Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hacker, Sham, Fraud: Neil Peart?

I've been reading Neil Peart's "Roadshow: Landscape With Drums", the Rush drummer/lyricist's memoir of the band's 30th Anniversary Tour in 2004.

The skeleton of the book isn't the concerts, it's the motorcycle rides between venues. Peart starts out leaving his Los Angeles home, pausing to gather up his co-rider for the tour. The two ride from LA to Nashville, Tennessee (where the tour will open), then on to each new city's amphitheater.

Along the way, Peart gives us little glances into his psyche. His most surprising revelation is in his self-confidence:

If I am uncomfortable with strangers making a fuss about me, and feel embarrassed by any show of admiration, people sometimes accuse me of thinking I am “too good.” In fact the opposite is true—I don’t believe I deserve that kind of attention. I have never thought I was very good at anything; I just tried hard. And nothing came easily. Having one’s childhood personality shaped by being inept at every sport is a cliché, but it had its effect on me.

Later, in my early teens, my first drum teacher encouraged me by saying I had a natural talent, and that meant a lot. But no matter how much I practiced and played and showed off, the more praise I received, the more I felt like a hacker, a sham, and a fraud.

Still do, sometimes, but the important thing was that I kept trying. After almost forty years of playing the drums, I had started to feel a modicum of confidence. Though even that still varied from night to night.

I've seen the guy play live twice and on tape or DVD many more times. It was his band that made me want to learn to play guitar (and, later, bass). If I have any idols in this world, people I look up to, these three guys would have to be in the top ten. He deserves heaps of praise, if only for setting a standard of excellence and living up to it.

But it's good to see a side of him that I'd never known, something that makes him just a vulnerable human being--not because it brings the Thundering Rock God down to my level, but because it reminds me that he's not a Thundering Rock God (he calls himself "a guy who hits things with sticks"). He got where he is by busting ass. He kept trying.

He's a good example of a line from a book I've kept in mind for a couple of years: "Play like you mean it." When I look back at how I was playing in 1995, I can see a vast improvement: I sucked then, I suck less now. I don't think 1995 me was playing like he meant it so much as just trying to keep up. I struggled through many of the songs we played in Soma Holiday.

There are still plenty of times when I'm playing a guitar and suddenly start wondering what the hell I'm doing--I'm a hacker, a sham, a fraud who should just put the guitar down, maybe sell it and all the stuff that goes with it.

Am I a musician? I don't know; I'm a competent technical player, but I don't write my own stuff and I can't improvise for crap--things I think are important for the answer to my question.

I can learn most songs pretty quickly; I just can't improvise on what's there, still have trouble with speed. I keep working at it, getting incrementally better, and something clicks, something basic that I'd missed like holding the guitar a certain way or moving the pick differently, and I find myself suddenly able to keep up with that elusive Metallica riff, but lagging far behind on the intro riff of "The Spirit of Radio" (that Holy Grail of Rush riffs!). I'm almost there, and it only took 23 years to do it. Equal measures (hah!) of frustration and satisfaction.

That's when I set the guitar aside and grab the bass for awhile, forcing flabby fingers to work harder, playing Nirvana's "Breed" or Stone Temple Pilots' "Wicked Garden" or "Vasoline," all of which feature simple but repetitive (and demanding!) bass riffs. No pyrotechnics, just fun and challenging to play. If I haven't been practicing (hahahaha...I'm really bad about that), the bass kicks my ass, leaving hands and forearms near-numb and tired the way you feel after good exercise. If it's really been awhile since I played, I rediscover the pain of building up new calluses and working tired fingers; then comes the pleasure of feeling the bass vibrating like a living, breathing thing, of knowing when I'm playing well, those giddy moments when I nail a riff, even the less-giddy moments when I make a mistake. From that book, that little paraphrase again: "play like you mean it." What the author said was more along the lines of "Play with authority. Play each note like you mean it--even if you screw up. Screw up like you mean it."

At some point, the mistakes and fatigue don't even matter because I can't stop. The song's in charge, I'm along for the ride, and goddamned if I'm hopping off. Maybe it's trite to compare it to great sex, but there's something to that, losing oneself in a moment, a rush, a high, wishing like hell you could have that all the time.

Before I started playing bass in 2003, that feeling was incredibly rare. It changed how I play, listen and react to music, the same way the guitar did in 1989. I got so into it that I hardly even looked at the guitar for several weeks. Too busy learning new songs, going for the next challenge, and enjoying that can't stop vibe. Once I did pick up a guitar, I had a "holy crap!" reaction and a valuable lesson. The song was "Down" by 311. My fretting hand held the strings down with little effort. The guitar itself felt strange, like a dinky toy after 5 weeks of a heavy bass with its bridge-cable strings. I tried STP's "Interstate Love Song" after that, amazed at this new ability. It came more easily than ever before (damn barre chords!). From there, had to go to Rush. "2112" has its share of demanding guitar parts--and for the first time in years, it was my picking hand playing catch-up. I played better than I had in years!

In the years since, I've played one or the other irregularly (I did say I'm bad about practicing), usually grabbing one when I'm bored or taking a break. Those can't stop moments come more frequently, almost regularly, but only if I'm playing like I mean it. Otherwise, I get the hacker, sham, and fraud feeling and know it's time to grab that bass and take my punishment.

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