Death Is Not The End, Part 9:
When the heart is open
QUESTION: Pete, tell us if you would, because it's something we really need said and you say it so well. Is rock reinventing itself?
PETE TOWNSHEND: I think maybe the most interesting view to look at is the one that we've just passed through: Grunge...which has been an obvious harping back to an earlier style of rock. Not just about the sound of the bands, but what it means to the people that are listening to the music and the significance of Kurt Cobain's death. You start to get a sense...what actually happens is not that Rock 'n' Roll reinvents itself, but that human beings don't have very many ideas and they tend to do the same thing over and over again, behaviorally. Individuals will always make the same series of mistakes again and again and again. The day I die, my parting words will be, "Please God, in my next life, will I not do that every day of my life?" We all get caught by the same problems. Since the second World War, certainly in America and in Europe, you've seen groups of people form themselves into generations. That's a big mistake. That's wrong. And that's why Kurt Cobain is dead. But then there's people that think, "Ah, we've learned from this." But they haven't. They've not experienced anything. The people that have learned the lesson of Kurt Cobain's death are really just a handful of people that are very close to him. His wife, his poor little kid who's going to grow up in the spotlight without a father, and the other guys in the band. Look at my generation. How did that work? Jimi Hendrix. Brian Jones. Janis Joplin. Keith Moon. The list is fucking endless. They're dead people. My life is full of dead people. My friends are dead. My friends. They might be your fucking icons. They're my fucking friends. They're dead . Dead people in my life. Lots of them. People that I knew, fucked, loved, played with, grew up with. Now, we have Generation X which is responding to this big significant moment, which is Kurt Cobain committing suicide, and I just think this shouldn't happen again. It will happen again, but it shouldn't. In the 60s, we really thought that we were changing the world and we didn't. When we got college degrees and jobs and became lawyers and politicians, then we started to change the world. If you want to change the world, you have to get out there and change it. Music is not going to change it. Music changes the way you live in the world. It changes the way you see it. But it doesn't change the world itself.
Kurt Cobain once wrote "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld, so I can sigh eternally." In a 1995 interview with Angelica Huston, Cohen described how he has been living in a Zen monastery, but admits "that it is a common mistake, to think you're going to go into some kind of spiritual practice and be relieved of the human burdens, from human crosses like thought, jealousy, despair -- in fact, if anything, these feelings are amplified. What's life, you know? It has all these pesky details that accompany it. I noticed that when I was on Prozac my relationship with the landscape improved. I actually stopped thinking about myself for a minute or two, because most of the thoughts one has about oneself are involved with desire or loneliness or isolation or strategies to overcome them."
Describing the rigorous schedule of living in an ashram Cohen comments on how you sit for long periods of time, "and during the intensive weeks, which are one out of every month, you sit for about eighteen hours a day and begin to examine the panic of your mind. So it seems to be that if you can stay still for any amount of time, anything more than a minute or two, which we rarely ever do, some things are disclosed to you...but basically there's nothing but stillness for about eighteen hours a day, and everything comes up.
LC: I think culture's always been violent, and it is something we find very entertaining. Not only does it reflect our social reality, but it also reflects our psychic reality. We actually lead very violent, passionate lives and I think that we're hungry for insights into this condition. That's why we get all that stuff on television. It's really where we are, really "what" we are. Probably all cultures, certainly Western culture, always have been violent. At the very center of our culture is a crucified man, a tortured man hanging on a cross of wood. You have an image of violence at the very center of our spiritual investigation. Suffering, violent suffering, seems to be something that corresponds with something that we experience. But maybe the culture is [particularly] shabby now. Maybe it's because I'm over sixty, that I can feel that about everything.
AH: I'm inclined to agree with you, and I'm not sixty yet. [LC laughs] Isn't this what's currently referred to as a decadent period?
LC: I don't know if it is or not. Certainly within any decadent period, you would probably find the purest expressions of conviction, and I do see that in many of the people I know. If it is a decadent period, I think it probably was always like this. In other words, everybody probably has always been in a panic. Today [people] are ready to take emergency cures, whatever they are, if it's violence -- the discomfort is so intense. Maybe it's always been like that, certainly it is now. Public speech seems terribly shabby, with the exception of a few black orators. The public rhetoric is hopelessly boring. It's incredible they actually get anybody to go to the polls. The level of the debate is terribly shabby; if there is a debate at all, I can't quite locate it.
AH: Do you think love can last?
LC: I think love lasts. I think it's the nature of love to last. I think it's eternal, but I think we dont know what to do with it much of the time. Because of it's eternal and powerful and mysterious qualities, our panicked responses to it are inappropriate and often tragic. But the thing itself, when it can be appropriately assimilated into the landscape of panic, is the only redeeming possibility for human beings.
AH: Why do you think it is that when we fall in love, our mouths become dry and we shake and our hearts beat too loud and we're fools?
LC: Because we are awakening from the dream of isolation, from the dream of loneliness, and it's a terrible shock, you know? It's a delicious, terrible shock that none of us knows what to do with. Part of the shabbiness of our culture, if indeed it is shabby, is that it doesn't seem to prepare people. With all the songs about love and all the movies and all the books, there doesn't seem to be any way that we can prepare the human heart for this experience. Maybe we, the cultural workers like you and I, could apply ourselves. We're not going to resolve it in this moment or even in this generation, but perhaps as some kind of agenda we could invite our writers and our cultural workers to address this problem a little bit more responsibly, because people are suffering tremendously from a want of data. The psychologists are valiantly trying to provide us with answers. I think it properly falls on the cultural workers to investigate this predicament with a little less concern for the marketplace and a little more concern for their higher calling.
AH: What do you suggest?
LC: Just to get serious about this thing, you know. One has to be compassionate. It's true that people are up against things, economically and emotionally. The obstacles are great and the suffering is great and people have got to make a living. It's easy to look down from the summit you've reached, or even the summit I've reached, and talk about the responsibilities of the artist, but most people are just trying to get their foot in the door and make a living. So we've got to temper anything we say with that. On the other hand, you've got to be serious about what you do. And you've got to understand the price you pay for frivolity or just for greed - it's a very high price, especially if you're involved in this sacred material, which is about the human heart and human desire and human tragedy. If there isn't some element of seriousness in the training of the artist or in the atmosphere that surround the enterprise, then this shabbiness grows and eventually overwhelms it. I think that's what we're in now. It's hard to be serious about so many things. But I think there is an appetite for seriousness. Seriousness is voluptuous, and very few people have allowed themselves the luxury of it. Seriousness is not Calvinistic, it's not a renunciation, it's the very opposite of that. Seriousness is the deepest pleasure that we can have. But now I see people allowing their lives to diminish, to become shallow, so they can't enjoy the deep wells of experience. Maybe it's always been this way, when the heart tends to shut down. If only the heart shut down and there were no repercussions, it would be O.K., but when the heart shuts down, the whole system goes into a kind of despair that is intolerable.
LC: Yeah, and you really feel lousy. If it just shut down and you really did become a zombie -- to be shut down with a wound is no good. That's where I've seen many of my friends and myself. And that's why I've taken this radical solution [to live in the ashram]. It's certainly not for everybody. I would never suggest that everybody should follow this kind of regime. [AH laughs] But to keep our hearts open is probably the most urgent responsibility you have as you get older. Because when you're younger, you do have that thing that you were talking about where the mouth goes dry. I mean you have reactions, and you do fall in love.
AH: Is that love or a crush? What is that feeling?
LC: I don't think there's any difference between a crush and profound love. I think the experience is that you dissolve your sentries and your battalions for a moment and you really do see that there is this unfixed free-flowing energy of emotion and thought between people, that it really is there. It's tangible and you can almost ride on it into another person's breast. Your heart opens and, of course, you're completely panicked because you're used to guarding this organ with your life.
AH: With your chest.
LC: With your chest, right. So when it opens, call it...it's love. I think that all the spiritual training is just to be able to allow you to experience this from a slightly different perspective -- one thats a little more stabilized.
AH: Do you think that that level of happiness is between people or can it come only from one side?
LC: I think that is the ocean in which we're all swimming. We all want to dissolve. We all need that experience of forgetting who we are. I think that's what love is -- you forget who you are. Forgetting who you are is such a delicious experience and so frightening that we're in this conflicted predicament. You want it but you really can't support it. So I think that really what our training, what our culture, our religious institutions, our education and cultural institutions should be about is preparing the heart for that journey outside of the cage of the ribs. You know, I think we're doing pretty well. I mean, it's not the worst culture that I've ever heard about. We're not, you know, dumping people into volcanoes.
Death Is Not The End, Part 10:
I Will Take You Home