It’s an extraordinary record of spiritual transformation in music, hidden in plain sight.
More than once, while in the middle of a deep meditation or transformational process, I would find myself singing songs I hadn’t heard in decades, dredged up from deep memories of adolescence. I’d often find that the words were exactly appropriate for the moment, a perfect guide from the subconscious. Invariably those songs would be from the band James.
I delved back into the music, and listened with new ears to songs that outlined the process of personal growth and awakening. I came to the conclusion that they must have been “up to something” different to their contemporaries.
Sure enough, when I finally had the chance to meet and interview the lead singer Tim Booth, in April in Los Angeles, he told me an amazing story of his personal spiritual path, and how he’d layered it through the music: “We’ve been a pop band, but we’ve really been in disguise. The lyrics are part of a paper trail that anyone can pick up at any time.”
At the time that most bands in the late 80s “Madchester” music scene like the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses were rising a wave of hedonism and ecstasy, Tim was celibate, teetotal and fuelled by heavy duty spiritual practice. It was the secret of their success, but one that they didn’t want to share with the world at the time.
“I’m in a rock band at 21 and I’m celibate, and I’m meditating two hours every day and 16 hours every weekend, and so is the bass player. There’s only four of us in the band. We kept it quiet because in the world of rock and roll, a meditator’s a bit of a wanker basically.
And then later on Sting cornered that market and we didn’t really want to be seen like that either. So I kept quiet about really the core of my life’s drive, which was to find out who I am and what the fuck is going on here.”
He kept quiet, but put the results of that exploration into the music, which remains one of the most complete accounts of the process of spiritual transformation. From songs of alienation and anguish: Lose Control (1990)
“Where is the love, where is this love, where is the love that everyone is talking of?Where is the love, where is the love, where is the love that everyone is dreaming of? …
Don’t be deceived, no land in sight, we’re all adrift in this dark night, we float on seas of disbelief while singing songs of pain relief.” Lose Control (1990)
You get a sense of an inner journey beginning, a raw, frantic one where everything was at stake. The hero’s journey of the inner soul where a solitary inner quest has to begin into the truth — where everything is to be doubted and the intensity of the experience threatens to overwhelm.
“It’s that time again, when I lose my friends, go walkabout, I’ve got the bends from pressure.
And I don’t believe you’re all I’ll ever need, and I need to feel that you’re not holding me. But the way I feel just makes me wanna scream.” (Come Home)
This inner quest, this journey of the soul, will not be short — and it will take all our inner resources. Those who have gone on a deep shamanic, spiritual journey like this will have experienced the process. All the deepest psychological baggage must be unpacked, all that stands between the individual and inner connection must be confronted and transformed.
It’s a ‘spiritual emergency’ as the transpersonal psychologist Stan Grof describes in — “The Stormy Search for the Self — A Guide to Personal Growth through Transformational Crisis”.
“Spiritual emergencies can be defined as critical and experientially difficult stages of a profound psychological transformation that involves one’s whole being. They take the form of nonordinary forms of consciousness and involve intense emotions, visions and other sensory changes … These episodes often revolve around spiritual themes; they include sequences of psychological death and rebirth … feelings of oneness with the universe.”
Perhaps the most famous such process is that of CG Jung, the great psychologist, who ‘allowed himself to go mad’ around the time of WW1 — embarking on his own hero’s journey before returning with the gold in the form of his understanding of the realm of the archetypes.
They are processes that are often created by, or facilitated in pre-rational cultures by a ‘medicine man’ or ‘shamanic healer’ — someone who is known for their skill at navigating the inner space and helping the sick patient ‘come through’ themselves into health.
One of the common archetypes of the fully developed shaman in tribal culture is that of the wounded healer — someone who’s gone through this deep inner process of trauma and reconnection and is then able to facilitate healing in others.
So the person mediating this process will have the qualities and background of an incipient, budding shaman. The ‘warning signs’ in tribal cultures are known to be those with a sickly, or difficult childhood — a situation that allows the shaman to be ‘in this world, but not of it’ — a necessary condition for clear perception.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that the man writing these lyrics was sick until the age of 21, as Tim explained: “I had an inherited liver disease that was undiagnosed. And then I nearly died of it when I was twenty one. I had a, I think, a near-death experience. I stopped breathing in hospital and I was revived. And everything changed.”
He described how he threw himself into meditation and dancing as a way of dealing with his illness, and would enter trance states where the lyrics that made him famous would arrive fully formed.
Lyrics like these, outlining in detail how we have to understand and integrate our ‘conditioning’, those behaviour patterns we learn from our parents and culture, to become more whole:
“Ape your father’s sins, Your mother’s mood swings, To perfection.
Fall into a spin, shed another skin, Strip away all your protection.
Laugh at the wonder of it all, Laugh so loud you break the fall, can you hear the gathering sound …
Do everything you fear, In this there’s power, Fear’s not to be afraid of.
Come, dip on in, Leave your bones, leave your skin, Leave your past, leave your craft, Leave your suffering heart.” ‘Sound’ (1992)
It’s the sound of the transformational crisis at its peak, where everything, even your physical body itself, is felt to be unreal compared to the overwhelming experience of the insistent NOW.
And at this point, there are signposts all through the music, guides to follow the shaman into the beyond.
“Got to keep awake to what is happening, I can’t see a thing through my ambition, I no longer feel my God is watching over me.
Got to tell the world we’ve all been dreaming, This is not the end, a new beginning, I no longer feel my God is watching over me.
Break, break the code, Concentrate, let the doors swing open, See through all your walls, all your flaws, Now you’re in deeper than sleep” (Ring the Bells)
This intensity neither can be, nor needs to be, sustained. The transformational peak, when fully lived through, has the chance to renew and revive the soul before it settles down into a more complete, more deeply felt sense of connection to an inner source of light.
“During spiritual emergence, many of the screens that obscure who one really is are removed, and one can begin to sense a personal, positive essence. These barriers were the emotional, psychological and physical experiences that were stored within. With the dissolution or purging of these blockages, new dimensions of oneself break through and become stronger.” Stan Grof
So at some point we would expect the music to calm, to lose its frantic energy and connect with a sense of ease and peace. This is what happens.
This doesn’t mean that the journey has ended, instead it has just become a lot more interesting.
“Many people who reach this stage may temporarily think that they have “arrived”. But very quickly they find themselves moving again and realise that self-exploration and transformation are ongoing processes. Once they feel reborn, they realise that there are many more opportunities for death and rebirth. They see that the further they go, the more there is to do; the more they know, the more there is to know.” Stan Grof
And by connecting more deeply with your own core, you can begin connecting with the core of another. By transcending your own ego — no longer are you experiencing so much of the filter of neediness, fear, or rejection. You are open to the experience of a true loving connection.
“I’ve been looking for truth, at the cost of living. I’ve been afraid of what’s before mine eyes. Every answer found, begs another question, The further you go, the less you know, the less I know.
I can feel your face, gonna make it mine, I can be the man I see in your eyes, Can you take my weight, are we both too small, Know each other well, we’ve met before.
Will we grow together, will it be a lie, If it lasts forever, hope I’m the first to die.
Will you marry me, can we meet the cost. Is the power of love worth the pain of loss. Will you pay the bill, will you keep the change, are you here for the party, or are you here for the pain.” Five-O (1993)
These songs are the ones that seared themselves into my subconscious, and acted as invaluable lessons and inspiration for transformation.
But James continued as a band to this day, and still retain the sense of flow and improvisation. Tim warns that no gig will be the same, as the band switches it up depending on their mood.
James’ biggest hit was the song ‘Sit Down’, which has likely been dulled into insensibility by repetition in the 90s. But it is still one of the most moving descriptions of the occasionally painful process of spiritual opening — the glimpses of deep insight and felt connection, then the loss. The sense of communion with a numinous realm in a peak experience that we then cannot hold on to. And the only solution to it, which is human connection and solidarity.
“I sing myself to sleep, a song from the darkest hour, Secrets I can’t keep, insight of the day.
Swing from high, to deep, Extremes of sweet and sour. I hope that god exists, I hope, I pray.
Drawn by the undertow, my life is out of control, I believe this wave will bear my weight so let it flow.
Oh sit down, oh sit down, sit down next to me. Sit down, sit down, sit down, down, in sympathy.
Now I’m relieved to hear, that you’ve been to some far out places, It’s hard to carry on, when you feel all alone.
Now I’ve swung back down again it’s worse than it was before, If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.
Oh sit down, oh sit down, sit down next to me. Sit down, sit down, sit down, down, in sympathy.
Those who feel the breath of sadness, sit down next to me, Those who feel they’re touched by madness, sit down next to me, Those who find themselves ridiculous sit down next to me.
In love in fear in hate in tears in love in fear in hate in tears in love in fear in hate in tears in love in fear in hate. Down.”