What Steve Vai Taught Me About Myself

I started out as an unsophisticated music lover (of course I did), which in many ways is the best kind. My family had an old cabinet style combination radio and record player (mono of course). I remember we had a record (78 RPM, one song per side!) of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” I used to march around and around our living room, only stopping to restart the record:

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so he knew ev’ry tree
Kilt him a b’ar when he was only three
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!

Truthfully, that’s more lyrics than I remembered. I only remembered lines 1 and 4, and the chorus, which came after every verse. *

* Many years later I had a high school friend over and he noticed that our record player sped up and slowed down in a steady, undulating rhythm. I had had no idea. This may explain something about me, that I may appear to be balanced, but that balance is achieved by two equal and competing imbalances.

 

Anyway, at that point I understood a bit more about music, but on a scale of one to a hundred, not all that much. I took piano lessons for a couple years, enjoyed playing but never really applied myself. I wish I had. But I didn’t.

 

No, I’m just a listener, a consumer. At first I just enjoyed the beat, the rhythm, and the melodies (and the simpler the better). I remember being in love with Elvis (‘His hair was perfect’) which I think was a kind of childish, slightly homosexual yet platonic kind of thing, as much about image and hero worship as it was about the music. I was so much into Elvis that I initially resented the popularity of the Beatles when they came along. But I got over it.

I also remember the movie soundtrack to Dr. Zhivago. This was a kind of breakthrough for me. That album recording was so clear, the individual instruments highlighted so cleanly…I prefer rock music and folk music, but this more classic, orchestral treatment opened my eyes (and ears) to the logical construction and possibilities of all music. There are notes and instruments, yes, but there are also arrangements and singing and lyrics, and there is volume and energy and emotion. And teamwork.

So I had a general, intellectual understanding at that point…well, not just a point but more of a period extending and refining itself from about 1965 and onward to the present day. But I am not a serious student of music, having neither the natural talent nor inclination to be one.

 

Sometime in the last couple of years, I came across an interview with guitarist Steve Vai in which he recounts working with Frank Zappa (most relevant portion runs to about 2:20):

Steve Vai Plays Zappa Composition

Well, I enjoyed that, just watching his fingers moving. Guitarist fingers, you know, long and clearly articulated, and the little piece of music very pretty. So I looked him up and caught this interview where he described auditioning for Zappa:

Steve Vai Auditions for Frank Zappa

and this was great, very funny, and I had come to really like Steve Vai.

 

Now here’s the really odd thing. Naturally I did look up other items on Steve Vai, his early influences, his history in the music business and of course listened to his solo albums. Listened to them just a bit, anyway, because…I don’t really like them (gulp). The guy is an absolute master, okay? A brilliant guitarist, but I really don’t much care for the kind of music he plays. I mean…he’s beyond impressive, but he’s clearly playing to a taste I don’t share and don’t understand.

I also came across other interviews in which he discusses transcription and technical music terms, and how to build music and perform and quite frankly it is all over my head. I’m tempted to say that I don’t know what the hell he is talking about, but Vai is a really good story teller, good at explaining things in layman’s terms. So in spite of my ignorance I am able to follow his thoughts.

I’m still mostly ignorant of the technical language of music, but I am grateful to Vai and his stories and explanations. Somehow I now have a greater vision, a new insight into the astonishing world of sound, the ideas of sound, the language of sound, and ultimately the pleasing logic of music.

Here’s a really great interview that, I think, touches on all of this, plus advice about protecting your intellectual property:

Steve Vai Talks Technical and Other Stuff

 

Okay, enough about Steve Vai. He’s not important to me. I’m important to me. I want to talk about me.

 

Why don’t I like Steve Vai’s records? Well, they’re all mostly instrumentals. I appreciate the complexity, I appreciate the skill, the performance, the composition, the creativity, all of it. But it doesn’t move me.

What I really like are songs. All of the other stuff I’ve been touching on, to me, is wasted unless it is in service of a song. And what is a song, anyway, unless it is a story? It might be a rudimentary story, to be sure. Usually a song is a gateway to an emotional expression. It might just be an invitation to dance, or the lyrics might just be an excuse to play a melody. But I think the best songs are poems, sometimes complex but usually deft, supported and enhanced emotionally by the music.

And that’s what I like. If you were to look at the music I listen to (or listen to the music I look at), probably 80% of it would pack an emotional wallop. I appreciate songs of heartbreak, of loss, of melancholy, of desire and longing, or simple sweetness. I’m a pretty sappy kind of guy (you get to my age, you’ve got a lot of regret to indulge in).

You see, I’ve been in love and I’ve been young and I’ve had fun. I’ve had my heart broken and I’ve wallowed in self pity sometimes. I’ve gotten old and I’m watching everything I enjoy slowly drift away from me. But I still want to really, really feel things. A great song is my ticket to the profound mystery of being alive.

 

Gary Fletcher – November 18 2017