Monday, January 23, 2012

You're the Only One by Shawn Persinger


 This essay from 2009 started as a self-pitying, complaining piece that evolved into a, "Get over yourself and get on with good work," bit of catharsis. I had big success with similar subject matter the same year with my first article for Taylor Guitar's Wood & Steel magazine entitled, "Guitar Therapy". WOOD & STEEL

I sent this piece, unsolicited, to John Zorn after reading several of the essays in ARCANA IV offering it as contribution to a future ARCANA book. The ARCANA books are essays by the crème de la crème of the Avant-Garde music world. Essays that, "...illuminates via personal vision and experience through the undiluted words and thoughts of the practitioners themselves." Mr. Zorn was kind enough to respond that the next ARCANA book would be on musical mysticism and as a result my essay would be inappropriate for the compilation. 

As I mentioned this piece has the perceived tone of self-pity but when I read it aloud you can hear more of the humor and tongue-in-cheekiness, please read it with that in mind. If it is not perfectly clear, in our Post-Postmodern world, the title is ironic, as we all, at times, feel like we are the "only ones".

You're the Only One by Shawn Persinger

You are sitting there, right now, reading this book and thinking, “I’m the only one.”

You like this book, you feel as though you’ve found like-minded people…but…not completely. You’re thinking, “Yes, yes I agree with that guy and the first essay too…but I don’t like their music. They’re too weird. No, no, that’s not it, I like weird; they just play too much noise. Why can’t they just write a good, normal, “pop” song? Because they can’t! They can’t. I can…I’m the only one. I’m the only one doing this. I’m the only one who is trying to bridge the gap between the Avant-garde and Pop music. I know others have tried, but come on, they don’t write good songs!”
And now you’re angry. You’re angry because no one knows how great you are and you’ve done everything you can. Everything you know how to do. All the things you’re supposed to do.

Twenty years ago you played every gig you could. You made countless flyers. You drove hours to play 30 minutes and make no money. You even sent out a real mailing list, through the mail! You were okay, not great, but okay. So you listened to new music constantly, looking for ideas, looking for inspiration; challenging both your playing and your composing; taking on all the greats and learning what they did, and what they didn’t do. Slowly you got your own thing going and you got better and better. You saw your entire future; you could go one of two ways, Pop icon, or Avant-Garde iconoclast. Then it hit you. BOTH! You would do both. You, the cover of Time magazine, “The Future of Music”. This would work.

Five years passed. You put out a few CDs. The first of these on your own label, following in the footsteps of your underground heroes and also remembering that The Beatles started their own label. Then a “real” label noticed you. A real “independent” label that is. A small label that you respected. You even liked some of the bands on it, and you thought, “I’m going to make that label famous. I’m going to sell more records for that label than all their previous releases combined.” And you did! You sold about 400 CDs.
You were now a voracious music student and that made you happy because you knew you were already great but you were still humble enough to know there were new concepts to learn. You read obscure books by 20th Century nobody composers who you realized (when you finally heard their music, that you tracked down using some record store fanzine, from the North of England, and paid twenty-seven dollars just for the shipping) didn’t deserve to be famous because their music was unlistenable. Great ideas, awful execution. But you used their experiments as a jumping off point, filling in the missing pieces, like a treasure hunter who found the second half of a severed map. Only you know the way.

Five more years pass. You realize you just want to make a living playing music. You don’t care about becoming famous (but really you do) you just want to play music, make a living and have respect from your peers, whoever they are, “Because no one, I MEAN NO ONE,” you tell your second wife, “is doing what I’m doing. I’m the fringe of the fringe. I’m too mainstream for the out players; I’m too out for the mainstream. Sure a couple of those guys play in pop bands but they aren’t their bands, they’re sidemen.”
You practice insistently, because gigs are few and far between, and you find it difficult to connect with other musicians. This saxophonist only wants to play free improv, this cellist can only play written music, one drummer (who has the best CD collection you’ve ever seen) actually tells you, “I’m not so good at keeping the beat.”
You release another CD, it’s good, and it gets more attention than anything you’ve done so far. You’re reviewed by every major music magazine in the country, honestly, no exaggeration; Rock mags, Indie mags, Folk mags, Jazz mags, even Classical magazines. Why aren’t you selling more records? You have a website (this Internet thing is relatively new, so no one really cares about that yet. You actually have to go to someone else’s house to find out what the Internet is) so you’re on the cutting edge of new technology too! Now to turn those reviews into gigs and CD sales.

Five more years. You wish you were resigned to this obscurity. “I’ll just be like Robbie Basho or Nick Drake. Famous after I’m dead. Maybe I should just kill myself.” Of course you don’t really mean this because you are not that type at all, clinically despondent with genuine, scientifically provable depression issues. Maybe that’s the reason you aren’t a famous musician. You don’t really have non-musical, emotional issues that drive you, like abusive or dead parents in your adolescences. You tick off the names, “McCartney, dead mom; Lennon, dead mom, absent dad; Clapton, absent dad; Waters, dead dad; Bono, dead mom; Parker, absent dad; Streisand, dead dad; Hendrix, dead mom; Beethoven, abusive father. The list goes on and on. But then, being the levelheaded, logical, normal person you believe you are, you think, “This is stupid. There are plenty of great musicians with two, kind and living parents. Besides I’d rather have a caring, existing mom and dad than dead ones and a musical career.” You also face the fact that most of your favorite musicians are not one-pronoun household names.

Five more long, long years. Here you are reading this book. You’re still the only one doing what you’re doing and you are doing it better than ever. You record. You also write out all of your music, like a real composer, on paper, with notes and staff and archaic Italian instructions. You even transcribe the improvised solos from your first record. You play shows. You sell the odd CD. Sometimes you even get the occasional fan e-mail, out of the blue, “Just found out about you through a friend who bought your second disc at a pawnshop in 1996. It’s awesome. Do you still play?”

Five years from now…and you’re still the only one.

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The End.
See you next week. 
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