Posts Tagged ‘Muse’

I never grew up with a particular religion…as in, I was not an adherent to anything other than believing in God. My parents both were lapsed Christians. My grandparents were pretty big on church, but not necessarily in a way that they shook their finger in your face and said “God said…” More like they went to church and believed in being good people, and had faith. In my voluminous amounts of reading, it was pretty much inevitable that religion would enter my sphere. There was the Bible, of course, but I was interested in other texts. I read up on Buddhism with great interest…Islam and Judaism. Hinduism. The myriad takes on “what’s out there” (or what isn’t out there) fascinated me, and I became preoccupied with the hereafter. If I had been allowed, I probably would have gone on pilgrimages – not necessarily out of any deep rooted belief, but just as a seeker. But, Mom was not into “weird stuff” and besides…our down time was rather limited. I queried my adopted uncles on their religious views.

Me: Do you believe in an afterlife?

Uncle Richard: Maybe. Maybe we come back as ghosts. Maybe we rot in the ground and that’s it. 

I nodded. I don’t remember my exact question, but I asked something about God. It really riled him.

Uncle Richard: God!? God has a lot of apologies to make.

I was a bit surprised…I had not heard such negative opinions on a (presumably) benevolent God stated so starkly.

Uncle Richard: He lets people die every day. He lets horrible, terrible things happen to people. At any given minute, someone is dying or getting raped or tortured or losing someone. Or starving to death. What kind of God allows that? I don’t need God. He doesn’t believe in us, so I don’t believe in Him. He and I are going to have a talk, if I ever get to meet Him.

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that discussion.

Russ was simpler…he believed in the Muse, or Creativity…or whatever you want to call it.

Russ: It’s out there. I think the Muse whispers in everybody’s ear. She might give the same song to 10 people, and only 1 person listens and gets it right. Ya know? The same Muse that whispered in the ear of the great ones whispers in your ear and my ear.

That’s what it amounted to…listening for the Muse. I agree with that too, though there would be a time in my life where I would desert her altar almost completely. There is something that feels right about that, though…almost elemental. Something that came before the conventions of man and will live long after we are extinct from the planet.

Still, I read. I read about a culture where they believed everything – from an elephant to a micro organism – has a life as important as our own. They didn’t bathe, they didn’t wash their hands, they barely did anything for fear of disturbing these organisms. You’ve heard the time travel axiom, I’m sure, where if you kill a butterfly when you go back in time the entire course of history could be altered. Well, it was kind of like that (minus the time travel bit) but taken to an extreme. For months, I stressed about killing bugs…disturbing the natural order of things. I worried when I washed my hands or took a bath. I dabbled in Wicca for a while…bought several books and practiced it. I felt a bit silly when I did, though, and I mentioned it to Uncle Richard.

Uncle Richard: Don’t get involved in the occult.

Me: Um. Okay. You mean like…what, casting spells and whatnot?

Uncle Richard: Yes. It’s…not for everyone.

I shrugged. It was one of the few things I didn’t listen to him seriously about. I admit, I felt a bit silly doing the rituals and whatnot, but what appealed to me was the power (or perceived power) over my own destiny. After practicing somewhat halfheartedly for months – trying to see into the future, trying to influence life events – I became a bit disillusioned. The only thing I ever got out of it was a very real sense of the spiritual realm. I began to see things – black shadows, flitting across a room. Sometimes partially formed apparitions. I worried that I was going nuts…seeing things like my mother did. But people who are crazy tend not to doubt themselves – they believe wholeheartedly that the CIA is tapping their phones or they’re the subject of an alien experiment – you can never convince them otherwise. Somewhat distressed at this turn of events, I turned to Uncle Richard again. I braced myself for an “I told you so”, but it never came. He wasn’t like that.

Uncle Richard: Some doors are difficult to close once you open them.

Me: So…what are they? Ghosts?

Uncle Richard: Probably. And since most people can’t see them, they’re attracted to you.

I shivered. I had no interest in talking to ghosts. Truly, the gild was off the lily – I was no longer interested in harnessing the power of the supernatural. I just wanted it to leave me the hell alone.

Uncle Richard: Maybe they want something. Try asking them.

I didn’t like the concept…whatever they were, they scared the shit out of me. And the fact that they could possibly be totally in my own mind scared me even worse.

Me: Have you ever seen ghosts? Like this?

Uncle Richard: Many times.

Me: And they look like…that? Like shadows?

Uncle Richard: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes they look just like us, but a little more transparent. Sometimes just white figures.

He showed me some Polaroids he snapped around his house – at least one showed some sort of semi-transparent mist that looked vaguely like it had a hat on. He told me another story, about how he and some friends were staying over at this house (I guess they were sleeping on the floor) and he looked over and saw an Indian messing with a blanket. The Indian looked right at him, made some sort of hang gesture that Uncle Richard took to mean “Everything’s fine…lay back down.” The Indian rolled out his own blanket (in an honest-to-God Indian design) and then completely disappeared. The story gave me chills.

I pumped him some more on the subject, and he pointed out that there are different kinds of ghosts – some are intelligent and trying to communicate, and some are just trapped in some sort of repeating cycle. They’ll show up and do their thing whether you’re there or not – they just don’t know they’re dead. I decided to take his advice and try to communicate. I waited until the apartment was empty and stood in what I judged to be the middle of it.

Me: Hello?

Nothing.

Me: Um. Do you want anything? Why are you here?

Silence. I felt silly. I saw a shadow – looked like maybe the legs of a man in a suit – rush across the room.

Me: Knock that shit off. Tell me what you want!

I waited. Nothing else.

Me: Just…leave me alone. I’m sorry if I bothered you.

My attempts to communicate ending in failure, I just did my best to pretend they didn’t exist. If I saw them, I just tried not to freak out. I certainly told no one about them, besides Uncle Richard. I think he was the only person that would have taken it seriously anyway, and not suggested I be heavily medicated for my own safety.

Freaked out from my adventures in other cultures, I craved normalcy. I turned to what I knew – the Bible – and decided that it answered most of my questions. It was something I knew, and something I could get behind philosophically (in the sense of treating others how you’d want to be treated, being a good person and all that). There were no ghosts, there were no shades of grey, or reincarnation or anything like that. It was simple and neat. With relief, I collapsed into it. Perhaps as a result of seeking refuge for my spinning mind and my nagging questions, I became a bit of a zealot. I embraced cultural Christianity in a big bear hug – a hug, by the way, that it never really returned.

Still. There were questions. And there were ghosts.

 

 

 

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It was decided – I don’t remember how, why, or by who – that I ought to start making demos of the songs I was writing. I had done one or two  before, when I was around 9, but at 12 I was writing several songs a week and it was time to start doing something with them. This is one thing that I’m very glad I did – going to the studio gave me a lot of experience, and as a writer there is nothing like hearing your music brought to life and reduced to tape or CD (though in those days, it was tape). The first few songs I did by myself – they were simplistic, and I was able to knock several out in just a few hours. I played piano myself and sang on them. Conversations were had between Mom, Russ, and myself, about picking a genre of music and sticking with it. At the time, I was writing literally everything – I wrote Reggae, I wrote Pop, I wrote Rap, Rockabilly, whatever came to my mind. In the early 90’s, Country music was enjoying a bit of a boom – Billy Ray Cyrus was dominating the air waves with Achy Breaky Heart  and I think Cotton Eyed Joe had come out around then too (if you haven’t heard it, do yourself a favor and don’t). I remember having a conversation with Mom about which genre I should focus on.

Mom: You should do Country. Joey Lawrence will never go country in a million years. That way, he can have Pop and you guys can both be successful.

I didn’t really care, and I thought Country was pretty good (some of it still is, but let’s face it – most modern music sucks regardless of genre). Somehow, Mom got it into her head that Russ should produce my demos. Initially, he was reluctant – I honestly don’t think he wanted to spend any more time with Mom than necessary – certainly not in the close proximity that a studio would have demanded. Eventually, though, she won him over with the thing that rules us all – the checkbook. She offered him a ridiculous sum of money to produce me. She paid him for lessons he’d miss on either side of any studio gig, plus gas and expenses – in addition to whatever she paid him for coming into produce. Between paying Paul (the studio tech) and Russ, each demo probably cost around $1,000 – easy. That’s not counting if we needed to go back in and remix, either, which we usually did. So the final product was probably a bit more – maybe closer to $1,500.

Don’t get the wrong impression, here. Russ was (in my opinion, anyway) a top notch musician and producer. He may have also been a top notch bullshitter, but anything involving music was relatively bullshit free – at least in my estimation. My feelings about him are complicated – especially looking back over the years with the benefit of hindsight – but my respect for his talent has never waned an iota. Watching him work in the studio was a learning experience in and of itself, and it went a long way to making me the musician (and producer) I am today. He’d come in to Paul’s studio and sit in the “Captain’s Chair” (a rolling desk chair that he commandeered specifically for his use – no one else was allowed to sit in it). He’d rock back and forth, listening to a take.

Russ: No, no. More strings. They need to swell.

Paul played the strings with more swell.

Russ: No, Paul, like this!

And he’d draw an illustration in the air of what he wanted the strings to sound like. Paul got it. If you’re a musician, you can probably understand this too. There’s a secret language among us – a nod, a raised eyebrow, a fist above the head waving in time to a beat. We get it. We know what it means, even if others don’t. From my perspective, Russ looked a bit like a sorcerer – throwing invisible bolts of magic at some unseen enemy. He’d look over at me and grin, smoothing his hair back into place.
Russ: You feel that!?

Me: Yeah!

And I did. I could feel the strings, but it wasn’t just that – the Muse was in the room with us. That’s what he was talking about, I think. It was a trip.

Russ would pack that song with so many tracks it taxed Paul’s systems. Paul used to joke that Russ would look at a blank track sheet and start to go snow blind – he needed to fill that sucker up. Brilliant arranging and producing aside, it always irked me that Russ and Paul never let me play on my own recordings (the ones Russ produced, anyway). As a kid, it pissed me off to no end. They’d let me sing on it (who else would sing on it, anyway? Hiring a studio singer would have just been more money) but Paul played all the tracks via a Midi keyboard. I argued with Russ that I could easily play it live – a real guitar or piano would sound so much better. He waved me off every time. I get it now, though – it was just easier and quicker for Paul (who knew his own keyboards) to jump in and play. Although granted, I did know my own songs better. Having someone else take and mold your songs into something other than your vision can be a horrifying experience – and of the hundreds of demos I recorded with Russ, that happened more often than I can count.

Me: Uncle Russ, the drums shouldn’t do that.

Russ: Oh, okay.

Then he’d tell Paul to keep doing what he was doing.

I’d be furious – I’d spend the whole session glowering at Russ’s turned back. But in the end – when I listened to the track objectively, I’d hear that Russ made the better call. It wasn’t what I had in mind, maybe, but maybe what I had in mind wasn’t quite as good.

I am of two minds about this whole process. Firstly, it didn’t make any sense to do things the way we were doing it. If Russ argued about it (and he surely knew better than Mom or myself) I never heard it. Maybe he just knew that Mom wanted what Mom wanted and there was no point in standing in her way (he’d have been right about that). The way things normally work (at least in Nashville) is that songs go through a process – you bounce it off a lot of people before it becomes the final product you hear on the radio. So, for instance, if I bring in a demo that I just spent $1,200 on, and the head of Capitol Records tells me the chorus needs to be changed totally, I’ll have to re-record my song. Thus, $1,200 down the drain. It ended up locking me into some songwriting decisions I might have rethought otherwise – when hearing from different publishers (or artists, or whoever) that such and such a thing ought to be different, I would realize that the song could have been made much, much better. But to redo it would be too costly, so instead I went on to the next one and tried to make it “perfect” without the benefit of industry opinion (spoiler alert: it never was). The way things seem to be done is you record something simple and relatively cost effective, bounce it off of people, and then do a “final demo” once everything is basically all tightened up song-wise. So I can make a pretty convincing argument (and have, at least to myself) that a small fortune was flushed down the toilet. On the other hand, it was worth every penny to learn the things I learned in the studio. I would be nowhere near the producer I am today (or the writer, for that matter) if I hadn’t watched someone who really, truly knew their craft as closely and often as I did.

On studio days, Russ was either early by half an hour (or better) or late. If he was on time it was a true rarity. Paul, ever sarcastic, called him the Guru of Soul. Tim and I laughed a good bit at that. But you know what? He did have soul – quite a bit, in fact. Sometimes, in my head, I am back in that room – the one that smelled like Yankee Candles and inspiration. I am a child sitting on a couch watching The Guru of Soul work his magic.