When a non-musician aspires to lofty heights of musical accomplishment, any number of things can happen. Occasionally a pretty face or limited talent is propped up by someone who can fill out the soundscape either to highlight a star’s exceptional ability or to mask lack thereof. Sometimes an absence of theoretical training is trumped by sheer force of will, and the non-musician strikes an artistic and commercial nerve as an Oasis or Nirvana. Less significantly (but at least as admirably), a guy like Robert Pollard can spend many long years and albums toiling in expensive obscurity before catching the world’s ear with something like Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand, crafting an ingenious piece of music while essentially remaining unmusical.1 By and large, we tend to view these kinds of people as having been possessed by some innate gift or power, and wrap them in enough magazine mythos to make them seem remote, otherworldly, unreachable.
At their most potently influential, however, these rare case studies are best read as a reminder that with enough drive and determination, otherwise-amateurs can make something to transcend themselves. After all, there’s no shortage of bad Oasis or Pollard records to demonstrate that even having created works of art on a par with anyone’s,2 these people remain very much sub-superhuman. And I’ve profitably dredged enough overwhelmingly dire records by now to believe pretty firmly that any band in the world is capable of creating at least one Great song for the records, should they really care to try. Or, to paraphrase Joe Carducci: “Never underestimate four randomly selected Americans’ ability to come up with listenable shit.”
It’s harder for me yet to tell what happens, exactly, when that non-musician is me. The Story could already fill a small book, but remains largely unwritten as both literature and life-in-the-making. (In its immodest way, this blog is a rough draft recollection of what one could maybe someday call the former.) Regardless of what the outcome winds up being in either form, though, it was a literary moment that spring of 2007, when a sebiferous disciple of hipster cynicism approached me at school and said, in passing,
“Your ambition far outweighs your talent.”
The fact that he saw this as an insult rather than an asset spoke louder words than the barbed ones he spat my way, but I could still feel the sting in his venom-spittle as he turned and walked away. Old Pollard could probably relate, having endured reddernecked variants of comment box-sized contempt in backwoods Ohio for years before the outside world took a listen and really heard something.3
Which is not to say that this kind of criticism is unwarranted, or at all unhealthy for the criticized: in truth, most of Guided By Voices’ early records are pretty disposable,4 and even though that lightly greased hepcat had no way to be truly sure of it, my band back then deserved his jeers. In essence, we were then a very sincere joke: a couple times a week we would doff all inhibition, don garishly stupid closet debris, and get together at Dilan’s practice space — him drumming and Dylan guitaring (very eloquently) whilst I would play the bass and my exceptional friend Pete sang (very not). Pals of each and all were invited often, and corollary cameras soon bore chemical witness to me in meshbare P.E. rags, Dilan impartial beneath dad-era Boston Bruins headgear, Pete looking studious in a labcoat and 3D spectacles, and Dylan in various stages of hairy cross-dress. Weezer’s “El Scorcho” was steamrolled repeatedly, typically with Pete or me verbally harassing the microphone, a detail mercifully intangible to friends’ lenses — although it should be little surprise that someone might see these photographs and ascertain that we sucked.
So it’s rather remarkable, then, just how much that music changed the life of that non-musician me. Over the quick couple months to come, the force behind my vague dream would forge beautiful friendships while torching others; provide me with experiences alternately unforgettable and regrettable; introduce me to people I would love and would not, in equal measure; and any number of other literary clichés that are commonplace in fiction, but quite a trip to actually live out. All this in the pursuit of something that was, at the time, little more than a bad weekly jam session.
I still remember how Dilan introduced me to Jack, for purposes unrelated to music but rather to a film Dilan and I had made about denim jackets and orange juice. This was a work of art beyond the pale of iMovie, I decided, and so Dilan — who possessed plenty of expensive software he put to no particular use, but not Final Cut — brought me to Jack’s house one night, claiming that he was the kind of kid to have Final Cut installed on his laptop. He did; he was also the kind of kid to lend that laptop to me for a weekend without ever having met me before, like it was no less natural a thing to do than shake hands (which, of course, we didn’t do). As it turns out, Jack thought I would be a person worth knowing after he saw a schoolwide screening of one of my videos a few months prior, so perhaps his cryptic generosity bore an ulterior motive. Either way, the gambit worked: I was intrigued by this curly-haired quiet-type so willing to give his laptop away to a total stranger, and in the span of an evening his unique image burnt itself lightly into my psyche.
And so it happened: Upon our arrival, we found Jack pacing impatiently about his backroom — an extension to his house that at night functioned as a sort of backlit fishbowl, its contents illumined for all the critter rabble and other backyard voyeurs to see. His parents weren’t home, and he felt comfortable chain-smoking inside — a decision he would soon regret, when the effects of the amphetamine salts began to wear off (school had imbued in him a taste for Adderall, for which “speed” was his exaggerative shorthand). Dilan was flying sober insofar that I knew, but his demeanor seemed more drugged than Jack’s subtle high let on: he fell asleep during Pulp Fiction, woke up to drum sedative rhythms on Jack’s dilapidated kit (which Jack could not play), strummed questionable chords on the guitar (which Jack could), kneeled briefly at the mouth of a rainy driveway to no discernible end, channel surfed his way to a fragment of Kindergarten Cop that seemed briefly to hypnotize him, snored loudly while attempting to rest his bare feet on Jack’s face, and ate the most phone-number pizza of anyone in the house by a large margin. I can’t remember if he left or expired on the couch, but he faded fast from the memory of the night either way.
Meanwhile, Jack and I spent the many dark hours commiserating in shared insomnia. The demons haunting me probably lingered from another disappointing morning on the river, a regular reminder of my health’s recent and inexplicable deterioration. As for Jack, I’d imagine the bloodstream torrent of nicotine and psychostimulants weren’t helping him find peace. To offset the issue, he dropped some Air into his stereo and let the pretty French atmospherics mix with the marijuana smoke soon exiting his lungs. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about — just the kind of thoughts and details you wouldn’t normally reveal to someone you just met. The words trailed off around when the Air did, evaporating gently into morning dew and birdsong.
Jack had disappeared by the time I woke up, but kept himself lodged in my mind with a well-placed email that, in its brief two lines, seemed to reflect a more compelling character than I had found in any other schoolmate of mine over the past four years. Still, borrowing his laptop and occasionally gallivanting with him to rock shows would have meant little if not for the context of our own rock; Jack, after finding out I had a band, let on repeatedly that he knew his way around some pretty okay chords. I had my initial reservations, but eventually invited him to fill in for Dylan at a lead male singer audition. That potential frontman wound up flaking in favor of a 16-and-over night at some cardboard club downtown,5 but Jack twanged his way through “El Scorcho” and handled his acoustic guitar well enough. He seemed capable of adding some solid rhythmic support behind Dylan’s impressive leads, and so he was given the date and time for the next one.
Conceivably, the next one could be called the night it all came together. At least literally: all past practices had been corralled on the fly, the floor-strewn instruments picked up and plugged in by whoever was around to play them — but this was the night that the whole team made it. Crucially, Pete met Jack, and the two commemorated what would soon become a rich friendship by indulging in a great din on Dilan’s keyboard and drumset. I missed what they would inform me were rather good “primal jams” when I returned, however, as I was off getting Marie.
Marie had been my best friend for about a year or two. We met during the earlier half of high school through a confluence of mutual friends and the internet, beginning with the nice compliments she gave me in the form of Xanga comments (replete with eProps) at a time when I was on the precipice of a bizarre long distance relationship and had someone to feel jealous about me. I visited her house one day with friends Melanie and Melissa, and Marie briefly interviewed me vapid talk show-style before them about my music tastes, how I made mixtapes (extravagant productions, always), and asked me questions about my first kiss (which I was still a few months off from having; when I replied “haven’t had it,” the two-girl live audience to my left squirmed and like children half their age hearing Santa Claus might, in fact, be real again), among a few more sexually direct talking points I wasn’t very used to discussing, least of all with a stranger. It made her interesting to me, a little bit edgy, and while I didn’t start hanging out with her regularly till more than half a year later, there was enough intrigue to leave open the possibility of a great friendship.
By the time I had drafted her as the girly voice in my band, that possibility had already blossomed into something pretty lovely, as far as friendships go. Having her at practice felt right, and she provided an estrogen offset to help palliate the wildly imbalanced hormonal makeup of our practices. By the time I brought her back to Dilan’s space that night, the guys were already limbered up and ready to lend some helping hands to my silly-puddy ideas. Of course, there was the inevitable reading of “El Scorcho.”
Dilan’s friend Drew was around to film the proceedings, thankfully, and I quickly pieced together a small document of the evening on some cheap editing software discovered on Dilan’s PC. Looking back on it, there’s little to appreciate there musically, but it’s a nice little memento of what was then a very sunny side of my life. Pete’s prescription pill percussion, Dylan’s gender-bending patriotics and cheese-funk guitar solos, a rare appearance of Jack on the keys, Marie’s reminiscence on our favorite rock documentary, and my early efforts to figure out the instrument hanging from my neck as anything more than fashion accessory made for quite the ramshackle arrangement, held together against all odds by Dilan’s stickum drumwork. It was not a bad place to start for an aspiring non-musician, filled with curiosity and ideas just small enough to express in such limited vocabulary. You could only tell I was reaching for bigger things by the way my hands fumbled up and off the fretboard.
- Without getting academic, I’m defining the standards for musicianship pretty harshly here. I’d personally call anyone who’s made a good song a “musician,” but let’s suppose — as many do — the term means someone who has a robust understanding of theory, or could have at least made a living as a session player had not synthetic sound crippled the profession (i.e., I am so good at what I do that you will pay me to do it for you). For what it’s worth, Pollard at the top of his game considered the epithet an insult, while one of the Gallaghers once insisted that playing your first chord qualifies as musical christening. Brian Eno, one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century, has said for decades that he’s not a musician at all. [↩]
- Pollard’s basement pop homebrew, at its fizzy best, sibilates the senses in ways unlike any other sonic spirits; and Oasis’ boldest field-filling anthems are as sweepingly effective as the form gets. [↩]
- Years after writing these words, I found myself sat at a table in an impossibly decorous dining hall as a more-ambitious-than-talented (yet deservedly moneyed) mogul turned and challenged the young musical savant next to me: “If you can’t make it in [conversationally relevant New Jersey podunk], how are you gonna make it in New York?” I almost brought up Pollard and Guided By Voices, a band for whom he was once The Bigwig, but thought better of it. [↩]
- Pollard used to throw them, like remedial beer bottles, at the walls of his soon-to-be-sacralized basement. [↩]
- Either that or he showed up and timidly flubbed his way through the couple songs he hadn’t learned at home. I seem to remember both of these things happening. [↩]