I’ve been in a rut lately. I always identified as a musician, though in the roughest sense of the word. But it’s starting to not really feel like part of my identity. For the first time since I was 12-years old making music doesn’t feel like an integral part of me, and it’s really bumming me out.
Growing up I wasn’t into sports. I was quiet around people I didn’t know; shy, and never wanted to be the center of attention. So of course I gravitated towards something that requires me to be in front of people playing an instrument and singing! Despite the playing in front of others aspect of music, the draw really was making noise with the guitar. The reverberation, the jangle of strings, and that feeling of gratification when you play something others recognize. Who am I kidding? I didn’t care about others, playing was just about me.
I started playing while still sort of a “kid”. The summer before my 7th grade year. I think diving into that generic acoustic guitar with the terrible action gave me purpose in a year that felt weird and awkward to me. My grandpa died, I was thrown into the lion’s den of prepubescent teens, and I didn’t click with any cliques. All my elementary school friends found solace in sports and the opposite sex, while I sat in study hall reading Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Mad Magazine. But I had a secret: I was a guitar player. I was drowning out the awkwardness with AC/DC and Beatles songs at guitar lessons. I sat in my bedroom trying to teach myself classic rock songs on one string(eventually the other five strings worked their way into the mix.)
It wasn’t like I was some weird loner with no friends. I did have friends, and made new ones in middle school. But I just didn’t jive with all the usual interests, and I didn’t chat up any other fellow musicians so we could “jam”. That would eventually come in high school, but in middle school I was just trying to figure out how to stay afloat. Having that lousy acoustic guitar in the cheap case waiting for me in my bedroom got me through a lot of those confusing days.
High school came and so did a new guitar teacher, which led me down the path of becoming a future “shredder”. Took 4th place in the 1990 Hot Licks guitar contest at the Music Spectrum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, so you know I meant business. But that was just to appease my guitar teacher. I really just wanted to play and maybe even write. Which by the time I was 19 that’s what I started doing. First by myself, but eventually I started writing with friends, a few different bands, and eventually just me in my basement with a 16-track digital recorder and a room full of instruments.
I wanted to be Adrian Belew. I wanted to have coffee brewing and writing and recording pop songs in my own home studio. I wanted to collaborate with friends and other musicians and be inspired by them. And I really kind of did that(albeit not even remotely as good as Adrian Belew.) Even well into marriage and being a parent I felt like my identity was that of a singer/songwriter. I received praise from a music community I respected and admired. I made friends, and found a mentor of sorts in a guy named Mark.
Mark saw and heard potential in me and my songs and pushed me to write more. I worked on his songs when he asked me to help out(it was an honor to, honestly.) I went over to his house a couple times to work on music together. First time was in his garage with a drummer and a case of Natty Lite. Next time was before a David Bazan acoustic show we went to together. I can remember Mark saying “Hey, do you know ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ by the Beatles? We should do that one together.” I felt bad I didn’t know it, but I tried to muddle through some of it.
Mark was the first person I’d share new songs with when I finished one, and he was also the person who pushed me to start writing about music. Which once I started doing that was sort of where the music creating became less of a priority for me. I found something in writing that was far more cathartic than the music ever was. I mean, I wanted to play because of my love for bands in the first place. Expounding on a record for 1,100 words came pretty easy to me. And writing didn’t feel nearly as isolating as disappearing in the basement for four hours.
I still made music after the writing took off for me. I’ve made quite a bit of music in the last 6 to 7 years, honestly. It’s just that it doesn’t feel like an essential thing, where as ten years ago I was obsessed with writing and recording.
My friend Mark stoked that creative fire in me, right up until he passed away in 2017. He always had an ear for something I wrote. And I always had one for him as well. When Mark passed I sort of felt like putting that part of me to rest.
I love writing. That’s what I’ve evolved into, a writer. Expressing myself through lyrics and melody just seems odd to me now. If I want to say something I can state it clearly without veiled poetry and minor key changes. I sit at my computer and I write. I share my love of a record, a book, a movie, or a piece of my life to the world. That’s where I’m at now.
But still, I do miss playing.
I miss that camaraderie that comes with being in a room with other musicians and just playing. Seeing where some chord progressions take us. Being inspired by a riff or drum beat or a lyric…it was an amazing feeling.
So during these last few months of at-home activities I’ve come to the realization that I don’t have to write a song every time I pick up the guitar. I can just pick up the guitar and play it. And it seems that since I’ve left the artistry at the studio door I’ve found a newfound love for playing. Like when I first started as that awkward 12-year old playing an acoustic guitar with the action of a dobro. I pick up one of my electric guitars, turn on the amp, and just play. I’ll jam to a record, or play to loops. It’s like re-growing a limb you’d lost.
Sure, I’m rusty. I’m not that fiery 16-year old playing for a music shop full of Indiana and Ohio guitarists. Nor am I that hungry songwriter trying to come up with the great riff. I’m just a 46-year old guy that loves to play guitar, and that’s good enough for me.
In the mail yesterday a package arrived for me. It was a songbook. The Complete Beatles Songbook. I happily opened the package and headed downstairs to the studio. I grabbed my acoustic guitar and started leafing through the pages looking for songs I wanted to learn. “I’ll Be Back”, “If I Fell”, and “If I Needed Someone” were all songs I happily tore up my fingertips for(gotta work those callouses back up.)
Tomorrow I’m working on “I’m Only Sleeping”. That one is for my friend Mark.