Into the audience hall by the fathomless abyss
where swells up the music of toneless strings
I shall take this harp of my life.
I shall tune it to the notes of forever,
and when it has sobbed out its last utterance,
lay down my silent harp at the feet of the silent.
– Rabindranath Tagore, “Lamp of Love”
The first time I tried to meditate was one night in my room when I still lived with my parents. I turned off the lights, turned on my black light (so that my posters would glow), put on a Ravi Shankar record, sat cross-legged on the bed, and I think I may have smoked a joint. It was an enlightening experience. I had a very great, profound realization: Ravi Shankar could sure play the hell out of a sitar.
Of course, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I was trying to learn meditation from reading books, and obviously, I was mixing it up with some other stuff. A lot of things have changed since then. One thing stayed constant. Ravi Shankar remained a virtuoso.
Shankar was admitted to the Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego last week after complaining of shortness of breath. He died Tuesday. He was 92.
You can read the details of his life here at the LA Times.
Shankar met George Harrison in 1966 and the two became lifelong friends. Together they made the sitar a very popular instrument. From that association, and from his appearances at three legendary rock events (Monterrey Pop, Woodstock, and the Concert for Bangladesh), Shankar became an icon of the so-called hippie movement, even though he really didn’t care much for hippies.
At the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1968, Shankar enjoyed many of the performers, including Simon and Garfunkel, Otis Redding, and the Mamas and the Papas. He caught The Who and enjoyed them, even after they started breaking their instruments at the end of “My Generation.” But when Jimi Henrix, who followed The Who, set fire to his guitar, it was more than Shankar could take. He said later, “That was too much for me. In our culture, we have such respect for musical instruments, they are like part of God,”
In a 1999 interview, Saurabh Bhattacharya asked Shankar if music was essentially spiritual:
The highest form in music is spirituality. That is different from the professional approach, which even I have to unfortunately maintain—where it is a commercial arrangement that gives you a stipulated period of time within which you give your best.”
Professionally speaking, I’d say he had a very full life. Shankar was a three-time Grammy winner, he composed a number of film scores, collaborated with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, and played Carnegie Hall. Not bad.
Here is a rare clip of Ravi Shankar giving George Harrison a sitar lesson in Rishikesh, India, February 1968.
Those of us who were also fans of the great band Spirit are lamenting the loss of drummer Ed Cassidy at the age of 89. Today, Spirit is not very well remembered, but they were far more influential than most folks would imagine. They were one of my favorite groups, and their album “The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” is a real classic.
As a year, by the time it got here, 1984 was definitely overrated. As a song, it’s still outta sight.