Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Requiem For a Smoker

Smoking used to be cool. Humphrey Bogart, the iconic tough good guy, the cigarette between his lips extending his world-weary cool beyond his actual person. Jimmy Page or Keith Richards, stalking the stadium stage, guitar slung low, cigarette protruding defiantly from the rebellious rock 'n' roll sneer. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cigarette holder jauntily jutting from his confidence-inspiring grin, leading his nation through Depression and war. General Douglas MacArthur, swaggering ashore to liberate the Philippines, RayBan™ shades and corncob pipe underscoring exactly who had returned. Winston Churchill, facing the camera with his bulldog scowl and pinstripe suit, chomping his Havana cigar and wielding a Thompson submachine gun.  (The Nazis tried to use this photo as propaganda, portraying Churchill as a gangster; this backfired, partly due to the perceived glamour of the Depression-era mobsters.)

If I have left out your favorite smoker (likely), then that only serves to point out the traditional cultural acceptability, yea, even the respectability afforded tobacco use for centuries. Even historic Christian figures including J. S. Bach, Charles Spurgeon, Dietrich Bönhoeffer, C. S. Lewis and Chuck Colson were known to light up on a regular basis. Conveniently, it would seem, there is no reference to smoking in Scripture. Instead we are left to draw inferences from passages referring to 'destroy(ing) God's temple' (conveniently “countered” by Jesus' assertion that “(W)hat goes into a man's mouth does not defile him” (Matthew 15:11). Since the perceived morality of smoking is not my focus here, we can happily move on.

At my workplace there's a gentleman on maintenance staff, possibly in his mid-60s, but appearing to be possibly as old as 70. (He can fix anything I break, so I tell him that, as long as I work there, he'll have job security.) He's a wiry little guy who fought in Vietnam, and he smokes whenever the opportunity comes up. Here in Montana it sometimes gets down to 20º F. or even colder in the winter, and yet he dutifully steps outside and lights one up, as do his fellow co-workers/smokers. Now here's a guy who defied the odds and came back alive from 'Nam, choosing (I use that word loosely) to kill himself slowly, on the installment plan. But to add insult to injury, smoking is no longer permitted in the break room, nay, in the building at all. Not even a separate lounge for the smokers, just banishment to the great outdoors, even for one who honorably served his country, in a war he was too good for.

It's easy to confuse legitimate health concerns with political correctness, since in this case they often overlap. What could easily pass for some sort of ideological hysteria turns out to be not only good science, but a blessing for those of us who endured years of secondhand smoke in order to play or facilitate live music. I quit smoking at 22, four years after I started, which had the unexpected effect of making me much more hostile to the presence of cigarette smoke than I had ever been before I started smoking. I never knew that one day the official consensus regarding tobacco would one day follow suit, kicking the hapless smoker out-of-doors, and making the memory of lighting a cigarette in a movie theater or on a commercial flight seem like the memory of performing a minstrel show in blackface and a nappy wig.

I can think of no comparable fall from grace experienced by any other cultural phenomenon, good or bad. (Except maybe the Record Business.) The tobacco industry went, in a relatively short time, from claiming the health benefits of cigarettes, to rubbing our noses in the mortal perils of the same. That which was proudly advertised by everybody from Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble to future president Ronald Reagan is now a vice for pariahs. Can you imagine anybody telling George Burns, Audrey Hepburn, Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra or Mark Twain to 'take it outside'?

The good (?) news is, nearly everybody I listed here is dead, a few of them even due to of smoking-related causes. No need to be an iconoclast – the iconic smoker is history, perhaps never to be replaced.

Thirty years ago I smoked my last cigarette, scraped the cigarette burns off the headstock of my Fender Stratocaster (thanks to Eric Clapton for making me think my guitar should join in the fun) and survived the process of becoming an ex-smoker. And yet, thirty years later, not a day goes by that I don't find myself taking a drag from an imaginary Marlboro. It's not about the nicotine – I was never seriously tempted, say, to chew tobacco. Rather, it was the act of lighting up, something to do with my hands, something that was somehow relaxing. (The imaginary cigarette usually turns up when I'm faced with some uncomfortable or embarrassing memory.) And yet I pity those next to me in the store who lay out exorbitant sums of money for something I used to get for $10 per carton, who will likely not be permitted to smoke even in their own homes, let alone an airport, a nightclub or a restaurant.

I'm not the least bit conflicted about the wonderful, ubiquitous freedom from secondhand smoke we experience today, just amazed at the sea change that sank such a mighty ship, now replaced by a tramp steamer, its trail of smoke disappearing forlornly over the distant horizon. May it never return, but thanks for the memories (I think.)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Death To Originality

(For its own sake)

Those who know me personally may find such an injunction coming from me to be either ironic or crazy – I don't consider myself particularly original, but many who know me do in fact find me unconventional, even uncomfortably so. My two-part heading may be taken either to mean a) that one should not try to be original simply for the sake of being original, or b) that originality itself must perhaps not even be attempted, lest something inferior result from the attempt.

I've been stewing in this juice all day, ever since I traced it to my bungled attempt to play a particular guitar figure correctly in church this morning. By 'correctly' I mean duplicating the intro as played on the original recording of the song we were playing. The intro in question consists of playing a simple eighth note pattern against a triplet echo produced by a black box at my feet. The result is the same sort of figure heard in a song like 'Where the Streets Have No Name' by U2 or GNR's 'Welcome To The Jungle, the kind of thing I've been playing ever since Barrett Golding gave me my first digital delay line thirty years ago. But the song in question has an intro whose note sequence bears only a shadowy relationship to the song's actual harmonic content. Hearing it would cause any listener to expect the song that follows to be in the key of 'F', not the key of 'C' the rest of the song is actually in. (You may not even know what I mean by 'key', but you would nonetheless be adrift until the vocal comes in and establishes what's really going on.)

Sounds like I'm whining, doesn't it? Well, if you don't read certain Psalms because they're “whiny”, then you needn't read this either. Still, I should have immersed myself in listening to this well-recorded, well-played bit of musical disinformation instead of listening to Frank Zappa while I cleaned the kitchen, right? (Frank himself would have something to say about that.) Should have practiced it instead of going to Barrett's barbecue? Well, that might have counteracted the lackluster intro I played today, which I attributed to a) having a cold, which always affects my ability to do anything right, even if it's easy, and b) the part's inherent semi-musicality.

I'm so unoriginal that I'm going to pass the pen to C. S. Lewis for a minute, since, if I've ever been guilty of letting someone do my thinking for me, then he's the one I trust to do so:

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

“Well, that's alright for him,” someone may say. “He's already original to begin with!” Well, yes. (He was also one of the best-read men in England.) Having an imagination is one thing, but as soon as I start thinking about my imagination, I run out of ideas. So rather than bore you, I'll try to make my point and let you get back to whatever it was.

Originality is almost universally hailed as a virtue. And so it is. When a creative work takes us to new territory, challenges our preconceived notions and opens our eyes to new possibilities or shows us timeless truths in a new light, then originality becomes the unobtrusive servant of art. But even the most startling originality in the arts can nearly always be found to have deep roots in its medium's storied past. Pablo Picasso leaps to mind.

It's almost cheating to cite Picasso, but nowhere is there a better example of what I'm trying to say. For many, Picasso is nearly the only 20th century artist they can even name, let alone describe. His pioneering work in Cubism, collage and sculpture are among the most easily identified departures from the status quo during the 20th century, and their fragmentation of conventional visual themes virtually defines the word “original”, as though it all sprang without warning or precedent from the mind, heart and hands of one Spaniard. Which it didn't.

Those for whom the name “Picasso” only conjures mental images of people and objects with noses and eyes in the wrong places or pointed in wrong directions are usually ignorant of his earlier works, in which people and things are treated very realistically  . He didn't break the rules until he knew them, and then not until it was time to do so. He earned the right to innovate, which he did gradually. But even his innovations, from Modernism to his fabled 'Blue Period' to Cubism andy beyond, had roots. The Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco influenced him, as did African tribal masks and sculpture. I feel like I've already opened Pandora's can of wasp worms by dragging Picasso into our discussion, but I hope I've made my point. His influences are too many and varied to be ignored, but, filtered through the Picasso grid, they combine, crossbreed, tangle and weave into a body of work that has brought boundless vitality and joy to each new generation that discovers it.

What does this mean for the contemporary artist, musician, dancer, writer or filmmaker? I hope it means that doing good work comes to be more important than reinventing the wheel. This came home to me several years ago when I was playing bass in my church, with a drummer whose traditional vocabulary seemed quite limited, but who nonetheless seemed determined to jettison what little he had. Instead of keeping time on the ride cymbal or hi hat (two instruments, BTW, that have lent themselves to daring innovation by many great drummers from Tony Williams to Travis Barker), he tended to wander off into attempts to change it up by tapping his sticks on the rims or shells of the toms. That itself has been a useful technique for occasional use by great drummers, but in our context it only served a) to call undue attention to itself, and b) to make me (and probably others) long for a regular, solid rock drum groove that would give the song, the congregation and the band the foundation we needed to drive the message home. There's a REASON that you only seldom hear that sort of thing. Why drive a nail with flashlight when there's a hammer nearby?

I also had a very dear friend years ago who was a very skilled electric bassist, and had been regularly performed this gig with a nationally known Christian artist. But, once free of her constraints (it was children's music), he decided that his mission was to to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. Now, if you'll scroll down a bit you'll see my essay, “How Low Should You Go?”, in which I try to make the case for the bassist's job being that of making sure everyone else sounds good. My friend cared little or nothing for that – every constraint was to be thrown off, every note tried, every musical style explored, whether in or out of its natural context. I love salsa bass lines (more correctly, the tumbao pattern that helps define much afro-latin music), but not so much when it doesn't correspond to the rock groove the rest of us are playing.

Musical styles are indeed born of cross-pollination – reggae, latin jazz, highlife, western swing, none of these genres could have been born in a vacuum. Curiously enough, though, they are not the results of somebody's attempt to be original. They are, in fact, the results of the time-honored musical practice of stea . . . um, borrowing from other musical traditions. Many years ago in China I was mesmerized by the background music accompanying a Chinese acrobatic routine – someone was playing some plaintive, Chinese melodies on a notch-position Stratocaster. (The same sound you hear on 'Sweet Home Alabama' or 'Sultans of Swing'.) The result was somehow ancient and hip at the same time. Alas, I had no tape recorder with me at the time. (I have since made it a point always to bring a recording device to any country I visit.)

Chances are, your favorite music and songs are likewise Frankenstein'd together from the artiste's collective musical background. One need look no further than The Beatles to see how this can work. And while the Beatles were purposeful in their creativity, the latter was mainly the result of their simply trying to create good music with the resources at hand.

And then there's Christian worship music. How often do I go into a situation where the drummer has taken what would have been a good hi hat groove and instead transferred it to the bass drum for 64 measures, where it fascinates those whose idea of classic rock is 90's worship music, but for us old-school curmudgeons only points up the song's lack of craftsmanship? If the song is good enough, you don't have to do screwy things to the drum part to compensate for shoddy songwriting.

I'm not being completely fair. Some of these songs are reasonably well written, and as such would be at home in multiple musical genres. My old friend Karen Lafferty's standard “Seek Ye First” has thrived in classical, death metal, bluegrass, electronica and bebop settings. (I'm afraid to ask her what other styles the song has sported.) She wasn't trying to be original, she was simply expressing musically what she felt God wanted her to express. The result? Millions of people worldwide hiding the words of Christ (Matthew 6:33) in their hearts, in whatever musical heart language they love best.

Well, that paragraph didn't help me to be any more fair to anyone, so I shall instead apologize to those who may have been offended (at least I didn't name any song titles, in order to protect the guilty.) Please, feel free to innovate. Just remember, though, that innovation means begging, borrowing and stealing creative ideas anywhere an everywhere you can find them. And hopefully becoming as knowledgable about them as you can. Then “you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Twilight of the Four-Headed Monster

(Or, Why the Beatles Phenomenon Can Never Happen Again)

This just in: Emeli Sandé has just broken the Beatles' record for the longest stay by an album in the British Top 10. Please Please Me spent 62 weeks there; that feat was recently eclipsed by Emeli Sandé's Our Version of Events, 63 weeks and counting.

Wonderful! Congratulations. But my first question was: Emeli who? Is she the new 'next Beatles'? Dare we hope?

Short Answer: Are you kidding?

The Beatles phenomenon, from Beatlemania to Sergeant Pepper to university courses on the Fab Four, cannot be duplicated or even paralleled for the same reason that the American Revolution can't happen again. The circumstances leading up to, surrounding, creating and shaping the Beatles' musical and cultural impact on global society are gone. Extinct. History.

There's more to it than that, but assertions by my generation (the Baby Boomers) that today's music lacks creativity, originality and depth come dangerously close to claiming that the currently upcoming generation is uncreative, unintelligent, untalented and shallow. This seems to me highly improbable. I read many years ago that the fall of the Roman Empire was linked to the Romans' use of lead pipes in their plumbing, subjecting the best and brightest minds of its last few generations to lead poisoning and its attendant decline in mental competency. I have no reason to believe that recent, vapid assertions by teenage beauty contestants (“…some people out there in our nation don't have maps…”) have any connection with ingestion of toxic waste, inbreeding, hereditary mental illness or anything else that could serve either to condemn or excuse said generation, or its forbears. Said generation has, however, been dealt a very different hand than the Beatles were dealt 50 years ago, and no matter how well they play that hand, the pile of chips can never again be as high as that raked in by John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The set of circumstances that allowed the Beatles to dominate pop culture could be likened to a once-per-millennium planetary alignment. European, African and Latin cultures had combined in the American Melting Pot to produce a wild hodgepodge of new sounds which gradually drifted back across the Atlantic, this time to a bleak seaport called Liverpool. The generation that had fought and won World War II now fought for personal peace, albeit a suburban peace of subdivisions, picket fences, station wagons, and patriotism (a well-deserved peace, by the way.) The generation born during and soon after the war knew little or nothing of the sacrifice and struggle that had defined their parents' world, and the 'generation gap' that had been widening since before the war now became a chasm, questioning, judging and rejecting traditional values.

A rare point of agreement between many of both generations was the election of President John F. Kennedy, who had himself fought in WWII, yet embodied the hope and vision of a young generation anxious to move forward. JFK barely had time to champion Civil Rights, the Space Race, the Peace Corps and other vital issues before being gunned down in Dallas in November of 1963. A nation was now bereft of its charismatic young leader, and countless hearts were empty, waiting for God-knew-what.

Rewind to the late 1950s, when John Lennon and Paul McCartney met fortuitously and pooled their talents, passions and lives for the sake of rock 'n' roll. The Beatles' story has been told and retold too many times to warrant even the briefest recap here, but I need to revisit certain key elements in order to force my point down your throat. The multicultural musical gumbo that American sailors brought to England on precious phonograph records was now being listened to and learned from by kids whose earliest listening experiences were largely European, particularly in the British music hall tradition. As Lennon and McCartney tried their hand at writing their own songs, the trans-Atlantic cross-pollination of musical styles was inevitable. While America coped with the Cold War and early rumblings of Vietnam, The Beatles, by now honed razor-keen by lengthy stints as a cabaret band in Hamburg, Germany as well as Liverpool, were taking England by storm with their unusual image (yes, their hair was actually considered long in 1963,) electrifying music, and an interpersonal chemistry that made them greater than the sum of their parts.

In January of 1964, into the emotional void left by the JFK assassination, a strange new song called “I Want To Hold Your Hand” became a hit in the U.S., paving the way for the Beatles' first visit to America. Their appearance on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' was like nothing we'd seen before. A rock and roll group (it wasn't yet 'rock' music) with its own collective personality? Before, you'd had 'Bill Haley and the Comets', 'Buddy Holly and the Crickets', 'Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons'. But now - a drummer with a name and a personality? Ringo? As if the 'long' hair weren't enough, the songs themselves could polarize any mixed gathering of young and old (“Yeah, yeah, yeah” arguing for banality; the eight or so chords in 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' or 'All My Loving' raising the bar for baffled garage bands everywhere).

Perhaps any major fad or fashion could have swept America in the void left after the Kennedy assassination, but the Beatles were too appealing, too controversial and too otherworldly to have been a mere fad. Their early hits, although sometimes displaying more sophistication than most standard three-chord rock songs had shown up until then, barely hinted at the groundbreaking creativity that would soon have critics and public alike grasping for words to describe it. Their first film, A Hard Day's Night, proved that they could act as well as sing and play. Lennon's first book, In His Own Write, extended the Beatles' reach to the literary realm. Lennon and McCartney's collective songwriting prowess inspired such aspiring writers as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to try their hand, with far-reaching results.

Few aspects of the Beatles have been as hotly debated as their musicianship. Part of the problem stems from so many people's confusion of being 'good' with being 'great'. To call the Beatles 'the Greatest Rock Band Ever' immediately raises the hackles of those who rightly point out the nascent virtuosity of their peers – Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who, The Yardbirds, and the next wave of British rockers like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. The Beatles never aspired to be able to play circles around guys like Eric Clapton or Ginger Baker; they simply wanted to express themselves and create good art. I side with those who assert that the Beatles' secret weapon was their chemistry - the inexplicable interaction between them that caused them to spur one another on, to compete with each other and champion one another at the same time.

As a professional musician and music teacher, I know firsthand exactly what the Beatles had going for them as instrumentalists. John Lennon is possibly the most underrated rock guitarist ever (try duplicating his blazing intro to 'Revolution' or his lilting jazz solo on 'Honey Pie', and report back here.) Paul McCartney took the humble electric bass to dizzying heights of creativity, tone and taste (I could eat his work on 'With A Little Help From My Friends' for lunch), while his occasional forays into six-string territory produced such landmark tracks as the acoustic rite of passage, 'Blackbird', and his snarling east-meets-west solo on George Harrison's 'Taxman'. George himself rose through the ranks, going from minimal competence (his barely-passable intro to 'Roll Over Beethoven') to delightful creativity (his tangled descending runs on 'Help!') to indispensable (his timeless contributions to 'Strawberry Fields Forever'). His forays into Indian classical music infused his guitar playing with sitar-hardened discipline – witness the exquisite solo on his Abbey Road masterpiece 'Something', and the flawless microtonality of his slide guitar work thereafter.

Ringo gets his own paragraph (sorry, taller Beatles.) He holds the distinction of being almost certainly the most underrated and overrated drummer of all time. He deserves it, too. A southpaw, forced as a child to write with his right hand, Ringo brought a secret weapon to the table, one generally reserved for highly trained percussionists: A recessive hand that could keep up with his dominant left. Thus his two-handed unison fills that created the sonic illusion of two drummers playing the same thing on two different drums. (The “so-in-love-with-you” climax of “Tell Me Why”, as seen in the film A Hard Day's Night, is a perfect example of this difficult technique, effortlessly executed by this self-taught inspiration to thousands of young drummers.) Others have written at length about Ringo's musical importance and vast influence, so I turn reluctantly from an in-depth analysis of same to the incidental fact, alluded to above, of Ringo's instantly identifiable persona – for many early Beatles observers, he was the only member they could pick out at once. (I myself couldn't tell the other three apart at first, even in the cartoons.) The once-humble drummer was now a star, an equal partner, receiving the most fan mail of the Four, and paving the way for the Phil Collinses, the Dave Grohls and the Don Henleys who would silence those who long considered drummers to be somehow less than musicians.

This dynamic, combined with the Beatles' unequalled impact on music and culture, led many to assume that the drummer of in the Greatest Band of All Time must therefore be the Greatest Rock Drummer of All Time. John Lennon, in response to this assumption, alluded to Paul's considerable drumming prowess with the quip, “He wasn't even the best drummer in the Beatles!” Still, greatness trumps mere virtuosity, and Ringo's status as Most Influential Drummer Ever is rivaled only by his friend and colleague, Led Zeppelin's John Bonham.

The Beatles, more than anybody before or since, raise a chicken-or-the-egg question: Did they shape culture, or merely reflect it? The Sixties, that turbulent decade of war, protests, innovation, discovery, creativity, social and cultural upheaval, ad infinitum, surely would have happened anyway. It could be argued that the Fab Four were both agent and patient, standard bearers of both their own revolutionary brand of creativity, and that of their contemporaries. The Beatles did in fact frequently pay homage not only to their early rock 'n' roll influences (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc.) but also to their peers and rivals. The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Bob Dylan, and even Fleetwood Mac provided inspiration for stylistic experimentation as the Beatles themselves turned influence into originality.

The world in which record labels would invest in new artists, allowing them to develop over the course of several albums, is gone. So are the days of the album cover, that square foot of cardboard that allowed artists to boldly express themselves in a way that the measly CD insert or mp3 artwork can never hope to equal. Boy bands rocket to stardom, then plummet to punchline status in the same amount of time it took the Beatles to discover, then abandon the electric 12-string guitar. Not even Michael Jackson's stunning rise and fall could ever equal the Beatles' status as game-changers whose influence will forever extend far beyond mere music (as though music could ever be thus trivialized.)

So, the Grand Funk Railroads and Spice Girls and Emeli Sandés of this world will forever be hyped as “outselling the Beatles”, “more popular than the Beatles”, “staying on the charts longer than the Beatles”, and “having more #1 hits than the Beatles” (remember the remix of Elvis' “A Little Less Conversation”? Me either.) The Four Headed Monster (as Mick Jagger dubbed them) continues to roar from the highest mountaintop, challenging all comers. And eating them for lunch.

Monday, June 24, 2013

To Drum or Not to Drum

(That is the question)

I just came off the road last week, playing drums for an up-and-coming Americana/Country artist. Thing is, I'm a professional guitar player. I'm not at all sure how the band member who asked me to do the tour even found out I played the drums, since every drumming gig I've had since the mid-80s has been either church or missions related. Nonetheless, I've been playing drums for 35 years, and I thought it would be good to get out and be responsible for keeping the dance floor full and the band happy, gig after gig. I succeeded, albeit with a renewed appreciation for what professional drummers have to do every night (especially those who don't have roadies to set up and tear down their gear for them.) I'm grateful for the experience (and the income I earned, which was more than I would have earned doing my day gig), but I have happily resumed the guitar and vocal chores with my regular band, with my little brother capably manning the drum throne.

Meanwhile, a friend texted me this morning from his church gig somewhere back East, playing electric guitar, and lamented, “Bobby Brady on drums”. For those too young to remember, there was an episode of the early 70s sitcom 'The Brady Bunch' in which little Bobby decides to take up drums , which he attacks with the abandon of Keith Moon and the talent of Rebecca Black.  This came to mind when my friend tried to describe the frustration of having a 'drummer' either incapable of or unwilling to play an appropriate musical accompaniment for the worship service. There are a number of people who would not be bothered by this, but I fancy (unless I flatter the general populace) that such people are relatively rare. There are many who know nearly nothing about music, but there are virtually none who regularly listen to music in which the drums slow down, speed up, lose the beat, play irrelevant fills and fail to provide an adequate rhythmic foundation for the song. (Except at church.)

I have long maintained that a band is only as good as its drummer, and I cite two instances that (hopefully) make my assertion axiomatic: The first involves a team of musicians I was preparing for a month-long outreach in Venezuela. The musicians I had were, shall I say, minimally competent, but in no way remarkable. We also suffered from the absence of a drummer; by the time we finally found one, we only had one week of rehearsal left. But this was no ordinary drummer. José proved not only to be the best unknown Christian drummer I'd ever worked with, he also had a personality that catalyzed the rest of the band into a living, breathing, seven-headed monster. His musicality ranged from delicate finesse to raging, in-your-face thunder, causing the rest of us to sound much better than we actually were. The outreach proved to the both the most effective and the most enjoyable I've ever been on.

Instance two: My wife and I were assembling a band for a tour of hispanic churches in the U.S., mainly in Texas. We had assembled an uncommonly good group of musicians for the tour, but again, we couldn't seem to fill the drum throne. I found an audition tape of a guy playing drums in 5/4 to a Joe Satriani tune, and convinced myself that his ability to maintain an odd time signature while playing along with a recording might translate into the ability to play drums in a touring band. Initial rehearsals, however, confirmed my worst fears, and the drummer (a young man of unusually high Christian character) offered to bow out. For whatever reason, though, I decided to make it work, and I built a contraption consisting of two boxes connected by a long cable – one box on the floor by my guitar pedals, with a green button and a red one; the other box secured to the top of the bass drum, with a green LED and a red one. If the drummer was losing the beat (more often the case), I'd step on the green button, which lit up the green LED on the bass drum. Then I had to wait for him to notice and pick up the tempo until it was right for the song. Rarely, he'd play faster than the song called for; the red LED signaled him to slow down. Still, we played some high profile gigs (including a TV show taped in Houston and broadcast over much of Latin America) in which our otherwise fine band was compromised by a subpar drummer. Fortunately for me, his patience and humility enabled him to endure much of my frustrated micromanagement – this, by the way, was an anomaly. Rare in my experience is the mediocre drummer with the ability to receive corresponding amounts of correction and criticism.

Which brings me to my original point: A band is only as good as its drummer. In most popular music, both in the West and in non-Western cultures, drums and percussion form the backbone of the vast majority of musical expression. Sure, many bands occasionally find expedient to give the drummer a break from the kit in order to express musical delicacy (i.e., the Beatles' “Yesterday”) or corporate callousness (Pink Floyd's “Welcome to the Machine”), but these exceptions have no place in this discussion. I'm after a harder truth here, one that will not sit well with everybody.

Most of us have heard many different drummers playing live – some good, many average, some bad. The problem I address is that of drums in corporate worship settings. In most such situations, the musicians are volunteers, usually unpaid. Compare this with the world of semi-pro and professional music, in which you may find a bad drummer playing in a nightclub. Although such situations are not uncommon, the other band members (and their audiences) are rarely satisfied with the situation, and as such bands become more successful (and thus better paid), the groove-challenged drummer is almost never heard from again, jettisoned in favor of one who can drive a dance floor or make a studio recording come alive. By the time a band was signed to a record label (back in the day of record labels), even a drummer who was competent often found himself spelled in the studio by the producer's favorite session cat, since the quality of the record could make or break the band. Even Ringo Starr, who went on to become one of the most influential drummers in history, was replaced on the album version of the Beatles' 'Love Me Do' by session veteran Andy White, since producer George Martin wasn't yet convinced that Ringo (who had only recently replaced the minimally competent Pete Best on drums) was ready for the big time.

Survival of the fittest, right? Well, only in the real jungle of professional music, in which there's only so much money to go around. The church is another matter.

I can only speak for myself, but I have heard from others as well, that amateurish musicianship on a worship team can be a distraction from, or even an impediment to, the flow of worship even as experienced by non-musicians. I'm terrible – every missed bass note I hear, every out-of-tune string, every wrong chord (usually suggested by a randomly downloaded chord chart), every botched drum fill, they all make me wince (or worse, laugh, earning me withering glances from my wife, who is herself a beautifully gifted musician.) But of all these foibles, the one most likely to stand out to the untrained ear is the drumming. Even an unmusical person may notice that the drummer has lost the beat and is now playing the snare on 1 and 3, even though they may not be able to articulate it in those terms. I fancy that a significant percentage of the congregation may find it distracting or even unpleasant, while a few of us would rather be in the dentist's chair than in that church, hearing this awkwardness being served up in the guise of corporate worship.

How many of us would tolerate the same incompetence on the music we listen to on the radio, on our iPods, on TV? Well, we don't have to think about it, since it doesn't APPEAR in those formats. I can think of a few instances on well-known recordings (almost all of which were made in the 1960s or early 70s) where the drum groove wavers a bit, but still makes it to the final recording, reflecting the limited time and studio budgets that were often the rule in those days. But the drummers in question (I'm thinking here of wonderfully loopy English drummers like Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon) were generally admired and imitated; their rare studio inconsistencies were mostly due to the factors listed above. If they had gotten saved and become part of your church worship team, they would have blown the roof off the joint, that is, if you could even keep up with them.

The drummers I'm chiding here are of another stripe altogether: They know just enough to be dangerous. In my experience as a drum teacher, I have taught scores of kids to play, say, a basic 4/4 beat (such as the one heard on Michael Jackson's Billie Jean' and AC/CD's 'Back In Black') – I teach this as a confidence builder, meant to motivate the student who might otherwise become discouraged if only initially allowed to play snare rudiments on a practice pad. (Some drum instructors swear by this method, which admittedly might weed out some of the dilettantes I'm about to mention.) The mechanics of this beat are so simple that I have only had a very few students fail to execute them for at least one measure during the first lesson.

This pattern, unfortunately, can be performed by many people of highly questionable musical skill, resulting in the grossly oversimplified observation, “Hey, I (you, he, she) can PLAY THE DRUMS!” No chords to learn, no scales, no strum patterns, just play that beat and a few fills (often improvised by novices who have never in their lives listened with care to a real drummer playing a real fill), and Hey, We Have A Drummer! (Actually, you don't – if the available instrumentation needs drums but an adequate drummer isn't available, better to scale back to perhaps a solo keyboard or acoustic guitar than to 'try to make it work anyway'.) Another way to describe this situation might be 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.'

Granted, this could just as easily be the way a great drummer starts out, but it just as often leads to problems. A beginner studying with a drum teacher might have just as much (or as little) musical talent as one who is self taught (as I was), but the former may have the advantage of a teacher who can provide guidance as to when and where to play, as well as what. A young drum student of mine recently played 'Twist and Shout' at a talent show with two other kids (and a grizzled music biz veteran on bass) – it was an appropriate setting for a nine-year old kid who's been playing drums for about six months. Other than the random cymbal hit at the end (“We're done now”), it was cute and harmless, enjoyed by the parents in attendance, of whom only a very few could have done as good a job on the kit.

I would not, however, send that same kid to play for a church service – not for a long time, anyway. I consider the responsibility to be too great. He's not ready. Corporate worship is not a recital. But I don't attend his church, and I'm not even usually in charge of who plays at my own. If I were, I could have avoided the following worst-case scenario:

Some years ago in Venezuela, a new drummer turned up at my church. “Francisco” was a handsome young man, with the build of a serious weightlifter. I wasn't consulted, only informed that he would be playing drums for some services. Francisco could play a rock beat on the drums, and knew a fill consisting of a close flam followed by a couple of tom hits (splat/ka-SPLUT), which always sounded somehow louder than it probably was. He had no finesse, no dynamics, and two fatal flaws that should have immediately ruled him out as a church drummer: a) He would often come out of a fill with the beat reversed, but he couldn't tell it was wrong, and he couldn't change it even if you asked him to, and b) he couldn't adjust the tempo if the song was too fast or too slow. Imagine singing “Blessed Be Your Name” at the tempo best reserved for “How Great is Our God” - with no way to get it up to speed, no matter how much you plead with the drummer – and you'll get the picture. Add to this mess my negligible interpersonal skills, which rival those of a honey badger, light fuse, get away. My attempts – during the actual worship service - to get Francisco to play the correct tempo or stop hitting the snare on 1 and 3, were interpreted by him as malice on my part, and he eventually declared he would never play with me again. I wish I could say I was saddened by this development, but the only sad thing for me (besides his drumming) was that I couldn't have achieved this in a more diplomatic fashion. (I'm also grateful that he didn't decide to beat me up, which he surely could have done far better than he played “Eres Todopoderoso”.)

This sort of thing can happen on different levels. One of the most common, which I observed in one of the best-known churches in South America, involved a young man who, shall we say, knew too much. He clearly had some talent and skill, but he was determined to make sure everybody there knew it. Time for a fill? He approached this as if he were being paid by the note. Now, I like a cool, impressive fill as much as the next guy, but at the expense of the groove? Yes. He'd lose the pulse, and force everyone else to follow him. Now, a drum fill should advance the song, like the turning of a page, or the beginning/end of a paragraph. It might ramp up the intensity, put the brakes on the same, or set us up for a totally new musical expression. It is not an interruption of the groove, it is an extension of it. (One exercise I've inflicted on many a drum student is to take a fill they'd executed poorly and make them play it eight times in succession, looped, as though it were the groove itself – after that, their execution of said fill, in context, often recouped its musicality.)

Contrast this with the world's greatest drummers – one of these, Vinnie Colaiuta, can play the most outlandish polyrhythms, the craziest solos, and the most intricate drum parts ever written. But when he plays a tune like 'Asa' (Lee Ritenour with Djavan), he throws down that basic 4/4 groove with nothing more than a couple of well-placed 16th note triplet fills to even hint at the snarling drum beast within. And when he plays for worship (Vinnie has been a Christian since 1998), he uses his stunning musicality not to call attention to himself, but to God. I believe my best moments as a church drummer are when, with Vinnie as my role model, I seek to apply all my skills – timekeeping, vocabulary, teamwork – to laying down a groove that will help to focus God's people on Him, not me. That's not to say I don't cut loose – I'm an energetic drummer, and many songs call for all the energy I can muster. If the comments of the congregation are any reflection, then a lot of people are facilitated in worship by my approach. Soli Deo gloria.

As long as the church consists of imperfect people (which I predict could be a while), worship leaders and musical directors will appoint drummers who are either unaware of, or incapable of, the drummer's responsibility to make everybody else sound good. I'm writing this in hopes that some will read it and take seriously the drummer's enormous responsibility and make wise choices, whether to keep unqualified drummers off the platform, or in the case of said drummers, to keep themselves off the platform until such a time that they are able minister on the drum kit in such a way that will edify everyone in the congregation, including oversensitive people like myself.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Slamming Down the Gauntlet, Pt. I

Today I was taken to task by an old friend for a) believing in theistic evolution (also known as 'old-earth creationism', or BioLogos), and for using humorous exaggeration to get my points across in a debate setting. Since I intend to address the former (evolution) in this treatise, I must warn/promise the reader that, while I will not deliberately belittle or ridicule anyone or their beliefs, I will nonetheless resort to the latter (satire) not because I wish to be funny or witty, but, because I must be sincere about what I believe to be a very serious issue, I must also be myself. Allow me to explain. A lot.

I was raised in a home where satire and parody were not only enjoyed, but were practically tools for survival. My mother was quick to skewer nonsense and stupidity, and since my siblings and I were non-fighters in a bullying society, we resorted to lampooning the bullies we couldn't do anything else about. Mom bought us Spike Jones records (the “Weird” Al of his day), reveled in 'Bullwinkle' (the 'Simpsons' of its day), and objected in the mildest possible terms to our discovery of 'Mad' Magazine. We soon learned that satire and parody are among the most powerful forms of social commentary, and we have been providing running commentary on society's downhill slide ever since.

C.S. Lewis describes his discovery of apologist G. K. Chesterton's works in this way:

His humour was of the kind I like best - not "jokes" imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the "bloom" on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly.

I cannot criticize that which I believe to be both deeply flawed and dangerous without pointing out the flaws and dangers in question, in my own way. That said, I will probably disappoint any who expect cleverness here. But for those who expect me to be all solemn and clinical, this would be a good time to navigate away from this piece and read something that will not challenge or offend you.

My friend asked me why I 'dig' BioLogos so much, as though it were a matter of personal taste. Can one have a 'taste for truth? Be a 'connoisseur' of truth, as though one truth were better than, or preferable to another? Well, I only prefer truth over falsehood, especially when I see said falsehood doing real, and unnecessary damage. BTW, I've addressed this issue here in two previous posts, titled 'How I Joined a Cult (Well, Not Quite, But...)' and 'Young Earth Atheism: An Idea Whose Time Has Come'. I recommend reading those before continuing here, because I'm going to get a lot more earnest in this post. If you dislike those, you'll hate this.

There is little I can add to the excellent work being done by the people at BioLogos, since I am not a scientist; rather, a musician with scientific inclinations. The attacks on BioLogos by evangelicals are rarely, if ever, leveled at its science per sé. The scientific credentials of those attacking from 'the Right' (as we will call them here) pale in comparison both with those of the BioLogos community and those attacking it from 'the Left' (i.e., the New Atheists and agnostics who attack it on the assumption that Science is the final authority on all matters.) Both face (or refuse to face) enormous obstacles posed by the proposition that all truth is God's truth, scientific truth included. At the risk of leaving gaping holes, I will attempt here to distill the conflict to a manageable size.

The theological issues with BioLogos involve an interpretation that leaves Scripture open to different levels of literal interpretation. Most mainline denominations (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) are comfortable with the idea of figurative language in the Bible, thus  also with the concept of a very old Universe. Metaphors abound in Holy Writ: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5). We're fine knowing that our Lord meant that He is our source of life and that without Him we can't do anything. "The LORD God is a Sun and Shield." (Psalms 84:11). Not even Ken Ham thinks that God is therefore a giant ball of burning gas, or a piece of armor, let alone both. I will not belabor the point; there are so many metaphors in the Bible that a lifetime of their study would yield limitless treasure and edification.

If my mention of mainline denominations caused you to roll your eyes and think of lesbian bishops or pedophile priests, fine. They (the denominations as a whole, not just the deviants) couldn't possibly be Christians. Their 'social gospel' is just a front for some some horrible conspiracy. When they affirm the classic ecumenical creeds, they really mean Mother Earth, the Cosmic Oneness, New Age blather. You're a Christian, they aren't. They're liberal. You're conservative, so you're saved. Congratulations.

I warned you – going so soon? C. S. Lewis says “Christianity is a fighting religion.” Don't wimp out on me. My faith was hard won – I was raised New Age, nearly killed myself living a rock 'n' roll lifestyle, struggled to come to grips with Jesus, and was eventually sent by Him to 22 nations to share His love. I have nothing to gain by watering down Christianity. Have none of you ever had to admit you were wrong about something? Never been conclusively refuted? Well then you're omniscient, and you're wasting your time reading a blog post by a used guitar player. Now go and spread your infinite knowledge where it will do some good, and leave us heathen alone.

I also need to warn you that I will quote C. S. Lewis at will, he being the single biggest influence on my thinking. His thoughts on understanding the various literary devices in Scripture have helped me reconcile biblical difficulties and get on with the greater good of helping people be reconciled to God. Many in Lewis' day called him a 'fundamentalist', and he made many enemies by championing basic, or 'mere' Christianity and a vibrant, supernatural faith. He did this without insisting that God is an actual blast furnace (Hebrews 12:29) or that Jesus is somehow made of wood (John 10:9). If his theology offends you, so will mine. (I recommend 'Reflections on the Psalms' or 'Miracles' for those who wish to see how one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time worshiped God 'with all his mind' [Luke 10:27].)

Both extremes in this debate are guilty of trespassing. The Young Earth Creationists (YEC) purport to refute mainstream science with theology. I agree that sound doctrine is non-negotiable, and indispensable. But not being content to affirm the Deity of Christ, the Atonement, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, etc., they seek to shoehorn what Paul calls 'disputable matters' (Romans 14) into the qualifications for REAL Bible believers. If mainstream science empirically demonstrates the existence of millions and billions of years, say, through measurable interstellar and intergalactic distances, then YEC immediately assumes that mainstream science is not only wrong, but conspiratorially so. If a scientific observation (however ordinary) contradicts MY interpretation of Genesis, then we must find an alternative, however implausible. Hence the wild YEC proposition that the speed of light has become exponentially much, MUCH slower than it was originally, allowing for vast intergalactic distances over which light has traversed over a few thousand years, rather than the observable billions of years determined by astronomers (who must all be hushing up or willfully ignoring the data supporting a universe created several thousand years after the most recent Ice Age, itself a lie perpetrated by the godless in order to make it seem that woolly mammoths had some sort of excuse to be woolly in the first place.)

And in THIS corner, the New Atheists! Bolstered by whatever scientific breakthrough (i.e., the Higgs Boson particle) is in the headlines this week, they trumpet the obvious conclusion: There is NO NEED for GOD! The Big Bang is now known to have resulted from a "random fluctuation in a quantum anomaly" – look Ma, no God! Oh, and MULTIVERSE proves that there is NO NEED for GOD!

Oh, crap, here comes a six-year old. “Cool! Where did THAT come from?” Well, kid, the laws of causality break down at that point, so your question is meaningless. “Cool! Where did the laws that broke down come from?”

I don't give a flying buttress how many answers you give that kid, he will NEVER be satisfied by your attempts to put new clothes on your emperor. You may think that “In the beginning GOD made the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) is some sort of cop-out. A fairy tale. The problem is, the Universe had a beginning, and will clearly have an end. It's finite. You don't have to believe in a First Cause, but for you to insist that there is no need for one is not only illogical, but arrogant and irrelevant. Religion addresses that which science cannot address, just as theology cannot arbitrarily contradict that which science has demonstrated empirically (as did the Church when it tried to use Scripture to refute Galileo's heliocentric solar system, for which she found it necessary to apologize, albeit not until a few years ago.)

It will be noticed that I have not touched the theory of evolution. It would be folly to talk about natural selection if anybody thought the universe were only 6,000 years old. I may try to address it in another article, but right now we're simply trying to set the stage for meaningful dialogue. My friend who sparked this diatribe insists that theology, which formerly (and rightly) had its place in the ethics of scientific inquiry, should now be the final authority for scientific inquiry. This is akin to insisting that all molecular biologists should be ordained rabbis. Both may be authorities in their respective disciplines, but the likelihood of the one being qualified to refute the other in his field of expertise is remote indeed. Religion may tell science how to explore the universe (i.e., no cruelty to animals in the name of research), but not what to find out (i.e., the Earth revolves around the Sun.). Likewise, science 'finding out that God doesn't exist' is NOT SCIENCE.

The first to state his case seems right, until his opponent begins to cross-examine him.” (Proverbs 18:17, New English Translation.) I have entreated my YEC friend to read Dr. Francis Collins' 'The Language of God', which is the best harmonization of science and Christianity I have yet read. I don't think he's interested – people will believe what they WANT to believe, and the truth is uncomfortable, even if it will set you free (John 8:32). And here is where I throw down the gauntlet. Hard.

I firmly insist that if you haven't objectively and honestly examined both sides of a controversy, YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO AN OPINION. (See the quotation from Proverbs 18 in the last paragraph.) You can criticize, jeer, vilify, talk smack all day about something, but if it's wrong, it doesn't need to be ridiculed or reviled, it needs to be REFUTED. I said, and I repeat,  REFUTED. Point-by-point. If the Hubble Space Telescope is sending us bad data, send up your own orbiting observatory and get us some GOOD data. If Collins' explanation of natural selection rubs you the wrong way, don't get all riled up – show us the errors in his logic. Expose his bad science, not with theology, but with good science. Theology is vital, but it is wildly irrelevant to a materialist geneticist, who may in fact be open to the supernatural, but not when it says things that contradict the most solid and reliable research in his own field.

Science, whether practiced by atheists or others, has no authority to speak into a realm that begins where theirs ends. (Concepts such as multiple, or even an infinite number of universes still beg the question of their origin, or the origin of their origin, ad nauseum.) One may be an honest atheist, but have you ever met one that WISHED God existed? Please let me know. Likewise, YECers (even those who have managed to obtain degrees in science) are not qualified to contradict the most empirically demonstrable data mainstream science can provide. Don't bother flaming me with rebukes about my worldview; explain, calmly, how and why Dr. Collins is wrong. And don't use your particular interpretation of the Bible. Science (good science, anyway) is based on observation and logic. I do not recognize Fundamentalism's authority to trump the speed of light, or plate tectonics, or paleontology. BioLogos has been favorably vetted by respectable Christian leaders such as Jack Hayford, Os Guinness, Philip Yancey – even Pat Robertson and the Pope himself are fine with God taking a long time to create all this. I suppose you're a better theologian than THEY are? I thought so.

I am qualified to write on this subject because I spent the first 14 years of my Christian life as a Young Earth Creationist. I read the books, wrote the letters to the editor, argued with all the right people, attended the debates. But when I was finally confronted with the compelling scientific evidence for a very old Universe, I did the only right thing – I admitted I'd been wrong. Pride will make you cling to an ideology just to be consistent. You're not consistent. You're just predictable. You value 'your' truth over God's truth. These are harsh words, and many of you will not have read this far. All truth is God's truth. If Jesus truly was born of a virgin, then that's God's truth, one that changes everything. If He rose from the dead, then the kingdom of darkness is well and truly screwed. (I originally used a much more colorful metaphor, but I toned it down because I'm afraid people would show up with pitchforks and torches.)

In 14 years I never managed to convince one single person that they could be reconciled to God by believing that the Universe had a 'Wet Paint' sign on it. (And I tried.) The Good News is that -

He came down from heaven: 
by the power of the Holy Spirit 
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, 
and was made man. 
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; 
he suffered death and was buried. 
On the third day he rose again 
in accordance with the Scriptures; 
he ascended into heaven 
and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, 
and his kingdom will have no end. 

I love science, but science has nothing to say about that. Christianity is being unjustly subject to criticism that should instead be directed at fringe fundamentalism. Those outside the Faith often don't know the difference between the two. Then, when the YEC camp proposes to speak for us all, they cause unbelievers to stumble over Truth and reject her Author. It's hard to swallow one's pride and shutter the Creation Museum, but until they do (or at least change it up to reflect the most basic scientific truth), it will be just one more excuse for the unbeliever to shake his head and say, “Thank God I'm an atheist!”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Young Earth Atheism (YEA) – An Idea Whose Time Has Come

I know a guy who claims to believe Young Earth Creationism (YEC) on purely scientific grounds. No theological bias, just good, solid science showing the universe to have been created sometime in the last 10,000 years. Intergalactic distances, Doppler shifts, the Big Bang – illusions at best, more likely lies from the pit of Hell, or chimeras put there by God to test our loyalty. Wait, scratch that last bit. Heaven and Hell don't even enter into our conversation – this is strictly science.

But now we're stuck with a dilemma: If a young universe (i.e., one between 6,000 – 10,000 years old, as per a literal reading of Genesis, chapters 1 & 2) is to be inferred purely from scientific data, then why is it only accepted by certain Christians (this includes marginals, such as a goodly percentage of Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses)? Since YEC science itself is so good, shouldn't any honest seekers, including atheists and agnostics, be able to rule out the existence of billions of years, billions of light years, and their attendant implications?

Well, I say yes, dagnabbit! Why should the fundamentalists have all the good science? Since their data is so pure, so objective, so untainted by amoral bias, then it ought to warrant wider acceptance within the scientific community, regardless of one's personal beliefs about religion, morality, and the supernatural. Therefore, I propose the establishment of Young Earth Atheism (YEA), a means by which one can independently conclude that the universe accidentally created itself in six literal days, mere thousands of years ago. No God, no messy moral implications, just the time-honored, trusted Scientific Method interpreting all the data available to us in a concrete, unbiased manner. Because the YEC camp is clearly right (just ask them), then their science should be our benchmark. How liberating to be able to admit the silliness of every scientific sacred cow from Carbon Dating to Natural Selection, all without that troublesome Creator intruding on the scene to make the admission itself seem theologically motivated. You see, the YECers, in order to maintain their scientific honor, should be able to say that their science isn't based on biblical interpretation at all. They can disprove any scientific convention, (provided it poses a threat to a particular reading of the book of Genesis) without having to refer to the latter itself. All the scientific accuracy and intellectual honesty of YEC, without the religiosity. The war will be over!

Wait, I heard that. Silly? How could it be silly? The scientists (mostly atheists and agnostics, remember), in their rush to eliminate God from their Brave New World, caved in to apparent realities such as light traveling to Earth from celestial bodies millions or billions of years away; illusions such as the existence of death before the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden (i.e., prehistoric predators that couldn't have lived on alfalfa and bean sprouts.) You see, they were driven to believe such crazy ideas by a desperate desire to keep that meddling God from demanding this and commanding that. Well, who can blame them? Remember, the question here isn't whether God exists, it's whether the scientific methods we employ are influenced by a desire that He should exist, or shouldn't.

I suddenly feel pressure to be serious for a paragraph or two. (And I was having so much fun!) I'm afraid that the real implication here is that religious people are the only ones capable of objectivity, that no atheist could honestly read the available scientific data without an underlying fear and loathing of something more, something supernatural, otherworldly. That religious faith is a prerequisite to honest inquiry. That Young Earth Creationists are the only intellectually honest (or even intellectual) people on earth. (A young Earth, remember.)

There's the shouting again. “How could any atheist, examining only the best and newest scientific data, conclude a young universe without also having to admit the existence of God?”

Well, I'm working on that, But if it ever happens, please let me know. A Beatles reunion can't be far behind.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How Low Should You Go?


Some Deep Thoughts for Us Bass Players

My first encounters with the electric bass were marked by ignorance and frustration. In the early 70's my older sister would listen to The Carpenters, anchored by session great Joe Osborne on a Fender Jazz bass, playing old, dirty flatwound strings with a pick. His relatively high, guitar-like lines on "Superstar" mesmerized me, but I couldn't reproduce them on guitar; it didn't go low enough. Somehow I'd failed to find out what an electric bass was. (Even though I'd seen Danny Partridge on The Partridge Family.) Still less did I understand how this powerful new instrument (barely on the market for 20 years at the time) had become even more crucial in some musical genres than the electric guitars that preceded it. Reggae, Latin, Gospel, Jazz - many of these gigs could succeed without a guitar player, but what if the bass player didn't show up? Time to panic.
The first time I got my hands on a bass, I immediately understood its appeal: Power. I was fourteen, and drunk with bass power. It was like trading a .22 for a 12 gauge. Boom! Those lines I couldn't emulate on a guitar were suddenly there for the playing. It would be a few years before I realized how critical and delicate the basssist's role is, but at least I could kick out those sub-guitar notes.
I got the powerrrrrrrrrrrrrr!
Fast forward to 1980, when the bass player for the country band I was in got married and left on his honeymoon. Time to panic. But wait: I knew a good guitar player who also plays bass. But wait: He didn't know the songs, and we didn't use charts. I knew at once that even though I was far better versed in country guitar than my friend, that nonetheless I had to get out my Höfner Beatle bass and lay down the foundation while he tried to make his rock guitar lines sound a little bit country. To have given him the bass would have been a disservice to the rest of the band and to the audience, because he didn't know the songs the way a bass player should.
You see, we electric guitar players have it easy. In many contexts, we can just listen and respond, float around, sprinkling textures and fills and licks all over the place. If we need to lay out for a few measures, great. If we don't know the song, we can probably still make it sound good by staying close to the key center and waxing pentatonic. But just try that if you're a bass player. Actually, please don't.
Frank Zappa, indisputably one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century, described the bass player's function as "(telling) me what key I'm in." What, not to shake the room, rattle the windows and impress everyone with those flying fingers? Uh, no. That note at the bottom of the mix is so much more crucial than most people could ever know. I once played guitar on a major country gig in which a carefully rehearsed harmonica solo ended up sounding idiotic because the bass player played a I instead of a IV, causing a jazzy 11th voicing to instead sound something like "Long Tall Texan" or "Sweet Adeline." (The harmonica player was duly miffed afterward.) And how many of us have suffered in silence as a band or a church worship team is dragged throught the sludge by a bass player who hasn't done his homework, or can't tell a right note from a wrong one?
Okay, we've established that the bass player isn't really allowed to make mistakes (or at least that those mistakes should be rare exceptions.) Now for the subjective part, the one that compelled me to write a blog entry about what register a bass player should play in.
"Why not write about which of the Jonas Brothers is the cutest?" Hmmm, good point. I guess, though, that there are several hundred of us for whom this is even more important. (The rest of you can move on to
Stuff That Really Matters.)
Once I started playing electric bass, I, like many young guitarists, treated it like some sort of guitar on steroids. All those hot licks were so easy, since the fingering was the same as on a guitar . . . uh oh, what's this? They don't work? They don't make the band sound good? Aw, man, this wasn't supposed to be hard! You mean I need to listen to great bass players? Great what? Aren't bass players just failed guitar players?
Turn with me in your Bass Player History Textbook to Chapter 2. (Chapter 1 deals with Bach and Pachelbel and those other Dead Guys who gave us good basslines in the first place.) The early electric bassists were mostly converts from the upright bass, and brought with them a sensibility for what's best for the song. The upright only reluctantly lent itself to luxuries like soloing, so most of its techniques and lines remained intact through the early years of electric bass work in rock and R&B. In those days much music was listened to on small radios and phonographs, with limited bass response, and studio bassists quickly realized that their lowest notes sometimes didn't pop out of those tiny speakers nearly as well as higher ones. In fact, on dates where acoustic upright bass was still played, it was often doubled by a six-string 'tic-tac' bass guitar for that very reason. The standard four-string electric bass has the advantage of a relatively thick, rich timbre, even when played beyond the fifth fret, so when the first generation of influential rock bassists began to apply guitaristic techniques to the bass, it generally worked. The notes were audible even on a small transistor radio. And on the family hi-fi, look out! Woofers and tweeters and mids, oh my!
Any guitarist who doubles well on bass will very possibly find his bass skills more in demand than his guitar playing. That's because (sorry, my fellow guitar stranglers) bass is more important. In the nine years I spent in Venezuela, I estimate that up to 50% of my gigs (mainly church and jazz/salsa) were bass gigs. But the best bassists don't sound like defrocked guitar players. Sure, the guitarist may get to solo on every song, but that doesn't make the bass less challenging. When I listen to studio bass kingpins like Nathan East, John Pattitucci, Leland Sklar, or Abe Laboriel (the list could fill paragraphs), I'm intimidated (in a healthy way) by their ability to make everybody else sound good. The melodicism, the control, the deep pocket, the joy - it's enough to make you forget you even own a guitar.
When I started playing bass, there was nobody to tell me that there was such thing as taste, restraint, etc., so I felt my job was to produce the greatest quantity of notes possible. Then a pastor asked me to play on a slow, gentle song with only three chords: 'D', 'G' and 'A'. No problem - that's what I proceeded to play. But then he asked me to play 'F#' (the 3rd) instead of the 'D' (the tonal center, btw.) 'F#', 'G', and 'A'. Mi, Fa, Sol. "Dormez-vouz?" A little melody, underpinning a simple chord progression. Eureka! The congregation possibly asked themselves, 'What's that light bulb doing hovering over the bass player's head?" Answer: It was the cartoony-yet-appropriate visual manifestation of my realization that there's more to playing bass than, root-fifth, root-fifth (insert hot lick here), root-fifth. To this day, I'll sometimes start a new bass student by teaching them the intro to Josef Zawinul's Weather Report masterpiece, 'Birdland'.
Anyway, time to force the issue. Somewhere along the way I concluded that bass players should generally choose the lowest octave possible in which to play a given note, if the line permitted. Then in the mid-80's came Jimmy Johnson and his five-string bass (suggested by his father, a symphonic contrabassist familiar with the low 'B' string sometimes added to the double bass), and NY bass virtuoso Anthony Jackson, with his new invention, the six-string contrabass guitar, tuned from low 'B' to 'C' below middle 'C'. Suddenly there was this craze for notes below the serviceable low 'E' that for decades had defined the nether regions of our humble-yet-heroic axe. Thousands of bass players abandoned their Fenders and Rickenbackers in favor of Ken Smiths or whatever five- or six-string flavor-of-the month presented itself. Fender and Rickenbacker noticed right away and started offering five- and even six-string versions of their old standbys. Some of us questioned the future of the venerable four-string bass.
We couldn't even begin to question its past, though. It has been suggested that the electric bass (the original recipe, four-string variety) was more responsible for the dawn of rock and roll than any other instrument, even the electric guitar. And you would be hard-pressed to name a classic rock song that doesn't feature it.
That must have occurred to a lot of those early five-string converts. I saw Marcos Witt's longtime bassist, Emmanuel Espinosa in Mexico City in '97 with his Ken Smith (five- or six-string, I don't remember), then met up with him a year later in Venezuela, joyfully wielding a four-string G&L he'd rescued from a pawnshop in Houston. What about all those really low notes you played on the last few CDs? I thought. He didn't care. That night's concert proved it didn't matter very much. Most of us who made the change from four to five strings suffered from years of retroactive tactile memory, especially when we tried to transfer our slap/funk technique to the five. (We repeatedly hit the 'B' string, when what we really wanted was the 'E'.) What a relief to recover our funk chops simply by going back to the old Fender we'd thought had been rendered obsolete!
My all-time bass hero (now there's a new video game wating to happen) was John 'The Ox' Entwistle of The Who. Besides the grinding maelstrom of his roaring roundwound strings (practically his invention, it turns out) filling the empty space that threatens to strand the guitarist in many power-trio formats, Entwistle's sinuous, intricately melodic lines raised the bar for bass players seeking to mine the territory between flash and foundation. I was so obsessed with his tone that I put Rotosound Swing Bass strings on my poor, delicate Beatle bass, which groaned under the tension but delivered a most un-Beatle-like growl until I sold it to a friend who restored it to its rightful flatwound glory. I guess I liked filling out the sonic spectrum with frequencies beyond the pure, fundamental note. I even began to adopt a snobbish attitude toward most any bass sound that didn't do homage to The Ox. (Those years were full of inexplicable snobberies and prejudices. Thank God for old age.)
But why, I wondered, didn't Entwistle play the hard rock section of "Behind Blue Eyes" an octave lower than he did? (The part, BTW, that Limp Bizkit left out of their cover version of that song, thereby cementing their reputation for terminal Limpness.) And why did other bass visionaries like Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones venture so frequently into guitar register? Short answer: Basses don't sound like guitars, so they can get away with it, provided they do it at appropriate times. We can vary the intensity of the song structure by playing a part further up or lower down. We can use a pick (yes, real bass players often use picks) to add definition to the low end. We can use our fingers (yes, we need to be able to do that, too) to add body and warmth to those high register parts, thus making sure they still qualify as bass lines.
I hope I didn't step on the toes of those who favor the five- or six-string - I still own one, and I still compose music that goes down there, but I look forward to those Sundays when the songlist shows no songs in Eb or Ab, so I can leave it home and bring my trusty Jazz Bass to church. If you've actually read this far, you deserve a better conclusion to this diatribe than I'm giving it, but I hope you'll settle for my heartfelt gratitude for attending to a seemingly arcane issue that matters so much, yet is cared about (or even noticed) by so few. If we bassists suddenly stopped playing, then they'd notice.