'What science cannot declare, art can suggest.
What art suggests silently, poetry speaks out.
But what poetry fails to explain in words,
Is expressed by music.'
~ The Gayan of Hazrat Inayat Khan
I clearly recall that I began to play the piano intuitively aged about three. Both my adoptive mother and grandfather played the piano, and I grew up to the sounds of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Noel Coward and musicals like Oklahoma, South Pacific and the King and I. At weekends there was a big, warm Jewish family atmosphere with lots of music, pickled gherkins and cigar-smoking, yiddish-speaking elders. And that was just the women. My style of piano-playing was already completely different and personal, however. I didn't really care for the musicals, and used to play, very simply, what was in my imagination… a lot of minor chord fantasias about faraway places.
By the time I was ten, I was playing pop-songs by ear… things by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Shadows. I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg under the bedclothes, and liked Buddy Holly, Rick Nelson and Elvis. I remember feeling quite concerned about Bobby Vee singing 'Take good care of my baby'. I thought to myself 'Yeah… I hope they do. She's only small.' I was about six at the time.
I had imaginary friends called Bobby and Susan, whom I would now call spirit guides. I also had visions of Jesus aged five, but kept it to myself on account of being Jewish, as it might not have gone down so well amongst the pickled gherkin sisterhood. Otherwise, apart from witches in the corridor, crocodiles under my bed and regular astral travel, my childhood proceeded relatively ordinarily. There was the coal-man who used to pour skulls down into the cellar when he brought the coal, the warm, cosy glow of judicial hanging and flogging on the village green, and of course poltergeists in the kitchen… normal enough suburban, middle-class phenomenon for 1960's England.
I attended the Latymer school in London, which, with its sister school Godolphin, had a great theatrical and arts tradition. I was contemporary with funny-man Mel Smith, cellist Raphael Wallfisch, British chess champion Michael Stean, architectural scholar Deyan Sudjic, journalist Cassandra Jardine and TV, theatre and film director Paul Marcus. Actor Alan Rickman was some four years my senior, with another actor Hugh Grant being some four years my junior. Dominic Guard in the year below appeared prominently in both Joseph Losey's The Go-Between and Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock. Mel Smith, a larger than life character even then, gave me my first opportunity to perform in his revues and productions. I used to mimic adverts of the day in the breaks between sketches. I also played an inmate of the asylum in his production of Peter Weiss's Marat-Sade. Paul Marcus gave me a leading role as the moody Moritz in Franz Wedekind's play about teenage angst, Spring's Awakening, having seen me triumph as the lion in Androcles and the Lion. I mention all these people both to demonstrate to you my impressive name-dropping skills, but also to indicate how high the bar was amongst my contemporaries. If you hadn't become a Hollywood star by the age of twelve you got detention.
I used to play pounding Rolling Stones numbers on the piano at the cast parties afterwards… songs like 'Paint it black' and 'Come on'… and then mellow ambient improvisations as the night wound down. This was entirely to impress girls, as chatting them up ordinarily was utterly beyond me. Many great rock stars, international sex symbols and prophets of our time such as myself, find this kind of shyness to be bothersome… but it drives them on. Think of Moses, Buddha and L. Ron Hubbard… all reputedly shy with girls.
I was good at the arts and creative writing, but hopeless at science. I got 14% in my physics mock GCSE and they pleaded with me not to take it. Now, as an intuitive mystic, I find that quantum physics parallels very beautifully many metaphysical notions. Unfortunately they did not offer mysticism as a GCSE subject, and… prone to a certain dreaminess… I had to console myself when on the receiving end of regular applications of six-of-the-best with the notion that it was 'for my own good'. Happy days.
At around this time, my cousin began going out with a Charterhouse schoolboy called Anthony Phillips, who was in a school band called Genesis with Mike Rutherford. Anthony and I became friends, around football, cricket and Monty Python, and it was he who, fifteen years later, produced my first album Open Secret at his home studio. Anthony (Ant) also produced Mystic Heart and Amadora while I was signed to New World Music.
I began to realise that I found it impossible just to listen to and absorb music; I felt I had to 'do' something about it, because if I really liked a piece or a song, classical or pop, I found I could barely contain my feelings, and had to be restrained by guards. Thus I started composing more formally, invariably responses to pieces I adored, like Bruckner's 8th Symphony, Vaughan Williams's 'Fantasia' on Thomas Tallis and 'Greensleeves', or Dylan's 'Sad eyed lady of the lowlands'.
I had a German girlfriend, Ursula, in my late teens and early twenties, who studied literature at the university of Gottingen. She had a little bedsit in this lovely old town, and in the evenings we would sit and listen to the radio broadcasting from central Europe. I grew to love the songs of people like Leonard Cohen, Fairport Convention, Van Morrison and Greek/French folk-singer Georges Moustaki.
Ursula also introduced me to Baroque and chamber music, especially the mournful Italians Vivaldi and Albinoni, art and films… Kandinsky, Chagall, Miro, Picasso and Matisse; their paintings were full of the kind of images I wished to convey in my songs. Seeing Fellini's films, especially Roma made me realise that one could combine the ordinary and the extraordinary in popular art, like Dylan did in song.
There was a 'beat' club called The Blue Note (they're always called The Blue Note), and we used to go down there to hear folk music or avant garde stuff. I dreamed of becoming a singer-songwriter like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and of having my own songs played on the radio, and of playing at places like The Blue Note.
I remember also hearing, around that time, Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells… and I was amazed and delighted! One whole track lasting twenty minutes with different episodes, moments of great beauty and eccentric humour… a real kind of mythic quest in music. It completely revolutionised how I came to write songs and compose music.
At my own university, East Anglia, I was contemporary with comedian and grumpy old man Arthur Smith, who, I remember, produced a bouquet of flowers out of thin air as a magic trick at the degree ceremony. To further demonstrate my elegant name-dropping skills, and to evidence once again how high the bar had now gone in terms of visible fame and fortune, please allow me to mention that East Anglia university had a great creative writing reputation, and that I was taught by such luminaries as novelists Angus Wilson, Vic and Lorna Sage and Malcolm Bradbury. It also spawned a generation of writers and poets like Ian McEwan and Hugo Williams, and I studied English and American literature myself, coming across the poems and novels of Leonard Cohen for the first time, and the beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg. If one hadn't gained the Nobel Prize for Literature by the end of the second year, one was rusticated.
I was developing my improvised piano playing during this time, and was trying to learn pick-guitar better. Bob Dylan had released an album called Self Portrait which was critically panned, but I loved it. It was full of simple, sweet country air, and I began to learn some traditional songs. I was living in the country, collecting firewood, reading the beat poets and trying to write decent songs, and… when I could… I hitched to snowy Germany to see my girlfriend, or braved it on a moped or even in a three-wheeled car. I was developing as a musician, but I had nothing profound in my inner life that I knew how to write about yet.
Had I been an extraverted teenager I could have found simple energetic expression in loud, punkmusic, without the need for a profound inner life, but I was a shy, suburban William Blake-esque sort of chap, and I needed a deeper language.
Other musical influences
My albums have hitherto been marketed as New Age music by other record companies. I suppose they have to have some kind of genre in mind as a selling anchor. For myself, though, that has never felt quite like 'me'… there's New Age, and then there's New Age! There's the complex, modernist pieces by artists like Phillip Glass, Brian Eno and Ludovico Einaudi, which I tend to respect and actively like, and there's the music of the more well-known pioneers like Mike Oldfield, Peter Gabriel and Jean-Michel Jarre, which I also liked a lot at the time, and who are considered to be iconic figures in the genre. There's also the more actively natural, relaxing and intentionally healing kind of New Age albums, with birdsong, lapping waves and dreamy synths, some of which definitely does what it says on the tin, as the advert says in the UK. By the time it gets to the muzak/shopping-mall end of the spectrum, however, with hugely inflated concepts as titles, like "Eternal Love", "The Meaning of Life" or "The Secret of the Universe" I find myself reaching for the twelve-bore… especially if there's a picture of a smiley plastic dolphin or King Arthur on the front cover. To my mind it has then become solely a marketing exercise, and the albums could just as well be called "Pickled Gherkin" or "Nougat Delight".
I write songs simply to heal my own heart and to reach out… not to align myself with any particular genre or tradition. Celtic and Jewish folk melodies have always inspired me, as does Andean & gypsy folk music. Leonard Cohen with his deep, poetic sense of beauty and irony, has helped significantly to keep me sane for some time now, as he finds a poise and wit to bridge the unbridgeable which reassures me immensely. Bono once said of Leonard Cohen, apparently, that he was immense… like a Biblical prophet of old.
Bob Dylan's mercurial Jewish mysticism has seduced me since I was a little boy… another great messenger and bringer of ancient truths. If anything, I sometimes feel that I am carved out to be something of a minstrel or troubadour in that kind of tradition… that that may be my manifest destiny (or manifest dentistry, as my sons might say)! I see these people as embodiments of Hermes, or Mercury the messenger, so it's not so much New Age, but Old Age in a new form.
The ballads of the great story-tellers in song, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison, move me tremendously, and the eclectic Cajun, French, mystical melodies of French Canadian singer-songwriter Daniel Lanois have found a home in my soul, too. Tim Hardin, Arlo Guthrie and Francois Hardy have all fed my hungry heart. The mythic and archetypal songs 'Golden brown' by the Stranglers and Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' sung by Jeff Buckley or K.D.Lang have long been musical mantras for me, as has some religious music… 'Spem in Alium' by Thomas Tallis, and some Slavonic liturgies and Greek Orthodox Kyrie's.
The left-hand path (into the mystic…)
Mythologist Joseph Campbell talks about 'the left hand path' in life… the dark and dangerous one. I take this to mean the path of consciousness. One way or another I have found myself initiated by, and drawn towards, various spiritual paths of consciousness, beginning with having visions of Jesus aged five, and having imaginary friends as a child. I was acutely aware that there were other dimensions beyond the apparent ones, but this awareness was not shared by anyone else in my family or amongst my friends, so I was alone with it. Simply playing the piano spontaneously was a way for me to connect with this other dimension… a sort of home-coming through music. It is still like this for me, although I have now found other portals to what shaman's call non-ordinary reality, as well as music… Jungian psychology, Sufi practices, shamanic practices and so on… and I have found other souls to explore this realm with.
For me there is only this as a way of life… to find out who we truly are and to go as deeply as we can into the mysteries of our existence. I did not consciously seek this metaphysical path out, rather it revealed itself to me, through visions, baffling symptoms, synchronicities, intuitions, impulses and sometimes just a cavalier sense of adventure. Hence I did not care for the sciences at school, which never addressed any underlying theological considerations, nor did I follow in my adoptive father's footsteps and become an accountant, relaxing from work with a game of bridge or golf. I resisted, too, the exhortations of the pickled gherkin sisterhood to go into the 'schmutter trade'.
Maths, accountancy and schmutter were not for me, and I knew it as soon as I could walk and talk. Effectively, whenever asked what I was going to be when I grew up, I would reply 'a mystic'. This would be met with a puzzled concern, a scratching of the head and a general consensus that there was no money to be made in mysticism. Mind you, I met with exactly the same responses when I openly declared my other love… football… and my intention to become a footballer!
All of my albums are essays in mysticism, and the other career I have carved out… psychotherapy (not football)… explores the same territory. The answer to any anxiety, depression or dysfunction, ultimately, is to seek and find one's higher self… indeed the higher self often comes calling through these symptoms.
This journey has taken me into Christian mysticism, the Kaballah, Sufism, Rudolf Steiner, the Dao, Aikido, quantum physics, altered states (to say the least), archetypal psychology, mythology and shamanism. I have learned to do my accounts decently enough, but still have bridge and golf 'on hold'.
This journey into non-ordinary reality has proved to be the missing link musically for me, too, as well as spiritually As a younger person I had some natural gifts, but nothing of any consequence to sing about. I tried the usual things… romance, love gone sour, protest songs, social commentary and so on, but it just came out wrong from a suburban middle-class boy more at home with astral travel. Once I managed to initiate myself into a deeper experience however, aged about twenty-five, through a Sufi teacher from Baghdad, the gates of perception were opened for me… never to close again. I still find myself twenty-five or more years on from that with an inexhaustible reservoir of inspiration, about Divine levels of being and about all the beautiful, extravagant bridges there are between Divine creation and human existence. I am familiar with such constructs as the angelic realms, the world of spirits and elemental beings, the underworld, the planes of consciousness, the illusory aspects of time and mortality, the healing rays of being, the energy of the prophets, the felt experience of eternity, the primordial chaos and the light of consciousness… and all this is channeled into song. Through this I try to reach out to others who also take the left hand path in life.
Comments about Asher