Monday, February 28, 2011

Clearwater Rock City

As it turns out, there are times when music and mid-life crises must take a back seat to the mechanical obligations of the hard-earned real life that makes my fantasy world possible; the job that pays the mortgage, buys groceries, equips my oldest daughter with a bass guitar and puts gas in my car (provided I remember to stop by the gas station in time), with some dollars leftover for guitar lessons, Mac laptops and copious purchases from iTunes.  On occasion, this job requires that I travel to some spot or another for some reason or another, though it usually involves paper fights, also known as litigation.  As a result, I've had the good fortune to see the jaw-dropping wonders of a two-week trial in the Bronx, to compare and contrast the differences between mediations in San Francisco and San Diego, to ask the upright people of College Station, Texas to fairly compensate my employer for the consequences of a taking by eminent domain and to go toe-to-toe with elected officials in Topeka, Kansas.  And, on occasion, I get a boondoggle to some resort destination that lures winter-abused Northerners down for conferences so they can swap temperatures in the 30s (or worse) for temperatures in the 70s (or better) in the name of continuing education and networking. 

So, I found myself attending a retail law conference at a Marriott in Clearwater, Florida last November that conveniently came equipped with a sparkling ocean out front, less sparkly development for miles on either side, and some pretty awesome bridges across which a Minnesota runner could run and take it all in without need of Thinsulate.  One afternoon after dutifully attending both general and break-out sessions in Conference Rooms That Could Be In Any Hotel Anywhere and before the scheduled dinner event, I laced-up my running shoes and headed south towards one of the high-arcing bridges I had spotted on the way into town.  Having successfully located the bridge and hauled myself up and over it, I was pleasantly rewarded with a small park and public-access beach area waiting for me on the other side.  It had preserved native wetlands, indigenous vegetation and included, I soon discovered, a small but peaceful bird sanctuary.  The boardwalk trails beckoned, so I headed in to see what I could see.  Before long, I encountered an observation area with a few benches, a view of the remaining wetlands and a lone old woman.  I slowed to do some of the recommended observing and noticed the cranes, herons and other water fowl scattered about like motionless plastic lawn ornaments, (though in this case it would be a lawn that had been badly over watered and turned into a pond.)  As I slowly passed the old woman it became evident that she was no tourist or retiree come to spend a few minutes with the birds.  Rather, the over stuffed plastic bags nestled on either side of her and incongruous layers of tattered clothing betrayed the fact that, in all likelihood, the bench or some nearby make-shift shelter was what she called home.  She and I were the only human visitors in the park from what I could see.  I sat for a few minutes a couple benches down from her and took-in the refreshing island idyll that was managing to keep its metaphorical foot firmly planted between the rapidly closing double-doors of neighboring condos and hotels.  I watched the birds, then the old woman, who, I found, was also watching the birds.

After a few moments, I was up again and on my way, but now with a shiny new marble of a song idea rolling around in my head.  It struck me as a worthy parable of sorts that the homeless woman with so many wants and needs was the one with the time and interest in taking-in what little natural beauty was still left to be found while the tourists and retirees hurried by barely noticing the scruffy-signed park with few modern amenities.

Back in Minnesota a few days later, I cursed the declining weather to no effect.  Winter and band practice, apparently, must go on.  At the end of our next practice,  Jim and Andy were energetically working on one of Andy's latest guitar bits that had set Jim in motion on the keyboards like a whirling dervish but with maybe slightly less whirling, though I'm pretty sure there was still some amount of whirling that did occur.  As they discussed the structure of the music and how the keyboard piece and guitar would work together, I sat on the floor with my notebook, listening to the progressive iterations of the melody being born.  I thought back to the homeless woman in Florida and my pencil suddenly got moving, words pouring out on the page like stale beer spilling from a bottle kicked across the floor at First Ave. after a show.  When I could get a word in edge wise, I informed Jim and Andy that I might have just come-up with the lyrics to the song.  Not too long after that, we recorded the following, again as insurance against the probability that our aging and overly-taxed brains would not remember what we had done from one practice to the next:

I won't repeat the disclaimer referenced in an earlier post because if you are still hanging around reading this blog you either have no common sense and therefore warnings are of no avail or you are of hardy enough stock that really you can take just about anything, no matter how egregious.  So, we shall proceed then and get straight to the final version of the song which, if you like it, is to be credited to Jim and Andy and if you dislike it, well, then you're computer isn't working right and you should probably take it in for a tune-up and while you're there pick-up a nice set of headphones so that you can really appreciate the art involved here:

As for Clearwater, I'm thinking if our band ever makes it big, we might have to include a stop in Clearwater on our first tour.  I know some conference rooms in a hotel there that really need something interesting to happen to them before they die.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Easter Bunny Gets Down At Easter

I will get back to songs and songwriting stories in the future (as the clamoring from the blogosphere is getting quite loud, unless that noise is just my washing machine getting off-balance again during the spin cycle), but I thought I would take a post to pause and discuss the process of learning to play the electric guitar at the age of 42.

I know the revelation in the last post that such efforts were underway was startling, especially given my history with the tambourine, which most experts agree is a simpler instrument to master, though I'm inclined to debate that.  Well considered or not, I did indeed embark on a quest to learn to play guitar way back in the early days of my rock career, which would be about last May.  Actually, thinking back, my 10 year-old daughter, Audrey, is really to blame for this folly.  See, the genetic defect that has me hanging-out in basements and recording songs (when I should be spending my free time running calculations about how much more money I need in my 401k before I can retire to Hawaii), has manifested itself much earlier in Audrey's case.   It just so happens that a few of Audrey's friends also decided to form a band last spring.  Two of the other girls had extensive experience with guitar and piano and a third one at least owned a set of drums, so most of the bases were covered except for one -- the bass base.  In need of a bass player, they drafted Audrey for the task and she eagerly accepted the challenge, mostly because she thought guitars looked cool and was keen to own one and put a bunch of stickers on it.  Being the open-minded, music loving mother that I am, I said "no."  We had no history of bass players in the family, no bass and it seemed clear that the "learning to play it" details were conveniently to be determined at some vague point in the future.

But, of course, she persisted in a way that was deviously calculated to cut me off at the knees; she said "please" 1,014 times, pointed-out that it involved music and then, in a stroke of brilliance, agreed to take lessons.  Check mate.  I had no answer to this, other than the fact that bass guitars don't grow on trees and, therefore, cost money, which we also know does not grow on trees.  (Though as a side note, I have to say that in modern society, the "grow on trees" retort really doesn't have much sway anymore.  Unless you own or operate an orchard, there are lots of things like apples, oranges and bananas that do grow on trees, and yet the orchard-deprived among us still have to pay for them.)  Still, she had at least earned herself a trip to Twin Town Guitars wherein reluctant mothers can become better informed about how much non-tree-growing bass guitars actually cost.

Well, you all know the end of the story and certainly you are desperate for it to be here.  Yes, she got a bass guitar, and a strap, and a cord, and some picks and a small amp. Oh, and a case and a tuner and a regular lesson time on Monday nights.

The scheduling of said lessons caused me to realize that unless I did something about it, I would be sitting and waiting in a perfectly good guitar shop for 1/2 hour every week, learning absolutely nothing about guitars except how many different things there are to buy for them.  So, I signed myself up for lessons too. Which, of course, required me to buy a guitar for myself.  And a strap, and a cord and another amp and some picks and a tuner.  Thankfully, it came with a free case.

Which brings us to the Easter Bunny.  In your first guitar lesson, you get oriented to the guitar and its relevant parts.  There is the neck and the fretboard, the nut, the head stock, the tuning pins (I just call them the knobs) the body, and, of course, the all-important strings.  On an electric guitar there are also things called "pick-ups" or "humbuckers" which register the sound of the strings as well as some knobs for volume and tone.  All you need to know about the knobs is that they should usually be turned all the way up.  As for the pick-ups, you just need to have them in order for the guitar to work. 

Back to the strings.  There are six strings on a guitar and they are generally tuned to certain notes, namely, EBGDAE.  For people who care about music theory and really want to understand the structure behind music, it is helpful to learn the default notes for the strings. (I'm not in this group, but I didn't know that at the time of my first lesson.)  Also, it helps in tuning your guitar if you know what note each string should register at on your tuner.  The easiest way to teach young children and middle-aged lawyers how to remember the order of the notes of the strings is via a mnemonic device.  In this instance, the Easter Bunny Gets Down At Easter.  This conveys the fact that the first string on the guitar (which is the bottom one, not the top one) is tuned to E, the second to B and so on.  This is what I learned in my first guitar lesson, and I will never forget it.  Obviously, it is culturally insensitive and inappropriate if you don't happen to celebrate Easter or if you are bothered by the idea of His Holiness the Easter Bunny getting down, and yet, it works.  No doubt there are other mnemonics for guitar strings, but don't even bother to tell me about them.  As far as I am concerned, the Easter Bunny Gets Down At Easter and that is that.

In fact, my brain and the hamster therein seems particularly well-suited to mnemonic devices and other memory aides.  Not only will I forever remember the order of the notes for the strings on a guitar, but I am able to recite the entire alphabet to this very day just by singing the song in my head.  (I cannot recite it backwards because I did not learn a song that does so, though I've heard one exists.)  The Great Lakes can be remembered by HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior) and my children memorized the clockwise orientation of North, East, South and West through the phrase "Never Eat Soggy Waffles."  And, thanks to They Might Be Giants, we can forever remember the colors of the rainbow as ROY G BIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet):

Additionally, I can recite the Pledge of Allegiance from memory and, with the help of Schoolhouse Rock, the Preamble to the Constitution.  So, if you learn nothing else from this blog, you should at least come away thinking that the next time you need to remember something, memory aides are the way to go.  In other words, remember that memory aides aid your memory.

From the Easter Bunny, you quickly move to fingernails.  This is the other thing you learn in your first guitar lesson: fingernail length matters.  In order to hold-down the strings on the fretboard (hopefully in the shape of a chord that will produce a pleasing sound) you need to use the pads of your fingers so as to best control the location of your fingers and the pressure on the string.  It's sort of like typing.  If you have really long press-on nails, it gets tricky.   So, your instructor will encourage you to keep the nails on your non-dominant hand as short as you can.  Accordingly, the nails on my left hand now look like this:

This was a big adjustment for me, as you can imagine, because the fingernails on my right hand generally look like this:

Then, there is naming your guitar.  Now this is generally optional and not required.  In fact, most guitar players that I know don't have a name for their guitar.  Certainly there is B.B. King and "Lucille," but most of the immortalized female names in rock are song-related, not instrument related.  There's "Beth" by Kiss and Clapton's "Layla," Elvis Costello's "Alison" and, of course, Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon."  No doubt there are countless others that I'm not remembering due to the lack of a mnemonic device.  Regardless, I'm not really a fan of naming guitars, but in this instance I felt it was necessary.  To the extent I ever call my guitar by name, it's name is Hal, which is short for HAL 9000, the empathetic, sentient computer system that warmed your hearts in the Space Odyssey movies.  The reason for this is simple: Hal is undoubtedly smarter about guitars and how to play them than I am.  Eventually, I expect that Hal will become frustrated and impatient with the incompetence of his owner and seek to take me out in the name of higher directives.  Below are photos of Hal, a Fender Telecaster, that you can provide to the authorities some day when they find me mysteriously strangled by my 7-foot guitar cord while alone in my own home with no signs of forced entry and my amplifier making strange, happy humming noises.

On a final note, it seems that as with most things in life, practicing is key to developing skill and ability on the guitar.  Picks, amps, Beatles Songbooks, and guitar chord charts taped to the wall don't actually get you anywhere unless you put in the time.  Unfortunately, the quality 10-20 minutes a week I am able to spend with Hal (aside from my now bi-weekly 1/2 hour lessons) makes for a very slow climb up the competency ladder.  This is why I fear Hal will someday blow a humbucker and plot my end.  So again, a word to the wise (and this blog is nothing if not a protracted cautionary tale) if you decide to pursue your rock 'n' roll fantasies in your 40s, remember to find time to practice.  Perhaps this mnemonic device will help: POD.  It stands for Practice Or Die.