Just here to Testify...again
Hi y’all! I’ve been meaning to drop ya a blog post for several months now, and today I decided to spring into action, so to speak. Given that my last post was dominated by my health, let’s start with that topic.
Oh sure, I’m eating, sleeping, pooping, and exercising, so what’s to bitch about?
Well, I still get angina about every freaking day, that’s what’s to bitch about!
But with the lingering partial blockages in my plumbing, and with the additional at least theorized uncorrectable damage to all my itty-bitty coronary blood vessels, it seems that angina is something I need to get used to. There are pills. I take them. They help. A little.
The pills helped enough that I was able to go to Paris with Naomi in November (see picture at top) and attend the Redefinition of the Kilogram vote, and not feel like I was going to die. The trip was amazing. The event was sublime. I was reduced to a puddle of tears. Overwhelmed. My friend, Nobel laureate Bill Phillips (let’s be clear, anyone who talks to Bill is his friend, he’s that kind of guy), gave a bravura lecture that had us all on our feet. The world watched. The media paid attention to us. Why? I haven’t much of a clue. But the event was about facts and ultimate truths that everyone can agree on. Apparently, folks are hungry for some of that. I’m certainly feeling a microphone drop on my scientific career, though. We are all sort of adrift of late at work. At least those of us who worked so hard to nail down the Planck constant. What do you do after fundamentally changing the way the world measures everything?
I’m still recording songs once a month, whether the world needs them or not. I’ve also branched out into tutorials. Some that people seem to like. Some that it seems people could live without. The guitar lesson on how to play Wasted Days and Wasted Nights has been surprisingly popular, for example. I’m reminded of something Russ Bundy, my first real boss, told me about writing instruction manuals, which was our job at Compressor Controls Corporation in Des Moines several, several years ago. He told me that if you can communicate something in clear language that teaches a person how to do something new, it is always appreciated. It helps that it’s a great song, and that there aren’t that many tutorials about how to play it. My take on Guitar of the Day, on the other hand, is clearly an acquired taste. Oh well, I amused myself, and I was very pleased that Karl Bade found my choice of tunes amusing as well!
Here’s a month by month run down with the usual pithy commentary:
Train Wreck is a song I wrote and recorded with Claude Pate’s alter Americana ego, All the Fixin’s. Love this simple song. It has some lyrics for verse two that are keepers: Where do all of the words go? The words of love and anger, hope and hate? Do they just wait? I imagine them in a coffin. Buried just beneath the ground you walk, waiting on the chance that we might talk. I played this on my little archtop. Not probably the best sonic choice, but I was struggling with unmedicated, persistent angina, and I picked the guitar that was easy for me to play and that would spark some joy. That little guitar is kind of a security blanket. I keep it in the living room, and I play it every day.
The Buzzcocks!!!!! I like playing cover songs in unexpected ways, and the Craviola is such an unusual guitar that it lends itself to doing creative, Brazilian tinged versions of pop songs. And Ever Fallen in Love is a great bit of power pop punk. I was stunned to discover that I posted the song coincident with the passing of the song’s writer, Pete Shelley. I did not intend to do this, but I like to think (hope) that it was an appropriate homage. I’m not the first to take a Bossa approach to this song, by the way. There is a delightful version by the French band Nouvelle Vague that inspired us years ago as a family band to play this song with a little bit of that Brazilian thang going on.
Testify is my “hit song”! I don’t get a whole lot of traffic on my channel, so this song consistently accumulating views has been a pleasant surprise. It’s a straightforward bit of rock, soul, rhythm and blues. Here’s how the song came about. I was in Frederick, Md rummaging through used record shops, and I was totally digging the music that the shop keeper was spinning on his turntable. I told him as much when I was checking out (I purchased a live Clifford Brown set). The guy did the coolest thing. He gave me the record that I was digging! So, you ask, what was I grooving to? It was an Atlantic records compilation from the early 70’s of Stax records artists (Solid Cold Soul!). Solomon Burke! Wilson Pickett! Joe Tex! Don Covay! Ben E. King! Otis Redding! And that’s just side one! Don Covay knocked me out. Never heard him before. I had been spinning Solid Cold Soul a lot and Testify clearly owes quite a bit to that experience. Another ingredient in the song comes by way of Allen Toussaint’s Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley. I leave that to officianados to unpack. These amazing ingredients might be why the song has proved more popular than my usual output. The guitar I play is super cool too. I bought it from a music store in California that was selling all of Dennis Budimir’s guitars. Dennis is not a household name, but as part of the Wrecking Crew he played on recordings by everyone from Joni Mitchell to Frank Zappa. This was one of the last guitars of his collection to sell. Apparently, I’m a rare cat who digs a good copycat guitar. I’m of the opinion though that this copy of the Gibson ES335 made in the 80’s by Yamaha is probably of higher quality than the Gibsons of that era. I know I love playing it!
Quittin Time is another song we were working on for the last All the Fixin’s project, Fact or Fixin. The song is a straight rockabilly, blues thing that I have long needed to write some words for. I had the first verse back in the day, but just never got around to completing it until now. That’s part of the reason I do monthly videos: just to finish songs that never seem to get finished. I watched a Keith Richards special on Netflix last year and was interested to hear Keef expound on his perception that lots of acts these days know how to Rawk, but not a lot of them still know how to roll. He was, I believe, referring to rock’s growth out of jazz and blues, and that to Rock AND Roll there must be some swing in the DNA. I’m not terribly swinging in my performance here, but I was aiming for a sort of restrained version of Brian Setzer doing Gene Vincent. I was most certainly trying to get at the Sun Recording studios Scotty Moore guitar sound again, and I think I’m getting that dialed in enough to suit my taste. Anyway, even if my performance fails to roll, the song, and sound of the guitar at least know where to find it. I made the guitar part hard on myself, and that was part of the difficulty that I had with really relaxing and wailing away. I don’t often play in this style either, so my jumping around octaves picking out different voicings of the same ninth chord is not as fluid as I would have liked. To make matters worse I was struggling vocally, because my throat was full of phlegm. Turns out, I probably had strep throat. But I wouldn’t learn that until after recording my February video.
Symmetry is a brand-new song. It’s about being a parent and a child, and that cycle of caring that flips at some point. Oh yeah, and I used binary black holes, gravity waves, and astrophysics as a metaphor for codependence. I got it started over the holidays when we were all out in Colorado. I had some down time and was watching an interview with Jeff Tweedy. He was talking about his guitar, an old Regal parlor I believe, and strumming these voicings of these chords, and I thought…well I just saw John Hiatt using those same chords…why don’t I take these chords out for a spin myself and see what happens? Works for those guys, might work for me. I branched off in some George Harrison directions (the I know you know section), layered in some Bowie (all over the place, but egregious with the you will always know, oh oh oh), and sang with a little nod to Paul McCartney and Wings in the break down (great ear Karl Bade!) I tried this first as an acoustic number. Then I tried it on my Tele. Then I got the whammy bar going on the big old jazz box with the volume up a little so that it wanted to feedback and said, hmmm, that works for me. So what started out as a quiet singer songwriter contemplation on the bonds and divisions between parent and child that would have sounded SOOOOOO much like Jeff Tweedy that you would have said JEEEESH Jon, can’t you be a little more creative? Wound up so effing convoluted that you might have said JEEEESH Jon, can’t you pick an idea and stick with it? I really like the way it turned out, even if no one else apparently did. Even with the ragged vocal (recall I had strep but didn’t know it yet). It’s got some nice elements.
I had just gotten over strep. I’d been on vacation with family in California. I decided to do something silly. Oddly enough, it seems no one in my small audience is really looking for an obsessive compulsive guitar demo. Hmm? Who knew? Fine. It amused me. And that’s what this channel is about. Complete, utter, self-absorption. So there. At least Karl dug the wonderful juxtaposition of Buddy Holly with James Brown. What? You missed that? Well that’s what you get for not watching all 13 minutes of me waxing poetic about an obscure guitar.
Guitar Lament for a Mail Order Bride is a song I have played around the house for years. The only words it had up until about 3 weeks ago were: all my love is gone, all of my love is gone. Which sounds lovely and mournful and is fun to sing. But of course, isn’t really a complete song. Clearly, such a lovely mournful chorus needs some hopeful verses. And a bridge that lays things bare wouldn’t hurt. I’ve been intimidated by this one. I guess I get intimidated by all of my half-finished wonders. You see, if they aren’t finished, they still have the potential for greatness. But once I commit to some words…Well then mediocrity is free to creep in. And believe you me, it does. So why let it? Keep the dream alive! Leave the thing incomplete. Don’t even think that this one could maybe capture that old timey, Appalachia vibe even better than Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl. Yeah right. Who the hell do you think you are? So why even try? Because it is fun in a kind of masochistic, narcissistic way. And you do eventually create something. And it may not be everything you hope for. But it is certainly something. A song that didn’t exist until you wrenched it out of the ether. And though there are a lot of people who make a lot of mediocre music, and it can be a little depressing to be just another one of those aging, entitled white guys with more guitars than actual talent, one must remind oneself that there are a lot more folks out there who have never created anything. Want to play an instrument but can’t, for lack of courage, lack of money, lack of time, lack of the right genetic code to have that coordination, there are hundreds, thousands, zillions, of reasons people never create something. So I try to take a little more joy in being part of a species that constantly tries to create. And just get on with doing my part, the best I can. This song turned out pretty well, if I say so myself. I like the little guitar figure. And I think the story works, and that it has just about the right amount of stoic pathos for a song sung by and about a Midwesterner.