Aspirations in the clouds but your hopes go down the drainHoward Jones – No One is to Blame
I started working on a classical guitar piece back in 1987 when I was seventeen years old. I started a couple of bands. It seemed like the only people I knew were musicians, artists, and sober young people. By this time, I had given up on high school in favor of a GED. I think I had eight separate jobs that year.
I moved out of my mother’s house into a two bedroom apartment with my friend Bryan. It seemed like there was always someone sleeping on the couch. At one point, we had four guys sleeping in the living room. The rent was only four hundred dollars a month all bills paid, and we were always late. The complex was so dangerous that the pizza guys refused to deliver. The delivery guy from Two Yen was proud that he was the only one that would deliver, “The pizza guys are pussies.”
My car wouldn’t start, so I left it in our reserved spot in the parking lot. One day I was amused to notice that someone tried to steal it. I was even more amused when they came back later with tools and fixed it, then stole it.
I was obsessed with music. I knew I wanted to pursue it further, but music school had not yet occurred to me. I bought sheet music that I didn’t know how to read and stared at it until it made sense. I learned some Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Then I decided to write something in the same style. I had no idea what I was doing.
A typical week was roofing six days a week and rehearsals at night. On Thursday from 11pm to 7am, my friend Darrell had eight hours of time at the recording studio at Houston Community College (HCC) as part of his Music Production and Engineering classes. We were recording to tape. I would get home from work, take a shower, maybe eat, someone in the band with a running vehicle would take me to the rehearsal space, pack everything up, take it to HCC where we would flounder around trying to piece songs together to make a coherent production. Then we would load it all back to the rehearsal space. By 9am, I would be up on a roof again. Friday night and Saturday were a fog of exhaustion. How I found time to learn music other than what we were playing in the band, I have no idea.
I didn’t know enough to finish this guitar piece in 1987. It would take two years. It seemed like every time I learned one thing, there was something else that I needed to know.
My impression of life when I was seventeen years old was that I would arrive somewhere, that life would plateau with a clear view of everything I had accomplished. I wonder if this is a common impression. There were times where I felt proud of my achievements, but I have never felt like I could rest. My successes were precarious and short-lived. I am not sure if this view was correct or if I was just too ambitious. What list of accomplishments would have been enough? I am working on music, fiction, video, a feature-length movie, a podcast… I suppose I did everything I wanted to do as a programmer, but I even still do a little bit of that.
Then there are the people. I have already named one of the dozens of people in my life around that time. Darrell had the studio time at HCC. Then there was the band. Over that year there was Eddie, Bill, Doug, Anne, Kristi. There were other shorter lived members. There was Mark Onofrio. I talk to him often now. He never learned how to read or anything about music theory, but he was the most talented musician I ever worked with. Then there was Mark Pringle.
“No. See you do it like this.”
“I can see that, but what is what?” I was getting frustrated. Mark Pringle made me a copy of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Bach for guitar in A Major. The week before I taught him how to play Mood for a Day by Steve Howe, a tune I had learned from some incoherent tablature and by listening to the cassette. Because I knew this tune, Mark assumed I knew how to read music.
“It’s like this,” he looked at the sheet music and played it again.
I said, “No. What is this note?” I pointed at the first note in the piece.
“Oh. It’s an A.” He plucked the open A on his guitar. “You don’t know what any of the notes are?”
“No. What’s the next note?”
“It’s another A, one octave up.”
“And the next one?”
“It’s a B.”
“The middle line is a B? You mean the space below it is A and then the line is B?”
“Yes. You don’t know any music at all?”
These interactions were common with Mark and I. We would connect on really abstract subjects but have big misunderstandings on simple things. This was right before I started writing this guitar piece. I had no idea what time signatures were. Ten years later, we would have a similar conversation about coding.
“You start with a header that has all this information.”
“I know all that.”
“Then you do it inline. You have the HTML here and the ASP around it.”
“Yeah. I know that. Where do you write the code?”
“What? Right here.” He was pointing at the screen.
“No. Where do I type it?”
“On the computer?”
“No. What program? Where does it go?”
“Oh. In notepad.”
“Yes. Then you save it with dot HTML or dot ASP.”
The fog lifted. I was in three separate bands over a ten year period with Mark. I can still remember some of the songs we wrote. The last band we were in together had a bit of a following in the late 90’s.
All these people. All of this effort. No recordings. We just never got anywhere. Recording equipment wasn’t as easy to come by as it is today. Today I made a song and video on my phone in the lobby of a dentist’s office while waiting for Yolanda. Within thirty minutes of making it, ten people heard it and watched it. All of that effort in the late 80’s and early 90’s, all of those songs, no recordings. I will admit, I am glad that some of these songs were not recorded. There are some that surface from time to time. The HCC sessions came to light not too long ago. I have it around somewhere, but none of them were finished. I recorded a song with Andy Zubik in Austin on a whim, again with Darrell as the engineer. It was a love song Andy wrote called, “You and I.” I can still hear the whole song. We have no idea where it went.
I can still hear Mark Pringle’s voice in my head sing songs in their entirety. I still have the timbre of Kristi’s voice. One summer, Eddie and I played in his parent’s hot ass garage every day, just guitar and drums. The neighbors, and Eddie’s parents, suffered in silence. I have no idea how they didn’t complain. I would have been having fantasies of murder.
Tomorrow (Tuesday), I will be having a chunk of my liver removed while I am still partially awake. I like to describe procedures in these terms. There are these euphemisms in medicine. I know there are scientific terms that need to be used, but I am convinced that they are also terms to remove the practitioner as much as the patient from the reality of what is going to happen. They are going to give me some drugs that won’t put me out, just make me not care about what is going on, and also, hopefully, I will forget what happened. The first liver biopsy, the euphemistic term for taking a piece of flesh out of one’s liver, I didn’t forget. I remember the whole thing. I don’t know if they give me more of the drugs now, or if some part of me is just satisfied to know what is going on and doesn’t care to be around anymore.
Dr. Dumbrava said, “I have to ask. We want to take a piece of the lesion in your liver for our own research.”
“You mean for research here at MD Anderson?”
“Yes. We want to take a piece of your cancer and try to grow it in mice.”
“You want to give my cancer to mice?”
“Yes. Would that be okay?”
“Of course. You’re going to give my cancer to mice and then try to cure them.”
“Why would I say no to that?”
“Well the research will probably never benefit you, but you have an interesting combination of mutations. It would be good for us to study it.”
“So, some of it goes to the pharmaceutical company and then you keep some here.”
“Of course, you can do that.”
There is something about this that I find amazing. My cancer will live on in mice. They are going to try to cure my cancer in mice. Perhaps they will still be trying to do that long after I am gone. Maybe there will be a eureka moment that ultimately helps me before I am gone. Who knows?
I get on these runs of creativity these days that are packed with school and writing and music and Lucy, and then I have a day like tomorrow. It’s sort of unreal to think that I am up late writing this for publication tomorrow. In the morning, I will get up and go to MD Anderson. Then, sometime in the evening, I will go home and talk to Lucy about school and whatever else. The next morning, I will take Lucy to school. Then I will go to MD Anderson for an immunotherapy infusion. Life is full of these weird little miracles that happen every day.
And then those little miracles and the people that went with them are gone, leaving almost nothing behind. There are those that are remembered for their greatness. We study the things that they left behind.
In the early 90’s, my grandfather died. I remember my mother going to the house in New Jersey and staying for a few weeks, maybe a month. There were keepsakes that her and her siblings divided, but in the end, a lot of it was just stuff. The people are gone. I am fascinated by this concept over and over.
There are nearly eight billion people in the world right now. When I was born, fifty-two years ago, there were only three and a half billion. In one hundred years, there will likely still be eight billion people or more, but very few of them will be among the living of today. It will just be eight billion new people. That means eight billion people dying while leaving behind things that were only infused with meaning while they were alive.
And still, knowing this, I am driven to leave behind as much music and writing as I can. Is it important? I doubt it, but it means something to me now.
I began writing this piece in 1987. Two years later I performed it in Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory in front of one thousand people. It was a showcase for some charity. I played for twenty minutes, five classical pieces on the acoustic guitar, mainly because I have never owned a classical guitar which would be more appropriate for a piece like this. I was nervous as hell. I practiced until I was sore. I was definitely a better finger-style classical player then than I am now. I am not sure if I have it in me to be that good anymore, but I can still play it. The concert was mentioned in a brief blurb in the Boston Globe. I was named. I kept the clipping for a long time.
After that show, it occurred to me that I could expand the voicings into an orchestral piece. I wrote it out for strings, woodwinds, and brass. No one is ever going to play that piece in a live orchestra. I have lived long enough for the technology to provide a strong resemblance of what that would sound like. In a couple weeks, I will post that piece here as well.
It’s kind of funny that so much of the music industry’s playing field has been levelled out, but this one area, chamber music and orchestra, still has such a strong barrier for entry. I believe that barrier is purely psychological. Sure, these things would sound better if played by live instruments, but that is true of any music. Even live analog synthesizers sound better than their digital counterparts. Technology brings down the barrier for entry.
I will be putting out a lot more music here. There will be links here to where to find it as I distribute it to the streaming services. I will still be putting out a piece of music every day to Patreon subscribers. As always, please comment. Start any conversation whenever you want. As busy as I am, I always try to find time for a friend. It only matters while we’re here. You can find me on Facebook and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or just comment here. I am trying to find a way for WordPress to send an email when I respond to your comments.