I was serious when I said we had enough basket cases. I really didn’t need to sit around crying about my heartache, when Ziggy was flipping out from his meds, Chris was getting pulled down by addiction, and the Megaton shit-fits were not over with yet.
That afternoon we showed up for soundcheck and Louis and the Shithead Brothers had another go around. I heard some of it. The stupid asses believed that the reason the crowd wasn’t as into their band in Austin was because Louis sabotaged their lighting somehow.
I probably didn’t help when I broke in with, “Listen to me, you stupid shits, if your band was any good they could play in a pitch dark auditorium and still keep the crowd into it.”
I didn’t get to put in more than those two cents though because Ziggy and Colin dragged me away. Which was just as well, so I let them.
I sent Colin to fetch the guitars so we could have a lesson. Ziggy gave the sleeve of my denim jacket a tug.
“You doing okay today?” he asked.
“Yeah. How about you? I’m much more worried about you than me,” I said.
“I’m good,” he said with a sigh. “Good.”
That was all we got out before Colin came back.
This lesson was on the short side. We sat on folding chairs backstage while Ziggy sat cross-legged on the floor, watching. The venue was the somewhat improbably named Senator Nat G. Kiefer University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena, but everyone seemed to just call it “Lakefront Arena.” After the airplane hangar in Houston, it looked almost futuristic, like a UFO or maybe just the landing pad for one. Inside it was the same sort of multi-use building we were used to, though, that could be set up for concerts or for basketball games or what. Among the place’s advantages, it was on the UNO campus so unlike in downtown there was lots of space to safely park the buses and equipment trucks. I don’t recall seeing the actual front of a lake, but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. The venue setup had the main flat area of the floor slated for general admission, while the upper seats were, well, seats. They had apparently even sold the sections of seats that were behind the stage, close to ten thousand tickets in all.
Anyway, Colin and I were on folding chairs, sort of angled toward each other but not totally face to face, with Ziggy off to one side. We ran through a couple of go-rounds of the twelve bar blues.
“Okay, so you get the idea that we could just keep playing blues improv like that basically endlessly,” I said.
“Yeah, does that mean lessons are over?”
“Far from it.” I cleared my throat. “There are a couple of directions we can go from here. One is you can learn some more picking styles, one is we can start on more variations of ways to play the same chords, and another is we can move to other chord progressions completely.”
“Oh.” Colin seemed a little deflated by this.
“If you want, I’ll choose, I just wanted to lay out the options.”
“Sure. Whatever, man. Just tell me what to do.”
I thought about it a moment. “Let’s stick with improv, but I’m going to play a completely different chord progression from what you’re used to. Try to hear the chords, and you can cheat a little and look at my fingers if you want to know what notes are what, and play a solo on top of it. This one’s an eight bar progression.”
I started to play without saying any more. Ziggy kind of nodded his head as I went along. I went through the progression twice and then made eyes at Colin, telling him to come in.
He came in, noodling along fairly respectably. Ziggy suddenly sat up a little straighter and I knew he’d recognized what song I was playing, only I was playing it a little slower than usual and with a really simple strum, just using the basic chords.
“Now you pick up the chords,” I said, and Colin played it through with me, then a second time for good measure. I switched to a barre chord for the third time through and I saw Colin’s eyes light up as he recognized it also. Then I played almost note for note the solo I’d played when we recorded it.
“Cross to Bear,” Colin said, naming the song as we went around once more. “I didn’t recognize it at first.”
“Zig, you want to take a turn?”
He shook he head. “I’ll save it for the show.” He ran his hand down his throat.
“Okay.” I pulled up from playing then.
“Okay, okay, so what were you doing here?” Colin ran his hand up the neck.
“And now one of the true great shortcuts of rock and roll. Once I show you this you’re ruined for playing the folk chords forever,” I said.
“No shit. Here are barre chords. You know the finger shape for the A minor and the E major? You can do that with your other fingers and then use your index finger like the bridge, only it moves with you.” I played a series just going up the neck. “And so if each fret is like a key on the piano, up and down it goes.”
“That explains so much,” he said.
“Now here’s the thing. You know how you built a solo around the tonic, four, and five in the blues? In a song like Windfall where the progression’s different, it’s totally up to the tension between what notes the melody plays and what notes the chords are playing. So even the same notes of melody can sound totally different if the chord in the background is a different one.”
“That makes sense.”
“And if you know what the chords are, you can make some decisions about what notes to play and what notes to avoid, and whether the connection from one note in your melody line is a short one, like a half or one step, or a big one, like a jump bigger than a third.” I nodded to him and he fell into a regular one-four-five chord progression and I played two things, similar but not the same, on top of it. “A third sounds happy, a flat third sounds sad, in a minor key it’s always the flat third and the flat seven, although the flat seven is the key to the blues scales, too. The whole point of the blues scales is it’s a group of notes that if you keep using them over and over instead of the regular major eight, gives a certain feel, and that feel is the blues.”
“Do you write songs based on certain scales?”
“Not that often,” I said. “Major, minor, and the blues are the three that people hear the most and so they feel them the most intrinsically. There are other scales, like the Lydian and Mixolydian, but we really don’t need to get into that.” I wasn’t going to get into the circle of fifths or that sort of thing.
Someone whistled sharply in the hallway. It was Trackie, the new drum tech. He looked a little less nebbishy in one of our own crew black T-shirts and jeans. He stuck his head through the doorway. “Need you folks now.”
(Quick site news! Last chance to get in on the Moondog 3 Tour T-Shirt order! Order will go in Monday the 27th, so midnight on the 26th is the deadline! $25 includes US/Canada shipping, open to all readers of the site. Just paypal the money to the Tip Jar address and email me your size/choice of shirt style. View size charts and shirt style choices.)
(Filmed in 1989. Ziggy has a shirt just like Cy Curnin’s. Hey, check it out, this song has a quite an extensive guitar solo. -d.)