the enigma onion

now playing: ben arnold, “house of cards”

i know i went on one of these extended blogging sabbaticals once before, and i remember saying at that time that when you’re gone for this long, there’s not much point in trying to explain or summarize where you’ve been. in fact, i wonder if most of the folks who actually used to drop in here haven’t moved on to other, less fruitless pursuits…

well, let’s just say that i’ve been busy.

i spent most of these last few months working, frankly. i mean, there have been other things going on (which we’ll discuss), but my day job has been monopolizing my time for some months now. there were a couple of timecards that i turned in that had over ninety hours on them. for the math-deficient, that’s two weeks’ worth of hours in one week. more than that, actually, if you’re a “straight forty” kinda person. i’m putting that behind me now, though – both of the projects that were mandating that to be necessary are, by and large, done now – we did a novell groupwise to microsoft exchange upgrade that required that i not only migrate every users’ email from one account to the other, but to actually go to each machine and set up the new programs…the migrations alone were a pain in the ass, some of them taking up to three hours per user, depending on whether they’d ever deleted an email during the entire course of their careers. some of these people had over seven gigabytes of email archives that had to be migrated…and you just know that well over half of that is crap. garbage. but you can’t tell them that – our corporate culture breeds paranoia like no other, and these people are scared to death that someone is gonna come back and try to tell them that they said something that they didn’t, or vice versa, that they keep everything they get.

the other big thing was finally replacing our old, outdated UNIX system with a newer, windows/SQL based manufacturing software package. we “went live” on it earlier this month, and so far it seems to be settling in – the system certainly has its detractors, but there are those who would profess their disdain for whatever we got, even if they got to personally pick it.

now, in the middle of all this, i was helping my friend grace grantham get a nonprofit off the ground for her father, running the eBay auctions and putting the website together…until it became patently clear to me that i was doing them a disservice by not being able to commit the necessary time to it that i had hoped to be able to…it was really important to me to be able to do a good job, and when it became obvious that i wasn’t going to be able to do what i had hoped, i turned over the reins. there were a couple of folks involved who were a lot more motivated than i was able to be, so it didn’t seem to be much of a loss, thankfully.

the other major project this summer has been The Steelyard – that’s what we ultimately ended up naming it. it’s all but done now – we had an open house this past weekend and invited friends and family up to check it out, and it was quite the success – the thing i found funny was that the two things that got the most attention were things that i built from scratch – the producers’ desk in the control room and the “guitar wall” cabinet/storage unit that runs the length of one wall in the live room.

i have to admit that the guitar wall does look impressive, even if i do say so myself. there is, though, the awkward moment when i have to tell people that no, that’s not all of them, just the ones that’ll be used the most…and then the odd looks you get after revealing in a roundabout way that you have a sickness that isn’t really accepted as such by the world at large, this whole guitar addiction thing…. but i think (and there are those close to me who will back me up) that i’ve got it pretty well under control at this point. i mean, there are still a few things that i’d like to pick up at some point, but none of them have really presented themselves yet.

well, actually, one of them did.

my good friends boris garcia just recently celebrated the release of their second record, mothers’ finest, at the world cafe in philadelphia. i played lap steel on the record, and they invited me to come play with them at the show as well. it turned out to be serendipitous, as ben arnold was opening, and i got to play with both of them (i’ve been taking on the occasional gig in bens’ band these past couple of months…i know, i know – don’t have enough to do…).

anyway, i went to bob stirners’ house (longtime readers will recognize that name) to rehearse for the show, and bob gave me his sho-bud pedal steel on “long-term loan” – he said that he didn’t think he’d ever use it, but that he wasn’t ready to sell it or give it away just yet, because “you just never know”. and certainly, i respect that – i was just happy to have it, honestly. so, he said to me as we assembled it and got it ready to travel, “just be ready to play it saturday night”.

be careful what you wish for.

i took it home and set it up in the dining room and fired up my laptop and began looking up information on the internet – i found a diagram of the E9 chromatic tuning for 10 string pedal steels, and the corrresponding pedals and how they were set up, what they were supposed to change and how to tune it, et cetera….the first thing i noticed was that four of the strings in the center of the guitar were tuned to the E major triad that i use for lap steel (E, B, G#), and two of the pedals did the same things that i’d been using the ring finger on my left hand to accomplish all this time…bending the B up to a C#, and bending the G# to an A for a suspended fourth chord. i sat there for a while – i don’t know how long, specifically – playing and experimenting with the pedals and the knee lever, trying to get a bead on this thing…and that night, i figured out a couple dozen various licks and made up my mind that i was going to take this thing with me on saturday night, and that i’d play it if it killed me.

i spent an hour or so on friday night as well running through the song i was to play and a few other things on it, just getting the hang of the strings (going from having six strings under your right hand to having ten under there is quite an adjustment). and sure enough, i took it with me to world cafe live on saturday night.

as i had mentioned before, i was playing with both ben and the band – and ben chose to close his set with “tupelo honey”, and i figured that song was as good as any to jump behind this thing. the one thing that i would’ve done differently, in retrospect, would have been to practice with the volume pedal while i was finding my way. it took me a little while to get the hang of the volume pedal – not because i wasn’t accustomed to the pedal itself, but because the pedal sat right underneath my foot as opposed to being out in front of me as it is when i play lap steel…and because my other foot and the knee on my volume pedal foot were busy doing other things, and it was something else to have to coordinate. but the good news was that it took me precious little time to acclimate to it….i was pretty comfortable with it in its new spot well before the end of the song. plus, i had gotten to play it during soundcheck, and i think i’d gotten most of the acclimation out of my blood before we started. i did make a couple of clunkers, but i could count them on my nostrils…and i wasn’t exactly swinging for the bleachers, either…i stuck to the safe licks – the ones that i knew, the ones that i had translated pretty easily from lap steel – and they got me through the night.

now, i’ve loved this instrument for years – going back to when i was a kid. there’s nothing else (not even my beloved lap steel, the instrument of several of my heroes) that sounds like it when it’s played properly. properly.

so i thought about it for a while, and decided that i’m not going to approach this instrument the same way i’ve approached everything else that i’ve learned to play – by getting a basic grip on it and figuring out the rest of it by whatever means i could. this time, i thought, might be my last chance to jump completely into something with both feet that’s totally foreign to me. this is the instrument that’s going to force me to learn some things that i’ve been able to sidestep for years now….if i actually bother to study it properly.

so with that in mind, i called my friend bruce heffner – he runs a pedal steel shop in hamburg where he gives lessons and the like, and he’s a hell of a player as well. i told him what i’d done, and asked him a few questions…his responses were great, too. when i told him that i couldn’t figure out what the deal was with those top two strings, he laughed….”aaaaAAAAAH! they’re not in order, are they?”

so bruce and i talked for almost an hour, and i scheduled my first EVER music lesson, to take place at his shop at 9AM on a saturday morning.

yes, you read me right. on both counts.

my first EVER music lesson…AND –

9AM on saturday morning. no, not PM….AM.

and yes, i got my ass out of bed, and yes, i was there at 9AM.

and yes, i felt like an asshole, trying to play this monster in front of a seasoned pro.

see, here’s the thing.

i’ve been able to bluff my way through a lot of stuff in my day. i’ve always done what other people who’ve been successful have told me in confidence that they’ve always done, which is never admit that you can’t do it. johnny sambatora from dave mason‘s band was the most recent – when he told me about a session where they needed a mandolin for a track, and he jumped in and said he’d handle it, only to tune the mandolin like a guitar and lay it down, with no one else the wiser.

i feel like that one instance has been a metaphor for my whole career. irish music? hell, yeah, no problem! bass guitar in a country band? bring it on! drums? banjo? bouzouki? dulcimer? yep, i’m your guy. pit musician for a theatre production? classical guitarist? organist for a church wedding? covers for a stripper-infested bachelor party? pianist at a cocktail bar?

i’ve done all of these things. i’m not proud of some of them, but i’ve done it nonetheless.

and thankfully, i’ve had enough of a basis in whatever i’ve tried to do that (for the most part) i’ve been able to pull it off. there have been a couple of humiliating exceptions, but they’ve been relegated to the file in the bottom drawer that i don’t allow myself to read very often. now, certainly, you can attribute this to my considerable musical prowess and my ever-growing genius, but i’m here to tell ya – there’ve been quite a few situations that i’ve found myself in that i’ve faked my way through and somehow managed to land on my feet.

now, certainly, if you do that enough, you’ll amass some sort of technique and you’ll gain a lot of experience that can be applied to other instruments, or even across the board (especially where some of the life lessons that are exclusive to music are concerned)….but i’ve often – hell, damn near always – felt like a fraud in the company of what i perceive to be the “legit” guys. you know – the sight readers, the ones who show up at rehearsals with notation in hand, neatly written out and impeccably rehearsed. the ones with the perfect gear and the envy-inspiring resume who talk about what a “hoot” it was working with (insert name of latest boss here) and how they can’t wait for the summer season to kick in so they can get back out with (insert name of potentially fictitious new boss here) and so on and so forth…while you stand there with your trusty korean goldtop ’round your neck with the randomly perceptible aroma of stale cigarette smoke emanating from your roadworn fender twin that stands beside you, awaiting your order.

so, if you haven’t gotten the gist of what i’m saying here, there have been no shortage of times in my life that i’ve felt like i was fooling everybody – that i had just enough ability to pull the wool over everyones’ eyes and get through whatever it was that i was working on. i remember sitting at the piano at a restaurant in harrisburg, pennsylvania and just making shit up – just playing whatever fragmented chord patterns rumbled through my head – and they actually asked me back! was that a result of some inner genius on my part, or a total lack of standards on theirs? a mixture of both?

anyway, the point i think i’m trying to make is that i think that pedal steel is the last frontier, for me. i think it represents the one final opportunity i have to gain some of the knowledge that has stood between me and my own perception of legitimacy for years now. theory, chord structure, harmonic concepts, and the like – i have some basic, essential knowledge of them but not nearly as much as someone should have to do some of the work that i do. and i feel like it’s time for me to break down some of the mystique that surrounds these things.

i know that i’ve talked often of the enigma that surrounded music when i first became immersed in it, and how that enigma has slowly melted away over the years as i’ve gotten more and more experience as a musician and i’ve learned more about it. i think that this particular adventure might represent the peeling back of the last true layer of that enigma, and that once i school myself in some of these principles that i might never really listen to music in the same way again. i don’t really know if i’ve been ok with that up until this point.

at this point, i think it’s imperative that i pull back that last layer if i want to grow any further than i have up to this point.