Robert Amacker: 21-
Despite the normally less than sophisticated clientele of tourists and laborers, Redwood Lodge had a history of bringing down very happening Jazz bands from the City (as San Francisco is generally called in the surrounding environs), and I was of course anxious to check them out. I first went to work running the little store and gas station that opened onto the parking lot, and after hours I would hang out unobtrusively in the bar (drinking age in California was twenty-one, and I was a few weeks shy) on the nights when there was music.
This was where I first saw Leah Ananda, or maybe I should say first heard him. He played a tack head conga drum covered with a silk scarf, which produced a very unusual sound, something deep and slightly muffled and quite atonal, not the sound that one associated normally with this sort of drum, especially the way he played it, so quietly, so delicately, that it was a kind of urgent whisper, beaconing, seducing, hinting at some profound and secret message.
I had never heard anything like it, nor have I since. I have seen a lot of drummers who impressed me, and even a few I can say inspired me, but this, this I was ready to positively worship. It was a sentiment apparently shared by just about every musician around, as Leah was always a welcome guest on the bandstand, it didn’t seem to matter who was playing. This opinion ran to the highest levels. Leah was the mentor, really the guru, of John Coltrane, the “strange man” mentioned on the jacket of Alice Coltrane’s first record.
I feel a little funny, in fact, dropping Leah’s name as simply part of my own personal history, even though we became very close, lived in the same house for months at a time, and did numerous concerts together. I should be devoting a book just to his story, in which I would be a part of his personal history, an interesting character he met along the way.
There is a danger to snipping anecdotes from a life like his, because any small view of his life would miss the extreme range of his personality and behavior. It would even miss the range of his mere physical existence, for, as we shall see, it covered a variety of manifestations.
But at that time, all he was to me was a very healthy looking young black man, a great drummer, and a curiosity. My uncle, who had spent time in Haiti studying drumming and primitive dance, concurred. Leah was, he said, the best drummer he had ever heard, but, he amended, there was something almost over disciplined, almost military, about his playing. I understood what he meant, but I wouldn’t have described it that way. Leah’s playing was like a laser beam, a perfect straight line of energy that somehow, through playing that had more dynamic range than that of any drummer I have ever heard, seemed nevertheless to constantly increase.
That was all he was to me when I stopped one bright Big Sur morning along Highway One, pushed open the passenger door of my Red Ford convertible, and offered him a lift. I don’t remember what we talked about at first, but after a few miles I got around to telling him he was the best drummer I had ever seen, and that if he had any tips, any secrets that he felt he could share, I would be grateful to hear them.
“Well,” he said, in what I thought was a strangely irritated tone, “you could stop putting all that coffee and meat and sugar into your system.” He pointed out the window. “You can let me off down there.”
“You mean,” I said, “become a vegetarian?”
He paused getting out of the car and turned back to me..
“Yes, man. I mean become a vegetarian.”
Now you have to understand that this was a lot weirder thing to say in those days than it is now. In my whole life, I had never known a vegetarian, or anybody who had. This was before Ravi Shankar, before Transcendental Meditation, before the Hari Krishna invasion. It was something associated with snake charmers and oily skin, and the last thing that I would have ever associated with music.
In New York I had decided, in fact, that eating vegetables was a waste of time, that meat was the only food for a real warrior. When I left the east coast, I was eating four times a day at a chain of restaurants in New York called Mr. Steak. So it seems strange, in retrospect, that I decided from that moment to try his suggestion, but the man had a strange power to him, something that was entirely unlike the martial arts, something very intriguing.
Three days later, by complete accident, I picked him up again.
“So,” he said almost immediately, “did you take my suggestion?”
“Yes,” I answered, “I did.”
He gave me a startled sidelong glance.
We rode for a moment in silence.
“And how do you feel?” he asked, finally.
“Lighter,” I said.
Years after that, Leah told me that although he had a lot of people calling themselves his students, following him around like dogs, ready to make any sacrifice on his behalf, devoted to the point of worship, I was the only person he ever met, he said, who just did what he told them to do. He’s not the only teacher who ever told me that, and now that I have been a teacher myself for these decades past, I realize what a rare thing it really is.
I was about to turn twenty-one, and I told my uncle that for my present I would like him to make me a bartender. He agreed to this, and so, to get me ready for the big day, he told the head bartender, Skip, to show me the ropes. The first thing he showed me was his gun.
“A bucket ‘o blood, that’s what this place is,” he told me with authority, as he waved his Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum revolver, the same model Clint Eastwood used in Dirty Harry, in front of my face.
“Lot ‘o bad motherfuckers come in here, Bob, these construction workers doing the roadwork. Bunch ‘o tough guys. But this shuts ‘m up alright.”
Seeing I was a little alarmed, he added, “Don’t worry, we’re starting you off on the day shift. Things don’t get bad here until after dark. That’s when you got to start eighty-sixing people.”
Being “eighty-sixed” was a real threat, the only one that the local bars could really use to intimidate their rowdier customers. It meant that you were no longer permitted to come into that particular establishment. You could be eighty-sixed for a night, you could be eighty-sixed for a year, you could be eighty-sixed until further notice, maybe forever. If you’ve never lived in a community this isolated, you won’t quite understand. There just weren’t that many watering holes in the area, and the people most likely to be eighty-sixed weren’t often into watercolors or Zen meditation. If they got banished from more than one or two places, their social life was effectively over. There was a list of names behind the bar, some with photos attached, of “eighty-sixed” unfortunates that I should keep my eye out for.
Since Marty was in the habit of spending the summers with me in New York, I had asked Joe if I could bring him along with me to Big Sur. We rented a house a few miles south of the lodge with another man, a black bass player named Don Garret, who was from the Chicago Jazz scene, which at that time was riddled with great musicians and heroin addicts, unfortunately usually the same people. Leah had recorded out there, with Sun Ra, and he and Don would get together almost daily for serious music sessions.
Don was a musician of unqualified greatness, in my opinion, who later was the last to play regularly with Coltrane before he died, when he was using two bass players, Don and Jimmy Garrison. He had started out on the Clarinet, and was the first black musician to break the color line in Chicago (they had two separate musician’s unions, one white and one black) and play with the symphony there. He was a fantastic reader, one of those guys who can look at a line of music and let one part of his mind play it on automatic while another listens with complete objectivity. He had stacks of classical works for the bass, which he would bow at fantastic speed, with perfect posture and effortless technique, usually in the morning. I would wake up to the sound of this playing, and I still remember it as one of the most beautiful aspects of my stay there. I would come into the living room with a cup of juice or tea and Don would be there, always in the same position, wailing away.
“How did you ever manage to learn all of these pieces?” I asked one day when he was finished.
“I’ve never learned them,” he answered. “I’ve never seen any of them before.”
I was flabbergasted. “But you play them so fast.”
“Yeah,” he said. “When you play them fast like that, you be hearin’ funny things, far out things you don’t hear when you try to play them right, I mean, trying to figure out that part of it while you’re doing it.”
Don was a very intelligent guy who had a lot to say about music, and I was more than ready to listen. I remember something else he said once, something I really liked. “You play music,” he told me with great seriousness, “with your hands.”
For the first few weeks of this, I thought Leah was a guy about my own age, and so did Marty. He got pretty mad at Leah a couple of times, because he thought he was being arrogant and superior. They were both Leos, maybe that had something to do with it. Marty was like the sun, still is. Leah was like a super nova. To me he was like a walking symbol of integrity.
Ever since I was a little kid, I have always looked for a certain something in people, related to them on that level. At the time, I didn’t have a name for what it was; now I know. It was spirit. It is the reason, I think, that I made friends so easily as a child. It was probably the reason that, around the time of grammar school, I became known for settling arguments, for getting kids who were pissed off at each other to be friends again.
But as I grew older, I began to think of this as a kind of imposition, an impudence on my part, to presume to redirect their thinking to something that seemed to me on a higher level, and we‘re not talking about words or philosophies here. I didn’t know the word at the time, but it was a respect for karma, the right of everyone to their own life, and their own values.
Leah harbored no such inhibitions. He didn’t just look for spirit in his relationships, he demanded it. He simply refused to operate on any other level, and all he needed to have a relationship was about two minutes. There was no social or occupational position that was exempt from Leah’s unrelenting spiritual focus. It is important to me that those reading this not confuse Leah’s particular style with any sort of familiar New Age obsession, or patronizing form of religious consciousness raising. He did not talk in clichés or obviously “spiritual” metaphors. In fact, he spoke a kind of black bop talk that was totally authentic, and sounds almost antique nowadays. Women were “chicks,” men were “cats,” your car was your “short.” And his favorite word, I guess, was groovy, which today is the poster boy for out-of-date expressions, but was in wide use at the time and earlier.
In fact, for all his uniqueness, Leah’s credentials as a bad black dude were pretty impeccable. Not only was he completely at home with the greatest jazz musicians of the era, who at that time were only challenged by sports figures as role models and heroes of black society, but, as I found out later, he had spent ten years in the federal prison system, the majority at San Quentin. His crime? He was a cat burglar.
His style was totally confrontational, but it was not combative. I never saw Leah even come close to using force on anyone, despite his formidable and, as we shall see, at times more than formidable physical presence. It was clear at all times that his intrusion into the worlds of others was a search for agreement only on the highest level, a mutual recognition of the reality of human spirit and the care and feeding of that as the most important priority that humans can agree upon. It is, in my opinion, the diametric opposite of sociopath behavior, a kind of demand that people recognize each other’s reality. Despite the lack of any physical or emotional threat, Leah’s psychological presence was so strong that it absolutely required a response, and I never saw Leah ever confront a man who seemed to have any doubts about exactly on what level that response should be. There is a story about Musashi, Japan’s most legendary warrior and swordsman, that may make my description more clear.
Musashi, for all his fearsome exploits, was a highly intelligent, philosophical man. As such, there was one aspect of his life that always troubled him. He was not a sadist, took no pleasure in the suffering of others, and, like all good warriors, was not given to fits of vengeance and rage. So it was reasonable that he might find both puzzling and disturbing the fact that there was no denying a certain pleasure he felt when killing people with swords. It was not until he was very old that he had an enlightenment about this, and finally understood. It was just that, to Musashi, everyone looked like they were asleep. It was only when threatened with death that they seemed to wake up.
Leah was a kind of non-violent version of Musashi. Just watching the progress of his day-to-day existence gave one a certain feeling of unreality, as in, you can’t actually behave like this in the real world, day after day, year after year; you just can’t get away with it. It was like Leah’s private world and his public one were exactly the same, like he really lived the advice in that old Sufi proverb, “When alone, act as if you are in the company of others; when in the company of others, act as if you are alone.” He would talk with a stranger exactly the way he might talk to himself, or to his closest friend, with the absolute certainty that the content of this talk, his supposedly personal reality, was absolutely universal, and in no way a foreign intrusion into their world.
In a certain sense, you could not have a normal conversation with Leah, as in the discussion of mundane events and “how about those Giants,” etc. His speech was so non-specific that it automatically oriented the conversation away from the boring specifics of everyday life. It is actually a kind of known technique, they even have a name for it in India, where everybody can “blow your mind,” but I forget it right now. It is the kind of speech used by gurus when addressing masses of people, where everyone comes away with the distinct feeling that somehow the guru was speaking directly to them, about their problems, etc., a kind of access to universal metaphors that have somehow been reduced to patterns of speech. The thing is, it is a technique that works equally well for the guru and the con artist; a sort of soulless weapon that can be used for good or ill. All that keeps any real spiritual master, in the last analysis, from being just a con man, is his intent. It was beautifully parodied by Woody Haralson (sp?) in his death row imitation of Charles Manson’s rambling, hypnotic ravings, in the movie Natural Born Killers.
For me, it was clear, and still is, that Leah’s intent was born of the highest compassion. I may have ruled myself out of participation in that sort of behavior, but I could still admire it, enjoy it, and be properly amazed that anyone could live their life so exclusively in that fashion. Another thing that Leah told me was that I was the only student he ever had who didn’t try to copy his personality. I couldn’t even imagine it.
Except maybe once. It’s getting ahead of my story a bit, by a few years. I had hitchhiked upstate from New York City, intending to meet, of all people, Russ, on property owned by a friend of his. Our purpose was to spend a couple of days roughing it in nature, and to view the total eclipse of the moon, which was happening, coincidentally, on the first day of spring. I had prepared for this by visiting the White Mountain Ski Shop, a quite well known establishment for equipping outdoorsmen, and buying a light sleeping bag, rated, it said, down to below freezing.
My meeting with Russ was unusually uneventful, probably because there was no one else around for Russ to have pissing contests with, or maybe because on the way up he had been arrested driving his motorcycle through a small town at high speed and had to spend the night in jail. We caught some fish in the lake, bought milk from the dairy farm down the road, and enjoyed a mild night under the stars “talking story,” as we say in Hawaii. He left the next day on some mysterious errand and never returned, leaving me to view the eclipse on my own.
But that night, the weather turned suddenly colder. I hadn’t made preparations to keep a fire going, and when the sun went down the dampness in the air brought the temperature down with it, hard. I crawled into my sleeping bag, planning to come out for the eclipse. But as the night progressed, it grew colder and colder, and I began to experience chills. I quickly retrieved all my clothes and dressed, covering the whole thing with the sleeping bag. After an hour, it was clear that this would not be enough. I was getting numb spots in various places from the cold, and I began to systematically rub my skin, covering the whole body, then starting over. I tried to keep from panicking. I was doing just about everything I could think of, making use of every yogi breathing technique I had learned in the previous few years, and if it wasn’t enough, I was going to die.
The time of the eclipse came and went. I was afraid to chance even the slightest intrusion of the night outside into the cocoon I had created by zipping the bag completely over my head. I got not a moment of sleep, but rubbed myself for at least eight or nine hours. Finally I risked a peek out of the bag. There was the faintest light to the east. I zipped shut again, determined to hold out for sunrise.
At last it came. First only the dawn, for which I allowed my head to emerge, and finally the sun itself. I dragged myself gratefully into its light, stripping off the outer layers of clothes that I had insulated myself with, and stood up, turning in drunken exhaustion to expose every possible part to its healing rays.
Suddenly I felt a profound rush of energy. I had been practicing yoga at that point for a few years, and was at a very intense point of my training. I also had been doing formal zazen meditation, and seeking, like all good practitioners of zazen, the enlightenment of the Buddha. Despite all of this wonderful preparation, this is definitely not what this was. There is a famous saying, from the Shodoka, I think, that says “The enlightenment of the Buddha is not a matter of human emotion.” This was completely a matter of human emotion. I fell down, sobbing uncontrollably. I clawed the earth with my hands and cried out, floods of tears dampening the ground under me. I seemed to be feeling every emotion possible simultaneously, happiness, sadness, anger, love, everything all at once.
I have no idea how long this performance lasted. Finally I found myself lying quietly on the ground, now much warmer, breathing quietly. When I looked up, I saw my audience.
This is one of the most remarkable things that has ever happened to me, and I promise it is true. Ringed around me, in an almost perfect circle, was a collection of creatures that could have been bound for Noah’s Ark. The first thing I saw was the deer; it was the biggest, and among the most improbable. It just stood there, looking at me. Then I saw other creatures, a bird with his position fixed on me like that of a hunting dog, a chipmunk, standing on his hind legs in rapt attention, even some large insects that seemed to have settled themselves for the performance.
I stood up. Nobody moved. I felt like I had to move, had to feel my body, and I started to walk towards the small dirt road that cut the property. I looked behind. I was not alone. My witnesses had become my followers, an almost comical little group of creatures that should have been at least avoiding, if not actually eating each other. This went on for some time, maybe ten or fifteen minutes. I would look back every once in a while and see that somebody had dropped off. The last to go was the deer. I turned to look at him and he stopped, startled, as if he was seeing me for the first time, and bolted off at a run.
Something had changed inside of me. It was not the enlightenment of the Buddha, but it was definitely something, as further events bore out. The first sign of it came immediately after I hitchhiked back to New York, a task that had proved to be almost magically easy, and returned to the White Mountain Ski Shop.
I felt that the sleeping bag had not performed as promised, had in fact, been almost responsible for my demise, and I decided that I should return it for a refund. The lad behind the counter, only a few years older than me at the most, laughed out loud at my request.
“You are dreaming, my friend,” he said, as if helpfully informing me of the laws of nature. He pointed to a sign on the wall. ABSOLUTELY NO REFUNDS, it read. “The owner of this store is a real heavyweight, man. He has never given a refund to anybody, ever.”
“There’s always,” I said, “a first time for everything.”
I didn’t usually talk like that.
The kid shook his head, smiling faintly. “I gotta see this,” he said. He waved down the counter to a very fit looking older man who had been regarding our conversation as he helped another customer.
“Boss, this guy wants a refund.”
The boss looked me over with an expression of profound underwhelment. It didn’t change as I related my tale of woe and the logic of my request for exceptional status.
“Can you not see that I am sincere and forthright in my belief that the least you can do is refund my money for this indignity, if not actually apologize for screwing up?”
“Why should I give a shit how sincere and forthright you are?”
“Because I’m a man, and so are you.”
His eyes narrowed and took on a look of quiet restraint.
“Don’t tell me about being a man, you little shit. I was in India during the war, finally captured, tortured, escaped from prison and crossed India with the Nazis after me. I crossed a desert with no water and no hat, walked for days without food. Don’t tell me about being a man.”
“And why can’t you give me a refund?”
He pointed to the sign. “Policy,” he said.
“Who wrote that sign?”
He paused a second. “I did.”
“And that’s why you can’t refund my money, because of that sign?”
I looked into his eyes. “Why did you escape from that Indian jail?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why did you escape?”
“To be free.”
“And now you tell me that this man, who was captured and tortured by Nazis, who crossed an Indian desert with no water and no hat, to be free, is now so diminished, so far from the man he once was, such a pitiful remnant of his former self, that he is no longer free enough even to step beyond the boundaries the he himself has imposed on himself, that he is a slave to his own fucking sign?”
Down at the other end of the counter, the clerk was staring with unconcealed astonishment. The owner didn’t say anything for a moment, then, finally, in a quiet voice,
“You son of a bitch.” He walked a few feet over and reached under the counter, returning with a checkbook in his hands. Silently he got out a pen and, without looking at me, put it to the paper. The clerk was still frozen in position.
I reached out and grabbed his arm. “Wait,” I said.
He looked up at me with an expression of barely suppressed rage. “Yes?” he said, barely a whisper.
“Write me the check for just half of the amount,” I said. I smiled and looked into his eyes. “We’ll split the price of our friendship.”
He looked back at me a long time, a completely unreadable expression on his face, before he finished writing the check. Then he called over to the clerk.
“If this guy ever comes in here again,” he said loudly, pointing to me, and pausing, before saying finally,
“You give him anything he wants.”
Just for a moment there, I think, I got a taste of what it was like to be Leah Ananda.
The fact that Leah was able to behave like this (as I mentioned, the only true alpha male that Russ, to my knowledge, never tried to dethrone), and yet never give either Marty or I the impression that he was anything but our age, is testimony to the fantastic physical shape and youthful energy that he manifested. But one day I saw Leah in the parking lot of Redwood Lodge talking to a middle aged woman, and when I approached, he introduced her as his wife.
That I had had no idea that he was even married is indicative of another trait of Leah’s, one that also makes it very hard to make any pretense of understanding him or his history. He would never discuss his past. He did not make a point of it, but simply evaded every question of that kind. In fact, he treated those who would seek such information much the way one would react to improper personal questions from a neighbor’s children. It was from this that I first understood the ancient custom of concealing one’s real name, and taking a number of temporary ones, for any situation. When no one knows who you are, you have a kind of power, the power to disappear and be untraceable, the power to present yourself in any new transformation that you might achieve, without reference to your past. I had never understood what an imposition, a basic infringement upon one’s freedom, was implied by even asking for someone’s name.
This tendency for concealment in Leah went very well with his hypnotically metaphoric, completely nonspecific way of speaking, and it meant that some things that I finally learned about him were only years after any normal relationship, any one of a thousand normal conversations, would have easily revealed them, like the fact that he had been married before and had two children, that he had visited India and Afghanistan, that he was a virgin until the age of thirty.
My first taste of this was when he left to “get the short,” and I, suspecting something for the first time, asked his wife, “How old is Leah?”
“He’s forty,” she said, “almost forty-one.”
I was stunned. Not only did he have a wife, I was to learn, but two stepchildren, beautiful little girls. His wife was from France, and had been married to France’s greatest stage actor, an alcoholic from whom she was finally forced to flee, she said, for her life. I can’t remember her name, because Leah always referred to her as deucer (sweetie), and in the last years that I knew him, they had split up. She was a Canadian citizen, and Leah was going through the process of officially acquiring Canadian citizenship, which took several years, even if you were married.
Don Garret was not the only musician that Leah was cultivating in Big Sur. He and Peter Ind, the Reichian bass player, had a group with Carlos Frederico on Piano and Joel Andrews, first harpist for the San Francisco Symphony, called The Universal Sound Ensemble. They played some of the most unusual stuff imaginable, and I am disgusted with myself that I have not succeeded in salvaging even one recording. Once Joel Andrews orchestrated a piece, performed in the outdoor amphitheater on Mt. Tamalpias in Marin County, for fifty female harpists, all wearing white evening gowns, arranged twenty-five on a side with Leah in the center, playing the conga.
I have referred to Leah as my teacher, and so it might be reasonable to ask at this point just what it was I was learning. Although I credit him with teaching me yoga, I never saw him take a single yoga posture or do anything resembling a physical exercise. In fact, during the entire time we spent in Big Sur together, he said only one thing about yoga, said it in a way that sounded impersonal and uninvolved, but voicing a deep truth.
One day, after an incident the details of which I don’t remember and are not important, he suddenly acquired a pensive, wistful mood.
“That’s what it means to be a yogi,” he said, “to let things just ….. pass by.”
No, at the time I did not think of Leah as a yogi or as representing any sort of discipline. I didn’t know what he was, but I trusted him. Only later, after reaching a relatively high level of yoga practice, did I remember and grasp some of the things that he had told me that summer in Big Sur, things that I thought at the time were just part of his own sort of personal spiritual identity. Only after meeting very highly credentialed and powerful Indian Yogis, like Swami Satchidananda, did I realize what a truly sophisticated spiritual lesson it was that I received from this man, and how much it had protected me and aided me in my yoga practices.
And only much, much later, after coming to Russia, did I realize that if you had to characterize Leah in some sort of technically specific way, if you had to pigeonhole such an original and creative being into some sort of label or other, it would not be yogi, but shaman.
If Leah knew all about yoga postures (and he did, despite the fact that I never saw him do any; his instructions to me and corrections of my postures were too effective and insightful to support any other conclusion), if he knew all about breathing exercises, their most internal and sophisticated aspects (and he did, as I can attest after studying those same things for decades), if he knew anything about breath, energy, and sound, it was not for the purpose or with the ambition of becoming a yogi, swami, or fakir. Leah’s dream was tested by a judge more impersonal, more absolute, than could ever be approached by any esoteric teacher.
To master nature.
It was, to him, an obvious birthright of human beings, an absolute capacity that only remained to be developed, but which instead had been obviated and repressed by technology and a misunderstanding of the purpose of life. Mastering nature meant, to Leah, being free from the need for all of the various ways that humans have found to control and suppress it, from cities and commerce, from heroic medicine, pills, and insurance policies, from science and industry, free even from the luxury of clothes and cooked food. It meant the freedom to live like an animal and think like a man.
Whatever discipline he followed, whatever method he used, this was his standard. He had gone to India, he told me much later, to master heat. He had done fire walking, and the so called “meditation of the five fires,” in which, on the day of the summer solstice, one sits surrounded by bonfires to the north, south, east, and west, from sunup to sundown. He had returned to North America, to Canada, in fact, in order to master cold. At this he succeeded in quite spectacular fashion, and I will have much more to say about it later.
But in that summer of sixty-five I knew none of this. Leah, with his abstract way of speaking, did not talk about this, did not talk about yoga, did not talk, at that early stage, even that much about breath, energy, sound, and spirit.
He talked about food.
Again I must remind the reader that no matter how clichéd and common such awareness is today, throughout America and beyond, however universal are today the “health food” and “organic” sections of our supermarkets, there was a time when such a consciousness was completely unknown, when virtually every product in the supermarket was filled with preservatives and sugar, when apples were waxed and monosodium glutamate was every housewife’s “miracle spice.” This was that time, and Leah was the very first person I ever heard suggest that there was anything wrong with it.
As close as I could determine, Leah was living then on a kind of modern version of the cave man diet. Early man was a gatherer of fruits and nuts, and Leah lived almost exclusively on fruit juice and nut butter. In fact, occasionally today I will read of someone going on a “long fast” of several weeks, and discover upon closer examination that what they mean by “fasting” is nothing but Leah’s normal day-to-day diet. An occasional trip to the health food store in San Francisco (which was how far one had to go in those days to find one) would produce a kind of banquet of rice cakes and tahini, Calmata olives and goat’s milk cheese, bean sprouts and unleavened bread, all still pretty austere for me, but for Leah the equivalent of a nine course Chinese restaurant blowout. This kind of diet, even in its most extreme version, is not fasting; it is preparation for fasting, a preparation that Leah seemed to have made his normal existence. And it was not a preparation that was wasted.
Leah probably knew as much about fasting as anyone who has ever lived. It was for him, I think, his declaration of independence, his key to power, and his drug. It was the first concrete thing I learned from him, and the real secrets of its proper implementation are so subtle, and extend so far from mere physical instructions, that today, when I read of the fasting procedures and priorities that represent conventional medical knowledge and understanding, I feel like I am observing ignorant children play-acting at adult life, without any understanding of the actual realities involved.
Leah made it clear that fasting is not a cutting off of one’s self from food, but simply an evolution of one’s definition of what food is. When one fasts, they auto consume the body. It is a wonderful wisdom of the body that it seems to know exactly what parts are the least essential to life, and consume those first. When those parts are infected or otherwise affected by some intruding disease, the disease is frequently consumed at the same time, occasionally resulting in apparently miracle cures. This takes care of the actual material needs of the body, but food does more than that. It also provides us with energy. In auto consumption, this energetic component is gone, and must be replaced. As Leah would put it, one must learn to “eat” higher forms of energy.
The typical modern medical concept presumes a progressive onset of physical weakness, which is pampered by inactivity and constant bed rest, the fasting “patient” becoming ever more helpless, kept alive by the constant attention of doctors. Leah was just the opposite when fasting, in constant movement, bristling with energy, always the most alive person in any room. His sleeping would be reduced to almost zero, or apparently so. Once I asked him when he was fasting how he managed to get along with so little sleep, and he informed me that he actually got a lot more sleep than it appeared.
“In fact,” he said cheerily, “I’m asleep right now.”
He then proceeded to scare the shit out of me by extolling the merits of one of, he said, his favorite pastimes, “sleepdriving.” Now I understand more of what he meant, and it really isn’t as crazy as it sounds. One scientific analysis of meditation, reported decades ago on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, purported to debunk the entire concept, saying that after extensive study of meditating subjects, the only difference they could find between them and people who were simply asleep was that they were, well, awake. This struck them as a total defeat for meditation, and it was undoubtedly a defeat of whatever their fantasy about it had been, but the funny thing to me was that every real teacher of meditation that I have had, and I have had some famous ones, described successful meditation as exactly that.
It is all about the alternation of the afferent and efferent manifestations of the central nervous system, of their dominance, which is somewhat definitive of sleep. It is quite true that when one fasts, the distinction between waking and sleeping becomes less and less apparent. When nominally “awake,” one can clearly identify one’s experience as resembling in quality that of a dream, a kind of distancing, and when lying down to “sleep,” one never completely loses consciousness of his waking reality. The longer one fasts, the more blurred this distinction becomes. Finally it seems that you are indeed never sleeping, but that in another way, you are always asleep.
In my experience it takes about three days for a relatively inexperienced faster, with a perhaps less than caveman diet, about three days before these effects occur. Up until that point, one experiences hunger, digestive pains, physical weakness, dizziness, and other uncomfortable side effects of the adjustment process. The more experienced one is, and the closer to this state one becomes in their everyday existence, the shorter this period of adjustment becomes. Finally, the time required shortens from three days to more like three or four hours, after which the body falls very quickly into its full fasting condition. Ultimately, the body becomes so clean and energetic that it can retain the condition even when one is not fasting, although nine course Chinese banquets would be a challenge.
This constant condition, perhaps describable as being on the “edge” of fasting, is the one actually promoted by yoga as correct. Complete fasting, that is, to the point of substantial auto consumption, is actually forbidden. It is stated quite clearly in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: “The yogi does not fast.” This sentiment was echoed by George Ozawa, the founder of Macrobiotics, who said that “true fasting is simply the consumption of just enough food to sustain life.” Auto consumptive or “finish” fasting implies a need to build up excess which may then be reduced (otherwise it kills you), creating a cycle of extremes, which are, almost by definition, incorrect practice.
From this you might easily infer that I have concluded that Leah’s fasting exploits, however powerful they might be in their results, physical, psychological, and spiritual, were ultimately a mistake. If so, you would infer correctly. It was not just a mistake, in fact, but, I believe, the mistake that killed him. This is getting way ahead of our story, and I will wait to explain it more clearly, but I wanted at this time to make it clear that my account here is not to be taken as a recommendation, at least not without extensive qualification.
Fasting is a powerful tool, a tremendously enlightening experience, an actual skill in itself, and the short cut to many other skills that are part and parcel of the science of yoga. I practiced it for several years, although I never came close to Leah’s abilities, the longest I ever fasted being still under a month. I would recommend it wholeheartedly as a legitimate area of investigation, even spiritual investigation, and, when used properly, an undeniable aid to health. I would not, however, recommend it as a lifestyle, or, as I suggested earlier, a drug, and for Leah, this is undeniably what it was.
Probably the reason that I was never able to approach Leah’s extensive fasts was that I never attained the necessary size. As Leah said to me once, “You can’t fast, man, because you don’t have anything to fast with.” Certainly, when I met him, it didn’t seem like he had much to fast with, either. He was about my size and, at the time, also about my weight. It was only later, when living with him, that I saw the evidence of his preparation for the amazingly long fasts that he accomplished, and this preparation was actually more remarkable that the fasting itself.
He would more than double his weight, going from under a hundred and fifty pounds to well over three hundred, all in a matter of a few weeks, but this in itself is, of course, less than remarkable. What was remarkable was that this transformation resulted in the acquisition of exactly zero fat. At this Hulk-like level, he did not indeed look like he weighed as much as he actually did, the reason being undoubtedly that muscles weigh more than fat, and this transformation was all muscle. This was Arnold Swatzenegger, not Orson Wells, but with one important difference. Leah didn’t lift any weights. In fact, he didn’t appear to do any exercise of any kind, other than his perennial habit of pacing up and down the floor when speaking, like a cat in a cage. Living with him, I was mystified by the appearance of all of these muscles, which seemed to pop out indiscriminately where I thought none even existed, nor could I imagine any exercise capable of producing many of them. I asked him about this, and he gave me a kind of thoughtful, quizzical look.
“You sort of ….” he paused and stroked one bicep gently with the other hand, “think them on.”
Even more mystifying was his ability to produce these amazing versions of himself (his waist size at three hundred pounds was the same as at one hundred and fifty, and he could wear the same pants) while eating even more limited diets than he normally entertained. I remember distinctly one conversation almost absurd in its implications, but absolutely true. I had seen him gaining weight steadily for several weeks on a diet of nothing but apples and tahini. Seriously. Nothing but apples and tahini. I am sure he was not sneaking out to MacDonald’s when I wasn’t looking. I asked him how it felt to become, in a sense, nothing but apples and tahini, especially since any doctor would have asserted that he was unquestionably undernourished, no matter how much of this combination he consumed.
“Well,” he said in a reflective tone, “I like it better than my previous body. That was nothing but oranges and peanut butter. This one is …. calmer.”
It is likely that the reason that medical science actually denies the possibility of fasts as long as those that Leah regularly produced is that the “normal” person only attains enormous weight and size because he is fat, and this means that he is not only large, but unhealthy as well, harboring many medical conditions that preclude any feat such as Leah’s. He simply had a gigantic amount of extra weight that could be harmlessly auto consumed, none of which was doing him the slightest harm, and, as these muscles reduced, they still retained a size more than necessary for complete, even athletic body functioning. He was never examined for this, but I feel certain that his cells were the opposite of what are called fat cells, which have a high proportion of ectoplasm to a relatively small nucleus, and were instead, because of his fasting, exactly like miniature versions of the “edge of fasting” state that I referred to earlier, with just enough ectoplasm for immediate functioning, moving quickly to the condition of being auto consumed, without ever passing through a state of low metabolism.
There was another feature to his fasting, one that was quite funny. The day he broke his fast, or certainly the day that he consciously began preparing for his next one, which was virtually immediately, he would cut his hair and beard. His hair was the classical Afro-American variety, black and very kinky, and it would grow, if otherwise left unmolested, quite evenly out from his head, rather like the gradual appearance of an oversize external brain. Due to his gradual increase in body size, his head would seem to shrink proportionally, and he would continue to cut it more closely, increasing the effect, finally shaving it completely. Then, on the day he started fasting, he would stop cutting his hair, so that as his body size reduced, his head became gradually larger. The overall effect was like a slow motion version of squeezing toothpaste from one end of the tube to the other.
Now Leah would never tell anyone about this, and so if you knew him over a short period of time you just naturally assumed that one of these ever evolving and devolving “looks” was him, and could be relied upon for identification. I watched him speak to people who were long acquaintances who took several minutes to realize who he was, despite his amazingly distinctive way of talking. One asked him, I remember, if he had a brother named Leah. At one extreme, he looked like a black Hulk Hogan with no hair, positively frightening, and at the other some sort of super-intellectual bearded Imam. The transformation was complete, and better than any disguise, changing absolutely every aspect of his body, except, of course, his waist size.
Now I am absolutely sure that Leah enjoyed every aspect of these transformations (with the obvious exception being the fact that it probably killed him), and that this contributed to his addiction to fasting as a lifestyle. He also used the fasting cycle in other, more peripheral ways.
Leah was a fantastic drummer, and his forte was that most difficult of all drumming, and perhaps even of all musical exercises, the solo drum concert. He upped the difficulty factor further by performing always with a single conga drum, covered with silk to dampen the tones, what would apparently be the most limited choice of instrument possible, short of a cowbell. He played these concerts frequently in the auditoriums of noted American and Canadian Universities, to usually packed houses that, even through the whisper-quiet sections of his thirty to forty minute pieces, would remain whisper-quiet themselves, erupting finally in thunderous applause and shouts of bravo from all corners of the room.
One key to Leah’s ability to command such extraordinary attention from relatively ordinary audiences was just the fact that he was a musical genius, and a completely original one, at that. Nobody had ever heard anyone even attempt what he was doing, so there was nothing to compare it to, and the sheer energy level of Leah’s playing was almost paralyzing in its effect, even when, or perhaps especially when he was playing the most quietly. (“I can put babies to sleep with my drum,” he once told me.) But complete unfamiliarity makes it hard to grab someone’s initial attention, and Leah realized the necessity of that. He would always begin his concerts by talking, sometimes for quite some time, talking the way he would to me, to any shopkeeper, to himself, probably even to his executioner, that eloquent but somehow strangely devoid of identifiable content stream of words that seem to go directly to the innermost personal lives of all those attending, cloaked in a black bop-talk that somehow issued forth in measured, intellectual, Oxfordian sounding tones. It is fair to say, I think, that in most of Leah’s concerts, ninety percent of the audience was completely hypnotized before he played a single note.
But I mention this because he used fasting in a very deliberate way in connection with these concerts, frequently initiating fasts, at whatever stage of his normal boom-and-bust process he might be at, to coincide with upcoming concerts. What he would consider in his timing was the date that he anticipated breaking the fast, which was the date of the concert, and the amount of material he had currently available to “fast with,” as he would put it. His intention would always be to break the fast approximately thirty minutes before beginning the concert.
Now the reasoning behind this little technique is interesting. When one goes on long fasts, even when one maintains the physical strength and a source of energy necessary for full functioning, there is no way to avoid the gradual onset of a feeling of unreality, of distance from the world. When one fasts, one spends almost no time in the toilet, sleep becomes a matter of semantics, and time, especially periods like a day, seem to race by with enormous speed, almost as if you can see the sun moving across the sky. The effect of this is to make the activities of normal people seem bizarrely rushed and distracted, like watching swarming bees. People seem to appear and disappear before you like channels randomly cycling on your television, doing both for increasingly obscure reasons, seeming ever more unnecessarily frantic about something or other. Finally you realize that they are always on their way to dinner or lunch or needing to use the toilet or go home and go to sleep or meet someone or do something that somehow increases their ability to keep on eating, sleeping, and shitting without interruption, three things that you do not seem to really need to think about.
That, and the slight but constant euphoria that accompanies the fasting state, conspire with one’s gradual “tuning” to “higher” sources of energy to produce an inevitable boredom and sense of unreality concerning the “real” world that everyone else is pretty much convinced they are living in. The last thing you feel is the slightest envy for the normal condition. It is hard to break such a fast, because you feel that you have come such a long long way, and to stop now, well it’s - But wait a minute! To stop what now? A long long way to what? Well, dying and death, that’s what, so finally reason takes over and you do break your fast. But everyone who has fasted will know what I mean. You feel very distant from the world, very uninvolved. The last thing you want to do, actually, in such a condition, is play a concert.
But if fasting is comparable to taking a drug, there is one important difference. With drugs, the high, the rush, as it is called, comes first, and then the experience gradually wears off. With fasting, this is reversed. Not only do you gradually get higher, instead of coming down, but the most powerful part of the experience, the rush, comes at the end. Within a few minutes, about, in fact, half an hour, you return from a condition that took perhaps weeks to attain, one where the world looks progressively as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope, to being fully present, fully alive and in this world, and absolutely bursting with creative and physical energy. It is really a rush, and this is the condition that Leah would engineer to coincide with his concerts. There is probably no way that one can be more inspired, short of just having fallen in love.
I used this entire process years later to teach a course at Maui Community College, an extension of the University of Hawaii. I had in the previous year succeeded in creating a course in Hatha Yoga, offered for full credit in the Philosophy Department, my bottom line for agreeing to take the job, and it had been highly successful, in that other teachers in the department reported that they approved of the results, whatever that exactly meant. I was offered the chance to teach an advanced course, which I did later, but at that time I told them that there were not enough advanced students to justify it. When offered the chance to do something else, I suggested a course in fasting.
Due to the location of this course, I obviously had to take extra care that no injury come to the students, and that they did not feel obligated at any time to participate when they wished not to. My aim was to keep things as lightweight and safe as possible, while still giving them an authentic experience, and some perspective from which to evaluate it. The entire course, effectively, was a process of gradual diet reduction, to culminate at the end with an optional, but highly recommended, three day fast. My gradual adjustment of their diets would assure me that those lasting to the end (because you couldn’t cop out on the diet and then do the fast) would be amply prepared to safely make the attempt.
To my extreme surprise, almost everyone in the class went the full course, first learning to read labels and just stop eating poison and preservatives, then eliminating improperly cooked and otherwise junk food, then red meat, then chicken, then fish, finally reaching, after a very gradual process, which I forced them to record in a diary that should be signed off on by their parents or otherwise concerned parties, a vegetarian state. In the final weeks we progressed still further, eliminating eggs, milk, cheese, finally all dairy and even animal products, including those of insects, like honey. Vegan and Beyond, I perhaps should have named the course. Finally (and I emphasized repeatedly the optional nature of these final steps, everyone having reached the vegan stage being more than ready to fast) we spent the last week before the fast as complete fruitarians, actually an amazingly easy thing to do in Hawaii.
Almost everyone attempted the actual fast, most having, to their surprise, little trouble doing so, the result of careful preparation. We had one meeting on the second day, in which I answered questions, soothed a few apprehensions, and tried to acquaint them, in their present highly sensitized and receptive state, with the idea of looking to more subtle sources than they were used to for their energy, sources other than food. They would discover, I told them, that energy could be found in harmony, the kind of harmony found in nature, the kind of harmony found in art. Experiences that they previously identified as pleasurable could now be recognized as more than that, as providing a certain kind of sustenance, no longer just a pleasure, but an actual need. I urged them to spend the last day of the fast as much as possible in nature, and explained that their heretofore abstract barometer of beauty would now be subjected to an absolute physical reaction. In the fasting state, like that of a drug, beauty is what turns you on, literally; it seems impossible to define it any other way.
I wanted the students to experience both sides of this energy equation, receiving and sending. When we assembled for the final class, at eight in the morning, there were no absentees. I had emphasized that this would be the most enlightening and important of my lectures, and that to miss it would be to miss the whole point of the course. I wanted them to know how to “eat” energy, and, despite my previous lecture, I had no assurance that they had pursued my suggestions, especially in the lethargic state that fasting can produce.
So I brought my drum. I knew the kind of thing that they needed to hear, and I wanted to be sure that everyone heard something like it at least once before they broke their fast. I also brought several large sacks of fresh oranges, and a few knives to cut them with. As I explained this and some other things to the assembled students, I broke my fast (I, of course, had been following exactly the same process they had, including the final three day fast) with a few of the oranges, and attempted, in my meager way, to prepare them to listen to what I was about to play, acutely conscious that absolutely everything that I had taught them in the previous months was exclusively learned from Leah, and, after about half an hour, played them a totally inspired concert. I had never used this trick of Leah’s before, but I could certainly see why he did. One minute you are looking at your drum and feeling unable to muster any sort of enthusiasm for playing whatsoever, and the next you are playing with the greatest confidence and inspiration you can possibly imagine.
In a way, you might look at the whole course as just an elaborate attempt on my part to manufacture a really good audience. The zen-like attention of the students would have certainly been the envy of any eavesdropping professor.
After my performance, I distributed the oranges and everyone broke their fast. While they were eating, I brought in several boxes of simple primitive instruments and noisemakers, stuff I had been collecting all semester from musician friends on the island, just for this occasion. I passed around the boxes and invited the students to chose whatever struck their fancy. Then I divided them into about five separate sections. Using my drum, I would get one of the sections going, then another, and another, finally combining them randomly, conducting the whole thing with hand motions to indicate loud and soft, fade in and out, cut, etc. After about ten minutes it turned into a fantastic party, and everyone was having a great time. People started to peer into the room from the hall, mystified that such a thing could be going on before nine in the morning. “I’m taking this class next year,” I heard one say.
The point of all this was to stimulate an awareness in the students of the existence of subtler forms of energy, energy that is obscured by our normal, somewhat gross existence. Fasting is a kind of cheating, getting a sneak preview of this energetic world before we are really ready to completely live in it, a journey from which we must return, or die.
That summer in Big Sur I got my first taste of it, going in three months from one hundred and eighty-five pounds to one hundred and thirty-five, a loss of almost a third of my body weight. Although I still did my karate exercises, my focus was completely changed. I had caught the scent, and was on the track, in the hunt, of something big. One trait that has followed me all my life is a seeming inability to apply my energy to any kind of external goal. I can only get really motivated by things that seem to promote some kind of personal development, not the acquisition of knowledge, but some kind of irreversible evolution or skill. Leah had somehow shown me the existence of another world, heretofore unperceived. I was like Alice, falling down the rabbit hole to another reality, and Leah was my White Rabbit, late, perhaps, for some very important date, but still moving slowly enough for me to tag along.
My growing involvement with Leah did not prevent me from meeting some other characters of interest in Big Sur, although he was by far the most interesting. In what I would deem the most unlikely turn of events, a chance association there has lately resulted in identifying me with what has been officially anointed (by various musical authorities and pundits) the first “psychedelic folk-rock” album ever recorded, and the first recorded use of the term “new age.” The record in question was also the first professional recording I ever made, and, believe me, the last thing I would have nominated for any lasting notoriety. Even the pundits admitted that, despite its ground-breaking concept and historical “importance,” the record was terrible. I played the tabla for the majority of the recording, an instrument that I went on to study in depth for over a decade and still play, but at the time had been practicing for approximately three months. The singer, the album’s principal, Pat Kilroy, sounded like he was dying of cancer, and did, about six months later.
Although I had serious reservations about the music, and especially my amateurish use of the tabla (which was used, at everyone’s insistence, to give the right “feel” to the music, and was also probably responsible for some of its supposedly “ground-breaking” innovations), I was grateful for the opportunity to deal with real recording. This was Electra Records in New York City, definitely a major company. I got to know some of the top executives in the company as a result of this recording, and learned, for one thing, that they are just as lost as the rest of us at predicting what the public will like, or even, really, knowing what’s good and what’s bad.
The studio was quite high on the group, and was anticipating a big publicity campaign for us, and further records. We found out over the week or so of our recording that another group was using the studio down the hall, and asked what kind of music they were into.
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to them,” we were told. “They’re minor players. Lightweights. Going nowhere. They call themselves The Doors.”
But this is again getting ahead of my story a bit. It was in Big Sur that I ran into Pat Kilroy and we ended up playing together several times. Current posthumous efforts to lionize him as some sort of inspiring visionary only point out the eagerness with which the paparazzi seek to fashion legends out of those debatably fortunate souls who achieve some notoriety and then conveniently die before they manage to spoil everything, Elvis, James Dean, Jim Morrison, etc. (actually Jim did a pretty good job of spoiling things in a remarkably short time). I was interviewed at length about him by phone, and did my best to convey my impression of a terribly insecure kid with a huge chip on his shoulder who had an incredibly overblown idea about his own talent and the “importance“ of his music. By some strange turn of events he seems to have received the mantle of historical significance that he imagined was his destiny, so I guess he was actually right all along. When the article came out, my statements were reproduced, slightly out of context, with the very different impression that I was indeed encountering a far-seeing visionary, who was, by virtue of this, just a little more “far out” than everybody else.
Actually, Pat bugged the shit out of me, with his whining voice and extra wide open, slightly bulging eyes that accompanied an idiotically blissful smile that would erupt whenever he felt he was saying something notably profound. This was in contrast to his normal demeanor, pensive, petulant, and riddled with self-centered angst. He was also afflicted with the apparent occupational hazard of all guitarists, the desire to write songs.
This pronouncement concerning songwriting may seem a little weird, extreme, and unfair to many readers, and in truth they are right, it is. But they should realize that I make the statement on a purely personal basis, not as any attempt at musical pontification. There are a multitude of singer-songwriters out there for whom I have the greatest respect, Peter Rowan, for example, with whom I have had the great pleasure of playing and anticipate more of in the future. Vladimir Vissotsky of Russia, who died after barely reaching the age of thirty, and whose funeral is still on record as having the largest attendance of any ever held in Russia, including Stalin’s, was one of the most amazing geniuses that I have ever seen or heard, a kind of alcoholic yogi who played, like most of the great musicians I have known, in a posture of absolute stillness, while energy radiated from him with the intensity of a nuclear meltdown. I will nominate the opening line of Chris Kristofferson’s great Me and My Bobby McGee, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” as bordering on the profound. I could go on, but the reader should be convinced that I have no wish to denigrate the achievements of this well-established and traditional breed.
But my interest is in improvisational music, in the ongoing creation, rather than the perfected repetition, of songs. There is nothing preventing a musician from being equally good at both, of course. Hun-hur-tu, for example, the Tuvan touring group, are musicians who I can personally attest are wonderful improvisers, and do it as naturally as breathing, but their performances are absolutely set pieces that they have performed in exactly the same way literally thousands of times. They are, of course, bored to death by this, but this does not prevent them from doing it to perfection.
However, the average singer-songwriter is invariably afflicted with a kind of fanatic devotion to his creations, developing for each one a somewhat Platonic vision of its correct evolution, a vision which usually reduces his fellow musicians to the status of side men. When the guy is a genius, even this is not such a bad deal. But in the normal case, one’s lack of opportunity for creative input gradally takes the fun out of things, and that is exactly what was happening with Pat.
So I was actually relieved when he left for Europe, never to return. But I had plenty to kee me busy. My unique status as the only non-Indian tabla player in New York, and I did improve with time and devoted practice, pulled some interesting musicians into my orbit. I came home one night to find the Velvet Underground sitting on my rug (I didn't have any chairs in my apartment). Thanks to one especially unstable musical connection with whom I recorded under the psyudonym of Jim Hotep (I was studying Egyptian mythology at the time), Peter Walker, I even got to play at the Newport Folk festival which was, I think, in Rhode Island. If I sound strangely vague about exactly where it took place it is because I was taken there and returned to NYC by helicopter.
It had all been rather sudden. One minute I was sitting in my apartment in the Ansonia Hotel, then, after receiving a frantic phone call from Peter's agent ("Peter says he can't go on without you!"), I was catching a helicopter from the Pan Am Building (I'm pretty sure it was that one), the only helicopter ride I have ever taken, and then landing behind a bandstand shell. "Don't be nervous, don't be nervous," the manager kept telling me, until I made him stop. One thing, I have bever been nervous before playing. I love to play for an audience, and the bigger the audience, the better. The bigger the audience, the more certain everyone is that you must be really good. This was probably the biggest audience that I ever played for, before or since.
Now Peter Walker is (was? I don't know if he's still alive, even) a rather gifted technical guitarist, the giant veins running down his arms into his fingers a testimony to thousands of hours of intricate practice, but he had one rather annoying musical flaw. He couldn't hold a consistent musical thought for more than about thirty seconds. After that he would suddenly just crash and burn in an orgasm of high-powered guitaristic hystrionics, then start all over again with someting new. Utilizing what Dr. Singh, my tabla teacher, called my ability at "telepathic drumming," I had always been able to somehow follow these episodes of musical hysteria and make big, perfectly timed flourishes that served to legitimize them as inspired acts of actual collaboration, which they weren't. The greatest street fighter I ever knew told me once that "the essence of style is making the other guy look good." This is actually a rather profound insight into boxing, and just as true in music. The greatest drummers don't impress the audience; their skill is making the band sound so good that the audience doesn't even notice them. It's the band that's impressed, not the audience.
I recorded with Peter on Vanguard, and got to know some of the producers there, just like at Electra. It gave me a real insight into the music industry, one that wasn't all that appealing, actually. I realized that the industry musicians were of two radically different kinds. There were the so-called "studio musicians," solid, reliable players who could make almost anybody sound good, called in for record sessions and occasional concerts, sometimes at very short notice, and also working on their own projects. I liked feeling like this was my place, and very complimented to be there. Certainly some of the drummers in that capacity are the monsters of their profession, that is for sure. The other breed of musician seemed to be the creation of a collaboration of their own inflated egos and the considered estimation on the part of record company producers of how easily they could be controlled. A certain modicum of talent was necessary, of course, but the attitude of production seemed to be that they were rather replacable.