Slow Songs

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Long Antenna Moth 400X279

Unidentified species of moth with long wispy antennae that sweep back as the creature slowly flies about the chest high riverside grasses near my home.

Lately I’ve been listening to Jack Johnson’s new album In Between Dreams and finding the simplicity of the instrumentation and focus on lyrics bringing back my old love for singing along with the music that I love. The album reminds me of a statement made to travel writer Brian Schwartz in his book World of Villages by an Efe friend (incorrectly known as a Pygmy) who asked why Schwartz didn’t know how to play an instrument and, after Schwartz replied that back home he had professional musicians who did the playing for him, stared at him in surprise. “Where’s the fun in that?” the Efe asked. “Music ought to be sung and played and danced to by everyone involved.”

I used to spend hours every day strumming my guitar and singing and writing songs. It came naturally to me, especially the lyrics; somehow the melodies bloomed in my head and the words, unlike with poetry, popped out seemingly as if by the touch of God. I could lose myself in the creation of the songs and emerge at the end of the day, surprised that darkness had fallen and that I had forgotten to eat. Sometimes some of my college friends and I would sit on the roof of my apartment in Eugene, Oregon. U.S.A., improvising as we laid down chords and combinations, playing and laughing, and making up words till well into the evenings. I even played in an Irish pub here in Tokyo for a while, crooning about life and the laughter and joy I saw around me.

The music has died since then, in great part because so much of life in Japan revolves around ready-made packages, including music. No one my age plays their instruments any more. When I even suggest to those who admit to still fiddling with their guitars and pianos that we try playing a gig on a street corner somewhere they look at me in horror. “What if the police come?” they ask. That, of course, kills the joy in singing for the love of singing. And that is what Japan is like, the regulation like some metallic killjoy terrified of spontaneity and unbridled elation.

Jack Johnson even dresses the way I do, the way I love most: t-shirt, shorts, sandals, hair buzz cut. Sitting with friends in the backyard enjoying one anothers’ company, the words in the songs about living simply and focusing on the little things in life and appreciating them. When a friend handed me the album to borrow and I popped it into my computer at home, it was like rediscovering my old Oregon friends. I especially like his song “Breakdown” about wishing the train he was on would break down so he could take the time to look around him. So poignant the truth of slowing down, at times painfully reminding me of how far I’ve ventured from my own determination to live without rushing.

One song caught me by surprise, “Good People”. I had just returned from a particularly rough passage on the evening train, packed to the gills with late night commuters. Perhaps it was the electricity in the air from the storm outside, but a nasty mood seemed to infiltrate the crowd. I had been standing near the door. At my station I was about to step out of the train when behind me some sweating businessman who couldn’t wait for those ahead of him to negotiate the human bodies attempted to muscle me out of the way. When I resisted he placed his hand on my face and shoved me to the side, making me trip and fall onto the platform. I was so incensed that I raised my fist to punch him, but caught myself just in time. Fuming I shuffled home, mumbling obscenities about Japanese men (who have an obnoxious tendency to flaunt bravado and what they call male “puraido”… “pride”) and feeling my emotions suffocate me. I clicked the “play” button in iTunes on my Mac and let Jack Johnson’s music wipe the slate clean.

When “Good People” came on, I got to wondering. Just why is it that so much of the popular culture around the world seems to focus on being “bad” and sullen and miserly and fast and rebellious, with brows beetled and shouting and bad-mouthing everything and everyone? You watch television, as Jack Johnson alludes to, and there is nothing nice there. So much of it is selfish and hysterical and indifferent. This week there was “Ally McBeal”, “Outer Limits”, “Angel”, “Andromeda”, “The Simpsons”, CNN News, and even an Animal Planet documentary in which the announcer described a male lion as “sexist” and a cow elephant as “the fairer sex”, and, though I like some of the shows, all of them full of facetious and self-absorbed people whom I would never want to get to know in real life. The only recent program I’ve seen lately that I enjoy has been “Oz”, with its honest language and willingness to look at uncomfortable and unconventional views of men.

Music seems to be much the same. If you switch on MTV so much there is of young men and women emulating the wealthy lifestyle, with little deeper thought on anything. Some of it is pure fun, of course, but the focus is still on going it fast and often advocating anger as the solution to injustice and pain. A lot of this grows naturally out of the rebellion of the 60’s, but surely there ought to be a counterbalance with going slow and taking the road of quiet, reflection, and placation?

I love the quiet and gentle view of songs such as Jack Johnson’s. With such a view each day can roll on in and the peculiarities and hold ups absorbed in stride. I just like nice, laughing people. I like a merry soul and people who are generous with their time and belongings. I like singing for singing’s sake. Songs that celebrate the value of moments.

Pardon me now as I tune out, close my eyes, bob my head, and sing along to “Never Know”…

9 Responses

  1. “‘The music of what happens,’ said great Fionn, ‘that is the finest music in the world.'” (from the Fenian Cycle, medieval Irish)

  2. It’s a constant “project” to slow down. I often feel lazy when taking time to ruminate, ponder, or just listen to gurggling water. Americans thrive on excitement and activity. I feel out of sync.

    You mention that your friends were leary of police attention for playing on the streetcorner. My housemate iived near Osaka, and he said he often saw musicians playing in the subway. It wouldn’t surprize me if Tokyo had different limitations on street playing. Japan is full of unexpected cultural variations.

    I’m a professional musician. Sadly, I hardly ever play for “fun”. I used to have chamber music parties. Your comments reminded me that I need to do that again.

  3. Fantastic piece. Sometimes it seems as though everyone lives in the MTV-aggressive-fast-superficial dimension, as if this is the standard. And that simple gentleness and joy is something odd, unaccepted, outsiderish.
    I am still always pleasantly surprised to meet those who don’t agree with that at all.

  4. Playing music professionally is not necessarily a bad thing, but what I see as sad is the commodification of music in a way that tends towards ‘product’ with a lack of essense connection. As you mentioned, it is encourages formularized music with a completely different motivation behind the act-weath, fame, sex, ego, on and on.

    There is something that happens when a person makes music for the ‘love of being with it’ that calls to something larger–“the music of what happens”, as Dave quoted. When this happens all time stops. You described the magic of it so beautifully. thank you.

  5. I pretty much love seeing anyone do anything slowly and attentively, responding to what unfolds under their hands. It’s beautiful. I don’t see nearly enough of it.

  6. Butuki:

    Always a pleasure reading your words.

    You wrote:

    So poignant the truth of slowing down, at times painfully reminding me of how far I’ve ventured from my own determination to live without rushing.

    It is so very difficult to slow down and, as you say, painful to know that you’re caught up in a rush toward nowhere. Every aspect of American life is this way. The slow turning of pages on a lounge chair is constantly threatened with with e-books and books on tape and books on cd and every other way possible to get it quick and get it fast. And in the end, I wonder if anyone knows at all what the story and the charachters were all about.

    I was just having a discussion with a friend about forming an affinity group. A group that would gather together around a potluck style dinner in the interest of slowing down. Slowing down to discuss literature and film, maybe view a documentary or show a member’s new work of art or hear a new member’s poem. Slowing down enough to hear someone string on a guitar or beat out a rhythm on a set of simple hand drums. Though we’d had this kind of group once before, we stumbled at the question: who would we invite? After all, the group disbanded because everyone was “too busy.” And a few others that we know and have invited in the past are really not “into intellectualizing.”

    What you describe in Oregon seems almost non-existent here on the East Coast. Maybe it’s here and I haven’t found it. The relaxed, laid-back, doing things just for the sake of doing it (not necessarily for profit or fame) is heartwarming. Hopefully one day I’ll gravitate toward it.

    Lastly, I note your reference to your mac. I just bought a G4 ibook and absolutely love it. I keep asking myself what took me so long. Suddenly our Gateway feels like a dinosaur.

    All the very best,
    ANGEL

  7. I often wonder what exactly we are all rushing towards. To have more time? To enjoy life? To catch up to the phantom of our own desires? We spend so much time accumulating more things that the time to actually enjoy what we have is set aside in favor of spending the time to acquire what we don’t yet have. Rather a crazy way of living.

    I find myself missing the love and knowledge of craftsmanship and artistry, words that seem almost to be going out of style. Not just in the building of physical items, but in such simple things as the writing of letters, the playing of a guitar, the inflection and intention of conversation, even in the way one places one’s feet while walking. Everything in the world is a precious instant and taking the time to see each and every one is part of what makes living so rich. When you rush past it there is no possibility of participating in the delight of experiencing the depth inherent in all things.

    In Europe there is a huge movement in the food industry called Slow Food, started by a group of French cooks and restauranteurs who wanted to return to the roots of local cooking, high quality, organic ingredients, and taking time to savor the whole culture of the meal. Here in Japan the tide is turning this way, too, with many of the fast food franchises now either going out of business (Burger King) or struggling (MacDonald’s… Tokyo has more MacDonald’s than any other city in the world). The affinity for traditional fare, with young people gathering to try local specialities and formerly disappearing delicacies like Okinawan tofu or Shochu (a kind of rice wine) gaining great popularity, due in great part to the wine craze sweeping the country (just wish this craze would extend to cheese, which unfortunately still costs an arm and a leg here, most Japanese not having a clue about cheese), has brought about a big change in awareness of local culture. Traditional Japanese culture was never the rushing madness it is today; people used to deeply appreciate such simple pleasures as sitting on a veranda and watching the moon. But that has largely disappeared into this headlong rush toward acquiring things and things and yet more things. Japan generates so much garbage that Fijians have formally lodged a protest against the Japanese government for littering their shores with Japanese garbage!

    Dave, no matter what new fangled types of music might emerge, it is always the music that simply reminds me that I am human in the world that stays with and moves me. No amount of electronic virtuosity can ever replace the human voice or lyrics that talk about who we are.

    Garn, there are street musicians in Japan, especially in Osaka, which is the entertainment capital of Japan. A lot of musicians, actors, and comedians hail from Osaka. Just the character of people who live there is quite different from Tokyo, which tends to be rather stodgy and straight-laced. I once went sea kayaking with a group of Tokyoites and Osakans. The Tokyo people refused to open up right away and relax with everyone, which made the whole gathering rather gloomy. The Osakans, in their typically “New York-like” accents, sat along the pier loudly and hilariously deriding the Tokyoites for being sticks-in-the-mud. The street musicians are there, but it is very controlled. You’ll never find a singer in the subways or outside certain buildings or along certain streets. The wild days of the thousands of Takenokozoku street dancers of the 80’s is long gone after a huge police crackdown to control “criminal Iranians”.

    Anne, I just can’t watch MTV. So much of it is the same thing, with entirely too much effort towards trying to be different, by using too many special effects. The videos themselves seem to be more important than the melodies or lyrics.

    Aki, yes, there is of course nothing wrong with professional music. I probably wouldn’t be listening to Jack Johnson if I did think there was something wrong with it. What bothers me is that fewer and fewer people like you and me are playing music any more. I don’t know a single person here in Japan who goes dancing for pleasure, even my 20 year old students. What does that say about culture when the very expressions of all our feelings that have been part of us since, most likely, the first ice ages, have been replaced by sitting in front of a brightly lit box? It’s sad. I can’t imagine that people in our culture would have created the kind of languages we have today or even invented musical instruments. What person today would have thought of naming birds such as phalaropes or albatrosses or penguins? What person today would have thought to strip fibres from the cotton plant to create cloth? I know I’m exaggerating, but still, we live with so little daily creativity these days.

    Koshtra, moving slowly and looking slowly makes such a difference. Many people I meet in the mountains tell me that they are disappointed that they never see any wild animals. If they would just stop walking for a while, sit down on a log somewhere, and wait, they would be surprised by just how much wildlife there is. So much depends on not trying to get anywhere. Some of the best times during my long-distance bicycle journeys, like my six-month tour of Europe, were the in-between hours bicycling between towns, when, even though I was with my wife, each of us was lost in thought and the landscape. It was during those fallow periods that some of my best ideas and stories took root.

    Angel. that affinity group idea sounds wonderful. I’d love to get together with people in that way here. I used to do it with a very dedicated group of friends in Boston. I assure you that people like that do exist on the East Coast; you just have to know where to look. I befriended a lot of the street entertainers around Harvard Square and Faneuil Hall and discovered a whole world of free-roaming people who loved getting together like you described. Also if you join something like the Appalachian Mountain Club or the Audubon Society there are lots of people there who love doing things like you describe.

    As to the Mac…*grin*… I pity anyone who still struggles under Windows. Why anyone would subject themselves to such a mess, I have no idea. My wife used Windows for five years (during which it was me who had to torture myself trying to figure out what all the crashes and bugs and idiotic filing systems and viruses were about). Sure, Windows has a huge selection of hardware and an even huger selection of software, but just how much can one poor person actually use? Since upgrading to the Mac my wife has started using the internet regularly and enjoying it, plus I have had no trouble with the hardware or the software.

    That being said, the new OS 10.4 (Tiger) though, while fast, still has some very annoying bugs that have caused trouble with some of my hardware, like my scanners and Zip drive. If you are still using OS 10.3.9 I would highly recommend you stay with it until OS 10.4.5 or so. Sometimes I think Apple, with its growing popularity, is going the way of Windows. I surely hope not!

  8. I’m grinning ruefully as I read your post, because I think I’ve managed to combine the evils of rush-rush madness with the pitfalls of unscheduled days. I’m very much in agreement with you about the importance of having time to just sit, and read, or noodle around on the guitar, or do yoga, or whatnot, and yet… am I actually taking advantage of this time to do all these lovely things that I know I want to do? No! I’m not, and feeling -stressed- that I’m not. I tend to think of it in terms of my concentration having been eroded over time by unchallenging work and our instant gratification society. Too, I think I’m a person who works best with goals and time boundaries, otherwise I just drift on the current of the day.

    Like now. I know I need to eat, and that I should do it now so I don’t feel spacey, rushed and desperately hungry later, but no… I’m clicking the trackpad button like a mouse in an experiment. I think I need to learn to savor the blogs I visit, instead of scarfing them down like potato chips.

    Okay. Logging off the computer, now!

  9. :-) Yep, Rana, that’s the clincher. When I do have the time, and still I rush myself like a lunatic. — that’s what shows that the problem isn’t (just) out there. I’m carrying it with me everywhere I go.

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