My book, called I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, was edited by one of my best friends, Edward Wehrenberg. We’ve been friends for 30 years. He edited my work when we were stationed together at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, where we served as Public Affairs Specialists. Our primary duty was the weekly creation of the base newspaper, called The Spirit. Ed understands my writing style better than anyone else. As such, he can say things to me most people couldn’t get away with.
Ed was very good at calling me out on bits of pretension and snobbery that tend to leak out of me when I discuss music. I would look at his red marks and see phrases like, “eye roll” and “Easy there, cowboy,” and know I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. Sometimes I would see something even more curt, causing me to completely re-evaluate my premise, or drop the thought process altogether. But one phrase above all has stuck in my mind, long after our work was completed.
I wrote a chapter about Frank Zappa. I was analyzing one of his songs in one form or another. That’s when I saw Ed’s note. It wasn’t a complaint. It was an observation. And I’m reasonably sure it was a compliment. The note read, “NOBODY listens to music the way you do!”
That’s not entirely true. But he’s not completely wrong, either.
When I listen to music, I’m after more than a good beat I can dance to. A good hook isn’t enough. Being catchy won’t cut it, because I know that fades. I know what I like when I hear it. And once I hear it, I start to take it apart.
I’m not sure where this habit came from, or when I started doing it. But it’s what I do, and it always seems to make the music that much better. It seems to be a common trait amongst musicians, who are always trying to sort out how so-and-so played a particular part. Since I play a little guitar myself, that makes sense. But I was taking songs apart long before I picked up a guitar. It’s just something I enjoy doing. Maybe it makes me feel like I’m part of the recording process. Mote often than not, it just enhances my enjoyment of a song.
When I hear something for the first time, my instinct is to pick an element of the song and follow it throughout the piece. Regardless of how simple or complex the song may be, I can almost always find a simple, stable element to guide my journey. With the Philadelphia Experiment, it was almost always the drums of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The man is a human metronome, with a pocket to die for.
Say what you will about Miles Davis in the ’70s. His music was waaaaaaay ahead of its time. As such, many people had trouble grasping it, including me. My main problem was I kept trying to find the groove through Miles. That was a mistake. They key here, once again, is in the drums. All I had to do was listen to Al Foster. That pocket wasn’t going anyplace, no matter what!
One of my proudest (and most embarrassing) concert experiences came after both drummer Pat Mastelotto and Warr Guitarist Trey Gunn both complimented me after a King Crimson show, when they came out to sign autographs. I was up front for the show, leaning on the stage, directly across from Pat. Trey was to my left. For this tune, however, my focus was on the guitar work of Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp. Pat could see me “air guitaring” with them, because my right hand was on the stage. I even saw him smiling in my direction. At one point, he called Trey over to look at me. I was oblivious. I just assumed they saw something amusing elsewhere. As it turns out , they did. When Pat wound up in front of me, he said, “Hey, man! You did a great job keeping time with us! Any time I got lost, all I had to do was look at you!” I figured he was just pulling my leg, then Trey came up to me and said, “Hey! It’s the timekeeper!” I probably should’ve asked for a job. One of the great things about being a King Crimson fan is they make odd time signatures sound common. Maybe that’s why I find 4/4 so boring at times.
Sometimes I get hit with more musical information than I know what to do with. Frank Zappa’s bands are very good at throwing me off. But if I listen carefully, I can always find something to hang on to. “The Grand Wazoo” is an intricate piece of music, loaded with details. But the bass and drums propel the piece forward, making my job a little easier.
I didn’t know what to make of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” the first time I heard it. The song starts out simply enough, with bass line that anchors the piece. Then the horns enter, and the song descends into what I call “organized chaos.” I got really confused at first. Then I realized the bass line was still there. And everything got simple again.
There’s nothing complicated about Cake’s “The Distance.” It’s just a fun song, with one of my favorite bass lines of all time. Following this tune is a blast!
For this King Crimson tune (actually, it’s two tunes), the focus shifts almost constantly. The safest place to be is with bassist Tony Levin and drummer Bill Bruford. But that doesn’t mean they’re not gonna take you for a ride, because they do! At times, the time signature shifts bar by bar. Whew!
In the end, it doesn’t matter how you listen to music. Just listen! Sooner or later, no matter how complicated the tune, you will find something to hold your attention, and the rest will fall into place.
As for nobody listening to music the way I do, I simply told Ed this: there are more of us than you think, but not as many as there should be.