I’d been meaning to write for some time about Mollie Hemingway but it wasn’t until checking in on Slash tonight that I finally decided to. The title was going to be “Celebrating Two Of America’s Best & Most Important Citizens: Mrs. Mollie Hemingway, And Slash”, but by the time I got 1,000 words in, I realized it would just be a diatribe about my taste in music. So I had to change the title to avoid false advertising, and below is the rest of the piece.
Like a lot of people, I’m quietly a pretty serious and independent-minded music fan. Everyone’s got a story about their love of music. I’ve got several of those stories. Learning to play Canon in D overnight on the piano using masking tape, markers, and a series of numbers and letters, by ear, is a fun one. That I’d never played the piano before was not a small part of it. I was too busy dicking around on the violin from about 5 until 12, and the guitar (sans violin) from 12 on. It would be 6 years later that I finally, for the first time in my life, sat down at the family piano.
“Bull. You don’t spend 18 years in a house with a piano and never touch it.”
You do if there are also two harps in the house (one of which you played for a while), and you were busy dicking around on the violin and the guitar.
Lots of music in my house.
I graduated high school in 1995 and was pretty happy with my carry-along collection: it was a 60-cassette holder that rotated approximately 50 Dead shows, 9 Phish shows, and Doggystyle. By the time I was in college I wasn’t all that interested unless it was Guns N Roses, Grateful Dead or gangster rap. For me, getting back in to Appetite, Lies and even Use Your Illusion(s) was throwback material. I mean we’re talking 1995-1999 here. People weren’t yet digging G’N’R for nostalgic reasons. And that included me. They just hung around in my “I still like to hear it” capsule and by college, when everyone always had some new flavor of the second, I was pretty firm on the stuff that stood the test of time for me.
Guns N Roses. Grateful Dead. Gangster Rap.
Phish fell out of the mix about midway through college. I’ll be honest: they’re the reason I’m able to [at least clumsily] solo, but I’ve also always kinda hated their absolute abandonment of seriousness with respect to lyrics.
And I’m the guy who established pretty early on that lyrics and vocals were just poetry, and “the real music” happens with skilled musicians. And I stand by that. I know people can do wild stuff with their voices, but I’m extremely partial to the craftsmanship of a person taking the time to master a tool that exists beyond themselves. Becoming one with something outside of them that, try as they may, they’ll never master.
It’s one of the things I think about as I raise my nearly 4-year-old son. I want him to develop relationships with things that he’ll never master. That he’ll never fully outmaneuver. That will always challenge him and give him new opportunities to fail, succeed, and grow.
A soccer ball comes to mind.
So does a guitar.
Phish fell out of the mix at Billy Breathes. I still can’t explain it. I was, and remain, a huge fan. But I knew instinctively it was time to cut bait and I legitimately don’t recall needing to think it through for even a millisecond. At no point, for whatever reason, did I even think about going out to buy the Billy Breathes album.
And nothing after it.
I don’t know what happened but I’ve heard a handful of stuff off those albums and I’ll tell you…
…I don’t think I was missing much. There’s no Divided Sky or beautifully orchestrated solos like you’ll find at the end of Lizards, the middle of Rift, or throughout most of Horn. I’m still pissed they didn’t do about 6 more minutes with the end of If I Could I Would. Such a throwaway Page love song but that orchestration at the end, the ascent of it, they could’ve done it 5 more times and it would’ve grown like the Chalkdust Torture from A Live One only with a sweeping full heart instead of a powerful head.
I can’t listen to the Dead post-Jerry. First of all, let’s just be honest, Bobby is a douchebag. He always has been. His job was never stealing women from their men, he’s never been en route to hell in a bucket, and his crop tops and daisy dukes were never meant to be ironic. Bobby is a douchebag who was hired to be the pretty boy face and ended up just along for the ride with people exponentially cooler than he was. Phil is a baller and don’t ask me about Bill and Mickey because for all I know one of them died since I last checked in. But I’ve got zero interest in the Dead since Jerry passed, but for enjoying all that magic that happened while he and Robert Hunter were still cranking out the good stuff. (Don’t get me wrong there are a few Bobby songs I dig. But even setting aside what a douchebag he is personally and largely musically, he’s also a douchebag politically, and I gotta think if Jerry were around — listen to Uncle John’s Band and Liberty, to name a few — he’d be way more on our side than libs like Bobby.
As far as gangster rap goes, it all started in the late 80s before a trip to Texas to visit a buddy. I was probably 12 years old, and I saw on the news that Eazy-E’s “Eazy Does It” was going to be banned in Texas. I didn’t know who Eazy-E was but I knew for a fact I was going to buy that shit in Ohio and take it to my buddy in Texas who apparently couldn’t get it. So another buddy and I rode our bikes to the mall and without a lot of hassle, despite being way underage, got the Eazy E tape. I don’t remember if we kept it wrapped. I don’t think we did. If memory serves, that buddy and I already loved the hell out of Eazy before I even boarded the plane. But I took it with me and gave it to my friend and then found out that 10 days is way too long for two 12-year-old friends to hang out. So by the time I left, we weren’t really friends anymore. I mean we were, but we were sick to death of each other. And…whatever, sue me, I already had a worker’s permit and was legit earning my own money…so the tape came back with me.
From there it was all gravy. Eazy became a staple among my entire friend group, and even my older siblings dug in and to this day we laugh and enjoy a lot of it.
Eazy remains the heart of my gangster rap. I’ve got plenty of room for other stuff. Mike Jones and Scarface come to mind, and that’s not because I’m fresh off a year in Houston. I dug them both before I ever moved there. My mom is legit friends with Kid Cuddy’s mom. I don’t listen (yet, maybe), but it’s hilarious to me. It’s so damn unassuming. I was sitting there the other day and her phone rang. My mom is legally blind so she asked me to see who it is. It said “Elsie Mescudi” or however you spell it. I just find that funny. My mom, by the way, who has been legally blind since birth, is the reason we had two harps in the house. She played a lot when I was growing up and still could if she wanted to with just a little dusting off. (She’d dedicated most of the last 20-30 years to Magnificat High School where she was a math tutor for countless young women.) She and my Dad met when they were in college at Kent State. She was a Delta Gamma as their philanthropy is helping the visually impaired, so her sorority sisters would help her study, read aloud, etc. My dad had a band, The Ned Tookman trio, as he was a jazz guitar player in addition to being a student. My dad grew up on the east side of Cleveland and he and his 3 Jewish friends mostly hung around the very heavy jazz clubs. Mind you, my folks are up there. My dad was born in 1938 and my mom in 1940. So that means around the early 1950s, my dad, then about 15 years old, was taking his buddies to some of the musically richest jazz clubs in Cleveland. And they all loved it.
He showed me several cool jazz chords and I actually repurposed a few into a Medeski Martin & Wood sounding jam for a set I did with some douchebag lib in college. But I haven’t yet fallen in love with jazz the way my dad did.
For me it all stayed pretty simple. Over the years, like everyone else, I lost track of my physical music collection and it’s all digital now. But my digital collection started with what I downloaded in the early 2000s, and ended with the last handful of tracks I bought before permanently deleting my Amazon account on the grounds that they’re both racist and fascist. I don’t want to just stream stuff I like when I want to hear it. I still like to have my own stuff, in my own collection. So now I’ve got around 650 songs or so, every one of which has an excellent reason for being there. I’m still learning new music on the guitar, increasingly so in the last year since we moved back to Cleveland. I’ve had a blast learning some of my all-time favorites that I swear on all that’s holy I must have been holding out on, and just waiting for this time in my life.
No song other than Canon in D has ever moved me the way Brokedown Palace first did when I was a kid, and continues to today. But despite it being pretty easy and me playing guitar all that time, I never once even thought about slowing down to learn it. That changed after everything I’d been through in my adult life, and finally landing back home in Cleveland with a little reason to celebrate. We moved all over the place from 2011 thru 2020: California, New York, Minnesota, Texas…it was a lot. Coming back to Cleveland finally, a place I never wanted to leave because we Clevelanders have a lot of heart and love for our city, freed me up a bit. It was a long slog being away and coming back, apparently, opened me up to enjoy some of the things I’d long saved for a special occasion. Learning Brokedown Palace and companion pieces like Brown Eyed Women, Liberty, Lazy River Road and It Must’ve Been The Roses, has been a blast. And don’t get me started on stuff like Elton John’s “Daniel” or Bowie’s “Starman.” So fun and, as it turns out, so easy.
So anyway, as noted, like most people, there’s a lot of substance to my music tastes. And I always put Slash (and Trey) as kind of my heroes on guitar. I checked in today on Slash just because I wanted to hear that theme from Godfather they did. There was a version that made it to some double disc we used to party with and I assumed that’s what it would pull up when I searched. I was wrong. Apparently Slash does the Godfather them frequently enough and there are several versions. I clicked the first one. It’s new-school (to me) Slash.
And. Effing. Wow.
The dude can do literally anything he wants with a guitar. I’m certain he’d object to that characterization. He’d say he still has light years to go and wishes he could make it do all the things he wants. But for me, watching him, there’s nothing he can’t make that thing say on command. He knows every stretch of that neck in ways creatively, constructively and compositionally that I couldn’t dream of. Forget about how fast his fingers are. That part is attainable. It’s the education around the specific notes, the ability to jump and bounce and find endless ways to keep it interesting and powerful, that most impresses me. I just can’t move around a neck that way. I have to find a sweet spot, discern the notes that work in that sweet spot, then if I’m feeling dangerous find another somewhere else on the neck, then, if I’m really feeling lucky, try to make them connect and talk to each other without repeating a lot.
Don’t get me wrong I can jam. Moreso every time I pick it back up after putting it down for a while. I get smarter, without even practicing, about how to make my sound more mature. But I do it purely for me. I don’t follow people around and in fact quite the opposite, I prefer jamming alone and just for myself. But I’ll tell you this: I’m not entirely terrible at it. I could make a fool of myself in spots but my thing has always kinda been being able to just start immediately jamming over something even if I’d never heard it before.
Test me someday on that. I’d welcome it. If the track is long and not purposefully fleeting enough, I’ll pop a riff on top or even a nice solo that will sound like it could have made the final recording cut.
I checked in on Slash and this is what I found, from just a few short years ago. You don’t have to watch it if you’re not a big music person. I’ll give my brief comments on the other side:
Long story short, he’s become utterly incapable of missing a note and there’s no story he can’t tell on that neck. He’ll no doubt reject the idea that he’s perfected it, because he hasn’t. There’s more thoughtfulness for him to find, and he’ll keep looking. But if he wants to find something, he knows exactly where to go without thinking twice. Moreover, he’s surrounded now by people who aren’t half of what he is but are bored because they won’t get that chance in his shadow. The DJ chick in the background comes to mind. She’s gotta find a way to not be so bored if she’s gonna share the stage with Slash. Dude’s up there pouring his heart out, trying to find something thoughtful, and she’s just kinda bored. I get it. On tour, used to being the headliner, bored as hell, but the show is your single job. Show up for it.
Anyway, Slash is excellent. He’s a national treasure on guitar.
And everything I just told you about music, and how much it means to me — politics and our social progress are as if not more important to me. And that’s written all over this website. In fact, this piece is the first that was mostly about music.
But Mollie Hemingway is the Slash of American politics and social progress. She’s hands down the best we have to offer, the most effective with her craft, and she puts everyone else to shame. Someday I’ll write more about that.
But for now, I’m cool to just publish this piece as a little more personal window into my life and relationship with music, as told with an atypically casual purpose and a hankering now to go jam a bit.
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