Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Some Of Them Are Old, Some Of Them Are New

In 1973, this song - and the album it was on - changed my life.  I have literally not been the same since.

When Brian Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets was first released, I was not yet even quite 20 years old.  I was still under the impression that I was indestructible and immortal, and my taste in music, like the way that I was living at that time, was fast and loud.  Many of the songs of the album sounded just that way - some were as intense as anything being played at the time and still kick ass to this day - but other songs on the LP were much slower and quieter than the other music I was listening to, and compelled me to experience them in ways other than those to which I was accustomed.

In Some of Them Are Old, Eno reflects on the impermanence of all things - the people who come and go, leaving their "stains and cigarette butts trampled on the floor," the madness of fleeting celebrity, and the loneliness of the elderly - and asks the listener that when they see the impermanence of these things to "remember me, remember me."  He was recognizing his own mortality, his own impermanence, and the inevitability of his own eventual senility and even death.  This was not what I had come to expect from rock music, and I listened to that and the other songs on the album over and over as they were telling me something, well, different.

Impermanence is what we have in common with all other things, it is the fabric from which we're all cut.   It is the true nature of all things.  Although it is usually considered in a negative sense, in Shobogenzo Bussho (Buddha-nature), Zen Master Dogen quotes the Sixth Patriarch, “Grass, trees, and bushes are impermanent, and are nothing but Buddha-nature. Human beings and things, body and mind are impermanent, and are nothing but Buddha-nature. The earth, mountains, and rivers are impermanent, because they are Buddha-nature. Supreme awareness (Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi) is impermanent, since it is Buddha-nature. The great Nirvana is Buddha-nature since it is impermanent.” As long as we deny our own impermanence, we  fail to recognize our own Buddha-nature, and exactly that which is identical to the absolute.

Of course, 30 years had to pass before I learned of Dogen's teachings, but in a way it was Eno and Some of  Them Are Old that planted the karmic seeds that led to that discovery, or at least helped prepare the soil or provide some of the water and sunlight (who knows about these kinds of things?).  Like its companion song on the album, On Some Faraway Beach ("Given the chance, I'll die like a baby on some faraway beach when the season's over"), Some of Them Are Old suggested a more reflective, contemplative approach to life.  Over the subsequent years, I followed Eno's output and career as he took his music further and further down that rabbit hole at which he was only hinting in Some of Them Are Old and Faraway Beach, and this process opened the gate, if only by a little, that ultimately  lead toward the path of Zen practice and learning to quiet the mind. 

But that's not the amazing part.  What I find most remarkable is that nearly 40 years after the album was released, Annie Clark (St. Vincent) would choose to cover that particular song of all the myriad songs out there, and to cover it so reverently and beautifully.  Here Come the Warm Jets was recorded and released nearly 10 years before she was even born, and although it's a critically acclaimed milestone album with an almost cult-like following, it's a testament to the strength of that particular song that it apparently moved her profoundly enough to want to cover it.  It's really not so surprising that a young man in the early 1970s, a member of the very target demographic to which Island Records was likely pitching their product, heard the song and read into it what he wanted, as it is that a 20-something young woman of the 21st Century would later find something worthwhile in it.

Her experience of hearing the song may not have been the same as mine, just as my experience of hearing her cover the song is different from my initial experience of hearing it.  Everything arises from current conditions.  We can never really know anyone else's experience of anything, but we're all still bound together by the common fabric of impermanence.

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