Records: Music Today (2015), Sweep the Temple (2016)
Years ago, I went to Japan to finish the editing of a book of essays that my small Seattle press was publishing. The author was a visiting poet, working and giving talks, meeting Japanese poets, and drinking sake, a lot of sake. I stayed with him briefly at a home in a suburb of Tokyo. It was monsoon season; the air was heavy and damp and hot. By day, I sat on a tatami-mat floor at a low table, reading, marking, and passing proof pages to the author―he reviewed my suggestions and responded, or not. We spoke very little while we worked. Every afternoon we went sightseeing. It was perfect.
I was in Tokyo for ten blissful days, but in memory, it feels like weeks. Sometimes the nights were filled with heavy rains. Mornings were sometimes bright and clear. The roads shimmered, wet in the increasingly intense sun. Every morning I woke to the sound of doves and sweeping. From my view out the small bedroom window in the small house in the giant city, to the quiet neighborhood street below, I could see women sweeping their front steps and sidewalks. Sweeping was music. Sweeping was an artform.
When I think of Japan, I hear the sound of sweeping. For me, that sound evokes the feeling of Japan’s ancient, functional aesthetic and is a metaphor for the complexity of an entire, enigmatic culture. Sweeping carries me. A reminder that we’re all swept away with time. What we build, what we hope to leave to posterity, from our stuff in storage units to our temples and great symbols of truth, it will all be swept away for something new.
This world is ruled by gangsters.from the song “Fragment II,” on “Music Today”
Writing about the music of Daniel Higgs (in this case, as his latest band, Fountainsun, with his partner Fumie Ishii) is almost overwhelming. I’ve started and stopped this effort several times. Even now, I feel certain I will get a lot wrong. Or rather, I won’t find exactly what’s right. The few articles I’ve found about Higgs swing wildly between near-scholarly explorations of ecstatic/mystic/pantheistic poetic and spiritual traditions, going back centuries, to psychedelic/beat/spoken-word mid-twentieth-century performance aesthetics, sometimes punctuated by descriptions of hardcore self-mutilations on stage. Pick your era of Higgs’s work and you find yourself trapped in passionate efforts to connect him to Whitman, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, and even Kafkaesque songwriting freak-outs. That’s a lot for a recording artist to carry. It’s a lot to untangle as a fan.
This thinking has just got to be hurting Fountainsun’s record sales. I mean, playing one of the lovely and astonishing Fountainsun records on the Gnome Life label should be…fun, right? But can it be done without a graduate degree in world religion, philosophy, and history and…still enjoyed? I’m going to be bold and say Yes. “Music Today” (Gnome Life, 2015) and “Sweep the Temple” (Gnome Life, 2016), lyrically, musically, and visually, are both gentle studies in symbols as much as being wise, sensual explorations of how overwhelming it is to be living now.
Both “Music Today” and “Sweep the Temple” are rich surveys in poetry, spoken word, and the rough ways of nature, especially Big Sur, California, as well as playful musings about the values we assign to our symbols: the power we give them, and how they trap us. I think Daniel Higgs is a man using a banjo (and a broom) seeking an aesthetic renewal from his own imaginative, risk-taking, and daring history in punk as a younger man.
There’s a saner world a coming. Can’t you hallucinate it? Drop everything for a moment now, and allow your heart to participate in it.”from the song “Many Miles,” on “Sweep the Temple”
There’s a sense of humor at work here, too, in both of these records. “Music Today” has a kind of Stonehenge temple on the back of the LP sleeve. The liner notes don’t say, but I think it’s the Maryhill Stonehenge in Maryhill, Washington, built of reinforced concrete around 1918 and dedicated as a World War I war memorial. A Neolithic stone symbol repurposed by a wealthy railroad executive using wooden forms lined in crumpled tin to make them look like ancient stone. Recycled antiquity.
The back of “Sweep the Temple” is chock-full of symbols: sacred and contemporary texts, both artists wrapped from head to toe in hippie tie dye, Jesus and The Beatles (?), ancient Egyptian drawings and brooms, fossils, and even Gumby. The temple is full. The front of the LP jacket is a Higgs tattoo drawing. The jumble of symbols feels like an inside joke.
So I come back to the notion of sweeping. Whether in a temple or on the streets of a quiet Tokyo suburb, sweeping is first about doing something that’s of use to others. It’s comforting. It’s meditation. It’s never ending. Fountainsun brings a message about clearing away what’s not needed, a reminder that we have a lot of symbols in our complicated lives. So what remains? The poetry of Fountainsun is like all poetry. It reminds us of how connected we are to each other, and to the natural world, age after age, style after style. And that’s something useful.
Friendship is the height of wealth.”from the song “Lamps of Friendom,” on “Sweep the Temple”