OTR, Take 29: Stevie Ray Vaughn - Texas Flood

It's the blues today, in a very discordant OTR, written in four goes throughout the day. Here's the link to listen along.

Sometimes you wake up ready to brawl. The alarm goes off and you launch out of bed rather than drag ass out of bed. The cup of coffee is less a must have to function than fuel for hitting escape velocity. This feels like a specific sound to me, when it happens (as it did this morning) and I just finished a listen to today's album in full.

Generally, I'll place the needle down after a walk with Clare, sip some coffee, and listen to the first few tracks as I compose my thoughts on the week's pick. By the third or fourth song, I'm working through some initial thoughts for what I'm going to say and by the time the album finished up, I have a pretty good sense of what the week's OTR is going to be.

But sometimes, I get carried away by the music. Most of the time, I've listened to the albums I highlight so many times that I know them note for note. It's not that they're not lovely or exciting, but it's generally before 7 am that I start the process of writing On the Record. Quite often, like this past week, I'm coming off a long, exhausting week and I'm tired. This morning, I've been stalking around my living room, playing air guitar, and hanging on every note of Stevie Ray Vaughn's debut album, Texas Flood.

I got my first guitar, a $350 Washburn acoustic, when I was 14. My mother had finally decided it was less painful to pay the money and put up with the sounds of an idiot kid learning to play than it was to listen to me annoy the shit out of her all day every day about it. She promptly signed me up for guitar lessons with some old guy (it seemed at the time; he was probably actually in his 40s) who decided the way to get me to learn guitar was to teach me to read music and start building my chops with the Ode to Joy.

I made it through two lessons. The teacher was very impressed when I showed up to the second lesson and could play the Ode to Joy, but was very disappointed that I learned it by ear and had no interest in learning to read music.

"How are you going to learn to sight read?"

"Dude, I want to learn how to play this..." And I put a CD into his CD player, forwarded to track two and played him this:

Listen to how this swaggers into a Texas blues swing.

"You'll never be able to play that."

If you know me at all, you know that was all I needed to 1) fire this guy, and 2) work like crazy until I could play the fucking song.

It took me over three years to play a passable version of "Pride and Joy." I played nearly every day, working my way from Oasis songs  (I see you, Joel Roy, and yeah, I can play "Wonderwall" but I didn't stop there!) to the Stones, built up my blues chops from your basic I-IV-V progressions to Albert King. At the end of the road were two guitarists that, at the time, I viewed as the final bosses, the Ganon and Bowser of my guitar journey: Jimi and Stevie.

I got better and better, because I spent a lot of time learning to play. I dedicated hour after hour to learning how to invert chord structures, voice progressions differently, learning jazz chords and blues licks. I studied Talking Heads and Radiohead in an attempt to understand why they sounded so different from other bands I loved. To put it bluntly: I did my apprenticeship.

After a while, I came to realize I was seeking the wrong thing. I would never be able to sound like Stevie or Jimi (or Keith, Thom, Lennon, etc.) because I'm not them. Coincidentally, I first understood this when I heard an interview with Stevie about covering "Voodoo Chile." He said something along the lines of not being able to sound like Jimi, even if he could play the song note-for-note. There's something unique and distinctive about the way every guitarist interacts with the instrument, the pressure and vibrato and inflection that the man inflicts upon the guitar that carries a one of a kind DNA. And that the point in covering a song isn't to recreate a song, but to give it new life. Here's Stevie breathing new and different life into Jimi's track (check out the getup! That hat and feather, man!):

When a cover isn't a cover.

This realization has been a powerful guiding principle for me throughout my life. Even slavish recreation of every detail results in something new, and it's generally one of three things: sterile and lifeless, senseless and of poor quality, or weird and interesting. We're all building things with roughly the same building blocks, putting the same pieces together, so why not get weird with things? At least you're leaning into the things that make you sound like you.

In many ways, music is a math problem. There are twelve notes and the geometry of each instrument defines how you play, how you think through the sounds you make, how you conceive of composition. A piano lays all those notes out in sequential order, but a guitar doesn't. One of the things I've found is that oftentimes piano players are linear musical thinkers: they tend to be rational and more conservative in choices. Guitarists tend to be a little more associative thinkers. (This is obviously a gross simplification.)

The mathematics of a guitar forces you to learn all kinds of associations between notes simply because the mathematics looks like this:

If you look at this long enough, you start seeing patterns.

You learn where those Es and Fs are by feel, you begin to associate the connection between the Cs and Fs, the Ds and the Gs. You sense the gravity of the notes.

I'm going to conclude this edition of OTR, which is not at all about business, with a poem from one of my very, very favorite writers, my blind Argentinian muse, Jorge Luis Borges. The poem is titled, "You Learn."

After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,

And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security.

And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises,

And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,

And you learn to build all your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn…
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure…
That you really are strong
And you really do have worth…
And you learn and learn…
With every good-bye you learn.

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