Who’s playing tonight?

December 12, 2009 Saturday Morning 6:40am

Awake, asleep, awake…artists and writers…are we all up at 3:30am?  Reading some old articles, pain in my stomach, can’t sleep, thinking about writing and the shadow of the blinds on my sons wall where the Christmas lights outside his window reflect off the metal trim in red and blue and a little green, and the hum of a motor outside in the car park sounds like a diesel – what are they doing up?

Thinking about writing is so far from playing.  Where to begin? 

Why is it that painters and writers and sculptors and wood carvers and photographers, and every other type of artist, are defined and labelled by the work of their craft while musicians get to play?  Writers write, painters paint…you get the picture…musicians play.  We never pick up a book or go to a gallery and say ‘who’s playing tonight?’  I think for a moment that I should research the origin of ‘play’ as it pertains to music and the craft of doing what musicians do to make us sing along in loud voices in our cars or in bars with beers and friends or hum and tap our toes while our hands are busy doing something else but sitting on my couch with a pencil and paper is so far from play I don’t really want to know.

I play guitar, well, not well, not poorly (well maybe) but with enough rhythm for someone with his first white maple Seagull – the 25th anniversary one with the cut away,  pick-ups and tuner built-in (so proud).  I rolled out of bed and saw the case propped up against the wall near the bedroom window and in the instant the thought of playing it came to mind so did the work of a couple thousand words just to explain.  Ironically I traded a snowboard for the guitar after writing a list of sorts in a letter to Yvon Chiounard after reading his book, ‘Let My People Go Surfing’ just months before 1969 left me in the year of 40…but that’s another story.  I can pick up a little 4 note blues jam down around the 11th fret sometimes, and mix it up pretty well on the first 3 or 4 strings for a guy learning to read music again for the first time since the first grade Christmas piano recital – forever haunted by the change-up in ‘Good King Wencesles’, and even stumble through a few tunes you might recognize but when the all too infrequent practice turns to instinct and my fingers start jamming the right notes on their own I might even say, I play.

Musicians get it all.  Yes, they mostly starve and scrape by like other artists but come on, let’s get real here, writers and painters suffer while musicians play.  They are home in beanies and socks toiling away in the early morning hours while the drummers and sax players get the girls.  You know it’s true if you’ve ever played a tune (or at least watched ‘Mo Better Blues’…the Spike Lee classic).  I almost inevitably get a smile when I get lost in a tune, even ‘Worried Man Blues’, or the pure emotion of the awkward F sharp in ‘Danny Boy’,  but put a brush to canvas or pick up a pencil and artists and critics all agree it is called work.  Have you ever heard a writer or a painter say, “I’m going to play?”  They suffer their love.

In case there is any doubt, writers and painters – and photographers for that matter – don’t see the simple clarity in their images or hear the gentle flowing words in their minds that you do.  They see the complete envelopment of the process, the pain and the all-encompassing search for detail that leaves them spent in these early morning hours wondering, questioning…’Am I done?’, Did I get it?, Is that it? Is that what I wanted you to see?  Is that what I see? Is that what I meant to say? And ultimately it is the question that drives us, like the question that chased Achilles to his death, ‘Will I be remembered?’  Hardly the questions you ask yourself when you play.  Sure I wonder if I will miss the F sharp on the 4th fret but when I hit it, wham!  I am there and the next two bars are gone before I remember playing them, my mind shuts off and I am in the moment.

December 13th, Sunday..early…4:44am

More playing…

Watched a video of an artist painting a painful tale of a self-portrait yesterday.  Bloody knives and scars too deep to heal…yet…and the hateful words of her abuser in deliberate black script across the blades that scared her.  So much to say but nowhere to begin but in the present, in medius res.  The pain is alive like it was the first time and the way it pours across the blackened canvas reminds me of a story that repeats itself and repeats again and rewinds upon itself and before it is finished it begins again and the voices and pictures are louder and more vivid until they are finally stabbed through the canvas and put to rest…until next time.  That is not playing.  That is the stuff of life and paint and words that incessantly repeat in haunted halls and minds and bleed paint on canvas or words in books or chip off bits of stone with hammers until there is nothing more to strip away but the truth.  That is the breaking point,  the genius, the rapture and the impossible, right there…stop.  That is not play.  There is so much to say.

‘It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song…’

Maybe I’m wrong…maybe musicians get it too?  They call it playing the blues because, well,  that’s what it is, and maybe on a level that I only hit when I stretch the life out of one more note by bending that first string so far on the end of my finger so many times that it hurts, musicians get it too, but even so, they still get to call it playing.

‘I’m worried now, right now, but I won’t be worried long.’



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