Friday, August 31, 2012

My first music lesson.

It was the summer of my 6th year - 1991 and we were all down with OPP. I went from Florida to Alabama for the first time with my mother, and I was spending a lot of time wandering in the woods of Appalachia, the rolling hills and the bumbling brooks, the fresh clean air; it's optimum ground for a young boy to explore the great outdoors, and I was perfectly content poking things with sticks and shooting other things with my Daisy Red Ryder, but my mother had another plan. It was my Great-Grandmother's wish that I learn the piano, and she was getting old. Her time was coming to an end and my mother hoped that I would get to know her before she left us. We drove along the Coosa river to her Assisted Living Center, and I was antsy. I didn't want to learn piano. I thought it was a girl's instrument and I was the macho-est of macho. I wanted to hunt squirrels and catch and torture snakes. I wanted to play with my dog and run up to the top of a mountain screaming like a banshee indian. I wanted to be a cowboy Thundercat. 

But I guess my mom heard me singing Boyz II Men in the shower, and thought that I had some potential. And after all, it was my Nanna's dying wish. I still remember walking into the strange place full of old people hunched over on walkers, thick shiny glasses, and the smell... I could only compare it to steamed cauliflower and cigarettes. We climbed aboard the rickety old elevator and went up to my Nanna's apartment. She was in her favorite chair knitting a sweater for me. I was so antsy. I wanted to run. I wanted to play! I was a 6 year old boy full of vigor and zest and the attention span of a dog in a squirrel farm. So, we sat down at the piano. She taught me chopsticks and we played a duet. I learned what a "fifth" was and the definitions of melody and harmony. She taught me a nursery rhyme using the fifths called, "Cowboys and Indians," the title excited me, and it held my attention for 3.5 minutes. When my Nanna (forgiving of my adolescent shortcomings) got up from the piano, the lesson was finished. On the ride home, I complained to my mom about the funny smell and the banging out of nursery rhymes. I was forever bored.

A couple of weeks later, my Nanna gave me the sweater that she had knitted. It was a hand-made Cardigan with the word, "Nirvana" on the front. I wasn't even a Nirvana fan really, but she had heard about them as being a popular group, and thought that I might like it. I lost the sweater not that long after. I look back on these days with so much regret thinking that I could've learned so much more from her. She played piano in church every Sunday for years, and could sight read hymns with ease. Her playing was dynamic and beautiful, but I was such a dumb little kid. I didn't even recognize that I had the coolest freaking Great-Grandmother ever. And how could I just lose a made with love, one-of-kind Nirvana sweater? 

But one thing that is for certain, she planted the seeds in my heart to be a musician. I vividly remember a couple of ideas that she emphasized to me in those few lessons that I took. I'm not much of a piano player today, but I know that my Nanna would be proud of me. I know that she was a big part of shaping me as a person. I know that I love her, and that I will never forget what she did for me. 

Oh yeah, if you find a maroon and white cardigan with Nirvana stitched in the front when you are out thrift store shopping, that shit is mine!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Existential, Transcendental - Linear Circles

A journey of thought...

It's funny how a person's entire life is affected by little moments, little decisions... little seemingly insignificant choices at apparently mundane split seconds of life and that life continues to move forward into the inevitable oblivion. I slept in today. Wonder what I missed? Time is just passing by... 

I hear a lot of talk about structure and order in the Universe. I'm told that humans think linearly - chronologically. Our goal is efficiency and scientific progress for the betterment of the species. A binary code may one day explain all phenomena, and our entire existence is one giant, complicated exercise in arithmetic.

All of these straight lines pushing forward in time. No turning back. Only forward. It certainly feels that way sometimes. But who is to say that all lines aren't just made up of tiny little circles? Personally, I say lines are obsolete, inadequate, unjustifiable, a myth personified by simple minds seeking simple answers. The proof is all around us because everything is circular. It always comes back around. Everything rotates into a giant cyclical repetition.

The universe is a collection of circles called galaxies, which are collections of solar systems, which are collections of planets, which are collections of organisms, which are collections of smaller organisms, which are a collection of cells, which are a collection of molecules, which are a collection of atoms, which are a collection of particles...

The ecosystem of bacteria in my stomach is an entire world of individual creatures functioning with the greater purpose of converting the food I consume into poop!- An entire world devoted to the creation of shit! Think about it!!! Well, not my poop of course... But the individuals in respectively small realities going about what seems like everyday business with no apparent knowledge that the mundane and seemingly insignificant actions that they perform result in something bigger, something amazing. 
I wouldn't survive without this collective. None of us would survive without the symbiosis of the Universe.  
A collective working for a greater purpose.... I am merely the sum of many functional systems, which are the sum of individual parts within that system. 

Yet, if we all exist in this proposed cyclical, symbiotic collective, How can their be a hierarchy, a chain of being, a class structure, a winner and a loser, a good guy and a bad guy or any other bifurcated reality? How can there be a single, individual thing sitting on top of some mythical pyramid scheme that we call God? How do we justify and rationalize this? How can we call ourselves individuals? How can their be ownership or Capitalism, when we are all connected, maybe not literally, but we are all made up of the same stuff and everything that we do affects everything else around us? We are all making ripples, some splashing and others floating. 

Here we are in this universe constructed entirely from the same essential elements. It's all the same. We're no different you and I. We just think differently, see differently. So, is that the friction that prevents us from acknowledging our connection? Our subjectivity, our Interpretation of fact? Can facts really exist when the application of fact is always subject to such diverse interpretation? Perspectives rarely ally, and often this is the root of chaos. But is anything really that simple?

Here I am complaining of order and linearity, but offering the opposite as the only alternative. Is the human mind limited to dwindling everything into dichotomies? Can we ever understand the nuances of a full spectrum of possibilities? Maybe there is supposed to be a little bit of order and a little bit of chaos. Maybe sometimes there are supposed to be winners and losers; good guys and bad guys; classes and hierarchies. Maybe we should take ownership for things sometimes. Ownership implies responsibility and stewardship. Maybe God is a little bit of everything and a little bit of nothing. 

Maybe we aren't supposed to ever know. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The first time I bombed. Probably won't be the last...

I've forgotten everything... You name it and I've left it behind or forgotten to bring it with me. My mind has this funny way of just going blank, regardless of my sobriety level. Funny thing though: nothing forces a creative "Macgyver" adjustment like forgetting to bring an important piece of equipment. In my defense, you know: assembling an intricate state of the art sound system in multiple various locations, many consecutive nights out of a week can lead to instances of neglect and error... Especially, when you aren't just leaving it in a van or car all the time. 

Each piece is a potential thing to be forgotten - Forgotten picks or straps; forgotten song sheets... directions to the gig, the time slot of the gig, the merchandise, Forgotten cables or stands... a monitor or a main, a mixing board... an amp... a guitar...

One time, we drove all the way to the gig, 2.5 hrs. away, and I forgot to bring a mic stand. Fortunately, we had Joe's drum kit and some duct tape. We taped the microphone to a cymbal stand and Joe went with one less cymbal. We didn't have room for it anyway, right? Actually, the stage was so narrow that we could barely fit the bass drum, and we had to climb up a ladder to get up onto it. 

I've forgotten to bring my guitar; I've forgotten to take my guitar home. Lucky to have a girlfriend to call and bring it to me on the first one. Lucky that people were honest on the second. When I left my guitar behind at the New World Brewery over night once, I returned the next day to find it unharmed, sitting under the scaffolding with every sticker and string still in tact. I'm told that a few PBR sipping hipsters took it for a strum in between foosball matches... 

In another crazy moment of brain fart, I actually forgot that I had a gig. I'm walking through Wal-mart at 9:30pm on a Tuesday and I get a call from the manager, "Where the hell are you? You were supposed to start 30 minutes ago!" Whoops. What can I say? I don't usually play Tuesday nights...

Forgetting things is one problem, but what's even worse for the ego is forgetting ideas and thoughts. See, with things, you can usually call your girlfriend to save you, or you can improvise your way out of it. Forgetting ideas however, usually results in an ego tragedy. Like for instance: forgetting the lyrics. My mind has drawn a complete blank on lyrics to my own songs a time or two, and quite often on the hundreds of other artists that I may cover in any given 4 hour gig. Over the years though, I've learned that people aren't really listening for the most part and repeating the first verse is an easy trick to getting away with it. If you forget the bridge just repeat the verse and chorus with a smile. Whatever. People know all the words to very few songs generally. Of course, how much you forget dictates the severity of your potential train wreck, and whether or not you are recording... 

But one thing you can't really recover from is when you forget the melody to the song. And you're the lead singer...

Which leads me to one thing I will never forget: The first time I bombed in front of a huge audience. I was going to sing a song for my church congregation of a few hundred folks. I was still young, 12 yrs old and very green as a performer. This was a huge step for me because at the time, I was mostly introverted with performing. I had only played in front of a few friends and close family. I had written my own song, and I was scheduled to perform at the end of the service. Backstage prior, I was warming up my voice and preparing. I had just bought a capo from the music store, which for you non-guitar players, allows one to easily transpose songs into higher pitches. I tried it out on the song, and because it raised the pitch higher, I was forced to sing the song a little harder and with what felt like more conviction. So, I decided to go for it - I would sing the song in the new, higher key. But once I got out there, I forgot my note...

I searched for it and searched for it, bouncing from note to note like a moaner getting a massage. My desperation to remember the melody cascaded into an onslaught of self-doubt and subsequent lack of effort that comes over a person who publicly accepts defeat... I powered through the song with a face as red as a mid-life crisis corvette and hands shaking like a chihuahua. When it was finished, (even though my loving and supportive congregation showered me with applause) I knew the inferior quality of my performance, and I walked off the stage in shame - my head held low to the ground.

Afterwards, the great consoler that is my mother came to meet me and asked, "What happened? Halfway through the song your face got red and then you held your head down the whole time?"

"I couldn't find my note. I forgot the way the song was supposed to go." I replied in embarrassment.

"Well next time don't be such a baby about it. Don't be awkward. Be confident, and no one will ever know that you have no idea what you're doing."

Of course, these are great words of wisdom to live by. Besides, I was 12 - all I had to do was chalk it up to puberty.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


For some people the road isn't paved ahead of them. You have to pay some dues to get anywhere, and I'm currently doing just that. I've had my fair share of awesome gigs as a smalltime musician, playing for appreciative folks that are kind and respectful. It makes it all worth while to perform in front of such an audience, and I don't expect much. But on my level, I typically play in restaurants and little bars where people want to hear cover songs or familiar sing-a-longs, out on the beach where everyone asks for Jimmy Buffet. I aim to please. I am not so prideful that I think I am too cool to play Skynyrd or whatever other shitty song that some drunk person wants to hear. But it wears on you. I'm a songwriter and I want to be appreciated for what I do. Sometimes I get that appreciation and it feels so good. But for every gig that I play in a cool place with a great audience, there are 3-5 gigs in some shit-hole dive bar where the audience could care less. I often wonder why the owners are even paying me to be there. Those days it just seems like work. It will make you jaded, and suck the inspiration straight out of your soul. Sitting in some of the shit holes that I've found myself at, I often wonder, Why the hell am I doing this?  Then I remind myself that I'm just a smalltimer and it comes with the territory.  You know at the same time, there are nights when it can be a very interesting experience in people watching... 

I booked a gig with an agent, a former bartender from another place in which I had played before. "It's kind of a smoky dive" he said in the email, forewarning me of the conditions. I pulled into the parking lot of the liquor store which was a separate section of the same building. "You gotta go in through the back door, you can't get to the bar from here," piped the aggressive, beef-cake bald man behind the register. The throbbing vein in his forehead signaled his distaste. I swung around back and entered through the door with the faded stencils: BAR. My expectations are growing for the quality of the place. 

The mirrored wall, the smoke stained yellow trim, the burnt out Christmas lights, the overly repetitive yard-sale bought Budweiser advertisement posters displaying drink specials that don't exist, the plastic faux wood grain counter tops, the carefully placed half-burnt cigarette on the top of the urinal, the handful of cigarettes floating in the toilet, the vomit-soaked claustrophobic stall, the busted and broken tile with a rusty drain in the middle of the floor, the dark sunken eyes of tired patrons, the thick foggy air, the inebriating haze of Camels and hot breath.

We set up in the corner, and began our usual set: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson.... six songs later with no applause or even an affirmation of our measly existence, Maybe this is a hip-hop crowd? We hit them with Snoop Dogg and the Gorillaz. Nothing... We increased the volume and attempted to swoon them with Rodney Carrington's "Dear Penis". The result: scattered claps from the drunken machismos in the back.

"See Matt, sing a song about penis and you get the clap!" I joked.
"Play Freebird!" "Play Pop that Pussy!" (I think we have their attention now...)
"Sorry, We don't know any Skynryd and we've played all the hip-hop we know." I replied.
"Play Run DMC!" "Play Bitches Aint' Shit!" ....

Engaging this audience seemed regrettable. 

The door flew open and this stocky, latino sanchito walked in huffing and puffing. He marched a lap around the bar cussing into the air and flailing his arms like James Brown's hype-man. Is he rapping? Is he excited about the USF game? Maybe he just won a scratch off ticket? Is he angry or is he excited?Who is he talking to? Upon completion of his bar circumnavigation, he flew out the door with a slam! The music continued...

"I don't know why I came here tonight, I've got a feeling something aint right."

The ripped linoleum exposing iron-stained concrete, the heterogeneous light fixtures, the stale funk of the unwashed floor mats permeating the smoke-filled air, the coasters stacked under the short leg of the table, the clinks and clacks of glasses, the uncomfortably persistent eye contact. 

"It's my birthday will you play me a song?" A young girl asks. Happy to oblige, Matt played the birthday song from 'The League' that goes into uncomfortable detail about the night the parents of the birthday person conceived. It's all about your mom's multiple orgasms and other things that you really don't want to think about, which in turn makes you really regret that you asked for a birthday song in the first place. He never notices when he is offending people. Oh wait, they were too drunk to be offended. In fact, it's actually pretty hilarious, good job Matt.

Sanchito returns! He stampedes through the door como el burro: "¡vete al carajo!"  He howls while beating his chest as he circled the high-top bar headed into the billiards room. The voices melted like wax, shapeless and unidentifiable. The conversations meld with the music into a swell of white noise. We were quiet observers. He approached a girl and tilted his head, towering over her with the posture of a boxer at weigh-in.

The exchange erupted and he threw her against the thin wood panel wall. A nearby woman stepped in and pushed him back slightly, just enough to distract him for a split second. Recovering from her push against the wall, the girl reached for a half-empty rocks glass and beamed it at his face, connecting square in the forehead. He stumbled back, the glass shattered across the floor, finally attracting the attention of the half-drunken security guard, who sluggishly intervened. 
The music continued...

"Is it ok if I go to sleep on the floor? Cause I don't think I can take anymore."

The unfinished high-tops of exposed plywood, the group of 50 somethings playing Golden Tee, the scantily clad tattooed covered harlots, the bearded lonely old salts, the mineral flavored tap water, the hobo selling half dead roses to the stifled relationships and the horny old bastards, the toothless smiler, the peeled off label of an unfinished beer, the smell of whiskey and cigarettes.

"What's a girl like that doing here?"  pointed through the cigarette smoke to a classy blonde with high heels and a purple dress, power strutting through the dive with authority. She sat at the bar and made eye contact with no one. She didn't order a drink. The wolves circled; the first one to make a move came equipped with the hobo's rose. He laid it down on the bar in front of her. No acknowledgement, she pulled her phone from her purse and buried her face in it. He retreated immediately redirecting his focus toward a flashing tv screen. She whispered in the ear of the well-dressed gentlemen on the corner of the bar beside her, and then excused herself to the bathroom. Fifteen seconds in the bathroom and then she was out the door speeding off in her Nissan GT-R. "Ah, the white pony pickup." Matt chuckled. 
The music continued...

"Ain't got no money to spend. Ain't got no time to grow old."

The ring of the last call bell, the shuffling of the crooked backs, the coin flipping for driving responsibilities, the inconsiderate short changed tips, the melted ice of an abandoned cocktail, the stumble to the door, the flirting with strangers and death, the reckless abandonment of logic and reason, the carefully placed half-burnt cigarette on the top of the car, the sweat soaked forehead of the obese man playing arcade photo match and refusing to leave, the long ride home, the twinkling lights over the bay at 3 am, another day in the office of a smalltimer.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

No new ideas?

"There are no more new ideas." It's the first real philosophical debate of the musician. You want to write a new song and you want it to speak from your heart and be a true representation of your identity. But there are only so many notes. There are only so many chords. There are only so many words and stories and ideas. The context and influence of our society dictates that there are only so many acceptable forms and traditions of music to work within. You can only learn the type of music that people around you play and can teach you (which has kind of changed with the invention of but regardless, we are limited to expressing in terms of what we have been exposed to.

"We are merely reassembling old ideas and are incapable of true creation." That's what someone might say. But isn't that too simple? Ok sure. Every chord and note has been played and assembled in every possible way, at this point in western musical tradition. On a general level, maybe every story has already been told. But that is only if you forget the details and look solely at generalizations. We all occupy a specific space and time. The context of the moment, the circumstance of events, every prior moment leading up to this moment culminate into the creation of a new idea. Everything is constantly moving and changing with time. Old ideas become new ideas in the new contexts they inhabit, and they will change again in the future. We are constantly redefining everything within the context of our own time. Old tropes and archetypes take on new meanings as we bend and break stereotypes, coping with our new realities. Technology is proof that new ideas do exist. The use of technology to change perspective and present old ideas in brand new innovative ways is the act of creativity.

So, yeah if you look at any work I've ever done from far away, nothing distinguishes it from anything else that has been done before, but no moment in time before me had the same set of circumstance that I currently have and the technology that I have at my disposal. Creativity comes when you are faced with a unique set of challenges or limitations and you modify your old ideas in reaction. So in that sense, we are all unique individuals and creators in an exclusive space and time.

Here's to Originality!

Online Activism or Antagonism

What is it that drives us to share infographs, links, memes or quotes of the political or religious nature? Is it because we are trying to incite a thoughtful and critical discussion of our values and motivations as a society? Or do we just want to let it be known that we see things a certain way - a virtual shouting from the mountaintop? Or do we care at all about what impact it might have on the random invisible people on the other end of the web; those subjected to our onslaught of propaganda? What do we hope to accomplish by our incessant sharing? I'm as guilty as anyone. I can't stop myself from clicking the share button on a picture that strikes me, but do I actually believe that someone will rethink their position because of it, or is it more likely that they will get pissed and share their own infographic rebuttal? Are we online activists or antagonists?

I truly believe that the increased connectivity ushered in by the digital age has allowed us to hold people to an entirely new level of accountability for what they say and believe. Look at what happens now when a public figure says something stupid. They are lambasted by the entire nation online and through television instantaneously. In many ways it is a beautiful thing. Something that has the potential of bringing us ever closer to the mirror smoke of truth. But am I overly optimistic to think that this new level of exposure and accountability will force people to come to grips and confront the hypocrisies of their personal world-views? Or, will the elimination of time that used to serve as a filter and distiller between commentary and the citizenry cause people to double down on their beliefs separating us even further? We can find whatever information we desire, and that is exactly what we do. We search out the ideas that reaffirm our own. We reject the validity of facts that contradict what we already believe to be true. Will we ever learn the skill of diplomacy and critical thinking, humility in our own intellect, acknowledgment that we might not know everything even though google is at our fingertips? Will we ever be able to come together and discuss difficult issues with sound reasoning, level heads and open minds? I'm not so sure...

A philosophical rant on Individualism versus Collectivism:

The recent debate over whether people build businesses on their own, or if they are products of the environment has sparked a deeper philosophical debate between Individualism and Collectivism. The specific debate that I refer to between Romney and Obama is a bit of a joke when you look at it closely. A typical political debate of distorted and out of context comments designed not to accomplish greater understanding, but to paint their opponents as out of touch with the common American person. But if there truly is a bifurcation, I would like to ask the business owner who thinks that all of their accomplishments stem directly from their own talents, what then does the president, the government, or the economy have to do with your business that you built all by yourself? If you are on your own why are you so concerned about the direction of the government, the country or anything outside of your minuscule, isolated world? Why can't you just innovate around it? The answer is that you can't because we are all subjected to the greater flow of economics and government policy. Our little worlds are microcosms of a larger one. To the Collectivists that would say successful business has nothing to do with individual talent and innovativeness, I would say to you: You are a bitter and sore loser that has never met a successful small business owner. Starting a business requires an incredible investment of time and energy; knowledge and skill; talent and creativity; luck and environment are part of the equation, but only a part. Individual prowess is the true spark. Very rarely are people handed success. If they are then they must work hard to maintain it or it will quickly disappear.  

The truth is: this dichotomy of individualism versus collectivism doesn't exist. It is a lie perpetuated by hard-liners, Marxists and Randists; a narrative that seeks to divide our personal world-views into neat little boxes for political and economic motivations. How can we not be individuals when we are each unique and different organisms? How can we not be a collective when we are all products of our environment? The answer of course is that we are both. We are individuals but we also exist within a collective. What implication does this have? If you claim that your success is strictly due to your own tenacity and talent then you must also claim your failures for the same reasons. Yet, most often the capitalist will say that "I succeeded through my own hard work" but when failure comes, "I failed because of the economy" Why not acknowledge that both factors exist and are at play? Why not recognize that if not for a little luck and some community support, no amount of hard work will be enough to succeed, or that people are capable of doing great things on their own through diligence and determination. The idea that we control our own destiny is only partially true. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our genetic predispositions. We do not choose the neighborhood that we are brought up in, the role models that come into our lives, the propaganda we are bombarded with, the actions of others that may affect us... We do not choose the circumstances or events in our life that either foster our talents or our weaknesses. We can only control our reactions to these variables of life. But we cannot control the world. The world moves and we are just a small part of it.That doesn't eliminate the hope that we can do something great as an individual. We are all unique and possess special gifts and talents. It is up to us to discover those gifts, harness and nurture them, and then use them to make a positive impact in our community or to further our own success as individuals. 

The sooner that collectivists acknowledge that many personal liberties should not be given up for the sake of the state, that innovative individuals are the spark of progress in our economy, and the sooner that individualists acknowledge that there are things that we can do as a society to enhance the freedom and opportunities of individuals, the sooner we can come together and create solutions to problems rather than just criticizing our perceived opponents.