Sunday, December 31, 2023

Two more poems by Manuel Vilas

My translations of two more poems by Manuel Vilas, "Vampire Apprentice" and "Stockholm," now up, finally, at LIT, the literary journal of The New School for Social Research, my alma mater.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Two poems by Manuel Vilas

My translations of two poems by Manuel Vilas, "London" and "The Beach Forest," now up at WASHINGTON SQUARE REVIEW. Vilas is an award winning poet and novelist from Spain, who gave me generous permission to work on some of his older collected poems from the book AMOR. Look for at least two more translations coming in LIT!

Friday, December 29, 2023

Christmas in Merica

Appeared at ELECTRIC WINDMILL PRESS in February 2012. EWP no longer with us, so putting up here for you all to (hopefully) enjoy!

Christmas in Merica

Merica I’m tired hungry and depressed

Merica I hate Christmas

I hate Thanksgiving Easter Valentine’s Day The Fourth of July but most of all I hate Christmas

It’s cold

I like Halloween though, Merica, because of ghosts and goblins and bats and women dressing up as sexy pirates sexy superheroines or sexy cats

I like Halloween because it’s the only night of the year where women can dress up as sexy as they really are

But I hate Christmas and I want to punch Santa Claus in his jolly stomach

Merica hurry! Only ten more shopping days to spend money and do your part to keep our economy healthy!

Because in Merica not buying children presents is un-Merican

And un-capitalistic

Merica they didn’t used to be the same thing

Merica no more high fructose corn syrup!

Corn should just be corn!

Time to cut back on the meat and eat more fruits and veggies

Time to exercise and get outside

Time to get rid of the goddamn televisions once and for finally

Merica I’m sorry but most Christians seem batshit crazy and if there’s any good ones they better start taking it back

Don’t even talk to me about the Mormons

And Merica only in Merica could a hack science fiction writer create a religion and have people believe it!

Merica what happened to the good old days when cults took cyanide Kool-Aid and just put themselves out of our misery?

Merica the media is crazy too there always has to be two sides of an issue in order to be fair and balanced so if the world is round you need to have another person say it’s flat

Merica you can’t hide in gated communities forever

Merica you are a gated community

To be fair Merica I know I’m not perfect I jerk off to internet porn

I’m so bad that even when I meditate I end up thinking about jerking off to internet porn

But Merica sex itself isn’t bad

Merica I wish you would let yourself enjoy sex instead of just watching people having it on tv

Merica I wish you would stop telling girls to dress sexy and then that sex is bad

Merica leave the girls alone

The boys too Merica

Stop telling them they have to own guns and drink beer

Merica our children are angry I’m not sure you’ve noticed

On the other hand Merica, I do wish you would do something about the banks

Don’t leave them alone Merica

Merica you deregulated them and they stole our money and lost it and gave you money so that you would give them bailout money so they robbed us twice

And corporations Merica don’t leave them alone either

Stop taking their money

Everyone knows you’re a whore Merica


Merica only in Merica could one presidential election be stolen and that same person re-elected after he and his cabal had put us into two occupations

And only in Merica could another president win the Nobel Peace Prize while escalating one of those occupations, and then in his acceptance speech reject his heroes King and Gandhi while still dropping their names and saying that war is sometimes necessary

Merica did anybody notice that?

Merica what if on 9/11 we had turned the other cheek just like your favorite philosopher?

Merica are you on drugs?

Illegal or otherwise?

Are your anti-depressants working perhaps too well that you can’t see your house melting down around you?

Merica I wish you would stop doing coke and pot and anything else that has to come up from Columbia and Mexico because there are columbians and mexicans dying because of you

Merica why don’t you at least legalize those things and put those jackass narcotraficantes out of business?

Merica as long as I’m lecturing you why don’t you ban the manufacture and use of landmines?

I just thought I’d get that out there

They don’t kill soldiers

I mean that’s who you really want to kill right?


Merica my therapist says your too egocentric

Merica have you ever considered seeing a therapist?

Sometimes you can find one that works on a sliding scale

Merica do you have health insurance?

Are you satisfied with it?

How about when the health insurance companies raise their rates thirty percent? Satisfied then?

Merica do you have any pre-existing conditions?

Sucks to be you

I guess you’ll have to pay out of pocket

Don’t you wish your health wasn’t run by for-profit companies?

Merica you are the health insurance companies’ bitch

though you still fuck other Mericans too

Merica you slut you go both ways

What kind of jumblefucker are you?

You only listen to money!

Und sieg heil das Kapital!

But you know that stuff?

That trickles down?

It’s blood

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Saint Jezebel

"Saint Jezebel" appeared at BONE & INK in August 2019. BONE & INK is gone, so putting it up here. Hope you enjoy!

Saint Jezebel

As if I had to teach a man to fuck!

You mean to do it well—which yes of course

the pleasure was all mine—I got the luck

of being female in a book the source

of which is patriarchy though what hurts

is being hated by other women

for painting my face + wearing short skirts

but did you know I had more power then?

They say I starved the so-called prophets of

a certain faith—this during a famine!

For that

                + God / they killed my family

+ this is what religion does with love:

(I know this isn't a revelation)

turns women into whores—

                                                they hate us free


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

if I made popcorn

This poem appeared at FULL OF CROW in October 2013. FULL OF CROW is no longer with us, so putting it up here. Hope you enjoy!


if I made popcorn

if I made popcorn would you stay and watch

this samurai movie I've been saving for a special

occasion, because time is small, in the same way

that a samurai has two swords, a big one and a small


            I was thinking of you last August. I was

also thinking of you at New Year's. Did you ever get

that bass solo? I didn't. But the ash that

covered my Honda that morning made me wonder

if you had something you wanted to say to that girl

we saw on the Demon Drop, with the penny on

her thigh. I remember vaguely you asking if

I thought driving without shoes was illegal, but

I can't remember which National Forest we camped

in on our way back east, because by then

the music had come back on, loud, a short in the

wiring perhaps, though to be honest, I think

we weren't, very, or not enough to make it

work, and I do get motion sickness badly, so

I wasn't able to concentrate when you said she

said that mad cow disease was already in the

United States, though after that all I remember is

your underwear hanging from my rear-view mirror and the

truckers' reactions when we passed them, and your

reaction when I told you that you were beautiful,

before I even knew you, in the computer lab

wearing that dorky baseball cap.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Fire Lookout Villanelle

This poem appeared at HIGH DESERT JOURNAL in March 2016. HDJ has, alas, closed its doors, so putting up my writing from there, here. Hop you enjoy!


Fire Lookout Villanelle

On a mountain somewhere on the Boise National Forest

Sitting on the catwalk of my wind- and snow-beaten tower

Mind as always working mad though body relatively at rest

On the roof flying ants seem to have made a nest

So I’m hiding in the wind surrounded by red and purple flowers

On a mountain somewhere on the Boise National Forest

It’s been a few days since I’ve had any guests

It’s been a hot dry week since I’ve taken a shower

My mind’s still working mad and body mostly always at rest

I’m trying to teach myself Latin but I’m failing every test

I scan the hills and valleys with my binos about every hour

On a mountain somewhere on the Boise National Forest

I go naked a lot or in shorts and I’m sunburned on my chest

though cloudy today so my solar radio keeps losing power

Mind always working mad though body relatively at rest

Rain clouds and lightning tracking in from the west

Towards me and the elk and butterflies and grouse on our

Mountain somewhere on the Boise National Forest

Minds forever working mad and bodies relatively at rest


Friday, December 22, 2023

Slayer, Detroit 1992

This poem appeared at ENTROPY in December 2015. ENTROPY is no longer with us, so moving all my writing from there to here. Hope you enjoy!

Slayer, Detroit, 1992

Driving with Mickey

from Jackson to the

old Fox Theater down-

town inside two balconies

towering over the main floor

levels teeming w/bodies

like Dante's Inferno

we found our place

at the top far above the

churning mosh pit circles

flailing before the stage

arms swinging boots

kicking stage diving

next to the band playing

sweating growling

guitars like percussion

chainsaw buzzing next

to me flailed one of the

few girls there with a boy

friend tho not a boyfriend

usually I never know tho

this girl seemed to like

both me & Slayer two things

hard to believe she looked

like the waitress back in east

LA that time at Pizza Hut

with other young musicians

in a booth she told me

she liked my Slayer t-shirt

goathead demon and

upsidedown pentagram

from Hell Awaits I couldnt

believe a girl w/brown skin

& black hair & actual smile

would ever choose me the

other guys wondering why

didnt I get her number but

I didnt know how fearing

shame I was a virgin & here

she was again in Detroit

years later & I still didnt

know how to talk to her

in the noise & dark tho

I sensed she felt safe next

to me or thats what I could

allow myself to feel &

Mickey was the boyfriend

of my drummers younger

sister who had liked

me before I even left for

LA & back to Michigan

when I was young she younger

murmurs down in the pit

shouts b/c Anthrax was there

later at her brothers marriage

we kissed & she jacked me

like a pro as if I had any

idea how a pro would do it

except that she seemed to have

had lots of practice which

would have been fine until

she told me Mickey had

raped her yet her brother was

still friends with him tho

her brother I knew for years

before the wedding revealed

his enjoyment of nigger

jokes while our guitar player

said he drove his Bronco

over suburban lawns at two

men he saw holding hands

so I would quit but not before

sneaking into my drummers

house one time jacking off

with his wifes blue lace

panties when Slayer

came on for the encore

everyone screamed Angel

of Death our bodies banging

against each other

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

No Questions

This poem appeared at ENTROPY in October 2016. ENTROPY is no longer with us, so I'm moving all my writing from there to here. I hope you enjoy!

No questions

Let’s not ask each other anything

Not have to explain anything

Not tell

Not confess

Let’s not talk about ex-partners

Let’s not talk about our therapists

Let’s not talk about our fucked up families

Let’s not talk about what meds we’re on

Let’s not talk about what majors we had in college or grad school

or whatever our theses were about

Let’s not talk about where we’ve traveled because we’re so privileged we can afford it

even if we stayed in hostels

Let’s not talk about our jobs or office politics

Let’s not talk about politics

Let’s not say things we know the other person already agrees with yet we have to say to make sure

Let’s not talk about what movies we like

or books

Let’s both not say how much we love Anna Karenina, the person, not just the book, as if she were a real person, which to us she is

Let’s not talk about where we grew up

or places we’ve lived

Let’s not talk about whether we drink or not

socially or not

or whether we smoke pot

Let’s not talk about our cars

or the internet

or the media

Let’s not talk about dogs or cats

Mac or PC


or what kind of teenagers we were

No questions

just maybe some music—

a piano in the corner of a bar in Paris

playing As Time Goes By


Monday, December 18, 2023

Green Arrow Speaks

This short story appeared originally at ENTROPY in January 2017. ENTROPY is no longer with us. I hope you enjoy!

The comics

They got it all wrong. The old ones depicted me as this always smiling happy-go-fucking-lucky masked crimefighter, shooting arrows with boxing gloves on the end. I mean, please. That just insults everyone's intelligence. Not to say I always just send an arrow into every crook's eye (though see below), and my desire to limit the violence used to the minimal necessary (mostly) did help inspire my more gimicky arrows. Like my glue arrows. I actually get great satisfaction sending a glue arrow into some punk's face. And, they can be handy when rescuing people from burning buildings, for example.

The worst characterization, or caricature, is the 'new improved' re-boot, featuring me as a rich man. Ha. As if everyone was like Bats. As if most rich people would even care about fighting crime. As if they weren't the cause of it in the big picture. And for the record, I never made a cent off those comics. What was I gonna do? Sue? And reveal my lower middle class identity? I only hope they served in some way to inspire people, to 'do good' I guess, though boxing glove arrows and compassionate rich people are just ridiculous.


Ok, I know what you're thinking, and yes, she's even more beautiful and intimidating in real life. I like her, totally respect her, though I've never been sure if she feels the same. That said, somebody from the Great Triumvirate voted me into the JLA, it had to at least be two out of three, and I'd put my bet on Bats and her. Bats because I'm a normal guy like him, with a common interest in gadgets, and Diana because she was actually an archer too. She doesn't use a bow now, but she trained with one back on Paradise Island. She told me once that they all the amazons do. I know, hot, right?

Anyway, the thing is, Diana's like 6'6” in those boots, which puts her breasts at about eye level for me, so every time I talk to her I'm like, 'Don't look. Don't look.' But the worst time I ever got busted was one night at the Hall of Justice. Everyone else was either gone or asleep, and I walked into the main room and there she was bending over the monitors, and there was that amazing glorious ass, just pure muscle, with those stars everywhere on her blue booty shorts. Like staring into the Universe.

And then she turned around and totally saw me. I've rarely seen her that angry, at least at one of us good guys. She didn't talk to me outside of business for a long long time after that. I will say though, when it came business time, all was forgotten, and we worked as a team, all of us, and there are few people I'd rather have next to me when fighting armored blue apes from space. I did redeem myself soon after though when the Legion of Doom attacked New York. Scarecrow had her paralyzed with some nightmare (what could Amazons be afraid of?) and I sent an arrow through his bag-mask. Never was sure if I got his eye or not. Poison Ivy dragged him off with one of her vines. Anyway, when Diana recovered, she thanked me, though I've since gone on to piss her off many times. But at least she knows I've got her bare Amazon back.


I like Bats, I really do. He's just so annoyable. The guy just doesn't have a sense of humor at all. Except like, one time, he hid my arrows, and thought that was hilarious. Went around bragging to everyone. Still does. And I guarantee he snooped around and took bat-pics of all my toys. But would he ever let me check out his bat-utility belt? No. And the times I've been in the Bat Cave, just dying to poke around at all the cool shit there, not once does he ever leave me alone. Even when I ask, like, 'Hey Bats, can I check out your grappling hook?' he'd just say, 'Maybe later.' And then we'd have to leave to go fight the League of Assassins or something.

But yeah, 'Bats.' He hated that. I could never call him Bruce. Only Diana and Sups could really get away with that.

We had a rivalry, sure. But I think we also had a bond. I mean, we were really the only two non-gods in the JLA. I heard rumors, never confirmed, that he almost opted out of joining. I mean, there's a difference between beating up muggers, or even Joker and his pyscho flunkies, and being teleported to another planet, or dimension, and almost getting turned into a tree by a magician demon from the future.

But I'll give him this: he's a smart mo fo. Not just at designing gadgets, but at all kinds of technology. I mean, all the computers and security systems for both the Hall of Justice and the JLA space station, he basically designed all that. And paid for it. Which gets a little into my ultimate misgivings about Bats: He's an arms dealer. Ok, defense contractor, if you want to call it that, but Wayne Industries made its fortune primarily on weapons technologies, and I'm not sure a little philanthropy can really wash all that away. Of course, Bats has saved the world a couple dozen times. So I'm willing to overlook his access to any bit of info about anybody, including the secret email you use for porn. He even set up a wifi connection for Aquaman down in Atlantis somehow.

The one thing I can't decide about Bats is if his no-killing policy is always viable. Case in point: The Joker. There are just so many times you can lock that motherfucker up in Arkham Asylum, and he breaks out again and kills someone else, before you start to think true justice might just be an arrow in the eye. I don't think I'd have that careful of a policy if I was up against him in a dark alley, and sometimes I wish someone in Gotham City with a little less morals, like Catwoman, would help Bats out. By the way, Catwoman and Batman? Totally a thing.


Ok, you want to hear my theory? Supes is gay. Not in a South Park insult kind of way, not in the sense of, 'Dude, Superman is so gay.' No, I mean, he really is gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I just don't think anyone should live in denial about their sexuality. I mean, ok, I have a hosiery fetish, I'll just put that out there. But Supes—here's my argument: One, Diana. I've had this conversation with about every member of the JLA, current and former, at some point: 'Are Clark and Diana a thing?' 'No, they're not.' 'Really?' 'Really.' Diana's the one woman who could really handle him. Everyone knows that, including them. And they like each other. I'd swear she'd go for it if he'd just make a move, but no. It just doesn't make sense: Lois Lane? Sure she's pretty, in a nerdy boring kind of way, but if Supes ever had sex with her, I mean real sex, fucking, he'd tear her apart. Diana's the only woman who could take a super-fucking. Ok, maybe Power Girl, but that just proves my point, Supes never banged her either, though I think he always considered PG as a kind of a surrogate daughter, but that too seems to prove my point. Have you seen PG's rack? How could anyone think innocent thoughts after seeing that? (I'm kidding, mostly, and I was as sad as anyone when she died.)

Exhibit B on the Supes/gay thing is Bats. I know, you're going to say they are just really good friends. Maybe. Me, I think Supes loves Bats, but could never say how he really feels. I mean, that would just mess up everything, the bond of trust they have. Not that Bats is a homophobe, not at all, but he's definitely got trust issues, and doesn't have that many friends. Hell, he'd say he doesn't have any, doesn't need any, but I'd argue he desperately needs Supes and Diana. Bats is the loneliest guy I know. So, Supes coming out would mean Bats losing a friend. I know that's fucked up to say, and they would still work together, but it would just be weird.

Black Canary

I loved Dinah madly. More than I even knew at the time. I blew it. I was a dick. I didn't treat her well. God, those fishnet tights. I was a goner the first time I saw them. And then her lovely smile. Truth is, I think I thought I didn't deserve her. She was kind of one of the gods. Not like Sups or Diana exactly, but her canary cry could immobilize a mob the size of a city block. Also the competition. I mean, talk about performance anxiety. How was I supposed to feel with all those super-dudes around? I'm not strong. Not smart. Not rich. Not exotically from another planet. I know, I know. Later, after, I was telling all this to Shayera Hol—Hawkgirl—of all people, and she said that, of a League of maybe twenty super-dude members, Dinah chose me. That should have made me proud. Instead, I let doubt ruin everything.

I also couldn't communicate. One night, not that this was unique, Dinah and I were doing it, fucking, making love (I hate that term!) and I was fantasizing about someone else. I mean, I had fucking Black Canary, one of the hottest babes around, right there, and yet I had my eyes closed imagining....I don't know, fucking Poison Ivy, or Diana even, and Dinah stopped and made me look at her and said, 'You're not here, are you?' She totally knew. I mean, I don't think fantasizing is bad, nor that we can choose our fantasies, nor that any one person can be everything to another person, and in fact I think exploring fantasies with another person is healthy, but Dinah and I never talked about our interests with each other. That's what you never see in comic books, or in real life, really: People communicating at that intimate a level. But, that said, I don't know. Maybe Dinah was perfectly fine with how things were, how our sex life was. So if I'd tried to talk about fantasies, especially people we worked with, that might have just hurt her—which is why I never said anything. But then again, if I'd actually said something, and she'd said she had fantasies too, would I have been able to handle that? I mean, would I have been happy if she said she had thoughts about Atom, or Elongated Man, or Bats? Because, I mean, I think all women kinda have a thing for Batman. Even Batwoman, who's supposedly a lesbian and married her partner and everything. So could I handle all that? Probably not. Which isn't fair, I know. Which is why she left. I guess. I don't know. With sex, sometimes total communication just doesn't seem the best thing.

But what she told me was that I never took her seriously. And, I guess there's some truth to that. I mean, I never thought she'd end up as Chair of the JLA, involving both a kind of Incident Commander position and being in charge of finances. I just never thought she'd be interested in that. Meaning, I never saw her as a leader, period. In my defense, I never doubted Diana's power to lead, so please don't say I was a total chauvinist pig. But, I guess Dinah's real complaint is, again, about communication, that I just never talked with her about her goals, her dreams. Never occurred to me that she had any. I didn't. I'd achieved all mine. And then I lost them.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

I Was A Beach Bum in Mallorca

This essay appeared originally at COLDNOON, an online literary journal about international travel, in March 2017. COLDNOON is no longer with us. Please enjoy here!

I was only going to stay in Mallorca a week. Swim in the ocean, lay in the sand, look at beautiful european women in bikinis. I'm not really a beach person though, so expected to get bored pretty quick and just want to get back to Barcelona, or somewhere else Spain. Nor am I a Spring Breaker, so my first two days kind of horrified me: Mallorca is the equivalent of Fort Lauderdale, where hordes of young Europeans, mostly Germans, descend for a week or two of binge drinking on the 10K stretch of beach and hotels called the 'Platja,' east of Palma. Mostly young men, or else they're just the most visible, roving around in groups, carrying kegs and boomboxes (which I didn't even know existed anymore) cranking Ramstein and appearing scarily like Hitler Youth in their matching t-shirts and shaved heads. I'm not exaggerating: on my first morning run I happened to pass a group of them yelling at an older (ha, ok, my age) mixed-race couple, and I learned enough German in high school to know they were asking/accusing the (white) guy what he was doing with a black girlfriend. Either he was very stoic and patient, and/or didn't understand German, since he didn't react. I myself wanted to punch them in their Aryan faces. Anyways, the stormtroopers-in-training tended to congregate down at the east end of the Platja, so I could mostly avoid them.

I also don't like rich people, and the island of Mallorca and its capitol, Palma, are main vacation points for the superrich, about a seven hour ferry ride south of Barcelona, part of the Balneares Islands, collectively one of Spain's 'states'. Palma has a crescent-shaped bay facing south, creating an ideal harbor, hosting dozens, if not hundreds of yachts bigger than my whole apartment building back in Michigan, with many high-end hotels nearby, along with casinos and chi-chi bars and nightclubs. Fortunately, I couldn't afford any of that, so avoided los ricos as well. Notably, there were no other Americans on Mallorca, or I never met any. Which was nice.

This was midway through a two month vacation to supposedly just Barcelona, a treat to myself for my first year teaching full-time, which had had its ups and downs. My students were great, but the administration and my fellow faculty weren't exactly on great terms, and neither was my department the model of sanity. I felt I'd been plopped down in the middle of a three-way Hatfields and McCoys feud, and in the meantime, as a contract employee, I was having to writing the equivalent of a master's degree for my 'teaching portfolio,' every year, for three years, and being on three different committees, and two different departments, and suddenly having to teach five classes a semester (!), in composition, requiring the reading of a lot of student essays. All that plus trying to run and host a monthly poetry open mic in town, and find time for my own writing. So I'd been feeling a little slammed.

Barcelona, while starting out awesome, had turned not so. My plan had been to just hang out in the city and do a lot of running, and writing in cool European cafes, and reading all the cool Spanish writers like Enrique Vila-Matas in the original Spanish, and seeing actually good (because European) movies, and I'd even lucked out in my first week in arriving right during the Barcelona Poetry Festival, with multiple free poetry readings in spanish and english (Gary Snyder!) happening every day. I found the place I'd hoped to stay the whole time through a widower renting out rooms in her apartment to travelers. I was not the only one, there were three rooms, and she seemed to just make her living at it. At first, she seemed nice, even helping me track down lost luggage, and the first couple of weeks were ok, but things got weird: I came back for a siesta one day, which I did often, so she knew I'd be back. And, I found her walking around cleaning the apartment in just her underwear. I tried to be polite as I could, but after, I guess, I'd rejected her, nothing I did seemed to make her happy, to the point where she was accusing me of stealing her food. By then, tourist season in Barcelona was in full swing, and finding another long-term place to stay was just impossible. Suddenly, I was looking at spending a lot of time just jumping from loud hostel to loud hostel, and spending way more money than I'd planned. So, I decided to Escape From Barcelona and take the ferry to Mallorca. Taking the plane is actually cheaper, and faster, but I liked the idea of being out on the water. And pulling out of the Barcelona harbor at midnight in a rainstorm ended up being the most memorable moments of my trip—of my life—just me out on deck, wind blowing me sideways, mountains in clouds and city lit up fuzzy, the ship groaning and vibrating, feeling relief, defeat, sadness, exultation, fear of the unknown, exhaustion, and the cold seeping into my bones. I shivered there until the lights faded on the horizon.

I thought with the festive Spring Breakish atmosphere that the nightlife might at least include some cool live música at any of the many bars along along the beach, like flamenco, or Spanish rock, or anything, really. Barcelona had been filled with various and sundry clubs hidden in back alleys featuring eclectic music. I almost gave up though. At night, the youth vanished (maybe into Palma?) and the really older folks just strolled around or hung out in the bigger corporate hotel bars, with guys playing Casio keyboards singing horrible versions of horrible Julio Iglesias songs. And yet, people actually danced to it! Surely there must be something better.

And, on my second night, walking west along the 'Rambla,' the boardwalk paralleling the beach, I stumbled on two guitarists playing and singing in a small place called the Tattoo Bar, which, like many of the shops there, and because of the warm weather, opened to the sidewalk. One of the musicians reminded me of myself, strangely, with long hair in a ponytail, and more than a little grey showing. He sang in Spanish, so I couldn't understand everything, but had a great voice. I sat down and listened, along with a small group of other tourists, and a few locals. After a couple of songs, he looked at me and held out his guitarra. “You look like a musician. Quieres tocar? Do you want to play?”

Wow. But hell yeah. I've been a musician all my life, from playing electric bass in metal bands back in my twenties, to playing and singing at open mics, even begun busking the streets of Ann Arbor in the last few years, so not unfamiliar with just getting up and playing for a crowd. And no musician ever says no to an invitation to play!

The set up was minimal: Just one small amplifier with two inputs, one for an acoustic/electric guitar, and one for the microphone. I sang songs I thought Europeans might have actually heard of: a couple Beatles tunes, plus “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. Which everyone likes—I think because, in addition to having an actual real musician and singer, there was the added bonus of me being an exotic English speaker.

Turns out that the two guys singing were the owner, Lucas, and his son. The bar was fairly new, and that was the first night Lucas was trying out having live music as a way to attract customers. He got behind the bar to serve drinks, and after every song kept saying, “Otra John! Otra!” feeding me glasses of wine. I ended up playing all night, all the songs I knew, shredding my fingers. When I finally said basta, enough, at around midnight, Lucas told me I can play there every night for as long as I was staying.

So wow. I'd kinda found my ideal situation: Run, swim, write, read, eat, then play music and sing all night, in a place I can mostly walk around barefoot all the time. And did I mention the women in bikinis? I changed my return ferry ticket and make arrangements with the hotel to stay for the rest of my time in Spain.

In the afternoons I took the bus into Palma and explore, finding the awesome and air-conditioned Literanta bookstore, with its own little café. The movie theatre CineCiutat showed independent and foreign films. Plus I just liked wandering, getting lost, and people-watching, which Palma is perfect for. The downtown is like a lot of older European cities, a sort of maze-like centro of streets that would qualify as alleys in America, which are actually practical, because shady on hot days, though as the city spreads out the streets widen and the architecture just becomes bland apartments buildings where, one assumes, all the people who serve the superrich and the drunk tourists live. The buildings downtown tend to have the 'Mediterranean look,' white stucco walls and red clay tile roofs, looking more like Marseilles than Barcelona. And, like all European cities, people actually walk everywhere. Tourists, locals, everyone out and about.

Things got even better: Lucas hired Jerry, this South African guitar player to come in on weekends. A big guy with dark skin and long dreadlocks, he made a living as a musician with his own band and, he said, backing up bigger acts when they tour Europe. He looked a little doubtful when Lucas introduced us and suggested we play together, but as soon as he saw I could play and sing, we hit it off. He had a good ear, so could play along with songs I knew, though mostly we played and sang his repertoire of classic rock songs, many of which I knew, my favorite being Dire Straits' “Sultans of Swing,” the solo for which he played note for note. I never did figure out how he ended up in Mallorca, but how does anybody end up anywhere? He was a great singer, and could change his voice for the song. People loved his gravelly Fats Domino version of “Blueberry Hill.”

Although most of the young tourists seemed to be German, a sizeable group of older tourists came from other countries, especially Norway and Sweden. They too frolicked on the beach, but were more likely to be out taking evening strolls, and to stop in the beach bars for drinks. Seeing what 'classic' rock/pop songs they knew was interesting: The big British bands were familiar, like those already mentioned, plus The Kinks and Pink Floyd (at least “Wish You Were Here”). They knew older American stuff like Elvis and Motown, and some Bob Dylan (my specialty). Surprisingly, they knew The Eagles, especially “Hotel California” and “Desperado,” though not “Take It Easy.” Who knows why? Bruce Springsteen not so much either, though two Swedish women recognized, like just barely, “I'm On Fire” when I sang it. But singer-songwriters like Townes Van Zant and Jerry Jeff Walker? Not at all, nor even seemingly Johnny Cash, and Jerry actually thought of me as a country music singer (!) because I played that stuff. I should've bought a cowboy hat.

My second week there, this guy Christian, from Russia, appeared randomly, like I had, just happening to be staying at a nearby hotel and walking by one evening. He could barely hold a conversation in English but knew dozens, if not hundreds, of old American gospel blues songs, and if you weren't looking at him when he sang, you would swear you were listening to an old black man. In fact, he said he made his living back in Moscow in a blues band (!) and had lived in Chicago for three years while working for a Russian company, taking lessons from old blues guys the whole time. He was only there a couple nights but, like me, playing music became the highlight of his vacation. He didn't know any popular songs, so I mainly just followed along with what he did, though he also played a mean harp, and sometimes soloed on the bluesier stuff I knew, including, most magically one night, my version of Johnny Cash's version of Tom Waits' “Down There By The Train.”

There was also Omar, from Nigeria (I think) who always dressed in a traditional long colorful robe and a matching cap. I'm pretty sure he was living there illegally, undocumented, and claimed he'd traveled the world busking, which I'd seen him doing in Palma my first day. When he heard that Lucas was looking for musicians, he came down and Lucas agreed to him playing on a Thursday. Omar played guitar and this weird African instrument that I never learned the name of, about the size of a mandolin, but with seven strings and a unique tuning arrangement. He didn't use the mic or amplifier, just sang original, political, songs, like one which is kind of a litany of sentences in different languages saying something like, 'What do we want? Freedom! Qué queremos? Libertad! Que voulons-nous? Liberté!'

The customers, what few there are, seemed to like him, but Lucas was not amused. After not even a half set, he signaled Omar to stop, and they had a 'discussion' that got a wee bit heated. Omar left, angry, and Lucas asked me to sing for the rest of the night. Which I was glad to do, though felt a little guilty. Days later I ran into Omar on the bus into Palma. He remembered me and smiled. “Hola chico! Cómo estàs?!” I asked him what happened and he said Lucas promised him money and refused to pay. Because he traveled all the way out to la Platja, he'd lost money that night, when he could have been busking in town. Which sounded unfair to me. I mean, what did Lucas expect Omar to play? But who knows? Omar speaks Spanish about as well as he speaks English, so I think it might have been a kind of a miscommunication?

Jerry arranged for his hot French girlfriend to play a couple weekends while he and his band played gigs over in Andratx, where, apparently, all the English summer-breakers go (the British, according to Lucas, are supposedly worse than the Germans, if that can be believed, “raping and stabbing each other”). She also played guitar and sang but just wasn't as good as Jerry, though did have a great bass player, Jimi. She had great voice, and seemed to be trying to learn Jerry's repertoire, but didn't speak, or pronounce, English very well. I guess she felt that to be popular (like, 'make it') she had to sing in English, but she never sounded exactly right. I asked her to sing something in French one time, and she did, and it sounded awesome. I like dher, and would've liked jamming casually with her, and in fact she did invite me to join in on some songs, like the seemingly ubiquitous “Hotel California,” though I felt weird just standing there singing along, like she was using my English-speaking ability to cover for her. I think Lucas wasn't too excited about her either, and disappointed that Jerry has bailed on him. The crowd seemed less excited about her too, though Jerry had such a likeability factor about him that I don't think many people, including me, could compare.

Lucas and his employees, all of them South Americans, loved me, and Lucas kind of took me under his wing, at least at first, even inviting me out for a run one morning, showing me a locals' swimming spot. I never did understand if he and the rest were actual residents of Spain or not, or how that worked, though he and his family went back to Argentina every winter, during the off-season. They'd been in Mallorca years though—the bar used to be a tourist trinket shop (of which there were plenty). He shared a little bit of the history of the area, like that when the bigger corporate hotels moved in, the fact that they offered 'everything included' packages (meaning meals in their own restaurants, and their own bars) sucked a lot of business away from the smaller local businesses. So, in fact, starting a bar seems actually kind of risky to me, but also something Lucas had always wanted to do, and he'd decorated it with trinkets and memorabilia from the small beach town where he grew up in Argentina.

People could also actually get tattoos at The Tattoo Bar, from an uruguayan artist named Nelson, after Nelson Mandela. He had his own tattoo shop farther down the beach, where he worked during the day. The Tattoo Bar had a better location at night, where he enticed passing drunk people to memorialize their vacation, and gave Lucas a cut. I asked Nelson if he had any time to enjoy life on Mallorca, but no, doing tattoos all the time was how he makes his living and, like seemingly everyone, he went back to South America in the off-season (though did tattoos there too). He offered to give me a tattoo at a discount, like forty euros (fifty to sixty dollars), a good deal, so I had him do a black cat on my right bicep. I got it with a week still left in my vacation, just in case he had to touch it up or something, which unfortunately meant I couldn't go swimming for the rest of my stay. Something about salt water not being good for the new ink.

Todo bien, but towards the end, I was ready to go: Lucas also had a falling out with Jerry over money. I'm not sure of the details, but it again seemed that Lucas was backing out of an agreement to pay, and I again felt a little culpable, because he seemed to be depending on me as a fallback, to whom he only had to give free drinks. Which I'd been happy to do, but he even started being stingy about that, which makes me feel like, really? You were paying Jerry and now you're trying to make me feel guilty about a couple gin and tonics? But, I didn't make a fuss, though neither did I feel as obligated to play, and spent some of my last nights in Palma, including an amazing open mic at the Palma Jazz Club, playing bass. It was actually the opposite of most open mics in the US, in that 1. I was the oldest person there, 2. bass solos were encouraged, and 3. young non-musicians, including women, actually came to listen. Also, they didn't play blues, but rather a kind of 70s funk, though when they found out I could sing (in English! Mejor!) we did some Jimi Hendrix.

I did play at the Tattoo Bar on my last night though. It was a Tuesday, not a lot of people, but I played and sang the best I could, working up a sweat, though I stopped early. We took photos, and Lucas and Nelson and everyone shook my hand and hugged me. I was sad. Part of me thinking, Why couldn't I just do this? Just sing in a beach bar, instead of going back to Michigan? But, it wouldn't be enough to live on and, well, the job back in Michigan did fund the trip. Who knows though, if I'd met some cool Spanish woman, and I'm sure they exist, maybe that would've been enough to stay. Sigh. The whole experience, though, surely made me think about the idea of doing what you can do as a job versus doing what you love.

I got back on the ferry the next day at noon, and leaned on the rail as the ship pulled away and paralleled the coast for a while, meditating on the hills and forest I never even got around to exploring, plus small quiet coastal villages, until heading, finally, out to open water, Mallorca getting smaller and smaller.


Saturday, December 16, 2023

Billy Sheehan: Greatest Bass Player in the World

This essay appeared at ENTROPY in May 2017. ENTROPY is no longer with us, so I'm moving all my writing from there to here. I hope you enjoy!


In the middle of his live solo “7718(3A17)” on the Talas album Live Speed On Ice, after some tapping and scale-running pyrotechnics, Billy Sheehan cuts the distortion and, still tapping but using chords and all four strings, creates the sound of a small brook in the woods—a real contrast and compliment to his other playing, and to me the best example of what all of his playing sounds like: water music. Even when holding down an eighth-note groove on one note, there's a fluidity, a sense of flow. This coming in large part from his playing technique, rather than amplifier sound, distorted or not, but also, somehow, the overall way he thinks about music.

Sheehan was initially known as 'the Eddie Van Halen of the bass,' and to understand that you'd have to know who Eddie Van Halen was and what he did: as the guitar player for the super group Van Halen, he was innovator of what's called 'tapping'—bringing the right hand over to the fretboard and 'tapping' a finger (or two) which on an amplified guitar ring just as loud as plucked notes, though without the slight percussive pluck. In addition, once you tap, you can, and usually do, 'pull off'—in effect sort of plucking the string with the tapping finger to sound a note fingered with the left hand farther down. Using both hands, Van Halen would (and still does) tap out combinations of unusual, and unusual-sounding, patterns. Nowadays, tapping is a fairly standard part of any rock or metal guitarist's repertoire (even in jazz: Stanley Jordan plays exclusively tapping, chords and solos) but back then, late 70s, when Eddie Van Halen came out with his solo “Eruption” on their first album, the reaction, at least from guitar players, was a little like that of Crispin Glover's 1950s character McFly from the first Back To The Future movie, when Michael J. Fox puts the Walkman earphones on while he's sleeping, and plays another Eddie Van Halen solo: shock and awe awakening to sounds thereunto inconceivable.

Which is how people (mostly I mean other bass players, though other musicians and fans, too) reacted when they heard and saw Billy Sheehan. Sheehan, a huge fan of the group Van Halen, took the unusual step to emulate Eddie Van Halen, on the bass. Seems somewhat plausible now that there are thousands of Billy Sheehan emulators out there (including me) but that was a huge step, a huge innovation: up until then, bass solos during rock songs were rare. A bassist soloing sans band was unheard of. As my first bass teacher (who was a guitar player) told me long ago, guitar players don't like bass players getting up above the twelfth fret: “That's guitar territory.” That's still how most guitar players think today.

Sheehan is self-taught, and so developed an odd playing style. Most bass players who play with their fingers—that is, 'pluck' the strings with (usually, unless you're Paul McCartney) the right hand—use the pointing and middle fingers. Sheehan uses the ring finger as well, running scales and doing fills with it and the pointer. The reason, he said in an appearance in a music store in Detroit one time, is because those two fingers are the same length, so it made sense to him to use them instead of bending the hand at the wrist like when using the middle finger. But, oddly, when he's pumping out a steady thumb-thump-thump bass line, riding the root note, he uses all three, so that in a rhythm that tends to have an even number of eighth or sixteenth notes per measure, he's playing notes in groups of three, which boggles my mind a little (and I've tried it) because that means starting the beginning of each measure with a different finger. I suspect this is partly where the fluid sound comes from. It also allows for really fast steady playing, though it's possible to get two fingers going pretty fast too (à la Steve Harris from Iron Maiden, one of my other heroes and influences).

Sheehan plays his bass unconventionally too. Most bass player pluck the strings either midway between the neck and the bridge, or towards the bridge, and most basses have pickups positioned in those two spots (or, as in the case of the Fender Precision and others, just one pickup in the middle.) Sheehan though tends to play right up by the neck, where the strings are looser and give a thicker sound. Playing there is so important to him that he modifies all his basses, putting the second pickup there, requiring a lot of drilling and rewiring. He plays there for his 'rhythm' bass parts, switching to the middle pickup for solos. He also runs two separate outputs from his bass—two different jacks and two different cords—instead of switching between pickups with a switch (like most two-pickup basses are designed) and actually runs each pickup to a different amplifiers, at the same time.

Sheehan likes a distorted sound, just like a rock guitar player—distortion adding sustain (to hold notes longer) as well as a grungy rock sound. The problem with distorting a bass (and I've tried it, using a distortion pedal) is that the bottom drops out—you lose the power, the thump, the percussive sound that's key to bass, and the overall sound of a band. This is why (again, another innovation) Sheehan uses two different amplifiers and runs them in parallel—one distorted, the other 'clean,' so he can have the thump and the sustain at the same time, so that, even, and especially, on regular songs (where he's in traditional support and non-solo-y mode) his bass sounds legato, smooth, versus staccato (like say especially bass players who play with a pick). It's still bass-y and powerful, though tending to be more mid-range-y than most, and there's still a thump feel, but it can sound more like a low drone than a series of thumps. When he does a solo, just by himself, not with a band or in a song, he'll switch between the two amplifiers, just distortion for the pyrotechnic Van Halen stuff, but sometimes switching the clean sound.

Developing his sound and style took Sheehan years to develop, lots of practicing by himself, learning songs, and lots of playing live in bands. And that was possible because back then, musicians in the 70s and early 80s could actually make a living in cover bands—those were the last days of live music being common in all the small clubs and bars all over America, before DJs took over and people could just dance to the original recordings of songs. More than once Sheehan has said in interviews that he played live, all the time. Once 21 nights in a row! At four 50-minute sets a night, that's a lot of playing, a lot of time to experiment and learn. Sheehan bragged, and I believe him, that he knows every rock song from the 60s and 70s, and that his favorite thing to do in cover bands was to play 'Stump The Band': getting an audience member to call out songs, and if they couldn't play it, they'd buy that person a beer. But usually someone in the band knew the song, which was enough—with good musicians—for the rest of the band to fake their way through. Sheehan kept this tradition, sort of, much later in Mr. Big. In fact, when Sheehan formed Mr. Big, he specifically picked musicians that had all been in cover bands and played 'in the trenches,' honing their chops on rock classics. At the end of the night, for the encore, someone in the band would choose a cover song and, unrehearsed, the rest of the band would join in. I saw them do this twice: One night they ended with “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas, vocals spot-on and everything, and another night they did The Who's “Baba O'Reiley”—Paul Gilbert played the keyboard part on the guitar. Fricking awesome.

If Sheehan has a weakness, it's one shared by many rock virtuoso musicians: he isn't that great of a songwriter. The Talas songs are ok, but they're not Van Halen. Their best song, “The Farandole,” a classical-influenced, medieval dance kind of thing (only metal) is an instrumental, and most rock fans just don't really care for instrumentals. Musicians do, and that's the thing: Talas, in good part because of Sheehan, was more of a musicians' band. But regular folks want something to sing along to. This would be the problem for Sheehan his whole career: his best playing (and the favorites of other musicians) has always been on instrumental songs, while his most popular playing (not that people knew who he was necessarily, but the songs and bands were known) was as a more traditional supportive bassist for David Lee Roth and in Mr. Big.

Because yes, when singer David Lee Roth quit/was kicked out of Van Halen, the first person he called to be part of his solo supergroup was Sheehan. Sheehan said in that appearance in Detroit that back then he only would have left Talas for Van Halen, but when David Lee Roth called, well, “Close enough.”And, although leaving Talas had to have been a tough decision for Sheehan—it was his baby, he was the band leader—that decision changed his life, both in his popularity and, in the long run, as a bass player. If he'd stayed in Talas, he only ever would have been known as the Eddie Van Halen of bass and probably never achieved rock stardom and international fame. The David Lee Roth band was exactly what he needed, with a guitarist more amazing even than Eddie Van Halen (blaspheme!) in Steve Vai, who could write guitar-oriented rock songs (though Vai too always had problems in writing accessible-to-public songs). And with a charismatic front man who could write great rock lyrics (although, to be fair, about half the songs on that first album are covers, including “Shy Boy” actually written by Sheehan himself). I saw them on that first tour—headlining stadiums, a first for Sheehan—and they were amazing. Roth, say what you will about him and his lifestyle, was at that time maybe the best rock performer in the world. Not because he had a great voice, but because he was funny, flamboyant, sexy, and could keep a crowd of 15,000 on its feet all night and having fun, without any big stage effects.

Did it last? Nah. Sheehan was diplomatic on why: “Musical differences.” Which is ridiculous, because Van Halen was what he aspired to his whole life. No, I can speculate though: Despite both of their reputations, neither Vai nor Sheehan was ever allowed to do any long extended solos with Roth: It was Roth's show. I think Sheehan was used to being in charge, and being in a band of equals, but I think that was a great lesson, and opportunity for him: He learned how to be a good sideman, and develop himself, and show himself as a bass player in the more traditional role in a rock band. He could lay down a groove, play pumping rock and also old-school covers like “Tobacco Road,” and, if needed, come in and do a tapping harmony with Vai real quick (many people/musicians didn't realize it was both of them—they assumed Vai was using some kind of effect to duplicate notes an octave or two lower!). This was where Sheehan shifted from being just the Eddie Van Halen of bass to being a really good bass player, overall, modeling for me and others that being well-rounded counts more in the long run than being an expert at any one thing.

My favorite playing by Sheehan is on an album most people have never heard of: Edge of Insanity, by a guitarist most people have never heard of: Tony MacAlpine, who was, is, actually up there on par with Steve Vai or Paul Gilbert or any of the other great guitarists Sheehan has played with. MacAlpine was part of the Shrapnel Records phenomenon, a small indie label run by Mike Varney, who also featured up-and-coming virtuosos in a column in Guitar Magazine (where Sheehan appeared early on). The Shrapnel guitarists were part of the 'neo-classical' phenomenon of the 80s—guitar playing heavily influenced by classical music virtuosos, like Paganini—lots of notes. Again, mostly all instrumental, musicians' music mostly, though you might have heard of the biggest star to rise from that group, Yngwie J. Malmsteen.1

I don't know how he did it, but Varney got Steve Smith, the drummer from Journey, to play on that first MacAlpine album. A surprising though great choice. I think this was around the time when Journey basically broke up, losing most of its original members. Listening to Journey, although Smith does some tasteful stuff, you wouldn't expect what happens on Edge of Insanity, though he was also a fairly known jazz drummer. Here though, he's amazing, all over the place. Sheehan later said, and I agree, “It's Steve Smith's best playing ever.” It's MacAlpine's too: his later albums never achieved the energy, never had the combo of Sheehan/Smith backing him up.

The amazing thing is, Sheehan came in later, after Smith had recorded the drum parts. He didn't even bring amplifiers with him, just plugged direct into the sound board of the recording studio, and without much rehearsal (he said that MacAlpine was sitting next to him while recording, calling out the chord changes) he ends up sounding like he was there making eye-contact with Smith, because they sound tight, even doing fills together. The best song on the album, “Agrionia,” a mid-tempo riding-through-the desert-on-a-camel head-bob, with an eery, and airy, harmonized melody on the guitar(s) has the best part of the whole album when MacAlpine drops out and Smith and Sheehan go into...not quite a solo, but an interlude, grooving on the root note and doing snazzy fills together, before the MacAlpine comes in with a nice melodic solo that's almost a new melody.

Generally, when an artist I like does or believes in unpleasant things in his or her personal life, I can, like the song says, “keep'em separated,” and just like them for their art. Depends on the artist, and how assholey they actually act, of course. I still like Slayer and Bob Marley, but boycott Guns & Roses and Ted Nugent. Religious beliefs in particular though tend to make me uneasy, even without the asshole factor. Any musician—or sports figure—that gets too into christianity (especially to the point of thanking God for their success, rather than, say, themselves for putting all the practice in, or even their parents and friends)(you know, I'm not christian, but in the 'God helps those who help themselves' kind of idea) makes me roll my eyes and move on to someone else. I also have this problem with Billy Sheehan. It's not that he's an asshole (the opposite, he's about the nicest guy in rock) and it's not even christianity—it's that he belongs to a modern-day religion, which shall remain nameless here because they tend to sue and harass anyone who criticizes them, that has some odd beliefs, and odd mythology, which of course they believe to be factually true though, to be fair, most religions do (Mary was a virgin? Really?). Though the beliefs of this group are to my mind even more unbelievable, involving, like, aliens. And if it were just their beliefs, I might be able to handle it, but this group—again, like many religious organizations—seems to have some unethical ways of treating its members behind the scenes, especially children. I understand why Sheehan, and many other creative types, might want to belong to a 'church,' or group, or organization: it offers a sense of community. And, like most people in most churches, I don't think the members really care or think about the organization's inner beliefs and mythologies too much. Belonging to a place, like in Cheers, “where everybody knows your name,” is enough. Sheehan's 'church' though, offers something more to creatives, especially in the Los Angeles area where they have a lot of money and influence: a network, connections. They can get people gigs and auditions. Hard not to like, and be thankful to, a group that could help you that way. Is that entirely bad? All groups function that way, formally or informally. Allen Ginsberg was the one really responsible for getting William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac published.

But Sheehan had been such a great influence on me, on my bass playing, and he continues to be involved with other great projects—I just could not ignore him, uneasily deciding to ignore his supposed beliefs and just revel in his awesomeness as a bass player. So was excited to see him part of a new band, exploring a new direction in music, no guitar involved, just bass, drums and keyboards. All amazing players, and no sense of wanting to be commercially viable: they seemed a return to the 70s idea of jazz fusion: some rock influence, and a showing off of chops, with solos for bass and drums included in almost every song (Yes!) though also some funkiness and catchy riffs. Still, it was 'music for musicians,' and I found myself—now not an active musician—preferring to listen to other kinds of music, with actual lyrics. Also, an odd name for the group: Niacin? But oh: turns out niacin is considered a super supplement by this religious group of Sheehan's—all members apparently take mass quantities of it. Surprise: all the members of Niacin are members of that 'church.' So, oy, that just seemed a little too much. It felt like I was supporting a group of fundamentalist christian musicians. Or supporting their religious group itself. As William Shatner and Henry Rollins teamed up to say: I can't get behind that.

Mr. Big is, of course, where Sheehan finally gained success, and recognition, on his terms, with Top 40 hits (“Shine”) and world tours. The band is named after a Free song from the 70s, and I had hoped that their music would be a return to a 70s-style rock. But, they ended up being more of a 'hair metal' band, with cheezeball lyrics. Still, they had the chops, which put them way above, say, Poison or Warrant, and they were a band in which all four musicians contributing equally, no one musician dominating, not even Sheehan. Yes, there are some bass solos, but always in the context of songs, and always tasteful. Although I was never was the biggest Mr. Big fan, I was happy that Sheehan, and Gilbert, who I also liked in his other project, Racer X, were finally being given their due. They might even have been the last great (big)(stadium) rock band. And it was during this time that Sheehan started getting called The Greatest Bass Player In The World, by fans, musicians and critics.

Mr. Big has had its ups and downs, but last time I checked they were now, still, again, back together, as of 2017. There was some controversy thirteen years ago(ish) about Sheehan getting kicked out (of the band he founded!) due in part to his interest in other projects, including recording and touring with Steve Vai. Which is great pairing, though Vai seems to want to write accessible rock songs that contain positive, uplifting, new-agey kinds of messages, and, surprise, they are kind of forgettable. But, the instrumental songs they do—again and again, music for musicians that I keep thinking regular people might like—some of that is just amazing, like “Freak Show Excess,” which has both chops, intensity, odd time signatures (my personal favorite) and a wee bit of the Frank Zappa sense of humor (Vai was Zappa's guitarist for a while).

I'm not mentioning all the great little projects Sheehan has played on in the past two decades. Check out his website for a not-even complete list. Most recently Sheehan has joined forces with drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater, and guitarist/singer Richie Kotzen, another Shrapnel alum who has played with everyone, from Poison to Stanley Clarke (and plays without a pick! nice!) to form The Winery Dogs. They're a little more heavy than Mr. Big, and maybe what I'd hoped Mr. Big might be, with Kotzen's vocals Soundgarden-ish, though still a mix of both accessible rockish songs, and licks and riffs galore to please the musician prog-rock snobs (I can say that, I am one). The band toured all through 2016 supporting their second album, Hot Streak. But most recently Sheehan has gotten back together with Mr. Big for another album tour. A busy man.

My hope would be, since it seems to be the trend in publishing lately, that Sheehan will write (or have someone, ahem, ghost write) an autobiography, especially if it were a real tell-all involving his spiritual beliefs. I would find it fascinating, but I belong to those two subsets of weird people who play bass and read books. I also feel too, that we're approaching the point in pop/rock music where bands, and highly skilled musicians, don't seem to matter. Just like poets. But to me, musicians like Billy Sheehan are akin to sports stars somehow, that seeing them (and listening to them) is an inspiration to be....more human. To strive to good at something, everything, both in oneself, and with a group of like-minded people. And that those two things, those two ways of growing, inform, require, each other. In addition to learning from other bassists, he was learning Van Halen licks, and Bach keyboard parts, seeking outside what was expected of him by others, emulating and learning from extremely different artists, bringing what they did back to his own instrument to expand its, and his own, and our, possibilities.

Billy Sheehan's website:

1 As Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap said, the 'J' is to distinguish him from all the other Yngwie Malmsteens in the world.