The road to enlightenment

By David Giffels, Beacon Journal, Nov 4, 2007

Punk band, Zen, and monster movies forged identity for ex-Ohio man

Akron, Ohio (USA) -- It's one thing to feel like an outsider. When it comes right down to it, most of us probably feel that way more often than we realize.

<< Brad Warner

But it's quite another to have been rendered an outsider specifically because you refused to shave your head. And for this to have happened not once but twice, decades apart, on opposite ends of the earth.

Meet Brad Warner, mild-mannered outsider/punk rocker/Zen priest/documentarian/Japanese monster movie executive — still with a full head of hair.

The first time his scalp came into question was in the early 1980s, when the teenage Warner was living in Wadsworth and playing bass with an Akron hardcore punk band called Zero Defex. 

As often happens among young men pursuing a passion (football, motorcycles, high finance, etc.), the underground punk scene had extensive customs and uniforms that helped identify the insiders. Warner's appearance fulfilled neither. He wore his blond hair long. Although he kept it to himself, he was trying to emulate the look ofOzzy Osbourne's feathery-haired guitar player, the explicitly un-punk Randy Rhoads. Additionally, Warner usually appeared onstage wearing tie-dyed T-shirts. So in a band that included two skinheads in shredded jeans, he sort of stuck out.

Meanwhile, as everybody onstage and off thrashed about, shaking their fists and banging their heads, Warner earned the nickname ''Brad No Sweat'' because he just stood there, plucking at the strings of his instrument, seemingly disengaged from the high-concept railing against society that filled the tiny back rooms where they played.

Zero Defex started to get a regional reputation, and that's where Warner's problems began. Despite the punk-rock themes of nonconformity and individuality, he took a lot of grief in other cities because he didn't appear to be authentic. Without a boot-camp buzz cut and a spiked wristband, he was a weirdo among weirdos.

''Cut your hair!'' they'd taunt from the mosh pit.

He didn't.

Nearly 20 years and half a spiritual journey later, Warner found himself receiving ''dharma transmission,'' emerging as a Zen priest in Tokyo, where he was working for a monster movie company. He'd begun studying Buddhism while a Kent State University student and had continued when he moved to Japan to teach English.

Just as the Midwestern punk rockers knew what a bass player should look like, so the Buddhist community knew what a priest should look like: shaved head, robe, peaceful demeanor. And some pushed for him to conform. Warner just shook his shaggy head and continued to do things the way he always had.

He laughs now when he talks about this. One of the things he appreciates about his chosen religion is the way it questions everything, including itself. But human nature craves conformity and familiarity and, well, it takes a certain amount of daily meditation to keep oneself in the right mind to understand the ironies of this.

Landing an odd job

If Warner had worried about what others might think of him, he'd never have written an unsolicited letter in 1994 to a Tokyo monster movie house asking if there might be a job for him.

Like many Northeast Ohioans of a certain age, Warner spent childhood afternoons watching the Japanese live-action sci-fi shows Ultraman and Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot on Channel 43. The company he wrote to, Tsuberaya Productions, still produces Ultraman. Warner's letter dropped just as the movie house was trying to expand internationally. He was hired and now runs the company's Los Angeles office.

And if he worried about what people might think, he'd never have followed the advice of his spiritual teacher, who not only offered him dharma transmission — a recognition of enlightenment — but suggested that he write a book.

Conventional thinking would suggest that Warner had nothing to add to a canon filled with the beautiful thoughts of pure souls engaged in mountaintop-sitting. Warner agreed. So he wrote Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality. He never thought it would be published, but it was, in 2003. It sold very well, some 20,000 copies, leading to another book released this year, Sit Down and Shut Up.

(Disclosure: as co-author of a biography of the rock band Devo, I wrote a jacket blurb for Hardcore Zen, which includes an anecdote about the Akron band's influence on Warner.)

Warner's new book continues the tone of his first, acommon-sense, everyman, often humorous approach to Buddhism from a scholar who tries to avoid sounding scholarly and a teacher who avoids didacticism (and a self-described punk who still doesn't come across as very punk).

From book to film

The book's philosophy wraps itself around a memoir narrative set in Akron and Cleveland. In 2005, a reunion was arranged of the early-'80s Northeast Ohio punk scene. Zero Defex was invited to play with a bunch of other bands at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland.

Warner decided to film the whole thing, along with backstage interviews, as the basis for a documentary. When he heard about a similar documentary, American Hardcore, released last year, he recognized an opportunity. That film looked at the national picture, with an emphasis on bands from California. But because of its underground nature in an era before the boundary-less Internet, the '80s hardcore scene was uniquely local. Grass-roots networking was carried out by bands touring in vans and station wagons; cities such as Akron, Kent and Cleveland were like outposts in a rock 'n' roll frontier.

Warner knew of no documentary that focused on a single scene, so he turned his material into Cleveland's Screaming, a documentary now in the final stages of preparation for release.

Sit Down and Shut Up follows the author through his trip back home, back into a music life he hadn't lived for years, exploring the connectedness of seemingly unconnected things. He considers, for instance, the paradoxical act of playing a musical instrument, which appears to be an act of the mind and body — of concentration — but actually requires a Zenlike state of ''thinking not thinking.'' Anyone who has ever seriously played a musical instrument (or golf, come to think of it) probably understands: the easiest way to screw up is to begin thinking about not screwing up.

As illogical as it may seem, then, joining Zero Defex all those years ago really was the first step on a path toward enlightenment.

A week of activities

Warner, who now lives in Los Angeles, is beginning a sort of Northeast Ohio residency this week in which his various paths will converge.

It will begin Wednesday in the downtown auditorium of the Akron-Summit County Public Library, where Warner will speak about his books and his life as part of the Main Event speaker series. The talk, free and open to the public, begins at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a question-and-answer session and a book signing.

From there, Warner will scoot over to Matinee, 812 W. Market St., for a 9 p.m. (ish) reunion show with Zero Defex. The bill will also include Akron band Concordia Discors.

At 9 p.m. Friday, Warner's documentary, Cleveland's Screaming, will be shown at the Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Road, Cleveland. Zero Defex will play afterward, along with CD Truth, Cheap Tragedies and This Moment in Black History.

At 10 p.m. Saturday, Zero Defex plays at the Spitfire Saloon, 1539 W. 117th St., Cleveland, with Kill the Hippies.

Finally, at 7 p.m. Nov. 12, Warner will speak at Lamberts Tattooing and Body Piercing, 348 Ashland Road, Mansfield, in an event sponsored by the Mansfield Zen Center.

Despite the hectic schedule, Warner still intends to be up each morning for pre-dawn meditation.

If you listen closely, you may hear the sound of one hand stifling a yawn.