Black Bread & Blood Oranges
John Terlazzo interviewed by Bill Myers.
Myers: Your newest CD, Hand of Mercy, has been out for some time now. Are you taking a break from composing, playing & producing music?
Terlazzo: Well, writing happens daily in one form or another. I’m incredibly grateful that by some mistake or blessing I’ve been enabled to stumble along to the point where I’m pretty much free to make Art. And (engineer and old friend) Doug Smith & I are mixing a CD called Live In The Empire of Fools which is a collection of live concert recordings. We’ve begun some work on a studio CD to follow that up, in time.
Myers: At the concert I saw last week, you played some new songs. Will they be on the live CD?
Terlazzo: Some of them will, others will be on the next studio CD. I have a backlog of new work & it keeps growing so it’s more a matter of deciding what to save for later. If The Name Could Be Spoken will be on the live CD, as will Condensed Heart Instruction. Others, like The Perfect Chord, The Way The Moon Rolls, and The Price will be more apt to appear on a studio album – although we seem to be moving more in the direction of a “live” sound even in a studio setting, as in fewer, or no over-dubs. Recently, I co-wrote two new songs – Heart & Skull and The Thorn - with one of my oldest & closest friends, Greg Engle. When we were in high school, Greg & I read Hermann Hesse & Nikos Kazantzakis together, & Greg taught me to play guitar. He & I traveled through Europe when we were 16 & 17. Recently, we recorded both of those songs for inclusion on another CD. I’m writing new songs, but there’s also many older pieces that I still feel very close to that haven’t been recorded, or that we’ve rarely even performed for an audience.
Myers: I’ve watched you do what you do for a long time. Do you have any desire to play to larger, more widespread audiences?
Terlazzo: Sure, particularly festivals. With raising & home-schooling children, it made good parenting sense to stay close to home – to play locally, not to venture too far away. But now my kids are older – my daughter’s in college – and I’m ready to branch out. Recently, someone I know & trust has offered to spearhead that campaign, to book us more into festivals & some colleges & I’m very grateful for her interest. I’m always interested in reaching larger audiences, but my sense of ambition is – what can we say, fairly Taoist – which is to say pretty much nonexistent. A human being carries only so much energy around in this mortal coil & if I have to choose between spending that energy making Art or spending it making somebody else think they should like me, there’s no question what I’ll do. I’m not going to spend every day knocking on some corporate door at MTV or someplace. I’d much rather sit in my hut singing. So I’m extremely grateful that someone else has offered to take up that gauntlet, someone who’s trustworthy & gifted in this way and who knows what this work is about.
Myers: So you don’t write for other people?
Terlazzo: It’s wonderful to see how deeply people are sometimes moved by these songs, but it’s not the sole or primary reason for writing or singing.
Myers: So what is this work about?
Terlazzo: You know, The Upanishads say that a fool chases after material desires and as a result, falls prey to fear & death. But if you realize the Self (that’s with a capital “S”) is within you, & you within it, then there is no end. It takes some wisdom to let go of those things that fade, that pass away, and identify only with that Self, with the Indefinable. You know, Thoreau said, “Read not the times, read the Eternities.”
Now, am I suggesting that I have that wisdom, that I’ve figured it all out? No, of course not, but I do know that there is something to figure out. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say “something to experience” in this life. We weren’t put here just to acquire possessions.
So, I write songs & poetry - sometimes I paint - because I want to understand what I’m doing walking around in this skin. And when I say I want to understand it, I don’t mean that old cliché of “Oh, he’ll search until he finds this religion or that creed” – you know, “So-and-so is my savior & now I’m safe.” All of that’s just illusion, Maya! Ideas like God, Truth, Love, The Essence, are just so small compared to what’s really right there before you, in you, in this moment. The most profound concept of God is still not God. So, I’m not interested in what some religion says it’s about. I just want to live it, taste it. That’s why I write & sing. It’s a fairly joyful mystery to put word & sound together, and I’m just grateful to melt into that mystery. When religion or science or somebody tells me they “know” how to define IT, I just have to leave the room… So, all of that is to say that I do this to become more human.
Myers: More human?
Terlazzo: Yea, with much of modern life we’ve disconnected ourselves from the human soul - we’ve become dull, unconscious, mechanized. The average person sees thousands of advertisements daily, every one of which is engineered to make that person feel wanting, incomplete without this car or that fast food product. I don’t know who these guys are who own the media, but I think it’s no mistake that every show on the so-called “rebellious” MTV network is jam-packed with outrageously expensive cars & houses that most of these kids will never be able to afford, at least not without tying up their freedom forever. There’s nothing rebellious, or even autonomous about it – the viewers are just sacrificing their lives to some corporate monster that eats them whole. There are plenty of things there on those shows for people to drool over, but not a single conscious thought expressed. You know, television is the opiate of the people (laughs).
Myers: You don’t have a television…
Terlazzo: No, I got fairly disinterested when I was a teenager. Years later, with raising kids, it seemed obvious that a television had no place in their lives. For part of that time- about 7 years - we lived in the woods with no electricity, but even before & after that we never had a TV. We always read aloud & talked to one another, sat in front of the fireplace. Only recently, now that my kids are young adults, did we get a monitor & VCR that enables us to watch some movies – it’s just for movies, doesn’t get any channels, cable or otherwise. The networks are pretty useless to my mind, and it’s gratifying to have kept my children free of corporate bovine manure during their developing years – the years when it does the most damage to the Imagination, when it desensitizes one’s experience.
Myers: You’re not big on corporations, are you?
Terlazzo: (Laughs) Well, I’m just not big on giving up this precious life experience to the controls of some machine. Corporations are made up of people – good people. But when they make up this artificial group, they quickly, automatically, often without question, make very dangerous, inaccurate assumptions – assumptions like “profit is the most important aspect of life”, or that competition is somehow natural. It’s really not. Often to justify assumptions about competition, they’ll cite “the law of the jungle” – how the panther eats the wildebeest to survive and so on. Of course, if someone literally came into their home & ate their children they would not be so philosophical about it. And yet, the way global capitalism is ravaging the Third World, it amounts to much worse. Or in a very real way, our living in denial about all of this arises in the form of children killing one another in schools, & then we act surprised. They simply act out, unconsciously, what they see on the larger scale. It’s their version of bombing Iraq for oil. I’ve really got nothing against capitalism, and I’m not suggesting that Marxism is any better. I would just like to see leaders in either case place morality and ethics above profit or power.
Myers: Tell us about your song, Prisoners of War.
Terlazzo: It’s a hard song to sing. It’s hard to tell people what they don’t want to hear. The United States makes its highest profits now in the sale & manufacture of weaponry. That means as a nation we make more money killing people – mostly poor people – than we make doing anything else. How can that be justified? Companies will often sell guns & bombs to anybody, including both sides in practically any given war. Our enormous, wasteful economy is dependent on there always being a madman somewhere. How can any moral, feeling, human being justify that? When there’s seven arms industry lobbyists to every one Congressperson on Capitol Hill – where’s the incentive to find non-violent solutions? So we’re all prisoners of war – from the slaughtered children to the media propagandists to the enlisted men in any army. From the world’s starving masses right on up to the arms profiteers – even they are prisoners because they can’t (even for a moment) admit that what they are doing is not righteous.
Myers: The song contains some disturbing images…”Merchants planting guns & poison in the cribs of their own blind offspring…”
Terlazzo: Well, as we were just saying, the sole governing factor in this country now seems to be unbridled greed. Government now is administrated by short-sighted businessmen rather than visionary leaders. The only ethic left seems to be “If you can sell it, sell it” and nobody even asks if “it” is healthy or life-affirming.
Myers: How about “Don’t call me to your battlefield, I’m not turnin’ my stones into bread”.
Terlazzo: It’s that old story of Jesus fasting in the desert & a devil appears. Now, we’re not talking about a literal devil. In all these ancient mythologies, a devil is a metaphor for our unwillingness to take responsibility for our thoughtless, violent, unconscious actions. It’s that part of us that feels so comfortable in denial. Push it down long enough & it will eventually pop up in ugly, unexpected ways – which is why these devils always appear so ugly in these stories.
Myers: And Jesus?
Terlazzo: It’s pretty obvious that Jesus was illuminated. Jesus was great - it’s Christianity that I have doubts about. At any rate, in the story, this demon is trying to trick Jesus into performing a miracle for his own benefit.
He wants to trick him into turning stones into bread – he’s trying to trick the hero into sinking into just one more form of materialism. Well Jesus didn’t fall for it, & I’m not falling for it either. President Bush is trying to tempt people into turning their anger & pain into endless war, into believing that war is somehow righteous & glorious. This is not a new lie.
Myers: In the same song you also sing: “Body of a saint, raped by those who swear they love her the most…” Who is the saint?
Terlazzo: She is Democracy. Again, those who run the nation say they are sending young ones off to commit slaughter & die in the name of freedom & Democracy & I believe that many sincere people are being taken across by these leaders. It is not at all cynical to say that the primary freedom all this blood is shed for - is the freedom of a wealthy few to obscenely increase their profits. But in the moment that any human being is made to kill another – in that moment no one is free.
Myers: And: “Preacher’s on the roof, strychnine flowing from his opened mouth…”
Terlazzo: Well, unfortunately, we’ve all known that kind of energy.
Myers: “Cut down another, in time you too will be cut down – it’s an Eternal Law, yet you powder your face with the paint of Denial…”
Terlazzo: Gautama, Jesus, Einstein all put this same idea across – karma, “As you sow, so shall you reap”. Make war & it’s only going to cause more war. It’s not that hard to figure out. Einstein said, “It’s impossible to simultaneously prevent & prepare for war”. He’s not being philosophical here – he’s talking physics. Everyone agrees that these men were among the greatest hearts & minds to walk in the dust of this earth, but nobody listens to a single word they said.
Myers: “I don’t see enemies, I see men in pain killing their own kind…”
Terlazzo: Yea, the labels, nationalism, imaginary boundaries that we all cling to are an illusion. None of it’s real.
Myers: For a surrealist poet, these images all seem fairly concise & straightforward.
Terlazzo: Well, as I said, it’s not a comfortable song to sing. I really don’t enjoy having to do this kind of thing. It would have been wonderful to have raised my children in a culture that values wisdom, enlightenment. But it didn’t turn out that way. And so you have to speak – you have to say something… It’s odd, I remember many years ago, reading a statement…& it was either Thomas Jefferson or Samuel Adams, said, “I’m a revolutionary so that my son can be a farmer, so that his son can be a poet.” He didn’t say anything about people becoming global weapons merchants or media magnates – how did we end up here?
Myers: Tell me about another song, the one called Your Hands…
Terlazzo : (Laughs) You know, as surreal as the song is, it’s probably one of the most literal songs I’ve written. I was heading down to Mexico - spent about four months driving through Mexico - & on the way, found myself in New Orleans. The sense of history in that place - of piracy in that place – is so thick. I was wandering through the French Quarter, mad with Love, you know, drunk on Love. I mean this idea of being in love – everybody tries to talk about it, but you can’t talk about it. I mean this is madness – what do you do with it? I wandered into an old church – probably Greek Orthodox, I think. Like the Middle Ages, stone and wood. The air was ripe with frankincense, it was very dark in there. I lit a candle and sat in the silence for a long time, just thinking about her hands – just breathing and thinking about her hands. I was the only one there. After awhile – about a hundred and fifty years – I rose and quietly moved to the back of the church, and pressed open the huge wooden door – into the brilliant sunlight of the afternoon. And the whole square was filled with this huge wailing throng – you know, the Mardi Gras had begun! There were people everywhere in ethereal masks and costumes and various states of undress. People playing drums and saxophones. There was a guy with a table set with crystal glasses containing various levels of water, and on the rims of those glasses he would play music with his fingertips, not just interesting sounds but entire symphonies. There were people painting pictures and people dancing and, of course, guitars. Off to one side there were a group of Quakers invested in the really very noble labor of trying to interest the world in disarming itself. People tap-dancing – everything. As the door closed behind me, to my left, moving in a wild procession, was a group of maybe fifty or sixty Krishna devotees all dancing & chanting & playing bells & cymbals & those big drums, what are they called – mrindigam? I don’t remember. They were handing out prasad – free food, chapattis, pakoras. You know, they had topknots and saffron robes, their brows painted with the forehead streak. And on the other side, on my right, was another group, perhaps a little smaller, all dressed in white shirts and gray pants, all following a man carrying a large wooden cross. They were shouting at the crowd and shaking Bibles at them in the air. And these two groups, on my right and my left, were all moving towards one another, and right where they were coming together, nose to nose, was a trio of young women. They had removed their shirts and they were dancing a can-can and singing some pop song, something like “Good girls don’t, but I do.” You know, the world is such a strange and interesting place…
Myers: And so the song became a report…
Terlazzo: Yea, I pretty much reported what came to me.
Myers: Can you recite it here?
Terlazzo: Hmm, like this…
The frankincense curled in that darkened world and I drifted through,
Dropped some coins in the box & lit a candle for you.
I conjured up a vision of you at your loom –
Spinning & weaving, your fingers flashing gold in the room.
And I remember your hands.
I have friends in the Resistance with their noble proletariat nails,
Out there where that trinity of angels were publicly unveiled.
Here on this table’s some black bread and Asian blood oranges –
Yea, all this feeds me in some way, but not like your kiss.
I remember your hands.
Are you still at your loom, locked in some distant tower?
Strange how this light in my brow grows stronger, the darker the hour.
A deva in a painted white face offers the goatskin flask.
You’d think by now this taste would have faded into the past,
But I remember your hands.
There are those who long for passion borrowed from some Christ.
There are those who dance to the tune of their own sacrifice.
As for me, I’ll offer this wine & I’ll make no claims.
Take this body, my love, if it serves you in some way.
I remember your hands…
Myers: Did you write the song that night?
Terlazzo: No, years passed. That’s just the way it is sometimes.
Myers: There’s often religious imagery in your songs – but you’re not a Christian…
Terlazzo: Earlier we were talking about labels, I think, and…you know, I’m not a Christian because I’m not anything. This “I” that we’re talking about doesn’t exist. This is one of those places where words fail. Whatever “I” am, it certainly isn’t this as opposed to that. I’m not going to call myself one thing, which automatically alienates me from something else. As I said before, I’m not interested in following any one religion. I’m interested in what’s beyond those confines. So, on a certain level, I’m not anything and on another level, I’m standing with everyone – I’m a Christian and a Hindu and a Sufi and so on. At the same time, I don’t believe this idea that Jesus came to “save” people, and that once they’re saved, they can do anything they want – including slaughter whole populations – and it’s okay. That’s a man-made doctrine if I ever heard one. But I think he (Jesus) was enlightened, and was saying you don’t have to do anything to be saved or forgiven – you’re already forgiven. “The Kingdom is within you.” Of course, people who like to control others can’t have the populace believing in an idea like that, so they keep them focused on fear and damnation and towing the line – the exact opposite of what Jesus and Buddha were talking about. Actually, I don’t think Jesus even wanted followers. Christianity is built on somebody’s ego – but it’s certainly not his. He was talking about Love, not ego, not power. You could distill the entire story down to one word – Love. No qualifications or exceptions – just Love… Somebody said, “Seek not to follow men of old – seek what they sought.” It’s probably fitting that I can’t remember who said that.
Myers: Would you like to finish with a poem?
Terlazzo: We can do that…this is called
Upon Finding the Heart of Things Crushed
He was unwilling to speak to the soul of the dark sea
And so that sea rose up and swallowed his home.
He was unwilling to emerge from the mouth of the cave
And so the cave crumbled and buried him.
He was unwilling to sing
And so the song built a cage around his feathered hands.
He was unwilling to look into the face of Justice
And so Justice left him only teeth and bones.
In the morning
He found the heart of things crushed beneath his old, ragged cloak.
Beyond the walls of his home women sang in the early light.
These Daughters of Rust waited in the rain,
Their soft voices rising in a lovely, calming lament –
A lament of copper and shadows.
They made no attempt to cover their long curls,
And the water seeped through the thick locks and the wool,
And made blue veins rise in their pale, patient shoulders.
Though their hands are bound there is no cause for weeping.
Though the bureaucrats have outlawed all forms of Beauty,
We, of course, will be no less Beautiful.
Bill Myers conducted this interview in the Winter of 2004. Bill is a psychologist based in York, PA and a long-time supporter and friend of John Terlazzo & Voices In The Hall.
Songs & poems quoted in this interview copyright 2004 by John Terlazzo.