Overweening Generalist

Sunday, April 19, 2015

After Reading Joe Satriani's Musical Autobiography

I've just finished reading Joe Satriani's "musical memoir" Strange Beautiful Music, and found it far too  larded with specialist info about what microphones were used on which pieces...and I'm a guitarist and long-time admirer of Satch. How did he meet Rubina, his wife? We don't know. But the instrumental tune and melody "Rubina" off Satch's first record is gorgeous. Why is his kid named "ZZ"? We don't know, but there's a moment about three-quarters of the way through, where Satch suddenly gets on how great Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top is. He doesn't elaborate.


We hear from Steve Vai how anyone who knew anything about rock guitar knew Satch was as good as anyone in the world, practically while still in high school. We do not hear about that which is always most mysterious and fascinating to me: the years of rapid development and practice. Then again, this element is given short shrift or glossed over entirely in most books by and about musicians. Why? Lots of reasons: it's thought to be boring, or worse: the de-mystifying of a god. The thing is: lots of musicians read these books. We want to hear a tad bit more than the old bits about how at some point I just quit going to school so I could practice all day long. And then I had my 80 students and the band at night. Satch does go into his "pitch axis theory" of using multiple modes at once, which was thrilling to me, but I wanted more.

On the first piece on Satch's first record, Not Of This Earth, "The Enigmatic," Satch is clearly composing around the Enigmatic scale, a bizarre little thing that makes you sound not of this earth. (For the axe wielders: it's root, flatted 2nd, 3rd, #4, #5, no 6th, flatted 7th and natural 7th.) But where did Satch learn it? From Slonimsky's famous Thesaurus? His cool high school theory teacher? Some book about avant-garde composers? He doesn't say. No mention of Klose. He loved Hendrix since he could remember. He mentions zero music theory or method books. He's obviously influenced by science fiction, but doesn't elaborate.

Satch does seem intent on conveying his constantly "on" prolific musical mind. He tries to talk about creativity, but he doesn't have a lot of insight about it. He remembers feelings and sees images and these drive him to convey something musical. (Well, think about it: what can one say about these things?)

He was brought up a Catholic, but apparently jettisoned that before moving from New York to Berkeley, CA. He doesn't really go into it. There's a lot about how certain studios and producers feel. One thing that comes out in bold relief - something I've tried to explain to non-musicians - is how outrageously the means of production of music has changed since his first album, in 1986. The urgency of "I have to make a record of my own weirdo music even though I have no money and maybe no one cares about this weirdness" from 1985 (when he received a credit card in the mail and immediately maxed it out trying to book all the studio time he needed), to today's gadgets like Pro Tools (you buy Pro Tools and a few other relatively cheap digital gizmos and voila!: you have a massive "studio" in your house, forever, to use anytime you want. No booking the cheapest studio time 10PM to 5AM, only to have the next acts booked pounding on the windows at 5AM sharp telling you to GET OUT! while you frantically try to splice two pieces of tape together, frazzled by lousy studio coffee).

You will thank me for I will not expound on marketing and record labels in the age of iTunes.

Joe Satriani has always seemed a total musical being, yet a balanced personality, unlike at least half of my other guitar gods. He doesn't have a bad thing to say about anyone, and...just what did I want from this book? I guess I wanted it more like that ultimate musician's book: Really The Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe. As much as I dig the theory stuff, I want to hear about other players' odd personalities (not a word about the freakishly great players he and Vai have asked to accompany them on the G3 tours: Robert Fripp, Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, Uli Jon Roth, Steve Morse, and Steve Lukather), drugs, sex, encounters with weirdos, and the phenomenology of woodshedding. I wanted to read more about his teaching. He drops a line in the book, something like, guys would want to know about what Randy Rhoads or Van Halen or Michael Schenker were doing and we'd break that down. (I would have read an entire book on just this.)

I wanted some meaty musician-geek gossip. Joe don't play that. Perhaps there's too much truth to the line "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."(?) Satriani likes his private life, and who can blame him? He also refuses to dish the slightest on other living figures in the music biz, which seems smart. But it just makes the book too studio-gear-production problems-geeky for me. Again: what did I expect?

Which reminds me: get a load of this daisy chain: At one point Joe took lessons from the uncanny blind bop-unto-free jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, who sounded like a real taskmaster. (Satch's students said the same thing about him.) Tristano, in developing his ear and technique, had been heavily influenced by Art Tatum. Satch later taught Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Charlie Hunter, Larry LaLonde of Primus, Andy Timmons and a bunch of other amazing players. (Of this last group, Timmons and Vai really stand out to me. Click on the Timmons link if you haven't already, and dig how he makes his Stat sound like a sitar in the Beatle's "Within You, Without You"... to me, this is just insanely great rock guitar playing.) If you've taken lessons from any of these guys, you're in a long line that goes back at least to Tristano; I can find no evidence Tristano actually studied with Tatum. He merely played along with Tatum records. (!)

One little thing I found striking in the book, and this may seem very trivial to the Reader, but Satch obviously loved the Berkeley scene when he moved here from New York. He loved all the freak flags flying high, the scene was nurturing of his pop band. He had tons of students. One of them was Alex Skolnick, later of Testament, and possibly the best of all the early "thrash" metal players. Skolnick is, to me, a thrilling player, even if I never liked Testament all that much. But less than a year ago I read Skolnick's autobio, Geek To Guitar Hero. Skolnick was brought up in Berkeley and has almost nothing good to say about it; he's a tormented soul (who at one point tried out Scientology), had a difficult time with his Yale PhD parents and his drug-addled older brother. Skolnick is driven to be great, and I was reminded of the type of student of the young drummer in last year's intense film Whiplash. One gets the feeling Berkeley's permissiveness - the overall social scene, the schools, etc - militated against Skolnick's inborn drive to be a great musician. As he's matured he seems to have come to peace with his background and his status as a musician, of which we smile at such a felicitous thing, no?

Hey, I guess the grass is always greener in someone else's hometown or family.

                              Here's Skolnick talking about thrash, Satch, and jazz

Below: Satch playing "Always With Me, Always With You" live in 2010


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece, as always. You have become one of my favorite writers. A few years ago I listed my favorite living writers as Rafi Zabor, David Thomson, Joseph Kerman, Charles Rosen, and Thomas Pynchon. Today I would list my favorite living writers as Rafi Zabor, David Thomson, Michael Johnson, and Thomas Pynchon.

I haven't listened much to Mr. Satriani. I always like the album cover for "Surfing with the Alien". I haven't read much about rock music in recent years. I do love reading about music, only I mostly read about classical these days. In 2009 I read Nick Mason's autobiography and "The Pink Floyd FAQ" when I became obsessed with Floyd after reading "Inherent Vice".

Like you find it interesting how some musicians get so good so young. I wonder, why not me? Well, laziness (or slack), or perhaps I have another role to play if one accepts the notion of God and/or DNA having a plan for each of us.

michael said...

Jeez Eric: thanks for putting me in that company; i wish I could see myself within those writers, but I don't.

Speaking of Thomson: I read his autobio on your recommendation and really enjoyed it. I read Thomson on film and he has great style and much insight and his tastes very often align with mine, and he seems far better a film critic than Pauline Kael (I just re-read Renata Adler's takedown of Kael and thought it awesome and ballsy, but then I've never liked Kael. Anyway...); Thomson - as much as I've read him (3 books) doesn't seem to "do" as much media analysis as McLuhan or Rushkoff. I'll cop that McLuhan is often psychedelic for me (funny: he's sooooo "straight"!); I like Rushkoff's narrative scope and think Life, Inc still vastly underrated.

One cd read Life, Inc and Gutenberg Galaxy and realign a lot of head space, myelinate vast new clusters of neural clusters.

I should get to Nick Mason's book. I read rock star books like other people do Sodoku or read mystery novels. I'm almost embarrassed to admit it.

Neuroscientist Gary Marcus wrote a good book a couple years ago about learning music after childhood: _Guitar Zero_. Loved that one. He also has a lot to say as a public intellectual.

I knew when writing this piece you'd bring up Kerman and Rosen: they seem to violate the rule that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." When I read them, I always have this idea in mind, and I'm thinking, "Look at how he did that!" Then there's a sort of cultural criticism writing that has as its basis music, and a few writers carry it off for me: Greil Marcus (no relation to Gary) and his Lipstick Traces. Klosterman and Bangs have massive voices and presences that keep me reading, even if I've never heard the band, or I have and don't care for them.

I think writing only about the actual music is either too technical for general readers, or it must be very poetic. Have you read Erik Davis's little book from the 33 1/3 series on Zeppelin's 4th album?

Eric Wagner said...

Michael, I truly enjoy your writing. I always find it thought provoking. Part of me wants to pursue all of your recommendations - perhaps one of these years.

I find Thomson incredibly perceptive about media matters. Thanks for reading "Try to Tell the Story..." One could see that book as a periplum of how media has transformed society, with his first hand account of the power of books, movies, radio, sports, and TV, etc. I find the more I read Thomson the more I get out of him. He has edited a new Breaking Bad Book which comes out next Tuesday.

I have not read the Davis book on Zep. I had a dream last year of playing bass with Led Zeppelin (in the wrong key). Today I've decided to listen to Sibelius.

I feel a void with the deaths of Kerman and Rosen. I've started reading Oliver Neighbour's book on William Byrd which Kerman raved about, but my ignorance of Renaissance music gets in the way. Hopefully I will understand it a little.

I have almost finished my second year of teaching AP Music Theory. Like the Upanishads say, remove infinity from it and infinity remains. I feel very ignorant of music, but I keep studying.

By the way, I bet you'd enjoy Rafi Zabor's novel The Bear Comes Home, my favorite book about jazz.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

In one sense, I am not the ideal audience for this blog post -- I haven't heard much of Joe Satriani's music. I have no idea who Andy Timmons is. I looked him up on Wikipedia, and I've never even heard of the bands he played in!

But in a sense I know exactly what you are talking about, because it's so frustrating to read an autobiography that neglects the things that make that person interesting. I'm planning to read Elvis Costello's memoir when it comes out this year, but I'm worried that I'll get political rants or something. I want to know what he thinks of Bruce Thomas, the bass player who wrote the unflattering book about him. I want to know about Bebe Buell, and Diana Krall! I want to know if he regrets his early image.

You write so well about music, I wish I could know what you think of some of the stuff I listen to. It would be great if someone would pay you to answer questions on the Internet about guitar-based music. Lately, what I've mostly been listening to is avant garde 20th century Russian classical music,and blues-based guitar music, such as Eric Clapton and Johnny Winter. Where does that endless flurry of notes from Johnny Winter come from? What were his influences? How come he wasn't a bigger star?

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Art Tatum was kind of awesome, wasn't he? He was from Toledo, about an hour from where I work.

Supposedly the great sax player Coleman Hawkins was on tour in Toledo back in the day, on tour with the fine pianist Teddy Wilson. Coleman had arrived at the local club, ready for the customary "cutting contest" when he and his buddies would outplay the local musicians, when he heard Art Tatum play. Hawkins called Wilson back at the hotel, said "Don't come," and hung up the phone.

michael said...

@ Eric- I see what you mean about Thomson's personal observations about different forms of media and their effects on him and culture. I guess I like the theoretical "slugger" aspect of McLuhan: "probes" and throwing out ideas (swinging for the fences) and missing a lot...even when he misses it's often interesting to me. I'm fairly convinced after reading him and his students' books on him: MM never really liked film.

What sources are you using for music theory study? Have you worked all the way through Walter Piston?

michael said...

@ Tom Jackson-

Love that Tatum story. I think if he were around now, psychologists would say he was Asperger-y. He memorized vast amounts of baseball statistics, too. He is one of those players - there are examples for all instruments - who has a weird nervous system. I mean: there are fast players, then there are freakishly fast players. Tatum was like that. And he played with delicacy and grace. But damn did that dude have some massive chops.!

Almost every rock/blues guitarist I've known has wondered the same thing about Johnny Winter: how come he wasn't a bigger deal? I think the best answer might be he was competing for attention space with an audience that was overflowing with fancy-chops blues guitarists to choose from. And: in a significant way, he did okay. We all know about him, right? He just wasn't Jeff Beck.

I don't know if his albinism hindered him from becoming a Big Star; I've heard offhand comments about him and his brother looking like freaks. And I always said, "They're fantastic rockers! They all look like freaks!"

On Winter's influences: he knew everyone in Texas who played, and he was a really sweet guy too. Did you ever hear him interviewed? Sounded like the nicest guy who ever lived, never a bad word from anyone. And the idea that one could take the blues scale and play it REALLY fast became widely accepted around 1968-70. He could already play fast, because he was aware of jazz guys like Charlie Christian and Oh My God: Tal Farlowe. Johnny Winter knew everyone and constantly played. Anyone will get good and fast if they're have a guitar in their hands most of every waking day.

An underrated thing about velocity on instruments: if you can hear it (in your mind, or in some other guy), this will have almost as big an impact on your speed as the constant repetition of lines, training the muscles. In other words, if you already know how to practice scales, then you hear John McLaughlin for the first time, you'll go back to your guitar and your speed will pick up...just 'cuz of your run-in with Inner Mounting Flame, or whatever.

It's weird. I've often used this analogy with students: the 4 minute mile was widely believed to be impossible. That was the human limit. Somewhere around 4:06 (Glenn Cunningham, 1934). Finally, in 1954 - 20 yrs later - Bannister did 3:59.4. Someone broke his record 46 days later. People need to believe and know that the things they're working very hard for can be done. (The questions now arise around Limitology.)

Now speed on guitar is a sport in itself. See the Guinness Records people showing up to clock and monitor that dude in Colorado who played "Flight of the Bumblebee" at just insane speeds.

Eric Wagner said...

Tom - great Art Tatum story.

Michael, I think you would enjoy David Thomson's The Whole Equation, his history of Hollywood. He has interesting discussions of film vs other media: Mahler's 9th vs Intolerance, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway vs. 20's film, Hopper's painting New York Movie (he doesn't really pit it against the movies so much as use it to discuss the impact of the movies and movie theaters).

I haven't read Piston yet. I've just finished rereading the Barron's AP Music Theory guide. Last year I started Schoenberg's Harmonielehrer, but I didn't finish it. I may attend a four day AP Music Theory training class in August which I look forward to.

michael said...

@Eric- Piston is wonderful to work through. Just take a break when it begins to feel like you're solving math equations.

Schoenberg's harmony: reminds me of something he supposedly said, that Bach was the first dodecaphonic composer. Or maybe he said 12-tone.

The passages in Hofstadter's GEB about the Crab Canon helped me to understand Schoenberg's system, which I think was better exploited by his star pupils Berg and Webern.

_The Whole Equation_ sounds like a must-read for me. I never got around to asking RAW about how important Sigfried Kracauer was on his thinking. There's a lot of puns and plays off of the title _From Caligari to Hitler_, but the book seems to have influenced RAW in a way that transcended his satirical riffs.

A lot of Edward Hopper reminds me of film noir.

Eric Wagner said...

I loved _The Whole Equation_. I've read it three or four times. I used to use it as a textbook for Film History I, but now I used Thomson's New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Sixth Edition). I think you would also enjoy the LA history in the book.

Eric Wagner said...
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