Here's a scene from Freaks and Geeks that really caught my attention.
Man, I lived through that.
In the coming diary, you will hear about sex, drugs, rock and roll, Rush, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig von Beethoven, William James, how to pick up chicks, the mystical experience, and the abstract philosophy of aesthetics! Did I mention Bach?
So let me tell you a story about a friend of mine. Here he was, this friend of mine, who was about twenty three at the time, high together in bed with this girl in a three room one bedroom apartment that he shared with a roommate who could be coming home any minute. Since it was a one bedroom apartment, my friend's bed was in the living room, which was also the kitchen and dining room and where the state of the art stereo was kept. The girl was a friend of his roommate's girlfriend; she had no place to stay, so she was crashing with them, which had created some tension because the roommate wanted to screw her and would have in a heartbeat but for the fact that the news would get back to you-know-who and all hell would break loose. So it was a potentially explosive situation, this friend of mine having sex with this girl in the kitchen/dining/stereo/living room area with a girl the roommate was drooling over but couldn't have and that he felt he had first dibs on.
But what was on the stereo? I think they were playing Rush, although it might have been Journey. It would be less embarrassing if it were Rush, so let's hope it was Rush. I went looking just now for the song that they were probably listening to. I can't possibly know for sure, but it might have been this.
Something like that.
Now, whoa, whoa, whoa! You're asking yourself, why is Dumbo inflicting this on me! I come here expecting Bach and Mozart and Mahler. Harumph! Well, my much loved readers, be patient. Dumbo always has a game plan, scattered as it may seem at times. And besides, the price of my continued diary series is that you must sometimes endure my nostalgic bullshittery in a state of querulous impatience.
... But back to my friend and this girl that was in my friend's bed. My friend was busily engaged in the act of coitus. The girl was busily engaged in the act of listening to Rush. So engaged that she suddenly disengaged from my friend, stood up on the bed on her knees, stuck her arms out in both directions and began to dance and sway to the music, her eyes closed, her chin lifted in rapture.
Now, my friend, if he had been a normal person, might have been frustrated by this. But he was entranced by this sight, all the more so because he really didn't like Rush, and Journey even less. Fuck, it might have been Journey, which is really fucking awful. I won't even embed Journey as a joke. No. My friend was more into classical music.
So what was so entrancing about this, then? Was it the sight of her naked body in motion, a nakedness she wore as comfortably as an old summerdress? No. It was her transport, because he identified with it, even if he didn't appreciate the music. At first, he thought, maybe it's the drugs, maybe she's on better drugs, but no! -- they'd been smoking the same weed. So he listened harder to the music, because he wanted to join her in this place of rapture.
"This is my favorite part," she said. she flopped on her back sideways, her somewhat fleshy body jiggling, and she put her bare feet up on the wall in this kitchen/dining/living room/stereo room. Her toes curled and relaxed, curled and relaxed against the wallpaper as she strummed an air guitar, her curly blond hair shaking left and right. To my friend, the sex was (temporarily) forgotten in lieu of this beautiful voyeuristic zen moment. If you asked him today, he probably couldn't remember to tell you anything sexual he had done with her, but he could still remember the details of her toes on that wall, curling and relaxing, to some music that he thought was crap. He put some effort into trying to appreciate the music. He just hadn't found the angle.
More on this in a moment...
Let me tell you a story from my childhood. (This part is about me, not my friend, mind you.) In 1963, the Beatles hit the Ed Sullivan show. I didn't really care for the Beatles or all the big hoop-la surrounding teen music. The next day, in second grade, the seven year old girls were all squealing and talking about the Beatles.
Girls. Yuck. What do they know?
A year or two later, my brother had his own garage band. He would become a professional musician after high school, but we didn't know that yet. They were pretty loud! Neighbors came to stand and listen, including some girls who began to dance to the music. And, oh! Yes, now I got it. I understood this music! I got the point. I hadn't listened to it before with the idea in my mind of how a woman's body could move in response to it. I may have been still pre-puberty, but I was a lustful prepubescent! Songs I had heard on the radio and not cared for suddenly had a new visual image to accompany it. And I thought, too, how would I move my body to this music? The process of moving my own body made me experience it in a new way. The rhythms started to make sense, that clashing electric growl started to make sense, part of the overall atmosphere of rawness.
The one part of sixties rock I never was able to partake of, though, never, ever, was that whole "We're the new generation and we've got something to say," as the Monkees put it. I was always somewhere on the outside, watching everybody else listen to music.
... But back to my stoned friend circa 1981 and the toes-on-the-wall girl in his bed and Rush and their Zen moment. They heard a sound at the front door. Shit! It was the roommate, a guy named John. In a flash, she was under the covers, kicking them in the air and putting on her clothes while my friend did likewise.
John loved rock and could talk about it for hours. Hearing Rush on the stereo, and it was probably his album, he was quick to join my friend and toes-girl and rock out and geek out discussing Rush and his favorite albums.
After the Rush album, my friend asked them to try something different. He asked this in the same tone of reverence with which John spoke about Yes, his favorite group. My friend put on his own album of Glenn Gould playing Bach:
Glenn Gould - J. S. Bach (Concerto No.5 in F Minor BWV 1056 II. LARGO)
The temperature in the room dropped a few degrees, as it should have, this being much cooler (temperature-wise) music. It wasn't harsh and full of energy like Rush. He could have put on the Mahler 6th finale, but that would have probably driven them out of the room, so, no, he chose, this Bach piece, something simple and irreducible, pure essence. He could have pointed out that this Largo had been used in the recent film SlaughterHouse Five starring Valerie Perrine in one of the most magical moments of the film, the one where the aliens come and take Billy Pilgrim away. But no, he just stared at their faces, wondering if they could feel any of the transcendent mystery that he felt from this music.
They were polite, but they looked like they were getting bored.
Okay, okay, he thought. They're going to bail. Wait, he said! Try this. And he put on the classic recording of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, another cool, temperature-wise, piece.
Bach's Goldberg Variations, performed by Glenn Gould
He explained about how there were about twenty variations, all based on that same, first, simple theme. A discussion of the intricacies of theme and variation form were lost on his audience. They both complimented the Bach music, probably because my friend looked desperate for some kind of compliment, some reaction. He knew that, because he'd done the same thing before, like when listening to, uh Journey.
My friend knew John was getting ready to put on Yes or Cream next in order to pontificate and quote from Dave Marsh books. But he beat John to the music rack and pulled out the Bach Oboe and Violin concerto.
Bach Concerto for Oboe and Violin BWV 1060 (starting at 0:54)
There were polite murmurs while the bong was filled. My friend thought, okay, enough Bach, time to try some heavy artillery! It was probably too complicated for toe-girl, but, oh well. He put on the finale of the Mahler Symphony #8. This will get a reaction, for sure, he thought, even if they hate it!
Mahler Symphony #8, ending, Simon Rattle conducting
Very different, eh? My friend turned up the bass really high, and although you can't hear it on cheapie Youtube with cheapie speakers, the Mahler 8 finale can rattle a house with the bass, especially at the end, because of the huge postromantic organ, right about 4:28 in the clip. Even louder and more earth-shaking in the Solti recording, which he had.
John liked it, but it was kind of an intellectual appreciation, not a gut level state of awe and transport. Toe-girl was just yakking about something. Oh, how lonely, my friend felt. Forget the almost but not quite getting-laid aspect of the situation. He had been there, for a moment, in sympathetic vibration with her genuine musical ecstasy and he wanted to share it back in some way, but such things are not quite easily done. Nope. John and Toe-girl had a lot more in common in this regard, part of the same milieux that he felt excluded from. He hated Toe-girl, now. But he still wanted to fuck her, which he never again got the chance to do. That eats him to this day, I think.
For my friend, this was a problem at two levels: spiritual and sexual. In a way, it was fortunate for him that he had made friends with John, his roommate and landlord and fellow employee at work, where my friend was an uber-hardware and software-troubleshooter with Godlike powers that left others in awe. John was an expert on rock and roll and finding girls, a surfeit of girls, more than he knew what to do with at times, enough to actually be picky. And he always knew where to get good pot -- right across the hallway, in fact, it turns out, from a neighbor who had his own massive rock collection which he insisted his customers listen to if they wanted to sample the wares.
This was a time of great education for my friend. The funny thing is, he approached it the same way he did music, as if he was being exposed to something beautiful and beyond his ken that was just out of his reach but might become clear at any time with an ooh and an ahh. Together, with John and his dealer, my friend learned all there was to know about circa 1980 rock, which bands were good to listen to high, which bands chicks liked, which ones you should never in public admit listening to without enduring shame. John also frequented the Sunset Boulevard club scene and knew how to find and crash private parties.
My friend tells me of a time when he and John cruised up to Sunset, probably going to Madame Wong's West (now vanished). As they passed Gazarri's, maybe the Rainbow Room, there were girls outside wrapped around the block, waiting to get in, wearing fishnets and garters and nothing else and looking the way whores should look. (Not the way they really did look, he would assure you. As people in Hollywood know, real whores wear dirty sneakers and baseball caps.) My friend pressed his face against the glass and said, "Uh, uh uh! We should go back to that place," but John would have nothing to do with that. Those girls were into sucky metal rock bands of a genre that he despised and his standards were too high for such riffraff, fishnets or not.
What a confusing time for my friend! The fact that those girls liked music that he didn't like meant nothing to him; he was used to it.
I could tell you who my friend is, but he would never own up to being so pathetic. Besides, he has family who sometimes read these diaries.
Now, here comes the twist, as we pivot into a whole different area that you might not have seen coming from our profane introduction.
When I was in high school, I read William James' book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. And it was tough going. James was a philosopher, not a theologist, so don't worry that I'm going to burden you with unwanted religious viewpoints here. I hope I'm not doing that. I'm making a point about music.
James elaborated at one point on what he called "the mystical experience," something common to not just religion, but great poetry and music, and in fact, something maybe common to the human condition itself. As a rationalist philosopher, William James wanted to first look at this experience objectively as a thing apart rather than to indulge in any specific dogmatic revealed wisdom folderol. I'm going to do us all a favor by quoting from a summary notes website rather than James himself.
The range of mystical experiences
James offers a whole range of experiences that he wants to categorise as mystical, extending from the most trivial from the religious point of view to the most important. Thus: "The simplest rudiment of mystical experience would seem to be that deepened sense of the significance of a maxim or formula occasionally sweeps over one." [p 382] James relates this to the power of poetry and music.
What, to James, are the characteristics of a mystical experience?
He understands mystical experience in terms of four characteristics. The first two of these are sufficient to identify a mystical experience.
1. On the one hand, there is ineffability: the subject of a mystical experience cannot find words to describe it.
2. On the other hand, there is the noetic quality: subjects claim that they have experienced revelations, insights into vital truths.
3. The third characteristic of mystical experiences is their transiency: they rarely last more than an hour or two at most.
4. The fourth characteristic is passivity: the subject feels a loss of control, of being in the grasp of a "superior power".
And thusly I have justified my anecdote of Toe-Curl-Girl. Slick, eh?
I can relate all four of those characteristics to my experience of great music. But I would add one more aspect to it that I think James might have identified with: The sense that you are experiencing something more important than just yourself. For some people, that more important thing might take a number of forms, including a sense of being in the presence of God.
Let's try a thought experiment. Suppose a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there... Hmmm...
Okay wait, scratch that. I meant to ask this: Suppose there was an Ipod in the forest playing the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony #7. Would it still be profound, great music?
Beethoven Symphony #7 in A, second movement, conducted by Karajan
I chose the Symphony #7 second movement in particular, because I'm trying to think of music that most effectively conveys that sense of something great outside one's self.
So back to my question. The Beethoven Symphony #7 second movement is playing in the forest. Is it still great?
I think the answer is no. We can argue about whether a tree falling makes a noise, because there are objective ways of measuring sound. But the greatness of music is a subjective experience. Without a human ears to hear it, there is no Symphony #7. It only exists when you or I hear it, and I'm not terribly sure it even exists when you hear it. So, given that, what the hell is there about the Symphony #7 that it can create a sense of something important outside our selves?
It is only an awareness, and maybe as ephemeral an awareness as that created by a drug experience. James goes on to talk about drugs and the mystical experience as well, what he calls "The Anaesthetic Experience," because of his own experiments with nitrous oxide.
This is frustrating, is it not? I realize that I've been a missionary for music. I don't want to use evangelist, because an evangelist preaches mostly to the faithful. Like my friend, above, I've always wanted to share with others that mystical sense of that important thing outside myself that I hear in music the same way a missionary wants to go amongst the savages to spread the word of God. And yet, what is there really to spread?
Somehow, in some way, music can touch us more intimately than a lover's caress. But for it to do so, there has to be a convergence of many things. There has to be at least a minimal awareness of music itself. There has to be something interesting enough in the music itself, in its design and shape, that is compatible with who we are. Clearly what is compatible with my friend, for instance, was not compatible with Toe-Curl-Girl. And there has to be openness to it. This is a strange thought, isn't it, that being open to music is akin to being open to the mystical experience, or to God himself if you prefer it that way. Not everybody can be that open, I don't think.
It shouldn't strike us as strange that music has always been associated with the religious. Before the classical period, it's probably safe to say that most of the great music of the entire Western tradition was religious in nature, music that had been composed for the Church. The rise of non-secular music is a relatively recent thing, if you measure recent in terms of centuries. Music and the divine are intertwined.
Tchaikovsky: Hymn of the Cherubim
Consider this diary a style experiment. I'm still probing to see which direction I should take my diaries from now on in order to keep them interesting. I may have worn out the hair-splitting analysis gig for the moment, I suspect.