To Steal a Horse and Feel Like a Boss!

Posted: April 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Following is an excerpt from my paper “Way Way Out: Mysticism, Sci-Fi and the Psyche in the Music of Shadow” presented at the Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute’s Symposium on Shadow at Medger Evers College, City University of New York, March 27th, 2009. It has never been published so it still has some rough edges.

 

…a single line from the original “Bassman,” about a “Dr. Leung,” seems to have inspired the psychological masterpiece of 1980 [sic], “Conscience.”[1] In this funky Calypso Shadow runs around trying to get his conscience surgically extracted in the same manner he tried to get Dr. Leung to remove the bassman from his head in 1974. Complaining that “de lousy conscience dat I have, like it really want me to starve” he longs for a solution that will allow him to live happily in life’s ethical grey areas.

In the “Bassman” song, physically removing a component of one’s mind is but a passing thought that even “Bassman” fans sing absent-mindedly. But in “Conscience” the idea is developed into a high thesis:

I want to do wrong things

And feel like a king

I want to steal a horse

And feel like a boss!

Right now if I do wrong things any time

My conscience always blowin’ my mind

Call me madman but do not doubt

I want my conscience out!

 

…I could rip off blind people in de street

Fool children and take ‘way their food to eat

…Please find me a doc who could do de work

I’ll get you rich, dis is no ‘ole talk’

…I’ll give you money to fill a tank

Just get my conscience blank!

           

Shadow, in this song has returned to being the tormented. The satirical angle of the Calypso is obvious to any straight-faced critic who thinks that Shadow is earnestly evil and looking for a surgeon to remove his conscience. Rather, the artist points to the fact that he has a highly developed, perhaps overdeveloped conscience and facetiously attempts to treat it like any other strange growth that develops on one’s person. He asks the listener to consider the essential question of right and wrong, using irony as his mode. Normally, Trinbagonians are blessed with a highly developed sense of irony (and are on occasion even given to a dash of sarcasm) but there is always that odd fellow who seems to have had his sense of irony surgically removed (instead of his conscience!) and for such a person, this song goes entirely over his head. Admittedly, Shadow’s is the liminal zone between opposites and beyond categories, and this is not a place for everybody.

Perhaps the exemplar or the nexus of all Shadow’s concerns with the numinous is his 1979 album If I Coulda I Woulda I Shoulda. Almost every song on this recording has an element of psychology, eschatology, ethical conundrum or science fiction. In “Jumbies,” Calypso-addicted ghosts clamour for more of the Shadow’s music and in “U.F.O.,” aliens who land in Les Coteaux are also Shadow aficionados and actually abduct him “to a planet I never knew” to make him their state-sponsored master musician. But perhaps the most profound and disturbing song on this album is “Through the Mirror” in which an impostor stares back at Shadow in his own mirror. He repeatedly protests over the lumbering, folksy musical accompaniment that the “dummy in the mirror is an alien, a being from another dimension, it is not me.” When everyone, from his wife to the neighbours, insists that the man in the mirror is him, Shadow asks “If he is me, [then] tell me who am I?” Demonic possession? Psychotic break? The deepest of existential questions? To initiates of Shadow’s music, the answers are not nearly as important as the questions.

A questioning mind and a taste for conundrum is why Shadow so often presents us with stark opposites in his music. For example, his 1976 song “Do Good” is the antithesis of his 1980 [sic] “Conscience” in that the former composition advocates for keeping a clear conscience by doing good deeds but the latter proposes satirically to remove the conscience. Both songs describe the tortures of a heavy conscience. Contrast the transcribed lyrics (above) of “Conscience” with the lyrics from “Do Good”

If you do good

Good will follow you.

If you do bad

Your journey is hard.[2]

Yuh always in war with your conscience.

It squeezin’ you up like a tight pants.

…you go to your bed on your lovely mattress

you dying to sleep but yuh can’t find a rest

tossing about like a leaf on the bed

the wrong things you do like a bomb in your head

Shadow then proceeds to describe the sleepless nights and restlessness of the sinner, for whom “satisfaction is their enemy.” There is a reference to some of these people having acted “like Dracula eat out dey conscience” which obviously harks back to Dr. Leung’s “brain operation” two years before and presages the proposed ‘consciencectomy’ four years hence. In fact the sufferers in “Do Good” can only be tormented by their consciences, if their reasoning and better nature return to confront their wrongdoing.

The opposing attitudes to the conscience in these songs, while employing similar motifs of tortured restlessness and the proposed forced removals of certain mental components, do not represent any fickleness or hypocrisy on Shadow’s part.[3] Rather, they are part of the same discourse on the psyche. Shadow wants us to consider the opposing forces of the mind, and of life, simultaneously. He wants us to live for a while in the profundity and the complexity of the conundrum, not simply rush to the security of either side. This is the very essence of higher reasoning and of mysticism too. There is a decided abhorrence for dogma among intellectuals and mystics both, and a distrust of “experts” and clerics who propose to tell others what to think while citing their credentials and state-given, church-given, academy-given authority. This is precisely why mystics and sages are themselves so distrusted by religious fundamentalists. For these seemingly unrelated groups of thinkers and transcenders seem to exhibit too much comfort inhabiting the marginal spaces between absolute “truths.” But, in fact, conundrums are never comfortable for anyone, so what the ruthless simplifiers misapprehend as a ‘comfort’ with simultaneous opposites is actually a ‘bravery’ to straddle opposites at all. This is the brave battle to which Shadow points us: the questions of life are the “story of life.”

Where is Shadow getting all of this irony? He certainly didn’t learn it in school or in church. Is he sequestered up in Mount Hope with a stack of books by Sartre and Camus? Is he walking around his house fiddling with Zen riddles? Or is it that the Caribbean is the centre of all ironies, a place where slave and slave master are alive and well in the people, a place where the hurricane blows your house down from the left and then from the right and at the centre of this noisome storm, is pure, dead silence?…

“Do Good,” from the album Dreadness, 1976

[1] From the Music Fever album.

[2] There is an uncanny resemblance of this first verse to the first two verses of the Buddhist scripture the Dhammapada, which end with the Buddha saying that “If one acts with an impure mind, then suffering follows one even as the wheel follows the hoof of the yoked ox…if one acts with a pure mind, then happiness follows one even as the shadow that never leaves.” More important than the reference to a “shadow,” is the description of one’s deeds following on one’s heels.

[3] It is not that Calypsonians aren’t allowed to change their minds, as say Chalkdust does between his composition of “We is We” in the 1970s (in which he espouses the virtues and complexities of being Trinidadian as opposed to identifying first with one’s so-called Motherlands in the Old World) and the series of Afro-centric Calypsos and research writings that followed in later decades. But I maintain that Shadow is not changing his position here and rather continuing a discourse whose parameters were set in his early career.

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Comments
  1. Frank Holder says:

    Is this Lawrence who attended Scarborough Secondary?

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  2. merepamphleteer says:

    As one who was in the audience when this paper was presented, I’m delighted that it is now being released to the larger public. Kudos to the author! His unique reading opens up a window to Shadow’s prescience, mystique, and depth/methodology. I wonder if Shadow isn’t also being revealed as one of our most politically conscious calypsonians precisely because he rarely attacks it frontally but in a more subtle/nuanced way. By pushing us “to consider the opposing forces of the mind’ can these songs be viewed as a veiled attack on the politics (and norms) of that time—and now—where apparently the populace, their representatives, and ‘big business’, distance themselves from good sense and a desire of fostering an ethical culture while valorizing greed, an uncaring disposition, and materialism?
    Can “Conscience’, “Do Good”–even “Poverty is Hell”–among others, be read as calling for a recalibration of compassion and even a reordering of the moral/ethical compass? Behind all of this, then, may well be Shadow envisioning a more egalitarian society—one in which the powers that be ‘do good’ by/after getting ‘the doc’ to re-insert conscience.

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    • Lawrence Waldron says:

      Shadow’s mock-jealousy of people who have no conscience is the most darkly amusing part of the song to me. “Why can’t I be a criminal too?” he seems to ask, frustrated by his own sense of right and wrong…and that question makes us ask in turn “So who are the criminals he so envies?” Then we start thinking about the people in the “mad” society that you mention here. It’s only after I presented the paper that the Q&A from people like yourself made me really consider the people Shadow must have had in mind when he was writing this song.

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