Friday, July 22, 2011

Local Hero

One of my favorite movies is "Local Hero".  It is an environmental film, in more ways than one.  You say "environmental" and people think about saving the whales, and there is definitely that element in the film.  An oil company wants to tear apart a town on the beautiful west coast of northern Scotland in order to build a deep-water refinery close to the North Sea oil fields for shipment of refined fuel back to America.  The beauty of the place, the people, and their simple communal way of life slowly overcomes these more corporate needs to win the day and preserve the beauty of the coastline.   

Yet there is also an element of putting a man who is comfortable and successful in one environment - urban, corporate, upper-middle-class life driven by money and materialism - and dropping him in a very different place - more wild, more affected by the rhythms of nature - and it transforms him.  He becomes more his true self.  He finds the path.  The experience transforms him. 

Mac in Houston - before he leaves for Scotland
Mac has a great job, by current American standards.  He is in M&A at a large oil company headquartered in Houston.  He owns a Porsche, has a big office, has lots of money in stocks, and brokers large land deals representing the oil company.  He gets chosen for the Scotland deal because his name is MacIntyre - a Scottish name to be sure.  But his Hungarian parents changed their name to MacIntyre when they immigrated here to be "more American".  This is true for so many people who came to these shores.  So who is Mac really?  He doesn't even have his own name.    

By every measure that our modern society equates with happiness and success, Mac should be very happy.  Yet we find out that he is not.  He has no intimacy in his life; no love; no connection with people.  No friendships, even at work.  He is a man consumed by the corporate ladder.  His whole life is geared toward world domination by his own employer.  There are so many people - good people - like this in America.  These are the guys and girls who are willing to move to all corners of the earth (read: America and Western Europe only) in order to get that next promotion, that next raise.  Because that is what they blindly see as the way to get ahead.  But where are they going?  Why?  These questions are left unanswered by these people. 

Mac's transformation begins on the journey to Ferness, the Scottish town he has to acquire.  He comes to buy the entire town, all the property from the coast line to a mile inland.  It takes nearly two days to get there, and at one point on the drive from Aberdeen, there is so much fog on the mountain road that he has to merely stop driving in the middle of the road.  Can you imagine that?  Being in a place so remote that you can just stop in the middle of the road with no cars coming or going for hours on end?  Just thinking about that gives me a sense of peace. 

Gordon and Stella
 Mac arrives in town of Ferness to find Gordon Urquhart, the town's chief accountant, hotelier, and restauranteur, among his other duties.  Gordon is married to Stella, a woman who represents the ideal for Mac.  Why does Gordon have Stella when Mac doesn't?  The movie goes a long way in explaining why.  Women love a man comfortable in his own skin who knows who he really is.  Gordon knows that; Mac doesn't, though in the course of his cinematic journey in this film he discovers who he is in his bones. 

Ferness along the beach
In order to enhance his negotiating position, Gordon suggests slyly to Mac that he spend a few days in the town, getting to know the landscape and the people.  Here Gordon shows he is a far better businessman and negotiator than Mac.  Just because you have a Porsche and make more money than someone else does not mean that you are better or smarter than anyone else.  Corporate life can become a form of indentured servitude where everything in your life is defined by your position on the ladder.  People just go to sleep and surrender too many decisions to large corporations.  At the end of the day - in America there is capital and there is labor.  All employees of corporations are labor.  In this case, Gordon is capital and Mac is labor.  Gordon's businesses may be comparatively small - but he owns them.  He is an entrepreneur - a master of his own fate.  Mac is a salaried employee who is probably three paychecks away from being broke (like so many of us Americans).  
Gordon and Mac, after a night of whiskey at the Ceili
By the time of the Ceili (pronounced KHAY-lee), which is a Gaelic word for a party, Mac has realized that Gordon has somehow discovered the secret of happiness, while he on the other hand is miserable.  He also feels that Gordon is his best friend in the world.  In the pivotal moment in the film, shown above, a drunken Mac begs Gordon to participate in a new negotiation - to discuss terms for swapping identities.  Mac gets to be Gordon, with his "little bits of business" and with his wife Stella, and Gordon gets to be Mac, with his big-time job, his Houston apartment, his stock portfolio, and his Porsche.  Then he pees on the floor.  Gordon says, "Sure, Mac."  And really he is just showing compassion in saying that to Mac.  He knows he has already won in life. 

This film is rich with sub-plots and I am only choosing one of them.  It is really more of a meditation than a film.  Its richness is like an old book, or a fine smooth 42-year-old whiskey on a cool quiet night.  You need time with this film to let it sink into your bones.  Local Hero has changed my life for the better and it has put my priorities into perspective. 

Mac has been given a gift - the ability to see his life for what it is by being allowed to go somewhere completely different to what he is used to.  In our own lives we should all try to leave our comfort zone at times, just to see what it is like.  Because taking chances like this can be transformative. 

Let me add one musical note.  Mark Knopfler recorded the soundtrack for this work.  It is an excellent soundtrack, and Knopfler is Scottish, so I'm sure his heritage played an important role in his work.  While his work could on the surface be considered an homage to Vangelis' excellent soundtrack for "Chariots of Fire," I do think it stands on its own as an excellent and essential component of the film.  I love films where the music is a part of the story, and I believe that in the case of Local Hero, this is assuredly so.  Knopfler is as much a part of this story as Peter Reigert is. 

Mahalo ;)=~

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Rick Ocasek Rule

Why does any young man want to play in a band?  This was an easier question to answer in the days before MTV.  Most young men would probably answer that the reason was "to meet girls."  Hot girls.  Girls you would have no business being with otherwise. 

For me, the reason was the Ric Ocasek Rule. 

Like many rock stars (especially pre-MTV), Ric is not a handsome man.  He is abundantly cool, however.  He was the co-lead singer and principal songwriter of the Cars, who were together from 1976-1988.  You may not have heard of them, but if you ever listen to classic rock stations, many of his songs will be familiar to you.  "Just What I Needed", "My Best Friend's Girl", "Shake It Up" and "Let the Good Times Roll" are all theirs.  He is also cool because he was the producer of Weezer's first album (the Blue Album) and if you listen to it now, it definitely has a Cars-like sonic quality. 

Ric Ocasek at his peak - not a handsome man.  Even in a press photo.

But that is not why he is important to us, dear readers.  Put yourself into the mindset of a 13 year old boy.  You are just beginning to discover those pangs of puberty.  The girls in school suddenly have growth in the chestal area.  You listen to popular music all the time and one day discover that nearly every song is about meeting a girl, getting a girl, or breaking up with a girl.  You find yourself in class staring at a girl's neck, or wrist, or ankles even (preferably skinny ankles) - and being aroused by just those simple features.  Yet she seems impenetrable.  So close and yet so far.  How to bridge the gap? 

I was a dork in school.  Never smoked or drank, never in detention.  I studied and got A's.  The only time I was punished was in the 2nd grade, when I accidentally poked Catherine Olsavsky in the arm with a pencil.  Total accident.  The teacher, a nun named Sister Theresa, said to me "Don't do that, son, you could give that little girl lead poisining!"  To which I retorted, "Duh, there's no lead in pencils!  It's graphite!"  Detention.  Take this conduct slip back to your parents and have them sign. 

I played a lot of sports though.  And when you hit puberty when I did and your dad liked sports, that means he had a subscription to Sports Illustrated.  And if that is the case, then the week after the Super Bowl was the week you looked forward to every year with salivating mouth and watering eyes.  Because it was then that the coveted Swimsuit Issue would arrive. 

You would hope Dad wouldn't get home early the day it arrived, so you could have a good look at it before he even knew it was there.  Maybe you would have two days before Dad would ask Mom, "Honey, where is the mail?  Did the Sports Illustrated arrive yet?"  Then the window had closed.  You have to understand that this was pre-PC, pre-internet, pre-DVD, and VHS was barely out there.  We were the last people on the block to get a VCR besides.  Porn stars were not household names, especially in suburban Catholic areas.  To look at porn videos, you had to walk into a video rental store (which was full of people you knew) and go to the back of the store where there was a red curtain.  Look around to make sure no one is watching, then slip through.  Behind the curtain was the wall of porn videos.  And all you could do was look at the cover photos.  How could you rent a porn video with all those other people around?  Your other option of course was to somehow obtain a Playboy, Penthouse, or Hustler at a magazine store.  But at 13, this was a totally impossible scenario. 

Nevertheless, for me, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was it, baby - full sexual excitement, beauty personified in nubile athletic women in their early 20s on the beach in bikinis.  And Paulina was, to me, the most beautiful of them all.  Something about her was so exotic, yet so vulnerable.  Amazing what a teenage mind can conjure from a good photograph.  I could stare at the cover and be completely satisfied.  But what lay within...

The Ric Ocasek Rule, simply stated, is this.  Ric Ocasek filmed a video for the Cars' last, great hit - "Drive" - and in the video, Ric pretends to have a romantic fight-and-make-up with Paulina Porizkova.  This is 1988.  Ric's band is breaking up at the time and this was their last hurrah.  Ric and Paulina hit it off big-time on the set.  Paulina told Ric that she had loved him through his music from afar for some time before meeting him there.  They got married a year later.  She said later that Ric was "a combination of Mr. Spock, David Bowie, Jesus Christ, and Chopin."  They have two sons, and are still married - 23 years later.  The calculus in a teenage boy's mind is this: "Ugly dude gets hottest girl in universe!!!  How is this possible?  He sings in a band.  OK - so if I sing in a band, I can somehow get hot girls like Ric?  I need to get a guitar right away."   

Married 23 years.
From a young age, I was attracted to Beauty with a capital B.  I didn't quite understand what I was searching for, but I think I do now.  Not really understanding back then led me to a lot of mistakes.  So as a public service, I will bestow on you my Codicil to the Ric Ocasek Rule... How to Find Beauty In Life.

  1. Don't look at Internet porn.  It damages your perception of what a woman is supposed to be.  You begin to view women as participants in the athetic event of sex, rather than delicate human souls capable of intense personal friendship, love, and intimacy.  And that's just from staring into her eyes.  Additionally, it can become an addiction, in the same way as gambling, booze, and drugs.  Porn is very bad, and it leads to men thinking cheaply of women.  Porn basically turns men into animals.  What separates men from beasts is free will.  We can freely chose to ignore our instinct if we think it harms us.  Porn harms us.  A monkey can't stop - a man can.  Choose to be a man! 
  2. Deny yourself certain desires for extended periods.  You need to learn to control yourself, your emotions, and your desires in order to harness your creative power.  This is textbook Art 101 stuff, though since the sexual revolution it has become passe.  Let me give you an example.  Many modern art historians think that Michelangelo was gay, in part because of the very muscular female bodies he painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Personally I think it is not important.  But let's just say that it was actually true that Michelangelo was gay.  According to historical records he never acted on this impulse.  Never.  He was absorbed in his work.  If you make that argument, you can also conclude that he focused all that sexual emotion and frustration with great intensity into his art: the Sistine Chapel, the David, the Pieta.  Work of such immense longing... God gives us talents and challenges.  We must learn to deny ourselves in order to truly unleash our potential. 
  3. There are two kinds of Knowledge.  There is knowledge through Instruction - such as that which can be read from a book or watched on TV.  Knowledge like this remains second-hand and does not really connect you with reality itself.  My adolescent deduction of Ric Ocasek bagging Paulina is this kind of knowledge.  The second kind is knowledge through Experience.  Experiential knowledge involves being struck by the arrow of Beauty which wounds a man (i.e. pain and suffering in your life), and you are thus moved by reality.  You learn more from what happens to you - especially painful experiences - than you can ever learn from a book.  According to a 14th century theologian named Cabasilas, "When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom [Jesus] who has smitten them with his longing.  It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes.  The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound."  Re-read that one & let it bake your head for a while. 
  4. There are two kinds of Beauty.  One is False Beauty.  You see a picture of a beautiful woman naked, your body responds.  It's never as good as the first time.  You do it more & more, but it is less and less satisfying so you continue to do more and more.  And so on.  Pretty soon you have a problem.  False beauty is dazzling, but it fails to bring a human being out of himself into the larger world or open us to the ecstasy of rising heights.  It locks you entirely into yourself.  Advertising is another example of false beauty - it tempts us with images crafted with supreme skill to get us to separate ourselves from our money. 
  5. There are two kinds of Beauty.  One is True Beauty.  I was struck by the arrow of suffering.  It inflicted a nearly mortal wound upon my heart.  It really hurt!  After a time I recognized what was happening to me.  Through my own Dark Night experience, God was saving my life from destruction.  I discovered True Beauty in that sweaty, bloody, humiliated man nailed to a cross.  How can such violence, such pain and suffering, be beautiful?  Because of who he is, and why he did it.  This is reality - this is the Truth.  In finding that out I discovered what True Beauty is. 
Do not dismiss me for what I believe.  My entire life - my happiness - relies on God alone.  To be without God is to be without the only One who can satisfy your soul.  God is the Sole Satisfier.  To be with God is to understand we are all One - we are not alone.  But again, as I learned - you have to figure this out for yourself and make your choice.  That's what free will is all about. 

After God mercifully pointed me toward True Beauty, I soon discovered a woman who would become my wife.  She was born in Poland and came to the US as a teenager.  Paulina Porizkova is from Czech Republic and came to the US as a teenager.  I have heard that the two places to find the most beautiful women in Europe are the Czech Republic and Poland.  I am here to testify that I can vouch for Poland as one of those countries.  And meeting her had nothing at all to do with Ric Ocasek. 

Mahalo ;)=~

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Meet the Band - Miles and the Saga of Skunk Baxter's Bass Players

In a previous post, I introduced you to two band members, Page and Sully.  This post will serve to introduce you to our bass man Miles, and address some history that involves our relationship. 

Where to begin with Miles?  He plays the bass guitar.  He is a big guy, likes hockey.  Very white skin, yet he believed that the best musicians in the world were black (he did, not sure if he still feels that way).  As a younger guy, he was a real musical snob.  Nowadays he is much more mellow and kind to me but he still is the same guy deep down.  Aren't we all?  He loves jazz and actually is fully responsible for my knowledge, and subsequent love, of jazz as an art form.  I have to be honest here because we have not always seen eye-to-eye, particularly in the pre-band-breakup era.  Let me preface this relationship a bit by saying that I am a bass player myself, and I believe that any great band requires a great bass player.  The bass player is critical to making the band sound like you can dance to the beat.  The bass sound makes women want to get on the floor.  I am a student of James Jamerson and Paul McCartney, and I love their music. 

James Jamerson, playing a Fender Precision Bass

I was the first bass player in the band.  I played bass and sang, like my favorite Beatle did.  I still write on the bass occasionally - I often want a certain bass line to interact with my lyric line a certain way, for example.  What happened was that we got to a certain level of ability as a band where my live performance as a singer was being compromised because I had to hold down the bottom end too.  The other factor in this band is that the bass player keeps time, not the drummer.  Our drummer, as mentioned previously, is given to flights of fancy.  So it is the bass player's job in this band to be the metronome - to keep the drummer on the one at all times. 

We added a new bass player that Page knew from work, Chris Ford, who I called "The King" because he reminded me of Elvis.  He was very dedicated and worked hard at his craft, but three things happened that did him in.  First, he loved Guns 'n' Roses, and insisted that we cover "Sweet Child O' Mine" which made me want to throw up.  But I try to be nice, so we did the song.  Second, he played with a graphite bodied bass and used a pick.  Imagine a guy who loves G'n'R playing bass in Phish or DMB.  It just didn't make sense.  But we liked the guy because he was cool and organized.  He learned the songs we liked and tried his best to "get it".  He raced cars on the side too - Mazda RX-7s with the rotary engines, all tricked out.  We were impressed with that fact.  He was fearless. 

The King on bass
The third thing though... this was the straw that broke the camel's back.  I had written this song called "To Give" which to this day I love.  It is a great song, one of my best; and I went up to New York to my friend Kieran's studio and demoed the work.  Kieran played drums, I played guitars and bass, and we had a rough demo which I brought back to the band so they could learn it quickly.  The band went into a local studio with Kieran as producer and we recorded it as part of our first EP.  I thought it was good work.  The King got a little out of hand with delusions of grandeur however, and one day over lunch he announced to me that he thought "To Give" would propel us into super-stardom, and he began demanding from me his "rights" to the song.  He insisted that he had "written" the bass part and that therefore he was entitled to a large chunk of the "rights" associated with the song. 

Now this whole incident blew me away.  I had lived the life that led me to write the song.  It was my baby.  It was me, through and through.  The song still gives me the chills.  Additionally, I had taken the time and effort (and money) to go to NY and lay it down in a studio with my friend Kieran's help.  The bass line the King referred to that he "wrote" was nearly a note-for-note homage of the bass line I played on the demo.  Of course he executed it in a far more polished way, but the IDEA was already there - I had done the work.  Moreover, his whole obsession with this song launching us into some stratosphere of MTV and radio and everything else was just dark and strange.  I thought he was out of his mind and wanted him out of the band then and there.  It was contrary to the whole spirit of what I was trying to accomplish. 

So, we kicked him out of the band.  I knew of a cousin of Kieran's, Brandon Jones, who lived in the area, and he played bass.  He was a really mellow guy, and he seemed to operate within our musical sphere of influence.  Everyone liked him right away - the perfect antidote to "The King".  But his problem was that he had moments of amazing clarity, and then he would turn around and mess things up awfully, like a guy on hard drugs.  Which it turned out he was.  This dude had a seventeen year old heroin-dealer girlfriend who had him wrapped up around her little finger, and he had been trying to "escape" from her for months.  He even called her "the Black Widow".  Once the band discovered what was going on we told him - no hard drugs in our band.  If you do them again, you're out.  No exceptions.  He came to my door one day and said he was leaving for Pittsburgh, where his mother was, to escape from the Black Widow.  I offered to let him move in & hide out with me - but told him if he did drugs one time in my house, he was out.  We tried... and I think Brandon lasted about four days before the Black Widow hunted him down one day while I was at work.  He was honest with me - I give him that - and he knew he had to escape from this evil situation with this girl.  May God have mercy on the guy - I hope he is OK.  Brandon if you're out there I hope you are in a better place.   

Brandon's girlfriend - as portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. A fair representation IMHO.
So at this point, we still had this great song "To Give" but were faced with a personnel impasse.  The clock was ticking.  Our manager at the time, Kevin DiBergi, who was quite the character in his own right (more about all that later), had somehow just signed an amazing regional hip-hop star to his stable and wanted to send us out on a national tour supporting him.  He had hooked it up with a record label and had been given $400,000 to develop his stable of artists.  So there was a real Russell Simmons-like vibe to the whole situation - if we could only find a bass player.  The hip-hop star, Charles E, had won a new-artist Grammy a few years earlier with his old group which had been DJ-sample based, in a very Tribe Called Quest kind of way.  He wanted to set things up this time like the Roots, where he rapped over a live band.  He and I met at a gig where we both played up at Elizabethtown College on a flatbed in this big field with hundreds of college kids, and he said to me, "Man, I dig your song.  It is for real.  It's good.  Take good care of it."  For a dude with a Grammy from the streets of West Philly to say that to me - wow.  I didn't know what to make of it entirely, then or now.  But I cherish the memory, and always will. 

Hip hop wasn't always about gangstas. There was humor, integration, and social consciousness too!
 Somehow DiBergi found Miles.  My first recollection of Miles was that he was cocky.  I had heard through DiBergi's people that he called himself "the best bass player in town" which seemed quite arrogant to me, especially since I knew another bass player in another of DiBergi's bands - Vibes - who was better (they were to be the backing band for Charles E).  We invited him to my basement for a night of practice.  He sounded really good - he played with his fingers and had that right combination of touch and power that I had always searched for in a bass player.  He learned fast and he was clearly a serious student of the instrument.  He did not mess around when it came to music.  He lived in a rented house with four other dedicated jazz musicians who lived crudely but were constantly focused on their own personal musical development, among other diversions

Jaco Pastorius - Miles' favorite bass player

Sometimes I wonder if I had said "no" which was what I was thinking down deep.  I had hesitations about his personality, which seemed aggressive & forceful.  DiBergi's right hand man, a Jamaican Rastafarian named Tuck (imagine Samuel Jackson with an accent & dreds), told me before I made my decision, "Will, the dude is an asshole."  But where were we going to find a bass player with his talent in such a small city?  I was thinking that we either add him and get to play gigs again, or we don't.  He had a musical tone that I really wanted to add to the mix.  So I made the call.  "You're in," I told him after that first practice, to the delight of the other members. 

"Will, the dude is an asshole."

My grand sonic vision had been that we would have blue eyed soul on top, with harmonies and melodic lyrics, coupled with a modern R&B bottom end - a combination of Brian Wilson and hip-hop - to bring back together the fragmented popular music that began breaking apart starting with the King assassination in 1968.  With Miles and with "To Give" I felt we could do that.  We had the ingredients so that I could brew the musical vision I had heard in my head for years. 

Brian Wilson in the studio making "Pet Sounds" - my favorite album
 But the young Miles was so aggressive back then.  He pushed me well out of my comfort zone.  He pushed our musical tastes, he pushed me to quit my job and tour, he pushed all of us to work harder.  It just wasn't fun to play anymore.  And I was struggling to come to grips with the possibilities of a tour.  DiBergi, admittedly, while a wizard at personal relationships, was no businessman.  He spent nearly the entire $400K buying a tour bus.  So instead of putting that money in the bank and spending it slowly & cautiously to leverage it for great opportunities (festivals, regional touring, marketing, etc), and LEASING a bus for a few hundred dollars a month, he got stuck with a $400K luxury tour bus sitting in his driveway after a 3 week national tour was done and there was no money left in the bank.  DiBergi ended up running bus tours to places like Key West, attempting to monetize the asset.  Things got disorganized really fast, and I could foresee (especially with the bus purchase decision) that I would be jumping onto a sinking ship without lifeboats.  Amid this turmoil the band was breaking up anyways.  I think that Miles had less to do with it than I thought at the time.  Because he was the new guy he came to embody to me the frustrations and problems the band was going through. 

MCI Entertainer Bus for Sale picture
The tour bus... it was top of the line.

The real problem was me.  I was being asked to quit my job and three square meals a day, to climb in a van and go all over the country and play gigs for nearly no money.  There would be a free flow of drugs (probably not hard stuff, just grass - but I heard that some of the guys in the other bands were into blow) which did not interest me at all.  I'm a homebody and I felt that I was not made to be a troubadour.  I like good food, hot meals, and my own warm bed.  Going from town to town, shacking up in cheap hotels, going through women in meaningless one-night stands... that was really the opposite of what my song "To Give" was all about!  That song is about longing to find that one special partner in life who you can share with and create life with and be with forever.  And I felt responsible for the other guys in the band too.  Like I had to think for all of us.  Some of them already had girlfriends who are now their wives.  Was I really going to lead these men off on some crazy train

So I quit the band and moved away to the city.  

About three years later, after each of the band members had settled down and married, I was doing a solo album with my friend Kieran in New York (so yes, I have recorded a full album, just not with the band).  I recorded one song called "Charlie's Farm" about my old job which I had sent to a local paper's blogger.  Miles read that blog and listened to the song which was posted there in MP3 format.  Out of nowhere he dropped me an email.  One thing led to another and we got together to discuss playing again.  I'm really glad we did.  He's a good guy deep down, and I didn't give him a fair shake back then.  We both have grown a lot in the years since the band split.  Sometimes you do learn from traumatic experiences and become better for it.  I like to think we both did.  I was going through some serious personal turmoil back then and he was a convenient excuse for me to assign blame where it wasn't really deserved - just because his personality lent itself to my ridicule.  I do regret that and hope the success we've had recently has made up for it somehow, if that is possible. 

I am so proud, actually, that our friendship - and the friendship with all the band members, especially Page and Sully, who went through all that with me too - was strong enough to survive what happened all those years ago.  And the amazing thing was that when we did actually get back together, we were more focused and we sounded better than we ever had back then when we were dreaming big dreams.  We play now for the music; sometimes I think back then we played for the party.  Big difference.  Now I mentioned before that you define success on your own terms as an artist.  You don't let others define it, or money, or anything else.  You decide what success is for you.  For me, now, success is being in a great band that can play music and have a good time to the enjoyment and enrichment of our community.  I'm just glad we can still play after all these years.  It is so much fun to play with these guys.  Thank you Miles for sending me that email and for making amends.  We've never really talked about it, but the fact that we are playing now says enough.  Forgiveness is such a powerful thing. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Playing Cover Music - A Defense

My band plays covers. Every band should learn covers, and there are a lot of reasons why. 

First of all, there are less and less bars that are hiring live bands, at least around these parts.  More and more places I call where we used to get gigs are now hiring DJs and karaoke for their entertainment.  And why not?  So many bands, particularly the ones with the most talented musicians, are writing their own stuff and playing "original" gigs.  The bands left over, the average players, don't do justice to the cover music.  They are loud, or just don't play music that well.  Or they are too slick and therefore too expensive - like a wedding band or a band that plays at the big beach bars.  For bar owners it is simple economics.  People who patronize their bars want to hear what they like.  If they do, they stay and buy drinks.  In the current paradigm (the depression we're living in since 2008), the economics, sadly, are clear - DJs are cheaper than bands and there seems to be no financial benefit for many bar owners to choose a live band over a DJ. 

The enemy of all bands - the DJ

Second, be honest - for the average over-21 bar-goer who listens to his iPod, most original music sucks.  Songwriting is difficult, like trying to write a book.  Not everyone who can sing and perform can write a song.  In the movies, do actors write?  Rarely.  Actors act, writers write.  Why isn't this concept more prevalent in music?  It is in Nashville, but that's about it.  Most bands who play their own stuff have built up the Miles Davis defense.  "It's so good, you just don't understand it.  You're not cool enough."  News flash - it's pop music.  It's a popularity contest.  My contention is that if more really good musicians in original bands played cover gigs, they could learn a ton about how to entertain people, and about how to get a feel for how a crowd reacts to music.  How to pump them up; how to let them down. This work will actually improve composition of original material.  In addition, it would ensure that a larger group of bars would allow bands in their places, which is better for the community at large, and it expands the reach of live music - good for all of us struggling to play music out there! 

Third, these original bands are confined to original-focused bars & clubs where you are lucky to get 20 people there.  Usually there is no built-in crowd.  Most of the 20 people are friends from your dorm room or people you hang out with.  It's really hard to build on gigs like that.  The performers close their eyes, turn inward; they don't learn to interact with their audience like crowds in the larger establishments demand from you. At a big club, if you play well they stay.  If you don't they turn and leave (I know - it's happened to me many times).  And - let's not forget - in an original gig, you are lucky if you get free drinks.  NO MONEY!!!  If you are playing at cover bars with large crowds, the economics are such that you are bound to make at least $400-$500 for a gig.  It is a lot easier to keep a band together when you are making some money once in a while to offset the large cost to band members in time and in equipment purchased.  Getting paid for playing makes you feel like a professional.  That is important. 

The Beatles in Hamburg

Fourth, some of the best bands started out as cover bands.  The Beatles learned their craft by playing covers for years.  People in Hamburg used to yell at them, "Mach schau!  Mach schau!!!"  Make a show!  Entertain me!  Show me your stuff.   Why should I be here listening to you?  They played for 3-5 hours some days. Almost all covers.  Their first big hit was "Twist and Shout" which is an Isley Brothers song.  If you listen to their "Live at the BBC" recordings, the two CDs are full of cover material, which was recorded live in a BBC studio, and you can hear that they became who they were by studying and playing well the best material of their heroes. 

Tom Petty - an underrated songwriter

You learn how to write good songs by playing other good songs.  Why is it that crowds always love "Sweet Home Alabama"?  It's only three chords, over & over.  What secrets lurk behind Tom Petty's "American Girl"?  Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle" is two chords.  There is something mysterious about "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye that I'm only beginning to understand.  People always go nuts for those when we play them.  I've learned from these songs.  They are simple, and they have a heart to them.  They touch upon thoughts and feelings that many people share.  They bring people together.  That's what music is all about for me. 

In the past when I wrote songs, I hid within complexity - lots of chord changes, really difficult-to-sing melodies.  There are no classic songs like that.  Almost all great songs have one thing in common - they are simple, direct, to the point, and clear.  There is one single strong idea that ties it all together. 

It is really tough to write a good song with only 2 or 3 chords.  There is nowhere to hide.  Every word is important.  Think about Elvis - most of his songs were in E with simple blues progressions (I, III, IV), particularly the early stuff.  The same chords, over & over.  Each song a different kind of masterpiece, but the tools were the same.  Fats Domino, same thing. 

During this particular song cycle I've been studying Irish pub music.  The kind they sing in the public houses on the Emerald Isle, and over here in Irish pubs. Some of the songs have been sung for 100 years or more.  I have a great CD with sing-along versions of "Wild Rover" and "Paddy Works on the Railway" and "Finnegan's Wake" on there.  These songs have simple structures, only a few chords.  This makes the songs easy to learn fast.  And the players - violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, acoustic bass - all jam around the simple structure.  The stories behind the words and the joy of singing them - in other words, the human voice - is the focus of the song.  The instruments support the voice, not the other way around.  The words are deep and touch your heart in a warm and friendly way.  Travel to distant lands, long lost lovers, death and life, children & marriage... I think modern music has gotten away from reflecting back to us the simple rhythms of family life.  Too often the loudness of guitars and keys and drums and bass fight against the singer.  I've tried too long to make things complicated.  Now I'm going with simple.