Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Father's Day present, courtesy of Donovan

And now, a break from your regularly scheduled David Lynch Weekend programming.

As I’ve noted, my affection for Donovan stems from my experience of listening to him in the car with my mother. But there’s a more involved story about my history with Donovan’s music. One weekend in February 1995, my mother went to New York City to visit my grandmother, leaving my sister and I with my dad. I was on swim team then, which meant early-morning meets at the high school about once a month in the winter. I dreaded jumping into the cold sweaty pool at seven in the morning, and the constant beeping that meant “go” during the races made me a nervous wreck. Because of the high stress of the swim meets, I could usually finagle some sort of gift out of my dad afterwards – a couple of new pogs (or one special slammer!), say, or a trip to a movie. I wanted to see a movie that day, but only two were showing at the local theatre: The Big Green, some sort of soccer movie for kids starring a chubby boy with curly red hair (Patrick Renna, it turns out) and Gus Van Sant’s To Die For.

My dad and I both knew which movie we should see, and which movie we wanted to see. The latter had Nicole Kidman and ugly-hot teenage Joaquin Phoenix (together! naked!), and that’s the movie we ended up seeing. It was the type of snap judgment call that my parents have often made in favor of nudity, violence, and ordering me wine at restaurants when I was fifteen, and I love them for it. “Season of The Witch” is used to great effect in the last scene of To Die For (no spoilers). After the movie, my dad took me to Coconuts, where we bought a copy of Donovan’s greatest hits. We played it in the car while we drove to Long John Silver’s. The song “There Is A Mountain” came on, with the memorable lyric “First there is a mountain, / then there is no mountain, / then there is!” My dad started laughing. “What is this guy on?” he asked me. Knowing rhetorical questions about drug references (although I'm sure Donovan maintains his song is about the ocean of bliss within the self, not acid) after a disturbing movie, set to a soundtrack of psychedelia and crunchy fried shrimp: my dad was treating me like an adult, or how I imagined he would treat an adult.I was in heaven.

David Lynch Weekend, Day Two: Donovan in Concert

I walked back into downtown Fairfield in search of a meal with meat. It had been raining on and off since the early morning, and I dodged pondlike puddles every few steps. I had asked a tan-suited man at the information desk where was a good place to eat in town, but he had stared at me uncomprehendingly and answered, “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t eat out.” After passing the BP, which sold coffee but nothing worth eating, I crossed the street every few paces or so to remain on the side with the sidewalk – the paved strips were not constant but alternated on either side of the road. I passed Every Body’s, a combination organic grocery store and vegetarian restaurant. Then a few more blocks of houses and empty lots, and when I rounded the corner towards my hotel I saw a monumental building of red stone, complete with a clock tower.

It was the Fairfield court house, clearly dating from another, more prosperous time, when passenger trains stopped at the town’s tracks instead of twenty-two miles to the east in Mount Pleasant. Like many small Midwestern towns, Fairfield is arranged around a large town square. The town boasts a surprising number of restaurants, including a “Thai Deli,” several places specializing in ayurvedic cuisine, and some pleasantly new-age coffee shops. One such spot is Revelations, which is a combined bookstore and wood-oven pizza emporium. Directly across from my hotel was Azteca, a Mexican restaurant. Although I have had bad experiences with “ethnic” cuisine in isolated locales (and airport sushi, but that’s another story) it looked like my best bet to get some meat and hot sauce in my system; the blandness of MUM’s food was beginning to make me feel faint.

After a surprisingly good meal of beef tacos, I retired to my hotel room. The rain had begun again, and I had no desire to tough out the twenty-minute walk back to campus, as I was utterly without umbrella or slicker. Fairfield has no public transportation to speak of; I had made the journey from Mount Pleasant with the aid of a man whose number I had found on the David Lynch Weekend website, who had in turn sent his sister to pick me up at the train station. Through this woman I discovered Fairfield’s intricate network of the retiree chauffers, calm, friendly people who seemed slightly bemused as to what all the fuss about Lynch was. I called her on her cell phone and asked if she would be willing to drive me back to MUM for Donovan’s concert. I felt slightly bad every time I called to ask for a ride, because I knew I would interrupt her gardening or doing something else she enjoyed; her chauffering was incidental, not vocational. Of course, she told me. It would cost me six dollars. On the ride there, she asked me if I thought Lynch’s movies would be in the Fairfield library. “I’d like to watch one,” she told me.

Donovan was to play two concerts over the course of the weekend; one at the Ogden Auditorium, and another at something called the Men’s Dome. Saturday evening’s was in the auditorium, the same smallish room where I had thus far heard Lynch, Donovan, John Hagelin and various others rapturously introduced by Bobby Roth. My overflow badge damned me to the same wait for entry, but I no longer worried that I would have to watch the concert in the empty broadcast tent beside the auditorium which I had yet to enter. A local paper had noted that two Native American school groups were attending the conference, ostensibly because of its emphasis on integrating meditation into education. I recognized the students passing me into the auditorium. Not only were they by far the youngest attendees, but they were herded by a woman who chose her words carefully – “All right, ladies and gentlemen, now I would appreciate it if we could all move in a straight line and quietly towards that door” – and spoke in the measured field trip voice I remembered from my middle school teachers. I settled in the last row of white plastic chairs, a vast improvement over the bleachers from the day before, and waited.

Bobby Roth, glowing in a fashion normally reserved for expectant mothers, took the podium. I regret not bringing a tape recorder to the Weekend, if for no other reason than that I have no recordings of Roth’s introductions. I feel that my descriptions here have reduced them to a ridiculous stream of repetitive superlatives, but in truth they were all distinct, and genuine; Roth truly felt excited and impressed by everyone who spoke. He was a fine speaker, and as a sort of proxy contained the excitement of the entire room. Donovan was praised and feted, his recent history noted, and then the man himself emerged, dressed in rockerly clothes: a close-fitting black sweater with some sort of white pattern and black pants. He carried a green guitar with a small gold emblem of a deer on its body. As the applause soared and Donovan settled in his chair, I glanced around at the crowd. Many couples resembled each other, as a dog begins to look like its owner: pairs of people with lank dishwater blond hair spilling over their collars or wearing matching black jackets, their hands clasped in polite affection. The anxious, calm faces of the teachers in the audience interested in what TM had to offer them bobbed like hopeful lightbulbs over their bodies. Here and there were MUM students, their unlined faces serene in a fashion that belied their youth.

Donovan announced “And I am, the Sunshine Superman,” launching into that song. It was just he and his acoustic guitar – he had no backup band – and his solo performance lent some credence to the somewhat pretentious things he had said in his Q & A about being a troubadour, a single poet, who sang and wrote alone. “Even John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney] didn’t truly collaborate; each were individual artists,” he had instructed one questioner. His guitar playing was efficient and impressive, and the pall of snark that had fallen on him during his Q&A sessions seemed to lift. My favorite part of Donovan’s music has always been the unexpected sounds with which he dressed up his songs: the hum-om vocal modulation on “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” the organ on “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” the careening whir on “Sunshine Superman.” Absent these effects, however, his music was just as compelling, stripped of excess but not of feeling. I was struck again by how wonderful his music is for children, not only in its sunny psychedelic subject but also in its repeated belief that everything will be all right. Unfortunately, that part of me that never made a good babysitter when every other twelve-year-old girl in my suburb was raking in the dough ignoring children for a few hours on a weeknight kicked in when the school group behind me screamed in a shrill, alarming tone and clapped offbeat throughout most of the performance. One of them sang repetitive snatches of a Rihanna song.

Here is Donovan’s setlist from Saturday night:

Sunshine Superman
Catch The Wind
Gentle Heart (a song he explained would be on his new album)
Hurdy Gurdy Man
Wear Your Love Like Heaven
Season of the Witch
Jennifer Juniper
The Universal Soldier
Happiness Runs


A whispery blues song, also on the new album, whose title was not given
Mellow Yellow

Earlier, to a questioner who had wanted to know about his thoughts on performing, Donovan had said “Play three fantastic songs, and then you’ve got them, and you can do whatever you want.” This was precisely what he did in the Ogden auditorium. He had a carefully crafted set of patter that he kept coming between and during the songs. In the middle of “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” Donovan launched into a story about how George Harrison had written a verse of the song when they were in India with the Maharishi. Would we like to hear it, he asked? Well, he would too. Unfortunately, no pen was available when Harrison composed his verse. It wasn’t included in the recorded song, he explained, because at the time London studios required songs to be less than three minutes long. The crowd let out a collective sigh of disappointment. But! Donovan had memorized it, and would sing it for us tonight. It involved time being buried and truth coming to light. “Season of the Witch,” Donovan noted, was Lynch’s favorite of his songs. The audience was often invited to sing along, especially on “Happiness Runs,” a song about meditation that Donovan noted was now being used to sell cereal. I had never heard the song before, but as he instructed us to sing “Happiness runs, happiness runs,” (“First the gents! Now the ladies!") and trilled “Thought is just a little boat upon the sea,” above the crowd’s eager chorus, we all fell into clapping pattycake-style, like a room full of five-year-olds at a singalong. I love concerts, but I’ve rarely felt the sort of togetherness Donovan managed to forge between the Eraserhead devotees, people who had meditated for more than thirty years, and his own bliss-conscious fans. When he left the stage, it was to a roaring ovation.

I had seen Donovan in person once before, in February 2007 at the Anthology Film Archives’ showing of Jacques Demy’s The Pied Piper. The theatre at that cinema is always freezing in the winter, and Donovan emerged on stage to introduce the movie wearing a silky scarf, his hair a dark corona over his black jacket. “In 1972,” he said, “I was the Pied Piper. The question is,” he paused, “Am I still the Pied Piper?” Another pause. “And the answer is yes. I am still the Pied Piper.” He smiled mysteriously and backed into the eaves, moving in a way that reminded me of the albino in Wild At Heart who walks by Sailor and Lula, gesticulating with ecstasy while Koko Taylor performs in a bar in New Orleans.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

David Lynch Weekend, Day Two

At five after eight the shuttle to the university’s campus had yet to arrive. Torrential rain fell outside my hotel’s window, and there was no number to call to check whether or not I had transportation to the day’s events, which were to begin at nine-thirty with a videoconference appearance by John Hagelin. Breakfast, my schedule informed me, was from eight to nine-thirty. An endless series of nondescript white cars passed in front of the hotel, and then finally a small yellow school bus skidded around the corner. A few moments later a fit man with a white mustache appeared in the front door of the hotel. “You waiting for a shuttle?” he asked. The driver, it turned out, was a gym teacher at the local high school, and the school bus was the chariot of choice for the girls’ tennis team he coached. He had accidentally left the top hatch open overnight, so almost every seat was covered in water. After he dropped me in front of MUM’s Student Union, I hoofed it around to the entrance, which was in the back of building, a Vedic quirk it shared with many of the MUM buildings I had seen thus far.

This breakfast would be my first taste of the university’s much-vaunted all-organic vegetarian cuisine. The three steaming rows of heated trays at the far end of the room looked promising from afar, but their contents were sparse and baffling. Two held liquid – one brown, the other white – and then there were some few scrapings of what could only be oatmeal. Then there were two empty trays, and after that one half-full of hash browns. There were also long plates of muffins and scones and vast bowls of the type of fruit salad you find at McDonald's: cantaloupe, honeydew melon, canned pineapple and red grapes. A large heated tank of was optimistically labeled ROOIBOS and LEMONGRASS but proved to be empty. There were barely twenty-five people in the room, and almost no food. Breakfast had been in session for twenty minutes. I scraped up some oatmeal and topped it with the white liquid – warmed milk – and felt silly for expecting scrambled eggs.

After consuming a meal that needed little chewing (hash browns, oatmeal, water and a banana) I headed over to the Henry Ogden Clark auditorium. I was an “overflow” attendee, having registered late and at a great discount, and as such was supposed to watch the live events on a screen in another room. When I attempted to cross into the overflow room, however, one of the amiable Fairfield police officers milling around told me that it was likely I would be seated in the main auditorium, as it seemed there was enough room for everyone. Thus I began the wait that I would regularly engage in, watching blue-badged “Guests” and green-badged “Visitors” (I never quite understood the distinction between the two) pass down the hall while I waited in orange-badge steerage.

Eventually I was ushered into the room and settled on the same bleachers at the back of the room I had perched on the night before. Robert – hereafter “Bobby,” as Lynch called him – Roth took the stage and delivered another effusive introduction, this one for Hagelin, whom I learned had worked at several prestigious physics labs with acryonym names, such as CERN, and had been the Natural Law party’s candidate for the presidency in 2000 (somewhat less impressively, Hagelin appeared in the films What The Bleep Do We Know and The Secret). The physicist’s visage appeared on two large screens on either side of the stage, a golden map stretching behind him and the words “Raja New York” printed beneath his torso. Balding, with kind blue eyes, he looked exactly like the fellow in the Napster logo.

I am ill equipped to properly summarize his talk, for although he continually mentioned that he “didn’t want to get too technical,” the lecture involved several slides of physics equations, indecipherable charts, and a hand-drawn illustration of some sort of bubbling. To be very short, he explained the scientific proof of the existence of consciousness and of the unified field. Hagelin did not strike me as a charlatan but rather as a man wholly preoccupied with his work, and possibly somewhat blinded by the excitement it gave him. When the audience was invited to ask questions of the physicist, each questioner was projected onto the large screen as they spoke. A young man wanted to know what dark matter had to do with the unified field, and a woman was curious about the fact that many great meditators chose to “drop” their bodies and live solely in the blissful consciousness. Their voices shared a tentative quality and Hagelin’s warm responses visibly softened their worry. Dark matter had no light of it and was not part of the unified field, although it was a natural part of the universe. One could leave their body, but there is so much bliss and joy in life that no one need depart before they were ready.

After the physicist was bid adieu with much fanfare, Roth trilled praise for Lynch and the director appeared on stage. Long lines had already formed behind each of the microphones, and many of the questioners looked strangely similar: men in their late twenties or early thirties armored in nondescript baseball caps and faded heather gray t-shirts, women with a single quirky item of clothing – a red leather jacket, spike heels – to compliment their organic outfits. One called Lynch Dave, some called him David, and most called him Mr. Lynch. They thanked him at the beginning and the end of their queries, and they tried to sneak in a second question when he’d answered their first. They shook and wrung their hands when they spoke and smiled. All of the questioners reached toward David Lynch with their whole bodies, as if they wanted to embrace him, to be nearer to his person.

“Where do you get your ideas?”
“I am a filmmaker, and I have been working on some projects, and I was interested how you motivate people into working on your ideas.”
“Sometimes I have an idea, and I get so excited about having caught the big fish that I can’t cook it. Do you know what I mean?”
“I have watched all of your movies, and I have to say that I like The Straight Story the best. I feel that you have really captured the feeling of the Midwest. I wanted to ask if you lived here before you made that movie?”
To this last, Lynch answered: “No…The Straight Story is the only one of my films that I did not write. At the time I was going with a girl named Mary [Sweeney, Lynch’s editor of many years and the mother of his son Riley, born in 1992] and she had a friend named John Roach from kindergarten, and they were working on a script. I lived in Madison, Wisconsin in the summers, right on the water. And they talked about it, and I wasn’t interested, but then when it was done they asked me to take a look. And then I decided I wanted to do it.”

A woman asked how he planned the color in his movies. Lynch said that he did not, but admitted that it was an important aspect of his films: “Frank Booth wouldn’t exactly wear pink.” Blue Velvet’s titular villain came up in other questions; a man wanted to know how Lynch “got such amazing performances out of actors, particularly Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.” In almost every answer, Lynch repeated his conviction that an idea, once properly caught, contains all of the specifics of an art project. No element is left to fate of decision; the idea comes fully formed, a little homunculus waiting for incubation. A woman explained that she was an English teacher from Fairfield and asked if Lynch could please explain what Mullholland Drive was about.

The director smiled. “When I was making Eraserhead,” he answered, “I had no idea what it was about. And I thought about it and thought about it, and at this time I was reading the Bible. And one day I found a line that explained to me exactly what Eraserhead was about.” The audience held its breath. “But it doesn’t help for me to explain what the idea means to me. Your reaction is more important and interesting.” A young man with a bleached crew cut and several long strands of prayer beads hung around his neck explained that he had come to David Lynch Weekend the year before, become interested in TM, and was now hoping to attend the school itself. “Things have really gotten better for me,” he told Lynch, smiling. He wanted to know what was the name of the book that had encouraged Lynch’s artistic goals as a young man.

“I’m really happy to hear that,” Lynch answered, beaming, and then named The Art Spirit by Robert Henri again. Lynch took at least five minutes answering each question. He gestured in his inimitable way, wiggling all of the fingers on one or both of his hands like the fronds of an undersea plant. He was patient with the questioners even when they interrupted him or tried to prompt him. Then it was time to ask Donovan questions, and Lynch was led offstage smiling.
The first guy up to the microphone looked to be in his early twenties, and had bleached a random hank of the hair behind his ear. His question was almost incomprehensible and involved something about the politics of Donovan’s performances. He spoke meanderingly for over three minutes, when Donovan crisply interrupted him, saying, “I think I know what you’re talking about, yes.”

Another man addressed Donovan with “Brother, I too am a singer-songwriter, like you.” And then the guy with the bleached hair and the prayer beads was back. “Will you play ‘Ferris Wheel’ tonight?” he wanted to know. Donovan did not project the boundless goodwill that Lynch had; he seemed somehow miffed about the whole situation, as if nobody in the auditorium was giving him his proper due. He gave long, considered answers, however, complete with encouraging if stretched smiles at the end.

We filtered out to lunch, held in a gym shaped like an airplane hanger across the way from the auditorium. There was more food to be had than at breakfast, but it proved disappointingly bland: veggie burgers, a sort of cream of mushroom soup, steamed cauliflower and carrots, and boiled squash. Aside form a pair of regulation-issue plastic salt and pepper shakers – the pepper shaker and pepper itself a dispiriting shade of beige – no seasoning was offered. I was impressed with the strict delineation of waste – biodegradable forks and knives in one bin, food in another – and with the claim that all of the food was organic, and much of it locally grown – but this was the type of mushy, tasteless meal that made people hate vegans. I felt faint and cranky, wishing there was some damn coffee somewhere, and too full of bland starch to try the ice cream being served out of a large white cooler at the center of the gym. When I tried to leave the lunchroom via some open doors at closest to my table, an MUM employee told me that I had to leave through the entrance I had come in.

I was beginning to recognize certain Vedic restrictions in MUM’s campus architecture. In addition to the nifty pagoda-like structure atop several of the buildings, cars could only enter the campus from one direction. The man who told me that I couldn’t exit the building from that direction wore a natty tan suit on his thin runners frame. His hairline was receding somewhat, but otherwise he looked younger than I somehow knew he was. The restricted doors, piles of bland vegetables and eerily healthy men with eager smiles underscored TM’s reputation as a cult in my head. But I gritted my teeth and went out another door.