Tag Archives: guitar

Learning to Sing Hours and Hours of Cover Songs

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as Frank Zappa, or Elvis Costello, or George Carlin, did or did not say.[i]  Except, of course, that it’s not.  It’s more like writing about architecture, except more fun, frequent, and widely-appealing.  Humans strive to put abstractions, like justice; emotions, like love; senses, like taste; and art, like, um, art—that is, that which seemingly defy the verbal—into language all the time, a kind of symbolic synesthesia. Plus, the analogy does not hold, since music is unique; in addition to listening to music, playing music, and writing about music, we do dance to music, and create architectural structures devoted to it.

And yet, ZappaCostelloCarlin is/are also on to something.  For the past nine months, I have been playing music semi-professionally—three paying gigs for six hours of playing this month, y’all—after a seventeen year hiatus, as I wrote about here.    And although I teach a class on rock music (early version of the syllabus posted here) and have written an academic essay on the rock novel, it turns out that there’s still more to learn from playing the music itself.

For one thing, unlike my romantic, idealistic former self, the one who wrote the music and lyrics and refused to play covers, my current self is happy to play other people’s music.  If anything, playing covers is more like what I do for my day job—interpreting books and literary criticism.  In some cases, I find myself less faithful to the original artist, while in others, I’m more faithful.  Some of this is just me—everything I play on the guitar sounds metallic, so even Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny” gets an inadvertent metal makeover.

At other times, it’s the problem of trying to adapt a studio creation to a three piece guitar-bass-drums performance.  Even a relatively straightforward pop rock song like Ratt’s Round and Round overdubs multiple lead singing tracks (and guitar tracks, a different problem), so that each first line of the verse very slightly overlaps the one before it, making it impossible for one person to reproduce live. This overlap is almost inaudible and of no concern to anyone—except someone trying to sing it live.

Whereas other songs are just fun to copy, like Green Day’s Basket Case, where making myself nasal and deliberately trying to imitate Pee Wee Herman’s serious voice—the one he’s using when not screaming—becomes a pretty solid approximation of Billy Joe Armstrong.

And it is really the singing, much more than the guitar playing, that’s the challenge for me.  I like playing the guitar. I want to play guitar.  Every part of it is fun—practice, repetition, volume, the instrument and gear itself.  While I’ve resigned myself to being a singer, it’s much harder.  For one thing, I have to use my voice ALL THE TIME, for work, for leisure, for everything.  I want to save it and keep it safe and preserved, yet I keep having to take it out to do all sorts of things.  I imagine taking my guitar out of the case, say, to sweep up, or knock a Frisbee out of a tree, and what a dangerous waste that is to use an instrument for a nonmusical, mundane purpose. Yet I’m stuck doing that will my voice all day, every day. Tea and honey can only repair so much.

But even more than the challenges, learning covers, especially singing them, has made me think more about how songs work, and their structures.  Although they use words, rock songs are not narratives—rock operas , all those Billy Joel songs with verses that  begins with people’s boring first names, and Iron Maiden epics to the contrary.  Songs have too much recursion and repetition.    It’s a cliché to say that rock songs are verse/chorus/verse.  And in reality, it’s usually closer to intro/verse/prechorus/chorus/verse/prechorus/chorus/solo/bridge/chorus/repeat chorus fade.  But they don’t move linearly from beginning to middle to end the way a story does.

Yet they’re also not poems, Dylan and Lennon and Baez to the contrary as well.  They have elements of poetry, like rhyme, rhythm, and meter (although at this point I roll my eyes at any rhyme schemed or formulaic poems written after about 1940).  But they’re not usually interested in exploring or developing ideas through imagery the way poems are.  And they’re certainly not essays, all Rush lyrics to the contrary.

What the words often are, then, are part of the music itself.  Their sound, their tone, their shape in the singer’s mouth makes the song.  Rockists like to make fun of the toe-tapping masses who say things like “I don’t listen to the lyrics, I just feel the beat” [comma splice sic].  And I admit to being something of a lyric fanatic, whether it means greater appreciation or greater disappointment.  Mock if you want, and I’m iffy about some songs, but Pearl Jam has some strong lyrics. Spin the Black Circle, Even Flow, Jeremy: these are songs where the lyrics, as sung and together with the music, turn Eddie Vedder’s voice into a pure rock instrument.  And sometimes, I’m flummoxed : The Scorpions’ Rock You Like a Hurricane, a song I’ve heard a million times, is nothing but a series of crude sexual non-sequiturs, somehow  palpable because  Klaus Meine’s German accent makes the lyrics vary between percussive and sweet ‘n’ sibilant at the right moments.

In the end, why the opposition to writing about music at all? It turns out that music needs words a lot more than words need music.  There’s only so many times even an ardent rock fan can listen to YYZ.  On with the show.

Time: 55 minutes.


[i] Quote Investigator does a pretty stellar job tracking the sources of “writing about music…” http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/11/08/writing-about-music/

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Live Music; or, the Song in the Age of Digital Reproduction, an Essay in Eight Tracks

 

Track 1: This is me, around 1991. I still had long hair in my dreams for years after I cut it.

Track 2: Eight years, age 15 to 23, I could only imagine music, being a Famous Rock Star. It’s hard to say how many hours a day or days a week I practiced, because it was never work.  Even then, I loved that English used to the word “play” for an instrument, because that’s what I felt I was doing. But it was as much as I could: a few hours a day, not including at least six hours a week of band practice, not including at least two shows a month, not including going to other bands’ gigs twice a week.  I held down a job (record store) and earned easy A’s in school, but I lived music.

Track 3: And then, suddenly, I didn’t.  I spent the next decade learning to be a reader, writer, teacher, husband, and father.  For years, I didn’t even have a guitar. No one knew who I used to be, who, in some sense, I really was.  Music was the secret identity I left behind.  It was too hard to be everything.  Like the mopey tween calendar montage in Twilight: Breaking Dawn, or the mopey tween sun rising and falling montage in Beastly (I need to lay off the mopey tween monsters), time passed.

And as time was passing, something interesting happened, almost behind my back: music went digital.

Track 4: I am no vinyl purist. I’ve always preferred electric to acoustic. Unlike the fans who booed electric Dylan in 1965, if my favorite heavy rock band showed up with acoustic guitars, I’d boo them. (I’m looking at you, Nirvana.) Thank God the unplugged fad of the 90s is over. I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more, either.

Yet I can see why the folkies didn’t feel that electric music was authentic. The electric guitar puts more steps between the player’s fingers and the listener’s ear.  Not just the vibrations of the string, but the pickup, the signal, the wire, the amplification, and the distortion—sweet, dirty, deliberate distortion—of the signal. The electric sound of the guitar’s amplification is then further captured electronically by microphones, processed even further into the analogue of reel to reel tape, then mastered onto vinyl.  So many steps in the process of producing and reproducing the sound, each step, for the purist, one further away from the original.  Not the reel but the real.

But going electric and going digital are not the same. Something about listening to all music in MP3 format seems different, the final step that remasters once more, finally and irrevocably converting the analogue sound into binary computer code, Dylan’s plaintive wail (is there any other kind?) and guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s rich squeals into a cold series of ones and zeros, compressed, then uncompressed.  Look, overall, I love the iPod, love having 6332 songs made portable, love the slightly junky, slightly tinny, slightly robotic tone, love the intrusive insertion of the earbuds jacked directly into your brain, rather than warmly, maternally enveloping  your ears like the admittedly superior hi-fi earmuffs of yesteryear. (Yes, I know you can still get them. No, I never see anyone wearing them.) But I don’t mistake what I’m hearing.  Not music exactly, but an excellent simulation: “I’m not the song, but I play one on an iPod.”

Track 5: Walter Benjamin, from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936): “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.…  By making many reproductions it [the technique of reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”   The part that messes with people today is that Benjamin, a Marxist when the word still meant something, saw this AS A GOOD THING. The destruction of the aura could only benefit the masses.  With the artwork’s aura destroyed, the work’s hegemonic power, not artistic power, its elevated class and economic status, would disappear, since the same picture would be available to all.  Technology, and ultimately “the capitalistic mode of production,” could “create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.”   Yet that is not what has happened to art in the time since Benjamin wrote his essay.  Instead, the more frequently a work of art is reproduced, the more expensive and more coveted the original becomes.  Look at yesterday’s New York Times article on the subject of rich, famous art—including Munch’s Scream, mentioned in last week’s entry, now likely to “fetch” (Times’ word choice)  $150-200 MILLION.  That’s some puppy.  But music is an altogether different animal. It wasn’t records or tapes that finally destroyed music’s aura, but digital reproduction.  Music, in every sense of the term, now is free.  

 Bad joke. Sorry.

SIDE B

Track 6: Jean Baudrillard, from Simulation and Simulacra:

“Such would be the successive phases of the image:

it is the reflection of a profound reality;”

[me: i.e.,  acoustic guitar string]

it masks and denatures a profound reality;

[electric guitar string –>pickup –> amplifier]

it masks the absence of a profound reality;

[electric guitar string  –> pickup –> amplifier –> analogue recording]

it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.”

[electric guitar string –> pickup –> amplifier –> analogue recording –> converted to digital recording]

Track 7: But I started to listen to music again, and play.  A few years of noodling, riffing, realizing that the hours of play had hardened into neural muscle memory and that there was no remediation needed.  My first real foray back into playing came when I bought a new amplifier last year, a Fender G DEC 3. Not to get all ad-speak with Walter Benjamin in the room, but it’s a clever idea: build MP3 backing tracks right into the amp and loop them to simulate playing with musicians. 

As an actual amplifier by itself it doesn’t sound that great.  In fact, it sounds exactly like a digital simulation of an electric guitar amplifier. But with the simulated tracks, the simulated sound is perfect. And as recorded by my digital camera, and uploaded onto my laptop, and linked to the world wide intermesh, and fed through your speakers, who can tell?

Electric guitar string –>pickup –> digital amplifier –> digital recording –> my laptop –> internet –> your laptop

  But because it’s digital, we could reproduce it a thousand times, a million more times, and it would sound just like the original.  Benjamin missed his prediction for art, but foresaw the future of music.

Track 8: Then, not long after I got the amp, I started playing again, for real, with actual people.  And it’s not like playing with simulated tracks at all.  I could hardly eat before or after each rehearsal, and when we were done I left wracked with stomach pain. I thought it was the stress of singing after a long hiatus, the churn of old pipes and machinery, or even nerves.

But later, I realized I recognized and remembered that pain.

It was called excitement.

Same guy, same guitar, one haircut, 21 years later

Jesse Kavadlo

Time: Over again, which is becoming the new norm. Eighty minutes, not including making the amp video just for this occasion. Time to go back in time to 60 minutes.

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