Suburban Seeker

There beneath the blue suburban skies

Hey Jealousy

This song doesn’t have much to do with the following post, but I like it a lot.

Playing music in public is a hard thing to do. It’s no wonder to me that so many famous musicians go out of their minds or are felled by various addictions. The amount of anxiety generated by putting your heart on display for others to do with as they will is staggering, particularly because most others are just as willing to mock to you as to listen to you, and in all honesty, the musical contents of your heart will usually fall on only half-listening ears.

This is unfortunate in and of itself because the world needs more people to make music, not less, but it is compounded by the fact that the worst audience to play to is the one audience who really should know better: other musicians.

You see, there is an unspoken fact that all musicians know but very rarely say out loud: we all talk shit about each other.

I’m not supposed to say that. We’re not supposed to admit it, but if you are in a band I guarantee you, you have talked shit about other bands and you probably do it more often than you realize.

I would like to say that no bands deserve it, that respect should always be given to anyone who is willing to perform in public. To a certain degree I do believe this. But over the years I have seen some acts that were so truly terrible that some mild negative chatter was the best they could hope for.

This, however, is almost never the case. Most bands do not suck. It takes a particular sort of effort to assemble four people in a room who have each taken the time to learn their instrument (which as any beginner will tell you is no mean feat) and then put their talent together and create something truly terrible.

It does happen, but it is rare.

Equally rare, though, is a truly amazing act. An act with impeccable musicianship, a commanding stage presence, meaningful lyrics, and the other thousand subtle things that go into making a band great.

What most bands that I have heard – and played in! – are is pretty good. Some strengths, some weaknesses. The energy is off the charts but the notes are sloppy. The singer is on it but the band is elsewhere. The musicianship is unbelievable but the song is just ok. There are an endless number of permutations of the strengths and weaknesses of an act.

We musicians all know this, and we hate it. This is what drives us to create. We can do it better, say what we have to say more powerfully. Move people.

We want to be the best.

Unfortunately – actually fortunately because this is what gives music its beauty – you cannot be the “best” musician.

If I could race the fastest sprinters in the world in the fifty yard dash and beat them all, it would be safe to say that I was the fastest man in the world. (Although only in the fifty yard dash and only on that particular day.)

By what metric would you judge the best guitarist or singer or songwriter?

Stevie Wonder in all likelihood cannot sing opera. Does this make him anything other than one of the greatest singers of the past century? Of course not. Just like the fact that the band who is on before you is a little shaky on something your band is good at makes them suck.

You’ll never hear anything if you are judging the other band instead of just listening to them.

So why do we do it? I would argue that we do it because of insecurity and jealousy.

I wrote earlier that it is hard to put your heart on display for other people.

Let me reiterate that point. It is exceptionally hard. You put a song together at home. Chords, melody, lyrics. You refine it. You practice it. You (hopefully) put as much of yourself into it as you can.

Then you go to play for people who are only half listening.

This would make the strongest person insecure. Because though you know deep down that people rarely listen to a band they don’t already know, and that their indifference is simply a manifestation of this fact, even deeper down you can’t help but wonder if they’re ignoring you because you are just terrible.

This leads quickly to insecurity.

Insecurity is a particularly bad state of mind because now you feel so weak and low that you will latch on to anything that will make you feel better. Praise is ideal but it rings hollow when you “know” deep down that you suck and that you are just being humored. (You’re wrong, but that doesn’t affect how you feel.)

If praise is unavailable or doesn’t suffice, the next best thing is shit-talking. If you are feeling insecure about something, you can help to alleviate that insecurity by comparing yourself to someone who is worse than you.

This totally works, by the way. That’s what makes it so insidious. You can absolutely feel better by putting other people down. That said, you can also make yourself feel better by shooting up with heroin. So maybe “feeling better” is not a good goal in and of itself.

So what do you do when the other band is better than you at the one thing that is most important to you as a performer? (This will vary from person to person but it is often just the number of people there to see you since that translates most easily into the number of people you’ll be able to move.)

When this happens, you get jealous. And if insecurity is a bad emotion to live with, it pales in comparison to the soul-wrenching awfulness that is jealousy. Jealousy is an emotion that precludes happiness, giving it no solid place to take root in your heart.

When you are jealous of someone you will simultaneously love them and despise them. You will focus only on their polar aspects: the ways in which they are your better and, as a way to compensate, the ways in which you are theirs.

So if you have a gig where no one is there to see you and the band after you comes on to a house that is suddenly packed and plays a great set, it can be hard to just listen and enjoy it. It’s much easier to find excuses for your own failings, even if none are required, and to find reasons the other act really isn’t all that great.

I freely, albeit sheepishly, admit that I have done it. I try not to, but it is hard to find the self confidence to watch someone better than you and enjoy it.

I don’t have a solution. (I feel like I say that a lot here.) The obvious thing to do would be to just admonish everyone to stop talking behind each other’s backs, and I don’t see that ever happening.

The best thing to do, I guess, is to try to remember that every act you see, no matter how well or poorly their show is going, is trying their best and is as insecure as you are. (This is a pretty good rule of thumb for interacting with people in day to day life too.)
Try to listen without judging. It may not be possible, but it’s worth a shot to try. And when you do judge, because ultimately I don’t know of a way to turn that part of the brain off, do so lovingly. Remember that, as I’ve written before, people are people, for better or worse, and that the band you are disparaging is just a band like yours, made up of people just like you.

Body Image

The internet has lately spent a lot of time complaining about the fact that humans (mostly women, but increasingly men) are physically portrayed in the media in an unrealistic way.

I understand the complaint. You can’t turn on your television or open a magazine without seeing humans that have been photoshopped almost to oblivion. It is ridiculous, but it’s only a symptom of a much deeper problem. You cannot change the way the media portrays our bodies short of a drastic restructuring of our entire economy.

The driver of our economy is consumer capitalism. Consumer capitalism requires people to consume more goods and services over time. (You know how this system works because you are reading this on a device that you purchased and, if you were so inclined, could be reading it on an entirely different device that you also purchased.)

A system that requires increasing levels of consumption can run into problems when basic needs have been met. And here in the west, our basic needs have been largely met.

Here is a complete, comprehensive list of the needs of a human being, were you to keep one as a pet:

  • Shelter
  • Food (mostly vegetables and grains, some meat)
  • Mental stimulation
  • Physical exercise
  • Opportunities for socializing
  • Occasional medical care

That is it. Complete and comprehensive. As you can see we pretty much have all that covered. (The shameful exception of course being American healthcare. I remain unconvinced that it’s morally appropriate to make money off of sick people but we’ll save that discussion for another day.)

So how do you sell a product to someone who doesn’t need anything? It’s simple! You just convince him he wants it so badly it borders on a need.

And how do you that? You simply convince him he is deficient of something important that your product will provide.

If you want to sell someone a Thingamajig, make sure that the person using it on the screen is better looking than the viewer at home. Make sure the actor is handsome and strong and his yard is green. Make sure the actress is slender and beautiful and her kitchen is spotless.

Subtly remind the viewer of how much better the people – who happen to be using a Thingamajig! – are than the viewer at home.

Make you, the viewer at home, feel like something is missing from your life.

This feeling, this sense that something is lacking in you, that you could be better than you are, this is what drives our entire economy. Television – and now the greater part of the Internet – exists solely because of advertising that preys on this feeling.

This feeling also fuels our inability to be happy with having our actual needs met. It pushes us into debt, addiction, and obesity, which serves the people who make money off our weaknesses just fine.

When you say you think the media should be more realistic in its portrayal of human beings, you are asking it to stop being a money-making enterprise.

Good luck with that.

The best you can do is tune out. Don’t watch their shows, don’t read their magazines, don’t visit their sites. They are deliberately trying to make you unhappy so that you will give them money.

Which, to put it bluntly, is fucked up.

The Likes (Band Name. Called It.)

I am very tired right now. I got into bed around 2am after a gig last night, then I spent a couple hours reading The Wise Man’s Fear. I was hoping to finish it but sleep overtook me. (It’s the second book in an as yet unfinished trilogy. I’m really enjoying it. If you dig fantasy you should check it out. It’s also got a touch of Zen in it which I’m always a sucker for.)

Now I am sitting at my kitchen table drinking a concoction of coffee, coconut oil, and butter because the internet says that will jumpstart my brain and I believe strongly in the power of the placebo effect. I mixed in some chocolate syrup and sugar too because if we’re going to pretend that putting random foodstuffs in your coffee will make it better for you then let’s not halfass it.

I sat down to meditate this morning but after only getting a handful of hours of sleep I wasn’t able to focus on my breath very well. What’s interesting is where my tired mind went when it wandered. You can learn a lot about yourself when you are sleep-deprived and your brain won’t easily do what you tell it to.

As I sat to meditate, my mind kept going to my phone and to Facebook. It wanted to see if any of the pictures that will inevitably be posted from last night’s show have been posted yet, and it wanted to see the ‘likes’ that said photos will hopefully get. (Maybe there will be one of me looking cool or fun with a guitar that I could make my profile picture!)

I feel embarrassed even writing those sentences because it’s not something we’re supposed to admit, but I’ll say it: I want The Likes.

That is clearly a silly thing to want.

I guess it does make sense to a certain (very small) degree, since as social animals we will always seek the approval of our community. But Facebook is not exactly a community. It’s more of an algorithm-based data-mining website that lets you share your photos – along with nonsense “news” stories and misattributed quotes – with people you only vaguely know, in exchange for your personal information.

In fact it’s exactly that.

Putting it that way, it seems that The Likes really serve as the hook to keep you coming back so that Facebook can keep mining you for data. The Likes are the caffeine in your coffee or the alcohol in your beer. You say you like the taste but you wouldn’t be there if not for the drugs. Sure, you can use Facebook to stay in touch, but that’s not why anyone really uses it. We’re here for The Likes.

Facebook has tapped into a primordial urge to be loved and accepted and they’ve been kind enough to quantify just how loved and accepted we are, using a little blue thumb as a unit of measurement.

I have good friends and a loving family. I like to tell myself I don’t need the approval of other people. And yet! It feels good to get that notification that someone liked a photo of me, no matter who that person is.

What does this mean exactly? As tends to be the case when I write here, I have no idea*. It’s such a uniquely modern problem. I couldn’t even explain it to someone who lived just ten years ago if I tried.

I do know that this compulsion is not a good thing though, because compulsions never are. I often find myself impulsively and unthinkingly checking my phone, especially on a day like today when I know it’s more likely to deliver The Likes, and being impulsive and unthinking is no way to live a life.

This compulsion also takes me out of the world around me. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself; this morning I am being pulled out of my world by my writing and last night by my music. But writing words and playing music is fun and beneficial and feels good. Creating is good for your soul.

Facebook takes me out of my world for bullshit.

I haven’t logged on for my fix of likes yet. I will though. There will probably be some photos of me with a guitar. Maybe there will be some photos of me with a pretty girl. (Photos with pretty girls in them always deliver more of The Likes. Bunch of perverts, the lot of you.)

None of that will affect who I am as a man, or as a friend, or as a musician or writer or general human being. It will just mean that more people clicked on a little blue thumb below a picture I happen to be in.

And even though I know I shouldn’t, I’ll be glad they did.

Or maybe, heaven forbid, I’ll go to check and there won’t be any likes at all.


 

*[I vaguely remember reading an article somewhere about the effects of social media on your brain. Hell, there’s probably a ton of them. Maybe I’ll find one later and share it, but 1) This blog tends to be about my personal experience, and 2) I am very tired this morning so you can do your own damn research.]

No Reason

Sometimes you just have to write. Or I do, in any case. I think the same is true for everyone, though the activity may vary. Sometimes you just have to do something – maybe cook or run or paint – for no reason in particular. You’re just compelled to.

That’s kind of the best reason to do anything, though. For no reason.

I love music, and my favorite thing about it is to play it. I like listening to it and going to shows. But the absolute best thing in the world is to play it.

And sometimes the best thing in the world is playing it where no one can hear. You’re not playing for a crowd, you’re not playing for a promoter, you’re not playing to impress a girl in the back or the other bands or to make up for your various insecurities.

You’re playing because goddammit, life is short, so why the hell not?

The last time I posted here I was writing because I felt like writing. And that’s what I’m doing again today, although this time I have some sort of point.

I’ve been reading some Huang-Po, and I’ll probably write about that soon. I love me some Huang-Po.

But for now, nothing in particular.

Breaking News

So, uh.

I usually don’t get too personal here. And I intend to continue that.

Suffice it to say, it is all well and good to think and to type and to write, but sometimes life must be lived. And by that I mean, sometimes life throws you a big ol’ curveball and the best you can do is swing wildly at it because there’s nothing else to do.

I’m not entirely sure where that metaphor was heading.

In any case.

That’s about all I have to say on the matter. A whole lot of nothing on an undisclosed matter of some sort. Here is a picture of an otter being cute.

Like a Wave From the Ocean

“You did not come into this world, you came out of it. Like a wave from the ocean.”

I’ve been rereading Alan Watts for the first time in years. I have not read the entirety of his catalog, but a few of his books are worth revisiting from time to time, particularly The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, and The Way of Zen. (The former is a roughly Vedic philosophy updated for a modern western reader, and the latter is a book that is, as its name implies, about Zen.)

I stopped reading him for a bit because “real” Zen people don’t seem to like him, which now that I think about it is a pretty stupid reason not to read an author. Especially because he seems very much in tune with the spirit, if not the institution, of Zen.

In reading him again, I can safely say that he is my favorite spiritual writer. I am sure there are many writers who were smarter, who pierced the veil of reality more fully, and who didn’t keep getting divorced before finally dying of alcoholism.

His failings are  partly why I like him though. He was a human being. Too many spiritual writers and teachers are trying to sell you something and so they have to pretend to be happier, healthier, and enlightened-er than they actually are. You wouldn’t buy a diet book written by a fat person, so why would you buy a spiritual book from a sinner?

The myth of the perfect person is just that, though. A myth. Being a human necessarily entails feeling shitty, falling out with friends and loved ones, getting sick, listening to people chew, and many other forms of suffering. Zen masters get pissy too and beware any “guru” who claims they don’t.

Alan Watts belonged to no lineage or sect, though he was an ordained Episcopal priest at one point. He never became a guru and he did not seek followers. He called himself a spiritual entertainer and in reading him you get the sense that he wrote and lectured and meditated for the sheer hell of it. Just because it’s fun and he liked to do it.

In his writings and lectures, he always returns to this simple point. You came out of this world. You arose from it. However you want to put it, you are not separate from it.

He dabbled in psychedelics but did not make the mistake that Leary and so many others did of pursuing the exploration of consciousness using nothing beyond psychedelics. In fact, his words on the matter should be read and memorized by all practicing psychonauts.

Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.

In short, he was a modern seeker. It can be very hard to glean the wisdom from the old texts without falling prey to unthinking acceptance and reverence, just as it can be difficult to know when a modern way of thinking is harmful or silly. Alan Watts was excellent at threading that needle.

The quote that I began with is one of the most powerful sentences I have come across in my life because it turns so fully on its head how we usually feel about our lives.

So often my experience feels like “me against the world”, as though “I” am separate from the world around me. But this doesn’t make any sense. The world provides the nutrients that keep my body going and my body is built from atoms that were forged in stars. I need society and family to keep myself happy and fulfilled.

When I was born I didn’t pop in from somewhere other than this universe and when I die I don’t go somewhere else, but evolution and society have trained us not to experience things that way. (Which is all well and good. We wouldn’t have climbed very far up the evolutionary ladder if we hadn’t learned to think of ourselves as entities that are separate from predators.)

It is only an affectation, a learned response, though. It has its value but it is not fundamentally true that you came into here from somewhere else and have somewhere else to go to. Where else can you go? There is nowhere else to go, unless you believe in a heaven that exists outside of our world. I do not believe in that.

What to do then? Nothing. There is nothing to do. And in this there is everything. There is freedom, because you didn’t come into this world from another place. You arose from it. It made you. You made it. You are part of it and it is part of you.

If you wave hello to me, that is literally part of the universe waving to me!

And this is always true, whether you are meditating on a hillside on a quiet spring day, or taking a piss in a grungy dive bar.

I carry this sentence in the back of my mind now. I don’t do mantra meditation but I repeat this often enough to myself that it has become a sort of mantra. It is powerful and beautiful and so simple.

You did not come into this world, you came out of it. Like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.

End of an Era

This is a follow up post to something I wrote back in November about the end of the Ale Industries open mic, my home away from home in Concord California. I wrote most of what follows the day after the last open mic with the intention of editing it in the following weeks. But I hate editing so here it is pretty much verbatim.

Thursday January 23rd was the very last AI Open Mic. If you happened to be there you know how magical it was, and if you weren’t I don’t think I can capture it in words.

But I want to write something anyway. So here we go.

Cliches get a bad rap, but they really shouldn’t. The only reason we get tired of hearing them is because the good ones are so true that we hear them all the damn time. That’s why they become cliches.

Here’s one for me from the great John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Had you asked me a couple years ago what effect a small Concord brewery moving to Oakland would have on me at the start of 2014, I wouldn’t have had an answer because the question would have made no sense. But life happened and I somehow ended up with a  home away from home at Ale Industries.

I don’t know if I can convey to anyone who didn’t go how important that place was to me, and to a lot of other people. I’ve played in bands on and off for as long as I can remember, but I’ve always felt something was missing from the music. I found what I was missing there.

Musicians are by nature insecure and competitive people. We pretend we’re not, but we are. For every act that’s doing well there are a thousand others that aren’t that would give anything and do anything to seize that spot.

But that’s never been the point of music. In fact, the point of music is that it is pretty much pointless. We make music for the simple reason that it is in our nature to make music, just as it is in our nature to crave companionship and to walk upright.

You don’t sing in the shower to get a record contract. You don’t dance at weddings to showcase your talent. A night that ends with drunken singing is the best kind of night there is.

I’m not naive enough to say that music has ever or can ever be “pure”. It’s made by us humans so we’ll always throw our nonsense into it – our jealousies, egos, and insecurities have actually made some of the great music through the ages.

What I really like about music, though, is something that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a sense of community and a sense of shared humanity.  Everyone who has ever lived has sung a song at some point, even if they only did it because they thought no one was listening.

I loved this particular open mic because it captured that feeling very well. No one was trying too hard to be famous. We weren’t in San Francisco where the cool kids vie for attention from cooler kids who are trying to get noticed by independent labels who are themselves vying for attention from bigger labels.

There was no scene to speak of.

There was beer and there was music and that was about it. And that’s all you really need. Anything else will just clutter it up.

As for the last open mic itself, it was great. The place was much busier than a normal open mic night. Regulars came through, semi-regulars came through, and people who haven’t played in a while came through. Beer was drunk, cigarettes smoked, jokes and memories shared, and songs sung.

To close out the night the host led everyone in a sloppy, rough, and entirely beautiful rendition of “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Here’s the video. It gives me goosebumps.