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The Shamanship Of Serpent Wisdom
He lifts it closer as if offering me a bite. I chuckle, remembering a time from years past when someone offered me pan of a peyote mushroom he'd kept in his freezer. And years earlier when a woman offered me the last half~swallow from a bottle of tequila, the worm sloshing back and forth. As she waved it in front of me I ask the same question I asked both oi those times. "Will it give me visions?"
Renfro's eyes narrow under the brim of his black felt hat. I disappear in the shadow that falls between the question and his answer. Dry desert wind kicks grit into my face, High above a hawk calls out to a heal blazed sky. I bend my head to shield my eyes. I wipe them clear with the back of my arm and see a snake coiled at my feet, its head raised. Icy panic spreads through my body. But the snake uncoils itself and slinks across my feet. I watch it move toward it lump of dark rocks in the distance. I follow the snake. The closer he guides me to the rocks, the darker and cooler it becomes, Then it is night. A percussive rhythm moves through the air. The wind snaps up dust devils from the ground. They hover in front of me and form pictures illuminated by light from a plump white moon. They show a sword and a cup, a single horse and dozens of armed warriors standing away from it, a tree with long branches covered with pods that spread open into large white ﬂowers, the symbols for male and female interlocked like a pair of keys, a spinning blue sphere that glows with patches of green.
I stop and see that the snake has led me to a small adobe made of piled rocks. A skinny old man with silvery neck-length hair and a beard squats beside a fire. I feel his iron gaze read down into my heart. Instantly the shadow melts like fog around headlights. He looks down at the popper and slowly spins it by its stem. "Naw," he says in a burred voice. "You bring your own visions."
Renfro and I stood in front of the Air Devils-Inn stage, a cement triangle raised six inches from the floor in a corner. Across the walls behind it is a mural with caricatures of blues and rock stars: Eric Clapton drawn with large teeth. Bob Marley's dreadlocks in a ropey sprawl. These faces and more are the silent backup band to whomever is performing. Along another wall is a case full of dusty trophies. Decks of playing cards fill cardboard boxes in front of them. Under the case is a pair of booths with red vinyl padding on the backs and seats, next to a battered, untuned upright piano used as a speaker stand. Swivel chairs, their black vinyl covers chipped away exposing dried foam rubber beneath, surround three circular tables. Triangular swag lamps with black light bulbs throw pools of violet on the tables and ﬂoor. Balsa model air-planes hang over the bar. From the other side of the place, pool balls crack and plop into holes. The air is musty and cut with cigarette smoke. The entire place feels like the basement of an old house.
Located across from Bowman Field. Louisville's Air Devils Inn is a paradox in the city's night scene. Someone driving by it for the first time would guess that it was a biker bar, based largely on the three or four motorcycles that always seem to be parked at the entrance. The building itself is squat and small with a black roof. The exterior is painted in the same industrial beige as a prison hallway. It does have the unfair rep of being a rough haven for bikers, even though they congregate there only once a week. Regardless of its rep, however, Air Devils is one of the most generous nightspots in the city for musicians. The acoustics are cozy and it welcomes a variety of performers. So the same place where biker leather meets Tommy Hilfiger to hear rock, blues, folk, jazz or Bluegrass also welcomes the mythopoetic, metaphoric. semi-acoustic sounds of Louisville's Serpent Wisdom. Serpent Wisdom is also something of a paradox. It has a percussionist (Earbie Johnson), an acoustic guitarist (Ken Lucchese), a songwriter/vocalist/dervish (Renfro), and, until only recently, an electric bassist (L'Woo' s Danny Kiely), whose songs are rich in eclectic melodies and mythic imagery that can either bring a young couple to brush their ﬁngers along each other's backs and arms and hair as they embrace in a slow dance or have people lock their faces in puzzled "what's up with that" expressions as they quickly leave the bar. Paradoxical also because, once they begin playing, they indirectly invite their audiences to involve themselves more in the music and unlock their puzzled faces without Cliffs-noting all the metaphors in a song or even begging them to get on the dance ﬂoor. The paradox also shows in what each member individually asks of an audience. "I want people to be hit in their brains, their hearts. and their hips," Renfro said. "Dance your ass off and be spiritually moved." "It's wherever you're at [at the time]," Lucchese said. "Some days you're on a more intellectual level and you just want to physically sit there. Then on some days you just want to go hununnghh and go party."
Just enjoy my spirit."said Johnson. "I don't care what you come to do."
And the different views swirl together when they perform. Johnson's arms glide masterfully over his congas, except when he pauses to gently lift a rain stick or lightly stroke a row of small chimes. Lucchese answers the rhythms with his open chord strumming, which can ﬁrst metronomically pace through the verse and chorus of a song, then be unleashed in a storm of harmonics and rapid upper-register strums that rumble the air. Kiely, noted in L'Woo for subtle string bends and odd chords, alternates between simple hold-the-line rhythms and sneaky heists of the melody. And Renfro, with his piercing voice, dramatic phrasing, and ecstatic movements, stealing the power from the glitter-shamen of years past and returning it to the Earth. Renfro is what Jim Morrison might have become if he had ditched his toy reality and dried himself in the desert for a decade with some holy men. "I'm a lot more shaman than showman," Renfro said. "That's important to me and to us." In many primitive cultures the shaman was (and, in some cases, still is) connected to the infinite. He healed the ill, retrieved lost souls, counseled the leaders on wise action when they asked, all through ritual and symbol. Put another way, a shaman was a culture's conduit to the worlds beyond, a vessel filled with divine grace, a walking Intermet to the spiritual realms. When he visited you, it was the infinite's way of saying, "You've got mail."
Serpent Wisdom has an advantage not many shamen have. Not only can they open a world of spiritual possibilities to you in a live performance, but they also have it recorded and on disc for you to experience anytime. Released late last year, Fat Lotta Good contains songs stuffed with metaphors and festive rhythms. The startling cover art is Renfro's mosaic of iconography and nature's detritus that forms the face of a fierce serpent. Inside, the recording starts with the invocation of "Worldance," explores human disconnection with "Outsider," tells of displaced passion with the title track and courtly spiritual amorousness in "Magnolia," with its swoony lyrics:
You are poetry in flight / You were made in God's Likeness. . . . / We were Excalibur and the Holy Grail. . . / Myth and legend, death and resurrection / Simply male and female.
Other selections pay tribute to the Earth ("Green Thing"), present a daring choice between two life-altering opposites ("One Horse Crazy"), make a plea for the freedom of political prisoner Mekonnen Dori ("Ethiopia"), and give a benediction ("Spirit").
Still, as it was in the way-back times, a Shaman's words didn't click too many tumblers in listeners' minds. Serpent Wisdom faces the same challenge. "People don't generally listen to lyrics very carefully," Renfro said. "I'm mystified by that still. After all this time I should be used to it, but I'm not. Every Serpent Wisdom song doesn't come to music until its been written and rewritten and revised. It's not a song until it's gone through that kind of process. I move back and forth from wanting to explain more than just saying 'few will get it, few will not.' There are certain times when things will break through and certain times when you just feel the words and the impact. It''s landing on a subliminal level and I'm willing to accept that."
This acceptance comes from a man who, prior to the inception of Serpent Wisdom, presented a 72-page epic poem he had written in iambic pentameter to a writer's group so they could, as Renfro stated with a chuckle, "tell me how great it was."
The late Dr. Leon Driskell was a bean pole of a man with long gray hair and a warm intellect. His famous Friday Night Writers Group met in his office in the Bingham Humanities Building at the University of Louisville. It was a chance for new writers to bring their work into a safe, smart environment, where they could have it read and critiqued with honesty. But then there was the night a dozen years ago when Renfro handed out copies of his epic work The Peaceable. He was in his late 30s, divorced with three daughters (Heather, Hannah and Heidi),a and friends with a man named Bob Maples, who had brought him to Driskell's writers group.
Almost all my creative juices were compressed until l was 38 years old," Renfro said. "I was coming out of the crisis of my life – a divorce – and I had no idea I would survive it at all. Bob and I played music together and it was opening some opportunity to express my spirit."
During Renfro's spiritual and psychological unfolding (and when he had overwhelmed the writers group with The Peaceable. it was another friendship, with Steve Dalton, that brought him in contact with Ken Lucchese. "We were out drinking, having a good time,and ended up over at Ken's house at 3:00 in the morning," Renfro recalled. "Ken got his guitar out and I started singing songs. I had written the lyrics and had the tunes in my head, so I sang them to Ken. He started playing, then we had our first song. Ten minutes later we had three or four more." They found a percussionist, Musa Uthman and began performing. "We practiced at open stages," Lucchese said. The gigs where they jelled as a band were at the Rudyard Kipling and Uncle Pleasant's. When Uthman left to open his Kente inter
When Uthman left to open his Kente International store in 1991, Chicago/Kankakee native Earbie Johnson, whom Renfro met through U of L's Minerva literary project, sat in. Almost a decade later, Johnson, Lucchese and Renfro (now a grandfather of two boys, Cole and Jackson, sons of his daughter Heather) have developed a partnership that is working to bring its songs to the world, not just to its audiences in Louisville. Its seed was Renfro's personal crisis, which, he states, is where great songs come from in the first plate. "Crisis. Don't be afraid of it. It's where you've got nothing to lose, where you find out who you are. You call forth your strength and you ﬁnd that you ain't got what it takes or you find what you need to survive and overcome. All my songs have a soul,and that's not the truth for most songs. I go to hell to get the songs. I soar the heavens to get the songs. And I bring the soul of the song back to this middle world and write it out. What you hear is the translation of the pure soul that is beyond words. But the experience is what writes the song."
It seems as if Renfro's songwriting method mirrors the hero's journey outlined by the late mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. A man or woman is called (through supernatural, accidental, or even psychological means) into an intense adventure that, when finished, gives them the power to bestow blessings on others. Along the way the hero spends time in darkness and uncertainty (Buddha underneath the Bo tree, Jonah in the belly of a monstrous ﬁsh, Odysseus in the cave of Polyphemus the Cyclops, Marlin Luther King in the Birmingham Jail), experiences atonement, then returns to share the wisdom accumulated through the adventure. To experience a performance – recorded or live – of Serpent Wisdom is to receive a blessing from a group of men who have taken their own heroic journeys and brought back their experiences in song. "As far as Earbie Johnson is concerned," he said with a hand on his slim chest, "this has been a fantastic journey for me in my growth as an artist, to experience the genius of Ken's and Jak Son's artistic abilities, and to ﬁt in and add what I can to it. l still enjoy doing it and it gives me the opportunity to express my personal creative abilities as a percussionist."
The serpent is the most subtle beast in 'the field," Renfro said. "There are a lot of subtleties that Ken and Earbie both do, and Danny's really falling into place. Songs have sweets pots and Ken has had all of them before. 'Now Danny's getting some. It's fine for me because I play off the music and rhythms that I'm hearing."
Not only is the serpent the most subtle beast, but it also travels in one direction only, shedding skin after skin throughout its life. It is feared and vilified in one culture, sacrosanct in another. The same culture that holds the serpent in contempt uses a pair of them as part of the symbol of the healing arts. It is a creature of paradox. It docs not have the power itself to grant wisdom, but by knowing the serpent you begin to understand its wisdom – its singular direction, its constant renewal, its inherent paradoxes.
The men of Serpent Wisdom may not shed their skins, but they have changed by adding a member. Their gig schedule does have them moving in more than one direction (besides to and from Air Devils Inn), but they remain a cohesive, musically interdependent unit. And the music they play has its place within a city where rock-and-roll belches out from most nightspots every weekend. They are not entirely serpents. But their art might lead you to the wisdom you seek. "
Ye out from among those who prize
the serpent's golden eyes,
the worshipers, self-given sacrifice
of the snake. Take
Your way and be ye separate.
Be not too curious of Good and Evil;
Seek not to count the future waves of
But be ye satisfied that you have light
Enough to take your set and find
T. S. Eliot,
Choruses from "The Rock"
Catch Serpent Wisdom live on Friday, October 13 at Twice Told Coffeehouse (an appropriate way to exorcise any bad juju you might feel that day). The show starts at 9:30. They will give a free performance at the Twice Told on the following Tuesday as the featured band of an open-stage show. They will also appear at the Rudyard Kipling on Friday, October 20 and will be one of the many bands performing at the "Cash & Clash" fundraiser for the Public Radio Partnership on Sunday, October 22 at Phoenix Hill Tavern. Get your maximum daily dose of wisdom at www.serpentwisdom.com. The site, developed and maintained by Jinn Fuller, contains a gig calendar, CD and merchandise ordering information, and links to other sites.