Ayahuasca, Wolves and Music: A Conversation with John Sheldon
With “Wolf 06,” master guitarist John Sheldon offers a memorial tribute that he hopes will bring attention to senseless wolf killings.
Last December, wildlife advocates were stunned when a hunter shot Wolf 06, the alpha female of Yellowstone’s Lamar Canyon Pack and the park’s most famous wolf. Guitarist John Sheldon’s new song, “Wolf 06,” is a memorial tribute to her and the hundreds of wolves who are murdered as sport.
John Sheldon is a master guitarist and transformational songwriter who was Van Morrison’s lead guitarist at age 17. Jimmy Hendrix called Sheldon “a great player.” James Taylor calls him “an amazing songwriter” and a “phenomenon.” NPR has declared him “one of the greatest guitarists of our time.” His music has been described as a combination of Tom Waits’ writing, Carlos Santana's guitar playing and Bob Weir's singing. Sheldon's songs “September Grass” and “Bittersweet” were featured on James Taylor's platinum albums “October Road” and “The Best of James Taylor.”
John Sheldon has an uncanny gift for conjuring the wild spirit, so when he told me he’d written a song for the famous alpha female shot and killed just out of Yellowstone, I wanted to hear it. And once I’d heard it, I wanted to share it with others who, like me, are still mourning—not just for Wolf 06, but for all of the multiple hundreds of wolves killed.
Zoe Helene: Tell me about the day you wrote the song “Wolf 06.”
John Sheldon: I was deeply saddened to learn about the shooting of Wolf 06. I was in the car on the way home and heard the story on NPR. Something about her captivated me. I was so moved that when I got home I went directly to the studio and started putting a piece together. No wolves should be shot, ever—but this was a special wolf. I can't imagine getting any pleasure out of killing her.
She was special.
They say she was the rock star of wolves. People would travel to Yellowstone Park, and their biggest hope was to get even a short glimpse of her. She wasn’t just beautiful and powerful, she was brilliant! They say she had special skills and that she would have passed those skills on to her pups and her pack. They say she would study humans and that she would teach what she learned so that her pack would know better how to coexist with humans.
We must never forget her.
Something about this wolf got you. There’s something terrible in the news every single day—why this one?
For me it took this specific wolf. I was captivated by the description of her as being a wolf that was intelligent and thoughtful and had characteristics. It wasn’t a news story about hundreds of wolves that were shot (even though there have been hundreds shot, actually). There was an individual.
It’s like the girl who got shot by the Taliban for trying to get an education. That’s very powerful, and I believe that’s going to change a lot. How could they shoot that girl? She’s real, and you imagine her life and her family. You imagine how the other girls will feel if they have to risk their lives if they want an education. And you imagine how the greater community will deal with it—all from that one little girl, but she was specific.
Through Wolf 06 you can connect to more wolves, and more wolves that are getting killed.
I can’t relate to the people who shoot wolves.
You can’t deny the perpetrators—the wolf hunters in this case. They’re just not aware of the spirit world. I don’t want to judge and say that they’re worse off or better off, but they’re not yet aware that this other world is where everything is coming from. As we wake up as a species, I hope we’re waking up to see that the world is being generated by a spirit world. I don’t know what else to call it.
It almost feels like there’s an emerging consciousness in the world of people who are in this place of awareness on the path of life, and then there are people who aren’t. It becomes harder and harder for either set to relate to each other.
I’m guessing the person who shot 06 wouldn’t relate much to me either.
I spent a lot of time trying to relate to the experience of war and the closest I could get to it is that war is an addiction. War provides opportunities for a certain type of adrenaline addict to catch the buzz they’re looking for. I don’t know that buzz personally but whatever it is it is powerful and it is chemistry-related.
The killing of wolves is the same as war. You’re feeling this huge, “It’s him or me!” rush, which is such a primal feeling and makes those people feel alive. Once I understood that many who go to war get a buzz on that makes them feel alive—suddenly I had something to relate to.
We let people go out and shoot hundreds of wolves and watch violent movies, and we’re surprised when they go on a rampage shooting other humans. You can’t separate violence like that.
We were just talking about shooting and hate and how it was all connected, and then those kids got shot in the school—that’s changed my world. For instance, I don’t want to see any more movies where they’re shooting people. I just don’t want to be involved in the cycle of violence. All any of us can do is to opt out.
Tell me what happened when you sat down with your guitar and let the music flow.
The moment I began creating the piece, I felt a surge of energy, as if I were getting help from somewhere. I wanted to connect the quickening in my heart. I'll never know if I connected to some great wolf spirit, or just the wolf spirit in me, but what's the difference? The energy was there, and the piece is my offering to the wolf lovers of the world. It’s what I have to give.
What do you mean by a quickening?
I’m using that word a lot. It is a good word. It is an accurate word. When I’m just practicing sometimes something will start to happen there’s a feeling of intensity, of energy, like the energy is coming through me from somewhere.
Why did you name the song ‘Wolf 06?’
It’s a twist. That’s the way they referred to her. I heard the guy on the radio talking about Wolf 06, and that just stuck in my mind as odd and ironic that she didn’t have a name, she had a number.
I resist a little bit the idea that we knew who or what she was. She was actually a wild animal, which is outside of our understanding. We put a collar on her and gave her a number and studied her behavior, but can she really be defined by that? That, to me, denatures the wolf. It’s sort of like what we do to ourselves, and numbers. We put collars on ourselves, and numbers, and we analyze ourselves, as if you could measure a spirit. We denature ourselves.
Why do you think they gather those numbers?
It seems to me to be mostly for marketing purposes. Profiles of each of us exist out there in cyberspace and the information they collect tells marketing people where we went and when we went there and what we bought and how often we buy it and so on. Then they define us by demographics and sub-demographics that demonstrate patterns of behavior they might find useful. They think these numbers tell them who we are. We are collared and tracked!
Which goes back to the freedom of being wild.
Music is really about freedom. It’s about expressing a world that’s free. Everything in that piece is there for a reason, and it’s all working together. It’s in harmony. What if the world worked that way?
Musicians and poets and artists are all trying to describe this world that we see. In the song I’m expressing the spirit and the life of Wolf 06, but in my story she’s still alive and living wild in a world that’s in harmony and is working together. Things actually make sense—deeply. But of course the song is a construction of a human being. It’s a piece of music. It isn’t a wolf. The wolf was shot. The wolf is dead. The wolf is not coming back.
When you first shared the song with me, that howl pulled me right in and my heart felt it would break, but then I felt the music was also a celebration of the miracle of life. Tell me about that first sound we hear.
I wanted to make the guitar howl like a wolf, and when I did, another strange thing happened. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at first, but the wolf howls at the beginning of the song, then about halfway through the song her howl is answered by a chorus of ethereal spirit wolf voices. Their howls would be mourning sounds, but they’re in harmony so they sound celestial. They’re calling the spirit of 06 home. She’s being welcomed into another realm by angelic spirit wolves.
Do you think your song will help us process the grief?
I didn’t intend to make it comforting or anything—that’s just how it came out when I followed my heart. And then after it was done I felt I was telling a story of a life and then a passing on. In a way, there is no death in that spirit world, and that was comforting to me. Sad, but comforting.
There is this one part at the end where a melody comes in where she is sort of—not wanting to go, but then she hears the call and she goes anyway. I felt her yearning to stay here in this earthly realm and then… she goes to run with her spirit pack.
Most people understand that wolves are wild canines—distant cousins to domesticated dogs. When you see a photo of Wolf 06 does that bring up Dog Spirit for you?
I absolutely love dogs so there could be something there, but more than my connection with dogs I know that a wolf is a wild animal and that it gets to be wild. It gets to be what it is. It seems to me that the world is shrunk or reduced if wild animals weren’t out there. I want to know that they’re out there. It does something for my spirit. It is nourishment to me to know that there are wild animals.
So, this piece is also a celebration of wild spirit?
Oh, yes! Music can express inexpressible things. You can express wild heart. You could express it through any art form, but music is what I have.
What experience do you hope people will have?
I would hope for the song to help people to connect with the spirit of this wolf because the more people who connect to her spirit, the safer all the wolves are going to be—and all the other animals too. That’s what I would hope. That’s all that I would hope.
You’re a strong supporter of healing through Ayahuasca, a psychedelic shamanic brew from the Amazon. Any connection between your recent participation in shamanic Ayahuasca ceremonies and writing ‘Wolf 06?’
Ayahuasca was surprising. Instead of making everything seem far out and fantastical and full of extreme experiences and visions and colors and movement, Ayahuasca actually had the opposite effect on me—it has helped me feel more grounded and down to earth. It got me more living in my heart, and the heart is centering. The heart is the center.
The heart is also the channel. The Ayahuasca opened more channels and made more available so that now if I’m working on something, there’s less thought and less analysis and more doing. It helped me release my thoughts because when you start thinking about something you stop doing it. When I’m writing music I still go through this period where I’m thinking about it rather than doing it. I have to remind myself that I don’t have to know what I’m doing. I just need to do it, and then everything flows exactly as it should. That was the message the Ayahuasca gave me—very clearly.
Where does the music come from?
Well that’s a mystery, isn’t it? To me the music comes from a place of vast silence that is a sound equivalent of wilderness. Wild silence holds the potential for everything. It’s the opposite of empty. It contains everything.
I write music on a vast black canvas in my imagination. Once in a while it is white, but mostly it is black. I make a note of music and it is a color against a black background and then I can see it and the black background gives it a shape. But I have to have a setting to access creativity.
‘Set and setting’ is a safety concept in the psychedelic journey scene. Basically the set and setting has to be right if you want to have a good experience. Set is really about your mindset, and setting is where you are and who you are with and how you feel about it. They’re both important.
Well it’s the same with art and with music. Things have to be right.
But a story about a specific individual sometimes gets through?
A specific spirit, yes. That’s another lesson from Ayahuasca. One of the shamans at Blue Morpho said to me, “If you want to communicate with the spirits, you need to be specific.” My experience of the shamanic language is the spirit world. The shamans use the term “the spirits,” and they may be talking about something they can see, like a neon snake in the room or a giant jaguar or winged beast—but they call it a spirit.
So when you wrote this song, you had Wolf 06’s specific spirit in mind—and her wolf spirit kin? Angels, you called them. Why angels?
I’ve decided to believe in angels. I’ve just decided that’s a better way to go. If they’re angels out there I don’t want to miss out.
I had all these little high howl cries in the piece and I wanted to organize them into a harmony. I saw them as kindred spirit wolves. Either they weren’t alive on this earth or they were alive in the other wolves that are alive on this earth. I don’t know—it’s art, it’s poetic—but however it is, they’re connected, which is why I said when Wolf 06 dies she goes home because she’s been visiting this world. This world could be a manifestation of the spirit world, so then the angel wolves could live here too because they’re manifesting through these wolves on the earth.
This is the way most cultures have dealt with this. You’re going home when you die. You’re going back to the source of the energy that gave you the energy to be here. You get to be in a pure state of being.
You wrote in a happy ending for the tragedy.
Another lesson from the Ayahuasca. This one I always knew but the Ayahausca kind of underlined it for me is: which story do you prefer? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could write your story? If you had a say in how it goes? In the Ayahuasca, the spirit said, “Well you can choose.”
I chose to write a hopeful story for Wolf 06. That she was a spirit wolf and she had a life on this earth and now her physical body is dead but that she’s still alive. Maybe it is that she’s still alive in our spirits. The literal thing about the location kind of drives me crazy: where is not the point.
You recorded a second song. What inspired that?
I was so inspired by the first one about Wolf 06 that I wanted to record a song for her whole pack. I had the perfect song already written. The original is called “Badlands” but I’m calling this version “Running Free”. I recorded it in the same style to go with Wolf 06, and it has the same Yellowstone American Western thing. It’s like a movie. Listen to how it keeps changing the way it states the theme. It starts out gentle and then it runs away and then it changes keys and then it gets heavier and then it gets quiet again, and then it just runs away into rock ‘n roll.
Wow, John. That’s a seriously inspired recording.
It is a musical story of Wolf 06 and her pack. They are defiantly free.
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Visit the Wolf 06 Album Page to DOWNLOAD FREE MP3s of "Wolf 06" and "Running Free".
"In Memory of '06 Female" Slideshow: Special thanks to nature photographer Jimmy Jones for the use of his beautiful image of Wolf 06. Be sure to watch the "In Memory of '06 Female" slideshow on his website. Click (Slideshow) in upper right corner to hear John Sheldon's song playing along with the images.
"She was my favorite. I will miss her—the most of all the wolves that have gone before. It is hard to digest the ignorance that has led to this tragic event. The reckless, irresponsible stewardship of these misrepresented animals is unacceptable." - Jimmy Jones.
Here are just a few of many excellent organizations working to protect the wolves:
Special thanks to Jimmy Jones Photography, for the inspired photo of Wolf 06.
Photo of John Sheldon by Jeff Skeirik (www.rawtographer.com)
Interview by Zoe Helene (cosmicsister.com)