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Blue Collar Rockin'#2
By Mick Polich - 06/13/2007 - 06:44 PM EDT

Well, here’s the classic “dog-ate-my-homework” story….

This month’s article was COMPLETELY written, finished, proofed, ready to get dumped on the website. Then, thru a series of keying calamities, the entire read went POOF, into cyberspace…..OY, MY HEAD HURTS !!!!!

Really, it did!

Oh, the hell with it – time to get up to speed with a new thought and insight for this month – doing your best work. Have we, as musicians and artists, done our best work already? Who do you think in the market has? The question bubbled up in my cranium awhile back after I read the book “Cash”, a comp of Rolling Stone articles on Johnny Cash. Now, Johnny Cash has intrigued me for several years – I grew up listening to him on WHO radio, which in the old-school days in central Iowa, was THE place for country music(it was even on a big map of influential radio stations across the U.S. for country music when I visited the Country Music Hall Of Fame back in 2001 in Nashville). I remember watching his TV show, not realizing how innovative it was at the time (Bob Dylan? Neil Young? Come on, brothers and sistas! Plus, Johnny DOESN’T drop out the line about getting stoned when he covered Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, causing a poop fit with network censors –aahh, the Man In Black, I wish you were back!). Anyhoo, one interview was with Rick Rubin, Johnny’s last producer. Rick stated that John had told him a few years before he passed away that he didn’t feel he had done his best work yet, which Rick was delighted in hearing. To be at Johnny’s age, with the catalog of music he had recorded-to say that! That is a striving artist, my friend! Which is how I feel about my own stuff, and what I look to as a proper attitude with the creative process.

Personally, I’ve been recording since 1982,writing songs since I could pick up a guitar, so, 1975. I didn’t start logging lyrics until 1979,which I still have those little back pocket memo pads from the beginning. I remember the first time I went into the studio –Avatar Studios in downtown Des Moines. I had gotten my old bassist, funkmeister Byron “Malcom Diggum” Wells, and the drummer to the band I was currently in at the time, Don Kearney, to head in to record my tracks, ”Keep It To Yourself”, and “Get The Funk Outta Here” (no, not country, and probably not a waltz). Funk and rock mixed together, I sang my stories about not bothering people with your navel-gazing BS and how NOT to be a white boy with no funk. Rock, funk, and punk, mixed in my little blender and poured onto tape, courtesy of my excellent musician friends. With one of my best friends and music mentors, Don Myers, providing his trademark high back vocals to the mix, and then the drummer’s wife, Dee, providing the ‘nag’ rap intro on the the front end of “Keep It To Yourself”, I felt pretty good about my first effort. Now, I had been recording at home on my little cassette deck(I didn’t get a 4 track until 1985),so I had some experience with hearing my guitar and voice on tape. But, whoa, this was a STUDIO recording – I believe it was either a 16 track or 24 track at the time. Big, big stuff, my readers, and just the start of my ’studio rat’ years. Things progressed until I made the jump to making a 45 vinyl record, which by the way ,has it’s 20th anniversary this year, putting it at 1987. At the time, that was my ‘statement’-horn section, multi-tracked guitars and vocals, cream-o’-the-crop musicians from central Iowa, songs about getting your heart ripped out, stomped on, dissected for a med class, then neatly folded up, put back in your person, with a pat on the head and a cookie from Dr. Heartbreak on how never, ever to take a chance on luv AGIN!!! I say this in total jest now because it seemed so self-important at the time – you know, you’re 27,for chrissakes ,and an overly sensitive, creative being, so what’s the other recourse to sing about?

Spin the dartwheel to ‘now’-heading into the BIG 5-0, married (thank gawd, your first and only marriage),a kid, dogs, house, all the mundane suburban crap in tow – good gravy, man, you don’t write like you’re 27 years old again, right? I mean, it’s water under the bridge – why tread back there? When I pull out the old stuff and listened to it at different points in my life, for the sense of brevity, I really think that where I’m headed with my writing and playing at 48 years of age is where I really always wanted to be. Yup, I had my hair metal period (with the long mane of thinning hair), hoping to impress while attempting my poor Van Halen rips and crunch tones from my Strat, writing really piss poor hard rock lyrics (not to mentioned the brief ‘rap’ period –no, say it ain’t so, Shoeless Joe! Yeah ,it be so – me and Vanilla Ice-YIKES!!). Problem was, with so much of material, it wasn’t focused, looking back. And it wasn’t the musicians, because I used my friends, who were (and still are) some of the best in central Iowa. So, it was the dude writing the stuff –I mean, flashes of things I liked, but as Brian Wilson once stated to effect, you gotta write 400 songs before you get a good one (but I ain’t sitting in a sandbox, devouring drugs to get that one song, no sir! Sorry Brian, I love ya, man!).

So, when does our best work happen? Do we get multiple times when it comes in, say when you’re 22 and 42 years old? Maybe 60? Picasso and Grandma Moses didn’t even get going until after the half-century mark. Matisse did some very interesting works in his old age. Horowitz  kept playing piano into old age; Gil Evans kept writing jazz charts and working on new stuff until his fateful time in Mexico. So, that’s a good thing to look at when you’re my age. What about younger? Usually, that’s a given. Jaco, Janis, Hendrix,Van Morrison – all the hits and creative flow came before they hit 30 (except Jaco-he got a few more years in). How are you defined by your best work? Well, even with our vast electronic outreach to YouTube, downloads, blogging, and iPods, if a tree falls in the woods, who’s there to hear it? AND, are you defined by those resources and not your own measures? I think the measure of truth I hear behind very artist who gets interviewed regarding the business of music is that, you, individually, need to feel good about what you’re creating, if you’re booked internationally with a Top Five single, or if your band has got their act together for a MySpace section and some tri-state area gigs. What about if you’re a housewife or househusband that has been writing songs on the side for years, knowing you might not be signing to a label, but still get out to the local Borders and do the local talent gig to sell a few CD’s? Me, I think that where the real backbone lies – it’s like factory workers and other blue collar folks (no pun intended, but a big nod to my upbringing)-you’re soldiers who punch a clock and put in that grunt work that supports the bigger cogs. I know, there’s a lot of honor right there – I still have buddies slugging it out in bar bands, duos and trio playing coffeehouses and wineries, just making a living, keeping the chops up, trying out new covers or originals, recording in their home studios tucked in a closet, basement, or guest bedroom. Are they doing their best work at this point in life, better than 15, 20 years ago? I look at it to be a renaissance of sorts – I remember collectively all my homies writing and recording some pretty fantastic things back in the day. As per the hey days of everyone from Marvin Gaye, Prince, Black Sabbath to Joni Mitchell, those individuals and bands did some heavy duty things in their prime. And, again, do we need the public to help us judge our work-does it matter in the end? A personal, then a professional example: back from 2000 to 2004, I recorded and released a series or progressive rock/jazz/electronica CD’s. A few made it to on-line reviewers in England, Paris, and even South America, all with pretty favorable reviews from the prog community. Mostly, I had gotten the majority of stuff reviewed by Jerry Kranitz who runs the Aural Innovations website out of Columbus, Ohio. I mentioned Jerry by name because he has always been fair in reviewing my songs, and I appreciate that-you know, very competent critical reviews. Anyway, I had a CD that was influenced by the works of the artist Mark Rothko. Jerry gave me a great review, which I glowed about, because I wrote the music exactly the way it influenced me thru Rothko’s art work-ambient, avant garde soundscapes which I created with my synth and multiple guitar tracks layered and dripping with reverb, delay, and ‘backwards’ effects to create a spooky, yet spiritual sound.

Well, I had sent a copy to a good buddy who was a long time playing partner of mine in several music ventures back in Iowa. He listened to it, and said to effect that, yeah, he used to twiddle effects like that at one point, but gave me praise for being a searching artist. I took it all in stride, because the man likes what he likes (and is excellent at the ground he covers in his own work and the cover bands he plays in), so I always respect that (and more so than some bottom feeder who’s my age, still living at home, and writing self-serving critical reviews for whatever on-line or indie print ‘zine that will have him). Still, I felt pretty good about covering the ground that I did ,and trying a new path musically.

Now, on the other hand with the big time folk, I’ve been collecting music in a lot of mediums since I was a kid, from a lot of different areas (I mean, when I say I have Turkish throat singers on CD, or Paris hip hop, I mean, I REALLY do, and I listen to it and appreciate it.) One of many cases, I will love something that leaves others scratching their heads. I have gotten enough ”What is that shit?” comments from buddies and co-workers during my stint as a repair tech at Rieman Music back in the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s (but, always with a big SMILE when they said it!). Teaching guitar a few years ago, I had a student who was a major Metallica fan, who I like myself. This guy was an old school fan, who said they dumped it at either the “Load” albums or the “Black” album. This was at the time of the infamous “St. Anger” CD, which seems to polarize fans even now. My student thought it was a complete dump of a CD-what were they thinking, they haven’t got it any more, etc. I thought, other than a few songs that didn’t cut it, it was a brilliant return – it was a catharsis for releasing my OWN anger for about a month! I pick apart CD’s differently from most-I think most musicians do. It was a gutsy left turn for the band, writing,producing, and recording wise. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who cares?

So, in wrapping up, I would like to pose some thought and questions. First,if I give you folks any food for thought from this article,it should be to look at yourselves as writers and artists,and see if where you are headed musically is the path you want to be on. I truly believe,even if you don’t get the gigs you want,the level of acclaim or fame,this makes all the difference in the world. We sometimes bypass so much to either please others or con ourselves into thinking what we got now is what we need for the soul. You’ve heard and read it before,but ol’ Uncle Mick is givin’ it to ya again – THINK!

Second, analyze your own work,past and present. What did you like,what do like about your stuff now – look at everything from the writing, musicianship, production, recording,  song structure, etc. Really pick it apart if you want to change and move forward. Last, grab some courage. This is tough because we may have courage in some areas,but a depletion in others. The courage to push through to new boundaries and leave others behind is a big step.

Goodbye ‘til next month and I promise I’ll pay better attention to the “Clear” key in the future before sending this stuff into cyberspace!

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