Interview with John Morgan Newbern
by John Wisniewski
Malachi - "Wednesday Eight" - Holy Music - 1966
JW: Malachi / Holy Music introduced the audiences to a new type of music, that they had not heard before, in 1966. Could you tell us about the recording of this landmark album?
JMN: I was just a kid with a 12-string guitar on the streets of Berkeley, sleeping where ever I could, where ever folks would allow, and playing the Bay area coffee houses and other venues for whatever they might want to pay. Usually not very much at all. One type of venue that also became somewhat common, along with the coffee houses of the day, was churches. One day I returned to a friend's place where I had been allowed to park my sleeping bag and guitar, only to find a letterhead from Capitol Records thumbtacked to thr door with a big, hand written message saying, "Malachi, call me!" and signed "Jon Sagen". After allowing myself a few minutes to calm down I contacted Jon. He introduced himself and we arranged for him to record a demo for both Capitol and MGM-Verve.
The music is completely improvised and appears to be "automatic" much like the "automatic writing." Unlike other music that I have played, this music does not require hours of rehearsal. It just happens and with certain elements that inspire inward contemplation.
JW: Allen Ginsburg wrote the liner notes for Holy Music. When did you meet him?
JMN: As it turns out, Allen was the guy who made the call to Allen Livingston president of Capitol, telling about the 12-string guitarist he had seen at a coffee house in San Francisco. Allen was with Micheal Harner, then Visiting Professor of Anthropology (from Colombia University) at UCB. Michael is one of the more forward thinking anthropologist of our time. He is also the founder of The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, www.shamanism.org. I had met Michael earlier, I believe at a venue in Berkeley. He introduced me to Allen G. at the coffee house in San Francisco that night. I must say, I had only a high-school education at that point, and with both Allen and Michael I felt that they were way over my head. Clearly I was "in school" when with these guys. And as it turned out, both Michael and Allen wrote the liner noter for that album.
JW: Who are some of the artists, writers etc. who have influenced you?
JMN: Being born in Baltimore and raised in Memphis, there were a lot of musical influences in my life. I listened to most everything I could find. I rejected a lot but I also dearly loved the blues, jazz, and Rhythm 'n' Blues, the 'black' music of the day; Roland Kirk, T. Monk, John Coltrane, Memphis sax man Hank Crawford, and even Ray Charles. There was also a few rock 'n' roll influences; Of course there was Elvis who's influence on every musician in Memphis was staggering. And Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. And being fortunate enough to have an older cousin (Emerson Newbern) who worked as Conway Twitty's personal recording engineer was no small thing. Outside of all of that was a deep curiosity about the music of other cultures. That was probably the biggest influence on "Malachi / Holy Music". It was after hearing much Middle-eastern music, much Japanese Kabuki music, some Chinese opera and an Indian raga or two that I realized the wisdom of the modal or open tunings for guitar. The right tuning can allow freedom of expression, even allowing the mixing and blending of musical genres and styles of expression. For me, that is what it was all about. Perhaps today all that seems a bit radical. Back then it was what was happening.
JW: What was your opinion of some of the rock music that was recorded during 1966-67? Were there any bands that you particularly were fond of?
JMN: I really liked most of the music of that era. It was very creative and, I think, a high point (no pun intended) in the history of music. Most everyone was trying their best to "do their own thing". I did/do like the Stones and the Beatles, some more than others. But they were brilliant. I'm sure there are to many to list here and certainly too many for this old brain to remember.
JW: What occult writings have influenced you in your art? You adapted the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1968 - could you tell us about that recording?
JMN: My studies have been mainly focused on comparative faiths, though certainly through the eyes of a practitioner of Buddhism. I was raised as a child to be a Methodist Christian. However, a visit to the ruins of the Yucatan in 1955 at age 11 left me with an insatiable curiosity about how people of other cultures think about the world they preceive. Early on I did discover that there are definitely certain similarities between the "secret teachings" of most of the faiths of the world. I began reading such books as Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps and the writings of Suzuki Roshi, Alan Watts and others, eventually becoming a student of Tibetan Buddhism under the instruction of Tarthang Tulku Rimpoche. There was a lot of death in the world in those days, much like today. To compose and perform such a work and to make it available to folks seemed like the best thing I could do at the time. Though the concert promoters and audiences of the day seemed to like it, the record labels didn't. I did finally release a small number of CDs of the work in 2000. When they sold out I released a 'second edition' in a more eco-friendly package, but with a recording of the traditional "Heart Sutra" in an ancient dialect of Japanese as a bonus track. It proved to be somewhat popular. All of my music, except for the "Malachi / Holy Music" CD, is available at http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/JohnMorganNewbern
JW: When did you begin your study of Shamainsm?
JMN: My exposure to the science/religion of the Maya followed by my discovering the writings of various Zen writers greatly effected both my thinking and my music.
JW: When you look back at the 60's, the experimentation in art, music, writing, what was accomplished during these years, if anything?
JMN: I think that for some folks there may have been a certain amount of self-discovery, an enlightenment of sorts. For others, well many didn't really catch on to what the artist-of-the-day was up to or why. Over all, however, I think what the society experienced worked for the better. I think it put a little light on how we view the world around us.
John Wisniewski is a freelance writer who frequently interviews for Grey Lodge Review and other publications.