Exposure - the Mike Luno Band Blog Page

Reflections at the 20-Year Mark  

Yup, Mike Luno Band has been around for twenty years now. We weren't called MLB when we started, and we were a four-piece with a different lead singer and bassist for the first few years, but the sound, the philosophy, the songwriter, drummer, guitarist and even some repertoire has remained. I see it as the same band, albeit somewhat evolved. 

When we formed, bands still made wide use of professional recording studios to make their music, and even wider use of CD's to sell it and promote it. Hootie and the Blowfish, the Spin Doctors and Alanis Morissette were hot new acts. Jean Chretien and Bill Clinton were seeking re-election. Quentin Tarantino was bringing old music and faded movie stars – like “Miserlou” and John Travolta, respectively - back from career-death and giving them longevity. The world had just witnessed genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda, but North America seemed more preoccupied with a murder trial of a former football star. Victoria and Vancouver, BC, were shut down for a week by a blizzard – as much because their snow-removal equipment had been removed recently as a cost-saving measure. There was a handful of smaller clubs in Victoria, our hometown at the time, that provided live, contemporary popular music – although DJ's were starting to eat into many of those venues. Trance/club music was starting to get traction, and bringing the Fender Rhodes electric piano back from garage sales and junk shops to live stages. Onstage racks of guitar effects were being replaced by low-tech stomp-boxes and smaller-wattage amplifiers (not to get quieter – just to make them sound better by working them much harder). I drove a Ford Thunderbird and recorded my demos on 4-track cassette tape – which is also what played on my T-bird's stereo. 

If my present self could time-travel and go fill in my 1997 self on what was to come in popular music, the first challenge would be in describing what has been happening. “The big trend is the lack of big trend – just sort of a bunch of micro-trends of various length and intensity. Artists tend not to reach iconic status nearly as readily – or for any reason to do with music. Musically and in stage presentation, you might be the next Led Zeppelin – but you'll never have Zeppelin stature anymore. Best you can hope for is to be the next Dave Matthews band. At least the musicians will respect you and support you after the general public has moved on”. 

Knowing all that, would the '90's me have continued? 

“Oh, and by the way, Young Me – you'll still be playing with Curtis, and own a lot of your favourite guitars”. 

Sold! 

Still, knowing all that, there are certainly things I would have done differently. Knowing the internet age would allow any artist to (theoretically) reach the whole world – without requiring a major-label deal - I'd have fostered much more the traits that made our band distinctive, and cared less about 'fitting in' enough to gig locally. Cult followings can be a great way to pay the bills and support the music habit. I'd have fought harder to keep the original band together, and by fighting harder, I mean not fighting at all. The first line-up of this band – 'Victoria Secret' as we were called – had huge potential, but personality conflicts, and our 'spirited discussions' often generated much more heat than light. I now know a little more about human nature, and that drama is generally quite unnecessary and counterproductive...not 'cathartic' as we might have once believed. Likewise, I see more clearly now where my own deficits were – choosing cover tunes, stage presence, consistent guitar tone, and letting the circus atmosphere of live playing keep me from digging deep for good musical performance – and I'd make countering those deficits a high priority. 

After 20 years, I can at least say that I'm proud and happy to be playing with longtime accomplice Curtis Leippi, the artful Jason Nickel on bass, and alternate bassist extraordinaire Kirby Barber (cause good bassists stay very busy in this town, so it's good to have a spare!). I've written a goodly number of tunes I can still listen to and play live with full commitment, and I've learned a lot of lessons that make performance, writing and recording a greater pleasure than ever. I've rubbed shoulders with some inspiring bandmates, nearly all with which I'd happily share a stage again. The lessons I learned over the last couple of decades are all pretty applicable now, and as a current teacher of a course called Rock School in the public school system, I'm observing and making suggestions and adjudications about rock music performances on a daily basis – you can't help but learn from that, even if the musicians in question have a fraction of the experience I do. Experience is hardly the only or even the most valuable coin of the realm. I've also had a handful of former students go on to have successful music careers, and I learn a-plenty from observing them, too. The decades do bring a pretty unique perspective, at the very least. 

Of course, the decades also bring grey hair (and/or a lot less hair), a droopy face and the stigma of “old”, as well – and a lot worse if you don't do something to keep as fit and healthy as possible, or if you've developed any habits that add to the general wear-and-tear of age. In my own case, I've lived a healthy life, so my voice, strength and stamina are probably better than they've ever been – but it's fair to say I look my age, and perhaps then some (to all but me, that is – I still see a 25-year-old in the mirror, though I know I'm delusional)...but I just haven't found that to be a problem yet. In previous decades, the generation gap was such that a rock musician had zero credibility past the age of 30, but these days, it seems, anything goes. If you can come up with the goods, you're welcome onstage at any age, despite what Madonna might say – and that's definitely a change for the better. In any case, it's a good excuse to keep on keepin' on. Got some new tunes getting finishing touches on the workbench now. As Paul Simon would say, still crazy after all these years.

Heroes 

Chris Squire, David Bowie, Prince. 

It's been a hell of a year. 

To say these artists were musically influential on a global scale seems like an understatement.

On a personal level, all were artists I listened to a lot from my teens onward, all had a lasting effect on who I am as a musician, songwriter and producer today, and all were about as distinctive as you could be while still selling records. 

Perhaps it could be argued that all had their best years well behind them at the time of their departure, but to coin a phrase – theirs is no disgrace. 

Of the three, Squire is the least likely to be called a household name, and ironically – had the longest career. It's probably no coincidence that he's the one non-lead-singer of the trio, and a bassist rather than a solo artist; but he's a giant in his field, nonetheless. 

In case you're unfamiliar, Squire formed the band Yes in 1968 with singer Jon Anderson, drummer Bill Bruford, guitarist Peter Banks and keyboardist Tony Kaye. Between the time of the band's first gig and the last with Chris Squire in 2015, Yes was on its second drummer, fourth lead singer, third guitarist (technically second, but Steve Howe stepped away from the band for 12 years) and sixth (technically fourth, due to Downes' 34-year sabbatical) keyboardist. Yes was still on its first bassist, though. Beyond the achievement of keeping Yes together over that many years and personnel changes, Squire had a lot to do with the highly original and unique songwriting and arrangement of the band's material, to say nothing of arguably the world's most recognizable and perfectly badass electric bass sound. From the relatively short and simple “Wondrous Stories” (1977) and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (1983) to epics like “Heart of the Sunrise” (1971), and“Close to the Edge” (1972), somehow Squire kept the bass parts distinct, original, propulsive, musical and fascinating. Listen carefully to the bass parts sometime and note how often Squire enters or starts a phrase at an unexpected yet beautifully appropriate time. My personal favourite Squire performance is anytime he is paired with original drummer Bill Bruford. Despite frequent disagreements between the two, the musical combination was something magic. Adding to the package, Squire was a very strong backing vocalist, lending more distinctive sound to the ensemble; and he also appeared to be the Yes man with the most active sense of humour and welcome sense of irreverence- especially in the years without Rick Wakeman in Yes. After being diagnosed with the rare and aggressive strain of cancer that brought his demise, Squire hand-picked his successor in Yes, and the band continues to this day with Billy Sherwood as bassist. It's to the credit of both men that Sherwood performs all those challenging Yes tunes with confidence, accuracy, and that incredible Squire tone, despite a very different arsenal of instruments and equipment. Meanwhile, there are several generations of bassists who cite Squire as a leading influence. Still, few can so capably match the way Squire brought spotlight to the bass without diminishing or cluttering the band as a whole...and he made it look easy! 

Strangely enough, there is quite a strong Yes connection to David Bowie, as longtime Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman played on many Bowie recordings in the '70's. That should come as little surprise, as Bowie's list of musical collaborators is quite the Who's Who of musical rock royalty. Since around the time of his second album, Bowie had the credibility and cachet to make many of the biggest names in pop jump at the chance to work with him, including John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Nile Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Brian Eno and many others. He re-invented himself musically and visually several times over a near-half-century career, each time leaning more toward setting trends than following them. It's in fact rather surprising that an artist who enjoyed such massive financial success from music could have so much in his repertoire that is not especially catchy or commercial-sounding. While many musicians settle into a 'greatest hits' phase in later life, Bowie kept moving into new territory, challenging listeners at the very likely risk of losing them. While his courage and inventiveness were always admirable, my own connection to Bowie is a little less cerebral – his melodies grabbed me. Not every song, of course, or every Bowie 'era', but there was a sweetness to his basic melodic approach that resonated with me. “Ashes to Ashes” and “the Man Who Sold the World” leap to mind first, but there are little examples of elegant phrases or poignant resolutions throughout his catalog that could only be Bowie. I certainly can't emulate it, but I can admire it. 

Then there's His Purpleness. It took me a little longer to appreciate Prince, as it was the Purple Rain-storm that brought him to my attention back in the day. The hyper-image of over-dressed, uber-cocky poseur turned me off, and the r & b trappings of stage dancers and drum machines impressed me even less. Still, that relentless exposure in 1983-84 eventually brought his guitar playing to my attention, and caused me to take a second look. I never did become much of a fan of his more dance-oriented songs, but I was ultimately awed by effortlessly tasteful and articulate guitar-playing, his uniquely advanced harmonies, his boldness and even the sometimes-earthy-eloquence of his lyrics; that and the same characteristics that drew me to Bowie and Squire – he was always fearlessly himself, distinctive, unmistakable, original. Unlike Squire and Bowie, he was still many years from his seventies when he died, and so left a lingering air what-might-have-been. Apparently, he also left a vast catalog of unreleased material in his vaults that equals his official releases in sheer volume, so even if we'll never know what might have been, we'll learn much, much more about what was...which might be just as illuminating. 

Naturally, there are plenty of rock fans out there who would also mourn the recent losses of Glenn Frey, Lemmy Kilmister and Keith Emmerson, and I'm certainly not arguing the merits of one musician over another – but it was Squire, Bowie and Prince who took root in my psyche many years ago, while the other three simply didn't, for whatever reason. Perhaps if the airwaves of 1984 had been flooded with images of Keith Emmerson riding a motorcycle with Apollonia and a Hohner Wildcat on his back, I'd be writing about ELP now – but somehow, I doubt it. For better or worse, it's Fish, the Thin White Duke and the Former Artist who I'll miss most. 

Here's to you, gentlemen, and all the music you made.

The Tragic Death of the Generation Gap 

I have the pleasure of teaching a course in public high school these days called Rock School. About 25 students between the ages of 14 and 18, with widely varying levels of experience in formal music training as well as rock, meet every day to discuss, hear lectures about, write, practice and perform rock music. While the course and the students are a pleasure to teach, I must admit to a small, niggling ambivalence about the course. The first source of those mixed feelings comes from a long-held belief that the best, most successful rock musicians are self taught; if you're not a committed do-it-yourselfer, you won't be thinking far enough outside the box to distinguish yourself as a rock artist or have the drive to work in a job that requires so much self-direction. I'm comforted by growing evidence to the contrary and the challenge of devising this course so that the independent spirit of a self-taught musician is preserved in all students, even if the students' experience is otherwise. The other source of my ambivalence is a little tougher to remedy... 

As I've mention in a previous blog, I often encounter students who dig 'old' music. The fondness for Vivaldi, Mozart and Debussy doesn't worry me; it's the love of Billy Joel, Beatles, Floyd, Zeppelin, Rush, Sublime, AC/DC and Metallica that does. When I ask students about their interests in such antiquated music, they inevitably mention that their parents turned them onto it. 

In some ways, I should be overjoyed by this phenomenon. The younger generation likes a lot of the same music I do? Not only does that keep me from being an irrelevant old geezer in the eyes of younger folk, it makes this course easier to teach – I know so much of that 'old' music intimately, its origins and every note. In some ways, the challenge of this course for me is less about coming up with material and more about knowing when to shut up already and let the students play and make their own investigations. 

However, there seems something slightly amiss. This class environment is positively Utopian compared to the cultural environment of my own musical development. 

My parents did not like Rock music. My dad, in fact, saw Rock as degenerate, a sure sign of a declining civilization. I kept my first electric guitar hidden from my dad for two years (needlessly, it turned out; when I finally showed it to him, he immediately and happily tried to play it). Dad was not alone in his antipathy in those days. In the popular press, while the hipper media outlets embraced lighter or older forms of rock like Elvis and the Beatles, there was a pronounced whiff of disdain if not outright boycott where current, hard rock was concerned. It bugged he hell out of me that 'rock' music on TV was inevitably soft and wimpy if present at all, buried in brass and strings arrangements, denatured and pathetic. The mainstream press (which, back then, was the only game in town) pretended Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Van Halen and AC/DC didn't exist, and it only stoked my appetite further. Kiss made a television movie back in 1978, which portrayed the boys in the band as superheros. To this day, even the otherwise-shameless Gene Simmons himself is embarrassed by that horribly misguided platter of rotting ham, but as a ten-year-old rabid fan, I was enthralled. Why? I'd simply never seen the band in motion. I'd only heard the records and seen the photos. Sure, the movie was indeed crap, but the concert footage gave me a taste of what I craved. Ironically, the Hanna-Barbera-produced movie was the start of Kiss denaturing itself, trying to appeal to a family audience at the height of the Disco era. Kiss certainly didn't seem dangerous anymore. My mom watched the movie with me, and determined that Kiss was about as harmful to me as the Flintstones, if somewhat less intelligent. 

The generation gap was quite apparent back then. While those born before the Second World War reacted to Rock with disgust, those born in the first generation after the war liked their rock soft and inoffensive by the late 70's, and my generation's tastes were treated as irrelevant or beneath serious consideration. Generation X just didn't have the demographic numbers to garner much media patronage until we were old enough to start running things ourselves. 

The Generation Gap, of course, was that much more pronounced a decade earlier. When there was only the pre-war and post-war crowds, all Rock music polarized its audience along generational lines, opinions were very sharply-held and expressed in militant, belligerent fashion. It probably didn't help that a great swath of parents at the time were post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers from the Second World War, Korean conflict and the poverty and labour unrest of the Great Depression. After going through all that, it's no wonder that they scratched their heads when their kids rejected all the predictability and stability of quiet suburban culture in favour of something much more primal and raucous. 

I read a fascinating book recently by Steven Pinker entitled “the Better Angels of Our Nature” (thanks, Peter!) that documents in very unambiguous terms how the human species has grown less violent over the last couple of millennia. In any trend there tend to be outliers and aberrations, and in this great, general trend away from violence, the biggest aberrations of the last century are World War II (many historians contend: “no Hitler, no Second World War”)...and the Baby Boomers. The explanations about and for these findings would take up many more blogs, but to encapsulate: the Boomers were an unusually violent generation, and as the men (women tend not to be violent in any generation) of that generation grew past the age when men are typically violent, the general trend away from violence resumed its steady curve. This conflict-prone generation was bound to butt heads against that of their parents, and while a small amount of inter-generational conflict appears to be normal, what we saw in the 60's and 70's was probably unusual in its intensity. That rebellious spirit that fuelled rock music from its birth into the 70's was, therefore, likely a once-in-a-millenium event. This may also be why the Boomers were quick to discount any harder-edged rock that appeared after, say, Cream. If your watchword used to be “don't trust anyone over thirty”, you don't want anything to remind you that you're now over thirty yourself, getting steadily older, and quite worth rebelling against. The generations that followed never suffered such ageism, and therefore don't discriminate against any music on the basis of its recording date or the age of its practicioners. 

Certainly there are plenty of shock-rock bands and artists today that make great use of violent imagery and primal appeal, but they're now far from the mainstream. The days when a Pete Townshend can smash his guitar on national broadcast and polarize the vast audience along generational lines as a result...are long over. It's been done, and for better or worse, the youth of today don't have the focused anger (or violent tendencies) of Pete's g-g-generation. Ironically, today's youth probably have much more cause to rebel than the boomers ever did, and the boomers themselves deserve most of the blame for that – but again, that's for a much longer blog on a different website. I certainly don't miss the nasty generational wars of the '60s, or the weirdly mid-life-crisis-flavoured media of the '70s...but I do miss the spirit of rock that was mainstream in the 60s and early 70's – rebellious but with musical acumen, hedonistic but with a core of civility, ably drawing on outside musical influences while retaining a rock and roll heart, with a touch of humour...as opposed to tunes designed merely to get toes tapping in the car or drinks flowing at the bar. Is any of this something that can be formally taught? 

I guess I'm about to find out.

A Date With U-Turnity 

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes" – attributed (uncertainly) to Mark Twain 

Back in the Spring of '84, I had the pleasure of seeing Rush live in Vancouver on their Grace Under Pressure tour. A sense of change was in the air – the new Rush album was a big departure in sound from their entire catalog up to that point (which at that time was about ten albums, one per year), probably due to their recent first-ever change of record producers. Gone was the 'AC/DC plays old Yes songs to accompany Dungeons and Dragons' sound, replaced by a cleaner, slicker, more mature (and perhaps less ultra-masculine) approach. The philosophical Harley biker was replaced by the Toronto Ferrari driver. This was very much in keeping with the times – pop culture in general was moving quickly from the hairy, fashionably unkempt to the neatly urban clean-cut chic. I was at first ambivalent about the new record and the trends in general, but Grace Under Pressure definitely grew on me in the course of a few weeks, even if mullets and skinny pants didn't. 

Rush took the stage that night in May of '84 looking and sounding like a band-with-a-history ably keeping up with the times. Lasers, blazers, lots of keyboards (as a 3-piece band, vocalist Geddy Lee would play bass pedals with his feet when his hands were busy on the keys – otherwise, his legendary electric bass chops were put to full use), the obligatory Fender Stratocasters and Simmonds drums (instrument models come in and out of fashion, too), and...what the hell was that instrument Geddy was playing? *

As a neophyte gearhead, I knew enough to expect Geddy to take the stage with either a Fender Jazz bass or a Rickenbacker, but this was obviously neither. It had no visible tuners, no headstock, and it hardly had a body. From my distance, it appeared he was playing a slender, black stick with four bass strings attached and a lot of frets. The new 80's fashion certainly flirted with minimalism, but this seemed extreme. Geddy's new instrument effectively took the electric bass outside of Essential Ingredients territory. It certainly sounded good, 'though not nearly as bright as his previous basses. I was fascinated. 

In the following weeks, I pored over guitar magazines of the time (pre-internet, don't forget) to find out more about this mysterious new beast. 

I soon learned that these headless instruments were the brainchild of a guy and a company called Steinberger, who built basses and guitars out of one-piece molded carbon fibre (typically, electric and acoustic guitars are made of wood, and their necks are glued or bolted onto their bodies). Steinbergers required special strings, they had their tuners down near the bridge, and they were as fashionable as they were expensive. Players and company copy raved about their strength, stability (conventional wooden necks can warp and be otherwise affected by heat and humidity changes), sound (their-ultra-clean, almost glassy timbre was a hallmark of the times), lack of bulk and eye-catching looks. In the mid-80's, 'Steini' basses and guitars could be seen in the hands of Sting, Jaco Pastorius, Eddie Van Halen, Paul Stanley, David Gilmour, Michael Hedges, Alan Holdsworth and David Torn, to name a few. Ned Steinberger upped that ante when he invented the TransTrem, a vibrato-arm (or “whammy”) bridge that could bend the pitch of all the strings at the same rate, with the option of holding the strings in transposed positions – a significant and very useful innovation. I had a chance to try out a Steinberger Trans-Trem-equipped L-series guitar at a shop in Seattle back in '87, and could immediately see the appeal. The guitar allowed me to play as though my technique were suddenly on super-steroids. Too bad I was a starving student at the time, or I'd have bought it that very night. 

And then, within half a decade – no one was playing Steinbergers anymore, and Ned Steiberger sold his company to Gibson. 

Of course, the cultural tsunami known as Grunge swept quite a lot fashion-bedrock aside, from songwriting styles to established artists. It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that a radical design so closely associated with the mid-'80's would become a style anathema a decade later. Grunge was all about low-tech and second-hand-store everything, from clothes to instruments, the rattier and more primitive, the better. A Steinberger was almost impossible to dent or ding, let alone destroy...and it still looked space-age. 

During their relatively brief heyday, Steini's evolved from the compact, paddle-bodied carbon-fibre radicals to wooden, bolt-on-neck, conventional-bodied (though still headless) axes. Gibson still builds Steinbergers to this day, but appears to have lost interest in marketing them. You can still buy the paddle-bodied (albeit wooden) versions, some with a kind of built-on capo to allow for quick transposition in the manner of the old Trans-Trem...and then there are the ZT-3's. 

For better or worse, the days of the all-one-piece carbon-fibre instruments are over, but the Trans-Trem has evolved under Ned Steinberger's continued engineering (despite his having no official capacity with his namesake company at Gibson), so that it can now be mounted on a conventional guitar body. The ZT-3, then, is a somewhat stylized Strat-shape, but with binding and a tiger maple top. It's headless, so it still looks pretty radical – and the tone is closer to the warm electric sound more fashionable today. Nearly thirty years after my first encounter with one, I finally have a Steinberger in my possession, and the big question it brings to mind is: why aren't more people playing these things? 

Not that I'm complaining. Because they're so rare and strange-looking (ZT-3's aren't even retailed in Canada, to the best of my knowledge), my new guitar does tend to draw a few gasps on first sight from unsuspecting audiences, and that's quite okay with me. In fact, I've taken quite a menagerie of weird-looking axes onstage in my time (Flying V's, double-necks, Firebirds, an Iceman, a 12-string bass) and the Steini wins the shock-and-awe reaction award hands down. If these guitars were more widely embraced and commonplace, I'd lose that little edge – but ultimately, I play a guitar because of how it sounds and feels, so I could live without the ooh's and ah's if I had to. 

The guitar-playing community is, ultimately, a very conservative one. As I've mentioned in previous blogs, there are very few popular guitar designs today that didn't originate before 1963. The field is still dominated by Fender Stratocasters (1954), Fender Telecasters (1950), Gibson Les Pauls (1952) a handful of others and copies of all the above. Some of this is due to the fact that 'innovations' in later decades didn't really advance the guitar, but merely cast around fruitlessly for players' interest in different design directions. A '70's-designed Gibson RD Artist or L6S doesn't necessarily sound better or worse than a Flying V, but it is definitely different (and butt-ugly, in the opinions of many)...but a few newer ideas did manage to gain traction – some immediately, some after a few failed attempts. 

Eddie Van Halen, for example, cobbled together spare parts and factory seconds to come up with the Super Strat, or Stratocaster design with at least one Gibson-style pick-up and an ultra-bendy whammy bar (that is, a vibrato bridge that allows you to lower the string pitch so much that the strings will go completely slack when the bar is fully-depressed). These were all very useful ideas for hard rock players, and a number of companies now specialize in Super-Strat designs or parts (Ibanez, Jackson and Floyd Rose leap to mind first). Gibson released the Flying V and Explorer in 1958, to a disastrously icy response...but enjoyed success with the same designs twenty years later. Good ideas might not immediately catch on, but they do seem to have a way of resonating, surviving and gaining a following when the time is finally right. With that in mind, I find it hard to believe Steinbergers won't find their way back into wide use in the future. The TransTrem and headless design are just too practical and versatile not to catch on. Eschewing the one-piece carbon-fibre design seems to have lowered the price and brought a warmer, more conventional tone, so the instrument is about as accessible as it can be now. Still, not one Canadian music retailer with whom I inquired had the faintest idea what a Steinberger ZT-3 or a TransTrem is (in fact, 'Steinberger' stumped a few), and even the Wikipedia article on Steinberger makes only one passing reference to the Z, despite lengthy descriptions of preceding models. It almost seems the instrument is being kept a secret, in favour of old models that are built not only as near-perfect replicas of '50's- and '60's-era instruments, but with factory-originated road-wear and and ageing (yes, you pay extra to have your guitar bashed around and aged in the factory). Guitar fashion took a U-turn in the '90's back to 30-year-old designs and paint jobs; it will be interesting to see if the brilliant designs of Ned Steinberger will ultimately cause guitarists and/or bassists to, if not pull a U-turn, at least take a second look.

*Ironically, Geddy Lee has since become a great collector of many basses, mostly Fender and Rickenbacker. The Steinberger was one of the few instruments in his collection that he eagerly unloaded. Go figure.

Don't Look Back...Often  

I had the pleasure of reuniting recently with a bandmate from my university days. Twenty-five years had passed with zero contact between us; not because there was any bad blood, but because work and the domestic scene took him far away – literally and figuratively. I'd often wondered what had become of Glen, as he was one of the most brilliant and imaginative musicians I'd ever had the pleasure to work with. He's still playing, still exploring several new musical directions simultaneously, and as criminally underrated and overlooked as ever. This guy would be a household name in Jazz if there were any justice in the world...or if there were still any household names in Jazz.

Upon reuniting, we mostly spoke of what was inspiring us musically these days, but we did touch on the old times a little. At one point, I asked Glen if he still had any of the recordings we'd made as a band back in the day. He said he didn't, so I offered to send him some. He sounded interested.

Two weeks later, I was digging through shoe boxes of cassette tapes (the masters are on reel-to-reel, but it's been a long time since I've encountered machines to play those!), trying to locate an eight-song demo from 1990. After an hour's hunt and hooking my old tape player up to ProTools for digital conversion (at last!), I stepped into the time machine.

While I remember listening to these recordings a lot during and shortly after the recording process, it had easily been decades since I'd listened to these recordings. So much the better. That distance in time and acquaintance provides a little objectivity – and even a sense of how much objectivity might have been lacking back when we were very young men.

First impressions: I had a killer band back then. Fusion guitar god John McLaughlin once advised to always try to be the worst player in your band (or rather, surround yourself with people better than you) so that you can maximize your learning; it's fair to say I probably succeeded on that front with my old band. The drumming and the keyboard work were stellar throughout, and the bass had lines and tone that kept it distinctive and full of character without getting in the way of the songs. Even the recording quality was far beyond demo level. True, we had some gorgeous facilities to work with (University music students do have an edge in that regard), but the engineering made full use of the tools on hand. Again, the other three guys in the band were behind all that. They knew even more about what they were doing than I realized at the time. As I recall, we even mixed it collaboratively, and the results were surprisingly good, especially considering our relative lack of experience at that time.

Getting to my contribution to the project – songwriting, guitar, singing and arranging – it's a much patchier affair.

In the songwriting department, there's nothing that makes me want to crawl under a chair, at least. If I were to take another crack at those songs today, I'd make the lyrics less 'clever', less obscure and more heart-driven; make the odd vocal phrase more melodically piquant; and find more subtle and elegant ways to transition between chords, moods, verses etc. For a newbie songwriter, I was doing okay.

On guitar – a lower grade. Granted, this was not a time-period known for timeless guitar tone, with heavy, 'futuristic' sound processing being the order of the day, sort of in the same way 18th Century fashions had European ladies ( and some men) wearing a couple of pounds of make-up on their faces. Phony was in. As I recall, I was playing a stock '87 Strat (still with zero vintage appeal to this day) through a solid state Traynor Block amp (ditto). Not the recipe for great tone, but I did at least avoid most of the excesses of the day's guitar fashion. In performance, every solo has one or two obvious clams, and I'd apparently lost sight already of the point of guitar solos, and what makes them exciting. The rhythm guitar was at least rhythmically solid, but a little generic. On par with the songwriting. Respectable, but not quite up to the rest of the band.

Then there's the singing.

True, there are a lot of bands – mostly from the 60s and 70s – who have technically weak singers that compensate with attitude. Mick Jagger, Gracie Slick, Eric Burdon, David Lee Roth and Tina Turner come to mind first, but I could go on and on. I was indeed an inexperienced singer back in 1990, and held the post purely through default in my earliest bands (no one else wanted to do it, and we had hellish times finding anyone better – which is definitely not saying much, I assure you. Frankly, I think if we actually had found a good frontperson, we might have had a shot at getting somewhere). I had the technically weak part down pretty well, but I also had zero attitude. As a classically trained musician, I learned to put all physical motion into the most efficient way to play the instrument; all else remains motionless. Strangely, that came through in the emotionally anemic expression of the recorded performance. To cap it off, I didn't appear to have the strength or technique to sustain pleasingly or bring out any beauty in tone. Vocally, at that point, I had a looong way to go to match the rest of the band. Not a total dud, as I was at least okay for pitch and I avoided getting in the way or overdoing anything – but I was the weak link, to be sure. There are probably more crawl-under-the-chair moments than bright spots on that demo where the singing is concerned.

So this little wander down memory lane was in some ways a pleasant surprise, and in some ways rather humbling...yet singularly illuminating. The analogy that leaps to mind is the popularization of Darwin's theories back in the 19th century: instead of some biblical model of humans being static in development and in their own category of taxonomy, people came to view themselves as evolving from a distant, rather humble, and very different point of origin. With a clearer view of where you've been, it can be a little easier to guess where you're heading. I've found most songwriters to have huge blinders where their own writing is concerned, languishing in a knowledgeless Eden. Elements that seem like obvious flaws to me (a stridently over-affected vocal approach, plainly derivative of another artist's writing, as examples) aren't on the radar as these artists evaluate their own work. Hearing my own material after such a long lapse helped me to slip the blinders down a little and glimpse the songs more from an outsider's perspective. Pop culture's also in a very different place today, so the question of how the music might fit into the current mainstream (or not) is now moot. My point of comparison now is: has my musical direction and evolution of the last many years taken me artistically where I wanted to go? Have I reached any of the ideals I'd admired in other artists? Are there musical worlds I could be exploring more thoroughly now? Am I perpetuating any/many of the flaws that are more obvious in my earlier works? Have I improved with age or lost the fire of youth?

Frankly, I'm not in the least nostalgic about where I was at as a musician in those days. The 2015 me kicks the 1990 me to the curb in short order. My line of progress had a few missteps since those days, but it generally continued in a healthy direction. My regret is simply that I haven't produced nearly as much music or risked weirder musical experiments more often. Walt Whitman said that the road to wisdom is paved with excess, and I certainly wouldn't mind more musical wisdom, a deeper catalog of songs or wider variation of style in my repertoire. In short, I think I can do better, but I say so from a seated position on my chair, not while cringing in embarrassment beneath it. It was good to glance back and appreciate my old friends and talented accomplices – and I'd love to jam with any of them again in the future – but I'm back to looking forward. Break's over.

I've included one of the tunes from the demo...enjoy!

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  1. Awfully Easy

Did B.B. King Take the Blues With Him? 

The Blues lost one of its most enduring and long-serving masters this month. At 89 years of age, B.B. King had not only outlasted virtually all his contemporaries, but was one of the very few Blues artists who could claim to be a household name. While you might get a blank look from the vast majority of folks to whom you mention, say, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sun House, Robert Johnson, Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy or even Susan Tedeschi, I wager you'd still get a knowing nod for mentioning B.B. Joe Average might not be able to name any B.B. King tunes, but he can picture the big guy with the big Gibson guitar, the big voice and every vocal phrase punctuated by those big fingers making the Gibson wail in sympathy. The bluesman had etched himself into public consciousness.

A cynic might suggest it was just singularly capable management that put B.B there – it's a lot easier to become so widely famous if you get onto Sesame Street, the Cosby Show, a U2 movie/soundtrack, television commercials and a signature series of Gibson guitars. If Albert King (no relation) had lucked into the same gigs, would we not be singing his praises now as widely?

Probably not. Although it's a pretty hypothetical question, and there's no way to prove the hypothosis, it's fair to say the reason B.B was welcomed into the mainstream before the likes of Johnny Winter was King's onstage personality. Although his music stayed true to the blues, he never came across as negative, bitter, wild, unstable, nihilistic or enduringly angry. He expressed cause for sorrow, but also hope and love for the human condition – and humour. To put it another way, he didn't scare or cause discomfort to white America. He could put a spotlight on a uniquely American musical heritage without compelling anyone to look too closely at the origin of that heritage.

Shortly after the death of King, the internet was awash with tributes. Some were cringe-inducingly ill-informed (a particular American newscast accompanied the obituary with the song “Stand By Me”, written and performed, in fact, by Ben. E. King...at least no one went so far as to show clips from the Shining and Carrie. There are a lot of Kings out there, after all...), while some were obviously heartfelt and genuine. Eric Clapton made a brief webcam appearance to speak of his personal sense of loss, his love for B.B.'s music – and almost as an aside, his belief that the Blues were nearing extinction as a practised art form.

I must say, I was struck hard by that little half-sentence from Clapton. The Blues are dead? When did this happen?

Of course, Clapton does have a knack for brutally unvarnished statements. Upon accepting an award for co-writing “Tears in Heaven”, he professed reluctance because “it's not really such a good song”. He also denigrated the sales success of his Unplugged album, protesting that acoustic guitar is not his passion, his comfort zone or his forte; an inferior product, by implication.

Still, upon reflection, the man might have a point. Mainstream radio certainly never plays any Blues per se, and even a blues-based guitar solo, riff or chord changes are getting more rare by the year. Even Classic Rock stations appear to be lightening the Blues content of their playlists (aside from Blues-based mega-sellers like Floyd, Zeppelin and the Stones) away from the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Cream or even Jack White – to say nothing of Muddy Waters or B.B. King.

Perhaps as mystifying a question as why Blues is dying in the mainstream, is: how and why did it get into the mainstream to start with? While it was alive and well (if not especially thriving) in black America in the '50's and '60's, it took a bunch of young male English enthusiasts and artists to fully ignite it in universal youth culture of the late '60's. The Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin/, Cream/Jeff Beck Group, Humble Pie, the Faces et al wrote the blueprint for mainstream acceptance for the time. For the next 30 years, it was a challenge to hear any rock song that didn't owe much of its DNA to the Blues. I have always been perplexed by the idea that music rooted in the misery of slavery, poverty, bigotry and underprivilege could be adopted and embraced so heartily by privileged English male teenagers – arguably the top of the social food chain for the entire planet at that time. Meanwhile, back in the US, B.B. King and other original Blues artists enjoyed bittersweet success: while bands like the Stones made a point of drawing public attention to authentic American Blues artists, B. B could see bands like the Stones still enjoying paydays and fame a hundred times greater than those whom the Stones were emulating. Even Jimi Hendrix, the one artist who had solid credentials as both an authentic black American blues artist and a leading member of the British Blues-Rock invasion never enjoyed much of a payday in his brief career – his exploitative manager snapped up most of the profits. Blues stylings became so pervasive in the '70's that it was the very few guitarists who consciously and actively avoided its cliches (Steve Howe of Yes, Andy Summers of the Police, Alex Lifeson of Rush, Allan Holdsworth) who stood out from the sea of other players. The avoidance wasn't out of dislike, but merely a very effective means of distinguishing themselves.

These days, the pendulum has swung the other way: employing the Blues with reverence can actually be of benefit to concert ticket- and recording sales (if not radio airplay). Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer, Susan Tedeschi and Jack White have all built very large and loyal followings with their versions of the Blues, whether or not you hear them on mainstream radio or see them on television. Meanwhile, Zeppelin's re-mastered back-catalog is putting their proudly blues-tinged repertoire back in the charts. Even the nutty histrionic melisma-seizure versions of the national anthem at baseball games owe something to the blues, whether anyone cares to admit it. As for me – blues rock was fresh-sounding, hugely vital and a little dangerous when I was a young and impressionable little guttersnipe. It hooked me, and built my bones as an improvisational guitarist. Whatever happens to Blues in the mainstream, it will be in good supply at my house whenever I pick up a guitar.

Did B. B.  take the last of the Blues with him when he died? I don't think so. We're probably at a trough in the waves of Blues popularity, but I believe the timelessness and universality of the Blues will help maintain its presence in the mainstream. It helps that the genre lends itself so naturally to basic guitar-playing, too. B. B. King departed the Blues scene only when he was physically incapable of continuing – and I suspect the Blues will hang on just as stubbornly until its next wave of popularity. Thanks for keeping it going, B. B. You will be missed.

(Not Even Slightly) Like a Virgin 

I feel like we've been here before...

A while back, I wrote a blog about Miley Cyrus, her 'scandalous' performance at the MTV Music Awards and the resulting publicity - culminating with her face on the cover of Rolling Stone a couple of weeks later.

My blog today centre's on Madonna – her eyebrow-raising 'performance' at the Grammies and the resulting publicity - culminating with her face on the cover of Rolling Stone a couple of weeks later.

Rest assured, even if the promotional machinery of the 'music business' is repeating itself most faithfully, I'll do nothing of the sort with this blog.

Some of the controversy surrounding Madonna's Grammy appearance centred on her age. In response to the real or perceived public opinion that she is getting too old to be a credibly current pop star, she made a number of anti-ageist comments and then mooned the photographers, revealing a sort of peek-a-boo butt-bra (now there's a great band name!).

Was she right to lash out against ageism? Is ageism a problem in the music business? How many ageing pop stars today wear butt-bras? I shall try to address these chafing questions...

While I personally don't believe ageism has any place in the music business – it's arguably as much a form of discrimination as that on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity or orientation – the anti ageists would enjoy much greater credibility if any among them weren't already old (by pop music standards). I don't recall Madonna rushing to Joni Mitchell's aid twenty years ago when Joni was decrying the treatment of ageing artists by record labels. In fact, I can't think of a single instance when a young pop star took a stand against the industry's or public's ageist tendencies. As a result, outcries like that of Madonna appear merely self-serving. Moreover, for better or worse, ageism has been a steady staple, if not an essential ingredient, to pop music for as long as the genre has existed.

Although ageist trends have come and gone in waves, 'Out with the old, in with the new' has generally been the rallying cry, the 'guaranteed fresh' pledge of the pop world,. Bill Hailey and his Comets fell from grace quickly and decisively in the late '50's when it was publicly revealed that Hailey was (gasp!) well into his thirties. The baby-boomer watchword back in the '60's was 'don't trust anyone over thirty', and the Who famously sang 'hope I die before I get old' (well – half of the Who got their wish...'though ironically, not the guy who wrote that particular lyric). Perhaps ironically, the baby boomers turned their ageist tendencies in the opposite direction when they themselves outlived their musical 'best before' date, savaging or ignoring such young upstart bands as Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Rush and Kiss, despite widespread popularity among the younger generation. Disco was not a genre of rebellious youth – with its soothing string sections, cooing voices and relentless feel-goodery, it was the music built to cushion the blow of oncoming middle age. Ruthlessly pushed and promoted by ageing industry execs throughout the late '70's, Disco went on to suffer a crushing and inevitable backlash, banishing bands like the BeeGees and KC and the Sunshine Band to oblivion for decades – if not permanently.

Unlike discrimination on other bases such as skin colour, ageism has some credible reason. Due to pure novelty and hormone levels, emotions run higher in youth – and that can translate to more passionate, less calculated art. Physical strength and stamina tend to be at their best in earlier years as well – so who wouldn't prefer to watch an artist perform at the height of her physical powers and emotional commitment? And out of youthful rebelliousness, naivete or mixture of both, it's a young artist who would seem most likely to buck conventions, take huge risks and produce something new and innovative. Finally, there's the nature of the beast, a certain amount of evolutionary hardwiring that draws our attention toward certain traits. We prefer the appearance of firm, supple, wrinkle-free skin and muscle tone, full heads of hair in its original (or at least non-grey) colour, bright eyes, a full set of teeth, and spriteliness. While all that might have everything to do with sexual selection and nothing to do with good musical selection, youthful appearance does have the advantage of grabbing your attention first. More cultured or cerebral forms of art may legitimately claim less superficial standards (composer Gyorgy Ligeti was never in danger of appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, even while his music was hot among hipsters), pop music is partly a beauty contest – and nobody would know that better than Madonna.

I suppose I could fairly be called a longtime nerd or geek, and one hallmark of avowed nerdiness is loyalty to one's interests. We geeks ain't fickle. Especially now in the internet age, we can maintain our fascination with things that first caught our eyes decades ago...but that means a lot of our heroes are old men and women now, if they're still around at all. Even with all my nerdy loyalty, I do recognize that very few of my old heroes are writing 'em like they used to - even if many can at least still play 'em like they used to. The vocalists have generally suffered ageing in greatest numbers and degree, as singing is arguably the most strenuous physical activity in a rock band (I can hear drummers shouting their objections this moment, but I can think of very few drummers who are now retired or obviously deteriorated; whereas Paul Stanley, Geddy Lee, Jon Anderson, Lou Gramm, Brian Johnson, Brad Delp and Steve Perry number among the high-profile singers who have taken themselves out of the game or are performing in a significantly weakened state). From observing these artists over many years, would it be fair to say artists deteriorate with age? Certainly in physical appearance, yet that really has no bearing upon recordings or my enjoyment of a live show. So long as the musical performance is strong, I'm happy – and I don't think I'm alone in this.

Then, of course, there's the most personal case. I'm a lot older than Bill Hailey was when he was outed for his age; and while I'm still a lot younger than Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page or even Neil Finn and Sting (in fact, I was born the same year as Kurt Cobain), I'm also in no danger of becoming a teenage heartthrob, either; and although I can't claim objectivity, it's my sincere belief that I'm better than I've ever been as a musical performer and songwriter. I'm also more physically fit than I've ever been. The downside to my age is my less-than-youthful appearance, my greater volume of work making it a little more of a challenge to keep from repeating myself, and an older man's perspective and biases. Human nature is a lot less mysterious to me now than it was thirty years ago; there's precious little novelty in any emotion anymore; and I have zero interest in, say, using samples or loops to build a piece of music, despite prevailing trends. Meanwhile, I've learned a little more every year about the human condition, writing, recording and performing – there is something to be said for the experience that comes with age. For someone who is showing a little “snow on the roof” (a.k.a. white hair), there are actually more encouraging trends these days than at any other time in pop history. It's still, by and large, the older, established acts such as Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Leonard Cohen, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd etc., etc., that are filling stadiums and selling recordings, and there tends to be a healthy contingent of younger buyers of such artists' concert tickets and recordings. At the very least, there isn't nearly the same stigma against older artists as there was back in Bill Hailey's day. If you're twenty years old now and your favourite band is Led Zeppelin, you probably aren't a hipster, but you're probably not a pariah, either. Granted, I haven't seen any recent come-from-nowhere, runaway success stories of artists in their forties, but considering the rage for gigantic beards these days, no one (or at least no males) appear to be too caught up in looking or sounding youthful, excepting dance and rap artists.

Perhaps the “dance and rap” qualifier is the crux when evaluating Madonna's stance on age. It's not as though her stage or her videos have ever been populated by anyone other than young, ultra-svelte models, and her legacy as a pop icon (I almost typed 'artist' but thought the better of it) is arguably more visual than aural. In other words, it is she who made Madonnaland a youth-only, youth-celebratory establishment – so when the lady standing centre-stage at her shows starts to look a little out of place among the many conspicuously youthful stage dancers, despite all manner of cosmetic resistance, she really has only one person to blame. Yep, point that wrinkly finger at the mirror, m'dear. Is it an unfairly ageist pop culture we live in today? It may well depend on how important youth is to the image you foster and to whom you want to appeal. If you're Madonna, your early expiry date is in your own handwriting. If you're Leonard Cohen or David Gilmour, you probably believe ageism is as real and threatening as Santa Claus. If you're Steve Perry, you know the only ageist who matters is the built-in obsolescence of your genetic code. We're all programmed to eventually fall apart. The question is whether you get to do it onstage.

The Path of Most Resistance 

As I'd mentioned a few blogs ago, I'm back in sporadic contact with the guys from my very first band, which ceased to be around the time Brian Mulroney was a new Prime Minister. Despite our all having moved off into very diverse musical directions, it's still a pleasure to hang out or jam with these boys, and none of them ever hung up their instruments in the intervening years. Last month, in fact, I called upon one of them to bring in his current band as a special guest for a Mike Luno Band show at the Railway Club. Sharing a stage again after a 29-year hiatus...

Back in the day, Bruce was the other guy in my first band who wrote his own tunes, and in fact he was a lot more prolific than I was. He also had a greater appreciation for rock's DIY, keep-it-simple, rebel-yell ethos. He probably listened to the Kingbees back then as much as I was listening to Rush.

That difference between our approaches to guitar-based rock was on full display at the Railway Club. Big Backyard, as his band is called, has still got all that fun garage band spirit I remember fondly from years past, and Bruce is still distinctly Bruce in his songwriting, vocal approach and stage performance; he writes stuff he can play pretty effortlessly, and his personality shines through as a result. I can ball-park his band's general style, but there's nothing imitative about his sound. He's very much his own category.

None of this was news to me last month, as I'd seen Big Backyard last Spring at the Princeton – I knew what to expect. Bruce, on the other hand, had never seen MLB live until last month. I suspect I'd be a bit more of a wild card stylistically, as well; back in high school, Bruce already had his sound and approach, while I was all over the map, and a pretty weak singer to boot. My tastes had leaned toward hard-hitting screamy stuff with lots of fancy guitar solos, but that's hardly a cohesive 'sound' in itself. Much has changed since then.

Most of the Big Backyard band stuck around to hear all of the MLB set, and there seemed to be plenty of mutual admiration amid the hand-shaking and back-slapping between the two bands when we got offstage that night. Bruce did, however, make a comment that stuck with me: to paraphrase - “you sure didn't choose the easy way to go!”. I'd have to agree.

Certainly, no one has held a gun to my head and told me I must write material that requires me to sing in a demanding vocal range, to coordinate vocal rhythms against disparate guitar rhythms, wander into strange key signatures, or even play in a 3-piece band. A second guitarist or keyboardist would certainly lighten my load a lot. Likewise, I could probably de-stress gigs somewhat for Curtis and Jason, my drummer and bassist, if I wrote something much more straight-forward. Perhaps a more relaxed, effortless band would be more accessible to a typical local audience?

The truth is, I have occasionally tried to write music that is much less demanding. Ironically, I don't seem to be completely comfortable unless I'm a little uncomfortable; if I the playing gets too easy, I feel oddly powerless.

To use a couple of analogies: Pete Townshend once said in an interview that he has his guitars strung lightly for casual playing and rehearsals, but with heavy-gauge strings for his live performances. The higher-tension strings provide the resistance he needs to fight against when he's out sweating and windmilling all over his instruments. Gene Simmons says he prefers his Destroyer-era costume (the one covered in large plates of body armour and spikes)– not for esthetics or comfort, but because it annoys him; it pulls his hair, makes him angry, and brings out his most demonic stage performance. At the height of his heroin addiction, Stevie Ray Vaughn was playing with string gauge starting at .18 on his high E string, which is double the width of, say, that of Edward Van Halen. To put it less technically, this would be like trying to steer a dump truck without power steering. Likewise (and with the same monkey on his back), Charlie Parker played on #5 Rico reeds during his darkest days. Likened to popsicle sticks, most players can't even make a sound on such thick reeds. One could argue the thicker reeds and strings have quite an effect on tone, but I believe that's true only to a point; the resistance factor is far greater than the tone factor in both cases.

I'm not likening myself to these artists per se, or confessing I've developed a fondness for heroin, but I am suggesting it's not unusual for an artist to grow accustomed to a certain threshold of push-back. It's fair to say I don't write easy-listening music. Some artists, such as Mark Knopfler, can wrap a bitter, urgent message in a laid-back, conversational tone and make it that much more effective for when the listener peers through the camouflage. Perhaps because I'm a pretty laid-back, easygoing guy offstage, I have a greater inclination to try to grab listeners by the lapels when I'm onstage. It just feels right to me. Granted, I musically came of age listening to bands like Boston, with stratospheric vocals and virtuosic guitar performances – a virtually impossible set of skills to be possessed by one person – but I did get used to trying. Hey, while I've finally lost all hope of singing like Brad Delp, at least I've also determined that nobody else can, either.

This may come down to a sense of esthetics. I like the sound of a little strain. Perhaps in the way that you can gain insight to a person's character by seeing how they act under pressure, hearing a voice or an instrumental technique under some duress can bring forth a stronger sense of the player's character – or perhaps a more primal element of that character. You'll probably never hear a completely slick performance by Mike Luno Band because I'll simply keep writing material that keeps the players – myself most of all – pushed a little beyond the comfort zone. Just last week, we debuted a tune that had resulted from a rather strange jam a year ago. A non-musician listener may find 'Descend' sounds upbeat, funky, perhaps a little quirky in the choruses...but it's an absolute bitch to think through while playing. Curtis and Jason are about as capable musicians as you'll ever find in this town, but it's fair to say it made 'em sweat a little. I thank my lucky stars that I have musical colleagues who appreciate a challenge once in a while and always rise to the occasion. As a bonus, getting through 'Descend' in a live setting is almost as elating as a near-death experience. Cheaper than sky-diving and bungee-jumping, too...

That being said, I appreciate an artist who can write exciting music that is still simple and easy to execute. If there's plenty of conviction and originality behind it, it'll have my attention and respect. One could argue that it's actually more challenging to be distinctive if you restrict yourself to simple ideas, and I certainly try to avoid sounding complex; but for better or worse, I need a little onstage struggle. It's been fascinating to watch how two songwriters such as Bruce and myself proceed from a common point of origin to such disparate places (while, coincidentally, writing on common topics from time to time). Perhaps it would have been more of a surprise if, after all these years, we sounded exactly like each other – but the variety of music is far better this way. It's good to hear the results of travelling the paths of least – and most- resistance. Especially all on the same night.

 

Purity Test 

It's been a little longer than usual between blog posts here, as you might have noticed. It isn't so much that I've been too busy to write for the last six months or so, but it's been more of a professional pause. There's much to ponder these days...

Think for a moment about the job you do. If you weren't receiving a living wage for it, would you find a way to keep doing it?

I'm guessing most of you would not – while a lot of people might find their jobs fulfilling, the vocation may tend to lean a smidge closer to 'necessary evil' than 'lifelong passion' for the vast majority of workers; and compensation in itself is a strong motivator for many. If you can't make a living as, say, an insurance broker anymore, why not find a good wage in loan management? I'm not passing judgement on what people do to pay the bills, but artists tend to take a somewhat different approach.

Some – and perhaps most – artists feel they can only attain fulfilment by practising their art. Writers must write, dancers must dance, composers must compose, in order for their lives to have meaning. This is why some artists are willing to live in poverty indefinitely. Some may hold out hope for the big break that allows them to stop worrying about the bills, and a few might not even care about success beyond non-starvation. 'Pop Art' in music, dance, visual art or whatever else is a bit of a grey zone in this regard – it often attracts practicioners who care much more about mass acceptance and/or financial rewards than the art itself. I think this approach tends to make for inferior art – even pop art – as the impure motives make for muddled or obviously insincere artistic statements. Sometimes the phonies are a little harder to weed out, such as when there's big promotion money hyping an 'artist', providing inspired production and making it appear that his art enjoys mass resonance with the public. Enter the acid test: the death of copyright and the ultra-corporatization of art (music in particular).

While western society does have some voluntary, benevolent social conventions, such as tipping wait staff at restaurants, applauding stage performance and queueing up rather than forcing one's way to the cash register, the act of paying for a musical recording voluntarily is unfortunately much more the exception than the rule these days. Brick-and-mortar music shops (where you could be stopped for shoplifting) were the last bastion of real artist compensation. Meanwhile, the couple of surviving music labels do what big corporations always tend to do: muscle out the competition by keeping the playing field far too expensive for anyone's use but their own (adherents to capitalism – and I was once one of them – theorize that a free-market system allows the better product to dominate. I sure wish it really worked that way). By buying the loyalty of radio and TV, major labels ensure that the public is saturated with major label product. The internet is a little more of a wild card, but that, too, can be influenced by the highest bidder. It is unfortunately a very human trait to develop a liking for a piece of music to which one has been repeatedly exposed, no matter its artistic value; the major labels exploit this trait in order to peddle musical junk food...and we know what happens to you on a steady diet of junk food.

So we now have a generation of music consumers who believe they're entitled to a reliable supply of free, new music, and also believe the musical equivalent of McNuggets with fries and a shake is haute cuisine. We have a generation of musicians who can't afford to stay in the business or can only scrape by in corporate cover bands or tribute acts – that is, ironically, musicians that ape artists that actually could make a go of it thirty or forty years ago. Meanwhile, audiences are just as likely to pay their hard-earned money to dance to a DJ as they are to see a live band, so musicians' wages have been in decline for decades now – especially in Vancouver. Touring bands are as likely to sleep in fans' basements as they are to get (even a cheap) motel; and with most radio airplay sewn up by the corporations, there's not even much money to be made in licencing.

So, enter the purity test – would you remain a writer and performer of your own music if these were the conditions with which you were confronted?

The straw on my camel's back was a gig we played a few months back. This was a competition (yeah, I should have known better right there) for which it was stipulated cover tunes were required to have permission of the copyright holder – otherwise, all songs performed in the contest were to be original. Four bands performed that night: one of them played all cover tunes, from CCR to Katy Perry, and had no flesh-and-blood bassist (an automated sequencer handled all bass parts, keyboards, and, I suspect, some of the guitar parts), but they did have an attractive and energetic young front woman. The musicianship was workmanlike at best. The other three bands – a 20-piece Afro-beat ensemble, a garage band, and us – played live originals. Take a wild guess who won.

Yep. Cover tunes and sequencers prevailed.

I had a long talk with the organizers of the event afterward, and in fairness, they were somewhat apologetic and pleaded ignorance; this was their first attempt at organizing such an event, after all, and there were no professionals from the music industry among them. Their panel of judges were made of of very small-time journalists and used-to-play-on-the-weekends 'musicians'. They hadn't even noticed there wasn't a bassist in the winning band.

Mostly unconsciously, I started scaling back after that night. Instead of working on my music over most of my summer's free time, I built a couple of rail bikes. I wrote less frequently and with less purpose, called no rehearsals or recording sessions, and made no attempt to get gigs. It felt good to sit still for a while.

The underlying questions for me was: if Joe Public can't tell the difference between a very mediocre amateur cover band and a group of seasoned, professional musical veterans with accessible yet distinct artistic vision - or places higher value on the former - what's the point of continuing as I am?

As the months passed and I'd drifted further from the fray of music business, my thoughts quieted enough for me to hear the answer: the point is that Joe Public is ultimately irrelevant to my making of music. Sure, I'd prefer to be making a living at it, and I'd love for my bandmates to be receiving their due for the artistry they bring to my/our music – but that's all ultimately icing on the cake. The cake itself keeps me writing and recording, and appreciating good musical collaborations. While the process of writing and recording is often dull or frustrating, it can also be invigorating, elating and cathartic; and hearing the finished work, immediately or years later, is often profoundly satisfying. I do encounter the occasional old cringe-inducer in my back catalog, but they make the successful songs that much more gratifying and teach me a lesson or two in the bargain. A vanity exercise perhaps? Considering how my songwriting and recording is about four parts self-ass-kicking to one part self-back-patting, I'd say not. My day job – which is, at least, music-related and fulfilling – keeps me from pursuing my own music full time; but stolen moments are often the sweetest. Purity test? Passed. Sanity test? That's a whole different story...

On Rightnessness 

Many months ago, in my early days of working with MLB bassist Jason Nickel, I was chatting with him about his many other musical projects. When he mentioned he wrote some original music, I was especially intrigued – a guy with such an original and imaginative approach to bass would likely generate some very fresh musical material. When I quizzed him further about the stuff he wrote, he quipped dismissively (to paraphrase), “everybody thinks their own music is brilliant.”

This statement did get me pondering. There was a ring of truth to what he said, but perhaps not for the reason most might suspect. The immediate impression of such a statement is that songwriters are a bunch of insular egotists, self-satisfied and insufferable.

Admittedly, I've met one or two who are – but most are not...yet most may still think their own music is generally superior – or at least has great, unique strengths. How could this sense of superiority co-exist with a small-to-medium ego?

Let's put this into a less ego-driven field. Pretend, for a moment, you'd like to put an ornamental garden in front of your residence, and you've decided you want the best garden you can afford. You look around at many other gardens, gleaning ideas, deciding what especially works and what doesn't, you brainstorm and then you get to work.

You work hard for a few weeks until the garden looks as you want it to. You've avoided the mistakes you've seen in other gardens, and amassed all the ideas you liked best into one plot. You're happy for a time. You might notice that, through inexperience, you made a few rookie mistakes, and you become sensitized to original ideas you notice in other gardens - so you strive to improve upon the original garden when opportunity presents itself.

If, at the end of all that, is it any wonder you ultimately like your own garden more than most others you see? Does that make you egotistical or insular?

Actually, it might – if, at that point, you close your mind to the possibility of further improvements and decide your garden is best merely because it's yours.

Happily, plenty of songwriters seek to continue their growth, and never grow too comfortable with their beautiful garden of songs. Most evolve very gradually over time without too many radical departures from form (say, REM or U2); some tear the old garden up completely every so often and start again with something quite different (Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Liz Phair); and some just trim the hedge every decade or two (AC/DC, the Rolling Stones). The artist's rate of change might have to do with how much money the artist makes with a particular formula, and how seriously they take money compared to how seriously they take their art.

Granted, a good artist is capable of seeing the quality in other work even if it's quite different from his own. That scene in Amadeus when the composer Sallieri thanks God for his great gift of composition – then curses God the next day after hearing the cad Mozart's clear superiority – certainly isn't unheard of. Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend were pretty glum after being blown away by their first exposure to Jimi Hendrix. It might not be a pleasant experience, but at least it means your ego hasn't yet deafened you to others' work - even if you take less joy than discomfort in hearing great music.

I've had cause to ponder this issue of an artist's work appealing to the artist herself quite a lot lately. To be candid, I've been stuck on a new song for weeks now. There's a verse I like a lot, a promising transition, a strong sense of the chorus needing to go someplace quite different, and even a few sketches of potential choruses...but I have not yet found a convincing way to transition into the chorus – and the lyrics, uncharacteristically, border on stream-of-consciousness obscurity. So long as I'm able to finish the lyrics, I'm okay with taking a short trip into the deep-and-meaningless – but that chorus transition won't allow me to put the pen down just yet. I'll know the right one when I hear it, but it hasn't yet appeared. I've had many fleeting moments when a new idea has sprung up and I've thought, “perhaps...this is it?” but so far, I've always come away feeling like there's a better idea, a neater 'solution' available, something I haven't yet snatched from the ether. Perhaps tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the question remains – why are all the potential ideas so far 'wrong'? Why not just jump into some catchy chorus and be done with it? Would anyone notice if the transition were not so smooth?

I suppose it would be like letting a gigantic thistle grow in that ornamental garden. It would probably bother no one but me (and the neighbouring plants), but that's quite enough to take action against that thistle. Like a movie director who has let a smidge of stage rigging remain visible in a shot, there is a risk of the listener's music-induced illusion being shattered – and that I could never consciously allow. The music must develop as emotions do – gradually, plausibly, naturally. You don't go from weeping to laughing by way of a brief coughing fit.

This adherence to a sense of 'rightness' is a songwriter's quality control department. Some songwriters listen more carefully than others to this instinct, for some it's more automatic or unconscious – and perhaps for those who write quality songs by the truckload (from Franz Schubert to Neil Finn), their gift may preclude the need for much quality control (them sonsobitches!). While fleshing out a song's finer points often leads me on a merry chase, it very rarely takes me as long as this current song, I'm happy to say. Each songwriter has a unique sense of musical rightness, among other instincts and pools of ideas. Perhaps it's that quality-control impulse that contributes to a songwriter's distinctive style...or lack thereof.

Conversely, it could just as easily be that quality-control impulse that causes a dull uniformity, a sense of cliche and/or a moribund, stagnant, conservative approach to songwriting. If you always solve the same songwriting problems with the same solutions, you're certainly in danger of repeating yourself. Approach caution with caution. As a rule, be willing to toss the rulebook every so often.

If, at the end of all that, you have a completed song, I say congratulations on your achievement; and remember the definition of the word 'achievement' according to Ambrose Bierce in his Devil's Dictionary:

The death of endeavour and the birth of disgust.

If, as a songwriter, you don't have alternating moments of elation and disgust with your own work, you're not taking enough chances. Now, go get your hands dirty.


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