Archive for October 2018 | Monthly archive page

The life that awaits anyone who’d make a go of it on the road – even for a while, even when invited to do so, even when the venues are all but sold out – happens in a caboose on the Mystery Train of how it is. Add to that the strangeness of these days, the politicized grievance brigade setting up their barricades downtown, the enforcement of insecurity by all the security people … Well, this life is the very picture of a rock and roll tour. Minus everything you’d probably expect.

We’re half way through the Nights of Grief and Mystery Tour now, sitting in a questionable hotel in California with fellow transients and come-from-aways, with a string of extraordinary shows behind us, with a congregation of local organizers so committed to something Orphan Wisdom and so much desirous of sending their home places a love letter in an all but graceless age (which is how I make sense of the bottomless labours they’ve taken up on behalf of this mystery play of ours) that our utter and primordial debt to them threatens the incalculable. In other words, we’re doing beautifully, strangely, gratefully well, children of wild fortune as we have become during this run of good health and crazed luck.

So, with Tad Hargrave’s prompting, on a prairie drive from Edmonton to Calgary on a blazing sunny morning we recorded the first time Gregory Hoskins and I wondered aloud in any concerted way about what we were up to with Nights of Grief and Mystery. Maybe this could serve as a kind of spirit postcard from the front lines of the redemption wars.

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Tad Hargrave (TH): I am curious how you both have seen this evolve from your first gig to where it is now, or what you’ve noticed has changed or shifted or what has appeared that wasn’t there in the beginning.

Gregory Hoskins (GH: Do you mean how it is for us? Or what we have seen happen?

TH: I guess both. I am curious about your experience, but also just the shape of it. I just imagine it has changed in some way both in your experience and the consequence of it.

GH: It is huge. It is a massive arc. We have traveled a massive distance, is what it feels like right now. And I could say the same thing for how we have traveled with this thing. When we started I was basically noodling. That is where we started. I kind of was noodling behind this guy I didn’t know. My two amps and my looper and we are in the basement of a library in Aurora, Ontario.

Stephen Jenkinson (SJ): It was a step up from when he was accompanying paintings.

GH: Paintings were accompanying me actually. That was later. It is painful. Thanks for bringing that up. It was just me with these little sonics trying to stay out of his way. And that turned into a little tour which then turned into a bigger tour in the end of 2015 in the States, New York, Boulder and all that stuff.

And even within the context of that, the first one was sort of noodling. The second one I did a song. The second one was trying to refine the noodling and I did two songs. The third was one was: ‘Don’t noodle all the time.’

And we ended the first American thing which turned into about 11 gigs somewhere in between noodle and something else. Then we had about a year before we were actually on the stage together again. We took a bead on this notion of pulse for some reason. We didn’t quite know, but we knew that there was something in that.

Then we went from that one or two concerts in Ontario to the tour in Australia. That is really where the notion of pulse took over from some sort of esoteric interpretation on the guitar of what was going on in the words. The pulse became really important.

TH: How do you make pulse?

GH: Well, it’s exactly what the word means.

SJ: If you listen to a heartbeat, it is not 4/4 time. [0:04:39 beat sounds] It is not always regular, depending on who you are talking to, let’s say. I think we zeroed in on the idea of pulse. One reason was to relieve us from the real rough limit of the music accompanying something I was saying, which I never was satisfied with. I felt that it didn’t serve him (GH) well, because I was starting to get a sense of what he was capable of.

I didn’t want it to happen as if there was a kind of mood and he was in charge of mood. He would just inflect. Because what he was capable of was never well served by that. So the idea of pulse was not a mood thing. It was a sort of carving, you could say. It established a sensibility for us.

TH: Kind of like a meeting ground.

SJ: Yeah, it was a place where what we both knew how to do could finally show up instead of one trying to either back off of the other one, or … We got out of the footprint of accompaniment and started to breathe. It asked more of us. It is not like it was a relief, but instantly I think we knew at the time, even though we didn’t translate the word ‘pulse’. But we both knew what we meant with the word. It came pretty quickly after that.

I know at the beginning for me the biggest single challenge was that I was a one man act, and everything I did was just me. People who are unfriendly to the proposition will call that a control thing. My answer is to that is absolutely that is what it is. But it is not control for the sake of being in charge; it is control, given that you can envision where you could possibly get to.

I was never inclined to believe that there would be anybody who would want to go there, too, not really, not without just a terrible amount of process, emotional processing and all of that thing, who’s where and how is it built. Because here is the thing:  It is not like we were doing something that was already out there, and we are just going to jockey for whose name came first or anything like that. We were doing something that we had never seen.

I don’t know if that is true for you (GH), but it is true for me. I could imagine it, but it not from ever seeing it. I knew we weren’t doing a musical. I knew we weren’t doing an illustrated talk or an amplified talk. I know we were trying to make something, instead of fitting into something. One of the first consequences – and it has become very deep now – is that when I am signing the books people will routinely talk about their expectations.

They routinely say two things about them. One: “I didn’t know what to expect”, and two: “It was nothing like I expected.” You just have to grant them that somewhere in there they are saying what they mean. But certainly Nights of Grief & Mystery is the end of expectation. There is no doubt about it within five or eight minutes. The end of expectation takes place in that invocation. That just puts it to sleep for the evening, the idea that you will have some association you can bring to bear whereby this thing immediately starts to cash out for you.

I think we were saying last night something like: I am starting to realize just how much this is asking of people. But I think it is one of the reasons that we are feeling, all of us are feeling it I think, that we can’t have done two shows and be at this stage (of fatigue). I think it is because we are dragging something enormous up the hill and I don’t think we know quite the weight and the kind of critical mass of it right now.

But this is our part: to lift it and then move into it. It is strangely exciting, but it is very taxing. I wake up with it. I go to sleep with it. I hear lines constantly because some part of me probably has been readying myself for something like this for 20 or 30 years.

TH: Something I have been curious about is that you were the band for Brother Blue, so there was something you were doing, and I am curious how this relates. I never saw you do that with Brother Blue, so I don’t even know what it looked like or sounded like. But I am curious what differences or similarities you see.

SJ: I was pretty young at the time and I was not in any way musically skilled and that hasn’t changed. His was a rough and ready scheme. He would just set up on the street corner, so it is the worst aspects of busking that you could imagine. But you don’t have the hat out because he’s not collecting; he never did.

TH: Wow.

SJ: No, he never did. So it wasn’t street performing. It was a kind of ministry. That is what he would have called, it because he was an ordained guy. He understood the street and the bar and the prison to be the chapel that had been vacated, that he had an obligation to. That is the way he came to it. We were in some dangerous places, man, I’m telling you.

To give you one example, I saw in the same moment there were people in the room who would have laid down with him right then, right there. I saw that. He was an old man by then but it went across all the obvious lines. In the same moment, reacting to exactly the same things that he was doing and saying, there were people in the same audience that would have killed him right in that moment, partly out of envy, partly out of – there is a racial thing involved, right, because he was a black man.

And he was always surfacing this stuff, just by his appearance, because he wasn’t under- functioning for the sake of getting by. So he was not a gentle Jesus meek and mild guy. And he was extraordinarily volatile, but not in any way that made you feel in peril.  Just unnerved. Because the guy was an uncharted guy.

He knew what he was capable of. He wasn’t asking for permission. He wasn’t trying to get over. In a consumer culture, what’s left? If you are not selling something, and you are not trying to get people to put money in the thing, and you are not trying to get people to join your thing, what else is it? The answer is: he was trying to make the world better, right then.

From that – if you are lucky enough to be in on it – you discover that if the majority of people in the world wanted the world to be better, it would be better. And because it is not better, there are reasons for that. To a certain degree the fix is in, and the scene as we know it today is working for way more people than we would ever have imagined that it is.

That is what he took on. I am not saying that he ever articulated that, because I never heard him talk this way. We never wondered about what we were doing, for example. He would introduce me as the band, sometimes the orchestra.

I am there with a kind of medium range acoustic guitar, and a capo for effect. That was it! Then one time I remember he said to me, “Have you ever played the tuba?” He literally said this.

I said, “I never played the tuba.”

He said, “I’m just thinking. Do you think there is any way to work it in?”

I said to him – and he told me later this is what caused him to love me at that moment – I said to him, “Look man, I have never played the tuba, but I will apply myself to the situation.” That is what I said. We didn’t get around to it, but I said I would apply myself to the situation.

He just looked at me and said, “I know you will.”

There is no comparison in any obvious way, because I would never make a parallel. What I would say instead is this: if you are lucky enough once in your lifetime to be in the presence of something like that, then you have been stolen from, and he stole from me. What he stole from me was my ability to mope around this life in my 40s and 50s and 60s as if nothing was really possible, and there was not really any point, and everything was about defeat or compromise. He stole that from me, and I have never had it since.

I don’t think it is really our place to know what the consequences are of what we are doing. But between you and me, I wouldn’t be shocked to hear something similar years down the road, that people say something like: “After that there is a different standard.” I won’t say higher standard, just different standard of life. It is like that story (A Love Affair in Reverse) says: This is stand and deliver time.

He just branded me that way with that. I suppose somewhere in there that is still alive. That touch of his is still alive on my end of things. But I think it is beyond my end of things. I think there is something that we are both old enough now to know about.

Another thing to say is this: When I was with Blue … he was in his late sixties probably when I met him. I never knew how old he was and he never told me. We never talked about it. But it turned out that the last time I played with him he might have been in his mid-seventies. That is kind of a Leonard Cohen-scale arc of life.

He was absolutely vital until his last days. Literally. His wife told me a remarkable story at his funeral, two touching little things about him. She said the day that he died he was sitting quietly in the chair in the living room. He looked up to her and said, “Ruth, get the tape recorder.” She taped him all the time, so it wasn’t unusual.

So she got the tape recorder. She set it up – one of those little Sony things where you have to press play and record at the same time, a little cassette thing. And he leaned in, and he didn’t tell her this at all, and he leaned in and he said, “This is Blue’s last song.”

He knew sitting there and then that he was going to die that day. He wasn’t sick. He was old, but he wasn’t sick. He knew he was going to die. The same day that he died, he told that story. That is the kind of guy he was. That is what kind of presence of mind he had.

The other thing; So we are at the funeral, which killed me, because they put together a kind of ‘best of Blue’ film thing. I couldn’t watch it’ because that was not the guy that I was with. And he did not survive translation to film. Or recording. Even that was pretty tough.

But of course there was a written programme for the event. Ruth didn’t know that Nathalie and I were coming down. I had heard about it through a publisher and we just dropped everything and drove however many hours from Toronto to Boston and found out where the gig was, which was in one of those big old churches on the Boston Common.

We went in and I could see her from a great distance. Of course she is surrounded by all kinds of friends and allies. She is an old, old lady by this time. Everybody is a little concerned that she is going to crack open like an egg but she was never that way. He was inconceivable without her in many, many ways. That’s true.

Anyways, when she saw us at the break, she said, “Come here at the end.” So we came at the end and all these people wanted to be with her because she was the rock star of the moment, and because she certainly could have used their help in getting home. She thanked everybody for all their attention, and then she pointed to Nathalie and I and said, “I’m going to go for a walk with them.”

We, who in some ways spent the least time with her, who weren’t fetching her groceries and stuff, she asked everybody to go home and “I am going to go with them.” We walked out of the church. It was a day like today. There was a little bit of snow on the ground, and it’s cold like this. We got about ten steps out of the church and there in the snow and the slush was a programme from the service that somebody had just tossed, or lost.

His face was on the front of it. She stopped. She couldn’t get up and down very easily. She stopped and leaned down. She picked it up. She wiped the slush off of it and put it in her pocket. I will just never forget that moment. It just chokes me up to even think about it, that she knew who he was, and she knew what he meant.

She never genuflected or anything. She knew who he was and she knew he was an eruption of something testamental into the modern world. And she knew herself to be … that her life was given over to seeing to it that he was out there. Today that would not be held in very high regard by most people, perhaps by some women in particular.

But she knew what she was doing and she was nobody’s flunky at all. So you travel with people like this and then suddenly years later – I know it’s funny – suddenly years later you find yourself in something that you could imagine is comparable. All I remember is how without a mediocre gear he was. He didn’t have it.

He was, I should say, impossible to be with. People couldn’t stand it after a while, because he never stopped. It is not like he had a performance grade, and then he was just quiet. He was never quiet. He thought aloud and, unless you indicated otherwise, he presumed that you were in, and that included attending to virtually everything he thought.

And he did it all the time. He took so much oxygen out of the room that people hated him for it. I hated him, because he was so hard to be with, and I loved him. And that combination was impossible. I was so young that his example was tyrannous to me. It just was like this was an impossible standard to accompany, never mind to live up to. But I felt the obligation to live up to the example, because I was in the glare of the attention and I realized while that I was in this place that half the people in the room would want to be sitting where I was, and would have traded me their comfort in a second.

They don’t know what it costs, mind you, and all of that. So I felt an enormous obligation to him to do what I could to serve his thing. That is the way I feel about this guy (GH). It is just the same. That is where I got it from. That is why I never felt any strain about whose thing this is. It is not even in the architecture. Whose thing is it? It’s God’s thing. How’s that? Or it is the thing that belongs to now, because we are in so much trouble. So it belongs to this field over here that we’re speeding past.

But if I hadn’t of seen it in my early twenties at a real vulnerable time, I don’t know what … I wouldn’t have become much, I can imagine. It is like trying to imagine that you were never born. It is the only fear that you don’t have to have. I don’t have to fret over what my life would have been if I had not met him.

I think about him, even now, and I feel like I am 17 – just inept, but not intimidated. I was in the presence of something great. If you are intimidated, you are a loser. That is not what it is for. It is for you to know that greatness is actually in this world, not to resent it because it doesn’t happen to be you …

You are grateful that it is in the world, man. That is where your gratitude comes from.

TH: One of the things that occurs to me, speaking to this earlier, of not having seen anything like this: I have never seen anything like it either, and this is very much its own genre of something. It is not spoken word. It is not a book reading, though there’s reading. It is not a music concert, although there is music in it.

SJ: I don’t think any of us should agree that “we don’t know what it is.” I think that is shorthand.

GH: I also don’t think we should be looking for a genre, or for what it is. Because we didn’t invent something. That is ridiculous. This has always been the way that you said it. It is just old, so it is not really recognizable, but it is certainly not reinvented. Not in any way. And it is so obtuse in that modern way of genre specific, as if we’ve created something new, something outside, something that challenges the sensibilities, though that is really true.

But look, I am about as middle of the road as you can get. This highway here, I was born on the white line and I was raised on the white line. My whole culture lives on the white line. Musically that is where I come from, kind of the garbage receptacle of the world that we live in, in this part of the world, filtering everything from everywhere else. Middle of the road. White guy with a guitar.

I don’t know how much more safe you can get. What we are doing up there, musically, there is so much one, four and five going on that sometimes I get self-conscious. We are not stretching the fabric like that.

What is getting stretched is our intention, the intentions of doing it, the willingness to walk down for a couple of reasons, but just to walk down a fairly full theater to the stage, and negotiate the dark steps that you forgot were going to be dark when you got there, and pick your way across the place and begin without any of the formal salutations, any “Hey Cincinnati, how ya doing? Is everybody ready to rock? Haah!!”

We do that because we want something for the evening. There is a function to what we are doing and that is what is different about the thing. It seems to straddle because we are doing it in a theater. There is a logo of the tour logo up there, and the stage is set in this great lighting. I am wearing a kick-ass jacket, and Lisa is also wearing a kick-ass jacket and your (SJ) clothes are okay, too.

So there is this acknowledgement of the theater of the thing, but that is really old, too, because that picture on the bottom of that logo…

TH: Where did that come from?

GH: Well, as these things come together, they just come together. The deep dark secret is…

SJ: Get ready for it.

GH: I don’t know what I’m supposed to say now. The deep dark secret is that you kind of project forward. What this feels like right now only a few days out is how that little band of people in the tour logo look to me from a distance. There is a guy out front kind of proclaiming something from a book, if you look close enough. Then there are these three individuals, one playing a snare, one guy driving the mule cart and then the woman on the piano.

That is some Kreskin stuff right there. That is what I thought this would feel like, so that is what it is. We are this little band of people just kind of making our way in a much more modern way, but it feels like we are putting those miles in behind the mule, and that guy stepping out front.

The deep dark secret is to design the thing, because I am no designer. I am trying to find the proper images that I can steal off the internet like everybody else. I can’t find these forms. I spent hours looking through marching bands just looking for the right…

So do you know what I did? I put on a long jacket that I had and I set up my phone camera outside and shot against our neighbor’s house which was beige. I struck poses. I marched. I got a book in my hand. Actually it was your book. I put a hat on. I did that. I played the drum. I took a snare. The only thing I didn’t do was put a dress on and play a piano, because I couldn’t. I didn’t have a piano. I had a dress but I…

SJ: You’re telling me this now?

GH: Yeah, I’m going to show you the pictures, man, of me being you. It is awesome. Lisa knows how awesome it is with me being Adam. Do you know what the worst part is, the look on my face. I am going to show that to you. I’m you at the front. I can’t even describe it.

SJ: I didn’t even know this. It is a little bit troubling.

GH: It is just the little band of travelers, and why else to do this.

TH: What is the tree in the logo?

GH: Well, I don’t know. That’s not true. The truth of that is I saw a Lucinda Williams poster that was kind of like a Balinese shadow puppet kind of deal. There was a tree in that. Again, I am not a designer, so I don’t really want to spend any time pretending I am plucking the visual cue out of the universe and translating it and putting it on a poster.

There was just something about the tree and it was one of about a dozen things that I tried. When I started to combine it with this other stuff it just sort of morphed. And of course, beyond that, the tree, whatever it means, roots, I really don’t care.

There was something sheltering about the tree. It is four individuals underneath it, small. We are just passing by it. The tree’s the thing. That’s what that is.

TH: Do you have any thoughts about that tree, Stephen?

SJ: I’ll go back a couple of steps first. Nobody invents anything. If you are inventing something, it is all fantasy. But if you are trying to do something that is useful to the world, you are a combiner; you are not a discoverer. You are finding what has been found. But the sequence in which you find it makes it appear for a while like it is new or unprecedented. Then comes the memory work.

That is what we are doing, more than anything else. It is memory. We are remembering things that we don’t have a personal experience of. This is from the days before there was theatre, before there was this thing called ‘an audience’. This is from the ritual days, when the whole thing depended on how everyone carried themselves. That determined whether the Gods appeared, how They were when They got here. So it goes way, way back when there are people who combine the functions of a historian and a librarian and some kind of preacher function, if you will. Mostly it’s a willingness to keep memories alive, particularly the ones that are no longer sought.

There are genealogists, right, and there are keepers of the – they keep the royal houses honest. These people used to do that. They were kind of in their way court jesters. They appeared to be fools but they could get away with stuff that nobody else could. They assume a minor position in the scheme of things and they are the only ones willing to do so, which makes them prominent.

All of that is part of an old scheme, I think. We have been let into an old scheme. Music is ages old, obviously, so it is part of things. Mostly it is wondering without the pretense of not being sure, because you can’t get up there and not be sure. You are not going up there on spec. You are bringing it. You are just not waiting for somebody to ask for it.

Then there is some kind of pact or covenant that is struck. People agree to come, although many, many people continue to tell me at the book signings afterwards, like this young guy yesterday said, “My mother dragged me here.” A number of people use that phrase, “So-and-so dragged me here and I didn’t know what to expect … but my life is not going to be what it was, and I didn’t count on that.”

Somewhere in there we make a deal, and the deal is, I guess, that if you are willing to sit here for two hours and we are willing to stand here for two hours, there will be some consequence, just from the willingness. We won’t pretend that we don’t know what we are doing and you won’t pretend that we do. And we are going to meet somewhere.

That meeting creates that field of consequence. There is an old saying iamong the high end sports performers. They say there is a reason you play the game, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Everybody knows the rules. Everybody knows the time and the place and the location. Everybody knows the shape of the stick or the puck or whatever it is. Everybody knows all that stuff.

But there is a fundamental thing that is yet to be known and learned, and that is called “What’s happening when we agree to proceed by those rules and give it our utmost”. It is very much like that I think. I know us to be lucky to be able to do it, because none of this is declared. It is all inferred. And not everybody comes along with you, but it looks like there are enough people that do that they are testifying to a hunger for something like this that only arises when something like this is around. Otherwise the hunger is so moot, and so subdued, because it is too painful to hunger after something of substance and not have the substance to vindicate the hunger. It turns into depression or anger or a sense of futility, or things of that kind.

But there is something about what we have been doing that compromises people’s capacity to be depressed and to give up and to go along with the kind of caravan of despair which is the news and all those things. I don’t think that is overstating things, because they tell me, and I am glad they do.

And when they tell me these things, I straight up thank them for not keeping it to themselves. They will often say, “Of course, you know all this.”

And I say, “Let me promise you something. If you don’t tell me, I don’t know of this. The best I can know is my end of things, but I sure don’t know what happened out there. I can’t even see you with the lighting being what it is.” Normally, if I am more in a teaching thing, I can see people and I am interacting with that constantly and taking cues from it.

But in these things I can’t see anyone, or maybe six or eight people in the front. So all the cues are audible cues. We seem to induce an extraordinary kind of silence which can be really unnerving, because we don’t have a lot to go on. We are not sure and we are an hour and a half into things … by the clock, at least, an hour and a half.

And we are deep into the thing, like right up to our chins, and ywe are not sure if they are with us. We don’t want to leave anybody behind, and that is the grail we are after. And if you don’t come, we won’t see you. And eventually the lights go up, and then everybody is on their feet after not having moved for two hours.

You don’t own something like that and you don’t command it. You are just lucky.

GH: Some of those letters from Winnipeg, the time of the program, like the timing of the show, the two-hour – do you know that had to be raised at least three or four times. Did you read that? People registering their own surprise at themselves for being able to sit for two hours. That is in those letters.

“I can’t believe it, man. The two hours went just like that, because usually two hours, unless I am at home in bed with Netflix or something, that was shocking to me.” People have such little demand from their time in a way, that they surprised themselves.

I wouldn’t take that away from them as a point of pride. You came to something you didn’t know and you didn’t die while you were there. It didn’t kill you. “This is going to kill me. Do I have to go? Oh, it is going to kill me. I will never get through this.”

It is like going to midnight mass when you are a kid. “Oh, I can’t do it.” That is an amazing thing.

SJ: We were talking about this last night. We have been wondering a little bit more than Gregory is comfortable with what is going on in these things. Because speaking for myself, I did find the deepening quiet of the evening a little troubling and disconcerting.

It mobilized me to kind of protective stance on behalf of the band, because I didn’t feel that … The diminishing applause with each song is really unnerving, because generally speaking the arc is supposed to go in the other direction. But I didn’t translate that silence very well, and they did, so they actually said to me, “You might want to relax a little bit about feeling distressed about that. Because it might be a sign that something is happening, not that something is withdrawing.” Man, as soon as I started thinking about it that way, I thought: “Of course. These are the consequences that we are putting into motion. Nobody knows if applause any longer is fitting or respectful even. I mean, the rules are gone.”

We are not doing a 3:28 song. So in fairness to them, if you blow up the format, there is a certain sense of lostness at the level of etiquette, but I don’t think there is a lostness in the sense of the direction of where this is headed. And that it is for real. That sense of for-realness really seems to be there.

I think one thing that audiences suffer from horribly is being catered to and pandered to and not respected deeply. So very little is asked of them, attention span-wise.They’re not imagined to be grownups, with grownup capabilities. If these things are not asked of you, then part of your routine as an audience is to be utterly passive and just be a Geiger counter, registering approvable. That’s all it is.

“Do you like it?” That is like eating sugar. “Do you like it?” That is the only standard. But maybe you don’t have to like it because ‘like’ has a broadcast bandwidth of about a quarter inch: ‘liking or not liking’, or ‘approving or disapproving’, or ‘feeling or recognizing yourself in it or not’.

How does the world come to you? It doesn’t come to you in iterations of you; it comes to you in all the ways that you are not. That is what the world is. I suppose for those two hours we become the world in some fashion, that way, to the people who are sitting there.

GH: Even if you look at the way the audiences are pandered to or trapped by the arc that is always at a thing that they go to, we will start slow, we will ramp it up, and there will be an orgasm at the end and everybody gets to feel relieved when they walk out. That is everything. Every show, every ‘Hamilton’ that comes out is all going to be about that. It is going to serve these little feel good moments, hit these marks.

And with a kind of manipulation of some kind of low grade sorrow which is really just sadness. It never gets down to sorrow. It just sort of sits at the top. When we come out, the first musical thing they hear … So what we do after the invocation, the first thing they hear is Take a Little Walk. Take a Little Walk, the things that we do in ‘Fishguard’ which is just a period at the end of the program in the last week or two or whatever it has been, it is kind of like the most fulsome song.

We actually flip the thing. The next thing is Shadow which has this groove, but we are going down the hill. The next thing from last night, let’s say, is Target. We are going down the valley. Then last night we get to Every Day, very swimmy, very soupy, down the valley again.

And musically in that way we end off at Witness, an acapella piece with my dad’s dying in the middle of it. We are now at the bottom of the valley. That is our trajectory. That is the exact … We flipped it on its head. That is not the way it’s supposed to go.

And that has just been by instinct. That is not a conceit on our part. It is an adherence to … We pay attention to an arc, too. And there are these convergent points between Stephen’s work and my work, and we try to make a conversation between those two things.

We can’t just slot anything in there. We pay attention to the theatrics, in as much as we understand that there is a container for everything, and we are going to acknowledge that. But it is just the way it has gone, when the energy goes that way. It truly is this: We are on a dark road heading out of town. That is so true. That is us up there. That is not some idea. That is what we are doing. We are heading out of town on a dark road.

That is not the way that it usually gets done.

TH: Do you think it doesn’t get done that way because people haven’t seen it be done that way, or because it would ask too much of the audience?

GH: At that point it is about the people up there. There is so much weird value placed on entertainment from the people doing this stuff up on the stage. It gets closest to religion, because you are relieving people of their worries for the day. Let’s just give them … or make them forget. That isn’t our job, man, to make them forget.

I have always been outside that stuff because even before meeting Stephen, my thing was always I think I have to bring you in.

TH: Ok. We’re getting close. Any final thoughts?

GH: Just gratitude. Here we go into another city where they’ve done more work for us than we’ll ever know. They’ve emailed everyone they’ve ever met. They’ve talked about it on Facebook. They’ve  wrangled with the venue – they found a venue in the first place. They’ve arranged our accommodations. They are feeding us. A thousand details. And you try to make sure they know how grateful you are but… How many ways can you actually tell people that all their work meant a lot?

SJ: I think when you are with the pros, one of the ways you thank them, and show your respect, is that you do your best and their best shows up in you doing yours.

Photos courtesy of Kathleen Dreier Photography – kathleendreier.com

In this interview, author and culture activist Stephen Jenkinson speaks with Terra Informer Dylan Hall about death, grief, and his new book, ‘Come of Age: a case for elderhood in a time of trouble’, particularly in view of this troubling time we are in. Stephen will be on tour through Canada and the U.S. this fall with the Gregory Hoskins band, performing ‘Nights of Grief and Mystery’.

I have lived long enough …

No. You don’t want to leave a sentence like that, sitting all by itself, without a back end. Unless you really mean that you have indeed – as of that moment – lived long enough (and writing it down in an email seems a lurid anti-climax to the allotment), then you want to push through the pause that drops in after “enough”. It’s not a bad thing to hear yourself say, though. For practice. So that the real thing doesn’t catch you unawares, as if you’d no way of knowing.

You do have multiple ways of knowing, as do I. All the limits and all the frailties, and all the endings, for example, and all the little camouflaged mercies that at first seem brutal and arbitrary, sending some reaching for a refresher course on the Serenity Prayer, are ways of knowing. Deciding that you don’t know about endings, that you’ve no way of knowing or caring about them, is a way of knowing. I’ve had many people in their fifties over the years tell me that they haven’t known anyone who’s died. Which is straight up impossible. It’s a confession that they’ve kept their distance, so as not to sorrow too much. It doesn’t sound like it, but that’s a way of knowing, too.

Sudden endings are for amateurs. They’re understandable, but they’re not really how it is. “How it is” is that we have plenty of notice that our corner of the enterprise will not last, cannot last. It isn’t kept from us. Just because we might duck some unwanted thing doesn’t mean that it is hiding from us. The “when” and the “how”: now, those tend to be kept from us until five minutes to our own personal midnight or so. And there’s mercy in that, I’d say. What do you imagine you’d do with the information, should you find yourself to be up closer to the front of the line than the rest of us? Most of the people who’ve spoken about this with me imagine that they’d begin firing on all cylinders, bucket-list style, crossing off the Big Doings. Well, I have seen what “knowing the time ahead of time” does to people, an awful lot of them, and based on the panic and the sense of betrayal that showed up I’d say that nobody really needs to know more than they already do about all this, and that more information probably won’t make most of us more capable. It’s like global warming that way: more information won’t make it more true. We have enough information, more than enough, to plot a course towards engaged, passionate, sorrowful sanity. We have more than enough information to oblige us to behave as if there are generations to come that will need some example of grace under considerable pressure when it’s their turn.

Anyway, I intended to begin with this: I’ve lived long enough to see the day when dying and death has become – what else could you call it? – sexy. There’s a bit of rock star status that gathers around dying people these days, and around their helpers. People press in to be closer to them, as if dying people know more about life because they’re dying than the rest of us who aren’t dying right now do. I don’t think I saw a terminal diagnosis confer sagacity and a measuredness not otherwise practiced by people before they were “dying people”. It tweaked what was already there, intensified it often, sometimes to an unendurable degree.

Would-be helpers, advocates and death-trade workers are banging on the bars and the walls to get in. Not everywhere, of course. Not everybody. But enough to notice it. There are alternative death conferences all over that are keen on going mainstream. Somebody should bear in mind what happens when ardent and revolutionary things go mainstream. They tend to disappear. Or they become what the next round of revolutionaries are keen on bringing down. But going mainstream is enormously compelling, enchanting. It’s hard to resist: all those new chances to be heard, to get the message out, to change the discourse, to be an opinion leader. So don’t be surprised when dying has become passe, and boring. That’s what’s coming, I’d say. Maybe the spotlight will settle on elders next, and elderhood will get “the treatment” for a while, and legions will line up for their elder papers, and the whole business will go mainstream – sexy, in an unsought sort of way.

Sexy isn’t very sexy anymore. The dominant culture has done sexy by now. Done it to death, you could say, so that it’s become white noise wallpaper. The part of the culture’s adrenal apparatus called “sexy” seems mostly spent at this point. So it’s being politicized beyond recognition at this very moment – another sign that there’s not much left to wring from it, for now.

That’s an arresting thought, if you give it a chance to have its way with you. That’s how much sustained attention to detail the public discourse seems interested in. There’s only so much novelty you can bring to the daily architecture of our lives, only so much notoriety. After that, well, the hypesters and the hipsters move on to the next attraction.

And that’s when you can begin deciding where you intend to live out your realizations, your discoveries, your awakenings. When things become ordinary again, and the glare is gone and the heat is off, maybe (as Nick Cave put it) God is in the house. And that would be very good news. Or no news at all to those who’ve made their way through the squalls of notice and blame and trending and made landfall in the land of an ordinary day.

Where there could be grief there’s rancour. That’s often true. Where there could be mystery, there’s conviction abounding, and opinioneering. That’s true too, and it isn’t easy to live through. Here’s one antidote: imagine that ‘ordinary’ is the proper place for sex, and for death and for elderhood, and for all of the other sacred things. Imagine that ‘ordinary’ is where mystery lingers now, waiting to see if we’re willing to learn it again.

Imagine too that the sacred and holy things and all the Godly things are frail and vulnerable in their way, and that they won’t endure come what frigging may, and that they have a survival instinct, the same kind entrusted to all living things, and that their way of enduring is to go to the unGodly and the non sacred and unholy places to hide out for a while, waiting for the madnesses to spend themselves. In troubled times, maybe it is that the the Gods move to the suburbs, to the blight, to the ordinary places, to the places unbecoming. If any of that is so, then maybe the ordinariness of love making and of sorrow, the ordinariness of aging if you do and dying when you do is where you go to find the Lords of Life.