Tuesday, April 12, 2016

When the Neurotic Side is Unleashed

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, musicians are a curious lot, full of life, talent and contradictions.  There is one contradiction in particular I have been thinking about lately: the conundrum presented by the contrast between our seemingly independent and often renegade spirit with our pathetic need for external validation.  In full disclosure, I have been thinking about it because of how it affects me personally.

The process of creativity, by definition, requires an ability to look at the world and the things in it from a less than average and alternative perspective.  Rather than acceptance of norms, customs, rules and socially acceptable values, creativity demands the creator to push the boundaries and think outside the parameters these establish in order to come up with alternative themes, ideas, techniques and ways of thinking.  Throughout history, successful artists have earned their success in spite of, or perhaps because of, their inclination to give the proverbial middle finger to what was up to that point normal or acceptable.  Think of Mozart and Dylan, Da Vinci and Pollock, Hitchcock and Tarantino… all recognized geniuses in their art, yet considered at best quirky, if not anarchic and anti-social.  It would stand to reason that in order to reach this independent thinker mindset, the artist would need to disassociate himself from the common denominator that is public opinion.  More often than not you will find that in any conversation with an artist at his most euphoric creative bravado, they profess not to care what anyone thinks about them, me included, by the way; and I can honestly attest that when I say it I mean it.

But then… comes the time for a creation’s commercial release, whether it is a song or a movie or a painting.  All of a sudden what the audience or critics or industry professionals opine about the work becomes the bar by which the artist measures his artistic worth, which stands to reason because this ultimately influences the creations commercial or practical worth.  At this stage the tables turn and we are suddenly engaged in a popularity contest.  At this point our fragile self-confidence is easily shattered by one naysayer, which we intently pay attention to while ignoring the praise of others.  And thus the insecure, neurotic side of the artist is unleashed.

In my preoccupation with this apparent contradiction I reached my own conclusion: there is no contradiction.  The fact is that both the wildly independent thinking and the need for validation are rooted in perfectly human characteristics reacting to two different phases in a process.  The phase of creation, as mentioned before, requires the disassociation with the norm, where the “I don’t care what you think” attitude is an essential ingredient in asking the questions that lead to a new approach or solution, and which give the artist sole control over the task at hand.  But no artist can live off of their creativity if the creativity is not commercially viable, and that’s where the popularity comes into play.  At the point where the creation phase transitions to the commercial phase, the artist loses control.  This creates uncertainty and, ultimately, insecurity.

I would argue that, ultimately, these reactions are not limited to artists.  I believe basically everyone except for maybe Buddhist monks, have similar reactions to equivalent situations.  The effect may be magnified in artists because the same hyper sensibility required from an artist to create manifests itself when the mindset shifts and control is lost.  And alas, we are just insecure control freaks, which sounds like the majority of the people I know, only hyper-sensitively so.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Naked Cowboys in Death Valley

No, this is not a Brokeback Mountain themed blog, so rest at ease (or sorry to disappoint you, as the case may be).  

Because I tend to write fairly dark songs in spite of my being a fairly happy-go-lucky kind of guy, I have been asked at times where I draw inspiration from.  For some reason the question always catches me off guard and I am ill prepared to answer it.  But a few days ago I found myself wondering the same thing: where the hell do these songs come from.

I decided to track back through my influences for answers.  It is important to note, however, that while I am both a musician and a music fan, I believe my writing is more influenced and informed by the literature I have read than by the music I listen to.  Therefore, while my music composition style may be influenced by the likes of Chris Whitley, Joe Henry and Tom Waits, and my vocal delivery by Howling Wolf and Louis Armstrong, my lyrics have been informed by literary figures such as John Fante, Nelson Algren and Charles Bukowski.

The first person that nudged me in the direction of writing by encouragement was a college professor that taught creative writing.  She told me I had a knack for storytelling and said I should nurture it.  She gave me reading suggestions and when grading assignments she provided feedback that was meant to build up skills, rather than provide reassuring “atta-boys.”  She knew I liked music and one of the books she said I should take a look at was Hammer of the Gods, an unauthorized Led Zeppeling biography written by music journalist Stephen Davis.  I devoured this book because I was already a Zep fan and being these were the days before internet, this was the only way to get some formal information and historical perspective on the band.  In this book several authors were mentioned either as quotes or as influences, mainly, the occultist Alister Crowley, the novelist William S. Burroughs and the journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  I promptly went out and read everything I could get my hands on from these three authors.  I found Crowley pompous, boring and disorganized as a writer, perhaps because the subject matter did not hold my interest.  But Thompson and Burroughs became my first true fascinations of the written word because both, although in different ways, were renegades in  their trade.  

From Hunter Thompson I learned that bending the truth to the extreme of outright fabrication could still be journalism and was much more entertaining than the average editorial.  His streaming flow of consciousness full of drug-infused, colorful descriptions of the surrealism he lived, sparked my imagination and made me want to write.  Burroughs, on the other hand, was the literary embodiment of what Tom Robbins described in Still Life with Woodpecker as an outlaw: not a person who breaks the law, which is a criminal, but one that lives completely outside the law.  Of course I started my Burroughs studies reading Naked Lunch and, while I understood the historic importance of the work, I found it an excruciating reading experience.  But shortly after Naked Lunch, I read The Place of Dead Roads, which to this day remains one of my favorite books, and which many years later would serve as the inspiration for not only the western-flavored background of my act, but also of the title song of an album bearing the same name.

Through Burroughs I discovered the other beat writers, but none of them held the same level of interest for me as the outlaw Burroughs.  Around the same time I was reading Burroughs, I discovered E.E. Cummings in a college class; he sparked my interest because of his disdain for capitalization and punctuation.  In this same class I discovered Edgar Allan Poe, who hooked my imagination with his macabre and eerie themes, a flavor that seeps into my lyrics every now and then.  Shortly after this class, around the late 1980’s, while browsing the Beat Poets section in a book store, I noticed an image on a book that caught my attention.  The gruff, pensive face about to take a drag off a cigarette, along with the book's title Tales of Ordinary Madness, drew me to Charles Bukowski instantaneously.

Bukowski was a revelation to me because he managed to snatch poetry from the scholarly and deliver it to the streets.  He wrote of the derelicts, the drunks, the prostitutes and what happens at the fringes of society, where basic human needs and desires are redefined from the norm most of us know.  While he is best known as a poet, and I do admire his poetry, it was his prose and short stories that influenced me the most.  In addition to Tales of Ordinary Madness, Post Office and Notes of a Dirty Old Man were highly inspirational and influential to my writing.  Bukowski opened other doors as well, as I always tend to go back in history to see what influenced those that I admire.  Arguably, nobody influenced Bukowski more than John Fante and Nelson Algren.  I read Fante’s Ask the Dust and Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side with the zealousness and attention to detail of a 13-year old watching a porn flick for the first time. And while both of those works remain important references for me, Tales of Ordinary Madness is to this day one of the literary works that informs my writing most, followed closely by the works of Elmore Leonard.  

As is often the case, I found Elmore Leonard through one of the movies his books inspired: Get Shorty.  His way of humanizing criminals and showing the “rest of the story” to a criminal character (i.e. what he dreams about, what he eats, what he discusses with friends) may not have been completely original (I had already seen it in Bukowski’s short story “A .45 to Pay the Rent”), but it certainly represented a stylistic upgrade to the approach.  It was Leonard’s Complete Western Stories, made up of material that was written and published in the 1950’s, that made me become a student of Leonard’s characters and planted the seed for he who was to become Banjo Bones.

Banjo Bones is an alter ego of sorts.  He serves as a means for me to explore the Yin to my Yang.  Because I was raised on a tropical island, the idea of the vast deserts of the wild west was enticing, dangerous, and exotic.  Which made the characters that ventured into this landscape the subject of my admiration, fascination and wildest imagination.  Because I enjoyed a very stable, healthy upbringing, the idea of outlaws and renegades was as appealing to me as the forbidden fruit.  When I write with my proverbial Banjo Bones hat on, in my imagination I am traveling through Death Valley, with the same elasticity and non-linearity of time that Kim Carson traveled in Burroughs’s The Place of Dead Roads, with the same moral relativity of Leonard’s Raylan, and rubbing shoulders with the skid row characters of Tales of Ordinary Madness.  

As I travel the dark corners of my imagination, I seek my own practical revelations, hopefully not unlike Algren’s three rules of life from A Walk on the Wild Side:  "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."  And the next time someone asks where I draw my inspiration,  I will know my answer… sitting at an imaginary camp fire in the middle of Death Valley, listening to Burroughs, Bukowski and Leonard trade stories.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A tip of the hat

Being a working musician is like no other job I can think of.  There are many reasons for this, but for the purpose of this discussion I will concentrate on one only: the emotional rollercoaster.

I have had my share of day jobs, in fact quite desirable and committed white collar jobs, in which I had development plans, promotional opportunities and all those nifty long-term goals (some might call it bait) offered by business organizations, and the salaries to go along.  When I have been bypassed for a promotion, or when I’ve had a hard day at work, I get as stressed out as anyone, maybe even depressed for a few days.  But for the most part it has always been a fairly even-keeled emotional experience where one day rarely varied much from any other day, and the reward at the end of two weeks generally made up for whatever minor heartaches you suffered along the way.

But music is quite different.  It is an all or nothing game where you are the product, and every small accomplishment feels like a strategic victory, and every small setback fails like a catastrophe.  Especially if you are a songwriter, and every night you pour your soul out and leave it on a stage at the risk of being thrown out, booed, ridiculed or what’s even worse, ignored.  You bear your soul in hopes of making a connection with at least one person in the crowd, that connection being the real reward for the risk, as the vast majority of working musicians don’t make enough from gigging to even pay the rent.

I remember in my last gig in Folsom, CA, there was a gentleman wearing a cowboy hat, sitting alone towards the back wall, sipping on his beer.  He arrived roughly in the middle of my set, and then only got up to refresh his beer and sat back down in the same spot.  At the end of the gig he walked over to the front of the stage, tipped his hat in my direction, dropped three dollars in the tip jar and with a southern draw said: “nice set.”  He then walked out of the bar.  He made my night.  The three dollars, while not an insignificant gesture, was nowhere near as important to me as the fact that he took the time to acknowledge me and to let me know that he both approved of and enjoyed what I was doing.  I had another similar experience playing in Placerville, CA, where a woman actually got up at one point of my set and danced to my music, which is hardly dance music.  At the end of the show she bought my CD, asked to sign it and took a picture with me because she was sure that someday it would be worth more than a memory.

Then there are the other nights.  Nights where you play your heart out to an empty room because you can’t risk that somewhere, unseen, in the shadows, an important music industry player is silently watching; and the whole time you’re on stage you’re wondering how you will apologize to the venue for the lack of turnout.  Or the other “other” nights, in which you simply fail to make a single connection and you just get through your set hoping the stage will swallow you before you have to walk off and into the cold night, with a couple of bucks in your pocket if you’re lucky, which you would gladly give up for just one sympathetic listener in that crowd.

I have told myself and others, more than once, that my music is not everyone’s cup of tea and I don’t expect everyone to like it.  But secretly, I so hope for popularity.  I also tell myself and others, and I genuinely believe that music is not a competition and should not be rewarded on such a basis (i.e. the Grammies).  But every time I see a fellow musician in the local scene get an opportunity for a prime gig or a media feature, I jealously wonder “why not me?”

For all our bravado and renegade nature, musicians, especially those that create rather than pay tribute, are fragile creatures with very delicate egos.  While this may not be anyone’s problem other than our own, it would be just plain human decency not to viciously rag on music that is not to your liking, instead offer constructive criticism that, while hard to take, may be helpful in the long run to the artist.  And if you ever find yourself in the enviable position to presence a show you truly enjoy, take a few seconds to let the artist know how you feel.  All it takes is a tip of the hat.