Category Archives: Guitar

One eMail and Everything Changes

Okay, I’m going to admit something. I haven’t been straight with you all, because at the time a lot of this went down, it didn’t matter. Now, all of a sudden, it does.

At the end of last year, I was dropped by my agent. I can’t say that I blame him. I pretty much hadn’t written a word of use to him for at least three years, the time during which my mother lived with us. And for the two years before that, when my wife and I were checking on her at least twice a week. Add to that the fact that in the years before that, he was looking for thrillers to market at around 100k words, and I was wanting to genre bend a little, and the project I did it with, which he told me not to write, came in at 170k. Nothing personal, it was just business.

Now he was a good agent at a time when I needed one who did the kinds of things he did. And he got me into some good things. The ghostwriting gig that I still can’t talk about. The sale of the Pembroke Hall books to the Canadian film company that made my worst-selling novels my biggest moneymakers, even though nothing ever got filmed. The sales to Russia. But we had growing creative differences over the fact that he was trying to streamline the sales process by asking me to turn in 100,000 word thrillers and I was wanting to push myself as a writer and stretch out, poking and tweaking the conventions of genre.

I suppose if I have any regret about our nearly two-decade relationship is that I should have been the one to end it since I knew I was no longer of use to him. But in the context of taking care of my mother, it didn’t seem all that important.

So the end of 2008 was the end of an era, and frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. Over the last couple of years, writing had come to mean less to me than at any point in my adult life, and probably most of my adolescent life, too. I had other avenues of expression – writing and singing songs, which is confined mostly to my bedroom, and The Home World, the weekly webcomic I started in September of last year, and the plays I have been writing and directing for our church’s Vacation Bible School. I was too busy serving God to write much more than that.

Basically, writing career dead, stick a fork in it, it’s done. And I couldn’t have cared less. I had moved on. Other things in life were more important.

And then, two weeks ago, everything changed.

I opened my Gmail account to find a communique there with the subject line touching base re Film/TV rights. It was from a woman in Los Angeles, the sister of the woman who had bought the Pembroke Hall rights all those many years ago. She was looking for exciting new properties to represent, and her sister told her she ought to look into this guy named Joe Clifford Faust (okay, so his properties weren’t exactly new – but they were clever and innovative and unused).

This nice lady asked me about the Pembroke Hall novels and – surprise! – The Company Man, which hadn’t seen a movie nibble since my first agent tried to put a copy into the hands of Sir Ridley (only he wasn’t Sir back then, and he also didn’t want to get typed as an SF director, so his advance man took a pass on the book).

The next day we talked on the phone for 55 minutes. I mentioned A Death of Honor, along with a screenplay I’m starting to develop as a favor to a friend, and when the conversation was over, I had a new agent.

I also came away with an assignment: to write a bunch of synopses for the books she is going to try to convert to movies or TV series. Yeah, you read that right. She, like her sister, seems to think that the Pembroke Hall novels would make a good TV series.

While I was writing, I got on a roll and decided to send her a synopsis of the 170,000 word novel that my ex-agent didn’t want me to write that I need to whip into a final draft, just as a surprise bonus. To see what happens.

Funny thing. Reading the manuscript for that novel by way of getting the plot line in my head makes me realize that it’s my best novel ever, even a quantum leap over Pembroke Hall, which my ex-agent once said was a magnum opus for me.

Suddenly I want to finish that neglected manuscript.

Interestingly enough, all of this comes at a time when I can actually do it now, with my mother safe in God’s hands and the children having mostly flown the coop for college and points beyond.

When things like this happen, I prick up my ears and see if I can hear God laughing, because I know from events like this that he has a sense of humor. I’m reminded that his boy told us something about losing our life to gain it. Well, I gave up my writing life to essentially serve him, and now I seem to have gotten it back with a vengeance. I should also note that his boy could raise the dead, among other things. So resurrection of a career is a piece of cake.

Yeah, I got some work to do (on top of this year’s VBS play, a sci-fi extravaganza of sorts).

And that’s not the whole story, either.

Because yesterday I had a pretty remarkable day, too. But it’s late now (early, actually) – making that a story for another day.

Hopefully soon.


A Nice Father and Son Thing to Do (Wife Included)

Tuesday evening I did something unusual – I was the opening act for my son.

Sort of.

Since my son has been in town to attend a series of weddings, my wife got the idea that we should all go to Muggswigz for Open Mike night. Natrually, this would entail his playing some songs off of his album and me playing some of my songs. Neither of us felt we were ready, but we had a few days to do some fever pitched rehearsing. Then I packed up my guitar and the keyboard I bought to do use in home recording (cheaper than a bass guitar and drum machine, and more versatile with all those voices inside it) and the three of us set off.

On the way we joked about who was going to open for whom. I also kept encouraging my son to plug his album, threatening to do it for him if he didn’t.

So we arrived at Muggs and dragged all the stuff in (guitar in case, keyboard and it’s attendant plugs and pedals, plus the stand) and settled in. I called Henry J to see if he wanted to come and play, too – in a conversation we’d had earlier, he’d complained that he hadn’t played out lately). He showed up without a guitar, just there to lend moral support for my son and I.

We got signed up. By the time we got to the sheet, the first four slots were open and five through nine had been taken. My son signed up for slot four, I took three, and an opening act was born. Then we waited.

My wife, bless her heart, showed great restraint. She loves to see us do this sort of thing and wants us both to do well at these things, and her tendency is to want to coach and offer advice beforehand. But son and I were so nervous that she didn’t. The only thing she did was, during the first open mike performer of the evening, she reminded me to take slow, deep breaths to relax. I did. It helped.

Since the last time I played out and wasn’t sure if I liked doing it, I’ve been playing in front of people more. I’ve done a couple of sound checks during shoots of Random Acts of Music tapings, and Henry J and I have jammed some – and during those times I realized that I was becoming less and less self-conscious and paralyzingly nervous before playing. All that and my fevered rehearsals paid off. When my time came and I got up to play, I didn’t have that paralyzing “hands of Jell-O” feeling that I’d been prone to earlier.

I also was playing more with my stage persona. I made a point to talk more between songs and tried to make the kind of witty comments that I throw in during conversations with friends. I should also add that I had earlier taken Henry J’s advice and rehearsed with a microphone so I could get used to singing into it.

All of this stuff paid off. This was a corner-turning performance for me. Going in I was convinced that playing out was not something I wanted to do. Now I think it’s something I can do. So new piece of advice from me: the rule is, if you’re going to play out, do it at least three times before you decide whether you’re going to keep it up or not.

I won’t bore you with the details (I’ve decided it’s not my place to review myself), but this was my set-list:

Wish I Were
One More Cigarette
Going to Texas #4

Finishing that, it was my son’s turn to play. We got the keyboard set up, and he was off. He was nervous at the idea of doing patter between songs, so he limited his comments to making a joke about being from the Twin Cities and the accent we all associate with that area. And yes, he plugged his album, too. He played three songs from Start:

Jazz & Vicodin
This College Life

I don’t know if I’m qualified to review my son’s performance, either, but he did really well. This was a corner-turning performance for him, too. He said he didn’t like playing live, but I was passing on wisdom from Henry J about the importance of playing songs before an audience, and I think that helped convince him to try (plus the extra nudging from his mother!). After he played, he said he enjoyed it, and I think that like me, the terror in the idea of performing was gone (there’s still stagefright, but that’s another thing). And bless his heart, Henry J was only too happy to offer critique and answer my son’s questions about all aspects of the music biz – I think that helped.

A couple of notes about his performance. When he started, he really got people’s attention. I don’t know if it was because he was the only keyboard player that night, or if it was because of his unique style of songwriting. People who were out of line of sight stopped what they were doing and walked around a corner to see what he was up to. And during the rollicking Wanda the audience started to clap along – and it wasn’t started by me or my wife. That wasn’t something we would have thought of doing, and if we had, I’m sure he could have disapproved. But one guy waiting for his latte at the bar started in and poof! – everyone joined it. It was a really cool moment for him, I’m sure.

During the postmortem on the drive home, we realized we should have played something together. A while back ago, before his move to the Twin Cities, I gave him a primitive recording of Going to Texas #4 with the idea of him doing backup vocals on it. For that matter, I could have sung the extra parts on Jazz & Vicodin or Wanda. We also talked about dragging my wife into things – she sang on his recording of Ti Dot Matre, and she and I have been working on a cover of Carpet of the Sun by Renaissance.

Or for that matter, we could collaborate on some kind of song. But that’s a project best left to the next time he comes home.

Meantime, I’m thinking about a new set of songs to play at Muggs in the near future…

Taking it Seriously, Finally

Okay, I said I was going to take my music more seriously in 2007. It has just taken me eight months or so to start thinking along those lines.

In the last month or so, I opened up an account at GarageBand. And I actually posted a song there, a rough demo of Salad Days that developed a glitch when I uploaded it. I’m working on the problem, but that’s not the point. The point is, most of the reviews have said what I have known all along: that my voice is a problem. So my wife is now giving me singing lessons and I bought the book Singing For Dummies. No kidding.

This comes on the heels of another guitar breakthrough. On the occasion when I’ve sat down and played of late, I’ve experimented with ways of playing my existing songs, and I seem to have developed a sense of my vocal range. So now I’m in the process of reworking how to play most of my songs, with my fingerings doing more of the work and the capo less. This will help me push my voice higher, which my wife and son have told me to do for years. I’ve been doing it slowly, but more in earnest of late.

So that’s what I’m working on of late. This might push back any attempts at playing out for a while, since I now have to relearn the playing and the singing parts. And there’s also that whole stagefright thing, which goes away when I’m in a stage play, and goes away when I lead singing at church, but doesn’t go away when I get up with the guitar to play in front of people.

Not that I want to be a rock star or anything like that, but it would be nice to be able to play an open mike night without dissolving into a nervous wreck.

Well, maybe it’ll come with the voice.

Listening: “The Lonely One” – Duane Eddy (Guitar Man)


I did it.

I played out in a coffeehouse last night, Muggswigz in downtown Canton.

My wife and I went there last night because my friend Henry J said he was going to play, so we went to see him. He does a great rendition of Van Morrison’s Moondance and he said he’d play it if we showed up.

I didn’t take my guitar. I had told myself that I would go to an open mic three times to scope it out, and then play. Eh, best laid plans.

Just before we left, I thought there was an off chance that between Henry J and my wife, I might get talked into playing. So I made sure I had one of my picks and my capo… you know… just in case.

So we went down and met Henry J. And it hadn’t been five minutes before he asked if he was going to play. My wife said I didn’t bring my guitar. Henry J said, “You can use mine.” I took a look around. The place was not busy at all. Maybe twenty people there, tops, not packed like it had been the last couple of times I’d been there. I suppose what came next was that feeling of inevitability, because after a couple minutes of thinking about it, I went and signed up to play. Fourth on the list.

After the emcee played a few songs, Henry J went up and played Moondance, Java Jive (his favorite song), Ain’t No Sunshine and Spooky. He handed me his guitar when he came off and I took it outside to warm up my voice and, since my stagefright had set it, see if I could control my hands to play chords. There was a false alarm when the performance order got mixed up, and Henry came to get me before it was actually my turn. I was able to go back out and finish what I was doing.

Came back in to find out the guy ahead of me was only playing one song – as had the girl before him. Before I knew it… my turn.

I’d asked Henry J about using the electronics on his guitar, so I was ready for that. I went up and the emcee asked if I wanted to stand or sit. “Stand,” I said. “That way they can see me shaking.” He smiled. “I prefer to do it that way, too.” They got me plugged in, I turned on the guitar, stepped up to the mike to introduce myself by my stage name.

(A note about this: when I told my wife I was going to announce my stage name, she got worried. I had been thinking of different names because I wanted something different from Joe Clifford Faust. I’d flirted briefly with Clever By Half because I liked the idea of a singer/songwriter using a band name (like Badly Drawn Boy and Five for Fighting). Ultimately I decided I didn’t like that. I didn’t come up with the stage name until I was designing Version 5.0 of this site – and it grew out of what I was doing in the redesign. So I had to tell my wife beforehand to allay her fears.)

I said, “My name is Mr. Faust (laughter – a good sign), and I’m going to play some originals this evening. This first song is for all of you single ladies in the audience.” That got some whoops, and that was the biggest reaction I got all night, but that was okay. People were busy talking and reading and grinding coffee, and I was playing songs nobody had ever heard before.

So I started with Those Other Guys, a song I wrote after hearing two female colleagues complain about how their ex-boyfriends were stalking them. I had this odd sensation that things were running in slow motion and I had all the time in the world to strum and sing. I was afraid that I would play too fast, but my fear kept that in check, so I kept a nice steady pace. Looking back on it now, the whole thing seems very dreamlike. I seem to remember starting the song completely wrong, stopping, and starting over without an apology (one rule of playing out: with rare exceptions, never ever acknowledge a performance mistake). But now I don’t know if it actually happened that way, or if I dreamed it later. I’ll have to ask my wife.

Before I went up, Henry J had warned me that, because of the set up of the monitors and main speakers, I might not be able to hear myself. I couldn’t, and it threw me. Maybe that’s how that false start happened (if it happened). Anyway, I worked through it in this hazy dream state. I managed to sing louder, struggled through some bum voice notes, and made it to the end of the song.

My second song was always going to be Not Again, which is about the life of a bar band. Henry J is a 20 year veteran of the Holiday Inn circuit, and I thought it might be a fitting tribute since he helped me buy my first guitar and badgered me (albeit gently) until I played out. But the song is an upbeat one, and I have trouble with it anyway, even though it’s a pretty straightforward progression all the way through. I knew when I signed up that I wouldn’t be able to play it, so I went with another song, Drugstore Cowboy.

This one went pretty smoothly. I’d performed it before for a couple of different family events and it went over quite well. Since it’s a funny song, I was ready to vamp in case people laughed, but that wasn’t necessary. By this time, I think the dream state from realizing good heavens, I’m actually up here doing this was starting to fade. I botched a couple of chords because my fingers were still in Fear Mode and were running behind by brain by a few nanoseconds, but I didn’t flinch or let on. For all intents and purposes, I was Eric Clapton.

After Drugstore Cowboy, I thanked Muggswigz for “having this place where we can come out and play,” then started up Dirty Old Rabbit. A couple bars into the intro, a red light went on inside my head. Something happened to me for the first time: I realized the key I was playing in was too low. So I stopped and said, “It might help if I played this in the right key,” moved the capo up a fret, and started over. I don’t count that as a mistake because I wasn’t into the song yet, and because a performer with more experience than I did the same thing later in the evening.

Dirty Old Rabbit went mostly fine. It’s basically three chords, four if you count lifting a finger to turn one into a 7th. But during the brief instrumental break between the third and fourth verse, my fingers suddenly went to a chord that wasn’t in the song at all. Fortunately, it seemed to fit, and I vamped my way out of it as if it were part of the song. The rest went without incident, and when I finished about 15 minutes had gone by – and I suddenly was aware that I was drenched.

(Luckily, I wasn’t sweating from the head and face. When I do physical activity, it pours off my head, so I wear a baseball cap to help absorb it. I wondered if this would happen when I performed, realizing I might have to wear a cap – headbands are so Eighties, and I’m definitely not Mark Knopfler. So I now know that I can get through a short coffeehouse set without making some kind of fashion statement.)

When Jandek played his first live concert ever, he reportedly told one of his backing musicians that “this was the most alive that I’ve ever felt.” I wish I could have echoed that. Actually, I felt kind of numb. It was over and I got through it. I wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t do anything horrible, and nothing horrible happened to me.

Will I do it again? Yeah. Oh, yeah. Definitely.

Some post-mortem stuff, now that my wits have returned to me:

First, I need to work on my microphone technique. While I was wailing away in the beginning, I popped a “P” and backed off from the mike a little. Plus I kept turning my head slightly from one side to another, so my voice would throw on each side as well as into the mike, causing an in-and-out effect. Afterwards I asked Henry J what to do about popping P’s. He said, “Nothing. It happens.” Works for me, but I need to practice keeping my head still so my mouth is aimed into the mike.

Next, I thought this was kind of a neat event for Henry J. He was excited about getting to hear his guitar as a member of the audience. I’m hoping it was neat for him since he’s been my guitar mentor over the last 5 years or so. He helped me pick out my first guitar, and before I even knew my first chord told me, “You’re going to play out, of course.” It took a few years, but I made it.

The road to Muggswigs also included my obsessively reading any and all writing that I could find about performing at open mic nights. This included a great article by Alan Horvath, and much time lurking on the newsgroup, where I used Google Groups to search for posts on playing Open Mics. I learned a great deal about what to do and what not to do from these posts, and I noted the highlights in this thank-you I posted to RMMGA today. Rather than repeat it all here, you can just click the link if you want.

One final note that’s kind of a bizarre turn. As I’ve been assembling Version 5.0 of this site to put up, I’ve dummied in several pages that don’t have copy but will when the revision goes live. One page I dummied up was for the Music section – a page that would show set lists – which songs I played on what night, along with a link to any post I may have made commenting on the performance.

As a placeholder, I put in the three songs I thought I would play for my first ever set (I was 66% accurate), the name of the venue (I knew it would be Muggswigz), and a date I arbitrarily picked off of a calendar. When I went to correct that information earlier today, I saw that the date I had picked was…

September 20. Yesterday.

I saw that and immediately the theme from The Twilight Zone started playing in my head.

Or maybe I knew all along.

Who knows?

Well, this isn’t the end. After my set, Henry J said, “Be here next Tuesday?” Wish I could, but I’m going to be busy playing a Nazi for the next couple of weeks.

But after that? Oh, yeah. You betcha.

Listening: Elvis Costello, “Pay It Back” (via iPod Shuffle)

Update 9/22/05: I checked with my wife last night. Turns out that, outside of the start with the capo in the wrong place, I didn’t have any other false starts. I must have dreamed that whole bit, and it got fused with the dreamlike state of the experience of playing. Interesting.

Can’t Hide from the Rain

After thirty-nine days and thirty-nine nights
Most of our city had been washed away
What does the world think when it’s watching the news?
Does it think it is safe? So did we yesterday.

The power is gone and our cash is no good
Our food is silver, our bullets are gold
From the smoke and the ruin now comes a cruel voice
“I am in charge now, so do what you’re told.”

It doesn’t matter if you are poor
Or blessed with earthly gain
There’s only one truth for us all
We can’t hide from the rain

In the refugee camps there’s more rumor than news
We don’t know how far or how wide this has spread
Is the please where we’re going worse than it is here
Word from back home says they’re eating their dead

If you’re black or your white
In the end we all bleed the same
There’s only one truth for us all
We can’t hide from the rain

We’ll go on by foot when the gas has run out
With luck we might reach a safe haven by fall
And we’ll fall on our faces the day we arrive
And pray for the mountains to cover us all

If you’re living in sin
Or even if you’re a saint
There’s only one truth for us all
We can’t hide from the rain

I told myself I wasn’t going to start posting lyrics on this site until 1) the redesign was complete, and 2), I started playing out. But this is a post and not a lyrics page. And besides, I have a really good reason for doing this.

As if to prove that ideas come from more than one source, here’s a song I wrote over the last couple of days while living in a popup camper at the county fair, between helping my daughter show her goats.

No doubt there are going to be a lot of Hurricane Katrina songs floating around. I’m sure Springsteen and U2 have their own in the works, and doubtlessly Michael Jackson will be trying to rehabilitate his career by coming up with one (hoping he gives it a better title than What More Can I Give).

The above was written in the wake of Katrina, after the residue from the storm dumped almost 5 inches of rain in less than 24 hours on the Ohio farm on which I live. But you can tell from the tone of this piece that it doesn’t deal strictly with Katrina, and it has a darker, more apocalyptic tone to it than one would expect from a “we will rebuild” sort of song that is the kind of anthem expected from such an event.

That’s because the roots of this song stem from last year, when I spent my first full week living at the fairgrounds in the popup camper. Walking back to the Coleman one muddy evening following a rain, looking at a couple of laundry lines, people sitting in deck chairs, cooking on tiny grills in the four feet of space that divided the popups, trailers, and RV’s from each other, I had the thought that this must be what life in a refugee camp would be like. I told myself to remember the atmosphere so I could use it later, although I didn’t really have anything on the horizon that would use such a scene.

I pretty much forgot about that until a year later. I wasn’t in the camper the day the rain hit, but it stayed mostly dry inside. The first night I spent there was Tuesday. Wednesday morning I woke up to rain on my face. It had been so cool that, in spite of my leaving the windows open, my breath had condensed on the ceiling canvas to the point where drops were falling on me in my sleeping bag. At that point I came up with a couple of lines, woke up this morning with wet in my eyes / it isn’t tears is must be rain / how could this be, I’m still inside. That’s when I started to think about a traditional Hurricane Relief song. Not that I’d be able to record it and get it out there and get it noticed, but this is the way creatives think sometimes.

I jotted some more notes on and off during the day – don’t leave the bullets there on the ground / we’ll use them later or sell them in town – and at that point the song looked like it would have a Talking Heads/Life During Wartime kind of feel to it.

The next day I went in to work from the fairgrounds and when I fired up the computer, the browser came up with my default home page, Drudge Report, which featured several links to Democratic politicians who were already politicizing the disaster by blaming Bush for everything that had happened. Presto: There’s a pol on the radio sowing some fear / but we all know he’s facing election next year. It’s rolling, but as you’ve already been quick to notice, nothing I had written to that point was used in the final draft of the song.

The turning point when I ran across a link to a story by a leader claiming that survivors in New Orleans were turning to cannibalism in order to survive. That gave me Back home it is rumored they’re eating their dead, an embryonic version of the first line that would actually make it into the final.

I was ticked off about all of this news, and for some reason the anger started pulling me toward more abstract thinking. The next line that came to me was the Thirty-nine days / Thirty-nine nights business, a nice Biblical allusion that also sounded, I thought, apocalyptic.

This led me to think that perhaps the song was not meant to be a Life During Wartime rehash, but rather a description of something more apocalyptic. Which led me to Christ’s words from Luke 23 when he was being dragged to the crucifixion: Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” (:28b -30, NIV). That gave me the next apocalyptic line, and from there I was on a roll.

I remembered what I’d thought about the fairgrounds being like a refugee camp from the year before. The idea of bullets survived, but took a different form to describe a postapocalyptic economy. I worked on the words with my guitar in my hand, and I came up with a driving chord progression that could symbolize rain and struggle and it all came together, lyrics feeding off of the music and music feeding off of the lyrics.

By Thursday night the song was finished – and it had evolved quite nicely from the idea of a survival anthem to a rather dark look at events from the edge of the end of the world.

So Can’t Hide From the Rain is done. Well, almost. There’s one more step – actually, two. The first is a kind of shakedown revision as I learn to play and sing the song, then work on memorizing. During this phase the words get worked around and changed here and there to maximize flow and meter. The other step is one I have never done with any of my songs yet – playing them before an audience. My buddy Henry J says that you do not truly know a song until you’ve played it in front of people. I assume this does not count playing something for the minister and his wife at your spouse’s request when they are over for dinner.

There’s something else you should know about this little experiment. It probably won’t be repeated again. I’m a firm believer in letting my words, be they novels or songs speak for themselves. I don’t ever want to explain a song to death before playing it (unless the ‘explanation’ is a form of patter that goes with the song, as in the case of Dirty Old Rabbit). It’s just that this was such a textbook case, and I could point to every little thing that contributed to my completing it, and I thought it might be worth sharing while it was still fresh in memory.

Besides, I’ve learned from writing novels that people can attribute all sorts of insight and wisdom from one’s work that one is not so sure was there to begin with. Interpretation is a subjective experience, whether you’re reading a novel or listening to Springsteen U2 Stan Ridgway – and who am I to keep someone from seeing the meaning of life by ruining it with an explanation (aside: singer/songwriter Seal does not put lyrics in his records on purpose, preferring to let listeners interpret his singing in their own way).

So all that remains is to get the performance down. And maybe record a rough “bedroom” version so you can sort of hear what it’s supposed to sound like.

But don’t hold your breath, okay?

Late breaking PS: I should have kept my mouth shut about the gloved one….

Listening: Dean Martin, “Volare” (via iTunes shuffle play)

Writer’s Ego

Writers have to have a certain amount of ego to do what they do.

Don’t believe me? Think of the gall it takes: “I’m going to fill 500 sheets of paper with my writing. Then I’m going to send it to a complete stranger, who will pay me money for it. Then he will spend more money to make books out of it and send it all over the country. Then people everywhere will pay money for it.”

It’s intimidating if you think about it.

But I think I’ve found something that takes even more gall…

This evening was church and running a number of errands afterwards. I had the house to myself for a while after I got home, so I decided to try an experiment. A couple of weeks ago while doing some cleaning, I found my microcassette recorder – the same one that I used to dictate the first half of Jamais Vu while commuting. I stuck it in the utility compartment of my guitar case, thinking that I could use it to at least get some of my songs down in raw form.

So i plunked down on the bed and turned it on and played Another Year. I would have gotten Dirty Old Rabbit down, too, but I was interrupted first by a phone call, then by my family coming home.

Then I made a big, big mistake. I played back the first song. And in the words of Roger Ebert, I “hated, hated, hated it.” My playing was marginal at best and my singing was downright awful. It was so bad I felt like telling my wife “How dare you say that I sound good now,” when she got home (but I didn’t).

I suppose this could be mitigated by my attitude toward my own work. It’s been well chronicled on this site how I can’t read my novels once I get the final published copy in my hands. I do the same thing with my acting; the community theater where I occasionally act makes video tapes of shows for their archives, and they make a copy for any cast member who requests one for the cost of a tape. I have never been able to sit through a video I was in, not even shows where I gave what I thought was an exceptionally good performance (like The Boys Next Door). I don’t know how movie stars sit through premieres.

Actually, I do. Their egos must be bigger than mine.

Which brings me to a question. How does someone like Bob Dylan listen to the final version of a record and tell himself “Okay… that’s good. Let’s go with it.” He’s not exactly the most golden throated singer out there. How in the world does he release record after record, year after year?

(Aside: I know that a lot of Dylan’s appeal is his prowess as a songwriter – but I would include his singing too. Someone commenting on the pathetic state of popular music recently said something to the effect that “Singers like Mariah Carey have great voices but they don’t know how to sing. Bob Dylan and Tom Waits – they don’t have good voices, but the know how to sing.” It’s a fascinating dichotomy that I might discuss at length later.)

So while I have ego enough to write books and send them out and push and promote them when published, don’t ask me to read them. And don’t ask me to watch a tape of a play I’ve been in. And am I ever going to record any of my songs? Perhaps, as long as I don’t have to listen to it. Plus, my wife’s campaign to get me to do a few songs at a coffeehouse open mike night has been set back immeasurably.

This could be a good thing, though.

For years I was a huge fan of Mike Oldfield. His first four albums, Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge, Ommadawn and Incantations – each one a single, long musical composition – showed his great promise as a composer and musician. However, in the 1980’s, his record label tried to push him into being a pop star, and for fifteen years he tried to write rock songs. I’m one of the instrumental purist snobs that just didn’t wash with, although Five Miles Out wasn’t that bad of an album.

Then in the mid-nineties, he returned to instrumental works with Amarok, which I translate from the Gaelic as meaning “unlistenable, uncommercial work designed to get out of a record contract.” After that, the real slide began: Tubular Bells 2, Tubular Bells 3, The Millennium Bell, and just last month, a re-recording of – you guessed it – Tubular Bells.

I wondered why this was happening from early on, but then I ran across an article that I think explained volumes. It seems that at last report, Oldfield listens to nothing but his own records, most notably… that first one whose title keeps coming back to haunt us.

No wonder his recent output has been so… similar.

(To be fair, he has put out three other non-Bell titles, each filled with short instrumentals of no consequence.)

I can’t say I blame him for revisiting and reinventing his past so often. He doesn’t know any better. I would probably be writing a new version of A Death of Honor if my books were the only ones I ever read.

So this rejection of my own work is probably part of my drive to continually do better writing, to give better performances onstage, and… well, I don’t know if I’ll ever be a good guitar player or singer. But you get the idea.

Now that I look at it, it sounds like an interesting version of The Three Bears:

“I only listen to my own work; it’s the only thing worth listening to,” said Papa Ego.

“While there are sizable gaps in my talent, I feel that some areas are so strong that they more than compensate for my shortcomings,” said Mama Ego.

“My work all stinks and I’d just like to come up with something I’m happy with,” said Baby Ego.

Hmmm. It’s positively Freudian.

NP – iTSP (Cocteau Twins, “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires”)