I’ve been thinking a lot about music. Why I listen to what I listen to and write what I write and hate what I hate and don’t trust what I don’t trust.
And to quote my guru….”remembering distant memories and recalling other names…”
That first Beatles record. Records plural, actually. It was the Red and the Blue double albums. I was about 10 and must have been a very good boy because Santa left ’em both under the tree. That year I had a bad flu and Christmas morning found me lying on the couch, delirious with fever….alternating between chattering teeth and sweat-soaked blankets. You know the drill. Somehow I rose from the dead and put “Paperback Writer” on the living room stereo, and my fever broke.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Music could raise the dead. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
There was something about those Brits though. Beatles. Stones. Kinks. Who. Faces. Glorious noise and great accents. If you didn’t have a cockney accent rock magazines banished you to 1 star oblivion. Like every other shot-and-a-beer teen I had my Rolling Stones phase (learned that 5 string open G tuning Keith used and felt like the cock of the walk) and my Led Zeppelin phase. By that time I’d heard the tale of blues-men selling their soul to the devil….and one look at Jimmy Page in “The Song Remains the Same” convinced me that he was probably the guy with the clip-board. Whip-thin, eyes heavily lidded…dressed like a Star-Trek villain…he looked preposterous. But you couldn’t take your eyes off him. He was such a force that nobody ever held him accountable for “Dazed and Confused”…..which is extraordinary when you think about it but…well….whatever. Robert Plant was the original Derek Smalls passing through the airport scanner with a vegetable down his pants…and nobody ever held him accountable for that either because there was no such thing as airport security in them days. Such were the strange days of the 1970s.
Strange Days indeed. I read that hilarious Jim Morrison book when I was in 8th grade and swallowed every word of it, even the part about him being part god, part misunderstood Rimbaud. I tried in vain to find one of those long, loose white shirts with the shoelace threaded through the neck…..although I drew the line at the leather pants…not willing to take punches in the face for my new flame. It wasn’t until I actually bought the album “American Prayer”, in which a drunken Lizard King recites what sounds like random pages from the dictionary that my love for the Doors passed from Morrison to how fucking good and unique his band was. Manzarek and Kreiger are the only reason I can still listen to the Doors now. Morrison reminds me too much of how fat Val Kilmer got. It’s depressing.
I spent the summer of my 16th year devouring the Who and Pete Townshend…a love affair that has hit some black ice (“It’s Hard” anyone?) but has never died. “Quadrophenia” was my first Who record….and still remains an endless source of fascination all these years later, mostly because it reminds me of what it felt like to be a teenager, a topic which remains an endless source of fascination for a man rubbing up against the inner thigh of 50. Townshend was the first person who made me want to play the guitar….or at the very least stand in front of a mirror and pretend to play the guitar. Until such funding could be caged, however, a tennis racket would have to do. I never truly learned how to play “The Real Me” until a few years ago, but you’d never know it if you saw what I saw in that mirror all those years ago. Rock and roll never forgets, and neither do I.
One of the all time great rock songs is barely 2 minutes long and is about not knowing to say. “Can’t Explain” is sorta what all songwriters are up again. We have no idea why we feel this way…..but are forever attempt to articulate it anyway. If we can’t find the words we reach for the melody. And if that doesn’t quite do it we can always turn it up to 11 and hope for the best. When I was in college I heard this band called REM, and they took articulation to places it had never been before. I can still listen to “Sitting Still” and “Carnival of Sorts” and dance to their stuttering melodies and sing along to words that nobody really knows because they are utterly intelligible. But it didn’t matter. “Murmur” and “Reckoning” and “Chronic Town” changed lives. I know this because they changed mine. REM were as good a rock and roll band as our nation ever produced….and I shudder to think what synthesizers and the huge drum sound of the 80s would have done to my brain-stem without their musical antidote.
And then Cobain blew up the world with those 4 chords and all the pretenders grabbed their hair-spray and ran screaming from the room. Pretty heady stuff for a mixed up kid from a dead town who never believed a word of what all these strange people were saying about him.
He was listening to REM when he died. Trying to decipher rock and roll.
In a bit..
In a world gone mad we’re all keen to find a temporary oasis….and if you can bring your guitar with you so much the better….
I’ve reached that age. It’s not a number, more like a feeling. It’s called “old”….and it creeps up on you. Things hurt you didn’t even know you had. The nights are shorter and the days are longer and the couch beckons the way a long-legged cheerleader sitting alone at the back of the bus used to. Most things you used to do you can’t do anymore. Those you can do….take a lot longer….and if they take too long you wonder why they were so fucking important in the first place. I’m way smarter than I used to be, but I don’t have the energy to mobilize my brain-power. In other words, I’m asleep by the time the 3rd quarter of Monday Night Football starts and need 2 days to recover if I stay out past midnight….which I rarely do of course, because I’m old.
But I sometimes do…and it’s because I still play music. Music is the only thing that makes an old person feel not so old. If it’s 1am and I’m singing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in a smokey bar filled with empty chairs and a handful of people who know the words and aren’t shy about sharing…..I get a second wind that even drugs can’t touch, and I should know because….well….never mind. That was a long time ago….when I was young and stupid and happier than I am now but I was happier probably because I was stupid. Yea, that must have been it.
I spent the last few hours playing music with another old guy….whose identity I’ll protect because he probably doesn’t want you to know that he’s even older than me. We sat knee to knee and sang songs and tossed ideas back and forth and said “yea, that works”, or “no…that don’t move me” and tried to make things right with the world for 3 minutes at a time. We spoke of Levon Helm and eating pizza with Van Morrison and having Dylan peer over your shoulder and why it’s perfectly normal that the same guy who wrote “Jungleland” also wrote “Crush On You” and was proud of both……and we spoke of making movies and rum commercials and writing plays and having daughters and being blown away when others are as passionate about their craft as we are about ours…..which in turn means we give our shit away for free when we should probably ask for at least beer money….but no matter. It’s only rock and roll and we like it even though we’re broke as shit.
And then it was time to go home and feel old again because nothing this good lasts forever.
On my way home I had the music blaring so loud that I lost track of the fact that I was merging into a single lane construction zone….blowing past a yield sign and nearly getting flattened by a meth-fueled 18 wheeler in the process…piloted by a driver who clearly did not understand or much care that my muse was working overtime…and that singing along with Richard Manuel to “King Harvest” was way more important to me at the time than not being killed. At least that’s how I took the long, hideous blast of his wretched horn. Perhaps he meant something else by it, but I doubt it.
Probably an old bastard in the cab. Can’t you just spot them a mile away? I sang these lines tonight. “I don’t wanna grow old / rather run out of time…” and now I know why I wrote them in the first place.
And so it goes. The things that make me feel old work on me like a masseuse, so maybe the music gods try to even the odds a bit by granting me a few hours with a kindred spirit.
In a world gone mad we’re all keen to find a temporary oasis….and if you can bring your guitar with you so much the better. When the world comes crashing down I’d much rather be found playing a loud A chord than worrying about the ecumenical details….because any angels worth believing in would never turn their backs on a dude banging out an A chord. This I know to be true because I’ve been praying to Pete Townshend since I was 16 and the fucker always answers me.
I’ll keep chasing these shadows across the borderline, because it makes me feel less old. And that beats shit out of being old.
Thus endeth the lesson.
In a bit..
I don’t know what to say but feel the urge to say something….anything….so I can at least look back on today and have a record of what was going through my head.
We’re no longer shocked I don’t think. The world we live in no longer has that power over us. Instead we kinda live in a perpetual holding pattern, hoping that what we all know is going to happen, at the very least, doesn’t happen today.
Today it happened. I watched the body count grow higher every hour. As I type these words the reported number of dead in Paris is “more than 150”. Are we to say….”well….at least it wasn’t 3000?” Is that how we measure victories in times such as these?
So what can we offer? Prayers? Please. If there’s one thing we don’t need it’s fucking prayers. The assorted invisible men in the sky we’re praying too are the same ones in whose name warped fanatics kill. If prayers are all we can offer….this war is lost. If organized religion isn’t the root of all evil, it sure as shit is the root of most of it. Virgins armed with automatic rifles are bad enough. When they think they’re gonna be ravished by multiple virgins after they blow themselves up, well….that’s a special kind of anti-social. The next person who offers “thoughts and prayers” to Paris should never be invited to another dinner-party. Ever. It’s pissing on a forest fire and calling yourself a fireman.
I had a gig tonight. I didn’t want to go. That last thing in the world I felt like doing was playing music. I wanted to stay home and huddle with my family. I wanted to hold them and watch them sleep. I wanted to barricade myself and not venture out into the wild blue yonder.
But the show must go on and all that. When you have a gig booked, you play. I was fortunate that the gig was a duo show with Joe “Wiggy” Wegleski…a musical soul brother who happens to be one of my closest friends. We talked a little bit about what was happening as we set up. We were both shocked. Saddened. Pissed off. Confused. But what can 2 poor boys do? So we played our asses off for 3 hours. It was a decent crowd. Good folk. Nobody fucking shot anybody over the ecumenical details. A few even danced in front of us. They drank beer and sang along and yelled out requests and when it was over said “you guys were great”….and we said thank you and meant it. I drove home listening to music in the car…loudly….and as soon as I got into the house I checked on my wife and kids. Safe and sound. Sleeping. I poured myself a beer and nursed it. I checked the clock. Late. But I can’t sleep. Not now. After a gig you need to wind down. Your ass may be dragging in the hours leading up to it, but when it’s over the second wind has doubled. It’ll be a while. That’s why I’m doing this now.
I feel older than I used to. That sounds funny and all that, but I didn’t used to feel old at all. I look at myself in the mirror and sometimes I hardly recognize the gaze. My eyes seem hazy. Confused. Like they’d rather not be subjected to what they’re forced to see.
The shouters are out in full force now. They’ve got all the answers. The lower your IQ the easier things are to fix. Who says being a fucking moron is detrimental? I’ve been cursed with what I take to be somewhat average intelligence….along with the ability to feel the pain of others. Empathy is the word. The lack of it is, for some, is the best definition of evil ever devised.
I presume this is the work of ISIS. Fuck ISIS. Fuck any religious zealot. If you want to fuck a virgin, buy her roses and tell her you love her and make sure she believes you. Then hold her hand and promise to love and honor and protect her….and love and honor and protect her. Trust me son. You’ll be in and it’ll be magical. There ain’t no short cuts. Patience is always rewarded.
I want to sleep and wake up tomorrow and find out that these “more than 150” people are still alive.
In other words…I want to dream.
In a bit..
Sometimes you sit down with the guitar….or face the piano keys….and the music flows.
Sometimes you sit with pad and pen….and the words flow.
As a songwriter, both of these things have to happen at the same time. And therein lies the rub. Because they rarely do.
Make no mistake. You CAN force it. If you paid me to write songs……I could make a fortune. If you paid me to write good songs….I might have to live on Mac and Cheese and Pabst Blue Ribbon…..but still that would be preferable to actually working for a living, which is what I’m forced to do now.
Come to think of it, even with a real job Mac and Cheese and PBRs are never far away. So what gives? Well…a “real job” guarantees that I don’t have to charge them. I have to charge just about everything else, but still. Living the American Dream and all that. That’s me.
Songwriting feels like work when you’re doing it, but when you do it right and look back on it you realize you were having the time of your life. That’s the power of music.
Real work feels like work and when you look back on it you wonder how you hell you ever got through it. Which is why so many of us sit at our desks with headphones on listening to music.
See how it all fits together?
In a bit..