A couple of years ago, I bought a guitar. Aside from the very few lessons I took as a teenager, I never played but I’ve listened to music forever so I thought why not? I knew it would be tough (and it is) but I hoped I’d get some enjoyment out of trying to play a few simple tunes.
I think my decision had something to do with the 50th anniversary of The Beatles playing Ed Sullivan. Better late than never, right?
At first, I tried to learn via Youtube and online lessons but it wasn’t really happening so I screwed up my courage to take some group guitar lessons. I say ‘screwed up my courage’ because I was picturing that episode of “Seinfeld” where Kramer takes up karate and he’s in a class of 12-year-olds. Luckily, my fellow students were above drinking age. A couple were even in their 30s.
The group classes are fun and don’t have the pressure of private lessons. I’m not going out on the road; I just want to perform a few songs in my room and someday in front of a campfire. These days, I’m able to play a handful of songs and I get great enjoyment out of singing along in the privacy of my home-office where even my wife can’t necessarily hear me.
But here’s something I did not anticipate when I started taking lessons….the magic of getting inside a song, of understanding how the original artists picked the perfect chords to make the emotion of the song come to life. Sometimes it’s just that perfect chord, sometimes it’s the words, sometimes it’s both.
I’m thinking today of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” a song I’ve probably heard 1,000 times or more. Of course, it’s a classic but I never thought much about it until I started playing it. I know it’s based upon another song but, as usual, Dylan brought his own style to it. As a writer, I can only imagine how pleased he was when he wrote the line, “I once loved a woman, a child I’m told/I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul,” or “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind/you could have done better but I don’t mind/you just kinda wasted my precious time…”
There’s a chord in the song–C7–that is just so perfect for the phrase that it’s magic or genius or what makes Dylan Dylan. But I never would have understood that unless I took up the guitar. It’s an unintended benefit, a lightbulb that never would have been lit otherwise.
A couple of my friends recently mentioned to me that I hadn’t been blogging as much lately and that’s true.
So why is that, I ask myself. I often talk to myself as I’m assured only the most intelligent people do. The main reason I find myself blogging less and not on Facebook as much is not because you know who is president although, truth be told, I don’t want to add my opinions to the zillions out there. And besides, you know what you think. I’m not going to change your mind. I also don’t want to give someone like that space in my brain–it’s crowded enough in there. So I skip pretty much every story about him and still know way more than I’d like.
I think the main reason I’m blogging less is because I’m playing guitar more. I took up guitar about three years ago. I’m not really sure why. It just happened and, since then, I’ve been taking lessons, watching Youtube videos and strumming away. I practice every day. I’m far from good but I’m getting better and now find myself with a set list of about 15 songs. (And no, kumbaya is not on there.)
I find it relaxing, playing and singing to myself. I do sometimes imagine a giant hook coming to yank me by the neck and out of the room but so far, my wife has resisted 🙂
I’ve also been taking swimming lessons for the first time in my life, trying to get beyond the one lap I can (barely) swim. I’m going for two. That’s my rather modest goal although I’d love to be able to go back and forth like some of you can.
Between swimming and playing guitar and yoga and, oh yeah, work, I find myself with less time to blog. But I do still enjoy it and interacting with all of you so I thought I’d let you know where I’m at these days. You’ll be hearing more of me although, hopefully, not when I’m singing.
I went to see the David Hockney exhibit the other night at The Met (and if you want to see it, hurry because it’s only on until February 25th). Hockney, if you don’t know, is famous–at least in my book–for his California paintings that are large and vibrant and show off the stunning blue color found in backyard pools in Los Angeles.
I believe his paintings are popular because they are so accessible. It’s ‘easy art’ in my opinion, not to diminish it.
Normally at an exhibit like this one, I merely wander from painting to painting, reading the labels and wondering about the food in the restaurant. But on this night, I went on a tour of the Hockney exhibit given by one of The Met’s docents.
She was a pleasant woman and provided a few insights but, as I’ve thought many times before, critiquing an artist’s intentions is sort of like reading tea leaves. It’s a bit of mind-reading. She pointed to one Hockney painting of a fat guy sitting on an art deco sofa and said it was reminiscent of The Annunciation.
Huh? Maybe in some far away dope-smoking docent universe.
What struck me, as this woman described some of the actual techniques Hockney used, is how little I know about the physical act of painting. I have never used acrylic paint in my life, never painted anything more than a room. I’ve always wanted to give painting a go but never found the time.
I used to feel the same way about music. After a brief few months of playing as a teen, I gave up and never picked up a guitar again–until The Beatles’ 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan show. Something clicked and I bought a guitar and began taking lessons.
Three years later, I’m happy to tell you that–unlike painting–I now at least understand the mechanics of music, song-writing and guitar-playing. It’s not like I’d even classify myself as “good” but learning the chords and various songs has been the most fun I’ve had outside a bedroom. I now understand what Dylan and the Beatles and many others were up to when they wrote the songs of my youth.
And you know what? The songs themselves are genius but playing them is totally accessible. The idea that I can approximate the sound of a song like “I’m Only Sleeping” by the Beatles is….nothing short of astonishing to me.
I went to a lecture about a Beatles book last year and Beatles fan David Duchovny was on the panel and he told the host in all sincerity, “You can learn how to play the guitar like John Lennon.”
He’s right. No one would dispute John’s brilliance at songwriting but the songs themselves are mostly major and minor chords that anyone can learn with some practice. Practice is the key. As Bruce Springsteen wrote in his autobiography, he at first put down the guitar and stopped playing because it hurt his fingers. It does hurt at first! But those calluses do develop.
I guess the point of all this is that I now feel like I’ve stepped through a door to understand the physicality of music in a way I never did before I started playing. I feel like I’m on the “inside” of music albeit in a rudimentary way. I know the Beatles, for instance, love the B minor and A minor chords and the way they and George Martin transformed an acoustic song into something grand and layered in the studio.
I think painting or any creative art is probably very similar. Will I become Hockney in my old age? No but I’m telling you that, someday, if I could even approximate a painting of a bowl of fruit, I’d be delighted! Stay tuned….