Empty Hands, Part One – Come on Baby Light My Sutra
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
I don’t know, the sound of someone not particularly impressed with your performance?
It’s said that some Zen practitioners have spent fifty years, meditating every single day of their life on this koan, and still never managed to answer it. Yet strangely enough the response above, if you were to say it out loud, might be one of the few that wouldn’t get you pounded mercilessly into the dirt by the master.
Well. . . okay, it probably would.
Either way, I’d definitely smack you for being such a wiseass. Then buy us both another shot of Jameson.
I admit my “Zen essence” is still in a rather infantile stage.
I reread Dharma Bums recently. First time in twenty years, since I was a long-haired, 17 year-old cliché, hitchhiking home from the East Coast to the West—through the tall grass and thick horsesmell and whitewashed barns, scattered like forgotten ghosts throughout the Hudson Valley; into the oppressive, wet August heat and ticking woods of Virginia, following the faded footprints of one-armed soldiers and bright-faced marchers, countless intrepid souls who charged headlong into a barrage of cannons and bayonets, fire hoses and German Shepards. . . I sat with my bone-thin grandmother, a withered, sandpaper-throated, clear-eyed version of her daughter, dwarfed by her recliner and recalling a recent near slip on the icy doorstep, saying “I’ve lived long enough, any time I go is the right time to go”; waded out into Lake Michigan, taking in the distant, towering spires of Upton’s Jungle sprawled along the horizon, finding the water pleasantly warm compared to the Pacific, while my cousins paced the rocky shore, fully clothed and shaking their heads incredulously; crawled beneath the soaring, massive arches in Utah, the red stone so hot at midday it made your skin blister; watched silver fingers of lightning flash over the mesa outside my tent in New Mexico, all the while being mercilessly devoured by thousands of mosquitoes, and then the next day twitched uncontrollably on the side of the highway, thumb extended, every single bare patch of skin—face, neck, arm and legs—smothered in swaths of crusty, pinkish calamine lotion; wrote (probably insufferable) poems on the concrete under highway bridges; and listened, cerebellum dulled by cheap vodka, to competing dirty-faced prophets standing on benches and screaming about The Apocalypse to the mostly indifferent crowd in the Omaha bus station at 4 am. . .
Since that time, my feelings about Kerouac have followed a somewhat similar trajectory to those I have about Jim Morrison. It goes something like this:
During your teenage years, devour the artist, soak up every, overly-romanticized bit of hedonism and self-indulgent poetry you can find, because it speaks to you, to your youth, your yearning for adventure and freedom, blah blah blah. . . (Did I mention I grew up in California?)
Then part two, as you enter your self-consciously intellectual college years, and you start “digging” things like Walter Benjamin and Apollinaire and Ornette Coleman, and not just because they make you seem smart and interesting (they don’t, really.) But, hell, because you actually enjoy it. You finally start to get Yeats and Celine, and decide Kerouac couldn’t possibly have been serious. You visit Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise, witness the idiotic graffiti and vandalism in the midst of the sprawling, sublime silence of The Entombed (I know, I know… but go there if you haven’t already and tell me I’m exaggerating) and you realize this guy is no damn poet. He’s a buffoon. A joke.The mec buried next to him, some printer who died in 1781, during the Commune, was probably more a poète than this asshole ever was. Not to mention that in this same cemetery, just to name a mere handful of actual geniuses, lie Prevert and Balzac and Oscar Wilde and Satie. . .
Hey dudes, let’s take acid and go trash their graves!
But let’s face it, what it really came down to at that age was that you felt more defined by what you didn’t like than what you did. Your aesthetic was your armor. You had to patch up the holes where you could. The biggest problem with Morrison and Kerouac was their absolute, unabashed earnestness, mixed with a little too much mediocrity to make it stick. Sure, you could be into Sylvia Plath or Guy Debord, because something about them was monstrous and impenetrable, and therefore safe. You could dig The Breeders and Patti Smith, who might occasionally wear their hearts on their sleeve, but their badassness went pretty much undisputed. Or you could be really into Diff’rent Strokes or Captain Crunch, and we’re all well-acquainted with the contortions of irony the so-called “hipster” goes through in order to swallow his own tail. In fact, here in the 21st Century such self-reflexive acrobatics have become so post post post post (to the nth degree) modern, and so perversely obvious, it’s actually a little embarrassing to even bring up.
Yet, it speaks to my larger point.
Which is. . . eventually, thankfully, you grow up.
All that breathless contemplation of coolness and uncoolness goes out the window. And good riddance. You like what you like and you honestly don’t give much of a fuck what other people think.
I reread The Subterraneans about five years ago and loved it. I realized this guy is actually a great fucking writer. There really is a reason he is so beloved. He’s self-deprecating and sad and funny and too smart for his own good, and granted, anyone that high on amphetamines and “tea,” talking that much about himself and his amazing friends is going to get pretty annoying at some point. But. . . he’s also read everything one needs to read to be a good writer, and he really does know how to make words twist and kick and excite—and honestly, his friends actually are pretty amazing, and America really is vast and broken and beautiful and full of tragic poetry, and worth writing about in endless, rambling sentences that veer toward the stratosphere, attempting valiantly, and often fruitlessly (but always with genuine passion and dignity,) to conjure the massive expanses where soul and country and language all collide. . .
Of course, I try to explain this to people my age who haven’t read his stuff, and it’s rare if they don’t laugh in my face. Unless they experienced his work as a teenager, with the same naive sense of awe, they don’t really have the same feeling of revelation, of having grown up alongside it and watched it change as you yourself have changed. Yet doesn’t everyone have some piece of their adolescent struggle for identity which has swung this way, to and fro in their hearts, as they’ve gotten older?
With Jim Morrison, the moment of reconnecting was decidedly more sordid, and appropriately so. It was also a few years ago, and I had just stepped out of the bathroom in Tony Nic’s, a small, dark bar in North Beach, trying not to sniffle or flare my nostrils too obviously, the inside of my skull raging like a blizzard, when “LA Woman” exploded from the jukebox and punched me right between my pin-sized pupils.
There couldn’t have been a more perfect song at that moment.
The track is 7 minutes and 59 seconds of pure coke-fueled joy, and you cannot help but shake your ass and pound the bar, lip-syncing like a psychotically ecstatic Rain Man, while your friends and the other proximate patrons, who have probably heard this song at least 50,000 times since they were old enough to turn the radio dial, wonder what the big frickin’ deal is.
Well, first of all, it’s not like you’re shouting along to “Sweet Child of Mine” or “Don’t Stop Believin”’ with a bunch of beefy, Hilfiger-wearing douches down at the Horseshoe. Or, slumping over the bar at The Phone Booth, thinking that your blather about Interpol being nothing more than a cheap, virtual copy of Joy Division is actually going to get you laid (like I said, this was a few years ago.)
No, this was an instance of true revelation, people.
Pure rock n’ roll Satori.
Mojo Risin’. . .
It doesn’t happen to me that frequently anymore—at least not as convincingly as when I was younger—so when it does, it resonates. This wasn’t mere nostalgia for something I once loved and then despised and now loved again. What I realized (as admittedly, uh, chemically altered as my enthusiasm was,) was that the crazy shitbird may not be a poet, or hell, even Iggy Pop, but he really is a balls out, knock you on your ass, give you everything he’s got right now rock n’ roll singer, and the fact that his earnestness bleeds so freely into ridiculousness and then awesomeness and then nostalgia and then back again just makes me love him all the more. . .
So go ahead and be full of shit, my friend. As long as your backup band rocks, and you don’t forget too many words, and when you finally collapse on stage, everyone in the audience is actually on the edge of their seats, wondering if you’re ever going get up again.
Whoa. . . maybe he’s just really fucked up.
Or maybe. . . who knows?. . . he answered the master’s question incorrectly and got knocked on his sorry ass.
“What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” asks Lisa, sitting next to her brother on the windy mountaintop.
Without hesitation, Bart smacks his three little yellow fingers against his palm like a hand puppet…
(NEXT… Part 2- Dirt is Better than Poetry!)