Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Fan's Notes

I am not a musician. I am not a musician now, nor have I ever been one, despite having played the trumpet for 10 years and the bass for about 5 years. It's one of the great frustrations/regrets of my entire existence. Because if I could be anything in life, that's what I'd be. Honestly. I'd give up any relative "success" I've achieved in life if I could master an instrument and be part of a band (or orchestra) and contribute in a meaningful way to the creation of music. Instead, I must be content (and I am, happily!) with watching and listening from the sidelines--a perpetual fan. An obsessive listener and collector. An outsider.

My love of music has always been with me. At least partial credit goes to my dad, who instilled a love of early jazz (starting with Fats Waller) in me early on. But, like any teen, I gravitated towards rock on my own, falling in deep starting at around age 14 and never emerging, only expanding. I don't think a month has gone by in over 35 years when I have not bought new music. Probably not even two weeks. The advent of the Internet of course has made it that much worse (or better), and more dangerous (and easier). My interests are all over the map. For the past few months I've been heavily obsessed with New Orleans R&B and jazz. I started with current stuff--Trombone Shorty and Galactic--and have been working my way back in time and falling even more in love. My most recent purchases were a Fats Domino collection, and this glorious box set. Allen Touissant is playing on my laptop right now as I type this.

When I was a miserable, unhappy teen in the San Fernando Valley, and then a miserable, unhappy college kid at Berkeley, music was my refuge and my salvation. That'll be corny to some, but that's okay. Because I know it's true. Music is what got me through. I clung onto the inspirational music of guys like Bruce Springsteen, as well as the nerdy empowerment of Elvis Costello and other "punks" at the time. These days, at age 50, I don't need to self-identify through a musician or anyone else, which I guess we can call progress. But I do still get ALL my inspiration to create, through words or otherwise, from the music I love. Many of my old Greenspeak columns for Computer Gaming World magazine back in the day were written either to the accompaniment of the Beastie Boys, or were at least preceded by a listen to them---because their snarky, immature intelligence was exactly the tone I was going for. When I couldn't handle actually listening to lyrics while writing those columns, I'd switch to Thelonious Monk--another musician who so brilliantly infused his work with humor.

In ten years of playing the trumpet -- from age 7 to 17 -- the best I ever got was that I had a decent, steady tone and could read music well. I could execute. That was good enough to place high in the chair seatings in the school orchestra, and to serve as lead trumpet in the jazz band--but it wasn't the same as being a musician. In the jazz band, it was the second trumpet who did all the solos. I might have carried the melody, but I couldn't improvise for shit. I had no vision or point-of-view, nor the technical skills or knowledge or understanding of music theory to even take a stab at "academic" improvisation. I could play what was in front of me, and play it well, but that's it. And I was jealous as heck (and still am) at anyone who could.

Years later, around age 25, when my friends were forming a punk band, they asked if I'd like to play bass. I had never previously touched a bass. In true punk rock spirit, I of course said yes. It didn't hurt that, growing up, I'd always gravitated to the bass anyway. I was one of those guys who would forget to listen to (or even realize that there was) a guitar solo, because I was grooving on the bass line. I still do that. And because I was already aware of my lack of inspiration and imagination, the bass, as rhythm keeper, appealed to me. I could play away, keeping the beat, letting others do their thing, while still feel like I was contributing. So I did that. I did it for years, as the bass player for "The Uncalled Four." We played a lot of gigs in the Bay Area. The two songwriters were actually damn good. I liked the songs they wrote, a lot, and loved playing their songs. We made one record (a vinyl EP), called "Oakland's Newest Hitmakers," in which we paid homage to the first Who record on the back cover and a Gang of Four record on the front cover. I listened to it again recently, after not hearing it for well over a decade, and it sounded pretty good. Their songwriting holds up.

I had moments as The Uncalled Four bass player that I was proud of. Never on stage though, where I was all frozen nerves, just repeating the same bass line over and over until the song ended. I never found my comfort up there, mostly because I always felt like a poser. A fake bass player who didn't know what he was doing. But there *were* times, when we were practicing and learning new songs, when I would try to go deep within the song, and myself, and find a creative bass line, beyond the rudimentary obvious ones. I didn't usually succeed, but at least a couple times I did. I found a line that came straight from my own head and heart that made the song better. But it was work, and didn't come naturally to me at all. And then once I'd come up with the line, all I could ever do was repeat it, note for note. I had no ability to deviate, to experiment, to play. Whatever that is, I don't have it.

And hey, I'm okay with it. The truth is, I get so much pleasure out of listening to music, that it's enough for me. It's more than enough. It's one of my life's great passions. The best live concerts I've ever been to (Van Morrison in 1987, Talking Heads in 1980, Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn in the 90s, Springsteen numerous times--just to name a few) have been transcendent, near-religious experiences for me, making me love and appreciate the simple act of being alive.

But I never stop having this kind of dream, in the middle of the night, deep in slumber: I'm on stage with a band (usually jazz). We're all jamming on a song. It's my turn to step up. I adjust the mouthpiece, settle my hands and fingers on the horn, and then let loose with heart, humor, and skill. flowing in and out of the song's melody and the band's backup, telling a story, or a joke, or a tale of heartbreak or redemption, through pure sound. I'm feeling it, the band is feeling it, the audience is feeling it. I'm part of a moment beyond words.

Is that the dream of every writer?


pauljeremiah said...

well they always say Jeff that the best notes are the ones you never play.

Caleb T said...

a great read and have listened to quite a few suggestions you have made in the past few years. cant imagine never listening to grizzly bear so thank you for your great taste.

also i hope you were on a a holodeck as commander riker in your dream. its ok if you wanted to leave that part out

djbriandamage said...

Your words really hit home and remind me why I became a DJ - due both to my love of music and my frustrations with my own compositions as compared to my heroes.

I'm totally with you on grooving on strong basslines. I was renowned amongst my friends for being oblivious to lyrics and lead instruments because of my laserbeam focus on bass and percussion, but when I'd reach inside myself to compose I always felt cold in the shadow of those giants who inspired me.

Then again, now that I listen to many of my songs 10-15 years later (I wrote nearly 2 hours of music) I admire my own simplicity and understanding of the fundamentals, if not the gilded accents, of what I was reaching for. If possible I encourage you to listen to your childhood work with new (aka old) ears and appreciate the parts you got right.

Often when we miss our intended target we hit an unexpected bullseye just beyond our focus. This is equally true of writing - many of my favourite essays and stories were inspired by happy accidents.

davidturnercs said...

I had a similar experience playing saxophone. From second grade, all the way through high school, I played for hours every week. Before I went to college, I picked up a guitar and practically closed the case on my alto forever.

Now, I'm a year out of school, working a steady job as a software engineer, and making a conscious effort to get back into music. I've only been at it for a month now, but I've learning one of my favorite songs on Piano (thanks to some good lessons in Garage Band), I've grown a callus on my right thumb where I've practiced slapping my strings to a metronome, I'm traveling on the neck of my guitar like never before, I just bought a drum kit that I'm scheduled to get lessons on at the start of the year, and I've dusted off the old horn.

I too am very tied to music. The thought of going onto a stage and playing music that I created or am very emotionally invested in makes me happy. I got a taste of that when I played lead in my high school jazz band, and when I sing punk songs at a local bar's live band karaoke. I have the time now and I doing my best to make something of it. I'd hate to have the same regrets.

This piece is encouraging me to pick up my instruments despite being sick. Thank you.

Shane W said...

Jeff I love and hate you for this blog post because its word perfect to my experience, I have had a similar problem with the Guitar. Always a bridesmaid never a bride. Also strangely I'm also a software engineer too like another poster, maybe the mind of a programmer is not built for music creation?

RobinHwy1 said...

As a groupie of the Uncalled Four I can definitely relate to your nostalgia for those days, for being free of obligations and being rich in friends.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'll never forget seeing Springsteen in the fall of 1984.

We had seats behind the stage - but they were right behind the stage. I'd say Springsteen was no more than thirty feet away. It was a shame that we had to stare at his back for most of the show, but every now and then he'd turn around and acknowledged us.

He played for 4 and 1/2 hours, and had to be dragged from the stage. That night, he'd been struggling with the tough Canadian audience, and at one point even shouted: "What the hell are you waiting for!"

But then after about three hours, he finally did it - he had everyone up and out of their seats. His last song was Santa Clause Is Coming To Town, and he nearly took down the building. As he left the stage, with the house lights on, he had an exulted look on his face. He was just so pleased with himself.

To this day I can still see picture him raising his fist straight up. and practically screaming out the opening song: "Born down in a dead man's town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground..."

It was so powerful I almost cried. I think I was more shocked by that first song than I was when I had sex for the first time - no joke.

Also, I'm still mad that I didn't win the PopCap Haiku contest. Wow, you guys sure don't know art when you see it. My poem was so good it should have ended up in The Smithsonian.

Anyway, I'm glad that you decided to 're-activate' your blog.

xian said...

stumbled on an uncalled four demo cassette today and wish I had some live recordings of your gigs. you are welcome to sit in with the kincaid anytime, monotonously as you like.

BJWyler said...

Sounds familiar, hits a certain "string" you might say - even fancied playing bass myself back in the day.

Lucky for us, I guess, that things worked out a bit differently. After all, you helped to bring us one of the most notable publications in gaming, after all - no small potatoes, that. It's actually hard to believe we just passed the 30th birthday of CGW/GFW in November. Such a shame that a mag of long tradition and history had to die the way it did - especially when there are still magazines (if not thriving then surviving) out there not only in good old fashioned print, but also in digital form (Zinio, or as PDFs). Makes me wish some revival could get put together - I would love to read a gaming mag that had some of the great names of old contributing once again.

Anonymous said...

U4's riddim-sec partna-in-crime here.

To me, you were S. Cook + M. Watt right outta the gate; your hesitation was a puzzle. Chops were being built but their lack only accounted for a fraction of your reticence. A matter of priorities I suppose. Lots of worse players manage to lose themselves.

I wouldn't be so quick to sign off on the whole thing. You might bury the bass in the back of your closet, but it'll never stop calling to you ...

Anonymous said...

Pick up your trumpet and play in a church band!

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