Walking on Water — A Meditation on Older Brothers

“Think about it,” Charles Lloyd was telling me. “We showed up in Stockholm and there were these big blonde girls all over us then you go down to the Fillmore the same kind of stuff going on . then you get a few gold coins the money men dangle stuff in front of you . they say, ‘OK, you have to act right, now.’ Then you see the control issue you see it’s a hog plum. It’s a big, juicy-looking plum, but it’s all pit and skin. You bite into it — you break your teeth off!”Charles is from the South, so you can hear that in his voice — “chicken shack or Cadillac,” he’ll say, “don’t make no difference to me.” But he’s been living out West since the late ’50s developed a new vocabulary words like “Hyperions,” “Upanishads” “empty vessel.”

He looks composed, but waves long arms when he talks. Like a bird, loose and flapping. Tall used to power — his album, “Forest Flower ” sold more than a million copies in the ’60s he played to huge crowds of young people then, and I was one of them.

Charles LLoyd

He knows that. He knows who I am — the younger brother, tagging along, asking questions, admiring him. You can hear it in his voice.

 

“I didn’t want to be a product, I wanted to be free!” words even today thrilling to me a call to arms. “There was a big price to pay, too,” he says, wanting me to understand, “because they were ready to put me in stadiums. But I realized that I’d have to deliver that tainted message, see, and I’m not going to bow down to the businessman.”

That was the turning point, I guess. That’s what he says.

“So I took off my clothes, disbanded the quartet went to live in a cave work on my character.”

That part always makes me skeptical the legend he retreats to Big Sur in 1969 and doesn’t come out to perform again until the early ’80s only then because a crippled little French pianist named Michel Petrucciani came around . Charles got him started, he says, took him around the world, helped him out, “and by that time I was bit by the cobra again,” says Charles, his talk beautiful and convincing smooth and sincere.

 

But did he really take off his clothes? Live in a cave? Depend on the good Lord to provide? And if he did, and really did become a spiritual man, how could a taste of the limelight — that’s what he means by the cobra: the lure of success — all by itself, how could that bring him back?

“Once you’ve been bit by the cobra, you realize there’s nothing you can do,” he tells me. “I couldn’t go back and be a retreat acetic, so I came down from the mountain now I’m out here soldiering again.”

He calls it soldiering, as if serving a cause I guess he is. He looks like some kind of holy man, anyway, his gray hair sticking out under a knit cap, sun glasses over his eyes a handsome man, in command, holding his golden tenor sax . When Charles enters a room, you fall right into his orbit, just like a little brother.

But he makes me mad. First enjoyed the world of the senses, now reaping the joys of the spiritual path.

“I’m a wild yogi,” says, “I checked out all the excesses. But fortunately, there was something bigger that allowed me to not get run over by it.”

Charles LLoyd

Right, right, I’m saying first you get stoned with Jimi Hendrix the Grateful Dead, have all the women the money the applause I mean, at the top, Charles, you’d already been everywhere: starting out with Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King . proud of it — “I come from those old blues guys, too,” you tell me, “and the sanctified church,” . you know I’ll be impressed — yeah, I can hear the preacher’s voice real strong. But you’ve also got that Master’s degree from USC, and then you also played with Ornette.

 

What bothers me, see, is he gets to take the high road and turn his back on success. And then because he did, now he’s got wisdom to dish.

You’ve got to be careful as a young man,” he tells me. “Youth is like a swagger it’s like a walk on water, but it’s really insecurity.” “It’s like this,” says the older brother:

“The guru tells his disciple, Go across the river and get us chapatis.'” Charles says this, and suddenly I’m there, the disciple myself Charles the guru.

“The disciple says, I can’t because the river’s high and the ferry’s not running.’ The guru says, Don’t worry, I’m going to write something on this leaf, and you put it in your cloth and go across.’ The disciple starts to protest but the guru says, Just do what I told you . And don’t look at the leaf.’ So the disciple gets out in the middle of the stream he says, Damn, this is great!. I’m walking on water!’ But sure enough, he’s a young guy and he can’t help himself, so he looks at the leaf he starts plunging . ” Charles laughs. “When you’re walking on water, and you think you’re doing it, you’re gonna drown.”

 

He’s got the best of me again.

But it’s a wonderful tale, one I’ll tell others maybe some of the story’s magic will rub off on me, the younger brother admiring and resenting his accomplishments.

I asked Tom Grant, who once played piano for Charles, “Was he hard to work for?” Tom says, “Well, he was kind of a mean-spirited guy. He could see right where you were weak and vulnerable he’d go right for it . He’s all about spirituality but that’s just on the surface; underneath he’s a mean-spirited son of a bitch.”

See, Charles thinks he’s gotten across. . Checked out all the excesses . survived them, charmed and because he retired early — I like the way he says this — “put my six-shooter away while it was still firing,” he thinks he can come back and be “like a junior elder . and still have the younger than springtime feeling.”

And I guess he can. He has. Once again. Not just for fun, though; it’s an important mission he’s on.

“I want to infuse something of the absolute into the relative,” he says, trying to explain, wanting me to understand, to see him as he sees himself, because I’m the younger brother, the faithful mirror. “I can’t take any kind of authorship, though” he adds. “I’m just blessed.”

This is what bothers me the most.

Trying so hard to be humble, he shows the greatest pride.

A walk on water .

 

One day my friend Joe and I were playing catch with a rubber ball in his living room . tossing it back and forth, goofing around. Joe another older brother. Been a psychologist, then, almost by accident invented a kind of plastic photo cube, just goofing around, you know made a bunch of money, didn’t work anymore . Liked to show me things. I was eager to learn.

So we were tossing the ball I said, “Hey, this is great!” — figuring I’d come up with something pretty impressive — “Hey this is great! Nothing between us but this little rubber ball.” Joe grinned, “Yeah just this ball ” and he fired it at me hard, so I missed and it bounced painfully off my chest.

” just this ball and a little ego . A little ego.” And Joe laughed.

 

Walking on water .

 

“These things aren’t alien to you, are they? Charles suddenly asked. I was lulled by his monologue caught off-guard.

“No not at all. But how does any of that affect your music?”

“Since you ask a question like that . I’ll tell you something I don’t usually talk about” — Come on, little brother, he’s saying his arm around my shoulders, This is especially for you no one else and I follow like a pup.

Charles LLoyd“When I first got to New York,” he tells me, “I wanted to jump into the fast lane, but my good friend Booker Little, who left us at the age of 23, he said ‘No — it’s about character.’ But I jumped into the fast lane anyway, and got hit by some Mac trucks . so when I disbanded the quartet I went into the woods and worked on my character. Now, the closer I get to the empty vessel, the better my tone gets the better my music gets.” And I want to believe him, want to believe in an American hero, a charismatic with a talent for song, the kind we love the most, an older brother.

 

Older brothers always have the power.

Once, when Charles was performing in town and I’d written a newspaper story about him, he called me out from the stage. During one of his free-ranging raps, I suddenly realized . quoting my story, where I said he sounded like a cross between a sanctified preacher and an erudite sage. My ears started ringing it was hard for me to hear, he was mocking, unhappy, even though the story provided ample room to explain himself, even though my admiration must have been evident.

But younger brothers don’t get any praise older brothers always have the last word, older brothers always teach the lessons.

The thing I realized is, Charles had been taught in the same way, too, by his older brothers.

“Me,” he says, “I learned from cats like Monk . Monk was like Milarepa. See, when I was just a precocious kid, I was playing opposite Monk at the Village Gate . I had a rider in my contract I had to have fresh orange juice backstage every night. But Monk would come and drink my orange juice. At that time, Monk had this Baroness, Nica, Rothschild woman . she’d be taking him around everywhere driving him places, so I said to her, ‘Look, Nica, tell Monk when he come tonight not to drink the orange juice because it’s rancid . She says’ — he imitated her voice, high-pitched and stilted, ‘O thank you, Charles, thank you thank you.’

“So later Monk comes in with his beard, and he’s dancing around with his deities, you know, and Nica says, ‘Oh, the orange juice is tainted, it’s tainted.’ Monk’s making these sounds he just kept dancing. Then after about five minutes of that, he goes over, picks up the pitcher of orange juice, walks over by me, looks me in the eye . downs all the orange juice. Then he just dances off.

“See, it’s like this Milarepa story. One day the King invited Milarepa to come to his palace dance and show off his guns, but Milarepa said, ‘No, I don’t do gigs like that,’ he just stayed out in the wild where he lived. So the King got mad decided to take Milarepa a fancy Indian dish as a present but it would be all full of poison. When he brought the dish to Milarepa, he started eating then the King himself suddenly grabbed his own throat and fell on the ground said, ‘Oh please stop eating, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.'”

Charles paused, I waited.

“So I decided I wanted to get something together like those wise old cats had,” he says. . Charles wasn’t afraid to seize power, even though it shocks and disturbs wasn’t afraid to drink the orange juice himself, to create and inspire, to express.

But us younger brothers remain in the background, vulnerable, holding back and fearing we’ll plunge into the water at every step.