For all of the music I produced, I only recorded in a studio once, during college. I was in a ska band, and we saved up enough money to book some time at a local studio. During one of the songs, it was my turn to track the guitar solo. I went into the booth, put the headphones on, and played what I normally played. My band mates, listening from outside, were perplexed. When I was done, they asked, “Is that what you normally play?” I reassured them, “Yeah. It is. Trust me, it sounds good.” They still really didn’t believe me.
The solo is technically nothing special. I don’t do anything fancy; I just let the distortion and delay fill out the notes I play. Alone, it sounds like a jumbled mess of sound, attacking the ears with what sounds like chaos. However, layered with the other instruments, it intricately interlocks into a comprehensible piece that is still one my favorite pieces that I have recorded. It is, to me, art. It’s not art that everyone will hear, and it’s not art that everyone will like. But, it’s personal to me for a variety of reasons.
I thought about this moment, and others, as I read Dessa’s My Own Devices: True Stories From the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love (2018). Almost every essay in Dessa’s collection speaks to me, both looking into my past and into the present. Even though I never made it as far as she has being a musician, her discussions of art and performing resonated with me. It could be because I look back on performing with nostalgia, especially as I get older, but it could also be because I felt the things she describes, specifically while performing.
In her opening essay, “Up On Wheels,” Dessa describes the feeling of performing onstage with Doomtree:
Stage was a place for all of the outsized feelings that didn’t fit neatly into daily life. You can’t scream in love or fury in line at the Walgreens pharmacy; you can’t roughhouse with grown men at the post office; and you can’t calmly explain to your parents that you’d rather sleep outside, under a stranger’s hedge, than in your own bed. But with a little songcraft, those dark moods were perfect grist for performance–we rattled up the biggest feelings in one another, and anyone else close enough to hear.
Every time I performed the song I mention above, I lost myself. It was always the song we closed with, and I beat my Samick semi-hollow body so hard I would start to bleed. I strummed so vigorously in the hopes that I would inevitably break a string, preferably the low-E. On multiple occasions, I achieved my goal, the loose string dangling limply, ineffective and useless. My strap would fall off, and I would be left struggling to play without its support.
I would feel, release. I would feel what I felt when I watched those VHS videos of Nirvana like The Year Punk Broke or Live, Tonight, Sold Out as they trashed their equipment on stage, releasing all of that pent-up angst and aggression. I would feel driven, by the crowd and my inner desires, to release myself to the sound, the feeling, the ecstasy of the moment. I felt alive.
Later, in another band, we were playing a show at a local club. I knew, since watching Kurt Cobain annihilate his guitars on stage that I wanted to do the same at some point, and I had my chance at that show. My brother-in-law had a cheap starter guitar, one that he didn’t use anymore and he suggested I bash it onstage. Of course, I was all down for it. Defying punk-rock aesthetics, we planned the carnage.
However, fate entered into the equation. About three songs into the set, I had technical problems with my pedal board. Since the start of the set, something wasn’t working, and I kept getting frustrated, more and more, unable to produce the sounds that I wanted to with my effects. During one of the songs, I got entirely fed up, swung the guitar up above my head like a hammer and drove it into the concrete stage. Again and again I pummeled the mixture of wood, metal, and electronics against the solid surface of the floor, destroying it until all I only held the neck, strings dangling from it towards the severed body which rested on the floor. That moment, its spontaneity, its passion, meant more to me than if it occurred at the end of the set. It served as a release, a release that I could not get from yelling at people in line at the store, fighting with people at the post office, or anywhere else.
At another show, with the last band I played with, and the last show I have played, I again had technical issues. We were playing in a small club in town, in a very tight space. It was, if I recall, our first show too. During the set, things were getting so bad. I wasn’t going to break my guitar because it was my favorite one, my red Gibson SG. Yet, I got so wrapped up in the show and the release, coupled with the malfunctioning equipment, that I pounded my guitar furiously. I pounded it so hard and flung it around so much that I hit something and snapped the head stock. After the set, I collapsed in a booth, spent and exhausted from the release.
The point is that performing provide release. It provides a valve for the anger, anxiety, tension, that we have bottled up within us. Performing, of course, isn’t the only thing that does this. I remember when I waited tables. I was never the best waiter. I’m extremely introverted, and the extroverted nature that one needs to wait table has never really suited me. Nevertheless, I waited tables for multiple years during undergrad and grad school.
A lot of nights, I would close, which meant I would have to wait on tables until the restaurant closed then clean up before leaving. On weekends, this usually meant leaving about 1:30 or 2:00 am. I was married then, and I didn’t live too far from the restaurant. On bad nights, I would get in the car, roll the windows down, even in the winter, and listen to albums like Tool’s Ænima or something similar. I would sing, at the top of my lungs, even though I can’t sing. When I got home, I would be calm. I had released the tension that had built up during my shift. I could relax.
Dessa’s essay made me think of these moments, moments I haven’t thought about in a while. She caused me to consider the ways that music allows us release. Next post, I’m going to continue looking at some of Dessa’s book, specifically her discussion of art when she talks about the filming of her music video “Sound the Bells.”
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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