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Random thoughts, settings, characters, situations, perhaps leading somewhere

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Snapsongs: “Texarkana” by REM

Sunday 6 April 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

It all begins with a bassline. In this case, it’s a solo ascending scale that drops back to E, but that’s merely part of the story. The real story is the reason that bassline is included here.

In my early life I was diagnosed with many talents; as a child I would regularly draw cartoons, write novels, build masterpieces and read anything not nailed down. I was going to be a carpenter, or an astronaut, or a fireman, or an astronomer, or a cartoonist, or a writer. And, of course, such is the case with just about every single child out there, past, present or future. Everyone has a budding genius for a son or daughter, and I was no exception. I only mention this to note that at no time was any musical talent discerned or encouraged in this list. If not tone deaf, I was definitely tone dumb, and I betrayed only the bare minimum of any rhythmic sense. Music was just not something I did. Of course, I wouldn’t be here writing these essays if I was tone deaf. On the contrary, since I couldn’t carry a tune I could at least carry a jambox to provide myself with the musical stimulation I craved. And, again, such a thing is not unusual. What is different is how this musical stimulation managed to beget a late-blooming talent at the end of my first college career.

May of 1992. It was a… difficult period. The long-distance relationship I’d nurtured for two years had finally succumbed to time and distance and collapsed into acrimony and recriminations five months previously. A combination of idealism, shyness, intellectual hermeticism and painful self-consciousness has always made my love affairs fraught with difficulty, and these tendencies were only reinforced by my pledge to save myself for a distant consummation. It might have been a little easier to deal with if I hadn’t stumbled onto a perfect subject for unrequited infatuation and obsession almost the same week my earlier girlfriend had finally dumped me — and at a wedding, no less. She’d been in my Economics class, she’d been idiosyncratically attractive. Our eyes had met during the service, and I was surprised to see her smile. During the reception she had come up to me and we’d spoken like long-lost siblings, even though we’d never really talked before. Could the omens have spoken any clearer?

But this particular youthful Sybil hadn’t gotten the message. For the next semester she flickered hither and thither through my life, disappearing then reappearing, to the point where I began to believe she was nothing more than a quantum sprite of my imagination. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what her intentions had been in seeking me out. Even correcting for my obvious hyperbolic tendencies, there still remains a sense of flight-and-return, of yea and then nay, and of a completely heedless manipulation of a confused soul. Did she mean any of it deliberately? I have done enough clueless things in my time to believe that she had nothing but the inadvertent cruelty of oblivious youth behind her actions. It didn’t make it hurt any less.

So… I was groping for solace and something to turn my mind to that didn’t involve other people and their mendacious behavior. Something that might yield to application and practice, and bring a sense of accomplishment and achievement over time. It was time for me to learn the bass guitar.

Yes, there was logic behind my decision. Back in high school, it was my habit to take long walks with the family dog with my Walkman tape player for company. I had a huge collection of copied tapes, and an arsenal of NiCd batteries that rotated in and out of the recharger to keep things playing smoothly. It came to me one late evening, as I was walking up a steep hill near my parent’s house on the way back from our walk, that what I was humming along with was not the guitar, not the keyboards, not the drums. It was the lower frequency instrument, one that I’d never really given much thought to. I was singing along with the bass. In the subsequent months this discovery bore itself out. Sometimes I would include a snippet of the main melody, sometimes I would jump to a lead break or solo progression, but mostly I was hearing and recognizing the bassline. This was a new and interesting thing to think about.

As with everyone who grew up in middle America, I knew several people who played guitar. It was pretty much a male rite of passage: save up and buy a cheap Korean Telecaster, noodle around on it until your parents got mad, leave it in the garage to collect dust, forget about it after college. I had never wanted to do any of that. I wasn’t a musician, I was (in high school) a cartoonist and a writer. I wanted a better computer, not a guitar. But the idea of me being a bass player… well, that was a horse of a different color. That was idiosyncratic enough that it snuck in under the radar…

Well, it was just a thought, and I really didn’t have the money, and I was busy. So it went for four or five years. I would occasionally mull the idea over momentarily, then think about something else. I would occasionally mention the idea in idle conversation, and then move on to something else. One of the things that made my long-distance girlfriend so attractive was that she played bass. I didn’t want to steal her thunder, so that was that.

Now I didn’t have a girlfriend, bass-playing or otherwise, and it was time. I gathered up my courage and headed down to where the music stores congregated, in the south part of downtown Austin. At my side was one of my friends, who was ecstatic about my decision. I was glad for his presence, in more ways than one.

I had announced my intentions a few days earlier, on a warm Friday evening while everyone in my social circle was hanging around the house that served as a dwelling for four of us and a meeting place for the rest of us. The reaction had been less than expected. In fact, it had actually been somewhat hostile. I was a little taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would have though this a bad idea, much less any of my friends. Later on, I came to a hesitant explanation, and with the intervening years I think I was pretty much correct: my foray into music was a direct threat to those people who had already staked their claims on their proficiency with a musical instrument. I was the writer of the group, what was I thinking in moving beyond my assigned role in the social order? Whether through naïvete, earnestness or cluelessness, I had never predicted any such reaction, and blundered my way through social constructs that most had thought were fixed. And, indeed, what I heard at that point in time was the first rumblings of a tectonic breakup that would move through our social circle in the coming years.

Except — and this was big — for one friend. He though it was the most awesome thing I had ever come up with. We had no bass players in the pack, why the hell not? We could even start a band! To be sure, there was some measure of vicarious living as he went with me to pick out a bass guitar — what guitarist wouldn’t like a bass in his stable as well? — but his enthusiasm was unfeigned. He went through the pros and cons of each instrument I tried, looked on protectively as the sales guys pitched their wares, noodled around with acoustic guitars when I went into practice rooms. And, finally, he grinned like a fool when I took the plunge and purchased a “’62 Blue” jazz bass knockoff.

Some words about my first bass. It was manufactured by Peavy, which is known more for their amplifiers than for their instruments, which gave me some initial skepticism about the guitar. That being said, it sounded good, and it felt right to my hands. The neck wasn’t as round as the Fender Jazz Bass it resembled, and the two banks of passive pickups were surprisingly hot. It was a little more expensive than an entry-level model, but I felt that the extra tone control the two pickups gave me would keep me from getting bored. What really sealed the deal, however, was the guy who sold me the bass. A year or so earlier, while noodling around on a guitar at a party, one of my friends had pointed out I was playing it left-handed. I was surprised, but that was how I had picked up the guitar, and that’s what felt the most natural to my hands. The other music stores had a standing $150 charge for a left-handed instrument. I asked the guy what he thought I should do. He looked at me squarely and said that I should go with what was most comfortable, because otherwise I wouldn’t practice. And then he said he could get me a lefty bass for no extra charge.

That was it. Done deal. I really wanted to play. I really wanted to learn. I didn’t want to buy it and never practice, for whatever rationalization that might occur to me. My friends’ negative reaction had inadvertently steeled my resolve: if they assumed I would fail, I would stack the deck as much as possible in the direction of success. So I handed over my Visa card and went home with a left-handed bass and a head full of determination.

I practiced a lot. I practiced a whole lot. I practiced so much that I probably drove my roommate nuts. The bulk of how I learned to play was through imitation. I would put on a CD and try to play along with it as much as possible. In the beginning it was hard, of course. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. And here again, my friend showed his true stripes. He showed me how to properly finger the frets, how to properly pluck the strings. He showed me how to tune the bass to itself through harmonic resonance. He transcribed some basslines into musical notation and gave me a notebook of staff paper. He played along with me on guitar. All of this I took in and made work, all except the sight-reading. To this day I still don’t know how to read music. Some of it is because I had a bit of the contrarian bent of the self-taught musician; some of it is because I never wanted to be a session musician, required to read a notation and immediately know what to do. Some of it is because I’m not a very intellectual bass player. That last might sound funny, given my other predilections, but it’s the easiest way to describe how I play. I play through feel, through pattern, through groove. Looking at rhythm notation I am less than useless at figuring out what the various flags and crosses mean, but syncopation comes like a reflex and the soul/funk dynamic sings to me like the music of the heavens. If someone transcribed the various basslines I’ve noodled out over the last twenty years, I’d recognize none of them on the page, but play the opening bars and my fingers will twitch in sympathy. Sometimes I’ve dabbled in heavy musical theory in order to compose a progression or a chord change, but it never sticks. Only the groove and the feel, and the knowledge of what best comes next.

And you learn that by listening, long and hard, to songs that make you groove. After all this ink spilled, after all this history related, we finally come to the song. “Texarkana” is off of the REM album Out of Time, which is something of a watershed album. For many it signaled the beginning of the end, a marker than the REM that everyone grew up on was now over. For me it was more of a wake-up call — I enjoyed the album, but it also made me realize I’d probably missed out not having listened to REM. I knew they existed, I vaguely knew some of their songs, but I’d never sought them out. So I went into the back catalog, and found a lot of great music. Truth be told, Out of Time is not a very good REM album, but the last five songs are very good REM songs.

“Texarkana” is one of them, and is one of the songs that my friend transcribed for me, in order for me to learn how the timing worked on the opening bassline. That didn’t happen, but I loved the song anyway. It opens with the bass, which is an excellent start, and it’s an easily recognizable riff that is just fast enough with the hammer-ons to require a proficiency beyond beginner. There’s syncopation and a veering between following the root chords and harmonizing off of them. It’s not a hard bass line, but it’s not an easy one, either. It’s fun to listen to, it’s fun to follow, it’s fun to master. Beyond the bass work, there’s an airy feel to the vocals, a suggestion of distance being breached, a vaguely country twang to the guitar. As with most REM songs, the lure of the lyrics is the sound of them being sung, not necessarily their meaning. And the arrangement of the piece can pretty much be described as a primer in how to write a pop song.

And that’s the meat of the memory: it is a primer. “Texarkana” is a great song, one of my favorites on the album. But more than most of these Snapsongs, it is intimately entwined in memory and remembrance. It was a primer in playing, an example of songwriting, something that stretched me out of my beginning days and hooked me into the real reason one plays bass. It allowed me to bond with my new instrument over that first summer, and started an ethic of practice that led me to play in three bands and compose umpteen basslines for umpteen songs. And it was also an aural reminder of the support that I received from one of my friends, on that day that I decided to break the mold and be something no one had expected. He stood by my desire to learn bass, helped me with the purchase, tried as best he could to mentor me in my new calling. I probably could have done it without him, but I’m glad I didn’t have to try. His support in the face of hostility from the rest of my social circle was golden. Even though I never managed to read the sheet music that he wrote, it was the fact of the writing that made all the difference.

For that, and for everything else, let’s hear it for him, and for “Texarkana”.

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2014-04-06  »  Edward Semblance