Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Narcissistic Confessions

It's long overdue for me to explain to whomever might be reading this why I created and continue to maintain a website about myself (which includes this blog, wherein I also blog about myself).  I admit I've gotten a little carried away with the whole thing - there's a lot of information here.  I'm on a fence about being ashamed/embarrassed to the point of deleting it all, and being really proud of it.  Although it could easily be interpreted as a sad thing for someone to do, I have to confess that working on it makes me happy.  Here are a few insights into my motivation to do such a thing:

Write what you know:  "They" say write what you know, and everyone's favorite subject is themselves, there's no denying it.  Get someone talking about themselves in conversation and they'll like you even when you yourself hardly speak.  I'm a writer for my day job anyway, and often enjoy different types of creative writing in my free time.  Having my own website is an extension of what I'd be doing anyway.  Perhaps bits and pieces of what I've written in these pages will become part of a more formal book someday, you never know.

Fake it 'till you make it:  As a songwriter, I'm like most others in that I'd like my songs to reach a wider audience.  When you love writing songs but you're not a great performer, you call yourself a songwriter - meaning you think it would be cool if a famous artist recorded one of your songs.  When you haven't had a famous artist record one of your songs yet, "they" consider you "aspiring" or "emerging" or some similar word.  And when you're aspiring, they advise you to present yourself like a pro until you become a pro.  This site is a step in that direction.

Vocational practice:  As a career professional writer, you've got to keep up with changes in technology.  All forms of writing are online and electronic now, and gone are the days when a writer could turn in a hand-written, pen-on-paper work and a publishing company did the rest.  I started by writing instructional manuals meant for printing, and now what I write is rarely printed by its readers - people not only buy written works online, but they also read them online now.  As a way to improve my skills with various online writing technologies, I started creating websites with "practice" subject matter, and happened to use my interest in songwriting as a topic.  This evolved into the you're visiting today.  It has also led me to indeed become skilled with webmastering to the point where at my current employer I regularly maintain websites, as well as moonlighting as a website designer/maintainer for personal clients in my free time for extra money.

Online presence trend:  In recent years, our social world has changed drastically due to advances in technology.  Everyone has a computer, and everyone is online now.  The internet isn't just for celebrities and people who are trying to sell something.  Instead of the limitations of free social network profiles where you write about yourself, why not have the freedom of your own domain and website so you can really go to town?  If like most people I'm going to post some online information about myself on Facebook anyway, I can now experiment with layout, formatting, presentation, graphic art, multimedia, etc. in addition to writing and paint a more interesting, detailed and complete picture of myself this way.

The mad scientist thing:  Although I suspect most people I know would describe me as reasonably outgoing and social, there is a side to me that is a loner.  Writers are by nature lone wolves to a certain extent, and I've always gravitated to individual as opposed to team sports.  Similarly, songwriting is a solitary pursuit, and the introverted side of me craves quiet time alone for this.  Rather than being a performer as a solo act or as a member of a band, which I've enjoyed in the past, my involvement in music has evolved to the point where I lean toward recording in my home studio lab as yet another way to express myself - mad scientist-style.  Tinkering with my website is an extension of this same kind of madness.

My Take On Folk Music

The exposure factor.  If you grew up in the Flint, MI area in the 70's & 80's like I did, chances are you didn't really know what folk music was.  As an adult, I'm still not sure I know, despite people telling me I write folk songs.

When you look up what folk is, you get the impression it is supposed to be played by common, everyday people who are non-trained amateurs that don't have much musical talent or skill.  Definitions for folk make you think of poor people who grew up in remote areas with no formal education who play simple music taught to them by the oral tradition on homemade instruments.

When you go to listen to live folk, you find that the folk music scene is full of very talented, formally-trained singers and players.  Today's folk world is made up of very sophisticated, highly-educated people from urban areas who prefer instrumentally complex music played by the formally-trained, literate and highly-skilled on vintage premium instruments like Martin guitars that cost well over a thousand dollars.
Common people, fitting in & acceptance.  I think of Garage Rock and Punk Rock as a couple of examples of genres where you don't have to be a great writer, player or singer to participate and fit in.  Despite folk's history however, modern folk is the complete opposite of garage and punk, where you are much more likely to find people who know how to read music, who took lessons, who understand theory even.

Liberals and open mindedness. One might surmise that it's historical association with liberals like Pete Seeger would mean it would be an accepting bunch, but then when one learns that Pete himself thought it was terrible that Bob Dylan "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival in the 60's,  you get a glimpse that there are narrow-minded "purists."  Even though average singers and players with simple songs ought to be accepted, and even though the typical folk crowd is full of people you'd think were very liberal, open-minded and welcoming of those average, simple musicians, in reality, they are elitists with high expectations, narrow-minded in what they want to hear.  Theoretically, if you grew up on a farm and your grandpa taught you three chords and some songs his grandpa taught him on the back porch, even though you can barely sing or play them, it ought to be acceptable for you to show up and play them on an old guitar you bought for twenty bucks in a pawn shop because you're just a regular guy, but I have not found that to be the case at all.

For example,  Once I went to a house concert/guitar pull/hootenany/"in-the-round" songwriter's group/club type of thing, where they take turns playing a song, politely applauding, offering supportive/constructive criticism, and the like.  When I showed up, they were freaked out by my black acoustic/electric guitar, commenting on it in an unusual way where I could feel an implied disapproval.  Guitar snobs, and subject matter snobs, for that matter.  When it was my turn, and I chose to play a love song I'd recently written in verse/verse/bridge/verse format - I'd committed another faux pas.  Apparently, if you're not writing about very serious topics (statement songs, protest songs) or corny humor songs, that's not appropriate either - their subtle feedback indirectly let me know I was in the wrong place.  There's an intimidation factor there that goes against the concept for me - it's a group of very serious people making up a very serious kind of music that ought to be much less serious and sophisticated.  I remember another time I played at an open mic night in a bar in the Lasing, MI area once where it was advertised as an "open" blues jam and when playing my songs, which were bluesy, sad, etc., I had hecklers in the audience booing because I wasn't playing traditional 12-bar blues covers of Muddy Waters songs.  It was bad enough I had an acoustic guitar, but then I had the gall to play originals that weren't 12-bar!  Eventually, I think I threw in an Eric Clapton tune just so they wouldn't throw me out.  So, although my experiences may not have been normal, I'm sure the underpinnings of my stereotypical observations may ring true for many a different music "scene" out there.

Drums & electric guitars;  the "world" thing.  Gotta get the obvious out of the way too -speaking of blues, which is a separate genre, and can be played acoustic or amplified, it also gets included in folk.  Which brings me to a couple of other weird things I've noticed about folk music: one is that if you take away drums and electric instruments from rock, you're pretty much left with folk;  and the other is that somehow a bunch of other, seemingly-unrelated genres, a.k.a. "world" music which is vast in variety, get lumped together.  Neither make sense to me, but that seems to be the way it is.

These are the paradoxes that contribute to folk remaining a mystery to me.  Regardless of my understanding of acceptable folk structures, topics and instrumentation, the bottom line here is that even though my songs and recordings have been described as folk, I don't necessarily agree because a hacker like me doesn't fit in to the modern folk scene.

Catcher In The Rye Review

I suspect that I’m not the only member of Generation X who should’ve read this book while young, but didn’t, and have now rediscovered it as a middle-aged adult. I have a vague recollection this book was assigned reading when I was in college. I probably skimmed it, wrote a paper about it, got my passing grade, and moved on, as I did with many a reading assignment in the ‘80s.

I’m afraid I would’ve enjoyed it more, had I not been influenced by all the hype. There’s only one thing worse than assigned reading by a professor, and that is recommended reading from family or friends. The childish rebel in us all wants to do the opposite of what we’re told we should do. This is also one of those books that people my age are always being asked whether they’ve read or not, particularly male English majors like myself, and then worse being told they should read it, usually by some phony who got way more out of it back in his day because of what was considered in its time to be rebellious, controversial language. The funny thing is, phonies (to use the main character Holden Caufield’s favorite adjective) like these seem to have missed the book’s main message, which was perhaps hidden by their excitement over the blunt teen colloquialisms of that era.

To me, this book should teach a lesson to the reader that one shouldn’t try to ship their kids off to schools to rid themselves of the hassles of parenthood when those kids are unwilling or uncertain about it. Such action puts parents at risk, after becoming empty-nesters, of wishing they’d spent more time with their kids and had developed better relationships with them. This book is filled with conversational language and stream-of-consciousness writing style that, while entertaining, masks the overall message of the importance of family.

At first glance, one might think the protagonist’s cynicism is hilarious, but upon further discovery one realizes it is incredibly sad. Likewise, on the surface it appears to be a simple story of a child struggling with becoming an adult, when in fact it is a deeper tale of neglect, and of a depressed child being “pushed out of the nest” before ready. When Holden hears the little kid singing the “Catcher In The Rye” song, and it makes him feel better, it’s because the scene symbolizes his yearning to be a happy child with the comfort of his family nearby. Holden’s parents continually want to ship him off to any boarding school who will take him, which not only shows they don’t care much for him, but aren’t willing to put in the effort to prepare him for the challenges of adulthood. One would think his parents would want to maximize their time with him, having lost another child previously, but the opposite has occurred.

At age 16, Holden wants what he’s never been able to get -the love of his parents. Although they’ve provided for him well, it is apparent that he does not value being sent to the finest schools, having the finest clothing, etc., and instead contemplates moving to Colorado for a more modest life devoid of such superficial things and the types of people who value them. He decides to stay home for one reason only, and that is to be able to spend time with the one family member who returns his unconditional love, his little sister Phoebe.
Maybe the moral lesson to be learned is that one should consider himself lucky if he can count on his hand one relative with whom it is important for him to maintain a meaningful relationship - one that includes unconditional love; and that to be a wealthy person one needs much more than material things or the “advantages” of a prep school education.

Author's note:  Originally posted on Monday, December 10, 2007 as a book review on Amazon, and spurred on by the passing of J.D. Salinger in 2010, I am reposting in 2014 as I rearrange my two different blogs.

2014 Update:  And the songwriting lesson to be learned might be that one should consider himself lucky to have relatives and a spouse who support their creative hobby by letting them spend time enjoying it.  Songwriters need unconditional love, and if you are someone who must write songs in your free time, you are lucky if your wife will not only put up with it, but actually encourage it.  Parents too, should encourage their children to pursue creative endeavors like songwriting if the kids are interested.  Think of the great works of art that make the world a better place, which wouldn't exist if their creators weren't allowed to make them, and weren't encouraged by someone along the way to make them.  It makes a world of difference, and a difference in the world.

Dog Owners Can Be Competitive

You learn interesting things about dog owners when you become one.  My wife and I recently got a golden retriever we named Lucky.  For each of us, it was the first dog we'd owned as adults, and we both grew up with dogs.

So, first off, we noticed that people are not shy about telling you negative things about your dog they notice.  Could it be they are jealous?  We still don't get it.

A common one is people noticing the color of his nose and then telling us we'll never be able to "show" him.  Why would you ever think to tell someone this?  It's as if they think that all dog owners became dog owners because they wanted to eventually enter them in dog shows or something.  We just simply thought it would be nice to have a dog, and it has been, except people pointing out what's wrong with him.

Another person said oh, he's got clouds in his eyes and will lose his eyesight.  The vet we took him to tells us there's absolutely nothing wrong with his eyes, his nose color, or anything else for that matter, and that he's in perfect health.

We also noticed that some people enjoy complaining about their own dogs to you, and then when around yours, complain about yours as well, as if that's something they have in common with you to talk about.  It makes you wonder why they got a dog in the first place!  We liken it to meeting someone and telling them their kids are dumb or their house is ugly, or telling them your own kids are dumb or that your own house is ugly.  You just don't say those kinds of things in polite society, right?  These are people who appear to be educated and even sophisticated otherwise.

These are just things we wouldn't ever do, despite thinking them.  Why should dogs be any different?  I must point out here that we are a couple who does not have children, and perhaps treat our dog a little more like we would a child than most.  If we were lucky enough to have children though, we certainly wouldn't ever complain about them to other parents, just as we wouldn't ever complain about each other to our family or friends.  In fact, I get angry when I hear people complain about their spouse, their kid, their dog, etc.  I always think to myself, "why in the world would you choose to get married or become a parent in the first place?"  Same goes for a pet in my way of thinking.

If I have some complaint about my spouse, I take it up with her, not other people.  That's just how I live my life.  Now, I realize it's a common thing for women to complain about the men in their lives when in the company of other women.  Even so, I personally wouldn't dream of ever uttering a negative word about my spouse to anyone but her.

Maybe I'm unusually sensitive about this sort of thing and it truly is commonplace for pet owners to complain about their pets to each other - a misery loves company thing.  To me though, it's a free country, and so if you don't like your spouse or house or car or dog or whatever, you can get a new one, so this remains a mystery.

The reason we named our dog Lucky is that we feel very fortunate to have him, and appreciate the joy he brings to our lives.  Maybe people don't appreciate what they have enough, maybe not like they used to.  Maybe the economic downturn will reverse this apparent trend we've observed, or maybe it's simply by random chance that we've run across several people like this lately.  The more I think about it (and write about it), the more I lean toward a conclusion that indeed, we got a great dog, and these other people are expressing envy or jealousy (never sure of the difference between those two words, but it's gotta be one or both).

There, I feel better now.

The post up to this point was from 2009.  Fast forward to 2014 here as I provide new info due to re-posting this older blog to consolidate my two different blogs to get rid of one.

As an update, the wife and I are now on our 2nd golden retriever now, Levi, who we got as a puppy after we had to have Lucky put to sleep.  It’s surprising how attached you get to a dog, and that sure was hard.  Puppy training, which we didn’t have to go through with Lucky, gave me a new perspective on this whole thing.  We did several group dog training classes, or sets of classes.  In these, although you’re proud when your dog excels, you’re also much more sympathetic to other owners’ plights, as you’re all in the same boat.  We were spoiled with Lucky.  You also realize animals aren’t a whole lot different than human kids, where they are born with a certain personality, and they’re all a little different, making them by nature easier or more difficult to train.

How does this all relate to songwriting and recording, you might wonder?  Well, Lucky served as a spiritual producer, and now Levi is in training for the same.  You learn a lot from dogs’ reactions to music, which is not unlike human audience feedback, you just have to get to know the dog well enough to pick up on it.  They have outstanding hearing, so that qualifies them uniquely well.  In addition, you can run your ideas by a dog and get their non-verbal reaction.  They listen well, of course, and much of the time, they understand what we’re talking about.  Much smarter than the average person would believe.  Sometimes it just helps to have someone to be there nearby, and you talk about your ideas out loud, which in and of itself, allows you to come to the right conclusion.  Dogs are great for this, and because of this fact, they are an invaluable weapon in the home recording studio.  Such advantages allow you, the dog-owning songwriter, to stay competitive in the music business via underrated quality control to bring your fans the best music possible.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

4 Months In – Song/Week Project Quarterly Progress Report

Not sure about this whole song-per-week thing still.  One other songwriter and myself each post one online every week then do a brief critique.  As I blogged about a while back, submitting on a deadline goes against my previously-established grain of the last 25 years or so of songwriting.  I typically go through droughts, waiting for the muse to show up, then write songs until it leaves again, and over the course of a year, end up with a handful of keepers.

Now forcing myself to write a song every Tuesday night for about 4 months hasn’t produced any keepers at all.  I keep telling myself it is keeping the skills fresh or something like that, but in reality, it isn’t working.  I wait until the deadline, then crank out a lame song in about a half hour, record it, post it, get negative comments about it which are not surprising.  I know the songs are no good when I share them, and I already know why they aren’t good.  Negative feedback from the other guy only makes you feel worse about what you already knew.

This makes me understand more about why many artists have a policy to never read any press reviews of their creative work.  Then I realize that before the weekly songexchange club, indeed I had to write a bunch of non-keepers before getting a keeper.  There’s a ratio at play in this process I accepted long ago.  The difference is over the years, you learn to self-evaluate pretty well.  So, if every week you have a song you’ve already weeded out based on your own standards, and then you offer it up for confirmation, its asking for someone to make the situation worse, which is not a confidence-booster.

Usually, I wait until the urge strikes, when I actually feel like writing songs again, and then for several days or weeks I get a few great ideas along with some that aren’t so great.  If I get a couple keepers out of a flurry of feeling like writing, that tides me over during times that inevitably show up when I don’t really feel like it.  I’ve got to be in the right frame of mind, and it’s unpredictable what makes that happen.  I guess I’m riding out a dry spell by continuing to write even though the muse isn’t present.  I just hope it doesn’t prevent the muse from showing up again.  I worry that this is bad mojo and will somehow deter the good stuff from entering into the picture.

Then I think again about those writers who have a publishing contract to produce on a fairly regular schedule.  Maybe those deals don’t even exist anymore in today’s music business, but I wonder if I could handle that type of pressure, even if I had an advance to live on and didn’t need the day job.  It’s as if you’re a salesman working on commission with a big loan to pay off.  Takes a certain personality – someone who knows it’s a numbers game, has patience, keeps plugging away without letting it get him discouraged along the way.  I probably don’t have that type of personality.  I suspect I would either get mad or depressed if I didn’t get sales for a while.

I’m going to stick with it, see if any gold pans out.  Maybe grinding it out will pay off with benefits I don’t yet realize.