Story Behind the Song: "Get Free"

One birthday a friend handed me a slim book titled Zen Guitar. The author's name was Philip Toshio Sudo. 

"That's funny," I thought, "I used to know a Phil Sudo." I turned the book over and read that Sudo was a musician living in Maui with his wife and children. Couldn't be the same guy. The Phil Sudo I knew was almost certainly still fidgeting miserably at his desk at American Banker newspaper. 

That's where I'd last seen him, back when I was a little punk rocker who freelanced for AB to pay for my East Village rathole. I'd traipse in to see the editor, ignoring the reporters snickering at my thrift-store dress and Doc Martens. 

On the way out, I'd always stop to chat with Phil, a fellow downtown guitarist. "I haaaaaaaaaate it here," Phil would moan, pulling on his tie. "Quit!" I'd insist, "Go on tour. Get out there!" "I caaaaaan't," he'd sigh, squirming like a four-year-old. "I need the security." "No you don't," I'd say, "You really don't." 

We lost touch. Then one day a friend gave me the book Zen Guitar for my birthday. It's wise and true, and beautifully written by a Philip Toshio Sudo, a musician living in Maui. "Can't be the same Phil Sudo," I figure. 

The book says brilliant things like: 

"What's important is to play from the heart and soul. If you do that, you'll have no need to search for a personal style or signature sound; it will develop naturally." 

"The Way of Zen Guitar is to play what you are meant to play, not necessarily what you want to play. Understand the difference." 

"One can play the greatest stages in the world and still be spiritually adrift; talent alone does not bring inner peace. if you work to find peace within yourself, you will have no self doubt about your music, your talent, or anything else." 

"When things fall apart, make art." 

I learn that Buddhists also listen for what my yoga teacher calls the nadam, the streaming  sound current of life. Science has proven that all matter vibrates; it sings. The Bible says: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." 

Yogis call that word Om. Zen masters call it sekishu no onjo--the sound of one hand clapping. 

After I finish Zen Guitar, I idly scan the acknowledgments. I recognize a couple names.  Holy crap, it's the same Phil Sudo! I find his website and fire off an excited email. 

Phil emails the next day. The good news: He's not in far-off Maui, he's in NYC! The bad: He's at Sloan Kettering being treated for stomach cancer. I read his cancer journal. Like Zen Guitar, it's beautifully written, wise and true. "All weather is good weather," he notes, when you may be dying. "I can talk the talk," he adds, referring to his four books on zen, "we shall see how well I walk the walk." 

We plan a visit at his mom's home, where Phil and his family are staying. The visit is postponed two weeks when Phil is hospitalized again. When I do get to the Upper West Side apartment, I meet his wife, Tracy. She's beautiful; she looks frightened. Phil is excruciatingly thin. He describes himself in his journal as "a collection of bones held together by a tight wrapping of skin." Three adorable kids, all under age seven, are charging around the place. This is the definition of "not fair." 

Phil and I sit on two chairs and catch up. I tell him how proud I am that he left American Banker, wrote such fine books, made great music, found true love and had children. I tell him about yoga and he tells me about zen. We marvel that we each found spiritual paths and that we each chose the same sword, a guitar. 

For a moment, I forget he's sick and I chatter about the great jam sessions we're going to have. Phil leans forward and says, "You know how zen and yoga teach us not to identify with the body or mind? And it seems so hard to comprehend? Well, look at me, my body is barely hanging on...but I'm still here!" He leans back in his chair with a grin, "Boy, you really get it when something like this happens." 

I'm flattened. "This is...not fair!" I sputter and he shrugs and smiles, probably because I sound like the punk rocker who used to stomp her boots and tell him to change his circumstances. Only this time he can't. 

Walking to the subway I cry on the shoulder of my friend Michael Dean, who had come from California to interview Phil. 

Phil died three weeks later. I came home from his memorial and picked up my guitar. I felt mad and sad. I'd found and lost a good friend who had become a great man. His family had lost so much more. 

What was the lesson here? What was the point? Sighing, I put down the guitar. A scrap of melody played in my ear: "Get free, baby, get free 'cause I'm still here." I picked up my guitar, listening. "Get free, baby, get free 'cause it's all so clear."  Yep, there it was. The point. Thanks, Phil.