Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My Musical Life - Part 2

1984/1985: My first embrace with popular music was top 40 radio, but as time went on, my tastes (and my brother's tastes) started moving toward heavier, more guitar-oriented music. I still liked much of the poppier stuff, but my horizons were expanding. We also aggressively started catching up on the musical past we'd missed out on. One memorable example for me was the Led Zeppelin song Kashmir - it took a few exposures to get how amazing the song is, but all at once I did, and that was IT - that was the song of songs. For at least three months, just about every day I'd get home from school, sit in front of the stereo, put the headphones on, put on my tape of Kashmir gotten off the radio, and turn the volume as loud as I could stand it, and maybe a little louder than that. I'd listen to the whole thing through, often two or three times.

So I had the thought, yeah, that would kick ass to learn to play guitar and play the classic rock, hard rock and metal I was growing to like more and more. And then something amazing and unexpected happened. My parents went out of town for a few days in January 1985, and Brian and I stayed with our uncle Wayne and cousin Mark in their apartment in Washington, D.C.  I remember we watched the Super Bowl while there, the 49ers beating the Dolphins...Mark was (is) about ten years my senior and so much fun for us to hang out with, like a really cool devil-may-care older brother. So we were enjoying ourselves, and then when we got to the guest the corner there was an acoustic guitar and an intro-to-guitar booklet. The guitar was Mark's - he'd tried to learn it some but said he hadn't ever gotten far. I spent most of the weekend working through the booklet and trying to pick out songs. (The first song I ever sort of learned: Bryan Adams's "Run to You", and in the wrong key at that.) I already knew about the notes and theory from piano, so I made a lot of progress in that weekend.

Mark drove us back to our house and I had the guitar with me - my parents weren't quite home yet, so he and Brian and I taped an impromptu jam using a small trampoline struck by a dust buster (Brian), the guitar played percussively on a lap (Mark), and me on piano. That was awesome, but the best part came after my parents were home and Mark was getting ready to leave. I went to give him the guitar back and he told me I could have it. Now THAT was a life-changer.

So I dove deeply into teaching myself to play guitar. I would have to wait until the following Christmas to get my first electric, which I was really hungry for by then. My favorite two bands about that time were Rush and Iron Maiden, two bands I still love today, though I liked all kinds of stuff. My guitar playing improved a lot in the first year with all the time I spent on it.

Teaching myself wasn't a problem, except that I did develop some less-than-ideal technical habits which later proved hard or impossible to correct, and it placed a ceiling on my technique that I've not really ever busted through. I've learned over the years to compensate well for what I don't do properly, and my chops are more than good enough for most musical situations, but authentic major-league shredding is largely beyond me.


1986 through mid-1988: The big musical event in my life in 1986 was undoubtedly Metallica's Master of Puppets album. As with Kashmir, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it the first time I heard the album (I'd never heard any thrash metal before that), but by the third listen it was my favorite album of all time to that point. I loved the speed, the percussive, unhinged tritone chord progressions, the anger and complexity and rhythmic precision. This was new and different and intense and I wanted to absorb all of it I could. I listened to Master of Puppets multiple times a day for months.

In June, the family moved from the D.C. suburbs to Oklahoma City (whoa!) My musical desire at this point was to play guitar in a hard rock/metal band, preferably an original one but I could do covers too. Brian was headed this direction, too, and he got a bass for his 14th birthday. We both started growing our hair long, which we couldn't do in Maryland because we'd returned to a religious school for the last two years we were there. Metalheads at last!

Eventually, by '87, we ended up in a garage band with a drummer friend of ours, Ryan. We started out playing hard rock/metal covers, Dio, Whitesnake, AC/DC, Motley Crue...we even worked up an Yngwie Malmsteen classical metal-style original instrumental, though pitched much lower technically, of course. We went through a thrash period, briefly (the other guys weren't the thrash fanatics I was, and we weren't really capable of good thrash anyway), and then took a left turn one stoned weekend by recording a 90-minute cassette of free-form improvisations. Those turned out as a kind of rock by turns noisy and unfocused and vaguely jazzy and surprisingly coherent in the good parts. By this point we'd developed a taste for some other kinds of music, mostly older music, stuff like Yes, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, the Doors. I was also getting heavily into hypertechnical fusion jazz guitarists like Allan Holdsworth and Al DiMeola.

We never had two things that would seem essential to a band - we never had a name, and we never had a lead singer. None of us could really do it while playing, and we auditioned a few singers, but no one fit. We never played live except for a few songs at a couple of parties. We were scattershot about practicing, anyway, and sometimes we had trouble because we couldn't find a place to play where the cops wouldn't be called on us for excessive noise. We did some more improvisational recordings, and I did write a long, complex multi-part piece called Emerald Ocean that we spent maybe a couple of months working up. Three high school kids trying to sound like Yes or Rush and not totally screwing it up, well, that's a victory all three of us can feel good about. We all grew a lot as players during our time together, and we were pretty good friends most of the time too, and I look back fondly on our jamming. I wish I still had a recording of us playing Emerald Ocean, and I'd love to record a version of it on my own now. Might be a 25th anniversary version.


  1. I've written a few things here and had them rejected by blogspot. I'll make a second comment if this works.

  2. Ok, nifty.

    It's interesting how it's possible to make a big change in someone's life through a piece of altruism which barely costs you. I can imagine a situation where your cousin Mark had the guitar, dinked around for a couple or a dozen hours, figured out that it wasn't for him... he sees you're into it, and says "keep it." Not a huge sacrifice, but means massive amounts to you. The total amount of value to people isn't conserved if people value things asymmetrically! (I guess this isn't so surprising--it's why we have money and specialization and stuff.)

    This chunk of the story makes me want to examine my life with my kids and nephews/niece carefully (on an ongoing basis) to look out for opportunities to make these big contributions--they possibly could even come at little cost and effort to me.

    I don't have the same music bug (or aptitude) that you describe here, but I am enjoying the learning stages of the new instrument now.


  3. Good observation - that gift worked out entirely well, and I think we'd be surprised how many of those opportunities happen if we're open to them. I have younger siblings who are musical as well, so I've occasionally been able to loan or give them equipment I wasn't using. As well as talking about and playing music with them, which is of course valuable too.