Monday, September 26, 2011

Perfect Circle: REM, Alex Grey & The Mission of Art

 Three days after the 1989 earthquake, a college classmate and I drove a long roundabout route from UC Santa Cruz to the Concord Pavilion to see REM play live. Santa Cruz and the rest of the San Francisco Bay area was reeling from the damage caused by the 6.9 earthquake and the usual roads were closed to traffic so a usual 2-hour or less drive took more than 3 hours. Sill, while we were at once traumatized and in shock from coming through the epicenter of earthquake unscathed, we were über excited to see the concert. REM provided much of the soundtrack to my college years and I'd had the tickets for weeks. And wow, weren't our musical heroes rising to the occasion: a natural disaster had not deterred them from going on with the show. REM more than rose to the occasion of inspiring the shaky crowd: they played a near 20-song set before 3 encores (including "Stand,""It's the End of the World as We Know It" and "Begin the Begin"). They played the heroes at a time when we really needed them and we drove home with hope restored despite our damaged homes and cities. 
I don't know when I stopped really listening to REM. It wasn't that I lost respect for the band, it was just as my life changed, my tastes changed. I saw them several times over the years, including at SXSW in 2008 where they once again pulled no punches during a set at Stubbs, but I didn't really keep them in my listening play list.

More than 20 years later, I found myself visiting LA hiking up Runyon Canyon with another songwriter the day after the announcement that REM was calling it quits. We were talking new projects and change and how we were negotiating those inevitable markers of creative lives, as well as having a sense of mission in one's work.  REM's much more public process of closing it's chapter as a band seemed to sum up that experience: not negative but bittersweet with the fact of time passing and the need to recharge and refocus to be that much more effective.

Upon getting home I was reminded of the work of visionary artist Alex Grey.  Grey depicts a hyper-detailed physical and energetic reality in his paintings, a realization of a vision honed by scientific study, artistic technique, select use of LSD and committed spiritual practice. His work is deep and mystical and transcendent. His 1998 book "The Mission of Art"  as well as his many writings and interviews are wonderful depictions of artistic process and understanding of what art is to culture.

"Art is a reflection of who we think we are and what a culture is. It’s a reflection of cultures and individuals, and how they resonate. Art is the way a culture embeds its sacred truths so that they can be passed on, either the next day or centuries from that time. It’s the way we have preserved our cultural memory of who and what we are." —Alex Grey.

I thought of REM, and how they encapsulate a time of my  life, a certain generation of music, and the hope and inspiration they provided...and their wisdom in moving on.

REM: "Perfect Circle"