A Revelatory Experience

People can tell you things over and over and over, but sometimes you have to see the results for yourself before you believe in them.

My daughter is going through this at the moment. She had to write an essay for an advanced English class, and she had me read it. It was great, and I told her this. “I hate it,” she said. Later, when her mother read it and said pretty much the same thing, she still said, “I hate it.”

I told her that she came by this self-critical nature honestly – that I can’t read any of my novels once they’re in print because I see things on every page that I would change if I could. The key, I said, is to step back outside of yourself and see your product for what it’s worth. I said, “I can sit at a book signing and tell people, ‘Yes, you should get this book because it’s funny and is about this advertising guy…’ – just don’t ask me to read the book myself.”

I think it might have sunk in.

Too bad I can’t follow my own advice.

Since playing that first gig at Muggswigz (and I still have trouble calling it a gig – to me, gigging is what real musicians do – and I don’t see myself as one), I’ve had a great deal of anxiety about ever doing it again. I was somehow convinced that, in spite of the fact that I was told I did all right, I was terrible and really didn’t belong on the stage. I was supposed to play again in October, and when it fell through because of family circumstances, I was relieved. In fact, I mentally wrote off ever performing live again. I could be a studio act, I thought. Andy Partridge has debilitating stagefright and he did okay keeping XTC off the road and in the studio.

Well, a friend of mine who is providing some content for an Internet radio station, has been bugging me for most of a year to do a half hour chat show. Yesterday I relented and sat down to chat about, so I thought, the trend toward independent artists in the music industry. But he said, “I want to talk to Joe Clifford Faust about writing and songwriting.”

Oh. Okay.

While he was setting up the studio, I picked up his guitar and started to noodle. He said, “That’ll be great, I’ll have you play a song at the end of the interview.”

Uh-oh. Me with a borrowed guitar again and no capo (luckily he had one) and no pick (I decided to use a strike-the-strings-with-the-nail-of-my-middle-finger technique that I’ve been experimenting with – especially since I can’t hang onto a regular pick). I also decided – rashly, I would think later – to play Red Riding Hood, a fairly new song with a quirky bit in the chorus.

Time came to play and I started in. The same slow motion phenomenon came over me again, and I had loads of time to rake the strings with my nail and sing, off center to the mike as instructed. There were a few clams, but I shouldn’t really admit to messing up, so I won’t, and I did hold back on part of the chorus because the odd bit needs to be loud and over the top, but I didn’t want to blow the levels on the recorder.

Finished, I thought, what a mess, what a mess…

Playback. Voices good during the interview. Levels up. No real need for any tweaking, other than editing the breaks to insert commercials.

Then the song. My nails dug into the chair’s upholstery. The guitar came in and I thought, who is that playing? It couldn’t have been me because… well, because it actually sounded good. One reason I hadn’t explored this style of playing is because I thought it would sound like a caterwaul, but it sounded almost like someone doing some subdued fingerpicking.

Then my voice came in and all delusions of adequacy vanished.

Seriously, my voice didn’t bother me as much. I figure if Bob Dylan and Tom Waits can have careers, I can at least stand up in a coffeehouse and make a case for my own songs.

What was amazing about all of this was that I had never really heard myself play before. Yes, I’ve recorded some demos of a couple of songs, but that’s different – sitting with the recorder on the bed, giving myself take after take after take until I had it right, then overdubbing layers of guitars and voices. That’s product.

What I was hearing was performance. And it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t 100 percent right-on-the-mark-nailed-down, either, but it was good enough that I felt this huge surge of self confidence – hey, I’m not as bad as I was convinced I was. I was so uplifted by this turn of events that when I got home, I frittered away the evening going through my repertoire of more familiar songs instead of working on the play. And now I’m seriously thinking about playing out again.

Yeah, I know. My wife and daughter and son all said I sounded good. As have some friends. As did the minister and his wife when I played Dirty Old Rabbit for them. But I didn’t believe any of them – not even the minister! I had to stubbornly, humanly, hear it for myself.

What an eye-opener.

The lesson here? Keep your own eyes open. You might finish a project and hate it, hate it, hate it… but most of the time we are our own worst critic. Let someone else have a look. If they have constructive criticism, take it gracefully and consider it. If they irrationally hate it, write it off and seek another opinion. If they love it, try to believe them.

By the way, the program, complete with the interview will air sometime on NQR Radio. Air times for the show, “It’s Your Business” are posted on the streaming page, but I have no idea when it will actually go into rotation. And I’ve never been able to successfully bring the browser-based stream up on any Mac.

All that remains now is to reconcile the question that my son asked me the other day:How come your music doesn’t sound anything like all the stuff you listen to? And that, my friends, is yet another post for another day.

Listening: Beck, “Pressure Zone” (via iTunes Music Sharing)

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