Published: Oct 24, 2013
1968. I was getting straight As in my final year at Harvard. I had a book contract with The Viking Press. My girlfriend was smoking hot.
And I was completely, utterly miserable.
If only, back then, I could have heard "Heart as Wide as the World," a holy record made by Krishna Das.
But there was no Krishna Das that year. There was only my contemporary, an equally miserable rock-and-roll kid named Jeffrey Kagel. Luckily, in 1968, Kagel met Ram Dass, just back from his first trip to India. Though sworn to secrecy, Ram Dass couldn’t help gushing about his guru. So off Kagel went to the foothills of the Himalayas. And though he was a Jew — “on my parents’ side,” he says — he was immediately hooked by Maharaj-ji, arguably the least doctrine-obsessed spiritual guide on the planet.
This attraction makes sense. Kagel came out of the Long Island rock and culture. Maharaj-ji practiced kirtan, the Hindu equivalent of the blues, a form of call-and-response chanting. The words were the Names of God, but it didn’t much matter. “Om Namah Shivaya" — crudely translated as “I bow to Shiva" — is not about acknowledging an external diety, but connection to the god in your self.
Kagel sang his heart out. Or, more correctly, he sang his heart open and morphed into Krishna Das. In 1973, he returned to America, thinking he’d spend his life making devotional music. Not that he was a great singer. As he says:
I have very limited capabilities on almost every level. And musically, I’m very limited in what I can do. I have a nice voice. And the voice is actually a medium for that flow, that presence. But still, from a musical point of view, it’s limited.
In the mid-‘80s, he began leading kirtan in public. In spiritual circles, he was an immediate sensation. His explanation:
I’m just another person who hears me chanting, you know? That’s why I do it. I’m not doing it for anybody else. I’m doing it because it’s my life blood. It’s what I do. I recognize that so many people get benefit from it. That’s wonderful. Isn’t that great? But that’s not why I do it.
These egoless evenings were transportation — they took audiences inside. “Going home,” it’s called. That can be overwhelming; some laugh and dance, some sob. Not the sort of thing you want to do if you’re determined to be unhappy. [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
Over the years, I had flirted with the East. I got nowhere. I was well-read and lost, your basic angry, ambitious mess. Krishna Das has said: “If you want to get rid of anger in the world, you must get rid of it in your life. If I can’t even not get pissed off when someone cuts me off in a car, how am I going to change the fucking world?” Exactly my dilemma.
In 2004, I read Amy Cunningham’s interview with Krishna Das. I’d only met Amy once, but it felt like I’d always known her — and I certainly trusted her enough to see what Krishna Das did. So on a hot and sticky night, my wife and I went off to an ancient hall on the Lower East Side.
The room was full, and they were serving vegan dinners and selling meditation clothes, and to say I had some attitude about all this is to understate — the prospect of group chanting took me back to teenage beach parties when kids sat around and sang the worst song ever written, "Kumbaya."
"Welcome to Bombay Weight Loss and Kirtan," Krishna Das began. "Here you can sing and lose weight at the same time."
So he was funny. And he looked amused: close-cropped hair, wire rim glasses, a junior version of a Wilfred Brimley moustache. He picked up the harmonium. “Shree Raam Jaya Raam Jaya Jaya Raam,” he sang, then we sang with him, and I wish I could build some drama here, but the thing of it was: Liftoff was immediate.
That’s partly because the music is in a lower register, so it works as directly on the spine as a great bass guitar riff. It’s also because 500 people singing together form an instant community, and there’s nothing rarer in our culture than community. And then there’s the not inconsiderable fact that this guy is totally God-obsessed — which is magical to witness.
Time bent, then stopped. As it did, the room cooled a bit. Babies fell asleep, babies were carried out. As for vain, sophisticated, oh-so-clever me — I shucked my brittle shell and felt my heart beat with a roomful of strangers. And in that moment, peace prevailed. It was tangible. I mean, you could feel it.
By 2009, Krishna Das had recorded 11 CDs. He’d sold 300,000 copies. He was the rock star of spiritual music — but he was trapped in the New Age category that’s so easy to mock. Maybe it was time to return to his roots as a Long Island rock-and-roller, go electric, and — after forty years of chanting the names of god in a language his countrymen couldn’t understand — sing in English, which he has described as “historically, the language of my suffering and unhappiness.”
Yeah, but how about “For Your Love” — a ‘60s hit for the Yardbirds (with Eric Clapton on guitar)? Try this:
It makes perfect sense:
For your love…
I’d give the moon if it were mine to give
I’d give the stars and the sun for I live
To fill you with delight
I’d bring you diamonds bright
Don’t you think it would excite
If I could dream of you tonight.
For your love…
To hear electric guitar playing against tabla, Krishna Das singing those words and then slipping into chant with a chorus — maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s just now, but this experience feels very important. There’s so much I want to do in my life, if only I can get out of my way. I don’t have a practice, I chant with no one, but still, I feel this music helps me.
And I sure get what Krishna Das calls “my foolish heart.”
To read about Krishna Das’s memoir, "Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold," click here.