Reprinted from Chronicles of Chaos
WORDS OF THE TRAVELLER
CoC chats with Robert N. Taylor of Changes
by: Todd DePalma
Robert Nicholas Taylor remains one of the most underappreciated musicians in the American musical landscape today. As the voice of seminal folk-noir group Changes, Taylor along with guitarist Nicholas Tesluk have survived the counter-cultural divisions and eventual commercialisation of rebellion that surrounded their youth in the Seventies, remaining an irreplicable and dignified monument of contemporary folk music.
In 1996, at the urging of friend and fellow musician / author Michael Moynihan, the duo released a selection of early Changes material for the first time on CD, inspiring a much later generation of artists and musicians who share a similar fascination and cultural inheritance of European music, folklore and symbolism. Since then, the group has recorded a new album, _Orphan in the Storm_, and released various other music on vinyl and compact disc. They have embarked on a European tour and, more recently, have released music in tandem with English folk singer Andrew King and German musician Axel Frank (Werkraum).
Recently, Taylor (now sixty years old) spoke at length with the Chronicles on his love of art, touring, the controversies of his politics as others perceive them, his youth in Chicago's racially divided neighborhoods, religion, fatherhood and on experiencing all the benefits of Mexican hospitality.
CoC: Greetings Robert, how are you?
Robert N. Taylor: Fine, thank you.
CoC: I wanted to open with discussing the last record, _Orphan in the Storm_. How and when did the concept for the album unfold?
RNT: I wrote the ballad on Poe some years ago and set the music to it shortly afterwards. I also did the painting that is on the cover of _Orphan in the Storm_ around that same period, so it seemed like the two would go well for the album. I, as well as Nicholas, have always been fans of Poe. He sort of epitomized the struggling artist who never compromised in his work. His life and fortunes also epitomize the tragedy of the artist in America, both in his time as well as ours. His work has been in print in one edition or another since the time he wrote them. He is a perennial read for generation after generation of American youth. I read just about all he has ever written and I am sure his example and extolling of the poetic art had its effect on myself personally in my pursuing poetry.
Reading Poe, for many, is a rite of passage of sorts; an early introduction to real literature. So I wrote and composed the ballad and painted his portrait as a tribute to someone who has influenced me and to whom I returned to read over the years. I read most of the great classics in my youth. I prefer annotated versions these days, because it adds something more to just reading the books in my later years. Poe's writing is initially approached for its imagination and eeriness, but on closer examination, most of his stories and poems are really a continuing saga exploring the journey of the human soul.
CoC: What songs have been your favorite off the album?
RNT: Probably "Aphrodite", "Song of Pan", "Sailor's Song" and "Twilight of the West", all for different reasons. "Aphrodite" has a sort of dynamic in its pace. My friend Michael Moynihan mentioned that he had heard some ancient classical Greek music that was discovered and that what Nicholas did with the melody was very similar to what he heard.
Both "Song of Pan" and "Sailor's Song" I like very much because Nicholas, in writing the melody, enhanced the lyrics so well. In "Sailor's Song", the melody line rises and falls like waves at certain points. The chorus to "Song of Pan" really gives one the feeling of a circular movement that parallels the lyrical description of dancing in a circle around a fire.
"Twilight of the West" I like because I felt it summarized some pretty abstract concepts in a sort of brief manner. Much of the song, which was written in the early '70s, is now prophetic. It was written when Richard Nixon was in office, and he certainly "groomed his doomed career". It was written before the Watergate incident that ended his presidency with his resignation, and there are other couplets as well that were written before they became fact. Also, it seems that this particular ballad bothers the hell out of my critics, which I enjoy.
CoC: There are hints of so many different styles in Changes' music, from Spanish guitar to medieval music. What artists and periods influenced the Changes sound early on?
RNT: Nicholas is a virtuoso on the guitar. Though most all of what he plays and composes has his signature in it, he can do many styles: Medieval, Baroque, Renaissance, Celtic, basic American folk and other styles, though I think the greater influence is his own style. In the case of the music I compose, it is simple three-chord progressions in a folk mode. As for influences of artists, we listened to and liked The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Strawbs, Steeleye Span, Leo Kotke and others of that period.
CoC: Painting is another way both you and Nicholas Tesluk exercise creativity. In fact, you've provided the artwork to all of Changes' releases so far. Painting fascinates me for a number of reasons; firstly because I find myself completely unsuited for it. Did you take to it naturally, and how do you usually go about forming an image onto canvas?
RNT: Both of us have been into painting and graphics since the inception of Changes in the early Seventies. Initially, Nicholas was primarily doing calligraphy, which he is very talented at doing. He did the entire hand-lettered lyrics of _Legends_ as well as a similar text for the lyrics of _The Ballad of Robert de Bruce_. His lettering for the Changes logo is a very unique lettering style that is never exactly the same; the sequence of the letters determines where the "whiplash lines" will be. Later, Nicholas began to draw and eventually do paintings. Initially, I did paintings and drawings and he did lettering and calligraphy. As time went on, I began to study lettering and calligraphy, so in the end, we each were doing both. It has always been a great collaboration between us, whether it was artwork or music; we both are so accustomed to one another that we coordinate our creative efforts almost seamlessly.
As for my initial art period, it came naturally. I was drawing and coloring even at four years old. In fact, art was one of the few subjects in school that I loved to do. When I started to paint, I simply got pigments, canvas and brushes and began to try my hand at it. I pretty much learned all I know in that area by trial and error and the study of paintings in art galleries and museums. I had no formal training or instruction. Over the years, I developed good hand-eye coordination, my focus got better, and I became more patient with the labor involved in painting and art. It can oftentimes be very slow and laborious, particularly when using a pointillist technique of stipple or dot work.
As for how I go about forming an image: it is a process of the imagination, generally. Most of what I do is not from the external world so much as from the internal imaging process. One gets what they think is a subject they want to portray, then the imagination must work out the problem of exactly how one wants to approach the subject. Now, most people can get a hazy image or idea, but what differentiates what an artist working in this fashion does is take that hazy image and bring a lucid focus to it right down to the details and minutiae. I have often used my mind's eye as a sort of zoom lens. Say there's a tree in a particular picture: first, one has to imagine the bold outlines of that tree -- the conformation of its branches and leaves. That isn't enough. Then, you go on to zooming in on that image mentally and imagining the bark of the trunk and its texture, even how it should feel to the tactile sense. Then, holding that image in mind, you attempt to sketch and arrive as closely as possible to the image you had. Sometimes it takes many attempts before you can be at all satisfied with the finished rendering. Sometimes you can never quite achieve it to your satisfaction. This process of imaging (or any mental process) gets better the more you exercise it. This mental imaging which I am speaking of or alluding to is very much like what a magician or occultist would do in forming images and moving pictures of whatever they wish to project and make happen. The greater the lucidity and detail, the more powerful the spell or psychic projection. It requires practice, energy and will.
The painting I did of Poe that appears on the album is done in what is called an anamorphic style. Such anamorphic art is a distortion which when viewed from the proper angle reconstitutes itself into a conventional image. It is a part of my interest in optical devices in art. Representational art has all sorts of dazzling mediums competing with it: movies, television, computer art, etc. So for me, I attempt to create art that has optically interesting surprises for the viewer outside of the norm, such as optical illusions, hidden pictures and so forth.
CoC: There are parallels between the construction of music and poetry because of their rhythmic nature. Is the same true with painting?
RNT: Visual arts are a different form of art and call for a different approach. Poetry and music are of course much closer in creative mode. They both rely on rhythm and audio facilities (if the poetry is written for the spoken voice and human ear as opposed to simply text).
CoC: Much of the basis for your lyrics is the continuing degeneration of civilization at a point where, naturally, we're still quite full of ourselves.
RNT: Actually, just a few of our songs are concerned with social or political subject matter: "Twilight of the West", "Waiting for the Fall", "The Times They Ain't a Changing", "Icarus", and the recent ballad "Mahabharata of the Soul". The rest are basically love songs, pastoral nature songs, and ballads concerned with legendary and mythic subjects.
CoC: How do you define patriotism?
RNT: In its basic sense and meaning, simply love and loyalty to one's country or place of birth, one's fatherland. Patriotism, as it exists today, is connected with the concept of nation. It is a construct of the twentieth century, primarily, an outgrowth of the advent of large nations. Loyalty and love for smaller national groupings and city-states was primarily the same in a more limited scope of the world, and perhaps more realistic and rational. After all, that which is closest to one should matter most. In the later part of the twentieth century arose the concept of racial nationalism as exemplified by the Nation of Islam (Black Muslims) and similar groups like Aryan Nations, etc.: love and loyalty to one's race as opposed to geographical boundaries. Large super-nations are in a sense artificial constructs that ignore racial, cultural and religious demographics. Mega nations are also a bit abstract and once removed from one's roots and locality.
CoC: You've played a handful of shows in the last year in Austria, Germany, NYC and Portland. How was the experience after such a long hiatus, and how would you describe your audience today?
RNT: Our first live show was at the Treffen Wave Goth Fest in Leipzig, Germany. It was the first time that Nicholas and I performed on stage in 33 years. We have to date done a total of eleven stage performances since then (as of this interview). The audiences are composed of some really fine people. In the early to mid '70s the audiences were alright, but I doubt that most of them knew what our music was all about. The folk music scene was pervaded with leftists at that time, both as performers and as audiences. That has radically changed. It was as if Changes had to wait over thirty years to find the real audience it had been seeking all those years.
In November 2005, we did a European tour that took us first to Portugal, then Belgium, then to Vienna, Austria and Budapest, Hungary, and finally two performances in Russia (St. Petersburg and Moscow). Overall, it was a good tour.
Russia was the most amazing of the countries we toured, probably because of the erroneous preconceptions I had concerning the country. I envisioned it as something like an old black and white movie: privation, unhappiness, and a gray world of despair. Instead, it was none of those things. It was epic in nature and the Russian people I met were dynamic and full of life and humanness. Moscow was a very bright, well-lit city at night. The expressways were very well kept; there was no graffiti on the buildings or subways. It was a clean, neat city. In fact, I seemed to see more beautiful women in Russia than anywhere else I have been. Watching the flow of pedestrians in Moscow and St. Petersburg was like watching a never-ending fashion show of beautiful and stylishly attired ladies.
The subway transit system was very efficient and the stations were as beautiful as palaces. The rail system that took us from St. Petersburg to Moscow and back again was very nice and comfortable. It beat Amtrak in many ways. They provided large boxes of food for breakfast and the heating was good.
As for the audiences, they were the most enthusiastic that we have ever encountered. The promoters of the shows were very well organized --nothing slipshod about anything they did. They were all very diligent and responsive to us all. We had a lot of laughs and fun and saw many historic and cultural sites while we were there. We were traveling there with Allerseelen; they were great people to travel with and share a stage with. We hope to repeat that again with them.
CoC: The controversy that has followed Changes during the last few years seems not to be based so much on your music per se, but on a particular story you had related in the past discussing your involvement with the Minutemen, your youth involved in Chicago's street gangs and tense neighborhood rivalries (in one case culminating a race riot). Because of this, there was some tension that preceded the show back in New York (2005) which caused the venue to be changed at least once, correct?
RNT: Well, actually both things. The music and my own background and activities play a part in the so-called "Anti-Fascist" protesters. My description of the white ethnic riot was written sort of on the basis of "man bites dog" as being news, whereas "dog bites man" is not at all newsworthy. Generally, when one mentions riots, people think of all the black riots of the mid-Sixties and on. Another reason I mentioned and described that riot was an exploration of what a riot is like: akin to a force of nature, like a tidal wave or earthquake. What the anti-fa didn't know (and what I did not mention and innocently omitted) is that I was about twelve years old when I experienced that riot. To hear them, I was lynching people from lampposts and leading it all, when in fact I was a pre-teen and hardly capable of having any leadership role in it all.
In a big city like Chicago, whenever there were fire engines or police in great numbers with sirens and lights flashing, people ran to scene to see the spectacle. At such times one would suddenly realize the sheer density of population per square mile. In ten or fifteen minutes there could be thousands of people milling about and pressing forward to gawk. So in this case, some other youngsters and I ran down to see what was happening and got caught up in the contagion of the swarm. In a riot action, anyone standing there is suddenly swept forward whether they want it or not. The sheer force of an incited crowd surging forward just sweeps one along with it. If you don't move with the crowd, you end up being trampled under it. It's a very frightening phenomena. I have seen slowed down films of riots, and human beings attack and retreat alternately much like a swarm of wasps or hornets. In any riot, intelligence is brought down to the lowest common denominator. A crowd has one mind and one will and it is savage and brute in a very primitive sense. Even the most intelligent members of a mob are caught up in the contagion and cast aside their intellects and act with one mind and purpose.
Another reason that I chronicled that particular riot was that it never was even reported in the newspapers. There was a complete blackout and censorship of the event by the media. I suppose that is alright with the anti-fas; after all, suppression and censorship are their primary forte. For all the prattle of the left about censorship and injustices, they seem to be the primary people who strive for it -- not those on the right of the political spectrum. I could give many examples but will refrain for fear of being too verbose in doing so. There are also other things I hope to write that will put all of that in a more understandable context.
What caused these ethnic whites to riot was more a case of fear than hate. A good part of this fear was generated by economic considerations. During this period there were shoddy real estate agents who would buy a property in a white area of a city by proxy. They were really purchasing the real estate for a black buyer. Once word got out of who had actually purchased the property, this would cause an immediate panic in the area where this was done. Suddenly there was a rush of "for sale" signs in the area and the property values bottomed out. Then these same realtors bought these properties at prices far below the previous true value, and then sell these properties to blacks for prices far in excess of what they purchased them for. In no time at all, the area transformed into a black community, or largely so.
None of this had any real connection to integration or peace between races. Integration did not occur -- flight of the whites occurred. It was no secret that once blacks predominated in an area, the crime rate would soar and the streets would become dangerous to walk. These white working class people were a large segment of the population who worked at menial jobs in factories, mills, construction and occupations of this sort and level of society. For most of them, their job (however humble and base it might appear in society's eyes) their home, car and family was about all they had in the world. These were the primary tangible things that they had to show for their labor, and suddenly their property lost half of its value on the market and they felt impelled to flee the area.
All of these things were the gambit of predatory real estate operators who were generally referred to as "panic peddlers". The whites lost, as did the blacks, who got suckered into buying property for a lot more than it was truly worth. The only winner was the panic peddler. What I wrote here is something you will seldom hear or ever learn about. Why? Because white working class ethnics seldom have a spokesman or anyone who writes or speaks on their behalf. They are simply the dispossessed majority. Few among their number can articulate their side of the story, so they are always made out to be the villains.
CoC: Did the fear of prison weigh heavily on you during this time [with the Minutemen]?
RNT: It was a consideration, to be sure, but certainly not a fear. When one plays at such games one rolls the dice and takes chances.
CoC: Why do you think the image of the Marxist revolutionary has been so romanticized today?
RNT: Because those who are romanticizing the Marxists probably share a sympathy with their politics and philosophies.
CoC: During and after your time with the Minutemen you were engaged in a good deal of traveling both in and out of the country. What areas that you've journeyed to have left you with the strongest impression?
RNT: Mostly the wilderness areas of the USA. I did hitchhike across most of North America, including Mexico and Canada and as far south as Guatemala in the early Seventies. Mexico is one place that left an impression, because I stayed down there a total of about nine months once. I was primarily there painting pictures of baroque architecture, studying the mural paintings in the municipal buildings of Guadalajara and Mexico City.
The art and crafts there exhibit a very unique soul in the people. Most of the people I encountered and dealt with in Mexico were fine people. They were warm, human and very natural people. They have large families and even in their poverty do not despair of life and living. I don't think you will encounter very many Mexican women who are feminists or engage in aborting their children, as is the case in the US, primarily among Caucasians. They haven't lost their will to life. They are a very stoic people in many ways. I have visited Mexico many times, beginning in the mid Sixties. On my first visit to Mexico I experienced the effects of peyote, which you could purchase in the mercado for the equivalent of fifteen cents in US currency. On my second journey I visited Oaxaca in the south and learned the wisdom of the magic mushrooms. On that occasion I tripped on the shrooms with Maria Sabena, who was a very gracious host and guide. I can still recall her chanting that evening as she sang her ritual invocations to the Gods in the Indian dialect of the region.
I had many adventures in Mexico. I climbed Popocatapetl, south of Mexico City, later learning that Crowley had once climbed there also, as well as Antonin Artaud, the French poet and playwright. I visited various Aztec and Mayan ruins also.
I visited Guatemala in the early 1970s, when there was a three-way conflict ensuing between the right-wing La Mano Blanca (White Hand) and the communist insurgents under Cesare Montez, with both wings fighting the government while at the same time fighting one another. It was very scary and tense there in those days. It was difficult to know who the players were for an outsider, and definitely no place for an American to be at that time, with troops and tanks moving through the streets daily and an atmosphere of danger around every corner.
In the US, I traveled through the Southwest and California, staying at various crash pads and communes along the way. These were exciting and adventurous times for me over all. There were of course negative aspects, like fatigue in hiking through the desert and often going without a bite to eat for days at a stretch. I got stranded in Montreal once and went without food for about seven days straight. If nothing more, it taught me what hunger and starvation are all about. Often when I described what starving was like, others would say that they had fasted for x number of days. I would try to impart the difference between the two. With fasting you can usually break the fast anytime you wish and reach for the refrigerator door. Such is not the case with starving. There is no refrigerator door to open for food. Starvation is a black hole to the future. If you're starving today, you may well be starving tomorrow. It is an open-ended experience and there is no promise that it will end anytime soon.
So, despite the romance and adventures of being on the road footloose and fancy-free, there are times of paucity and privation. But looking back, I learned a lot from all the experiences, good and bad, and tested my own endurance and courage and knew my true self better. So it all tested me and furthered my quest to become the über-mensch I now am. <laughs>
I think it was in the winter of 1970 that I spent several months living in a cave in the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. The snow was up to my waist in places, and I made a long trek into the mountains. This was an experience that really got me in touch with nature. Not in some dreamy ecologist way, but nature in the raw as it really is. I recall developing true pantheistic perceptions, insights and feelings regarding nature there. I sprouted chickpeas in the cave (that afforded me greens) and trapped rabbits with snares and such. I had encounters with bears and cougars also. Somehow I managed to survive it all.
I once trekked across the Gila on the trail that runs through it -- a journey of over fifty miles up and down through the mountains. The first European to traverse the Gila was Cabeza de Vaca, a red-haired Spaniard who had trekked from Florida to Nevada over a ten year period. His saga is a great one to read. He chronicled his journey full of adventures, Indian wars and epic travel. He eventually made it to Galveston, Texas and caught a Spanish boat to Mexico City and eventually back to Spain. Knowing his saga, I kind of felt his spirit at my side throughout my hike.
CoC: When did you meet Nicolas Tesluk, and what were his pursuits and activities at the time you were involved with the Minutemen?
RNT: I first met Nicholas when he was just weeks old. We are first cousins. Outside of his mother and father, I probably have known him longer than anyone else living today. So we grew up together much like brothers. We had close ties all through our youth and continue to. Nicholas was attending college during that period, working towards his degree in electrical engineering. Since he went to school in Chicago, we hung out together and worked on various art projects and just had fun in our spare time. I would often leave for a month or so and travel or conduct organizational pursuits of the Minutemen.
CoC: Was a reverence for nature something that developed before or while seeing the country? It's kind of tragic that so many Americans are unaware of the incredible lands that still exist outside of the cities -- and that people otherwise fascinated by the natural landscape view it vicariously through magazines and television because of exigencies that maintain stability at home.
RNT: My view of Highway One was actually traveling down Highway One. I guess the early books of Jack Kerouac inspired me a lot -- particularly "On the Road", "Dharma Bums" and "Desolation Angels". As a boy I read Thor Hyerdahl, Chichester and his "Gypsy Moth Circles the World", endless magazines like Cavalier, True and all those men's pulp magazines of the times, chock full of adventure stories and yarns. And yes, this land is a beautiful and singular place; nothing on earth as grand as the Grand Canyon. I advise everyone to see it while they are still alive, as well as the Tetons, Yellowstone and many other places. We have lots of great caverns, vast deserts, majestic mountains and waterways. Though one can rightfully lament the passing of family farm life in the US and the advent of Agricorps, one thing that is happening in America is that with all the dormant farms that were cleared a hundred or more years back, now the forest is beginning to encroach and reclaim a lot of it. If the trend continues, future generations may see wilderness reasserting itself in places once cultivated.
CoC: Were you ever concerned that the prospect of marriage and fatherhood would require obligations that kept you from further travel?
RNT: I am sure I considered such things at the time of marriage and fatherhood, but such things as marriage and fatherhood are a part and parcel of a full life. These are experiences I would not have liked to miss -- and they did indeed curtail travel and adventure to a great extent, but at the same time, they provided life experiences I would not today trade for something else. The arrival of a child is probably for many the most spiritual event of their live. One is literally walking on air, high in the clouds, so to speak.
My first son was born in a hospital. It was a long 48-hour labor. After he had been delivered I went home. When I walked through the yard of my house there was a rose bush that had grown under the sidewalk from a neighbor's rose bush. Every summer I thought of rooting it out, but for some reason I didn't, despite the fact that it never once bloomed. That morning, when I returned home, it was in full bloom! It never bloomed again afterwards. I clipped and dried one of the roses and still have it as a keepsake to pass on to my first son. Even during these years of children and marriage, I found other outlets for adventure: motorcycling, canoeing rivers and lakes, weekend camping and hiking and such. Life didn't altogether come to a standstill. I simply had less time and had to plan better and use what time was left to good and satisfying ends.
CoC: Are you the kind of person that can never stay in one place for too long?
RNT: No. I am a person with great patience and have no problem in settling into one mode or way of existence for a long time. It is more a case of the way our world of today is -- so rootless and in a process of flux that makes it difficult to always maintain the same place. I was married for 27 years to one woman, and though it came to an end some six years ago, I do not regret those years in any way. Likewise I do not look back or lament their passing, but move on into the future.
CoC: Is there virtue in danger?
RNT: No, not in danger itself. The virtue or lack of virtue is the manner in which someone handles danger. It tests you. You begin to know your limits and who you truly are in relation to the world around you and in relation to other human beings.
CoC: While comparing traditional and modern Christianity, Aldous Huxley, in his "Perennial Philosophy", remarked that:
"...The secret of happiness and salvation were to be sought, not in the external environment, but in the individual's state of mind with regard to environment. Today the all important thing is not the state of mind, but the state of the environment. Happiness and moral progress depend, it is thought, on bigger and better gadgets and a higher standard of living."
Which is quite similar to the following lines from "Twilight of the West":
"And your churches all are classrooms of humanistic thought,
Who preach of economics, and salvation which is bought
And measure good in dollars, no longer martyr's blood
And promise "pie" not in the sky, but lying in the mud."
RNT: I would qualify that statement. Contentment and a feeling of accomplishment can be found externally as well as internally. Happiness and sorrow are extremes that we experience occasionally. Contentment is a well-balanced thing that can be maintained for long periods of one's life, so I have always striven more for contentment than happiness. Happiness is more related to a brief passing moment -- a high that seldom lasts long -- and sorrow is a low that also has its season and passes on.
In regards to Huxley, his novel "Brave New World" seems to epitomize, in a symbolic way, the world we live in today. Instead of Soma (the mood elevator of Huxley's novel) they are giving Ritalin and other mood modifiers to children in the schools today, creating a whole generation of zombies, which has become widespread. Then these bokers who dispense these drugs have DARE programs against illegal drugs. How they can reconcile these opposing messages is beyond my understanding. In my state (and probably all over) they are also giving cash incentives to the parents who comply with having their children drugged. This makes their lives easier, plus they get a shopping spree at Wal-Mart thrown into the bargain. Then the main protagonist of the novel, the Savage, goes off to flog himself and mortify his flesh as a rebellion against living in "the perfect bliss of the numbness of now". It truly reminds me of all the body modifications, piercing and the activities of Faker Mustapha, Jim Ward and all the endorphin addicts.
"Brave New World", the futurist novel, continues to come true; it's far more visionary then Ayn Rand or George Orwell. You almost get the feeling that the powers that be took their cues from Huxley. "Brave New World", like most futuristic novels is not that great a literary book. Its characters seem a bit cardboard and are more contrived as the voices of ideas and impulses. The visionary side of it is frighteningly real today, and that is its value as a novel more than anything else. Though I do not consider Huxley the greatest novelist, I think he was the greatest essayist since Montaigne, and his work is very relevant and worth reading, especially in these days we're living through.
CoC: Authors like Huxley and Coomaraswamy wrote of a number of similarities between the mystical approach of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. In each case what we associate with the religions today is not necessarily what was intended. What do you think is the actual catalyst for this reversal of values?
RNT: Huxley and Coomaraswamy were on the mark on thinking in such statements. This has been the fate of religions over and again. Those that come after the prophet or visionary founder figure out ways to use the religion for their own advantages and nefarious purposes.
In the realm of Asatru, I have always opposed those who would overtly systematize a doctrine or theology. As long as some areas of a religion are open and going through changes, the spiritual element remains alive and vibrant. Once you have hierarchies, stratification, dogmas and absolutes, that religion is on its way to losing its true path and becoming just another vehicle of oppression. There are no heretics in Asatru (at least not yet) and I hope there never will be any such concepts introduced as doctrine. That is one of the reasons that I have always stated that I am a Gothi or priest when I conduct a rite or ritual -- but truly only when I am actively doing that. Once that rite or ritual is done with, I become just myself again -- another human being among many.
CoC: How did you first become involved with Asatru, and does it differ from other traditionalist systems?
RNT: I was one of three heralds of Asatru in North America -- one of the three founders of the movement, the other two being Steven McNallen and Elsa Christensen. Asatru is a religion that is suited for Indo-Europeans because it contains and constitutes all the main features and spirit of how most of us feel inside, even if we cannot all articulate it in words. It emerged from us and is of us. It is not something superimposed on us or forced upon us. All the Levantine religions have been and have, as their keystone, intolerance of all other views. As far as I consider religion, one size does not fit all.
CoC: Does asceticism figure into Asatru at all?
RNT: No. Not in the sense of denial or repugnance of the material reality. When we party, we party hard and are not averse to enjoying the fruits of the earth and the pleasures and joys of sex and such. But there is another side to Asatru: a toughness and stoicism that, in a way, take the place of asceticism. Asceticism is in a sense a warring upon oneself and one's basic nature. Stoicism is a toughness and fortitude that transcends the vagaries of existence and the challenges that life presents in the active real world. It is a taking of things head-on (not a turning away or within to escape existence). Why war on oneself when there are so many adversaries in life more worthy to war upon?
CoC: You have some interesting new releases out now and more planned on vinyl and CD. Could you elaborate on these?
RNT: The very next release will be an LP: _A Ripple in Time_, which will afterwards be released as a CD with additional tracks. The vinyl has been produced and we are awaiting the packaging to be finished.
Aside from that we have been working on a sort of concept album: _Lament_. I think the material we will be using on it will be some of the best stuff we have composed, both musically and poetically. The packaging will be consistent with the music and we plan to use poetic spoken seqs between each of the ballads, with music composed separately by a musician friend whose name I will not mention but will save as a surprise for our listeners. Besides that, we are nearing completion of _The Ballad of Robert de Bruce_, which I think will in effect be Changes' Opus. It will be heavily orchestrated and enlists the assistance of many other fine musicians.
Also, there are still 72 minutes of analog tapes from which the _Fire of Life_ CD were extracted. Re-mixing that may one day come to fruition as well, and there are always future creations as we both continue to write and compose. Lots of ideas yet to explore.
CoC: Do you feel comfortable with your age right now?
RNT: Yes, I do. I've traversed the first three seasons of my life and am just where I ought to be now as time rolls on.
CoC: Have you ever thought about collecting your life and adventures into a memoir?
RNT: Yes, I have thought of it, but feel reluctant to do so for a number of reasons: the opening of old wounds; the fact that it is difficult to grapple with it all in a cohesive and chronological order. If I do anything in the area of an autobiography, it would probably be done in the vein of short thematic pieces; in other words, the grouping together of things that fall under similar headings -- sometimes brief and at other times long chapters or segments, depending on the items or incidents. This is a problem I encountered some years ago when asked by Gerhard (of the band Allerseelen and publisher of Aorta) to write a piece on my experiences in the Oaxaca with magic mushrooms and Maria Sabina. When I sat down and began writing on the subject, it was difficult to separate things by dates and such; it all kind of ran together, so I began writing thematic pieces of my many adventures (and misadventures) in Mexico. I have probably visited and traveled there about eight times at least over the decades. I took few notes and did not keep a journal because at the time I didn't think any of it would matter anyway. I guess I was wrong in assuming that. I have two thirds of a thematic piece finished titled "Those Damn Tracks", which culls together all of my experiences as a boy and young man with some relationship to railroads. The Railroad is the thread that runs through all the separate stories and is the theme that holds them altogether. I have other ideas along those lines as well.
CoC: As we come to the close of our exchange, I'd like to thank you for taking the time in answering these rather lengthy questions. To wrap things up, I was wondering if you could impart the most valuable piece of advice you've ever been given -- and if you have anything else to add, by all means, the last word is all yours.
RNT: Be true to thyself. That is an admonition given to me by the Triple Goddess or poetic muse, Druin Gwen, in a vision long ago.
(article submitted 18/5/2006)