Paralyzed, or the Mind-Instrument Interface

We are down in the Northwest winter. Compared to much of the U.S. at a comparable latitude, we have it relatively easy. Occasionally, it gets uncomfortably cold, but it rarely lasts (unlike the protracted cold of eastern cities, where it feels like living in the world’s largest walk-in freezer). What we do have is rain and, with it, a kind of pervasive darkness, like the sun never quite powers up. At midday, it feels like all the lights have burned out, and only 40-watt bulbs are available as replacements.

Night, late in morning and early in evening, seems to be as much a psychological experience, akin to a drug state, as a physical one. You can understand how, especially in a night lighted only by pitch and tallow, the Greek god of sleep, Morpheus, leant his name to morphine.

In this somewhat smoky, haunted environment, with its damp and fog, you dig why every over house in the British Isles apparently owns a ghost (or vice versa). And, as though following the soundtrack from a classic horror or noir film, at this time of year I find myself listening to slower, slightly stranger music, preferably in a minor key.

I tend to reserve winter’s keystone—Leonard Cohen’s first album—for one of our rare snowfalls (blame Robert Altman, who apparently vacationed in my head), but of late I’ve found myself listening to spritely larks such as Low, Bedhead, Peter Green, and Ride’s “Nowhere”—a most appropriately named album for the season.

And now that I occasionally (i.e., every night) play music as well as listen to it (I have yet to graduate to making it…for more than, say, 30 seconds at a time), the music I play adapts to life in semidarkness.

Which leads me, in a roundabout fashion, to yesterday evening, where, very tired indeed, I sat down with the Strat, amp, and effects boxes (if anyone wants to send me a belated Christmas gift, stompboxes are always welcome), and attempted to negotiate Ride’s majestic ode to psychological dysfunction, “Paralyzed.” The verses were troublesome, but the chorus was enjoyable—for at least 30 seconds at a time—and provided a distortion-assisted sense of movement within non-movement. A good session for a neophyte. When I despair of forever being a beginner, partly due to a certain talent deficit, I suspect, I console myself by remembering that staying a beginner is the destination for Buddhists….which, of course, requires unrelenting practice.

(Would Buddha have played a Fender or Gibson? Probably a Rickenbacker. I can, however, see the Protestant Jesus wielding a Strat—with whammy bar—and the Catholic Jesus favoring a Les Paul. With Mary on amplified flute, Joseph on bass, and, on drums, the Holy Ghost. I can’t, however, imagine any of them playing “Paralyzed.” Sorry, Ride. “A Day in the Life” perhaps. With the Protestant Jesus cranking out “Blue Suede Shoes” and Abraham playing “You Can’t Always Get What you Want” on glockenspiel. Muhammad, as we know, don’t dance.)

Back to the piece under discussion, as I attempted to negotiate barre chords for E minor, F sharp minor, G major, C major, and B minor (I said it was cheerful), the word “interface” kept coming to me. It’s not a particularly elegant term, all chilly IBM technospeak. Perhaps “medium” is more appropriate. But it became apparent that the instrument served as both a conduit and a barrier in a feedback loop. I don’t mean getting the guitar pickups too close to the amp (a subject for another time), but feedback in the sense that, when one plays music as opposed to solely listening to it, one becomes both sender and receiver.

What has come to the brain via the ears—say, listening to Ride’s recording of “Paralyzed”—regenerates as memory, then is transferred through neurons to the muscles of the hand and hence to this supremely physical object, rife with its own psychological resonance (to play guitar is, fleetingly, to become whoever played the original), and somehow those muscle actions generate vibrations the guitar pickups translate to electricity—much as neurons transmit electrons borne of chemical interactions—which twist and turn through the shape-changing maze of effects box circuitry, until arriving at the amplifier’s speaker cone, which generates—sometimes quite forcefully—sound waves that the ears return to the mind. Like photosynthesis, the process, though understandable by the left brain, is no less magical to the right. Unfortunately, understanding the process makes you a no better guitarist than intellectually grasping the mechanics of sex makes you a lover.

At a certain point, I put “Paralyzed” away for the evening, shut down the gear, put the guitar back in its case, and went out on the porch for a smoke in the dark. And there, with neighborhood lights moving through fog and drizzle, two versions of “Paralyzed” swam alongside each other like salmon, moving in concert but perfectly separated—my “Paralyzed” and Ride’s—and the winter felt less like something to be endured and more like a laboratory for the psyche. Ghosts and all.


Ah, the new axe. An Epiphone Sheraton II, which is more or less a Gibson ES-335 without a varitone switch. But it does have those twin humbuckers, and, whilst playing an obscure folk tune called “Street Fighting Man,” I found that if you crank the volume on the pickups, with the bridge on treble and the neck on bass, and then crank up the gain and volume on the amp (for all intensive purposed a Vox AC30), the resulting sound resembles an F-18 leaving the deck of an aircraft carrier.

In short, I love this fucking guitar.

A Good Day in Splattworld

It’s that time of year again, when the children wait expectantly for the presents to arrive…. Yes. I’m talking about the announcements of Regional Arts and Culture Commision’s (RACC) project grants for artists. This year, I’m tied to two projects which have won grants; the following descriptions are from the RACC site:

Portland Theatre Works Next of Kin LabWorks. Portland Theatre Works will produce an intense developmental workshop of Steve Patterson’s play Next of Kin, which had a well-received developmental reading in our FreshWorks program in October 2008. In the play, set in rural Oregon during the height of the Iraq War, Mike is a Marine Casualty Assistance Officer, who informs parents and spouses their loved one has been killed.

Chris Harder, Fishing For My Father. From my personal experience as an adopted child, meeting my biological father, and becoming a sperm donor myself, I am inspired to explore the complex quality of love that is shared between children and their fathers and how diverse circumstances influence who we are. By using fishing as a common thread I aim to discover the significance that shared moments and memory have in our lives.

In the case of Mr. Harder’s piece, I’m writing a quartet of monologues. (Chris and I worked together on The Centering, for which he won a Drammy Award as best actor.) So that means I have some writing to do, plus a rewrite of Next of Kin, plus two plays in January’s Fertile Ground New Works Festival (The Rewrite Man as part of the Pulp Diction new works reading series, and Riffs, a short play as part of Introducing…Playwrights West, readings from a new theatre company I’m involved with…called, not suprisingly, Playwrights West. You can buy tickets to both events through the Fertile Ground Web site.)

This is the nature of theatre. In 2007, I won the Oregon Book Award, tra la, my future was golden, all I had to do was wait for the offers to come cascading in, and…nothing happened. I got a lot of writing done this past year, but had not a single production. In 2010, well, I’m already exhausted thinking about it.

Anyway, congratulations to Mr. Harder and to Mr. Andrew Golla at Portland Theatre Works, and to all the other RACC recipients. If you want to check out the other granted projects, the info can be had at RACC Project Grants for 2010

Plus, depending on how things go, I might be writing a non-fiction book, and I have a bunch of new plays to market.

In other words, maybe I’ll get to sleep next year. A little. Maybe.

Good times.



I did my best to notice
When the call came down the line
Up to the platform of surrender
I was brought but I was kind

And sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes, clear your heart
Cut the cord

Are we human or are we dancer?
My sign is vital, my hands are cold
And I’m on my knees looking for the answer
Are we human or are we dancer?

Pay my respects to grace and virtue
Send my condolences to good
Hear my regards to soul and romance
They always did the best they could

And so long to devotion
It taught me everything I know
Wave goodbye, wish me well
You’ve gotta let me go

Are we human or are we dancer?
My sign is vital, my hands are cold
And I’m on my knees looking for the answer
Are we human or are we dancer?

Will your system be alright
When you dream of home tonight
There is no message we’re receiving
Let me know, is your heart still beating?

Are we human or are we dancer?
My sign is vital, my hands are cold
And I’m on my knees looking for the answer
Are we human or are we dancer?

You’ve gotta let me know

Are we human or are we dancer?
My sign is vital, my hands are cold
And I’m on my knees looking for the answer
Are we human or are we dancer?