Sybarus in context

This is an edited extract from the prose work that will accompany the release of Dancing with Architects … It concerns ambition, intention and luck. Hopefully it will make some sense as it stands.

The opening to I, Sybarite is how every musician and artist wants their career to begin: to simply explode in the consciousness of the audience. No warning given, no real preparation possible. To just suddenly be. It’s a great contrast from the album’s opening track, Praxis. I’m guessing my rationale for putting Sybarite as track two was to confuse those who knew me and expected me to hit the ground at a full gallop and surprise those who didn’t know me from Adam. Continue reading

Crisis? What crisis?

This is piece I wrote just before my (ouch) 50th birthday. I just bumped into it again and thought it was worth a read.

‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I reasoned as a child. But when I became a man, I put aside childish things,’ so wrote St Paul in an email to the Corinthians. In a little-known coda, he carried on: ‘and when I reached middle age, I said to myself, what the hell were you thinking? And that’s when I reformed The Apostles.’ Continue reading

Small things

Something strange is currently happening. For some reason (I know not whether it’s PD related or not) the very tip of my left-hand index finger is now numb. It’s spreading very, very slowly. It’s very odd.

This is odd, but has strange ramifications.

I don’t teach the guitar any more. This is not because I can no longer teach, but because when I pick up the guitar in front of people, I get a little crestfallen. Every so often, however, I do give a bit of instruction.

On saturday, while waiting to perform yet another short innings, I gave the captain’s daughter a sort of masterclass. She was nervous, and played some barre chords quite shakily. Hey, I hate the things too, and they’re not a lot of use. I gave her a few hints and tips and then thought sod this. I took the guitar and played a couple of things. I couldn’t play a c major chord. My first finger wouldn’t play ball, because I couldn’t feel the string. Oops.

So I retuned the guitar, showed her how to make a glorious sound with minimum fuss and nonsense, and only a couple of fingers. When she finally realised how simple things could be, she simply took off. Rhythm on the money, notes great, lovely sound.

But it was her mother who really summed it up when she looked at me and smiled. The smile of someone watching their child happy.

Now that’s what teaching is about.

Whole lotta shakin’ … not going on

Time is a strange beast. Sometimes a straight line plummetting down into the depths, dragging us down as it goes, sometimes a great circle and we sit on the circumference watching our present, our past, and our future whizz by, just out of reach. Ok, maybe it’s a spiral. The fact is, that every so often we revisit our past. Past girlfriends, past places, past lives. We know that everything will be different, yet we still strangely expect it to be the same.

Yesterday I bumped into my past, my present and my future simultaneously. And it was strange. What made it particularly strange is that while said bumping was in occurrence, I noticed that the strangeness had been noted on facebook. ‘Waiting for Jedi’, read the status report.

I suppose I ought to explain. Yesterday, I popped out of the ‘office’ to visit a friend and old student. Make no mistake, this gentleman is a highly accomplished guitarist. Like me, he has trod the publishing boards, producing articles, columns and cds for various publications. Now, I don’t mind admitting that I was somewhat nervous. After all, when I was teaching him, I was uber-guitarist (rock), and my every note was hung upon by students such as he. I was worried that he would dazzle me into some humility – is that it? I’m unsure.

No. I wanted to be dazzled. And I wasn’t disappointed. While by his own admission a little rusty, he showed a maturity in his playing which was very impressive.

I was worried that he would think I sucked. That he would re-consider his opinion of me. That would hurt.

So, I’m explaining the parky’s and showing how frigid and rigid my left hand is (and yesterday, for some reason – tension? – it really was pitiful) and then picked up a guitar. Yes, I could barely string two notes together, but there were flashes of what my fingers could once do. I explained that so far as I can see, actions burnt into one’s muscle memory are less affected than those which require active nerve impulses. It’s the will which is denied by this disease. All the same, my fingers were less than impressive.

He fired up his amp, stuck on a backing track, and began to wail, as they say. I won’t lie, I was itching to have a go, but really rather scared at the possible outcome. After all, I have hardly picked up an electric guitar in the last ten years – I’ve probably spent as long playing an electric in that time as I used to spend in a day practising. And to add to that, I couldn’t remember the last time I played with an amplifier. It must be four or five years.

So. The track finishes. He hands me his guitar as naturally as can be, and I begin. It’s faltering at first, but my fingers begin to loosen up just a little, and every so often a nice little phrase pops out, or a burning little run flies from the speakers … in parts, it’s not bad.

He is very kind about my playing – overly so, but in some ways he’s right. There is some stuff still there. Some glimpses of what I used to be capable of.

But there is a caveat.

Every time I get to the end of a phrase – no matter whether it’s been any good or not – my fingers simply stop. Phrasing on a guitar is so dependent on that note, because it’s the pay-off … the note which you stamp with your personality. The note which you vibrato.

I discover something about vibrato. It doesn’t live in the muscle memory. It’s an instruction. You actively make the note sing.

I. Have. No. Vibrato.

This is shocking. Vibrato is one of the great leveller in guitaristic circles, and it’s one of the things parkinson’s has taken away. Ironic, really. A good, good friend said on hearing of my diagnosis that I ought to get a lap steel guitar, because ‘you’ll have the best vibrato’. The shaking palsy, however, seems to be preventing me from shaking notes. That, children, is the true definition of irony.

Now, I know that this disease, and the therapy which accompanies it, has changed me, in some ways quite fundamentally. As a guitarist, however, it has robbed me of my identity. Bastard.

Cartesian? Moi?

Well, it’s quite some time since I wrote anything much, and there are a bundle of reasons for this, some of which may or may not become apparent over the next whatever. Suffice to say it’s been an odd and frustrating summer.

It is strange just how much is in one’s head, when it comes to doing stuff, and also it is particularly, well, fucking annoying, actually, just how difficult it is to follow one’s own prescriptions. In the old days, when I taught guitar to people, some of whom are now proper good (and a few of whom are proper, proper good – I had little to do with these ones, I suspect, but hey …) I used to explain to them that during the time in which I was breaking down their old technique and replacing it with a shiny new one, they’d suck for a while, get really frustrated, and wish they’d never bothered. Persevere, I said (quite forcefully, as I’m sure some of them will happily agree). And well whadda-you know, I was absolutely right.

So after an off-season spent rebuilding my batting technique, I start to net really well, and enter the season expectant of runs in buckets. Naturally, the cricket gods were watching, and had obviously been to some of my classes back in the day. Why so? Because for the first ten matches or so, if I there was a 1 in 20 chance of getting out, I would. That’s what happens when you’re out of form. The edge carries, the run-out chance is a direct hit, the overbalancing leads to the ball hitting your big toe and cannoning onto the stumps, the third slip takes an astonishing catch, only to drop a dolly off his own bowling three overs later.

When things aren’t going your way, that’s the way it stays. And boy, did it stay. I had a short run mid-season, but that was it. My cause wasn’t helped by the fact that on taking up a rather more vigorous martial art, I dislocate my shoulder and, well, let’s just say things changed.

You see, what I used to tell my students is to relax, let it flow, just let it be. And I used to cheat to make it happen. I’d make them do something so daftly stupidly difficult for them, but really make them try, expecting them to succeed but knowing they’d fail … and when they went back to the original thing, they’d be so disgusted with themselves, or maybe angry, or maybe broken, that … well, it would flow. And once they’d heard it, felt it, caressed it the way it ought to be, that would be it. Barrier broken. Job done. Thank you and goodnight.

But no fucker does this for me, and try as I might, I couldn’t make it happen for myself. I once (sorry, Mayfield) got so annoyed after batting myself into the dodgy bowlers only to twat the ball straight up in the air that I put my fist through the pavilion wall. As the opposition captain observed … if only I batted like I punched …

The next, and final game everything changed. Why? Well, because of the parkinson’s (oh, and after two years … count ’em, two … I finally got the genetic results … more on that later) I simply can’t jab with my left hand, so when I spar there’s an awful lot of dancing about to be done … as I wait until I can actually do something. My defence is vulnerable, so I have had to adapt it. And finally I just relaxed and thought ‘fuck it, who cares’, and decided I was just not going to get hit. So to speak.

And lo and behold, before I know it, two has turned into ten ten into twenty … and then I’m being applauded. The opposition keeper has to point out it’s because I’ve just reached my fifty.

Now, this is all well and good, but your point, sir? Hmm … I’m sure I had one … oh yes. Tonight I’m rolling (that is, doing groundwork, wrestling … you know the sort of thing) when my opponent tries something, I try to prevent it, and ker-runch goes my other bloody shoulder.

You see, what I lost during the cricket season, and what I tried so hard to instil in my students, was that flexibility of though which allows you to take what the world gives you and simply absorb it. Roll with it, so to speak. That’s a lesson I finally remembered on that final sunday of the season. Sadly, my tendons and ligaments aren’t following suit. One of the effects of this delightful condition is a loss of the elasticity in said tendons and ligaments … an increased stiffness in the muscles … and when you’re working with a partner, and they say ‘loosen up’, you can only say ‘ain’t gonna happen’ so many times. ‘We’ll get it’, they say. ‘Er, no we won’t but don’t sweat it’, I reply. Eventually, I simply tell them.

The point, the point. Well, with parky’s (and no, I have neither the Parkin gene – so odd to have a gene for a kind of ginger bread thing – nor Lark 2) there are the obvious symptoms – the tremor and the parkinson’s shuffle. Sounds like a dance. And it is, because what’s beneath the surface is worse – joints seizing up, loss of fine motor control (hey, look, I have trouble wielding a fork, of course I’m not going to be playing the fucking guitar again), trouble swallowing … er, other stuff I have to look forward to.

Look to what’s underneath. Because that’s what make what you can see happen. So much of this life is in the head, and sometimes, a part of it fucks up, and that, too, affects the outside. My basal ganglia are giving up the ghost. The result is I fall, I get injured, I take longer to heal. My brain is mostly on the money, and then some. But it is communicating less and less well with my body. I am becoming Cartesian. Bugger.