Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Mid-Life Fan Letter

I encourage my daughters to write fan mail — have done so since they were little. “It doesn't matter if they're a Big Deal, or someone who's Almost That — if this person has brought some joy to your life, they deserve to know.”

They don't listen to the Old Man, of course. And, to be fair, why should they? I haven't written fan mail since I was their age, and shame on me. For instance, if Devin knows I'm crushing on him, it's through no fault of my own. In hindsight, instead of courting injury at the edge of the circle pit during this concert, I should have forked out for the Meet-n-Greet. The backstage pass cost several times the price of admission, but at my stage in life (and his tier of fame) it was perfectly affordable — even something of a deal, when contrasted to what I paid to see Steely Dan earlier that year. I've no idea what Townsend would have made of beholding a puffy 50-year-old in the same queue as a bunch of excited kids half that age — and there's the pity. It might have amused him, it might have thrown him off-kilter — we shall never know, alas.
"That's me in the middle,* finding my religion..."
*Not really.

Anyhow, earlier this week I broke out the digital pen-and-paper and wrote my first fan-letter in decades.
The deepest pleasures in life are often unanticipated. When I received notice of a new Anderton's/JustinGuitar “rut-buster” video I expected little more than another low-key musical revelation that might, or might not, be useful in my own attempts at self-improvement-via-guitar. By video's end I was laughing in delight.

I can't give any account of what happened that won't sound pedestrian. First off, it's all Music Theory 101. Mrs. K___, my piano teacher, tried to impart this basic understanding when I first began lessons with her as a seven-year-old. Forty-three years later my daughter explained it to me all over again, with pencil and paper and charts. I'd memorized it, and I could recite it at will. But I could memorize and recite a Japanese koan with greater understanding than I had for this basic, basic material.

I'd been a campfire guitarist for 30 years. I knew what “One, four, five” meant, kinda. The main thing was, if you gave me the key, I could play the three “magic chords” just fine.

By the end of episode 6, I understood how “One, four, five” related to the major scale, and how the major scale could be applied to any standard one- or two- or three (plus)-chord pop or blues song to make a pleasant-sounding solo.

That's it.

But it blew my head open.

I couldn't begin to count how many times I've had that simple, fundamental theory explained to me over the last five decades — it never, ever, sank in until this week.

There are two reasons for this revelation: 1) Justin Sandercoe is just about the Socratic Ideal of what an instructor should be; 2) this gentleman stood in as my Student Avatar, so that as the concepts became real to him, they became real to me.

So I wrote “Captain” Lee Anderton a fan-letter. Dude's 46 years old, runs a successful music shop in the UK, has a wife and kids of his own, but he's willing to go on-camera and learn the fundamentals of music theory so he can improve his guitar chops just a bit — in front of millions. That takes some sand. And now he's got a 53-year-old fan-boy.

Yes, well . . . let's not make any more of that than we need to. What I really want to stress is this: the world needs more fan mail.

I don't have to tell you what a downer it's become to turn on the computer and log in. We can't even pick up the bloody phone without getting minute-by-minute updates announcing the growing toxicity of global social expectations. Anything that counters that is a sprout of joy that needs protection and nourishment. “Likes” are nice — but fan-mail is better.

Go. Do.

Post-script: Hm, looks like the production people at Anderton's/JustinGuitar have removed Episode Six — temporarily, I'm sure. I think they mistakenly posted Six before Five, so you'll just have to wait — or start at the beginning and catch up. But the larger point is there is probably something/someone else who's bringing you joy — let's hear about it. And let them hear about it, won't you?

Monday, June 25, 2018

Guitars I dig: Malcolm Young's “The Beast”

Malcolm Young's signature guitar was a 1963 red Gretsch Jet Firebird, given him by his older brother George.
When AC/DC started out Malcolm and his younger brother Angus traded solos — Angus claims Mal was always the better guitarist — but at some point Mal insisted the kid brother take lead and show-boating duties, while he, the elder, stood back and kept the train on the tracks with his dependable steam-engine rhythm stylings.
During shows Malcolm would switch from one Gretsch to the next, but inevitably “The Beast” came out. He made it his own by removing the trem-bar (“hard-tailing” it), the middle and neck pick-ups as well as the fire-engine red paint. It is as purely a rhythm guitar as can be.
Could be the knobs are there to keep it held together.
People with too much money can buy themselves a 2017 replica of “The Beast” for anywhere from $10,000 to $21,000. Players can find non-stressed varieties of the Malcolm Young Jet for anywhere from one- to three-grand. Owners are rapturous, for the reason you might expect — the guitar delivers that famous crunch tone, best when paired with an older Marshall amp cranked to 11.
"You're gonna charge WHAT??"
I see one version of the MY Jet has two pick-ups, so a player could reasonably expect the guitar to handle other duties besides stripped-down 12-bar blues-driven rock. However, I can't imagine anyone buying it for any other purpose than to chop out the AC/DC songbook — either in some crowded pub, or (more likely) their own bedroom.
Or church parking lot, depending...
That's more money than I could ever justify spending on an instrument of such limited expression. But I will admit that despite (or, let's be honest, quite likely because of) my complicated history with AC/DC I do have a special fondness for Malcolm's rhythm guitar. After a Saturday afternoon spent tackling some particularly tricky blues riff, nothing clears out the frustration like 10 minutes of chunking through “Jail Break” and “It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll).”

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

“What are you listening to?”

“Is Bill Evans still 'On The Platter'?”

“Yes,” was my immediate reply, followed by a pause. “The others are not.”

“What are you listening to?” is my go-to icebreaker (“What do you do for a living?” and “What are you up to these days?” are average questions that fetch average answers). But when I was asked the question on Sunday, I found myself at a loss for words.

I am listening to a lot of blues these days, albums from the '60s that inspired the bands that once inspired me — “The Three Kings”: Albert King, B.B. King, Freddie King. It amounts to aspirational listening — I'm hoping to graduate from dog-paddling in the kiddie pool to doing the front crawl in the deep end. The listening isn't without pleasure, but the focus of attention on technique tends to keep me cool where once I was prone to fevers of passion.
"Michael rowed the boat ashore, ah-lay...[repositions fingers]...LOOO-yah!"
There are other albums making regular appearances on the “recently played” playlist: In Your Own Sweet Time by The Fratellis; Ámr by Ihsahn; some tracks from the recent Samantha Fish album (wup — we're back in the blues again). These days I'm recycling Led Zeppelin quite often, as well as the older Rush albums, with the occasional Clockwork Angels replay, just to keep it all in perspective.

But mostly I'm listening to podcasts — lots and lots of podcasts. About which, more later...

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son

I've been missing Ry Cooder.

He hasn't gone anywhere, of course. He lives, and until someone informs me otherwise I will assume he remains well. But...

My introduction to Ry Cooder was 1987's Get Rhythm. I had no idea what an anomaly it represented in his ouevre. Sister Rosetta Tharpe said there are only two types of music — blues and gospel. Get Rhythm was blues at its rowdiest. The album had its circumspect moments — or “moment,” since “The Borderline” was really all that passed for sober circumspection on that album. The rest of it was torqued up to 11, in attitude if not always in amplitude. The album rocked, and when I caught up with past offerings I understood just how hard it rocked. Get Rhythm offered a schooling to up-and-coming youngsters, but was also in hindsight an aging master's farewell to youth and young manhood.

After that, Ry seemed to become a predominantly serious man. Of course things have become serious for us all — I wouldn't argue against that. And Cooder seemed to be walking alongside (if not slightly behind, where he seems most comfortable) his listeners, taking things in stride to the best of his abilities. Chavez Ravine (2005) was an admixture of cultural/political/let's-have-fun sensibilities. My Name Is Buddy (2007) was a pet (sic) project that channeled Woody Guthrie and Kenneth Grahame in equal measure. Then I, Flathead showed up, getting the octane mixture exactly right — equal parts nostalgia to thrill. 2011 brought Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down, and 2012 Election Special — both strong indicators that Ry believed there were clear political solutions to the difficult problems besetting us all, if only we had the courage to face them and act.

It is 2018, and political solutions do not appear possible to those determined to act in good faith.

With The Prodigal Son, Ry reaches for spiritual coherence and elevation, and achieves it. It doesn't have the testosterone-fueled snap of Get Rhythm and the more boisterous songs of I, Flathead, yet it still rocks. Blind Willie Johnson is well represented, as is Carter Stanley and Blind Roosevelt Graves. Ry's own contributions are humbly offered affairs not out of place with his estimable saintly company. And it is bittersweet to hear, probably for the final time, the voice of Ry's long-time collaborator, the late Terry Evans.

“Keep the faith,” is clearly Ry's message. There is still joy to be had in the day-to-day struggle — sometimes it just takes a rousing slide-guitar to dust it off and let it shine.
Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Trump in Ontario?

There are some similarities.

A rough-hewn alpha male, possessed of some charisma and social aptitude. An inheritor of his father's successful business, whose own business savvy is a matter of debate. A man with an ear for the strains of impatience and frustration among the hard-scrabble beta lot.

Although he has been a political animal for his entire adult life, he was a newcomer to provincial politics — an outsider. The party he parachuted into was a mess. The Conservatives had just jettisoned their leader for being too old, too single, and too sexually active in a manner that appeared to border on the predatory. A woman of competence seemed to have a lock on the bid for leadership — this would have brought us an election where voters had to choose from three female candidates with similar qualifications. Then Douglas Robert Ford, Jr. announced himself, and was granted leadership under controversial circumstances.

There are differences.

The Conservatives were going to win this thing, regardless — it was a question of just how large the margin. Ford pitted himself against two women with a lifelong habit of talking down to everyone they meet. It may be his marble-mouthed chumminess increased the margins in the Conservatives' favour.

The next four years are sure to be a grotesque spectacle. There is already one family lawsuit occupying headlines — if the business is doing anywhere near as badly as this suit claims, others are sure to follow. The province's financial books are sure to be a shock. Ford will make a number of political choices that will enrage his opponents and provide varying degrees of succor to his supporters.

Had Christine Elliott won the Premier's seat, I'd have been nervous. With Ford I am just resigned. The rest of Canada already views this province with the disdain reserved for the fair-haired child in the family. For the next four years we shall provide them ample justification for national schadenfreude.
The "Goya Slider"!

Monday, June 04, 2018

“There has never been, in the history of the world, a multicultural society that was not an empire.”

Discussed: CanLit’s Colonial Habit: Literature in the age of Reconciliation and ‘peak’ diversity by Stephen Marche (here).
Students at Ahousat Indian Residential School in B.C., 1939.
I read Stephen Marche’s essay yesterday morning. Then I read it again — aloud, to my wife — in the afternoon.

“That’s incredible,” she said. “So many devastating observations. But what do you take away from it?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

I’m still not sure. But it seems to me essential reading.

Marche adroitly surveys the CanLit scene and eviscerates the sanctimony that drives it, without coming off as holier-than-thou (because, after all, he is the beneficiary of said scene (such as it is)). He touches on CanLit figureheads I’ve puzzled over — Joseph Boyden and Miriam Toews, to name just two — and succinctly summarizes both their appeal and their limitations.

When I was a younger writer, doing the whole SASE submission thing, I was vaguely aware of the unspoken cultural expectations the guardians of the CanLit scene had. And I took a stab at meeting those expectations. I’ve still got the hangover — see my blog masthead for evidence. I figure “Mennonite” is a search parameter more likely to net readers than “movies, music, miscellaneous.” Marche pinpoints this reflexive impulse as well, and highlights the uniquely Canadian tint to it.

I could fill the page with quotes, but will settle with this one:
I have always wondered why Canadians care so little for their history, why an event like the War of 1812 — rich with fascinating characters and heroic incident — should be more or less completely forgotten. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report explains without explaining: When your country is based on taking away First Nations’ history from them, and replacing it with a history from a country thousands of miles away, why wouldn’t you throw out your own history too? The cliché of Canadian art is that it is obsessed with landscape. The TRC report reveals the terrifying why: Canadian landscapes are visions of country with no people.
Marche's essay is here. Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports are here. This is the executive summary.

Friday, June 01, 2018

And now for my other preoccupation...

“All these incredible on-line resources — it's a wonder anybody bothers with personal instruction at all anymore.”

So said the fellow I was receiving personal instruction from, for guitar. One month later we shook hands and parted ways.

I've been on-line ever since.

In my heart of hearts I still believe one-on-one, two people in the same room, interaction is THE BEST way to learn anything. But it does require significant capital and, often, travel-time. And then there's the whole business of settling on the personal instructor who's going to lead you into the Promised Land.

In my case we were both having communication issues. One concern I was not making sufficiently clear was just how far I was willing to walk back my training. His philosophy was, “If what you're doing brings out the right sound, keep doing it.” But after 30 years of campfire strumming, I knew I'd picked up a few seriously bad habits — the most significant of which was a death-grip on the guitar neck whenever I did barre chords, or slid up the fret-board. Within months after taking on a couple of fancy new moves, I found myself addressing something new to me — an overuse injury. Now I needed instruction in better ergonomics, as well as the technique I was keen to acquire.
Turns out there is a wrong way to hold a guitar.
There is no shortage of YouTube authorities, subscription-based instructional services, or Udemy (and the like) courses. I've dabbled a bit in nearly all these platforms, and courted injury to my mouse-hand in the process. The best resource I've found, to date, is Justin Sandercoe, aka Justin Guitar.

First selling point: his stuff is free — as in, FREE. I don't begrudge the nickels I spent in any of those other places, but the beauty of Justin's program is you can quickly suss out just how helpful it's likely to be to your given place in the guitar skills spectrum.

Speaking personally, he's addressed and corrected a host of ergonomic elements along with all sorts of other technique nit-picking questions I've had. His instructions introduce both newcomer and intermediate players to the various boxes that offer elemental expression. Then he gently breaks open the box to give the student greater range of expression.
Anyhoo, if giving your guitar skills a nudge is at all your concern go on and give him a look. His YouTube channel is here, and his website is here. And if you find him at all useful, take the next step and do the right thing — pay for his services.