Monday, May 2, 2011

If We're All One, Who Needs You?

[The following column originally appeared in the March '74 issue of STEREO REVIEW. I reprint it here because I think it's an amusing snapshot of a particular kind of early Seventies craziness, and also because on the flight to Texas to cover said mishegass I happened to be seated next to the late Richard Elman. Elman, a novelist and left-wing activist of some repute, told me in long and sardonic detail how he had written every word of the brilliant first chapter of Albert Goldman's otherwise execrable Lenny Bruce bio and then been denied all credit for its authorship (a story I alluded to last week). Let's just say that nothing I have subsequently learned about the loathsome Goldman over the years has convinced me that Elman's account was in any way incorrect. -- S.S.]


SOMEONE, I'm not sure who (and if any of our literate readers would care to enlighten me, I'd be most grateful), once said that it's the easiest thing in the world to start a new religion -- all you have to do is be crucified and rise on the third day. Easy or no, there have been throughout history a number of aspiring divinities who have not taken this simple advice to heart, and it appears to have been similarly wasted on Teenage America's latest Heavyweight Spiritual Contender, the sixteen-year-old self-billed Perfect Master, Guru Maharaj Ji. In the long run, I think his credibility is going to suffer for it. As a matter of fact, I caught his act recently and frankly I can't see him as serious competition for either Billy Graham or David Bowie, the two performers he most closely resembles. However, the circumstances attendant on this confrontation between the reputed Wisdom of the East and the sensorium of this reporter deserve some explanation, at least insofar as this is a music magazine.

For several weeks during last fall, New York City (and, I assume, other parts of the country) was plastered with posters featuring the Guru's smiling puss and an invitation to attend "Millennium '73," a three-day extravaganza at the Houston Astrodome at which he promised to announce solutions for all the world's problems. (Rennie Davis, the former Chicago 7 radical who had gotten religion and become the Festival's organizer, had earlier declared it would be "the most significant event in the history of mankind.") Call me a sucker if you will, but with a hype like that I just knew I had to attend. My own particular problem (namely, how to justify a Popular Music Editor's interest in such spiritual matters to my more pragmatic associates at STEREO REVIEW) was soon solved, and I took it as a Good Omen. It seemed that Eric Mercury, Stax Records' latest entry in the Let's Fill the Void Left by the Passing of Otis Redding sweepstakes, had been invited to perform during the Millennium's first day. The guru's people were predicting a massive turnout of preemies (devotees) from all over the world, and although Eric himself was not a follower (apparently the only reason he was approached in the first place was his recording of a highly secular soul number entitled "Love is Taking Over") the Stax organization was obviously receptive to the idea of presenting him to the hordes expected to pack the Astrodome to overflowing. So, being generally curious about outbreaks of mass psychosis, I allowed myself to be the guest of Stax, and, along with some other journalistic types, made the trek down to Houston.

My immediate impression upon arriving was that the seemingly unlikely alliance between Stax's Memphis Funk and the guru's Himalayan Homilies was not as farfetched as I had anticipated; it turned out that both the Stax executives and the Holy Stripling were inordinately fond of expensive limousines (the guru's was a spiffy green Mercedes, which I encountered in the hotel parking lot). But a vague air of uneasiness surrounded the whole undertaking; the record company people were promoting an artist, trying to sell records, while the gurunoids were jabbering about saving the world and offering "a thousand years of peace for those who want it." Strange bedfellows, to say the least,

Nonetheless, after a breakfast press conference at which both Rennie and Eric (a very likeable and engaging young fellow, as it turned out) hyped their respective things, we were off to the Astrodome to see at first hand What It Was All About. Oddly, it was a total bust; the biggest excitement (for me, anyway) was provided by occasional harassment by the assorted competing sects (Krishnists, fundamentalists, etc.) who were picketing at the gate. After all the publicity, the multitudes inconsiderately neglected to appear (official crowd estimates ranged from ten to twenty thousand, which struck me as excessive), and in any event those that did couldn't have cared less about the entertainment provided for them; the kids I talked to were full of excited rumors about scheduled UFO landings and the like and, understandably, traditional show biz must have struck them as pretty irrelevant to the grander scheme of things. So poor Eric, backed by the full-scale Stax production -- big band and gospel singers -- was left on stage to parade his wares before a crowd at best only vaguely aware of his presence. It was a shame, actually -- Eric isn't Otis, but he's a reasonably commanding performer. But he is not Divine, and was therefore beneath the notice of the audience (perhaps they should have booked Bette Midler). At any rate, I'd probably enjoy hearing him again under more reasonable conditions.

For those of you who may be wondering, I did indeed stay for the Guru's opening appearance and, although the faithful responded to him with worshipful enthusiasm, I didn't find him all that hot.

For starters, he couldn't dance. Even worse, his material was lousy; he retold the same parable at least four times with different characters (owl and goose, fox and crow, etc.) and he was given to saying things like "I don't have to tell know." Somehow, one expects more from a Living God.
A couple of postcripts.

1. Elman's quite brilliant, albeit somewhat grimmer, account of the event, as it appeared the same month as the above in CREEM, can be read in its entirety over here.

2. When I encountered the Guru's green Mercedes, it was in the company of a large contingent of East Coast rock writers with whom I had just shared a pleasant afternoon sipping various alcoholic beverages at the Holiday Inn across from the Astrodome. Now it can be told: We broke the car's antenna, and generally defaced the vehicle in various juvenile ways. Yes -- I helped trash God's limousine.

3. The Guru himself, a year or so after I caught his act, was discovered boinking one of his secretaries, a (significantly older) American woman who he subsequently married. At which point, his mother revoked his God license and assumed the position of Divine One herself. According to Wiki, however, the Guru, now a middle-aged con artist, has since returned to his job as spiritual figurehead of the Divine Light Mission's successor organizations.

4. As I was getting ready to fly back to NYC, I ran into a West Coast rock scribe of my acquaintance whom I hadn't seen previously during the festivities. When I asked him if he was in town to attend the show, he said not quite. Turns out his younger brother had gone off to join the Guru's cult a year earlier, and the kid had been completely out of touch with his parents and family ever since. My writer friend was, of course, hoping to find his brother somewhere on the festival grounds, with the aim of enticing him back home. I never found out how this particular sad story played out, alas.

5. A decade later, with Ronald Reagan in the White House, Millennium '73 organizer Rennie Davis stayed in touch with the zeitgeist as a Yuppie venture capitalist pitching well-publicized networking seminars at New York City nightclubs like Limelight. I think the word I'm looking for is "putz."