What happens to a person who is involved in rock n’ roll but doesn’t do the drugs and sex thing, is that you end up being the designated driver, or errand runner (a gopher), or equipment watcher. Normally most of that would be left to the roadies, except most of the roadies are equally dissolute. I realized at an early point that: 1) I was not a good enough musician to be in some elite rock or folk-rock band (I tended towards the latter), and 2) I was also not a good enough high tenor to do that at the sort of standards that rock singing requires. I was a pretty good instrumentalist and a pretty good singer, and that was all. Now that was good enough for some folks, but it would not do for me. I strove for excellence, even when it came to popular music. Part of this came out of my classical training. I played in an orchestra (first violin) for ten years of my life, and then briefly with the UNC Chamber ensemble. The point is, I knew what musical excellence looked like, and for me it was either going to be full bore or no bore. I also didn’t want the life on the road life either. So I became an itinerant Methodist preacher and teacher. Go figure.
While I am on the subject, the standard of musicianship has generally deteriorated drastically in proportion to the increase in technological capacity. By this I mean you now have a lot of artists (I use the term loosely), and all they can really do is sing. They count on synthesizers to generate everything else. Indeed even the songs are left to the Pro Tools composition stuff on computers and in synthesizers. If you want to know one of the reasons for the decline of rock and roll and the rise of rap and hip hop it is this very trend. The technology is so celestial and the temptation so great to do everything electronically, even auto-tuning the vocals that musicianship is left in the dust.
I saw something yesterday that blew my mind. My sister gave me the new Harry Connick Jr. lp (which is fair but not great) and right there on the cover is the disclaimer— ‘no auto-tuned vocals on this album’. The reason is obvious, you can be made to sound much better than you in the studio, and even semi-live. I once heard Taylor Swift try to sing ‘Landslide’ with Stevie Nicks…. Taylor was sharp, flat, anything but on key…and uninspiring to boot. I have seen other concerts where she was excellent, but I am suspicious about the degree of auto-tuning and enhancements.
One thing you get from reading the auto-biography of David Crosby is a strong sense of what it takes to be actually a good musician and a good singer and a good songwriter in that genre. CSN created albums ‘live’ in the studio. For example, go back and listen to ‘Almost Cut my Hair’… that was done in basically one take, live in the studio. Roll tape, end of story. Many, many artists today can’t come close to doing that. They can’t play instruments, and some of them can’t even sing. It’s sad. Technology is like the siren song of Scylla and Caribdis…. it’s seductive but it leads to the death of good music and good musical ability as well. There are of course exceptions. John Mayer is a current generation musician who can really play, writes his own tunes, and has a fair but distinctive voice. For every one John Mayer there are vast numbers of other wannabes vibbing off the technology. And unfortunately American Idol and The Voice are not helping with the focus entirely or almost entirely on singing. Get them to learn how to read music and play an instrument first, I say. Then they will understand music itself.
Music is something magical and mysterious. How do those notes on the sheet music turn into something that profoundly moves and even influences you? We will talk more about that in the next post.