On Roasting Chestnuts

MustangSallyFlow This chart might be applicable to EVERY song on your setlist. I know it is applicable to mine. There’s a delicate balance. And of course, a lot of “musicians” complain that songs like Mustang Sally are old and tired. But it’s not the song that’s at fault. It’s the half-assed, uninspired and merely workmanlike interpretation of these songs that is to blame. Most of these are GREAT songs, their original (or most famous) interpretations amazing examples of when the magic of writing and performance actually came together. The fact that YOUR version of Mustang Sally sucks is YOUR fault. If you can’t connect to the original version, or the song itself and the specific parts the instruments play that you feel overqualified to render or give a fresh take, then maybe, just maybe, you’re in the wrong business. You don’t want to play music that people are enthusiastic about hearing? How Emo of you. If you could play anything else as inspirational, or that communicated or energized half as well, your audience would be happy to hear anything you came up with. That being said, there’s no point in playing songs just to play them, nor any justifiable reason to play a request if you can’t give it something of yourself. But saying you won’t (or can’t or shouldn’t)? That’s not just underestimating your audience. That’s severely limiting yourself.

Subscriber check


I’ve recently experienced a high volume of new subscribers at Soundtracking – but I realized while sometimes it’s easy to tell from the email address, there is no foolproof way to tell whether or not y’all are real people or spambots.

So, if you don’t mind, if you’re a subscribing human, please drop me a line at gbdances (at) gmail (dot) com and introduce yourself, so I know not to remove your address from the subscriber/user list.

Thanks in advance. There’s new content brewing and coming soon, so hang in there with me for a little while longer as I get everything together.


How to Create a Music Scene

I like this list from From David Byrne’s “How Music Works”. It gives me something to think about, and reflects how I’ve always thought the process of living, organic music ought to work.

1. There must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present new material.
2. The artists should be allowed to play their own material.
3. Performing musicians must get in for free on their nights off (and maybe get free beer, too).
4. There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene.
5. Rent must be low – and it must stay low.
6. Bands must be paid fairly.
7. Social transparency must be encouraged.
8. It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary.

How Music Works

How Music Works is David Byrne’s buoyant celebration of a subject he has spent a lifetime thinking about. Drawing on his work over the years with Talking Heads, Brian Eno, and myriad collaborators—along with journeys to Wagnerian opera houses, African villages, and anywhere music exists—Byrne shows how music emerges from cultural circumstance as much as individual creativity. It is his magnum opus, and an impassioned argument about music’s liberating, life-affirming power.

I suppose you can guess why I picked up this book by just reading the last sentence of that blurb “an impassioned argument about music’s liberating, life-affirming power.” Certainly, my own life is full-page advertisement for that.

I picked up this book quite accidentally about a year ago while browsing for something music-related at a bookstore. I had recently started reading Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson and was looking for something else to broaden my field of vision, so to speak. I’d just started playing jazz (on a new electric upright) a month or so before, so I was looking for something that side-stepped genres and focused on music as a whole, holistic and balanced component of life.

I’d always liked The Talking Heads, and appreciated Byrne’s guitar work (seeing it related to both African juju music like King Sunny Ade and the more “angular”, noise- and switchblade-oriented sounds of bands like Wire, Television, Gang of Four and Bauhaus). I also had read some of his writing on music and interviews that showed an intellectual, thoughtful and compassionate man behind (or inside) the big suit and the art of pop.

Part biography, part history of the Talking Heads, and part primer on both the mechanics of sound AND the business of music, and on top of that, a very conversational book that reads more like a dialogue about possibilities than a monologue or lecture on what could be.

Highly recommended.

Not Just a Musician

To call me a musician is to miss an important point. There’s a certain convenience to the label, sure. But labels have a way of limiting their objects, of glossing over the inconvenient details in an attempt to simplify the classification of the whole. There’s a laziness about that kind of thinking. A desperation, almost, that stems from needing to explain something bigger than yourself in a way that doesn’t make you work too hard, or make you feel so damned small.

I AM a musician. Like Einstein was a scientist, or Yeats was a poet. You might argue about the company, but the point remains – the label seems just a little too small.

You could argue that Einstein approached everything in his life scientifically, or that Yeats lived poetically. Likewise, there is a certain musicality about my life and work. But to label us respectively as scientist, poet or musician on that basis alone, and have that label work, requires a different understanding of science, poetry or music. Different, that is, from what you might acquire in a textbook, or from a PBS special.

I had a friend once who said they could understand me as a poet so long as they did not also have to understand me as a musician, an artist, a philosopher. I understand the need to separate reality, to subdivide the infinite into manageable segments. One of the chief tenets of successful project management is to separate the work into small, concrete and achievable chunks in order to reinforce ongoing decision-making and ensure delivery of meaningful, and measurable, milestones.

But there are few projects that fall under the watchful eye of a manager whose span is an entire lifetime.

And what does it mean, anyway, to be called a musician? Is the title applied to amateur as well as professional? Does it mean someone who has spent a lifetime mastering a single instrument, as well as someone who has learned just enough, combined with other entertaining skills, to impress an audience? Is a person with expertise in only a single genre the same kind of musician as one who is versatile in many?

Originally published as The Label of Musician, October, 2007.