Manic Depression: Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix

I was just 17 on March 31, 1968, the night I saw Jimi Hendrix in a tiny, converted tire warehouse in Philadelphia. Hendrix is iconic today, so I don’t need to describe the show. But back then he was absolutely new, unlike anything anybody had ever seen before. Playing with the guitar behind his head, plucking the strings with his teeth – it was astonishing. But most of all it was loud – we’re talking air raid siren loud. It overwhelmed like an Old Testament rain of fire.

When Hendrix sang his signature hit, Manic Depression, I had absolutely no idea what the term meant, much less that it would soon come to define my life. That concert was, perhaps, my first look at mania – real mania – the kind of mania that says – “I am about to set the world on fire and if you don’t like it you better get the fuck out of my way.” It was thrilling and overwhelming. Of course none of us knew then that Hendrix was like a meteor, burning up right before our eyes, and that he would be dead just two years later.

Hendrix was certainly not the only musical genius I’ve seen perform, but the experience was unique all the same. It is difficult to explain. A year later, in the summer of 1969, I worked for the Bureau Of Land Management in Alaska, fighting forest fires. I was part of a back-burning crew, meaning I walked through burning forests carrying a flamethrower. It was like that. A few years later, in Louisville, Kentucky, I watched a tornado tear through the city like hellfire, tossing houses into the air before smashing them to splinters like a fist. It was like that.

The tragedy of Hendrix is that we get to enjoy his work but he doesn’t. He stepped onto the Bipolar Express and never got off, hitting the wall at 100 mph. The poor guy was 27 when he died, with just 4 completed albums to his name.

In the years separating 1968 and 2012 I have come to understand mania only too well, and the music of Jimi Hendrix is encoded in my DNA. One of the many, many reasons I have to be grateful is that fame and adulation did not fuel my illness as they did for Hendrix; I would certainly be dead if they had.

Manic Depression is a frustratin’ mess!

All Aboard The Bipolar Express!

30th Street Station

I learned how to read and perform choral music a cappella in the damp, chilly basement of St. Martin in the Fields, a swank Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. Without flogging an ailing nag let’s just say that St. Martins is adjacent to the grass tennis courts of The Philadelphia Cricket Club about which, the less said…Ironically, I returned to St. Martins decades later for an AA meeting, indeed, many of “the rooms” are located in the glamourless confines of church basements. But, as ever, I am ahead of myself.

The Choir Master was an intense, closeted homosexual who lived at home with his mother and brother, a countertenor. (His brother’s solos caused us discomfort and wonder.) Mr. Wilkinson was a driven, obsessive perfectionist; he whipped us into shape mercilessly, like a man whipping a rented mule. Because this was a boy’s choir, featuring the pristine, clear sound of male voices not yet cracked by the oncoming deluge of what is laughingly referred to as adulthood, we were all roughly the same age, in the 8-12 bracket. The congregation was accustomed to getting what it wanted and it wanted high-end music. Wilkinson delivered.

We practiced 3 evenings weekly and before service on Sunday. We were paid regularly, in pay envelopes, and got perks like presents and stints at summer camp. In other words, even though we were wisenheimer punks our approach to the music was dispassionately professional – we were not merely tight, we were kettledrum tight.

In that basement I learned music, performance, and Christmas. Ever since those days, really good authentic Christmas music has been my favorite part of the season, for many years it was the only part I could stomach.

The following excerpt from INVISIBLE DRIVING recounts my most memorable Christmas concert ever; I played 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. While in the midst of a manic flight, I “played” 30th Street Station – which is to say – I “played” 30th Street Station.

***

I felt like walking so I parked my car in the lot next to 30th Street Station. Thirtieth Street Station is an enormous Greek style train station that stands next to an elaborate yard handling freight trains, local trains, and long distance passenger trains. It’s a conduit for all North/South train travel. The station recalls a day when great power was based on rail transportation, before cars took over. But I’m not here to talk about what the station can recall, I’m talking about what I recall. It’s a massive building with a main hall as large as a football field and a ceiling that’s a hundred feet overhead. I remember as a child arriving in the station, climbing up the stairs from the train into the great hall, and feeling as though I was outside, the ceiling seemed that remote. On a whim I walked into the hall. There were early rising, upwardly mobile businesspeople swirling about, drinking coffee, reading the Wall Street Journal and licking boots just to keep in practice. Waiting for trains to New York and D.C. I looked up at the ceiling, puckered, and blew a note. It rang out in the hall, echoing off the marble, taking forever to decay.

Some things decay quite quickly, western civilization for example, but the note decayed slowly. I whistled the same note twice, two short blasts. Full bore, lots of volume, nicely amplified by the enormous hall. I drifted into a rousing rendition of “Ding, dong merrily on high.” Walked around the room and tested the acoustics from different angles. People were starting to eye me curiously but hey, was that going to bother me? I found that it actually took so long for the sound to die that I could use the echo as a base and whistle on top of it. Now I was doing the carol as a round, using the echo as a second voice. I found this highly amusing, simply droll, just too too funny, trés amusante, and tried it out with several carols. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Good King Wenceslas. Joy to the World. The music intoxicated me. People were eyeing me suspiciously, as if to say, it’s awfully early in the morning to be so cheerful, what’s wrong with this picture? I Saw Three Ships. I was wailing now.

I kept walking around the room as I performed, harder to hit a moving target. I knew that sooner or later some long-suffering lowly hod carrier, some factotum, some dolt, some running dog lackey of the petite bourgeoisie would tell me to put a lid on it. Away In A Manger. To amuse myself I tried different tones and different speeds. With turbocharged intensity I whistled as fast as I could. Then I hit on something that gassed me. Boparoopie. The speed made it possible to hang notes in the air long enough to lay another melody on top of them. So I started whistling discordant pairs of carols.

First a phrase from Joy To The World. Then, with those notes floating above the heads of my unsuspecting and defenseless audience like angels with erections, (I should point out that it was the notes that bore a resemblance to angels with erections, not my audience, my audience bore a resemblance to alien zombies just back from a shopping trip to John Wanamaker’s), a phrase from Good King Wenceslas. Back and forth. It took some puckering but I was getting such a jolt from it that I just kept going. An impromptu, improbable, Christmas happening in your face you whitebread corn pone brain dead blockhead. Something to tell your better half tonight. This guy, he was whistling two Christmas carols at the same time, it was weird. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, this is my Christmas present to you. A tribute to the immensity of your spirit. A little duty-free gift for the traveler. Roland Kirk, God rest his soul, should there be one, and if there is, fuck you pal, I’m tired of carrying water, do you hear me, was a wonderful jazz musician who, among other amazing feats too numerous to go into here, although I’m tempted, often played two saxophones at the same time.

When I hit the end of my number, lightheaded from the expenditure of breath, I headed for the door. I scanned the faces for responses. Some grins, mostly from the souls living closer to the cliffs. Some scowls. If they can’t take a joke, throw them the hell off the bus. Some good old-fashioned confusion, what does it mean? But I felt good. I knew I’d nailed it to the wall. Alistair’s extra-normal tribute to Christmas. Alistair, the man who plays flute, saxophone and train station. I hit the door without any slatch, no stationmaster’s condemnation. A perfectly executed piece of performance art. Out the door he goes.

Existentialists Explore Extreme Tedium

Russian Base Jumping

The word “extreme” is overused today; like “awesome” it has been drained of its raw glory by thoughtless abuse. Being manic-depressive – or “bipolar” – I have spent most of my life in extremes, natural habitat of the mad. I chased kicks obsessively, certain I was having fun. But fun, I discovered late in life, occurs when you know who you are and enjoy who you are; you don’t find fun somewhere else, you bring it with you. What I actually chased was adrenaline.

“Until you’ve had nothing you haven’t yet had everything.” Taz Mopula

We attempt to make mundane activities sound less mundane by applying the word “extreme” to them, for example – “extreme makeover” – not to be confused with “extreme snoring” or “extreme shoe polishing”. But the dirty little secret about life in extremes is that over time they blend together and lose their scary, “cool” edge. So many of these adventures are flights away, not towards.

“There are two kinds of people, those who believe there are only two kinds of people and those who dislike oversimplification.” Taz Mopula

Mental hospitals and prisons are all basically identical, bland food, linoleum, and well-appointed recreational facilities. Teheran opium den, Rio de Janeiro brothel, raging forest fires in Alaska, battered urban wastelands of Philadelphia; after peeling off layers of veneer I realized they were all essentially the same place. Ultimately it wasn’t where I was that mattered so much as what I was doing there, and why.

“People are always finding God in prisons and mental hospitals; but try finding a gift shop.” Taz Mopula

Whether by design or, as in my case, fate, it is exhilarating to close your eyes and sail off the edge of a cliff – crash – break into a heap of ragged fragments – and do it all again once you’ve mended. The thrill is all consuming and luscious. Doing what most people spend their entire life fearing and avoiding accelerates the process of spiritual growth, but, like anything else, there are limits to what it can offer. Crashing one’s car into a wall at 100 mph twice is not twice as instructive as doing it once.

“Everything and Nothing are identical twins; completely unrelated to Enough.” Taz Mopula

The shocking revelation about spending a life exclusively in extremes is that it actually stunts growth and ultimately is, (gasp), boring. The middle lane is not only the safest, it is the most richly complex, challenging, and satisfying; it’s where the real action is.