I spent more time than necessary trying to count the number of guitar tracks on the Sundays’ “Goodbye”. For now, I am sticking with 4 but if you told me that there were 8 then I would believe you. If for some reason, you have stumbled upon this post and know how many guitars are on it, please let me know. I do not know how economical they tried to be, but it feels like a lot of ideas move in and out of the recording and it is paced to pop/rock perfection. Even if I am never right, I like trying to pick apart a studio recording more than a painting. It is all the same process, but it is easier to hear than see. It is an equally valuable learning experience in terms of considering how to create something. Map out the structure of a painting, a musical composition, a novel, a poem. The same principles are at work.
There are a few of ways to think about it.
One is the live recording of a notated piece of music. From a novice perspective, it is all there. Account for tempo and volume in relation to the microphones and everyone else and make it work. You are less practicing for a recording than you are for a performance that just happens to be recorded. This is not using the studio as an instrument or a tool beyond documentation.
Then there is the one-shot approach to making a non-notated recording. If everyone is playing, then you are doing version after version of it until everyone locks in and you have what you want. You change your mind as ideas develop and keep doing takes. Work it. Listen to it. Rework it. At some point, the people out of step get in step and the people that have been in step all afternoon start to get irritated and the take that gets printed is usually an angsty mix of competency and frustration. The best example of this for me is Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”. I do not know how many takes of “Hound Dog” were recorded but take number 28 is reportedly the one used for the single. Scotty Moore thinks they did more than 40 takes in a day. In that recording you hear that mix of “let’s keep trying”, “I am barely hanging on” and “I am so over this.” Moore’s first guitar solo is dutiful. He stays within the margins. I am sure after the first 27 takes, he was just hoping to make it more than halfway through the song so people would not stop them halfway into a take. The second solo is a beautiful mess. As Keith Richards said, it is like he dropped his guitar and it made a sound that worked. My favorite stat about all of this is that the end of the first solo and the beginning of the second solo are only 15 seconds apart from one another. That is such a quick mental shift from “Let’s just get through this” to “I am going to wreck this car…on purpose.” That solo cannot exist outside of the song. It makes no sense. But the song cannot exist without it. It is a mixture of disparate, ugly elements that form something solid when put together. You hear this a lot in live recordings. Something out of tune that defines a recording. Intentionally sick harmonies that create a vibe.
The Sundays’ “Goodbye” is a different animal. It is what producers and engineers get paid substantial chunks of money to construct. In this case it is more than likely a construction of the guitarist’s making. If you are not obsessed with guitar gear (and I am not) then you can never know how much work one guitar can do. You can watch The Edge in the It Might Get Loud documentary to see how much he can strangle out of one chord but placed into a song, it might be harder to figure out what is going on. This is not a live recording that is rehearsed and practiced and attempted over and over until everyone gets it right. It is built. There is a bed of picked rhythm guitars laid down to let the other guitars float on top of it. They float in and out, send shards skimming over the surface until all of them come together for the final minute, simultaneously floating, ascending and pushing towards the end. It keeps what is an almost 5-minute song built on one riff ever-shifting, especially once the layers of vocals and bits of keyboard get set down on top of a steady rhythm section that ascends when necessary but otherwise understands that it is there to plug the hole and keep the ship going in a straight line.
Painting sometimes works similarly. There is the “spontaneous” piece made in one sitting: revised, painted out, painted over and hacked to death. It is something that can only exist in its finished form if you spent 75% of the creation of that painting in complete frustration and desperation. Stars align. Mistakes join forces to become a solid form that you could not have planned. You can work this way if you are capable of processing that failure quickly.
Some artists live in that space. In a cynical summary, it is a quantity versus quality methodology. If I make 60 paintings, then 20 of them will be good. The other 40 can be painted out. If you can mentally sustain yourself, then go for it. I think of that approach as phase one. Songwriters probably need 40 songs to whittle down to 12 for an album. The life you breathe into those songs in the studio is the “Goodbye” step in the process. Sometimes the demo surpasses the studio creation. Know your strengths. Also if anyone can get me Jane Wiedlin’s demo of “Our Lips Are Sealed” please contact me. It was in a documentary I saw on VH1 and I have not heard it since. There are acoustic versions of it but not her original cassette version.
Miraculous 4-track demos aside, the majority of this approach is research and development. I am firmly planted in research and development right now.
If I had to guess, I think I made 8 paintings this week. This means I also painted over 8 paintings. Two of those pieces were good but I did not want to settle for “good” and my attempts to make them “great” ended in misery. As it stands, I have three canvases with interesting grounds on them that will make for better work one day. The benefit of doing this for over 20 years is that you know to leave mistakes lying around because they will find their place and you will end up making something that could have only happened by living with failure for an extended period of time until it is redeemed.
I wrote instructions for myself at the beginning of January as to how to proceed in the studio. Make a lot of ink drawings. Develop a new visual language for myself. That will build towards a new painterly language. I did nothing of the sort. I began to paint. It was not the worst thing to ignore my direct orders. I ended up making a handful of paintings that I like. I’m batting .300 with the paintings which does not sound great but .300 will get you in the Hall of Fame. That said, a week of failure was enough to convince me that I possibly had beginner’s luck and I should get back to the plan. I have returned to brush-and-ink drawings. I had stepped away from ink for a couple of years. It is good to be back with it. It is so direct and unforgiving. If you make a bad mark with a pencil, you can save it. One bad mark with an ink-loaded brush can cause you to adjust the entire drawing to accommodate that one mark.
There is no conceptual agenda. That sounded liberating to me at first, but it is just a different kind of frustration. You can draw anything. So, what do you draw? Today I drew a Bond villain, an Iraqi priest that I have painted a number of times, my son and a landscape. That emptied the tank. Now I have to go find more random subjects. Sadly, we live in a world where the Bond villains would get me more attention than anything else. Maybe I will revisit some old subjects. Matisse spent a career doing that. Done well, it is interesting. Executed improperly and you might as well be the old rock star that has decided to record symphonic versions of the hits.
When I type it all out, that was not much of a week. I finished painting the den.
It is going to rain 6 more inches this week.
Spring training games start on Friday. I am ready for baseball. They usually do not play baseball games in the rain so at least I can watch a game and remind myself that the sun does exist.
The Book of Matthew
Quote for the week:
“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything -- God and our friends and ourselves included -- as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”
CS Lewis- Mere Christianity