Live the Mystery

John Cage

In early August I discovered my favorite book of this year. I came across Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson at two wonderful places on the web: First “The Art Critic and the Enso,” a remarkably insightful piece by Lynette from 108zenbooks, and then a a day or two later, Deborah Barlow’s (who writes at Slow Muse) inspiring review “Leaving the Path At Any Moment” showed up in my blog feed. It seemed an unlikely coincidence. That was it for me. I promptly wrote Deborah: I’ve come across this book at least three times this week. A few days ago I put a hold on it at the library. I am seventh in line. After reading your excellent post this morning, I said to myself: “That’s it.” I biked down to my local bookstore in the rain and bought myself a copy. And I did just that arriving home like a lunatic, wet with rain with the book tucked protectively under my arm. I read the book slowly and intermittently throughout August and September, savoring it slowly, making notes in my notebook, underlining passages, folding over corners, and reading passages out loud to my wife, who may or may not have been listening. For two months, I carried this book everywhere. I loved this book.

The first time I heard of John Cage was in the early 90s. I was in my early teens, and was just beginning to discover. mostly through books and art, that there was a much larger world beyond the small sleepy town of Belleville where I grew up. I had left home and was boarding on a farm just outside of town. I suffered from horrible insomnia those days, so I would stay up reading too much, and smoking too much. I also use to listen this late night radio show on the CBC called Brave New Waves that came on just after the news at midnight following Ross Porter’s excellent jazz  program After Hours. Brave New Waves was on air until four in the morning, so it was perfect for insomniacs. In fact, there were many evenings where I stayed up until the very end, listening to the far out in left field records that were spun in the last hour. On other nights, when my tiredness won out, I taped the show onto cassette, and listened to it the very next day after school so that I wouldn’t miss anything important. The show specialized in the Avant-garde, showcasing music, writers, and artists. Almost every evening, I discovered someone or something entirely new.

Anyway, on one particular evening there was an interview with John Cage that I have always remembered. It was a cold, autumnal night and I was smoking by the window to hide the smell. The house was quiet, with everyone locked away in their rooms. I could hear a TV down the hall. The news was on. I smoked and waited eagerly for the show to begin. The artist being interviewed on that particular evening was a man named John Cage, interviewed as a writer, poet, artist, and composer. A real renaissance man who dabbled in just about everything. He was well learned, and absolutely captivating as a speaker, with a contagious passion for knowledge. The moment that was burned into my brain forever came at the end of the interview when the host, Brent Bambury asked John Cage, who was in his mid-seventies then (he died when he was 79), “Who was your greatest teacher?” What followed was one of the most amazing moments I have ever experienced listening to radio. There was a long tremendous silence. Total dead air. The length of it was extraordinary, so extraordinary, that you could actually hear the clock in the studio ticking away the seconds. After a moment, maybe a lifetime or two. John Cage said in his soft gentle voice: “I’m still looking.”

William Gedney shot of John Cage

William Gedney shot of John Cage

The show ended on that note, but something lingered  within me and resonated to Cage’s final remark, either his words, or something that was behind them. In retrospect, I think it was the sense of his search that struck me.  I thought it was remarkable how a man of his age, stature, and influence could be so humble and still be searching.

After that, I sought out everything I could find about him. It wasn’t until later in my life that I discovered that what attracted me to John Cage was his relentless search for the truth, and how he was able to reconcile a worldly life with a spiritual pursuit. I feel that Cage is a tremendous example of someone who managed to bridge that duality. With the recent publication of Larson’s extensive and meticulously researched biography on John Cage, the inner life, or the essence of the man becomes more apparent. Throughout his life Cage was a spiritual seeker: a devoted student of Zen Buddhist scholar and translator, D.T. Suzuki, a follower of the Indian sage, Ramakrishna and acknowledged his debt to the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Huang Po, and The Chinese book of divination the I-Ching. He was also open to the Christian mystic Meister Echhart. To read about John Cage is to discover a life long quest through a time when all the arts: painting, music, literature, and dance were undergoing massive revolution in the early part of the 20th century. But what I find of interest is in Larson’s account of Cage is the story of  man on a spiritual journey in the direction of self perfection–a man who relentlessly aspires to marry an inner life with his outer life in order to allow the inner to inform the outer. Cage wrote in his journals:

John CageOur intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires our of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

and later:

It is not a question of decisions and the willingness to make them. It is that we are impermanently part and parcel of all. We are involved in a life that passes understanding and our highest business is our daily life.

There is an old proverb that states, “one book opens another,” and in this case that statement could not ring out more truthfully. So I have broken down the book into categories in order to navigate the wealth of material Larson’s book has to offer.

Breaking it Down Wisdom Traditions & Spiritual Influences Mentioned (in no particular order of importance):

John Cage with Zen Master D.T. Suzuki

John Cage with Zen Master D.T. Suzuki

Daisetz Teitaro Susuki (his name means Great Simplicity) and his teachers: Imagitsa Kosen & Soyen Shaku, Paul Carus who was convinced that Buddhism held great potential to heal the modern breach between science and religion, because it was based not on beliefs, but on practice and observation; Chogyam Trungpa, Shakyamuni Buddha, Shin Buddhism–the path of faith and compassion, also known as Pure Land; the Zen traditions of Soto Zen and the tougher discipline of Rinzai; Soyen, Joseph Campbell, Oskar Fischinger;, Morris Graves and Nancy Wilson Ross who was a student of Rinzai Zen master Nanshinken and Goto Zuigan Roshi; Zen teacher Yvonne Rand, Hui Neng, Dogen Zenji, Mark Tobey, Gita Sarabhai, Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Meister Eckhart, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Chuang-tze, Carl Gustav Jung, Aldous Huxley, Paramahansa Yogananda, Christmas Humphreys, Richard DeMartino, Philip Kapleau, Yasutani Roshi, Hue-yen, Shen-Hui student of Hui-Neng; Lin-chi, Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisatttva of compassion; Thomas Merton, Koun Yamada Roshi, Seung Sahn, Taigen Dan Leighton, L.C. Beckett, Hotei (The Laughing Buddha); Sofu Teshigahara, Robert Aitken, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg.

Key Spiritual Texts:

I wanted to be quiet in a non-quiet situation. So I discovered first through reading the gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and through the study of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism–and also an important book for me was The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley…–that they are all saying the same thing, namely, a quiet mind is a mind that is free of its likes and dislikes. –John Cage

D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, which was also the first book in the West on the Mahayana (Great Vehicle), the teachings that are the source of Zen; Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot.

Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom. By making us drink right from the fountain of life, it liberates us from all the yokes under which we finite beings are usually suffering in this world. We can say that Zen liberates all the energies properly and naturally stored in each of us, which are in ordinary circumstances cramped and distorted so that they find no adequate channel for activity. This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows mouldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance. Zen, therefore, wants us to open a “third eye,” as Buddhists call it, to the hitherto undreamed-of-region shut away from us through igmnorance. When the cloud of ignorance disappears, the infinity of the heavens is manifested, where we see for the first time into the nature of our own being.D.T. Suzuki

Essays in Zen Buddhism Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy The Lankavatara Sutra Hua Yen, Flower Garland Sutra The Heart Sutra Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate) The I Ching (The Chinese Book Changes) Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noise

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna Here is one of Cage’s favorite Ramakrishna stories he loved telling:

Ramakrishna spent an afternoon explaining that everything is God. Afterward, one of his disciples entered the evening traffic in a euphoric state and barely escaped being crushed to death by an elephant. He ran back to his teacher and asked, “Why do you say everything’s God when just now I was nearly killed by an elephant?” Ramakrishna said, “Tell me what happened.” When the disciple got to the point where he heard the voice of the elephant’s driver warning him several times to get out of the way, Ramakrishna interrupted, “That was God’s voice.”

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, The Dance of Shiva

Meister Eckhart, The Sermons

Coming back to Eckhart, for the sake by the way the way of a brilliant conclusion. A tonic and dominant emphatic conclusion to this talk about something and nothing and how they need each other to keep on going, as Eckhart says:, “Earth (that is any something) “has no escape from heaven.” (that is nothing) “flee she up or flee she down heaven still invades her, energizing her, fructifying her, whether for her weal or for her woe. –John Cage, from Lecture on Something

L.C. Beckett, Neti Neti (Not This Not That) 1955 The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures Buddha’s Fire Sermon Alan Watts, The Spirit of Zen The I-Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha According to Old Records A Buddhist Bible edited by Dwight Goddard Ashvaghosha, the second century commentator on the Buddha, The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana The Surangama Sutra The Bhagavad Gita Jean Paul Satre, Being and Nothingness Lao Tse, Tao Te Ching Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art; Evelyn Underhill Mysticism Huang Po, Doctrine of Universal Mind Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism Alan Watts, The Spirit of Zen Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha According to Old Records Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle expounded in his book, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science

Henry David Thoreau, especially Walden and the essay Civil Disobedience

What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me…Talk of mysteries!–Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we? –Henry David Thoreau

A couple of other passages related to spiritual practice by Kay Larson that I found noteworthy:  Kay Larson on waking up,

Bardo–the Tibetan Buddhist word for a “becoming” or transition. Although the bardo is usually identified as the passage after death, it can also be a turning moment within ordinary life. You’re walking in your daily reality and there is a slight shiver in the visual field and you sense that a door is opening in a wall. You haven’t known about the wall until the door opens. Do you walk through? –Kay Larson

On the practice of zazen:

What is zazen? Crossing one’s legs? Watching the breath? Saying nothing? Waiting for the bell to ring? That’s where the beginner begins. After a bit more practice, however, zazen expands. Everything interpenetrates, right? Sitting silently, where are you? Who are you? What are you sitting within? As you cross your legs on the cushion, singing a sharani of transformation, the whole world flows in and through you, and all around you. The totality of Creation is sitting with you. Where are the walls? Sitting zazen, you take apart the bricks one at a time, look at them carefully, and set them down. At the end of the process, where are the walls? –Kay Larson


Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham

Holy Places: Shokukuji, Daitokuji, Engakuji, Daitokuji (Rinzai Zen temple in Kyoto)

Dancers: Merce Cunningham, Anna Pavlova, Martha Graham, Bonnie Bird, Syvilla Fort, Dorothy Herrmann, Katherine Dunham, Martha Hill, Jean Erdman, Erick Hawkins, Carolyn Brown, Robert Ellis Dunn, and Rashaun Mitchell.

Other Writers: Philip Whalen, Jack Kerouac, Gertrude Stein, Andre Breton, Charles H. Ford, William Saroyan, E.E. Cummings, Rainer Maria Rilke, Buckminster Fuller, Mary Caroline Richards, Jackson Mac Low, John Ashbery, Erich Fromm, Charles Olson, Martin Heidegger, Arnold Toynbee, Arthur Waley, Jackson Mac Low. Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The rational mind only describes a tiny room in a vast cosmos, and beyond this we cannot speak”

Photographers: Jack Calvin, Edward Weston


The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences. –Gita Sarabhai There are two principal parts of each personality, the conscious mind and the unconscious, and these are split and dispersed, in most of us, in countless ways and distractions. The function of music, like that of any other healthy occupation, is to help to bring those separate parts back together again. Music does this by providing moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one. –John Cage

Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Buhlig, Virgil Thomson, Erik Satie especially “Vexations,” Morton Feldman, Webern Symphony, Opus 21 conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos; Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances; David Tudor, Earle Brown, John Cale, Nam June Paik, Terry Riley, La Monte Young; Steve Reich, and Janice Giteck.

Visual Art:

Robert Kushner "Eleven Orange Emperors," 2008

Robert Kushner “Eleven Orange Emperors,” 2008

The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful, the first question I ask, is why do I think it’s not beautiful? And very shortly you discover that there is no reason. –John Cage

Movements: Dada, Modersnism, The Bauhaus, Abstract Expressionism & Fluxus Tristan Tzara, F.T. Marinetti, The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism;  Alexej von Jawlensky’s painting, Poetry of the Evening (1931); Edwin Rothschild, The Meaning of the Unintelligibility of Modern Art; Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell, Morris Graves, Paul Klee, Mondrian, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Max Ernst, The Bauhaus, Gyorgy Kepes, Marc Chagall, Leger, Andre Masson, Willem de Kooning, sculptors Richard Lippold and Ibram Lassaw, Philip Pavia, Jackson Pollock, Doña Luisa; Robert Rauschenberg. Sari Dienes, Karl Jaspers, Shuzo Takiguchi, Ibram Lassaw, Allan Kaprow, George Segal, Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins, George Brecht, Robert Watts, Al Hansen, Adolph Gottlieb, Yoko Ono;, Andrew Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Robert Morris, The Fluxus Movement, Jim Dine, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Al Held, Pat Steir, Bruce Nauman


John CageSome other quotations that I highlighted from Larson’s biography: Cage describes the concept of indeterminacy:

Indeterminacy means, literally: not fixed, not settled, uncertain, indefinite. It means that you don’t know where you are. How can it be otherwise, say the Buddhist teachings, since you have no fixed or inherent identity and are ceaselessly in process? …Life is filled with uncertainty  Chance events happen to all of us. Each of us must take responsibility and make decisions. None of us should be imposing our ego image on others. …There’s another way to live. Accept indeterminacy as a principle, and you see your life in a new light, as a series of seemingly unrelated jewel-like stories with in a dazzling setting of change and transformation. Recognize that you don’t know where you stand, and you will begin to watch where you put your feet. That’s when the path appears.

A remarkable outlook on the purpose of art:

If we conquer that dislike, or begin to like what we did dislike, then the world is more open. That path, of increasing one’s enjoyment of life, is the path I think we’d all best take. To use art not as self expression but as self-alteration. To become more open” –Cage

Cage describes the role of a teacher:

I do not think that a teacher should teach something to the student. I think the teacher should discover what it is that the student knows–and that’s not easy to find out–and then, of course, encourage the student to be courageous with respect to his knowledge, courageous and practical and so forth–in other words, to bring his knowledge to fruition. Don’t you think? 

On reality:

You say: the real, the world as it is. But it is not, it becomes! It moves, it changes! It doesn’t wait for us to change…It is more mobile than you can possibly imagine. You are getting closer to this reality when you say as it “presents itself”; that means that it isnot there, existing as an object. The world, the real is not an object. It is a process.

Cage’s advice on what to do when you feel bored:

In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.

And  lastly, one of my favorite passages in the book about how a great spiritual teacher or teaching works on you:

During recent years Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki has done a great deal of lecturing at Columbia University. First he was in the Department of Religion, then somewhere else. Finally he settled down on the seventh floor of Philosophy Hall. The room had windows on two sides, a large table in the middle with ash trays. There were chairs around the table and next to the walls. These were always filled with people listening, and there were generally a few people standing near the door. The two or three people who took the class for credit sat in chairs around the table. The time was four to seven. During this period most people now and then took a little nap. Suzuki never spoke loudly. When the weather was good the windows were open, and the airplanes leaving La Guardia flew directly overhead from time to time, drowning out whatever he had to say. He never repeated what had been said during the passage of the airplane.

Three lectures I remember in particular. While he was giving them I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what he was saying. It was a week or so later, while I was walking in the woods looking for mushrooms, that it all dawned on me. Kay Larson’s book  is a wonderful portrait of  a man who embodied what it means to be a seeker in life, and by that I mean, someone who is able to bring a spiritual discipline into the uncertainty of their daily life. They live the mystery. And finally here is John Cage’s quintessential piece “4’33” which Larson describes so beautifully as a “statement of essence leading out of the world of art into the whole of life, it was born in the space, the silence, the nothing that supports us.


ten songs


01. MAX RICHTER & DINAH WASHINGTON on the nature of daylight / this bitter earth
02. VAN MORRISON astral weeks
03. JOSE JAMES park bench people
04. BOB MARLEY so much trouble
05. BETH ORTON the stars all seem to weep
06. QUANTIC time is the enemy
07. NICK DRAKE riverman
08. THE WATERBOYS the christ in you
09. THE VELVET UNDERGROUND i found a reason

PHOTOGRAPH by Peter Baker. This idea for this was pilfered from Hannah and her wonderful project at: “ten songs that saved your life.” 

One Book Opens Another: Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.”

Patti Smith“One book opens another” says an old proverb. I have just finished reading Patti Smith’s National Book Award winning memoir, Just Kids. It is both a love story as well as an elegy. It describes the ascent of two young artists, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith behind the backdrop of the tumultuous New York art world during the late sixties and seventies. Essentially, the book is about the plight of two young kids driven to the path of art, devotion, and initiation, and how they sustained and encouraged each other along the way.

I always read with a pen. This way I can underline, write notes in the margins and put asterisks beside important passages. I can’t help it. But, interestingly, I am completely against folding over corners of pages. The great thing about reading an autobiography of an artist is that it is almost always filled with the influences and overall inspiration that fueled their quest. The books of Henry Miller come to mind, especially The Books In My Life. His books are filled with what inspired him. He holds nothing back. Throughout his books, Miller drops artists like Hansel and Gretel dropped food crumbs in the forest in order to find their way back home. If life was a bone, Miller sucks everything out of it, right down to the marrow, and when he’s done, it falls on the plate with a thud. I collect the scraps that are left behind and try to make them my own. I guess that is why I deface my books. Miller’s energy and enthusiasm for what keeps him going is contagious. I found Patti Smith’s writing also contained this quality of vibrancy and life.

When I started reading Just Kids, I realized that music was going to take center stage. I started making notes of all the artists and song titles Patti mentions and I made a musical playlist out of it as I read along. I was familiar with many of the artists but there were some new discoveries, like the folk singer, Tim Hardin for example. After I finished the book I also decided to make a list of all the writers, books, painters, photographers, and films Patti Smith mentions.  For the most part I have listed them here in the order in which they appear. I’ve also added  a few links just for the fun of it.

“The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.
I left Mephistopheles, the angels, and the remnants of out handmade world, saying, I choose Earth.”

–Patti Smith Just Kids, p. 256



“By chance, Jimi Hendrix came up the stairs and found me sitting there like some hick wallflower and grinned. He had to catch a plane to London to do the Isle of Wight Festival. When I told him I was too chicken to go in, he laughed softly and said that contrary to what people might think, he was shy, and parties made him nervous. He spent a little time with me on the stairs and told me his vision of what he wanted to do with the studio. He dreamed of amassing musicians from all over the world in Woodstock and they would sit in a field in a circle and play and play. It didn’t matter what key or tempo or what melody, they would keep on playing through their discordance until they found a common language. Eventually they would record this abstract universal language of music in his new studio.
“The language of peace. You dig? I did.”

–Patti Smith Just Kids, p.169

Tosca “Vissi d’arte” (*), John Coltrane A Love Supreme (*), The Doors “The Crystal Ship,” L.A. Woman (*), Jimi Hendrix “Hey Joe” (*), Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde , Bringing it All Back Home & Nashville Skyline, “Lay Lady Lay,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,”  Tim Hardin “Black Sheep Boy,” &  “How Can You Hang On to a Dream?” (*), Lotte Lenya (*), Edith Piaf, John Lennon, Eleanor Steber Madame Butterfly (*), Rolling Stones Between the Buttons, “Sympathy for the Devil,” & Beggars Banquet (*), Joan Baez, Vanilla Fudge, Tim Buckley, The History of Motown, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman (*), Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin (*), The Byrds “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” (*), Nina Simone “Wild Is the Wind,” Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Brian Jones (*), Country Joe and the Fish (*), Jefferson Airplane, The Excellents “Coney Island Baby” (*), The Velvet Underground (*), Lou Reed (*), Johnny Winter (*), Patty Waters (*), Clifton Chenier, Albert Ayler, Kurt Weill “Speak Low” (*), Hank Williams (*), Blind Willie McTell, Neil Young “Ohio” The Band Stage Fright, “Medicine Man,” Billy Swan, Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson, Roger McGuinn, Kris Kristofferson, The Marvelettes, Silhouettes “I Sold My Heart To The Junk Man” (*), Phil Spector (*), Todd Rundgren (*), Holy Modal Rounders (*), Lenny Kaye (*) Maureen Gray “Today’s the Day” (*), Dovells’ “Bristol Stomp,” Lee Crabtree, Blue Öyster Cult, Marvin Gaye Trouble Man (*), Jimmy Cliff The Harder They Come (*), Big Youth and the Roys Screaming Target (*), Hank Ballard “Annie had a Baby,” The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka (*), Television: Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Richard Hell, “Marquee Moon” (*), Jonathan Richman, Ivan Kral, Van Morrison “Gloria” (*).

Patti Smith, 1975. Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe

Patti Smith, 1975. Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe


“Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky. The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced. The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.” –Patti Smith Just Kids, p. 3

Arthur Rimbaud Illuminations, A Season in Hell (*), Frank O’Hara (*), Anaïs Nin Collages, Jean Genet Miracle of the Rose (*), Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maxwell Perkins (*), Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie, Janet Hamill (*), Timothy Leary Psychedelic Prayers, James Joyce Poems a Penny Each “the signs that mock me as I go”, Jules Laforgue (*), Anne Frank The Diary, Allen Ginsberg, Friedrich Nietzche, Paul Verlaine, Yukio Mishima (*), William Burroughs Junky, Andre Gide, Maurice Maeterlinck (*), Sylvia Plath Ariel, Gérard de Nerval (*), Bertolt Brecht “Pirate Jenny”, Antonin Artaud, Vladimir Mayakovsky (*), Mari Sandoz Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (*), The Golden Bough, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe You Can’t Go Home Again, Aleister Crowley Diary of a Drug Fiend (*), Walt Whitman, Blaise Cendrars (*), Raymond Roussel Locus Solus (*), Théophile Gautier (*), Henri Michaux (*), Thomas de Quincey (*), John Keats, Shelley, Gregory Corso The Happy Birthday of Death, Gerard Malanga (*), Gertrude Stein, Andre Breton, Djuna Barnes, Jim Carroll, Oscar Brown Jr. (*), Vachel Lindsay (*), Jack Kerouac, Alexander Trocchi Cain’s Book (*), Homer,, Herodotus, Sam Shepard, Nancy Milford (*), Ray Bresmer (*), George Mandel “The Beckoning Sea” (*), Anne Waldman (*), Robert Creeley, Ted Berrigan (*), Albertine Sarrazin (*), Stéphane Mallarmé, Bob Dylan Tarantula, Dave Marsh (*), Tony Glover (*), Danny Goldberg (*), Sandy Pearlman (*), Enid Starkie’s biography of Rimbaud (*), Charles Baudelaire Paris Spleen, The Koran of Muhammad, Gerard De Nerval Women of Cairo (*), Paul Bowles, Mohamed Mrabet (*), Albert Cossery (*), Isabelle Eberhardt (*), Thomas Mann Death in Venice, Richard Hell, Arabian Nights, Peter Reich A Book of Dreams (*), James Joyce Finnegan’s Wake.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937


Richard Poussette-Dart (*), Henri Michaux (*), Michelangelo’s slaves (*), Dada, Surrealism, Tantric Art, Willem de Kooning Woman I, Jean Dubuffet (*), Diego Rivera (*), Jackson Pollack, John Graham (*), Arshile Gorky (*), Maxfield Parrish, Joseph Cornell (*), Ronald Brooks Kitaj (*), William Blake Songs of Innocence and of Experience & Milton, Edward Gorey, Lee Krasner (*), Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol Index Book, Harvey Parks, Louise Delsarte, Georges-Pierre Seurat, Camille Claudel, Picasso Guernica, Hans Hofmann, Frida Kahlo, Sandy Daley, Edward Hopper, Salvador Dalí, Brice Marden (*), Larry Poons (*), Georgia O’Keefe, Alice Neel (*), Gio Ponti (*), Constantin Brancusi (*).


“Being allowed to lift the tissues from these photographs, actually touch them and get a sense of the paper and the hand of the artist, made an enormous impact on Robert. He studied then intently–the paper, the process, the composition, and the intensity of the blacks. “It’s really all about light,” he said.”

–Patti Smith Just Kids, page 190.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Flowers

Robert Mapplethorpe, Flowers

Jacques-Henri Lartigue (*), Billy Name (*), Cecil Beaton, Félix Nadar (*), Helmut Newton (*), Judy Linn (*), Diane Arbus, Man Ray, Ed van der Elsken Love on the Left Bank (*), Fox Talbot (*), Alfred Stieglitz “Georgia O’Keefe Nudes” (*), Paul Strand (*), Thomas Eakins (*), Lewis Carroll (*), Julia Margaret Cameron (*), Edward Curtis (*), Irving Penn, Lynn Goldsmith (*).


Bob Dylan

Richard Lester How I Won the War, Splendor in the Grass, Bonnie and Clyde, Jean Luc Godard Bande à part, One Plus One, Midnight Cowboy, Psycho, Paul Muni, John Garfield, Robert Bresson, Paul Joseph Schrader, East of Eden, Wages of Fear, Funny Face, Butterfield 8 (*), Films of Jeanne Moreau, Of Human Bondage, Howard Hawks Scarface (*), Andy Warhol, Don’t Look Back, Donald Cammel, Anna Magnani Films, Easy Rider, Beau Geste, Michelangelo Antonioni Blowup, Jean Cocteau Les Enfants Terribles, The Harder They Come, One Touch of Venus (*), Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones (*), The Night of the Hunter, Roger Vadim Barbarella.

“Yet you could feel the vibration in the air, a sense of hastening. It had started with the moon, inaccessible poem that it was. Now men had walked upon it, rubber treads on a pearl of the gods. Perhaps it was an awareness of time passing, the last summer of a decade. Sometimes I just wanted to raise my hands and stop. But stop what? Maybe just growing up.”

Patti Smith Just Kids, p. 104

Patti Smith

The King of Clubs

Benedict W., "David Mancuso at The Light," 2008

Benedict W., David Mancuso at The Light, 2008

It was a brutally cold and rainy October afternoon as a group of party goers head up 16th Street in Manhattan bracing themselves against the cold. Their destination is a place called the Union Square Ballroom where New York’s longest running disco party is underway.

When they arrive they discover a miraculously transformed space with hundreds of multi-coloured balloons and a huge mirror ball. Psychedelic images dance across the walls. The atmosphere seems born from childhood fairy tales. The track, “House Party” envelopes the room from large Klipschorn speakers and if the party goers were to close their eyes, Fred Wesley and his band could be playing live. As the tempo builds, there is a chorus of whistles, hand clapping and shouts as the dancers work the floor, implementing spinning top turns, jazz flicks, and break dance moves.

David Mancuso who has been on a quest for a spiritual, unifying clubbing experience for over three decades now, is actively presiding over New York’s longest running disco party.

Mancuso was born in Utica, a small New York town in October of 1944. He spent his first four years in a Catholic orphanage. He credits his early inspiration for his legendary parties to Sister Alicia who would gather 20 or so children from the orphanage around a table in a room cheerfully decorated with balloons. In the centre of the table was a record player with a stack of vinyl. Many of the children were too young to speak but the music brought all of them together. When asked about his formative years Mancuso says, “Music gave me a lot of piece of mind since there was a lot in my environment that was not stable. Music is therapeutic,” he explains, “it raises your life energy. If your life energy is raised then music is healing.” The synthesis of music with spirituality would prevail throughout Mancuso’s life like a golden thread.

Mancuso and a friend took a trip to New York City during the Labor Day weekend of 1962. He was instantly attracted to the openness and diversity of the people so much so that he relocated there that same year. He stayed living with friends until he found menial work and could afford a place of his own. Later in 1965, Mancuso moved into a loft on Broadway. He describes the space as being approximately 25 feet by 100 feet with 14 foot ceilings. Mancuso adds that, “it was just an old factory converted partially for living, and I thought it was a good opportunity.” His attraction to the loft, he says “goes back to the orphanage…. Somehow or other I always identified with large spaces and old buildings.”

Shortly after his move to the former factory space, economics changed drastically for the young Mancuso and he decided to throw a Valentines Day bash to supplement his irregular income and help pay his rent. He called his first party, “Love Saves the Day.” and he ended up spinning records from midnight until six in the morning. The party was such a success that soon it became a weekly affair. Mancuso says that, “the idea of being a DJ never crossed my mind. I only did it because I was with my friends and we all liked the same music.” Soon the parties had an attendance of over 300 people and by 1971 the events were being referred to as “David’s Loft” or simply, “The Loft.”

One of Mancuso’s hobbies was playing with stereos and electronics which eventually gave birth to an obsession with high end audio. Two of his closest friends, Richard Long and Alex Rosner were revolutionary sound engineers. Together in 1971 they designed the incredibly crystal clear sounding Loft stereo systemwhich would become a blueprint for future dance clubs. David maintains that, “if the sound is clean, and you walk into a room blindfolded, you can’t tell how many speakers are in there, and where they are placed etc. etc.,” He adds, “all you know is that you’re enveloped in music. That to me, from my perspective on how music works, makes sense.”

Mancuso is open to all forms of music and dislikes categorizing it. He explains that the music he plays at The Loft is fundamentally dance music and includes everything from classical to jazz and “everything in between.” David Mancuso’s has a finely tuned and highly eclectic ear for a great song. For example, ‘Soul Makossa,’ the track that introduced the African musician Manu Dibango to an international audience owes its success almost entirely to Mancuso who stumbled upon the rare record while looking in a thrift store.

Mancuso always has a deep respect for the records he plays and this is reflected in his style of DJing. Unlike most club disc jockeys he refuses to manipulate records by mixing them. He believes in staying true to the artist’s original intentions and playing them the way they were meant to be heard. He smiles and adds, “If you’re at home listening to the records you love, you let them play out don’t you?” This is in alignment with his view that a DJ should be an egoless figure or as Mancuso prefers to call himself a “musical host.”

In 1999 Nuphonic Records released two separate compilations of classic tracks played at The Loft. The compilations sold extremely well and cemented Mancuso’s legendary status as a party engineer and DJ. Soon he was receiving invitations from Japan, the U.K., Italy and France to spread the vibes worldwide. He currently embarks on several tours a year and continues to host parties in New York. Mancuso says he will keep on doing Loft parties “to my last breath-if they let me do it.” However, he will only continue if the party “doesn’t revolve around one person,” he says, “once that starts to happen, forget about it.” When asked to describe the whole Loft experience Mancuso says, “it’s a vibe. You’re having a peace of mind or you’re not. Usually the more you shed your ego the more peace of mind you will have. The music, that’s what it allows us to be–free.”

Back at the Union Square Ballroom the new arrivals make their way through a welcoming crowd that consists of many nationalities and age groups. At the bar the Loft Staff is serving up Bud’s Bud on draft and homemade sangria. There is also a buffet of energy enhancing foods consisting off fresh fruit, cheese and crackers and a selection of vegetarian fare that have all been included in the entry fee of $25. When the sonic disco record “Can’t Live Without Your Love,” by Tamiko Jones ends, immediately the crowd shows their appreciation by clapping and whistling as the next record begins.

Many wise sages in the past have said that music has the power to bring out the best in us. David Mancuso puts it in his own words when he often declares that, “Music is Love.”