Thirty-eight years ago this fall (less than a week after I was born, in fact), BBC Radio 1 went on the air in Great Britain. One of the disk jockeys on the new station was John Peel. One year ago today, John Peel did his last show on Radio 1, though he didn’t know it at the time. He died of a heart attack less than two weeks later in Peru, where he was on a working vacation, looking, as always, for new music. And to commemorate that last show, today is (or was, since it’s now Friday in Great Britain) John Peel Day.
If anyone in the realm of media and popular culture warrants commemoration, it’s John Peel. In his time at Radio 1, he proved incredibly influential, giving early exposure to every new musical movement as it arose, from reggae to punk to hip hop. He was instrumental to the early success of many, many artists, including The Smiths and The White Stripes. And the Peel Sessions archives he left behind provide an unparalleled look at countless artists at work. But more than any of that, what made him so memorable was his overwhelming love of music. You couldn’t listen to even a few minutes of his show without being infected by his obsession. His love of music, though powerful and remarkably wide-ranging, was still informed by a remarkable discernment. And unlike most other media figures of his import and notoriety, he seems by all accounts to have been a truly generous and gentle man. That, like his love of music, was clear from listening to his show, where he often struggled helplessly with the technology of a modern radio program without ever giving in to pique or vitriol.
This week’s episode of the Radio Clash podcast offers a very fitting tribute to John Peel. It’s not a recounting of his life or his work. Instead, it’s an evocation of him and the music he loved (including a killer mash-up of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks,” which is said to have been his favorite song).
Ah, to be in and only in the present… That state and what’s experienced through it is Buddhist enlightenment, stripped of all explications and elaborations. I’ve had instances in my meditation practice that have indicated this, but the most reliable means to this experience for me so far is music.
The live interplay of musicians, preferably of stringed instruments (guitars, bass, maybe a mandolin or a lap steel) and some drums, can lead to a moment outside of time–an instance of time not as container, but as medium. I seek this wherever I can find it. I like to imagine that there are as yet unknown recordings of the album with which the Rolling Stones were supposed to follow Exile on Main St., or of Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, and Charlies Watts playing with R.E.M. during the making of Out of Time, or of Gram Parsons, back from the dead, working with Lucinda Williams on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, all of which I’ll find at a tag sale someday, take home, and revel in until I’m entirely open to the present. But until I discover that terma, I take the momentos de la felicidad where I can find them.
Last Wednesday, we went to the release party for Rebecca Turner‘s new album, Land of My Baby. My wife and I have known Rebecca for years, but her evolving musical accomplishment keeps surprising me. Seeing her with just her guitar at a little bar for the first time years ago, I was astonished to hear a fully formed artistic voice emerge so convincingly from someone I knew. Then, years later, hearing that voice fleshed out by a band on her CD, I was astonished anew. Yet neither of those experiences, much as they should have, prepared me for hearing her play live with that full band. The Slipper Room, where we saw them, is a great room with great sound. The band was fantastic–looser and more muscular than the album, while sacrificing none of its focus. And there were moments when I was pulled by the intertwining rhythms and vibrations fully into the present. And as the Buddhists do, I bow to the experience.