Randal and me

September 16, 2016

I don’t want to be in a band.

There was a time when I thought I did. In the ’70s and ’80s, I was actually in a couple of bands. This was despite my lack of any real musical talent — I sang a little, I played a little guitar, but I wasn’t like the rest of the band. They were real musicians who could hear songs on the radio and not only tell you the key and the time signature, but could generally play back what they heard note for note.

I don’t want to pretend that I lack all musicality, because obviously I don’t. What I do lack is any sort of music education. And that’s my own fault. I’ve never taken a guitar lesson. My sisters both took private piano lessons and ended up playing several different instruments. They both went to college on music scholarships. But I didn’t have the will or the patience. When I tried to learn piano on my own as an adult, I quickly grew frustrated and quit.

From the beginning I never really wanted to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix or Mark Knopfler, I just wanted to be able to write with the guitar. And I can do that. And while there were things about playing in bands that I enjoyed, I don’t want to practice, arrange gigs or to stay out late. I don’t mine playing and singing my own songs in public (and I’m doing a bit of that to promote my latest book, which includes a few song lyrics) but I think I’m probably better off playing by myself than I am with others. That way there’s no one to throw off — or to be thrown off by.

But this piece isn’t really about me not wanting to be in a band, it’s about the guy who — if I were to be in a band — I’d want to be in a band with. His name is Randal Berry and it’s not likely you have heard of him unless you’re a neighbor of mine down in Arkansas. And to tell the truth, I realize I don’t know all that much about Randal’s musical background — I only know he’s a really smart guy (a historian and a herpetologist) that he’s been in bands too, and that he has a genuinely rare gift for melody. We did a song together on my last album — Euclid Avenue — and by doing a song together I mean that Randal took my acoustic demo, with it’s wonky, idiosyncratic timing, and added drums, bass, electric guitar, organ and I don’t know all what else to the track. Here listen to it:

It’s a pretty amazing feat, I think — especially since I’d not recorded my part with any expectation of anyone going in and retrofitting a song around it. I mean, I don’t want to be in a band, unless it could be that painless.

Anyway, Randal and I have become pretty good friends. And I think he understands my limitations, and that I don’t want to be in a band. (Ideally what I’d like to do is have someone take my songs and record them without me having any further participation in the project at all. I know some people like my voice, but other people really don’t like my voice and I have no real vanity as a performer.)

But Randal probably ought to be in a band. And at the very least, more people ought to know about his music. He recently sent me a few demos of his songs on CD, and I’m pretty impressed by them. He doesn’t write songs like I write songs, he writes more like Paul McCartney. He writes strong pop melodies. Or as he puts it, he uses a lot of chords.

There’s a way to demonstrate the difference. We recently each wrote songs to the same set of lyrics, based on a title Randal had come up with “Dead Can’t Bleed.” Here’s the tipsy, Tom Waits meets the Beatles version he came up with:

And here’s my version:

Now you might prefer one over the other. You might hate them both. (Personally I like Randal’s version better, but I’ll probably record a version similar to mine for my next album simply because I can’t play Randal’s version. Too many chords.) But you have to acknowledge how different they are.

And I think that’s the sort of creative tension you need in a band — by which I mean an entity that’s greater than the sum of its members, rather than a group of musicicans supporting a singer/songwriter. So you’ve either got the Beatles, with Lennon and McCartney (and George Harrison), the Stones with Jagger/Richard or the Drive-By Truckers with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley or you’ve got Leonard Cohen and his back-up band.

In my brief experience, I’ve been in both sort of bands — I was even the creative entity being supported in one of them — and I think the former is more interesting. (To me, the real reason to start and to be in a band is to access the collective reservoir of ideas. But I understand Leonard Cohen needs strong back-up.) I think that Randal and I would be good in a band — we each have distinctive voices, and different songwriting approaches but we’re sympatico in other respects. We could work together if I wasn’t such a killjoy.

Randal is a multi-instrumentalist, and I imagines he perceives music differently than I do. I hear the melody, and the changes in a vague way. I can fake a little lead guitar, but I have to know the key going in — I don’t play well by ear. I think all of that must be very easy for him — or at least that he has certain aptitudes that I just don’t. Most of the people who were in bands with me probably saw my limitations immediately. I just wasn’t like them. And that’s OK I guess — I do what I do.

Now to the question at hand. Randal sent me a CD with seven tracks on it, then sent me an eighth later. I’m not going to post them all here, because at some point he might decide to turn these into a commercial project, but I’ll put a couple up to give you a flavor.

Anyway, I just wanted to give you something of the flavor. I kind of think that it would be good for me to be in a band with Randal — and that it’s a shame I don’t want to do that. I think our styles are sufficiently different that it might be interesting.

And I also think this goes to show what I’ve always thought — talent isn’t really scarce. You can find talent everywhere. In my neighborhood, there’s probably enough talent to staff 50 competent rock ’n’ roll bands. My neighbor is a killer guitarist; there’s a judge who doesn’t live too far away who is a professional level bluegrass picker. Most of us did some stuff when we were kids, a few of us (myself included) even made records. But it’s like the cliche tells us, it’s better to be lucky than good and show business is a hard life. Or, as Billy Bob Thornton says, there are people working in the Peavey factory who can play guitar every bit as well as Jimi Hendrix.

Anyway, I’m putting out a new album in a couple of months, and I’ll probably do it mostly by myself. It]s just a way of getting some songs out there. And I hope Randal will do the same. Or that maybe he’ll keep pushing me, playing around with the songs I send him. I hope we keep collaborating this way.

I don’t want to be in a band. But maybe I already kind of am.

More to come.


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