Licks and Riffs

Lately I have been listening to music and reading books…a lot. The early darkness of winter combined with an avoidance of American television news programs, my main viewing habit, requires that I alter my activities a bit.  Also, I have been reading a lot more because Stephen King wrote, in his book I just read – “On Writing” – that writers should always read. Now, I don’t know if I am a writer or not. The process of writing is painful to me, but I  am trying to find out as I consider the next phase of my life…assuming it has some length to it.

In all of this listening and reading, I have noticed some commonality. In particular, the relationship between professionalship and the final work. In music, I noticed that often the musicianship of the artist overwhelms the message of the artist. Superb guitar players seem to risk demonstrating their skill set, their “licks,” at the expense of the listener’s experience. I think that might be part of the genius of the Rolling Stones, their riffs complemented their songs. Musically, the Stones’ riffs are not extremely complicated, but are so memorable.  They can even uniquely identify a particular time or era in your life when you first heard their riffs. The Stones remind us that just because you can play it doesn’t mean you should play it.

Vocal harmonies also can be too complicated, even if musically correct. It can begin sounding like noise, drowning out the melody.  The best examples of harmonies that enhance songs come from the Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkle, and the Beach Boys. With the Beach Boys, I think The Sloop of John B. and Good Vibrations are the best examples of harmonies that are, like Goldilocks said, “Just right.”

Novelists also let their abilities overtake the story. Some are so gifted with language skills that their riffs get in the way of the story. Elmore Leonard, the author of “Get Shorty” among so many other great mystery and western novels, wrote directly into the action of the story, not a word wasted. In doing so, his stories are fast paced and so is the reading of them. They are highly entertaining. Stephen King stories, although not stripped down like Elmore’s are, also avoids unnecessary complicated grammatical licks. I think Charles Dickens, particular for his era, focused on the story too… and they live on.

Another art form that wouldn’t often come to mind in this discussion is photography. Some photographers seem to have the eye to capture the essence of and all  the potential of the subject. There are licks and riffs within the captured image, but only as they support the subject matter. I don’t know how they do this, but Suzy Haywood is one of those that does know how.

In American politics, and one reason I had to cut back on watching the so-called news, is that the entire message is nothing but licks and riffs. There is no melody. The melody is where one compromises, choosing one note over the other, in an effort to create a listenable, and perhaps enjoyable, melody. American politics seems to have no room for compromise and in that void, we can’t create a national melody.

If I ever do decide to write the great American novel, I think it would serve me well to keep these lessons in mind. It is the melody that touches the heart. The licks and riffs should only support the melody.

I, Therefore, Resolve…

First day of 2018 means two things to me: clean out some corners and consider becoming a more successful human.  We’ll start with the corners first.

Since all our children moved out years ago, we have a couple of extra rooms. One room actually has two names, for some time now it has been called the “beach room” because it was once decorated in a manner that reminded some of a beach hut, a light, airy and sunny room.

“Where are the scissors?” “They’re in the beach room.”

However, before that title, it was and still sometimes referred to as, the “warm room.” We live in an old house with an oddly engineered heating system. During the winter, the living room, dining room, kitchen and back bedroom gets cold and the central heating system just doesn’t do a very good job of evenly dispersing the heat. But, in the “warm room” you could walk around naked in the coldest day of winter and still be warm. However, step out into the hallway and you might instantly get icicles on your private parts.

The other extra room is my pay the bills and make music room and toss anything that doesn’t have its own place into it room, usually called, “Gary’s room.” Books, guitars including a 6 string, 12 string, electric, and bass, soap making supplies, photo albums, golf stuff, hats, coats, drums, cds, vinyl albums, maps, ironing board, two keyboards, 6 harmonicas, 2 drums, old family dishes, summer clothes, winter clothes, shoes, sandals, slippers, boots, photo albums, medical testing equipment, mandolin, drawing instruments, sunglasses, hats of all sorts, belts and about 50 other items all reside in “Gary’s room.” Obviously when guests are over, we try to keep that room closed – which is not easy because the door nob decided that 64 years is long enough to work properly.  Every two weeks I do a superficial cleanup, which means I move shit from one place in the room to another place in the room.  Today, however, it was different though. I initiated a complete relocation project.

Downstairs we have a basement room with no formal ceiling, so we call it the “cabin.” Occasionally friends come over and we play poker in the cabin. Lately we’ve been going to junk stores and finding tables, writing desks, and other used stuff for the cabin. The “cabin” also has a little wood stove in it. There is some exercise equipment in the cabin too that for some reason looks brand new from lack of use. But, like I said it is the first day of 2018 and time for those resolutions! The cabin is now the new location for much of the clutter from “Gary’s room” with the assistance of a bookcase I forgot we owned that was in the corner of a cluttered garage. (God, I am a pig.)

As I was de-cluttering “Gary’s room” to clutter the cabin, I started thinking what my resolutions might be when I ran across a little book I read some time ago, “Finite and Infinite Games” by James Carse. It was really quite an interesting book, but at the time I read it, I was conflicted with Carse’s message and my religious upbringing. Now Mr. Carse is a gazillion times smarter than I am and sometimes he lost me with his ideas, but in a nutshell he suggests that finite games, the ones that are over once a winner is declared are far less interesting than infinite games. Think office politics, or hell, any kind of politics. Infinite games are played for the sheer joy of it. There is no beginning and no end. Very few of us live with an infinite game mindset.

As I looked at that little book in my hand, I started wondering about my New Years’ Resolutions. They were going to be the following:

  1. Go fishing at least 20 times in 2018. (Which I guess is kind of a lousy goal if you happen to be a fish.)
  2. Read at least 20 books in 2018. I enjoy big historical biographies, so I might have to change it up some or I will only get 3 books read.
  3. Play 20 rounds of golf in 2018.
  4. Fuck the weight problem.

However, then I thought, “These are really finite goals. Who cares if I read 20 books, play golf 20 times, and go fishing  1.6666666667 times a month? Will I be happier? Will I be more successful? What am I really trying to do? Am I just just moving shit from one spot to another, but the room is still a mess in 48 hours?” (I know, I know, isn’t it strange how I tie such disparate ideas together such as a cluttered room and resolutions?)

You know I write songs, right? Maybe you don’t know that I earned a Master’s Degree in Accountancy a long time ago too. Kind of a weird combo. My brain loves numbers that provide a finite answer and in accounting that answer must be in balance… good old debits and credits. Perfect. However this obsession with numbers gets in the way with my music and yet pleases me so much too, like the “warm room” on the winter solstice.  Soundcloud, that platform I post my music on, is a great little accountant – it keeps track of lots of numbers regarding my songs…and it ruins them too. One day, nobody in the entire world, listened to a single song of mine and oddly, it felt really good. It felt liberating to just put your creative ideas out there and know that nobody had an opinion about them.  It felt infinite and that feeling came from a different place than the finite feeling I get with all the data collected regarding my music. It isn’t just music I have this finite problem with. If I plant tomatoes, I plant 60 plants. Why? I don’t know, 59 just didn’t feel right. I could go on and on with my issues with the finite. The other day I had two wrist watches on. Don’t even get me started about Fantasy Football, it is damn finite orgy.

So what should I do about those New Year’s resolutions? I think in 2018 I am just going to try to stop focusing so much on the attributes and the traits and the numbers and the finality of a “human being” and be more aware of the “being” part.  Yes, let’s go fishing, not as an accomplishment, but being part of the infinite. (I do catch and release. Well, I used to anyway. I didn’t go fishing once last year.) Let’s read, not to reach a finite number of books read, but for the infinite that is shared in biographies and amazing stories of imagination. (By the way, I am going to hold Goodreads partially responsible due to their annual reading goals.) Play golf, not to concentrate on the silly little series of numbers which usually add up to over a 100, but to be outdoors with gratitude.

Enough about me. May your 2018 be a year of infinite possibilities. I hope you have a joyful, loving, healthy year.

G