OUT THE OLD WAZOO
I didn't start appreciating music in all the ways I do now. Now that I've spent a fair amount of time listening intently.
I think real listening started when I got a 45 of Billy Stewart doing "Billy's Blues". Chess record, so warped. Played that thing over and over, both sides, but later thought of listening to something over and over as juvenile.
Got out of that notion with Sergeant Pepper.
On first hearing some people who are really wonderful at what they do, I won't necessarily get it. I may see them and hear them, but not understand their joy or their logic and completeness. It takes time sometimes. I constantly find myself wondering why I previously didn't freak out over some perfectly good music. I've missed the point so often, realizing in retrospect, that now it seems for me this is probably an eternal process. I still have to try to make these estimations. Are they on top of things, can I learn from this? I think it's anxiety: I'm always getting my worldview shook up by unforeseen music and I kinda dread it (oh no, not again). I am now confident that if I don't relate to some music, I'm wrong and, oh damn it, I'm again to be enlightened. I make less of a fool of myself now, knowing out front that I am one.
When I was young I had similar reactions to Coltrane, Blind Blake, and Leadbelly: I thought they were tuning up and somehow that had gotten on the recording. I'd think: Well, I'm sure he's gonna start soon.
But usually when I like something right away, years later I'm still of the same opinion. It's the negatives that don't last.
People say to me, I like everything but this (punk, rap, folk, polkas, whatever). They want me to know where they're coming from, and this is a way to define themselves. "What I Don't Like", by me. Oh I do that too, but now try to keep it to myself, for I'm always wrong. Wrong out the old wazoo. This judging, I think, is a trait of an amateur, which I am: not born to be a musician, not McCartney or Mozart, but kinda captured by pretty guitars and doowop songs and hilariously youthful notions of a way of life. Man, I was so unprepared for this that I couldn't see that I was until way too late.
There are disadvantages to being an amateur but advantages too. The disadvantages: you might not be able to toss it off, like Fred Neil. Or frost it up with sweets, like McCartney, step out boldly, like Lennon. It'll be accidental if you get something good. Advantages: You'll always be odd, because it's such subtle work that you'll always be wondering, am I OK? Your songs will be primitive, and that's at least one trait you'll share with the spirit of music. Some songs will be embarrassingly bad. But your ignorant struggle will have its interesting and somewhat accidental byproducts now and again. And maybe if you fake swimming long enough, you find you can sorta swim. Your way.
When I was starting out playing my own songs I got a gig at The Flick, a thriving coffeehouse in Coral Gables, Florida. I played there six nights a week, for three years, from 1966 to 1968. The owner of The Flick, Max Launer, told me after I auditioned he didn't think I played or sang that well but I had some interesting funny songs, and if I was willing to do funny songs exclusively, everything would be cool. So I wrote a bunch more sort of funny songs (doing my best to imitate Lehrer) and Quit My Straight Gig, and worked there a long time with that understanding: serious songs for the third set only. And I got to hear a lot of talented people. One of the acts was Gabe Kaplan, who went on to write and star in Welcome Back Kotter. A funny guy, right from the beginning. And, of course, very successful.
Gabe financed a kind of class reunion of Flick acts, last March. So Barbara and I, who met there, went back to Coral Gables and got to play there again (it's a bar now, called Titanic Brewery) and to hear people play whom we hadn't heard in forty years, and I got to see how much my perceptions had changed and rearranged. This was a rare privilege, and I am still contemplating how fortunate we are. Everyone was wonderful, including us, I think. What a relief. Bob Ingram agreed with me that we'd both been praying: don't let it be Mighty Wind. Well, it wasn't. Far from it. I was reminded of the reasons I loved the music of all of those folks, and the reasons were still there. Thanks, Gabe. And bless you, Max and Annie Launer.
The other day I played "Billy's Blues" a bunch of times over and over. Great.
Facebook page for The Flick Coffeehouse.
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