Zen Friday

Phil Ford

I got nothing. And now I embrace the nothingness and discover the nothing that nothings eternally.

Hey, that sounds a little like Ken Nordine! Man, I love Nordine. He is, with the possible exception of Fred Astaire, the illest motherf*&^er in human history.

So what happens when you put Fred Astaire and Ken Nordine together?

TEH COP SHOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“My Baby” was a number from Nordine’s 1957 Word Jazz, which has been rereleased, along with the other original “word jazz” albums, in a reissue anthology called You’re Getting Better: The Complete Word Jazz Dot Masters. One of my favorite tracks on it is a number called “Charlie Zen,” which is Nordine’s outer-space prose-poetry accompanied only by a gong of unearthly resonance. It’s a bonus cut for the anthology, apparently recorded for one of the original albums but left unreleased until now. Here’s a taste.

Yes, I know, very Dharma Bums, very 1950s-hipster/1990s-New-Age, this thing for Zen. But still. Someone somewhere should write a cultural history of Zen in America; a lot of interesting Zen-influenced art has been made here in the last fifty years. And Zen notions are interesting, and, even to my rather religion-averse self, satisfying to contemplate, though I admit I know very little beyond Alan Watts’ book The Way of Zen. Watts is probably single-handedly responsible for much of the enthusiasm for Zen in the West. Watts was a wonderful writer and talker, very good at making abstract things concrete, which has earned him a certain amount of suspicion from those who like their mysticism mystical. Among other things, he wrote a very sharp-eyed piece on the hip embrace of Zen in the 1950s, titled “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” — one of the best things written on the Beats in the 1950s.

Jonathan and I had a little punch-up over American popular culture this week, with me digging the Usbybay Urkleybay and Jonathan hatin (or at least dissentin’). I wrote a comment to Jonathan’s post where I came up with what I think is a new hypothesis in American popular culture: we might call it Theory of Pop Culture Complementarity. You can’t have just the smart without the dumb, the tasteful without the vulgar, Jon Stewart without Paula Abdul. They are necessary to one another: what pop giveth, pop taketh away, and vice versa. Dumb pop culture gives you the hermeneutic tools to take it apart, which transforms it into smart pop culture. And vice versa. For years we’ve been hearing tirades against South Park—it’s vicious, crude, foul, and wrong, etc. (You say that like it’s a bad thing!) And guess what the South Park guys are doing now? Making gentle, intelligent cartoons to the Zen teachings of Alan Watts. Here are a couple, the first of which is called “Life and Music,” the second “Prickles and Goo.”

There are more at Soul Jerky, where I found these clips. Watts loved music, and I like how he so often resorted to musical metaphors in talking about Zen. Have a good weekend.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to Zen Friday

  1. Jonathan says:

    Phil, I dislike this:
    “Theory of Pop Culture Complementarity: You can’t have just the smart without the dumb, the tasteful without the vulgar, Jon Stewart without Paula Abdul.”
    But I dislike it the way I dislike certain other Truths: because it makes me uncomfortable, and I know instinctively that either it’s True, or at worst there’s a lot of Truth in it, on a variety of levels. It needs development, though, particularly the “you can’t have X without Y” part. I’m sure that will stand up to closer imagination.
    Is that Watts’s voice? Particularly when he chuckles, I’m reminded of Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues–“Breathe Deep, the Gathering Gloom…”

  2. Jonathan says:

    PS: Freud! I meant “closer examination.”

  3. Phil Ford says:

    I liked “closer imagination” better, though! That’s a really nice coinage . . . I might steal it.

  4. Jonathan says:


  5. Mark says:

    I’ll take the Jon Stewart and pass on the Paula Abdul. WOW. Thanks for the vids. I’ve been a fan of word jazz for some time … Adult Kindergarten, the Vidiot, the one where he talks about going down the drain, and the Alan Watts videos were a revelation. Maybe there is something to this musicology stuff! (when I told the director of jazz studies at our U that I was developing an interest in musicology, he gave me a strange look!)

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