I was 18, I met John Cage. I was in art school. He was coming to our city to do
some performances and lectures and things. I didn’t know who he was. Some one
said to me that they thought I especially should. I still don’t know why he said so (I think I was doing some cut up text pieces or something), but it turns out, he was right.
since realized that Cage had what must have been a profound love of teaching, and of young people, which explains why he would agree to spend a number of days
involved in activities at an art college. It would have made much more since
for him to have done his thing with the symphony and left, but instead he stuck
around for a week or two.
was giving a lecture one lovely Spring morning on our fair campus. I won’t
forget that day as long as any shred of memory holds, I imagine. He spoke about
ideas, and he laughed. He laughed a lot. It struck me that this was perhaps the
first truly happy person I had ever seen.
Me, I was less than jovial. I
was sort of in the midst of a few years-long, late adolescent wrestling match with the question of human
suffering. I was unhealthily obsessed with the Holocaust, unable to shake some
of those piles of bodies discovered by the allies when they liberated the
Lynch’s Blue Velvet had recently come out, and seemed eerily parallel to
experiences I was going through in my first real (ie messy and tortuous) love
affair. I carried around dog-eared copies of Rimbaud, Kafka, and a particularly
worn-out paperback of Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus,
with a floating Magritte rock on the cover. You know, life is a godless, absurd mess. All
we have in the end is one choice: Do I kill myself
today, or do I live in revolt? Sheesh, no wonder I was depressed.
there is this impish little man, breathlessly giggling while telling us all we
didn’t exist. That was part of his thing. You know: silence, chance, anarchy, Duchamp, Nagarjuna,
“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it." He got to the Q&A bit,
and kids started asking the dumbest imaginable questions. How many plants do
you have? How many cats? What do you feed your cats? Do your cats eat your
plants? I mean, it was unbelievable, and he seemed to be getting annoyed.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting there stewing. This whole thing was really rubbing
against the grain of my whole angsty “all I got is me and my choice to not die
today” thing. So I stood up, all 6’, 130 lbs, and two feet of Cousin
It-meets-Eddy Vedder hair and said “What do you mean I don’t exist? That’s all
I got, man! Here I am!” He lit up like a Christmas tree. “Yes (giggle.) What is
I would read all the Zen stories, recognizing
immediately what was happening in those encounters. The young monk asks the
Master some variation of my own question, and the master’s response would stump
the student’s rational mind, shove him out of his egoic box-trap with one well
just stood there, speechless, my eyes locked on his, him beaming that smile. My
mind just stopped. I didn’t know it could do that. I suddenly heard the bird song
coming in through the open windows of the auditorium, for what seemed like the first time. I felt the warm sun, the
breeze, and some natural well of joy and pleasure native to my very own being, bubbling up and greeting the joy radiating out from this little old dude.
talked afterwards, and again later, and I wrote to him a few times. None of
that was nearly as important as that one moment (little else has been.) He
spoke of Zen. I wanted a hit of whatever he was taking, so I looked into that, met some Zen teachers, felt drawn to do the
monk thing. I spent the next decade in and out of monasteries and Zen centers around North
America (tough way to make a living in the
During one long intensive retreat, I thought of him constantly one whole day, almost
breaking a vow of silence to call him. A few days later when the retreat ended, I
took a train home to
I picked up a Village Voice, sitting down hard when I saw a black box on the
cover that said simply “John Cage: 1912-1992.”
my friend Kevin just sent me a great video of a performance of Cage’s 4’33" today. Then I
found an interview with him (from around the time I knew him) that was sort of
like coming across footage of a dead family member who’s voice you almost can’t
remember anymore. Thought I’d share them here. Watch for that giggle. Enjoy.