April 29 1997
I'm afraid, and it's because I just sat down in the other room and did what I know to be the best guitar playing of my life. I've been practicing like mad for the last couple of weeks and immersing myself utterly in John Coltrane - not necessarily listening to his music 24/7, although at least 3/5, but more reading and thinking about him and trying to feel what he felt through the discipline of constant practice. Not that I've had all that much time - Jesse was sick all last week and was in no shape to go to daycare so I spent a week solid at home with her and only got to practice intensely while she was napping and at night after she'd gone to bed. This in itself was a blessing of course, for two reasons: 1) I got to spend more time in a week than I have over the last eight months with the person who's most precious to me in the world and 2) when I did get around to practicing I didn't fuck around.
But here's why I'm afraid - I want to be able to stand on a stage and play guitar the way I just did a few minutes ago, and I'm afraid it's impossible...there's just too many distractions at a live gig, both from within and without. (I'm not really REALLY afraid; I mainly just wanted to get your attention when I said I was - it's more an anxious excitement, a feeling that I'm on the verge of something huge and I don't want to drop the ball.) I feel that I'm entering a phase of my musical development (this is starting to sound like "Uncle Meat - The Movie") where both my ability to technically play whatever I need to, and my ability to communicate my ideas to a sizable cross-section of the public, will be very much in step. Naturally I'm the worst guy in the world to make that call. Sorry to bring Coltrane up again, but he's the most apt example - in his last years he did his best to communicate his love of music and humanity and his endless reservoir of ideas to the world in the most direct way he could, and during the heat of creation I'm sure he often felt he was doing just that (two-hour solos and no fixed tonal or rhythmic centers notwithstanding). And of course that's the phase of his career which most turns off trad jazzbos, and is nigh-on impenetrable to virtually any non-musician. So here's me feeling like I'm about to become the great popular experimentalist, the trailblazer who's safe for the kids to enjoy, and I'm no doubt wildly overoptimistic. But what's nice about this feeling is that it doesn't matter if it's true or not, what matters is that it's the way I feel.
One of the greatest things which happened to me recently was that my computer crashed, hard, and I didn't have access to the email or the Internet or anything. As of this writing the computer is back up but I'm still not online. So I've been doing tons more playing than usual, on both guitar and piano, and I'm finding that practice is really a very good thing. Once I get online again I'm going to be making some changes. First of all, all the saved email I hadn't yet responded to is gone, gone, gone, so I'm sorry if you wrote to me and didn't receive a response. But I'm going to absolve myself from the responsibility of responding to every piece of email I receive from now on. I'll still read all of my mail and respond to whatever is deemed essential, but I'm going to spend a lot more time with an instrument in my hand and less time typing from now on. I hope this makes as much sense to you as it does to me, and I hope you won't be angered or offended if you send me something and I don't reply personally. I still love hearing from all of you and always will, and I'm grateful for all the attention and support the readers of this page lavish upon me and my work.
(Sidebar - one sure way not to get a response from me these days is to thoughtlessly demean one of my albums...I find that I'm getting more sensitive to offhand remarks lately. I got a letter from a guy a few weeks ago [a real letter, not email - not that I've been answering any snail mail, I'm TWO YEARS behind on that shit] and, right after complaining semi-petulantly about not getting a response to his last letter, he casually mentioned that "Dust Speck" was "not as good" as "hat.". Never mind that the form and content and heart of "Speck" were totally determined by the deaths of my father and Frank and by the birth of my daughter, never mind that it was obviously [well, to me it's obvious] a painfully wrought labor of love and tears and agony - it's "not as good" as "hat.". Listen, I'm totally open to thoughtful criticism, eg. "Hey, y'know, "Dust Speck" just doesn't speak to me the way "hat." did, and here's why..." but I was really not in the mood to have my album dismissed so, so...DISMISSINGLY. I threw away the letter before I even left the post office and it felt goooood.)
On the Vai front, that all starts up again in mid-May. (I'll get around to typing up some more of the Asian/Australian tour diary before I leave.) My mind is a million miles away from that world right now but I'll ease back in with no problem. Right now I'm all about Jesse, about practicing, and about working on my new album which I just love like crazy. The final running order is in place (it's 15 songs - half as many as "Speck" - but it'll still be a 70 minute album. I'm allowing myself a little more space to roam these days) and 12 of the 15 songs currently exist on tape in some form, some finished, others not. Of the three tunes not yet on tape, two ("Egg Zooming" and "I Guess I'll Peanut") are completely written out in score form, and one ("Potato") has been buzzing in my head since the moment it spilled out of it in Farmington, ME at the tail end of the BFD Spring '96 tour. (By the way, Dr. Beller was mistaken when he told you that "I, Drum-Running, Am Clapboard Bound" was a new title for "Egg Zooming" - they're two different songs and always have been. I just saw Bryan [and Dr. Travers] a couple of nights ago at a party. Boy, did we let off some steam.) Atticus Wolrab ("Half Alive" cover artist) and I are brainstorming packaging ideas for the new album already. I will tell you more about why this is the best album of all time when it's a little further along the road to completion.
In closing, two items...first of all, here's the only passage I've ever read which actually led me to hunt down a yellow highlighter pen, from the book "John Coltrane" by Bill Cole:
"The harm done to artists through the 'informed ignorance' of so many people who write 'authoritatively' on matters beyond their comprehension is beyond reckoning. That it is unconscious and not the end result of deliberate ill will makes no difference whatsoever in its effects. It is an unfortunate situation. Trane survived it, but many budding Tranes do not.'
And finally I'm reminded of something I wrote in a Guitar Player article about Frank Zappa a couple of years ago. I can't find the article so I don't remember the precise wording, but in essence it concerned the year 1972, the year during which, in my opinion, Frank found his voice as a guitarist. I commented that, for a lot of people, his approach became too slick from that point on, and that the thrill of discovery (or, put another way, the charm of naivete) which is audible in his earlier recorded solos (from, say, "Burnt Weeny Sandwich" or "Hot Rats") was forever replaced by a kind of automatic skill. From my standpoint, though, I felt and still feel that there were equal or greater thrills to be enjoyed in the sound of a musician finally finding that voice, and using it with greater and greater confidence throughout many years of a career.
Folks, thanks for listening to what I've done so far...I hope you enjoy what's coming up.