Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Talent, Art, and Fun 2: History

A tangent to my follow-up to this article about a woman and her relationship with playing guitar and music...and how everyone reacts to her artistry.

A bit of my own personal history, through her words.

I wanted to play guitar ever since I could remember. I did have a sense of how great it might feel to perform and sing, but I had no idea how long, convoluted, and confusing the path could be.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father playing the acoustic guitar. I can honestly only recall him doing it this one time. I was around 3 years old. I'm pretty sure he sang "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen, and "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" by Randy Newman, both of which Judy Collins had covered, and he had some of her records.

I just thought it was awesome.

Other formative childhood experiences were seeing The Monkees on TV at my grandmother's house in Texas as a young child. Discovering these new things called "synthesizers". Finding out that FM radio was broadcasting rock music for free all the time. And then seeing my first music videos.

I started playing instruments in the 4th grade, but that was band/symphony/orchestra. I wanted to play rock music...but how? With whom? There weren't any books that I could find. But one day my parents hooked me up with something called "RockSchool". Books at first, and then a whole TV series on public TV, no less.


On the one hand, they made it look easy. And yet it was still mystifying. It was a start. (In later years, I'd realize the keyboard player they added in season 2 (Alistair) played keyboards on The Chameleons UK's album "Script of the Bridge", a favorite of mine.

But all of this was before the Internet, and finding out all this stuff was next to impossible. Learning how to do it required lots of driving to little Mom and Pop music stores in the middle of nowhere.

None of my friends had any interest in it, and my parents were not musicians. My Dad never played the guitar again after that time when I was very young.

With rock guitar, it helps to be shown a few tricks. 

Chris Haines ("Chaines") taught me to play guitar. He was the main guitar player in my college band, a long-time musical collaborator, and for a while, my best friend. He gave me tablature books. He played me records. He showed me the critical importance of alternating up-down picking ("None of that rake bullshit!"). He taught me the open G minus the third on the "A" string ("Mute that 'A' string with your index finger, because the third sounds like shit!"), and how the metal guys all played the open A with one finger and muted the high "e". I still use those faster, cleaner chord versions today. He showed me barre chords. How to tap. How to play harmonics. Really, everything I needed.

I took some lessons not long after, just to learn the "unified neck" and get some fancier chords under my fingers.

“Your brother is good at music,” the rap went, “while you are good at drawing and and other things.”

My brother is good at music. He's always been good, and it's always been a source of pride and envy for me. He's a much better guitar player than I am. I think he's a better pop songwriter. I'm probably a bit weirder, and tend to finish more projects, though. 

His band had a record deal, made a record in a real studio. Got on a movie soundtrack. If you caught them on the right night in the late 90's, they were the best band in L.A. I still listen to their records, and much to my brother's chagrin, some of his solo work. 

I remember the first time I borrowed Michele Deppler's 4-track recorder to do some early synth noodling. I came home and found my brother had recorded a guitar instrumental called "Ebb Tide". I wish I still had a copy. But I instantly understood he was always going to be "better at this" than I was.

I don't think my parents really understood how important music was to me until I went off to college. My brother went to art school. He was the "creative one", I was the "smart one". My brother is brilliant, in fact. And I believe I've demonstrated some creativity. I think my folks figured I'd "grow out of it". Must have been a bit of a surprise when I took my fancy degree and drove out to L.A. to be a rock star. To their credit, they were supportive as long as I was doing what I wanted.

I also went to school with a bunch of other kids who were ridiculously talented. They inspired me to start my own band and influenced me for many, many years after school ended.

to me rock’n'roll was writing your own songs and playing your own instruments. 

My first real band started writing songs at our first practice. We only learned covers to fill out our set. I still think bands that don't use backing tracks are hands-down "better" than those that do. The funny thing is I spent many years in L.A. playing live with sequencers and drum machines, and nobody thought it was OK. But somewhere around 2000, it became totally acceptable. I played with a few bands in San Francisco that used backing tracks and and nobody batted an eye.

I gave myself permission to ‘suck’. And with permission to suck comes the ability to rock, and to overcome all the fears and insecurities that had been holding me captive.

Once I left L.A., metaphorically and literally, I started a new creative phase. Personally, I feel I've produced consistently stronger work in the last 6 years than in my entire previous creative career.

If there's one thing that has helped, it's been removing any sense of "pressure" or worrying about "hits" or "success". The best work I've done has come from trusting myself, following my own vision, the weirder, the better.

It's good to remind myself of that every now and then. You should trust your artistic vision and intuition. It's what defines your work as yours!

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