Archive for February, 2018

Within You, Without You

February 28, 2018

harrison2

I’m recording a collection of songs (called Street Songs) as a supplement to my book (called Street Song). One of the songs is the George Harrison song from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Within You, Without You.” One day, around 20 years ago, I was curious to know which scale he’d used to create that Indian sound and discovered it was C Mixolydian. The scale is used a lot in folk, mountain, and bluegrass music, and I thought it would be amusing to play it as a hillbilly tune. But “Within You, Without You” contains some unusual, non-hillbilly meter, and I didn’t have enough interest at the time to work it out—until this recording project came along. Once I’d come up with a suitable rhythmic and chord structure, I recorded it—me on guitar, my sister Beth Lyons singing a duet with me, Peter Lacques on harmonica, Matthew Lacques on mandolin, and Bruce Kaphan on Weissenborn, a kind of lap steel guitar. I loved how it turned out and will make it available when my book is finally published. It was a group effort. The musicians came up with some great ideas, taking my original concept well beyond anything I was capable of.

Some people disparage the original recording of “Within You, Without You.” One reason given is that it’s not rock and roll, which is a pretty dumb reason. It’s excellent music, but there are a lot of rock fans who don’t really love music—just rock and roll. Some criticize it as faddish—that it’s just Indian-sounding pop music. But that doesn’t hold water. When Harrison wrote and recorded the song, he was a serious student of Indian music. (He remained one his entire life.) At the time, he was, by his own admission, neglecting  guitar in favor of  sitar, taking lessons from pupils of Ravi Shankar as well as from Ravi Shankar himself. He wrote the piece with an understanding of the forms of Indian song. He played on it without any of the other Beatles, just some Indian musicians and an orchestra whose parts were arranged by George Martin. In recently released outtakes you hear him guiding the Indian players. He’s not asking them for something “Indian-sounding.” He knows the scales he’s playing and how to count time in their tradition.

Another complaint some people make is that it’s too “preachy.” I think that’s something people say when they don’t want to hear a strong truth. Every word in that song is true—more true, I think, than anything Bob Dylan ever wrote.

Within You, Without You

We were talking about the space between us all
And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth, then it’s far too late, when they pass away

We were talking about the love we all could share
When we find it, to try our best to hold it there with our love
With our love, we could save the world, if they only knew

Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you

We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold
And the people who gain the world and lose their soul
They don’t know, they can’t see, are you one of them?

When you’ve seen beyond yourself then you may find
Peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come when you see we’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you

Having lived with that song for more than a year, I’ve come to appreciate it more rather than less. It’s a great song—one of the greatest I’ve ever heard. Harrison had a creative idea that grew out of what he was experiencing, and he made it work. It’s something of a miracle that millions of people were exposed to it when it came out. We live in a time where its sentiments are seen as naïve or too idealistic. But that’s either going to change or we’re going to do ourselves in.

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Egotism and Freedom

February 22, 2018

Wayne LaPierre says that gun control advocates hate individual freedom. Like a lot of right wingers, he mistakes egotism for freedom. They are not the same. People who are tied up in egotism are not free. They are slaves to all kinds of paranoia and suffer terribly when it comes time to die. To die gracefully you have to be able to let go of life. An egotist can’t do it. He inevitably finds death a terrifying experience. To be genuinely free requires a tremendous amount of internal work—work that men like Wayne LaPierre refuse to have anything to do with. They are the real slackers.

Progress Report #113

February 16, 2018

I’m currently working on the final chapter of Street Song, which is presenting me with some expected difficulties. The previous 41 chapters, “the story,” were told in a voice where the narrator (me) never knows much beyond what he is experiencing at the time. This was not a plan. Something inside me resisted using the voice of the omniscient narrator. So this final chapter, which I’m calling “The Afterword,” is told by me as I am today looking back at what I’ve been through, explaining certain things, and drawing conclusions. I need thoroughness and concision at the same time. Difficult to do. I hope to be finished by the end of April. We’ll see.

For the last year, I’ve been working on a collection of songs (called Street Songs) to go with the book. The book is fairly saturated with descriptions of and stories about music, and it occurred to me that you can’t really describe music with words. So I approached one of my readers of the work-in-progress, Bruce Kaphan, an outstanding musician, composer (he did the music for Judy’s latest film Pelican Dreams), and recording engineer, and worked out an agreement with him to do some songs in his studio, Niagara Falls. The original intention was to keep things fairly simple— more than just me and my guitar, but not much more. But things have gotten more elaborate. Two songs in particular have a somewhat large sound. I’ve always been curious about how recording works, and I’m getting some good lessons in that regard.

In my late teens and early twenties, I wanted to be a musician (or a rock star, whichever came first), but never got beyond singing in the streets and in bars during band breaks. It’s difficult to explain here how it happened, but I ended up on the street at the same time my musical ambitions ended. But even after I quit playing seriously, I used to go down to City Lights Bookstore and stand in front of the doorway and sing for spare change. One of the songs I used to do was the Bob Dylan song “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” At the time I was quite bereft—even afraid for my life. To me, I was the immigrant in the song—someone who’d left his old life behind but was having grave difficulties finding a new one. I sang it as if I were praying. It’s in the book, and it’s an easy one to play, so it was one of the first songs I recorded over a year ago. It was just me and my guitar, played simply and starkly. At the time, Bruce suggested he add a harmonium (harmonium is a small organ-like keyboard) and a tambourine. I thought it was a perfect idea, but we moved on to other songs and the track was neglected—until yesterday. We finally dusted it off and resumed work. I was expecting the harmonium simply to add a little instrumental texture—sound. But Bruce knows a good deal about harmony and he added extensions to the chords that gave the song colors and feelings it didn’t have before. I was so incredibly moved—laughing sometimes because I was so happy with what he was doing, at the edge of tears sometimes because it was so solemnly beautiful. Very simple, but just right.