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.