3/16/16: Complete (if not finished!)

Some time ago, a friend suggested that I needed to try writing and recording some original music. Coincidentally, my new (at the time) Mac came equipped with Garageband; though I hadn’t made any “serious” recordings since high school, eventually I got up the nerve to give it a try.

I quickly found that a lot has changed during the intervening years. I remember well the challenges of rounding up the players needed for a “session,” then working for hours in a musty basement with an old, 4-track reel-to-reel recorder to get something on tape. Garageband makes the process far easier and faster – if nothing else, the software allows me to easily create drum, bass, and keyboard tracks to accompany my own guitar parts – no band mates required! It allows me to experiment with a wide range of sounds and arrangements, quickly and without the commitment of analog recording. It’s truly an amazing creative tool.

Something I’ve found Garageband doesn’t do (in addition to its miserable failure at making me into passable singer): in my case, at least, Garageband doesn’t seem to promote decisiveness or timely completion of projects. It seems there’s always another option to try, or another take to see if I can finally nail that guitar part. Though I now have seven or eight projects in various states of completion, I was embarrassed to realize today that I hadn’t finished anything since I began working with Garageband in July of 2014!

So, for your dubious listening “pleasure,” here’s something I completed (if not “finished”) today. It’s called Creepy Crawl; I’m going for a “Booker T and the MGs meet The Munsters” kind of vibe. Let me state clearly: it’s a rough mix, and I know I need a lot of practice – I’m well aware that I’m not a very good guitarist. That said, I do enjoy playing music a great deal, and I’d love to hear what you think about the song.

 

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Live Fast, Die Old: Goodbye to Lemmy

After 40 years fronting the band Motörhead, Ian Fraser Kilmister, better known to fans as Lemmy, passed away on December 28, 2015 – only four days after celebrating his 70th birthday. Though I’m only a casual Motörhead fan, I feel inspired to share a few thoughts on this occasion. Lemmy was certainly a man with a clear creative vision, remaining true to his ideals throughout his long career.

Motörhead’s 1987 album Rock ‘n’ Roll was an important part of my personal soundtrack in high school. Though Lemmy himself didn’t look back on Rock ‘n’ Roll as one of the band’s best, I think it’s a solid effort; tracks like Traitor and Dogs are highlights that still hold up for me today. Along with other the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands, Motörhead blended the energy of punk with the brutal attack of the heaviest metal, paving the way for modern speed metal and thrash. They had a sense of humor, as evidenced by tracks like Vibrator (it’s about exactly what you’re thinking of), and could write some nice melodies, too – All for You is a fine example. They were pioneers in the field of heavy metal punctuation (umlauts are cool), and Lemmy made numerous cameo appearances in film and television over the years – watch for him as the water taxi driver in the 1990 sci-fi movie Hardware (which is worth seeing even if you’re not a Lemmy fan). Some interesting side notes: Lemmy co-wrote Ozzy Osbourne’s 1991 hit Mama, I’m Coming Home, and Motörhead alumnus “Fast” Eddie Clarke went on to form Fastway – one of the great underrated metal bands of the 1980s.

In closing, here’s Lemmy and company performing Ace of Spades earlier this year. He was definitely one of rock’s coolest senior citizens.

An Update from the Analog Archives

Months after the adventure began, I continue to work on bringing various records and tape cassettes from my misguided youth into the digital domain. Though I’m certainly ready for the process to be over, it’s been fun to rediscover some forgotten favorites from 20 years ago and more. Today I bring you a track from a band I haven’t thought about in quite a long time: Annihilator.

This looks promising: babe in nightgown who looks too old to play with dolls - check. Staircase littered with discarded Raggedy Ann dolls - check. Full moon outside - check. Demonic Raggedy Ann in silhouette lurking menacingly - check. Yes, it's all here!

This looks promising: babe in nightgown who looks too old to play with dollies – check. Staircase littered with discarded Raggedy Ann dolls – check. Full moon outside – check. Demonic Raggedy Ann in silhouette lurking menacingly – check. Yes, it’s all here!

This Canadian speed/thrash outfit formed in 1984, and is (according to Wikipedia) one of the most successful Canadian metal bands. Their debut album, 1989’s Alice In Hell, spent a fair amount of time running through my tape deck during my junior and senior years in high school. It’s perfect material to annoy and alarm your parents: fast, loud, and aggressive. It’s also skillfully played and musically complex. Annihilator is one of those bands that toss so many awesome riffs into each song that you begin to wonder if they’ll have any material left for the next album. As you might guess from the cover art above, thematically it’s pretty dark stuff; nightmare creatures, various neuroses, and occult imagery dominate the lyrics. The vocals, courtesy of Randy Rampage (née Randall Archibald) alternate between pseudo-operatic histrionics and various throaty screeches and growls; though his approach is wholly appropriate to the music, his singing verges on silly to me today. I’d prefer a more understated approach, but I can certainly appreciate the intensity and musicianship present here. The title track of the album sums up the band pretty well:

One interesting thing for me about Annihilator: like Tom Sholz’s band Boston, most everything we hear on this album is the work of one person – Jeff Waters, who wrote or co-wrote all nine tracks and shares vocal duties on some songs, while both producing and mixing the album. Waters is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, playing everything on the album except the drums. Though the liner notes credit guitarist Anthony Brian Greenham and bassist Wayne Darley, their contributions actually came after the album was complete, working with Waters to recreate the Annihilator sound in live performance on tour. I’m assuming that’s Messrs. Greenham and Darley in the video, too. Mr. Waters is the hotshot guitar slinger in the red t-shirt. Something I’ve noticed upon re-watching the video: Waters, by far, gets the most screen time, and though the singer, bassist, and drummer all have a moment or two in the spotlight – the second guitarist gets not even one close-up. You have to watch carefully or you won’t even notice he’s there. Poor guy.

Why Play Guitar?

I’ve reached the time of life where “doing the math” can be a little scary. I recently calculated that I’ve now been playing guitar for about 26 years – most of that time, mind you, without any kind of discipline, consistency, or regularity. Thus I still consider myself very much a beginner, even though I’ve been at it a long while now. In all that time, somehow I’ve never managed to consider why I started (and continue) to play.

In a previous post, I mentioned that I didn’t become interested in music until my early teen years. The first two albums I ever bought (on cassette, in 1986) were the Bangles’ Different Light and License to Ill by the Beastie Boys – an early indication of the “eclectic” tastes I’ve continued to develop over the years. However, I think my interest in making music has its origins just a bit later, and was rooted in a somewhat different genre.

Among other things, the1980s are remembered as the decade of the so-called “hair metal” bands. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you should pause to check out this article on the subject – as always, Wikipedia has all the answers. Suffice it to say that “hair metal” is a classification so broad as to be almost useless, and there are more than a few bands frequently lumped into the category – Tesla, Cinderella, and Guns n’ Roses, for example – that (I believe) have too much substance to stand alongside your average leather-n-spandex clad, copiously hair-sprayed, pointy-guitar-toting glam metal group. That was the state of contemporary, mainstream rock at the time, though, and for better or worse I was captivated. These guys played loud, catchy music – plus they dressed cool, grew their hair long, dated supermodels, and generally raised the middle finger to society-at-large. How could I not want to be a part of that?

I’ll have more on this topic in a future post, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you with this – one of the most profound creative statements of 1986:

The Tale of the Teisco…

For a while now I’ve wanted a “project” guitar – something I could tinker around with. I had a pretty clear idea of what I was after: something inexpensive, a bit rough around the edges, and not too precious. I also made up my mind that I wanted something a bit out of the ordinary. I’ve got nothing against the big guys (Strats and Les Pauls are great) but I’ve become increasingly curious about the multitude of smaller manufacturers who’ve come and gone over the years – companies like Harmony, Eko, Guyatone, and the like. Until now, I haven’t had much luck finding guitars like these where I live and in my price range, so I’ve been forced to wait for my project guitar…

Last weekend, my wonderful spouse suggested we make the drive to a huge flea market about two hours distant. We always love a good thrift shop or flea market, but this time there was an added attraction: a “cars and guitars” swap meet event. I readily agreed this would be a great way to spend a Sunday, and we were off. On the way, we talked about what we hoped to find, and agreed on a reasonable budget for any guitar-related mischief I might get into.

The flea market itself was most impressive – easily one of the best we’ve visited, and too large to see everything in a day. The car show was a lot of fun, as well: the highlights included a smokin’ mid-70s Firebird Trans-Am, a jewel-green 60s Chevelle, and (for us 80s kids) a shiny DeLorean. Though the guitar swap meet was a bit smaller than I’d imagined, it didn’t disappoint, either. Upon arrival we carefully made the circuit, seeing what each vendor had to offer. I was pleased to find that many of the guitars were quite reasonably priced; there were several interesting possibilities within range of my budget. I eventually narrowed my options to a Harmony solid-body (possibly an H-802) and an odd little no-name guitar with a flashy, striped aluminum pickguard. It wasn’t an easy decision, but the oddball ultimately came out on top.

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Now came the time to deal. My first question for David, the gentleman manning the booth: what is this thing? He proudly showed me a “Made in Japan” decal adhered to the back of the instrument, and told me it was a mid-1960s Teisco. Subsequent research suggests it’s probably an E-120 model, but it gets even more interesting. It seems that David, who balks at describing himself as “retired,” combs thrift stores, flea markets, and pawn shops looking for salvageable guitars in any condition. He then cobbles the various bits and pieces together into serviceable instruments. It turns out the guitar in question is a Frankensteined assemblage of parts that transcends international borders and links several decades.

Front (left) and rear (right) views of the First Act headstock.

Front (left) and rear (right) views of the First Act headstock.

I wanted something out of the ordinary; this guitar certainly fit the bill. The body was indeed made by Japanese manufacturer Teisco around 1965. The neck once belonged to a modern First Act electric – yes, the same budget brand you may have seen for sale at your local Wal-Mart. As you can see in the image above, the tuners are mismatched – five gold Epiphone tuners, plus a generic sixth finished in chrome. David told me the bridge is a Fender hardtail that came off an old Strat he had lying around the workshop. It appears to be screwed directly on top of the original bridge plate. How could I not plug it in and give it a try?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that it plays well and sounds pretty good, too. You can click here for a brief sample. Both the riff and lead parts are played with the Teisco; there’s a bit of fuzz added to the rhythm part, but the lead is a clean signal directly from the original, single-coil pickup. Please listen with kindness; solo improvisation is not my strongest suit.

So, $40 later, I’ve found my project guitar. For now I’ve promised that I’ll do nothing to alter it, giving myself a chance to discover its unique characteristics. I’m certain, though, that there will be updates to the tale of the Frankenstein Teisco.

Something from the analog archives…

Just a short post for today, to try to get back into the swing of things… it’s been far too long since I’ve written anything for Don’t Forget This Song.

For the past couple of months I’ve been working to digitize the analog portions of my music collection that I’ve decided are worth saving: rare and out-of-print albums, my early 1990s high-school demo recordings, and some music I’d like to have in my collection… but not badly enough that I’m willing to buy it (yet again) in MP3 format. Among the material in the latter category is a tape-cassette copy of Pop Goes The World, a 1987 release by the Canadian group Men Without Hats.

If you’re familiar with Men Without Hats, chances are it’s because of their biggest hit: Safety Dance, which topped the charts in 1983. The song is a staple of both one-hit-wonder countdowns and the 1980s radio format. The Pop Goes The World album produced one hit – the title track cracked the top 20 in several countries – but didn’t come close to duplicating the group’s earlier success. I’ll be honest – I simply can’t remember how I heard about this album or why I decided to buy it. At the time I was far more interested in harder-edged, guitar-centric rock than the synth-based pop of Men Without Hats. Still, Pop Goes The World became a personal favorite for a short time in the late 80s.

The album is definitely a product of its era – drum machines, keyboards, and synthesized orchestration dominate its sonic palette. It’s also a solid collection of heartfelt, catchy pop tunes that are guaranteed to roll around in your head for days. Pop Goes The World is worth a listen, even if 1980s synth-pop isn’t your thing.

Here’s a sample – Moonbeam, the second single from the album. Though I don’t consider it one of the best tracks on Pop Goes The World, the video is a real trip. Enjoy!

It Might Get Loud…

There was an enormous hi-fi system, more furniture than appliance, in the living room of my childhood home. It was filled with dusty old records that I was forbidden to touch; naturally I found them irresistible. I wondered what the music recorded on them was like. Besides the general prohibition against “fiddling with the stereo,” the turntable didn’t work, so it would be years before I found out what those grooves etched in vinyl contained. I also remember my mother singing little snippets of songs I didn’t know as she washed dishes. Otherwise, there wasn’t much music in my home when I was small. Please don’t misunderstand – overall I had a pleasant and enriching childhood – music just wasn’t a big part of it. I suppose no one in my family was musically inclined.

So it wasn’t until my mid-teen years that music became an important part of my life. As I began to spend more of my time with friends and outside the home, I discovered Top 40 radio. From there I developed a taste for classic rock, and finally – heavy metal (sounds like the beginning of a 12-step program testimonial, doesn’t it?). Within a couple of years, I wanted to play music myself. My kind and supportive mother was persuaded to purchase a 1989 Les Paul Standard for me (more guitar than I had any business owning at that age) and I took a few guitar lessons here and there. My approach to playing and practicing was desultory at best; at the time I think I was more interested in the glamorous, hedonistic lifestyles of my rock idols than in the disciplined work it takes to truly learn an instrument.

My best memories from those years come from the hours I spent playing and taking about music with friends. I was lucky enough to know a few fellows who shared some of my musical tastes, and we had a lot of fun making noise in basements and garages around town. I can’t say I was ever part of a real band, nor was I a very good player, but we did make a few recordings that I still have – somewhere. Not too long ago, I finally made time to watch the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, and it took me back to those happy times.

The premise of It Might Get Loud is simple: put three guitar pickers together in a room with their instruments, and see what happens. The curious part is who they selected for this six-string summit; to me, the Edge, Jimmy Page, and Jack White don’t seem to have much in common. They represent three generations, three nationalities, and three radically different styles of music. Page and White do share a love for the Blues, but the Edge and U2 have their roots in the New Wave/Post-Punk movement that was a reaction against the perceived excesses of 1970s arena rock, embodied so well by Page and Led Zeppelin. Though the three had met one another briefly before filming took place, they certainly had never played together before. I wondered how well their personalities would mesh.

Turns out I had no reason to worry. The movie is an affirmation of the old cliché about the power of music to bring people together. The three guitarists banter back and forth comfortably, discussing their individual approaches to the instrument and sharing the secrets of their signature riffs. Their enthusiasm and love for the music is abundantly clear. Check out this clip, where Page shows us how to play the Led Zeppelin classic Kashmir:

It reminds me so much of that long-ago time, spending evenings and afternoons with my friends, just “trading licks.” Watch what happens as the clip progresses: at first, the Edge and White watch Page’s hands in rapt attention. Soon, they begin playing along – tentatively at first, then with growing confidence. By the end of the clip the three are playing in unison, making music together – yet each player is also blissfully alone, lost in communion with his instrument. That balance between shared experience and creative solitude is one of the most magical things about playing guitar for me.

There’s also an endearing element of fanboy hero-worship present in It Might Get Loud. Watch the Edge and White’s reaction when Page brings out his Theremin, an early form of electronic instrument used prominently in Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love:

I wonder if I would be able to maintain that level of composure if I had the opportunity to meet Page (or the Edge and Jack White, for that matter). Still, It Might Get Loud is more than a puff piece about three famous guitar players or their respective bands. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in music and/or the creative process.

I’ll close this post with a moment of sincere appreciation for the guys who were generous enough to share their time and talents during those high school-era jam sessions. To Matt, James, Paul, Rod, Heath, Rusty, and anyone else who I may have forgotten: thank you for the music.

The D.I.Y. Dulcitar…

The history of recorded music dates back only to the late 19th century.  In that brief time, music has transitioned from something people made and enjoyed together, to something most often purchased for solitary consumption. In itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – thanks to recording technology (and now, the Internet) I enjoy access to a wonderfully diverse selection of music. I do sometimes wonder, though: how might things be different if we could return to being producers of music, rather than solitary consumers?

This idea, to some degree, explains the interest I’ve developed in the past few years with various forms of “roots music.” From commercial releases to ethnographic field recordings, these documents of folk, country, and blues performers represent music at its most direct and elemental. There’s an immediacy and energy in these recordings that moves me deeply.

I think that’s why I’ve also become fascinated with the “do-it-yourself” approach to making music. I’ve been an amateur guitar player for a long time – but about four years ago, I decided to attempt building my own instrument. Since then I’ve completed four such projects, each based on a hybrid of the guitar and the Appalachian dulcimer – a dulcitar, if you will.

My latest dulcitar - front (left) and back (right) views

My latest dulcitar – front (left) and back (right) views.

My latest creation uses a cigar box my wife collected before we started dating – probably cedar – as a resonator. I cut f-holes into the top to let sound flow out of the box. The neck is poplar, and the fretboard is a wood called black palm. I think the fretboard is beautiful, but the black palm proved to be very splintery – I don’t know if I’d use it again. I like to add new challenges with each successive project; this was the first time I attempted traditional fretting (easier than I expected, once I had the proper tools) and tried making a nut from synthetic bone (a complete failure – I had to call in a professional on this one). Overall I’m fairly pleased with the results.

Detail of the cigar box body (left) and fretboard (right).

Detail of the cigar box body (left) and fretboard (right).

Probably my favorite aspect of this cigar box dulcitar is the surface decoration – my sweet and talented spouse used her new woodburning kit to add some folksy flair. The “M” is for Maybelle Carter – I chose her (and her iconic Gibson L-5) as my inspiration for this project.

The headstock - front (left) and rear (right) views.

The headstock – front (left) and rear (right) views.

How does it sound? Click here for a brief sample!

Johnny Cash’s Hurt – A Cover Well Done

Johnny Cash was a prolific, gifted songwriter who made a profound contribution to the American Songbook. His influence as a writer, performer, and pop-culture personality transcends the Country music genre and his compositions have been covered live and on record by a diverse range of artists, from Pearl Jam to Leonard Nimoy.

Of course, Cash also recorded many songs written by others during his five-decade career. Today we’ll be looking at one of those performances. Now, cover versions of songs are often difficult for me to appreciate – inevitably I find myself unfavorably comparing the cover to the original. That’s why I admire Cash’s ability to make a song definitively his own, whether he wrote it or not. His performance style is unmistakable, and most often he brought something quite special to the songs he performed.

I think Cash surprised a lot of people with his choice of material during his later years, as he covered songs by Soundgarden, Depeche Mode, Danzig, and others – but it’s worth noting that Cash’s musical tastes have always been adventurous and eclectic. Cash and Bob Dylan, for example, might not seem very far removed from one another today, but there was quite a gulf between their respective fan bases in the mid-1960s when Cash began championing Dylan as a writer and recording his songs. In many ways, I see the cover songs on Cash’s American Recordings albums as a natural continuation of his openness to younger performers and new ideas.

On his 2002 album American IV: The Man Comes Around Cash chose to record Hurt, a song written by Trent Reznor that originally appeared on the 1994 Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral. NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine (1989), with its danceable blend of adolescent nihilism and mild misogyny, was a big favorite of mine in high school, and I had enjoyed the transition to a harder-edged sound on the 1992 EP Broken. I liked Closer, the biggest single from The Downward Spiral, but somehow the rest of the album didn’t make much of an impact on me. In retrospect, however, Reznor’s original recording of Hurt is one of the best moments on the album – a cautionary tale of poor choices, self-destructive behaviors, and their ultimate consequences. Though he introduces the possibility of “starting again” in the final verse, I can’t help but think, “yeah, that’ll never happen…” Sadly, there are some mistakes that can’t be undone.

Cash’s version of the song has a far different feel to me. Where I see Reznor’s performance of Hurt primarily as a lesson in how not to live ones’ life, I have a great deal of empathy for Cash throughout the song as he strives to be a better person despite his flaws and failings. Part of the difference, I’m sure, has to do with my knowledge of the rough spots in Cash’s life – a failed marriage, struggles with addiction, and years of living both fast and hard. Interested parties can refer to either of Cash’s autobiographies, Man in Black or Cash: The Autobiography, for details.

Cash’s failing health also infuses his performance on Hurt with a curious, fragile gravitas that I find quite appropriate to the song. I’m not saying that Trent Reznor didn’t speak from experience when he wrote Hurt, but Cash’s performance seems to struggle to be heard from under the weight of many misspent years. I feel his regret for mistakes made and relationships irreparably damaged, but I also sense a possibility of redemption that I find missing from the original recording. Cash makes me believe that he’s learned hard lessons and just might “find a way” to salvation as he approaches the end of life.  Cash and Nine Inch Nails might seem an unlikely combination, but for me, Hurt is one of the high points of Cash’s later career.

How I Met Your Mother and Making the Next Picture

Not too long ago, I found myself watching a late-night re-run of the TV show How I Met Your Mother. Completists might value knowing that I was watching episode 20 of season 4 — the episode has its’ own Wikipedia entry — but familiarity with the show isn’t necessary to understand my point. In the episode, one of the main characters is starting his own architectural firm — or he would be, if he weren’t obsessing over trivial matters like selecting office supplies and planning corporate retreats. In fact, he’s willing to devote time to just about anything except the one thing that might actually get his dream off the ground — cold-calling potential clients.  The point of the episode, I believe, is that fear of failure can sometimes keep us from trying. It’s easier to fixate on minutiae than to tackle those big challenges that might actually yield the results we want.

This type of thinking has often derailed the things I want to accomplish. My work schedule has been pretty full since I created this blog almost six months ago, but when I wasn’t working I found myself paralyzed by choosing a design for the blog and debating the thematic direction it might take over time. The result: no blogging accomplished since setting up the account! Obviously this approach isn’t working…

I have a photographer friend who sometimes says, “All you have to worry about is making the next picture,” in regard to what some folks call creative block. I’ve decided that might be a good approach to blogging, as well. I’ve chosen a name for the blog — Don’t Forget This Song — and decided, at least initially, to focus on music. The next step is simply to write and give it a chance to develop. I’ll see where it goes in due time.