Muscle Memory Versus Plain Old Living


The hard part of songwriting — and believe me, there are many hard parts to choose from — is that nagging fraudulent feeling we experience when we finally corner ourselves and sit down to try to create something. It’s important to remember this feeling is universal among creative types and that, even though you are in that weird echo chamber by yourself sweating bullets, you are not alone. It proves that we are taking it seriously and I suppose nothing of worth would ever be made if we didn’t care, but it seems we always hold ourselves to a higher standard than anyone else, reserving our meanest and lowest shots for the undeserving wretches we think we are. I've got news for you, we’re not Hitler and we’re trying to make something nice for ourselves and others — so let’s find our way out of the maze of doubt.

Let me compare a fictional composite of many of my students to a fictionalized young musician (name available on request, but I’d rather not...) who suffered from the opposite problem — an overly high opinion of himself. Keeping in mind how closely related these two delusional states are, here goes.

My composite student has a lot of life experience and varying degrees of muscle memory as it relates to playing and singing. This person may not be a pro, but seems to know what the really good stuff is. Let’s call this student Pat, after the gender-free character on SNL. Pat has lawyered, doctored, taught, parented, traveled and fought the good fight all of his or her adult life, all the while secretly harboring a wish to do something more creative. It’s important to know that Pat has already created quite a bit of goodwill and had a positive effect on many lives. This of course has time away from the sometimes selfish pursuit of musical prowess and the ego-building that might accompany it.

It’s important to remember that a healthy ego is a good thing and an inflated one is not. Meet McCool, the hot shot music school kid who gets A’s without trying and already has a hot little band playing around with fans drooling over his chops. I have seen this young gun on occasion and experienced the attitude emanates like cheap cologne from the bandstand when spotlight is focused on him. This is someone who might be humbled if he could stop listening to himself for a minute or two.

The celebration of early success is always accompanied in my mind by the thought that there has been no real test, no actual risk of failure — certainly never anything resembling failure itself. Straight A’s are good, but the occasional F is even better — it gives you something to sing about. Here’s where you come in...

While brushing up on your rudiments and trying to play catch up with others who might have the advantage in technique, remind yourself that you are walking around with something only a few bumps in the road can provide: Life experience. We have won and we have lost and slickness only counts on Madison Ave. What you are listening to when music really moves you, is someone sharing something other than a facility gained through endless hours in a rehearsal room. While technique is wonderful to listen to, it isn’t everything.

Appearing in the news recently (and on a stage I was lucky enough to be near last trip to Nashville) is a guy by the name of Doug Seegers. (Like that name!) If you haven’t  heard his story, it is amazing. Until recently, this 62 year old singer was sleeping under bridges in Nashville and eating at soup kitchens. His life and his dream of singing for others was seriously derailed and headed for a disastrous finish. Here's his story as it appears in Rolling Stone magazine. Suffice it to say, he has a wonderful voice and uses it to express something deeply emotional and earned through years of hard living. His is a perfect combination of real talent and a life outside the bubble of privilege and comfort. A rare case of muscle memory balanced with plain old living, but don’t think he’s the only one who has something to say — you’ve probably lived a little yourself.

AuthorJohn Sieger

It's on folks! We have a lovely, warm and comfortable space for the fall songwriting clinic. It's above ground, unlike my basement and close to a lot of fine North Avenue restaurants if you want to fill your tummy first. Let's not hibernate this fall and winter. Instead we'll use the time to revisit some rudiments as we look for some inspiration in the cool crisp air. All the details are in the helpful Jpeg below — hope to see you there!



Fall Clinic 2014
AuthorJohn Sieger

Mike Murphy died about a week ago. If you didn't know him, you should have. He was a drummer with great time and a very solid back beat. You could call him confident. We ran in circles that occasionally overlapped, but for the most part, he was closer to jazz and jazz rock. He usually played with the best of those guys in town, including Sweetbottom. He was also in the last edition of Semi-Twang before our extended hiatus and we recorded together. He was the skin-man for two songs on my first solo project, Quiver, playing with his customary swagger. I am posting one from that called The Tender Zone, because Semi-Twang has just taken another crack at it for our next project, and my brother Mike reminded me he was on it.

Mike left behind a lot of saddened friends, a lovely wife and daughter who loved him. A lot of us are scratching our heads, wondering how it can be, that a guy who gave so much joy is now gone. In a while, and in a way that always seems evolve slowly, we will remember the good stuff — his swashbuckling looks and sense of humor. I look forward to that.

AuthorJohn Sieger
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Well first there's the title. You can call a song Happy, but can you deliver? And then 40 years on, can you have another? The answers are yes and yes. First The Rolling Stones and then Pharell Williams, who may possibly be aware of each other, if only from Googling that particular title.

The Stones, not always given to celebrations of positive emotion around the time of Exile On Main Street, got a tasty slice of day-glo colored fun from their rhythm guitar player, Keith Richards, a guy who does the world a giant favor every time he steals the mic from Mick Jagger. I like Mick and I adore Keith — but honestly?... they both have some limitations in the vocal department. Yet somehow, they rise above the strangled yelps they were born with. Jagger does so with stylistic swagger and ridiculous exaggeration, while Keith uses pure verve, of which he seems to have an endless supply.

Their Happy is wonderful, scratchy, feisty and a few drinks (and who knows what else) past closing time. The Stones invented this wicked smile and their song receives millions of spins daily from people trying to steal a little of that vibe. Never was the promise of a title so perfectly wrapped up and delivered by the song that followed. Until Pharrell Williams came along, that is.

Smooth where the Stones are all gravel, Williams is Cosby to their Lenny Bruce. My wife saw him cry on Oprah today (Disclaimer: She never watches daytime TV, it was posted on the world's largest social network). He had been shown tribute videos to the song that defines the word "ubiquitous" in 2014 and shed genuine tears. On Saturday Night Live he sang it and danced with children and he seemed at least as young and innocent.

Yes. I've bought all the way in — who hasn't? I like to think it's not his People Magazine ready smile, but the perfectly-executed pop changes and sterling production, coupled with his slinky delivery. Plus, the guy is a great singer. There's at least ten gallons of talent underneath that hat.

Usually I like to analyze the chord progression, which is so simple and perfect it's a wonder nobody used it before. But school's out, baby. With its one note chorus and vaguely Latin verse, everything about it says the guy has done his homework. The ease with which he and the song seduce the ears and then the brain raises a puzzling question: If it's all so effortless and simple, why doesn't it happen all the time?

With no answers forthcoming from a silent universe, I might as well do like most everyone on the planet — put it on again and dance. It might be a while before the next great Happy.

AuthorJohn Sieger

In Wisconsin, a place that I'm sorry to say has me looking at snowflakes in April, spring comes late. For tortured and impatient souls who take to their all-frequency SAD lights to keep body and soul together, this month is the ultimate test. Not only is tax day right there at the hump, the last hard frost in Milwaukee is supposed to be, but often comes after, the 15th.

Is it a conspiracy? Taxes, death and trouble in the shape of flakes say yes, and who I am I to argue? Throw in a nose that is running like a leaky faucet and you could say a pick up is in order. Here's a good one.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe may have the occasional blue day, but you will never find anything less than complete buoyancy in her music. A skillful and completely convincing electric guitarist who drove songs hard with her aggressive playing, she influenced enough artists with just her playing to deserve a spot in the Rock n' Roll Hall Of Fame. (She's not in yet, by the way)

When she opened her mouth and sang, there was never any doubt that this fireball was straight out of the gospel church. An amazing, enthusiastic, riveting singer with more personality in her baby fingernail than most bands will ever possess — again, it's time for her induction. (There is a Facebook page that makes this point. Stop by and help the cause of justice!)

Let me describe the video for Didn't It Rain. It's from a BBC TV show and was shot live at a train station in Manchester. Sister Tharpe arrives by horse drawn carriage and is escorted, quite jauntily, to a stage on the platform where a band awaits. (I think I see Willie Dixon on bass.) Across the sunken divide, on the other the other side of the tracks, an audience is clapping their hands, I'm glad to say on the 2 and the 4. They're sitting in bleachers! I am not making this up. And they either hosed the whole set down to achieve the rainy effect, or the weather cooperated. Wild as it sounds, it is even better when viewed.

I admit I am deathly afraid of performing outside in the rain. I've had my share of shocks and don't want any more, so now I'm a very careful electric guitarist. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is wearing high heels, and I'm assuming they have leather soles. She's playing a gorgeous Gibson SG with three pickups in shining gospel white and looks like she could care less about conditions. I'm assuming she had been right with God for a long time and would have been more than happy to meet him.

She sure was singing like it.


AuthorJohn Sieger