Friday, March 16, 2018

Retired, Amateur, and Professional

Three categories of participating (used loosely) artists and technicians could be “retired, amateur, and professional.” I am desperately trying to be retired, but “professional” is the addiction status to which I am trying to overcome. A professional technician is, typically, required to “like everything” in order to work regularly, no opinion of the material involved is preferred. An amateur allows himself the often unappreciated luxury of being a step above a fan in preferences, although amateurs are often snobby about the stuff they don’t like. Retired is ideally when the commerce is gone from consideration. A retired guy gets to say, “fuck this, I don’t like it and never did”: my opinion of banjos and bagpipes, for example. I’m working toward being totally consistent in making sure everyone knows if I’m not happy, they can’t afford me. So far, I’m batting about .500, which means I still get pulled into projects I wish I’d never seen or heard.

As a kid listening to jazz and playing in rock and roll bands for the experience, money, and escape from Kansas, I despised country music (except western, but not country and western, just “western” or cowboy songs). Everything I hated about my hometown was well-described in country music and I wanted to escape to somewhere none of that bullshit existed. I would do practically anything to get to listen to a jazz player live, but I’d leave town to avoid the genres of music I didn’t appreciate. The stuff I could play was tolerable and, sometimes, fun but I dreamed of being a musician I never became. I didn’t become that musician, in large part, because I discovered that I could get into the same doors as a technician. Jarrett’s Law applied for me in a way that allowed/encouraged/eased me out of being a player and behind the glass or at a tech’s bench.

So, I became a professional technician. As a professional, I wasn’t allowed to have preferences in much of anything. Not that anyone told me that, but there are only so many jobs and the bills don’t care whose money is paying them. In fact, getting the bills paid is the prime purpose of being a professional. “Art” and professionalism are almost in direct opposition of each other. In a group activity, the only actual “artist” is whoever is paying the bills. Every step away from the bill-payer is just someone trying to squeeze in their tiny moments of inspiration and art without getting fired for being too creative. For many years, I couldn’t justify taking the salary cut to become more of an artist in my work. Since I’m not much of a people person, that easy excuse allowed me to constantly say to myself and potential employers/customers/artists, “I charge $90-225/hour (depending on the work and year) for my consulting/tech/engineering time and it’s not worth it to me to do whatever it is you want me to do for less.”

June 23 084In retirement, the financial aspects of work no longer control me. I was ruthless enough in the above analysis for long enough that we’re pretty financially independent (as long as Trump and the Russians/Republicans don’t trainwreak the economy and banking system). I’ve been around some kinds of music and performance genres for long enough that I would just as soon never hear or experience them again. Some of the stuff that I’ve disliked for my whole life I still dislike and have no interest in pretending that more exposure will change that. Ideally, I should be down to the things I love and situations I am happy in, but saying “no” is just as difficult today as it was 50 years ago. But I’m working on it. Worst case, I’ll retreat to my dream Montana abandoned mine and practice filling intruders’ butts with rock salt.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

That’s Not Serious, It’s Art

not_artI arrogantly like to think my friends at Aerostich created their “Not Art” sticker in honor of an essay on my motorcycle column that talked about the fact that I do not consider motorcycles any sort of art and don’t want anything to do with a motorcycle that could be considered “art.” In that column, I made a somewhat related comment, “I've been some kind of musician almost all of my adult life and I know what I could play and what I couldn't and I try to spend as little time listening to something I do myself. When it comes to musicianship, I am my own definition of ‘artistic.’” And that definition is “if it ain’t fun to listen to, it’s not worth listening to.” I do not take art seriously under any circumstances, but if I’m playing music the best you can hope for is that it might be fun.

NotArt6_0I have a theory that a rational society would determine income levels by the contribution made by each citizen. So, the highest paid people would always be those who society could, literally, not live or thrive without: farmers, scientists, physicians, engineers, technicians, firemen/persons, sanitation workers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and so on. The people who get paid the most are the ones who would be missed the most if they vanished from the planet. Bankers, hedge fund banksters, lawyers, Republicans, actors and television/movie people, professional athletes and artists, etc. get paid the least because no one would notice them missing if they were to vanish. Their jobs would be filled immediately by perfectly untrained and sufficiently skilled people who would also be paid minimum wages. Yeah, we’d miss the Jeff Becks, the LaBron James, and Jake Gyllenaals, but we’d replace them quickly with even more talented unknowns. There is a world full of amazing amateurs and their skills will more than good enough. At the other end of the values and value spectrum, if all of the doctors in the world vanished, a whole lot of people would die.

When I first re-started my career in audio/music in 2001, one of my customers (later a co-worker) was in his usual state of panic when he said to me, “How come you’re always so calm when everybody else around here (mostly me) is freaked out and in a total panic?” I told him that in the industry I’d just left it was pretty common to get a call from someone that started out with “your piece of shit product killed my kid/spouse/parent/grandparent.” That puts piddly shit like a pop music recording at a pretty low stress level. Yeah, people make a living worrying about silly crap like that, but if they didn’t who would it inconvenience?

When I wrote “We’re Releasing A Record,” I definitely had this thought in mind. The seriousness that kids take when they say that phrase is, even in a historical perspective, laughable. When he read that essay, a friend commented “. . . If you factor in revenue from sync, 'releasing a record' appears to be driven by something other than revenue, or very silly indeed. So Tom, is art driving these folks or are you suggesting that they are silly? Say it ain't so.” Sorry, Rob, it’s so. I mostly think non-essential functions are silly/fun or they are just pompous and ridiculous. I’m ok with silly, but I don’t take it seriously. If it was serious, it would be critical and necessary. Pretty much everyone is some sort of artist and the difference between good, great, and professional art is just not important by any definition of the word.

Fifty years ago, I took a “recording engineering” seminar through the Audio Engineering Society with Stephen Temmer, the founder of Gotham Audio and a legendary recording technician and grumpy old man. We immediately got into an argument about what “serious music” is because he said we wouldn’t be recording anything but serious music in his course and I said “serious music is an oxymoron.” After a bad start, he and I became friends when I discovered that he sang along with classical music (a genre I’d previous thought was painfully boring) on his car radio as if it were a pop song. He immediately saw my point, too. Anything that makes a 50-ish (he seemed ancient to me at the time) man wave his arms conducting a radio-orchestra while driving a full size rental car across an Iowa dirt road could not be serious; and either is the man.

Art is not a serious subject, at least not for me. I only look at or listen to “art” for entertainment. My life would go on without it, in any form. If it weren’t available, I’d make some when and if I had the time.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

We’re Releasing a Record

You know you’re old when that phrase, “we’re releasing our record” means something significant to you. I realize it was a while ago when that statement meant a long process of:

  • hyping a demo tape or EP resulted in getting a contract with a label,
  • writing enough songs to fill out an album’s worth of material (at least 30-45 minutes of music),
  • convincing someone at the label (probably the AR guy) that your material is strong enough and the band is good enough to book serious studio time,
  • keeping it together long enough to get into that studio and get all of the songs recorded without anyone in the band killing someone else in the band,
  • doing well enough in the studio that the material is deemed worth paying a mix engineer to put all the performances together into some kind of semi-coherent collection of songs,
  • impressing the label, again, with those songs so that they cough up the money to send the mixes to a mastering engineer,
  • once the mastering engineer has done his work finding someone at the label to commit time to getting the record and, hopefully, one or two singles played on the radio,
  • and, eventually, selling enough records to pay back the label’s advance and even get some kind of return on the time and committment that results in the band making enough money to do it all over again.

636535255082162902-020618-CD-ONLINEThat is what “making a record used to mean. But that was when music was some sort of “business.” Today, at the label end of the “business, the business seems to be mostly a money-laundering affair. Music sales are dismal, at best, and unlikely on average. Personally, I think the industry’s CD sales reports are bullshit, too. I absolutely doubt that they sell 1/4 of what they’ve been claiming for the last decade. If radio were any indication, there hasn’t been more than a dozen new records/CDs made in the last decade. Both bands and the pay-to-listen venues are buried in 30-year-old music and yak-radio. You could count the number of Milennial songs played on one hand, most days and nights. The music business has been mobbed-up since—forever—and it’s worse now than any time in my life. Like movies, major label units-vs-dollars-riaamusic is a great place to wring out your illegal cash to keep the IRS guys from flagging you. I mean look at these numbers. Would you put your hard-earned money into this sort of vanishing business? That is one seriously steep declining graph. Unless it flattens in the next year or two, it will approach zero really soon.

The “indie” route is particularly profit-free, too. I have way too many friends who have gone the whole route on their own, from hiring great musicians, renting time in a professional studio, assembling a terrific collection of songs and performances, getting it professionally engineered and mastered, and the end result is a basement or attic stuffed with boxes of unsold CDs and a talent diminished by frustrated dreams. CDBaby, BandCamp,  and the other on-line distribution scams are full of stories of musicians “bragging” about selling $300 worth of music in a YEAR! If you can find a worse job than that, on a per-hour and financial investment basis, run don’t walk as fast as possible from that “opportunity.”

So, these days “we’re releasing a record” means “my friends and I cobbled together 20 minutes of mediocre songs, we spent a couple of hours recording them on mediocre equipment that none of us knows how to use, a friend ‘mastered’ the CD with Garageband, and now we’re hoping our friends and family will buy enough copies of our ‘record’ to make us feel successful.” Or, at least, not completely stupid. It’s a brave new world out there. I’m glad I don’t have to make a living in it as a musician.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Is There Still A Jack McNally Day?

This is pretty hilarious, in retrospect. February 15, 2013 was officially declared "Jack McNally Day" by the St. Paul and Minneapolis mayors. Back then, City Pages was declaring McNally Smith College of Music to be "one of the country's premier music schools" and hyping Jack's schmaltzy recording as " twelve-song slice of Americana meets contemporary country that would fit comfortably in between George Strait and Jeff Bridges." See for yourself:

Mayor (at the time) Chris Coleman is all tangled up in this interview, which he'd probably love to see disappear if his run for the state's governor gets any traction. "[Mayor Coleman] will be playing at the release show... So I've been giving the guy lessons for five or six years, and I thought he would kind of peter off, because he's a busy guy, but no! He comes in for his lessons week after week, and he's practiced! I don't know where he finds the time." He's probably not playing or practicing so much these days, since it's a lot of work to cover your tracks in today's well-documented on-line world.

The ending repartee is pretty hilarious, in light of the last few months:

February 15 has just been proclaimed Jack McNally Day. So now you've got your own holiday. How does that make you feel?
What? Are you serious?

Um... yes. Mayor Coleman and Mayor Rybak both declared February 15 Jack McNally Day.
You're not serious. You're pulling my leg. This is a cruel joke.

....No sir. Would you like me to forward you the press release?

Yes! [Laughs] I'll be darned. I'm speechless. What do you say to that? Holy smokes.

There are more than a few interesting MSCM interviews from those years, including this bit of braggadocio from  Doug: "Orchestrating Growth." A big part of the drama the owners generated about the school's closing was the big drop in income in the last years. which is contradicted by Doug's statement, "And today accredited private college McNally Smith serves about 600 students from across the globe, offering 100 faculty members, bachelor’s degrees in 11 subjects and master’s degrees in five. The school’s $3.5 million in 2001 revenues grew to nearly $19 million in 2013, marking 18 percent growth each of those years." Enough to buy a music composition "cabin" on a lake in Maine, at least.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Another Incompetent Conglomerate in Trouble

There is a fair amount of hand-wringing about “Gibson Guitar, maker of the Les Paul, facing bankruptcy after 116 years in business.” “According to the Nashville Post, Gibson’s chief financial officer, Bill Lawrence, left after six months on the job and just as $375 million in senior secured notes mature and $145 million in bank loans become due, if they aren’t refinanced by July. The departure of Lawrence was seen as a bad sign for a company trying to re-organize.”

Sounds dramatic and terrible, right?

Gibson Brands, Inc. is nothing like an American guitar manufacturer, owning a collection of music instrument labels such as Epiphone, Kramer, Maestro, Steinberger, Tobias, Kalamazoo, Dobro, Slingerland, Valley Arts, Baldwin, Chickering, Hamilton, and Wurlitzer. Most of those instruments are made overseas, the majority in China including a good bit of the Gibson product line. Gibson’s big business is consumer electronics and the label either owns or distributes Onkyo and Pioneer, the Philips consumer electronics product line, TEAC/TASCAM, Cerwin Vega, Stanton, KRK Systems, and Cakewalk’s music software through it’s “Gibson Innovations” label. Orville Gibson’s instrument-making business has nothing to do with the mess that Gibson Brands has turned into.

This isn’t a new thing, either. Way back In 1944, another corporate conglomerate, Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI), bought the original guitar-making company. In 1969 CMI was absorbed by one more conglomerate, Panama-based Ecuadorian Company Limited (E.C.L.) which relabeled itself to the more American-sounding Norlin Corporation. After nearly bellying-up during the 80’s recession, some of Norlin’s rich kid-execs bought Gibson and that’s brain-dead trust behind the privately-held corporation that is currently driving the label into the ground; mismanaged by CEO Henry Juszkiewicz and corporate president David H. Berryman. Gibson’s guitar fates have been on the edge of collapse multiple times since the 80’s, so the current panic is just one of a long series. Look for some Chinese conglomerate to be the next owner of the classic “American label.” It’s just part of the plan to “make American great again.”

clip_image001For some reason, this picture is getting a lot of play in the media as the possible collapse of another once-great American label is being discussed. The picture is from the press conference for the Gibson Custom Southern Rock tribute 1959 Les Paul at the Gibson Guitar Factory on 2014. The geezers pictured are Dickey Betts, Charlie Daniels, Gary Rossington, Rickey Medlocke and Jimmy Hall. I think the youngest guy on that stage might be the real Santa Claus. Gibson’s problem clearly has little-to-nothing to do with the general decline in the guitar business, but this picture is a pretty good indicator of the core problem. Guitar is an aging instrument and at the high end that Gibson wants to occupy there is no shortage of higher quality competition and a shriveling quantity of old guys with that kind of money to spend.

Like most of the too-big-to-fail corporate giants in the world, Gibson has a mismanagement problem. The only cure for that has always been bankruptcy, corporate breakup, and a huge refocus by the surviving bits. Don’t get too carried away with calling this a music business problem. This is symptomatic of a far larger American management incompetence problem and rather than addressing that problem the country seems to be doubling-down on the whole idea of putting the dumbest motherfucker at the top and feeding him cake and steaks until he blows up. America’s current business executive model appears to be a bigger-than-life Monty Python skit.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Real Quality Design

When I worked in medical devices, I was regularly struck by the fact that my previous employer, QSC Audio Products, was more concerned with reliability and quality control than either of the two pacemaker/ICD manufacturers" for whom I worked for 10 years after I’d left QSC. I wasn’t shy about expressing that opinion to the people in charge of caring about those two qualities, either. I made that statement to VP’s of Regulatory and Legal and R&D and reliability assurance. I said those words to middle managers, engineers, other reliability engineers and managers, and on occasion to doctors. You’d think that would have terrified, irritated, embarrassed, or pissed-off someone in the grossly over-priced, self-absorbed, and mindlessly corrupt medical industry; but you’d be wrong and disappointed. I don’t think anyone to whom I made that claim even bothered to take it seriously enough to consider the insult and outrage I intended. Usually, the statement just got a laugh. It was, however, a fact and an outrage.

This past evening I repaired an electric bass amp that’s been lying around in my shop for several years. The positive impression I had of the amp’s manufacturer from the availability of service information on their products vanished when I opened the case and saw the probable cause of the amp’s failure before I’d applied a single piece of troubleshooting test equipment: lots of failed solder connections and terrible mechanical design that put almost ever electronic component in either incredible mechanical stress or at the far end of a diving board that would toss the components until they broke or flew off of the circuit board. When I did use some test equipment I discovered the amp’s output and driver transistors were fried on the negative side of the AB1 output and the bias and driver transistors were fried on the positive side. Probably all of that damage was likely caused by the heatsink vibrating all of the output transistor leads free from the circuit board.

clip_image001At QSC, we used an assortment of moderately sophisticated and primitive vibration, shock, and thermal tests that sometimes demonstrated what was mechanically weak in a design in a few minutes. There were very few components that didn’t receive a stress-relief bend (or two). Components with substantial mass received two different securing methods (screws and glue, glue and silicone rubber, or strap and glue). We tested-in over-voltage and power safety margins; sometimes with batch testing and sometimes with individual transistor tests. We had controls that tracked component lots so, if problems arose in production or in use, we knew where those components ended up: product and location. When our customers sent in their postage-paid warranty registration information, we even knew which customers had the products with the problem components. There was a lot of thought, expense, and care that went into making our power amplifiers (all we made back then) the toughest the industry had ever seen. (This really sounds like a commercial, doesn’t it? It isn’t, since I don’t know anything about QSC products produced since about 1993. The last generation of QSC amps I worked on was the EX stuff.)

This bass amp that I just repaired was closer to medical device equipment than QSC’s best stuff from the 1980’s . About half of the weight of the circuit board was supported by the leads of 8 power transistors. The leads were cut straight, which guaranteed that the weak link in that chain would break under vibration conditions. The weak link would always be the solder connections, especially because the circuit board pads were all too small to provide a strong connection. The design abused the strength of several other components and demonstrated a scary lack of mechanical design skills.

I fixed a few of the design’s problems in the repair, but the worst faults are simply too built-in to the design to resolve in a reasonable amount of time. So, it’s back-to-life, but for how long? Some things really aren’t worth repairing let alone improving. The experience reminded me of how lucky I was to have worked for a company that was focused on providing value to its customers and doing the job as well as possible under the constraints of economics and customer expectations. That was a rare opportunity.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

They Were Giants

When I first moved to the Twin Cities, there was a music school called "Music Tech College," mostly known as "Music Tech." I quickly met a few musicians around town, mostly my age or a little younger, and they all complained about what they called "Music Tech bands." It took a bit, but I learned that meant "kids who can read music, play every style from classical to jazz to hard rock and everything between, and who put together bands and shows that make everyone else look amateurish." Music Tech bands really did piss off a lot of the old guard because they raised the bar so high for club jobs.

The instructors in this video are the people who created that monster and made it into something so special that schools around the country copied that model. When Music Tech's owners, jack McNally and Doug Smith, decided to remake the school in their own image, into a traditional music college with liberal arts requirements, "higher education" rules and curriculum, and renamed it after themselves (McNally Smith College of Music) the eye came off of the ball, the mission turned into a marketing slogan, and the value to students rapidly diminished. This video is a great reminder of what that school was once all about.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Life-Changing Music

Looking at the ticket prices for the upcoming James Taylor/Bonnie Raitt concert in St. Paul made me re-evaluate my own concert experiences over the years. At $350-600/per-ticket, I would expect a life-changing experience out of a concert: at least on the level of a week-long vacation trip costing about the same money for two people. Travel has always been life-changing for me; at least 90% of the time in a positive way. Even business travel has been far better than 50% positive, even if the business part sucked (which it often did). So, I started thinking about the life-changing concerts I’ve seen in my 50+ years of music experiences. No, all music performances don't have to be life-changing, but when they cost as much as a month's rent they damn well better be.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of many of my own performances that I’d consider to be positive life-experiences. One of my last gigs, before I quit calling myself a “musician” and quit bands for the rest of my life in 1982 was so disheartening it was another 30 years before I considered playing music even for friends. I’ll have to tell that story another time.

venturesThe first concert that I’d call life-changing was in the early 1960’s when I conned my want into being a stage hand for the original Ventures. I learned a lot from working and seeing that show, including the fact that it’s possible to make a living in music while possessing a wide variety of talent levels: from the simple pop capabilities the Ventures demonstrated to the incomprehensible talents of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. In my first major act show, I also learned that a lousy sound guy could sabotage a good bit of a show just by being lazy and tone deaf.

sam-dave_001My next life-changing concert experience came after several years of Midwestern band touring and a few dozen big name concerts when I lucked into an Stax/Atlantic showcase in Dallas, Texas. The headline act was Sam and Dave, and the intro acts were Otis Redding and Wilson Picket. The PA system was a pair of Shure Vocal Master tower speakers and, probably, a 50 watt 4-channel Vocal Master powered mixer. I’d been in white-boy R&B bands for years before seeing these masters at work. Not only was this performance eye-opening for me because their showmanship and talent was octaves above anything I’d seen to that moment in my life. The sound quality was amazing, with only the vocals going through the “sound system” and the rest of the band balancing their output to stay under the vocals. My wife’s life was changed by experiencing an all-ages audience (close to all black) that was totally into the music, dancing their hearts out, and cooler than any group of people we’d ever experienced before or since.

downloadHundreds of shows in my groups and dozens of major name band concerts later, we saw the Allman Brothers (post-Dwayne and Berry Oakley, with members of Sea Level, a fusion band filling out the band) in a large venue. The intro band, Grinderswitch, was nothing short of awful and brought out the faux-cowboy assholiness of their audience to the point of scariness. When the opening notes of “High Falls” began, the IQ of the audience jumped a solid 50 points. This was the first time I’d heard a large scale sound system that sounded musical; and there haven’t been many such experiences since. I was just beginning to morph from music equipment repair guy to audio equipment engineer and my eyes were opened in multiple directions: mix fidelity and quality, speaker system directionality, musicianship, ensemble performance, showmanship, and song selection and audience mood control. The whole evening was hair-raisingly exciting and I can still hear some of that performance in my head 40 years later.

Pat-Metheny-LiveAnother 5 years of music performances passed before the next life-altering concert experience: the original Pat Metheny Group in a disco-being-turned-into-an-Urban-Cowboy club in Omaha, Nebraska. The club held about 100 people, most of whom were sitting on the floor and my business partner and I and a couple of friends were right in front of the stage, close enough that we thought Dan Gottlieb’s drums were going to slide off of the stage into our laps. Pat came on stage, plugged in, said “We’ve never been here before, so we have a lot of catching up to do.” The band played practically everything from three PMG albums and several of Pat’s songs from albums before PMG: three solid, non-stop hours of amazing music. Pat is the only major performer I’ve seen more than twice and a half-dozen times isn’t even close to enough.

843425848Two decades later, I took my wife, daughter, and future son-in-law to see Steely Dan at Fiddler’s Green in Denver. This was their first tour since they quit the road and got rid of “the band” back in the early 70’s. Roger Nichols was manning FOH and the sound and performance was what I expected; near perfect. It’s hard to call seeing a band I’d loved for most of my life “life changing,” but in some ways it oddly was. First, my daughter and boyfriend didn’t get any of it and left early (bailing out on the most expensive concert tickets I’ve ever bought). That was a wake-up call. Second, I found myself falling in love with those songs almost as if I’d never heard many of them before. Third, I really appreciated my wife’s effort to appreciate music that was not in her ballpark and that she could have been just as easily bored by. We saw SD again, at the Minnesota State Fair a few years ago. It was the same amazing experience, sans Roger Nichols.

Otherwise, it’s obvious from 50+ years of concert going that from here out, when the ticket prices are in the extravagantly idiotic territory I’m going to use the money for travel.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Flashing Backwards

While doing some cabinet making in the shop, I listened to Chicago’s self-produced “documentary” (or promotional video, depending on your perspective) “Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago.” For me, the movie could have stopped about 1/3 way through, when the story got to Terry Kath’s suicide/accidental death/whatever it was. Kath died in 1978 from a self-inflicted “accidental gunshot wound to the head.” Do what you want with that, but I have a hard time imagining accidentally shooting yourself in the head. 

Kath played and sang on Chicago albums from CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) to Chicago VI. Most of the ballsy Chicago vocals were Terry’s, from “I’m A Man” to “Make Me Smile” to “Color My World” to “Now That You’ve Gone.” The other male vocals were Peter Lamm. After Chicago VI, the band went for whiny tenor almost-male vocals and I mostly forgot about them from 1974 on. It’s possible that Chicago did something I liked post-Kath, but I can’t think of what it would be.

In 1970, I was a married trade school dropout with a first kid on the way. I was offered a job in Hereford, Texas with an agricultural equipment company. When my wife and I drove to Texas for my interview, we passed through Amarillo at the moment a local AM radio station decided to play The James Gang’s “Funk 49.” That song allowed us to fool ourselves into imaginging that Amarillo and west Texas were at least as hip as western Kansas. It wasn’t. West Texas was and is as backwards as Alabama; and that might be insulting Alabama. I’ve written about my R&R screwup in “The Last Wagon Wheel Gig.” I haven’t written about what drove me to trying out country music during that miserable period of my history. This is that story.

After we settled into our new home and I got moderately comfortable in my new job, I started looking for a band to join. From the local music store, I quickly learned that there were only three options for a pop musician in Hereford, Texas: C&W, high school kid rock banks, and two horn bands mostly populated by college players from West Texas A&M in nearby Canyon. The kid rock bands didn’t play for money and the horn bands pretty much only worked the college circuit from Amarillo to Canyon to Lubbock and back. The good news was that the horn bands made some money, intermittently. Not much, though, since the cash was shared equally among seven to nine players and a management company out of Oklahoma City.

My last rock band was a fairly successful power trio in the Cream/ Led Zeppelin vein. To be honest, I thought I was a pretty hot guitar player. I could reasonably accurately reproduce Clapton, Page, and everyone British except for a few Jeff Beck solos, I’d been picked (by local musicians) for local All Star bands (on bass) for several years running. Before that, I’d played in a couple of bands that were considered R&B bands, doing Motown and Muscle Shoals hits without a horn section. I played bass with those groups, too. With a recommendation from the music store guy, I got a tryout with both of the horn bands as a guitar player. They both already had excellent bass players.

To make a short story honestly short, I got my ass handed to me during both tryouts. Songs like The Ides of March’s “Vehicle” were right up my alley, but both of those groups were keyed in on Chicago before I knew much about the band. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” got a little radio play, but not enough for me to recognize how great a song it was. The first audition started off with the band leader putting the Chicago Transit Authority record’s charts in front of me. With about a minute to study it, he counted off the tempo and away they went with the intention of doing the whole record straight through. By the time they got to “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” (the 2nd cut on the record), it was obvious I was out of my league. I thanked them for their time and slithered away with my tail between my legs. The 2nd band tryout didn’t get past introductions when they realized I didn’t read music and would need to hear the songs they wanted to play, practice them until I mastered the changes and solo, and come back a few weeks later ready to audition. Again, slithering away.

Several years later, when I was working with the Sum Fun Band in California, I learned that horn players often have an unfair advantage: they are committed musicians rather than guitar hero wannabes. They have been playing their instrument, often, for most of their lives; practically all the way through K-12, college, and adulthood. They read, they know theory and composition, and have been playing in a variety of performance settings from jazz clubs to college marching bands at the Rose Bowl. Using the horn player musicianship standard, most guitarists are as close to being a musician as donkeys are to being unicorns. It’s freakin’ scary how many hours a horn player has practiced by age 20.

Some time passed and Chicago came to Amarillo. I got tickets, partially because the James Gang was the headline band (or the opener, I don’t remember which). My wife was either pregnant or tending to our first daughter, but she was definitely not interested in either band. Probably, especially Chicago because, to this day, she isn’t a fan of horns or B3 organs. So, I was there on my own, which meant I found a spot near the stage where I could closely watch Kath with Chicago and Walsh with James Gang.

All I remember about Joe Walsh was that he was incredibly drunk and had roadies pretty much propping him up against amps or stage gear. His guitar playing was nothing interesting.

Terry Kath, however, ruined my day by demonstrating how much better he was than guitar playing I’d seen to that moment and any chance I ever had of getting into his league. There were guitarists of practically all sorts and Terry Kath was so far into extreme territory that he seemed like he was floating by himself. I couldn’t guess where he was going anytime during Chicago’s performance. I can count on the fingers of my hands how many times a guitar player has left me so damaged, confused, and demoralized.

Somewhere between the Wagon Wheel Gig and seeing Chicago and Terry Kath, I decided I wasn’t going to put much hope into my music career and I began to concentrate on my electronics career. I started a music equipment repair business and sold my electric guitar and amp. At the time, I thought I was through with bands and music. That sabatical lasted two years, when I changed employers and we moved to central Nebraska. In Nebraska, I hired a kid who turned out to be a drummer. He introduced me to what he was listening to in 1974 and we started a band together. And so it goes. A few years later, I was in eastern Nebraska, met another kid, started another band, canned the band and started a sound company and recording studio. The kid tired of music and we closed the sound company and recording studio. I moved to Omaha where I started another studio with another kid and we wrote and played jingles and made some money. He moved to Washington and I moved to California. And so my quitting and returning to music looped a few more times until I ended up retiring in 2013.

Though it all, that evening watching Terry Kath play has stuck with me for almost 50 years. When I watched the Chicago documentary, it brought back some of the feeling of heartbreak and disappointment I felt in 1978 when I heard Terry Kath had died. Chicago was something amazing with him and something non-descript without. I still imagine myself competent enough to play with a horn band, I just don’t have the energy or time to get there from here.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.