Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Of Processes and Guitar Heroes

Greetings boys and girls…or hello to all three of you who’ve stumbled upon this here dispatch from your humble scrivener. Full of yardbird I sit, and my hungry ears are getting some nourishment tonight, too. Townes is what I’m listening to, and I’m hoping it’ll light a bit of a fire underneath me to work a bit on a pair o’ tunes that need to be wrapped-up.
            Then again, is any kind of work ever truly done? There’s always some improvements that could be made somewhere. No less than Guy Clark said that once in an interview I read. Even Leonard Cohen went back and re-wrote several of his classic songs from forty or so years before as a test of his changed perspective and maturity.
            As much as I love having completed (or near-to-complete as I’ll get ‘em) songs to play for people and to record, I’ve come to realize over the years that the process is as much fun (and sometimes even moreso) than having an end result. I can’t recall a time when I’ve ever been solely focused on results and finishing a journey than the journey itself. I’m a bit of a gambler by nature, and taking some risks (usually ones within reason, mind you) and the inherent adventure always yields the most memories.
            I don’t care much for listening to my records. I’ve spent far too much time listening to them as I’ve made them, but last night I put on my Winter Garden album and listened to it the whole way through. I quite enjoyed it, but then I thought back to the sessions it took to end up with what I was listening to. Great times! It’s the same thing with the projects I’ve got going at the moment. I don’t want to jinx anything, but I’m feeling quite a creative high as of late and although I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, my resolve has held pretty steady to write day-to-day.
            In other processes that are evolving, I’m getting back into playing out and getting musicians together to play with. It’s exciting. I’ve never disliked being onstage sharing my songs and corny jokes, but it’s felt like a coon’s age has passed since I’ve been active in that regard. The last gig was in early December in Jefferson, and though it was a whale of a time, it was booked months in advance and the only gig I’d played in weeks at that time.
            At that show, I noticed a lady who seemed to hang on every word I sang and watched intently as I picked my guitar. It was a packed house for the small venue, and people were digging what I played, but none seemed more into it than this woman. After my first set, I got up to mingle and introduced myself. Come to find out that she was the widow of Bugs Henderson. Folks, I try not to carry regrets. They really don’t look appealing on me, but one of the biggest regrets I have as a music fan is not going to see Bugs Henderson play in Ben Wheeler back in January of 2012. I was playing out there at the Forge on a Friday. I noticed on the schedule that Bugs was playing there the next night. I thought, “Holy shit! I gotta see that!” Of course, I, too, was booked somewhere else that next night. Looking back, it would’ve been worth it to cancel said gig to hear ol’ Bugs. The next thing I remember hearing about him, a couple of months later, was that he’d died. That gig was his last.
I never got to see Bugs perform, but I listened to lots of his six-string heroics over the years. I first heard him when I sought out his music after reading a letter he’d gotten printed in Guitar Player magazine, back when I was in high school. At the time, I was definitely into Stevie Ray Vaughan, and all Texas Blues is good blues, but there was just something about Bugs, something that made him different. He was definitely one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived, and aside from Lightnin’, THE best Texas blues player. Nobody could lay down a shuffle like Bugs. Talking to his wife that night in Jefferson, I felt a little bit of a connection to Bugs. I could’ve listened to her tell stories about Bugs and his good friends (which included, among others, Billy Joe Shaver, Ted Nugent and Townes) all night, but I had another set to play.
            If there’s any kind of point I can convey here, it’s this: Bugs Henderson was a hero to a lot of people, me included. He was a musician’s musician who didn’t seem to care much about money or status, but had friends and admirers everywhere and lived a life getting to do what he was meant to do; what he enjoyed doing. Playing music is what I love doing. It keeps me feeling alive and well. This coming Saturday, I’m playing a solo gig for an event my amiga Sarah is putting on in Nacogdoches, the “Wine Swirl.” I was booked to play at the first one she did last year, but the injury I was recovering from prevented that, so I made a hell or high water promise to play it this year. To say I’m jazzed about it would be like saying James Joyce enjoyed a drink now and again. The Wine Swirl will be a lot of fun, then after that there are gigs lined-up for here and there, some solo and some with a couple of other players I’m working with at the moment. If I were a crackhead pop culture basket-case, this would be my “#winning” pronouncement. I’m always more of a spring person, anyway. Transitional seasons are my thing, and dammit, this spring will rock.
            So, yeah. Rest in peace, Mr. Bugs Henderson…and, creative processes rule!
            Aside from all that, there’s another inspiring musical force I feel I should commit a few words to after all these years. I finally got around to watching the Jason Becker documentary Not Dead Yet a week ago, and my word, what a story it is.
            My old buddy Chad and I got heavily into a lot of old-school hard rock/heavy metal bands from the 70s-80s while we were in high school in the 90s. Kind of funny when I think about what other kiddos were rockin' to back then in our little town. Still don't have much love for Ace of Base, Oasis or TLC. The 90s nostalgia revivalist in me is more suited to the thuggish guitar aggressors, and of course, Roxette, but yeah. Welcome to Digression City. One of the phases we went through together was a revival of late-80s speed metal/neo-classical metal music. Not much of that stuff has aged very well, if at all, but Jason Becker’s work is one of the few exceptions (his band Cacophony notwithstanding, but even those records are pretty cool compared to most of what was out in a similar vein at the time). Becker’s music was cool to me back then because it was loud, distorted and the man played guitar faster than anything I’d ever heard. Of course, there was SO much more to Becker’s musical acumen than those traits, the overall point and feel I "get" now, but yeah, the dude could fuckin’ shred.
            Taking into consideration that nothing is fair in this life, Mr. Becker’s hands were stilled right after he became the lead guitarist (and de facto musical director) in David Lee Roth’s band (THE biggest gig for a rock guitar god, circa 1990, the pre-Nirvana days) to the devil that is ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Politely lay down and die Jason Becker did not. Like another inspiring figure afflicted with the same ailment, Dr. Stephen Hawking, Becker said “fuck you” to ALS and 24 years later, is composing some very cool music that really shows his growth as a musician/composer and how his musical interests have grown over the years.*
            Not Dead Yet follows the trajectory of a traditional, linear biography. It isn’t as artsy cool as the Townes one (Be Here to Love Me) but it is something everyone should see. There’s so many theories as to why someone like Becker (or Hawking) could live for so long with something that is traditionally a death sentence, with a couple of years maximum to stay in the land of the living after the diagnosis. I guess when it comes down to it, the idea that a disease is always terminal is utter bullshit. The medical establishment doesn’t do well to explain someone’s will to live or how having a passion for something can add years to someone’s life. I knew about Jason's struggle, but hadn't really kept up with him. I'd read a story here and there in a music magazine about a benefit concert or something, but the last thing I'd read about him was a hilarious "Dear Guitar Hero" column in Guitar World where he responded to readers' questions. That was in '08 or so, but he'd written in there that his health was good and that he'd even regained the use of a few muscles. I had no idea he was still composing music until I saw the film.
            Jason Becker’s bodily movement is pretty limited now, true, but to see him onscreen or to listen to his more recent musical works, which he writes, arranges and produces, but has other musicians perform, is a testament to a fire burning that won’t be snuffed. Although Jason lost his voice years ago when he underwent a tracheotomy (which actually saved his life and restored a large measure of his then-dissipating health) he “talks” through a series of eye movements that are translated by an interpreter. The eye movements are also how he operates his computer and works in the studio, too, apparently. There are several recent interviews out there with Becker, and in the film, as well. Not only is the man brilliant and determined, but he’s hilarious, too (albeit a bit sophomoric at times for a man who is nearing the big 5-0, but that’s alright. Someone as cool as JB can make all the lame dick jokes he wants).
            Naturally, since Jason Becker is a musician, I would identify with his story, but I think there’s a lesson for anyone to glean. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow, or even the next five minutes, but for someone like Mr. Becker to ignore the constant scary talk of doctors telling him he only has such and such amount of time because he’s got music to make and football games to watch, ALS be damned, is impressive. Whoever sees the film (or reads of his story) should try to put themselves in his shoes. What would you do if it were you? How would you react to such a grim diagnosis? My guess would be that a high majority of us wouldn’t be quite as nonchalant about it as Jason Becker was. Most of us would probably resign ourselves to an early fate. When it comes right down to it, though, we’re all “terminal”. There are no guarantees on anything, save for death (and, maybe, the fact that annoying solicitors will call you numerous times each day).
            I hate to keep drawing a parallel between Jason’s story and that of the other noted ALS-stricken genius, Stephen Hawking, but the parallels are certainly there to muse upon. In one of Hawking’s essays, he traces his impetus for moving on with his pioneering work in cosmology, his taking on a teaching position while working on his PhD and his desire to start a family in the face of his diagnosis (in his early 20s) to the fact that he was a young man who grew up in Europe during the post-WWII years, and in an era when weapons of mass destruction were possible (and had been used) and felt that everyone felt resigned to certain doom, so life should go on regardless. That might also help to explain why so many courtships of the time resulted in marriage soon after each partner had time to catch their respective breaths after the first big night on the town, or why the tried-and-true, mapped-out path to “adulthood” became such a tenable, “can’t get here quick enough” goal to American youngsters.
            Needless to write, that “early death” hysteria died-down at some point, and today, despite our ever-shortening attention spans, we generally take our time, making our paths to those touchstones, by and large. Jason Becker’s sheer will to keep on keepin’ on isn’t as eloquent (or framed by historical events) as Dr. Hawking’s, but there is a great amount of hope and a simple philosophy to ascertain from the way he lives his life: find a way to put passion and beauty into your existence and watch where it takes you day-to-day, and also, don’t put off the things you can (and want) to do today.

            I’ve found that having a passion to create things and a fondness for observing and taking in art that I enjoy, as well as the fellowship of good friends, has pulled me from many a valley over the years. Strong drink has also helped a great deal, too. Bouts of depression, the cement shoed-feeling of anxieties and the blown-out feeling following moments of panic can all seem as crippling as something like ALS, but at the end of the day, most of us are still lucky enough to be able to move on our own and touch our feet to the ground. Jason Becker can’t and the guy still works through it all to do what he was meant to do. I hope I haven’t come across sounding like some half-assed motivational speaker during our time together today, though I have come close at times to winding up living in a van down by the river. I guess to conclude this ‘ere ramble, there’s two mantras to leave you with:
            1. Jason Becker fucking rules.
2. Find that passion and do it, no matter how those who can’t wake to see the beauty in your dreams would put you and it down.

That’s all, folks!

*Having not heard any of his music for years (since buying the Perpetual Burn album in high school) I listened to some stuff from a collection he composed and produced new material for after watching the film. He got some of his guitar god buddies to play his complex tunes, but they’re really nifty. From what I read now, he also wrote some music for Marty Friedman’s forthcoming solo record, which is kind of a Cacophony reunion.

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