Skip to content

Musical therapy

Non-verbal ecstasy in rock & roll

Here’s a 15-minute podcast I made about non-verbal ecstasy in rock & roll, with clips from some of my favourite ecstatic performers – Little Richard, James Brown, The Beatles, Talking Heads, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and others. It’s part of my research into ecstasy in modern culture. Enjoy!

David Byrne on music, ecstasy and catharsis

I’m researching the history of ecstasy and ecstatic experiences in modern western culture, how spiritual ecstasy got pathologised from the Enlightenment to the present day, and how people found new ways to get out of their heads.

An important part of that story is rock & roll and other forms of pop and dance music, which became in the 20th century a sort of substitute religion and means to ekstasis for the masses. Thanks to rock & roll, white agnostic kids got a way to access the release of ecstatic religion, without any of the ethical or metaphysical dogma.

Someone who has thought about that deeply is David Byrne, the artist, musician, and former lead-singer of Talking Heads. In his music, art and documentaries, he’s explored the different ways humans get out of their heads and into their bodies, or the group, or the unconscious, or the spirit world. He’s also explored the relationship between popular music and various forms of ecstatic religion, from charismatic Christianity to Yoruba and Candomble.

What’s unusual about both him and occasional collaborator Brian Eno, among rockers, is that they combine a critical, intellectual and academic rigour (they once gave journalists a reading list of anthroplogy and cybernetics to try and improve their interviews) with a willingness for personal and group exploration of ecstatic states. That tension between the self-conscious / intellectual / critical / ironic and the ecstatic is one of the things that makes both their work so interesting – because we’re all longing for ecstasy, but we’re also struggling with our irony, our detachment, our rational skepticism and our emotional inhibition.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to get an email interview with him. Here it is.

To what extent would you say that African American-inspired pop music got Western culture out of a ‘dead end’ and gave it a way to find ecstatic release from the iron cage of rationalization?

Wow…that’s some heavy lifting for pop music! But yes, though there were always ecstatic cults in Europe and North America, it would seem the African influence – whether Latin music, Yoruba-inspired spirituality that seeped into world culture, jazz, funk, dancing from the waist down…the renewed appreciation of rhythm and repetition…changed not just Western culture but the whole world’s culture. And I don’t just mean the music.

To be convinced and seduced by ecstasy is to be won over to a new way of looking at the world and oneself. The groove, which in the last 200 years, since slavery, ultimately derives in this form at least, from Africa, is found almost everywhere around the globe now – it’s a species of globalization, but one of joy and integration of body and spirit….

The musical meme is carried by deep and profound work but just as often by hackney’d and cliched pop songs. Any carrier will do, there’s no discrimination.

Here’s Born Under Punches, the first song from the Eno-produced 1980 album Remain In Light, which was one of the first white rock albums to consciously draw on Afro-beat influences. I love the groove of it, the rhythmic guitar, the layers of chanting and Byrne’s nonsensical yelps over the top. Plus the incredibly weird guitar solo.

You’ve written that performing brings catharsis for you and the audience too. I’m fascinated by the idea of what classicists call the ‘Dionysiac cure’ and how everyone from Aristotle to Nietzsche say it brings healing. How is music cathartic for you?

As ER Dodds pointed out in The Greeks and the Irrational, ecstatic cults (with drumming!) were always around…but when did they lose acceptance? With the triumph of the Enlightenment? Perhaps it was during the Renaissance that the view of the workings of the universe changed – from a universe that obeyed and was structured according to musical harmony – to one in which music was a subset of other, possibly more inclusive physical laws. The universe as a song is more poetic, but science has its glories and beauty too…And maybe not surprisingly, those cosmic harmonies, or at least the idea behind them, might be re-emerging in crazy entangled sub atomic physics and in the cosmos.

How is music cathartic for me? In so many ways, and often simultaneously. Psychologically, physically…music engages so many parts of the brain (and body) all at once that no one part is central- which is a key to it’s power I suppose. It integrates. It may be a spandrel, or mental cheesecake as Steven Pinker says, but it’s pretty potent.

For the listener that catharsis has always been there – everyone has heard the “music saved my life” story or “music got me through high school” and it’s true…and that’s just listening, not even making it!

When I was younger and more socially uncomfortable music was my outlet- my way of communicating and announcing my existence. It was cathartic, therapeutic, but hardly ecstatic. It was even painful at times- but completely necessary.

Later, and little by little, something in me began to change, and I began to sense that rhythmic and repetitive music could do something more that just be an outlet for my unspoken unheard self- it could gradually change that self….and it seemed to be most effective in music rooted in a something that had been repressed or cast aside by western culture….

I found myself more open to trance-rooted music – whether via dance or funk grooves (which I always loved) to the Pentecostal church, voudun, gamelan, salsa, samba etc etc…and the music I and others were making began to partake of some weird white-man version of all that African-rooted culture.

I sensed that as opposed to much of what I had done before – which amplified the individual or one’s persona – this swallowed the individual whole. And it was in that loss of identity that the ecstasy lay. In some ways this seemed counter intuitive….wasn’t the individual what we and our culture are about? Why would we ever want to let go of that?

Surely most of us have a some point, in sports, music or some other group activity, found ourselves lost, subsumed in the group, in the team or larger community – and we have experienced how wonderful that can be. Well, some kinds of music are a machine for making that happen- and happen reliably.

One senses a commonality with a lot of religious and spiritual practices – the surrender to something greater than oneself…and how good that feels. One realizes that the pleasure one derives and the seductiveness of the communal feeling can be manipulated to all sorts of ends. It can be directed towards Jesus or Jihad, whatever. So one has to be careful. I attribute this phenomena to innate human/social/neurological tendencies and structures- not to an outside agency like God or something like that….

Here’s a clip from the 1982 Channel 4 documentary The Name of This Programme is Talking Heads, which combined concert footage with interviews and anthropological clips of ecstatic religions – which Byrne helped to select.

Being a little analytical I also noticed that this music that induced trances and ecstatic states was made up of simple modular parts…and these parts are useless alone, they don’t work, without all or most of the others. No one instrument or beat in this world carries the entire groove/texture (unlike much western music where the melody played by the loudest instrument is king).

Each module here has its role to play, and only when all do their discrete parts does the emergent thing come into being and the floor drops away. It is, in this way, a model of a new, more perfectly functioning society one might say – where all are essential, all are needed and there is a great reward when all work together. A glimpse of utopia, for an instant- and a glimpse that is felt – felt unconsciously. There is a reason the feeling happens, but the impact does not come from reason.

Byrne has written of how the Stop Making Sense tour gave Talking Heads a sense of ‘mystical communion’ , ego release, and even a glimpse of a new utopian community. You can see some of  the sheer infectious fun of playing in a group in their performance of ecstatic anthem Burning Down The House:

Your work can be critically detached / ironic / conceptual and also ecstatic / surrendering. Do you find a creative tension between those two urges – wanting to surrender but also analyzing, detaching, thinking?

They’re not mutually exclusive- but they don’t happen simultaneously! One can have a completely immersive transporting experience and then later ask why did that happen. Knowing, or trying to know, why a thing works does not stop it from working or diminish the experience in any way- if anything it makes it even more marvelous.

When you have drawn on Christian evangelical ecstasy in your work (like in the song Once In A Lifetime and the video of it) it tends to be somewhat ironic and detached. But when you have explored Brazilian or African animist religion you seem to leave the irony and go with it. Why is that? Is it something about leaving the iron cage of the west and feeling one can finally ‘let go’ in other cultures? Is it harder for us to do that in Christian culture?

You hit the nail on the head there- one has to leave one’s home to be able to turn around and see it and appreciate it for the first time. (that’s a paraphrase of whom?) [TS Eliot]

Here’s a performance of Once In A Lifetime, in which Byrne performs an ironic version of an evangelical preacher, cut with anthropological footage of charismatic Christians (from the Channel 4 documentary):

If pop music became a kind of surrogate religion for many people (including me) – what would an ethnographer from Mars make of it? How successful a surrogate religion was / is it?

What religions do is codify and formalize existing experiences – they provide a safe context and support system for what could be frightening or uncontrolled experiences and thoughts, but at the same time they impose their own narratives and values onto what is a naturally occurring social/ neurological/physical phenomena. They tell a story about it, but it came before the story. The formalization can help it occur regularly, on demand, but the formalization doesn’t create it – or does it?

Now I’m wondering if at some level it’s like DNA-maybe the form, the structure, IS the thing itself. If the form and structure are present, then the phenomena has to happen? Certain musical structures reliably generate specific emotions. Now we’re back to the universe being musical – as harmonic (in the cosmic sense) structures come into being what follows is inevitable. The God behind the universe, in this view, is a song.

The ‘priests’ of pop music tended to be people in their teens or early 20s who were often quite unprepared for the mass Dionysiac adulation that gets projected onto them (as well as the commercial opportunism). in that sense, was it quite a dangerous sort of cult (for the priests and the followers?)

One is somewhat vulnerable in these states- as you mention, there is an opportunity for all sorts of exploitation. Commercial, religious, political.

I’m fascinated by how the sacred and secular have fed off each other in 20th century music – it’s been two way traffic. But a priest might say that rock and roll gave agnostic and atheist white kids a ‘taste’ of religious surrender but with none of the ethical or metaphysical commitments (including the belief in the afterlife and soul which has been a crucial part of ecstasy in most cultures). In that sense, is rock and roll selling ecstatic surrender on the cheap, as it were – as a no-strings weekend experience rather than a lifetime ethical commitment?

I don’t know about the afterlife or the soul- but this experience does give a sense that one can inhabit a larger body- the social body, something greater than oneself as an individual in a way that is visceral, not intellectual- – the Cartesian split heals and it’s wonderful.

Is there then an obligation to make ethical and metaphysical commitments? That sounds as if, after such pleasure, one is made to feel guilty and obliged to “pay” for one’s pleasure. I think, OK maybe in an ideal world, the social and moral inferences, at least some of then, happen organically- without need of an organization. I’m being very optimistic here, obviously a formal structure helps guide a realization. But maybe, just maybe, once one loses oneself, one is in some way forever bonded to that group. To everyone that was at a rave, or experiences the same thing in the same place. A tiny brotherhood emerges- unfortunately it isn’t made of all humanity, just the others in the room.

Do you think there is a ‘formula’ for ecstasy in musical performance? (I guess musicians are always searching for it, like alchemists.) Or does it depend on shifting cultural expectations and technological innovations?

Yeah, there are techniques – just like the Swedes know how to construct a pop song – but once you’ve seen the DJ drop the bass over and over it gets pretty tired – the effect doesn’t work any more. But it will work in the next town maybe.

You’ve spoken of how rock can become an mass ecstatic surrender to the band or the charismatic guru (or even Fuhrer!) of the front-man. That’s something some artists have explored and played with – David Bowie, for example, or Kanye West today. What do you think of that sort of exploration of the rockstar-cult? Is it a dangerous game?

I think it is a little dangerous- performers who play these roles often seem to forget that it’s an act- they loose themselves alright, but in an unfortunate way – the character they are playing swallows them. Rather than loosing oneself in a communal moment, it is an enlargement of an individual.- and a made up one at that! One becomes the mask.

One way that rock and roll is different from traditional religion is that, like modernism, it’s obsessed with the new, so there’s a pressure for endless new styles and innovations – ever louder bass lines and drops. And music is also everywhere now, as background music and on our iPhones. Are we becoming numbed to it, and thereby slowly reducing its magical power over our bodies and souls?

Biologically it can never lose that power. Do we get over-saturated? Maybe. But I still hear from folks how some music they heard recently affected them deeply, so it can happen- but yes, a lot of music is wallpaper now. But occasionally something cuts through.

One final bonus question- I think my favourite Talking Heads lyric is ‘there’s a city in my mind, come along and take a ride…they can tell you what to do but they’ll make a fool of you’ – you sound like a utopian preacher who is very unsure of mass movements! Where does the beautiful image of ‘city in my mind’ come from?

That’s straight out of preaching…. The City on the Hill from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s been overused, but its familiarity also makes it a potent image and phrase.

Here’s Byrne performing Road to Nowhere with St Vincent in 2013. It’s a typically ambiguous song – it sounds uplifting and hopeful, yet the words suggest they are going ‘nowhere’ . Is nowhere somewhere good, a utopia (which literally means ‘no place’ in Greek), somewhere beyond our present imagining? Or is he leading them straight off a cliff?  It’s that kind of tension between ecstatic hope and ironic ambiguity that is typical of Byrne’s work, and which makes it different to more corny rock ecstasy.

If you want to read more on this topic, here’s an interview I did with Brian Eno, who’s often worked with Byrne, about music, ecstasy and surrender. And Byrne is curating the Meltdown festival in London in August, which will no doubt feature some ecstatic moments!