BREATHING AND TRUSTING
Tuesday May 9/2006
I’ll write here a little about music, and the albums Breathe and Trust, but what I really want to do is make another CD. The songs are ready, but I just haven’t figured out how to fit it into the schedule, or how to get my confidence in quite the right place to spring forward.
It’s an interesting asana to relentlessly dig into something that requires other people and focused intensity while offering minimal (read: no) monetary return. Still, that never stopped me before.
I have no idea how I pulled together the money, time and skill to make the first album, Breathe, on 24-track analogue no less. The second CD, Trust, was a miracle of mathematics. I had twelve hundred and fifty dollars in the bank, and I went out and rented twelve hundred dollars worth of equipment.
Given the above is all true, a new CD would appear in some ways to be pointless. Unwanted. Unnecessary. Self-absorbed—as if that worries me. I mean large areas of the world are in hell, so who gives a damn about my music?
But here’s the caveat. These new songs are devotional (you heard me right), so I’m thinking the Big Guy/Girl—let’s compromise and say Force—will sneak in some cosmic PR for me. Imagine the review:
“Occasionally I found myself humming along—and the heretical ideas had a certain worldly charm, although nothing particularly deep. When you get down to it, who is he kidding? He’s no Van Morrison—and seminal retention is clearly a passing fad. In fact he’s just deeply afraid of his own nature. Still, I danced a little. I give it a 6 and a half out of 10.”
Both Breathe and Trust, incidentally, went Triple Plastic in Canada, which means family members and friends bought three times as many copies as the paying public (wherever and whoever they are).
The fact that I love words and love singing made songs sort of inevitable. How that happened is described a little in the first two paragraphs of the Creativity Interview. What a grand thing it is to sing. It’s actually one of the few emotings that can lead me to the emotions that bring forth tears. In the words of songwriter Ani Difranco:
You don’t have to be a super genius
I was driving yesterday morning and listening to a song called The Beauty We Hide and thinking about the kids in Northern Uganda, Congo, Sudan, everywhere, and just the difficulty of being human, of knowing what to do, and I had a good little cry. It was needed.
But how do I explain what this chance I have had to play and write music has meant to me, done for me, and hopefully others? What’s important to say is, as someone attuned to musical talent could tell, I am not a natural. I really hear this in recorded versions of my live shows, and I see it in just how long it takes me to get a vocal track on tape that I can live with.
Rhythmically, I’m even less proficient—not obviously disadvantaged, but challenged nonetheless. The positive side effects of this have been many. One, by not being a natural, I was unable to generate what is commonly called “a career in music.” For this reason, I actually developed into a decent songwriter.
The second positive effect of my rhythmic dyslexia was and is a natural tendency to follow my melody line more than the time signature underscoring the song. Curious unintentional yet consistent blips would occur. For those who care, there is for instance, a strange bar of 7/8 in the song Blue at three different times.
This is hardly as exciting or relevant as the 5/4 bar in the verses of the Beatles Don’t Let Me Down, but hey, it’s my website, not Paul or Ringo’s, and the other thing, Mom, is I really want to…aw, forget it.
Where was I? Yes, right. Oddities. Having the good fortune of playing with players far more proficient than I, they would tell me to sing a part two or three times. If the time signature change did not alter, they assumed it was inherent to whatever song was coming out of me, and they’d lock it in. I’m grateful for that.
The earliest years were a constant bubbling of unprettiness. There was no sense of channeling melodies from environmental turbulence, or from the collective voice of a generation, or from the cosmos. It was all inside of me, and generally sounded like it should stay there.
BEFORE THE HITS
When I began music at around eighteen or nineteen, I was not a good singer, and the songs I wrote received just enough pity and encouragement from generous friends and family to encourage my delusion. I have yet to hunt down all the people that may (or may not) possess “the early recordings”, but when I find them, I will unfortunately have to kill them.
The delusion I speak of was significant enough for me after the collapse of my first relationship to unreservedly drop out of university (fourth year, pre-med UBC) and put my whole heart into singing badly and writing terrible songs.
But sticking with music, with playing, with listening, with being absorbed and obsessed, melodies and words were slowly drawn out of me in incremental increases of quality and originality, as if those things exist on an island inside, waiting to be rescued.
But until you find them you’re stuck with unfocused muzak pouring out of resort elevators on the nearby mainland. A half dozen singing lessons also helped.
STILL NO HITS
In the twenty years I have been playing and writing by now hundreds of songs, of which I remember thirty or forty, guitar player Marty Howard has strummed on virtually everything I have ever recorded. He is blessed with great talent, off-beat instincts and a remarkably accommodating spirit.
I could not have brought my songs—half-assed jazz, stridently protesting folk, unabashedly devotional, at times pedantic, hopefully tender, environmentally urgent, perversely twisted, sometimes forced, strangely satirical, unusual, cliché, complex—to a better soul.
Although I rarely listen to my old CDs, when I do, and I’m alone, I enjoy the experience. Every combination of noises and chords has the pluck, hit, strum, blow, voice and talent of some friend or acquaintance. That and the fact that I pushed the songs—sometimes over-pushed—as far as my talents as writer, singer and producer could push, does raise a certain paternal smile in my heart.
Both CDs, first Breathe and then Trust, were graced with some remarkably talented players. I’ll forget a bunch, so I’ll just mention a few.
Stay With Me, the opening track from Breathe (which was supposed to be the hit), has a trumpet solo from the horn of Brad Turner, who is now a world-renowned musician. We weren’t friends. He was a serious cat. He shuffled in lowdown and dirty and for some ridiculously small fee, and without raising his head or speaking (très Miles Davis), blew off two takes and said, “So long, Daddy-o.” Actually he didn’t say anything. There is not one iota of chance that he remembers the session—nor is there a chance I could ever get him again. But it’s on there.
The great Juno Award-winning songwriter and poet Paul Hyde sings on a bunch of background tracks. The guy is a gem, and has always been supportive and inspiring, relentlessly writing beautiful songs.
Robbie Steininger is a guitar player with celestial talents. My jaw dropped when I first saw him play, and he gave a ton of love and time and work to Trust (and Breathe, too).
Vince Ditrich, from that great band Spirit of The West, is an old friend. He played drums on every song on both albums. His skill and power held the fort down when Breathe was getting out of control.
Multi-talented Geoffrey Kelley (also from Spirit) plays a penny whistle solo on Blue.
Hugh MacMillan (again from SOTW) and his wife Colleen Eccleston were invaluable on both Breathe and Trust, with Colleen offering exquisite vocals downstairs at their house on the old ADAT while I rocked (in the non-rock ‘n roll sense) and tried to calm their screaming, massive baby and small child upstairs.
Kim Linekin, who once toured as a back up singer with Sarah McLachlan and also did my spirituality and creativity interviews, sang angel-like on St. Jude’s Blues and Daily Fear of Dying.
Daily Fear of Dying is actually a marker of spiritual evolution. Although the Vancouver’s Georgia Straight magazine described a 1988 demo version of the song—with a band called Talk Proper (i)—as “deeply pretentious”, the song was in fact describing a “real” problem that I was having a bad time shaking. (ii) In the song, I left out a few of the details, but the sentiment was true.
The song Trust on the Trust album is actually the reconciliation of that dis-ease, and suggests the difference between the two albums.
Breathe was an energetic accumulation of a desperate need to define what I was thinking. The CDs original cover was a dear friend’s ten-second-old newborn, hence naked (which made a lot of people awkwardly uncomfortable), held up against a wild blue sky. I thought it was beautiful.
The original CD had fifteen songs (ten now) because I was fearfully sure I may never record another note (what with my Daily Fear Of Dying).
Larry Anschell from Turtle Records can attest to my indecisive nature—god love him. I redid thirteen of the fifteen vocals—after the mixes had been completed.
Trust was simpler and had more space. The buffer that was slowly developing, through grace, between body and soul, was beginning to reflect itself creatively. Both CDs suggest where I was emotionally at the time, and hint in varied bursts towards my spiritual nature.
THE HITLESS DECADES: A RETROSPECTIVE
Although I’ve never had the drive to hone my singing or guitar playing skills, I am so grateful that I kept going, and completed the CDs. I love the memories and I still love to hear the songs on some lonely night—reminiscing, wondering, smiling.
I loved the dinky tours I put together. I loved the bigger solo shows. I loved playing before intimate audiences.
I loved making an echoing ass out of myself, opening solo for Little Feat at the Commodore or touring with (opening for) Andre Philipe Gagnon, and refusing to leave the stage of some grand theatre in Oakville or the Sports and Entertainment Centre in Sarnia unless I was given a standing ovation (I got one in Oakville, where the people are far more civilized).
I loved combining my novels with the shows, being the kid in Understanding Ken, and just playing, in both senses of the word.
I loved some of the drives I had between towns, alone in my van, listening to things like the Counting Crow’s August and Everything After, Gordon Lightfoot’s Mountains and Marion, Stephen Fearing’s The Longest Road, James Taylor’s Something In the Way She Moves, Spirit’s Faithlift, Joni Mitchell’s This Flight Tonight or A Case Of You or Ani Difranco’s Buildings and Bridges, song after song, and really coming to understand why I didn’t have much of an audience.
Sometimes I would just be driving and burst into tears at my good fortune, this body of flesh and bones desiring, wondering—as, it seems, we almost all do.
Once I played in a Kelowna restaurant, by the salad bar, for one person—my ex-girlfriend. It was payback.
Once in the middle of singing Oh Mother, I stopped, bursting into uncontrollable laughter at the site of four people in the crowd. Four. Count ‘em.
I said, “I could actually take this entire crowd home in my car.”
And that’s what happened. It was after midnight, an unusually large snowfall had landed on downtown Vancouver, and although I did not know these four people, I drove them home, thanking them for their staying and listening.
And here I am now, thanking you for being here.
I am a very fortunate creative soul, a writer first, and music is a gift of divine proportions. May the next album really sing that song.
(i) Talk Proper introduced me to my dear friend Keith McTaggart, who was the drummer—and also drummed in a band I formed later called Oh Yeah.
Oh Yeah’s biggest claim to recognition was a 310 band competition called Demolisten ‘91, where we lost in the finals to leather bound hard rockers by the name of Fake It Big Time (led by DOA’s Randy Rampage, for those who care). Their drummer may have had many wonderful qualities, but Oh Yeah knew him only for the trick he did of spitting straight up in the air and catching it in his mouth, while playing. We never had a chance. In front of twelve hundred fans—six hundred ours and the other six hundred bikers from hell—I ran out on stage in my flowery shirt to the loud and threatening yell of: “Fag!”
Producer Larry Anschell (who later became a great friend and helped me on a lot of different projects) was a judge, and fought for our victory, but it was not to be.
Keith later had a son, the wonderful Ben. I, named godfather to the boy, have turned out to be the third worst godfather of all-time, never remembering or doing anything. The two worst were an inbred Bulgarian butcher who mistook himself for a sausage in World War II, and a baboon in Kenya, who was named godfather (against his will) to some kid after the mad Chieftain had killed all the people with poison snake venom.
Keith is now in a band called The Russian Artist Factory, and I figure Ben will one day come knocking at my door, with a label stuck to his forehead saying, “Pay up, asshole.”
Martin Howard, me and Keith McTaggart in the earliest Oh Yeah incarnation. Marty’s actually wearing an Oh Yeah T-shirt, I’m wearing the flowery shirt that got me labeled “Fag!”, and Keith is staying forever mod. My mullet is starting to come into its own.
(ii) Demons and/or Obsessive Compulsive Disorders—whichever and whatever—really clamp onto the mind, and can be merciless. The first noticeable release for me, after a few nagging years, was the separating of myself from the problem. In other words, when anxiety hits, one can become that anxiety; one becomes that fear.
With a little help I came to realize that in some way there was a difference between “me” and the “demon/compulsion” causing the distress. Once I separated the two, and realizing I really couldn’t stand living with these repetitious thoughts, I actually confronted the demon and said, “If I’m going to go down, you f$^#*#% mother f*&^#*, I’m taking you down with me.” I was pissed off and exhausted.
It was this promise to fight the demon that, for me, changed the dynamic. I would yell at the bastard in my head when I went on runs, which not only began the process and helped the repairing, but taught me greater compassion and understanding for those who yell into the sky on Hastings Street (and was later instructive for See Grace Fly).
There is a saying that the devil likes it best, and is most pernicious, when one doesn’t believe he exists. True or not, I learned that demons—at least this one, and I doubt he was Big League—did not like to be identified, and lacked courage when fought against. The presence, the anxiety, slowly faded to occasional fights.
This anger response may not be recommended by all therapists, but it proved important for me. The stance of not crumbling, not backing down, holding the life force, saw the demon’s pervasive presence dissipate to fleeting thoughts—disconcerting, but more like a very long spiritual arm wrestle then an all-out mugging.
Slowly the lock receded to infrequent inquiries by the former champion. To these I would sometimes just smile back—“Ah, there you are. Whatever”—which ruined all the fun for the demon, as the buffer for me between body and Self become more and more padded with understanding (later I would find this is part of what a daily spiritual practice really does).
Eventually, with counseling, bibliotherapy, lots of love, time, work, a vipassana meditation retreat, extensive creativity, vegetarianism, a deeper tango with Spirit, a widening worldview and, perhaps most of all, grace, the demon stopped showing up at all.
Some five years later, in a time of acute sadness and stress, a similar palpitation and paranoia appeared, cloaked in a different story, but left after a couple of weeks of regrouping. So who knows?
What I do know is I am humbled and grateful to have documented the Daily Fear of Dying period and the Trust period. Our lives are music. On Orangutan, Breathe’s last song, the lyric is: “Life’s a comedy, life’s a tragedy, life’s a melody, so be its singer.” There’s some truth to that; and to every season, turn, turn, turn…
|copyright 2006 Pete McCormack|