Monday, March 23, 2009

A Musician’s Manifesto

Do you still remember when it started for you? I’ve played music, it seems, since before I was born…and in my case that may actually have been literally true. My mother was a classical pianist and my father, a clergyman, also played pipe organ. I remember one conversation with my father about my bass playing where he noted to correspondence between the mighty sound of the pipe organ and the sheer power of an electric bass.

But there was a point where something touched me. As a bass player, (I already played guitar, piano, violin) there was a moment. I’d just moved to Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where the previous dwellers had left a copy of a fateful LP – “The Moods of Marvin Gaye.” One song started it – “One More Heartache.” The bass player – unknown to me at the time – played this bass line that changed my life fundamentally. I had just bought this 1952 Fender Precision Bass (damn I wish I’d kept that one!) for $100. Stunning instrument. Maple fingerboard. This bass line came out of my record player. I had headphones. I listened to it and numerous other Motown songs again and again.

I now know what happened to me. Something resonated - a sympathetic resonation. What I heard flowing from the genius hands of James Jamerson (who I consider the greatest electric bassist of the 20th century) started something vibrating inside of me – like a string somewhere deep in me, a string waiting to be caressed, to sing, to cry.

Do you remember that?

The music of that time had that same world shattering effect on so many of us. We sang about such important things. It was the irresistible beat that moved our feet – and our hearts – without our even noticing. Feet tapped. Heads moved in rhythm. Our bodies felt the groove – the groove of Something Different – a different call than anything we’d ever known before.

And our poets wrote. That same Motown tune:

One more heartache,

I can’t take it,

My heart is carrying such a heavy load,

One more ache will break it.

As I looked out at the world, my heart, indeed, did ache, to the point of “one more and I’ll explode.”

Other poets asked, loudly, poignantly, “What’s Going On?”

Mother, mother

There's too many of you crying

Brother, brother, brother

There's far too many of you dying

You know we've got to find a way

To bring some lovin' here today - Ya

Father, father

We don't need to escalate

You see, war is not the answer

For only love can conquer hate

You know we've got to find a way

To bring some lovin' here today

What’s going on?

Others imagined this:

By the time we got to Woodstock

We were half a million strong

And everywhere there was song and celebration

And I dreamed I saw the bombers

Riding shotgun in the sky

And they were turning into butterflies

Above our nation

We are stardust

We are golden

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden

We all felt that place, inside – something moved – what we heard in this great music was, indeed, a call, a spiritual experience we all could taste.

For many of us, music plays that central a role in our lives. It is not “entertainment”. It is, as a great jazz drummer said to me at the end of recent set, music is “re-creation.” We are, indeed, re-created by music. The great African drum cultures, out of which blues, jazz, R&B and rock flowed, understood this. Drumming was not an “art form”. Drummers were not “artists” doing their art Over There. Drumming was the way the unseen forces communicated with the people. It served as a conduit, the way that this unseen realm engaged the village and made them a People, connected them to the earth and to each other.

This was no mere metaphor – just as the power of our music was no metaphor. The great movements of the 60’s – and they were great, indeed – were driven by the music. Those of us not born black took our first look into the world of African Americans through music, whether it was “race music” played on AM radios all over this country throughout the 40s and 50s, or the soul infection so many of us fell to from the truly ecstatic music that flowed out of Motown, from the hands of one of the most potent collections of musical genius we have ever seen. My man Jamerson was the shaman – he was the constant force thoughout that time, the channel that made the Motown sound the Motown sound. He and the drummers made music that changed the entire face of this country. And while the words did wonders, it was the unspoken portion – the music – that changed our hearts.

We didn’t have to go to church. There was no creed, no test we had to pass. It was direct, unmediated. It took no initiation – beyond, of course, the initiation of listening, which seemed impossible not to do. Who could resist it? It crossed all boundaries. Close your eyes. Listen to a Motown tune. There are both black and white musicians playing. Tell me which is which…can you do it? More importantly, does it matter? With my eyes closed, listening to this music, it didn’t matter anyway. It was soul music. And my soul knew it. It was transformed.

So many of us have had this experience. We Knew Something. It drove the revolutionary changes of that era.

What happened? Too many of us lost this sense.

We finally are hearing great voices rising up. It saddens me greatly that too few musicians rose up against the Iraq War. Those of us who remember the 60s and 70s know the power that music held in our movement. Those voices moved us to action.

There has been too little as of late. Too few of us spoke up against the expansion of the corporatist mindset in our culture. Our generation fell for consumerism. And musicians fell for it.

At this point in time, the life of a successful musician is this:

  1. Record a CD.
  2. Record company buys the CD.
  3. The musician or band goes on the road to hustle the CD and to play a few tunes from the next CD.
  4. The next CD gets recorded.
  5. Go back to step 3.

And that’s about it.

Is this really all that music is to us – yet another thing to hustle, that adds to the aggregate success of a bunch of suits?

There were many excesses in the 60s and beyond. We may have gotten too high. However, the thing we heard in music was real – authentic. It meant something. It is time we got back to that.

We live in a time at the cusp of something. I don’t know what it is, or where we go. But we all sense it – we’re on the edge. It is time for all artists to dig deep, to listen to those same primordial voices and rhythms that moved us before.

There should be no question that the suits led us down the wrong road. Corporations, as I discuss elsewhere on this blog, have attempted and largely succeeded in seducing us all to buy their things – all of them, lots of them. In doing so, I contend that their efforts have been quite conscious and deliberate – that their intent has been to decimate the middle class in the United States, and weaken our democracy in doing so.

It is time we musicians, artists, poets, find a loud and clear voice again. Once we stood up against a war we considered unjust, and we spoke out against a culture we knew was too rigid, too closed. It is time we rise up again. This is our time. Let us, once more, listen to those voices, the ones speaking through the rhythms in our music, rising up from a powerful authentic source.


  1. What a great article! I would image that hearing your mother play the piano from the womb would begin to shape who you are even before being born and there have been studies done that indicate that may be true. In my case, that may be the very reason that I have two left feet so to speak when it comes to my own musical ability (which is none by the way).

    Anyone who knows me personally knows that I don't spend money on CD's (I guess I’m cheap that way), but I can honestly say that Motown music is one of the only types of music that I've ever purchased. I love all of the Motown hits and that’s really why The Big Chill is one of my favorite movies; it’s because of the wonderful songs that they play during the movie. When you watch that movie and see everyone grieving over the loss of an old college friend, it’s sad. Then you see how the music brings them all back to a wonderful place and time in their lives even during this very depressing time. There is something very familiar about watching them dance around the kitchen to the music and being transformed to a happier more peaceful time.

    I love to daydream about love and life and for me Motown music speaks to me as I daydream. One song in particular that speaks to me is How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) by Jr. Walker & The All-Stars – Motown 1966. Even though this song was written when I was only a year old, the words really speak to me.

    I needed the shelter of someones arms and there you were
    I needed someone to understand my ups and downs
    and there you were
    With sweet love and devotion
    deeply touching my emotion
    I want to stop and thank you baby
    I just want to stop and thank you baby

    How sweet it is to be loved by you
    How sweet it is to be loved by you

    I close my eyes at night,
    wondering where would I be without you in my life
    Everything I did was just a bore,
    everywhere I went it seems I'd been there before
    But you brightened up for me all of my days
    With a love so sweet in so many ways
    I want to stop and thank you baby
    I want to stop and thank you baby

    How sweet it is to be loved by you
    How sweet it is to be loved by you

    You were better for me than I was for myself
    For me, there's you and there ain't nobody else
    I want to stop and thank you baby
    I just want to stop and thank you baby

    How sweet it is to be loved by you
    How sweet it is to be loved by you

    These words definitely speak to me now more than any other time in my life. I’ve always loved this particular song, but now this song takes on a whole new meaning for me as these words really do describe the man of my dreams, the man with whom I share my life everyday and the man who I look forward to sharing my future with.

    Even though I don’t know how it feels to play these songs, I do know how these songs speak to me. They remind me of a time when people spoke the words that they felt in their soul and weren’t afraid to do so. Thank you for a wonderful reminder of those songs. Thank you for filling my heart and soul with love the way you do everyday and thank you for sharing your music with me and bringing an experience like that into my life.

  2. i got a 52 p bass ill sell ya
    it'll cost a little more than 100 dollers this time.

    email me if you wanta see some pictures.