Archive for November 2018 | Monthly archive page
Matthew Stillman in conversation with Stephen Jenkinson and Gregory Hoskins on the road during the 2018 Nights of Grief & Mystery Tour.
Matthew Stillman (MS): So we are sitting here in Kripalu on our way to Turners Falls for the next show. You both have traveled from Winnipeg all the way west across Canada. You have been in all three continental time zones, traveled untold thousands of miles to get here. And you have done the majority of the shows that are going to be on the tour.
And the tour has been planned just about a year at this point.
Stephen Jenkinson (SJ): Wow, is it that long?
MS: So I might ask, based on where we are in the tour, and where we are in the year, what is your understanding of what has happened up to this point?
SJ: There’s a lot of strata. One thing is what has happened in the shows, what has happened to the show, what does the audience tell you as time is going on, what happens to them.
One thing is we went to the States after Canada and that changed things, as I knew it would, because the Americans have consistently been a more audibly responsive audience than in Canada. That just changes because you cross the border. Not only that but the kind of political – maybe that is not even a broad enough word – the kind of existential political melee that we dropped into is palpably different the nanosecond we went across the border.
I think that is there. I think it shows up without anybody referring to it, although I very subtly referred to it maybe twice in the whole two and a half hours just to acknowledge it and no more. For me it has turned into something, and it is not something I knew at the beginning.
There is a band where there wasn’t a band. There were people organized around some ideas and rehearsal time, but a band has happened somewhere along the way, probably after the first four shows or something like that. I could feel behind me a kind of momentum that could be called upon, not by me but by the people who were in its sway. That has definitely happened.
Not only that but I have seen the range and the scale of the enterprise take on a substance that is its own. It has a sort of snake oil tent show revival aspect to it that wasn’t there once upon a time. I don’t mean that in a trivial way. It is a genuine unapologetic conjuring as well as crafting.
I think what has happened is the show itself as a living thing begins to ask something of the audience: How do you propose to live, given this? If you are going to be dead soon – something we assure people about at the end of the night – what does this ask of you? Now that I think of it, that is how this evening begins, too: “Welcome to this cosmic constant of ours.” What does that mean?
Well, the word cosmic induces slack mindedness I think. As soon as you hear the words ‘cosmic constant’, the contemporary mind can go blank with reassurance. Nice alliteration, yes, but what are we talking about there? God, which is our frailties and endings: that’s the cosmic constant. And then that sequence of welcomings, at the beginning. Somewhere along the way I think all of those things that I intoned in the overture – what are we calling it?
Gregory Hoskins (GH): Invocation.
SJ: Invocation – they seem to come to pass – or they come to call. That is better. I think they come to call. “How shall it be now that the call and the summons and the plea has gone out? How shall it be?” The next two and a half hours answers it, and it is not entirely the audience’s decision as to how shall it be. I think these things have been attended to.
That is what I mean by ‘substance’. So when I was imagining it, when we first talked about this between Calgary and Edmonton, I was thinking about how is this not theatre. It is theatrical. It is musical. It is poetic. It is mythological. It is all those things as adjectives, but how is it not those things as nouns? The answer I came up with very tangentially a few weeks ago (is that all it is? A few weeks ago, a month ago?) Was that it was pre-theater.
MS: Yes, we spoke about this in Arizona.
SJ: Yes it is theatrical, but it is pre-theatre though. I think things theatrical predated theatre. Theatre became the atrophy of theatricality. It became a kind of ossification of it. It struck me when we first started talking about it. I wasn’t struggling to find adjectives. I didn’t really…
I don’t think I have ever been asked in any of these interviews: “What the hell is this?” People ask you casually. But in the formal setting like an interview or anything, I don’t think I have ever been asked, now that I consider it. So I asked myself what it was. And I could never settle on a conventional iteration of it. Attributes, but not its soul. But it hit me that the reason that I couldn’t find it right away was because I was looking to the current available iterations of ‘theater’ … which is a fairly high attribution to grant to your little enterprise anyway.
I appreciate the word, but I think it has real limitations, because of the audience problem. Or, to say it another way, because theatre requires the audience. It enforces an audience for the most part. And this thing of ours doesn’t seem to. This thing seems to thwart the possibility of witnessing or attending to it at a distance. When you get the occasional gnarling, gnashing complaint about sound from one guy, I think that is what an audience does. The guy who objects to my translation of Amen, and then writes to comment on that only,for example: That is an audience. An audience tends to sit in adjudication of things.
But no one who was ever in on a ritual would ever adjudicate the relative merits of how the ritual was done, for fear of botching desperately the ritual and everything that is at stake because of it. I think that is the zone we are in. I don’t think it has to be declared for it to be so, but “It is better that if we make many a thing hangs in the rafters and hangs in the balance.” That is a very still couple of minutes in the proceedings: “As if how we are with each other is how the lords of chance will be with us.”
And then I proceed accordingly. That is not an introduction. That is an induction. I think the audience disappears as a cross-armed adjudicating remote control event. And that is in the contemporary sense of the term. It is not theatre. It is ritualistic.
MS: It might be called dramatic, which is much more alive and tender and needs to be taken care of in a different way than theatre does. Theatre seems to have that oppositional listening quality. It has that structure because of the times. Gregory, what is your understanding of where you are in the proceedings or where we all are in the proceedings, having heard all this?
GH: I think Stephen and I have different a experience of things, as I listen to him. It’s not distinctly different, but I think he is much more attached to the front end, and I am in the wake. Organizationally I was out front, but in the actual doing of the thing I am in the wake. A wake usually fans out. Actually, physically, the band has gone from being on the side to being spread out. If you looked at it from above, it would actually look more like a wake actually with Stephen pretty much dead centre and then the band fanned out behind him.
That is where I am sort of being pulled along. I am also not talking to the people after the night. I am not getting – I am not seeing the heartbeat after the thing. What does that mean? It means that I am part of the machinery in a way that is comfortable for me, new for me, and it doesn’t really give me a perspective on the whole thing.
It really doesn’t. We always ask Stephen: “How is the book line?” It is kind of code for: “How did we do?” We can’t count on the responses, because during the night we are all contending with the fact that there might not be responses or they might, as they often do, diminish through the night. We have talked about it before, the diminishing applause as we go along, with the kind of wearied applause. At the end Stephen says something like: “This will never end.” It is a lot like dying at that point.
And of course it is like dying in a lot of ways, but in one way it is going to end, before you want it to. And then there is that weird, whether it is prodded or not, ending where we are giving ourselves a gift and we get all funky, and yet we kind of cut to the quick of the entire night, at least the dying part of the night. We are conscious that it is not all about death. It is not all about the act of dying. But it is about endings, even the stuff that comes from the new book, especially coming into America, where the feeling of ending is all over the place.
The fact that nobody talks about it like that is weird and amplifies the fact. So we go in talking about endings of a specific kind. Yet anything from the new book is also touching on the same thing, and then we get to the end of the evening and we are funking out and it is fun. These are times when the crowd has been on its feet, at the end.
It is a bit of … There’s a great line that came from I don’t know which show it was, but it was recorded, and so I was listening to it. Stephen is just in the midst of this thing and he is something else. I think the mic is off the clip and he is back and forth. He says, “I was waiting for a sign, and I can make a sign out of anything.” That is the time when the tent goes up and we are in a very true but very, well, one might say ‘theatricality’ at that point.
One could say it is the release in the ritual. Then they are up on their feet and we are thrashing away on an ending, and I feel like a 12 year old playing in a garage band. And Adam is not sure he is going to execute whatever fill he thinks in his head. And we all look like 12 years old. That is what I think.
And we end. The only thing I am clear about is for some moments we are all unclear as to what just happened. What was that two and a half hours? Because we find ourselves on our feet. We find ourselves in that same position that people find themselves in at the end of school plays and the end of a Broadway show and at the end of a concert.
MS: How did that happen?
GH: Well, people are on their feet and they are clapping. It is a kind of agreed upon signature move. “This is what we do. If you do this, we will do this.” But there is rarely an encore call. In our culture an encore is – well, it is a French word, again. Encore: Again, again. But who would want to subject themselves to what just happened again?
So there is not going to be that. Even after we played in New York, we were walking down the street back to the hotel, we were walking by and somebody yelled the words Avanti – some Italian declaration of something. I spun around and there were two women who were at the show. They were applauding us and doing this Italian thing.
That kind of praise, the encore in our culture, of course, has become: “Play the song that you didn’t play, that you kept from the set.” That is the automatic response. I found myself at the end of it with those people not knowing what just happened because I am in the wake, and Stephen is at the prow, and they are at the water. So everybody is having a different experience. Everybody has a different role. We are not all in one room having the same experience, not in this thing.
I know on the stage that Stephen and I are not having the same experience. We are not fulfilling the same functions. We are two different parts of a moving thing. I am pretty linear with my metaphors, so if it is a wake and Stephen is at the prow and I am in the wake, then they are the water. Is there another version of that?
SJ: The Titanic.
GH: Cool. That was New York. No, totally kidding.
New York was triumphant. I am still on that. For me … I have a pretty good self-bullshit detector. In making music, writing songs, making records, it is kind of the one place I can’t lie. I can lie everywhere else. I can lie to other people. It is not really great to know about me, but I can’t really do that. It is like a sacred ground. I have made it that way for myself, so that there is just one place I have to be everything that I am.
So we go to New York, and day after day after day I cannot help but I am feeling this triumphant thing. In this thing we triumphed. I think I wrote in the letter to you that we triumphed because actually the gig triumphed over us and how we operated within that was our triumph. I felt like something important happened to us as a duo to be honest. There is the band and then there is the duo as it were.
MS: So in some ways perhaps that triumphant quality might not have been able to emerge if it wasn’t for all the cooking over the last parts of the tour and last parts of the year. If the tour as a whole, the Grief & Mystery Tour, is a material or a substance that you were speaking of that is kind of a live thing, it is has been the working of that clay or steel or plasma that allowed you to be able to deal with the distortion, for lack of a better word, of what happened in New York, because of the skills you honed with that pulsing, magnetic, alive, dangerous, volatile material, and knowing something about how to be up close and how far away to be and when to wield it.
GH: When the wheels come off like that you are not in control of anything. For us, it is not like we have been doing this for 50 years together. So when the wheels come off like that, we are vulnerable, completely. What are we going to do? What do we do? I don’t know the answers. What do we do?
But even just the panic of turning speakers around and switching microphones, and Lisa in the melee comes up to me and says, “You should switch your microphone with the other one.” I can’t go find the box and get the microphone, stick it in the clip, nah, I’ll just use this. And of course we go on and I realize, I will just use Stephen’s mike, the mike that works, but my guitar lead wouldn’t reach. I couldn’t. I couldn’t get up to there. So you are just vulnerable.
It is a vulnerable thing. I think the gigs we did before didn’t really test us that way, but you become the thing that ended up – at that point you are just an artist. You are just an artist. This is the thing that I recognized in Stephen. I have always seen – that is what I have seen, is the artist, the pure artist. I know he is lots of other things to other people.
SJ: I was completely heartbroken. That’s is the best way for me to describe how I was through the whole two and a half hours in the New York show. One of the reasons, I remember very acutely now … When the night was interrupted by a few unhappy audience members who couldn’t hear too well, I wondered: “Where I am to rejoin that ruptured thing? Where am I to do it?” Because this is how – I don’t like the word organic – but this is how … Okay, it’s anatomical. The night is for me a conjuring of the architecture of a living body. I have started, you see. And the call is this: “You can’t do that again. You can’t do that again. It has nothing to do with whether you heard me. It is a ritual. You can’t ‘start again, from the top’.
MS: It is like the crowning of a birth. You can’t do that part again.
Stephen: You can’t push back and say: “Nobody is quite ready. Let’s get the duct tape out and tape everything up until we fix the sound.” It was absolutely horrific to me, in the sense of transgressive, not that I didn’t – I’m not saying I felt the audience was transgressed upon, because I don’t think they were. Let’s just be very candid and say that nobody benefited from that. It was a horrendous thing but there were no beneficiaries of it. In that sense there is no blame. None of that thing.
I think I said to you when the people stormed out – and a good number of them stormed out – that thankfully I was not there to catch that. I had enough to deal with. They reported that these people’s principle grievance was that they were amongst the first to buy the tickets. They bought so many tickets and they bought them so long ago, and it cost so much for parking.
I thought to myself when I was told that later that night or the next day: “If you were that keen on it, what is the measure of it, tonight, that you cared that much about being there, that you were the first gone when trouble came, when the thing was compromised, that you were the first one off the boat? That is the way it struck me. I don’t say that with any malice. I am just saying that, to me, this is a living thing. We need all the allies, all the midwives we can get. Because that is what a ritual is:
There is no audience. And those people who left, they withdrew from the deal, if you will, from the alliance, by re-invoking their rights as an audience to be satisfied.
Matthew: As consumers.
Stephen: As consumers, yes. And it really compromised – not us up there, as hard as it was – the thing that we were trying to breathe over. That is what was compromised. That is what I mean by: How do I start again? I was in four or five minutes into the nurse story. I don’t even like to talk about it like that, but I was there, and then all of a sudden there is that woman in the lights and she is yelling at me that it is no good and all of that … Which is perfectly fine, to bring it to our attention, absolutely.
But what is at stake though? Your ticket’s worth? The value of the money that you laid down for it? Is that what is at stake? That was the hardest part to reconstitute in those few minutes when I was trying to figure out: To whom I owe what? As I think about it tonight, the parallel is to the story I tell on the Grief & Mystery CD, about this dying pilot, where he is laying there and he is clearly weeks away from his death.
His wife, who is in perfect health, sits behind him, and their three year old child is playing with the cars in the kitchen behind. And he asks me: “Am I dying?” And in this moment I have to decide: To whom do I owe what allegiance? That was that moment in New York just a few nights ago. To whom do I owe what the best part of me could possibly manage at a time like this?
In the case of the story, I owed the dying man the most relentless candour that he deserved, to give him a chance to occupy entirely the moment that he was in, and not to work up to it, and not to imagine he had weeks more of preparatory time and more blood tests and the whole thing. The parallel is that when I had to re-enter the night and the story we’d already begun, I was trying to figure out how I would plead for this thing to come back to life and not be an artifice.
How can I say the Invocation again? I kind of knew where I was. Because now it is a set piece, if I do that. I am no scientist but I can imagine when they are doing scientific experiments and there is a chemical chain that begins, and you can’t back it up. Like you said with a birth, you can’t back it up and start again. I couldn’t start again. So it was very, very – the challenge was so acute. I was in a world – a sea – of sorrow the entire night. Not regret. Just a sense that we were compromised by the least metabolic aspect of what we do: the sound through the speakers. It is the least alchemical aspect upon which the whole show depends, to be legible beyond six or eight rows from the front.
It is an amazing back and forth there. I don’t say that the sound is any less vital. I am only saying that it is the least, the most synthetic proposition of the entire enterprise. It would be like the stage collapsing when you are trying to ritualize. It doesn’t mean that the monkeys aren’t in the architecture. Somebody is pulling on the wires. Because that is what I think happened, frankly.
The thing that went on there went way beyond whoever was at the sound dials and the shape of the dome of the room. Looking beyond all of that, surely there’ve been big shows that have been very audible in that building before that night. No, we have been calling those Old Worthies who are very infrequently called upon I think in the North American context. You never know …
You try to give them a place right away that they can occupy. I am not saying that we did anything wrong that made that happen at the level of performing the ritual. But the volatility of it looks like that too. That can be the other half of the crowd being on their feet at the end of the night, the part you would really wish for.
Nobody would wish for this, but, man, I think I said gremlins at one point in the night. That is the part that was heartbreaking, but not regretful. If that distinction means anything to anybody.
GH: Well, it does because, we call this a show even though we don’t really want to call it a show. We fist bumped on the way out into the room in New York because we are in New York. We are playing New York. We played in Los Angeles. There is one part of this whole thing that kind of lives in that world that you are just a kid from Scarborough and I am a kid from Newmarket. Look at where we are. This is something we say to each other, to remind ourselves how lucky we are, how unlikely this all is.
But if there were monkeys in the architecture, and let’s say there were, what it led to is this sorrow drenched thing. As you are saying that, I’m thinking of the people who are now witnessing not just another iteration where we are on a dark road heading out of town, because that is what we do every night. It is hard. It is hard to…
Where is it? Sometimes you get stopped on the road, and you have to go back or you drop something. Something happens. You can go back a little bit, which is what we did, and then we kept going. But it is a different journey now.
So there is now this sorrow that wasn’t there before, maybe wouldn’t have been there, and maybe that is where my sense of the word that I will keep coming back to is. That is where the triumph came in.
I have fallen apart under much less stressful situations.I have fallen completely apart. There is a point that I keep referencing: Well this sounds like we sort of sewed it together. This stuff is going. We are there. We are there with everybody. There’s the boat, the prow, the people. We still have our light.
The light is shrinking, expanding on you, on me, a third time. I come up to sing. No light moves. There in my mind I say: This is just unprofessional. That’s a line that just got crossed. Now we are an unprofessional show. At the same time I knew that Matthew left the light because he had to attend to the troubles of the evening. I knew.
I knew. I just kept singing. There was no problem. And then before the light came onto my face, I realized I was smiling. And it is the first time I have sung and smiled. The smile wasn’t crazy. It was – that was the beginning of the triumphant feeling.
It was the feeling of ‘I am not dead’. I will be dead soon. But I am not dead now. And nor am I yelling into the storm. I am in it. I was listening to the band. We had turned out the monitors. You were just like waves crashing on a rock. I wouldn’t know where you were or what you were saying.
We were singing into that. There was no way to know. Everybody was kind of depending on what they knew and, more than that, who they were. And nobody on the stage bailed. Remember in the Gold Coast in Australia, that audience? And I said to you after that show: “I apologize, because I bailed.” I just looked at my feet the entire night, because I couldn’t hack that awful place.
But that wasn’t it. It was kind of more crucible-like for me. Your sorrow, you are speaking of your sorrow. That still makes it a crucible for me. It still makes it a prime ingredient.
MS: And if you are speaking of it as a crucible, this particular experience in New York, and in the context of the entire tour, the crucible has to be made of a material sturdy enough that it won’t melt in the presence of that plasma which is again a completely volatile material. It can destroy as well as it can cut artfully, or cook. Although, who cooks with plasma? Probably nobody.
SJ: Food Network – somebody does.
MS: Somebody does.
SJ: There’s a food truck that does.
MS: Yeah, there is definitely a plasma food truck.
GH: Probably near a hospital, I want to say.
MS: But again, something has been forged over the time that you have been together over the last couple of weeks, and over the last year, that has made that material hard enough to withstand, and to make something out of this.
SJ: Something is being forged. But I feel like it is very, very early days for us.
MS: But it is forged enough that you are doing something with it. I hear what you are saying.
SJ: I myself am very leery of overstating any firmness or any state to it really. I remember – no comparison intended – two stories that I heard Leonard Cohen tell about his life. A little short one: He said … He referred to singing So Long, Marianne, or …what was the other one from that year?
Stephen: Yeah, I think it was Suzanne. He started to talk, and he then stopped talking about the song. He said: “That song comes from a very mysterious place, and it is not for me to talk about it.” It was 50 years down the road from when he wrote the song, and he was still talking about it like it was a golden well at the back of a garden that nobody can find again. That kind of thing.
I was really touched by that, the reverence he had for wherever that came from which he claims no authorship of, really. At least he didn’t that day. So that is what I mean by: Don’t touch it too hard. I take his example as an inspiration to not foreclose on what you mean, but I love the example, and timidity almost, that is in the story.
The other one is, and you can see the film for yourself. A guy made a film called A Bird on a Wire. Tony Palmer I think, and the tour ends in Tel Aviv I guess. He can’t do it for whatever reason. Boy I know this one, too. He is standing out there and he has his little band. The audience is all looking at him rapturously from right at his feet, and he is suffering somehow.
Then about the third song in he basically stops the show and says something in the order of: “It is not happening. And there is no point, there is no sense, there is no justice or mercy in just milking the thing as if we will get enough to drink. It is proper that we are stopped. So we are going to go back in the dressing room, and we will see if it comes.And if it doesn’t come, let’s respect that.” Then he just walked off the stage. You could see the consternation in the faces. Anyway, he brings the band back and everybody is kind of in a world of hurt themselves, because nobody wants to be in this moment. He is really acknowledging something alchemical: It hasn’t risen. The angels didn’t come. Whatever it was.
As the performer can only do so much. You want to tap into it. You want the Gods to appear so badly. And that is not enough. So the band is back there crying. Apparently he takes LSD in the dressing room, which is kind of a wild response, but very appropriate for the times I guess. And the next thing you know, his manager is telling him come here to the stage door. He is listening, and the crowd is singing to him. He isn’t even out there and they are singing to him. I think there was some Hebrew song they were singing to him, and then one of his songs they were singing to him. They just wouldn’t even move, never mind leave. He wants to give everybody their money back, and he is just heartbroken.
He goes out there and the tears are just coming down his face and he is standing there by himself. He is trying to tell them that he can’t. I don’t believe he picked up the thing. He didn’t continue with the concert, but he testified. That’s my point.
He was truer to the music in that moment, by being willing to know what couldn’t happen, than he ever would have been I suppose by doing what everybody would have wanted, the management, the band, some part of himself, certainly the audience, the reviewers, etc. I would never want to be in that position. How do you decide that?
But I know the edge of that moment in a way that I wouldn’t have known it two years ago. It is not just a musical dilemma. I have been in certain non-musical performances of my own where you can feel that you are literally – it is a circus act and you are trying to put the tent up over the top of everybody sitting there. That is how, early on in the doings, you are. You are basically trying to put that tent up by yourself, and everybody is sitting there with their arms folded, saying “So when does the show start?”
MS: Are you saying this makes you wonder what might it be that you started off the tour attesting to? And has that changed? Are you attesting to something new with New York and L.A. and Seattle? Has what you are standing for or attesting to changed or grown or been fed somehow?
SJ: Well, I love it in a way that I didn’t. I wasn’t without love for it, but my love was really uninformed. There was a generic allegiance to it before. But I am savagely faithful to it now. That has changed. I feel very – I don’t know if ‘paternal’ quite covers the territory of it. I know paternity from having two kids in the world, and there is some of that.
I don’t know what it is. Protective, but not defensive. There’s a radical difference in those two things for me. I feel deeply responsible and in love with it, and I know it is fragile. But there is no weakness to it. It is fragile, and it is very susceptible, but it is immensely powerful.
It is an easy image: the whole being bigger than the sum of its parts, and all of that. That is not really what I mean. There is something that has happened that decided that we were good enough to visit. It wasn’t gone the other night in New York. It didn’t just say, “I don’t like the sound either!”, and storm out the door. It is seriously still there. I couldn’t hear it just then and I had all the human scale sorrows of how to continue, but I didn’t feel abandoned by it in the least. That is very peculiar, because I certainly could have felt abandoned, if my understanding of its appearing is that I always feel sustained. But that is not what it means to be a proper midwife to something wild in this world.
I am not always sustained by its appearance. A person can be drawn down upon so heavily by its appearance that there is no sustenance whatsoever, except a vague sense that you are doing what you lasted this long to be able to do.
GH: I think that is where the smiling came from for me. Those moments. These triumphant things that you fight your way through to the place that you know. There is this notion that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing on the planet, which is the thing which we talk about or you talk about being what the first half of your life is for.
It is amazing every night: The joke is that it has worked out for us, and we get paid to do it. But it’s not the pay. You write some songs for a few months or something like that, but the moments of not being up there as a performer, thinking: “Without this I’d die.” It is not that kind of thing. That’s not it.
But to have these moments of actually being inside of the realization that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing is… I can easily start crying, because you gets that? Who gets to have that? How many people do you come across who get to have that?
MS: So your faithfulness to that attestation has only become fuller.
GH: Yeah, as a bloody gift, in the case of New York. Because that is not always there. We go out to do our best, if you want to call it that. We come off having done our best. In the language of Cohen in Tel Aviv: Sometimes the thing does not rise.
We have kind of beaten the discussion to death around what the expectation of the audience is. Our expectations of ourselves, what are our responsibilities and all that kind of stuff? We’re out on the dark road, heading out of town. That is what we do. That image is more than an image. That is our devotional act.
MS: It is the idea that is somehow a joke and somehow not a joke: You are considering doing an extension of this tour actually on horseback, with a caravan, going from town to town.
GH: One of the hard things with this trip for me has been what it costs, the staggering movement of the machinery and being a part of that and going from town to town.
MS: City to city, van rental to van rental.
GH: Airplane to airplane mostly, the invisible mechanisms under those airports and the moving of baggage. That is when it came to me, just feeling sick.
MS: I remember being in Sacramento, we watched all our luggage go on and wonder how that got there: “See you in Tucson.”
GH: There is sort of this weird ease that comes with that. I thought it would be proper for what we are on about how to occupy the miles in between. I play electric guitar. I’m not going to pick up a lute.
MS: The brave Sir Robin…
SJ: Where’s Gregory? Washing his tights.
GH: That’s real. I was writing today about the strangeness. When you take off on an airplane you rarely look. When you take off in an airplane leaving a place, you don’t look at the land that is disappearing under the plane the same way you do when you are coming in. That probably makes sense on some sort of DNA level. On some wiring level you are kind of looking, assessing the land.
I have had some strange experiences of alienation and sadness in the air. It’s a place where we are not supposed to be anyway, doing this thing.
SJ: You should never be able to see the ground from up there.
GH: It is strange talking about the thing we are talking about.
SJ: It is an emotional chem trail, just to be there. That is sorely wrong.
GH: I know we are going to get to the stage. We go through all the challenges around, and these are banal challenges. Will there be enough sound? What time is the sound check? We have to get the stuff there. Do we have drums? What if my thing doesn’t work…
But you know in the air that you are going to get on that dark road heading out of town. You know that when you are in the middle of the air, even up in the blue. That is where we are humbly trying to go. When you fly in over a place like Los Angeles and you know that you are going to be talking about endings of all kinds, as we say, and you are flying over an ending … Those are heartbreaking moments for me. Those right there, trying to bring those two things together gently.
We are night after night in one building or another, four walls and a sound system, saying at the end “You’re going to die, we’re going to die.” It sounds ridiculous.
SJ: You’re going to be dead soon. There’s a timeframe involved.
SJ: That dark road language is no joke.
SJ: That’s sorcery language. That’s all blues language. Those are real places.
MS: That’s where Robert Johnson got his powers.
SJ: I don’t say anything about the likelihood. I say we are headed there. I don’t talk about it again. It is a very big deal. No one has ever commented. I think it is euphemism for most people who hear it, like all these things are today. It is just a shorthand way of saying: “This should be interesting. Like a roller coaster.”
MS: I think that is a little bit like the classic zen finger pointing at the moon. You can never actually make your way to the moon, and you can’t mistake the finger for the moon either …
GH: When I heard first heard that line about the dark road, I loved it … But I have come to understand that is exactly what we are doing. And we disappear into the darkness. And at the same time we are just trying to hold this very human thing, where one of the things that is going to end is the concert, and then the tour. Here we are, a part of the ending. We are just a part of the ending. What we are doing that night is going to end, and then we will end … I didn’t get much further.
The other thing that has been amazing about this trip for me … It is beautiful, listening to Stephen’s arc of loving something and then passionately loving something that will end, the growth of that or the expansion of that in the shows. For me, I have been a lot about landings, about things that settle gently and then things that land.
But the first half of the second half of my life: I’m in that. I am just so thick headed. We had this great moment in Ithaca. As a write of songs I have to measure up to not only Stephen’s work, but to the work of the people we admire.
On this tour, I realized how much work I have to do. What a gift that is, to be invigorated in that way. I knew it was out there waiting for me. That has been deep.
MS: It is undoing.
GH: Yeah, and that is the thing about the New York night. If nothing gets undone, if we had just come out and…
MS: …did a perfect show every place …
GH: … every place, it would be Mirvish. It would be Andrew Lloyd Weber. It would be Hamilton, or something that would be perfect every night. Who needs more of that?
This thing, the actual doing of the thing, is creating something as it goes. That gives the thing that we are doing a life that we are not in control of. This is not: ‘We roll into town, set the stuff up just so, so that when you pull this lever this thing goes, that thing happens.’ That was what was beautiful about New York, partly.
The code word for this tour has been ‘resilience’, from pretty early on. By the third show, I think we said it with Tad, by the third show we thought we had all been out there for five weeks.
SJ: That’s true.
SJ: I don’t feel that way now. It feels less, much less like that, than it did by the third show.
GH: That’s not because stuff gets easier to do.
SJ: It takes away the time sequence from you. It is not another show three weeks later. This show, the next one, the one tonight, has never happened. I don’t know how that might sound from a distance, but I can promise you that inside of it you are walking down that dark corridor towards where the curtains are and you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen.
You don’t know what kind of response you are going to get. You don’t know what is going to come out of your own mouth, or off the end of your fingertips, or what the people behind you are going to do, or what that looney in front of you is going to do, not to mention the wild card which is X-hundred people all facing more or less the same direction.
Forget about keeping it fresh: That is a nerve ending that is exposed.
MS: When you speak about Bird on a Wire, which you did earlier, it is a bit like you are landing on something live voltage every single time. And if you don’t land on it right, something different happens.
SJ: I quibble about the language of ‘right or wrong’ about it. You are trying to keep a certain kind of faith that you both summoned and agreed to abide by, to fold yourself into, to disappear inside of, so that you relinquish title but you exercise immense discipline without claim. That is how it is to me.
There is a sequence. We kind of know what we are going to do for one episode or movement to the next, but that tells us nothing about how to get there. These things literally, unlike a script, these little things literally stand in the air for a minute. They are almost visible. They require what you know how to do, but they are little more than that. But you have to inhabit their children, what comes after them. It is just the most insane high wire act, to try to do something like this night after night after night.
You can’t justify it, but you can be … Well, I like being a servant. I really do. I love being slayed by the thing and still not be dead. But there is certainly that feeling of being mounted and subdued, and there is an obligation to submit and still occupy that kind of central place that you agreed to conjure by appearing.
We were laughing the other day, remembering when we were doing a sound check once in Australia. The guy in the back yelled: “Can I have the lead singer”, by which he was anointing me. It was hilarious, because I didn’t sing a note in those days. The other night it was, “Can I get the poet at the front?” That is how I was designated that time.
Well, who knows what it is. There is a microphone that is out in front, and somebody better stand there, and somebody better assume some responsibility for what they cannot command. What a lunatic arrangement that is, but that is the arrangement. I would never want to be in a band behind a guy like that.
MS: You have three people. And you have volunteers in every city who are pulling for that to happen.
SJ: Go figure. I mean, revolutions happen this way. They really do. These are revolutionary cells of the spirit that have absolute political octane in them. When I say ‘spirit’, I don’t mean ‘ephemeral’ or ‘ethereal’. If these people turned this energy toward any other thing, that would be something. So I hope it is not entirely dissipated by the end of the evening, although there has to be some release obviously. It is building to something, but maybe it will happen later on that these people have more to do with each other than they ever imagined. The Night of Grief and Mystery could simply be the occasion for it, not the cause, not the reason. Just the occasion.
“The night ebbs, but the reasons why they did it amplify”: That would be beautiful.
GH: We have to attend to the death of the thing every night. This rolling into the town, and the sense of expectation from the almost bursting sense of the thing being accomplished by the people who have been on the ground who have been putting it together for months and months … We have to attend the death of that thing, roll out the day after, or the day after that. There might be a couple of smoke signals, a receipt for this or that.
MS: It is a fading trail.
GH: Yeah, the thing is over. Actually I think that is a really immature way to look at the thing. Partly we need to, for my own sense of keeping my – well, it is basic ego stuff – keeping that stuff in check. “It is just another thing.”
But this thing has matter. It dies when we leave and it leaves the impression. It leaves the impression that it makes.
MS: And we are the night before the election in the U.S., which is called the most consequential election. It is in the air.
GH: But like Stephen said, it comes up once or twice a show, and when it does, nobody knows how to – literarily nobody knows in the audience. I have seen people’s faces scrunch up near tears when he has mentioned the twisty reality of truth these days. It is like fear on steroids, but nobody is talking about what it means to express something other than fear of their times, of the ending of their times.
So many seem just interested in keeping with what they are comfortable with. I have always thought that what we did was countercultural. When I first said this, Stephen said: “What culture? Do you call this a culture?” Well, if this is the culture, then what we are doing is counter to that.
SJ: What we are doing is antimatter in an attitude universe. That is what this is.
GH: That is the next t-shirt.
MS: That’s the name for the next tour.
GH: It is awesome to do what we do in the context of these times. I am behind. Stephen is the one.
I got schooled on that. I don’t consider myself to be a small part. I have this notion now that I have work to do, but I am not doing it now, on this tour. In the studio when you are making a record, you can have a producer and you can have a band, but you have to have the captain, the person who … That’s Stephen. It is absolutely not me. I know who I am in this thing. That has been another gift of this tour. Because that has not always been clear to me. Stephen knows – he knows – he knows what it is like to be near somebody who burns brighter. That’s all it is. And that is very personal stuff. But what a gift that is.
I have been near – I have been lucky like that in life actually. It is amazing that I am lucky like that again. I am 54 and I am supposed to be winding down.
SJ: What does that make me? Wound?
GH: You are tightly wound.
MS: You are fully spooled.
SJ: Sancho Panza is the way to go. That is the way to go, because you get to watch tilting at windmills. You get to learn how to do it. But Don Quixote had no idea how to do it. He had nobody out front. That was part of the tragedy of the thing. You want to be somebody be Sancho Panza, bringing up the rear. That’s the business.
GH: And here is something just vaguely interesting. I know you guys are going to roll your eyes. I am not the most well-read person as you might know. When I was a kid, about 11 or 12, I fell in love with the story of Don Quixote, but I fell in love with the Broadway version. I always identified with Don Quixote, not Sancho Panza, but here I am. I am Sancho Panza again which is not to say that Stephen is Don Quixote, because you are not, right? You are not tilting at windmills? You’re not mad?
MS: He’s shrugging.
GH: You do have the beard.
SJ: I have an idea where the monster is. When I say, at the top: “We are headed there”, I am not talking about the audience. Let’s see where the audience goes. But I know where we are headed, and I know we don’t have a choice, not really. So at the beginning I say to the audience: “We’ll see you, or we won’t.” That’s it really. I have an idea where the monsters are. That’s where we’re headed.
Stephen is a teacher, author, storyteller, spiritual activist, farmer and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, a teaching house and learning house for the skills of deep living and making human culture. It is rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, working for a time yet to come. In this interview Stephen speaks with Christopher Ryan from Tangentially Speaking.
Music: “Still Water,” by Daniel Lanois; “Smoke Alarm,” by Carsie Blanton.