Dedicated to George, who introduced me to A Question of Balance in the mid-80s.
It is interesting what stays with us from the early years of life. Seemingly banal or incidental elements can mysteriously transmogrify into certain means of grace. And grace is always strange.
It follows then that these grace-laden elements might be loaded with weirdness or saturated with some slow-acting agent of unforeseen change. Of course, that’s part of why the grace that has touched my life is different from the grace that’s touched yours. So often what is tremendously meaningful to one heart seems trivial, shallow, or just plain boring to others. Sometimes what changes me forever would do nothing to the person right next to me.
Nowhere is that fact more apparent than in the music with which we fill our lives. The bands we become attached to, what songs move us, or which albums are soundtracks to our personal transformations are usually radically different for everyone. Everyone seems to have a different constellation of sounds, a different set of aural landmarks. When we do find someone who shares our deep connection to a piece of music there’s instant rapport. When we encounter those who seem unable to grasp the importance of our historical tracklist we can find ourselves incensed.
With that preface let me say that A Question of Balance is one of the major musical touchstones of my life. Released in 1970 by The Moody Blues, Question is, for me, one of the most significant works of art to which I’ve been exposed. It is strange. It is bombastic. It is epic. It is philosophical. It risks existential engagement. It tries to take on everything. It is critical of our default positions. It asks us if this world we’ve made is really what we want. Before I knew much of anything about the wider world, I was connecting with the introspective spiritual and societal quandaries the band was dealing with in this classic concept album.
If you are aren’t familiar with the record and want to experience it you can listen to the whole thing here.
Hearing Question as a child was one of the things that would, by the time I was 13 or 14 years old, initiate in me a long-term investigation into the nature of meaning and experience. The sorts of questions the record poses set me off on what has been a lifetime of learning and intellectual exploration. It was a means of grace to me simply because it stimulated me to contemplate those bigger existential concerns that so often get drowned in the machinations of everyday life. Question, along with a number of other factors, created an ongoing state of contemplation in me that helped me avoid many of the pitfalls of adolescence.
There are a thousand things I could say about this record. Like how those jangling guitars at the opening of the album can instantly return me to George’s old golden/mustard/brown Dodge and the smell of propane. Like how the album’s assertions went with Chris and me on our adventures northward so many times. Like how its words were a reminder of the feeling of home as I ventured out across the country in my twenties. The sounds and questions and arguments of A Question of Balance accompanied me on many late nights in the studio, on the road, in contemplation, in worry, in joy.
I could spend time exploring any of those avenues, but there’s one aspect of Question that has really reverberated within me over the years. A major theme of the record amounts to acknowledging the relational consciousness that transcends obsessive, hyper-individualism. This one thread, running throughout the entire record but focused in one particular track, was definitely a seed that found good soil in me.
Below you can read the major content of that single track. Called The Balance (click here to listen to it), it is the last song on the album and is comprised mostly of Mike Pinder’s spoken word recitation of a poem co-written by Graeme Edge and Ray Thomas.
After he had journeyed,
And his feet were sore,
And he was tired…
He came upon an orange grove.
And he rested.
And he lay in the cool.
And while he rested
He took to himself an orange, and tasted it.
And it was good.
And he felt the earth to his spine
And he asked…
And he saw the tree above him…
And the stars… and the veins in the leaf… and the light… and the balance
And he saw
Whereon, he thought of himself in balance –
And he knew he was.
And he thought of those he angered, for he was not a violent man.
And he thought of those he hurt, for he was not a cruel man.
And he thought of those he frightened, for he was not an evil man.
And he understood…
He understood himself.
Upon this, he saw
That when he was of anger
Or knew hurt
Or felt fear
It was because he was not understanding
And he learned Compassion.
And with his eye of Compassion,
He saw his enemies like unto himself.
And he learned Love.
Then, he was answered.
The tired wayfarer of the poem gains perspective from the Common Grace embedded in the world around him. He relishes the coolness of the orange grove, the simple pleasure of tasting the orange, and – suddenly – the glorious awareness of the Great Order that is before him and beyond him, yet is also permeating him. As he pays attention to the tree, the stars, the leaf, and the light his growing perspective and awareness coalesce into a unifying understanding. The traveler experiences what could be seen as the state of consciousness called Savikalpa Samadhi (something which has more recently been termed The Overview Effect) and he is fundamentally changed in his relationship to other human beings.
Suddenly he’s not obsessing about his rugged individualism any more; he’s thinking of others:
And he thought of those he angered…
And he thought of those he hurt…
And he thought of those he frightened…
Thinking of others – believing that they actually exist and are valuable. Considering others – imagining how your words, actions, or attitudes impact them. Revolutionary ideas, right? But it doesn’t stop there. The journeyman turns his new-found perspective on himself and starts to see that being enslaved to anger and hurt and fear displayed his lack of understanding. In fact, it showed his inability to understand at all apart from a revelation from beyond himself. Realizing this, and sensing his necessary reciprocity with the rest of humanity, our traveler learns compassion. That is, in giving up his self-determined privileged position he can no longer feel superior to or more valuable than those around him. He can, in acknowledging and respecting their value, live out a higher value in himself.
All of this can be passed off as trite, sure. It can be dismissed as sentimental, unrealistic, or melodramatic. It can be ignored as the cheesy platitudes of a bunch of hippies. Sure. But it can also be seen as aligned with the heritage of the great faith and wisdom traditions that have been passed down to us, traditions that certainly inspired the band while creating this album.
I know it’s all more complex than this. I can see how The Balance can come off simplistic and hokey. I know that real change and real meaning require more than a singular experience, more than surge of feeling… but there is something important here, something worth declaring, worth believing. Rejecting sentiments such as those contained in Question seems like such a shallowly postmodern thing to do. What have cynicism and petty ideological divides gotten us? I guess I’d rather stand in awe with the kitschy hippies than smirk in conceit with those who would disdain words – however sentimental – supporting basic human dignity and value.
My experience of A Question of Balance is a demonstration of Joseph Kupfer’s ideas about the inherent moral component of experiencing art. You can read more about this concept here.
The album is certainly worth buying and grappling with. Purchase it at iTunes or Amazon.
Matt, thanks for this. My grasp of some of the concepts may be a bit more rudimentary, but I really enjoyed these thoughts (which sparked enough thoughts in return that they will not fit here)! You can read my reflection here instead: http://jillstcloud.com/journal/
Hope you still have the cassette–Keep it as an antique.
P.p.s.: [They were on DRUGS]
Ask Dr. Leary, M.D. [you can probably delete this before anybody else sees it]
See you sometime.
Kiss yer Girls! [little Southe’n Lingo, there]
Great take on this, absolutely one of my favorite albums and a seminal part of my life soundtrack. Thanks for sharing.