Elegy for a Friend. In memory of Bill Dwyer, giver of one of the greatest times of my life.
[Bill Dwyer at the Kappa Complex Sid Vicious Dance 1980, far left in the picture above]
A few days ago I got the message from an old college friend that Bill Dwyer had died.
I know I´m not done with Death. There´s plenty more around the corner.
But sometimes the Ocean of Definitive Passing (my Tibetan Buddhist friends will understand that obscure reference) sweeps over us in tsunamis of gloom so that any positive feeling of impermanence as a teaching tool is the farthest thing from my mind. In the past two years I have lost several friends, some relatives very close to me, and mentors whose guiding hands helped mold my life. On the outskirts of all that were the deaths of people whose names meant a lot to me, that is, their fame, status, reputation or contribution to the world of things I care about (poets being a major group, activists and thinkers another), a group whose numbers also is about a half dozen. And all of this affects me. Deeply.
I am admittedly a sensitive person, someone who feels pain from afar and convinces myself that I must do something, anything, if I can. For years I worked as a Chaplain and that was an outgrowth of activist work in several fields where war and death were commonplace. My own contributions to the latter causes were from afar, but I was always heartbroken and full of the sadness from too much empathy, too quickly felt.
But this is Bill´s space today, not mine. A little background first.
I entered Eckerd College (EC) in 1980, at the age of 21 and so my “peers” were overlapping groups which didn´t or might normally not be so intertwined. There were the upperclassmen I was as old as (and sometimes older) and then of course, the freshmen whose class I entered with unbridled enthusiasm. I took advantage of both positions and made many good and lasting friendships but also nevertheless, created incredibly vibrant and lasting memories I am still very fond of recalling. When I arrived at EC I therefore hooked up with a great and motley crew of aspiring thinkers, aspiring musicians, and young students aspiring to simply have a good time. There were names of people who had done legendary things (in our minds, anyway) or whose personalities rose so high among their peers that their exploits were passed down like Homeric paeans to adventurers whose wit, warrior skills and wiles got them out of (and sometimes into) situations us mortals could scarce imagine.
Bill Dwyer was one of those people. A tall, thinnish, prematurely salt and pepper haired man with fine features and a fine intellect, he had this sharp capacity for seeing through bullshit and he was already gone when I arrived but it was said he´d be soon “coming back”. I don´t know if he had credits left over to finish, if he had simply wandered off for a period or even, truth be told, if he just lived off campus and was going to rejoin the core of his friends in our craziest of all dorms on campus, Kappa Complex. Either way, the anticipation was high and I looked forward to meeting him. When we finally met it was probably just low-key with a well of beer and a smoke pit of herb in Weed´s room (he, another story I will get to someday) amid the frantic conversations of of our grouping, but I know my frenetic manner and infectious punk enthusiasm caught his attention and he asked me about the groups I was seriously into and spreading the gospel of on campus with ferocity. Groups like the Clash, Buzzcocks, The Jam, Gang of Four, Joy Division in addition to the ones people there had heard about though few had heard much of (their music) like the Sex Pistols. I had lugged my own collection to school and was eagerly (and loudly and constantly and irritatingly for many) playing them and talking about it all. All the time. It was the times, OK?
In any case, this was around Halloween 1980 and I got word that one of those groups, Gang of Four, would be playing in upstate Florida. I was desperate. No car, no license, little means; I wanted desperately to go and my roommate also was enthused (another “legendary” figure who had brought his red-tailed hawk to campus as a pet and whose enthusiasm for some of the weirder punkish groups and neo-punk sounds–electronica being his forté- matched my own. He´s now in jail, but that´s another odd story). We couldn´t find a ride and then Bill offered to go as he was interested in the music and lyrics I´d been sharing. The day was set and I was firm about leaving with plenty of time alloted – I was NOT going to miss this show and as the afternoon progressed and my roommate hadn´t shown up despite my firm promise that we were going to leave at XX o´clock, “no matter what”, I said to Bill and Weed, “Alright, fuck it, he said he´d be here but it´s getting late” so we left.
Disclosure: OK, I´ll admit it, I don´t remember if it was Tallahassee or Gainesville. It could have been New Smyrna for all I cared. It was one of those big schools a few hours away and, in any case, I was exploding with enthusiasm as we drove to an outdoor fest which was supposed to feature the Psychedelic Furs (who´d only had a first album) and Gang of Four. We heard that POF cancelled and we pushed our way to the front, surrounded by what seemed like every punk to be found in a three hundred mile radius and large groups of curious assholes in baseball uniforms (and some with bats) who were eager to see the freak show and, as a few said loudly and with pride , to “kick some punk ass”. Right. Gang of Four put on a spectacular show that night, songs where they changed instruments all, colored lights menacingly highlighting their faces from below, Jon King´s wild dancing, Andy Gill´s screeching dissonance, Hugo Burnham´s staccato drumming intensity and Dave Allen´s punk funk bass lines threw me into a state of ecstasy which I keep as a highlight of my many years of concert-going. One of 4 or 5 of the best concerts I have ever seen (and I have seen hundreds, with everybody – yet another story).
After the show we asked around if there was a “punk club” nearby (“No. But XX´s sometimes has local bands playing punk music”) so floating on pink punk clouds we made our way into a part of town relatively dead that night and found a dive and a small wooden dance floor occupied by a couple of garishly clad dancers and a so-so garage-cover band. We got beers and shared our enthusiasm. After about 10 minutes, Jon King, Dave Allen and Andy Gill walked in. I was stunned! I ran up to Andy and began a conversation that lasted till early the next morning. We talked of Eric Satie and James Brown, about how the Sex Pistols were the giants for attitude but The Clash were the real kings. He wrote the set list they played in order for me (which I still have) and eventually we all laughed as Dave Allen got so drunk we had to literally carry him up the stairs to his room and put him to bed like a kid. All of us enjoyed the talks and by the time we left (finding Allen´s pink shirt left on the bushes in front of the hotel (which I took and kept for a number of years. Ahem.) we were exhausted and thrilled both. When we walked back to Bill´s car, we were glowing and speaking in tongues practically.
The drive was tiring but our energy stayed high; Bill was impressed and pleased that I had told him about the concert and in the times we met after that, at school or in one of the dorms, there was this bond of excitement at seeing a premier experimental and wildly influential band at a point in their career when few knew them so they were fiendishly fighting for glory onstage. Which they attained.
Billy D. later got into Wah! and Jah Wobble, and we shared new music we were into off and on for a year or so until he left again and all that remained were the high energy talks and memories of one of the best concerts and surprisingly meaningful nights, of my youth, maybe my life. Bill drove that day – I wouldn´t have been there if it weren´t for him, but he wouldn´t have gone, he said, if it weren´t for me. I´m happy I got to introduce him to something he ended up liking so much. I´m happy we talked about Life and music, about Buddhism and philosophy and I´m happiest that at one time I knew him.
Bill has died and I am so sorry about that. A part of my history has died, too. I wish him well, wherever “he” is and I know the memory of that night will bind us karmically so that hopefully some day, we can reminisce about the occasion, somewhere.
Goodbye Bill. Rest in Peace.
I penned this for him:
A MORE DISTANT REUNION
(On hearing of Bill Dwyer´s death Feb. 6th, 2015)
One, by one, by one at a time they die.
Another friend is dead.
The loose circle shrinks;
the tidy order shakes.
A rough order, unspoken:
so long as they remain out there,
we remain insulated.
Though 30+ years between
that last late nighter
(with Gang of Four
or wash among the rains of celebration
each one is fresh,
remembered (you are remembered)
They go so quickly, now
one, by one, by one at a time.
My vistas grow gradually opaque
the sounds, so odd.
Nothing recalls familiarity.
Strangers are the new friends.
Strange the new surrounding circle.
Until one by one by one moment at a time
I approach dear old friends for
a more distant reunion.
Recently over on Facebook, I have watched a couple discussions move from literalism in Buddhist interpretation (Is Amida´s Pure Land to the “West” of here? If so, how far “west” and what exactly does “west” mean in the context of space where there is neither “up” nor “down” much less east, west, north or south?) to whether we should understand doctrines and teachings more metaphorically. I responded to one question, about how can we ever know we have “faith” (or shinjin in the Shin Buddhist tradition) with the following reply, slightly edited for comprehension. It is about as clear an explanation I can give to what and how I believe what I do:
The longer a tea bag remains in water, the darker the fluid becomes and the stronger the tea. Likewise, dipping into Pure Land “faith” may change the flavor of the “water” a bit, but until one lets the bag of faith sit for a long time, one will never, can never know.
I began with Zen over 40 years ago and spent 20+ years there and 6-7 in Vajrayana. before really coming to Shin. It was not that I had no faith in Buddhadharma as a whole; there is I believe a transcendental unity to all Buddhist teachings. But in terms of me… little ol´me, as they say, it was practice for enlightenment. And I was far from being enlightened. But, informed by those years of Zen practice and Vajrayana ideas (Dzogchen and Mahamudra specifically, and their practices/worldviews) I approached Shin in a non-dual practice vs faith way.
Openness to the Infinitude all around us, a relaxed gratitude towards all Life (as I created nothing here and thus, have been given everything) and a deep inward understanding of my faults and inabilities has led me to a more mature view, a real “faith”, I think, and, if we look at Shinran in that light, I think it clarifies many points you raise which lead many of us to always wonder if in fact we will ever have such faith as he speaks about but rarely describes.
“Sincerity”… real deep sincerity, which includes the promise of Awakening as well as an honest, unsparing view of our our limited, finite abilities, is, I believe “faith”, real shinjin (信心 – the first character, shin, can mean “faith, trust, or belief” and is also understood by Shinran to mean “sincerity”). It is (said to be) diamond-like because it is precise and reflective, NOT because it is solid and unerring. That literalizes and reifies a dynamic PROCESS into a THING, concrete, absolute, which would be something all Buddhist schools reject.
Our awakening is, I think, like this, a deepening process where asking if we have it or not misses the point. Be sincere. Know that your life, my life, ALL Life is a wonderful and Mysterious “gift” and that we are placed firmly in the “arms” of Infinitude–Infinite Life and Infinite Light. That we are embraced by this and that, therefore, we are OK, as we are and that we can let go of our striving. Oh, we can still strive – if we choose, and we will be “forgiven” for it as well, but it is a rejection of this gift we are given. When I am able to relax in that manner, I “have” it. When I continue to strive and struggle, I am, then, without faith. Either way, I am embraced as I am, now, here, in this life, in this moment.
Here are six poems just published in Ireland´s literary journal, The Galway Review with original formatting pretty much intact:
SACRED & PROFANE
Her most holy book
primly rested beside us,
on the table next to
her little bed,
where unspeakable beauty
that one night.
I turned instead, her pages,
brainy top to briny toes;
I bent low
in loving caresses,
tasting Fez and Marrakesh
and their brilliant sun
between her fingers,
along her brown,
serpentine belly &
deep within her ancient eyes.
We blazed in flight.
In the morning
another scriptural verse
she reached out
to read my warm, legible face,
the far away swirling red sands of
the night before,
while the city had danced beyond
and soft grainy oceans
swept over us in
passages I´ve long since committed
for 30 profane years.
THAT SLIPPERY SENSE A WORLD IS OPENING
Silver-blue brightness coats the streets
with quiet glitter,
ice covered in powder, run over
by thinning rubber & diffident rain.
Car lights dart like
furtive animals on a night chase,
while reds & greens change with
The destination is local.
Near the pier he rests, across the bay
dancing luminescence is taken in silence,
broken only by the salt smell &
bubble burps of water, splashes
on the sea wall;
where he takes a stone
& washes it with longing,
tossing it back to the
where it might
dream of the future.
Faithful, he rises to leave,
out between the
trees behind him,
smelling the night,
catching wolves in
“INFINITY, THE FAR FIELD”
It was certain he knew the rules
& the measured plod recorded
all life & in its redundant, peculiar details.
The singing was not a raucous harmony;
no gospel Black God callings here.
It hung tighter to a different form, giving grief
to the hurried reader eager to grab and get.
But Ted, I saw in there, among the tight
thrushes & fancied sways
a certain way in I couldn´t find otherwise.
The knees are bent in prayer;
the head bowed in elementary tonal gratitude,
blank, severe, yet faithfully expressed,
twisting the rules just so.
If there is to be but one act and one alone,
let it be to fly above the fields and
impassive stone to mark the shadows along the hedge
and watching, note the angles, the branches,
that reedy ledge below the next, tucked
darkly, deftly between the brown leaves and,
when the scene is past, sit down awhile
and cry at ease. The Earth will hold
and the sky shall follow
but of that one moment all may change
though no record be seen tomorrow.
A SINGLE LAMENT FOR THE WORLD
below dark crimson seas innumerable flowers bloom,
capsuled fragments of the mind,
flowing dreams, returning and shaking unsteadily
a mind which bounces on the wind.
I have seen enough – the End
will come at a cost:
the last flutter of dreaming,
this mind, disengaged from all but
the screws of finance, the screwing of war.
One should never be surprised
to find a poet being lionized
by men and women MFAs
who know the labyrinthine ways
a poet gets to print and publish
while all the rest
languish and perish.