Friday, March 17, 2017

BASS SOLO—novel excerpt

First 16 pages of my novel BASS SOLO. Full manuscript available on request!

Jimi motherfucking Hendrix. That’s who inspired me to play bass. See, I didn’t want to be him—he was so cool I’d never even dare—I just wanted to be in a band with him. My mom’s boyfriend at the time, this white dude Dave, had a huge old record collection, and he’d play them at night, and these sounds would come out of the speakers, crazy shit. Feedback, like when the preacher at church would get too close to the microphone, only this was music. Controlled noise. And when I looked at the records, there was a black guy like my father, like me, except with this big crazy afro, with a cool white glowing guitar, the expression on his face all contorted like it was almost hurting him to play, either hurting him physically, or hurting him that he was causing his guitar pain by making it scream like that. I wanted to be that, I wanted to be with him, be his friend and be in his band. And though his drummer, Mitch Mitchell, was white (and British I later learned), on some albums (the later Band of Gypsies ones, though I didn’t know that until later) there were pictures of this other black guy, who looked like me, playing this other instrument. This was Billy Cox, and the instrument looked like a guitar, but it only had four, thicker, strings, and was bigger. I asked Dave what it was and he said, —That’s a bass guitar!
—What’s a bass guitar? What does bass mean?
He smiled and thought about it, and said, —It’s the low end, the part you feel in your chest. The thumpy part.
We got right next to the speakers. “Red House” was playing, and he said, —Listen. You hear that low part going dum-da dum-da dum-da dum-da, going up and down like that?
I nodded. —Yeah.
He smiled. —That’s the bass. That’s the part that makes people dance.
—That’s what I want to do! I want to play bass with Jimi Hendrix!
When my momma got home from the hospital that night I ran up to her before she even got her coat off and almost yelled, —I want to play bass!
She looked at me like I’d gone crazy. I think I had. —You want to play what?
—Bass! With Jimi Hendrix!
—Oh Lord....
But on my birthday a week later, there it was. Momma had Dave go out and buy me one. I didn’t know it at the time, and Dave probably didn’t know it either, but it was a cheap thing, by a company called Univox, and smaller than a regular bass, more the size of a guitar, I guess designed for beginners like me. I didn’t mind though. I liked it. It was white, kinda like Jimi Hendrix’s guitar and I was already picturing myself up on stage with him—us and our matching white guitars.
I also got a small amplifier, and a cord to plug my bass into it. I think back now on it and laugh, it was pathetic, the speaker in it was shot, making the sound that came out fuzzy, but I didn’t care, in fact I liked the fuzziness. It sounded Hendrix-ish. And it was loud enough that Momma yelled at me from downstairs to turn it down. Yes! That was rock ‘n roll!
That would also in some way make up for in fifth grade, when a woman came into our class and gave us a music aptitude test. I don’t remember the specifics, but it required her playing recordings of sets of tones, and us answering multiple guess questions about the differences or similarities between them. Like, was the first note higher than the second, or lower? After we took the test, she vanished with our answers and we all forgot about her, until she came back a week later and asked everyone whose name she called off to come with her. One by one, a few of the other kids names were called, all of them white. She took them out and up to the library. When they got back an hour later, I asked one of the girls what happened. She said that, based on how well they’d done on the music aptitude test, they had been given the opportunity to join the middle school orchestra, and choose the instrument they might like to learn. And: —Oh yeah Anthony, that lady said she forgot to call your name because Young was so far down the list.
Which, was it that, or because I was black? Because the woman never came back to get me. Nobody did. Nada. Nothing. I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d been able to go with that group. Like, maybe I would’ve learned to play the cello and be playing in some orchestra now. Or hell, maybe I would’ve ended up playing the double bass, I probably would’ve picked something huge like that, and played in an orchestra, or become an old school Charles Mingus type jazz dude. Or maybe that wouldn’t have changed anything, that I would’ve felt the pull of rock anyways. But I kinda think it would’ve changed everything.
The problem was, of course, that Jimi Hendrix was long dead by that time, which Dave eventually, reluctantly, had to tell me. My drooped down to my chest and I slumped up to my room and sat on my bed. I didn't cry, but neither did life seem fair at that point. I looked at my bass, laying in its case. I went over to it and put it on, looping the strap over my left shoulder, and looked at myself in my mirror, something I still do to this day actually, and imagined myself on stage with him, imagined him standing behind me nodding, like a father I did not have. But I would make him proud, or try, and I knew, the way children know, that if I made him proud he'd somehow look after me. And he has.

Friday night in Portland. Stumptown. Third night of the tour. Always good crowds here. I've even years ago played over across the river in the stadium, with Ozzy, tens thousand people. Now I'm downtown in a place than can hold maybe 300. If we get that. Started in LA, hit San Fran last night, Seattle tomorrow night. Bam bam bam. Knocking them out up the coast, then we go inland to Boise and who the fuck knows after that. Minneapolis? Then Chicago Detroit Cleveland and on to New York. I think. Or maybe we go down to Memphis and Louisville first. I'm already losing track of time. Or place. Or both.
I'm hungry. Being on tour there's no lack of food, just that it ain't that good, junk that doesn't really fill you up, at least not in a good way. The club we're playing at, Dante's, has a little to-go pizza place in the corner, and the band gets free pizza. Hard to resist that, but I'm holding off getting dinner with the guys to have something with my sister Jenna a little later, before the show. But hungry, sitting around, standing around, doing soundcheck, waiting to go through all the soundchecks with each group. Or each grouping, I should say: We've got us a sort of magical mystery tour of three total bands, but I'm playing bass for all of them, as is this young kid Sean playing keyboards, and Chris is singing in the first and third, but we've got three different drummers, and three different guitar players. It's a mess, messy, but a messy room is a sign of creativity, right? And it's the new economics of bands and touring, cutting down on personnel to save money, though I'm doing alright on pay, at least, every night we play, and when I got the offer to do the tour, under these circumstances, after the money was negotiated, I said, I'm getting my own hotel room for this. Which was actually the bigger grumble than the money, but touring, big- or small-time, kills me: 24/7 with a bunch of dudes on the bus, sharing meals, playing gigs, I needs me some alone time some time.
This german guitarist dude's the headliner. Udo Johann Rot. Old white hippie-looking dude with long hair, gotta be in his sixties by now though I never asked. But wears a psychedelic bandana when he plays, kinda to cover up his bald spot, but also has his 'thing,' his look, with an Indian dreamcatcher hanging off his guitar. I don't know, rock and metal musicians from Europe are always a little bit more eccentric, whereas us americans just go out with jeans and a t-shirt.
Udo's the one who founded The Scorpions, way back in the seventies, when they were more of the next step beyond Jimi Hendrix, that is to say when they were good, and why I knew about them. But either they kicked him out, or he quit, or who knows, but they then of course went on to be huge, if not good, with their pop song sing along choruses. Udo kinda dropped out, did some solo records, was still popular in Europe, and amongst the guitar god wanna-bes here. With good reason: he is a guitar god. He's a hella good guitarist. I've played with some other hella good guitar players in my career, and most of them were influenced by this guy. So I'm honored to be on this tour, honored he picked me, and the best part is we get to jam out on a couple Hendrix tunes every night. That's how I got the gig: I was recommended, he'd heard my solo album, and called me himself from Germany, and like the first question he asked was, 'Do you like Jimi Hendrix?'
And I was like, Man, hell yes, I know everything.
—You know Castles Made of Sand?
—Red House?
—Hell yeah. Everyone knows that. Yes.
—Hear My Train A Comin'?
—Yes, even that.
—Ok, let's do it.
—I got the gig?
—You got the gig.
Something like that. First time we got together, just him and me and Jimmy Butcher, his wiz kid south african/british drummer, we just jammed on Hendrix tunes, with Udo singing. He sings english way better than he speaks it, and for a white guy, he sounds like Hendrix.
The rest of the songs we're doing are old Scorpions songs, the early greatest hits. He's coming out with a new album of re-recordings of those songs. Which, if the first two nights are an indication, fans already know. I was a little surprised, I admit, to see young dudes singing along to something like "Coins For Charon," recorded before they were born.

The problem with playing the bass back then in Michigan was that I had no idea how to play the damn thing. But my momma, and to this I give her eternal credit and my eternal thanks, made me take lessons, and paid for them, saying, —Well if you gonna have an instrument, you better damn well learn how to play it right.
She walked into Playland Music one day, without my knowing, and signed me up, once a week, every Friday after school. She’d pick me up, drive me home to get my bass, drive me over to Playland, wait outside in the car for the half hour lesson, drive me home and drop me off, then head to work at the hospital for the second shift.
My teacher was Gary Glass, this older slightly overweight white guy. Gary made his living as a musician, back when that was still possible, even in a small town like Jackson. He’d gig at night and teach during the day, and lived in an apartment with his wife on the north side by I-94. He had thin short light brown hair, parted on the side, and a small bald spot in back. He wore thin rim glasses and kinda nerdy plaid shirts, the kind that were maybe in style back in the fifties. In fact, he looked like an accountant, but he spoke like a total musician, like I’ve heard both white guys and black guys speak, especially in jazz, dropping words like ‘cat’ and ‘cool’. As in, —Yeah, Hendrix was a cool cat.
I was nervous walking in that first day. The guy behind the counter at Playland was white (the owner I learned later) and the other people in the store where white, and they all looked at me, though to be fair, I think they would’ve all looked at anyone coming in, and the owner smiled and said hello. Gary came out smiling and shook my hand and led back to his little room in back. There was a desk, with a stereo on it, and two filing cabinets that I later learned were filled with sheet music transcriptions of all kinds of songs. There was also a Fender guitar amp, with dual plugs for us to both plug into. The coolest thing was that Gary played a Fender Stratocaster, just like Hendrix. It wasn’t quite white, more like a pale yellow, but that was what I focused on, the Strat.
My momma hadn’t quite explained everything exactly. When I pulled my instrument out of its case, Gary said, —Oh, you play bass. Let me check it out.
I think at the time Playland had a separate bass instructor, but Gary knew how to play. He did some kind of bluesy line, plucking the strings with his right thumb, something I’d never seen before, then with his two fingers. He sounded good. He handed it back to me and asked me what I was interested in, why I wanted to play. I of course told him about Hendrix, and he smiled and nodded. —Ok, that’s cool. I dig it. Here’s the deal. We’ll learn some basics, but also get into learning some actual songs soon too, ok? And one thing you’re gonna need to do, is learn how to read music, dig?
I nodded. I didn’t know. Sounded good. Sounded logical. I knew about reading music, had seen the music in the hymnals at church, and seen how some people to sign along to the music just by looking at that fly shit on the black lines. Only much later did I learn that Hendrix never learned to read music.
Gary went out into the store and returned with two books, The Complete Electric Bass Player, and Chuck Rainey, and a book of blank sheet music. He also pulled out a piece of paper from one of his file cabinets with a diagram of the fret board of a bass, with letters, A, B, C, etcetera, scattered what looked like at first kind of randomly all over. But he explained how there were really only seven notes, A to G, which made up a scale, and the eighth note, or the ‘octave.’ For that first lesson, and the first month, he patiently explained what those letters meant, and how each letter corresponded a note on the fret board, and to one of those black lines on sheet music. There was a basic logic to it, even if some things were weird, like that there were two frets between most notes, like C and D, but only one between B and C, and E and F. When I asked why, Gary shrugged and smiled, —It’s just the way music works. If it was totally logical, it wouldn’t be that interesting.
He also showed me the beginnings of rhythm, and how songs are broken down into ‘measures’ with each measure being broken down into, usually, four ‘beats’, or quarter notes, which themselves can be broken down into eight notes, and then sixteenth notes. Sounds complicated, and it was then, but I got the basic idea, especially when he reminded me of how some of those old songs you can here on the radio start with the drummer actually counting off ‘One, two, three, four!’ The trick, or what makes music music is how, and more importantly when notes come in, so that for example even though there’s four beats to a measure, the actual notes played may or may not be on the beat, and some instruments may be playing notes in different parts of the measure than others. I’m making it way more complicated than it is, and just at the beginning Gary only had me working on basic stuff.
Once I had a basic concept of rhythm, and the notes, Gary showed me what’s called a 12 bar blues, one of the most basic chord progressions. —This will serve you well. Once you know the 12 bar, you’ll be able to play anything from blues, to rock, to country. Hell, they use it in bluegrass sometimes!
He drew out the basic chord progression on a sheet of blank sheet music. —There’s only three chords. That first one, the ‘one chord’ is the root. So whatever key you’re in, you start on that note. After four measures on the root chord, you go up to the four for two measures. So, if you’re in C for example, you count up the scale to the fourth note. C, one, D, two, E, three, F, four. You go up to F. Get it?
I nodded. That made sense.
—Then it goes back to the one chord for two more measures. Then is goes up to the five. If we’re still in C, what’s the five chord going to be?
I counted up. —C, D, E, F, G. G?
He nodded. —That’s right. Now where’s G on your bass?
I found C and counted up to G. Which was also the highest open string on the bass.
—Now where else can you play G?
I didn’t get it.
—Go down. Is there another G below C?
There was. At the third fret on the lowest string. —Oh. Here.
He nodded again. —That’s right. And that’s part of the art of bass playing. You got choices sometimes. You can play notes an octave up, or an octave down.
—How do you know which to play?
—You just figure it out after a while. Usually you’d want to play the lower note, because that’s what a bass player does, is hold to low end down, but sometimes, for effect, or a change, or for variety, you might want to slip up higher. It adds tension and intensity. It happens in all types of a music. Bach, Mingus, all them cats did stuff like that.
I thought about that, looking at my fret board. I knew by then that each fret was one note, and that there were twelve actual notes between every octave, so that the twelfth fret was the same note at the open string, just an octave up, so I went up to the E at the twelfth fret and counted up, F at the thirteenth, F sharp at the fourteenth, to G at the fifteenth, which was that same actual G as the open G string, just played at a different part of the neck. And from there, at the seventeenth fret on the D string, was a G note another octave up from that. —So I could be playing up here too?
—Well, no. You don’t want to ever go up above the twelfth fret. That’s guitar territory. A bass player needs to hold down the bottom.
I didn’t ask him, but at the time I thought, then why does the bass have those notes? Why are there notes above the twelfth fret? But something about the way he said it, the way he acted, he seemed almost angry about the idea, which seemed crazy to me, but that has been the reaction of most guitar players I’ve ever known: they just do not like the idea of a bass player playing up high, taking a solo.
Every week Gary would teach me some new stuff and send me home with something to practice. Like when he showed me where all the basic notes on the fret board where, he told me to practice playing them, memorize them. And I did. It didn’t even feel like work, or homework. It was like he’d opened up a room full of treasure and told me, Explore this room all week. Every day, after school I’d sit down with his diagrams and go over what we’d talked about in the lesson. I think about it now and it’s amazing. I’d memorize the four open strings, E, A, D, G, then find the notes, slowly, on each string. Like I’d find the C note on the third fret of the A string, on the diagram, then spend what seems like minutes in my memory now finding the C note on my bass, counting up the frets. Then the D note, which could be played either on the open D string, or at the fifth fret of the A string. They were the same note, the same amount of vibrations, and that’s how you can tune an instrument: pluck the D note on the fifth fret, and pluck the open string, and adjust the open string until they both sound the same. Nowadays there’s electric tuners that are super accurate, but they weren’t around at the time, and tuning my bass like that (because same thing for the other strings, find the G on the fifth fret of the D string, and it’s the same note at the open G string) helped me develop of sense for even hearing notes, especially down on the lower range like that,
I would spend hours going over this, all on my own up in my room. Hours just going back and forth from Gary’s diagrams to my bass fretboard, gradually memorizing where each note was, and being able to go from one, up to the next, crossing over to next string. So, starting with the open E string, then one fret up to the F, then two frets up to the G, up to the open A string, two frets up to B, one fret up to C, to the open D string, two frets up to E, one fret to F, to the open G, and two frets up to A. And then back down. It took me so long to be able to even do that, play all those notes up and down, without looking at Gary’s diagram. I swear it was hours. And it was not work. It was play. Or, not even that, it was just intensity, concentration. I wanted to be there figuring those notes out. I wanted to be learning them. I don’t know how or why. There were frustrations, but I think there were enough little accomplishments along the way that felt like rewards, that I constantly felt like I was improving, getting better, even though I know now how almost pitiful my growth would seem to me. On the other hand, Gary told Momma one time when she came into the store to pick me up, —Anthony’s my best student. He actually practices at home. Most people don’t.
It never would have occurred to me not to practice. My point is, I’m not saying I was born with some innate talent. I practiced my ass off. Though there were some certain circumstances that made practicing my ass off interesting. Having a room of my own. Having free time. Being an introvert and ok with being alone. Having a good teacher like Gary, both experienced and patient and a good explainer. Having a mother willing to spend money for lessons. Having Dave there with his record collection, being exposed to music at a young age. Seeing a picture of Hendrix.
Though some stuff seemed, or seems, unique to me, like my love of music, something I was born with, especially when I met my father later on. Like it was in my blood. But then I wonder if music isn’t in everyone’s blood and it’s just that the way our society is set up, for both blacks and whites and everybody, that it not only doesn’t encourage music, but discourages it in some way. I love music so much, it’s been such a vital part of my life, I can’t conceive of someone not liking it as much as I do, but some people don’t. I guess. I mean, everyone seemed to love music in college, people defined themselves by it, even non-musicians, but later on, people I knew, once they got into the real world, with jobs and families and shit, they listen to it less and less. I’ve seen it with my family and I’ve seen it with my friends. My momma had all those Motown records, still has them somewhere, or else Dave took them, but she just doesn’t listen to music much anymore. Just whatever’s on the radio. If that.
Or my sister Jenna. Back then, she just listened to hip-hop, which was still called rap back then, and what’s called R&B on the radio. She eventually did become a dancer, but the exotic kind. Not to say though, that that choice (if it was a choice, and not economic necessity) wasn't somehow relevant. But, I sometimes think that my friends, not that I have a lot, are my friends because we all still like to listen to music.
I’m not saying parents should force music on their children. Any time children are forced to do anything they’ll usually grow up to hate it. But if their children show any inclination, like singing or anything, which most children do, they should offer music lessons up as something fun to try, like, Hey, do you want to try this? Or, that goes with anything. Like, if you’re son is dancing around the house, show him a video of people dancing, different styles, and ask him if he’d like to try it. I think the key is being an observant parent and picking up on cues, on interests, and encouraging instead of forcing them. Easy for me to say, I never had kids. That I know of.

It's Udo's tour, his name, he's the headliner. We've got two busses and a truck, and the one bus is basically his, with his actual real bed in back, and computer with internet, and hot german girlfriend half his age. Whereas the rest of us get the bunkbeds and/or just hang out up front.
The two opening acts are older guitarists too, though not quite as old, more my age. The first group is made up of the drummer and guitarist who played with Dio before he died. And if you don't know who he is, well, he sang with Rainbow then Black Sabbath, then had a successful solo career with multiple albums. They've stayed together as a kind of tribute band, still playing Dio's songs, though they did a solo album and tour, which didn't do much. But somehow they got tagged on the tour, with me playing bass, and Sean and Chris playing keys and singing. It kind of feels like I'm playing in a cover band again, since we're doing Dio songs, but also they like to just do older classic rock/metal songs, something like "Highway Star" by Deep Purple. Why not though? The crowd seems to like it, everybody knows the songs, and actually, based on what I've seen these first two nights, the biggest crowds came to see them, or at least the drummer, Vinnie Appice, who played with Dio in Black Sabbath too. Of name recognition for any of us, he's got it. I'm not quite sure how Udo feels about the opening act getting the biggest crowd, but I'm not sure he knows, since he hasn't come out to watch them, so far. Or maybe he knows, or his management company knows, and Vinnie and Jason are actually doing their job: drawing folks in who might actually stay and check out Udo Johann Rot. But it's strange, seeing a 'god', someone I've seen in arenas, with a huge drumset surrounding so he had to crawl into it, now playing with a basic set, not even on a drum riser, on the fucking stage floor. Is it for the money? Yeah, probably. Us drummers and bass players don't get songwriting credits most of the time, so we don't get the residuals. And nobody pays for music anymore, so one of the main ways for a musician to earn a living is to tour. But, also, gotta give Vinnie credit for getting out and playing, and enjoying it, because he does, I've seen him, looked over while we're playing, and he's got that light in his eyes. Doesn't matter how big the crowd (well, as long as there is a crowd and not an empty hall) every musician loves to just play. Me too. I've played stadiums and festivals, and had a row of amps behind me. Now I'm back to one.
The second 'band' is really Robbie Less, an instrumental guitarist (at least for his own stuff—he played in Alice Cooper's touring band), one of the shredders from Shrapnel Records. I played on his first album, which in itself was a crazy story, since he recorded it just him and drummer (Steve Seard, from the pop band Voyager—I know I know, but he's actually a great drummer and that album is, in my humble opinion, his best drumming ever) and they brought me in after to record the bass. So I'm like, sitting there in the studio, plugged directly into the console, with Vinnie sitting next to me calling out chord changes as they come. It was crazy, but it worked, and I'm really proud of my playing on that album. Vinnie's the one, or one of the one's, who recommended me for the tour, and so it's been cool to actually play those songs, for reals, with him. Though I gotta say, I'm not sure the dynamic of instrumental metal/rock songs works in a place like this, for a crowd like this. Maybe for one song, but for a whole set? Fans need some kind of focal point. That is, lyrics, and a singer. I say this from experience. I've done jazz gigs, all kinds, where the expectations are different, people expect instrumentals, but they're more mellow affairs. With rock though, you need that singer to unite everyone, and to have those sing-along choruses, something that you can basically memorize by the second time around without too much difficulty.
Still though, this is a crowd that's come to hear Udo Johann Rot, so there's a bunch of a musicians, guitarists, in the audience, and Vinnie shreds, so he has some appreciators. He's a good guy too, real Bronx accent, showing his age like all of us, a little more stockier than when I first met him, way back in the early 90s. He's not much of a front man, just asking everyone between songs if they're having a good time, then back into another song. But hey, this is the only part of the night where I get any bass solos, so I'm happy.
It's a long night for me, true. Even when I was playing with Ozzy, headlining, we'd only do about two hours, tops. This is like three hours. More, including the waiting around between sets. So I'm trying to pace myself. I dig playing with Chris and Jason, and with Vinnie, but my main priority is to be 'on' for Udo, so while Jason and Vinnie are trying to give their all, I gotta hold back a little, which I think they don't like, but like I said, having me play bass for all three acts gives them a little bit more of a bigger cut.
Everyone is still rough around the edges. We had about a week to rehearse down in LA, and we've all made it through all the songs without flubbing anything too bad. I don't think most fans even notice, though Udo does have a little bit of the evil eye if you fuck up. He's a rock star and expects perfection, and the dude is good, and a legend, so it's hard to deny him that. But for example, Chris is still reading some of the lyrics for both sets off of an iPad, which he sets up on a stand at the back of the stage, but still visible to everybody. Kinda unprofessional, but he got the gig even later than I did, and memorizing two sets' worth of lyrics is hard. I also feel bad for him because even though he's the singer and supposed to be the focus on stage, he's not, nobody's ever heard of him, and they came to see the guitarists (and Vinnie the drummer) and though he's got a certain charisma, and can do the jive-talking between songs, Udo just dominates the stage, dominates all of us really, and literally last night in San Fran, when we were about to go into the two Hendrix songs of the night, Udo just pointed at Chris, then gave him the thumb, like, get off stage, right in front of everybody. Which, how is a singer supposed to work with that dynamic? How's he supposed to come back after those two kickass songs with Udo singing, and try and reassert himself? I personally think Udo should have him sing the Hendrix tunes, except Chris doesn't sound anything like Hendrix, he's got the high metal band voice, and Udo is Udo and wants to sing his Hendrix.
But, with all these dynamics, and all older dudes getting paid more than the younger ones, and people coming to see the Dio drummer more than Udo, who knows if this band of gypsies will stay together the whole tour. I'm just trying to enjoy myself, and am, getting to play with some legends. Getting to play, period. Gotta pay the bills just like everyone else. Touring is hopefully a better deal financially for me right now, though I'm giving up three months (maybe more) of potential, though not for sure, studio work back in LA. Those gigs are hit and miss, at least for tour I know how much I'll make ahead of time, which is enough afford the mortgage payments on the house I 'bought' there while I was with Ozzy. Because yeah, I'm working to afford a house I'm not even living in while I'm working. The life of a working musician. Everyone seems to think all musicians are millionaires, like Ozzy, but most of us unknowns, the back-up musicians, even the band backing up Ozzy in those stadiums, we're just trying to make some kind of middle-class living. And even Ozzy had to downgrade and sell his mansion in LA.

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