I had a revelation last night while washing the dishes.
It had nothing to do with dish soap making my hands soft as silk (though it IS true that my velvety hands are the result of my relaxed, pampered lifestyle). Rather I was listening to music to pass the time and decided on an early album by Guster. Hearing their breezy vocal harmonies and intoxicating melodies impressed upon me just how easy they made it sound. Sure, they probably spent a week working out just the right chords for one song or singing harmonies, polishing and perfecting, but in the end if all sounds so effortless.
Just prior to doing the dishes I had been in the basement for my weekly “music hour.” This week I decided to play the electric guitar and buzzed through some old and new favorites. I’ve been playing guitar now for close to ten years and I can honestly say that I really haven’t improved all that much, at least in the past five years. Not that I practice or take lessons, which I suppose would help. No, the only thing that currently helps my playing is a beer or two, and that only makes me sound better to me.
Contrasting the two items, the easy perfection of the Guster songs and my struggled mangling of a guitar that even at $300 is about $250 above my skill level, put me in mind to think about my own songs. Last year was a bumper crop of songs while this year has been busied with a few ideas but very little output. The songs I write follow the form of my playing – gasping, struggling things birthed in anguish and tension. Usually I get a melody idea for a song and if it sticks around long enough for me to remember it by the time I get to a recording device then I know it’s a keeper. Later I fumble around to figure out guitar chords or compose music around the melody that may or may not be in the same key. Instrumental parts for bass, guitar, keyboards, or accordion come to me as ideas in my head, not as a natural, instinctive overflow of my playing so I have to do my best to hammer out how to play the part of the chosen instrument and practice it a few times so it can at least be played technically without errors, though there isn’t quite enough skill in my fingers to bring out an emotional aspect, like how Eric Clapton can make the guitar spring to life full of emotions? I got none of that. The result is a sterile though functional song aching to be given all the little detailed nuances that real songs have when played by real musicians.
I recently had someone over and he asked me to play a song that I had written. Give me a CD player and I could but not with a guitar in my hand. For me the studio is as much an instrument as the bass or drums. But that’s me, I guess. Most of my musical life has been spent in solitude so the studio has had to step up and be my bandmates. I remember years and years ago when I was writing and recording songs with a high school friend he wanted to try playing live. Aside from the fact that it would mean him showing up with his guitar while for me it would mean days of programming MIDI plus packing up, loading, unloading, and setting up keyboards, drum machines, and a Commodore 64 (which would mean a TV, computer and giant disk drive) plus all the MIDI cables there was also the issue of the purpose. Why play live? The songs had been created so why bother playing them over again? My wife finds it bothersome that when I play songs of others I’ll rarely play the song through – once I get a verse or two and a chorus played what else is there? Repeat the same chord progression again a few times? Or maybe I’ll just skip to the next song I want to play.
Rambling done. Time to get back to the stuff of life.