Until she had back surgery a year ago, my wife worked for Mr. Warner for over thirty years. He was a wonderful boss; she would have done anything for him. He died of pancreatic cancer, undiscovered until a couple of days before he died a week ago. His funeral was yesterday, at the black Missionary Baptist Church where he was a member.
He was the most peaceful man I ever met, and I have met Zen masters.
The music at the funeral was amazing. The combined choir sang “I Can’t Even Walk Unless You Hold My Hand.” It wasn’t a big choir, they didn’t wear robes, and there were some children sitting with their parents. The singing was strong, though, and sincere, with some dramatic pauses in the chorus. A “prophetess” sang a solo, holding a hand microphone and sounding like Mahalia Jackson stuffed with Bessie Smith. She started out low-key but crackling with intensity, got wound up, and wailed and shouted until she handed the mic back to the pastor. She couldn’t seem to find the “off” switch, though. She kept on with “hallelujahs” and moaning for another minute or two after she sat down by the piano.
Attendees were invited to offer brief remembrances at a lectern, and they were uniformly touching. My wife’s predecessor spoke, and did a lovely job speaking as a white Yankee in front of a black southern congregation. She told about Mr. Warner singing hymns while he was working in the back room. My wife was sobbing next to me. She’d worked with Mr. Warner for three decades in a four-person shop. He was much more of a father to her than her father was.
Mr. Warner was 83 years old. He grew up in Birmingham, graduated with honors from Tuskeegee Institute, and moved here and started his business in the early 1950s. His lifespan goes halfway back to Emancipation. It was obvious to me that the wisdom and nobility everyone admired in him traced back through Jim Crow to slavery days and probably to Africa.
Don Van Vliet died a couple of weeks ago. His nom de musique was Captain Beefheart. You might not know his music, but a lot of people whose music you know were influenced by him.
For 40 years, he’s been one of my heroes. He was a popular musician, and a fairly grubby, low-status one, but he was a true genius. Critics have mulled over his work for decades, and said that he embodied Dada and delta blues and free jazz and more.
I consider him a Zen artist. There is a Zen meditational practice in which one asks oneself the question repeatedly, “What am I?” (I have heard it called a Christian meditation, too.) Am I my body? My thoughts? My possessions? My relationships? My beliefs? My history? My opinions? My emotions? My accomplishments? The answer is always “no.” Eventually, all the legs of the table are cut off, and there is nothing left. There’s just the mirror that is your consciousness, except that there is no mirror, either. Such assholes, those Zen guys.
Captain Beefheart’s music is similar. What is music? A Beefheart song fearlessly subtracts almost every conventional element of music — tune, rhythm, harmony, narrative, rhyme, emotion, expression — while still somehow being coherent and musical. It keeps you off-balance; there’s nothing to hold onto. It’s a high-wire act that steps off the wire into thin air. There is a famous legend that his bass-player had been fired by Frank Zappa after he played a 30-minute bass solo at a concert with his amplifier turned off. Captain Beefheart hired him right away.
Winston Rodney is Burning Spear, a roots Reggae legend. His music is sometimes pungent, sometimes playful, sometimes righteous, always riding a comfortable and funky groove. Dignity is not a common quality in popular musicians these days, but Burning Spear is an exception. His speech and lyrics are in Rastafari idiom, which would come off as affected or phony in a lesser person.
No wicked shall enter this river. The fittest of the fittest shall enter.