Saturday, April 21, 2012

Harry Nilsson, Music & the Bardo

I'll be writing a lot more about Bardo Training over the next several days, months, years and eternities. It  all counts as Life Extension but I'll stop titling it as such.

To reiterate and recap, we came up with some Axioms regarding the notion of surviving death:

1. Some part of us can survive death. We call that part a bardo voyager

2. Work on self helps the death-survivable bardo voyager grow stronger and more capable.

3. Ancient Tibetan Buddhists developed an accurate map for this territory called the Bardo Thodol, more commonly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Ancient Egyptians also have much of value to offer on the subject in the Papyrus of Ani, aka The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

4. The bardo is color-coded. Not only color-coded, but also qabalistically-coded.

5. Magick, the system of brain change developed by Aleister Crowley and his School presents a unique and efficacious method of bardo training. There exists a level of consciousness, or field of energy that transcends death. Crowley anthropomorphed this field into Horus, the Crowned and Conquering Child, a designation inspired by Egyptian mythology as given in its Book of the Dead. James Joyce and Robert Anton Wilson refer to this as the non-local field.

6. There exists a Master Key for surviving death.

7. The bardo has intricate, maze-like, labyrinthian qualities. Learning to successfully negotiate mazes and solve puzzles makes for a definite bardo skill set. Solving one maze helps to navigate other, more complex mazes.

8. None of these axioms require to get taken solely on faith. They are all verifiable.

9. Preparing for death gives positive results long before we take our last breath. Bardo training can significantly increase the quality of life and help to handle the maze of life. The late Steve Jobs testified to this in his commencement address at Stanford University: "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool that I've ever encountered to help make the big choices in life."

 I assume a great likelihood exists that a large percentage of people reading this blog will have their biological machines die on them before the normal human lifespan gets significantly extended. If true, bardo training may extend the individual conscious life past the point of death anywhere from a few seconds to immortality.

A note on process before continuing. From time to time I will deliberately repeat myself. The value of repetition was succinctly put by Buckminster Fuller regarding Synergetics:

Author's Note on the Rationale for Repetition in This Work 

 It is the writer's experience that new degrees of comprehension are always and only consequent to ever-renewed review of the spontaneously rearranged inventory of significant factors. This awareness of the processes leading to new degrees of comprehension spontaneously motivates the writer to describe over and over again what-to the careless listener or reader-might seem to be tiresome repetition, but to the successful explorer is known to be essential mustering of operational strategies from which alone new thrusts of comprehension can be successfully accomplished. 

To the careless reader seeking only entertainment the repetition will bring about swift disconnect. Those experienced with the writer and motivated by personal experience with mental discoveries-co-experiencing comprehensive breakthroughs with the writer-are not dismayed by the seeming necessity to start all over again inventorying the now seemingly most lucidly relevant. 

Universe factors intuitively integrating to attain new perspective and effectively demonstrated logic of new degrees of comprehension that's the point. I have not forgotten that I have talked about these things before. It is part of the personal discipline, no matter how formidable the re-inventorying may seem, to commit myself to that task when inspired by intuitive glimpses of important new relationships-inspired overpoweringly because of the realized human potential of progressive escape from ignorance.

To continue with music and bardo training, this passage from A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari gives an interesting overview:

A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under
his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients
himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a
calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps
the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself
is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos
and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority
in Ariadne's thread. Or the song of Orpheus.

Ariadne's thread, of course, refers to the Greek myth where Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of thread so that he might find his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth after he slew the beast.

Harry Nilsson wrote the kind of songs that our child in the dark may have been singing.  Check out this one called Mourning Glory Story which effectively conjures a bardoesque atmosphere and illustrates Axiom #4 quite well.   It's only about two minutes long:

A lot of his tunes have a similar quality of innocence and simplicity but still communicate a sonorous, if not always a happy, mood.  To my knowledge, Harry never attempted anything resembling conscious bardo training yet intuitively still tapped into that teaching, and I have to wonder if the association with his friend E.J. Gold played a role. 

Though not widely known to the general public, Harry was, nonetheless, quite an influential singer/songwriter affecting the likes of the Beatles, particularly John Lennon and Ringo Starr, and Tom Waits.  Gold was working as a photographer and writer in the music industry at the time he knew Harry, and was commissioned to take some photos for one of Nilsson's album covers.  I don't know how the two first met, or how Gold got that gig but it might possibly have been through his step-father Donner Spencer who worked as an executive at Capitol Records at the time.  They drifted apart over the years but reconnected sometime in the early 90's when Gold, now a respected world-class artist and sculptor, had the idea for a series of paintings based on lyrics from some of his songs.  This became The Moonbeam Show from the title of one of the songs off of Nilsson Schmilsson.  It first opened at the Troov Gallery which was a gallery a group of us built and opened above Bill Laswell's Greenpoint Recording Studio in Brooklyn.  I named it Troov after a character in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson,  Hadji Asvatz Troov who has an underground laboratory where he experiments with the effects of sound and light vibrations on the human nervous system. 

For Christmas of 1993, Gold invited Nilsson and his large brood up for the holidays.  Harry had a lot of health issues at the time but decided to go anyway.  They arrived on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.  First order of business was an all night music session in Gold's home recording studio with Harry and a small group of local musicians.  Though Harry's health and body was wracked up from years of heavy partying, and his voice was pretty shot, his spirit was indomitable and he sang with more soul than most contemporary pop singers.  At the end of the session Harry appeared quite rejuvenated.  Before he left, he pulled Gold aside and thanked him. His exact words were: " E.J., you are magic for me."

You get a little taste of the session with this clip even though the lighting turned out way too dark:

Toward the end of Nilsson's visit a little more than a week later, several of us were gathered in Gold's dining room listening to the two old friends recount tales of the old days.  At one point as Gold was talking, Harry interrupted him with the non sequitur question, " but I what really want to know is, why do we have to die?"  Gold basically ignored the question and carried on with his story.  About a half hour later, again completely out of the blue, Harry says more urgently, " but why do we have to die?"  For a second time E.J. didn't respond to the question steering the subject into a different direction.  About the same amount of time goes by and Harry can no longer restrain himself.  " WHY DO WE HAVE TO DIE, I HAVE TO KNOW!!"  Now quite apparent that this wasn't an idle philosophical question but something of dire necessity to Nilsson, Gold seemed required to respond.  He spent the next four hours discoursing on the subject into the late night.  The first thing he did was to establish his credentials by pulling out the American Book of the Dead, The Lazy Man's Guide to Death and Dying (one of George Carlin's favorites when researching death for his act) and maybe one or two other books on the subject.  Nilsson had no idea of Gold's standing in that area only knowing him as a former rock photographer turned visual artist.  He began his talk by saying, "nobody knows why we have to die, and nobody knows what will happen to us when we do."

Harry, wife Una, and their clan left a day or two later.  Two weeks after that, Harry died peacefully in his sleep at his home near Los Angeles.  He was only 52, the age I am right now.  Earlier that day he had finished the final overdubs for his last album, still unreleased, unfortunately.  I was personally very upset.  Harry was a very sweet and lovely man with a strong will and spirit for life.  E. J. requested that Jimmi Accardi, Bob Bachtold and myself hold a working vigil in the recording studio for Harry.  We spent the next 12 -14 hours in there recording a variety of Nilsson compositions, and at E.J.'s suggestion, a couple of Beatles tracks, Only Sleeping and Good Day Sunshine.  Gold said that he used our musical efforts in the studio as a springboard or platform for his work with Harry on his bardo voyage.

Harry's death had further unexpected, extremely strong, reverberations for me.  One evening during his visit, I believe it may have been New Years Eve, Menlo Macfarlane and I accompanied Harry outside while he had a smoke.  He told us about his medical situation what options the doctors were suggesting and what he wanted to do regarding them.  Two weeks after Harry died, I received an unexpected phone call from my Father who had similar cardiac health issues.  My dad had a major heart attack 6 years earlier when he was 52 that necessitated a drastic change in lifestyle.  He adapted fairly easily and seemed pretty steady health-wise.  He had plans to visit my little sister later in the Spring. Rosey was only 4 or 5 at the time living with her Mother who was on sabbatical in New Zealand.  After I got off the phone I had a strange feeling, then realized that it was almost exactly the same conversation that I'd had with Harry about various medical options.  Being an observer of patterns, I had the sudden flash that he would die soon and said that to my housemate.  Two weeks later I got a call from a hospital in Calgary saying that my dad had been admitted and was scheduled for an emergency triple bypass heart operation that afternoon.  I finally got him on the phone and he told me he'd gone in for a routine check-up but the doctor became quite alarmed and told him his condition was such that he could drop dead any moment from a heart attack.  They told him that if they did the operation right away that the chances of success was 80% so he agreed to it.  Because of my premonition I immediately booked a flight to Canada and went straight to the hospital.  It turned out that they had postponed the operation until the following morning which meant that I got to spend time with him that evening.  Despite the high chance for success, it looked quite clear from the way he was behaving that he knew, or at least strongly suspected that he would die.  His sister, my Aunt Toni, had flown up from L.A.  We spent the night at my dad's house.  I only got a couple hours of sleep occupying most of my time by trying to figure out what I would tell him if I only got to see him one last time.

We saw him in his room before they prepped him for the operation.  I told him about a camping trip he had brought our family on near the B.C./Alberta border when I was about 12.  One day, just the two of us went on a long hike.  At one point we veered off the trail to climb to the top of a mountain because it looked easy to do.  It turned out harder than expected but we made it.  I had the feeling of being on top of the world.  It was a very important event for me, I told him, and mentioned that I'd returned a few times in my early 20's to that exact location for Crowley type spiritual retirements.  The last thing I remember him saying as he was on the gurney about to go in was a request to my Aunt to play a particular piece of opera music at his funeral if he didn't make it.  He'd always been a big opera lover.

The doctors said the operation went well except that when they took him off the machine, his heart wouldn't start back up.  So they kept him on the machine hoping that his heart would kick in.  Your consciousness gets quite altered when someone close to you hovers at death's door.  They had a radio playing at a low volume in the ICU but I could hear it loud and clear from the other end where the waiting room was.  Two songs, which I previously hadn't cared for, Hotel California by the Eagles, and Moon Dance by Van Morrison made a strong impression on me.  Now, whenever I hear them, they patch me directly back into that space.  After about 12 hours with no improvement the doctor told me that a decision had been made to take him off of the life support.  It was about 1am now, my Aunt was on the floor below resting.  It was just my dad and me.  I was holding his hand and reading to him from the American Book of the Dead.  At one point, I felt an alteration in the lighting and experienced a strange sensation.  About 5 minutes later I asked the doctor to please let me know the exact moment of death.  He told me it had occurred about 5 minutes ago.

Well, this has been a little tangential to the subject, but still related.  I'll leave you with a little homage to Harry Nilsson that E. J. Gold put together.  It's basically a trailer for a longer piece but I can't find the whole thing online.  I believe there were copyrite issues preventing him from using any of Harry's music for the soundtrack.  I was quite surprised to see that it begins with a close-up of me in the studio back when I had hair:


  1. Oz,

    Very interesting. I don't know how much it relates to the topic at hand, but my father surprised me a couple of years ago by posting a comment on one my blog posts, mentioning that he wants to have Beethoven played at his funeral. When I had a hernia operation a few years ago, I brought a cheap MP3 player with me and listened to Beethoven while I was in the operating room, waiting to go to sleep.

    What do you think of the Nilsson album John Lennon produced? I have always wondered if I should hunt up a copy, or if I would be disappointed to hear it.

  2. Thanks, Tom. It seems not uncommon for music lovers to consider a requiem selection or playlist as a kind of closing statement, or perhaps a send off if they believe in any kind of après vie. I wonder if RAW made any such request? My playlist so far includes Dylan's "When the Ship Comes In," "Morning Has Broken" by Cat Stevens, and "Under Black Skies," and "Time Be Time" from Ginger Baker's Middle Passage album.

    I found music to be very effective at pain management when I had all four wisdom teeth removed at a dentist enlightened enough to provide (at that time) a walkman to listen with. He had a nice and varied selection of music. Getting the mind to focus on something outside of the body helps a lot with physical pain, in my experience. Music seems a natural for that.

    I suspect you might be disappointed if you were to dig up Pussy Cats, the album Lennon and Nilsson did together. I don't know for sure because I haven't heard it in it's entirety but have heard most of the songs on different compilations. You can definitely hear the results of all the drugging and drinking in the spotty and uneven production, and Harry's voice sounds much rougher than on earlier releases. Nilsson's mother commented that you can hear the ice cubes in their glasses clinking together on it. Still, some of the songs have their own charm, the best ones imo - Many Rivers To Cross, Don't Forget Me, and Down By the Sea can be found on Personal Best, The Harry Nilsson Anthology which is my favorite Nilsson album.

  3. I hear quite a bit of an influence on Elvis Costello in here as well...

  4. Hey thanks for writing this up and sharing. It was a fun discovery that you were involved with Nilsson, as I am a big fan of oysterhead and both have had revivals within the past few month with the new Losst and Founnd album and the Reunion. I'm now really interested as to if you were involved with the new Nilsson album or even any of the old demos they used for outlines? Thanks again