Opening up

Posted in guitar, music by clamour on August 27, 2009

Every time the universe tased me today I took it personally.

Today was a good day because powerful, scary stuff happened and a bad day because powerful, scary stuff happened.  None of the bad things that happened to me personally seem very important now that I’m in bed with the lamp on, overhead light off, glass of water on the dresser next to the bed and an increasingly warm comforter around me.  My ego took some damage from an encounter with a guitar nerd, I dropped my keys six or seven times, I missed a train, I took the wrong way off the freeway and ended up in East Oakland when I wanted to be in Lake Merritt, I walked around San Francisco in a zombie fugue state because I only got four hours of sleep, I skipped lunch and crashed, my gums hurt for some reason, my head hurts from fatigue.  Except for the ego thing I can attribute all of those to inadequate self care and clumsiness.

Scary and powerful thing number one:

I feel silly thinking about the bad parts of my day when my partner’s mom had surgery for lung cancer today.  B is down there with her.  She’s recovering.  She has tubes sticking out of her.  I can’t imagine her without her glittery sunglasses and lipstick and puffed hair and matching tracksuits.  I am worried for her, obviously.

Scary and powerful thing number two:

I played for the first time with the really awesome and talented composer and guitarist in the band I’m joining and I could tell he was disappointed with my playing and even though he was very tactful it hurt.  I was nervous and playing stiffly and fucked up a few things I know well.  I was so nervous that when he asked me what song I wanted to play all I could think about was a silly four chord song that wasn’t even mine (I couldn’t think of a single lyric or melody line to a single one of my songs even though I’ve been working on them for hours every day.)  The song I finally played sounded so jangly next to the twenty chord multiple key jazz crazies we had been practicing that I knew it was wrong thing to have played half way through and wanted to disappear.  Even if I had been playing at my best I play on a much more basic level than he does.  He’s a ridiculously talented jazz player, so much so that I don’t know why they were looking for another guitarist when he is clearly more than enough for one band.  I’m not particularly competitive and I don’t feel crushed when I’m not the best at something but it’s really hard to work with someone far above my level who’s trying balance collaboration with teaching and being so nice about it but probably a little bored and judgmental. I did cry a little in the bathroom of his lovely Mission hallway-centric apartment with Crimethinc posters and hippie tablecloths and cast iron skillets hung on the wall, and a little more on the street walking home.

I felt a lot better once I switched to bass and learned some of those parts.  I love the bigness of the sound, the one-note-at-a-time zen of it, the lack of glamour.  I’m pretty certain I will play more bass than guitar in this band.

I have a friend a while back who, when we lived in the same place and I would call her on the phone fraught with some anxiety about some person judging me or hating me or being angry with me or choosing me (or not) for something, would tell me in a relaxed and peaceful voice, “your job is to be the person you are right now.”  There is so much truth in that.  It is also true that I am choosing to open myself to collaboration, to judgment, to creative energy and to criticism in playing with other people and that I can’t separate the parts of that openness I want from the parts I don’t.

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Power Owl

Posted in crafts, Photos by clamour on August 25, 2009


This came home with me from SF Zinefest.  It was made by nursing home residents in Fruitvale with the help of a couple of very talented zine artists who were selling them alongside their publications.  The vendor called it a Wise Elder Owl but I’ve been calling it my power owl.  On its butt it says, “Accept the Positive/Eliminate the Negative.”  I agree.

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Words vs. Music: On Being Female in Guitarland

Posted in music by clamour on August 25, 2009

I picked my guitar up from the shop yesterday.  The shop was a back room off the kitchen in a cat-scented Edwardian house in a residential neighborhood of Berkeley.

This guitar is an abused 30 year old low-end Fender that, if it hadn’t had some kind of accident that looks like it involved fire,would be worth about ten times what it cost new.  Because the entire finish is blistered and flaking, because the neck pickup was dead and had to be replaced, because it needed rewiring, because some ’80s punk carved cryptic almost-poetry all the way through to the wood, it’s not worth much, but it’s a playable guitar with a nice sound and some funny stories behind it.  I felt lucky when I took it in and found out that all its problems were electrical and cosmetic.  Most importantly the neck and bridge were fine.  It sounds good–warm and fat and a little remote–but I mostly love it for the neck, which is curved and thin and perfectly shaped for stumpy fingers on small hands.

When I went to drop it off last week I carried it from Oakland to Berkeley on the 51 bus in a red Galapagos Island totebag with a parrot on it.  Punk as fuck.  The real reason for the unorthodox case was that my hard case is the size of a six year old and weighs twenty pounds empty and puts a lot of strain on my already-crappy right shoulder and I had to take the bus.  Why hurt myself and smack around my fellow passengers for the well-being of a guitar that hasn’t been really played since the late eighties, when it was set on fire and carved on?  And then I walked into the shop and remembered why I quit really playing guitar–quit taking lessons, quit dreaming about starting a band, quit getting better, quit doing anything but strumming easy chords to easy songs so that my friends could sing them–I got the look.  The “what are you doing with that thing, sweetie” look.  The “you’re doing it wrong” look.  The luthier and the blues-rock guys hanging around the shop interpreted a rational decision about valuing my own body over a thoroughly trashed guitar as not knowing any better.  I felt like I was six years old.  Nobody actually called me “sweetie” but the luthier casually touched my knee during conversation.

When I picked up my guitar yesterday I felt so intimidated that I could barely play to test the repair job.  Electric guitar is so loud.  It’s such a big broadcast of your self, your thoughts, your taste, your skill.  A guitar plus an amp fills the room.  If you try to quiet down the guitar with your fingers, which is what I was doing when I tested it because I felt so small and self-conscious, you end up sounding stiff and thin and hesitant.  What goes through the amp sounds awkward and unmusical.

I wish when I was 18 and 19 and 20 I had had the strength of Kathleen Hanna or Annie Clark, to say “fuck you” and start my own genre like the former or to be tough enough to play with men like the latter, but I didn’t.  I don’t want to second guess how my life would have been if I hadn’t been so sensitive but I do know that not playing music during those years left a hole in me.  I felt sad every time I went to a show.  I went from a passionate musician to a passionate listener. I gained a whole universe of music that I didn’t even know about when I was a teenage guitarist in small town Florida or a socially awkward college student who was terrified of the cool kids who listened to the cool music, but I was sad to not be doing it myself.

When I quit really playing guitar I started writing more.  I wrote half a novel, I wrote more poems than I could count, and now I’m writing a doctoral dissertation, poetry, and a rock opera that might just be a large-scale private joke.  I’m writing at least a song a week, too.  I am proud of what I have accomplished as a writer but also feel a little shame at not being tough enough to deal with the look and the teasing and all the shit that comes with being a woman making music with men.  It’s easier for a woman to write– to work in private and be read in silence — than to make a lot of noise in public.  It was true 200 years ago and it’s true now.  It breaks my heart.

Earlier this summer I got out my guitar and played a few chords.  It felt weird and at first I couldn’t change chords in time.  I listened to some Gillian Welch albums and realized she uses the same six chords to write brilliant songs.  I learned the songs.  Then I learned some Mountain Goats songs, also based on the same six or eight chords with alterations and fills.  I started learning Belle and Sebastian songs, which are a little more complex.  Then I taught myself how to read sheet music again.  Then I relearned some jazz chords.  Then I started writing my own songs for the first time ever.  Then I started practicing improvisation over songs I like.  Then I bought an amp.  Then I relearned reading bass clef.  Then I started playing scales.  Then I signed up for a classical guitar class at the community college to work on my right hand fingerstyle technique and sightreading and arpeggios.

Then I joined a band.  The first practice is tomorrow.

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