That's Jerry Yester above. Jerry is a musician's musician. If you are familiar with groups such as the Association, the Turtles, Spanky and Our Gang, and many others, you can think of Jerry Yester, because he produced or arranged many of their works. He knows and has worked with many of the key figures in the 60's, 70's, and 80's music scene. Jerry didn't stop with the 80's. He has written, and continues to write, many different songs, exploring different genres and styles.
My wife Kathy and I listened to Jerry at some venues in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, several years ago. We asked if he might be willing to visit with us sometime, and he invited us to his home in Harrison, Arkansas, where he lives with his wife, Marlene.
Jerry's music is Kathy's kind of thing: live, melodious, lyrical, sometimes light and sometimes serious. Whenever Kathy listens to music she really loves, she is freed by the music. While at Jerry's house I ask a spiritual-like question: What is the place within us that becomes free when we listen to music?
Whatever this place is, Jerry doesn't want to objectify it into a rigid concept. He doesn't want to put this place -- or any place -- inside a box. There is, to my mind, a very Zen side of Jerry: not the sound of one hand clapping but the place in the heart from which all music springs.
Jerry says something like: "It starts with a smile, that won't wipe off your face no matter hard you try." I saw that smile on Kathy's face when we listened to Jerry play. She saw it on my face, too. When we were listening to him at the small venue, the people closest to his piano -- there were about eight of us -- got very quiet, tuning out the rest of the world, inwardly glued to the songs he was singing, like they were sacraments.
Kathy and I are churchgoers and take holy communion from time to time. But the songs for us were holy communion, too. The magic was not just the songs; it was how Jerry sung them, from the inside out, helping us hear the lyrics for the first time, even if we'd heard the songs a thousand times. Here's one we heard him singing, and this is almost exactly what he sounds like live.
Holiness can be in memories, too. Moment by moment every act of experiencing begins with memories from the past, and many of these memories are found in familiar melodies, rhythms, and harmonies. Music is what feelings sound like.
Some of the songs that Jerry sings when he goes solo are directly evocative of past feelings. They are old time movies in acoustic form. There's grace in the memories, and there's novelty, too. The sounds from the past are oceans of possibility, some of which were actualized in the past, and some of which were not.
When we relive the songs, though, we are often as moved by the un-realized possibilities as by the realized possibilities. We remember what it was like to long, to hope, to dream, to have loved and lost -- and there is beauty in the sadness. And sometimes these memories help us reclaim subjective aims in the present. We may have loved and lost in the past, but we can take the subjective aims of the past and try them again.
In visiting with Jerry the three of us started thinking about the relation between music and spirituality. Music makes us happy, to be sure, but the happiness is often deeper than simple pleasure. Perhaps music takes us into joy, but with joy understood to include pain as well as pleasure. Whitehead might call it beauty. We started wondering: How does music do this? How does it take us into beauty?
One way -- especially prominant then people are listening to familiar songs -- is through memory. When Jerry sings, people get a chance to revisit and reclaim memories; and to be renewed, in the present moment, by the memories themselves. There is grace in the memories. In this website we speak of this grace as creative transformation, but the word magic will work, too, and perhaps it's better.
It's not magic in the sense of something supernatural or something that contradicts the laws of physics and chemistry. It's magic in the sense of something beautiful, and amazing, and enchanting, and holy. Holiness does not refer to something spiritual at the expense of being physical. There's something holy in this very world, in all its earthiness, if we have eyes to see, hands to feel, ears to hear, feet to dance.
What impressed us so much about Jerry, when we heard him in Eureka Springs, was the purity with which he sang familiar songs. Think of it: here you are, a musician's musician, and you are singing songs from the Lovin Spoonful and from other singers that you have sung thousands of time. How do you sing a song as if you were singing it for the first time? Consider the Whiteheadian idea that we are the moments of our lives and that every moment is a new moment. We are concrescing subjects...always concrescing.
It seemed to me that when Jerry sang a song, he was singing it anew -- in a fresh way -- because he had somehow managed to approach each song, each time, sensitive to the newness of the moment. For my part, I think he is a Buddhist in disguise. He knows that the "Jerry" who existed at age eighteen is different from the "Jerry" who existed at age thirty-eight, and that the "Jerry" who exists today is different from the earlier Jerry's. It's hard to know that when you are young, but easier later. But I think he knows that the "Jerry" who walks into a venue in Eureka Springs at seven on Friday night is not the same "Jerry" who was there the previous week. And not the same "Jerry" now. Never are we reducible to who we have been, whether good or bad or anywhere in-between. Always we are becoming a new person, as best we can. Certainly this is true of Jerry. He is in process, seeiking to be open to the call of what is good and true and beautiful.
Whitehead says that no one steps in the same river twice, not only because the river is different, but because the stepper is different. Jerry would add that no singer sings twice either. It's always a new moment, a different singer, and, in some ways, a new song.
What is the quiet place from which all music comes? In this website we sometimes refer to the freshness inside of us "God." Or maybe the "image of God" which dwells within each human being. The reality to whom people pray late at night as they are saying thanks for the day, or seeking help to make it through one more night, is also inside them in the form of fresh possibilities. This mystery is a freshness deep down.
In our visit with Jerry we talked a little about God. He explained that he had given up trying toput God in a box some time ago. At one point in his life he had put God in the box of psychedelic experiences evoked by drugs. And a bit earlier than that, he has put God in the box of a Catholicism in which he grew up, to the point that he even considered becoming a priest. But every time he put God in a box, the spirit he was trying to contain got lost. As Jerry sees things, the spirit cannot be en-boxed, or en-framed, or en-coded...or, as he puts it, "turned into a corporation called Christianity."
But Jerry does believe that there is a free place inside the soul, not only where music springs from but also where souls touch one another and are connected, such that we feel the feelings of one another. He believes that, when we feel the feelings of one another we make contact with a spirit that connects all things, and which includes all forms of life, animals much included. Jerry has lots of dogs and cats at his home. The magic of the music is in the animals, too. We spent time talking about totems. You will see a totem in the picture below. It's one of his dogs.
In interviewing Jerry, I worried that he might think Open Horizons is only about religion. I was wrong to think this. Jerry is not religious in a formal sense. He grew up in a Catholic setting, but found that, for him, religion was too much about shame and guilt, too laden with male domination, too. As he put it: "too much testosterone." But, like so many in our world, he has deep respect for Jesus as a man. He sees Christianity as an attempt to incorporate Jesus and box in his spirit. Jerry doesn't like boxes. He was nice to tolerate me. But he does like music, and finds the connecting spirit in it.
If you are a musician who travels on the road a lot, those connections are made rich by absence as well as presence, but missing someone as well as being with them. And sometimes the connections must work through tough times as well as easy times, through commitment and confessions of failure, through longings and forgiveness, through the fluid combination of laughter and tears that make for that richness of experience we call life. You can hear this in Jerry's music, especially in the songs he writes, Jerry has little tolerance for Christianity as a corporate religion; but he does know about incarnation: the way in which the un-enframable spirit becomes flesh in the ambiguities of life. As a Christian myself, I can't help but think that the one in whose footsteps I seek to walk, a young carpenter from Nazareth, might appreciate Jerry's music, too. And his ongoing journey into a new Jerry. Aren't we all on a journey? Aren't we all?