Learning Your Craft
Lots of guy learn to play guitar simply to impress girls but those with serious intent usually separate themselves from the pack by progressing rapidly and seeking out performance opportunities, which is where you really learn your craft because you see instantly what works. Getting feedback from strangers is essential to growth and if you are in any way good, you will own your weaknesses and learn to separate the constructive comments from the crap. During a live set, I once had an obese lady throw a dill pickle at at me in what I initially believed to be an expression of dissatisfaction until she pulled out another, (from where I do not know), placed it between her rather large breasts and started licking it. While this didn’t count as nuanced feedback on the performance taking place, I did take it to mean that whatever song we were playing in that moment was provoking a definite reaction and should maybe remain in the set (or not). See, that’s profound and memorable feedback you would never get in a pure rehearsal situation or when playing for friends.
It’s a general truism that praise from a family member or a close friend (or sales person) is mostly meaningless outside of its ability to soothe and encourage – unless, or until, it is balanced by input from a neutral third party with specific knowledge in the domain under consideration. In absence of such it becomes an American Idol kind of thing where the tone-deaf contestant submits for an audition on the encouragement of a drunk uncle who sort of, kind of used to be in a band that, back in the day, got really close to making it. And when the contestant gets slaughtered by the judges, they really never saw it coming because no one had “the talk” with them about their actual prospects for a music career. Not to say that American Idol judges (or drunk uncles) are especially knowledgeable (some are, some aren’t) but there is a certain level of bad that is objectively observe-able in those desperate for a shot at stardom. Let’s just say that playing some tunes at the family barbecue picnic is fine though should never be confused as a general validation of talent.
A Very Short Artist and RCareer
As I pointed out in this post, there were many cover bands in the East Point, College Park, and Sylvan Hills areas with most of them working the local bar circuit while writing originals in hopes of attracting record company interest. Many were accomplished in faithfully reproducing the rock tunes of the day with some of them choosing to play songs likely to appeal only to other musicians. This became a problem for club owners whose priority was to sell alcohol. (No one can easily dance to “Roundabout” by Yes). Thus, bands would have to calibrate their performances for dancing and drinking or risk not being invited back. In their group biography, Aerosmith referenced a deliberate intent to avoid the cover band grind so they could focus on their original set even if it meant living in poverty and having to steal food. While playing 5 sets, 6 nights a week will do wonders for your musical chops, and put a few bucks in your pocket, breaking out of that into a record contract is difficult especially if your original songs are simple approximations of the covers used to promote beer purchases.
I went to Los Angeles right before “hair metal” peaked and the glut of bands made it pointless for anyone to come to LA since there were a million groups already present most of whom were equally as good as, if not much better than, anything you could bring to town. It was a peculiar mix of desperation, greasy long hair, and onset alcoholism. The mayor should have put up a sign “Dear Rock Bands – No Vacancy. There is No Room for You. Go back Now“. Everyone was incredibly insecure and restless which led to aggressive drug use and frequent personnel turnover as guys jumped ship to find that “magic” combination that would land them the top marquee spot at Gazzarri’s, The Whiskey, or The Starwood. (See Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years which explores this topic in much greater depth). Once “pay to play” was implemented it should have been a sign that maybe you go back home and roll the dice there (and much more cheaply). Some bailed out of the hair metal scene and landed in “New’ Country bands – a genre just then getting off the ground. Most found straight jobs or enrolled in College and generally adjusted to a life of convention. Some, however, couldn’t let it go and kept at it even though hair metal continued to wane in popularity.
You Guys Are Marvelous, Let’s Keep In Touch
I once shared a large number of drinks with an A&R guy at Atlanta’s Charley Magruders who was in town to scout one of “The South’s hottest bands“. I was astonished by his capacity for alcohol as well as his general knowledge of politics and science which dominated that evening’s discussion even as everyone else was totally digging the band. This didn’t make a lot of sense to me so I asked him about the group, “Oh them”, he said, as if they were an intrusive presence, like an apartment neighbor playing the stereo too loud. “Well the singer is too pudgy, the guitar player is good but he looks 35, their songs are average – they are more like jams, not real songs and, besides, everyone else has passed on them”. So he was there just for the drinks – the band’s manager was picking up his tab (and by extension mine). He had absolutely no intention of signing them with the main reason being that no other record company wanted them so how could they be any good – outside of the club scene, that is ? When the sweat soaked singer (he actually was kind of fat) looked over at the A&R guy for the smallest sign of approval, my host raised his glass high and gave the thumbs up as if watching a 26 year old Mick Jagger lather up the crowds at Madison Square Garden. Al Pacino would have been envious, so masterful was the acting.
He invited me to join him and his boss (my potential employer) not long thereafter at Danny’s in Marietta where he similarly rejected another “hottest band in Atlanta“. It was particularly awkward when the singer and guitar player sheepishly strolled over to check-in during a break. My record label friend adopted a hyper-supportive tone,“Dynamite set guys. Any hotter and we would have to call the fire department”. Wow. What a line. Any career I had been contemplating in A&R ended that evening as I didn’t relish the idea of having to lie so overtly to bands. I was told to treat it like a mediocre date – be positive and polite, promise to call, but let it fade into history and if you just have to be honest, then do it via phone to eliminate the possibility of physical assault. I was really good at identifying talent (still am) just that I lacked the tolerance for accommodating the endless layers of bullshit endemic to the music business. The bands that did get signed believed quite mistakenly that their troubles were over and certain fame awaited. But of course, that rarely panned out and the A&R guy who signed them would always leave or get fired leaving them with no advocate at the office. But that’s okay. Everyone at the label “still believes in you, baby” even as they quietly drop the option for the second record and slowly, yet firmly, show you the door “Let’s keep in touch, you are so talented“.
There is a type of musician who, in the presence of more flashy players, can easily go unnoticed though you quickly realize that he or she is instinctively covering a lot of parts musically and vocally, while writing songs that do an end-around on your critical thinking filters. As an example, instead of using a complicated chord progression, they “see through it” and offer a tasteful alternative that is easier to play and provides fluid voice leading ultimately resulting in something better with much less effort. Most of these guys are what I call intuitive musicians who see the bigger picture of any song and work inwards to remove the junk, thus allowing the essence of the song to become evident – as opposed to the more technical musician who just likes to throw in things on top. The late Sonny Sharrock characterized most rock guitarists as “Jugglers”, musicians who have a set number of “tricks” they rotate though or juggle as part of their performances. It doesn’t take long before you’ve heard all of their tricks and become bored.
But there were two guys in Sylvan Hills who were of this intuitive type. The first was Terry K. whose Father was a local music teacher. Terry was part of The Spontaneous Generation who had a regional release in 1968 with “Up In My Mind” backed by The Who’s “Pictures of Lily”. Jan Whitten was also in the band (cousin of Mike Whitten, the original drummer in the Atlanta rock band Alien). Most people from Sylvan Hills will probably remember an unfortunate accident which resulted in Terry’s general withdrawal from life though he still wrote songs and served as a sounding board for others. While he wasn’t the type of guy who mastered note-for-note renditions of something like Third Stone from the Sun he could comfortably sit in with someone who had and offer complimentary accompaniment all without much preparation. He had a solid ear, almost like a jazzer, so hearing chords and melodies was easy for him. Need a harmony line ? No problem. Advice on a chord substitution ? Sure. A complimentary descending keyboard chordal sequence ? How many do you want ?
There was another guy name Olin Rainwater who fell into this category though he was far more prolific in terms of musical output having written hundreds of songs. He was truly a walking band in the sense that he could sing, play guitar, and write tunes so he required minimal backup to perform. He could have easily been a power trio guy in the vein of Mountain or Creem as his lead lines were bluesy and his rhythm was spot on even as he was singing. The act of singing and playing simultaneously came quite naturally to him whereas I always struggled with that. When it came to covers, Olin was able to listen to songs, even those with rich instrumentation and complex arrangements, and boil them down to the essentials. Oh, he might miss some of the extensions but his ultimate chord selections captured the right tonality while leaving room for the color tones which he could supply vocally. Amazingly, he could do this within minutes of hearing a song and, best of all, be ready to perform it not long thereafter. Now, that’s talent and courage that few people have. I would still be worried about whether a chord was an F#minor with a flat 5 and he would be like, “No, let’s do it. 1-2-3, go”. That he was so confident bolstered my confidence which made it all so much easier. It was an additive, no, a multiplicative effect that was truly liberating. When people trust each other, great things can happen.
While rehearsal was important, he also liked to throw songs my way (his own or cover tunes) which required learning the song as the band was playing it. This involved me looking at his guitar neck, copping the chords, and internalizing the structure – again, while the song was being played. He might solo but it was just as likely he would give me the nod. It all somehow worked – not because I was so good but because I didn’t have to worry about him dropping the beat or screwing up which only emboldened me to try things I normally would not have. Like me, he was a Stones fan particularly of the weaving interplay between the two guitars where the listener might not be able to immediately distinguish who is playing what. It all sounds so well integrated that there is no need to dissect it. Besides, if that even crossed your mind it simply meant the performance was at best average.
When it came to writing songs, I didn’t know what his process was but it was fast and versatile such that he could write to a title or a phrase or begin with a set of chords. However, he told me that his biggest challenge was the distraction of having multiple options. He felt he could go in different directions – rock, country, R&B, or avant-garde and it wasn’t clear what the most expedient thing would be. And the resulting confusion undermined his goal setting efforts. Most people are limited in a way that makes these considerations largely academic or irrelevant, but Olin was gifted in an absolute sense so I could appreciate his struggle (not that I shared in it) just that he truly had a number of possibilities that most artists do not. And there was always the tug of financial obligation which led to a stint with local oldies band The Cruise-O-Matics. just to pay some bills.
There are a number of stories to relate though I’ll let it sit for now. I do recall with great fondness in the mid 80s stopping by his apartment on Pharr Rd which he shared with his future wife Sloan. At the time I was living behind the original Longhorn Steak house on Peachtree so it was easy to pop by and talk, learn tunes, and generally shoot the breeze. We had both left the south side for more convenient access to things and Buckhead was only in the earliest stages of becoming the obnoxious night time entertainment district that it would grow to be. However, then it was easy to get around. But as is the case in life, he went his way, I went mine and it was quite some time before I spoke with him courtesy of a chance encounter with Sloan. Unfortunately, he passed away a couple of years ago but it was really good to reconnect. For a taste of his music check out this video compilation assembled by Dean (a fellow south sider and good friend to Olin) which is just a sample of a much larger catalogue of impressive stylistic variety. I have an 8-track tape of some of his sessions completed at Song Bird studio off of Howell Mill Rd which I plan to convert to MP3 – as soon as I find an 8-track player to do so. © 2019 The Stewart Avenue Kid