The Center of a Universe With No Center

Princess Buttercup

I flew to Ohio on the  4th of July. Adriana came with me. We had to change planes in Atlanta. During the flight from Atlanta to Akron, we could see fireworks displays going on way down below.

We stayed with Jeff Hardy, aka Jefferson Hardship, aka Jeffro Smull, guitarist of Zero Defex at his new apartment in Cuyahoga Falls. Actually, the apartment belongs more to Princess Buttercup, his cat friend. She allows Jeff to share the place in exchange for food and scratching.

Mick, the drummer of Zero Defex, asked us to show up at his place around 3pm on Thursday July 5th for a video shoot followed by a rehearsal for our show on Friday night. We had recorded a few new songs a year ago and Mick got around to mixing them a couple months ago. The videos, when complete, will accompany the release of these new songs in some form.

It was good that our call time was so late. I was up till 4 shooting the shit with Jeff. Considering that 4am in Akron is 1am in LA, and considering that I’m still suffering severe jet lag from my month and a half in Europe, I don’t feel too bad about staying up so late or waking up just before noon the next day. Jeff and I took Adriana out to Wally Waffle to experience a true Akron breakfast, then we went to Mick’s place.

Zero Defex singer Jimi Imij working on our new videos.

The video shoot went well. The rehearsal was a bit rough, I thought. We got through the set a couple of times and it wasn’t bad, but I wanted it to be tighter. Still, we got better as we went along and as we remembered how to work together. There’s a very specific way you have to play in Zero Defex. It involves paying very close attention to the other members of the band. This is true for any band, but I find it’s especially true for us because all of us are very idiosyncratic players — especially Mick, who violates just about every rule there is for drummers.

After rehearsal, Adriana and I went and got Salad Boys and jalapeno poppers at Swenson’s, another Akron culinary treat.

On Friday Adriana and I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I had never been inside before, not even during the time I lived back in Akron. I was skeptical it would be worth the $23 admission fee. But I really liked it! There are lots of amazing artifacts and many famous basses.

Then we visited My Mind’s Eye record shop in Lakewood. It’s a small place, but very well stocked with tons of cool stuff. I bought a Fuzztones record and the reissue of the second Ultimate Spinach album, which was a huge influence on my first Dimentia 13 record. I lost my original copy ages ago. Then we ate at the Roots Café and went back to Akron.

We got to Annabelle’s in Akron, where Zero Defex was playing with Hyper As Hell and The Burning Lesbians, around 9pm and I put my bass backstage. I’d been told I’d be able to use an amp owned by one of the other bands, but I wasn’t sure who. So I had to sort that out. Which I did.

While waiting for the Burning Lesbians to start I reconnected with old friends and met a few nice people who came out for the show because they were fans of my books and blogs and videos. One guy drove all the way up from Atlanta. Some other folks also made long journeys to see us. That was touching.

One of the people who came out to see us was Alex Kakuyo Thompson, author of the blog Same Old Zen. He is very tall! I learned about his blog because he wrote a nice “open letter” to me there. It was groovy to get to meet him.

I was nervous about playing because the place was really packed and our rehearsal had been kind of rough. Just to add to my jitters, Jimi Imij, our singer, told us that he wanted to have his friend Joe Morbid recite a poem and then have us open with a song we do that Joe wrote the words for. The song is called Soldier Boy. We hadn’t even rehearsed Soldier Boy on Thursday. We sorta plowed through it once ­— badly — but we didn’t actually rehearse it as such. So Jeff and I had a quick meeting to make sure we knew which chords went where. Mick assured us he knew his bit. And off we went.

Soldier Boy actually came off pretty well. Even Joe Morbid’s poem worked and the audience dug it. Then we launched into the set starting with a song I contributed to the band about a year ago called Blast Off. A song or two later Jeff broke a string and Jimi called Joe Morbid up to do another poem while he switched guitars. That poem went over well with the audience too. I couldn’t hear it, though, because the monitors weren’t sending Joe’s voice my way.

Zero Defex on stage at Annabelle’s, July 6, 2018

We were way tighter on stage then we had been at rehearsal. Maybe the magic of playing in front of an audience had something to do with it. It was a damn good show, if I do say so myself. I was sorry to see it end. The audience was yelling for more after we finished our set. But we had played all of the songs we’d rehearsed — plus one we hadn’t — so there wasn’t any more we could do. I’ve heard it’s good to leave ‘em wanting more anyhow.

Hyper As Hell lived up to their name. They hadn’t played in a number of years but they sounded great and rocked the house. The Burning Lesbians, who went on before us, sounded fantastic too.

In addition to playing with Zero Defex, I’d also accepted an invitation to speak in Mansfield, Ohio. I knew the Zero Defex gig was unlikely to pay anything, and the expense of going out to Ohio was considerable. Doing a speaking gig was a way to offset a bit of that, even though I knew that what I’d get paid wouldn’t equal what I’d have to spend to go out there. I figured the price of doing the Zero Defex gig would be around what I earned from about three of my events in Europe combined. And I was correct.

I spoke at Main Street Books in Mansfield and then at a place called Butterfly House. These talks were arranged by a group called Living Lotus Zen Sangha.

At Mainstreet Books I talked about my books There is No God and He is Always With You and my recent books about Dogen’s Shobogenzo; Don’t Be a Jerk and It Came From Beyond Zen. While giving the talk I blurted out the idea that maybe Sit Down and Shut Up, Don’t Be a Jerk, and It Came From Beyond Zen could be issued as a boxed set. Maybe I’ll talk to New World Library about that and see what they think.

Butterfly House, Mansfield Ohio, July 7, 2018

For the Butterfly House gig, I’d been asked to speak on the theme of “Beginner’s Mind and the History of Zen.” That turned out to be a great little prompt. To me, beginner’s mind is the essential point of Zen. We are not trying to learn anything or even get better at anything. Rather, we are trying to examine ourselves just as we are right now. In order to do this, you have to maintain the mind of an absolute beginner at every stage of practice. I also talked about aliens. I recorded the talk, so maybe I’ll put it out as a podcast or something.

The next day was Sunday, which is the day my first teacher Tim McCarthy hosts a Zen sitting at 11am. Before going to that, I took Adriana to the Gorge Metro Park, a beautiful but stinky park in Akron. Why does it smell so bad? There are a couple spots in that park that always smell like raw sewage. I suppose that’s Akron for you.

After our walk, we headed out to Tim’s place. It’s always great seeing him and his group. While he was talking with the group, Tim said that if he were to translate Dogen’s phrase “dropping off body and mind,” he would rephrase it as, “I find myself the center of a universe that has no center.”

Later on, I wished I’d said, “I got your ‘universe with no center’ right here!” But I didn’t.

That’s Tim’s second great phrase. His earlier one was, “It’s more you than you could ever be.” All the best Zen teacher’s seem to have one nice phrase that encapsulates things well, but which often seems inscrutable when you first hear it. Nishijima Roshi’s was, “My personality extends throughout the universe.”

I’ve never been able to come up with one of those nice pithy phrases myself. Instead I sort of beat the thing to death with loads and loads and loads of words. I’m like the meandering solos in the middle of Iron Butterfly’s Inna Gadda Da Vida, just going on and on and on and never adding up to anything much. Then again, Inna Gadda Da Vida sold a godzillion copies. Not that I’ve managed to do that either…

After zazen and lunch, Tim asked if he could interview me as part of his doctoral dissertation. I said OK. So poor Adriana had to endure listening to the two of blather on about Zen for an hour. I enjoyed the conversation, though. It’s always good to talk to Tim.

On Sunday evening, Jeff, Adriana, and I went to Blossom Music Center to see Roger Daltrey perform The Who’s rock opera Tommy with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra as well as Pete Townshend’s brother Simon and members of Daltrey’s touring band. It was a-may-zing. Jeff said he nearly cried at several points. I did too. Daltrey said this may be the final time he was going to perform this symphonic version of Tommy. I hope he changes his mind. He was in fine voice. He doesn’t hit all the high notes quite like he used to, but in the deeper range he can still roar just like he did in The Who’s heyday.

Tommy is actually a very heavy piece of work. Not just in terms of being one of the earliest examples of heavy rock, but also in terms of lyrical content. Deaf, dumb, and blind Tommy gets molested as a child, then recovers his senses, and goes on to become a spiritual superstar before rejecting his role almost like Jiddu Krishnamurti did when he disbanded the Order of the Star. Pretty heavy stuff.

As I write this, I’m on a flight back to Los Angeles. We departed Akron on Monday morning at 6am. We just about missed the flight since we had to get up so damned early. We were the last ones on the plane as they were announcing that they’d close up the flight. Phew!

And that’s what I did with my 4th of July weekend. I hope yours was good too.






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