The Music Project
The sound of a guitar splits the wind. That type of vibration is capable of blowing open new realms, through electric portals. The player can sit and stare straight forward, fixed in concentration, mind on a roam, perhaps visiting foreign terrain.
I have been taking guitar lessons for just under a year. It was last May, when this strange feeling was rattling my bones. I felt trapped, or more accurately, spotlighted. It was as if I’d been caught, during a prison escape.
See, I thought I had reasons for my dreams. In actuality, though, true goals transcend fears of failure. When an ambition can be twisted inside out, it distinctly resembles a delusion. I had lied to myself, not about art, but in the manner I measured success. The pressure I placed upon myself was monumental, a complete distortion. I figured incorrectly that a tidal wave of acceptance, in the form of money and recognition, would simply incinerate interior maladies which I was refusing to confront. The negativity I was feeling simmered under the surface. Its reasons for existence were base, the dark matter of unconscious depths.
In my failed design, being a great writer would ultimately allow me to ignore, and therefore somehow overcome, the primordial feelings fueling my facade. I was detached, instead of empathic, with myself. Even if the future rendered it all a prologue, this route was not healthy. Not enough, not for me.
What I had not counted on was the schism. My artistic side, the fearless crusader, and ego, the protector of needless insecurity and inefficient coping mechanisms, were diverging. Two ships headed in an opposite directions.
Some people accuse artists, or writers, of practicing their craft solely for attention. My peers may reply that the work arises in the mind either through brutish instinct, or as a conduit to a creative realm beyond human understanding.
Both the shallow and mystical can be motives. It’s not always an either/or proposition. For me, I eventually reached a very natural point of decision. Was I doing this out of love, or something else?
The answer was obvious. I worked toward being at peace, whether or not my work was recognized. Certain subtle changes arose in my character. Desperation died down. A pressing desire to escape dampened significantly. My hunger for plaudits vanished. Ironically enough, I found instances of regret framed by feelings interchangeable with the obsession for success.
The story could have ended there, I figure, a simple journey toward maturity. Unfortunately, though, life is usually way more complicated than that. And it would be.
The aforementioned preoccupations, which I did need to walk away from, had become a part of my character. With those attributes cast aside, I began seeing perpetual abstraction. When your expectations for the world have suddenly changed, the results can be jarring. I had not become a different person, just needed a new pursuit. And I was lost in terms of where to turn. Writing had been a reliable outlet, but it was definitely time for a break, from any major projects, at least.
Springtime arrived. Restlessness had begat pure panic. My defenses were down. I was suddenly capable of breaking routine. I walked into a music store in the Queens Village. I told the owner, Dave, that I needed a new outlet, and he didn’t seem terribly interested. I was, in guitar lessons. A part of me wondered how the hell I had gotten here. The other part was probably nonplussed it had taken so long.
The spotlight was in my eyes, and it was time to make a move.
I can chart phases in my life by the artists I was listening to at that particular time. I tuned into whatever was on the radio as a child, completely open. The first song I ever loved was ‘Losing my Religion’ by REM. “You used to twirl your finger around at the end of the song,” says my older brother, Greg Waters. “Remember?” In fact, I do not remember, yet remain extremely amused that at six years old I could appreciate a gorgeous mandolin solo.
Growing up, I kept listening to that radio. Because my primary interest, up until the age of fifteen, was playing baseball at a high level, I wasn’t eager to pursue specific genres or artists. I incorrectly assumed that the radio encompassed music. In hindsight, this is a fatal mistake, certainly capable of curtailing finer musical sensibilities for a lifetime. Reality would straighten it out, for me.
I was not a great baseball player. In fact, I was not even a good one, compared to my more physically talented competition. I would ultimately face the end of my boyhood baseball dream, filling the gap with writing. I had changed. One game, while in the outfield, I realized I was way more interested in column ideas than the score.
Life had led in me in a creative direction. Music certainly has a place in any life, but especially a creative one. I suppose I had a one track mind. Before it became apparent baseball was no longer an option, I had not divested from my original hypothesis that the radio was a barometer for music at large. So naturally, I assumed music wasn’t that big of a deal. It seemed like a commercial experiment involving sound effects and synthesized voices. Years later, my good friend Nick Vigorito, a drummer, would confide to me that, “In a song, the music is the heart. And the lyrics are the blood.” I went to high school with Nick. If he had told me that in the hallway during freshman year, before my epiphany finally hit, I probably would have given him a glance askance. Now I know what he means, kind of… and I am grateful.
It was Tupac Shakur who shook me from the doldrums. Tupac, the immensely popular rapper gunned down at 25 in the year 1996, Tupac, the man who diehard fans deem a thug angel, Tupac, the poet laureate of hip hop.
It was only natural I made a connection with his music. His themes reflected anger, paranoia, unconditional love and confusion. At sixteen, I was angry about my unrealistic hopes being buried, paranoid about being unpopular, confused about my place in the world and still feeling innocent, unconditional love for the people who mattered most. Tupac was a perfect inspiration at this point in my life. He delved into emotions, often dark, encouraging me to do the same. I discovered hope can be found in the abyss. Though you shouldn’t stay there too long…
When I analyze Tupac today, it’s almost as if surveying a previous piece of my identity, an artifact of ancient times. I knew Tupac was forced into brutal conditions as a child, ‘evicted from the burbs,’ as he bellows poignantly on the song ‘Blasphemy.’ Yet I can no longer relate to his never-ending anger, or many of his fan’s simplistic adoration, which renders their hero an unreal ghost on a poster.
I too only saw the good, back then. I used to burn CD’s filled with Tupac’s most positive tracks. Yet as I entered college, I was ready to find a new idol. Oscar Wilde said an artist must be separated from his art, but in Tupac’s case, his ill-conceived, artistically bankrupt vision of ‘thug life’ was becoming more than I could accept, especially as I drifted away from an environment which celebrated that life style. I was beginning to become conscious of death. Not of the physical variety, but of the spiritual. I was becoming convinced the soulnessness of modern rap could be traced to Tupac’s endorsement of gangster culture. It was materialistic and misogynistic, a regression for Tupac which did not reflect his massive potential. I didn’t understand how anyone could accept it, let alone adopt the philosophy. And it was becoming harder to take the positive songs seriously without acknowledging their hypocritical stature within his entire body of work.
Tupac had opened me to the power and music and lyrics. He was a real poet, and I know he would have set it all right, once he had the right perspective. We’ll never know.
From sixteen through seventeen, Tupac had been my menacing musical guru. By the time I arrived at CW Post, I was pretty certain about who I was. This was a terrible thing. I knew I was a writer, which was fine, but I narrowed myself. I was only a writer. I would only be a happy person if I were a successful writer. I was putting myself into a box, and the box was bumping Tupac.
The funny part about me and Bob Dylan was that I don’t even remember the first time I listened to his music. It could have been on the preview for the film ‘I’m Not There,’ which came out in 2007. The movie featured six brilliant, contemporary actors playing Dylan at specific moments in his wild life. I was directing my writing energy toward screenplays at this particular time and something about that film’s trailer touched my soul. Especially a moment where Heath Ledger, the now deceased actor, smiles while leaning his head backward in a vintage car, sunglasses on and beautiful girl beside him, as if the entire world were just lifted off his forehead. I needed to see that movie, yet somehow never got around to it, not while it was in theaters, anyway. Bob Dylan, though, seemed important and cool.
I downloaded a few of his songs, and again, for reasons unknown except within my soul, told myself to be patient and really give them a chance. I was downloading individual songs at random, not purchasing full albums. I liked Dylan’s attitude, and his vocals, which often turn people off at first listen, were soothing to me.
A year went by. I listened to Dylan occasionally. Got really wrapped up writing a script called “Ashes of New York,” which was a breakthrough creatively, and led me to believe wealth and riches were around the corner. When I refocused on the world of the real, beyond my candy-land fantasies of the Oscars and red carpets, Bob was waiting. I finally listened to a whole album, called ‘Blonde on Blonde.’ It’s a hallowed record in the pantheon of rock. Any attempt I can make, to convey the amazing, wonderful realization that so many of the songs I had grown to love were, in actuality, on this one singular piece of art called an album, would not do the epiphany justice. It was mind blowing. I finally understood that music was art, a musician is an artist with a vision, and an album could hold a thousand dreams.
My dingy shack of musical appreciation soon spontaneously combusted into a cathedral. Yes, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was on Highway 61 Revisited, which closed with ‘Desolation Row’… the songs suddenly became connected. From there, I started to realize it was all connected. It went beyond a song, an album, a genre, a musician. Dylan’s free-wheeling, frenetic, poetic style, best evidenced on his mid-sixties albums, challenged my preconceptions, which, in comparison, were so obviously stiff and stilted. He invited convention to stand in the face of chaos, where it withered. That approach can be mistaken for nihilism. Dylan, who later crafted two religious albums, was hardly a pessimist, even at his most sneering sixties best. He just asked hard questions.
So I asked questions of myself. At 22, well into my Dylan frenzy, I stumbled upon a song called “This is the Sea,” by a band called The Waterboys, on Youtube. The song was played over football highlights, which I had actually been searching for. The song blew my mind. I absolutely loved it. It took me quite a while to check out another Waterboys number, and at first listen, “The Whole of the Moon,” didn’t impress. I gave the bombastic tune a few spins on Youtube, more open than I ever had been. I remember thinking that I couldn’t like something so unapologetically romantic, but I kept listening, waiting to see if that ‘connected’ feeling would rush through my body. The song, inevitably in retrospect, seeped under my skin. Mike Scott, the front-man of ‘The Waterboys,’ now occupies a spot just beneath Dylan in my personal songwriting hall of fame. Had I never listened to Dylan, would I have been able to give The Waterboys a fair shot? I’d be a poorer man, had I not… I smile upon thinking, years ago, when I chased wealth instead of celebrating art; I was, in effect, a very poor man.
While in that strange haze, before trying my hand at the guitar, I saw a documentary about The Ramones with my friend Chelsea Kate Isaacs. They are the definitive punk band, leather jacket clad rockers from Forest Hills, Queens. The Ramones got on stage and didn’t give a damn. Something stopping me, before that point, was a fear of being terrible at playing guitar, if I actually tried.
While Dylan opened my mind, The Ramones, who I barely even listen to, may have taught me to stop caring. Chelsea thought the documentary would inspire me, in some way, even encouraging me to play some atrocious rudimentary guitar immediately after watching. “Well The Ramones only knew about three or four chords. And they were just kids on the block in Queens… Put those two things together and you probably wouldn’t guess they’d be rock legends… but they did it,” Isaacs offered. “They were passionately rebellious and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about them or their music… they truly believed they were rock stars. If you believe it, then everyone else will. Forget everything else, it’s that rock and roll attitude that propels a band… and The Ramones epitomized it.”
I’m not a phenomenal guitar player. But that kid of perspective, self-belief, transcends music. Maybe, in some way, while playing guitar, I feel all the different parts of my human condition being somehow reconciled. My friend Amanda Adams recently started playing the axe herself, and her motivations were certainly relatable.
“Although I’ve been playing the piano since I was 5, I feel much more connected to the guitar, even though I only picked it up a week ago,” she said, when pressed for a reason. “I tried playing some of my favorite rock songs on the piano but they just didn’t sound the same. So one day I just woke up and decided ‘you know what? I’m getting a guitar today and I’m learning it!’”
She then cited interaction, between her body and mind. “Instead of just pressing keys on a keyboard that cause wood to hit strings, on the guitar your hands are touching the strings, altering sounds with just a move of your finger… The energy flows through your mind into your arm to your fingertips and finally to the guitar. It’s an instrument full of passion. It’s directly connected to you, to your body. I started learning my favorite songs on it and I haven’t put it down since. When I’m away… [From the guitar] sometimes all I can think about is getting home and playing. I get in this zone when I play. It doesn’t matter how bad I am since I’m a beginner. Hours go by without me noticing I’ve been sitting on my butt for hours. All I keep hearing in my head is the final product and I just can’t wait to get there. I relax when I play and all my worries go away. It’s like the world shuts off and it’s just me and my guitar. In that moment nothing else matters.”
Reading Amanda’s explanation, I am reminded of Dylan, and my epiphany about connection. Perhaps it was about more than music. Songs connected to an album, artists connected to each other, players connecting with their instrument, it’s all real… and it’s not about success or attention, but finding that connection. What does it all mean?
“Music is everything,” said my guitar teacher Chris Parks, when asked about why he cared about it so much. “Without music, there’s nothing.”
I do know that fear leads nowhere. And music is somewhere.