The Other Instrument

I began playing the bass in high school. I was fifteen. It was for a girl. This will probably show up in a future YA novel I think I’ve got in me. I didn’t know many people at school yet and I got put into a group for a presentation. The other people in the group knew how to play guitar or percussions or whatever. And the girl, she could sing. (And man have I been a sucker for girls who sing since.) I didn’t know how to play, and up to that point the only instruments I had been acquainted with were bells and the recorder. The recorder was required, and because I could not sing, I had been put in the bell choir many years before. 

So I went down to the corner and started asking people to teach me to play the bass. I was lucky that one of my first friends in the country was and still continues to be an amazing bass player. Formerly PJ and going by Poldo now, he lent me his guitar and we spent a lot of time on his stoop as he taught me the basics. He showed me some basslines he wanted me to learn, particularly memorable Green Day’s “Longview” (and man wasn’t that such an amazing song when it came out?). 

I wound up sticking with the bass because it was what all the other bands around needed, and what most other people didn’t want to play. Everyone wanted to sing, be the lead guitar, be the drummer. Those were the cool instruments. No one ever noticed the bass, and even more, no one ever notices the bass player. Okay maybe if it’s someone like Paul McCartney or Sting, or someone as wild and talented as Flee. Me, I can name bunches and bunches of favorite bassists, because, of course, I studied lots of them. But most people can’t. Bass players, they are there, they provide the backbone, the groove. They aren’t the stars.

And that was totally fine with me. As a bass player of limited skill, I was well and good with people not really taking notice of my playing. Let the guy shredding solos get all the attention. I was happy to be supplying a nice steady bassline, syncing with the drums and laying the groundwork for the groove. 

I did this, more or less happily, for about thirteen years with a variety of bands. 

Then I stopped playing music. I had my heart broken. By a musician. The experience is rather well documented in my second book. I just couldn’t find it in me to get back into the studio, to make music. And I had bandmates who were, let’s say, less supportive of what I was going through that I would have hoped. I extricated myself from the whole music-making experience.

Then a few months ago, while dealing with a pretty bad manic-depressive bout (which led to among other things the writing and finishing of my latest book in about a month) I was with friends Adam David and Michael David. They were performing and I decided to tag along. I picked up Adam’s old acoustic and jammed with them. I don’t know how we sounded, as I was pretty drunk and far gone. But it felt good, playing again. 

A week or so later we were doing pretty much the same thing. Except this time I was wielding an axe borrowed from good friend Karl de Mesa. This night I wound up similarly smashed. I woke up hung over with a box of KFC two-piece chicken in the pillow beside me. I could remember very little of the night and what music we played, but a couple weeks later my friend Lotte showed me a video of Adam, Paolo, and me rocking out to “Paradise City” and I have to say, for a drunk dude who would not even remember playing the song, it wasn’t half bad. 

Which brings us to my current attempts at playing guitar. I have left the bass behind and am transitioning to the guitar, which has, for many many years, been a rather intimidating instrument. Sure I’ve played the guitar, made stabs at it. Entertained thoughts of playing guitar instead of bass. But I would always wind up back on the bass. It was what I was comfortable with, what I knew. 

Now, in a couple of weeks, I will be taking the stage for the first time wielding an electric guitar and playing as part of a band. It is an exciting prospect, frightening and exhilarating and challenging and many other emotions that well up as I strum those strings. 

In the practice studio, there are things that keep happening that form a kind of cognitive gap between my thinking and playing. I will be playing the guitar, will be playing the right notes and doing what I should be doing in the song. So my hands and a good part of my brain are on point. But I am listening to the music coming together and I hear the bassline and I focus on that. I think that I am the one playing the bass and I start grooving to it. Then I’ll realize that that isn’t me and I’ll try and find the guitar and find what I am sounding like. 

Other times I will be strumming and thinking, hey that guitar’s not sounding bad, where is that coming from. And then I will realize it’s me. Okay I know that sounds like I’m bragging, but really, I fail to realize that I am the one playing the guitar. It’s like my mind refuses to make a connection, and it’s only when I flub my fingers and I stop playing that I realize, hey, that crunchy distorted sound, that was you, man. 

I am enjoying the transition though. I am discovering a new capacity which I had assumed I could not do. I love playing the guitar, and I am enjoying it and having much more fun with it than I did with the bass. I’ll sometimes not be sure if I am doing alright, and I’ll ask the dudes I’m jamming with, Adam, Vincenz Serrano, and Joseph Saguid, if what I am doing is working, and they will nod and let me go on wailing on the guitar. 

Here’s to hoping that the next couple of weeks of practice allow me to develop the skills needed to justify my presence onstage. All I want to do is rock. And I hope that my brain wraps my head around it and I can just get up on there and make some noise. 

Arcade Fire’s Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountain)

Arcade Fire’s new album, The Suburbs has a great mix of different styles of music, that familiar way that Arcade Fire has of building up into massive movements, and the ever-intelligent lyricism.

The standout for me has been “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” Though it could be argued whether this is the album’s best track, it’s very clear that its placement, and how it comes into the album, is perfect. After an album of a range of emotions, the sad and happy, the lonely and bright, and after the dirge-like “Sprawl I (Flatland)” that precedes it, “Sprawl II” breaks through the whole thing, punching this massive light into the depths. It operates, effectively, as a crescendo. Though there is a track that follows it, that track serves almost like a score, that denouement to the climax of “Sprawl II.” Read more of this post