Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Pagan Fundamentalism.

Pagan Fundamentalists are a reality in today's day and age. Just like Christian Fundamentalists they can be argued with, but not reasoned with. The biggest difference between the two is that Pagan Fundamentalists are all over the board, you can be a Pagan Fundamentalist on all sorts of issues. Anyone who shows a refusal to bend, speculate, capitulate, compromise, could be a fundamentalist.

At its essence fundamentalism means a "return to fundamental principles,*" which is something that can always be brought up for debate. Whose fundamental principles are we dealing with? In the case of Christianity does that mean a return to the "blessed are the poor" Jesus or selective reading of Old Testament Law? Does Fundamentalism imply that a religion should only be practiced as it was at the beginning, with no room for improvement, growth, or innovation?

I've always found that fundamentalism usually suffers from an "intolerance of other views**," a hallmark of most fundamentalist groups. Usually this intolerance is indifferent to science, facts, logic, or rational argument. Evolution is a good example of this. Science, facts, logic, and rational argument all support the idea of evolution. The only real argument against it comes from a three thousand year old story that was written pre-science. Fundamentalists generally offer no compromise either, you don't usually hear "well that might be true" from a fundamentalist, the answer is either "yes" or "no," there are no shades of grey.

Pagan Fundamentalists are generally the same. They embrace an idea, and refuse to ever again question or challenge it. I'm on a Pagan Forum where I'm currently arguing about "Traditional Craft" and the initiation of Gerald Gardner.*** Surprisingly the loudest Pagan Fundamentalists in the current debate think that Gardner "made it up" and was not initiated in 1939. I'm fine with that assessment about Gardner. There's not a lot of evidence to support the idea that he was initiated in 1939, but my problem lies with those who would discount the idea completely.

Unless you lived in New Forest England in 1939, I don't think you can make a fair judgment on Gardner's claim of initiation without first reading Ronald Hutton's Triumph of the Moon and Phillip Heselton's Wiccan Roots. While Hutton discounts the idea that Gardner was initiated, Heselton offers up tantalizing evidence that it could have happened. As an anti-fundamentalist I just want people to admit that something is possible and to stop thinking in absolutes.

I am a believer in the reality of Gardner's initiation, but that doesn't mean he was initiated into something that was centuries old. I believe Gardner was initiated into something, I don't know how old it is, but you'd have a hard time convincing me it was ancient. If you want to argue that Gardner "made the whole thing up," that's your right, and there is a lot of evidence to support your claim, but it's not an open and shut case. I just think you'd be better off with an argument that read "I find it unlikely that Gardner was initiated into anything" rather than a blanket statement discounting all other possibilities.

Much of the bad mouthing about Gardner is probably because I'm involved in a debate involving people who claim to be a part of something they term "Traditional Craft." In this debate "Traditional Craft" predates Gardner and from what I'm gleaning it represents a complete religious and and magical system that has been left "unchanged" by the Modern World****. In this argument I might be the fundamentalist because I'm not buying their argument, though I'd love to be proven wrong (which probably saves me from being a fundamentalist).

My biggest argument with these "Traditional Crafters" is that it's hard for me to buy the idea that a religious practice has existed in complete secrecy for hundreds of years untouched by the Modern World. While I'm perfectly willing to concede that magickal systems have never left Europe (or anywhere else), attaching those systems to a religion other than Christianity is difficult, if not impossible.

Take "Cunningcraft" for instance. Cunningcraft is traditional, usually rural, English magick. Cunning Men and Women have existed for hundreds of years. Much of their magick is "homegrown," (charms, spells, and the like), but much of it also comes from the grimoire tradition. It's a hodgepodge of magickal material-astrology, angels, Old Testament Psalms. It's hard to categorize, but one thing is pretty clear throughout, it's not religious necessarily. It's magick, but a magickal system does not mean religion. Many folk customs or magickal traditions will sometimes look like Paganism from a distance, but they don't usually have a religious context. Just because some of these practices are absent of religion doesn't negate their effectiveness or validity, it just means you can't claim them as a part of a religious system.

Witchcraft was a dirty word for a long time. You could practice magick in 19th Century England or the United States with little or no repercussion, often you might be held in high regard for practicing it. The term "witch" though generally reflected negativity, and it's highly unlikely that anyone would go around claiming to practice Witchcraft a hundred years ago. The use of the term "Traditional Crafter" alone screams modern influence.

My problem with the fundamentalists in this argument is not with their beliefs, it's their inability to offer any credible evidence to back up those beliefs. If you want to claim that your version of The Craft predates Gardner then you have to offer up some facts to support your theory. A rational argument contains facts, not just "I did" or "I have been." I rode a dragon yesterday. I can't back it up, but it's true because I'm telling you it was.

When it comes to Modern Paganism I don't like dealing in absolutes. There are many things which I look at as being in the category of "More Likely" but I refuse to rule anything out entirely. I'll tell you why I think you are wrong, but I won't dismiss everything out of hand. Fundamentalism dismisses everything out of hand, and no matter how good the argument, it leaves no wiggle room.

*From the "American Heritage Dictionary"
**The fourth part of the definition, again from the AHD.
***I don't have time for the entire Gerald Gardner story here. Gardner was the first public witch and claims to have been initiated into a coven of existing Witches in 1939.
****Of course I'm unsure if this is the right definition, the people I'm arguing with have been very vague.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Jason's Pity Party

I don't like pity parties. In Pagandom you often hear phrases like "you make your own reality," or "you can change your circumstance," and to a degree that's probably true. Life has always been what you make of it. If you choose to live your life with the shades drawn don't complain when no one comes over. While there are always a lot of variables we can't control in our lives, you can always strive to put yourself in the best situations to maximize your opportunities.

As a Pagan I believe that you can manipulate natural energies and use them to effect the outcomes in your life (which is a fancy way of saying "magick"), however that process is pretty slow. Magick is not always something that works immediately, especially when tackling the big challenges. Magick is a subtle thing, it oozes into pores and crevices, it sets up circumstances, but it doesn't deliver results on a silver platter. As I work on the things in my life, I have to remember to be patient, a difficult thing for one as childish as me.

The last month has not been great for me. I have been suffering from a crippling bout of writer's block, and a large degree of self isolation. When we first moved out West back in February I went on a writing tear. I was pumping out close to fifteen good pages a day on a book about ritual. Somewhere in the middle of that I got a part time job , re-evaluted the "publishability" of the book, and then abandoned the project. Writing is a cruel mistress, and I'd prefer that it wasn't strictly a charity.

I am a gifted speaker, but I am not a gifted writer. On my best day in front of the computer monitor I'm pleased if my prose doesn't make me nauseous. On a middling day writing can be like pulling teeth, and lately it's been like trying to push a semi-truck out of gorge by myself. There have been a few days where it's taken me two hours to write one paragraph, and usually that paragraph is awful. I've noticed a large degree of typos in even my most basic correspondence . . . . . sloppy, disconnected, frustrating.

As a writer I have another problem-I write about things that aren't profitable, or perhaps even publishable. For those of you who have read my "Horned God" manuscript and enjoyed it, I thank you, but it's not the kind of book that's going to show up at Barnes and Noble. To be publishable means writing about things that have already been done to death (Wicca 101) or selling out (fairies, spells, vampires). I'm not sure I can write about something I don't have my heart in, and I don't feel the need to repeat things that have already been done, and perhaps done better than I can do them.

Right now writing scares me. To write and get rejected is failure, to not write and avoid failure is simply procrastination. There are days when I clean my townhouse for four or five hours just to avoid writing. I've never done that before, even during my worst cases of writing paralysis. In the past I've been able to get a few things done, whether it's workshop research or what not and lately it's been long grocery store trips, documentaries on Netflix, and graphic novels instead. Even my reading has gotten lazy, avoiding the usual challenging academic press to read light fiction or easy religion books covering topics and subjects I already know.

Blogging has usually been a comfort when suffering from writer's block, but even that's been a challenge lately. I have about eight unfinished drafts just sitting in the que here, but I hate all of them and they do such a shitty job of expressing ideas that should be easy to articulate. Some of the most popular blog pieces I've done lately (like the polyamory one, which has even been linked around to several other blogs) have taken weeks to write, and that's following even longer gestation periods. I began this blog because I enjoy writing in short bursts, and was hoping it would get linked to a bit more, but unless I'm writing about sex it seems to have stalled. My wish of getting linked to something like the Wild Hunt seems far away, and in general my readership has been my facebook page. (And I thank anyone who reads my rambles, I appreciate it more than words can express, I just want to expand ya know?)

Patience grasshopper. Magick is a slow process, and it's not like I've been putting my best material forward anyways (especially today). On the plus side I've got a few speaking gigs lined up next month, and those opportunities always energize me; well as long as the turnout isn't embarrassing and I don't make an ass of myself. (I'm sure I'll be fine on both counts.) I'm hopeful that the energy charge will give me the kick in the pants I need to overcome my current rut.

So I'm in this bad place and have to work my way out of it, and I can, and I will. Making inroads in the local Pagan Community has helped a bit, and Ari and I do have some great friends out here. Those are all plusses, and will eventually pay off as I begin to fix my fears. While I don't have control over all of my circumstances, I have control over my own hopes and fears, and I need to get the hopes up and the fears cleared out of the way.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Tale of Dionysus

This is the only "fiction" (though Dionysus claims it's all true) I've ever really written. This story began as something I made up on the spot at a ritual many years ago. It was inspired by the use of the Cheez-It as the "Holy Snackramnent" in the Church of All World. It's much funnier when I'm telling it after a few glasses of wine, but I didn't feel like writing a real blog post and so I'm recycling this from panmankey.com (though updated and with less typos!). I'm almost human again after a week plus of a nasty sinus infection, so maybe next week I'll be back to writing "deep" things. (To those friends of mine on the more evangelical side of the aisle, you might not want to read this. You'll find it pretty blasphemous, though no harm was intended.)

A Tale of Dionysus

Dionysus leaned back in his chair and surveyed the realm of the gods. It's a good day, he thought to himself, surveying the vast expanse of blue before him. He was sitting in the “happy area” of deity, across the sky he could make out the solar war god Mithra. The two gods were friends, but they didn't share homes in the neighborhood.

Mithra resided in what Dionysus called “that less happy place.” It was there that gods like Ares and Thor resided, and they were always fighting amongst themselves, and wrestling with each other like a gaggle of ten year old boys. Sure, Dionysus had to share his shangri-la of honeyed water and blue skies with other gods, but most of the gods on his side of the block had a sense of humor and a yearning for fun. The wine always flowed freely on his side of the sky.

Dionysus was dressed in a simple toga, and due to a few glasses of wine he was feeling a little bit tipsy. It wasn't an overwhelming sense of intoxication, just a slight one that brought a large grin to his face. It was a feeling Dionysus knew well, as it was how he existed the majority of the time. The wine had made him a little tired, and he felt the need to stretch out upon his throne, his arms extending out as far as he could stretch them.

“Damn I love these folks!” he chuckled to himself, and there were many to love. He had followers all over the western world, from Europe to the Middle East, down into Africa, and east into India. Dionysus was revered almost everywhere, and in the places he wasn't known by name, those who took solace in wine knew his spirit. Dionysus had claimed wine, and every time a mortal was exposed to he was there in that moment.

Dionysus spotted the new guy waving at him across the way and groaned. The “new guy” as they called the fellow was shimmery. His followers hadn't really decided what he looked like yet so he was sort of translucent looking, unsolid, almost like a half painted ghost. Dionysus waved back to the fellow also known as Jesus by his followers and groaned under his breath. He's coming over here, Dionysus thought, and the god of the vine didn't relish the prospect.

For some odd reason Jesus had really taken a liking to Dionysus. Many of the other gods thought it might be because Jesus also used wine in his rituals, and because he had stolen a great deal of Dionysus's act over the years. Dionysus thought that Jesus was attracted to him simply because no one else was all that nice to him, and Dionysus was usually nice to everyone after a few cups.

Jesus was sort of a loner amongst the gods, even though he was known as a suck up to Big D. The young deity from Galilee had entered godland with all sorts of problems, the biggest one being he didn't get along very well with his dad. Jesus was actually scared of the father his followers had given him. On earth he had been pretty close with his dad Joseph, but when he entered the world of deity the thunder god Yahweh had become his pop, and things weren't going very well

Yahweh lived on the other side of godland, the "less happy place," and he had carved out his own spot there. Yahweh had even gone so far as to put up a sign in his yard that read “no trespassing,” an unheard of step in a land full of family and friendships. Jesus' mother was more shimmery than he was, and would sometimes leave the realm of the gods for days because no one had invoked her in awhile. Mary and Yahweh's relationship was horrible too, and made the marriage of Zeus and Hera look perfect by comparasin. Yahweh was still madly in love with the goddess Asherah and when their had relationship ended he turned crusty and celibate.

Jesus has been sort of fun when he had first joined the other gods, and there were still days when his gnostic followers ran enough of the show that the old Jesus shined through, but his “orthodox” followers had turned him into a prude over the years. Jesus wasn't much of an agricultural god, and didn't have the musical abilities of Apollo and Pan, he and Osiris shared a lot in common but Jesus was rather disgusted that the Egyptian god has married his own sister, Isis. Jesus just didn't fit in anywhere, and it had only grown worse the more patriarchal and judgmental his followers became

“How ya doing Big D?” Jesus asked with a large grin on his face as he approached Dionysus.

“I'm all right, young'en, just enjoying some wine. Would you like a glass?”

“Sure, that would be nice,” replied Jesus. “I think I can have one or two glasses before it becomes a sin, at least for now.”

“I take it you are still bitter about losing your wife huh?” asked Dionysus with all sincerity.

“Yeah, I am. I never wanted to be known as a celibate god, but I seem to attract all the folks with weird sexual hang-ups.”

“That's the truth J, you should hang out with Pan more, maybe it would rub off on your followers.” Dionysus chuckled at that last comment. Jesus and Pan had been on speaking terms for awhile, but it had all blown up when Pan convinced Jesus to throw a party at his dad's house one weekend when Yahweh had gone out of town. Yahweh en
ded up returning early from the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem and had caught Pan in his bed with Aphrodite. From that moment on Jesus had only been allowed to speak to “gentile” converts, and any friendship with Pan rapidly deteriorated.

“You still haven't forgiven him for that whole Aphrodite thing have you?”

“No I haven't Dionysus, and I doubt I do for awhile, if ever. I'm a Jew, and now Dad forbids to me to speak to any other Jews! So I've got some crazy guy named Paul preaching to the pagans now, and to think, I turned some water into wine for him that night. I don't know what to do with all you weird gods anyways, I just don't fit in, and I'm not sure I could ever be the fornicating drunks most of you are.”

“I'm going to forget that last part Jesus. We don't make judgement calls like that up here buddy. It's not your place, nor is it mine, to decide what's divine and what's not.”

Dionysus looked at Jesus expecting an

answer and instead saw a blank face with eyes glazed over and distant. Then he saw Jesus shake his head and fall back into reality. “Just a false alarm there,” Jesus said as he smiled softly. “Someone was eating a cracker shaped deceptively like one of my communion wafers and I was drawn to it, ya know, since I had to claim bread and little square crackers as my earthly dominion. I'm still drawn to the whole thing, and I share the moment, tasting the cracker with whoever is eating it, but it's kind of a let down.”

“That's about all you have too, isn't it Jesus?” asked Dionysus.

“Pretty much wine god, except for a few things I never asked for, like that weird code of morality Paul whipped up for me, and the whole perpetual virginity thing for me and my Mom,” Jesus sighed.

After the sigh Jesus again got that vacant look in his eyes once again and reveled in the moment. He was honestly sharing in a divine moment with one of his followers, every bite of the communion bread he could taste and feel in his mouth.

Dionysus smiled to himself and was quiet. D knew what it was like to spend time with a worshiper, it was a magickal moment between god and mortal. At those times the gap between mortality and immortality was at its smallest. Dionysus respected Jesus for at least taking the time to commune with his own followers, many of the older, lazier, gods didn't, and Dionysus knew that it would cost them down the road.

More minutes passed with Jesus looking content and satisfied, and then his face turned a pale green and his eyes bulged. Then he spit up on the cloud he was sitting on while gagging loudly. “What's wrong little buddy?” asked Dionysus.

“Someone put a piece of cheese on their communion wafer,” Jesus said as he shook his head. “I hate cheese!” he roared, “makes me as sick as a dog, or as sick as you and Pan on a sunday morning!”

“Sorry about that Jesus, but it was kind of funny to watch you turn green though. No harm no foul,” laughed Dionysus.

“I hardly think so!” snapped Jesus as he stood up, now looking down on Dionysus. “I don't think friends should laugh at the discomfort of other friends, who knows when who will have the upperhand up here!” and with those words Jesus stormed off.

What a hothead thought Dionysus. “Merriment and mirth to me are great honor,” he had given those words to the mortals of ancient Greece a millenia ago, and he still thought they rang true. He laughed at others, and others laughed at him and with him. If you can't laugh you shouldn't be a god, the lord of wine mused to himself. Now that he thought about it, Dionysus couldn't remember one instance of Jesus laughing in the books called “the gospels.”

Dionysus pondered what to do with all the new information he had received in the last couple of hours, and whether or not to hatch some sort of wild scheme with it. The temper and arrogance of the young Jesus had rather pissed Dionysus off and the wine god was determined to have a joke at Jesus' expense because of it.

A few days after the Jesus and cheese incident, Dionysus hatched a plan. With some help from Pan he obtained a simple peasant robe from the village of Nazareth, died his black beard brown, and prepared to visit the bishop of Alexandria Egypt as Jesus. Checking his mirror one last time, Dionysus hopped from the world of the gods into the dreams of the bishop.

“Greetings to you from the most high God all mighty, and from me his only begotten son,” began Dionysus. “I give you one message tonight noble bishop, and it is simple. I now require my communion wafers to be distributed with cheese in or upon them. The cheese represents my covenant between you, me, and the Father.” With those words Dionysus left the dreams of the surprised bishop and prepared to watch the fun unfold.

The following evening Dionysus noticed Jesus crawling on his hands and knees toward him. The wine god let out a powerful laugh, because it was funny, and then went over to pick up the helpless Galilean.

“You did this, didn't you?” sneered Jesus as he puked up on his robe. “I swear I will make you pay for this, oh you'll pay-”

“Jesus, it was just a joke, up here we have a sense of humor ya know.”

“Dionysus, I don't laugh, I ooooeewwww I don't laugh. I send people down to the fiery depths of hell. I came not to bring peace but to bring a sword, I sit in judgement and bleeee” moaned Jesus as he threw up again.

“Aren't you hostile my little green friend” said Dionysus, doing his best to make light of the situation.

“I swear that tonight when I get my followers to stop eating all of this cheese that you will pay. I will put emperor's on the throne of Rome who will proclaim my name and I will . . “ Jesus threw up again during his rant, causing Dionysus to laugh even harder.

“I will put a stop to this this blasphemy!” cried Jesus, “and when that's done I will eradicate your worship and that of the rest of the Pagans up here who have laughed at me!”

With those words Jesus stormed off and Dionysus chuckled. “Eradicate my worship” thought the wine god, there will always be drunks, no matter how many laws the foolish pass, and if there is wine there is Dionysus. No Dionysus wasn't worried about his future, but he did worry about the threat from Jesus anyways. Existence and revelry are two different things . . . .

The words of Jesus were as true as those from ancient Delphi, and Dionysus and the rest of the Pagan gods saw their followers dwindle and their temples close, but they didn't go away. Their influence certainly waned, but it never ended. As the years continue to roll by, Dionysus began to hatch a new plan, but he needed technology on Earth to catch up to it.

In 1921 Dionysus assumed earthly form for only the second time in his life, and began working in the test kitchens at the Green & Green Company (later the Sunshine Biscuit Company). After gaining the confidence of the entire company, and buying them many rounds of drinks, he unveiled his greatest creation, a small wafer with cheese baked into it. One of his co-workers looked at it the first time and said “sort of looks like a communion wafer Don.”

That statement made Dionysus smile and he said to himself “try this one on for size Nazarene” under his breath. After testing the product and winning approval for it Dionysus decided to name his little wafer the “Cheez-It” because he had named cheese “it” in his battle with Jesus.

After its introduction the Cheez-It went on to be the flagship product of the Sunshine Biscuit Company. After a few years with the band known as The Doors, Dionysus returned to the realm of the gods. He went to visit the home of his old friend Jesus and saw the young god standing on the balcony of the grand palace he had bought for himself puking up a storm. Dionysus delighted in the greenness of Jesus, and the messiah's torment brought Dionysus a great deal of happiness.

Sick as a dog from 1962 onward, Jesus saw the hippy movement gain full-steam, and he was powerless to stop it. The world continued to change as Jesus was too sick to stop the tide rolling against him and his father, and the Pagan gods began to return as well. Hercules stared in a few movies and even had a cartoon show. Thor became a comic book icon, and Aphrodite splashed her image all over the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine.

His authority over millions of people waning, Jesus began to behave and act like one god among many. With the release of the book and movie “The DaVinci Code” he and his wife Mary began to reconcile. The first thing Jesus did was apologize for acting like a jerk the past 1800 years.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Robert Plant-Rock God

I have a friend who hates Robert Plant. Anytime I post something on facebook about the brilliance of Sir Robert she tends to chime in with negativity and bullshit about how the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger are superior. I probably shouldn't let it bother me, she is a Morrisey fan after all, but it literally eats me up inside. At this point in my life I'm OK with people slagging on Led Zeppelin (some people are just fucking idiots), but to diss on Robert as a solo artist? It's just mind blowing to me, no English Rocker has aged more gracefully and explored more musical vistas than Plant.

When I'm in my 60's I don't want to just look like Robert Plant, I want his curiosity. Most guys from his generation continue to mine the tired old schlock of their youth, Plant just grows, and in a lot of ways, gets better. Anytime I get the argument that "Jagger is better" I just think of how ridiculous Jagger looks, prancing around like he's 25 with his lips puckered outward. The Rolling Stones have released some truly great records, and have some of the best singles in rock history, but the last thirty years of their career has broken no new ground. It's the same old shit over and over. Plant refuses the big payday of the same old shit and constantly moves forward. In short he's the coolest Mother Fucker in rock music, which makes him the coolest guy on the planet.

When Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980 after the death of drummer John Bonham the rock world assumed that Robert Plant would have a very successful solo run aping the sound of Led Zeppelin. Robert's run has certainly been successful, but the man has gone out of his way to make sure his solo output sounds nothing like Zeppelin, hell for his first ten years as a solo artist he refused to even play Zeppelin tunes. The guy certainly didn't try to cash in, that's for sure. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why the occasional dislike of Robert bothers me so much, the guy isn't the cash-grab rocker that we are accustomed to.

For several years in the 90's I was kind of resentful of Plant because he refused the giant cash grab. I wanted a Zeppelin reunion* in the worst way possible, and Plant was the only obstacle amongst the remaining the three members and the son of John Bonham (Jason). What I didn't realize at the time was that Plant was exactly right in refusing the full-on reunion. We should want our artists to progress, to grow, to try new things. It's certainly comforting to just here the same old hits over and over, but real artists don't do that, karaoke machines do.

Plant's post Zeppelin journey has four distinct chapters:
*"Tone Poems" his first three solo albums and in some ways "The Honeydrippers" project.
*"Less Self-Indulgence" the middle three records that balanced rock music with his more experimental side.
*The Arabic/Indian experiment and reunion with Jimmy Page
*Fully realized greatness

My least favorite Plant era is the earliest one, featuring the albums Pictures at Eleven (1982), The Principle of Moments (1983), Shaken and Stirred (1985), and to a lesser extent to the Jeff Beck/Jimmy Page one off project The Honeydrippers Volume One (1984). In some ways this was Plant's most successful period, three consecutive platinum records and one gold album towards the end. Musically it was a complete liberation from Led Zeppelin, and the music on those records almost turned Plant into a New Wave artist. Instead of producing the balls to the wall rock most familiar to Zeppelin audiences, Plant's first solo albums were full of synthesizers and keyboards. The records kind of feel neutered in a way. One rock critic once described the contents of them as "tone poems," a term that's wormed its way into my lexicon.

There were some highlights during this period, and when the "tone poems" worked they became near classics. Big Log and I'm in the Mood (for a Melody) from Principle were pretty successful on the charts, but Plant's best record from this period has to be the Honeydrippers project. The other albums from this era of Plant just don't sound "fun," the Honeydrippers were a rollicking good time, and the vocal performance is just out of this world. To this day Sea of Love just sounds so sexy and Plant so unbelievably awesome that it nearly drives me to masturbate. Plant indulging in his love American R&B is an indulgence I wish I could hear more of twenty odd years later.

This first era of Plant crashed and burned with the release of Shaken and Stirred. S&S followed the hit filled Pictures and the fun of The Honeydrippers and lacked the sense of melody that made those albums so successful. It's almost like Plant completely forgot what a catchy chorus was on this record, and as a result this was the only Robert Plant project to ever end up in the bargain bins at the record store (for those of you who remember what those are). It's not horrible by any means, but an artist can get just a little bit too self indulgent, and that happened on this record. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, the guy released four albums in four years, I was bound to not like one of them.

Surprisingly Plant rebounded just three years later with the three times platinum Now and Zen (1988). Zen still contained a lot of the stuff that doomed S&S but it also contained some true rock gems, and some of Plant's strongest solo material. I used to think that it was kind of a sell out album because of tracks like Tall Cool One**, a tune that deliberately aped Zeppelin, but other than that one track, it's Plant being Plant, but this time with melodies and a smile. It's almost like he made an agreement with his audience "I'll give you a couple of rock songs and some sparkling acoustic stuff, in exchange you'll let me do whatever the hell I want on four or five tracks." Whatever happened, it worked and Zen remains his most successful solo record.

Plant's next solo album repeated the formula found on Zen to even better results. The rock songs really rocked, and contained some of that Honeydripper vibe, but mixed with some modern rock guitar. Manic Nirvana (1990) found Plant confident and in the mood to rock without sounding like a cliche. Hurting Kind remains one of Plant's most danceable tunes, and finds the King of the Hair Ringlets in fine form. It would have been so easy for Plant to go the route of other 70's survivors like KISS and David Coverdale (of Whitesnake) and ape the hair band route to riches and glory, but Plant refused to go down that road. Sure go ahead and hate the guy because he was never mopey, but don't accuse him of selling out. Stuff like Tie Dye on the Highway spoke more to Plant's eternal hippiness than LA rock excess.

While I like Plant's first five and a half solo albums, they do little to prepare the listener for the mind blowing greatness that is Fate of Nations (1993). From the opening Kashmir-like grandeur of Calling to You, to the acoustic beauty of 29 Palms and the Tim Hardin cover of If I Were a Carpenter this is the best album of Plant's post-Zep career (and better than several Zep albums). The first inklings of Plant's growing infatuation with world music begin to creep into the songs, and there's this aura of spirituality over the whole endeavor. The mysticism is obvious on tunes like Great Spirit but pops up on other tracks like Promised Land. It was with the release of this album that Plant also began playing reworked versions of old Zep material in concert, notice how I said "reworked." The guy doesn't accept the same old, same old. You got the feeling that Plant was truly comfortable in his own skin on this record, and when he sings "I'm going home" on 29 Palms it sounds like something straight out of his soul.

(I had to stop writing for a second so I could sing along to 29 Palms. This song just takes ahold of me in the way few tunes do. The foot is tapping and the hands are playing the old air guitar. If you want brilliance in a five minute pop song, this is it. I'm not ashamed to say I've cried a few times while caught up in the beauty of it***.)

After Nations Plant teamed up with ex-Zeppelin mate Jimmy Page for two albums (one live and one studio) and a couple of tours. The results from this collaboration are mixed. The "Unplugged" event No Quarter (1994) is a near masterpiece, featuring reworked Zeppelin material infused with Arabic and Indian sounds. Plant insisted on using actual Arabic musicians, my bellydancer wife can tell you who all the Egyptian drummers on the album are. This is another one of those instances where the refusal to respect Plant as an artist and innovator just pisses me off to no end. No Quarter Kashmir with the real strings and Egyptian drums is daring and brave rock and roll (isn't that what we want in our "artists?"), and as I type this I'm shaking sand out of my sandals that could have only got their from the greatness No Quarter era Kashmir.

Even the stuff that shouldn't have worked, like the Arabic version of Gallow's Pole, just kills, and in that specific instance, improves upon the original substantially. Throw away Zep tracks like That's the Way are rebuilt as essential listening. The soundscape experiments like Yallah and Wonderful One don't quite measure up, but at least they are interesting.

Not as good was the studio album that resulted from the Plant/Page reunion. Walking Into Clarksdale (1998) attempted to wed Plant's love of Eastern sounds with feedback and meaty Page rock guitar. It has moments, Most High and Shining in the Light come instantly to mind, but it lacked the experimentation and daring of No Quarter. Have you ever heard of a rock band going and recording Egyptian inspired versions of their most loved songs? No, you haven't.

When Plant got back to recording as a solo artist when the Page collaboration puttered out he returned with an album of mainly covers. Dreamland (2002) isn't entirely directionless, but lacks the urgency of Nations, and even Clarksdale. There are a few electric moments though, Darkness, Darkness is rather chilling and features a strong vocal performance. The Tim Buckley penned Song to the Siren is gorgeous, but as a whole it's a mostly forgettable record. Perhaps the "highs" of the records preceding this one set to high a standard in my mind.

The followup to Dreamland, Mighty Rearranger (2005), mines the fertile grounds of Fate, and even adds some new elements, there's practically a techno bonus track at the end, and there's some "funky" stuff in there as well. The world beats are still there, but there's also angry rock and roll (the F-you to George Bush that is Freedom Fries), and from a Pagan perspective there's not a better song in the Plant solo catalog than Dancing in Heaven ("sing a song of the ages, giving voice on this beautiful night, feed the flames in high places, from the Earth to the giver of light"). Rearranger is an amazing mix of acoustic tunes, rock, and the wanderlust that has made Plant's solo career so damned interesting.

Plant's probably most well known these days for his more recent foray (and Grammy winning) trip into Americana that was the Raising Sand (2007) collaboration with Allison Krause. Raising Sand is just another chapter in Plant being Plant and doing whatever the hell he wants, and doing it better than anyone else. There's the sound of the Honeydrippers era on tracks like Gone Gone Gone and near gospel/Johnny Cash stuff like Your Long Journey. No rock star has aged with more grace and dignity than Robert Plant. Instead of going for one last Whole Lotta Love inspired shriek, the guy finds a fiddle and T-Bone Burnett and makes the best Americana album of the last ten years. The harmonies with Krause are just amazing, and when you listen to this album you realize you are listening to something timeless. This could have been on the radio in 1948 or 2008.

One of the most remarkable things about Plant is his continued tinkering with the Zeppelin catalog. This morning I was watching to a Plant concert on the Palladium cable network and was shocked at how much I preferred his 2006 version of No Quarter to 1973's original, or even 94's No Quarter album remake. It's more of Plant going forward. This past January I saw him on tour for his latest album, Band of Joy (2010), and my favorite moment of the night was an Americana soaked version of Ramble On. (The live version below, is not quite the same reworking of the track, hell, in some ways it's better.) It was still the same song from 1969, but reborn in an Appalachian flood, and it sounded just as vital in the now as it did nearly forty years ago.

As the years roll by in my own life, I've begun to look more and more to Plant as a role model. Like Plant, I want to continue to grow and progress. While my own journey might be more "spiritual" than "musical" there are similarities. Both paths can easily lead to "foot in the mud syndrome," that refusal to move forward and to simply coast on past laurels. I want to be like Plant, I want to always push the envelope and not waste my life stuck in late adolescence like Mick Jagger. Let Plant be my guide, the only true rock god to constantly reinvent himself and his music in the process.

*There have only been three official reunions, and all of them involved no pay out to the band. The three in order were: Live Aid, Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Show, and the O2 Event in honor of former Atlantic Chairman Ahmet Ertegum. That's it. As you read this The Who are gearing up for another tour next year, now featuring two original members!

**And also the only real embarrassment in the Plant closet, it was featured in a Coke commercial. No one's perfect.

***I cry a lot while listening to rock music, it just means so much to me. I'm a "true believer" in a lot of ways, this stuff is a part of my soul. I'm lucky to have married a woman who shares that passion with me. Ari and I have also decided if that there's ever a chance that Robert Plant might want to knock her up we want to take it. I'd much rather raise Plant's baby than my own.)

Friday, August 5, 2011

I Must Truly Hate Myself-Down the Path of Being Actively Involved in my Local Community Again.

A couple of months ago a friend of mine from Pantheacon contacted me about starting up a Pagan discussion group here in the South Bay.* I was truly flattered to be asked to help with something, and I got excited about it and agreed to help out; even though to do so meant breaking a rule I had given myself when I moved out here.

You see, before Ari and I moved out here I placed a two year moratorium on myself when it comes to Pagan Community activity and organizing. I know that probably sounds stupid to a lot of you out there, but as an outsider in a new community, I thought just observing for a few years would be the prudent path. I am extremely fearful of stepping on toes, and have been trying for the last eight or nine years of my life to avoid conflict in the Pagan Community**.

I can be a lightning rod for conflict in Pagandom. That's mostly due to an ability to walk in and dominate a conversation or group. I don't say those things lightly either, I have ended up "leading" or "taking a very active role" in lots of little projects over the years, mostly by accident. This has led to some resentment by many in the Pagan Community, so I though I should establish myself as an over all nice guy before alienating a bunch of people in my new home. Apparently my self-moratorium has ended twenty-one months earlier than anticipated.

My role in the little discussion group I was asked to help out with has grown quite quickly. I found myself making flyers for it, announcing its existence at a local event, and doing all the online promotion for it as well. That's all fine and good, I'm certainly not bad at those things, and I have plenty of time, especially with the crippling writer's block that has made writing anything of substance much like wringing water from rocks. So I'm happy to do those things, but I'm trying to do them while walking on egg-shells, I really fear offending people by getting overly involved in things too quickly.

The South Bay Pagan Salon I helped put together hasn't been a roaring success right out of the box, but it hasn't been a complete failure either, especially for August (a hard month to start new groups). We had eight people at our first meeting, and I expected maybe four, with two of those being another one of the other organizers (Amy-who is pretty awesome) and my wife (who is also awesome). So I was thrilled with eight, and apparently that's good enough to get asked to help with scheduling more meet-ups and whatever in the area.

I'm excited about the prospect of helping to organize some of the more open events in the area, but wary too. I have lots of ideas, but there are several groups out here that have been in existence for decades, finding a good balance between my exuberance and their traditions could be a challenge. I see so much potential out here, I hope I can help manifest it.

*Dear readers not from Northern California, the greater Bay Area is divided up into lots of little subdivisions. Depending on one's interpretation I either live in the South Bay, or perhaps just "The Peninsula." What is mostly apparent is that I don't live in the overly active hot-beds of Pagan activity that are Berkley and San Francisco proper.

**Seriously, I scaled back on lots of stuff in Michigan by plan.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Where is the Pagan Voice in the National News Media?

Over the last few weeks a clip of Evangelical Pastor John Hagee has been making the rounds on the internet and the Pagan blogosphere. I'm not really going to talk much about Hagee; he's a loud mouthed blowhard, a hypocrite, homophobic, and borderline insane.
I try to avoid spending time writing about idiots, and Hagee clearly is one. He also doesn't represent the majority of Christians, or even a sizable minority. He did say something interesting during his rant/sermon above, and it's worth commenting on, just because it's so absolutely wrong. Hagee said: "America right now has its fist in the face of God and in the name of pluralism we are honoring Paganism coast to coast in this nation."

I don't give a shit about the "fist in the face of God" comment. I get that with monotheists, it's not all that incendiary. The part of the statement that shocks me is the idea that America is somehow "honoring Paganism coast to coast." Today is Lughnassa/Lammas*; one of the four most important holidays on the Pagan calendar, and outside of Pagandom I don't see anyone mentioning it. Lammas is a big deal, many of us actually refer to it as one of the greater sabbats, but that doesn't seem to matter to anyone outside of our little world.

If Hagee is right, and America is truly "honoring Paganism coast to coast" you think we'd show up for more than just the random "quirky Pagan" story and the obligatory Samhain write up. Not even the liberal media seems to care that much about us, it's like we live on this little island, and people only visit us once or twice a year. I'm a pretty avid Huffingtonpost reader, but not even that bastion of liberal internet journalism feels as if we are worthy to be written about. And you know what? It totally pisses me off.

The HuffPost Religion page has a banner at the top breaking religion down into five and a half groups: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Spirit. Before you get excited "Spirit" is not about Paganism, it's about "Healthy Living." Your best bet for news that might be considered Pagan is at HuffPost's/AOL outlet "Weird News." Nice. (Can I write fuck you here? My blood is boiling.)

Why is my blood boiling over this? Mostly because there's no great disparity in numbers between Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims in the United States. All four of those GREAT religions average** between one and two million adherents. Why don't we have our own subsection on HuffPost? Despite what Hagee might think, writing about Paganism is still not "PC," even in liberal circles. We are the bastard step child of American religion. Want to prove you are tolerant? Write about Islam. Want to write a snarky article? Druids are the go to.

I decided to count the articles up on the front page of HuffPost's Religion Section today, and the breakdown was as follows:

Judeo-Christian***: 19 (These were almost all written about from a Christian perspective, and two focused specifically on Catholicism. That doesn't bother me, Christianity is the largest religion in the United States, it should have more articles dedicated to it.)

Isalm: 6 As today is the first day of Ramadan I'm not surprised by this number, but it's still awfully high. One one hand, news outlets do a great service when reporting about Islam in an accurate manner. The idea that Muslim terrorists are representative of the religion really needs to be dispelled, but Pagans are equal to or exceed the American Muslim population. Six to zero is a big problem.

Judaism: 3 Considering the immense contributions made to American Society by the Jewish Community, I'm not surprised by this number. I was surprised that there were six opinion pieces written specifically for a Jewish audience on HuffPost's Religion front page. Christianity only had eight, and Islam two. That was extremely disproportionate, and is probably a reflection of HuffPost's New York City bias.

Buddhism: 3 Buddhism is that one non-Western, rather alien religion that doesn't seem to scare people or invite sarcasm. If you are a religion writer or rounding up links for a website Buddhism is always a "safe" choice to prove you believe in religious diversity.

Hinduism: 1 Just for window dressing I presume.

The only article on HuffPost's Religion front page that I thought might have a link to Paganism was about animal sacrifice (I was really grasping at straws, but Santeria is a part of the tribe, mostly), and that was written by a rabbi. So no dice as they say in Vegas.

It seems like an over reaction to accuse the national news media of "religious bigotry" when it comes to Paganism, but it's not all that off the mark. Even in liberal circles it's not seen as "mainstream" or worthy of much comment. If there were only 100,000 Pagans out there I'd be OK with this, but as we continue to grow, and in large numbers I might add, it's getting ridiculous. I'm not ready to begin leading some large protest movement, but it's getting to the point where we really have to begin questioning the media about why we are being ignored and/or marginalized.

Is it the fear of proving Pastor Hagee right? Is it because of some monotheistic news bias? I don't know, but I would like some answers, or at least our own section on HuffPost. If one of our four holiest days of the year isn't worthy of a brief article, what is?

*Or tomorrow, whatever works for you.

**It's hard to get accurate numbers for "minority" or "fringe" religions, and this particular survey lumps Pagans in with a few other faiths. However, I'm willing to bet there are at least one million Pagans in the United States, possibly even double that number.

***One of my friends who teaches religion at Iowa State University hates the Judeo-Christian tag, I can't say I blame him, it's a pretty flawed term. In this case I use it to refer to the God found in the Old and New Testaments. When one refers to "God" in our society that's the figure they generally have in mind.