Saturday, January 02, 2010

Dueling Banjos and Air Guitars: Confessions of a Non-Musician



I always wanted to make music.
Fiction and poetry are fine, but the fact remains: you can’t describe falling in love so that someone who’s never had the feeling will feel it. Metaphors are for the initiated. Words can give you the thrill of recognition. But the actual experience, the first kiss, the last fight? Until you’ve lived them, the greatest words in the language are just chatter.
Melody is different, as remote from the approximations of language of any emotion it might evoke. But music isn’t trying to describe anything, it’s not second hand. It’s the thing itself, whole and complete, effortlessly repudiating the tinkertoy tools of language: you can’t describe a song.
You can only sing it.
This all comes to mind because I wanted to write a song today.
There was something in the grey Atlantic light, the ebb of Christmas into the chilly rain-spattered start of a new year, the damp wind off the Atlantic, taunting hope and tricking it out of you at the same time. I knew the right tune, some minor melody modulating into a major key, could express my feeling perfectly. More than that, it would reflect the emotion, like the ridge of trees pointing downward in a still lake, become its avatar, embody it as a living creature without language conveyed without words to anyone who heard it.
But I can’t write music.
I’ve never had a tune in my head, never woken up with one playing there, as Yesterday was playing in Paul McCartney’s head, all those years ago; as All Those Years Ago was playing in George Harrison’s a few years later.
So instead I write words, and they seem especially puny right now.
I was listening to a New Year’s Eve rock concert tonight, some local band. The sound mix was bad, the singers weren’t miked right and you couldn’t hear the lyrics at all. But it didn’t matter. The drum beat caught my heart rate and picked it up, the music worked its way past my bruised ears and into the captive synapses and the rim shot capillaries, waves of pleasure riding the lifting tides of memory and desire, until I was unable to keep still, my head bobbing, my feet stamping the high hat pedal under the table.
Rock and roll!
This was pure art, the way ragas are pure art, the way John Coltrane and Entrain and Coleman Hawkins and Nat King Cole are pure art, and Emmy Lou Harris and the Harrisburg Philarmonic playing Schubert lieder and the Shangi-las singing Leader of the Pack. You don’t need the lyrics, you just need the beat and the track and the tune.
Words are pale and flimsy next to that. Authors from Aristotle to John Fowles have claimed prose and poetry as the greatest arts because of their specificity – the incomparable ability of the written word to capture the essence of a thought. But words are a little less accurate with feelings. Every writer has felt this wall separating his scribbles from the ongoing rush of the living world. It’s a fact -- words fail.
Mallarme: “A poem is never finished, but abandoned.”
Eliot: “It is impossible to say just what I mean.”
Billy Joel:“There’s a new band in town but you can’t get the sound from a story on a magazine.”
That’s why Chrissie Hynde stopped writing rock criticism and formed a band.
That’s why you can’t really compliment a musician after a performance. Everyone likes praise (and money!) but the only communication that matters with a musician is through music itself. You see it on stage – jazz musicians ‘trading eights’; you see it walking down the street when one musician starts singing and his friend lays the harmony on top of it. The relatively tone deaf third wheel (that would be me) can only fall back a few steps and listen. You see it in films, when Jon Voight and the little banjo player connect in Deliverance, when the aliens greet us with music in Close Encolunters, when the teen-age lovers skip over their awkwardness to play a duet in Juno.
Maybe that’s why musicians only seem to make lasting unions with each other. They share something the rest of us don’t.
Leonard Cohen to Janis Joplin: “We are ugly but we have the music.”
So I admit it. I have art envy.
And musicians are as self-contained as they music itself. I think of those old bluesmen before the big city white guys in suits with tape recorders discovered them, happy to play sitting on rocking chairs on their porches, heard by no one. I think of Woody Guthrie quitting his radio gig, saying “I don’t need this job. I can play while I’m walking.”
The lead guitar dude tonight works in some local government job, he’s never cut a record. I leaned over to my friend at one point and I said “What is a guy who can play like that doing here?”
My friend just smiled, “Playing,” he said.
Nothing else really matters.
I think of the street musician in Joni Mitchell’s For Free, playing for the pure pleasure of it while she ruefully admits, “I’ll play if you have the money, or if you’re a friend to me.”
But intention is irrelevant, and at least for me her music has a an alchemical power far removed from the grumpy old woman who seems to spend most of her time these days disowning it.The music exists, independent of everything else, including its creator.
The other arts are relative; music is absolute.
If a string quartet plays in the forest and there’s no one to hear them, it doesn’t matter. Beethoven composed his greatest works after he went deaf; Def Leppard sold six million copes if Pyromania, and not because of the words

Ridin' into danger, laughin' all the way
Fast, free and easy, livin' for today
- – Yeah, whatever. Just play the music.

Best of all, and most difficult to understand or deconstruct, music is uniquely porous to experience: chords and harmonies can be irradiated by the events of your life, joy or trauma can penetrate the music permanently, and transform it with an emotional half life roughly the length of your own. Your heartbreak, the feeling the rain-dark streets where you paced it out, the shabby overheated apartment where you were happy for the first time in your life, translate themselves into chords of a certain song and stay there. The song becomes the evening light, and the snow ticking against the window panes, the leap of expectation when the phone rang. You had an actual phone then, a landline where you could actually hear each other talking. These memories warp and recast the music. It’s not accidental that people refer to ‘our song’. It is theirs; and anyone else’s whose life merged with the chord changes, a hundred thousand different songs, a million songs, and all of them the same.
Proust claimed this power for the sense of taste – his famous Madeleine cakes dipped in tea, that “contain in the almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” No taste has ever done that for me, though I feel something comparable for the sense of smell. Entering an old house, the odor of resinous wood and dust and damp plaster can bring me back to chilly summer houses opened up in the late spring, still storing the winter cold. The sudden sense of being ten years old again with a long vacation in front of me is almost immobilizing.
It’s exactly like that, walking into the closed room of a much-loved song, breathing in the full dense complex atmosphere, the haunted perfume of a past moment, eyes closed, afraid to move or make a sound of my own.
No book, no painting, no sculpture, no dance performance or stage play or film has ever done this for me.
But Joni Mitchell does it every time.
Her music is the storehouse of my past, and the only pure preservative for fragile species of feeling that would have vanished long ago, gone extinct and fossilized into old slides and letters and journal entries, without it.
Whatever she may think about her body of work now, this is the gift she had, and just as importantly, the one she gave with such profligate indifference, simply by writing songs and singing them.
It’s not just her, of course. We each have a select group of musicians who wrote the soundtrack for our lives, whose tunes hold our whole wounded personal history in suspension.
That may be why, when I find out someone I dislike has musical talent, my opinion of them rises like balloons at a kids’ party. I saw Joe Scarborough playing the guitar on TV the other day and Annie said ”Oh yeah, he was in a band” and I found myself actually liking old shovel face for the first time ever, completely against my will. But I mean – he plays guitar!
I walked into a house I was working on last year, and the arrogant, shrewish unbearable owner was upstairs, getting the place ready for real estate agents. I thought she had the radio on, but it was her singing and her voice was gorgeous. I stood there for a few minutes listening, appalled by the chemical changes going on in my brain, suddenly fond of this woman, against all reason and common sense.
I can carry a tune, but barely; I immediately start singing the harmony when someone else does.
I feel for those hapless the American Idol wannabes.
I know why people enter karaoke contests.
I play air guitar on the steering wheel when I drive with the radio on. Sometimes I drum on the dashboard.
I listen, I download, I sign along. That ought to be enough for me but it isn’t. The longing to participate remains. Music is sublime, music is perfect, music is everything I want and cannot have.
I can’t explain it.
I’d write a song about it but I don’t know how.

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