Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Slaves To The Muse: On Being A Musician

(A letter to an old friend...)

Thanks for writing.

I've got a post I'm working on about how much Wept has meant to me over the years. I suspect you'll be interested in that, and I hope to have that done in another week or so. In the meantime, I wanted to respond to your letter.

"We're supposed to want to grow up to be things like firemen and astronauts" - 9353

Like you, I've been playing music for decades, and feel like my quality of workmanship increases but is almost inversely proportional to the size of audience. That's tough to deal with sometimes.

When I played songs that "meant something", they were frequently to empty rooms, or to friends surreptitiously checking their watches, because it was after midnight on a Wednesday. Nobody cared. I tried to write hits, or at least stuff I thought was good. It probably wasn't, but still...I had to follow the Muse, even if she led me to empty dives. That was what I did.

And when I was doing it, I connected right to that electricity than ran through me every time I saw a really great band play, whether it was in a basement or a club or a stadium. On stage, or hearing that first mix play back, I felt like I was levitating. Time stopped.

When I sang "Hungry Like The Wolf" in shiny silver pants in a cover band, it was to clubs packed with enthusiastic, cheering, dancing people. And I got paid. It was fun (for a while) but it was definitely not the right gig for me at that time. I learned a ton. I still got a hit of that electricity, that levitation. I wasn't professional enough in any respect. But I'm glad I did it.

It was a very different kind of "professional" music than my L.A. days, but just as valid, challenging, frustrating. It ultimately led me back to writing my own stuff, but with the realization that I wasn't an "entertainer", I was an "artist". Or at least, some of both.

I wasn't going to be happy trying to "entertain" with my art...but I also wasn't going to be happy expecting my "art" to entertain! Once I figured that out, things got way easier.

"Days filled with music
Nights filled with music
Music all the time" - The Church

Yeah, it's been a lot of years of playing music. I still don't think I'm very good. I still compare myself to, well, everyone. You. J____. X_____. My brother. Every record I've ever heard. Ridiculous, I know, but...that's what it's like for me sometimes.

I've thought about stopping quite a bit. There's something appealing about it. Selling all that gear. Well, maybe keep one guitar. Officially "retire". Smile and say "I used to do that" when I hear about kids in bands.

When I talk about this, my wife either laughs and says "You've been saying that for years!", or she gets kind of serious and looks me in the eye and says "You have been playing music for your whole life. You are a musician. That's what you do."

It's hard. Every year, the gear gets heavier. My ears get less tolerant of whatever "the kids" are listening to and I find most (but not all!) records really uninteresting. I make music with more aptitude and gear but less urgency.

And yet I still do it. In fact, the last few years have probably seen me more active, creative, and happy as an artist than my entire "pro career" ever did. I have notebooks filled with ideas for songs and albums. I still think about buying gear. Just last night I was playing guitar and got lost in the sound of the instrument and simple surf twang.

And it is easier in some ways, too. 25 years ago, we scrounged for instruments and a cassette 4-track and dreamed of 8 or 16 tracks for overdubs. Time in a studio. Someone who knew how to get a non-terrible drum sound. Now, I have gear, computers, and technology that allow me to make records I never dreamed I could make, and then sell them (or give them away) to everybody in the world.

More importantly, I have skill, discipline, and a kind of patience I lacked when I was younger. A broad history of art and musical knowledge to draw on. And perhaps a relaxation/surrender/freedom that comes from knowing I can do whatever I want, because I have no one to please but myself.

You said "the world barely listens, however loud we play". Truth. But maybe it's not about the whole world, and is instead about those dozens or hundreds you do manage to reach. Every once in a while I get an email or comment about one of my songs. It makes my year.

"And twenty-seven angels from the great beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song" - Leonard Cohen" 

I think about Charles Ives, who spent his life in the insurance business and spent all his free time composing the weird music he wanted to make and that nobody wanted to hear. He lived long enough to see some of his recognition. He had a day job, a family, a life. Yet music still haunted him, almost until the day he died.

I don't pretend to be anywhere near the caliber of Ives. But I can understand what it was like to see the mystified, bemused looks from his friends and family. And you and I know the effort it takes to create while trying to live any kind of life.

I also think about Webern. Died leaving only 31 published pieces, but each one like a diamond turning in candlelight, or a star twinkling in the night sky. I don't pretend to be anywhere near the caliber of Webern. But perhaps I can beat him on quantity instead of quality.

When I taught my music class at Duke, I talked about Webern and tried to get my teenage charges to understand how short life can be, and how important it is to make a difference somehow. To create something and make the most of your time. Reflecting on that message myself led me to my own creative rebirth.

"This is our predicament: To never be content..." - Wept

It's not surprising that you feel differently about music now than you did when you were a kid. You're an adult now, and your perspectives and tastes have changed. Personally, I think they should change, with the wisdom and hindsight of all you've experienced. That's to be expected, hoped for, and valued. But that's just my opinion.

I know this, though: You're talented. You made a big difference in my life. And you're a musician.

Don't give up yet. Maybe do something different for a while. Get some perspective.

Maybe you're not destined for fame and/or fortune. Few musicians are, and even fewer by doing exactly what they want without consideration for the audience, business, etc. Maybe you're the type who will inspire one or a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other people to become musicians. Maybe this doesn't even happen in your lifetime. Maybe that's OK.

Maybe all that matters is that during those few minutes a week you do manage to pick up an instrument that you are transported, levitated, or connected to the Muse. Or even just satisfied or happy on some level, as you feel the wood and metal vibrate and you make some noise. Maybe that's enough.

For me, sometimes it is. What else can we do? We're slaves to our muse.

I never had the chance to say this before, so I guess I should say it now: Thanks for the music.



Sunday, August 12, 2012

Life as metaphor

It's a beautiful San Francisco day as I step outside the house. I'm behind on my cardio time for the day, so I am taking advantage of a free hour this afternoon and the nearby park.

The sun shines through the clear blue sky as I walk through pockets of hot and cold air.

I reach the entrance to the Shelley loop and am about to start my run.

2 feet from me is a disposable diaper lying in the street.  There's a trash can not 20 feet away.

My bones feel every step and jolt as I start running. It feels like I'm moving even slower than if I was walking, and it's just...difficult. I press on, rounding the first corner

30 feet beyond that, a large black garbage bag has been thrown into the ditch between the road and the chain-link fence. It's ruptured, spilling the detritus of some child's birthday party across a large area, all sheet cake and Spider-Man napkins and colored signs and plastic forks. I sigh between gasps, moving my feet and transitioning from one side of the road to the other.

Past the open space where people throw tennis balls with their dogs, I turn onto Mansell. There are splotches of shattered car glass, green in the sunlight. There's a couple of large plastic storage tubs, cheap plastic already bleaching and splintering in the sunlight. The contents are strewn around, books and cards and clothes. A plastic bag shrouds an empty 6-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, nestled under the guard rail.

I see no birds or insects, just the odd car whizzing past me on the crumbling asphalt.

I turn by the bus stop and start running down the big hill, passing parked cars. Near the turn-in for the ranger house, I see a dresser smashed to pieces and strewn across the road. A mattress. A large CRT-based TV's carcass torn open, and an old computer monitor face-down nearby. I wince.

I pass squashed AA batteries and endless paper and plastic cups from KFC and Starbucks and Subway and who knows where else. There are lids and spoons and countless disposable wipes and napkins and paper towels, all blown against fences and pine needles and grass.

Starting back up the hill, I see a mylar envelope of Capri Sun or some other synthetic "juice" product, leaking slowly in the gutter.

I slow to a walk at the most severe part of the hill. I just can't power up like I used to a few years ago. I pass by 2 plastic bags of food tied up and rotting in the sun, not 15 feet from a garbage can.

Near the top of the hill, a sign scrawled on an unfolded food container catches my eye:

5:00 PM

Car's long gone. Sign still there.

I start running again, trudging up the hill, my lungs screaming for air and my heart pounding in my chest. 1.5 miles.

I start my second lap, passing the diaper again. At least I'm warmed up now, and everything is easier. Tolerable.

But the garbage really gets to me. John McLaren park is beautiful and wild, if a bit under-maintained. I am angry with us lazy, sloppy humans and how we continually trash the park.

As my second lap draws to completion, I slow. I pick up the leaking Capri Sun mylar envelope and toss it in the trash. I scoop up the bags of rotting food as my heart rate drops and they, too, go into the trash.

I pick up the semi-literate sign, the back of which is sticky with some sort of once-food. I fold it in half and carry it to the start of the loop, where I carefully scoop up the diaper. I walk across the street and toss it into the garbage bin all the dog walkers use for their dogshit.

I don't pretend that I've made any significant difference. But I ran 3 miles and still left the park in better shape than before I left. That's something. I'll count that as a "win" for today.

I finish my run. Tired and still angry. We don't deserve this planet.

I think of the famous Iron Eyes Cody PSA.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Gerry Kearby (1947 - 2012)

Gerry Kearby died on August 6, 2012.

I was fortunate enough to briefly work with Gerry at Liquid. I had known him by name, reputation, and the odd handshake and meeting through the digital music business - Liquid Audio almost bought TuneTo.com, meaning they would have launched Rhapsody instead of Listen.com.

Gerry was the real deal. Smart. Volatile. Kind and loving. He was a human being, with flaws and passions and desires.

If you really want to understand who he was, read this, written by someone who knew him far better than I did.

You can also go here and read an increasing number of stories about him.

Gerry was a true visionary - he saw the whole business and what it would become. Years before the iPod and iTunes, Gerry saw and created the future: PC applications that allowed you to buy and download AAC files that contained lyrics, album art, and other details. You could transfer these files to a flash memory handheld music player and take them anywhere. You could buy albums or singles.  You could even upload and sell your own music. Sound familiar?

Gerry's vision was hampered by record labels, lack of device support, some brittle technologies and less than perfect execution. But it was still there.

If any of us in the business - Spotify, Steve Jobs and Apple, Rhapsody, MOG, me - have ascended to any heights, we did it because we stood on Gerry's shoulders, and caught a brief glimpse of what he had seen all along.

Thank you for the music, Gerry.