Ruin, the “first Buddhist punk band,” figures in our May magazine’s Buddhism-and-music feature (as well as its title, “Ruin, Beasties, and Constant Craving”), but the band’s story is fascinating, and sprawling, all on its own. Here it is, told in the band members’ own words after they agreed to be interviewed on my site, The Worst Horse, shortly after its launch in 2005.
By Rod Meade Sperry
Ruin are legend in certain circles: fans of classic Philadelphia punk rock keep the name alive with fansites and made a 90′s “ReUnIoN” a cause for celebration. Even the reclusive Leonard Cohen was apparently a fan. But (unless you’re from Philly) chances are, you haven’t heard Ruin, or even of them. Back when they were first together, punk was fully underground, bands playing dime-a-dozen club shows advertised solely on flyers stapled-gunned to telephone poles.
But Ruin truly stood apart. Founded by one Glenn Wallis, the band was meant to be an antidote to sitting around and getting wasted. It worked — and then some. Ruin’s music still sounds great today, even a bit timeless for that of a band born in the early days of punk. Their influences (Stooges, MC5, Motorhead, and yes, Leonard Cohen) come out in the songs, but there are extra hits of urgency, theatricality, and musicianship, too. And, something else: Buddhism.
These days, Wallis is an associate professor of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Indian Religions at the University of Georgia, a teacher at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies, and a premier translator of the Buddha’s teachings. But he’s hardly how some might expect such a scholar to be. Like his Ruin-mates, Wallis is down-to-earth, irreverent, and real. It’s a conscious choice.
Wallis and bandmates Damon Wallis, Paul DellaPelle, Cordy Swope, and Rich Hutchins took some time to talk to me about the life, death, and rebirth of what most certainly was the world’s first punk band comprised of all practicing Buddhists. Whether “punk” means anything to you or not makes little difference; these are some fascinating people.
[Notes: key references are linked throughout the interview; these links open in new windows. All photos accompanying this interview are courtesy Glenn Wallis.]
How and where does a young punk from Philly become interested in Buddhism?
Glenn Wallis (founder; guitar): When I was fifteen years old, I went to an experimental school in Morrestown, New Jersey, called Our New School. It was a small school; I was only the fifteenth student. On my first day there a teacher asked me what I wanted to learn about. I said, “Eastern philosophy.” A few days later, someone named Bruce showed up to be my teacher. Two years previously, Bruce had quit his job as an executive at I.B.M. and entered on a “spiritual journey.” This was in 1975; so, I think that Bruce might have been on the tail end of the hippies’ “turn on, tune in, drop out” ethos. On our first day of class (I was the only student), Bruce had me sit down in a chair. He placed an apple on the windowsill, walked back, stood behind me, and said, “take a deep breath, then bring your full attention to that apple.” I did just that. Whshshshshsh. An implosion. It may sound like hyperbole, but the universe shifted in that instant. The cosmos, my mind, my brain — who knows? — something shifted fundamentally in that instant of concentration. There was a stilling, a peace, a completeness. Everything made perfect sense.
Now, I certainly don’t want to imply that I had some kind of supernatural, extraordinary, “mystical” experience. On the contrary: it was the first perfectly ordinary instant of my life. I was precisely unfettered, for an instant, from the endless proliferation of extraneous layerings of conceptualization that had become such an ordinary part of my existence. So, I guess that you can say that it was in this first instance that I came to understand something of Buddhism.
Bruce found the Dhammapada [sayings of the Buddha], translated by Juan Mascaro, to be particularly edifying. So, this is what he taught me over the course of the year as “Eastern philosophy” — the Dhammapada. I carried this book with me for years. Eventually, I realized what a, let’s say, problematic translation Mascaro’s was, and determined to, one day, re-translate it. My second book The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way is the realization of that determination. So, in a sense, the Dhammapada has accompanied me throughout my life.
Was it at Our New School that you came up with the Ruin logo and concept?
Glenn: It was in college, Temple University in Philadelphia, around 1979 or so. I was sitting in some philosophy class or another. I’ve read on some website that I had gone into some sort of shamanic trance, only to discover, upon my return, that I had filled up a notebook with this mysterious sign — the Ruin logo. Another way of putting the same thing is this: bored out of my wits by the mind-numbing cant of the professor, I began absentmindedly scribbling in my notebook. An hour later, I noticed that I had filled several pages of what eventually became the Ruin logo.
What was it about Buddhism?
Glenn: “Buddhism” meant to me, at that point, a simple technique for creating calmness, concentration, and something approaching clarity. And its primary – really, only, as far as I was concerned – text was the Dhammapada. My life was a frenzied, disordered, chaotic, cacophony. I had absolutely no direction. The only thing that was constant in my life was a joy-crushing anxiety.
So, what was it about Buddhism? Peace. When [meditating], I felt, if just for a moment, peace. Now, looking over the ensuing years, I understand that moment spills into to moment spills into moment spills . . . that “moment” is just a word for what, in reality, is boundless continuous this. . . But back then, what I was doing when I did “Buddhism” felt like a moment’s peaceful refuge from life.
Why did you think a “Buddhist punk band” was viable?
Glenn: I never thought about forming a “Buddhist punk band.” These three terms — Buddhist, punk, and band — just represented to me core concerns in life. As a child, music was a lifesaver for me — Motown, AM radio, the Rolling Stones, Dylan, the Zombies. But the bloated, omnipresent FM music of my teenage years, the 70′s (think: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes, Genesis), left me cold and parched. Even before I heard the Ramones, I was experimenting on my guitar with short bursts of rapid-fire chord progressions. Once I heard the Ramones and the Sex Pistols the direction became clear. So, “punk” is just a term for music reduced to its core: energy, power, passion, heat.
“Band” is just a term for my relationships with friends being reduced to something essential and productive. “We sit around drinking and getting high, yammering about this and that. Let’s start a band!” Then, once you start the band, “let’s get a gig.” Then, “let’s make a record.” Then, “let’s go on tour.” Then, “let’s break up before we kill each other.” We are all friends today — and still alive. So, “band” to me meant friendship focused on something that mattered. We used to quote Robert DeRopp’s Master Game — something to the effect that “what man needs is a game worth playing.” So, we were just searching for a game worth playing.
Damon Wallis (lead guitar): When I was 15 my older brother Glenn brought Buddhism home to us. I attended the meetings in Philadelphia and my siblings and mother became Buddhists as well. It seemed appropriate as it made greater sense to a teen or young man than the GOD-based religions, at least for me. I made attempts to connect with Christianity but had difficulty as it seemed to be too removed from me. The was quite relaxing and empowering at the same time. It was dynamic. It made sense to me. The thought of being able to change one’s karmic destiny merely by engaging in this Buddhist practice seemed incredibly simple, but proved to be quite challenging.
Paul DellaPelle (drums): I joined Ruin after it had already been around for a couple of years. There was this mystique surrounding the band at that time, centered in large part around the fact that the band members were practicing Buddhists. I had just started practicing Buddhism. Soon after joining the band I learned that Ruin was not a Buddhist Punk band but a band whose members were influenced by Buddhism among other things.
Cordy Swope (bass): I am not so sure that it occurred to us to define ourselves this way. Others projected ideas of categories and definitions onto us. We were more motivated by what Whitman would describe as “making a joyful noise” or maybe more accurately “to blow people away” and move them on a level that we wanted to be moved on.
Richard Hutchins (drums): I learned they were Buddhists when I flicked a cigarette ash into an ashtray at Glenn and Damon’s apt. I wasn’t a member yet, I don’t think. And Glenn nervously explained to “that’s not a cigarette ashtray.” I embarrassedly asked “Well what kind of ashtray is it?” So he explained it was his altar, where he would chant. I was like, “Cool — sorry about that.” And of course, I immediately saw something that had not been there a moment before. Where a second ago I’d ”seen” a table, ashtray, and nice setting of fruit or whatever, now there was a beautiful altar and place of meditation. That was weird to have reality change on me so fast, but that shows how perception shapes reality.
It wasn’t any weirder than straight edge or Catholicism. In fact it seemed pretty “punk” to me — not just following but leading. True individuality. And when it became clear that Glenn’s idea for the band was strongly influenced by this practice, I knew that there was a valid core to the band; not just “we’re harder” or more punk than thou. Whether or not I practiced, I didn’t mind being in a band based on this. I liked pretty much everything about Buddhism I would learn. To this day I still chant — daily. I have always just done Daimoku as a sort of mantra: walking to work, in the shower, on the toilet, in church; everywhere. It’s basically how I pray. I only sat in on others chanting Gongyo a few times, but to me I saw that 80% of the benefits (mental, spiritual) seem to come from this one part, the “Nam Myoho Rhenge Kyo,” which I could do anywhere anytime, out loud or in my mind. So that’s what “took” for me. As a band, we “tuned up” before gigs by chanting together. And I miss that. If only I could get a band to do that today, I know it would be great.
Why the name Ruin?
Cordy: We were living in it at the time, and felt that we were that which arises out of it.
Glenn: Philadelphia in the 70′s and early 80′s was homelessness, workers’ strikes, Reagan, poverty, trash, energy crisis, cold war, the Moral Majority, the death of Lennon, the apocalypse — ruin was all around us. But there were also the giant marble Greek revival columns of the Franklin Institute across from the Romanesque fountain on Logan Square. I spent entire evenings sitting at the fountain looking across at the columns just, I don’t know, ruminating, fantasizing, plotting the future, scheming. So, ruin was, for me, a word that captured the ambiguity of values and qualities. Imagine a classical ruin in the Italian countryside. Does it express decay or fulfillment, rot or beauty, collapse or renewal? Yes, I would say.
Damon: There was the general sense that the Earth and our lives were approaching certain death “so damn quickly.” We all progress toward ruin. Is this not the outcome of all that is on this Earth? I believe the name came from this origin.
Rich: I always heard the story that Glenn was walking with a woman friend (whom I swear he once described as “a prostitute”) and she said she was in a band, and when he asked her the band name, he thought she said “Ruin.” It later turned out to be “La Rue,” but Glenn liked Ruin so much he decided he’d use it since it was available. When I first heard it, I thought what a great name — mystical, long before I knew they were into Buddhism or anything. I always loved the name due to the imagery — like at one time ancient ruins of Rome were a vibrant living city. People’s daily mundane lives – we project special importance to their existence, when some ruin could have been just a bathroom. And in that same way, our current existence will one day be only left in ruins for others to wonder about us. We now look at relics — such as Ruin LPs and posters. And ruins are what is left when a new society tears down a pre-existing one. Like punk. Sometimes change is necessary. But sometimes something good is lost, and all that is left are ruins…
Paul: “We are the spirit of the earth / We are the moss among the ruins.”
[from the eponymous Ruin track]
How old were you when you got into punk? What was it about it that connected with you?
Glenn: It depends on when you place the origins of punk. I first heard the Sex Pistols and Ramones in the mid-seventies. So I was 16 or 17, maybe 18 . . . But I bought [The Stooges'] Raw Power a couple of years before that; and if Raw Power isn’t punk . . . So, if, by “punk,” you mean what eventually solidified into the genre, then 17-ish.
What seized me was the fury of the attitude, the artlessness of the style, the directness of approach, the intensity of the delivery. Really, I felt as though I had been seized by it. And for ten years or so I felt that I was in its grip. What “it” is, though, I can’t really say.
Damon: My brother Glenn exposed me to Sham 69, Clash, Sex Pistols, Ramones, Dead Kennedys, et cetera. I was perhaps 15 years old when I first heard the Sex Pistols. I would hang with Glenn and [vocalist Vosco Thomas Adams] and go to rock shows at the Hot Club or Emerald City and see bands like the Stimulators, Ramones, Dead Boys, Clash… I loved the energy and simplicity of the music.
Cordy: I was 14 and [got into it] almost overnight. It began with the confluence of two events, buying the Velvet Underground & Nico used, and then hearing the first Clash album as it played in the record store. It was being played by people slightly older than me who looked at the world and then gave themselves license to behave like children. I wanted to as well.
Rich: Before punk I was a huge Rolling Stones and ”classic rock” fan but felt like it was already history — and I wondered, ”Where is the great ‘new stuff’?” Hearing Tom Petty and The Cars, and “new wave” at first intrigued me; something else was happening. But then I picked up a book about Blondie — and it talked about the CBGB scene in the 70′s, and I read about all those bands like Ramones, New York Dolls, Television, et cetera, and knew I had to hear them. A friend at school turned me onto [Drexel University, Philadelphia radio station] WKDU and some stuff and I got hooked. Before that, I thought punk was supposed to be bad. I was closed-minded because that’s what Rolling Stone magazine wanted you to be. That was 1979 and I was about 13. I had heard some songs from a girlfriend (like [X-Ray Specs'] “Oh Bondage, Up Yours,” some Iggy Pop, et cetera), then bought [The Sex Pistols'] Never Mind the Bollocks and never looked back. My band went from covering Rolling Stones songs to writing our own songs immediately. Ironically, I met Cordy around this time, as he was hanging out with our singer’s sister.
Paul: When I was 17 a friend of mine turned me on to The Clash. It seemed so much more exciting and was such a departure from the slick progressive rock I had been listening to prior to that.
So, how old were you when Ruin started?
Glenn: I was 22 or so when Ruin performed on an actual stage before strangers for the first time. But, the formation began long before that point. My brother Damon, friend Vosco, and I started writing music several years earlier. I think that the songs “China” and “Make Believe” actually date from the late 70′s – from the reign of hair metal and Donny Osmond.
Ruin had a few combinations before we discovered the alchemically potent mix that produced the philosopher’s stone. By the way, do you know about the medieval alchemical notion of the nigredo? Behind that alchemical term is a way of being that I adopted very early on in my life. And it was at work in the formation of Ruin as well. The basic idea is something like this: A vague notion arises in your mind, an idea or fantasy. (For example, I could clearly see and hear just what I wanted the band to be: swirling motion on stage, roaring sound, colored lights reflecting off of our clothes, et cetera.) The thought, of course, dissolves and disappears; but then later it reemerges. Dissolves, disappears, then reappears. The idea or fantasy is pressing itself on you; there is something “there” (in all the rich senses of that term); but, being vague, it is still dark. Eventually it starts to form into a cloud-like presence (the nigredo, the black cloud). It is not going away. You begin to act on the idea or notion, yet are utterly unsure about what to do. Nonetheless, you act. It presses passively, in conception; you press actively, in the world. The idea continues to grow in mass, becoming consuming. You press to realize it, but are engulfed by the nigredo, so are not-knowing, filled with great doubt, unable to distinguish between up and down. But as the mass grows and thickens, as your dark actions generate critical mass, that cloud slowly brightens and dissipates. When it has fully dissolved, you see the philosopher’s stone right there. The gold is born and forged within the dark mass of uncertainty. But you have to work it – this work is the opus. Another common topic of conversation for Ruin was “doing the work.”
Damon: I was 19. I moved to Philadelphia in October of 1980, if I recall correctly. Prior to that, Glenn, Vosco and I would meet at my parents’ home in New Jersey. I’d borrow my friend’s amp for an impromptu PA system. Vosco had a microphone. Glenn would play the guitar and I would play the bass. I believe we toyed with the name “Victims.”
Glenn, Vosco, and I would go to clubs and bars in Philadelphia and see these bands and say to each other, “That band is lame. We can blow these guys away.” Vosco went off to play with other bands, i.e., Sensory Fix, et cetera. So, the first show was at the Love Hall in 1980 or 1981. Glenn sang vocals, I played guitar, Steve Morasco played bass, and J.R. Arters played the drums. We quickly transitioned to Cordy on bass, Rich on drums, Vosco on vocals, Glenn and me on guitars. Rich quit the band in 1984; he’d recorded the He-Ho lp. Paul then became the drummer and recorded the Fiat Lux lp.
Rich: At first I was a semi-roadie/hanger-on. It was around 1981, I think, and I was 15 or 16, between 11th and 12th grade. I met them through a friend of mine named Neil, who was auditioning on bass with this punk band Ruin. It was just Damon on guitar and Glenn on vocals that day. They had a drummer, J.R., but he was at work, and they came to where Neil and I would jam. So I played drums with Glenn and Damon on Neil’s audition. And I loved it! I knew Neil might get in, but that I was the one who should be in the band. They were awesome — just the two of them. Neil became their bassist and I would tag along and hang out at their rehearsals, sometimes playing drums while their drummer was upstairs with his girlfriend. Soon Neil was out and was replaced with Steve Morasco on bass. I did a rehearsal or two with Steve like this (sitting in for a song here and there for J.R.) but slowly stopped hanging out as much. Then for Ruin’s first gig, they asked me if I could set up the drums and play the soundcheck because J.R. was at work. That was great, and I got to see the show.
I then went to college in the fall of ’82 and almost stopped playing drums, but soon I got a call from Glenn asking if I would join. It was like “Uh, yeah — it’s about time you asked!” At my first rehearsal (in Glenn’s apartment), Steve walks in and quits. Glenn says he has someone else he knows, and the rest is history
Paul: I was 20 when I joined. My first gig with Ruin was at a Young Men’s Division Meeting at the Nichiren Shoshu Community Center in Philadelphia [a Buddhist center]. They didn’t let us play “Mouse” because Vosco’s lyrics included the phrase “I would rather be alone” and it was a rather eerie song. I think it kind of freaked out the Young Men’s Division leaders. This was my first time witnessing the frequent tension between Ruin and the NSA [Nichiren Shoshu America] organization.
Cordy: I joined at 20.
What was the relationship between you all, and how is it now?
Cordy: We were and still are brothers — and all that that entails and encourages. We have all had disagreements and reconciliations almost since the beginning. And it is probably true that as individuals, each of us has probably felt thwarted or stunted at not being able to offer more to the group’s work. But being in Ruin was almost like being married — albeit without the sex bit — to five other people. There were tremendous urges to judge each other in those situations. In some ways I see the individual/group dilemma as the price of creating a deliberate ambiguity between life and art. As an artist, one must create, respond and create again. This process requires uncritical action combined with critical judgment. Later on, we might have sometimes confused the judgment part with the action part. But when one is trying to live one’s art, these confusions invariably arise.
I had met Vosco through mutual friends who were in Sensory Fix with him. Upon seeing him play live, I thought to myself, “I have to be in a band with this guy.” We became acquaintances and began examining common points of interest. I had just read a bunch of Sartre, Camus and Buber — for an undergraduate Existentialist survey course. On some level, I have always been intrigued by where philosophy let off and art began – and vice versa. Working with this ambiguity is what the French seem to pull off so well. I recently read Tony Judt’s epic, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. In it, he mentioned something to the effect that French philosophers owe almost everything in their Romantic and Existentialist traditions to Germans like Goethe and Hegel, who actually defined it for them — but I would say that the French succeeded in putting ideas into sexy packages for impressionable and easily titillated minds like mine. So at that time in 1982, my head had all sorts of things floating around in it.
Then Vosco introduced me to Glenn. Unlike with anyone I had met, let alone been in bands with up until that time (and I had been in quite a few in both Philadelphia and Boston from ’76 – ’82) what struck me about Glenn was a very precise — and uncompromisingly interpersonal non-judgmentalism. This was in stark contrast to the fanatical, interpersonal judgmentalism required for anyone to belong to the tribe of “punk rock,” or “hardcore” or “straight edge” or organized religion like the Sokka Gakkai, or even a Quaker Meetinghouse. For me, that time felt like something right out of the most purple Hesse novel — the frantically described moment in which a young person catches a glimpse of something approaching “Truth” for the first time by simply conversing with others, and not having to work at anything.
Glenn was actively recruiting a bass player for his band, which he had been forming with Damon in fits and starts. I was in two bands at the time, but neither held much appeal for me. So I pretty much shed a dead layer of skin and joined up with Glenn, Damon and Rich. We recruited Vosco later on.
For me, part of what I liked about Ruin was that we investigated ways in which to dissolve artificial barriers between people. One obvious one was between “audience” and “performer,” in the punk rock context. We did things like dressing in white and turning the lights down in order to reduce the individual, ego-assertive aspect of “performing” in favor of the communal, cathartic qualities of what we imagined a Dionysian frenzy might have felt like. We gave the “audience” sparklers to wave around in the dark – a means of participation that anyone could interpret as they liked. We sprinkled pamphlets about ideas we had (rather than about judgmental declarations) in the often highly mannered atmosphere of punk rock shows. These small acts created openings for people to commune with each other, and became alternate channels of “engaging” people as well as for moving ourselves.
The other day I was talking to my wife, who thanked me for bringing into her life a safe, open space, free of needless judgment (yet not free of truth-telling). It occurred to me for the first time at that moment that I have been waging a silent battle against interpersonal judgmentalism for the past 23 years or so. Having met Glenn all those years ago this was simply how I had decided to be and I have tried to ever since.
Glenn: Well, Damon is my [actual] younger brother. We’re fused together in so many ways. I would say that we shared music; but I’m afraid that I often forced my views on him. He was always more blues-oriented, I was more rock. Strangely, punk became a meeting ground for us. Damon is a lefty, but the only guitars lying around were my righties. So, he learned to play by simply flipping the guitar over, low E on the bottom. He plays like that to this day. That’s one reason that his playing sounds so strange. The chords are all upside down!
I met Cordy at Temple. I remember riding the subway back to Center City with him once. I was trying to recruit him for my band. He asked me what sound I had in mind, and I said, “just listen.” What I had in mind was the roar of the subway. Cordy and I would go to a bistro downtown that served free rolls and butter with the coffee. We’d each buy a coffee and eat as many of those rolls as we could. For me, it was often breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We’d talk music (he insisted that I give the Velvet Underground a better listen) and philosophy (my major) and literature (his).
I met Vosco when we were around 13. We immediately took to one another. We shared musical interests. I was at his house when we saw a review of Raw Power in Rolling Stone. I was ready to run out and buy it the moment I saw the damn picture of Iggy on the cover. When I read the review, I just couldn’t believe that music could sound the way that the reviewer said RP sounded. We ran out and bought it. It did not disappoint. We were really excited by the New York Dolls. Vosco also turned me onto [Brian] Eno, Syd Barrett, and Leonard Cohen.
Cohen specifically holds a dear place in your heart, right?
Glenn: The world stopped for me when I first heard [his] Songs of Love and Hate at Vosco’s house. That remains the most important record to me. Ruin in fact covered a few Leonard Cohen songs: “Master Song,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Two of Us Cannot Be Wrong.” He even commented on the first in an early issue of Spin:
“On this new album by Ruin, they sing the first verse of the ‘Master Song’ more or less as I sing it, but then they bring this world to it of every sound you ever heard and murder it, but as it should be murdered. It’s a clean killing.”
Glenn, a couple of websites make reference to the idea that your work as a translator and teacher of Buddhist thought is a continuance of your original “mission.” Would you say that you started Ruin with a mission in mind?
Glenn: The intention (more fitting than “mission”) of the band was to manifest and unleash unsettling power coupled with disturbing beauty. We often spoke of “moving” the audience. A common word for us was “passion.” The intention was to bring passion to every single note of every single song. We wanted to inspire and lift up, but in a unsettling, upsetting manner. If we manifested power and beauty, then it was that of a monster, or perhaps, a roshi [this is a Japanese term for a Buddhist teacher]. Then, when the gig was over, we wanted to carry that spirit into our relationships and encounters with others. If you weren’t living it, it would be a ridiculous sham. And I think that this latter point is precisely what caused certain tension with us about “the mission.”
We had different ideas about manifesting “the work.” My little brain tends to see things as being woven into a single piece — is it even possible to separate, say, your views on compassion and the actual way that you treat people? If there is a rift, then that is called neurotic — it’s a case of being literally split off from yourself. Now, none of our ideas about “the work” were prudish or moralizing. On the contrary, we strove to live lustily, in the Walt Whitman/William Blake sense of the term: you know, fusing life and art and philosophy, being equally at home in austerity and Guinness, operating from that mind lurking deep in the gut. The tension concerning this “mission” arose from our different ideas about limits. But the tension was in every case, I think, self-impose, self-inflicted. It had to do with looking into a mirror of your own (our collective own) making and being uncomfortable with what you see. I still talk to my band mates in terms of “the work.” The work — the alchemical opus, the meditation on ruin, present-moment awareness – is interminable.
Damon: We all partook in the dispensing of the Ruin message that essentially read:
1) the world is on fire, but fear not,
2) act quickly, act now as life is short,
3) be direct, conscious, and deliberate in your thoughts and actions as these help to shape your being and your next being and your next being.
We pamphleteered at shows espousing various positive messages supporting the aforementioned. How did I do? It was a very difficult, yet satisfying journey working with these heroes. I succeeded on a personal level in that I have shed most, if not all of my juvenile “bad habits.” I failed in that I have shed most, if not all of my juvenile “bad habits.”
Paul: Shortly after joining the band I became rather confused about what the mission of the band was. Eventually it became clear (to me at least) that the common denominator for all of us was a desire to connect with and express something pure within ourselves that could cut through all of the bullshit that was around us — in the society around us in general, and in the punk/underground music scene specifically.
When did Ruin break up?
Cordy: Originally and superficially around March / April 1987.
Glenn: We held an unsentimental Guinness-inspired wake at the IRA-frequented Irish pub on Naudain Street in Center City, Philadelphia.
Damon: [It was] following the release of the Fiat Lux lp. We intermittently meet to play and exchange email and discuss our lives and other projects. Vosco continues to maintain the Ruin website.
Rich: I left due to band conflict with a former manager i had a relationship with. I felt like I was an outsider but thought it would work out, but she didn’t. Lets leave it at that.
How did people react to the band?
Glenn: The first time that we ever played in public, if my memory is correct, was in the loft of what was at that time Philly’s reigning band, Bunny Drums. The gig was sort of a passing of the torch, initiatory event. There were mostly artsy, fashionable types in the audience. But I remember this one punk dude. The reason that I remember him is that during the chorus of the first song we played – it went, with ALL of us “singing” (never a pretty thing), love dog love dog love dog love dddddddooooooggggggg!!! with furious pounding and throbbing of our instruments — he looked as if he were shitting his pants. Afterwards, I asked someone about the punk dude who had been standing up front, and she said, “Oh, he shit his pants and had to go home.” I have always regretted that the recording of that song, Love Dog, lacks the, well, shit-kicking intensity of the live version.
Our fans are few, and our fans are devout. From around 1980 to today I hear the same refrain: Ruin is, well, here’s a recent one: ["Ruin Changed My Life"]
Even the reviewers struck a similar, if more sober, chord. Here’s an oldie:
By Ken Tucker (Philadelphia Inquirer Popular Music Critic [1982-ish?]
One of the most promising young bands on the local scene is Ruin, an altogether original quintet whose music is both challenging and enjoyable. [. . .]
The volume and vehemence of most of Ruin’s music aligns the band with the Philadelphia hard-core punk scene, but this is not a clutch of hoods yammering about anarchy and beer. On the contrary, Ruin propounds an aggressively thoughtful philosophy with roots in a clear-eyed, unsentimental Eastern mysticism.
At its shows, the group goes so far as to pass out handsome little booklets that contain such earnest nuggets as “the wars, pollution and evil in this world are a result of people’s arrogance.” At the East Side Club, the band dressed entirely in white and placed prayer candles around the stage and on the dance floor.
As someone who usually finds such obtrusive gestures corny or pretentious, I was surprised to hear how successfully Ruin managed to combine harsh music with a lucid spiritualism. [. . .]
By associating itself with a sensualism guided by spiritual thinking, Ruin has come up with exciting music that ought to make local listeners do some thinking of their own.
Damon: People in general were very supportive. Fans knew the songs and sang along. We wore white when the bands wore black on stage. We didn’t imbibe when others lived to do so. We meditated or recited mantras backstage before a performance. We burned incense and candles onstage. We didn’t do these things to be elitist or different. We did them because it was quite natural for us; and this is how we lived. I think people were interested in the energy and theatrics of the show and also in the members of the band. Maybe they saw us as a refreshing drink in a desert. And, culturally and socially, it was a desert back then. People were curious and wanted some for themselves. The pamphlets that we handed out before shows offered some insight into how to obtain the same for themselves. Many tagged along.
Rich: They went nuts. The best part was when people would listen and try to understand more; and not just stage-dive — though nothing wrong with stage-diving; [it's just that] Ruin had other aspects to offer besides that. The worst was when people would heckle because we were doing a quiet song and they wanted to stage-dive. Though [that was] a minority from my experience. We didn’t [really] care…
Paul: We played once at TT the Bear’s in Boston for about five people. We played as if the place was packed. Afterwards I remember this kid jumping up and down repeating how we were the best band in the world. I think the dynamics of the band, the energy we put out on stage and the fact that we were trying to connect with something mystical was intriguing to a lot of people.
Glenn, you’ve talked about having a crisis of conscience regarding your academic life, wherein you felt that you should no longer pretend to be what you thought “a professor was supposed to be” if it meant denying other aspects of who you were/are. Can you expand on this?
Glenn: My first book had just been published, and I was looking around for another project to work on. My dissertation research was on late Mahayana Buddhist / early tantric ritual literature. So, I thought that I’d have a look at a seemingly important but understudied text called the Kriyasamucchaya. When the manuscript copy arrived, I would go into my office and start to decipher the handwritten script. As I read, the text did indeed seem important for our understanding of that phase of Indian Buddhism, but a torrent of questions poured down on me: Who cares? No, really: who cares? Modern day practitioners don’t. 99.9% of religion scholars don’t — it’s not like this is the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Gospel of Judas or something. This is a text that interested hardly anyone when it was fresh. Does it really matter whether or not we know what a tiny portion of Buddhists were doing in a remote corner of India eleven hundred years ago?
It’s not that I didn’t have good answers to these questions. Academics are masters at aggrandizing the trivial. I don’t blame them — us. For scholars working in the humanities, in particular, making the case for the absolute, unequivocal, universal importance of writing The Aroma of the Dark God: The Rhetorical Symbolism of the Coffee Bean in the Religious Poetry of Shlomo Jones is a matter of professional survival. But sitting in my office staring at the Kriyasamucchaya for literally hours at a time during that week, I wasn’t buying my own rationalizations for spending the next five years of my mortal existence deciphering an obscure ancient ritual manual. I just couldn’t see any but the most minuscule value in that exercise. A question persistently forced itself on me: How are you going to use your powers?
I determined three things at that point. First, if I was going to survive in academia, I was going to do it on my own terms – teaching and writing only what made sense to me, and in a stylistic manner that made sense to me. Second, I was going to write a book that my non-academic friends could enjoy and, perhaps, even benefit from. Third, that book would be a translation and commentary on the Dhammapada, the Buddhist text that started it all for me twenty-five years earlier.
You mentioned that you sometimes slip a reference to some song or lyric into the commentary or notes of your written works. Do you do this for yourself, or for the readers? Have readers noticed this?
Glenn: It’s like weaving my life into the text. It’s a small way of paying homage to others I admire. It’s like further spreading seeds that have borne sweet fruit for me. It’s sharing. No one has ever commented on it. The references are pretty opaque, and they’re not gratuitous.
What are you listening to these days?
Glenn: I’ve been playing Nick Cave’s Boatman a lot. A friend burnt me some 60′s hippie music — Incredible String Band, Pearls Before Swine — that has captivated me. My 17 year-old daughter has discovered some music that I used to listen to. So, whether I want to or not (thin walls), I’m also listening to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix again. And maybe I should tell Cordy too, she’s listening to [The Velvet Underground's] White Light White Heat. She plays all of these records of my old record player.
Do you still write and play music?
Glenn: All the time. Just last night I gave a virtuosic performance on the acoustic guitar in my study. You should have been there (that would have made two of us). A little Who, a melancholic rendition of GBH’s “Give Me Fire,” lots of hyper Bee Gees, the Leonard Cohen staples. I’m constantly playing, yes, that’s for sure — playing at playing, playing at performing. I constantly write as well. But it’s like a painter doodling in a sketchbook. If you don’t have a vehicle for a piece, I find, it never really develops into full-fledged song. The piece, or really pieces, has a short shelf life. You play it so many times, tinker with it, add and subtract. Slowly it just fades away or morphs into some other configuration of pieces. In either case, it disappears. The only vehicle towards fruition or completion that works for me is a band.
Cordy: Every now and again.
Damon: Always. My acoustic guitar is never in a case. It has no home. It is always out and at my ready and acts as a train track for my three-year-old son (he also likes to walk on it and strum the strings). I write snippets, parts of songs. They await the completion or integration of these parts into songs by the other Ruin members.
Rich: I still play in various bands. I will until I die. Or the apocalypse. Or both. If you want to find out more, check out my site: http://www.bloodyrich.net
Paul: Yes. I’ve been in a few bands since Ruin. [Including Helios Creed.] It is not my vocation but I still play and write when I can. I hope to collaborate with the other Ruin members soon on some new music.
Glenn, what is your background in actual Buddhist practice (as opposed to scholarship)?
Glenn: My first practice was vipassana [insight meditation]. Later, I practiced with the Soka Gakkai, which provided the tight discipline and structure that I needed at that time. After that, I practiced with both Soto Zen and traditional Theravada communities in Berlin. (The latter at the venerable Buddhistisches Haus in Frohnau.) It was in Berlin that I began studying Sanskrit and Indology (at the Free University).
It was there that I became haunted by [Zen Master Eihei] Dogen’s statement: “Devote your energies to the way that points directly to the real thing.” Reading that for the first time had the same affect on me as when my first grade teacher glared at me and said, “Glenn! Give me your undivided attention!” Again, it was as if the universe had imploded. Something opened up in my brain, mind, being, or whatever you call it. Undivided attention. That’s a great idea! This was my introduction to the Buddhist concept of yonisomanasikara, thorough attention. (Later, that same teacher made me stand in the corner; and it was there that I first discovered the joys of wall gazing and shikantaza [the Zen practice of "just sitting"]! I was blissfully happy in that corner, and I did not want to leave it.) So, in Berlin, I became convinced that, of all things, Buddhism went most directly to the heart of the matter. And so I decided to devote myself to studying it in as much depth as possible.
I had always been a bit baffled by the terminological variations I found in translations of Buddhist literature. Even accepted stock translations of basic terms like the incomprehensible “Noble Truths” (with Germanic capitals), the Old Testament-ish “loving kindness,” the Eurocentric rationalistic “enlightenment,” and the all-too-Christian “Blessed One, Lord, and Saint,” struck me as unlikely at best. So, my first concern was to learn the languages of the Buddhist canon. Since the Buddha was the source of the teachings, and since he was Indian, I determined to learn Sanskrit and Pali. Eventually I went to Gottingen to study with the renowned Buddhist scholar Heinz Bechert. In Gottingen I really saw the value of approaching learning and reading in terms of what Heidegger calls the “race of the slow”: That word there, precisely what does it mean? What metaphors are embedded in it? Look at the way culture falls out once you’ve opened the word up a bit. At Gottingen, I learned a little about the care and patience required for a philological reading of a text. (And by “philological reading,” I just mean a reading that is concerned with meaning at the level of the word itself.) After five years in Germany, I went on to Harvard. I studied with Masotoshi Nagatomi and, mainly, Charles Hallisey there. At Harvard, in the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, I was exposed to a plethora of methodologies that radically opened up my view of what was possible in scholarship. I credit Charles Hallisey with getting me to air out my mind, send it aloft to investigate the terrain below, and thereby discover what had been hidden or undeveloped creative/intellectual potential. I always say that he taught me how to read. And it’s true. So, I feel fortunate to have had the training that I have: first, the tight, rigorous, slow and somewhat polite approach of philology and textual analysis; and second, the more rollicking, wide-open and hence vulnerable, approach of, well, thinking. I have also practiced with the Cambridge Insight Meditation group on Broadway in Cambridge (I lived right around the corner on Inman Street at the time), with Seung Sahn’s Rinzai community at the Providence Zen Center, with Surya Das’ Dzogchen group in Cambridge, and now with Michael Elliston at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center.
But I continue to experiment with ways of making Buddhist meditation accessible to those who are interested in neither “Buddhism” (whatever that is) or “meditation” (whatever that is), yet seek what both of these offer. This concern mirrors my scholarly training: how can we most effectively bring the rigorous, slow, highly structured, systems of the Buddha to bear on the fast, humming, searching and skeptical lives of modern day practitioners? How? I have no idea. But we, I, have to try. Coalescing competing tensions is my life’s koan.
RUIN LP DISCOGRAPHY
Fiat Lux (1986)
Songs of Reverie and Ruin [anthology of tracks from the two lps, plus various compilations] (1996)
This piece was originally published as “Songs of Reverie and Ruin” on TheWorstHorse.com.