Gutting the Romance

A friend sent me a YouTube connection to a 2008 Robert Pirsig interview clip , and after I watched it, I took myself back to the mid-seventies when I first read his novel  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I had already been exposed to one of Alan Watts’ books of essays and so remember being really excited to get my hands on that Persig book that like some other books at the time was considered an essential passport to conversation with many of my friends who were all copious readers. It was one of the first hardcover books I bought, and I read it in one swoop , returning  to it from time to time in the months that followed — always mulling over its philosophical content. At that time, 1975, it was a book that changed the way I thought about my world because while It reinforced my generational  code of the 60s, it also provided some intellectual respite from the reality that the hippie movement was starting to be trampled by what Tom Wolfe called “The Me Decade.”

 In that pre-computer world where conservatism was growing in power, and the anti-war movement was in crisis, Persig’s book offered an alternative to these changing values. The power was within. That it was as Hamlet had surmised, “nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Suddenly I began to understand why debates  about wealth verses money could be absurd, how violence could trump the peace movement, and why, twenty  years before all this ,John Cage dressed in a tuxedo performed  his entirely silent piano recital 4'33″ in of all places Woodstock, New York.

Of course, time is indeed the great revelator and today though I still hold a place for it in my book shelves, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance  no longer holds the great magic it once did, and I am afraid its insights have been reduced to “back in the day” nostalgia.  Perhaps it is as Persig himself has said, “It is not good to talk about Zen because Zen is nothingness ... If you talk about it you are always lying, and if you don't talk about it no one knows it is there.” (From the Interview: Robert Persig)

About the same time that I discovered Persig’s novel, I saw Albert and David  Maysles  film Gimme Shelter. It had been shot a few years before in 1970, and I had heard a lot about it, but I had never seen it.  It was a film that like Persig’s novel changed the way I understood myself and the culture in which I was immersed.  For me, it nuked the peace movement that music had inspired and left idealism as roadkill on the speedway. Months later I couldn’t forget the look of the crowd cowering under the “angel shock” of chaos. I had seen the 1972 Stones tour bootleg film Cocksucker Blues before Gimme Shelter and it was probably the model for many sex, drugs and rock’n roll documentaries that followed it. But after ten minutes, it became boringly repetitive and artificial, posturing in its significance, playing to its own Stones mythology. Gimme Shelter was different. It left me confused yet fixated, saddened but alert that somehow the culture that I revelled in had lost its courage and values. It wasn’t just Meredith Hunter’s death, or the pool cue beatings of audience.  it wasn’t the parts or the sum of the parts — it was its atmosphere,  the slick terror of the event, the precision of the chaos that was so well captured in the film – the low stage, the flying beer cans, the freaked out Mick Jagger whose usual bravado was shattered.  That film experience stayed with me for a long, long time.

It would be years later in the early 90s that I saw Gimme Shelter again. The friend with whom I was watching it asked me if I knew that George Lucas was one of the secondary cameramen at the concert. That’s all I remember about seeing it that time. The personal clarity I had on the initial viewing was gone. Decades of music docs and living had apparently killed my “plugin” to any former emotions I had experienced. And I guess that’s just the way it is with BIG moments in retrospect — books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and films like Gimme Shelter become the memory gates to understanding what we have become.  As David McFadden said in his poem, “Another Revolution”: Knowledge expands to fill the vacuum/ left by the loss of spirit.  He wrote that in 1970. Who knew?