“To be obsessed with the destination is to remove the focus from where you are.” – Philip Toshio Sudo Zen Guitar
I got an email a bit back with a question concerning one of my last articles. It was a good question and I sent off what I hoped was a good response (and I do intend to use both the question and reply in an upcoming column). I got a nice thank you for the explanation which included this statement: “I don’t know why you spend your time working on this site but I appreciate it and look forward to your next column.”
Now as much I like to think I know “why” I do the things I do, it’s always great to find that there are more reasons than I could ever hope to enumerate. It’s strange, but ever since I’ve started writing for Guitar Noise, I am being constantly showered with friendly reminders. Each day shows me not only just how important music is to my life and but also how important it is to be able to share this aspect of my life with friends and strangers alike.
I’ve been playing since 1974, but it wasn’t until my college years, 1975 through 1982 (I was one of many on the then popular “Bluto Blutarski” plan), that I made the acquaintances and subsequent “friendships for life” that music often fosters. Dan Lasley and I met in college waaayyyy back when. He and I’d played together, along with Laura and Anne (both of whom you’ll meet later) in White Ash and Dan also did sound for Fat Lewy. Then life, as it will, swept us along its way. He married Laura, moved to Los Angeles and eventually ended up (with family) in Connecticut.
Almost exactly a year ago, another good friend (and ex-Fat Lewy bandmate) Kyle got married. The reception was pretty much an all-afternoon jam with all the different people he’d played with throughout his life and it was a wonderful time. It was pretty much all I could talk about for months after the fact.
And one of the persons I wound up talking about this to was Dan. A mutual friend had emailed us both (and many others) some joke or other sometime in February or so and, as I was in one of my strong “why haven’t I kept in touch?” moods, I decided that I’d send him an email of my own. That led to his responding and my responding and on and on. I made mention of my newfound writing gig here at Guitar Noise and suggested that he might want to try his hand at sharing his knowledge. It proved to be a great idea as he is now the resident Bass for Beginners and Sound/Engineering columnist. And if you haven’t taken the time to read any of his articles, please let me recommend them. Even I can now understand some of this previously mystical engineering stuff.
And, of course, I told him about Kyle’s wedding and the reception jam.
And he, of course, said, “You, know, we could do that!”
And before either of us knew it, we were both swept up in life again, only this time it was carrying each of us towards each other. I have, literally, piles of emails. “What about this song?” “Do these dates work for you?” “Do you think we could talk so-and-so into coming?” Inquiries were sent out. Hopes were raised, hopes were dashed, other hopes rose to fill in the spaces.
It’s perhaps fitting to mention here that I’ve found that I have become addicted to jams. Yeah, I know that between teaching and practice I play virtually every day. But there is something very special about playing with other people. For me it is more important than playing for an audience (don’t get me wrong, that’s a real rush, too – just a different sort). And when the people in the jam are good friends, then it can really cook. I’ve taken to hosting some at my home and I get invited to some local ones and a grand time is had (hopefully) by all. It’s frightening, but sometimes my life can be divided into three phases: either I am playing in a jam, remembering and (over) analyzing the last jam or fully anticipating and/or planning the next one.
And lots of planning had to go into this one. Fortunately, Dan was handling the nuts-and-bolts aspects – finding a hall, checking into equipment, even going so far as to draw up a list of nearby motels! He even gave it an “all-purpose” name: Riverside Jam. He reasoned that if it became an ongoing affair, it could easily change locals and, well, there’s always a river somewhere close by…For close to four months, rarely would a day pass without some communication between us about the upcoming event. We’d make a big deal about something, realize that we were making too big a deal about something else, laugh about how serious/silly we were being, get serious about not taking something seriously enough.
And one morning I woke up and it was time to get my gear together and trundle out east to have a great time with my friends.
Dan introduced me to Anne. Exactly when this was, I cannot say. I want to say 1981 or 1982. Let’s just call it quite a while ago. Anne was one of many drummers I’d play with in over the course of a few short years (if nothing else, the movie “This Is Spinal Tap” is truthful in its portrayal of the life span of any groups’ percussionist), and she certainly was the most memorable.
About two years ago, she too was someone that I took a deep breath and called out of the blue. I’d gotten her number from a university directory and called her up one Sunday afternoon. My timing was great; she’d been spending the day tearing up carpeting in her home so any call was a welcome break! Yes, she was still in the area and before I knew it I got invited to visit and play with her friends and I in turn invited them around to jam with my friends and students. Again I had to wonder how we let people fall out of our lives. For if there had to be a single word to describe Anne, it would be infectious. Her enjoyment of life knows no bounds and spills over everything. When she is in a good mood it is close to impossible for anyone in her company not be in caught up into the same mood as well.
Anne turned out to be excited about going to the Riverside Jam (now officially “Riverside Jam 2000,” which did indeed hint at the possibility of more to come…) because she has relatives in Connecticut. So she planned to fly out while I planed to hitch a ride to Connecticut, first with a student of mine (and his wife) and then with a friend who was interested in coming along and finally with Amtrak (plans do change frequently, you know; always have contingencies). But, with a little less than a week to go, she decided to drive out and asked if I’d come along.
I was originally going to leave on Tuesday by train and meet up Wednesday with friends in Philadelphia who would in turn take me to Princeton. But Anne wanted to spend more time with her relations so we left on Monday night after she picked me up and we had a pleasant meal at a nearby Greek restaurant.
We made terrific time driving out (and back) with not a single traffic snarl worth speaking of. And I must tell you how positively divine it is to listen to an Edith Piaf tape while riding the Ohio Turnpike close to midnight. And then the tape automatically flips to Fats Waller on side B…
A Lead Guitar
Of this particular set of people, Greg and I go back the farthest. I met him in 1976 and we’d played in Balance of Power and other little groups we’d throw together for whatever occasion might arise. Even though there are some people I’ve known longer, he and I have been pretty good at keeping in touch. Like many of my friends and ex-bandmates, he doesn’t play much anymore and is genuinely happy to get the chance to do so.
Anne and I arrived at his home Tuesday night. After a quick bite for supper, she left to drive up to visit her relatives and I stayed to make the rest of the journey on Thursday with Greg. It was wonderful being with him and his family again. I am lucky in that I know so many people who genuinely make me feel at home. The time always flies by when I’m with him, whether I’m running ideas for arrangements by him or he’s showing me the latest equipment and/or toys that he’s picked up. We got in some playing time and also stopped in at a few music stores for supplies. I did manage to meet up with my Philadelphia friends in Princeton for dinner on Wednesday and then Greg and I headed off to Dan’s Thursday.
After unpacking a few things and having supper, Dan, Greg and I played for a brief while. Then Greg went off to check in at his hotel (his wife and daughter were to join him Friday) and I stayed up and caught up with my host. Even though we’d been emailing each other now for a half a year, there is still no substitute for being able to see into the eyes of your friends.
The next day, Dan and Greg went over all the sound gear and recording equipment while I wrote out and arranged charts for our “horn section.” It’d been longer than I care to talk about since I’d done this sort of thing and must say that it was a blast. Having two saxophones to deal with (either two tenors or an alto and a tenor) brought a new dimension to a jam that I’d long since forgotten. And, in addition to playing the tenor saxophone, Dan’s son Ben also had recently picked up the flute, so I tried to work that in for a song or two. Virtually everyone I know these days plays guitars or the (occasional) keyboard; it’s hard enough to get a bass player sometimes! Now when I said I “wrote and arranged” charts for the horns, you must undestand something. All I did was write out the parts that were deemed “essential” to a song and make sure that they were transposed correctly according to the instrument. Sometimes these were existing horn parts, like say in “Get Ready” or “Only The Good Die Young.” Sometimes I might double a guitar riff (“My City Was Gone”) or even the bass line (“Somebody To Love”). The purpose was to provide a framework, as opposed to step by step instructions. After all, I wanted everyone to have the liberty to improvise.
Doing the charts also provided me with a reason to not be giving my friends (both electrical engineers, by the way) the incessant questioning that I am wont to do when I assist them in such matters. I can lay out cable and set up stuff with the best of them but if you needed me to explain exactly what I was doing, forget it. And I was having a much more interesting time talking with Dan’s kids, Ben and Jacqui anyway. Not to mention serving as a perch for Pern, the Lasley pet cockatiel.
Laura, Dan’s wife, got home from her hospital shift about noon Friday. She was supposed to get off around midnight Thursday but a baby had developed some serious complications and needed ’round the clock care and observation. Laura told me the child’s name was David and I told her that he then had two things going for him, his name and the fact that she was his doctor.
She crashed for the afternoon while I kept at the charts and much too soon it was time to pack the gear again and to move it all to Toquet Hall, our venue for the next thirty hours.
A Horn Section And Another Guitar
Toquet Hall, which Dan had managed to procure for the weekend, normally serves as a student center for the local high school population. It has the usual amenities – chess sets, foosball table, pool table, etc. And it has a huge stage. I hate to say it, but it was easily two to three times larger than many of the Chicago bars I played at in the early part of the 1980′s.
We unloaded and set up the equipment. Along with the PA gear, Dan also had managed to finagle a drum set so that Anne didn’t have to drag all her stuff across country. After performing my assigned tasks (mainly lugging things around and laying out cables and stands), I met and chatted with Chris. He was another “infectious” personality, having recently graduated from high school and having his first semester at Berklee School of Music a matter of days away. And he certainly could play the saxophone! Not only that, he had a fairly good grasp of theory to fall back on.
In contrast, Ben hadn’t been playing anywhere near as long but more than made up for the difference in experience by playing his heart out. And a fairly good balance was achieved by having Ben solo on pieces he knew fairly well while Chris took on more of the ad-lib chores.
Anne made her entrance just in time to help setting up the drum kit. And about this time, Bart showed up with his guitar rig. NOTE: I fully intend to full this space with a detailed, yet understandable, description of Bart, guitar/synth/MIDI rig. Bart has promised to help me with this and I am willing to wait in order to do it justice. I appreciate your patience in this matter. Onward
So, with all the principals (for this evening) in place and the tweaking of the PA pretty much finished, we ran out around the corner for some Chinese food (fabulous Schezwuan style scallops, by the way) and then settled in for some fun.
Vocals (And Another Guitar!)
The guitars turned out to have personality quirks all their own. While the horns (and the keyboards too, as it would turn out) had no qualms about playing any and everywhere, and while the drums and bass solidly held the foundation, the four guitarists were much more tentative about staking any claim to a space. And this was certainly to be expected. Laura, wielding her new burgundy Strat, laid down the primary rhythm pattern. For my part, I switched from my Strat to the twelve-string more often than I thought that I would. Sometimes I would echo Laura’s part and sometimes I’d come up with a second rhythm pattern, provided I found it sparse enough to not clog up the song. Bart, with the huge array of effects to choose from, added a lot of color to the proceedings. On one song he’d be the steel drums, on the next he might be a Hammond B3 with a Leslie cabinet. He also was a virtual catalogue of songs. I had a great time bouncing songs off him. Greg was typically Greg, choosing his spaces well and splashing them with an appropriately intense spray of notes.
It had been some time since I last heard Laura sing and I must say that I was impressed. I didn’t remember her having such a strong voice. And it was eerie how well Laura’s and Anne’s voices blended together. Bart, like myself, was much happier working the harmonies and although I’m sure we’ll never be mistaken for any famous (backing) vocalists (when anyone ever asks me “And what do you want to be one day?” I like to say “A Pip.”)(what easier job could there be?), we did manage to make a good show of things.
We played on, our time divided between seriously arranging a song or two and seriously goofing around. It is frightening how quickly time can pass when you’re truly enjoying yourself.
We packed up for the evening and went our separate ways. One important thing that we’d discovered was that the volume level had definitely been too much for Jacqui, which meant that, in all likelihood, it would prove to be too harsh for Greg’s daughter Sydney as well. Thoughts would have to go into making alternate arrangements for them for the next night.
When we arrived back at the Lasley residence, Laura declared she wasn’t ready to stop the music, so she, Dan and I grabbed our instruments and played for another hour-and-a-half. Fortunately, I had also brought my classical guitar with me (it makes a lot less noise when I’m up in the morning before anyone else and I figure that I might as well get in a little practice), which provided still another new arrangement to some of our favorite songs. And as much as I’d been impressed with Laura’s singing before, I was very much blown away now. Sometimes it does take a little time to shake out the cobwebs and set your passion free.
Then both Laura and Dan surprised me by starting in on some songs I had written a loooooong time ago. I know that I’m going to sound overly sentimental, but I don’t know any other way to describe what I felt. I mean, any songwriter will tell you how cool it is to write a song or how cooler still it is to play in front of a rapt audience. I can tell you that. I can also tell you what it’s like for someone to know your songs well enough to request that you perform them and then join in singing along. But those feelings totally pale when compared to the high you get when people like your music so much that they include in their repertoires. And when you find out they’ve been teaching your songs to their friends and families…
As I said, just when you think that you know all the reasons why you do things, better ones pop up. May it ever be so…
I woke up at seven (I can be annoying that way) with some lyric ideas running through my head. I have a number of songs that are kind of “in progress” (and yes, I do have to get them on disc somehow in order to get some of them off to A-J’s songwriting club) (yet another thing on the “to do” list…) and I managed to nail down a chorus that I’d been toying with for months. Not only that, I came up with a first verse that had some promise. I also charted out the chords (after figuring them out) of the song, “Just The Two Of Us,” which Anne had been keen on doing. To top it off, I got in a good hour’s practice, so my day was off to a great start. As Groucho Marx once said, “You’ve got to get up early if you want to get out of bed…”
Saturday morning was spent making final tweaks and tracking down a babysitter for the girls. Dan and Greg headed in ahead of the rest of us in order to do a bit more work on the PA and the recording set up.
After picking up some lunch for everyone, Laura, Ben and I made it back to Toquet Hall and about getting prepared for the afternoon “practice session.” Anne shortly arrived with Peter, the keyboard player. Like Bart, Peter has quite a catalog of songs wired into his brain. We toyed with some numbers that we all knew and then Peter taught us one of his original songs, “Plug and Play Girl” which proved to be a lot of fun to play, despite being written in Ab! We also worked on one of mine, “Waiting For Nancy.” Dan had thought that it might be a good number for Ben to take a turn at a flute solo and he proved to be right. The flute was an inspired touch.
Bart and I goofed around with some songs – he had a synth setting that nailed the horn sound used in Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” down cold, so we set about figuring the song out. Anne had it on tape, so she wrote out the lyrics. We never got around to doing it as a whole band, but I learned another song to add to my list!
Pizzas were ordered and picked up late in the afternoon and we took a dinner break to write up a set list for the evening. Now while Dan and Laura and I had been tossing songs back and forth across the internet, everyone else had been content to sit back in ignorance and let things happen. But when you’ve got a lot of personalities in the mix, perhaps the best (and fairest) thing to do is what we attempted to do – namely, go around to each person and have him (or her) pick whatever song she (or he) wanted until we had a certain number of songs. And, frankly, by this point it was becoming obvious that we had the personnel to pull off a lot of different kinds of stuff. It was more a matter of what songs were (relatively well-) known by a majority of us.
Three times around the horn netted twenty-seven songs ranging from the obvious jammers (Jumping Jack Flash, Somebody To Love, etc.,) to some inspired weirdness (Get Ready, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and Pat Benatar’s True Love). Add a couple of (easily played) numbers to highlight the singing (Save The Last Dance For Me) and a couple of arrangements with just a touch of madness (ZZ Top’s Tush done a la Ike and Tina (“we never do anything nice and…easy…”)Turner) and you should have enough to keep everyone entertained for the evening!
If you should ever find yourself conducting a jam of musicians who’ve not really played together before, let me offer you this word of advice: always start with a song that has only two or three chords. Obviously if it’s something everyone knows, that’s great – but then again, with only two or three chords, it really won’t matter if everyone knows it or not. Some four-chord songs like Sympathy For The Devil or Knocking On Heaven’s Door will work as well. The point is not to start out too complex. And if the song has a lot of room built-in for extended jamming, then all the better. We began with Dave Mason’s Feelin’ Alright, which provided ample opportunities to toss leads around between Chris and Peter and Bart and Greg while still giving the rest of us a lot of interesting rhythms to work.
The second thing I’ll advise you is to don’t feel like you have to sit in on every song. Pick at least one, and preferably a couple, where you just get up and go and have a listen. I put down my guitar when we came to Moondance and went and grabbed a chair in front of the stage area and took things in. Aside from immediate family (Greg’s wife) and friends (a couple of guys Chris knew) and the Toquet Hall staff, there was no audience. This didn’t really surprise or sadden anyone; we were having too much fun. I had to laugh when three teenage girls walked up to the door and then, almost exactly in step like a marching band, pirouetted and marched off in the other direction. Their “my God, it’s old people!” radar must have been on.
We played fourteen (fifteen if you include a really jazzy version of My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music) songs for the first set (as Dan would write, “we tanked a couple and really nailed some others.”) and took a brief break Time was marching on, though. We were only three songs into the second set when Laura noted that it was just about 10:30. As we had to wrap up by eleven, we played an extended version of Waiting For Nancy featuring solos from everybody. Ben’s flute was sublime, particularly as it was coupled with a capella vocals on the final round of choruses. And Bart surprised the hell out of me by coming up with a marimba effect that also worked wonderfully. I mean, I’ve been playing the song for close to twenty years now and I’d never have thought of that! We wrapped up with a rousing rendition of Secret Agent Man (again, solos dished out all around) (I even took one!) and called it a night. Almost…
A bit of history: As noted earlier, I’d played with Dan, Laura, Greg and Anne in various bands and whatnot. And one thing about playing in bar bands in Chicago, it can be a grueling schedule. Fridays and Saturdays you start your first set between ten and ten-thirty and you plan to finish when the bar closes which could be any where from two ’til four the following morning. Then you pack up, transport all the gear back to your rehearsal space and then go and get some breakfast. And then you go home and crash unless, like me at the time, you had a weekend job. Then you hurried home, changed and went off to work. Necessity dictated that we become experts on where to eat in the wee hours of the day and that we did. One of our favorite places was “Lindo Mexico” in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.
Now while Westport, Connecticut boasts no all-night Mexican restaurants, Laura and Dan had a suitable substitute that proved to meet our needs. And, it being only midnight as opposed to five in the morning, the place was pretty lively. Just like when you exercise you have to remember to both warm up and cool down, so should you follow the same thinking in regards to jams. Put your guitar (or whatever) away for a while and sit around somewhere and have a good laugh and enjoy each other’s company as much as you enjoy each other’s music.
And to make matters absolutely precious, when we arrived back at the Lasley home shortly before one in the morning, we found that Jacqui and Sydney had spent their evening constructing an eight-foot long “Good Job!” banner which hung in the doorway to welcome us back.
It’s funny, and I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but I ended up sharing rides one on one with each of my old friends. Dan and I drove home together Friday night and Laura and I ended up in her car Saturday. And as we hadn’t had all that much time together it was good to be able to share things again. Likewise the next morning, she, Dan and I took a good walk around their “neighborhood,” talking about nothing and everything.
Laura loaned me a book she’d read titled Zen Guitar. Let me say this: if you’re looking to become an overnight guitar whiz, this book isn’t for you. And if you’re seriously trying to delve into the ancient mysteries of zen, you might find this merely whets your appetite. But if you want a spot-on way as to how to approach playing the guitar or a philosophy that will get you through all the initial frustrations, then you might want to check it out.
Our original plan was to have an acoustic beach party to wrap up the event, but like all plans some flexibility ended up being required. Peter had volunteered his place for the occasion and so in the early afternoon we all made it down to his place. It was a drizzly day (well, it had been raining all weekend!), so we kept the instruments inside. But between too late of a start, the weather and Anne wanting to get an early start on the trip back (the idea was to be in Chicago before Monday’s afternoon rush), the session itself was very short. But we did get to play another of Peter’s tunes and one of mine and, more importantly, we got to spend some more time just relaxing and enjoying ourselves. Next time we’ll have a better handle on how to arrange some of the events.
And there will be a next time.
Back at work, about a week or so later, someone asked me if I’d had a good time on my vacation and I actually had to ask myself “I went on vacation? When did this happen?” I was already once again out of my “remembering the last jam” phase and well into the thinking ’bout the next one, whenever it may be.
It is truly frightening how fickle one’s mind can be. I can remember the chords of a song that I haven’t played for over fifteen years but I have to really think in order to recall the name of an author whose book I’ve been enjoying the past week. Memory (mine, anyway) is highly selective at best, and should always be considered highly suspect as well.
Yet in spite of all that, our memories are what provide much of our lives’ strength and hope during the times we’d rather forget fairly quickly. When we are sad or tired or bored or frustrated or simply wishing to be somewhere (someone, some time) else, a memory can be counted on to provide relief, to smooth out the troubles for a moment or two. How we choose to remember things, and how we use those memories in our lives, is often an indication of what is truly important to us as individual human beings.
Now, writing about all of this, it doesn’t surprise me that what I remember most vividly has little or nothing to do with the actual “performance.” I remember:
There are no billboards on the Ohio Turnpike
Thinking that following up Fats Waller and Edith Piaf with old Robert Palmer and new Paul Simon was an inspired choice
That it takes forever to cross Pennsylvania west to east but can be done east to west without you even noticing
Wondering why there is so much farmland in Pennsylvania but only three cows
Coming up with a hysterically amusing version of ZZ Top’s song La Grange done as a Gregorian chant
Learning the history of Lego’s from a huge poster Ben had drawn up for a school project
Being asked riddles by Jacqui and Sydney – I thought I knew the answers but, like just about everything, they too had been updated for the young. What has four eyes but cannot see, anyway?
Watching Dan’s eyes light up with delight when a song was taking an unexpected yet totally cool change of direction
Listening to Laura’s laughter while Greg told stories of his pet budgie
Getting a brief tour of where Anne grew up
Greg and I belting out Put A Little Birdhouse In Your Soul at the top of our lungs while driving back to his house from Princeton (“…and countless screaming Argonauts…”)
As much as we’d like to think otherwise, it’s the little things that will either delight or haunt us forever. A moment will always be more powerful than an event.
And jams are meant to be things of the moment. For all their planning and preparation (or lack of planning and preparation), the actual music is like a firework display. Some songs will take our breath away, some will simply occur without much notice at all. And when the grand finale is over and all that is left is the smoke and sparkling dust hanging in the air, everyone has their own memory of what happened. Oh yes, we can record the event (or not record it) and watch and listen to it over and over and over again, but we all know that this is not really as it happened. Because what really happened we heard and saw with our hearts, not with our ears and eyes.
Wherever you’ve traveled this past summer, wherever your life may take you in the future, I hope that you enjoy each moment in and of itself, if for no other reason than that it will ensure you lots of wonderful memories.