At any one moment across this whole planet, music maintains a potent hold upon hundreds of millions of people. Music is a multi-dimensional touchstone that brings cultures and countries together through its irresistible magnetism. It brings strangers together in a normalized, yet rapturous sharing at live concerts, while bringing lovers together effortlessly. And, at its most profound, music can bring to the individual listener exalted, altered states of being with serious healing potential.
Music transcends language, culture, climate, religion, race, gender, lifestyle and social strata. Pretty much everyone on the planet enjoys it. Even those living in countries with a fatwa, or a religious decree against music, listen secretly and dangerously. The human race is all one on music—from Norah Jones to Ravi Shankar, from Verdi to Velvet Revolver, from Coltrane to Krishna Das, from Bruce Springsteen to Bela Bartok.
And speaking of Springsteen, the whole rock and roll phenomenon is directly and unpretentiously linked to “good” globalization: the coming together of potentially everybody in one instantaneously absorbed lingua franca of music. Rock and roll music had conquered the Earth by the time the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead were only in their mid twenties. The mass desire for it had intensified since the raucous early days of Elvis Presley and Little Richard. The soundtrack of the second half of the last century was rock and roll--a peculiar blend of blues, rhythm and blues, rockabilly,and a strong dash of New Orleans.
Right now, despite the vast array of music mutations around, rock remains beloved after half a century. Think of it, what was being listened to in 1905—fifty years before Elvis? Scott Joplin? The persistent mojo of rock has remained with us so long we take it for granted. But, rock’s durability is due to its enlivening, loosening effect upon multitudes from every country. Since its rude, basically sexual, interruption of the homogenized fifties, rock has been a viscerally redemptive presence spurring various social and individual liberations.
The Live8 concerts, the Hurricane Katrina benefit concerts and the 911 Power to the Peaceful concert in San Francisco all re-ignited the brilliant urgencies of post sixties rock music–Pink Floyd was amazing as were U2 and The Who. Michael Franti
and Spearhead spread their message of unity and oneness at Power to the Peaceful and Neil Young’s performances at the hurricane benefits were masterful. Melissa Etheridge sang a day-old, utterly poignant, a cappella song about the victims of Katrina and bad government, which dialed listeners right into the severe suffering. So, the gestalt of rock retains its ability to move people on many levels at once. Rock has its foundation in great love and sex dance music, but rock’s matured persona can hip us to difficult realities—racism, war and oppression.
Significantly, this progression of rock into true modern agitprop, led to the next level--the numinous, the vatic and the visionary. Even though most rock cannot be defined as spiritual music, it is through the lure of this fundamentally joyous genre that music from all five continents has begun to slowly fuse and then demonstrate its unitive potential. As a result of a select karass, or spiritually linked group of rock icons–George Harrison, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Alanis Morissette, Eddie Vedder and Ry Cooder among others—and their experimentation with world and sacred music, the sound of global consciousness is nearly everywhere. These artists’ mass popularity coupled with their evolved musical tastes eventually resulted in the baroque sprouting of all kinds of crossovers. Musicians and listeners assimilated more inner-oriented forms, out of boredom with bump-and-grind rock if nothing else. The rock lifestyle, half reality, half fantasy, pushed some of us into going further afield so as to get deeper into the Self.
So universally resonant music like Indian kirtan chanting found its way to America, demonstrating the organic oneness of music and the musical crosspollination occurring between the world’s cultures. So everyone can listen to everything. Add to this the unprecedented unifying potential of Internet access and you have effortless, transglobal appreciation. It is remarkable to examine one of American chantmaster, Krishna Das
’s tours. In just one week in August 2005, he was in Amsterdam, Manhattan and Sao Paulo. Clearly, kirtan travels anywhere—no matter how obscure the Sanskrit is, the sweet, sacramental feeling is universally felt. Or analyze which people on the planet are listening to some form of Rasta, religious reggae music—on a Navajo reservation, in an East London bar and at a bash in Bangalore. So, while South Indian software programmers are rockin’ to a Spanish reggaetón beat, New York club cognoscenti are moving ecstatically to Indian dance-trance.
Music penetrates and transforms intellectual, visceral, mental, supramental centers in the body/mind continuum but most crucially, it is an express route to the heart and soul and it creates quite wondrous states of awareness. Those travelers with the little, white iPod speakers in their ears are smoothing out their stresses and grooving gloriously, weightlessly internalized and virtually on another planet. They are all in an authentic, altered state where the sound, rhythm, atmosphere and aura of the music instantaneously transports carbon-based, upright, biped earthlings on a regular basis to far-out, yet nearby healing spaces.
How did all this start? The answer lies in what is now shockingly forty-year-old pop music. The Beatles’ unprecedented (and in some ways mystical and inexplicable) world domination evolved and grew their music--and, crucially, themselves—in ways previously undreamed of. Even previous pop giants like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley did not straddle the world like the four down-to-earth lads from Liverpool. They physically traveled all over like no one else before them and by the time they had topped the charts repeatedly in almost every country, they were naturally delving into unusual sounds from distant shores. They used a sitar cleverly on “Norwegian Wood;” they made psychedelic studio magic in maybe the first truly transcendental rock song “Within You Without You;” George Harrison became compelled by Krishna consciousness and released the cross-religious “My Sweet Lord” melting “Hallelujah” into “Hare Krishna” in the lilting choruses. John Lennon insisted that “Instant Karma” was going “to get you.”
The Beatles’ superb, metaphysical “Across The Universe” was kirtan-for-rockers and Lennon took the gargantuan record-buying audience into deep inner space. George Harrison’s gorgeous “The Inner Light” is actually Chapter 47: Verse 1 of the Tao Te Ching. It is interesting to note that this absolutely spiritual song was the B-side of “Lady Madonna,” the perky 1968 single embodying the heterodox axis between pop and dharma. This fourteenth chart-topper for the Beatles took an advanced Taoist statement along for the ride. These are the sly, zeitgeist intimations of the conversion from a psychedelic culture to a meditation culture for those lucky enough to stay sane and make the leap. You know, think Dr. Alpert becoming Ram Dass and the rest is history...
All four Beatles had studied Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Even though there were mixed reviews at the time about that experience, the fact that the Fab Four had traveled to India created public readiness for Eastern music and eventually a readiness for yoga, chanting and meditation. There was a mysterious, preternatural charisma about the Beatles that affected their fans, but not just their fans. Whatever John, Paul, George or Ringo said or did was rapidly emulated by a substantial segment of the population: hairstyles, costumes, outrageous statements, drug use, sex, anarchic business schemes, etc... and then Vietnam, political activism, peace propagandizing and finally, spiritual awakening, mantra and meditation.
The West had already been blessed by Yogananda and some knew about Neem Karoli Baba. Vivekananda and Ramakrishna were revered by a tiny bunch of devotees. But it wasn’t until the four moptops, unlikely candidates for spiritual leadership, linked themselves to the little guru with the twinkling eyes and the unearthly laugh, that the world started to want yoga and chanting and to generally do things they had never done before or even dreamed of doing. This was not just about the Beatles. Other performers like the incandescent Pete Townshend of The Who, maybe the most groundbreaking hard rock band ever, was, and remains, a devotee of Meher Baba. By the end of the sixties, there was a new link between East and West and it had potentially huge influence because of the sheer size of the rock audience. Those who loved the Beatles eventually learned to love hatha, vegetarianism, ahimsa (non-violence) in fact they learned to love love. The Beatles’ 1967 anthem “All You Need Is Love” coupled with John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance” set heart chakras spinning in every nation.
The real magnetism of sixties music lay in its extra-dimensional character. It actually had collective healing power. And, it brought people together. Rockers are global. Oneness became obvious. Humans became more open and compassionate as they realized that we are all one. Yet, there is so much intellectual and visceral energy wasted on divisiveness that people need something very direct to lead them to the river. Music’s miracle is that it does just that.
The overthrow of the European brand of fascist communism ruled by the Soviets was in part due to the inspirational effect of rock music in both Russia and the subjugated satellite states. Joey Ramone once told me how shocked he was at the raving adoration of the rabid, punk fans that he encountered when The Ramones were touring in Eastern Europe. Their music got many of the youth through the storm, helping them overcome the dread of totalitarianism. Vaclav Havel, an absolute rock lover, brought the Czechs to freedom. Andras Simonyi, now the Hungarian ambassador to the United States, has always claimed that rock had a tipping point effect upon liberating his country. He also was a rock musician but became a noted economist and then diplomat. Tony Blair was in a band. Simonyi says that rock “binds us all” and also insists smartly that it’s not in a “message” or even the words per se. Most Hungarians did not know what the lyrics to any Clash song meant—the meaning got through on pure sound and feel. Ambassador Simonyi insists that Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” radically changed the way Hungary’s youth perceived their state and encouraged them to action.
Bob Dylan’s endless, picaresque, adventure songs in his late sixties electric stuff didn’t need to be understood verbally. The whole, delightful, sneering Dylan vehicle just got to you. Music transports us, period. This aspect of music is key – it even goes beyond politics into the realms of truth and justice. This is a continuing function of first decade, third millennium popular music. It grew up without losing its youth. It decided to enter into the urgent crises of our time but it still wants to rock and roll. Bono lunches with heads-of-state. And U2 is still the best band out there.
Even beyond all of this, the pop and rock dynamic—global reach—brought sacred music from all over to Western ears. Mickey Hart recorded the astonishing Gyuto monks and then we all had instant access to ultra-penetrating, Tibetan, multi-tonal chanting. Peter Gabriel with his Real World label and Mitchell Marcus with Triloka have introduced us to countless world music geniuses. The rising success of labels like Sounds True, Putumayo
, Soundings of the Planet, White Swan and Spirit Voyage as well as the increasing popularity of artists like Donna DeLory, Girish, Shaman’s Dream, Deva Premal and Jai Uttal among countless others, is further evidence that ever-increasing numbers of us have been happily seduced by transformative music.
Music patterns our systems, from brain to gut, in a way that smoothes out something gnarly, thereby giving us the chance to realign our atoms, release and go on. It seems to me that via politics, music has run through cycles of party/dance/sex to spiritual and brought many of us to a place where music and mantra are inextricable parts of our evolution in this life. We hear sounds and they either provoke outer or inner action. We begin to realize that all music is one, just as all of us are one. No matter what the song is, top forty or from the Gobi desert, it does the trick. One man’s showman is another man’s shaman. Rod Stewart, as beautiful and foppish as ever, performed “People Get Ready” at the Katrina benefit and brought me to tears. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and ten thousand leaping Pakistanis once took me to heaven in Central Park. And make no mistake about it, Gwen Stefani and Missy Elliott are as good as shamans to their MTV fans. No one, no generation, owns the great, permeating music. It just awaits us and when we’re ready to hear those exact sounds that somehow ameliorate our condition, well, we hear them. So all of our personal stash of sound is indeed medicine music. We listen to it to get well and to get high, and to get in.