I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream
Lee Ann Leach
Back in Alabama, when I was a little girl, my family would take my cousins and I to the ice cream store on Sunday afternoons. My cousins would rush to the counter and order colossal monstrosities of chocolate, peanut butter, marshmallow, nut crunch, kitchen sink cones or strawberry, bubblegum, banana chip, sprinkle sundaes. I would stand back and watch as they made a monkey out of the poor guy behind the counter as he struggled with each order that was pelted at him. Then, after all was said and done, I would walk to the counter and order a single scoop of vanilla. I’m not much for major productions of grandiosity. I like things simple, pure and basic. Lets take for instance, what I deem as purity in music.
Going back again to Alabama, and my being a little girl. One of my very first memories is the feel and smell of the inside of a guitar case. I can clearly remember being tiny enough to sit inside my stepfather’s guitar case, and listening to him play his guitar. My stepfather was no rock and roller, either. He played classical guitar. He didn’t just play classical guitar as a hobby. Classical guitar was his passion. He played with Carlos Montoya. He played with Andre’ Segovia. My stepfather was one bad-assed classical guitar player. Not only was he a classical guitar player, he was also a pilot. Not just any ol’ airplane pilot, either. He was a cropduster. He was a stunt pilot and he was a flight instructor. He didn’t just fly as a job, either. He had a burning passion for it. When my mother was eight months pregnant with me, my stepfather was building a new stunt plane in our garage in the back of the house. He and a friend went into the garage one night and decided to see if they could crank the engine on the plane. They not only managed to get the engine cranked, but when it started humming, it also started burning. A huge fire broke out and they ran from the garage avoid being burned. As my stepfather ran past the propeller, his left arm was thrown up into the blades and his arm was nearly amputated. Remember, this man was also a guitar player… this was his left arm, the arm he used to make chords. He was rushed to the hospital and had immediate surgery that left him with a steel plate in his left forearm, rendering it impossible to turn with his palm facing upwards. Most people would have deemed this event as the end of a guitar player’s world. With his hand unable to turn upwards to form the chords to play the music, it would seem impossible for him to ever play a guitar again. Surprise. It didn’t stop him. He let his arm heal, and then he taught himself to play over the top of the neck of the guitar, forming chords in his own style. As odd as it might seem, not only did he teach himself to play “backwards,” but he also improved his playing skills and abilities from even before the accident. I actually grew up believing that this was how one was supposed to play the guitar. I thought the rest of the world was screwed up until my older brother got his first guitar at age ten.
My best, sweetest and most peaceful times from my childhood were spent sitting in guitar cases or lying on the bed and watching my stepfather’s and brother’s fingers dance across the strings to their own music. If you get a chance to ever see me at a concert or live performance, watch closely. At some point in the show, you will see my eyes slowly fall to the fingers of the guitar player, and then I will go into a dazed trance as I watch their fingers dance and dart about on the instrument. I learned about music and the love and passion for music from these two men.
Today, I am highly and extremely critical of musicians for their lack of passion. If it’s not there to suffer and sacrifice for, then in my eyes, you’re not a real musician. If you are an artist that will quickly sell out for the money and the rock and roll lifestyle, you lose my respect. When the cars, the designer clothes and fashion shows, the big houses in every city of promise in the world buy you out from your passion and pure love of the music itself, then you cease to be anything of worth to me as a musician. I realize that this is harsh and judgmental, but I have seen it time and time again. They send out precious words and music so passionate it would melt the iciest heart, and then, the world discovers them, the music industry discovers them, the fashion world discovers them, and the investors discover them. They become filthy rich, they are pampered and given the best of everything, and then the music literally becomes a product and not something that drips like sad blood from their souls. They tuck their hearts that were once on their sleeves up into the newest and trendiest Versace suit, and the passion in the music dies. It’s like the passion between two lovers. They crave and would swim the deepest seas for time together, just one touch, just one glimpse into each others eyes. They commit themselves to each other for forever and a day, and then, the passion dies.
This is not only the problem with the artists in the music industry, it’s with the whole industry itself. For Pete’s sake, just look at the Top 40 songs in the nation at any given time. How many of those “artists” are really into it for the music, and only the music? Do you really believe that Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys would have suffered to get up on that stage and wiggle around in next to nothing (or, very tight next to nothings!) because they have a passion for the music? Is it so necessary to have the right clothes or the pretty hair to play music? Are million dollar light and laser shows required to have good music to listen to on a hot summer night? Is it rudimentary to have cool dance routines and choreography for the music to be phenomenal? Was it necessary at Woodstock (the first one, folks, not these last two fiascoes!)?
Shoot me in the head and call me a traitor to rock and roll, but what the hell was so great about Elvis? The man couldn’t even play a guitar when he started out and could barely manage it in the end anyway. Granted, he had a lovely voice, but so did every church choir in the South at that time, especially the black churches. Here’s the real dirt, my friends. A good manager and a kick ass promotional man made Elvis, Elvis. It had not one thing to do with good music.
On the other hand, there was the Beatles. You ask me to define rock and roll, when it actually became rock and roll, and I’ll have you listen to the Beatles. Did the Beatles need flash pots and lasers? Did they have to have a promotional man from the great promotional department in the sky to take them where they went? No. They got where they were on the quality, passion, and sheer giftedness of being musicians. Did they ever swim in the luxury of stardom? Almost. But then, it hit all of them what was happening to them and to the music, and they quit. Period. They went their separate ways and reinvented more and different types of music. They were the Beatles because they loved playing, writing, and recording the music.
Every now and then, you have a band come along that still has that spirit and passion. They’ll flicker up in the sky with all the other “stars” and then fade away into small venue tour land where real people that love real music and real musicians still gather faithfully, while the rest of the world goes to the major arenas and gapes in awe at the production, more than the artist and the music. I dare to name a few of these bands and artists. The Black Crowes. I applaud this band on its purity and passion and most especially for not selling out to promotional campaigns. The Grateful Dead. Lord knows, I am not a Dead fan at all, but I gotta respect their integrity. The Doobie Brothers. Damn fine music, no special effects or cute, fashionable clothes. They just got up on stage and played. King’s X. I’m sorry, if anyone reading this doesn’t understand the passion in these three musicians, and the intensity of their craft then, well, you don’t deserve to know how incredible they are as musicians, anyway. Brother Cane. As much as they pissed me off as friends, these guys were real musicians. They lived to play and make music. To watch them onstage, you could literally see the passion dripping out from the pores in their skin in sweat and devotion. I could go on forever on many real artists in music, but I hope by now, you are getting the point.
The music industry is about power, money and getting more power and more money. It has nothing to do with music. The record labels are looking for a product to sell, not an artist to support and encourage. Do the record labels put the same amount of promotional effort and advertising into an ugly guy that sings beautifully alone with a guitar, ala John Denver, or do they pump the cash flow into the next group of dancers with tight shiny britches? Bingo, tight shiny britches that dance get the music industry cash promos over the artist really playing music. It’s a myth to call the music industry the “music industry.” It is really the promotional industry of what will sell to the masses. I, personally, don’t want to go to a “concert” and see the “show.” I want to go to a concert and hear the music and see a musician. When did it become not good enough just to hear the music and to watch the musician perform the piece?
When I am Goddess of my own world, I am making two industries. One will be for music and one will be for circus clowns with attention deficit disorder. One of my commandments will be, “Thou shalt not turn music into a production.” One of the other commandments will be, “Thou shalt keep dancers and wannabe stars out of the music industry.” Light shows, lasers, flash pots, special effects and anything trendy or cool that comes near the music will be considered a mortal sin punishable by not being able to ever hear real music again. You will be relegated to listening to and attending the circus with the clowns with attention deficit disorder. I’m gonna be a harsh Goddess, but at least my world will have pure music with passion.
I’m not going to make apologies for myself, or my opinions of what I consider real music and musicians. I honestly ache for the days when the best musicians in the Southeast would gather at our home in Alabama; we would move the furniture out onto the front lawn of the house and the musicians would move in to what became a living jam session. I long for the times when I could lay on a bed and watch the fingers turn strings and wood into something magical and precious that fell into my ears. I became addicted very early on to the feeling of peace and euphoria that came into my soul as I was lulled into that high from the sounds of a simple guitar and a sweet voice. My childhood dreams and fantasies floated around in my head to the sounds of an acoustic guitar, the smell of the wood and oils from the guitar cases, the sight of fingers flitting over silver strings and the looks of intensity and passion of the musicians that brought me to see and understand a love of music. When did these elements of music turn into a Broadway production on a concert stage? When did the music become second place to the dance routines and special effects?
My cousins were always pretty much idiots with their concoctions of ice cream, and as you can imagine, they had no taste in music either. Let my cousins and the rest of the population that crave the fudge sauces, whipped cream, nuts, and sprinkles have their productions. As for me, I’ll take a simple scoop of vanilla. No, wait, make it a double… it’s been a long time.