Cutting Contest

Sekhnet took me to see the incomparable Tommy Emmanuel at Town Hall last night.   He put on his usual great show, playing with virtuosity and joy throughout.   It’s a unique experience being moved by some beautiful and complicated playing and at virtually the same instant laughing at some offhand shtick the guy does at the same time.   The man is that good.   If you ever get a chance to see Tommy live, just go see him.

It’s clear watching him play how much he loves what he is doing.  He got that good because, in addition to the talent that God gave him, he loved what he was doing enough to do it for a million hours over the decades.  His joy and sense of how much fun he’s having is infectious.   After his opening number I turned to the guy next to me, another guitarist, and said “damn, he just keeps getting better!”  My neighbor agreed.  “Like a fine wine,” he said with a satisfied smile.

It was something the guy next to me said before the show that inspires what I’m thinking about now.   We were discussing guitarists we admire and at one point I mentioned some younger blues players I’d heard for the first time in recent years, including a passionate player named Jonny Lang.   He nodded and told me I should check out the youtube of Lang and Eric Gales trading riffs.  He’d started the conversation telling me about Gales.   

“At one point the crowd is urging Gales to cut Lang, and you can see the results, I mean Lang didn’t have a chance ….”

I stopped him to say I never got the point of cutting contests.  We didn’t get a chance to pursue the subject further, because Tommy Emmanuel took the stage and that was that.

You can read about cutting contests going all the way back.  A great trumpet player came to town, there was a jam session after the show.  The local trumpet king would bring his horn and proceed to try to out-blow the star trumpet player.  It was like gunslingers, making a name for themselves by outdrawing the fastest gun in the west.   It always struck me as an idiotic misuse of talent, an ego-driven exercise in being an asshole.  Or a killer.

As a guitar player I’ve found myself in these situations a few times over the years at jam sessions.   The session is, to some guitarists, not about playing the best music we can invent, it’s about proving who is the best guitar player.  To me the best guitar player is the one who always plays exactly what you want to hear in the music.  Nice inversions of chords set perfectly against what the singer is singing.  A little bass riff that sets up what another instrument is doing.   One note, vibrating plaintively against a series of harmonies.  Sometimes it’s playing your ass off in tandem with another instrument, riffing off what the other player is doing.  I never see it as a contest and if I’m in a room where others do, it can sometimes be a long session.

A cutting contest has nothing to do with tasteful collaboration.   It’s about showing off.  It is a no holds barred competition for who is top dog.  I never understood that shit.  I know that professional musicians are often egotistical and competitive, that’s how they get to the the top of their game.  I suppose the cutting contest has some place in that world, though I’m pretty sure not everyone in that world engages in cutting contests.

But in a group of pissants renting a practice room to make some joyful noise? I mean, seriously, what the fuck?   Who is the best pissant guitarist?  Really, this is a question you think should be answered now?  Determining matters of dominance and submission instead of pursuing the highest quality musical interaction we can come up with?   

Ranking professional guitarists is dumb in any event, it’s largely a matter of taste.   Vying for supremacy with other amateur guitarists is useless at best.  You can play with virtually anyone unless they play out of tune, off time, too loud.    If you don’t like the way they play you don’t play with them anymore.  But a cutting contest among pissant guitarists?  This really how you want to waste our precious time?  Figuring out who will get to solo and who will hold down the rhythm part?

Tommy Emmanuel told a story that illuminated the issue beautifully.   His mother loved to sing and strummed a guitar and later took up lap steel guitar.   She needed an accompanist for her lap steel playing and, around the time Tommy began kindergarten, she taught him a few chords on guitar and he became her rhythm guitar player.   He couldn’t wait for school to be over so he could run home and play rhythm guitar for his mother.    His older brother Phil soon thereafter took up guitar, and he too wanted Tommy to play rhythm behind him.   He did it happily, for years.

The guitarists I love best, and I think mainly of Jimi Hendrix and Django Reinhardt in this regard, were brilliant rhythm players.  Jimi said all guitar playing is rhythm guitar playing, and it made a big impression on me.  Django could play an accompaniment like nobody’s business, hard to imagine anyone doing it better.  If you can’t play the rhythm part to one of Django’s tunes, you have no hope of playing any other part of it.

When I was learning to play two guitarists would take turns playing rhythm guitar and lead guitar.  Think of the Beatles in their early rock ‘n roll days, John banged out the rhythm part that moved the band, along with the bass and drums, and George played the cool fills and riffs and took the solos.  We’d take turns.  I became a pretty good rhythm player, and I took pride in playing a solid rhythm part.  Sometimes another player would be so inspired by the solid rhythm part I was laying down he’d solo forever, which soured the whole thing for me.

I don’t know how much of the cutting contest mentality is a result of a capitalist mindset that endlessly compares endlessly competing entities and how much is just homo sapiens nature.   We are, after all, largely powerless, and often pissed off, and trying to unsee the terror we know awaits each one of us at the end of our mortal days.  Maybe that fleeting feeling of supremacy when we step on somebody who’s a little weaker is the best we’re going to get that day.   Count me out of that shit.  I’m busy trying to complete a reasonable written accounting of myself while I’m here.

By the way, I enjoyed the clip of Jonny Lang and Eric Gales.  Gales is great.  I don’t think anybody is cutting anybody here.  They are making a joyful noise.  If you like rock and blues guitar, check ’em out (no idea what’s up with Lang’s hairdo, or Gales’ for that matter).  Here you go.

“I Just Want You To Be Happy”

We were driving north on the Throgs Neck Bridge, my lifelong adversary at the wheel.   When my sister and I were little kids, and the family drove back to Queens over the Whitestone Bridge after visits to the U.S. mainland, my father would point to the towers being built in the channel between the East River and the Long Island Sound.  “When that bridge is done, we’ll have a much quicker ride home,” he said, or words to that effect.  He must have said it several times, because the bridge opened when I was four and a half and I clearly remember him pointing at the bridge being constructed across the Throgs Neck.

We were heading to my apartment on the northern end of Manhattan, I’d had dinner with my parents in Queens, as I did periodically in the years before they moved to Florida.  I was close to forty, and had finally gotten rid of my car (impossible to park in my neighborhood).   I used to make the drive, around 25 minutes each way, but once I ditched my car it was a ninety minute trip each way by subway and walking.   My father was driving me home this particular night.  It was a rare stretch of just the two of us being together in a car.   On the Throgs Neck Bridge, about five minutes from their house, I asked him, point blank, what it was that he wanted from me. 

“You seem eternally unhappy, disappointed, disapproving of my choices in life,” I told him.  It must be said, at that point I’d been fired from a series of jobs and most recently blacklisted from teaching in the public schools after a long ordeal by bureaucracy.  “What would you like me to do to relieve you of those, no doubt painful, feelings?  Is there anything?  Would law school do it for you?” I asked.  “Would you be happy if I became a lawyer?”

I remember the dark Long Island Sound stretching out to the right of us as we headed toward the Bronx.  My father paused.  Then he told me that he would feel differently about my life if only I were happy in what I was doing.  My happiness, he said, was the most important thing to him.  I managed not to say anything snide.   

“You know, if you were happy being an artist… you know, I never understood why you don’t try getting a show in a library, or a hospital, or some place like that, just to get some exposure, get a foot in the door.  You work in isolation and you… I mean, it just seems like a very unhappy life.  I just want you to be happy.  If you were  happy, I’d be satisfied.” 

I explained to him that a show at a library or a nursing home was not a stepping stone toward becoming a professional artist.  An artist only makes a living working in advertising, illustration or becoming a darling of wealthy art collectors, curators and influential art critics.  None of those options appealed to me, I told him, yet I love to draw and that’s that.  I asked him again what it was that I could do that would leave him feeling I was not wasting my life.   

“You don’t have to do anything for me,” he said, steering his Cadillac into a lane for the toll booth.  “I don’t know where you get the idea that you have to do anything for me.  You’ve never sought my advice or input before, I’m a little surprised you’re asking me now.” 

I’m asking you now, I told him, weary from decades of senseless war I had little insight into.  I’d been an antagonistic newborn, an implacable infant, a relentlessly defiant toddler, an angry, fearful school boy, a rebellious, sharp-tongued, disrespectful teenager.  I’ve digested all of these things by now, the first few being patently absurd, the remainder fairly predictable, based on being treated as a challenging little adversary from before my first memory, but at that moment in the car I was seeking a way off of this boundless, senseless battlefield.   

“Only if it would make you happy to become a lawyer,” he said.  “I mean, obviously, I think you have the mind to be an excellent lawyer.”   

And extensive experience with adversarial proceedings, I pointed out.  I don’t recall much more about that long ago conversation, except that I took the LSAT review books out of my local library and took a few sample tests.  I learned later that many people take courses to prepare them for this highly specialized test, but I had long experience cramming for Regents Exams in high school and had always had a knack for these standardized tests (though I had mediocre scores on my SATs, as I recall, but those were taken at my personal height of not giving a fuck about anything).   

I did well enough on my LSATs that, with my college transcripts, I was accepted to all three of the law schools I applied to.  I chose one, took out loans (that I am still repaying more than twenty years later) and the rest, as they say is history.   

“So you’re saying you went to law school in an attempt to please a father you knew to be impossible to please?” said the skeleton of my father, a much different creature than the man who drove us across the Throgs Neck Bridge that night.

Pretty much.   I’ve spent the day today immunosuppressed, working out different ways to play Hoagy Carmichael’s great Lazy River on guitar.   What a beautiful, bluesy, ingenious tune.  Hoagy graduated law school and passed the bar exam on his first try, just like I did.  He was a musical genius and was soon making money as a musician and so never had to experience the grinding that is the fucking law.  I, on the other hand, was forced, for more than a decade, to earn my crust of bread by the stinging sweat of my brow, in the manner of Cain, cursed by his maker. 

Playing that tune, with an involuntary smile when he pulls out some of those great lines, I can forget all about it, until it’s time to put the guitar down.

“Well, you know Elie, we all have to put the guitar down some time,” said the skeleton with great tenderness.

How To Kill Creativity

Perhaps the single most important thing to do, if you wish to extirpate the creative impulse, is to remove joy and spontaneity.   Replace that flush of love that makes somebody dance with a formula to master that will allow them to know exactly where the beat is that they are dancing on.   When dealing with a young person, crushing, or perverting, a love of creativity is fairly easily done.   Take something like singing, which most people like to do and do quite naturally.   

Form a group of children, call it The Singer’s Group.  Make them sit quietly while you tell them all about the joy of singing, the history of human song, the mammalian love of vocalizing going back to the songs of the whale and before.   Then, tell them what they will sing and instruct them, note by note, pausing to point out wherever they have overstayed a dotted half note. 

By this procedure you will find out two things: which children are most anxious to please their teachers and their parents, and which are most hellbent on being creative at any price.   

It’s just me, probably, but I would infinitely prefer to play in a room full of the second kind of child.


Merry Christmas From New York

I was headed downtown to visit friends in from far away.  After a groggy start to Christmas Day, a day that generally fills me with despair,  I was running late, well after the time I’d told my friend I’d aim for.   I had a twenty minute or so southward train ride to get there, then a short walk west.  

As you approach the elevated Number One line at Dyckman Street you can see up the track almost to the next station north.   If you see the southbound train coming around that bend, experience teaches you can catch that train if you run into the station, Metrocard in hand, and make a smart dash straight up the steep steps.  

I went through the turnstile and made my dash smartly, but there was no train.  The one I’d seen, apparently a mirage.  There was no train on the horizon either.  I noticed how winded I was, I’ve run up these stairs many times– this was the most winded I’ve been.  I walked it off.  

At the end of the platform a man was talking on the phone with his back to me.  He had a baby carriage with him.  The baby was also turned away from me, but I noticed how solicitous the man was, walking the baby carriage in little circles to soothe the baby.  I watched them absently for a moment, thinking of the human parent’s instinct, if everything falls right, to comfort their child.  I recall feeling impressed with how this guy was taking care of his baby.

The train came.  The man turned the baby carriage slightly to move his child on to the train.  I could now see that the baby was a full grown beagle, sitting very patiently upright in the baby carriage.   I made a note to tell this story to my friends when I arrived, but as things happened I forgot about it.

We exchanged handshakes, hugs and pleasantries and then my friend said “I have a small gift for you,” as if remembering some trifle.  He went into the other room and returned with the best gift anybody has ever given me, possibly the best gift anyone has ever given anybody.  “It’s really nothing,” he said, handing me a hard-shell ukulele case with the imprint of a palm tree on its shell.

Over the years my friend has mentioned a dream image he has, of himself, sitting on a porch somewhere beautiful at sunset after his work day is done.  His work would be gently but firmly bending wood, plying it, smoothing it, skillfully using tools to turn beautiful wood into a beautiful musical instrument.  In another life, he’d have loved to have been a luthier.  

A few years ago he took a course from a master luthier and made a tenor ukulele, out of beautiful wood, over the course of several weeks.  He sent me photos of it at the time and mildly self-effacing comments about the instrument when it was done.   I opened the case and there was the hand-made ukulele, a very beautiful one.  Everyone I showed it to later could not help stroking it.  It is lovingly detailed, with several unique flourishes, and finished to the texture of perfect skin or something like that.  It is so silky that it’s hard not to pet it if you hold it in your hands.   Everyone who held it did.

It plays beautifully, with a rich tone I haven’t heard from most ukuleles.   He also somehow rigged the lowest string to be in a lower octave, as on a guitar, making this uke a much more useful instrument to play melodies on.  I smiled as I played a little Django ending that had been impossible to play on my other ukes.  Sekhnet could not stop commenting on its beautiful tone, just as I could not stop playing it in the car after we left our friends.  

“What an amazing gift!” Sekhnet said, “I hope you really thanked him.”  I assured her I did.  I think I did, I’m sure I did, I had to have.  Of course, now that I’ve played it for hours, and re-tuned it to concert pitch, I’ll sing its praises some more when I talk to him tomorrow.  He’d looked at the label inside, with his name and the year he made it, 2009, and told me, since he never played it (although he certainly could), that I should have it, since I would play it.  I certainly am playing it.

I played it happily for an hour or so in the background with Sekhet’s family.  Each of them had admiringly held and petted the beautiful instrument, a few even strummed the open chord it plays if you don’t finger the frets.  I then played it all the way back to the city.  When we got back I was concerned that the constantly sleep deprived Sekhnet get some sleep.  I left her and walked to the subway to head uptown.

Being Christmas, it was only natural that the train service would be fucked up.   The high-tech interactive electronic information signs on the subway platform gave random misinformation.   According to the fancy new sign the next A train was a Brooklyn-bound one scheduled to arrive in 46 minutes (average wait is supposed to be about twelve minutes).  There was no information about any uptown trains at all.   “We’re working harder to serve you better,” I said finally to two other sour-faced men waiting for information on the uptown train to take them home Christmas night.

A moment later there was an incomprehensible PA announcement and a Brooklyn-bound A train rumbled in on the downtown platform.   Another announcement began as the Brooklyn-bound train was departing, making a great racket across the station.

The MTA had decided, in its infinite puckishness, to have the crackling, irrelevant, over-driven announcement delivered by the employee with the heaviest and hardest to decipher foreign accent.   I don’t know where this guy was born, but I’m sure the last thing his parents ever dreamed of for him was delivering this incomprehensible message to disgusted New Yorkers over the public address system moments after the end of Christmas Day. I have no idea what he said, but I do recall sincerely muttering something about fucking retards that I do not now feel very proud about having muttered.  

A dirty, smelly beggar was striking out as he made his way toward me on the platform.  He’d start to speak and get waved off.  I saw this happen a few times, found I had a single dollar bill in my pocket and thought “what the fuck?”   When he came toward me I handed him the dollar, which he dropped.  

Before he picked it up, he looked me in the eyes and asked “could you please help me out with two or three more?”  I told him I didn’t have it.  It was true.  My other bills were twenties, and outside of that, I had two pennies.  He continued down the platform and I was reminded of my dislike of people who don’t have the grace to say thanks. 

On the uptown A, which finally arrived, a large man asked “may I sit next to you?”  This is not a question anybody phrases this way on the New York City Subway.  It was the only seat in the car, and I nodded, almost imperceptibly, and without looking up from my book, only because it was the right thing to do.  

Then, because you know what they say about unpunished good deeds, he began humming in a soulful way, and turned his head toward me as I tried to read, which made his humming suddenly way too loud.  He began to sing, in the same manner as his humming, turning his head like a slow moving leslie-speaker to heighten the effect.  

He did that African spiritual-inspired melisma, making every quavering note a long, stylized, if cliched, statement of his soul.   After a few minutes of this I wanted to do something to make him stop. I thought about my vow to remain mild and kept reading.  

A seat opened across the way, and I took it.  I couldn’t hear his fucking singing from over there, and it was a relief.  Suddenly, I smelled ass, dirty feet, filthy clothes.  The smell was coming from the seat behind me, turned out to be a homeless woman.  But the smell wasn’t that bad, it was better than the fucking soul singer.  

The singer got off a few stops later and I went back to where I’d been sitting.  I watched the poor homeless woman, who appeared to be very much insane.  I thought of the almost infinite varieties of suffering in this world, and of God and the mythical baby Jesus weeping over it all, less than an hour after Christmas.  I  took out the ukulele, played a bit of Django’s version of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and put the lovely instrument into its protective case as the train pulled into Dyckman Street.

As I walked up the hill to my apartment, carrying the perfect tenor ukulele my old friend had made, I thought of the blessings of this life. Those blessings are not the physical things everyone is taught to covet, of course, but what lies behind them, what we might call their spiritual dimension– what they represent in terms of our souls.   If the physical manifestation is also a beautiful thing, that’s ideal.

I thought of my friend’s ancient mother, now well-past ninety and noticeably much older than the last time I saw her, not that long ago.  She made mention tonight of her approaching death.  I’d never heard her speak of death, but when I quickly broached the subject of Trump, during a moment when her son had gone back upstairs to fetch something she’d forgotten, she told me that the only good in it for her is that this would be a good time for her to die.  

I told her that my mother, at the end of her life, had begged me to promise her that Sarah Palin would never be the president.  I made the promise and I’m as sure as it is reasonable to be that Sarah Palin will never be the president of the United States.  There are things as unthinkable as President Sarah Palin, but that’s an imponderable story for another time.

When I put her son’s ukulele in her hands she immediately began stroking it.   She admired it for a long time, and mused about how many other hidden talents her talented son had (he was cooking a delicious smelling dinner at the time).  

Later, sitting around the coffee table, my friend’s mother smiled, and pointed at her son and her grandson, huddled over the young man’s cellphone, looking at photos of some of the grandson’s recent architectural projects, I assume.   To her daughter, with a big smile, she said “kvelling…” This is Yiddish for a parent’s pleasure in seeing their child do something that makes them kvell with pride.  The daughter looked at her blankly and asked “who?”   

“Me,” said the old woman happily, as she pointed to her chest with a gnarled hand.

I’ll See You in My Dreams

Stop me if I told you this one already, dad.  It starts with my love for soul music, which I got from you.  It’s impossible to overestimate the value, to me, of those flat Sam Goody bags you’d bring home from downtown Brooklyn with the latest Sam Cooke record inside.

Mister Soul,” said the skeleton of my father. 

You’d put that new disc on the turntable in the living room and I’d groove to each new track, before I even had the words to describe a groove, the feel, the voice, the thrilling freedom of a guy playing with time the way Sam Cooke did.

“Yeah, and of course, he had to be shot for that, for good old American values,” said the skeleton.  

Like Patrice Lumumba.  

“Lumumba died for freedom,” said the skeleton, raising a bony fist.

We’d listen to those Sam Cooke records in the living room and they would transport us. Mom would play Johnny Mathis, and I dug that music too, and the way his voice was drenched with reverb, a thing I also couldn’t identify, but loved from the start.   Love of music is no small thing.

“Well, your mother and I both loved music.  Somebody, maybe Nietzsche, said without music life would be a mistake,” said the skeleton.  

It would certainly be as mistaken as a life without sex, something many millions don’t need to imagine.

“True enough,” said the skeleton. “But I know all about your love for Sam Cooke and how big a favor I did to your musical taste by marinating you in Sam Cooke when you were but a tadpole.  What’s the story you said you may have told me already?”

Oh, yeah.  One afternoon, as mom was getting close to her first and last trip to Hospice By The Sea, which was a lovely place but actually miles from the nearest sea, I heard her groaning from her bed and went in with my guitar.  I don’t know if she was asleep or awake.  She might have been in pain or having a bad dream about death, an eventuality she was determined not to talk about.  

I sat by the bed and played a gentle samba-like vamp with my fingertips.  It was the most soothing thing I’d come up with in my life and I thought it would calm her.  She became quiet and I figured I’d lulled her back to sleep.

She opened her eyes, lifted her head off the pillow and said irritably “what IS that?  It sounds terrible.  It always sounds like you’re tuning your guitar.”  

I never understood that.   Here was a woman who loved music, pop music, opera, show tunes, country music, every kind of music. What was this “it always sounds like you’re tuning your guitar” shit?   We finally had a conversation about it.  

It turned out, much to my surprise, that she was no fan of instrumental music, had never liked it.  When she listened to music she listened to the singers, their passion, the stories their songs told.  That’s why, once she discovered it late in life, she loved country music: the big personalities of the singers and the great stories apparently told in many of the songs.  “I never liked jazz, I love the melodies, I don’t care for improvisation.  I listen to music like I read books: for a good story told in a great voice.”

I remember thinking, damn!  I always assumed she was just being a dick, out of unhappiness with her own life, crapping on something I loved to do– play the guitar.  I never sang, I wanted to play well enough to be an instrumentalist– a thing my mother, weeks before she died, told me she had no understanding of.  In fact, she told me explicitly that she often had a hard time recognizing a song just by hearing the melody played on a guitar.

“Damn…” said the skeleton.

A year earlier mom began crying at the thought that she’d never hear my singer friend Joe sing again.  I had Joe over to my apartment, opened garageband — a program that allowed me to accompany and record Joe and overdub other instruments afterwards–  and accompanied him on a dozen or so songs from the Great American songbook.  After he left I recorded a few more instrumental parts, but left the accompaniments spare, his voice front and center, with a nice dollop of reverb.  

I brought the CD down to Florida, popped it into the computer and played it for her.  She was painfully polite about it, how sweet of us it had been to try to make some music for her, but the music had clearly not done anything for her.

About a month later I was talking to her on the phone and she reported “the most amazing thing!”   She’d been lying in bed listening to her iPod and suddenly Joe was singing and it was so beautiful she couldn’t believe it, she had no idea how the song had even got on her iPod.   It sounded like he was singing in a big hall.  It was gorgeous!  

“Which she pronounced ‘gawgiss’,” said the skeleton.  

Yeah.  I explained to her that I’d put the tunes on her iPod from the CD, and if she found a playlist called Joe DiSalle Trio she could hear all dozen or so tunes we’d recorded for her.   I coyly asked her what she thought of the trio (which was me on guitar, keyboard and bass) and she said they were good.  I explained that the big hall sound was a kind of reverb, called “big hall”,  that I’d added to Joe’s voice to give him that Johnny Mathis sound.  I told her I wasn’t surprised it sounded so much better on the iPod, as it was mixed to be heard in stereo through headphones and not over the crappy speakers of the computer in the den.

“Nice story,” said the skeleton.  

Yeah, but that’s not the story.  So a couple of days after cracking up a room full of hospice women in her bedroom in your apartment, she’s suddenly feeling like shit.  She often said “I don’t know why I feel so goddamned shitty all the time!” in the months before she finally died.  I knew not to make any linkage to her approaching death from a painful and wasting cancer that had spread to her whole body.

“Which was kind of you,” said the skeleton.

Anyway, they finally took her, on a gurney, down to an ambulance to take her to Hospice by the Sea.  One of the magpies that used to sit with Ed Pulley and his dim girlfriend on those benches in the parking lot, a woman mom always hated, a nosy ignoramus and a racist, called out “they’re taking another one to die!”  In that case she was right, but what the fuck?  

At the hospice mom lingered for a few days.  I brought my ukulele and I was working on a solo version of I’ll See You in My Dreams, which I played many times while I sat in the room there.  Not long before the end, as I continued to play it, mom turned to me with a big smile and said “I’ll See You in My Dreams!”