“A denial!” – a listening experience, verbalized

April 10th: April Joan Jett nails “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Nirvana at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I proceed to write about how it made me cry.

Weeks later: I revisit my blog after weeks of not posting anything.

I replay the video of Joan Jett and Nirvana’s performance at said ceremony.

I still get chills watching that video.

Then, I bring up iTunes and listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – the original recorded version from Nevermind.

I revel in the greatness that is the original song, disregarding with every ounce of my being any diminishing effects wrought by over-saturation of the song on radio and everywhere else.

The final chorus starts. I nudge the volume level – which is already high – a little higher.

The chorus resolves to the song’s finale – “A denial!…”

I slam my hands to my headphone-covered ears, as if I am trying to drive the song even more emphatically into my brain and my soul.

As a result, the highs are somewhat muted. Some of the lower mids are somewhat muted. I let up on the phones a bit, and – in doing so – reach as perfect a balance as I can muster with such an impromptu, primitive mixing endeavor (and such crappy headphones).

The mantra repeats.

“A denial!”

The guitar and bass move in concert.

The drums have effectively doubled their urgency. I live by the beat of the drums, while I ride the repeating vocal…

“A deniaaaalll!!….”

It can never be like the first time… or, for that matter, like hearing it the first time after Kurt died. But it is still a heavy, powerful song.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!

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Nirvana and Joan Jett

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Thursday night (April 10th), Nirvana* was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were inducted by Michael Stipe, who is one of my favorite singers, and they played four songs with four different vocalists:

  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Joan Jett)
  • “Aneurysm” (Kim Gordon)
  • “Lithium” (Annie Clark)
  • “All Apologies” (Lorde)

Of course, the induction ceremony was not televised live; rather, HBO subscribers (not me) will be able to watch it when it premieres on May 31st. Which is more than seven weeks after the ceremony. Which is annoying, because I would have loved to have watched the whole thing.

Fortunately, I did get a chance to watch the band’s performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I came across an article on HuffPost on Friday that included** audience recordings of “All Apologies” and “Teen Spirit.” While the title, Lorde Covers Nirvana with Joan Jett, Kim Gordon and Annie Clark, was obvious click-bait (and the post itself barely mentioned the other three singers), it did include a video of Jett’s performance.

I watched the video twice.

The first time, during the second chorus, I found myself welling up. For the first time in years, a Nirvana song had moved me in some way other than simply making me want to move my head/hands/body with the music.

A few minutes later, I watched it again, and I cried almost the whole way through.

I loved Nirvana as a teenager. The first time I remember hearing “Teen Spirit” (etc.) was in the early spring of 1992, in my friend Mike’s car one afternoon after track practice. Mike went on to the Naval Academy and eventually became a commander in the Navy Seals, and he died in 2005 in Afghanistan when his chopper was shot down during a search and rescue mission.

I went on to different things. I grieved, like so many did, when I heard about Cobain’s death in 1994, and watched MTV Unplugged all day. I listened to, and devoured, whatever Nirvana music I could get my hands on until it dried up. And I eventually moved on to other music.

Nirvana’s music is awesome, but I saturated myself in it to a point where it ultimately didn’t move me like it had before, and I decided to give it a rest. I rarely purposely listen to Nirvana anymore – although “Drain You” (live, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah) is a more-than-occasional favorite – but the love and appreciation of their music is still here within me.

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Watching Joan Jett with Nirvana on Friday was a catharsis of sorts.

Joan, well, she nailed it – she was the perfect choice. Her voice fit the song so well, and she was in complete command.

Krist Novoselic was the rock, the steady rumble beneath Nirvana’s howl. He bobbed and bounced and rocked out in his Krist-like way, and it was wonderful.

And Dave Grohl absolutely killed it on the drums, as always. One of my life’s great pleasures is watching him play drums, because he gets such obvious pleasure from it. Seeing his huge grin always brings me joy.

And as I watched that performance, I lost control. Kurt died 20 years ago, and he took his future with him. Many have speculated about what he might have done, had he lived: would Nirvana have continued? If so, what would their future albums have sounded like? Michael Stipe invited Kurt to work with him; how would that have turned out?

Those things will never be definitively answered, because sadly, he died before they could come to pass. But here I was – 20 years later – watching Dave with his big grin, and Krist rocking out, and Joan kicking ass… Suddenly, I was grieving again, for Kurt and his band and the people who knew and loved him. And for my friend Mike, and probably for other things. And the tears ran down my face, and my chest shook, and it felt like a relief.

In some small way, Joan Jett fronting Nirvana was the most perfect coda to Nirvana’s career.

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Notes:

Along with Kiss, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel, The E Street Band, Hall & Oates, and others.

** I say “included” because I very much expect audience recordings to be removed for copyright infringement sooner than later. I fully expect to have to remove the video at the top of this post at some point soon for that reason…

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Epiphany: I will expand my musical vocabulary

While playing guitar the other night, I had an epiphany.

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I’ve been “playing” guitar for twenty years now. I never had any formal lessons. I remember sitting in the living room in our old house as a teenager, picking up my mother’s acoustic guitar, and fretting the low E string the first time. The pain in my finger tip was a major deterrent. A couple of months later, I tried again, and stuck with it.

In the beginning, I learned chords from a chart my mother had on the piano. I could do E minor okay, but C chords always sounded like crap, and F was a disaster. G major was nice, once I could manage to fret the G on the high E string. E major and A minor came next, and sounded all right. It was slow going.

Eventually, I learned about barre chords, and was banging out terrible versions of Nirvana songs. And breaking strings left and right. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine those days, but they happened, and we all start somewhere. We learn…

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About fourteen years ago, by which point I had progressed past banging away at simple three- and four-chord strummers to playing with a little more finesse and skill, I reached a self-induced crossroads. I became sort of paranoid, feeling that everything that I created was derivative. At that point, I decided not to learn any more songs that were relatively close in style to the things I was writing.

I can remember a pivotal point in that thought process. I was fiddling around on my acoustic one day, and I accidentally stumbled on Mike McCready’s opening/verse lick to “Given To Fly” by Pearl Jam. My initial reaction was “oh… cool!” – followed immediately by a weird feeling of guilt. The self-censor won – I never played that lick again, and never forgot that moment.

From that time on, I’ve maintained a strict “I will not learn other people’s songs” method. Which isn’t much of a method, in reality.

This is not to say that I’ve not learned any guitar licks since then. For example, I’ve spent hours working on songs like “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” (Megadeth), along with riffs from songs by Pantera, Metallica, and other metal bands, because I don’t “create” metal songs, so they were in what I considered “fair territory.” And I’ve certainly benefited musically and technically from those experiences. But there is a lot that I’ve shut out, and since my goal has never been to become a competent metal guitarist, those experiences have only taken me so far.

Instead of learning other people’s songs, I found that I enjoyed writing my own songs. At the time, I got a lot of fulfillment from writing guitar parts that were slightly above my current skill level – and then learning how to play those songs. In this way, I improved as a guitarist, and came up with some pretty good songs… but I also ran into a lot of brick walls. Over time, those walls got higher, and my interest ultimately diminished.

Over the past ten years, the volume of creativity has decreased, and the amount of recording that I’ve done – even just riff demos – has slowed to an occasional drip. I basically trained myself to hold my playing within that holy grail of originality when composing music, so that, if I was not playing something that I’d already established, my censor-alarms would go off more and more urgently. Occasionally, I would have some small burst of creation, but for the most part, songwriting / guitar playing have generally been at odds with me for a while now.

This has, very likely, contributed to the long musical droughts I have experienced over the years.

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However, my philosophy on originality has changed.

I mentioned before that I had an epiphany the other night, which is this: I have been stunting my musical ability, technical skill, and creative palette by not learning how to play more songs.

As we learn to play various songs, we build our musical vocabulary: the individual notes – the musical alphabet – are there; we can use those letters to create words or phrases, and we can make them our own by accenting them in the way we choose. Furthermore, learning via songs gives those notes and phrases context, which helps us understand how they work within the music, with the added benefit of being fun (rather than just a pure exercise). As I was playing that night, I realized that I’ve limited my musical options by refusing to learn how to play a wide variety of songs, missing out on opportunities to expand my vocabulary. Building a working vocabulary simply gives me more tools to use in the creative process, just as the practice of reading and writing hones a person’s ability to learn, comprehend, and write.

I realized that, since I am not a savant who is destined to rediscover everything that has already been discovered on the guitar, it can’t hurt me to learn more of what’s already there. In some way, I think that I wanted to repeatedly experience the joy of discovery, but, while it was a well-intentioned ideal to hold myself to, in reality I slid so far into my own little hole on the guitar that I painted myself into a corner of ignorance – and, in turn, frustration. The cost has been great: I was stunting my language skills by not playing new things, or things that are uncomfortable or difficult to play – or even familiar things that I enjoy listening to or singing along with. While I have limited skill and am closer to middle age than to childhood, I can still learn a great deal from developing new skills and applying them in different ways as I try to create songs.

In retrospect, I think that what I’ve done to myself as a musician over the past couple of decades has shown a severe lack of trust in my own ability to use established musical language to create something new. I know now that the result was that the holy grail of originality – an ideal that I clung ferociously to, to my detriment – ended up inhibiting my songwriting process a great deal.

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I need to not be afraid to learn how to play music of any style that I enjoy. Doing so will open up a world of possibilities by expanding my musical vocabulary, giving me (relatively) more mastery over the instrument and removing some of the barriers to creation that I’ve experienced.

Recently, I’ve begun to try to figure out the horn melody to “Godchild” by Miles Davis, from his classic 1949 album Birth Of The Cool (in the video above). While it’s currently not exactly the style of music that I would typically write, I’m also looking at expanding the boundaries of the kind of music I create (which in itself is a post for another day), and is also a song that I’ve enjoyed for a long time.

The important thing for me is to play, and to learn, with a “no rules” attitude as opposed to a restrictive code like I did for so many years. This is probably a many-layered concept that will hopefully reveal itself further as I continue my musical journey. For now, I’m simply happy to have broken the dam.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!