Interview with Don Robertson (2004)
Diego Oscar Ramos
Diego Oscar Ramos is from Argentina and lives in Buenos Aires. Since he was a child, he has been interested in complementary paths of human expressiveness, from the written word to plastic and sound. He studied communication at the University of Buenos Aires and since 1993, he has worked as a freelance journalist in graphic media in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Spain.
Diego: Hello Don. Thank you for taking time to answer a few questions that I have had after reviewing your writings about positive music on the dovesong.com web site. Although you don’t say that positive music is happy music, I would like to know what is happiness for you, and what is the role of music in your idea of a happy life?
Don: The term positive doesn’t just apply to happy music. Sad music is positive too, if you think about it. Sadness, happiness, joy, love, peace, these are all positive emotions, and positive music conveys these emotions. Negative music, however, is music that coveys negative emotions, such as hatred and anger. Positive music uplifts, promotes healing, is heartfelt, or spiritual. Negative music has an opposite effect, supporting confusion, anger, stress and nervousness.
Life isn’t always happy, nor is it meant to be, but when one observes the genuine happiness of children at play, one realizes how natural this state really is. This happiness is genuine, unlike the strained “smiley faces” that people in the business world sometimes feel they must affect. What has caused so many adults to lose this natural state of happiness that they had as children? The answer is that blocks, created in their minds and emotions, hold back the natural flow of love, joy and happiness. As life deals out obstacles along the way, emotional scars result. And as people educate themselves in the standard operation procedures of worldly society, they accept very limiting mental concepts that stop the flow of spontaneous ideas, such as a child can have. If a person hasn’t managed to preserve or recover the state of childlike innocence, then happiness becomes a concept, and one tends to try to attain it through outward means, or by taking substances that give some seeming relief from troubling mental patterns and painful emotional scars.
Happy music won’t help a person much if he or she has filled him/herself with doubt, anger, hatred, guilt, and such things. But music does help provide a lift for people who are open to it. I don’t know how it is in your country, but here in the U.S., during the 1950s when I was growing up, many people used to stroll along the streets whistling a happy tune as they walked. Besides the fact that not many people walk along our streets anymore, I rarely hear people whistling. Of course, many of the popular songs today do not have melodies that would lend themselves to whistling, and hip hop, which is very popular here, has abandoned melody pretty much completely. Only particular types of melodies invoke that instant happy emotion… melodies such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein from the musical Oklahoma!. I don’t know if you are familiar with that or not. These were the sort of melodies that people used to whistle during the early fifties. “Zippity Do Dah” from Disney’s Song of the South movie made in the 1940s even featured a whistling solo in the movie, where Uncle Remus walked along the path near his home while cartoon bluebirds landed on his shoulder. My, what a difference between a masterpiece like this from the late 1940s (and no longer available in the United States) and most of the standard faire put out by the Hollywood studies of today. In our current society, which has become so jaded, many people don’t even believe happiness is an option anymore. I can just say one thing about that… [laughs uproariously].
A happy person will generally instantly respond to music that is sympathetic with their feeling of happiness, just as a sad person, or an angry person, will respond to their own emotion.
Diego: Do you think that it is possible to live without angry feelings? I ask you because I’ve read an article where Brian Eno talks about some new age music, and it seemed to him that the music wasn’t real, because it didn’t have any evil in it. Do you think that a life without angry or evil feelings is unreal or not possible to live?
Don: Some people feel that art should reflect real life, and therefore have some degree of darkness in it. But why would that be a necessary component of music? Should we add a few discords to the “Ave Maria” to make it more real? There are different reasons why people listen to music. Some want to gain knowledge or be entertained by the words, others like the physical reaction from the beat, the groove. Some people appreciate music for intellectual stimulation or for entertainment, while others like to connect with musically emotionally, or even deeper, with their finer feelings. What I talk about is the latter, and about using music to help us reach what is real inside of us, not outside. If we are looking for the very same elements in music that we encounter in our (perhaps tired, stressed out and troubled) lives, then we are probably not using music that way.
Music can offer us something additional, something to lift us beyond our mundane world. Again, this gets back to how we are appreciating it. Is it our emotional, physical, mental, and/or spiritual natures that we are allowing to absorb the vibrations of music? God knows that this kind of medicine is desperately needed today. That’s why I so strongly recommend Renaissance sacred and North Indian classical music, two very great traditions of spiritually uplifting music. I am not talking about escaping from reality here, I am talking about attuning ourselves to a higher sound vibration. If we lift ourselves high enough, we won’t be concerned about “evil” anymore. (laughs). Each of us has a choice of how we want to live our lives. If we want to feel angry and frustrated, there are lots of CDs that we can feel comfortable with. Or the opposite. It’s all there to choose from. It’s not about denying evil, or denying anger, nor about living a life without angry feelings. It’s not about manipulating how you feel, it’s about growing spiritually and discovering the great hidden treasure that is you (meaning each of us) inside… unfolding, like a flower, as it’s pedals gradually open.
Diego: You have studied the relations between music and spirituality, what did you find out about our society, since there is such a preponderance of negative music?
Don: Society is very troubled, and happiness, joy and love cannot be forced on a troubled society. Much of the music that is popular around the world has been created by young people, as you know, and often expresses their alienation. I have received emails from young people who consider anger and hatred as a normal part of puberty. They don’t realize that they are angry because they are growing up in a troubled environment, one where they are unable to relate to their parents, who themselves have lost their own spark of youth, becoming afraid instead, where they are told that sex and their own bodies are unnatural and should be hidden and forbidden, and where they grow up eating the worst possible commercially prepared food that is heated in microwaves or purchased from junk-food restaurants. Then they are given preposterous goals to attain, with little consideration for their own feelings, likes and dislikes. They watch television filled with platitude and violence, and with all the discouragement that surrounds them, they gain little hope. With so little expression of love in their lives, so many kids are confused and have taken to drugs. And this is their music…the hip-hop, the punk, the industrial and heavy metal records. It’s music of anger and frustration. And we have heard it for so long that it has become the background music for our lives. It is all a part of a society that has grown dissolute and troubled. Mind you, you won’t find these problems in every part of society in the world, there are still very stable families and homes, as we both know, but there is a dominant theme of current society in the Western part of the world, and the music that we produce, and the movies, are projections of these problems and are now influencing all the cultures of the world.
Diego: When you were involved in new age music, what were the elements in it that made you feel unsatisfied? What artists in that area do you respect, which of them do you not, and why?
Don: When I started out in 1969 with my first album, Dawn, new age music was something conceptual that I read about in books. I felt that with the psychedelic movement of the 1960s underfoot, definite changes were taking place, and that a new, healing, spiritual music was being born in our society. The force behind all of this at that time was North Indian classical music, brought to the Western world by people like Ravi Shankar. He was responsible for inspiring great changes in popular, classical, and jazz music during this period. We had some of the greatest pop music ever created by the Beatles, there was a burst of positive energy in the music then, but then popular music changed course. In 1969, when I recorded the Dawn album, I was hoping that music would become more and more uplifting and positive, and that this would be the new age music that I had read about in the books that I had read by Corinne Heline. During 1979, a separate genre of music was establishing itself in the bay area around San Francisco and by the mid 1980s, a whole genre had been established called new age music. I was a part of that early genre.
What happened to new age music is something I can’t go into deeply here, but I talk about at length in my book about positive music that I am now in the process of writing.
Diego: Do you feel yourself as a member of what Marilyn Ferguson called the Aquarian Conspiracy?
Don: When I left California for Colorado in 1984, I was making a definite break with the new age community in and around San Francisco, including the musicians. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the term new age music meant to me something entirely different than an association with a kind of movement, as I explained. My feeling about the new age movement and the so-called aquarian conspiracy is that I question the validity of the idea of a new age at all! The idea of our planetary culture shifting into a different age, one of peace, prosperity and spirituality, comes from astrology, and Plato’s Great Year consisting of 25,920 years that represents the number of years that it takes for the equinox to pass through the twelve signs of the zodiac, with each sign in effect for 2,160 years. This is astronomical reality, not some fiction of pop astrology. The preceding age was the Piscean, and the one we are moving into is the Aquarian. Since these periods are each 2,160 years long, and we are just at this time entering a new sign, I don’t think we need to get too excited about this concept. What I noticed in California, as the concept of a new-age movement was spreading, was that some people, high on pot and LSD, were living in their own self-contained worlds, surrounded completely by new age music and visionary-art posters, hanging out with like-minded friends. They lived a kind of fantasy life, as if the transformation into the new age had already occurred. The rest of the world was just living in darkness and their tragedies were the result of their own thinking, they told me. It was because of their own thinking that people were starving in Bangladesh, for example. I began to see that so many of the people in new age circles in California were mired in selfishness, even though they may have acquired some degree of spiritual attainment, and I was very troubled by what I saw taking place. For this reason and others, I left California, where I had first been attracted by the psychedelic movement of the 1960s.
The so-called new-age movement has become a religion in the eyes of many, and I’m sorry. We don’t need another religion! There are too many as it is. Religions create separation in the world. For every religion, there are other religions that arm themselves against that religion, and this, as we well know, ends up in war and disagreement. The new-age movement has already spawned a whole other movement against it, amongst the right-wing Christian fundamentalists who are influenced by a plethora of books filled with untruths and misinformation that claim to explain to Christians what the so-called new-age movement is about. We need to learn to understand each other instead of constantly looking for things we think we disagree about. But this is the way of the world, and has been for thousands of years, and I don’t see the situation changing anytime soon. It’s no different now than it was during the time of the crusades, or during the inquisition…we still kill each other in the name of religion. When are we going to realize that religion is man-made and that truth is God-made, and it is this truth that we are looking for, not religion?
Diego: What was the cause of your leaving all negative music in your life? Has what causes you to be angry disappeared in your life? Was it a necessity for you to get rid of the anger to be part of the “positive vibrations,” as spiritual feelings were called in sixties?
Don: I decided to leave negative music behind when I realized what it was. I was composing music that was stripped of consonance and playing rock music that was horrifying noise. It was difficult at first to stop conceiving of this music because I had gotten so heavily involved in it. After the release of my first album Dawn in 1969, my first wife and I went to Mexico where we lived for about six months. There, on the sands of our beachfront Mayan hut in Yucatan, I purified myself from the extremely negative music that I had been involved with during the previous years. As I became more spiritually awakened in the following years, the negative music that I had formerly embraced became painful for me to experience.
I am not concerned about getting rid of anger in my life or glossing over it either. I am concerned with dealing with it. I am amazed sometimes at how pent-up anger from past traumatic experiences have been defused because I have learned to accept the original experience on a different level, accepting shortcomings that I had, and finding out that I love who I am instead of being unrealistically critical of myself. I am not on a mission to stamp out anger. That’s folly, especially since I have observed a tendency in some others, who have gotten half-baked ideas from so-called new age books, to deny that they have any anger at all, being afraid or unwilling to face anger. That’s unfortunate, I believe. It’s not about avoiding anger, it’s about tapping into the pure feelings of love and joy that each of us have within, feelings that were perhaps strong during our childhood. Instead of these feelings being repressed as we grew up, they could have been cultivated! There is a reason for anger in the scheme of things. It just needs to be understood. Anger is a negative emotion and is part of the yin-yang opposites that comprise this world that was created by a great intelligence. Who are we to deny it? Yet anger can lead to extreme negative emotions, to hatred, which will destroy a person emotionally.
Diego: What do you like about psychedelic music in sixties? Which part of that story do you consider positive, and which do you not? You can talk about drugs if want. But I would like to know what records of that time you consider healthy experiences and what carried negative vibrations and the worst, pulsing of death. In the same matter, why did so many musicians open the hell doors instead of heaven doors at that time?
Don: There were group experiences that took place in places like the Fillmore Auditorium and the Family Dog in San Francisco that were awesome. I don’t think anyone could ever put the experiences into words, and so they will die without a history. They were based on the psychedelic experience and because of this, this period of time was short lived. You can’t take heaven by storm. The days of love and flowers were fleeting, a kind of omen, that’s all. They awakened a few people to help them experience what was needed for their own work on the planet, then took a lot of casualties. Those who tried to cling to the psychedelic drugs became a shadow of what they originally experienced.
The most amazing band that played in San Francisco were, in my opinion, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, but they burned out extremely quickly because of the psychedelics; the lead singer was soon confined to a mental institution. The song Slip Inside this House has the mystery teachings embodied in its lyric, and I have since not heard another song like it. The Grateful Dead could create an amazing atmosphere with their music that was transforming while under the influence of psychedelics, but then they could suddenly plunge into the depths of hell, pure chaos, and discord.
The Haight District filled up with outsiders during the summer of 1969, the more mellow hippies leaving San Francisco for places further north and south to Mexico in droves. The outsiders brought drugs like heroin and speed with them. When I returned to San Francisco from my six-month hiatus in Mexico, I found people addicted to heroin and speed who were talking about devils and listening to Hendrix, the Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Why did the musicians open the doors to hell? They were contacting the physic world using drugs. It is really that simple. Few of them knew what they were doing. I found people that when I left for Mexico were on a spiritual path, but when I returned six months later were filled with anger and darkness. That’s what happened. I was there. Folks, you need to know: the only way to get there is without drugs!
The band that I really acknowledge from that era, and that I will always recommend, is the Moody Blues from England. They embodied the “light side of the force” during the period that psychedelic drugs were allowing all kinds of other energies to enter rock music. I believe I have listened to all the groups, and they were the only ones that truly embraced the light, except for the brief flash of the Elevators before they burned out. The five or six albums starting with Days of Future Passed are clean, positive, without the negativity that the drugs brought into so much music. And if you understand them, the story of what the light side of the era is embodied in the words of their songs. Yes the rock musicians were playing with fire. When I recognized this and understood what was being unleashed, the dark side you can say, I left San Francisco and moved to a farmhouse in Southern Colorado where I wrote about my experiences, and the coming period of negative rock music in my book Kosmon.
Diego: You mentioned that with LSD, young people were reaching perceptions about the inner nature of the universe. But what happened with their minds and bodies with these experiments? Although they reached some cosmic information, what happened with them as entire human beings with a social life?
Don: It has been different for different people, entirely different, and therefore impossible to generalize. Me? I think I came out of the experience with my social life intact. (laughs). LSD came along during the 1960s during a period when it was helpful for some people. I am not sure it has had much value in the past 30 years, however. It was valuable to a few people during the sixties, changing the course of our lives, because tremendous breakthroughs were required for people like myself to do the kinds of work that we are doing now. I would never trade that experience for anything because it opened my eyes to a reality that I may never have otherwise accepted. But that was in 1966. I don’t see that happening anymore. I have absolutely no use at all for drugs in my life. The state of consciousness that one develops through meditation, prayer, self-discovery overshadows any drug-induced experience. We may have had glimpses under the influence of LSD that showed us certain truths, but until they are a part of our life, we don’t really have them. There are lots of other problems with drugs also. Many people use them for recreation, and what I have to say to them is that what they are experiencing is just a shadow of the state of mind you can reach without them. I used them during the 1960s for self-discovery. But they will only give you a glimpse. You must do the work yourself, and without them. And you must work at it for a long time. This is something many people are unwilling to do, but the payoff is big.
Diego: How did you come to the idea of working for positive music and how did you get the idea of creating DoveSong.com and the DoveSong Foundation? How is the site doing and what reactions have you received?
Don: I have been promoting positive music since 1968, after discovering the difference between music that was uplifting and music that was not. I started the DoveSong website in January 1997 when I realized that the web was the ultimate vehicle for my message to be communicated anywhere in the world. Several years ago, my wife Mary Ellen Bickford and I created the DoveSong Foundation to oversee this work. We have been received tremendous positive reaction from all over the world and thousands of visitors visit the site every day. [the DoveSong Foundation was renamed the Rising World Foundation]
Diego: How many people do you think understand the concept of positive music and how many people really want to be happy and consume only positive music?
Don: In the beginning, 35 years ago, not many people understood what I was saying, but during the past five or six years, things have changed quite a bit. When I talk about positive music, many people think I am talking about song lyrics, but I am not. I am talking about the feelings induced by the music itself. Music has a wonderful ability to uplift, contribute to healing, express the feelings of the heart, and help awaken one to his or her own spirituality. People can choose to use music that way, or not.
Diego: Don, you don’t express negative feelings in your art as a kind of public therapy as a lot of artists do. Is that the reason that you feel yourself free of negative feelings? Do you have any work (therapy, religion, mediation) that helps you keep happy and positive?
Don: When I close my eyes and take a deep breath, I feel joy and love, and when I create music, it is these feelings that I express. Sometimes I don’t feel good, and I could easily pour these feelings into music (as I used to many years ago), but that does not really help me therapeutically. Troubled feelings are the result of something I need to look at, and I deal with. I usually do that in meditation, a practice that I have been doing for over thirty years. By meditation, I mean quieting my body and mind, allowing me to get in touch with who I really am, my inner core being, the source of love, light, and love. In that space I can deal with things. Once you have found that pure essence of who you really are, you are on your way. Like Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues said: “I’m just beginning to see, Now I’m on my way.” [from the song “Tuesday Afternoon”. The truth is so simple that it can be expressed in a few words, yet words can never express what really is there, nor do they bind you to the experience throughout your days and nights.