“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita…”
Introduction: I’m 36 at the time of this writing, just about the same age as Dante Alighieri – “halfway along our life’s path” – when he himself descended into the Hell, noble Virgil (and occasionally Beatrice) at his side. Dante, I should mention, was not received into Hell as are most: sinfully living, successfully dying. It’s true that, by his own admission, Dante was woefully ‘lost in sin’ at the time, but he was also very much alive and certainly god-fearing when he entered the Gates of Hell.
As much here as anywhere we are faced with that age old divide between fear and respect. When people say god-fearing, are they not also saying god-revering? And is this not interchangeable with god-respecting? I would argue not so, that fear and respect are mutually exclusive concepts, whose dichotomy neatly maps onto another age-old division: ignorance and reason.
In Jungian philosophy, reason, or the Greek logos, was similarly contrasted with passion, or eros. Passion: that component of the animus that is most wild and stricken with emotion; that leaves us blind to the best course of action, blind to considerations of future outcomes, and generally unaware of other important entities both proximal and distant. It’s passion that makes us believe in things, whereas any true consideration of logos would elicit acceptance, rather than fear, of that which we don’t know.
That’s all well and good, and certainly galvanizes me against philosophical criticisms. But when it comes to an afterlife, where a living thing is left after life has left it, is reason at all prepared to mediate through fear and uncertainty? After all, is there not a potent fear amongst all thinking men and women that death is principly responsible for relieving us of our reason? Isn’t that what we fear most: losing reason? Do we not fear it more than losing our lives and loved ones?
Case in point, I would sooner receive a quick death and maintain my faculties until the end, rather than sink into the pointless morass that is Alzheimer’s.
Now hip cats are all fine and dandy with losing their ego, passing into the bardo (intermediate space), and finding a new host. Squares such as myself however, despite all of our posturing about reason and objectivity, have a bit more trouble not messing our pants at this prospect.
So how does someone like me prepare myself for ego loss while still alive? Obvious: Music.
Pop quiz: you just died, your soul yields forth from your cadaver, and you have about… I don’t know… like five minutes until the Devil knows your dead. Which ten albums do you grab before getting sucked into the Underworld? If you referenced Dave Matthews Band, Limp Bizkit, or Bruno Mars, it’s a certainty that you are going to hell, but the top ten list that follows probably isn’t for you. And though this could just as easily have been the top ten albums you bring to Heaven, let’s face it: I won’t be headed there either… oh, and Heaven isn’t real.
You can read the Top 5 Albums I Recommend to the Dying. But what to do once you’re dead? Without further ado, let us begin The Top 10 list of Albums You Can Take Straight to Hell:
For an intimate musical meditation on death and associated ego loss I suggest you look no further than this album, the creation of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew alum and wunderkind guitarist John McLaughlin, featuring a diverse assortment of easily digestible fusion jazz renditions that perfectly encapsulate the complex journey into the afterlife and general breakdown of logos or rationality – and all this without a stitch of lyrical content. Wordless, beautiful, sublime…oh, and totes funky! Combining characteristic acid guitar, unconventional rhythms, syncopated electric organ, and groovy fiddle licks, this album epitomizes the spiritual in fusion jazz in a way that Bitches Brew – though unparalleled and amazing in its own right – simply cannot.
I’m sure we can all agree that, in general, fusion jazz has this unique ability to set the stage for the intrepid, the strange, the complex. But whereas contemporaneous fusion records were great, from Gary Burton’s seminal, Duster and Miles Davis’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson, to Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, they lacked the spiritual grammar to be found teeming in Mahavishnu’s rather dense repertoire. Named for its band leader’s assumed spiritual name, Mahavishnu Orchestra included two fusion stalwarts, the aforementioned (Mahavishnu) John McLaughlin, and Billy Cobham.
Cobham, a Panamanian American, played percussion on Davis’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson, and here too offers an overlooked component of what makes fusion so compelling: complex rhythmic structure. It seems that when people used to discuss fusion, the dialog always centered around “guitars, man!” or “that groovy organ, man!” or how “it’s so plugged in, man!”, making reference to one of the hallmarks of this storied genres: the electric instrumentation. But the rhythmic structure on this album is as groundbreaking as any other fusion component.
Likewise, the violin, once found only in orchestral music and bluegrass, is here a supremely integral part of this rock/jazz/funk band’s eclectic lineup. For a live, unadulturated example of what I’m talking about, see Jerry Goodman’s jazz violin solo, and Cobham’s integral percussion, in the psychedelically dripping masterpiece You Know You Know:
So you may think you don’t know You Know You Know, but you probably just didn’t know that you know You Know You Know, for samples of this inspirational fusion number have found their way into the work of many contemporary musicians, such as hiphop legends Blacksheep, heard here in Similak Child from their 1991 joint A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing
Or here in trip-hop denizen Massive Attack’s One Love, from their 1991 debut Blue Lines:
And then here again, in arguably the best production ever to arise from a sample of You Know You Know – one that actually respects the song’s unique time signature – Mos Def’s Kalifornia, the title track of his 2007 album:
Contemporary homage aside, consider for a moment the highly ouroboric though provocative world of rock fiddle at the time of The Inner Mounting Flame‘s 1970 release: see Don “Sugarcane” Harris, who played with diverse characters such as John Lee Hooker, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, then Frank Zappa, and finally Zappa’s band Mothers of Invention. See Scarlet Rivera in Bob Dylan’s highly conceptual Rolling Thunder Revue tour, as well as his outstanding Desire and sorta aight Hard Rain. She’s a part of what makes Isis so amazeballs:
See Rivera nowadays with Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, and Keb Mo (if you must…). See the legendary Vassar Clements, Father of Hillbilly Jazz, in Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass vehicle Old and In the Way. Here he is with OAITW’s Peter Rowan and Phish bassist Mike Gordon:
More on Phish in a moment. Finally, see and listen to Jean-Luc Ponty, himself a later member of Mahavishnu Orchestra until 1975, but a man who got his American debut with Mothers of Invention, thereby bringing us back around again...Will the Circle be Unbroken? It appears not…
When I first bought this album, around 1997, I was immediately taken with how much I thought Mahavishnu sounded like Phish. The similarity lays in the percussion and guitar work, and is more appropriately positioned in the other direction: that is, Phish sounds a bit like Mahavishnu Orchestra, and only then in certain song sequences. And why not? Phish often draws from an immense cultural heritage: it’s part of what makes them so great.
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
This is all to say that the world of music in the Sixties and Seventies was an intense maelstrom of creativity and cross-pollination, and the short-lived Mahavishnu Orchestra, and all the important work that John McLaughlin et al. were responsible for, was well-respected and incendiary. Flash forward to today and it all seems like a footnote in the musical history of the period, besotted by tales of Woodstock, Altamount, Dylan, and the Beatles. Music historians tend to logically piece the rest up into folk (Mamas and the Papas, Dave Van Ronk, Dylan), psychedelic rock and bluegrass (Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Mothers of Invention, Can, Hot Tuna), Fusion Jazz (Miles Davis, Weather Report, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock), funk (Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, James Brown, et al), and, only recently, Afrobeat (Fela Kuti). But in truth these labels are the unfortunate result of record executive group think, yoked onto musicians and their output. They all could have (and often did) play this amazing music together (see left).
The Inner Mounting Flame fused not only instruments and musicians, but also styles and genres. Consider The Dance of Maya, which evolves into a kind a broken down 10/8 blues number about halfway through, as if issuing from some psychedelic roadhouse, clearly resembling Hot Tuna, only to merge into a rock and roll section that recalls Grateful Dead’s hippie anthem The Eleven (incidentally a song in 11/8 time).
Or listen to Dawn, which begins with a rather contemplative theme, then extends into McLaughlin’s tonally exhauistive psychedelic solo at around the 2:30 mark, thereupon blossoming from its 4/8 time intro theme into a funky 3/8 time breakdown.
Or consider Vital Transformation, a lively composition in 9/8 time, truly showing Billy Cobham’s amazing aptitude as an unconventional jazz percussionist.
4/8, 9/8, 10/8, 11/8… Compare this time in musical history with the present and I think you’ll agree that we have lost some cultural richness to the likes of Katy Perry, One Direction, and Ariana Grande; you’ll agree that Mahavishnu Orchestra was a brief and beautiful moment in the history of music. So listen to Mahavishnu Orchestra, when you find yourself bravely entering the Gates of Hell, or whenever you wish to be transported to a time when music was just better than the shit your currently hear on the radio.
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One last tidbit:
As a jew, if you truly feared God, you don’t actually say his name, only reference it, or leave out the ‘o’ in the center, e.g. G-D. The Jews supposedly coined the term “god fearer”, or yirei Hashem, which translates literally as “fearers of the name [of God]”. “God fearers”, on the other hand, were non-Jews (i.e. gentiles) who nonetheless respected the ways of Judaism. Ironically, this kind of describes me. More importantly, this is further evidence of the historical conflation of fear and respect: a Gordian knot that would not be untied until the Age of Enlightenment (and then only provisionally), whereupon the sciences began to slowly began to eat away at our fear and ignorance of natural law. In this matter we still have very far to go, a matter I hope to explore throughout the course of this top ten list.