News From The Woods - November 22, 2010


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published November 22, 2010

"The Muse and You"

Why do you suppose it is that when you hear a piece of music that causes an emotional response, you never forget it?

Now….. I'm an old cat, so for me, most of my "emotional response songs" are now considered classic oldies. But when I heard them, they were still new. Like the first time I heard "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and I got goose bumps from the very start of that now famous guitar lick. Three days after first hearing it we drove all the way to Little Rock to buy a Gibson Maestro FuzzTone for Steve, our guitar player, for a gig we had scheduled at the local Armory after a home football game in 1965. Back in those days there was little else going on, so a dance after a football game was a "must attend" for every teenaged boy and girl in the town of Mountain Home, Arkansas. We knew the game had just finished because we could see and hear the line of car headlights approaching the Armory. We were ready. The doors burst open and the first kid yelled "We WON!" We waited perhaps five minutes, hiding ourselves behind a huge howitzer sitting at the rear of the Armory. When the place was about half full we snuck up to our positions and hit the lights just as Steve started "Satisfaction". The effect was immediate and emotional. It sounded just like the record to the crowd! They cheered. They leaped. They danced. They ROCKED! They made us play the song again before the end of our first set. We must have played it four times that night and each time the response was the same.

I would bet a dime to a dollar that every single person who attended that dance that evening STILL remembers the night. I know I do. Yes, it WAS a different time. There were less external forces at play competing for the attention of a teenager for one thing. And the Era of Rock and Roll was still in its infancy. Jerry Lee, Elvis, Roy, Chuck and Fats were the fathers of this "new" sound. The Beatles were still viewed as brash young Moptops. Their influence was just beginning, and the direction of mainstream music had not yet transformed into a viral soup of many forms of music. Rock and Roll was still pure in its essence. The Pop formulas of solo performers like Fabian and Pat Boone were being infiltrated by groups of long-haired musicians. For the first time (thanks to the Fab Four) "new" music was being shipped overseas from Britain. Of course we didn't know it then, but much of this music originated in the deep south of America. That music was being called "race music" here in the states, but in England, many players were embracing this traditional blues and electrifying it.

In barely the space of a single decade, the pillars of Popdom crumbled like some cheap special effect from a cheesy Italian Hercules movie. America was conquered and not a single shot was fired. Music changed so drastically that record labels scrambled for their piece of the pie. As recording technology advanced with a science fiction scenario, each new invention or sound caused a tremor in record sales. Rock stars rose and fell like waves upon a thrashing sea. From the 60's through the 80's entire generations of kids eagerly plopped down daddy's money to buy the latest epic album from their favorite music heroes. We musicians scoured the album liner notes for glimpses of gear or to learn who played what where. Lyrics usually accompanied these plastic circular slabs of polycarbonate and we gleefully sang along with our idols.

Little did we know what lay ahead for the masses. Back then is was much simpler. In the late 60's DeeJays wielded an awesome power…. The power to play a record and actually make people want to listen to it again and again. Radio playlists were the Holy Grail of Music to anyone following music trends. They were SO instrumental in introducing new music that the industry could not refrain themselves from buying that influence and the word "Payola" eventually became the lexicon of the Jaded and Faded world of the Disk Jockey.

But when it got down to it… with all it's sophisticated machinations and influential presence, even the giant record industry could not compete with the simple truth that music, in it's rawest form and striped of the technical wizardry of the day…. Music STILL moved men's souls. Yes, they learned that they could sway and influence the public, but they could only go so far before even the least experienced music listener smelled a rat in the cheese factory. Entire fortunes were spent and lost on "flash in the pan" artists and "one hit wonders". The Muse is SO elusive that even today no one can predict what the next big thing will be.

So what IS it that makes a song popular? Is it the lyrics? ….. Sometimes. Is it the arrangement?.......occasionally. Is it the promotion?.......very often. But the REAL test of mettle is when you hear a song from an era that recalls your youth and you get those same goose bumps…. JUST FROM A MEMORY!

As much as I can appreciate "Smells Like Teen Spirit" it is difficult for me to image a couple in their future Golden Years sitting on a beach holding hands and pining over Nirvana. I'm sure it will happen, because although that music means less than nothing to me… to someone else who grew up to that music it will still cause the hairs on their arms to stand at attention.

Now that you have read all the way through this, you may now accuse me of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because I have come to realize music is waaaaaay more than just a "memory connection". Recently I have caught myself getting a lump in my throat just watching a live performance of a band on video. There is little or NO connection between the songs/band and my youth. So what IS it? ……….

I now believe it is the performance. Now, this may be true for me only because I am a musician, but I wonder. I connect with those artists on stage and when they hit a peak of energy during a performance I get that old feeling again. Maybe it's because in my own past I've "been there", standing on a stage in front of a thousand (yes, a thousand!) people and playing my heart out for them….AND being appreciated. I can tell you that in some of those instances (and there have been numerous ones in my career) the audience did not know our songs. We weren't the headliner… we opened the show up for the Big Name. And yet…… when we ended a song we got approving looks and thunderous applause. Okay… so maybe just BEING at a rock concert is in itself cause enough to be in a celebratory mood. But I KNOW those kids connected with our performance. I saw it in their eyes.

I believe music is some form of unspoken communication that can connect the soul of the performer to the soul of the person listening and experiencing "the moment". It is some sort of bond of trust that makes a connection across space from the audience to the stage. Some musicians know this exists because sometimes you can actually FEEL the spirit of the moment. It's better than any drug high. It's that rare moment when you look across the stage at your fellow band-mate and KNOW the moment is upon you. It's like a physical connection…. like a cord is connected up to each and every member on stage and also to the audience. Sometimes it's only a flash. Other times it could last for several moments. It's very real.

SO ….. As I do my diabetic treadmill workout of the morning, my diversion from the "no pain, no gain" exercise is to watch concert videos. They completely take me away from the reality of the moment. The thirty minute workout is over and usually before I'm ready to stop the video. If it is a really good concert I may even extend my workout until a song ends. There are always a few moments during my workout that are peak emotional times for me. I have actually caught myself ready to shed a tear just for the sheer joy of the communication of the music - even though it is on TV - of "the moment" when I see the band up there working together and thoroughly entertaining the audience. And we all know how dull television can be. And yet, there it is.

I believe that because of the times, and because of the nature of the music business and all that implies…….that music is losing its soul. Because of technology we can do so many things to manipulate music. We can auto-tune a sour vocal performance. We can edit the music in such a way that physically attempting to perform it live would be virtually impossible. Well……. "virtually" it MAY be possible, but not in real time on a real stage with real musicians. Performers themselves these days can develop their playing skills to the point of perfection. But at what cost? If a piece of music is technically perfect does that make it "better" than a flawed performance with a couple of mistakes but which conveys a much deeper connection with the soul of the song? I submit to you, dear reader, that the reason we like some original mixes of hit records better than the remixes is because we have become enamored (comfortable, if you will) with the flaws in the original recording itself. To err is human, and machines don't understand that logic.


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