The Tao of Marr
'Wallowing in the past may be good literature. As wisdom, it’s hopeless. Time Regained is Paradise Lost, and Time Lost is Paradise Regained. Let the dead bury their dead. If you want to live at every moment as it presents itself, you’ve got to die to every other moment.'
– Aldous Huxley
In an era where nostalgia is frequently both fetishised and commoditised, it’s refreshing to see somebody in Johnny Marr’s position so entirely focused on the present. Johnny’s belief in “Nowism” - living in the immediate present - reflects not only his intense creative drive, but also some of his more spiritual qualities such as attentiveness, self-awareness, and introspective wisdom.
There’s a common misconception that intently focusing on the present implies a desire to escape or downplay the past, but for Johnny Marr this certainly isn’t the case. Johnny respects and honours his past, but as an artist who values innovation and progress, also sees a far greater benefit in devoting his energy to the present. It speaks volumes that many of the people Johnny himself admires - Aldous Huxley, David Hockney and Pablo Picasso, for example - are people who have demonstrated through their work a desire to grow, experiment and redefine themselves throughout lengthy and fruitful careers. Johnny’s concept of “Nowism” is an overwhelmingly positive model of thought that emphasises opportunity for action, and an ability to appreciate the beauty of the here- and-now. The past is significant at this moment only to the extent that it creates meaning for the present. Wyndham Lewis stated in his Vorticist manifesto that “The present is art”, and Johnny rightly treats it as such.
Although “Nowism” as he presents it is a concept of Johnny’s own creation, the idea shares some similarities with other established schools of thought. There are parallels to philosophical presentism and its theory that only what exists in the present moment truly exists at all (albeit in a metaphorical sense when applied to Johnny’s concept of “Nowism”), as well as the Buddhist concept of Satipatthana
(mindfulness), which emphasises acute awareness of the present moment.
Johnny’s concept of “nowism” is An overwhelmingly positive model of thought that emphasises opportunity for action, and an ability to appreciate tHe beauty of the here-and-now.
As a child Johnny was raised a Catholic, but as an adult he’s far more inspired by eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. Wu wei
- literally meaning “non-doing” - is a keystone Taoist concept that he’s repeatedly referenced in recent years, as is the Tao
- meaning “the way” - often in relation to states of relaxation and spiritual inspiration. Another Taoist concept, Ziran
, is also likely to have been an influence on Johnny. Lao Tzu, Taoist philosopher and author of the Tao Te Ching
, described Ziran
as an entirely natural, spontaneous state - “as-it- isness”.
Although Taoism can also be practiced as a religion, Johnny is drawn more to its philosophical ideologies, and the specific concepts and practices that appeal to him most on a spiritual level. As with art, music and literature, he picks out and focuses on the specific elements that inspire him, and that relate best to his art and his self.
To the observer, the most obvious evidence of the influence of eastern religions and philosophies on Johnny can be seen on his person: either temporarily (in the case of his Dharma wheel and Bagua lapel badges), or permanently, as in the case of his tattoos. While a trigram from the Taoist Bagua (Qián
, which represents creativity) rather discreetly forms a part of his lesser-seen atomic explosion tattoo, the image of Shiva - Hindu god of creation and destruction - on his left forearm, is far more visible. In addition to being inspired by Aldous Huxley, who regarded the image as one of the most significant and comprehensive symbols in existence, Shiva is a nod to the cyclical nature of Johnny’s own work. If you want to live at every moment as it presents itself, you’ve got to die to every other moment.
Creative rebirth and reinvention has been a cornerstone of Johnny’s career since The Smiths, creating a state of momentum that has enabled decades’ worth of exciting and diverse musical output.
The driving force behind Johnny’s cycle of creative rebirth and reinvention isn’t just about avoiding inertia, though: it’s also about self-development. With every new cycle comes an opportunity for Johnny to challenge himself and further realise his artistic potential. This desire to further cultivate the mind and self can also be seen in Johnny’s interest in mysticism, particularly within the teachings of Russian mystic and philosopher George Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff’s primary teachings focused on a method of inner development known as The Fourth Way, which posited that the common three traditional paths to spiritual enlightenment - through singular focus on mastery of either the body, emotions or mind - had a tendency to cultivate one faculty at the expense of the others, and that all three must be integrated to achieve true spiritual enlightenment. Furthermore, The Fourth Way focuses on attentiveness to the present moment (“Conscious Labour”), and resisting distraction by automatic behaviours (“Intentional Suffering”) - practices that surely prove useful to a working musician when writing or in the studio.
Johnny’s dabbling in mystical teachings also stems from a spiritual and intellectual interest in the evolution and optimisation of the human mind. Writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley believed that the key to actualising latent human potentialities was perception: “the more discriminating and acute and precise our perceptions are, the better on the whole will be our general intelligence”. Practices that seek to heighten the acuteness of personal perception, such as meditation and the Alexander Technique (a process that incorporates mindfulness with correcting maladaptive physical habits), as well as experiments in psychonautics such as the use of mind machines and taking psychedelics to stimulate creativity, all point to Johnny’s keen desire to push the boundaries of his own consciousness and creative - as well as overall human - potential.
The positive impact of these various concepts and philosophies can quite readily be seen in both Johnny’s art and personality: in his dazzling bouts of inspiration, in the intensity of his energy - both mental and physical - and in the self-awareness evident in his attitude towards not only his own work, but the people it reaches. As a role model of almost sage-like reverence to some of his fans, Johnny’s influence can be very profound. Through being inspired he is inspiring to others; through pushing boundaries he motivates others to do the same. There’s a lot to be learned from Johnny, if your mind is open enough. Are you ready to be enlightened?
1. Lao Tzu - Tao Te Ching
2. P.D. Ouspensky - The Fourth Way
3. Aldous Huxley - The Human Situation