Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My Musical Life - Part 3

Other threads: While in summer school with the other bad kids in 1987, I was in a class with Dean. He was also a guitarist and music fanatic, and we hit it off well. Dean was a record collector - even then, his collection of LPs was in the high three figures, and it would go much higher in the future. His style of guitar was quite different from mine; he was sufficiently a rocker, but he knew about older music, different music, stuff I'd not been exposed to. We hung out fairly often over the following years, and I got my first exposure to a great many artists that became huge influences on my music from hearing records in Dean's collection. Todd Rundgren, Sly Stone, Steely god. And even the stuff that didn't directly make it into my style, the stuff that was more Dean than me, broadened my musical mind a great deal. We wrote together, too. One time we recorded four acoustic guitar songs with lyrics stolen from a book of Oklahoma feminist poetry he'd kiped from his high school library. Seriously. Two 18-year-old longhaired white kids singing lyrics like "one nipple erect; one inverted" while trading tequila shots - c'mon, have a heart, you gotta love that. And later, on two feverish nights we recorded with a borrowed Casio keyboard and Dean's Les Paul a seven-song instrumental project called White Pope. Dean is nothing if not a master archivist, and sure enough, he built a White Pope MySpace page: has our besotted handiwork, a gentle mix of prefab funk and folk that was anything but intuitive in the musical climate of 1988. Hanging out and playing and listening to music with my friend Dean got my musical self thinking in ways I never would have otherwise, that's for sure, and I'm hugely thankful for that.


In the fall of 1988, I was at the apartment of a guy named Tom who I was in music theory class with in high school. (I need to write about that class sometime, but not now. A world-famous musician was in the class, but it was neither Tom nor me, nor is this musician's fame in pop and rock. And the band Slayer played a central role in the story.) I was dicking around on his Casio keyboard - dicking well, I might add; I always had a knack for dicking around, understand - and Tom, a drummer, mentioned that he was playing with a pop and rock cover band called the Scene who were looking for a keyboardist. A couple of weeks later I was in the band. Fortunately someone else there had a keyboard, because I didn't yet own one. Tom ended up getting fired by the band a few weeks after I joined, but I stayed with them for a couple of years. The bassist, lead singer and de facto band leader was a buff guy named Danny, a year older than me. Very talented musician, played multiple instruments well and had a strong voice...I also played rhythm guitar and some lead in the band. The band had three or four guys who played multiple instruments, and we did the instrument-switching trick a lot, probably enough to cross over the silliness line but hey, we were young. And as was true in most bands I've been in, I was the youngest.

We did a nice mix of late 80s radio pop and rock, I think - well balanced between the rockier side and the poppier side. From the keyboard perspective, I actually liked the poppier side better, even when I wasn't crazy about the material. (I could live without hearing "Wild, Wild West" again.) I remember we worked up Depeche Mode's "Behind the Wheel" - a stretch for us, but what a great song and one where I was the musical pilot, controlling the underlying rhythm loop and playing the keyboard parts...I got my first keyboard in 1989, from a classified ad. It was a Roland D-20, the workstation version of the better-known D-50. Got it cheap from a guy in Shawnee who had to get rid of it. I would end up playing probably, jeez, seven or eight hundred gigs with that thing.

The Scene was the band with which I played my first bar gig. Four hours, didn't make jack, but breakfast at Denny's or wherever it was afterward was mighty tasty. "Pour Some Sugar On Me" was played. We gigged maybe, I don't know, an average of once or twice a month while I was in the band. The talent was there for a much higher ascent in the local scene, no doubt in my mind, we had a lot of skills in the fold. Maybe it was just that we were all so young, 18-22. We couldn't play some places because some of us weren't 21...the band went through a few lineup changes and a name change, to Mirror Image. We went more classic rock for a while. We did a few originals - Danny was a prolific writer, I had a couple, the drummer Trace wrote as well - but we never got to the point where we were focusing on that. Though we did record a four-song original demo, which was my first experience in a recording studio. I enjoyed it; I was particularly happy with a sweet sub-Steve Lukather melodic guitar solo I contributed to a power ballad-ish song of Danny's about his then-girlfriend. Two-handed tapping licks included.

This was a big learning time for me. I started recording music at home, first with one jam box, then with a two-jam box faux-stereo method that Danny hipped me to, then with a Tascam cassette four-track that Danny sold me. I still lived with my parents, and my room was a small studio. I had my keyboard and two guitars, and I also used my brother's bass a lot and eventually sort of inherited it, since Brian didn't stick with the music after high school. It wasn't from a lack of ability - Brian was a fine bassist and could have gone much further had he wanted to. He just was called by other things.

This was the first point at which I noticed I was often blocked in my writing. When I started composing music, I was prolific. The standards were low, but the output was high, even if I never did much with it. Now I was playing for keeps, and everything, I don't know, kinda changed. I put a lot of pressure on myself to write and record, and it was counterproductive - I'd end up just saying hell with it and doing something else rather than keep fighting my own perceived failure, not really knowing in my bones that that's how music is made. The entire writing and recording process could accurately be described as you fail and fail and fail until one time you manage not to so much.

So the Scene/Mirror Image ran its course, and I went bandless for a little bit, and then I put an ad up in a music store looking for a band to play with, and I got a response from a southside OKC band called Changes, a five-piece cover band with a female lead singer. They needed a keyboard player, and I got the job, and played with the band for a couple of years. Changes was further along in the local scene that the Scene was - they were a little older, they had more of their own equipment, they had more gig connections. The repertoires of the two bands were similar except that Changes obviously covered a lot of songs by female vocalists: Pat Benatar, Scandal, Fleetwood Mac, Heart. Our singer, Kim, could handle all of it and more; really good singer. My favorite thing Changes did was a medley of songs from Pink Floyd's "The Wall" - great, great music, often the grand finale of a Changes show, and the band played it really well and with palpable energy. The bassist and drummer, two brothers named Rodd and Rick, were and are like me huge Rush fans, another point in their favor, and we remain friends to this day. Good guys.

Eventually Changes' lead singer departed, and we recruited a replacement, Sherri. We didn't stay together much longer after that - nothing to do with Sherri - but her entry into the band ended up bringing about a profound change in my musical life, to be covered in Part 4...

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