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!