"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

Arthur co-presents Tues Dec. 14 at Cinefamily: HENRY JACOBS SPECTACULAR

We are positively giddy to be co-presenting this evening at Cinefamily that dublab has put together to celebrate the work of Henry Jacobs (pictured above). Arthur readers with fine memories will recall that Henry was lovingly profiled in Arthur No. 26 (August 2007) by Joel Rose (read “One Man Goofing” ) and saluted by filmmaker/artist Mike Mills in the same issue (“Red Goo, Paper Cut-Outs and Conscious Digressions: Henry Jacobs’ handmade absurdism”). Two episodes of Jacobs’ early ’70s PBS show “The Fine Art of Goofing Off” (memorably described as “Sesame Street for adults”) were screened on the main stage between music bands at ArthurFest in September, 2005. But enough about the past. Here are the details for this Tuesday’s event…

TUESDAY, December 14

dublab, Arthur and Cinefamily present

THE FINE ART OF GOOFING OFF AND OTHER WIDE WEIRDNESS OF HENRY JACOBS

All Ages / 8pm / $12

the Cinefamily
611 N Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, 90036

www.cinefamily.org

www.dublab.com

From Cinefamily:

What happens late at night when the television fuzz melts together with your subconscious mind? They become one entity and blossom into bright bursts. The TV channels the waves of your id and every unknown notion your cerebrum has hidden away in dusty recesses becomes a glowing explosion of sight and sound. Does this ultimate, brain-tickling television program sound too good to be true? In this day and age of narrow focused broadcast beams it is, but open your eyes wide because in 1972 a few episodes of this magic was made real. Sound artist Henry Jacobs got together with producer Chris Koch and visual artist Bob McClay to create a series of half-hour television programs for San Francisco public television station KQED. This show titled “The Fine Art of Goofing Off” is an ultimate revelation. It is like Sesame Street’s psychedelic, philosophical cousin who lives on the top floor of a tenement on the weird side of the road. It’s a wild, tangential ride through richly layered imagery and hypnotic, non-matching sources. One familiar voice heard on the program is that of Zen philosopher Alan Watts. This is no strange coincidence as Henry Jacobs was as tight with Watts as tight can be. Jacobs is somewhat the voice behind the voice behind the voice behind the voice of Zen. As the co-founder and manager of the Alan Watts archive he has continued spreading his pal’s Eastern Philosophy to the world.

Jacobs is the living, breathing, acting, thinking, laughing, swimming expression of life lived with a mind wide open. This vibe made him fast friends with Alan Ginsberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ken Nordine, Lenny Bruce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and many other luminous minds in motion. In the company of stellar collaborators Henry’s creative output has influenced modern music with its inventive twists. He is often considered the originator of modern surround sound due to his “Vortex: Experiments in Sound and Light” which came to life at the San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium and at the 1958 World Expo in Brussels. He also hosted the very first ethnographic radio show on American radio and released an album “Radio Programme No 1 Audio Collage: Henry Jacobs’ Music and Folklore” on the legendary Folkways Records in 1955. He even provided improvised soundtrack material and background dialogue for George Lucas’ film “THX 1138″ and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1964 for his work on the short film “Breaking the Habit.”

Wow, we could go on and on and on but the point is, you should not miss this screening. We’ll be showing Henry’s favorite moments from “The Fine Art of Goofing Off”, some amazing short films and excerpts from “THX 1138.” We’ll also share audio snippets from Vortex and other moments from “the Wide Weird World of Henry Jacobs.” We’ll even have Henry on the line for a live remote Q&A from his wild outpost on the Northern California Coast. Oh yeah, there will be a live tape loop performance and probably some left-handed ping pong action happening as well.

Henry Jacobs: official website

Henry Jacobs: Important Records

Henry Jacobs: Locust Music

Red Goo, Paper Cut-Outs and Conscious Digressions: MIKE MILLS on Henry Jacobs' handmade absurdism

Originally published in Arthur No. 26 (Sept 2007), (available now from the Arthur Store for $5), as a companion piece to Joel Rose’s profile of Henry Jacobs

Red Goo, Paper Cut-Outs and Conscious Digressions: Mike Mills on HENRY JACOBS’ handmade absurdism

The Fine Art of Goofing Off
Three 30-minute episodes, 1971
Dir. Henry Jacobs
Available on The Weird World of Henry Jacobs DVD/CD (Important, 2004)

“Well, ‘goofing off’ is not really being what you’re really supposed to be doing.”
—boy’s voice in Episode 1

Each show begins with the same image: a gallon of paint thrown onto a black and white target. Red gooey paint, probably the worst tool for the job a target suggests—hitting the center and the center only, and all the competition, judgment, and evaluation therein. There’s no specificity, linearity, no ability to pierce—just thick gooey amorphous wrap-around-everything-non-solidness.

And so the game begins, The Fine Art of Goofing Off, or as I mistakenly remembered it “Taking Goofing Off Seriously.” Glad I’m not in charge of remembering, but there’s something to my mistake. Under all the home-made/hand-made qualities of the show, the claymation, construction paper cut-outs, the felt pen animation, and the rambling structure, under the constant humor and seeking of fun is a deceptively serious mission—to derail oneself from “what you’re supposed to be doing” (or as the genius of the kid mistakenly put it, “not being what you’re supposed to be doing”). Goofing off is the giving up of all things Western Civilization worked so hard to make soul crushing: progress, work, betterment of self, basing everything on the future and linear time and the always wanting that time to be faster and more convenient. Not to mention the primacy of the plot and drama at all costs in storytelling, the anything-less-than-success as shameful construct, and the sadness as failure feeling, and the exploitation of any and all substances you can gather to ease all the worries us European-descenters are so prone to.

Yes, this is what this kid show addresses. And this little confrontation was happening on public television, broadcast across the airwaves in 1971. It’s handmade absurdism was mixed in the airwaves with Nixon, the Vietnam war, with the Weather Underground bombing the U.S. Capitol in protest of the invasion of Laos, with Apollo 14 landing on the moon, with Willie Wonka’s theatrical release, with Evan Goolagong winning Wimbledon. The Fine Art of Goofing Off was pushing its gooey red paint into antennas, and the imaginations of children/adults.

We won’t dwell on how impossible this show would be now, but actually we will for just three small points: 1. The great contemporary tendency to protect children from everything would not allow something so “dangerous” and “adult” to be on the air. 2. Our cleaned-up “professionalized” visual culture would never allow so much felt-tip-pen animation out in the world. 3. The positivity-openheartedness-vulnerability expressed in this show would be mocked by most mainstream and counter-culture makers of today. Softness is so easily beaten-up. But this is a digression, and really, how scary is it to digress, to not know what you’re doing, or what’s going on, or what’s next, or worse, to not have anything next. But this is the space Goofing Off was trying to make, the rich and conscious digression from what we’re supposed to be doing.

The end of episode three has a thank you list which includes: Walt Disney, Sigmund Freud, Leonardo DaVinci, The Beatles, Ray Bradbury, Federico Fellini, Marcel Marceau, Rene Magritte, Dali, Picasso, Alfred E. Neuman, Krishnamurti, Marshall McLuhan, John and Yoko, D.T. Suzuki, Jacques Tati, Benito Mussolini, Oral Roberts, Buckminister Fuller, The Eames, Corita Kent, Charlie Chaplin, J.R.R. Tolkien. What a party that would be. And while this list is playfully implausible, part of the magic of the whole show, it’s funny to see how many of these people thought of a different world, or, our world differently. Freud, populizer of the unconscious as the real source of all our actions. Marceau, the mime that explained his art as “documentaries” of human behavior mirrored back to us so we can transform. Suzuki and Krishnamurti (still trying to finish those books). The utopian popular modernism of Fuller-Eames-Kent. Alfred E Neuman’s scope of satire, nothing was beyond Mad’s reach. Disney, the maker of “the happiest place on earth,” maybe the most powerful shaper of “childhood” for any of us born after the Fifties. Henry Jacobs, Bob Mcclay, and the community that made this were playing at influencing imaginations on this big scale while not falling for the seriousness that turns revelations into rules. They disguised their insurgency in felt-tip pen and construction paper cut-outs. The revolution will be funny, inventive, unprofessional, small-scale, for children/adults and televised.


Mike Mills is a filmmaker and graphic artist living in Los Angeles. His latest graphics can be seen at humans.jp

One Man Goofing: A visit with legendary Zen humorist Henry Jacobs

This article was originally published in Arthur No. 26 (2007), available now from the Arthur Store for $5, alongside an appreciation of Henry Jacobs’ The Fine Art of Goofing Off by artist/filmmaker Mike Mills. With the very welcome news that a) a new Henry Jacobs release is on the way (Around The World With Henry Jacobs), and b) the extremely highly recommended The Wide Weird World Of Henry Jacobs/The Fine Art Of Goofing Off cd/ & dvd set is finally back in print, we thought it was time to brush off the dust from this piece and offer it online for the first time. Here goes…

One Man Goofing: A visit with legendary Zen humorist Henry Jacobs
by Joel Rose

Once a week, Henry Jacobs drives to a community center near his house in Marin County, California to play ping-pong with his neighbors. But it’s ping-pong with a twist: Jacobs, a natural righty, insists on playing with his left hand. “I don’t know if I’m as good,” he says. “But I sure have a lot more fun, because I can surprise myself. With my right hand, I never surprise myself.”

The 82 year-old Jacobs has been playing left-handed ping-pong every Monday night for the last seven years. At first, he says, the neighbors were skeptical. But they’ve gradually come around and started playing with their off-hands, too. Jacobs recently started filming interviews with his fellow left-handed ping-pong players for a documentary. “I envision it mainly for the Third World,” he says, and for a second it’s hard to tell whether he’s joking or serious. “The motive is to try to clean up the rather ugly image [of Americans] in the last 50 years or so,” culminating with the present conflict in Iraq. Jacobs says he wants to offer an alternative view of American culture, and ping-pong is the perfect vehicle because of its popularity around the world. “The economics of it are pretty basic. A paddle which you could make out of banana leaf or whatever,” he deadpans. “It’s not about wiping out the planet. It’s about a simple activity called ping-pong.”

Jacobs sees the new documentary—which doesn’t yet have a title—as a kind of sequel to The Fine Art of Goofing Off, the series of animated television programs he worked on in the early 1970s. He says he’s filmed eight or nine interviews so far. Instead of shooting them head on, Jacobs had his subjects invent tasks to perform. (“One guy is fixing an electric lamp. Another guy is diddling around with some paintings.”) The point, says Jacobs, is they’re involved in what they’re doing, even while they’re talking out loud about ping-pong. “They’re not forced keep trying to remember all the points they wanted to make,” says Jacobs. “They can stop talking and get the screw-driver in the right place. It takes the pressure off to constantly be producing something useful and intelligent.”

And of course, “all this will be edited mercilessly. So you’ll only get little pieces of anything.” This, says Jacobs, was point of The Fine Art of Goofing Off: “Never do something so long as to bore someone.”

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