Interview with Ray Cappo of Shelter and Youth of Today conducted by Greg Svitil in Boston, Massachusetts at Axis on May 2, 1996
Greg: Mantra seems to take a bit of a different approach to spreading Krishna philosophy than other Shelter records, as in it seems to be speaking more to non-religious people as well as the more religiously-oriented. Was that a premeditated part of writing the record?
Ray: I didn’t have that same observation, but I usually don’t go into records like that. What I do is I have a notebook. And even when I’m not writing a record I usually keep a notebook, and then suppose I see something go down, or I get some realization, I say “that’d be a good idea for a song.” To think, “empathy,” that’s a great idea for a song, or “in defense of reality,” that’s a great idea for a song. Usually I come up with a title first, and then I’ll write tons of poetry, sometimes rhyming or non-rhyming, or whatever. Just write it all down on maybe three pages of paper, maybe some back to it a week later and say “yeah, what else should I write about that?” And then, if I find a guitar riff that sounds like it should fit into that, then I create it into a song. But it’s nothing like “how can I spread this message?” I’m not that smart (laughs). It’s sort of like my mind, over a year, poured out onto CD.
Greg: In “Message of the Bhagavat,” it says that “there can be hope for modern man.” In what ways do the messages of the Srimad Bhagavatam and the Bhagavad Gita relate to the problems of the modern world?
Ray: Very good question. In the very beginning of the Bhagavatam, it explains the decline of religion, and how religion turns into clubs, more like social groups rather than spirituality. You can hear Hare Krishnas say the same thing, or Christians — they forget the fact that there’s spiritual principles, and that we should respect other people. The real spiritual way to understand different religions is, if I go into a church and I should think “how nice (that) they’re worshipping God.” If I go into a mosque, I say “how nice (that) they’re worshipping God.” If I go into a synagogue, “how nice (that) they’re worshipping God.”
So, what happens is, we tend to think “oh no, my church is the right way, and my goal is to try to convert you, and get you to join my church, and then my club will be stronger and I’ll feel it’s an extension of my ego, my self-centeredness.” But spirituality shouldn’t be like that. Spirituality should be a spirit appreciating spiritual principles. That’s one thing I never appreciated about church when I grew up was that — I would even ask the priest, “so I don’t understand: all these Buddhists, even if they’re monks and stuff, and all these Jews, even if they’re very sincere, will they do to hell if they don’t accept Christ?” And some people will say “well, yes, actually.” They can be good people, but if they don’t accept Christ, they’ll go to hell.
So the Bhagavatam teaches that we can always change our religions, but what we can’t change is the fact that we’re spiritual people. (Ray touches someone on the shoulder) I can’t convert you to being a spirit soul: you already are a spirit soul. Religion, no matter what kind of religion it is, it’s meant to awaken that spiritual side of us. So that’s what the Bhagavatam teaches, and ultimately teaches us that we have nothing to do, practically speaking, with these temporary designations of Christian, Hindu, Muslim, black, white, American — yesterday on stage I said “we become proud of our skin” — proud to be a white man, proud of a black man. I live in a part of Brooklyn where people are very proud to be black, just like we have white races and black races, right? Or people are very proud to be Christian and have big Jesus marches in Washington, DC and stuff like that. And that sort of scares me, because I think it’s more of an ego trip, just like people who are vegetarian or proud to be vegan or something like that. We gotta make sure our ego trips don’t get wound up with these types of renunciation. As a matter of fact, if we get into something like this, where we’re trying to improve ourself, we should wind in humility with that. So, the point is ultimately that it teaches us that we are actually… (at this point we’re told that we have to one minute to wrap up)
Thanks. One minute, interview, we’re gonna wrap this up! Okay, next question. Sorry about that.
Greg: Let’s talk about “Here We Go.” When becoming involved in relationships, where do you think one should draw the line? What do you think people should be aware of? What types of relationships do you think should be avoided?
Ray: Good question, and not a “yes” or “no” answer. We have to make sure that our relationships aren’t just dead ends, where we just either jointly use each other or we jointly just — some people say friendship, “yeah, my best friend” —- I remember, after a while of just being your typical hardcore guy, and just going to shows, meeting girls and having sex and stuff like that, and I got to a point where it was like, you know what I mean, just going on, just picking up girls, having cheap relationships isn’t fulfilling, so I wanted to become celibate and practice Krishna Consciousness. I remember some people, old friend of mine, that would talk to me, and all they would talk to me about was sex. Like locker room talk: “hey, you see her?”, you know, locker room talk, we call it. And I realized actually, that now that I wanted to not talk like that and think like that, that I don’t even have anything — conversation with this kid, it’s all I talk to him about.
So we gotta make sure friendship, be it with our boys or girlfriends or boyfriend and girlfriend, that it’s just not degrading each other, in the name of laughing. You know? Just like two people are going over the waterfall in a canoe. So is the goal just to make each other laugh or to turn a TV on in the middle of the canoe, and just “ah, this is great”? No. If you’re going over the waterfall, you’re supposed to get out of the canoe. Understand?
So that’s the thing with spiritual life. We should, ultimately, in a spiritual relation with a boyfriend or girlfriend, we should help enlighten each other, and really help each other, not just make each other feel good for a moment and then throw the future away. You know what I mean? So that’s what I say to look out for. Not that we shouldn’t have relationships. Boyfriends and girlfriends can have great relationships. But we shouldn’t degrade each other.
That was a little long answer, but I’ll make the next one short, and maybe we can get another one in.
Greg: That’s alright. Tell us a little bit about your new book. (Ray Cappo’s new book is called “In Defense of Reality,” and features transcriptions of conversations about Shelter’s lyrics and Krishna Consciousness in general).
Ray: I got a couple things in mind, I’ll pass on that one. Go on.
Greg: Let’s talk about some songs that you’ve written over the years. “Society Based on Bodies.” How does one go about looking beyond the body in a society that’s conditioned us to place tremendous importance on physical appearance?
Ray: Well that’s the whole thing with meditation. The mantras, the way we chant, you see it sometimes, chanting on those beads I got in here. The type of the chanting helps you separate yourself from the body. That’s what the meditation does. So we always make sure we chant and stuff every morning, or else we get confused.
That’s the biggest illusion in the world, that thinking “I’m the material body.” It’s actually “I’m a spirit soul, and I inhabit the body.” When you see any culture that becomes very strongly attached to “I am the body,” that’s what materialism is. “I’m the body, I am this nation, I am this skin.” So it’s amazing actually: this skin that we’re so proud of is actually just like a thick glove. Right? You just peel it back almost. It’s like a glove over a big hunk of meat. It’s not even an inch thick, but for this little, thin thing, we’re calling this our identity. So I don’t know if that answered that question either.
Bystander: Do the devotees believe that the stories of the Bhagavad Gita actually happened?
Ray: Yeah, that’s what Prabhupada thought, they were “as they are” (note: Krishna Consciousness founder AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s version of the Srimad-Bhagavatam is titled “Srimad-Bhagavatam As It Is”). So some people might read the Bhagavatam and say “these are fantastic-sounding stories,” right? If you read the Bhagavatam or you read a lot of these stories, not only in Indian culture — we have what we call Greek Mythology, right? And all American Indians have their own mythology. But at the same time, we don’t accept that they were necessarily myths. But we do accept that people have just lost touch with subtle realities.
Just because we can’t perceive things doesn’t mean they’re not necessarily there. Some people say “oh, I don’t believe in God, I don’t see him.” But there’s so many things that we can’t perceieve because our senses are very limited. For example, an ant is living in the real world. He’s a real being. But the ant comes to the show tonight. So what does the ant perceive? Does he know Downset’s playing? Does he know Shelter’s playing? No, he’s just feeling around, trying to sniff and feel, he feels a big vibration, he’s looking for food, he’s looking for the other ants to hang out with. He has no conception of the hardcore show, or scene politics, or what’s going on in the scene. Although the scene is a real world, also.
So I’m living in a real world. But I don’t know what’s going on in the art’s world. And the ant’s living in a real world, but he has no conception at all — in fact, he might live and die his whole lifetime in this club. So this is the thing — if people think things are fantastic, we should understand — who are we to even know? We are like ants. So if we say “oh yeah, Krishna looks like this,” or “God did this,” or a demi-god. We should, at least, if we’re honest, say “he could exist.”
So I’m trying to preach to an ant: (in a booming voice) “Ant! There’s a show tonight! And it’s gonna be a good show, because Downset’s playing!” You know what I mean? Why would be believe that? “Yeah, right.”
It’s like dogs. You try to tell a dog that red exists. “Red exists.” But dogs only see in black and white. So does red exist? Yes, red exists. But he can’t even conceive of red. Imagine if you were born in black and white. And I say “yeah, do you see that red thing?” And you’re like “Red?,” right? So there’s so many things. Even right now, when you turn on the TV, there’s radio waves turning on this TV. You sit down, and you’re like “click”: channel four. “Click.” How is that turning? It’s not like there’s a little guy — “oh, I heard the click,” inside the TV. No. These are waves. Can you see the waves? No, but they’re existing. So many things — colors exist that we can’t perceive. Sound exists that dogs hear.
So what’s to speak of fantastic things? But we are so proud that we think “ah, it’s a myth. It’s a myth. How could that be true?” We are like frogs living in a well.