Music 101: Humility

There are four cardinal virtues, first recognized by Plato, and later by Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas (and probably by people further along in the alphabet):

Prudence – the ability to let reason dictate action

Justice – the ability to interact fairly with others

Fortitude – the ability to persevere circumstance with dignity, and

Temperance – the ability to moderate sensual desires

It should be one of life’s goals to nurture virtue in ourselves and each other. The best way to develop our own virtue is through contemplation, meditation, or prayer, depending on your personal proclivities. The best way to develop it in others is to lead by example.

Music has its own virtues, including, if William Congreve is to be believed, the ability to soothe the savage breast, soften rocks, and bend a knotted oak. It also has the ability to join strangers in a common urge – to dance, or hum, or tap, or whistle, or kiss.

The virtue that is most underappreciated in American society, and therefore the one most in need of development, is humility. We are constantly being told to make sure our voices are heard, to be fierce, to be bold, to kick ass. I hate that shit. It is more understandable for women and people of color to reject humility, as they have always been instructed to be humble, but I think we could all use a little more of it these days. People can mistake humiliation, which requires weakness, for humility, which requires strength. Humiliation comes from without and humility comes, like music, from within.

Humility in music comes in knowing when not to play, or when to play something less technically impressive than you are capable of playing if it suits the song better. It comes in sharing any tricks of the trade you’ve learned, and thinking of all musicians, however rudimentary their skills, as equals, as teammates, as comrades-in-arms in a common effort to overcome boredom, conformity, and despair.

We, who are inspired, owe it to those who are feeling uninspired, to help them find a way to believe that something better is possible. That all those crazy, hopeful, impossible things like beauty, fun, and love, do exist, and we have proof. That, more than anything else, is our job.

The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?

Bob Dylan

Music 101: Grace

You might try to make music without grace but I can tell you from experience that whatever it is you are creating without grace, it is not music.

Grace is a bit of a tricky concept. We have all watched someone move gracefully and felt the calmness of soul that accompanies such movement. That sudden feeling that you would like to be, or be with, another person, almost always involves a person with grace.

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers come to mind, as do Laurel & Hardy, John & Yoko, Bill & Ted, Barack & Michelle, and Billie & Finneas. There are new couples filled with grace popping up all the time. I see them everywhere I go.

Grace has a religious meaning but, not to throw shade on true believers (peace be upon them always), I do not believe that a being created and rules the universe. So, when I speak of grace I mean a secular grace. That grace, in music, requires silence as well as sound. It requires fluidity of movement and an approximation of life without limitation. It requires creativity and tapping into the god inside each of us.

It is a lot to ask of anyone. Too much, probably. But some people still find a way to find that thing inside of themselves that makes music. That thing is grace, because music requires grace in every single beat and note.

She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

It's the name for a girl
It's also a thought that
Changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness
In everything

She's got the walk
Not on a ramp or on chalk
She's got the time to talk
She travels outside
Of karma, karma
She travels outside
Of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear the strings
Grace finds beauty
In everything

She carries a world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips between her fingertips
She carries a pearl
In perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty
In everything
Grace finds goodness in everything

Music 101: Gratitude

One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a musician came from Carlos Santana. He said that when you work on your instrument – learning scales and patterns, working repetitiously until your playing flows naturally – you should not think of it as ‘practice.’ Practice is a chore. Instead, you should think of it, as he does, as a blessing. Learning to play an instrument is a gift, and one for which we should all be grateful.

Gratitude is an essential part of being a musician because there is no musician, however innovative or original, who is not standing on the shoulders of giants. Very few of the giants holding me up are not part of, or massively influenced by, Black American culture, a culture that all modern musicians are indebted to. In addition to the giants who influenced me as I grew and developed my musical tastes, there are those I play with and learn from.

Like so many musicians, my earliest teachers were members of my family. The first people I knew who wrote their own songs were my brothers. Jim in particular inspired me to expand the limits of my writing. In college, I met Matt Kennon and, through him, Eric Myers (a/k/a Sal Iva), a pair of punk rockers who helped me expand beyond the folky ramblings of my earliest experiments in songwriting. Once, when I was struggling to come up with a chorus to go with the verses I’d written, Eric told me to take the last line of the first verse and repeat it four times for the chorus. It worked. Many years later, in the 21st Century version of Late Model Humans, Matt, Jim, and I spent years in weekly round robin sessions where we nurtured our songwriting styles.

As a singer, I also learned first from my brothers and then from Matt, Eric, and also from Nancy Maher, who would become my wife and teach me about more than music. We sang together in my first band, Racy Dates, and listening to the blend of our voices helped me learn the essential art of harmony. The two people I have sung with the most – Jim and Matt – also taught me the most, including giving me the confidence to take chances and make mistakes. There are two other friends – Terrence McDonnell and Rashmi Ray – who I didn’t sing with very often but whose singing I was lucky enough to hear often and learn from.

As a guitarist I learned first from all the people I’ve already mentioned but also from my bandmate in both the 20th and 21st Century versions of Late Model Humans, Martin Hill. From him I learned the dark art of improvisation and the importance of the space between the notes. There were many nights in the studio, while our bandmates were talking among themselves, that we would indulge in instrumental conversations all our own.

There are other bandmates over the years – principally Nik Winters, Sharon Emmitt, Todd Elder, Chris Park, Carla Lother, and Tim Kennon – whose styles were different enough from mine that they did not directly influence my writing, singing, or playing, but who, along with all those already mentioned, taught me a skill vital to any musician: collaboration. I believe that all musicians are slaves whose master is the song they are playing. It is only when the singers and musicians collaborate that we become more than the sum of our parts and satisfy our master/mistress by creating the magic of music.

Finally, I am grateful to one other group of people: those who provide inspiration. In addition to the artists (musical and otherwise) who came before me, and those who are my peers, there are women, beginning with Nancy, who have found a way to shine a light of love into my heart. The desire to share my deepest thoughts and feelings with someone I love is an impulse that expands into the creative expression of my music. To me, all great music is born of love. This world needs all the love it can get, and I will always be grateful to those who gave it to, or inspired it in, me.

Music 101: Origin Story

The music of our lives begins with the beating of our hearts. One day it will end with the final beat.

Since everything has its beginning, I wondered: when did music start? Was it invented or discovered? Music has been around for so long that it cannot be traced back to a specific time. It has certainly existed for longer than Homo Sapiens, and we’ve been here for 300,000 years. It is also older than our more primitive ancestors. In fact, it did not originate in our branch of the tree of life.

The elements that make up music – rhythm and melody – have existed since the percussion and reverberations of the big bang. It has long lived in the patter of rain in a puddle and in wind whistling through tall grass. Birds and whales have been singing longer than any primate species, whose earliest experiments with melody might have come from a hunter imitating the song of a bird, or a mother humming something soothing to lull her baby to sleep.

In my individual history, music has been a patient teacher and passionate companion. I learned the alphabet with the help of the melody behind the letters: A, B, CD, EFG… Nursery rhymes and lullabies brought education, entertainment, and comfort to the overwhelming task of making sense of life, and my place in it.

For most people, the music that is popular at the time they first fall in love will always have a special place in their hearts. Every couple has a piece of music they call “our song.” What would a wedding be without singing and dancing? As we get older we often cling to the music of our youth and find it superior to the contemporary music of our older age. But there is always good new music.

This doesn’t resolve the problem of the music lover of good will who says: I’d like to like this modern stuff, but what do I do? Well, the unvarnished truth is that there are no magic formulas, no short cuts for making the unfamiliar seem comfortably familiar. There is no advice one can give other than to say: relax – that’s of first importance, and then listen to the same pieces enough times to really matter

Aaron Copland

Later this month, I will be releasing my first solo album, titled Observations. Whether it is good or bad, whether it speaks to you or not, is up to each individual who listens. I will post the music and links here and will let the work speak for itself. Until that is ready, I will post some more remote learning from my online class Music: 101.

Genius in our Midst: X

DJ Bonebrake, Billy Zoom, Exene Cervenka, John Doe (l-r)
photo by Kristy Benjamin

2020 is a tough year. Tough, tough, tough, tough, tough. In the middle of a year that rivals the insanity of 1918, 1941, and 1968, something unexpectedly wonderful happened. In April of this year, while people were dying in New York at the rate of 1,000 a day, four people in California – John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, and DJ Bonebrake – released their first album together since 1985.

Listening to Alphabetland is like hearing a new Ramones album or getting a phone call from a dear old friend you haven’t heard from in ages. It is a lot to expect of any group of people, to live up to the accomplishments of their youth, that part of life when you have all the time in the world. But X do it.

As Exene puts it on the albums closing track, All the Time in the World:

We are dust
it is true
and unto dust we shall return
me and you
but it was fun while it lasted
All the time in the world turns out not to be that much

Everything about Alphabetland reaffirms the genius of the band’s four members. It is fun, and fast, and smart, and it artfully walks the tightrope between anguished and joyful. Even the way the album got it’s name is great:

Originally the song was called ‘Mercury,’ but Billy kept referring to it as ‘Alphabetland,’ like it was some 1950s board game he remembered, even though the lyrics never use the word ‘Alphabetland’ – only ‘alphabet wrecked’ and ‘alphabet mine.’ A relationship gets wrecked and words are meaningless. We finally relented, because it’s like, okay, Billy’s going to call it Alphabetland regardless of what the title is.

John Doe

Do yourself a favor and take a break from whatever you are doing and spend the next two minutes and fifty eight seconds of this tough, tough, tough, tough, tough year listening to some genius in our midst.

Tearing up the sidewalks
pouring wet cement
Erasing your initials
alphabet wrecked
I watched you pour white gasoline
to cover up your scent
Burned your name to cinders
alphabet wrecked
blue you wear like martyr blue
atom bomb bruises, cold war flu
A blind streak of light
tearing through the pines
electric non-fiction
alphabet mine
Molten river riding high
like a fever in the shine
No more words for you
alphabet mine
blue you wear like martyr blue
atom bomb bruises, cold war flu
Tearing up the sidewalk
pouring wet cement
erasing your initials
alphabet wrecked
Molten river riding high
fever in the shine
No more words for you
alphabet mine, alphabet mine, alphabet mine