Tag Archives: Music

Don’t Touch That Dial

This morning I was a guest on the KZBL “Jamming with Johnny” talking about the Tricentennial CD and my song on it.

I realized that the only other time I’ve been on the radio was about 30 years ago back in Los Angeles, when RJ, Dave and I dropped in at KXLU and talked about our new Faith Assembly demo. It also made me think about the three different times I auditioned for the Columbia School of Broadcasting (in L.A., Boston and Memphis) where they were eager to have me (all three times) but the costs were just prohibitive. Interesting to think how that life might have worked out. One of my father’s favorite one liners was “You know, you’ve got a face for radio.” That and the ability to approximate a flat American accent (think Iowa or Nebraska) and you might have a great career in broadcasting. But life had other plans.

I still think about trying to volunteer DJ from time to time, but my kind of playlist would probably put me on the alternative format in the 2:00-5:00 am slot. Think about it: King Crimson followed by Hank Williams (or Hank Snow or Noel Boggs) followed by Ornette Coleman. You’d have to have your ears wide open to take that set in.

Radio’s always been what music has become over the years: a field of specialization. Like medicine, the general practitioner often takes a back seat (due to decreasing number, perhaps) to the ear, nose and throat man, the urologist. Music, and by extension the media that broadcasts it, has become so compartmentalized into specific narrow genres that allow only minor variations among their content. There’s no cross pollenating, no real meeting of the minds or hands across the table between what should be just different conversations in the same universal language. Yes, there the occasional celebrity, novelty match up duets (usually an attempt to make one or more of the duet partners more current and relevant), but for the most part, behind the scenes, at least the musicians tend to work in their own small corrals. In some ways, of course, that’s become necessary. The big studio systems (except perhaps for Nashville) started dying out in the 70s. There’s not really a Motown, Muscle Shoals, Wrecking Crew or Stax sound or scene anymore. And each genre has become a little more demanding, I think. There are specific grooves, tricks, patterns and tendencies you need to know, and know expertly, to be accepted in a specific sub-sub-genre. As a result, most musicians who make any kind of real money are often forced to specialize, to develop a kind of tunnel vision that excludes any influence from outside that narrow world.

It’s like that phenomenon “not invented here” that prevents one industry from adopting a useful and effective practice from another industry – not because it won’t work or can’t be adapted, but because unless “we” thought of it, it lacks credibility. We’re unique, and special. You can’t possibly know our needs.

Seems like the only place where inter-species mixing happens these days is in bar bands – like the one I’m in, who won’t say no to a request, especially if it’s submitted on a 20 dollar bill. Hell, we’ve even got a cd called “$20 Tips”. It’s almost like I’m living the dream my mother envisioned (a steady regular studio gig playing whatever they threw at me). Of course, it’s my part-time gig, but what did Oscar Wilde say? “A poet is a writer with a day job.”

That’s sad. Because the best music (IMHO) represents an amalgamation of styles and influences that are gathered together in perhaps totally unexpected ways to produce something entirely new. Like jazz, for example. Or hip-hop. Like mbuki-mvuki (a Swahili word that refers to shucking off your clothes and dancing in wild abandon to music playing), which through its transmutation through boogie-woogie became the butterfly we now call rock and roll.

The future of music is NOT about increasing specialization, with only token incorporation of hip, happening trends lifted from other musical traditions. If that continues, I fear that music (and following its lead, the remaining performance and creative arts) will inevitably slouch toward an insular, narrow cultural signficance and even more sadly, an increased sense of parody and caricature.

If music is indeed to remain the universal language, we’ve got to ensure that we as musicians (who are, based on my experience, the largest group of music listeners) keep our blinders off, our ears open and our hearts willing. Because to a large degree, culture is passed from generation to generation by its music. Its songs. Let’s not drop the ball – or at least, try to grab it before it goes completely out of bounds.

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The Musician Label III

I’ve been involved in the business (and to some degree, the art) of music for over 30 of my 42 years. I’ve traveled it, studied it, played it, written it and in the process I hope have learned a little about it. I’ve traveled, studied and written other things as well; but underlying everything that I do and what I’ve become in the process is inseparably tied, at its roots, to music. All kinds of music.

I’ve read a lot about music over the years, too. Reviews, criticism, social commentary and theory that ties in psychology, anthropology, history and religion. My feeling is that sometimes you discover a thread, and sometimes its just a theory of knots. Super-strings, perhaps.

For me, regardless of the genre I play or am enamored of at the moment, I always end up playing my own kind of “seven degrees of separation” where the glue at the center is the music I grew up with and around. If you subtract the Beatles (even though you could in fact trace from them back to Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, the Cookies, Little Richard and Elvis, among others) and the Stones (with their direct line to Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Mississippi Fred MacDowell, and so many more), the music I listened to growing up was American music: rock and roll, blues, folk, bluegrass, country, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, dixieland, big band, soul, rhythm and blues — and all its combinations and permutations. I studied classical music, because when you learn an instrument formally, that’s usually the genre for most of the instruction. The rest was what people now call “roots music.”

My roots? Hell yes. My paternal great-grandfather on one side was an itinerant fiddler. On the other side, both greats, I understand, traveled the Mennonite church circuit demonstrating and teaching yodeling from their native Switzerland. My father and uncle played “Hawaiian” guitar and accordion, respectively. My brothers, sister and I each were responsible for learning three instruments – a woodwind or brass, an orchestral string, and piano. I added guitar (and eventually a number of other things) to my repertoire.

I’ve written at least one song in the style of every record that I’ve ever heard. From madrigal to musical comedy to mosh pit; from polka to pop to punk; from reel to rap to rave-up. From Bauhaus to Beethoven to Bill Monroe to Billy Bragg to Irving Berlin and back.

I’ve never really found a source of information that covers that range of Americana. That cares about all of Americana. My definition of Americana, that is. Music that describes the profundity, the complexity, the often confusing amalgamation of styles that encompass the soundtrack of these United States, through time and space.

Particularly from a musician’s point of view. But then again, it seems to me these days that musicians (and all artists for that matter) are becoming more and more like physicians. Gone are the days of the General Practitioner. Everyone’s a specialist. That’s where the money is, I suppose. Learn your specific narrow genre – what styles it takes, what it’s audience will tolerate – and never move beyond those confines.

That’s not for me. That’s someone else’s definition of a musician. As a bard (in both the Druidic religious sense, and the musical sense) I have both an innate need, and some might suggest a spiritual duty, to understand the entire cultural spectrum of my time, and its history as well.

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The Musician Label II

The definition of “musician” is given as:

1. a person who makes music a profession, esp. as a performer of music.
2. any person, whether professional or not, skilled in music.

Interestingly enough, the definitions of pianist, guitarist, bassist, flautist, etc. are not, as I would have expected “a musician whose instrument of choice, or expertise, is…[the piano, guitar, bass, flute, etc.]” or even “a individual who produces music using a … [piano, guitar, flute, etc.]”.

There is, however, no direct connection between being a “musician” (with of course, no specific venue or outlet identified) and a specific occurrence of a musician type.

Instead, a guitarist is “someone who performs on the guitar”. A flautist is “an individual who plays the flute.” Now, maybe I’m a little dense, but it unfortunately doesn’t seem to define WHAT is being performed or played. Is it MUSIC? Alas, only a skilled critic would have the temerity to say.

That would seem to infer … and I have in fact seen it happen … that while some musicians may be guitarists (for example), not all musicians are guitarists nor are all guitarists musicians.

And who determines, using the dictionary definition above, whether or not one is “skilled” in music? What exactly does that mean?

Music, in fact, is a broad subject that covers a multitude of smaller subjects. Besides the obvious areas of music theory, counterpoint, composition and orchestration, there are the lesser aspects: foreign language, history, philosophy, physics, mathematics, audio dynamics, group psychology, teamwork, balance, physical training and discipline, communications, space relations, poetry, breath control, posture, memorization.

To be truly “skilled” in music is to know quite a bit, huh?

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The Label of Musician

To call me a musician is to miss an important point. There’s a certain convenience to the label, sure. But labels have a way of limiting their objects, of glossing over the inconvenient details in an attempt to simplify the classification of the whole. There’s a laziness about that kind of thinking. A desperation, almost, that stems from needing to explain something bigger than yourself in a way that doesn’t make you work too hard, or make you feel so damned small.

I AM a musician. Like Einstein was a scientist, or Yeats was a poet. You might argue about the company, but the point remains – the label seems just a little too small.

You could argue that Einstein approached everything in his life scientifically, or that Yeats lived poetically. Likewise, there is a certain musicality about my life and work. But to label us respectively as scientist, poet or musician on that basis alone, and have that label work, requires a different understanding of science, poetry or music. Different, that is, from what you might acquire in a textbook, or from a PBS special.

I had a friend once who said they could understand me as a poet so long as they did not also have to understand me as a musician, an artist, a philosopher. I understand the need to separate reality, to subdivide the infinite into manageable segments. One of the chief tenets of successful project management is to separate the work into small, concrete and achievable chunks in order to reinforce ongoing decision-making and ensure delivery of meaningful, and measurable, milestones.

But there are few projects that fall under the watchful eye of a manager whose span is an entire lifetime.

And what does it mean, anyway, to be called a musician? Is the title applied to amateur as well as professional? Does it mean someone who has spent a lifetime mastering a single instrument, as well as someone who has learned just enough, combined with other entertaining skills, to impress an audience? Is a person with expertise in only a single genre the same kind of musician as one who is versatile in many?

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New Insights into Genius?

I am currently reading a fascinating biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Mozart: A Life, by Maynard Solomon. Of particular interest to me is its focus on the relationship between father and son as one of the defining aspects of Mozart’s personality and life pursuit. Another interesting aspect of the biography is reference to passages like this:

What is a poet? A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music … And men crowd about the poet and say to him: ‘Sing for us soon again’; that is as much as to say: ‘May new sufferings torment your soul.’ — from Either/Or by Soren Kierkegaard

It is a literate biography and definitely worth reading.

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James Brown

I cannot say I learned to dance,
although at times I was inspired;
and with each wrong note, took a chance
that in his band, I might get fired.

Precision: like a jeweler’s saw
he cut through space and time
with life in rhythm, bold and raw.
In one small couplet’s rhyme

he could encapsulate a mood,
a generation’s groove;
and for the soul, he gave us food,
and brand new attitude.

An icon, teacher, yet a man
whose troubles, too, were large;
Yet It seemed, standing at the mic,
he was alone in charge.

An acrobat, a poet, too,
a dynamo of sound,
who could with one hand get us up,
and help us to get down.

One of the first ones with the dream,
a mighty architect;
whose building not just brought us hope,
but helped us stand erect.

So many rise and fall today
in shadows that he cast:
The cape now hanging in the wings
has left the stage, at last.

25 DEC 2006

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Howard Jones

So many inspirations have escaped,
slipped through the cracks,
their golden finish tarnished
when confronted with the facts

Some let their fame get to them,
others watched it slip away,
often so caught up in business
that they never learned to play

Fashion changes oh so quickly,
and the new face on the scene
becomes a phantom overnight,
or yesterday’s has been.

But some remain undaunted,
though their names have left the charts,
and try to carry on the quest
that first inspired their hearts.

His voice still pure and crystal sweet,
the song more poignant now:
for truly, no one is to blame,
despite it all, somehow.

16 JUN 2005

I’ve always been a Howard Jones fan. When he hit the scene in the early 1980’s, I was a young singer, songwriter and multinstrumentalist looking for my own voice, my own way to communicate. In those days, it seemed there were so few pop stars who actually studied music, who went through the discipline to learn an instrument, to let the beauty of their voices, not the genius of production, carry their message. Howard Jones, to me, was worth listening to, if only for those factors; the further point that the songs he wrote and sang were positive messages, that spoke to the inner sadness and beauty of a world I was just coming to know, made him even more important. Just this evening, I saw him perform on the NBC Show “Hit Me Baby One More Time” — and was once again transported, in tears, by the beauty of his voice, by his unassuming presence, by his lyrics. Thank you, Howard Jones. Sorry I lost track of you for all this time.

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