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Ceremonies of the Horsemen

The Green House, Berkeley California, in 2008

The cloak and dagger dangles,
madams light the candles.
In ceremonies of the horsemen
even a pawn can hold a grudge.

–Bob Dylan

None of this ever really happened.

1. Prologue

To tell the truth about those years, you’d have to begin with the observation that truth was, like all precious commodities, in very short supply. Like LSD from Sandoz or pharmaceutical cocaine, truth was rumored to be everywhere but became scarce when you attempted to score.

If your ambition was to make a market in Truth Futures, you were in business. No problem and plenty of willing buyers and sellers. But if you just wanted some truth of your own, to get you through the night, your head was straightened on that score in no time. After a few attempts to lay you hands on some actual truth, you came to understand that such a quest was against the secret rules. Scoring pure, uncut truth was not even a part of the game. It wasn’t what was “happening, man.”

What was happening wasn’t, to be sure, the only game in the big BeHereNow Casino out on Sunset trip, but it was the most fun and everyone, well, almost everyone, wanted to play at its table hoping that their new and improved revolutionary system for revolution would beat the dealer. No matter what you wanted to be at that table and be happening. After all, not to be part of what was happening in those years was, in a sense, not to be.

So you learned that as long as you confined yourself to speculation of what the Revolution might be like and what the world after the Revolution would be like, there was no end to truth. But if this made you nervous and you asked any of the fellow players for a little hard truth, a little coin of the realm to cover your margin and theirs, they were quite content to drop a brick of Acapulco Gold on your head and call it The Philosopher’s Stone. And because stone was a state of mind, you were left with a headache, a heartache, and overdrawn at the First National Bank of Angst.

Man, you weren’t happening.

What was happening was all that mattered. It was the predominant concern of the decade. “What’s happening?” was a greeting and a secret sign that would determine if you were one of the elect and the saved. It was later compressed, as was most of our secret language, into a statement: “Happening, bro.” Hard to translate now, but it made sense at the time.

Like the ancient and biblical phrase “What is truth?”, “What’s happening?” did not demand any response more specific than a shrug and a suitably stoned smile. A verbal response would be offered only as long as it began in and returned, at regular intervals, to a rippling fog that covered all our shared mental landscapes like the mist in a Japanese Samurai movie. This perpetually foggy language indicated that the speaker was a member in good standing of the lighter-than-air bunch and not really on the planet. It was the progenitor of an act of mental levitation which was much later converted by Transcendental Meditation into groups of people who learned to jump into the air from the full-lotus position.

“Not to be on the planet” was to “be in touch with the Cosmos”, with “what was really happening, man.” This bliss was a state that was yearned for, pretended to, envied, emulated, and approximated. It was rarely achieved. After all, what was really happening usually contained not a few items, mental and material, that were recognized as “bring-downs”. Still, not to worry, bring-downs were like highs: all part of what was happening, and were, in the cosmic view, cosmic. One had to go with the flow. It was what was happening.

The decade was burnt as crisp and dark as a napalmed child; was as grotesque as a President dangling beagles by the ears or lifting his shirt to display a scar the shape of Southeast Asia on his paunch. But although the grotesque darkness was visible from a distance, it was nearly impossible to discern in close-up. Only perspective makes proportion visible and perspective was, like truth in those years, something always in very short supply.

The world beyond our sheltered enclaves was etched in high relief and we despised it. Our own little hamlets and personal universes were said to exist somewhere beyond the linear-verbal, over the rainbow, on another bardo, and boasted sweeping views of the Twilight Zone. It was a housing development constructed in the ether and, as such, it contained no firm place to stand. It had lots of golden levers of great length and a host of theories that would serve as crystal fulcrums. In conversations fueled late into the nights by espresso, tobacco, jug wine and gage, hashish,and Tiajuana Gold, the levers and fulcrums were manipulated without pause and with great skill. But with the elimination of the ether and the sphere of the fixed stars there was, at the end of those long nights and their dreams, no way of using these ornate tools — no matter how long, no matter how precise — to alter the orbit of the earth.

So it was that we spent most of those years polishing the levers and fulcrums while blithely ignoring the absence of foundations. This didn’t faze us. We were the Cosmic Commandos. To us, truth and lies, granite and quicksand, were mere illusions, shabby manifestations of the material plane, that old rusty reality that everyone on Earth would junk as soon as they saw what we saw, and we saw The Light.

Towards the end, though, more than a few of us began to understand that there really were no truths or foundations, only shared dreams. Dreams that became increasingly bizarre and terrifying as we all approached that morning when we would awake alone in one of a million or more tawdry rooms.

Rooms of mildewed closets in run-down neighborhoods, with paper flowers covered in a patina of dust and arranged in a cheap, chipped vase from Chinatown set askew on a dresser of deal. Rooms centered on a mattress laid out on the floor and covered with a crumpled bedspread in a paisley print we’d shoplifted from Cost Plus. Rooms whose warping rented walls were distinguished by posters celebrating disturbing retinal patterns, political and metaphysical bromides, and contemporary personalities that amused, inspired, or revolted us.

These were the rooms in which we had hatched our plots or wrote our songs and poems while lying on the Oriental rugs from Belgium fading in the sunlight falling through the one small window overlooking the rubble where they were always rebuilding the city; sunlight falling to finger the drifts of essential paperbacks, relevant manifestos in mimeograph, and a slumping stack of back issues of Rolling Stone where the cat that nobody owned had chosen to sleep. In the darkest corner was a Sears & Roebuck stereo and a pile of scratched record albums that seemed, in that long bleak morning, to be our only concrete emblems; our sole testimony to the shared reality of the dreams.

I was alone, I took a ride,
I didn’t know what I would find there.
But if I could, maybe I would,
Find another kind of mind there.

Because to tell the truth about those years, there was a reality within the dreams which our music returned us to again and again.

Once we had consulted these albums as oracles. Now, as we leafed through them in the way one pages through an old scrap book, we became not nostalgic but haunted by those dreams — seeing their vivid colors shining brightly above out current favored hues of warm gray, navy blue, and black. We felt and would always feel, with the first few notes of any one of a thousand songs, once again present with the numberless mad faces dancing under diamond skies, or flying through roiling clouds of talk, ideas, associations, relationships, insights, inanities, arguments, poems, ideals, prophecies, hallucinations, despairs and ecstasies with neither the need nor the desire to take to the high roads with these things. We were the roads. We held the keys to the highway. We were the departure point and the destination. We were, we were certain, the children of the sun, Alpha and Omega, the Crown of Creation.

As we listened one last time,
And we watched with one last look,
Spellbound and swallowed til the tolling ended.

Tolling for the aching ones
whose wounds cannot be nursed,
For the countless confused, accused, misused,
strung-out ones and worse.
And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe,
we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

The songs were the shared center of our universe around which, like comets, we plunged. They were the warp and woof of our dreams; the shimmering wires on which the disjointed, rare, beautiful, and grotesque faces, names, deeds, and images of the long sleep were strung like bright glass beads. As such they endured even after the dreams were dissolved in the waters of oblivion or buried deep beneath the trivia of daily life that followed in the years that came after our awakening.

These days, under the harsh and unshaded fluorescent lights of the mall or the office or the night, one can still sometimes discover another who was part of the dream years by watching closely when a song from that time finds its way into the awareness from a passing radio in the park or, more certain still, from a pre-programmed and processed tape playing in a crowded nine a.m. elevator. Only the melody, however altered, is necessary.

At such moments, if you do not look too directly, you can see such a person’s facade erode as a quiet look comes into the eyes. The surface of three-piece suit, designer glasses and thin-soled Italian shoes, seems to diminish and to fade, becoming almost ghostly, as the tune turns him like a lodestone towards the true north of his being, remembering, almost remembering, almost ready to descend in that elevator, to find his way back to that house, to that rented room with the paper flowers, and to lie down on the paisley covered mattress in that patch of sunlight and let himself drift back into the dream on the winds of the music.

We’ll go dancing, darling,
Then you’ll see,
That the magic’s in the music,
And the music’s in me.

But the elevator halts as always on the twenty-first floor. The doors slide open. The people step out smartly and rush towards their offices, filing cabinets, pink telephone message slips checked ‘Urgent’; to their endless letters beginning “Dear Sir or Madam, A recent examination of our records shows….”

The doors slide shut behind him cutting off the song. The man snaps back into his body, into the present moment and, with a cold shudder at the sheer ordinariness of his life, steps doggedly towards his assigned cubicle forgetting for perhaps the thousandth time what he most desires to remember.

love was such an easy
game to play.

What of it? It was yesterday and in yesterday today was a tomorrow which would never come.

Yesterday’s gone.
Yesterday’s gone.

What of it? It was less than yesterday, it was yesterday’s dream. Today the world has neither the time for dreams nor mercy for dreamers. The child’s tuition must be paid, even if the child learns nothing. The mortgage on the condominium must be maintained, although it is a shabby and cold series of rooms where night’s sirens make sleep fitful. The career must be advanced if expectations are to be realized, even if it will be a near thing to realize last year’s expectations by this time next year. The romance of the marriage must be renewed, although both parties secretly think “Ah, as well you as another.” Above all, the sleek almost-new car must have its oil changed, carburation adjusted, tires rotated when the odometer dictates.

Above all, one must be on time for work.

Yes. Yes to all of it. Yes, but…

But what of the green house?

If that house was not real, if it was not true, if it did not exist, what did exist then? What exists now? Where is the street beside the pale green house on the bright green lawn ringed with violet crocuses in the spring, shaded by three elms near the sidewalk and a rambling blackberry vine that clambered up the outside of the stairs and porches that linked the four apartments? That house where a few of the dreamers lived and others met, ate, loved, slept or passed through. What happened there between those ghosts made not of shadows but sudden shafts of sunlight?

Could they be called up? Brought back from the distances? Can they be commanded to emerge from the dream and inhabit this waking world amid the gaudy tokens and worn rewards of our despised surrender?

Would they, if caught in a web of words, stand and unfold themselves as they were, as more than they were, as emblems of the dream, wavering like rushlights in rooms made from mist, running along beaches smeared with seadrift and sunset, lounging against phantom trees on those parched and lawn-lined avenues, talking and laughing in whispering echoes on porches through the warm, dusky evenings when the falling light caressed the harps of bridges across the bay and the music was made of its light, and the clouds flowing in from the sea over the shadowed hills moved to the music through all the past lost years like ships setting out for the Fortunate Isles beneath the burnt orange strings of the sun’s lyre stretched across the mouth of the bay?

That lyre is an old lie. And there was no truth. And without truth, there was no foundation, and, hence, no enduring reality. There was only America, only one dream of America. No better or worse, no more or less real, than a thousand other dreams of America. It was a dream woven on the loom of the stars and the ocean that enmeshed that western city on seven hills which we watched at night from the green house on the flatlands across the bay. A thousand and one nights watching and telling tales which were, in the final analysis,only variations on a single theme of light reclaimed and held against the flooding dark for but a moment.

And then the distant guns coming closer, the clang of the brazen bells, the rising sirens, the chopping whir of helicopters, the boots falling in lockstep, the thud of nightsticks, the crackling orders on two-way radios, metallic clicks from the blue steel chambers, shotgun fire, the blood and the bodies and the screaming ….

We awoke in a metal dawn. The air tasted of rust. The smell of burning automobiles and tear gas was woven in the morning breeze and we slowly came to understand that the dreams were gone and only the nightmare was left. It was a slow nightmare which — if not exactly true, for truth in the nightmare was only propaganda — was at its bottom as real as the black neoprene bags waiting in rows on the tarmac in Saigon.

And this reality in time revealed to us the final face of fear — a fear that was not a fear of death, but of continuing failure; of our failure to sustain the dream, to make it real, to constantly renew it. And this fear, a fear seldom spoken by any but known to all, kept us awake through all the years that followed and forced us, in the end, to deny not only the dream, but the very possibility of dream.

And in time we became like all the others before us although we had, like all the others before us, sworn that we would not. We forgot the dream. We sold most of the records and purchased color televisions with cable hookups. We sold all the books and subscribed to a news weekly. We moved from the rented rooms, leaving the mattress, rug, and cat to shift for themselves, and made from what was real our cold comfort.

These days there is money to be made and property to be acquired. Now there is important work to be done. Now we have responsibilities to meet and, oh, that was all long ago. The green house is gone and we are changed, changed utterly. We no longer remember.

“Time,” she sang, “keeps movin’ on.”


Do not go.

Rest easy here with me.

I have not forgotten, nor have you. Together, we will remember. Together we will recall it all, as it was or as it should have been; it makes little difference. We shall walk back and raise it up; a testament to foolish desire, mistaken ideals, strong hopes, and white nights; a place where there will be light and warmth and we will abide forever together as we were and as we wished to become. A small green house where there is always room for one more, if memory serve.

And memory shall serve. It is ours to command, is it not? It is the one thing of value which can be given but not taken. It is our past, our common history. We know it is beyond price. Why else have we been such haste to pawn it? Because it lends light to our present lives and hence we fear it?

Who among us does not secretly despise what we have made of our dreams? Who among us does not secretly loathe what we have become for the sake of this dubious reality?

It was better, clearer, cleaner and more strangely beautiful when we slept in the green house.

It was not a special place. It was ordinary. The most ordinary place in the world. If it was neither real nor natural, it was fraught with a strange excitement, fecund with endless possibility. It was built of a metaphysic so loose that the most absurd accident could happen and it would only be a part of the Grand Design. It was a place where revelation and prophecy were daily events, the Second Coming scheduled for tomorrow after lunch, magic considered merely another, older branch of science, poetry an acceptable mode of speech, and caricature a widely appreciated attitude. As far as we know Rasputin, William Blake, St. Teresa, and Walt Whitman had never lived in the green house, but they would have been welcome if they had wandered in.

Let’s go then and knock on the door.

All you’ve got to do is step right up.
All you’ve got to do is ring that bell.

You can come as you are and you can leave your hat on.

There’s nothing to be hung about.

There is some wine for the asking, music always playing, pipes forever smoking. Perhaps there will be some hashish, or the more exotic opium. Perhaps there will someone to meet and take home later. Perhaps there will be a chance for love among these phantoms — among these phantoms we have set to sleep in music that our dreams remind us.