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I took my first guitar lessons last year.

It was odd, at first, seeing how I'd been playing guitar, after my own fashion, for about 40 years. Never well, though well enough to play in public. Mostly I used the guitar to string some chords together, block out a progression to write lyrics over. There was no need for the big box of 64 crayons; the eight-pack suited me fine.

You can do a lot with E minor, C, G.

You can fall into familiar patterns, carve dog trots in your brain. I took lessons to try to shake me out of those dog trots.

I learned enough to continue studying on my own. My teacher wouldn't allow me to play open chords -- every string played had to be fretted -- and got me thinking about basic spatial relationships on the fingerboard, the kind of things most would-be guitar players figure out about six weeks into playing. I can bore you with some music theory talk about modes. When I put my hands on the fretboard I still seem to want to play in pentatonic boxes -- I still write songs with the same chords -- but understand better what I'm doing.

And my playing has really improved.

It can be done, the old dog-new trick thing. You don't have to be the same, you can be different. Maybe better. If you want to.


There was a surprise in my email box the other day, an invitation to vote in The Village Voice's 45th (or 46th) annual Pazz & Jop poll celebrating the Top 10 albums and singles of the year.

While I've voted in the poll since the mid-1980s, I didn't expect there to be a poll this year since the Voice ceased print publication in 2017 and severely curtailed its online operation earlier this year.

It's unclear what I'm going to do about that ballot. I wasn't going to write anything about favorite records of last year because I don't do an awful lot of adventurous listening these days. I like the latest records from Adam Faucett, Ashley McBryde, Kasey Musgraves, Rosanne Cash, John Prine. The Jeff Tweedy release has a nice vibe to it. The Struts' record is good fun and the Greta Van Fleet album is unfortunate. Imagine Dragons don't do anything for me; Janelle Monae seems really interesting. I get Cardi B. but she's working angles I'm not particularly interested in.

I listened to a lot of other things, but didn't have a professional reason to form an opinion. The 1975 and Robyn? Yeah, I could have liked those albums had I put some effort into listening to them.

It's not possible for anyone to really keep up. I'm not trying. Instead I spent most of the year listening to, thinking about, and writing about music that came out 50 years ago. It's rewarding to do that. It's not an empty exercise in nostalgia.

I wish I'd written about the music of 1968 in some kind of programmatic way -- maybe on the blood, dirt & angels blog. By the end of the year it might have produced an interesting book.

Here's a few of the records from 1968 I revisited this year, some because they were given special 50th anniversary reissue treatments, and some just because:

The Band's Music From Big Pink; The Beatles (otherwise known as The White Album); Bee Gees' Horizontal and Idea; Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper/Stephen Stills' Super Session; Buffalo Springfield's Last Time Around; The Byrds' Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo; Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison; Cream's Wheels of Fire; Dr. John's Gris Gris; Aretha Franklin's Lady Soul; Jim Hendrix Experience's Electric Ladyland; The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society; Monkees' Head; Van Morrison's Astral Weeks; Randy Newman; Jefferson Airplane's Crown of Creation; Harry Nilsson's Aerial Ballet; Laura Nyro's Eli and the Thirteenth Confession; Phil Ochs' Tape from California; Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet; Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends; Sly and the Family Stone's Dance to the Music.

There were others I thought about but never got to, like The Mothers of Invention's We're Only in It for the Money and Cruising with Ruben & the Jets. The 50th anniversary of Small Faces' Ogden's Nut Gone Flake would have provided occasion for a nice essay. Traffic and The Zombies and the Beau Brummels all released cool records that year.

Recall that 1968 was not a simpler time. It was a weird and bloody year filled with assassinations and race riots and, right at the end, the Apollo 8 space mission that gave mankind a glimpse of its potential. (Though watching Damien Chazelle's film First Man the other night, I felt a frisson of guilt mingled with pride as the director undercut the triumphalism with Gil-Scott Heron's "Whitey on the Moon." Which I couldn't help but recognizing as a minor anachronism because the album that song appeared on, Scott-Heron's debut record Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, wasn't released until 1970. Why do I know these things? No wonder there's no room in my head for Mitski Miyawaki or Miya Folick, both of whom my iTunes shows I listened to a few times last year but of whom I've failed to form an opinion.)

But I'm not going to argue 1968 was the best year ever for recorded music or anything like that.

Because the best year for recorded music was likely whenever you were 12 years old, and I wouldn't be 12 years old until late 1970.


None of this stuff is as important as my cohorts -- baby boomers -- made it out to be. But it's not ridiculous to think of that time roughly 50 years ago as a golden age, because the music mattered more, simply because we didn't have so much of it and it wasn't so easily obtained.

There was Top 40 radio; which wasn't nearly as wonderful as Spotify except that it provided us a common reservoir of chord changes and guitar solos. We all knew that language. We could all speak to each other in those times.

Now we have Babel and babble and an oceanic pool of music into which we can all dip our ladles and sip. But you can't listen any more or any deeper than we did back then; you've got the same cognitive capabilities. You can master what you can master and leave the rest alone.

It wasn't better; it was different and it wasn't fair. It wasn't any purer than it is today; it was largely marketing and lots more was decided by men in suits, some of them with flannel ears, than our romantic notions credit. It was mainly about how you looked in tight pants, holding a guitar. A kid could do it -- E minor, C, G.

Talent is not a scarce commodity; no doubt you've seen it in your own house. Talent is cheap and sometimes corrosive in that it presents as a gift when it's more likely a curse. Because talent without direction is wasted, and talent with direction without luck is a kind of tragedy.

I was in a music store the other day and there was a guitar amp -- a head and speaker cabinet -- that had been used by a local teenage garage band in the '60s. It had the band's name stenciled on the back, and it was beautiful. The guy in the store said the guitarist had held on to it for all these years because he thought there was a chance the band would get back together. He only let it go after the singer died and it became clear there would be no reunion.

The singer was 75.

OK, there are limits and we ought to recognize them. But magic is available only to the susceptible -- you have to hold yourself open to new avenues of delight. It's like your mother told you, you'll never know if you like something if you don't try it. I don't want to live in a comfortable bubble of familiar stories and soothing sound. I want to be challenged and upset, to be dislocated and dazzled.

If I can't make sense of it, maybe I can at least imagine that somewhere there's a 12-year-old being awakened to new possibilities beyond the narrow frames of day-to-day reality. A hinterland where monsters and heroes be.

And 50 years from now, she'll look back on 2018, and sigh about how easy everything seemed then.


Style on 01/06/2019

Print Headline: Stuck on the old chords and proud


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