July 30, 2014

Bright Lights, Lonely Spot

The loneliest place in the world is center stage. Though all eyes see into the small spotlight, the pair within the light sees only the vast darkness beyond. The strain of knowing we are being watched while also knowing that we are unable to see those who are watching us can become unbearable. Sometimes we become stiff, afraid to move, afraid of awful possibilities, paralyzed by our own imaginations. We want to reach into the darkness and pull companions into the light with us just so we won't feel so alone, so defenseless. We need allies.

The other day, as I was shopping, I met a member of my old band. I hadn't seen him in twenty years. He was much changed. He used to have that long-haired, open-shirt wildness about him, that sexy way of cocking his head and looking slyly at somebody. Now his sparse hair was burr-cut and he was wearing clerical garments. Instead of being followed by a few dozen adoring women, he had a single teenage boy with him. The boy clearly resented the attention I was being shown. He looked at me and scowled, folding his arms in front. And then I remembered the way my old friend's pregnant wife, standing in that same posture, used to look at him when she registered resentment at the attention he was paying to the women who were paying attention to him. I also remembered how he would sneak around with the women, always playing some cat and mouse game with his wife.

I asked him if the boy was his son. "No," he laughed, "he's in my Youth Program at church" and then he added, "I'm still married, though." He held up his ring finger to show his wedding band. For years I had seen him in my mind as being a `groupie-junkie', always with a couple of pretty girls - on the way to or from a hotel room - and always stoned. Here he was, sober in a mall, with one attentive boy.

We laughed, and questioned each other - "whatever happened to" this person or that. I learned that after he left the band he went to college and seminary school and then had become an ordained minister. He had moved a long way away from sex, drugs, electric guitars and suggestive lyrics. I tried to imagine him quoting the Gospels, but it was too much of a stretch. For a long time I just stood there trying to comprehend all these changes.... none of which I could ever have predicted.

He told me that the baby girl his wife was carrying when I last saw him was all grown up now and was also quite the singer. She sang with her high school band and in several concerts and, naturally, as a soloist in his church choir. "Every Sunday she sings to a packed house. Yes," he said proudly, "she's the one they come to hear." Then he said that he was looking for a good recording studio for her. But money was short and so he was having a hard time finding one to take the work on `spec' - which is short for `speculation' and which usually means no money now and most likely none to come.

I just happen to have a good friend who's an owner/engineer of a top-notch recording studio, so I offered to find out what we could do to help him and his daughter. He received this offer enthusiastically. Since I use the studio myself, often assisting him with the technical work - tracking and mixing, I arranged to help with this project, too. We followed up our mall meeting with a phone call to arrange the recording session.

He knew from his own experience - as all musicians who have been around recording studios know - recording sessions are closed. The saying goes, "If you ain't playin', you ain't stayin'". Yet, when he arrived with his daughter, he had four other teens in tow. The engineer and I just looked at each other, shocked by this violation of protocol; but we didn't say anything.

There's a good reason why sessions are closed. It's hard to move around to get anything done in small control rooms. Engineers need to be able to move fast from one end of the console to the other, and to the outboard gear, which is usually a good rolling chair's push away. Plus, singers, professional and amateur, don't need extra distractions. First timers are very intimidated by the entire process and find it difficult just to stay focused on the music.

Sure enough, we didn't get very much done. Every time the engineer or I got up to turn a knob on or flip a switch, we'd sit back down in the lap of a kid. I even had to keep reminding one of the kids to keep his hands away from the knobs and faders. He kept caressing them as if they were begging to be pushed by him.

At the end of the session, after having had to step over and around teenagers for four hours, the engineer spoke up as plans were being made to record again. "Hey, man, next time it's just you and the girl. Ok?"

The next session was excellent. He and his daughter came alone. She seemed less nervous in front of the microphone and it was surely much easier to move around in the control room. I coached her a little on mic technique and helped her warm up. We accomplished a lot. By the end of the session, we knew we'd need only one more to finish. A few days later, for the final session, I was sitting in the control room with the engineer, critiquing the previous recordings, when he and his daughter came in - once again accompanied by a group of teenagers. My jaw fell open. I couldn't believe it! "Another entourage?" I asked, adding somewhat sarcastically, "Does anyone understand what a closed session is?"

The teenagers laughed and good naturedly poked each other. He gave me a sideways look. "Yeah, but that was only for last time," he said slyly. In my mind I saw him again with long hair and an open shirt. The engineer and I were playing the role his wife once played: we were the rules he had to break to establish his dominion over the process. The kids were the people in the darkness he had to drag into the light to keep him from being lonely while he was alone. They were his allies in his battle, his camp followers, his reassurance and reinforcement. We were all there to fulfill some deep need of his, a need that extended beyond the sounds of music.

The engineer and I looked at each other, our eyebrows raised as if in mirror image. It was at that moment that I realized that some spiritual sicknesses are very hard to cure, and that changing outwardly is easy. Time will do that for us. But changing inwardly... that's another matter. He tried to tell us that this was a learning experience for the kids, too. Their education was important to him. They were part of his special Youth Spirituality Group. I knew better. They were just his latest groupies. In place of adoring women, he had substituted adoring teenagers. He still didn't have the strength to stand alone, center stage.

When the psyche shivers in fear, the attendants are drawn in to stroke and calm it, and whisper in its ear. It wants to hear that it is loved. And it needs to hear that its own love is even more important. The groupies and the teenagers are subordinates, functionaries. They have uses.

In Zen, we help but are not used. We have no conditional relationships. We are individuals. When we look into the light and sing, the audience is inside us.

This is why we keep group alliances and cliques to a minimum: to help people from trying to escape aloneness. We're friendly, but we try to maintain that healthy dispassion that keeps us from reaching into the darkness when we're sick in spirit or afraid. Achieving independence is hard work - and it's always work that must be done by ourselves.

We must learn to stand alone in the spotlight and sing only for the sake of the song.

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