Mike Opitz Song Writing and Theory Project

Featuring the Karma Refugees

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Series of Dreams (Bob Dylan cover)

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Salvador Dali, The Dream

The Karma Refugees:
Featuring the vocals of                                 Mysterious Madame X.
Guitar, echo voice, production              Mike
Bass, production                                                Tom
Guitars, final mix and production       Brian

Like Bob Dylan, “I was thinking of a series of dreams.”   I had been reminiscing about the many classes I have taught and the many students I have known as a series of dreams.  It seemed like an appropriate metaphor to me.  However, it is always a slippery business to translate the images and sensations of dreams into words, syntax and story.  Each of these elements imposes a world-view and an interpretation on what Freud called “the royal road to the unconscious.”  In his classic essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin argues that the same is true of “memories.”  The sensations of memory emerge into language, take form in syntax and become fossilized as a narrative.  The narrative is supported by a barrage of photographs everyone now takes with their phones to document—lest they be lost in the stream of time—the reified memories of a life. Thus, Benjamin argues, we rationalize our memories like we do our dreams. Continue Reading →

Courtly Love

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[The Karma Refugees, 2017, Walter Benjamin, William Blake, John Keats, James Ensor, Courtly Love, Intellectual and physical ruin]

When Tom Daddesio and I started our exploration of reggae music and cultural theory, we had no idea we would someday play the music.  We approached it as scholars and collectors of obscure Jamaican records.  Sometime around 1991, we attempted to approach the music in a less scholarly and more holistic way—by learning to play it.  Our first recordings were on cassette tape.  Digital recording eventually supplanted analog tape but developing a format to present our new digital recordings presented a problem.  With the help of CSBSJU media consultant, Adam Konczewski, I developed a webpage and that page has evolved over the last ten years.  Because our music grew out of the study of reggae which is also the study of slavery in the capitalist system, we always saw social theory as our main reason for making songs.  As we began making songs, recording and production technology changed again and we have now updated this website.  All along the way, we have discovered what we are doing while we are doing it.  Each step taught us something. Continue Reading →

Tower of Song (Cover of the Song by Leoard Cohen)

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Mike Opitz: lead vocal, guitar, digitally assisted production and final mix
Caitlin Brutger: keyboard, harmony vocals, production and mixing
Brian Heilman: guitar, harmony vocals, production, mixing and final mastering
Tom Daddesio: bass

***

The strange events of last fall’ s election season mixed with the falling leaves and seemed to conjure up nostalgic feelings in me.  In July of 2016, The Karma Refugees re-recorded one of my first reggae songs, “Karma Refugee.”  Thinking about that song and writing about it caused me to remember how I had been introduced to the concept of “karma.”  When I was in college, I heard Gary Snyder read his poetry and loved the metaphoric connections between Native American and Zen world views.  Consequently, I read Alan Watts because of his connection to the “beat generation.”  He had provided my first glimpse into Buddhist thought in “Beat Zen Square Zen,” and I had found it compelling.  Last fall while writing about “Karma Refugee,” I discovered a wealth of Alan Watts’ material on YouTube.  I spent hours listening to these lectures and heard his famous voice for the first time.  I had been busy escaping during the inflammatory and disheartening election campaign by listening to Alan Watts lectures while mixing the tracks of “Karma Refugee” for the website.  I started by listening to Watts’s lectures on “karma,” and then branched out to many other topics.    I was listening to a clever animated overview of Watts’ work last November when I learned of Leonard Cohen’s death.

 

The news of Cohen’s death sent me on a journey into the depth of his work.  I had been a fan of Leonard Cohen since I started playing guitar as a teenager. Songs like “Suzanne,” or “Bird on the Wire” were among the first songs I learned.  I remember the moody tone Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” set for Robert Altman’s film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  I admired the poetry of songs like “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “Joan of Arc.”  All the phases of Cohen’s career also illustrate the integration of women’s voices into his work.  I knew many versions of “Halleluiah” as the song became integrated into movie soundtracks and my daughter told me that it was a Cohen song.  Of course!  But I had lost track of Cohen’s work by the end of the 1980s.  I did not know, for example, that he had spent seven years as a Zen monk.  I learned this from Mikal Gilmore’s article in Rolling Stone –one of the many thoughtful eulogies that came out after Cohen’s death.

Leonard Cohen: Life and Legacy of the Poet of Brokenness

My nostalgia peaked in the late fall along with my need to escape.  I dove into the music and career of Leonard Cohen.  I found the expected darkness, but I also found disciplined and sharp lines of poetry.  For example, measured eight line stanzas make up the dialog between Joan of Arc and Fire.

Leonard Cohen, “Joan of Arc.”

“Famous Blue Raincoat” is a wonderful song written in the form of a letter featuring spare, ironic imagery about a complex of relationships.

Leonard Cohen, “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

I discovered deep humor runs through Cohen’s work.  For example, the song “Closing Time” links closing time in a Country Western bar with the end of the world.

Leonard Cohen, “Closing Time.”

The singer clues us in with these lines: “We’re drinkin’ and we’re dancin’ but nothin’s really happenin’/ And the place is dead as heaven on a Saturday night.”

I’ve found occasion to quote that line a few times!

As I was studying Cohen’s work, I wanted to record one of his songs.  There are so many choices and I’m still drawn to many of his songs.  But I identified with the geriatric humor of “Tower of Song;” I’m only a few years younger than Leonard Cohen; it made me laugh the first time I heard it and I identified more deeply after learning to sing it,  I appreciate how the ironic lines can be applied to me.  It made me nostalgic for myself: “My friends are gone and my hair is grey/ I ache in the places where I used to play.”  I wanted to say. “My hair is gone and my friends are grey,” but the picture certainly looks a lot like me.

Karma Refugee

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1. Karma

“Liberation is getting out of the toils of Karma.  During your many past lives, you’ve done all kinds of deeds, good and bad and you are reaping the consequences of these deeds today.  And also today, you’re setting up future consequences.  Before you can be liberated, you’ve got to pay off your karmic debts.  All your karmic creditors will come to your door.”
Alan Watts, “The Joker,” YouTube lecture.

Sometime during the recording sessions of 2013, we started calling our virtual and loosely organized band, The Karma Refugees.  We had not played the song together; it was a One Drop song.  But the song title is catchy and curiously contemporary.  Somehow with no one planning it, the name stuck.  And that caused us to revisit the song and to record it again—in 2016.

Karma Refugees, 2016
Song Writing:              Mike J. Opitz
Guitar:                         Mike
Bass:                           Tom C. Daddesio
Keyboard:                   Caitlin M. Brutger
Production:                 Mike and Caitlin

Fragment of dialog from the past:

Mike said, “I feel bad but … last night I had to kill a mouse.”
Diane laughed, “That’s a karma debt … but it’s a small one.”

Since then, I’ve wondered what a karma debt—and later, a big karma debt might be.  I had a simple, pop-culture idea of the concept of karma in mind born of my cursory knowledge of the beat generation.   http://www.litkicks.com/BeatGen

“What goes around comes around,” I thought.   “You reap what you sow.” Perhaps you reap it in a different lifetime.  I came to think that personal bad behavior incurred a karma debt, and that cultural bad behavior counted as a big karma debt.

Without really planning to, it seems that I’ve embarked on a musical exploration of that idea.

The song, Karma Refugee is the first song I wrote for The One Drop Band. We recorded it in 1998 after playing it live for many years.  At the time, our collective mission was to bring the poetry and power of reggae music to our small college town in Minnesota.  My only goal in writing the song was to make a reggae song for the band to play.  Tom added the bass line that was to be a hallmark of live One Drop shows.   It was track 4 on the band’s only album (The One Drop, Uberaffe Records, 1998).  We called it “a song about cultural Karma debt” in the liner notes and added an epigraph.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
And they that wasted us required of us mirth
                                     (Psalm137)

Karma Refugee—One Drop Version

Karma Refugee

I’m a Karma Refugee;
I’m a Karma Refugee.
The sins of my fathers are visited on me.
I’m a Karma Refugee.

I grew up with a lot of things at my hand.
I didn’t have to struggle to be a man.
Little did I understand how that hindered me.
I’m a Karma Refugee.

(Break)

I feel the absence of a soul.
Seem to be missing my heart of gold.
If I can’t buy it at the mall, it means nothing to me.
I’m a Karma Refugee.

Yes, I’ve got a vacuum for a soul.
Don’t know which way I should go.
But I can feel the visions dawning on me.
A Karma Refugee.

(Break)

There’s a nation rising in this land.
A reggae reggae nation in this land.
Feel the rhythms of the ancient ones
Struggling to be free.
Karma Refugee.

There’s a nation rising in this land.
A reggae reggae nation in this land.
Feel the rhythms–feel free.
Karma Refugee.

Without Meaning to, I made a list:

Heal the Nation: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2015, this song explores the culture of slavery.  (blog entry)

Dancers of the Dawn: Recorded by The One Drop in 1998, this song explores the massacre at Wounded Knee, the genocide of “the Indian Wars,” and The Ghost Dance religion.

Boom: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2012, this song links my dad’s experience in WW II with the experience of my generation in the Vietnam War.

The Muse:  Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2015, this song investigates patriarchal use of language to classify and control women. (blog entry)

I did not set out to write up a legalistic indictment of various cultural karma debts.  Each song just happened as a single song.  However, reflecting on the songs, and applying my limited knowledge of karma, I can see now that each one names and explores a “big” cultural debt. I learned that I expect “all the karmic creditors [to] be knocking.”

The experience of re-envisioning and re-recording a song reminds me of the Zen saying, “You can’t step into the same river twice.”  It will always be at a different time, with a different mind and situation.  My assumption is that some learning takes place in the space and time between recordings.  I learned to expand my idea of Karma.  In Alan Watts’ words:

“If I define myself as a whole field of events—let’s say the ‘organism-environment’ field which is the real me, then all the things that happen to me may be called “my doing.”  And that is the real sense of karma.  But when we speak about freedom from karma—freedom from being the puppet of the past—that involves getting rid of the habit of thought whereby you define yourself as the result of what has gone before.”
Alan Watts, “The Law of Karma,” YouTube lecture.

Sources:
Alan Watts, “The Law of Karma.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skIb_gFoDiQ

Alan Watts, “The Joker.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZXlIsXUpa4

Alan Watts, “Masturbation, Religion, Love.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xIZfs5xBBc

Alan Watts, “Sex, the Ultimate Sin.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_u9mAynZcU

  1. Refugee

 When I wrote the song, “Karma Refugee,” my understanding of the word “refugee” was no greater than my understanding of karma.  The words and the melody just came to me while strumming my guitar on the basement steps.  But I had grown up in a household with an Italian grandmother, Marietta Marcolini.  Her experience of being a woman, and a single mother, alienated and lonely in a strange land—America—got passed on to me through her stories and her tears.  She had come here as a teenager for an arranged marriage.  My grandfather came for a better life.  He had been an opera singer in Italy.  He became a miner and died of granite pneumonia in America.  I have been surprised that I am so drawn to this family history and have explored it in music.

Without meaning to, I made a list:
BanditRecorded by The Karma Refugees in 2012, produced by Tom with Stephanie Franzen on violin, this song is based on my grandmother’s stories and experiences.   Grandmother and the Bandit blog post

Harbor : Recorded by The One Drop in 1998, produced by Gary Neyers with Norb Jost on saxophone, this song is also about my grandmother’s experiences.

Jonah: Recorded by The One Drop in 1998, words by David Hulm, produced by Gary Neyers, this song says, “Feel like Jonah in the belly of a whale” and then, “The name of the whale is Babylon.”

Activist: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2015, this song explores how a person can be a refugee from a culture while also being a part of it.

Suitcases: For Walter Benjamin: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2013, this song is based on the life and death of philosopher, Walter Benjamin—who died while fleeing the Nazi persecution of Jews.  In our time, the persecution takes many forms.

The time of the refugee:

 It might be obvious to note that this time seems to be the era of the refugee as capital– and its companion war– expands its grasp to all corners of the earth.  People flee both physically and psychologically.  My thinking about the term refugee has also taken a journey.  Today, it resides in the words of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Anthem”:

You can add up the parts but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
but like a refugee.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDTph7mer3I