Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chasing Waterfalls

"little precious has a natural obsession . . . ."

As I mentioned in a recent post, I was driving home one day last week when the song "Waterfalls", by TLC, came on the radio. This is one of the truly great popular music songs of all time in my opinion (well, of course it's not just my opinion!). Hearing it on the radio gave me the idea of maybe posting a video of it to my blog, and then I found some crazy ukulele covers that I liked, so I posted two of those.

But for the first time I started thinking about what the song actually says: "Don't go chasing waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and the lakes you're used to." This made me think (for reasons that will become clearer in a moment) of Ramon Medina Silva, who was a mara'akame of the Wixáritari people. The Wixáritari are more commonly known as the Huichol, and a mara'akame is something like a shaman or a traditional healer. Really what a mara'akame is is someone who trains (for at least 10 years) in the religious traditions of the Wixáritari people. If you have no idea what I am talking about, then do a google search on Barbara Myerhoff, an anthropologist who has studied and written about the Huichols and their religious beliefs and practices.

One of the things that Ramon Medina Silva had to learn in the process of his education as a mara'akame was how to dance along the rocks on the high cliffs dramatically overlooking local waterfalls found in the part of Mexico where the Huichol live. Barbara Myerhoff describes her first encounter with this impressive display of shamanic power in her seminal study Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians:
One afternoon Ramon led us to a steep barranca [a deep ravine or gorge], cut by a rapid waterfall cascading perhaps a thousand feet over jagged, slippery rocks. At the edge of the fall Ramon removed his sandals and told us that this was a special place for shamans. We watched in astonishment as he proceeded to leap across the waterfall, from rock to rock, pausing frequently, his body bent forward, his arms spread out, his head thrown back, entirely birdlike, poised motionlessly on one foot. He disappeared, reemerged, leaped about, and finally achieved the other side. We outsiders were terrified and puzzled but none of the Huichols seemed at all worried. The wife of one of the older Huichol men indicated that her husband had started to become a mara'akame but had failed because he lacked balance.
Compare the above to the famous story from Carlos Castaneda's Separate Reality (on pages 100-103 in the 1991 Simon and Schuster edition). In that passage, Carlos is with his teacher, Don Juan, and another shaman named Don Genaro, and two other men. They are outside walking and they come to the bottom of a waterfall. Everyone sits down, except for Don Genaro who proceeds to climb up the cliff to the top of the waterfall. At the top of the waterfall Don Genaro proceeded to leap from rock to rock starting on one side of the waterfall until he got to the other. Don Juan later explained to Carlos that "tentacle like" "fibers of light" that emanate outward from the navel were "the secret of Don Genaro's balance".

Barbara Myerhoff and Carlos Castaneda were friends and fellow graduate students in anthropology at UCLA. In fact, Myerhoff helped convince Castaneda to not burn the PhD thesis he was working on, which was later published as the inter-galactic best-seller, The Teachings of Don Juan, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.

Separate Reality was published in 1971, the same year that Paul McCartney formed the band Wings. In 1980 Paul McCartney released a solo album, McCartney II, his first solo album since the formation of Wings. On that album was a song titled Waterfalls, here is the video:

Here are the lyrics to Paul McCartney's Waterfalls:
Don't Go Jumping Waterfalls
Please Keep To The Lake
People Who Jump Waterfalls
Sometimes Cam Make Mistakes

And I Need Love, Yeah I Need Love
Like A Second Needs An Hour
Like A Raindrop Needs A Shower
Yeah I Need Love Every Minute Of The Day
And It Wouldn't Be The Same
If You Ever Should Decide To Go Away

And I Need Love, Yeah I Need Love
Like A Castle Needs A Tower
Like A Garden Needs A Flower
Yeah I Need Love Every Minute Of The Day
And It Wouldn't Be The Same
If You Ever Should Decide To Go Away

Don't Go Chasing Polar Bears
In The Great Unknown
Some Big Friendly Polar Bear
Might Want To Take You Home

And I Need Love, Yeah I Need Love
Like A Second Needs An Hour
Like A Raindrop Needs A Shower
Yeah I Need Love Every Minute Of The Day
And It Wouldn't Be The Same
If You Ever Should Decide To Go Away

Don't Run After Motor Cars
Please Stay On The Side
Someone's Glossy Motor Car
Might Take You For A Ride

And I Need Love, Yeah I Need Love
Like A Castle Needs A Tower
Like A Garden Needs A Flower
Yeah I Need Love, Said I Need Love
Like A Raindrop Needs A Shower
Like A Second Needs An Hour
Every Minute Of The Day
And It Wouldn't Be The Same
If You Ever Should Decide To Go Away

Don't Go Jumping Waterfalls
Please Keep To The Lake
And here are the lyrics to TLC's Waterfalls:
Verse 1

A lonely mother gazing out of the window
Staring at a son that she just can't touch
If at any time he's in a jam she'll be by his side
But he doesn't realize he hurts her so much
But all the praying just ain't helping at all
Cause he can't seem to keep his self out of trouble
So he goes out and he makes his money the best way he knows how
Another body laying cold in the gutter Listen to me

Don't go chasing waterfalls
Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to
I know that you're gonna have it your way or nothing at all
But I think you're moving too fast
Verse 2

Little precious has a natural obsession
For temptation but he just can't see
She gives him loving that his body can't handle
But all he can say is baby it's good to me
One day he goes and takes a glimpse in the mirror
But he doesn't recognize his own face
His health is fading and he doesn't know why
3 letters took him to his final resting place
Ya'll dont'hear me


I seen a rainbow yesterday
But too many storms have come
Leaving a trace of not one God-given ray
Is it because my life is ten shades of grey
I pray all ten fade away
Seldem praise Him for the sunny days
And like His promise is true
Only my faith can undo
The many chances I blew
To bring my life to a new
Clear blue and unconditional skies
Have dried the tears from my eyes
No more lonely cries
My only bleedin' hope is for the folk who can't cope
With such an endurin' pain that it keeps 'em in the pouring rain
Who's to blame for shootin'caine into you're own vein
What a shame you shoot and aim for someone else's brain
You claim the insane and name this day in time
For fallin' prey to crime
I say the system got you victim to your own mind
Dreams are hopeless aspirations
In hopes of comin' true
Believe in yourself
The rest is up to me and you
Both songs have the same plaintive pleading message: please don't go get yourself killed, or simply: please don't go!!

Castaneda's books were such a powerful cultural influence in the '70's that I feel certain that McCartney's "don't go jumping waterfalls" was, directly or indirectly, inspired by Don Genaro's fictional waterfall jumping, which, in turn, was directly inspired by Ramon Medina Silva's actual waterfall jumping.

A sad irony is that Ramon died not while demonstrating his shamanic flying skills, but rather in a way much more reminiscent of the TLC Waterfalls lyrics. In June of 1971 he got drunk at a party, got into a heated argument that became violent and led to an exchange of gunfire, and he was shot dead.

Barbara Myerhoff died suddenly of cancer at the age of 49 in 1989. She used to tell people that unlike her friend Carlos she would never become a shaman herself, but that she would become a little old Jewish lady instead.

Carlos Castaneda died in 1998 under appropriately mysterious circumstances. Most people were unaware that he had died until an obituary appeared two months later in the Los Angeles Times entitled A Hushed Death for Mystic Author Carlos Castaneda.

Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes of TLC died in a car accident in Honduras on April 25, 2002. 30,000 people attended her funeral, and her tombstone was engraved with lyrics from the song:
Dreams are hopeless aspirations, in hopes of coming true, believe in yourself, the rest is up to me and you.
Paul McCartney is still very much alive. He is, of course, aware of the striking similarity between his Waterfalls and TLC's. But as far as I know no one has ever asked whether or not he was influenced by Castaneda.

When I was twelve years old my friends and I had a seance on Halloween night in 1969 to see if we could determine whether or not it was really true that Paul McCartney was dead.

Finally, here's Weird Al Yankovic's "Phoney Calls":