BY ERIK CHRISTENSEN
Dec. 7, 2013
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (Martin Mull)
OK, I agree. Mr. Mull’s comment is a little tongue-in-cheek, a little smarmy, but I get it. You really can’t capture what music is all about by writing about it.
I’ve spent a lot of time playing music — privately, in a garage, or sitting on the edge of my bed; also in front of an audience in bars, coffeehouses, and at church services.
I’ve spent even more time listening — through headphones in a dark room, in a car with the windows down, in stadiums and concert halls. Smarter people than me have tried to capture the essence of music on the mind, body and spirit.
So why try? There was recently a local PBS special on Seattle music and the grunge era — and believe me, I had a front row seat. So, I tuned in hopefully expecting a trip down memory lane, wanting to relive nights spent with friends at Seattle music venues like the Tractor Tavern or The Off-Ramp. My wife walked through the room during the show and asked, “Is this any good?”
“Not really,” I replied. “Mostly it’s people talking about how cool the Seattle rock and rap communities are. I don’t think they’ve actually played any music yet.”
When it’s done poorly, exposition about music is really disappointing and frustrating. When it’s done well, speaking and discussing music can be just as insightful and thrilling as the thing itself. You knew this next part was coming, didn’t you? Well, here it is:
My All-Time, Top Five Favorites Quotes about Music —
Number five: This summer, I took a poetry class from local legend and University of Washington professor emeritus David Wagoner. When discussing the impulse to write and create, he said:
If all the poetry and all of the music in the world disappeared overnight, in six months it would all be back.
He felt there would be hundreds, thousands of new creations very quickly. It’s such a primal need to make sounds and words and rhythms, there is simply no denying it, and no life without it.
Number four: Tom Waits, bard of the Bowery, hobo-hipster-genius, is full of insight and wit when it comes to talking about music. He was interviewed back in the ‘80s on the beloved and much-missed MTV show “The Cutting Edge.” (Remember when MTV actually played music? Ah, kids, gather ’round… that’s another story, and probably another blog topic.) In this instance, Waits was talking about listening to music, and the technology of the then-brand new CDs with their crystal clear, pristine, separated new sound. Seated at a dive bar (naturally) in West Los Angeles, he tipped his hat back and said:
I prefer music when it’s part of everything else — all mixed together. Y’know, something you overhear down a hallway, or outside from across the street.
Context. Mixed in with the surroundings. Part of the atmosphere. All around us.
In the same interview, he also expounded on the joys of mis-hearing things—how lyric and melody can be misconstrued or given layers of meaning by the listener; something new is created that the artist probably didn’t even intend. Beautiful.
Number three: What would a Top Five list be without a gratuitous Simpsons reference? In one of the timeless “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween episodes, Lisa needs a theme song, a “jingle” in the Tin Pan Alley parlance. The professional songwriter for hire, an elderly gent with a lisp and a bad suit, plays some cheesy piano chords and sings a few trite phrases. Lisa, clearly disappointed, waits for an explanation. The man, an old-fashioned pro of many years on Broadway, looks down and says:
Well, it’ll sound a lot better coming out of Paul Anka.
Truer words were never spoken. Any song would sound better if sung by Paul Anka. When I’m writing, I have actually asked myself that magical question — how would this sound coming out of Paul Anka? The answer is usually, “It would sound more melodic and have a tighter rhyme scheme. Get back to work.”
Number two: This gem comes from that sage, the ancient and wise Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. What better person to blow a hole in the notion of the pretentious songwriter? Preach it, Keith:
Personally, I don’t consider that you create or write anything. The best way to think about it, for me, anyway, is that you’re an antenna. I sit down at an instrument-guitar, piano, bass or whatever-and play somebody else’s songs. And usually within 20 minutes, more or less, suddenly something’s coming. And that’s when the antenna goes up. (Wets his finger and raises it in the air.) Incoming! So you get this sort of gift. You work it up a bit and then transmit it. The idea that “I wrote that,” or “I created that” is an overblown artistic sort of thing that people love to put on writing songs. It can screw you up. If you think that it’s all down to you, you’ve got another thing coming.
The idea of being a conduit, an “antenna,” for music is at once refreshing (“Phew, it’s not really me creating this”) and, at the same time, very scary (“Holy cow! I’m dealing with a bigger force; I’m trying to get in touch with the essence of the cosmos!”) Writing and playing music is a mystical, intimate activity, but also universal and moving around us all the time. No wonder it’s so pervasive and travels across cultures.
And, continuing on that thought, talking about music, but really something much greater, here’s my Favorite, All-Time, Number One Quote about music from the artist Neville Garrick, talking about his friend, the reggae genius Bob Marley:
‘Cause, Bob never struggled to write a song yet. As him say, him say, is Jah write all them songs anyway.
It’s not me. Or you.
It’s not even Bob Marley.
It’s just God writing all those songs anyway. Writing about music may be a fool’s errand, as Martin Mull said, like dancing about architecture, but it can come close. That feeling, that spark as music washes over you… it’s a connection to something much bigger, something we all strive to feel.
Erik Christensen teaches at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and his favorite Bob Marley song is “Stir It Up.”
Erik Christensen Band plays the Front Street Grill in Coupeville from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11 and Bloom’s Winery in Bayview Corner from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9; Christensen plays with the Jacobs Road Band at the Oak Harbor Tavern at 9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14.