"Never Too Much, Always A Little Less": Erik Davis on Alan Watts' recordings (Arthur No. 16/May 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 16 (May 2005)

Never Too Much, Always A Little Less
Erik Davis on the recently reissued recordings of Alan Watts’ Zen talks, haiku poetry and other moments of intense perception

Recently the good folks at Locust Music have seen fit to release three unusual Alan Watts recordings. Watts was a very social guy, and he hobnobbed with many Bay Area mavericks after moving to the region in the early 1950s. One of these characters was Henry Jacobs, a pioneering musician, sound collagist and radio prankster whose oddball 1955 Folkways debut Radio Programme no. 1: Henry Jacobs’ Music & Folklore was also reissued on Locust. That disc was culled, in spirit if not in fact, from the “Music & Folklore” show that Jacobs hosted on Berkeley’s insanely forward-looking free-form radio station KPFA. Jacobs was a Pacific Rim kind of fellow—he played tons of international recordings on his show, and was married to a Japanese woman named Sumire Hasegawa. In the late 1950s, Jacobs formed Musical Engineering Association, a record label in Sausalito devoted to the sort of east-west fusions that characterized much of the budding California consciousness movement. MEA issued three albums from Watts, along with some recordings of S.I. “general semantics” Hayakawa; they also recorded commercials for Japan Airlines.

The first Watts record, Haiku, begins with a side-long lecture by the former Anglican priest about the relationship between Zen and haiku, the highly formalized Japanese poetic form of seventeen syllables. In his classy, comforting, tweed-jacket voice, Watts describes the “profoundly startling simplicity” that lies at the heart of both practices. The talk is a fine example of the sort of shimmering and crystalline lectures that Watts could seemingly produce at the drop of a hat, often live on KPFA, and that still blow through the mind like a cleansing breeze. On the second side, Watts reads selected haiku, grouped according to the four seasons:

Outside the window, evening rain is heard
It is the banana leaf that speaks of it first

Following each selection, some Caucasian cats with Japanese instruments, including Jacobs, set off little improvised bursts of Japonica, not unlike the dramatic punctuations of a Takemitsu samurai soundtrack. Then Sumire Jacobs chants the poems in the original tongue. The contrast between Watts’ calm, storytime tones and Sumire’s witchy and Noh-esque singsong is marvelous, although best listened to with full attention and a receptive state of mind. As Watts explains on the first side, the sparkle of haiku partly depends on the open mind of the listener. In contrast to the over-saturation of our contemporary mediascape, the message of haiku is, as Jacobs explained elsewhere, “mystery: never too much, always a little less.”

Haiku sold decently. The intelligentsia were then fascinated with Zen, and the New York Times gave it a positive review. So MEA put out Zen & Senryu, a less successful but still worthwhile collection of Zen poems and satirical Senryu verse, drawn from Blyth’s Haiku book and Zen texts by D.T. Suzuki, Nyogen Senzaki and Watts. The poems are delivered in the same format as the readings on Haiku. The collection includes some classics—almost Zen cliches at this point—but some real gems as well:

Even in the mind of the mindless one
Arises grief
When the snipe wings up in the autumn evening
Over the marsh

The second side of the disc represents a more wry and modern side of Japanese poetics. In the senryu poems, the attention to the thusness of ordinary life refocuses on the absurdity of ordinary life:

The husband’s toenail jumps into the sewing box

Overtaking and passing her
I saw that she was not much

In the right space, these two Watts recordings go down like a cup of oolong tea in the late afternoon. This is IT, on the other hand, goes down like a bubbling vat of Haitian jungle juice cut with a fresh batch of Sandoz crystal. The origin of the recording, often pegged as the first aural document of psychedelia, seems to be a late-night free-association fest dedicated to nothing more than the pursuit and expression of The Ineffable ITness. Watts and Jacobs are joined by Roger Somers, who drums and chants, as well as other hipsters, including percussionist William Loughborough, hitting and plucking congas, bass marimbas, and a lujon. On the surface level, the recording resembles an improvised bongo jam between beatniks with exotica leanings, with moaning mantras, shaman rattles, faux gagaku, and dribbling Afro-Carribean beats. But just when you think things are just going groovy, some little nonsense ditty or stoner chant suddenly bristles into something ancient and enormous. The vocals of Watts and Somers are particularly intense, as words devolve into werewolf barks and demon coughs and windigo roars that are truly hair-raising. The contrast between Watts’ guttural incantations and the erudite diction on the earlier MEA discs could not be stronger, but both modes are equally inspired, and equally expressive of the same quest for authentic spontaneity.

This is IT was recorded in 1962, at the peak of Watts’ interest in LSD. The back cover copy quotes from The Joyous Cosmology, which was written the same year and features a thinly disguised account of tripping with Somers and Gidlow at Druid Heights. Given the historical context of the recording, and the surreal and incandescent mind-meld it captures, it is impossible not to regard This is IT as a documentary recording of an LSD session at a time when the meanings and routines of psychedelic experience were barely articulated. For this reason alone it is an exceptional recording. This is what freedom sounded like in Marin County, 1962, and it became the fountainhead and prophecy of so much freakiness, sonic and otherwise, to come. But the condition of their neurons doesn’t really matter—on “Fingernail Poem,” Alan Watts may simply be drunk. What matters is the blast these mavericks send our way from the far fields that fringe our more mundane realities. In this way, This is IT achieves the goal of haiku: a moment of intense perception, the lightning strike we profane by thinking only that life is fleeting.

Locust Music: locustmusic.com

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