The Celtic Shaman
I went to Cherry Hill to hear Francis Dunnery and John Wesley Harding play a benefit for Planned Parenthood. My friend Teri Rambo took me – she’s an awesome musician too. But I really went just to see Francis, who is one of my art heroes. There are many, and I’ve written about some here. But when you have chance to be with one in person you don’t walk, you run. Teri and I drove.
Like so much of the music I love, I was introduced to Francis Dunnery by my friend, the actor Pearce Bunting. Perhaps my best friend in the world, Pearce used to point me to music he thought I’d like on a regular basis. It was like someone throwing a box of ping-pong balls at you – inevitably a few ended up in my pockets or sliding down the inside of my shirt, where I have carried them ever since. Such is the ping-pong ball named Francis Dunnery. When we lived in the same city it felt like Pearce called me once every other day. “Benny!” he’d say on the phone, “you’ve gotta check this out!” Then – this being in the days before share-able mp3s – I would arrive at his place and there would be a kind of listening session, with Pearce doing his friendship/DJ performance in front of his sound system. I would frequently counteract his overwhelming cheerfulness with my calculated nonchalance, but it was only a matter of minutes before I was buckled over laughing helplessly at something he had said or done. Back in the 80s and 90s, these visits were almost always accompanied by beer and one controlled substance or another. Until one day I came to him and said, I don’t want to visit you anymore buddy, because I feel like the only reason I do is to get high with you. He got clean before I did though, and we’ve both been substance free for over twenty years.
Let’s Go Do What Happens was the album he shared with me, and that hooked me to Francis. It’s really his one full-on studio rock album. Riding on the Back (Of a Giant Bird) is the song from that album which, like Meshell N’Degeocello’s I’m Diggin’ You (Like An Old Soul Record), John Mayer’s Clarity and Springsteen’s Jungleland, has become a “life anthem” for me; one of those songs that has written itself into my DNA and now, whenever I hear it, my entire being throbs along the delightful recognition of kinship. The songs I have mentioned are simply ones I could name sitting here on a Sunday morning, but I have many more life anthems, and a few more written by Francis.
Why do we feel this way about certain artists? This question dazzles and haunts me. The simplest and most truthful answer is: there is no answer to that question. We just do, which is the same reason we love warm caramel on vanilla ice cream, baseball or lovemaking to begin with feathery soft kisses. But I like to think that with Francis, I can identify some concerns we have in common, and this was confirmed as he stood not five feet from me in a bland room in Cherry Hill New Jersey last week, singing, joking and preaching.
His songs are metaphysical. Not only does he not avoid asking the Big Questions in songs, he revels in them. Why are we here? Why did she meet him then? Why does he love her? What’s the important stuff? Why do my friends suffer? Why do I? Riding on the Back is a rocker in 3/4 time, with an awesome part for a flautist and a great horn section, and it’s about how there is no such thing as coincidence. “We’re riding on the back of giant bird!” Francis sings. “Bigger than you! Bigger than me! Bigger than oooo-ur – history!” Another song, much quieter and yet my life anthem too, soothes me and makes me cry with the admonition to “give it up and let it go. Give up and let your life flow.” And the song which catapulted him into national consciousness (briefly) was made famous by the TV show “Scrubs”. It’s from one of his earliest albums and it is the most beautiful sad song I know: Good Life, about a wishing the lover you’re breaking up with a good life, and then wishing you hadn’t broken up with her.
Counting last week, I have seen him live four times. His stage routine is the definition of “blarney” – a misunderstood term which we misconceive to mean “lying”, but actually means virtuoso story-telling. But more than that, because in the Celtic tradition that Francis embodies, the telling of stories far surpasses the temporal enjoyment of entertainment. For the Celts, there is spiritual consequence in the telling of stories. There is the opportunity for personal transformation. For the Celts, the story is an actual bridge to an ancient wisdom that can change your life. Not “change your life” as in affirm shit your already believe anyway, but truly alter the way you experience your self, and what happens to you. It’s a tall order to stand on stage with that as your charge, your calling. But so it is with Francis, which is one reason he is my hero.
Like all artists, he accomplishes this offer of personal transformation though an alchemical mix of earthy humor, brilliant creative expression and indirection. You don’t realize you’re being transformed until it’s too late. And it’s not a mandate either. He invites you to cross a threshold, which he describes with hilarious R-rated language and an irresistible friendliness which he earns through self-effacement. “I’m not swearing at ya!” he told his laughing audience last week. “F – E – C – K is a word I learned from the priests, so I know it’s not dirty!”
Here are some other things he told us last week. That we each have an inner GPS (which he referred to as a “sat-nav” until he realized that “no one here knows what I’m fecking talking about, do ya, ’cause their called GPS in [George W. Bush accent:] ‘Merica”). We will be at ease if we can find and follow our inner GPS (“which has many names ya know: God, Buddha, karma, Jesus and all that shite, sorry, it’s not shite, but ya see what I’m sayin’ “). What keeps us from finding our inner GPS? Two things, according to Francis: our ego, and the shite the media throws at us 24/7. On Whoever Brought Me Here, he sings about how what we see and believe in becomes, well, what we see and believe in if we allow it to. “I thought I was toilet, but I’m living room” he sings – and it was a change of perception that brought about that realization. And ego? “Fer feck’s sake,” he said to us, as we wiped away tears either from the jokes he was telling, or the remainder of the grief we let go of from the song before, “fer feck’s sake, I thought I was the lead guitarist of a ROCK BAND!!!” he said, and struck a silly rock band pose. “But that was before I entered my middle passage. Yeh know about the middle passage dontcha?”
Francis has two callings, at least two that I’m aware of. One is the singer/songwriter Francis Dunnery. The other is the astrologer Francis Dunnery. He is an accomplished reader of astrological signs, and on his website you can have him read your birth chart by sending him the date, time and location of your birth. I’m not here to have an argument with anyone about what’s “true” and what “isn’t”. I have always appreciated astrology as a poetic way to consider the patterns in one’s life. So several years ago I had Francis read my chart. I wish I had it in an electronic version so I could share some of it here. It was, as all good readings are, startlingly accurate in some ways, and mysterious and obtuse in others.
“So, the middle passage,” Francis said, after a song, “it’s like yer life is a play, and you have ten actors to perform it.” I thrilled at the theatrical analogy, for obvious reasons. “So you select six of them when yer eighteen or so and and you know all the answers, and you say – here they are, the stars of my life. But the other four actors, they’re still backstage and they’re PISSED OFF. So somewhere between ages 30 and 45, there’s a feckin’ insurrection. And the four actors backstage kill the six that’s been prancing around under the lights making a feckin’ mess of it all. And then you see it – it was these four all along that should have been out front. And so you enter the middle passage. It’s a brand new life. And it’s feckin’ terrifyin’.”
Towards the end of his set, he turned casually to the woman in the front row he had selected as his “victim”. This is a brilliant part of his blarney. Francis identifies someone up front who he can talk to, but who won’t talk back too much. And then much of his banter is presented as a conversation between him and his front-row “victim” that the rest of us are just overhearing. Tonight’s victim was a middle-aged woman name Karen. “So Karen,” he would say as he was tuning for the next song, “have yeh entered yer middle passage yet? What’s that? Yeh never heard of it? So let me fill you in.” In this way, the rhythm and delivery of authentic Celtic blarney is preserved. Celtic story-telling is a form engaged in around peat fires in pubs, where you not only see your audience, you can smell them. It is a form which relies on intimacy. For the story to have any effect, souls have to touch. So Francis begins with a soul in the front row, makes a personal connection with it, and then the touching of souls may spread out from there.
“So Karen,” he said casually, “did know there’s no such thing as the past?”
Now, you can only get away with a metaphysical bombshell like this one if you’ve created a familial bind with your listeners; only if they know you don’t take yourself terribly seriously; only if you’ve made them laugh and cry a little. After this bombshell, there was a ripple of perplexed laughter. Francis did his backwards smile-dive: a habitual gesture of his in which he acknowledges the outrageousness of something’s he’s said while strumming, smiling and ducking simultaneously. “No it’s true!” he cried. “It doesn’t exist! It’s all just feckin’ ideas in yer head!” More nervous laughter, strumming, tuning up. He peered up at Karen mischievously. “And Karen, did yeh know,” he said smiling, “there’s no such thing as the future either. Do you know why that is, Karen?” Beautiful comic pause. “Because it HASN’T FECKIN’ HAPPENED YET!”
And boom. There we were led. To that magical place Eckhart Tolle and others have made millions writing about. That place swamis and boddhisatvas have meditated in. That place monks and mystics have prayed out of. “It’s the only feckin’ thing we have!” Francis cried, “It’s called the present – it’s what’s happening right now!” We smiled nervously, most of us unable to let the singular truth settle in; barely able to contemplate the implications before Francis began to sing again. “Give it up and let it go. Give up and let your life flow . . . ”
After his set, Teri and I rose, dazed in that place in which you have been through something with someone but you don’t know how to talk about it yet, so we just smiled awkwardly at each other, saying things like “I’m just going to ah . . . yeah . . . in the back there’s something to . . . okay me too . . . ” So there I was, standing in the back of this bland room in a store where they sell pianos (don’t ask, because I don’t know), when I suddenly realize I’m standing right feckin’ next to him. He’s chatting away with someone I don’t know, and – like it’s being guided by forces beyond my control – my left arm slides around his waist and I hold myself close to him.
Let’s call him a celebrity for the sake of argument, although in the epic cesspool known as the entertainment industry, Francis is barely a dingleberry off to the side. Any other celebrity after a concert might have reacted with alarm, having an unknown person slide an arm around them. But without even looking at me, Francis slid his right arm around me, as he finished up his conversation with whomever he was talking to. Then Teri was in front us us, beaming. He cranked his head down to me.
“Hey there!” he cried, as if I was his long lost friend. For reasons I don’t understand, I began patting his belly.
“That was so fucking awesome,” I said. He laughed.
“Thanks man!” he said. There followed a small whirl-wind of deep conversation, Teri snapping pix, her friend attempting to snap pix of the three of us, but not knowing how to use an iPhone, and warm farewells. But the exchange between the two of us that meant the most to me had to do with a shared fellowship. And that’s all I can say about that.
When we say “shaman”, we usually think of a person in a grass skirt, bare feet and an animal mask dancing around a campfire in front of a tribe at night. And such shamen exist, and I’m sure their medicine is powerful. But there are other, modern shamen. These are people who are trying to weave spiritual import into a creative performance, sometimes overtly, sometimes undercover. They offer what they do as a kind of sacrifice, and they sense themselves as servants to us, and to a greater mystery. And they offer transformation, as they themselves are transformed in performance before our very eyes. Francis is such a shaman, and not the only one. Be on the lookout for them. And when one presents herself/himself to you, attend. Attend.
Here is Francis’ current horoscope for my sun sign:
I remember watching the Iraq war on CNN and general Schwartzkoff was giving a news briefing. He was showing a video of an arms factory building that was targeted by a missile from a stealth fighter. Just before the missile hit the factory, a vehicle casually drove out of the targeted building unaware that the building was about to be demolished and everyone and everything inside completely destroyed. Was it God or fate that saved them? Are we really in control?
Your song for this month is Give up and let it go! by ME!