For some reason, it’s always tough to talk about ‘the craft’. I try to get my students to study acting and comedy and they look at me like I’m nuts. But actors, and even more so comedians, are very self-aware. And they talk about what they do in a very detailed way that musicians rarely do outside of with certain ‘mentors’. Actors and comedians are just as insecure as musicians but they seem to make it work for them. Being a musician requires a lot of ego, but usually it doesn’t translate into words all that well. So if you try to talk about how it all works with non-musicians they tend say very little or sound defensive.
When I play a show there’s always the requisite ‘free form solo’. It’s just what one does in the ‘Prog’ business. I don’t want to be cynical about it, but that’s largely the deal. I suppose I enjoy it, but truthfully if it wasn’t an expected part of the deal, I probably wouldn’t bother anymore.
OK, there are some things that I can always count on at a show and one of them is that there is always one guy who asks:
‘Dude! Why don’t you shred like that more on your albums?’ (There oughta be a law that retired ‘Dude’ to Jeff Lebowski—like Jackie Robinson and #42.)
And I always give the same answer:
I compose this stuff to be played by ‘the band’ and I have to consider that I’m going to have to sing and shred at the same time. It’s not like Paul Simon who can just sing along with his ‘tridectet’ and then pick up that over-sized Gibson when he feels the urge to play ‘Mrs. Robinson.’ I can barely afford to pay the 3 other guys and gas up the mini-van back to the airport.
So unless I want to play along to lots of backing tracks (I recently saw Soundgarden rehearse and was shocked at how much tape they use in their show—backing voices, guitars, keyboards on almost every track. There was something really sad about that for me. Seemed oddly anti-grunge.) that’s how it has to be.
And the guy always smiles at me. The same perfectly sincere smile one gets during bad interviews or dates. The smile that says, “best of luck with whatever you end up doing!” They don’t wanna hurt your feelings, but what is really being transmitted is… you know how people make that sneezing sound that sounds like ‘Bullshit!’? That smile.
Now: If you watch any aging group of ‘rawkers’ it’s kinda like getting up close to a stage actor still in makeup. But the makeup never comes off. These people kinda sacrifice a ‘normal’ life for the persona. I get the impression that when I perform, no matter how teeny the crowd, some people come for that kind of ‘show’. And they don’t want to know about ‘practicalities.’ They just wanna suspend disbelief.
Guitar playing attendees will say, “Wow you sound great tonight.” And if I reply, “yeah, the new NICKEL COBALT STRINGS are really workin’ for me!” Or maybe, “Yeah, shedding those Slonimsky scales is really helping me!” These things make them happy. But if I tell the truth? If I say that the two biggest determinants of success are:
a) How well the Pseudafed is workin’ for me today.
b) The condition of my fingernails and callouses.
…It’s a total buzz kill. It’s like that Russian gymnast in the TV commercial saying the reason she won the gold medal on the parallel bars? StayFree(tm) Maxipads. It’s worse than too much information. It’s mundane. It turns ‘the show’ into a visit from Ed Norton.
Let’s face it, the ‘C’ in JC never stood for charisma. So it would seem wrong (and downright pretentious) to not talk about the mundane things that go into the shows. What else is there to talk about?
My point is that there’s a lot of strategery involved in every aspect of what I do. It’s all choreographed like any show. But as with any magic act, it’s not the stuff that you think is challenging that is fraught. My inner struggle is whether or not to share what’s really on my mind and break the fourth wall.
I’ve often shared the anecdote from my college mentor upon quitting school to ‘go on the road’. To recap, when I asked him for ‘career advice’: “I think most people could do a lot worse than to cut down on saying ‘Like’, ‘Ummm’ and ‘You know’ so often.”
Perhaps because this was so underwhelming, since then I’ve always made sure to ask this same question to every ‘famous’ person I meet. It’s sort of a joke within a joke. Or maybe I’m hoping one day to get the really juicy answer I never got from Dr. King. Subsequent responses have ranged from faux deep to downright silly. But the most sincerely useful advice I ever got was from Leo Kottke. “As you get older, you’ll come to realise that your best friend on the road is a rotary nose hair trimmer that really delivers the goods.” And um… like… ya know? Truer words were never spoken.