But, I’m back (albeit briefly) to discuss something I’ve talked alot about lately. In addition to people asking my advice on how to “become a writer” or “how to get a job in journalism,” I have also had long talks with friends and colleagues about the way young people enter into the business. It has led me to some conclusions I thought I’d share.
I’m not a journalism teacher and, to be completely honest, I don’t even consider myself a “journalist.” I feel like that term is reserved for the full-time, hard core writers, particularly those who do investigative work. I’m more of a blogger or reporter, but I’ve spent enough time talking to people about it over the last 20 years, I feel like I have maybe a smidgen of insight…though even that is debatable.
Learn to self edit.
Everyone wants to write, but no one wants to open an AP Stylebook. There is real value in learning the difference between its and it’s or the correct way to write 1 p.m. On a personal blog, who cares? I can write however and whatever I want. For a publication — particularly a print one — you better learn. It also teaches you the value of being edited. No copy is too precious that an editor won’t whack it in half or take our your overly florid language. A good editor will make it a LOT better. Help them. Help yourself. Self edit.
Write all the time.
I saw a quote recently that said, “The hardest part of writing is the writing.” Get used to it. Learn to write quickly (with accuracy) and editors will love you. You do this through practice, even if it is just writing for yourself. Any creative endeavor requires time sitting and practicing. I used to sit and play the bass for hours and hours. I’ve done the same with writing. It’s like training for a marathon. If you can’t write one story in a day, how could you possibly churn out multiple blog posts in an afternoon? That happens…frequently.
Read all the time.
I never gained a great love of reading like my fiancée and my father, to name a couple. A child of the original video game era, I preferred things I could do with more than just my eyes and brain. But, reading newspapers, blogs, publications of all kinds is hugely important. To use the musician analogy again, most of them become great through emulation of their idols. Writers grow in much the same way.
Be well rounded.
While covering the editor desk at the Houston Press, I’ve run across interns and freelancers who only want to write about one thing and in one way. That’s not how the world of writing works. To become a niche expert, you either have to BE an expert in that area (former football player writing about football, a surgeon writing about gall bladder operations, etc) or you have to have written about it nearly exclusively for a LONG time. Read the news. Understand politics. Gain some insight into healthcare and education. Follow sports. Visit museums and learn about the arts. Not only will it make you a better and more interesting writer, it will make you a better person.
Be willing to take jobs no one else will.
The way to work your way up in any organization is to be willing to do the dirty work. General managers in sports started as equipment managers. Famous producers started by sweeping the floors of recording studios. Directors got their starts as errand boys on movie sets. The grunt work of journalism is often writing boring crime stories or re-organizing press releases. But do it well, efficiently and without complaint and you’ll be in position for other opportunities. I know you might think you are above it, but you aren’t.
Learn how to research and interview people.
Probably the single most frustrating thing about journalism students is their inability and unwillingness to do real reporting. It means going out and talking to people, doing research and allowing the story to tell itself without your conclusions. Too many want to just read a story and then riff on its contents. This is not real reporting. If you become a skilled interviewer, it will not only put you ahead of your peers early on, but it will make you a better listener and basically a better human being.
It’s been quite sometime since I’ve penned a response to a Dear Abby. I’ve done it quite a bit in the past, but I’ve been hella busy and, alas, good old Abs has been neglected. But, not today, my good sir (or madam)!
Today (well, technically, last week), Abby is confronted with a most vexing problem. A woman, whose mother is 70, has been invited to…dear lord…a lingerie shower for mumsy. I call her mumsy because I assume she is either from the northeast, Great Britain or some weird place where everyone calls their moms mumsy. I would do that, but my mom would just laugh and laugh and I would have to tell her to stop and there would be begging and ridicule.
Anyway, mumsy is 70 and little honey boo boo child is aghast at the notion of showering her mother in ladies under garments. Let’s listen in…
DEAR ABBY: My 70-something-year-old mother is being remarried soon. I’m happy she has found love again after my father’s passing. Several of her friends are throwing her a lingerie shower to celebrate. Abby, I am uncomfortable attending this party.
I asked that she exclude me from the list, but yesterday I received an invitation. Hooray! She has a new life which involves new love. I just don’t want to think of my mother in that role. Am I wrong to not want to attend? — THEY GROW UP SO FAST
GASP! The horror. Your mother has…OMG…SEX!
Look, I know we all try to imagine our parents as celibates and our births as immaculate conceptions, but the truth is, older folks still do the nast-ay. And you should damn well hope that they do because you, my dear, will be 70 one day (God willing) and I’d like to believe you want all your lady business to still get its freak on.
Of course, my mother is a saint. I assume that sex for her is like that episode of Star Trek: Voyager where the hot female Q and the regular old Q procreated by touching fingers. My mom isn’t an omnipotent being — that I know of — but I still hold out hope that her only sex is the finger kind. Wait, that’s not what I meant.
You know what, nevermind. She’s right. Case closed.
I know, it’s been a while, but the truth is I didn’t want to write a long rant on Facebook and this seems the best place for it, even if it is so long abandoned it feels like a ghost town. Woooooooooo…
This image was posted on Facebook today by a photography group called Light Stalking. It was reposted by a friend and I added a couple of comments. It dovetails nicely into an argument I’ve had with people for the last five to ten years about the suspicion and even outright disdain many show for experts. I’ve noticed it a lot in music and photography, but it is clearly visible in science, for example, as well. The recent gaffe by Todd Akin would be a good example.
For the purposes of this particular post, I’m going to focus on photography and the idea that it isn’t the gear that makes a photographer good, but the skill of the photographer and I agree in the most simplistic sense that the logic is accurate. There is no more annoying comment to a photographer than, “That’s a beautiful photo. You must have a nice camera.” Um, yeah, dipshit, that’s what it was. It had nothing to do with my abilities, just a really expensive camera.
It reminded me of a gig years ago. After I got done playing, another musician approached me impressed with the sound of my bass. She and another person had been debating what made it sound so good. They speculated I tuned it differently or that the bass and/or amp were very expensive, none of which was true and, when I told them this, they just shrugged and said, “Yeah, we couldn’t figure it out.” I guess it’s not possible that it was THE MOTHERFUCKER PLAYING THE BASS.
My only concern with the logic in the graphic is the implication that anyone with an iPhone can be Ansel Adams. It is true that great photos can be taken with very inexpensive and technologically inferior equipment. People have been doing it for decades. There were wondrous images embossed on tin types from the 1800s that were taken with something akin to a magnifying glass attached to a cardboard box.
However, as I pointed out in the post on Facebook, NASA astronauts traveled to the moon using technology not even powerful enough to power a decent calculator today, but it doesn’t mean they would pass on using modern technology now simply because they COULD do without.
The essence of being great at anything is the ability to combine real talent with creativity, intelligence, work ethic and the right tools for the job. The best athletes to ever play sports had serious talent, competitive drive like few others, incredible awareness on the court or field and constantly evolving creativity. But, they were also blessed with real, God-given machinery in the form of musculature and reflexes that the vast majority of us simply don’t have. Their equipment was vastly superior and they spent their lives learning how to master the use of it.
In photography, the best of the best not only take great shots, they know how to replicate them and how to react quickly to changing environments. And, yes, they could probably take a substantially better photo with an iPhone than a novice could with a $3000 camera, but pros don’t show up at photo shoots with point-and-shoot cameras because they want to be able to have every tool at their disposal. You COULD build a house with a hammer and hand saw, but why wouldn’t you use power tools if they were available to you?
I guess this sort of thing tweaks me because I know how much time and effort and money is put into being great at something and it is often overlooked because technology has expanded so dramatically in the last decade. Virtually anyone can make music or shoot photos or create logos or manage a sports team using modern technology, but it doesn’t mean they can do those things well.
And even if someone produces a stunning work of art with a mobile phone, that doesn’t make him/her a great artist. A great artist could do it again and again and again. To reference sports again, it isn’t a single great performance that defines and athlete. It is the ability to duplicate and even improve on that performance over and over and over again. Photographers are no different.
This is not to discourage anyone from following their creative instincts. In fact, just the opposite. If you like to take pictures, GREAT! Welcome to the club. But bear in mind that while gear isn’t the be-all-end-all of photography, it is an essential aspect of growing both as a skilled technician and an artist. Very few true artists are able to do what they do without the benefit of good gear. Maybe you are one of those exceptions, but it is more likely your best bet is to get some good equipment and learn how to use it.
It won’t necessarily make you great, but it will make it tougher to suck.
I began to write this on the year-end “what we are thankful for” post I was editing for the Rocks Off blog on the Houston Press website, but I realized it was way too personal and probably better served for posting here.
I have come to referring to myself as the utility infielder for the Houston Press. John Nova Lomax, one of my all time favorite writers there, has graciously suggested that I have perhaps even elevated myself to the level of Bill Spiers! Truth is, I am tremendously blessed by the opportunity to work with such a wonderful group of people at a terrific publication. For that opportunity I am eternally grateful.
Over the past month, I have had the great pleasure of filling in for music editor Chris Gray, someone I not only consider a colleague, but a friend. I only wish my prolonged duties had come under better circumstances — he suffered a heart attack that has kept him out of commission for a while — but working in his stead has helped me to re-discover a love for music just as writing for the Press got me fired up about writing again. I find myself listening to more music, reading more news about it and practicing harder at the bass than I have in 20 years. I owe him a tremendous debt for this (as do the people who listen to my playing on a regular basis), but his healthy return will be thanks enough because I have no clue how he does it all. I’m seriously in awe.
And all of this reminds me of my dad. My father was a writer, a photographer and a teacher and my first real hero. He passed away almost four years ago and, as a result, never had the chance to read all I’ve written for the Press over the last two years. When I think about that, I’m not sad for what he may have missed — God knows, some of it, he’s better off — or that the man who was so supportive can’t share in it with me. Instead, I find myself grateful for what he gave me through love, jokes, wisdom and genetics. I’d like to think, of the hundreds of kids he influenced as a teacher over nearly 40 years, he would be happiest to know that his longest-tenured and, at times, most difficult student has not forgotten his influence and has made healthy use of it.
Finally, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for music this year. My long love affair with the bass was re-kindled over the past few months and it’s been surprising the discoveries I’ve made. It has restored my faith in an artform that admittedly I had nearly forgotten.
Oh, and I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention a few other key contributors to my life. My mom is the greatest woman I know. Period. I cannot imagine who I would be without here. A very close second is my girlfriend, Cathy, who, with all deference to the Power Puff girls, is the joy and the laughter.
I also want to thank Cathy’s niece, Jade, who constantly reminds me how magical music can be and what a dramatic impact it can have on your life. She is WAY too smart and talented to be 13. It’s terrifying.
Finally, to my band — George, Chris and Joe — who have put up with my crazy for longer than most of my friends, you guys rock and I mean that literally.
This week, I bought a new little practice amp from my good friend, Jim, out at Texas Music Emporium. In truth, I have not put a lot of time into practicing the bass guitar in quite a few years. When I was much younger, I spend countless hours hunched over my bass playing until my fingers were raw and my arms tired.
At this point in my life, that doesn’t really interest me as much, but I have felt the need to put in some practice time, if for no other reason than to see how I’m doing compared to lo those many years ago when I actually spent time with a metronome and learned songs note for note.
To my pleasant surprise, things that seemed terribly difficult to me back then are not nearly as tough today. I thought my skills had eroded thanks to years of neglect, but the lesson I learned is that the practical application of all those hours of work has not only allowed me to maintain what little skill I do have, but actually improve from where I used to be. In short, I may not be the next Jaco (he was kind of a big deal), but I’m also not completely devoid of ability.
Since I’ve spent the better part of 30 years working on this instrument, I figured it was a good time to pay tribute to the guys who literally informed every note I play — another thing I learned while jamming along to music this week. These are the ten bass players who have most influenced my playing.
I put them in no particular order because, well, they are all so good, it would be ridiculous.
When I was 15, I went to my first concert. It was Yngwie Malmsteen at a bar in Houston. The opener was Talas featuring the monster, shredder bass player, Billy Sheehan. While I certainly dabbled (poorly, I might add) in speed demon theatrics and ridiculous finger tapping as a young player, the thing that impressed me about Sheehan was the same thing that impressed me about many bassists: His strength.
Whether it’s Sheehan or Stanley Clarke or Ron Carter or John Entwistle, the best bass players are always guys who play(ed) with strength and aggression. I love how Sheehan would pull strings out of position and make the instrument growl like a guitar. A lot of how I simply approach the playing of rock music came from watching Sheehan grind strings and throw the bass around like a rag doll. I got to the point where I would put my pinky on top of my third finger just to push it down harder and that was all Sheehan.
The first time I saw the above video, my jaw hit the floor. I was probably about 15 and I had never heard anything like this before. Later, I heard the work Palladino did with Pete Townsend and I realized I had to have a fretless bass. There was such a fluidity to the instrument that just didn’t happen with frets.
Also, there was a tremendous funkiness to his playing, something that was common to many of the guys on this list. Like most of the great session guys, he knew how to add something really cool at just the right moment without stepping out of line — check some of his work for Tears for Fears as an example. I also first heard the practical use of an octave pedal from Palladino’s bass.
Even after he dropped his nearly singular focus on fretless to play r&b with guys like D’Angelo and the John Mayer Trio, you could always tell when it was that lanky Brit (ok, Welsh) guy on bass.
In my teens, I became friends with a guy that worked at Sound Warehouse, the chain of music stores eventually bought by Blockbuster. He would turn me onto really cool music. One day, after reading the latest Bass Player Magazine, I came in looking for Live and in Living Colour by Tower of Power having no idea what it was, just knowing the magazine said it was one of the best bass albums of all time. My friend was impressed.
I had never heard anyone with such precise command and freight train-like speed from his right hand. It was insane. To this day, I can barely make it through “What is Hip?” without my hand going into full on cramps, nevermind trying to cover all 23 minutes of “Knock Yourself Out,” which was the entire B-side of that live album.
Rarely are guys this funky and this busy at the same time. It blew me away and still does.
When Sting assembled his first solo backing band (his best, in my opinion), I had never heard of Darryl Jones. Hell, I’d never heard of Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland or Omar Hakim either. The making-of film Bring On the Night was a complete life changer for me, not because I loved Sting all that much, but because, at age 16 or 17, it opened me up to a world that I had never known before.
I was a little metal kid and this live film and album demonstrated to me that electric guitar could be inconsequential and the music could still kick ass. Once I heard Jones on this, I went out and dug up everything he did including his work with Miles Davis and John Scofield. I loved the smoothness of his playing and how sneaky he was at getting really complicated stuff into fairly simple songs.
The song above was and is my favorite Jones-Hakim groove.
Donald “Duck” Dunn
As a young kid, I was mostly influenced by the listening habits of my parents. Fortunately, my mom mostly played the oldies station in the car which consisted mainly of the Beatles, British invasion pop, Motown and Atlantic r&b, which is where I got my first inkling of funk music and the brilliance of Dunn. Once I saw The Blues Brothers, it was over.
I tended to prefer the earthier sounds of Atlantic with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Bar-kays, Ray Charles, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and others to the more sparkling pop of Motown and Dunn played on virtually all of it. His tone was fatter than that of his Detroit-based contemporaries as he owed as much of his playing to country music as the Motown guys did to jazz.
It set him apart and made him not only a melodic player, but a guy that could lay down a foundation groove as powerful and rock solid as you could imagine. The video above has perhaps my favorite song with Dunn and easily my favorite from Charles.
I am a self-confessed Beatles nerd. I love virtually everything about them. For many years, I was so focused on the songs, I essentially ignored McCartney’s beautiful and brilliant bass lines. I knew they were interesting, but my bass playing and my songwriting didn’t always cross paths, so I focused on the songs.
Later, I realized that some of this playing was seeping its way into mine, particularly the big, beefy, upper-register stuff that he is so known for. “Something,” to me, was nothing short of spectacular. Not only was it one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, but McCartney’s fascinating counter melody on bass brings it to life.
In the last verse, when he plays that bouncy melody in the giant gap between lyrics, I still try to stop people from talking and force them to listen to it. It’s pure bass player ecstasy.
There is very little that can be said about Jaco (note he and Geddy are the only bassists I refer to by first name partly due to the uniqueness of the names and partly out of respect) that would accurately describe his impact on the world of bass. He was nothing short of a genius on the instrument. If there were a bass guitar Mount Rushmore, his head would be one of the four.
His tragically short life (I remember reading about his death buried deep inside the Austin American Statesman) was as chaotic as his music was serene. “Portrait of Tracy” is a song that first introduced me not just to the possibilities of fretless bass, but a way to approach the bass that removed it slightly from its beefy undertones, making it light, airy and almost etherial.
One of the true “artists” of the bass guitar and the definition of a legend.
Whenever I would trace back the roots of players I really liked, all roads would invariably lead to Jamerson. It’s hard to imagine just how great an impact his playing has had on countless bassists throughout the years.
For me, the insane grooves mixed with all the accents and silky melodies he added underneath the dense musical arrangements of Motown’s dozens of hits are as instructional as they are remarkable. To hear that kind of swagger and funk buried inside the pristine melodies of Holland-Dozier-Holland is, in and of itself, miraculous. To be able to play them with such deft skill and subtlety is almost unimaginable.
Every time I listen to a Jamerson part — like the wonderful line in the above video he played while drunk and lying flat on his back (Jesus!) — I recognize all the little elements I try to incorporate into my own playing, realizing full well that I’m not 1/100th the player he was.
Geddy was my first true bass hero. How could he not be? He was playing incredibly difficult parts in a loud, albeit nerdy, rock band. The signature grind of his Rickenbacker bass became a staple of garage musicians hoping to be like Geddy and mostly failing miserably.
What constantly impresses me about him is the way he has grown over the years and improved as a player. His sound has matured. His playing has grown more deeply rooted in grooves — though he was and is clearly the most funky of the trio and not just funky by Rush’s standards, which are decidedly un-funky — and driven a band that is better today, musically, than ever.
There are few things about my playing that aren’t informed by Geddy. He’s quite possibly the greatest single influence on my playing and, like Sheehan, it was the WAY he played, not the complexity that drew me in, though I’d still love to be able to play the solo breaks in “La Villa Strangiato.”
John Paul Jones
No one combined the groove of r&b music with the power of rock like Jones. He was, at least for me, the one guy that could do it all. It didn’t hurt that he was paired with perhaps the greatest groove drummer in the history of rock and roll or that his session musician background provided him with both technical and practical skills.
More than anything else, Jones was the ultimate bass guy. In a band dominated by a guitar virtuoso, a drum god and one of the seminal rock singers of all time, Jones played the straight man and held it together. He was my greatest example of how to be the glue that keeps a band held together.
But Jones had chops. “Ramble On,” “Bring It On Home” and, my favorite, “Song Remains the Same” (see above) demonstrate a guy deeply rooted in blues and r&b with the aggressiveness and intensity of a rocker. If I could be one bass player, Jones would be it.