LC: Talk to me about Ancient Chains. How did they come to bind us so?
JT: All the old habitual miseries, obsessions and passions. “This is mine – don’t you take it!” A certain percentage of the populace keep voluntarily applying the shackles to their own wrists and ankles because of entropy and a voluntary kind of blindness – it’s believed to be easier than actually living.
LC: Why do you think people hide their souls?
JT: They’ve not been taught otherwise. They’ve been led to worship at the altar of Materialism and ego. Those are the gods people line up and bow down to, by rote, without giving it another thought. It is believed to be “normal”. Even in what we call “religious” families, or the organized churches, it’s just more Materialism. No one has taught them to go deep inside to the Heart at the center of every molecule and ask, “Who is this “I” we keep talking about?”
LC: How do we begin to break these ancient chains?
JT: Again, there’s no substitute for going within into stillness and silence. I think every human being needs to ask, inwardly, “Will my life be ruled by Love, or will my life be ruled by fear?”
LC: I understand that this is a much anticipated album. I believe you have used the words "long awaited" in reference to this project.
JT: Well, much anticipated for us certainly; for me!... We first conceived of this collection of songs sometime during the Pleistocene era. We laid down the initial tracks around the time that the vast Library of Alexandria was burned to the ground by zealots and political opportunists – this was already several centuries after we’d released our last collection, Barbarian Hymns. But, you know, it’s not in my nature to crowd people, to be pushy.
LC: What contributed to the length of time it took to complete this album? What challenges did you experience?
JT: There was the Plague at Antioch, and some fools who thought they understood this or that, insisting on building some wall in China. Also, I got wrapped up in fairly lengthy conversations with Botticelli, and Matisse, and Frida Kahlo, and sometimes I would just get lost in watching them paint. Then, I was buried in a deep, dark hole for more than a few decades, also inconvenienced by the British Raj – the usual Mysteries of Life and Death.
LC: You’re not going to give me a straight answer, are you?
JT: HA! Thank you for redirecting me. I am told that sometimes I need some serious reigning in… It’s taken so long because, really, we just wanted it to be right… I’m a miserable businessman. I don’t understand anything about “product”, but I’ve always been very clear about prostrating myself before Art and touching Her feet in the early, still, dark morning. You can’t rush that. You just have to beg for Grace… And with Kristina and Paul, and the other musicians recording with us, and with the sound engineer, the one we call our Techno-Fakir, Doug Smith – there’s a lot of deep intention and Heart arising among these ranks, infusing every note and syllable. That all takes careful attention and time…and it becomes further complicated because we take breaks from our mendicant-like austerities in the studio to consume phenomenal raspberry-cashew cheesecake from the neighborhood vegan restaurant…
LC: And what were the indications that the album was complete?
JT: I don’t know how to answer that. When I write or when I paint at an easel… Sometimes you begin with specific ideas, and sometimes you begin with emptiness, and you labor to get out of your own way, to allow the images to arise… At some point, you’re given the internal signal to cease. I don’t understand it. I just know enough to heed the call. In the case of birthing an album, - and this is maybe the ninth one I’ve done now – it’s a deliriously enjoyable experience of, sort of, communally painting a giant mural; Doug at the board, Kris and Paul in exquisite harmonies and guitar & flute leads throughout, as well as my brother Rick on organ, Roy (an excellent drummer), Beebe on French horn, and Karen Heeter playing multiple cellos - all these musicians, and the engineer, all working together. I told them what I wanted to see happen around my guitar and voice and the words, and they gave me at least that – and so much more. So much arose along the way that we never could have anticipated. And at some point, there’s a sigh, some tenderness, and a silence, and you heed the call…
LC: I've heard you tell stories of capturing your dreams in writing upon waking. Are any of the songs on this album inspired by your dreams? Describe the process of turning dreams into songs.
JT: Well, again, we’re here visiting a terrain that can’t be mapped out or claimed for some king. If one aims to plant some sort of explorer’s flag in this environment, the flag becomes a snake and the explorer turns to dust instantly… All I know is, that sometimes you awaken from a dream with images nailed to your cross and a phrase or two like acid on the lips. You don’t walk away from that – you’d better write it down! On this album that certainly happened with The White Peacock Cries – I had very clear Greek images showing up in my sleep. The old olive groves, sentient creatures, holy libertines, and this Amazon woman swaying, rising from the dark sea in the night, while around her, “the moon pours down like milk as the white peacock cries…” I awoke from that dream and, on my tongue, found the assertion, “I want a deathless form of poetry / Unwound and unveiled of its sorrowful shroud…” When this sort of thing happens, I don’t waste time on questions – I do what’s asked of me.
LC: Tell me more about the Mask. I was surprised by the capitalization in the lyrics. The listener is convinced that the Mask is necessary, until that is revealed to be untrue in the last line of the song... why the misunderstanding?
JT: It’s odd, you know – maybe not so much – but we almost always get very strong, tender reactions from people in the audience when we sing that song – weeping and the like. People often talk to me about it after shows, citing lyrics. They know what it is to want to wear the Mask. The singer is asking to be obscured, veiled, and hidden away from the atrocities of what we might very generously term “civilization”. The Mask is capitalized because there is, nonetheless, a genuine nobility in the otherwise self-serving desire to disappear. I mean the singer – myself (who once wrote, in a room in Mexico, long ago: “I love my brothers, my sisters, it’s just that I can’t handle the human race!”) – The singer does ask for a Mask “that makes the people strong” and “that shows them how to survive on nothing but a song,” so we can cut him a little slack for a bit of Compassion present in that line. He wants to hide, but in the end, he’s not yet “done enough”. The Forces send him back to the World. “Upon the waters” he hears “her tender Voice” telling him to do more inner labor, to appear naked, unprotected before every eye. She says, “It is not for you to wear the Mask”.
LC: What is the inspiration behind The Last Illumination?
JT: Well, I’ve always loved, among others, the French Surrealist poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote his finest work when he was very young, before he was 19 or 20 - amazing works. Then he went into the downward spiral of abandoned despair, became a drunken syphilitic gunrunner, and in time, died tragically, as best as I can remember. There was no adult to bring him into adulthood. To many a young poet, often that scenario has a kind of perverse romance, and in the Industrialist / Capitalist age, that Machine is all too happy to see the young fall into self- destruction – succumbing to alcohol, or oxycodone, sex addiction or some deeply spiraling, bottomless depression – because it gets the poets out of their hair and keeps their verses out of the ears of the (otherwise, all-too-often) complacent workforce… So, I was very fortunate to find poetic elders who recognized the value and importance of my bathing in the ashes and the Beauty of the works of an Arthur Rimbaud when I was very young, but who then showed me the unmarked paths that would provide a way beyond despair and grief by first honoring it fully, and then by transforming poison into medicine (as the Buddhists say). Damn, Leslie! How’s that for a run-on sentence? Will you indulge me? …So, even as I matured into an adult, I’ve continued to hold Rimbaud’s labors in high regard, and especially, once I became a father to my own children, I began, as well, to father Rimbaud… I’ve known, all my life, that in the US, there is much lip-service paid to “family values” and this cliché that “the children are our future”, but of course, they are denigrated as much, or perhaps more than, women. From the corporations that routinely exploit the natural appetites of the young to the vile political opportunists who want to put even more guns in the schools, who trivialize school and theater shootings, who systematically send young “adults” off to kill innocent people anywhere where more oil is plentiful – the US is failing its offspring horribly and unforgivably. Where are the adults? Habitually chaining themselves to the wall. You know, this is “business as usual”… All of this is how the song arose. It doesn’t speak, directly, about any of that, but it embraces the young Rimbaud, as well as all the contemporary young and it’s somehow surprisingly optimistic in its expression, particularly the last two verses:
The dancers astound us, blossoms in their hair.
Delirium surrounds us, the Abyssinian air.
The broken are endowed with will; the vile are made fair,
The empty of heart are filled, and the thieves offer their share.
My father and mother were holy and wild.
They slept beside the fire, and on the ground they bore this child.
I was nursed on the Legends, the mandolin and horn –
Never kneeled to nothing save the Inconceivable Form.
Who stole this heart? Who tore it from its home?
I’ve come through the shadows of the Last Illumination
For the Ghost of Arthur Rimbaud.
That’s the nature of this work – you face the grief and horror, honor it, and turn poison into medicine. Nikos Kazantzakis once wrote: “What is Light? To gaze with undimmed eyes on all darkness”. We cannot turn away. We have to do the Labor.
LC: Which of the songs do you feel closest to, are you most eager for audiences to hear?
JT: Probably the one that opens the collection, a song called The Mists of Algiers. When I am given to write a song like that, of that nature, the intellect is bypassed, there’s no corporeal agenda. The song shows itself and my role is to receive and distribute and get out of the way. It’s the deepest kind of Love song, in my view, because one pranams before it and doesn’t ask for understanding or explanations. One just says, “Take me. Show me the path…” Another song of that nature, on this album, is the one entitled, I Will Bend…
LC: They’re both very tender songs.
JT: Yes, they’re Love songs. In fact, quite a few of these songs are very tender. I tend to live on the tip of the tongue, in the vapor on the edge of a whisper… But, you know, all my songs are Love songs. In the early days of the Beatles, 1963 and 64, they were being encouraged not to discuss what were called “controversial issues”. That didn’t last long. A reporter asked John Lennon, “Would you ever write an anti-war song, like Bob Dylan?” Lennon didn’t miss a beat, he said, “All our songs are anti-war songs”. I feel akin to that creed – all my songs are Love songs. Even Plague in the City, or The Waters Rise – all Love songs. Whether I’m praising my Lover’s Heart and countenance, or the silent crowning of milk on a mother’s breast, or railing against the venom of war, or cataloging the never- ending gnashing of teeth, every song I write implores us all – myself included - to let go of everything else and become Love itself. The wise, at every turn, will beg the energy of that Mystery to consume us. If we’re wise, we become Love and all other temporal concerns evaporate. That’s what these songs are about…. But in answering your question, I feel very close to all of these songs, otherwise I wouldn’t put them out there. Kristina recently said that this album may well be the best work we’ve done. I’m inclined to agree with her.
LC: You mentioned The Waters Rise. The tone and tempo of that song is almost jarring.
JT: Hmm, it needs to be. On both a literal and a metaphorical level, the waters are rising, and there’s a karmic debt looming. You can’t base a system on unbridled violence and greed, and then act surprised when it turns to eat you. Grace could still arise in the nick of time, but only if we start paying concise attention. We might, for instance, want to ask ourselves if it’s prudent to allow addicts to control the engines of commerce.
LC: What do you hope people will take away from Kneel, Conquistador?
JT: Once more, it is astonishingly cruel that we should even have to still be saying this, but war does not serve Humanity, especially now that it has become big business. It’s about profit. People are dying and killing so that a few billionaires can further fatten their coffers. There is no other reason. Any other justification is a lie. The US is involved in seven wars right now. In Afghanistan, “our” government is waging the longest war in US history, and no one even talks about it. So, what do I want people to garner from this song? Don’t go to war, and don’t let your young go to war. What I want a listener to grasp is that one’s connection to one’s own soul is what matters above all, and war severs that connection… It’s where we began our discussion – “This is mine – don’t you touch it!” And people habitually line up and offer their wrists, “Go ahead – shackle me”. I want people to consciously think about what it means to be alive.
LC: Much is happening in Plague in the City. How does that song make you feel? Are you attempting to evoke anything in particular for the listener?
JT: There’s a kind of Hieronymus Bosch energy present in that song, a lot of cascading images. Many noble cultures and mythic treasures are represented there, as well as struggles and triumphs, ignorance and vice. It’s all in a day’s life, isn’t it? I feel for the recurring orphan girl who keeps calling to the father who isn’t there. There’s a part of me that wishes to be that father for her. And there’s the Cupbearer to the Bishop of Antioch, who’d died of the Plague - that’s a historical reality. He was an ancestor of mine, on my Mother’s side… What do I want people to feel? I guess I honor whatever arises for them. I know what I feel when I do some piece of work – a song, a painting, a poem – but another’s nervous system or soul will perceive it through their own filters. I think this song gives us a fairly accurate depiction of the world we’re living in right now, and I suppose I’m with the Gypsies here – fully impassioned and somewhat detached at the same time. All is Maya – yes. And, what we do with that Maya matters.
LC: In the last song, All Will Be Revealed, what is the reference, what will be revealed?
JT: I suppose this is where I have to show myself. Contrary to what people sometimes assume, I’m not really an apocalyptic kind of guy, though some form of apocalypse may arise. Somehow, oddly, I remain fairly optimistic. I walk around in this world, and my experience is – and this began as far back as maybe age 9 or 10 – my experience is that there’s only One Being, and every manifest creature, every breath, each stone, each drop of water, every planet, every soul, every galaxy – we’re all just molecules within that Being, both physically and especially spiritually (for lack of a better term). IT is both Masculine and Feminine, and simultaneously neither Feminine, nor Masculine, all at the same time. Just One Being – you want to call it God or Goddess, or Universal Consciousness, Buddha nature, or Ground of Being, or Higgs boson, or the Essence of Life, or something else – go ahead, I don’t care, and IT certainly doesn’t care. Try to name or comprehend this Mystery and you’ll fail, it simply won’t happen – even the word, “mystery” itself is absurdly trite in application. You can’t name it, but you can know it, embrace it… Matter is constantly recycling itself, reincarnating. Bodies and personalities and forms slough off of the One Being, just as dead skin cells fall away from your body every time you scratch or shower. It’s not a big deal. But you are not the physical body that you walk around in – any more than you are your overcoat. Your true nature is that you are that One Being. Reside in THAT and let go of the rest. Many have come through this World, showing us the way, the Buddhas and the Einsteins and the Christs, and so on. Sometimes it takes many “recyclings” before a person ripens enough to grasp that there’s only One. Once that is grasped, you don’t pick up guns and shoot others, because there are no “others”; you don’t throw children in cages. I don’t know a lot, but I know that we’ll get there. I know that the energies of Love, Compassion, Humility – these are the energies that ripen us, lead us to comprehend our true nature. The rest of it is just meaningless Materialism – people clubbing one another over artificial borders that aren’t even there, people shrieking angrily and arrogantly about what - how important their overcoats are?! Sounds like, what we might mythologically call hell.
Again, I don’t pretend to “know”, nor are these my “beliefs”. I’m just telling you what I experience. Nobody has to buy it. Do as you like… So, this ‘All Will Be Revealed’ idea. That’s obvious to me. But when is another story. Maybe, like individuals, the whole human race, as one organism has to reincarnate over and over again, until it “gets it”. I don’t know. Clearly, though, time is illusory and humans are impatient. I’m just doing what I can to be compassionate in the interim, while trying to minimize my attachment to “when”. But we’ll get there. Meanwhile, I’ll go on singing.