A Pause for Station Identification

Smile for the damned birdie.

The Internet is a strange little butterfly: you never know where it might land next. Out of all the blather I’ve poured into this blog, one of the all-time favorite posts (with the most views), is Photography + Music = Art, a handful of photographs I took in my guitar studio, marrying two of my passions, music and photography.

I don’t whether it’s the music, the photography, or the chemistry between the two, but, if it’s the photography, I should mention that splattworks has a companion blog, splattsights, which addresses my photo work. I’ve been taking photographs for years, almost as long as I’ve been writing, and had stuff published, hung in galleries, etc. If anyone wants to check out what I’ve been up to there. It need to get back to the program and put up some new stuff; like most photographers, I have an embarassing number of images in the files. (Obviously, I need to take more pictures of guitars.)

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…tune in this evening for Bombardment: Episode 7.


Rules, but of course, Meant to be Broken

When I first started fooling around with guitar, I found myself disappointed with tone. I mean, I loved (and still love) my beat-up little Squier Strat, in all its Fiesta Red Korean funkiness, but I was playing it through the only amp I had, a very good Roland, but, still, a keyboard amp. At least I couldn’t complain about it not being clean.

So I talked to the folks at Portland Music, and they steered me to a Digitech RP50, which was an awful lot of bang for the buck (thank you, Doug). It was only much later, when I’d invested in some more specialized pedals, that I began to realize both the RP50’s versatility and limitations. It basically rolls a whole pedalboard into a compact unit and includes a drum machine.

My mistake was buying a used Boss DD-6 delay, and I suddenly fell in love with the wonders that are effects pedals. Though I could do some cool delays with the RP50, it was nothing like the wide range offered by the Boss, plus its wonderful clarity.

With time, I ended up buying probably more pedals than I needed, but, what the hell, they’re relatively inexpensive used, and they’re fun. But it kind of left the RP50 the odd man out. I still wanted to keep it in the chain as the drum machine come in handy, but where, exactly, should it go? I ended up putting it after the delay and before the reverb, so the delay wouldn’t double or triple the drumbeats, but, as far as using it for guitar effects, it just added mud. I programmed one patch as neutral as possible, and pretty much left it there. (You can bypass it completely, but you can’t use the drums in bypass.)

But…a month or so ago, we had a prematurely springy evening, so I sat out back with the guitar and the RP50, as you can run headphones through it, and it serves as kind of a mini-amp, and I was startled by how cool some of the settings sounded. Really sweet and clear. So I started moving it around in the chain, trying it here, there. Nothing worked, and I was still up against the delay screwing up the drums. And then, on a whim, I put it at the very end of the chain, right before the amp and in front of everything…and it sounded great. This makes no sense at all: common wisdom is that modulation effects, such as flangers and phasers, go before delays and reverbs…but…there it was. And, for some weird reason, it seems to actually enhance the clarity of the more specialized (and expensive) effects before it.

I have no explanation. Whatsoever. I’m just pleased. Maybe, being my first guitar add-on, the RP50 just needed some TLC and wanted to be back in the game. Whatever. It’s where it’s not supposed to be, and it sounds great. And, suddenly, it’s like I just added ten new pedals to the chain.

The inner sound geek is happy. And the RP is home again.

Chasing Tone

Last night was “let’s experiment.” Rearranged some furniture so I could set the amp atop a table–read where it greatly improves the Vox’s tone–and it did seem much more resonant. Also made it easier to get to the controls. Fooled around with a few settings I’d seen Voxheads post on the Net; a couple of them were worth writing down in my guitar notebook, which is filled with arcane notes about gain, level, and tone.

Found just a beautiful combination of reverb, chorus, slight overdrive, light delay, and the “Blackface” amp (emulates a Fender Twin Reverb). Perfect for the Epiphone and the blues, a haunting, shimmering American roadhouse sound that reminds me of Ry Cooder’s “Paris, Texas” soundtrack. Just makes you want to slowly play chords unitl you drift away. You can almost hear the oil pumps clanking in the distance.

Got a little writing done too. Not a bad day in the Art Ghetto.


Brain Dump

I guess it’s spring. I’ve been on one of those “sorting, throwing out, wondering what this thing is and why I have it” fire sales. Partly it’s because I want to get back on the play submission routine, which usually consists of setting unrealistic expectations, then getting depressed when I can’t live up to them and/or the rejections roll in. (And, yes, beginning writers: I’ve been at this for years and still get bounced all the time. There’s no escape.)

Things have been on this sort of mad tilt-o-whirl ever since the beginning of the year, so this is just one of those, sweep it up and get it over with posts. “Everything’s a dollar/In this box.”

Fertile Ground…Portland’s big new works theatre festival…came in like some kind of overwhelming force, flattening everything in front of it. At the same time, I was helping Playwrights West get up and rolling, which meant not only having a play read, but sending out press on the event, hurriedly getting a Web site up and rolling, producing programs, posters, photographs, etc. Concurrently, “The Rewrite Man” had a reading at Pulp Diction, so I found myself with two plays/events going up in the same week. It sounds exciting–and I guess it was–but it was also thoroughly exhausting. The Playwrights West gig went extremely well: we sold out, raised our profile nicely in the Portland theatre community, and had a solid, professional production that people seemed to enjoy. Now the heavy lifting begins: fundraising, business matters, and other such challenging fare. Stay tuned.

“The Rewrite Man”…well, it was pretty decently attended, given that it was 10:30 on a Tuesday night. The Pulp Diction people were terrific, and the cast and crew did a spirited production of the play. As to the work itself, ironically enough, it needs a rewrite, and I found myself getting kind of unwound by it. Nothing to do with the production: it’s just that a lot of work went into plotting and figuring out angles–the play is almost entirely a series of bank shots that attempt to top each other. Somewhere in there, I kind of feel like I lost the heart: I began to feel like I was watching some kind of game instead of a play. Plus there was a bunch of stuff that needs to be cut, simply places where I repeated myself and where the gambits didn’t live up to what I was shooting for. I love bending the audience’s collective mind, but I think my talent for that lies more in surrealism. Anyway, vaguely unsatisfied by the whole thing, and I think “The Rewrite Man” goes into a drawer for awhile. Thinking about it reminds me of a still lake under overcast skies.

Rushed to finished a rewrite of “Farmhouse,” which is another mindbender that I’ve found altogether more satisfying. Right now is kind of one of those waiting periods, where you know there’s stuff out there being considered, and you know theatres are soon announcing their seasons, and that means you will, mostly likely, be disappointed. It’s the way the game goes. Sometimes you’re surprised, which is more or less why we keep at this stuff.

Everybody I know is hellishly busy, and it’s hard to get together with friends. The whole politics/economy/employment/staying alive/keeping projects in the air scene seems to be draining folks. I’ve found myself missing friends of late and trying not to take their silence personal. (And, if it is personal, honestly, there’s not much I can do about it.) The zeitgeist seems to be churning, a little chaotic, with flashes of hope mixed in with the change blenderizer. I think we’re all ready for winter to end.

The Day Job: busy. Very.

The guitar continues to be huge fun, partly because it doesn’t mean anything. When you’ve been a professional artist for most of your adult life, it’s really, really nice to have an art that you can just plain suck at and have a kick with. Last night, I spent the evening cranking the distortion and volume to insane levels and absurdly working over the Strat’s tremelo arm and wah-wah pedal into psychdelic blather. Awful, awful, awful. And just fun as hell. Attempting to resist the pulls of effects pedals: at this point, I can pretty much make any guitar sound I can imagine, and a lot I don’t want to imagine, but they still have this…weird…hypnotic…power. What would happen if I bought this and plugged it into…this?

And, if I do decide to write about guitar, I don’t feel like it’ll take away from the forget-the-world freedom it brings: playing guitar has become a fine kind of meditation.

I have to finish some monologues I promised for a friend, and then I have to get the ball rolling for a workshop production of a play and the rewrite that’ll require. Other than that and researching the book, I’m kind of blissfully free from writing at the moment. Having written three full-length plays in two years, I feel like I’m due a breather. And then some other stupid idea will come along, and off we go.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Well. That’s wasn’t too bad. Time to be domestic, throw the laundry in, and maybe go futz around in the garden, because the plants are waiting for me. The fruit trees are blooming. The daphne is in full flower and spreading its incredible scent across the patio, and new leaves are unfurling among the oriental poppies, sedums, and so many more. I attempted to sit down with a gardening magazine the other day, but it’s still too early. But, soon enough, Portland Nursery will be calling my name, and I’ll find the car driving itself there. And there won’t a thing I can do to stop it.

And just because I can, a shout out to my friends: I love you crazy bastards. Here’s to better days.

Midnight Lightning

In doing research for my super secret special guitar writing project, which I may or may not get around to talking about at some point (depending how it goes), I’ve been reading Crosstown Traffic, Charles Shaar Murray’s rather good book on Jimi Hendrix. Writing about guitar without spending time with Jimi makes as much sense as writing about the blues without listening to Robert Johnson.

And, of course, it’s impossible to even think about Hendrix without a certain overhanging grief, tortured by what-might-have-beens. It’s like imagining what would have happened if Dylan really had died in his post-Blonde on Blonde motorcycle accident (to some people, he did). Sure, we’d have been spared Down in the Groove or Empire Burlesque, but we’d also never have had Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes, his fantastic resurgence since Time Out of Mind, or, for that matter, John Wesley Hardin and, consequently, Jimi, All Along the Watchtower.

On the other hand, we were spared watching hard living wreck Hendrix or seeing him end up playing Purple Haze at state fairs, but, assuming he’d kept it together, one can’t wonder where Hendrix would have taken us with today’s technology. Jimi Hendrix recording with a Parker Dragonfly, a Mesa Boogie Mark V, Pro Tools, and a still inquisitive mind.

Look far enough west, and you come up ’round the east again.

“Maybe creativity will become fashionable again.”
–Adrian Belew–

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.

Time Waits for No One, Not on My Side

Where’s the “off” button on this thing, anyway?

Sorry it’s been so long between postings, but, some time during early October, life accidentally bumped the hyperdrive switch, and I’ve been violently sucked into an uber-accelerated time vortex, and it’s been all I can do just to clutch the safety bar while my rattling little cart has climbed, dived, slid, and shuddered into the curves.

Hyperbole? Well, yes. But it has been busy. In addition to working 50+ hour weeks at my day job as a mild-mannered technical editor, I finished the working draft of Immaterial Matters–a new full-length drama I’ve very pleased with.

I’m helping Playwrights West, a new Portland theatre company, get off the ground (including building and launching a last-minute Web site to serve as a placeholder until we can build a better site).

I shot, framed, and hung a photo project for a production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and served on a public panel discussing Sam’s work.

I reconnected with one of my oldest friends (then promptly dropped the ball when the schedule overwhelmed me–sorry, Scott), and I got together with Jack Boulware, a college/journalist buddy, in town to promote his terrific new book Gimme’ Someting Better (and more to come on that).

Deb and I managed to go see Bob Dylan and B.B. King, both beyond wonderful but Tuesday-night concerts which left me wasted the rest of the week.

I shot a portrait of a charming transvestite for Pulp Diction, a January new works reading series and part of Portland’s Fertile Ground New Works Festival, which includes my newish full-length play The Rewrite Man–which, of course, I had to rewrite.

I’ve made huge leaps forward with my guitar playing (I think), bought Deb a new Ibanez acoustic as an anniversary present (we’ve been jamming together, which has been wonderful), bought and broke in a new Vox amp (because Deb’s new guitar has an electronic pick-up, and I happily returned the great Roland amp she’d been loaning me), and, this week, completely lost my mind and bought an Epiphone Sheraton II semi-hollow body electric (more on that to come as well).

Plus the car blew up and needed major repairs, we had a small dinner party for my yearly winter dish, Beef Bourguignon, and, after writing three full-length plays in two years, I decided to take a break from playwriting…to write a non-fiction book (and stil more on that down the road, naturally). In my spare time, I managed to begin writing a song. Because, you know, I didn’t have enough to do.

Finally, three vetebras in my neck went out (stress, perhaps?), and I’ve pretty much been in constant pain for weeks, but I’ve been so busy that I couldn’t get to my doctor until this past week. (Getting better, thanks.)

Things, pleasantly, look to slow down in a little while–right after the PR I have to do for Playwrights West (also part of Fertile Ground), rehearsals for The Rewrite Man (and possible rewrite), two grants I should hear yea or nay on this month, a new round of play submissions, some work as a regional Dramatists Guild representative, photos I owe some friends, revamps of Playwrights West’s and my own Web sites, research on the new writing project, and then this upcoming “Christmas” event…whatever that is. Plus another couple play rewrites with looming deadlines.

So my apologies for the posts I haven’t written, phone calls and e-mails I haven’t returned, or any other balls I’ve managed to drop. I’ve been lucky to hang on to the pair I was issued years ago.

At some point, the fatigue morphs from agony to giddiness. At least that’s what they tell me: I’m still waiting.

In short, if I owe any of you stuff–scripts, pictures, calls, or new blog posts–please bear with me. I’ll get to it right after…. Well, it’s on my mind, okay?

My to-do list includes: “update to-do list.”


Call of the Wild Amplifier

Some folks get into cars. A Ferrari or Jag passes by, and they’re transfixed. Others collect antique…well…anything. A relative of my collects salt shakers; I try not to judge. Sometimes it’s craftsmanship that draws us, other times it’s rarity or an investment.

But, most often, I suspect it’s mystique. An object psychologically resonates, whether you need it or not. (Usually, you don’t.) Still, you can’t look away. At various times in my life, I’ve felt the irresistible pull of a Canon F1 SLR, a professional workhorse of infinite flexibility and outstanding construction. When I lived in New York, where having wheels was a serious hassle, I spent a couple days of moral torment over a neighbor selling their black and gold Honda Hawk 450 before coming to my senses and realizing Manhattan was very possibly the worst place in the world for an overly cautious driver to ride a impressively light, fast motorcycle. Thus, I’m still using my corneas. And, for the longest time, I couldn’t pass an IBM Selectric typewriter without my mouth going dry; it was the most elegant of machines. I couldn’t probably pick one up for a pittance now, but, you know, now what’s a typewriter?

Then there’s guitar amplifiers.

Which is ridiculous because I have a very, very good amp that’s so stunningly clean and loud that I’ve never turned past five. As it’s very neutral in tone, it’s an ideal tool for applying effects boxes (another addictive gizmo…you start out thinking, well, it’d be nice to have a flexible delay unit, just for playing those U2 riffs, and the next thing you know, you’re eyeing the original Univibe Hendrix used playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock). But…ah. You innocently go to a music shop to try out said delay, and they say, yeah, man, pick any guitar off the rack and plug in to any of the amps…they’re all on. You bet they are. And you go, oh, right. Well, I play a Strat; so I guess I’ll grab this, uh, $5,000 Robert Cray signature model and I’ll plug it into…. Oh, look. They happen to have a Fender Vibro-King Custom 60W 3×10 Tube Combo. That’ll do.

Seriously: do not do this. Because that tone will hook you, shining, shimmering. And late that night, when you’re trying to fall asleep, you’ll hear those icy notes dripping like droplets off an icicle. And pretty soon, tone knobs will be dancing through your mind’s eye, and you’ll find yourself looking for a jar in the garage that’ll work for tossing in a couple bills, you know, now and again. Just in case.

Forget. Plug in the amp you have. Turn it up to…six. And listen to how utterly lousy you play. Whatever you do, don’t think of a blackface grill with the ultra retro cool Fender script logo. Anything but that. Anything….

Amp lust. It’s ugly.

Then again, if there’s anyone out there not using a vintage amp tucked in a closet….

No. That would be wrong. I know it. And you know it.


The Truth is Way Out There

A recent Newsweek cover blared: “In Search of ALIENS.” I have a suggestion where to look.

Let me preface this by saying I’ve known (and know) a number of engineers, and though they’re brilliant, funny people, they tend to be rather linear. Metaphors don’t work that well when building suspension bridges.

That said, I also know a bunch of lighting and sound designers, who are also brilliant, funny people, but they often have an abstracted, opaque air about them, as though they’re existing on a very slightly different reality plane than the rest of us. During a group discussion, for instance, they’ll sit quietly while all the extroverts blather and fulminate, and then they’ll ask a question that no one has an answer to because it’s never occurred to them before. And everything stops.

Somewhere between these poles live stompbox designers.

For those not versed in flangers and pitch-shifters, stompboxes are little electronic gizmos that you plug your guitar into. They get their name from their foot activation buttons; when one steps upon one of these, your guitar tone stretches out wide, buzzes, twists, echoes, trembles, or turns into multiple copies of itself so it sounds like two or more guitars are playing. They are, in short, serious fun and thoroughly addictive. Which is why last night, I could blow off a very long day by playing a overdriven minor pentatonic scale with cascading echoes-es-es and jet airplane whooooooshes and other psychedelic nonsense that sounded really, really cool when I slid notes.

*pause to reflect*

Here’s the thing though: to build these suckers, you have to understand sine waves and how electronics shape them, which involves complicated schematic drawings and soldering things together, and you have to know how the humbucker on a Les Paul sounds really bitchin’ when run through an overdriven tube amp, man.

How many types of heads are involved here? Who are these people? Where did they come from?

I mean, I’m glad they’re here, and they cook up some delicious sounds, but…what are they?

Music is My Mardi Gras

Lately, I’ve been going through one of my Missing New Orleans periods. It’s inevitable for anyone who’s lived there any time at all because, really, there’s no other place like it, and I think the hot weather stirs the memories (cue Louis Armstrong’s “(You Don’t What It Means) To Miss New Orleans” or Tom Waits’ “I wish I was in New Orleans (in the Ninth Ward)”).

Scratching the itch, I watched Les Blank’s documentary “All for Pleasure” about New Orleans and it’s year-round carnival mindset, including a lovely section on how cook crayfish during which the cook pours a shoebox full of cayenne pepper in the boiling pot, and there’s a brief bit where this all-American guy’s looking out his window at a bunch of happy drunks wearing green bowlers for St. Patrick’s Day, and he turns to the camera and says something like, “You know, there ain’t no place in the world where you can do that. Where you can just drink beer in the street and throw your cans in the gutter. It’s a place where you can feel a little bit free.” And he says it with such love that, even though it’s absurd, if you’ve lived there and seen pretty much, well, everything, and accepted it with a shrug, warts and all, you can’t help but feel your heart turn ever so slightly.

Also, nothing ever gets done down there. The place is falling apart. It’s a lousy place for ambition and worse for consistency (excepting certain traditions, for which there are no exceptions…like hangovers for Lent). So, for an ambitious artist who finds himself working harder and harder and sometimes wondering why and why, you have to have a Mardi Gras for the soul. And, coming up on my first-year anniversary of playing guitar, I think I’ve found a little Mardi Gras I can carry with me.

That is, when I play guitar–and granted I still don’t play and probably never will play well–the world just kind of goes away…and can just fuck off, man. The other day, a buddy came over, brought his Ibanez with a Gibson/humbucker set-up, and we tried a couple songs, had some laughs, told some stories (some of which we’d both told before but listened through again), and then at some point we tried playing “Police on My Back” by The Clash, and suddenly, when we hit that chorus (“Monday, Tuesday…”), we both fell into the same rhythm pattern automatically, and it was like…groove. And we both sat back and went, hey! Like good drugs, you immediately want more.

It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have to be good. Nobody’s starting a band or looking to make money. I’m a professional writer and a semi-professional photographer, and, believe me, that’s enough pro art for anybody. But it’s nice to synch into that moment and feel the flow. Which really is what the blues is all about and what I bought the guitar to learn.

It’s one thing to have music in your ears. It’s another to have it in your hands. It’s your own little Mardi Gras, and it’s all for pleasure.