I wrote a bunch of new songs last fall and winter, and haven’t had the chance to record them yet. What became a lockdown for everyone else was a state of perpetual road-trip, for us, and the part of my day where I pick up my guitar and run through three or four songs, at least, fell by the wayside many moons ago. It occurs to me today because I’m worried I’ve lost them — some part of the songs. It happens. I wish I would have had the foresight to video myself playing through them, no matter how poorly, just to make the lyrics and chords recoverable — I think I only did that with one of them. Darn.
I had begun playing at a singer-songwriter’s open mic downtown every Thursday evening, pandemic-prior. When a series of people play exclusively original music, it makes you feel kind of sad, because it turns out to be either not that original — like “I’ve never heard this in my life but I can tell you exactly what comes next” — or it’s so bizarre you’d actually prefer a cover, which is only original music written by some better songwriter. My actual songwriting is on pretty tight but I’d lapsed on performance, due to a long hiatus and actually never having had my shit entirely together, there.
It’s hard, I tell you, for a singer-songwriter to get all the requisite plates spinning, all at the same time. I have Chris Stapleton playing his own song, “What Are You Listening To,” live-acoustic, downloaded to my phone, and it’s a perfect example of the utterly simple, efficient, straightforwardness of a good performer sharing a good song, which is — man, it’s just so tough to bring it all through. So magical when it does come through, which then rightly sounds like simplest thing on earth.
In my years of playing and dabbling, I’ve had many many exquisite moments at home, alone, and only a very few, live. The ratio of mediocre to good is very high, for me. One of the best was a weekend when I’d played four live shows — both afternoons at the Snowbowl ski lodge, a Saturday evening at Charly’s, and I was finally at the fourth one, in the courtyard of Flagstaff Brewing Company on a warm summer evening. All three previous shows had been a slog, because playing solo acoustic is a slog, and now I was tired enough, relaxed enough, warmed up enough, and ‘fuck it’ enough that I was finally able to get out of my own way. I could actually enjoy the feeling of my own coordination and the sound of my own effortlessness in real time, without mentally reaching for the next line, the next chord, or the next thought. I was experiencing the same thing the audience was experiencing, and the rest was handling itself. God, what a peak moment that was, for me. And it didn’t even matter, particularly, what it was for the audience, which was also good but only as a side effect.
It takes a tremendous amount of time and engagement to be publicly good at anything. Years later, after I’d taken a long, long hiatus, and then was dabbling around at this singer-songwriter open mic in Albuquerque, I was at least aware that all the problems I was having were just par for the course and totally unavoidable. I was able to avoid getting down on myself, I mean. There’s nothing you can do except just keep “putting bullets downrange”, as my marksmanship coach used to say.
It’s wonderful when you can get to the point of fine-tuning at least, but it’s only possible to erect that on a base of experiencing every possible overt glitch rising to the surface. Everything I’ve learned to do is this same process, so I’m familiar with it. Heavy barbell lifting, in fact, works the exact same way. “I had no idea my body was going to do that, under stress.” Well, surprise! It did. Even the most casual open mic is a disconcerting experience of confronting all the things you had no idea you’d do. That’s why playing well at home, with no audience, can never, in itself, translate to spotlight gains. The only way to sound good on stage is to spend a bunch of time sounding bad on stage first, fully amplified. Awesome. There are, of course, gazelle-people who leap over entire areas of tribulation in this regard, but I’m not one of them.
I’m feeling as far from fluent musical performance as I’ve ever felt, and fire season precludes any solutions right now, so I’ll have to put that in the future-bank along with a lot of other stuff. I’ve wondered, off and on, what my trajectory will be or even should be, with music. I’ve had to reduce the question to most basic enjoyable terms. I like writing, I like recording, I like that I have a group in Nashville at least trying to shop my songs for record labels there. No success yet and a lot of money spent, I’ve still got the money to spend, and at least I’m keeping the door open with one toe.
There’s nothing as good as the feeling of playing well, publicly, but seems a little crazy to set goals around that when it’s not even locked in whatsoever, which is the crack I always fall through. Kind of like saying “what are my truck driver goals?” when your trailer is all over the road, slewing into adjacent lanes.
The songs I wrote last fall are bummer songs because I was in a bummer place but I still want them to have a life of their own, eventually, which somehow feels baseline imperative. I feel the possibility of greatness within me. Not objective greatness, which I don’t care about anyway, but let’s call it approaching my spiritual/genetic potential. In fact that’s how a lot of things work for me: I always want to approach own sensed potential, which represents the horizon, and I’m often trying to get there on my broken tricycle. Oh well. I spent so many years being mad that I was born into a world that treats artists like competitors in the Hunger Games that I had to just stop being mad about it, finally, for my own wellbeing. I’ve expanded my artistic concept to include even the occupation/income decisions I make — which are pretty stylish, right? — like, even if I can’t be a music artist or a writing artist or an artist-artist, every day of the week, I can probably figure out how to be some kind of lifestyle artist.
Anyway, I think this is why honky tonks are such a big deal for me, as I mentioned in passing yesterday. It’s so cool to be on the receiving end of the fully amplified, fully realized effect of someone’s song they wrote (probably sitting at home with a notebook and a 6-string, like me). And that’s the life blood of honky tonks: actual songs, written about actual feelings, by actual people. I don’t get this effect with jazz clubs, probably because I was born without a jazz receptor. My upbringing was mega-rural. And then club-clubs can be fun in a primal way, but there’s a lot of hook-up culture baggage there, which I disliked even prior to my own unwitting skirmishes with it, and now loathe intensely, to a degree that’s probably not even well-adjusted. I miss going to my friend Rich’s gigs, and my friend Jeff’s gigs, rather intensely.
I managed to write this whole blog without one single reference to COVID/BLM, if you’ll notice, but now it’s unavoidable because I have to say — as a cultural climate primarily driven by educated, privileged white people, who are always the ones to suck the absolute lifeblood out of unique, embodied experience in favor of intellectualizing everything to a ridiculous degree, I’m pretty fucking annoyed that, first, we had our interface with live music surgically removed, isolated in our homes for months (I wasn’t, but only because x y z), and then offered — of all things — a destructive, divisive perma-riot, rather than some kind of massive, nation-wide musical celebration, as our first, second, and third options for simply re-connecting with others and re-integrating with some kind of shared social experience. There is so much to celebrate, and a bunch of musicians and bands chomping at the bit to get out and at it again, and all our collective energy could have been channelled into something unifying and actually transformative, whether face-to-face or virtually delivered. I guess the industry’s a little under siege right now, with so many big name performers waiting for Ghislaine Maxwell to name names (?!?), and the populace increasingly skeptical of what they’ve been up to, but still — a lot of people, including Kanye for fuck’s sake, are talking about how the shift away from religion has opened a vacuum that social movements and identity politics are rushing in to fill.
I get that, because this “summer of love” designation, with its ironically enormous death toll, feels exactly like a bunch of people trying to find collective meaning, destructively, in an absence of constructive options, but I do not personally find religion for religion’s sake to be the tonic. The correlative and even causal improvement of a society high on Jesus may track and trend, but come on. Jesus stimulates the social economy like war stimulates the fiscal economy but that’s still a pretty regressive bandaid. There’s not much more dear to my heart than the separation of church and state, and if we’re ever looking for really great, really secular ways to bring folks together, I think music is the mother of all no-brainers.