I was in kindergarten, about five years old. It was recess, and I was playing or doing whatever kids do at recess, and I ventured "out of bounds". I recall a row of trees and myself marching merrily amongst their long shadows. Some kid pointed at me from the safety of the nearby in-bounds area and said, "You're out of bounds! I'm telling on you!!" I still remember my heart thumping as for the first time in my life it occurred to me I was about to be in deepy doggy-doo with the grown-ups. I didn't want to be in trouble! I was a good kid. I did well in spelling contests and always sat up straight. So I ran up to this kid whose smug little pout informed me that it didn't matter what I said to him now, I'd been out of bounds, and I was in deep trouble. "Please!" I implored, but as I spoke the P sound, some spittle came out of my mouth and rained upon the child's pouty visage. "You just SPAT on me! Oh my god, I'm double-telling!!!" "Shit!" I cried. This delighted the child's smug face even more. "And you swore! You're in SO much trouble." So the kid started running up to tell the teacher who was on patrol (patrol?) how naughty I was. I chased the kid. I recall trying to tackle the little fuck but he was too fast. There was an adult approaching us from the school building and this child was hellbent on racing me to this grown-up and getting me in deep doggy doo. Maybe I'd even get detention! DOUBLE SHIT! So I ran and the child ran and time definitely slowed down as the adult got closer. I was so scared. Then it became clear that the approaching adult was my mother. This filled me with even more horror. Oh my god I was going to be in soooo much fucking trouble now. "Miss! Miss!" the child yelped to my mum, as I grabbed at his arms and tried to cover his mouth. "He swore! He spat at me! He was out of bounds!" But my mum waved away the little snitch as you would a bug or some kind of unpleasant odour. The kid looked confused. I was angry as hell. "I didn't do anything wrong!" I cried to my mum. She looked at me like she didn't give a shit. "I was just wondering if you wanted an icy pole? I'm on canteen duty," she informed me. I don't recall much else except that on grounds of some kind of sulky sense of misguided injustice, I refused to enjoy the icy pole. I still ate it though. But anyway, the point is, my mum's awesome, and I love my mum, and all those snitchy little dibberdobber types can get fucked.
The following is a small passage from Again to Carthage by John L Parker, Jr. This is the sequel to Once A Runner, which became a cult sensation when it was self published in the 1970s. The author printed copies of the book himself and sold them from the boot of his car at runner's meets around America.
It's not something most human beings would give a moment of consideration to, that it is actually possible to be living for years in a state of constant betterment. To consider that you are better today than you were yesterday or a year ago, and that you will be better still tomorrow or next week or at tournament time your senior year. That if you're doing it right you are an organism constantly evolving towards some agreed-upon approximation of excellence. Wouldn't that be at least one definition of a spiritual state?
When I was a runner it was something we lived every second of our lives. It was such a part of us that if we had ever given it any thought, it would have been a mental lapse, a sign of weakness. Of course I am getting better every day, I would have said, what the hell am I training for otherwise? As if there were only one alternative, as if the arrow of improvement necessarily parallels that arrow of time, and in only one direction.
You might say--again--that we're just talking about an artifact of youth. That when you're young it is only natural to grow larger and stronger, to learn things, to master more and more of the skills and techniques of life, to get better, to improve.
It that's true then how do we end up with so many monsters, trolls, dickheads, and psychopaths? So many Pol Pots, Joe McCarthy's, Ted Bundys, and Lee Harvey Oswalds? Or Nixons for that matter? They were all young once and relatively harmless, and in a better universe they would have stayed that way.
Or consider the religious aesthete whose piety and serenity and good works increase and multiply as the years go by, into middle age, into old age, onto the deathbed. She's working on it too, and what keeps her going is the absolute conviction that every day she's getting better, saving more souls, that she's getting closer to God.
My point is that this way of living that we once took for granted isn't necessarily a "natural" process at all. It's not like water flowing down to the sea, not like aging. It takes effort, determination, conviction. But mostly it takes will. It takes a conscious decision to follow one difficult uphill path, and then the will to stay with it and not waver, to not give up.
When you start getting the weird sensations you know you're on the right track. They're not always entirely pleasant. It's like FOMO but you know you're not missing out on anything. You've just pulled in your anchor and you're adrift, letting the visual snow of stars be your guide while creeping winds and currents from uninhabited worlds power your sails. You turned off your phone and have shunned all media, social or otherwise. You play piano for hours, free and without pressure, and the arpeggiated chords start to take weird mountainous shapes tinted in oddly maroon colours. In your waking mind everything possesses possibility like light shining through closed eyelids.
The itch to reconnect, to distract, to watch pornography, browse Youtube or send someone a GIF of a dancing dog comes and goes. That's an old world where nothing happens. You're never happy there but you always seek it. With itchy fingers and unfocused thoughts you seek what you don't want, baffled by your lack of self ownership. Always on edge, but with the illusion that more media will cushion the fall, even carry you away on its hot air balloon of empty narratives.
Discipline is losing out in these quarantined times. Business brain, or at least, "Ambitious Brain", is jumping on the opportunity to release as much music as possible while people are stuck in their homes. I even received a grant from the government to keep on recording and plugging away. But this self imposed production schedule has me shying away from doing what I love most: playing the piano. It feels like a job and therefore I don't want to do it. I sit down and press record and can't get a decent take. Then I try and edit the parts together, eliminate the bum notes, but it's more work than just playing the damn thing right.
So far I haven't been able to record a single take from beginning to end with the right vibe and the right accuracy. And I wrote the pieces myself! So instead of trying over and over again I pick up a book or watch a movie.
I believe it's okay to do this, even though for some damn reason I feel guilty. Like it's my job now. I'm getting paid to do it. So therefore, being my own boss, I'm very lenient...
Leniency = Guilt.
Is there any escape?
So I must remember the process. Reading, listening, consuming, skimming Youtube like a brain-dead zombie -- at what point do you impose discipline on yourself?
I watched Dogtown and Z-Boys last night. Californian surfer kids from the early 70s who went on to basically create the modern skateboarding style and aesthetic as we know it. Did those kids procrastinate from honing their craft? No. Their craft was their "procrastination" from the responsibilities of being poor and American. It was their vocation. Their "passion". Their calling. They just played. And in playing they revolutionised a national hobby and kickstarted a massive industry.
In 1940s New York, Thelonious Monk played piano for hours on end, just because he could. He'd meet up with his friends at Minton's Playhouse and they'd egg each other on, just like those Californian skater kids three decades later, and revolutionise a craft and kickstart an industry. Sure, he probably practised scales. Sure, they knew their music theory. But they applied it because it was fun. Because it became intuitive. Because they had each other to bounce off.
So I took that attitude back to my music. The old grainy footage of long-haired kids riding empty swimming pools in suburban LA oddly made me nostalgic for nineties suburban Canberra. I played music all day and rode my skateboard (badly) up at the local underpass. I didn't apply "discipline" to my playing but I'd play for hours on end. And I got good. Real good. And distinctive too.
But then you become an adult. You start to consciously try to apply the 10,000 hour rule in the hopes that deliberate practise will make you a genius and the world will applaud and help you pay the rent. You plot a series of albums and stylistic shifts and you learn scales and how to read music and for the cognitive challenge you commit to learning Rachmaninoff and Ravel. But after a while you don't even want to play anymore. Because it sucks. And you may as well just get a normal job (not that there's any going right now).
And you procrastinate your passion by walking out on the trails, racing thunderstorms down mountains, planning long distance hikes and watching Youtube videos about people who build remote cabins and live off the grid for decades...
And then you realise. Fuck it. Just play. Because it's fun. Like in the nineties when you had long hair and sang badly in front of the entire school.
Nobody wants to hear self-conscious disciplined exercise anyway. Just have a little faith in the magic. Be dumb. Switch off your brain. Hit the same note for hours or close your eyes and play until something interesting happens. Ride a concrete wave. Be Thelonious Monk. Be yourself.
Artist marketing guru Austin Kleon advises artists to "show their work". In fact, the title of one of his books is "show your work." Which is great, because you get all the info you need in the title. This saves time & money. All arts marketing gurus should employ such declarative statements as book titles.
Anyway, I've taken his advice, assuming that's what his advice is, and am posting the demo of a piece I'm working on. Maybe it's close to finished. I'm not sure. I was going to bust out a whole album of piano pieces to put up on Bandcamp for their fee-waiving artist benefit on May 1, but I'd rather "officially" release work that I'm proud of, and don't feel confident that hurrying together a bunch of half arsed piano riffs in a few days would constitute much of an album. Not that I'm not proud of my sketches and squiggles, but I'd feel a bit lame trying to charge anybody money for them.
I've been fiddling around with these finger patterns for a few days. I pressed the record button and this is what happened. I even like the accidental chords that rose from my mistakes. The unexpected dissonance when I hit bum notes.
I post it here because this piece will never be the same again. I wouldn't try to replicate such insanity. I'd clean away the edges, or edge away the cleanness. Probably the latter. I don't know. Maybe it needs to just be sweet like a bee's last dance.
So in good news it wasn't Covid. In bad news -- albeit hopefully fake news -- unable to restrain my fingers from Googling every symptom, I've diagnosed myself with COPD, heart disease, asbestosis, cancer, silicosis...
Oh well. It was a nice life. I guess. I wish I did more things and didn't let anxiety / depression / fear put a dampener on so many good times. But ya know...
I'm going to a doctor tomorrow. I've somehow managed to get this far without having a GP. Maybe I'll like this doctor. We can become friends. The doctor will tell me it's just asthma from a chest cold and there are things I can do to manage it.
Health problems are boring. They really are.
I've been playing piano when I've felt up to it. I'm working on a bigger piece called Liquid Dreams.
It's been lonely and scary but my dreams have been nice. At least I wake up with a feeling like when you return from a holiday. So ya know. I assume they were good. And next post won't be about me at all. It'll be about the guy who was once referred to as "the Beethoven of America". Been reading some interesting stuff about the development of American composition in the 19th Century.
So it's a shitty time to have a chest infection. I went and got tested for the Covid yesterday. I'm waiting for my phone to buzz with the verdict. Whatever's going on, my chest feels like shit, I'm not allowed to leave the house, and the news just seems to be all bad. There's silver linings in the cleaner air and the potential for a less wasteful society, but that's bigger picture stuff. Right now I'm in a room and my picture seems claustrophobically small. I would like to swap bodies with somebody who doesn't have asthma, who didn't drink too much and smoke too much and potentially ruin their ability to survive this shit. I would like to have a mind that doesn't fill me with constant dread no matter what's going on, and to be able to truly enjoy the good moments, without the awareness of that impending edge from which everything blows off into a horror shitstorm...
I'm playing the piano a lot, tryna distill these thoughts & feelings into some kind of musical poignancy.
The world could be ending, and all I give a shit about is not wanting to feel the fear anymore. The anxiety that grips every muscle, every artery constricting and the airways shutting up shop. It sucks. It's hard not to think about it when there's nothing to do. Usually I go on runs. Or get drunk. Or have sex. None of which would be a very good idea right now. And also, illegal (except for the drunk bit), until I get a negative result from the Covid people. The mysterious Covid people.
All that can be done in the meantime is play piano, watch Better Call Saul, and keep on trucking.
As my mum always says, "It is what it is," though I really wish I'd stop philosophising about everything and just exist. Like a sparrow or a kangaroo. It is what it is. Or it isn't. Maybe it's a dream of something else. Maybe it isn't anything at all. Urgh. Shut the fuck up, mind.
to me, there are two consistent traits that lead to composing: it is the mistakes i make in execution, and my misunderstanding of a concept (i'll expand on the latter part in future posts).
in this video i try to explain to a friend how to write a melody.
i talk about picking a bunch of notes and then randomly trying different combinations over a chord change. even in my own demonstration of the concept, i make mistakes. for example, i play a melody one way, then i suggest, "why not play it backwards?" then i incorrectly play it backwards.
but this doesn't matter. exercises like playing a melody backwards, or trying out different combinations, or changing the chord pattern underneath the melody, are not an end in themselves. they are simply paths taken to lead towards creativity. incorrectly playing the melody backwards led to a melody that led to a song.
here, you're not winning points in how correctly you understand something. who cares if you can perfectly transcribe a melody from Ab to E? by fucking it up you might make something interesting.
interesting. it's a word i use way too much. it's like an algebraic x for what i really want to say. i'll work on that.
there's two bottles of wine and half a six pack of beer in the fridge. there's an infinite universe of hardcore pornography one click of the finger away. there's two valiums left and a big bathtub. there's a lot of empty space that doesn't need to be filled, but it's accustomed to overflowing the way a hoarder's house explodes with useless distractions.
instead there's a head on collision with my greatest enemy.
he stalks up and down the corridor and back and forth across the cat-stained rug. he could study more, or write a song, or play piano. or he could keep binge-watching a tv show that has already made him cry more times this evening than he has since he last got drunk. that was at his niece's seventh birthday party, and he got so shitfaced that he broke down as his stepdad sang elvis to his mother on the makeshift karaoke stage. i can't help falling in love with you. then he vomited in the car and spent two days with a fever and stomach cramps as he sweated out a lifetime of bullshit.
i can't help falling in love with you.
it's time i fell in love with him instead, as there's nobody else in this big empty space. and the choice between netflix and chilling with him instead of murdering him with wine, valium and porn, is the best choice between two bad choices.
it could always be a choice between kill or be killed, but we're not quite there yet.
he could always harden the fuck up and write something on the piano.
my parents were against toy guns. they even had a sticker on the door saying: "santa doesn't buy war toys." they bought me a nylon string guitar when i was ten and since everybody else had a toy gun i used the guitar as a weapon and shot up the neighborhood. the local urchins & i reenacted scenes from platoon and other then fashionable vietnam war movies in the streets of waramanga. it was carnage. milo and weetbix for breakfast and then the genocides would begin. one time toby & i dug a trench in the front yard and we hit some kind of concrete bunker about a metre down. fearing punishment we filled in the hole, but i still wonder what was in that bunker.
so i didn't play guitar much, i just shot baddies. or goodies. it depended which side i was on, on any given day. then i wrote a protest song against culinary corporatism called 'macdonalds chuck' which i recorded on a dictaphone just using mouth percussion and raspberries and vomit sounds. the rest is history. as in that was my first song, and then i was hooked, and twenty-five years later i've probably written 2000 or more and i only started playing guitar to accompany my mouth noises (i thought of it as 'singing' at the time).
first show was at a school fete. the organiser congratulated me afterwards and i told him off because nobody listened. it was his job to shut the fuckers up, not mine. i was just a wee boy in a big indifferent world, but i didn't know it yet.
i had a guitar teacher for a while. he soon realised it was pointless teaching me about quavers, crotchets and time signatures because all i wanted to do was write songs. so he'd send me off with some new chords each week and i'd come back with some new songs. when i was fourteen i played him one called "hammer me", which actually transformed his features and at the end of it he seemed genuinely taken aback. i went on to play it with a little grunge band at my highschool assembly and my testicles dropped during the chorus and for the first time i got the vocal squeaks and one thousand teenagers pointed and laughed.
i didn't care. i was a rock star. i shot em with my guitar and those little cunts had my vocal squeaks in their pea-brains for at least the time it took to get from the gym to class.
fast forward 2019 and i read a thelonious monk biography and the rest is history. i buy an 88-key keyboard and start learning rachmaninoff's prelude in c sharp minor. i guess i worked backwards. i still didn't really know what anything meant but after a few months i could play the piece. now i'm back at square one.
i love playing the piano. i love the fact i can look at a score and almost hear it in my head now.
but i don't really write songs anymore. i can still hear those thousand children laughing and pointing at me and it makes boohoo in my panties.
everyone's dying and the world is forever changed. what is there to possibly write a three chord song about?