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Pianist Burton Greene

By Published: June 11, 2004
BG: Maybe in the cosmic sense it’s payback time, and I have to forego the profit motive in this case. It’s natural to give of your gift to other people, but following the words of the great teacher Satchidananda, he always said ‘the root of all problems in this world is selfishness.’ The more generous you are, the more you can begin to realize what enlightenment is all about; without that dimension you’ll never achieve it. I’m the first to admit that, but I’m always careful. The Dutch have this expression ‘stank voor dank,’ which means ‘stink for thank.’ A lot of people in this world measure everything by material values, and if you give yourself away too cheap they’ll never respect you, they’ll stand back and make a joke out of you. When it’s a genuine charitable situation it’s great, where generosity can help out – maybe this is what it is, in spite of whatever greedy motives these guys have, in the end if it benefits a lot of people to get that music, then okay, why not? Maybe it’s the same with these kids doing that MP3 stuff. But I wish people would be more conscious of the fact that musicians are on the low end of the totem pole, and that we have our spiritual wealth that a lot of people don’t have, but we’ve got to eat too.

AAJ: Is it considerably better in Europe than it ever was in America for you?

BG: Well it has been easier. The right-wing governments are here as well as everywhere else, and they’re getting stricter and stricter. I just got busted for double-parking; I’d just stopped for a second to pick up a part I had in an electronics store, and the cop was on me immediately with a €50 ticket. Zero tolerance; twenty years ago I could drive into Central Station, which was a totally non-driveable zone, to drop off a friend who was trying to make an airplane. The cop was looking at me, and I said ‘the guy’s got to catch a plane. I’m sorry.’ And the cop said ‘OK, don’t do it again,’ and just pulled away. That’s gone; it’s all about money, and they’ve discovered how to get wealthy on all these tickets and everything.

AAJ: Obviously, with the regime change, creative things are drying up too.

BG: Yeah, of course, it already started changing in the 80s because Reaganomics went all over the world. You could really feel that the bite from big business pushing the political arm started with Reaganomics. It really got strong with that, and it came here too, with the governments swinging progressively to the right and with big business and money. I could buy this boat for $13,000 in ’86 and now I couldn’t buy a closet here either for that kind of money. Older cats like myself had a chance to get established in the meantime, before this enormous difference between the actual goods and what you have to pay for them. Young guys today are under enormous pressure; most people need to teach or have a day job, which doesn't leave them enough time to create. I thank the Lord that since I was 30 years old, I’ve just done the music. I went on weeks in the ‘60s with a handful of rice, but as long as I had my strength... and you know, if you had friends, somebody would always invite you for dinner. There’s always a way to get by; I really feel that you can get what you want in this life if you’re dedicated and serious enough, just be careful that’s not all you get (I’m referencing Satchidananda, by the way). For me, what he was saying was that you get your vision, but make sure it’s a large vision, not just some penny-ante stuff and then you’re stuck. You want a bigger goal in life, but you can’t get it because you’re wallowing in this narrow thing you’ve wished for. You should strive not just to be a great artist but a great human being; then your life takes on a greater dimension. For me, to be kind and generous and loving in your music means that the person behind the music is that way too – you have a bigger goal in your life, not just that you can play faster than everybody else.

AAJ: Hardship is an inspiring thing for creativity.

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