The Love You Bring Won’t Mean A Thing
I’m going to tell you a secret…
I don’t like to play guitar.
Ok, lemme qualify that. I don’t like to play guitar at my shows. In a perfect world (one in which my entire iTunes catalogue comprises the iTunes Store’s Top 100 Albums for a year straight), my band would include both rhythm and lead guitar players. And I would just sing.
I’ve been singing as long as I can remember. It comes pretty easy. I don’t think much about it; it just works. I took a few voice lessons about twenty years ago, but they didn’t really stick. So I have some bad habits. I do this weird vocal flip thing, where I kind of turn the sound over in my throat and transform it from proper singing to more of a warble or a wail (I blame Michael Stipe). Sometimes I kinda sound like I’m from the south, even though I’m not (ditto). Still, people have always seemed to respond to my voice. But instruments? Totally different thing.
I tried piano in second grade. When my mom figured out I was playing by ear, though, I got the boot. Then I tried flute. (I wanted to play trumpet, but my parents had been through the racket with my brother.) I played for two years (by which point the prospect of playing flute in junior high school became absolutely unacceptable). I still couldn’t read music. So I stuck with singing: chorus, school plays, talent show, and then the high school rock band thing. I was good at it. Chicks dug it. But something was still missing…
I bought my first guitar (an Ibanez) in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at Syracuse. My high school band was defunct, and I’d yet to form Smokey Junglefrog. So my primary motivation was to be able to write songs. My secondary motivation was to not have to rely on a band for anything. And my tertiary motivation went back to one fateful evening the fall prior…
One of the women (girls?) in the dorm room across the hall invited me on the Delta Delta Delta hay ride. I wasn’t so into the Greek thing, or hatrides, but I was into her. The pledges were strictly prohibited from bringing booze. So there we were on a beautiful fall night sitting in a circle around a fire, stone cold sober, and some chumpy, blonde-haired, Greek alphabet wearing rugby player is strumming his acoustic and singing Grateful Dead songs. Every woman around the fire pit was mesmerized.
‘Note to self,’ I thought.
So I bought a guitar. And I taught myself how to play it. Chords, mostly. Nothing fancy: G, C, D, E. Later I got hip to bar chords — B minor! C sharp minor! And nowadays I can hack through a solo (and did all over “Heartland.”
I’m not gonna say it was an instant success, but I did meet the woman I dated for three years at Smokey Junglefrog’s very first show.
I played my acoustic about thirty percent of the time in SJF. Mostly, though, I played the front man: dancing, gesturing, swaying, bobbing, boozing, joking, laughing — working the room. It was more theatrical. It was more reckless, more absorbing, less mathematical, freer. I loved it.
I graduated college in 1993. Smokey Junglefrog broke up shortly thereafter. I wanted to show the guys I didn’t need them. And I wanted something to do with my summer. So I released my first solo album (a cassette, really) that fall. I released my first CD, “Bloom,” the following spring. (My hypomania was in full affect even then.) I scraped together band mates, and began again.
Thing is, when you’re a singer/songwriter, you’re kinda stuck holding the guitar. Your band isn’t really a band, per se. They’re a bunch of guys who might like your songs, or might not. Either way, they’re not their songs. It’s not a democracy. You’re not all in it together. Most likely, they’re in it for the money. Not in a bad way, that’s just usually the way it is. So nobody in the band knows the songs better than you do. And you’re the band leader. So you kinda’ gotta play the thing. And while I can certainly play guitar and sing in time no sweat, it just doesn¹t feel comfortable. You’re kinda bound to the thing. You can’t move as quickly. You have to think more than feel. And in general, I feel better than I think. I could do a better job singing if that¹s all I had to do.
The downside of playing less shows these days is that I have to rehearse more when I do perform. I’ve been rehearsing all week for Saturday night’s show. Which brings me to tonight. I’m standing on my deck, staring into the sun, running through the set: “Flirting With Disaster,” “Harder To Believe” — you’ll have to come out Saturday for the whole thing. And I think to myself, ‘Wow, I don’t really like strumming this thing.’ I love the sound of the thing: all warm and deep. I love writing songs. I love getting lost in that process. I love recording. But man, I wish I could just sing on Saturday night. Cuz I think I sing pretty well. Singing’s all right brain; all intuition, all big picture.
So… now you know. I’m glad I can play guitar. I’m glad I can write songs. And I don’t particularly mind performing with it. But if I got a record deal tomorrow? F it.