bands from high school, Manchester-native septet James, had reunited.

I quite literally did a little jig of glee.

It was springtime when I got their newest record, "Hey Ma," and I first listened to it as I rode the train home after work. Oh my. As soon as I heard Tim Booth's familiar voice -- a rare comfort -- I smiled and smiled, first to myself, then at my fellow wondering-eyed passengers. And when I heard that trademark old-school James fanfare trumpet, I laughed right out loud. It was magic, it was home... and the music and my listening to it conspired to draw the season's new magnolia buds right out of their tight little fuzzy shells as my train wended its way through the greening treetops.

So when I found out that James were finally taking their new tour to North America, I marked my calendar and bought my tickets as soon as I could. I hadn't been this excited about a concert in a long time.

The last time I saw James, I was a senior in high school. Their 1993 hit record "Laid" and its ubiquitous title track were in heavy rotation on my Walkman and in my high school sweetheart's -- that's Yahms -- little yellow Prelude. While many people know James for their cross-dressing, dysfunctional-relationship song "Laid," what they may not realize is that that track is only one on an album of beautiful, mysterious, anxiously questioning and occasionally ecstatic songs. Even to a tender 16-year-old, its grown-up themes of mystery and religion were too seductive to resist, even if I could not understand them at the time. (Of course, at the time I thought I could.) And most people do not realize that this group had been together since the '80s and put out at least four great albums before their breakout record.

Imagine what it was like for my teenaged self when, in the pitch blackness of the theater all those years ago, I first heard Tim's ethereal wail, and the quiet crowd got even quieter. Then, from my place very near center stage, I saw the back-lit silhouette of a slight, curly-haired man wearing a long, loose, filmy dress, first swaying like a reed and later bursting into a shimmering, shaking dance.

Wow.

Of course I was immediately in love, but mostly in awe of this strange creature before me, probably the first person I'd ever seen who seemed so totally at home in his unique way of being. In high school, like many others my age, I was trying on every different hat I could find in search of the right fit, burning through the sleepy layers of childhood to get to my true identity -- so different from the man on stage, it seemed.

And at some point during the concert, as this singer looked directly into my eyes and sang a few lines of some familiar song (so electrified was I, I do not remember which song), I felt connected, momentarily completing a circuit of some nameless but exhilarating energy. Connected and seen.

Fast forward to September of 2008, at the Vic Theatre, having forgotten my ID so water was the beverage of (no) choice, sitting next to my own musician husband in the balcony, suddenly feeling too old to be jostled around on the main floor. I looked at the fans around me. This was my generation -- incomplete strangers reunited under the same circumstances as all those years ago: much older, some having had several children, spouses, responsible jobs, dressed in such a way that it was clear we no longer needed to define ourselves by our fashion.

And I am different in so many ways as well -- in fact having just three days before the concert undergone a private Autumn Equinox ceremony with Ima and a precious few others to formally recognize my progress on my spiritual seeker's path. This was the new self whom I brought to the performance, to the new music.

Our excitement built as we saw the (mostly) familiar faces of the band when they strolled out onto the stage. And then, of course, there was Tim: even thinner now, completely bald with a devilish goatee, wearing not a dress this time but loose clothes nevertheless, clothes that would allow and accentuate his sinuous movements.

The whole band were spot on, even better than I remembered. Perhaps it is my more-grown-up-than-high-school, slightly more sophisticated ears, or maybe it was my seat in the balcony which allowed me to see them as a whole from above, that led to an appreciation of the single functioning organism these men became when they played together, and how each contributed their own unique excellence that made the proverbial whole so much more than the proverbial sum of its parts. It reminded me of two of their songs, "Dream Thrum" and "Bubbles," both of which provide, in part, the recipe for the creation of a homunculus.

Also, seven musicians are a lot of personalities and styles to get to gel well, by rock and roll standards.

But of course I really only had eyes for Tim, like so many of the fans there. After all, we were welcoming him back, prodigal son or no -- it was his exit in 2001 that ended James as we'd known and loved them for years.

Like his bandmates, Tim did not disappoint, triumphantly returning to our stage with his mercurial presence. Throughout the duration of the concert, I found myself experiencing the band in shades of the four classical elements. Tim could be quite firy, but more often than not he was the picture and sound and energy of Air, while the sound created by the instruments was almost always undeniably Water.

Sometimes Tim was the barely perceptible breeze stirring the surface of a glass-calm lake, and we were lilies slowly opening in the peace. Sometimes he was the precious line of air sustaining us copper-helmeted deep sea divers as we bobbed in slow motion amidst ghostly vegetation on the ocean floor. And sometimes he was the gale force wind agitating the ferocious briny waters, and being agitated in turn, while we clung to our tiny ship.

Boothdancing

Some people reading this may have seen Tim's ecstatic style of dancing. This, too, to my mind, illustrates the supremely changeable element of Air. Slight as he is, his body gives a lighter vehicle through which the music/Qi can travel, from the feet, gaining purchase on the stage, through the legs to the pelvis, swinging from side to side, rocking the belly chalice, gaining more movement through the torso, firing through the heart and animating the arms, elbows, wrists and hands, tendons and ligaments straining, every joint forced to its full articulation, muscle fibers grasping one another, pulling forward and back... And above all his brain sloshing around in that bright white cranium, bathed again and again in its own fluids as his body submits to the sound, becomes it.

Ah. Take a breath.

And Airiest of all, no matter what personality of the element he embodied, you could understand every word he sang. Really. Just listen to any James record and see if you can't understand clearly almost every single word. This is an uncommon phenomena in modern rock music, folks.

In magic, the tool representing Air on the altar is the blade -- the blade which cuts only air, dividing space into mundane and sacred parts. Like the blade, Tim's voice did just that, cutting air from air, sharply slicing a channel for some even more rarefied communication to come through.

Tymamid At one point in the concert last month, Tim came forward into the crowd, standing on the dividers in front of the stage -- horselike wooden structures meant to do just that, divide the band from the audience -- and clasped tightly the hands of lucky nearby fans for support. He sang an entire song this way, and while doing so, he looked purposefully all around him at the faces in the audience, including up at us in the balcony. The spotlight illuminated his giant smile; and indeed, I felt like he was seeing me, seeing us, all of us.

Later on, as the audience, tribe-like, joyfully sang every word of one of several James anthems, drowning out Tim's microphone, he once more looked at all of us and I could feel the circuit again, completing, going round and round, an exchange of energy and, well, love. The line from one such song goes, "Sometimes when I look in your eyes I can see your soul." Tim let us sing it over and over again by ourselves and we never got tired, so the band had to stop us to keep the concert moving forward.

During one of two encores, Tim disappeared from the stage only to reappear in the balcony directly across from me, to sing the haunting and heartrending song "The Top of the World."

Timbalcony

Eye contact, this time for sure.

And this fleeting connection was even better than I remember it being when I was 16. I don't know if it's partly because he had more to give in that tiny moment, but certainly I feel that I had more space to receive it.

What is "it"? Just because I'm older, do I claim to know? Not really. But I do know that I walked away from this performance with a lesson in how to connect to others, a lesson in the marriage of the elements, and exposure to a rare, spark-throwing charisma that may only come off those individuals who express themselves with every kind of truth accessible to them. As St. Teresa of Avila said, "When we are whom we are called to be, we will set the world ablaze."

At 31, I'm less inclined to hyperbole but I have a better vocabulary and sense for energy than I did when I was 16. So you'll have to take my word for it -- my own nostalgia and inner fangirl notwithstanding, this was no ordinary concert. And it reminded me that none of us ever have to be ordinary people.

James: Thanks for coming back. Thanks for reawakening those sacred connections.

Oh! And thanks for taking pictures of us! I'm proud to be a flesh-toned blob in the balcony in the panoramic audience photo on the band's blog for the Sept. 26, 2008 show.

Check out James here.


"Every angel is terrifying"

I  was compelled to stay up late last night reading aloud Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus.

I woke up this morning, saw the date, and realized to whom I had been reading them. Without him, my life's path would have been very, very different.

Rest in peace, Jeff. Sometimes I think the world cowered under the weight of your heartbreaking beauty... and in the end, one of us had to turn away.


The Best Irish Music You Never Heard, Part III

Switchbackstpats
Photo of Switchback performing one of umpteen gigs last St. Patrick's Day. Photo by JS Interactive.

To conclude this feature on Irish music (and shameless plug for Switchback) on Herbis Orbis, I leave you with two songs that highlight the polar extremes of Irish pub music.

Last week, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper wrote an article about "depressing" Irish pub songs, particularly the old standard "Danny Boy." Recently a New York pub owner banned the song from his bar for the month of March partly because it is so depressing, and partly because it was written by an Englishman who had never even been to Ireland. (Apparently the same pub owner also instituted St. Patrick's Day karaoke, so you draw your own conclusions about why the song was really banned.)

I remember my Dad once commenting that the only people to whom "Danny Boy" means anything are the Irish, and anyone else is impervious to its legendary tear-inducing qualities. That may be so, but I've seen Lugh perform it dozens of times and it never fails to impress. His version has received reactions ranging anywhere from standing ovations, to tears, to a wad of hundreds pushed into his hand just to sing it again, to a priceless look on the face of a gobsmacked music snob at Chieftain Matt Molloy's pub in Galway who declared that only Irish-born tenors could properly sing the song.

Anyway, here is the best version I have ever heard, and perhaps if you see Switchback at one of their Irish shows one day (mostly performed at Celtic festivals and during the month of March), you will get to hear it live too. It really makes a difference. Note that an extra verse is included, and certainly anyone who sympathizes with Ireland's struggle for freedom from British rule will see why this particular rendition is so moving.

But I can't leave St. Patrick's Day on such a somber note. At the other end of the Irish pub song spectrum we have the obnoxious comedic drinking songs! This one's called "The Rattlin' Bog" and was recently plucked from the Switchback vaults to be placed on the band's 10th anniversary anthology. Enjoy, and Happy St. Patrick's Day!


The Best Irish Music You Never Heard, Part I

Switchbliss
Photo by the awesomeness that is Tipsy McStaggers.

In honor of Spring Equinox and St. Patrick's Day, which I *never* celebrated until I married a full-time musician who also happened to be Irish (he works, I celebrate... sometimes), I want to share some Irish music with you. This is to last you through the weekend. I'll be back with more on Sunday and Monday, including a most amazing rendition of the lately-bullied "Danny Boy."

You've got three choices in this playlist, to fit your mood:

Try "The Galway Shawl," beautifully sung by my own Lugh, for your traditional romantic (yet sad, of course,) Irish ballad.

If you're in a jubilant, bouncy mood, check out the spare bar-room version of "The Wren." Lugh says it's actually a thinly disguised anti-pagan metaphor (the bird represents the Old (Druid) Religion in Ireland). I admit it's a strange fit for this blog but it's a great song and deftly performed.

Finally listen to a dramatic version of the traditional "Star of the County Down" with a distinct rock edge.

If you want to hear more, this trio of tunes is by these guys, (pictured above) and, why yes, I AM biased (espeshully to the one on the left)! Check 'em out... their repertoire only starts with trad Celtic music. Happy pre-St. Pat's Day weekend everyone!


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.