The lamp went on - An interview with Jonathan Donahue
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain: Hello and welcome to Conscious TV. I’m Iain McNay and my guest today is Jonathan Donahue. Hi Jonathan.
Iain: Jonathan is a musician and is in a band called Mercury Rev and was in a band called The Flaming Lips. We got in contact with each other about 8 or 9 years ago now. At our first meeting he asked me about an interview I did many moons ago with someone called U G Krishnamurti, not to be confused with J Krishnamurti, completely different people. There are not many people who have heard of U G Krishnamurti so I was quite impressed that Jonathan even knew about him. How did you find out about U G in the first place? Do you remember?
Jonathan: I remember finding out about U G through Jiddu Krishnamurti who was an Indian philosopher and quite extraordinary in his own arc, going through the years from the Theosophical Society into later years, as almost a go-to of a very staunch realism through out the spiritual world. It was in learning about and reading J Krishnamurti’s work that I realised there was another Krishnamurti. An even more abstruse Krishnamurti , even more hardcore
Iain: Very hard core
Jonathan: If such a word can be used in spiritual, new age, all is one world. UG who also knew J Krishnamurti…
Iain: They didn’t get on very well
Jonathan: No, but they both had a very persistent view of spirituality and how it should be managed on the inside, when a lot of their contemporaries, even in Indian philosophy and certainly in it’s translation into western philosophy were much more laissez faire about how to deal with these things, spiritual greed and vanities of knowledge and things like that. Whereas the two Krishnamurti’s themselves were always constantly warning about that sort of spiritual covetousness, about there is the magical types and there is muggles. U G himself opened my eyes to something I had no idea was possible, and that was the mistake of enlightenment
Iain: He called calamity, a calamity when he got in…
Jonathan: Ok, and for a very long time it was known as the mystique of enlightenment. Somehow this thing happened to you. This piano that fell from some divine stage above us. U G warned very strongly against this quest for something. He said something that knocked me over completely and changed nearly every colour in my pantone collection, “The search must end before anything can happen”. Totally contradictory to nearly every western philosopher to come by in the past 100 years since Theosophy broke in American in the late 1800s. Everyone else was saying you have to go on this search for the real you. You’ve got to find this enlightenment. You have got to attain this ascension. You have to find your own mountain top and go there. It was U G who brought it at least to my own understanding, that that was actually the obstacle itself, this desire for something outside of you. This idea that you can get something, and we all get that from the very beginning. You get a diploma, you get a job, get married
Iain: That comes from the ‘I’, the’ I’ wants to be enlightened because it’s special.
Jonathan: Yes, and this was a man along with J Krishnamurti warning how cunning that ‘I’ was. That there was not just one ego we thought just walked around and said I’m the best at this. We assumed it was just this one playing card but there were so many little ones , so much more cunning, so much more sophisticated and so much more adaptable, almost like a virus, that could adapt to whatever you thought you were attacking in your own ego way. It would find a way to survive. It was both Krishnamurtis but especially U G who really… he confronted me with something that at the time I was too stopped in my tracks to even defend myself against. Over time I’ve come to glean a little bit more and more. Does it mean I’ve conquered it? No absolutely not but I have quite a secure inkling that it’s there now, whereas before I didn’t know it was there, when you’re young.
Iain: Yes. I spent 2 days with him many years ago, he’s dead now, but he was quite ruthless in his own way. He didn’t take any shit from anybody, he just seemed to do exactly what he wanted to do, but there wasn’t exactly a ‘he’ that wanted it. he was completely spontaneous. I remember somebody had lent me one of his books, he wrote two books or books were written with his talking in it, he didn’t actually physically write the books. When I was in New York, I got his phone number and rang him. I’d heard that sometimes when people rang him, he would almost swear at them, go away, I don’t want to see you. I’d just said I would like to come and see you, meet you. He was okay. So, we agreed a time and I went there with Renate, my wife. It was strange. I rang the bell, somebody like this old Indian woman opened the door. I walked past looking for U G and I realised the person who opened the door was him. He quite liked the fact that I didn’t know who he was. We just had fun for 2 or 3 hours. He was just himself. He used to say whenever he left a place, he was staying… he seemed to have women around the world who were quite wealthy and liked him. Nothing sexual happening between them, they liked him, liked his teaching and helped look after him. He told me he was leaving New York in a few days. He would leave everything behind, all his money. He would just have the clothes that he wore, a ticket to somewhere else and he would arrive somewhere else with no money and that’s how he lived. As you said, there was something about no attachment and when he talked about what happened to him, his “enlightenment”, he calls it his calamity. After that he was living for 2 years not far from here under The Arches at Charing Cross station. He was homeless. He had no money. He’d lost his perspective in life and it took him time to find any kind of way of surviving. He was a beggar on the streets. For me he was a great example of complete letting go, and in that complete letting go there is no structure holding you together. Nearly all of us we seek, there’s nothing wrong with seeking but will seeking take you to your destination or your perceived destination? Because the destination as you’ve said has got nothing to do with the journey. It’s only the journey.
Jonathan: That is my understanding of the ‘I’s, the gross ego, is that there is something outside of you in relation to you., that separation. To me enlightenment… when you first get into spiritualism, theosophy or mysticism, you feel it’s this attainable yet somehow distant goal. Oh some day if I do enough “om chantis”, I’m going to be a part of this enlightenment club , like the mile high club or something. After a while if you penetrate deep enough you hit that point he was trying to sternly make, and Jiddu was making as well perhaps with a little more cushion than U G was, that you have to be ultra -vigilant about the very idea that it is something you can get. I think one of U G’s, not that I was a documentary on him or something like that. I think U G was making the case that it is something that arises in you, nearly spontaneously and without some calculated part on you to read too many books or go to too many gurus, to sit in too many positions, that it was automatically going to happen. To me the enlightenment itself, it can initially feel like the dark night of the soul that they speak of speak of, like a catastrophe. Because when you realise what enlightenment is, it’s ultimate responsibility. It’s like being a mother not just of your child, not of your brother, not of your social circle of friends, its’ being responsible for every sentient being. That’s what a Buddha is. It’s a Buddha nature that is responsible for every living creature. Most of us including myself, you can’t even imagine being responsible for yourself, not even in your clearest moment, let alone your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your son, your mother. Imagine being wholly responsible, wholly compassionate and wholly in love with every single person on earth, or being, whatever you want to call it . It knocked me over like a ton of bricks. Did I want this? Who would want this thing? Who could handle this sort of thing?
Iain: You don’t handle it because it destroys you
Jonathan: My gosh, that really gave me pause. No matter what else you can read in spiritualism or any of the perennial traditions, you are still ultimately faced with this one truth. Are you willing to be responsible for everything? Not in a way that you are making every reality happen, but in a way that whatever reality is happening, will you be open to it? Will you have a compassion towards it, even if it’s not directly manifested by yourself? It’s an overwhelming proposition.
Iain: I think what happened with U G, we don’t know, I would like to personalise this a bit more in a minute, was everything fell apart with his personality. Because there wasn’t really an element of him left to feel, I feel responsible. I did an interview with someone I’ve known for a long time recently, a guy called Jess Alborough (12 .47). He was a very successful author, children’s books. He sold over 8 million books, really successful. Over a period of time his personality just disintegrated, and there was one particular dramatic time when he was driving to the West Country, stopped at a service station and could not get himself together at all. He ended up in a complete mess as a human being for many years, until he started to not so much rebuild the personality but to allow more stability to emerge. That’s what happened to U G I think, his personality crashed. It just felt apart.
Jonathan: Ultimately it would have to because all the egos would say, ok I’ll take care of this, I’ll take care of these people, these people. That’s still the ego talking, I’ll be responsible but until you have this deeper, I guess impersonal connection, to everything and everyone as yourself, you can’t get to there. I can speak to what you’re talking about with the personality crash because that happened to me in my writing. When you go deep into this far enough, all that sentiment of baby, baby I love, I love you in song writing, all that … call it that whipped up man- made drama, it gets burned out of you. As a song writer it can leave you quite speechless because you say all these little soap operas I used to write about, all these fantasied little moments I would lyrically I would try to encapsulate, I am not interested in that. I have no real connection to these little dramas I was making. It doesn’t make me better, it simply made me really quiet. It did affect the way I approached lyrics in albums. It absolutely changed. I wasn’t willing to just indulge in these little romantic fantasies because I didn’t feel that.
Iain: So just to give this some kind of reference point, your third album “See you on the other side”, you put a lot into that and it didn’t do well sales wise, and that was quite devastating for you…
Jonathan: Not the sales I should say, it just didn’t seem to find anyone’s ears, maybe not even ears, into the heart
Iain: No appreciation basically is that right?
Jonathan: It didn’t feel as if anyone had received the transmission
Jonathan: It felt like being on an island and there was one army base and you had missed the frequency to rescue you
Iain: And the response in you initially was to blame the outside, you told me when we talked about it
Jonathan: The initial response was to say it wasn’t to blame, it was almost to feel. I’ll speak for only myself, that somehow, I was inadequate. I had not met …
Iain: The standard
Jonathan: The threshold. I had walked into a bar thinking I was wearing my best, had my Sunday best on, and everyone just shrugged. It wasn’t their fault by any means, it was just that feeling of momentary worthlessness. It wasn’t real, it was just phantoms in my own mind but at the time it seemed physical to me, it seemed visceral.
Iain: What was the process in you, if you remember at the time to take you beneath that so, you could see the problem was rooted within?
Jonathan: Somehow the lamp went on
Iain: The lamp went on. So, something… you let go of something…
Jonathan: Something must have allowed, either to stop the wind, and allow the candle to flicker or sparked it. I don’t have an answer to why the lantern was lit when it was. I’m grateful it did. I don’t have anything to ascribe it to other than, it went on. Maybe a growing weariness of my own dissatisfaction reached some sort of critical temperature that ignited it. But I can assuredly say that at the time I didn’t have any inkling, I didn’t have any greater spiritual insight or moment of realisation. It was just on when it felt like it hadn’t been.
Iain: Once it was on it produced light where there wasn’t light before. You started to read and study
Jonathan: I’m pretty sure that that’s the way it went but at the time I still didn’t have the lexicon in the way that we’re talking now. All the Krishnamurti, the philosophies and the traditions, I had none of that. So, it was just holding a little match up to the cave and saying well it looks like I can go a little further in this direction before I hit a rock.
Iain: Small steps at a time
Jonathan: Yeah, very small steps. I’m sure it’s very small steps now. I’d like to say I was responsible for the lantern going on. I’d like to say all these heavy deep things occurred to me and I figured out, but at the time I didn’t. I was lost and I admit it
Iain: So, you’ve talked a little about how that affected your music, lyrically affected…
Jonathan: It affected my life and therefore it would affect the lyric. It took this part of me out, this constant blender going on drama. We all have those little whirlpools going on in us but in my case, it had to do with a sort of lyrical perspective that I was no longer felt close to
Iain: And musically, did you feel the music you were writing was different as well?
Jonathan: If I’m honest I probably over-compensated a bit with the romance of the music
Iain: So, the drama of the music
Jonathan: …to fill in where the words no longer were. Maybe that’s part of that romantic notion of songs on Deserters Songs. Once that little whirlpool stopped or whatever happened to it, maybe I was trying to fill it with more romantic sweeps
Iain: Because you used orchestra for the first time on that album, didn’t you?
Jonathan: The first time we used more orchestration than rock orientation. The ballads were very tipped on that record. Now speaking to you I probably did. I was probably trying to just balance the hull that I felt had lilted to the side. The whole ship was just leaning so far over like one of those racing yachts so, maybe all the childhood, children’s records I loved, with the oboes, the narration, those fairy tale little musical moments. It quite possibly could have been trying to fill that space that in me that was just hollowed out.
Iain: Did you doubt the lantern at all?
Jonathan: I think I was so desperate or despairing that I didn’t see it as a way, I just felt myself going out of thirst for water. You just start digging in this dune, without any dowsing or any machine to tell you there’s water 2 feet below you. You just start digging as if it’s the last thing you’re going to do. I’ll like to ascribe a lot more confidence to myself and to Deserters Songs in particular, which people know, or to my music, but a lot of it was just scratching in the dirt, not happenstance but almost just out of a really overwhelming thirst. You’re not thinking, you’re too thirsty to think.
Iain: Yeah, and you were saying that like there was a space created, a hollow was there.
Jonathan: And overtime I could surrender to letting it fill itself. When you’re young and the game of this, in a way you just look to something else. We’ll use the word spiritual, I’m not a great fan of that word but we’ll use it. In my case it was something that turned on to my own understanding in me of its own accord, of its own intent. I’ve done whatever I can to shield it from the winds of what little ego does to snuff it out. I’m always missing some because some are so little ones that are so smart
Iain: At that time if you remember do you feel less of your self or more of yourself? I don’t mean…
Jonathan: I’ve felt less of myself since then, diminishingly less…
Iain: So, the structure, the one that’s defined as Jonathan starts to drop away
Jonathan: The closer I looked the more uncertain I became. I’m ok with it now, I wasn’t for a long time because you’re wholly associating yourself with those movements. When the movement slows down a bit more it takes a little time to still understand that there is a worthiness. Like a formula one driver who’s always used to driving at 180 (mph) then he has to drive to the grocery store. Naturally he would question, am I still that great Mario Andretti, even though I’m going at 45 (mph) to the 7/11. You have to have a patience there and you have to have some grace. By that I mean something you’re grateful for but can’t ascribe to yourself, or to just yourself. I don’t know, I think that’s the part I’m enamoured with the most, I don’t always have any idea what’s going on in me (smiling). The moment I do, I start thinking about U G and J Krishnamurti , then I start recognising these little Jonathans puting their little Napoleon caps on again. I get a bit more vigilant. It’s a balance, it’s a challenge. I lose more than I win of these little battles, but I do what I can to get up and try to meet them each day. That’s were that mistake of enlightenment really confronted me. It also liberated me from this white cloud of bliss, that everyone sort of wants to jump into, not recognising the simple fact that it’s a cloud. You will fall through it again and be back in reality and be expected to take responsibility for your own actions, and to be kind and compassionate. If you can do those three things, Buddhahood is assured. But apart from those three things, I don’t think there’s anything else I’ve stumbled on through my years that’s going to get you there.
Iain: So, musically would you say now, we talked in the earlier interview about the universe, the absolute using you as a vehicle. Not so much using you but you are the vehicle, would you say that is more and more the case? That you feel something’s coming through you rather than this is Jonathan thinking or writing this lyric? There’s a happening and you are somehow involved in the happening
Jonathan: yeah, what you say. I think there is a song I know for certain on our last record called “Autumn is in the air”…
Iain: I remember that song. It’s a lovely song
Jonathan: Were its’ me describing exactly what we’re talking about in the best way I could. Most parts of me disappearing like a bicycle left chained that you walk past every morning, and each morning the front wheel’s been stolen, and then the seat’s stolen until there’s only just the bare frame still locked to the stop sign. That’s the way it’s been feeling to me through the years. It keeps going. Maybe some fans don’t want to hear that, but I am disappearing. It’s not that I’m growing into something that I’m trying to build up but I feel I’m disappearing a bit, but that’s ok.
Iain: Does that make you feel lighter? Your emotions affect you less?
Jonathan: Sometimes it’s just hard to stand up. It’s both. I’d like to say I’m taking it all in stride, somehow like Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’, “I’m much better now”. I can’t say that. I can only say that its going on in me we’ve made a number of records and I’ve written records about nature and people thought you’re always writing about the birds, snakes, the streams. This stuff goes on in me, I don’t have any other word to describe it, that’s what’s happening. I can’t say it’s happening to anyone else. I can’t say it’s better than what’s happening to anyone else, that’s just what’s happening to me. The more I go into some of the Traditions, I notice it has happened to other people in the past. I’m not alone in this if that’s any consolation
Iain: No, you’re far from being alone. There’s one thing you said to me when we were on the phone yesterday, which I wrote down and wanted to ask you to talk about briefly. So, in Mercury Rev the band, you feel that it’s a vehicle for attracting experience
Jonathan: Yes, I think any art in particular, but in anyone’s walk of life, it’s not about the product itself. It’s not about a song, it’s not about a light show, its’ about the energies that it’s not only attracting to you but bringing up in your consciousness. Or most importantly especially in arts and entertainment it’s forcing you to acknowledge and it’s sometime to confront, its’ sometimes to embrace situations, that people aren’t on the outside. There are inner elements in you symbolised by experiences on the outside, by people that come and go in your life, by records of success or failure. These aren’t on the outside, nothing failed on the outside, see you on the other side. Nothing was greatly successful on the outside of Deserter Songs, but on the inside of me it changed elements in me, it changed my perspective, hopefully it expanded in some ways, hopefully it abandoned other parts of me. That to me was very freeing. Rather than assuming that Mercury Rev had to do something, that it had to accomplish something, it had to be something. I’ve just noticed for my own part, not speaking for Grasshopper, that everything that happens, it’s happening inside of me. The band is simply the car in some way…
Iain: That helps to express
Jonathan: Yeah, that seemingly transports me to this episode, this event, this emotion. It’s not to say that I’m not invested in Mercury Rev but what I’ve noticed is that it’s not the thing in itself
Iain: You also said, I picked this up from a quote somewhere “true creation comes from space”
Jonathan: The emptiness. That’s not something that goes over well in your youth. In your youth you’re looking to fill as many squares on the crossword musically as you possibly can, when you’re 18 years old. You see an empty square and its almost abhorrent to you. Fill it, put a symbol there, put a feedback sound, squall into a microphone, but for God’s sake don’t leave it open. I don’t just mean being a three- piece band versus a nine- piece band, but just allowing the space not to fill itself but to know it’s filled in and of itself already. But when you’re young… I guess that’s why so many first records are so incredibly unique in every band’s career because it’s that ratio of what they’ve left unfilled and what they were frustrated they couldn’t fill.
Iain: They’re hungry for experience, they’re hungry for success. They want to taste that.
Jonathan: Wide open channels. Youth has that strong magnetism it draws things from ( 33.33) ??.
Iain: You were also telling me you were in a situation when your house was flooded, and you lost most of your possessions away. Was that something you took in your stride ok? I think for a lot of people that’s still difficult when you think … it’s the memories that are going. I know it’s a way of letting go, probably a super-fast way of letting go but it’s still challenging on the human level
Jonathan: It had that moment, but that moment was really diminished. I can remember I was living on The Creek in the Catskills in upstate New York and the hurricane was coming. We had an inkling the flood was going to be much bigger and it ended up being the record flood in recorded history. Many many months before my girlfriend had expressed to me, she said you know the only way you’re going leave this place is if some natural disaster levels it. Of course, I was just laughing, what could possibly… snowstorm? No. Sure enough when the flood came, you’re just watching the brown waters rise. You could see some of the two- inch tapes floating down The Creek, Deserts Songs just unspooling themselves. They looked like sort of snakes as they unspooled as the water was going down with your other stuff, other people’s stuff as well.
Iain: And you watch, and you feel…
Jonathan: Yes, because we were up on the higher ground for a little bit
Iain: This is like the multi -track tapes of your most famous album, a successful album. And we all know that as technology develops more can always be done with historical things
Iain: And it’s floating down the river. So, that possibility is just going, gone.
Jonathan: Yes, it was a little bit like… something didn’t click in me that I was losing anything
Jonathan: It just didn’t come across like that. I remember driving away and I was smiling whilst the thunder and lightning was still happening, and you couldn’t get down Route 28. The roads were closed, and trees were falling, but I remember smiling. I don’t know why, but it had that sense of being forcibly freed, like I had clung to long to that moment, being in that space in The Catskills. I was more than likely chuckling at my own arrogance thinking I could stay there forever, that somehow there was some eternity I could lock into, living in this little place on the south side of a creek, some ideal that I had. There it was something much bigger than me going nope. Something very visceral, it wasn’t subtle, it wasn’t something you could perceive and philosophise away. No, there was 23 and half foot flood water on a creek that was usually 4 and a half feet deep. That was when you feel one of those great forces in the universe, the right hand of it.
Iain: Yes. You mentioned earlier to me when we were talking that patience and stillness… you mentioned them in the same sentence are incredibly important to you, patience and stillness.
Jonathan: I’m fortunate that there’s been a lot more grace in my life especially musically that’s given me probably more patience than I have earned on my own.
Iain: Why do you feel you have to earn patience?
Jonathan: It’s not a natural instinct
Iain: I think it was, but we’ve lost it in humanity…
Jonathan: Ok yes, that would be a fair statement were most of us are, it’s not a natural instinct. I’m speaking creatively especially. There have been times, especially recently with the release this ‘Bobby Gentry Revisited’ were there was an incredible amount of patience looking back at certain elements of the recordings. I don’t know where they came from. I would like to say there was a trust and I had all these ‘Ohm chanti’ I had recited before every recording, but it wasn’t like that. Maybe those are good karmas expressing themselves from many lifetimes, maybe it’s just grace itself, I don’t know. But, I’m aware enough to say thanks, as corny and as new age as that may sound, that’s what works for me.
Iain: Yes well, gratitude is not new age, gratitude is intelligence to be grateful for what you have. I remember I had an accident 18 months ago, I was hiking in The Dolomite mountains I slipped and I fell, and I was rolling down the mountain. My wife thought, this is it that I’m gone but I got stopped by a pile of rocks. I was lucky I got stopped. I was in some pain, I fractured my spine, I broke my shoulder but actually, I was grateful I was alive. That kind of gratitude stays with me every morning when I wake up. Even though I might have a human issue about something, I’m grateful, I didn’t die and I’m grateful that I’m not permanently in a wheelchair or something.
Jonathan: Gratitude to me is something many people mistake as a platitude, a sense of self flattery, to me I see gratitude as a force of nature, as in physics. It’s something very real. It’s not simply a human philosophy, to me there’s something quite tangible in sincere gratitude, not just patting yourself on the back or thanking your lucky stars, thanking your grandma because she gave you her stamp collection from the 60’s. There something very real in that sincere gratitude when you know in your heart you haven’t earned it. Or maybe you had many lifetimes ago, I don’t know. But you know currently you didn’t earn that, that either it’s a result of past good behaviours let’s call it, or that you’ve been given an opportunity greater than what you’ve worked towards so far, and you don’t want to blow that opportunity. That to me is gratitude, it saying there’s some larger opportunity here, please Jonathan, focus for a moment, don’t let this slip away even if you don’t wholly understand it.
Iain: So, the search has to end
Jonathan: It does, it does. It’s tricky and so hard. I’m just out there with everybody else doing what you can. Is this a search? Is this not a search? I think I’ve done 3 searches today, is that 3 searches too many? You can get into all these little trickeries of it, but there’s a truth there that’s stayed with me, even if I don’t fully know the truth myself. Even if I’ve only glimpsed, small little facets of the entire gem. I have an inkling it’s true the search must end before that liberation that all the great sages talk about happens to you, in you.
Iain: I know you study quantum physics quite a bit and that explains it quite well that really on an energy level there is nothing that is individual, there is nothing that tangibly has form
Jonathan: The form that we see is the search, the matter is the search. The particle is the search. So, if you’re looking to be that wave that all the great philosophers mention, that all the Poussins, Dallis, the great painters, the great writers from Whitman on back speak of, if you want that wave to be your self , then the search has to end. I’m out there with the rest, with everyone, I try to do the best I can and try not to beat myself up too much.
Iain: And you live a life which is important as well. In the West, we need to live a life and you make marvellous music. Are you happy most of the time?
Iain: That’s wonderful. That’s a good place to end, I think. Jonathan, thank you very much.
Jonathan: Thank you, Iain
Iain: Thank you out there watching Conscious TV and if you don’t know the music of Jonathan’s band Mercury Rev you want to start. Start with Deserts Songs, a wonderful album, lots of wonderful albums, but that’s a good starting point. Thank you for watching, Goodbye
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