Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Generations of Metalheads: Passing On My Bass

This year, I am passing on an object that, by virtue of giving it to my teenaged daughter, effectively becomes a family heirloom -- my bass guitar.  On her own initiative, she asked this summer if she could get it out of storage -- I hadn't played it for years, since now I putter around with a banjo that previously belonged to my dad -- and start learning how to play.  I was surprised, and very happy, that she wanted to learn an instrument -- she is already a strong singer -- and to learn this instrument particularly in order to play metal songs, specifically KISS songs!

So, for the last four weeks, she's been plunking away here, downloading tabulature, practicing, and taking lessons from a bassist at a local music store.  I've recently had it overhauled -- the buddy-of-a-former-brother-in-law who "rewired" it a decade back did what I hesitate even to call a "job," even with the qualifier of "bad" -- and she got to play it today for the first time actually plugged in.  Not into a bass amp, and not turned up all that high, but still enough for her to get a sense of the raw sonic power that the instrument she held, fretted, and plucked!  So, I'm experiencing the kind of excitement and pride that parents feel when one of their children decides to follow along, not necessarily in their footsteps, but along a similar and shared path.  And added to that is the simple fact that I've discovered that my teenage daughter is a genuine metalhead!

Early Formative Years

When she was a toddler, my daughter soaked up metal simply by spending time with me, thereby forming some early associations, a foundational manifold of musical taste that later years might have been able to cover over with the inevitable pop, but not to erase.  As I've written about previously, I started seriously listening to metal again, after a considerable hiatus, in the early 2000s -- not all that long after Catherine was born -- and since we spent a lot of time together until she was around eight years old, that meant that she listened to, and eventually sang along to, asked about, and even requested, a lot of classic heavy metal.

Back then, I was rebuilding my library slowly, primarily through the media of CDs and Windows Media Player.  About once every two months, I'd make it to a used CD store and scour the racks for any 1970s and 1980s metal works.  Whatever metal I could find on CD at the local libraries, or in the hands of friends and family, I'd also download.  And then, of course, I'd burn that onto CDs for myself to play in the car.  Living in rural northwestern Indiana, with a one hour commute to my job (teaching at Indiana State Prison), and anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour to get anywhere else we needed to go, I did a lot of listening to those tracks in the car.  And since a lot of that driving took place either getting my daughter to some place she needed to be, or taking her to someplace we liked -- parks, libraries, wildlife areas, secondhand shops, firework stands, and fishing holes -- she and I did a lot of listening together.

During that time, I was in the process of rebuilding my 70s-80s metal collection.  I slowly got my hands on quite a few CDs of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, the Scorpions, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Metallica, and Van Halen.  I managed to find a few here and there from many of the other bands that I'd loved back in my teens and early twenties -- RATT, Motley Crue, Accept, Motorhead, Anthrax, Megadeth, WASP, Quiet Riot, and Ozzy Osborne.  Catherine imbibed and gradually became imbued with a melange of riffs, lyrics, hooks, solos, and basslines from all of these.  But I've left out so far the band that she loved the most and which made the greatest impression upon her.

"You wanted the best and you got the best. . . . The hottest band in the world. . . KISS!" She heard that epic line both as we listened to the band, and from me, eventually getting to the point where, like a catechist, I could quiz her "who's the hottest band in the world?" and she'd immediately, perhaps even unthinkingly, shoot back the answer.  I'm not sure what it was about them, but that was then, and is again now hands-down, her favorite band.  What might have tipped the scales was that she had an electric toothbrush that played "I Want To Rock And Roll All Night," as she did her nightly back and forth. . . .


Fast-Forward to the Present

It's one thing to share, to listen together to, and to talk about classic metal acts with a little kid.  It's something entirely different to do so with a teenager.  Last March, on our trip there and back for visitation over Spring break -- I'm a divorced dad who for the time being lives quite a distance from my kids, so I get to spend less time with them than I'd like -- we listened to quite a bit of Accept and Motorhead, and got into some interesting discussions about what was going on in the songs musically.  I got to play for her Accept's "Metal Heart," with its mid-song solo break into "fur Elize," and watch her excitement at hearing how some of the heaviest of the 80s rockers could swing over into and incorporate a classical theme without losing a beat.  I could see the proverbial gears turning in her head. . . .

This Summer, however, was a quantum leap beyond where she was during the earlier trip.  She came with a whole array of KISS songs queued up on her phone's Spotify (or whatever one does with that app -- I have to admit that I don't use it myself), but she'd expanded her selections on her own to encompass AC/DC, Iron Maiden, RATT, Quiet Riot, Aerosmith, and a few other bands.  Over the course of our trips and our summer visitation, she encountered a lot of other bands, decided whether they made the cut or not, and added quite a few of them to her Spotify.  We had a rental car that came equipped with Sirius Radio, which meant that, when it wasn't on pop stations (her brother likes those, and she still likes them sometimes as well), we spent a considerable amount of time listening to the Hair Metal and Ozzy's Boneyard channels.

We not only listened, but we also talked about the music.  I told her -- when I knew -- what musicians were responsible for the works she was listening to, and -- again, if I knew -- why it mattered who was on the roster at that time.  She had questions for me -- not just passive, teenage sorta-"listening".  She had and acted on a genuine desire to know, to understand, to associate something conceptual with the affective, musical experiences she encountered, and we lived through together.  Here's some of the highlights from those weeks together:

My daughter discovered UFO.  These days, you're hardly ever going to hear this seminal and currently underrated band except on metal stations and shows.  "Doctor Doctor" is quite possibly her favorite song at present, though she also loves "Rock Bottom," "Can You Roll Her," and the ever-raw proto-metal "Boogie".  Her almost instant and intense allegiance, seemingly on sonic grounds, to that band has, I'll admit, pleasantly surprised me!  The dramas surrounding the band's history -- their luring a young guitar tyro Micheal Schenker away from the Scorpions, bassist Phil Way leaving to start (but then also leave) Fastway -- fascinated her.  In fact, the interconnections, influences, and exchanges between bands. . . she was ready to start delving into all that musical lore (she's probably got a good preparation, though, from her longstanding interest in mythology and folklore!)

She also got into Queensryche -- not the really early stuff, like The Warning and Rage for Order, but the songs from the more thematic Operation Mindcrime and Empire that tend to get far more airplay.  Once she heard "I Don't Believe In Love" -- which is indeed a damn catchy song, and exactly the sort of thing for a young, developing, healthy metalhead dealing with the to-be-expected teenage conflux between romantic imagery, newly awakened hormones, and the need for dramatic schemas.  I told her that this song was just a portion of a much greater work -- a genuine concept album -- and we listened together to Mindcrime on the drive back out to the Midwest.

Perhaps the development I'm happiest about is a distinction that she made between two versions of the same song -- "Am I Evil".  We heard and listened attentively to the original Diamond Head version and then the Metallica cover version.  I kept a poker face and didn't give away any of my own assessments while we listened, and then asked her which one she thought was a better song -- not which one she liked better, not which one was cooler, but which one was actually better musically.  She immediately came down on the side of Diamond Head, but had trouble articulating precisely what made it better -- so we talked our way through it, examining all of the elements of the work.  And then later, I played the introduction to Holst's "Mars, The Bringer of War," showing her the classical antecedent to the Diamond Head chord progression and riffs.


Passing On the Bass

So, all told, as you can tell, I'm pretty excited about the fact that my daughter is not only taking after me, and going off on her own as well, but that we've got back (and more!)a ground of connection, of bonding meaningful to both of us.  What about when it comes to something tangible that -- because of distance -- can't really be shared?  It's one thing to lend someone close to you a bass so she can participate in a month's worth of music lessons and practice during the summer.  It's another to -- when asked if she can take it home, for keeps -- to let it go, to pass the instrument on to one's child.

Doing so, of course -- despite the risks involved -- inaugurates something new, indeed performatively generates something that can then be called a "family heirloom." I already have one such instrument myself, my father's Vega longneck banjo (on which I do play quite a bit of metal -- again, a story for another time), but that one I more or less inherited.  My father, who had bought it during his college days, died young (only 36), and passed his banjo on by default.  Once I picked it up, and started learning how to play, it was de facto mine.  And, of course, he wasn't going to need it anymore. Letting go of an instrument that, though I haven't played it for years, I have cherished. . .  that's quite different.

I learned to play bass while I was a young man in the Army, and then when I came back to the States, with my very first paycheck (working at Shakey's Pizza Parlor, in Waukesha, Wisconsin), I went down to the pawn shop and picked her out -- a beautiful blue bass guitar that I ended up giving a name to later on, Betsy.  I played countless hours over the next five years, jamming with a number of other musicians, practicing and improvising on my own, playing along with tapes and records.  I experimented with various amps and effects.  Out of necessity, I learned how to use a bass along Lemmy-lines, like a rhythm guitar, but instead of just overdriving it, I ran it through distortion and a bit of chorus into a 200 watt power preamp, down into a 15-inch speaker, with my old 12-inch practice amp taped into the circuit as well.

So, when my daughter asked, "Dad, can I take the bass home?" I had to think -- and feel my way through a surprisingly tough decision.  I deliberated over it a long time, both by myself and with my wife.  And at the end, I made the right decision -- but it was tough.

I texted my daughter tonight:
The bass has a name -- it's Betsy.  She is old, at least 25, but as you know, she has new electronics in her guts.  When she is plugged into an amp, she can really sing.

I'm happy to have passed on the mantle of bass player to you -- and I'm happy that she is in the hands of someone who has so much musical talent and imagination.  Pick her up every day and practice a bit -- and with her, together, you'll be able to sing with your hands as well as with your voice.
The very first song she downloaded bass tablature for -- I'll leave off with that -- KISS' "C'mon and Love Me."