Saturday, January 17, 2009

Rocka Rolla

So I have been playing music for 20 years now. I just got done playing a rock show at the Kitty Cat Club and I thought it was fantastic. It was so much fun. This was probably the 400th gig I've played in my rock career, or something like that, and I was able to play and sing and feel comfortable and confident onstage. I can look at my band mates and smile and nod and even carry on small talk occasionally. I have even developed stances, and I strike my guitar with exaggerated flourish. I love performing. But it wasn't always this way.

Music does not come naturally to me. I've had to work at it. It's taken me 20 years to have the confidence and presence in a band that some of my peers achieved in their first couple years of playing. Creative thought however does come naturally to me. In high school I began my musical journey by writing song lyrics when I should have been paying attention to algebra. Three of my earliest songs were called, "My Head Explodes", "Fucking Gay", and "Battling Nations". I would show these to my buddy Paul who had already at that time made his first solo demo and was the guitar player in his brothers' band. Paul was and is very good. He put music to the latter of those three songs and it came out on one of their demos. My name was in print. I liked it. I liked it a lot. Paul wanted to start his own band and decided I was weird and flamboyant enough to be the front man. I could write lyrics, so it seemed the perfect way for me to become musical. It was perfect, I wouldn't even have to learn to play an instrument. But there was a problem. I couldn't sing. Singing is an instrument I later realized that has to be learned. I just couldn't get it right. I was off pitch and I didn't even know what that meant. I was clueless. Useless. It wasn't like singing in chorus. Sigh.

That was when I was handed the bass guitar. There was an electric spark of destiny as I put that thing on my neck. Only four strings, and they were big ones, it was like remedial reading class. I figured it would be a snap, but I had to work at it. It was difficult at first. I learned some easy songs, and then I started writing my own parts. The thing is while I was really bad at playing bass, I was very quickly able to actually write simple things. I had the creativity but none of the skill or talent.

Anyway that was 20 years ago. My first band made a demo which I am still strangely proud of and drawn to. We did things out of ignorance which I now would never even consider. It was awesome. When we played our first show I was meek and nervous. My tongue was probably sticking out as I was counting every plunk in my head, nervously studying my fingers, terrified to look away for even a micro-second lest I fall off the groove. Later that night I met a girl, and she seemed to think I was interesting. I never looked back.

A year after my first band began I decided to learn how to play guitar. Maybe I was hoping for a promotion. I took it very seriously and I learned what all the notes were. There were lots of kids back then who couldn't tell you were a G was on the guitar, they did it all by ear. I figured if I understood guitar I could at least communicate with my bandmates better. I wrestled with that damn guitar. It was so hard. Chords! Fuck me. My fingers were not meant to bend in all those strange shapes. I can remember lying on my bed crying because I could not transition from a C chord to a G chord without ten minutes of prep time. And bar chords? Forget it. Simply impossible. I was not going to get that promotion any time soon. After time I did learn to play guitar, but I've never been more than adequate at it. I have guitars lying around all over my house now, and I play them everyday. I write songs on them and play Beatles songs for my son, but I've only played guitar onstage once, and that wasn't anything to brag about.

After I mastered being really crappy on guitar, I went on to learn how to be really crappy on the piano, and then later how to be even crappier on the drums. That entire time I was still practicing on how to be a crappy singer. And I wrote songs. I kept writing songs. After a couple years I began to realize that I was not crappy on the bass. I was somewhat adequate. When I would jam with people I was even complimented occasionally as having a "style" of my own, (which I was ripping off from Peter Hook and Paul McCartney). People seemed to like me on bass, and I liked playing bass, so I just kept doing it. I became and have remained a bass player. And I am now proud to be a bass player. Bass players rule! But I wanted to write music too.

My problem as a bass player, was that it is difficult to bring forth song ideas on that instrument. Guitar players need more to go on than I was able to provide and I would often have the songs I wrote being changed simply by my inability to communicate my vision. The other big problem was that while I could sing to myself, or hear the vocal melody in my head, I simply could not sing and play at the same time. I worked on this all the time. I eventually was able to sing while strumming chords on a guitar, but singing while playing bass was simply not a feat any human could accomplish. Except people did it all the time. I then spent years simply not trying to communicate my ideas. I became just the bass player.

Ten years ago I was in a really good band. I was having fun playing bass at shows, but I was still terrified on stage. I was obsessed with not making mistakes. I could barely make eye contact with another band member while playing a song. I had to focus on the task at hand. That worked for the shoegazer style of music we were doing, but I wanted to do better.

After some time I found myself without a band. I spent about a year just writing songs on the guitar. I practiced writing entire songs, with beginnings, and ends, middle eights, verses, choruses, codas, etc. I just wrote. And I did some demos. I loved the demos because I could track everything separately. Most of it was crap but the bass lines were good. I then learned to bring those crappy demo ideas to other people and have them put their own talents into them. Somewhere during this time my confidence was building. I learned to communicate with other musicians. I was able to step up to the mic and sing while playing. It just happened. Suddenly I was capable of singing backup vocals live. I'm still not the best singer, but damnit I can sing and play at the same time finally. After that I was able to let my concentration drop while playing. I was able to look around, to smile, to develop exaggerated movements. And I didn't care if I made a mistake, I was able to simply enjoy the moment and get back on track if anything went wrong. I still try to not fuck up, that's what practice is for, but still this was a major breakthrough for me.

So here I am now 20 years later, and I'm just finally doing what I want to do musically. But I'm still honing the skill. It doesn't come naturally to me. I'm continually working to be better. Maybe in 20 years I'll be that grandpa musician who makes it look easy. I'm a slow ass learner. Actually that applies to every aspect of my life. Possibly the effort is what generates wisdom. I hope so. Tonight I played adequate, but I felt awesome while doing it. All that really matters in the end is that you enjoy the ride.


Michael said...

Amen to all of this buddy. If you listen to the early demos of our current project, you will notice that I have dramatically improved as a vocalist. Perfecting both on stage and studio vocalization does not come easy, but it really is just a matter of challenging yourself to improve. What I liked about our last show was the energy, spirit and belief in our craft. A lot of shows are just not like this, so it reminds you why you continue to create and play music. I for one believe in you as a musician both vocally and on the bass. I often get jealous of y'all cause the only instrument I use is my voice. I would love to strap on a guitar and just rock for a change, but that is not my role. That said, I am proud to share this project with you, cause your leadership as a musician keeps this band in check.

Chris Hill said...

Aww buddy. Thanks. You are an amazing vocalist. I think you always have been. Cascade had stretched your range asa vocalist, but I knew you had it in you. I'm proud of you.

I didn't know I was the leader. I thought you were. If anything I'm the bumbling Prince Regent who on a whim decides we need to be more metal, and you are the Prime Minister who has to do all the real work. Your leadership keeps us united. Your leadership keeps us going forward so we have the opportunity to evolve.

As the Prince I think we should rename the group to "Bi-Curious Rage." As the Prime Minister you tell me it's been handled, knowing I will have forgotten by the next gig.

Keep up the great work.

belsum said...

You know I love the Prince Regent. Hee! George!

Anyway, I loved this post. It's been an honor and a priveledge to watch this transformation in you and in your confidence. I've already told you that I'm in awe of your ability and willingness to Try and Practice and Keep Going, even when it's Hard. I don't have that. It's why I don't play anything other than crappy piano.

I really wanted to go to that show on Friday. It would have been the perfect last one for me to see before I go into end-of-third-trimester and new-infant hibernation.