Featured Book Reviews from Issue #81: Hostess Twinkies for the Soul

Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality
By Chris Grosso, 242 pgs.

If, as Katy Perry said, it was like someone stomping on a kitten when Kanye West garishly ripped the microphone from Taylor Swift’s hand, mid-speech, at some award show, then I probably have my kitten-stomping boots on right now. That’s because I’m about to garishly throw out a handful of less-than-glowing comments on Chris Grosso’s Indie Spirituality, a book that, at the time of this writing, has not a single Amazon rating of less than five full stars. It’s also a book heavily decorated with glowing and giddy blurbs burped up by a swooning platoon of luminaries from not only the spirituality industry, but other celebrities ranging from hip hop artists, hardcore punks, and skateboarders.

Believe me, I’m not thrilled to equate myself with a blithering megalomaniacal chucklefuck like Kanye West. But it seems like dirty work that someone with kitten stomping boots has to do. I’ll see if I can do it without Kanye’s messianic complex.

So what is it that makes me want to stomp this adorable little kitten of a book, so beloved by discerning Amazon reviewers and spiritually-hip famous people alike? What could I possibly find even slightly disagreeable about this book that seems to coax glowing reviews out of people like a buttery smooth pickpocket? It certainly seems as innocuous and big-hearted as Taylor Swift herself.

Chris Grosso certainly comes across as an eminently likable guy. There’s something downright neighborly that comes through his writing; like if he lived next door to you, he’d occasionally mow your lawn just to be nice, and wouldn’t want anything for it. And his personal story of redemption is certainly compelling enough. Similar to Dharma Punx author Noah Levine’s back-story, it’s a gritty crash-and-burn tale of too much booze and drugs combined with too much punk rock nihilism—and then the phoenix-from-the-ashes like ascent to sobriety and, eventually, spiritual awakening. Or as he puts it in the book, “I engulfed myself in a completely no-bullshit exploration of spiritually. I found that having a deeply ingrained question everything punk-rock mind-set, which taught me not to accept everything at face value, allowed me to take a brutally honest look at the teachings of the various spiritual and religious paths I was exploring.”

Grosso’s brand of “indie spirituality” is a syncretistic amalgam of mostly eastern traditions, but his emphasis is primarily a Ram Dass-influenced Bhakti Yoga. This is a devotional branch of yoga, expressed by Grosso himself through his practices of chanting and performing kirtan music, and not the Americanized version of yoga that features various exotic calisthenics and women wearing Lululemon tights—a high priced article of clothing that, in truth, functions both as a status symbol and a sort of candy wrapper.

In our late capitalist society everything comes in wrappers. Katy Perry comes in wrappers, Kanye West comes in douchey wrappers, as does just about any commodity we’re encouraged to desire. But even the things—like, in this case, spirituality—that are supposed to help us manage, if not liberate us from, our desires—they also come in eye-catching, come-hither wrappers.

Indie Spiritualist, of course, comes in a wrapper too, one adorned with spray painted stencil lettering and a punky back alley motif. A blurb on the back cover makes a point of steering our attention to the fact that the author is sinisterly festooned with multiple tattoos, as if that wasn’t already perfectly apparent by the adjoining photo of the author in a short sleeve shirt. Why is it important that we know he’s tattooed? Is the implication that his spiritual vision is somehow more “hard won” than that of a puffy, pallid, tattoo-less boob like Eckhart Tolle—and therefore, to be believed as being more genuine?

Were we somehow to know that Mr. Grosso is the proud owner of a dick piercing, would this make his spiritual “package” more fetching than that of a Tolle type, (assuming that his reproductive organs are not decorated with jewelry)?

And speaking of tattoos, what are we to make of a book whose pages are as dotted with QR codes as the author’s punk rock hide is tattooed? In an obvious attempt to curry favor with tech-junkies who read a book with one hand while manipulating their smart phone with the other, many of the chapters of this book feature QR codes, linking the tech-savvy reader to instructional videos, related writings and songs by bands I’ve never heard of. On one hand, it could be argued that sprinkling QR codes throughout the pages opens the “book experience” into a digitally interactive, multi-dimensional experience beyond (and some might say “superior to”) the mere Gutenbergian task of reading. On the other hand, littering QR codes throughout the pages of I.S. is about as aesthetically pleasing as piles of robot droppings. And is there anything more symbolic of creeping corporate crud than QR codes? Grosso admonishes his readers to “question everything;” so I ask: is an author who “fortifies” his books with the robot scat of QR codes someone who himself truly questions everything—including the all-pervasive, ever growing corporate technocracy and the ubiquitous herd mentality of the app-happy and not-so-mindful early adopters?

I guess I should probably just accept that ugly little QR codes showing up in the pages of my soon-to-be-old-fashioned books is now just inevitable, like rigor mortis. They are part of the mortification process, little more than mushy death sores popping up as paper books let out their last gasp as they depart this world, making room for the sickly, buzzing hives of light known as e-books. Seen this way, it’s merely evolution. Out with the old, in with the new.

So maybe Grosso’s unquestioning embrace of all things Silicon Valley isn’t a blind spot at all, but simply the integrating attitude of a healthy “integral” personality, in the Wilberian sense.

And that brings me to one of Grosso’s main influences and a personage whose bald, bespectacled, humorless countenance floats spectrally throughout the pages of this book. I’m talking, of course, about the Mr. Clean of Consciousness himself, the Great Tidy-Upper of the Universe, the Hugh Hefner of stratified reality paradigms, Ken Wilber. The influence of Wilber’s AQAL—“all quadrants, all levels”—syncretistic approach can be seen in Grosso’s all-embracing, multi-tradition spiritual blend. Wilber’s nondual syncretism, of course, can be seen as a more prim, less playful extension of the syncretism of his predecessor, the rascal sage Alan Watts—an early influence Wilber eventually distanced himself from, as was the fashion amongst spiritually-minded yuppies in the uptight ‘80s. Further back still, the spirit of Wilber’s syncretism can be traced to the works of the Huayan master Fazang and even to the dualistic synthesis of Mani, but maybe especially back to the giant of Korean Buddhism, Wonhyo, from whom Kenny seems to have appropriated the term “one taste” as a label accentuating the unitive principal “behind” his spiritual spectrum, the non-obstructive interrelationship between phenomena and noumenon.

But for all I know, maybe the inspiration for Wilber’s “integral approach” goes back no further than the hippy-trippy new age mish-mash of Father Yod. Who knows?

Regardless, I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that I think Wilber is at least partially right when he says that everyone is partially right. The problem might be that Wilber himself seems to forget about his own partially-rightness.

And if you’re looking for evidence of Wilber’s mere partial rightness, you have to look no further than fallen spiritual studs like Adi Da, Genpo Merzel, Andrew Cohen, and Marc Gafni—all once endowed with the cache that goes with a hearty Wilber endorsement. Though now a rogue’s gallery, these were the elevated souls that Wilber christened his “rude boys,” a hokey label meant to honor certain spiritual teachers whose unconventional “upaya” included Kanye-like displays of cockiness, narcissism, and Caligula-like self-indulgences. But, as case after case of sexual indiscretions with disciples surfaced, the Rude Boy label eventually turned out to be actually more of a booby prize for being a self-inflated, ego-maniacal scumbag in a spiritual wrapper.

So while emblazoning your book with an effusive endorsement from Wilber is probably considered a shrewd marketing ploy, it could be a spiritual kiss-of-death roughly equivalent to the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx.

But far be it from me to criticize that from which another person draws his/her inspiration and insights, even with my stomping boots on. Because I firmly believe that, like birds pecking bits of undigested grains out of cow pies, humans can find enlightenment (a cow pie of a word) in the so-called lowliest of places. One of the things I liked best about Indie Spirituality is Grosso’s quoting of authors typically considered outside the pale of spirituality, like William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, etc. But stepping into what many see as the borderline “cultish” Integral World of Ken Wilber can leave the aspirant more benighted than enlightened. Though, to be fair, that’s a charge that could be leveled against almost any spiritual teacher, cultish stench or not.

To take off my kitten-stomping boots off, to let my dogs breath a bit, it’s hard to be too critical of anyone finding sense and solace anywhere in this particularly numbing time in history. You really can’t blame anyone for trying to make sense out of all this absurdity and trying to feel alive again. A society ours, like no society before it, so devilishly fans the flames of your desires while simultaneously keeping you as functionally bound as a veal calf, provides a fertile bed of frustration that is likely to give mulchy ground to the growth of weedy characters ranging from spiritual seekers to serial killers. And that’s not to mention the rare occasion of the individual who finds himself or herself suddenly, inexplicably, outside of time and space and staring face to face with the “mysterium tremendum,” a deeply, dizzyingly disorienting experience so far removed from describable mundane “reality” as to seem utterly and profoundly different—though its final shock is that is not really different than mundane reality.

While I’m still somewhat suspicious of all the glowing, oozingly positive reviews this book has reaped, both from the famous and the merely mouthy, I can see that it does have a certain easy appeal. The strength of Grosso’s approach, beyond any millennial-friendly tattoos or his easy conversational tone, is his welcoming, big-tent style of spiritual syncretism. In this way he has a big-hearted affability more similar to his hero Ram Dass than the cold, constipated big-minded rationality of his other hero, Ken Wilber. Despite any claims to “grittiness,” Indie Spirituality is actually very user friendly and easily digestible. It’s Hostess Twinkies for the soul. It might not be totally inaccurate to say this is entry level nondual spirituality in an indie/punk wrapper; kind of Eckhart Tolle with tattoos and possibly a dink stud. I would imagine that fans of Noah Levine’s Dharma Punx would find this book very agreeable. But people who have plowed through Nisargadatta Maharaj’s I Am That—or even some of the more turquoise colored Wilberites—might find Indie Spirituality on the remedial side. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with that and it may prove to be the perfect starting point for many people out there. In truth, kitten-stomping boots are total over-kill to a Kanye-esque extreme.

Here’s hoping Grosso doesn’t turn out to be yet another burnt-out husk of a Rude Boy littering the spiritual scene, because then no amount of millennial-friendly tattoos and dick piercings will save him. I’ve now left a less than glowing, but far from negative review of Indie Spirituality and my work now here is done. I don’t know about you, but I feel like the world is a little bit better balanced now. –Aphid Peewit (Beyond Words, beyondword.com)

My Prison WallsBy GG Allin, 208 pgs.It’s now been about twenty years since Kevin “GG” Allin disappointed the mongoloid thrill seekers in his fan club by failing to make good on his promise to kill himself onstage in an all-too-real explosion of flying human meat and headline titillation. Dingy bar janitors everywhere might still be sighing in relief. Instead, GG slunk off this mortal coil in a less than scum-fuc-tastic death involving none of the promises of spilled brains on amplifiers and vomiting audience members. Was his private, less than theatrical overdose death a “pussy death” that cheated his even marginally devout followers of scooping up some rock star road-kill they could sell in a coffee can on Ebay?

This isn’t a question I’m going to lose any sleep over, but anytime you have a person who appears to be a potentially dangerous mix of loudmouth braggart and seemingly genuine social fuck-up, you can’t help but wonder, if you’re like me, how much of this was just tough-guy posing and how much was the very real neurological pollution providing the electrical twitch to a chattering mandible and giving dim reptile light to back brain areas, an unhealthy warmth to the rotting cheese of hate forming in overly pinched folds of the Loudmouth Brain? If anyone’s brain folds might grow a sick fungus of genuine barf-yellow hate crust, it was probably GG Allin. Or so he’d like us to think.

If you have ever had a question about this, My Prison Walls might just give you the behind-the-scenes “proof” you need to convince you that Ol’ Uncle GG was indeed a hate-pustulating sociopath. But that’s far from all that he was. If GG’s over-the-top, fecal chimp dance was even partially real and not just reality-TV-like spotlight desperation, hate apparently lies outside of the confines of family, because even the turd-hurling, audience attacking GG Allin seems to have drawn the line at his immediate family members, judging by some of the letters included in this book. And in this way, My Prison Walls is really a study in ethology, sort of a “when animals attack” look into the mind of a self-professed savage. GG might’ve been the “bleeding naked rock star most likely to jump his own audience members,” but behind his balls-to-the-wall I-Hate-Everything attitude, he had a Norman Rockwellian appreciation of the deep ties of family love and tribal bonds. Maybe even the beast-man GG Allin, it turns out, needed a hug every once in a while.

Odder than Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neal appearing on a Celebrity TV ice skating contest—and maybe just as awkward—this book is really a scrapbook put together by GG’s brother Merle. And who would’ve ever thought the worlds of GG Allin and scrapbooking would ever collide? That unlikelihood alone makes this book something of a curio, even for GG fans whose level of intensity might be less than that of someone who carries one of his dried up droppings around on a keychain. Part prison jerk-off diary, part collection of crudely rendered sulking-teenager-like avenging skeleton cartoons, part scumfuc manifestos and self promotions, this scrapbook-like collection of GG artifacts and letters even includes oddball bits and pieces that plainly fall outside of most people’s black and white notions of what GG was all about.

While you’re going to get the more-or-less expected—and entirely justified—tirades against conformity and MTV and the lame-ass state of contemporary rock‘n’roll, you also get—of all things—a collection of Kevin’s letters to his mom. If Happy-Birthday-Mom letters, along with drawings of roses and heartfelt statements about the Allin family staying together despite any adversity don’t somewhat blur your picture of the hell-breathing, uncompromising rock‘n’roll outlaw, then you need to take your shit-colored GG glasses off and look at Mr. Allin anew.

Like I said, yeah, there is plenty of what you’d expect here: boastful prison rants of Christ-like super powers, finger paintings apparently utilizing the artist’s own smeary excrement, an admiringly sketched Hitler drawing and all sorts of knife-like renderings of erect penises, oftentimes involving blood. Maybe most interesting is the letters and illustrations of serial killers with whom GG had a correspondence and possibly even a crude friendship. Clown and boy killer John Wayne Gacy in particular seemed to genuinely like GG.

But what most sticks out amongst all the seething hatred and misanthropy, all the insurrection and cultural ripostes, is the side of GG that one can only, somewhat uncomfortably, call “tender.” And to this willingness of Merle Allin to somewhat “de-fang” the brutish image of his brother, I tip my Jughead hat. My guess is that maintaining a shit-slinging, grunting, ejaculating, near lycanthropic beast-man portrayal of the Allin family freak probably sells more GG merchandize. But Merle seems more interested in the truth, however complicated and messy that may be.

There will probably always be questions about the honesty/genuineness of GG Allin, but I don’t think there can be any question about the honesty of Merle Allin. It’s refreshing to see someone as larger-than-life as GG Allin not hyperbolized into cartoonish black and white oversimplifications. GG himself lent himself to such crude classifications, but his older—and possibly wiser—brother Merle seems to know better. –Aphid Peewit (aggronautix.com)