Sep 29, 2010

Mythbusters Unplugged

Dear ask a punk-
I have wanted a guitar for a long time. My parents said the usual stuff about keeping my grades up which I did, but they say if I want a guitar I have to get an acoustic guitar first to learn on. Why is that? I want to play rock and punk music anyway. Do people have have an acoustic guitar first? - GuitarBoy

Dear GB
I think I might have answered this question before, but it is worth repeating:

The answer is NO. There is no reason, repeat NO reason, why a person who wants to play rock guitar "needs" to start on an acoustic guitar first... In fact I think there are a few reasons why starting with an acoustic is actually a BAD idea for any wannabe guitar beginner.

Are your parents lying to you on purpose? A fair question, but they're probably not... but frankly I'm a little surprised they're perpetuating the 'get an acoustic first' myth because I'm guessing your folks are probably my age - or likely even younger than me, so they should know better.

Like all myths, this one is based on some facts, or former facts... It used to be true that electric guitars (and the amps you need to play them through) were expensive investments that parents were hesitant to make on what might be their kid's quickly passing interest... so the idea was to buy a cheap guitar and if the kid "stuck with it long enough" then maybe they would shell out for a Strat. This is no longer true... in fact the $150 spent on a 'cheap' electric guitar will likely get you a better instrument than the same amount spent on an acoustic... and a tiny battery-powered starter amp will probably set you back less than $20. It is also important to keep this point in mind: Buying something reeeeeally cheap (either acoustic or electric) is going to defeat the whole purpose of sustaining your interest in making music. There has to be some sort of minimum quality to the gear you start off with. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to learn on an instrument that won't stay in tune of that breaks apart in your hands.

And speaking of young hands and delicate fingers, here is another reason why "start with an acoustic" is wrongheaded dogma; The strings on an electric guitar and thinner, looser and bend easier. This makes them easier to play. The body of an electric guitar is almost certainly going to be thinner and less bulky than an acoustic, making it easier for smaller arms to hold onto and reach around the instrument.

Another reason parents might push the acoustic agenda is that they think an electric guitar will necessarily be louder (and more annoying for them and the neighbors.) This isn't true either. You can either play through headphones - at non-ear-damaging volumes of course - or yes, you can play/practice on your electric guitar without even plugging it in... in a quiet room you can hear what you're playing perfectly well. These strategies work for grown-ups too. We city dwellers can't be blasting our guitar amps in our quiet apartment buildings now can we? we use headphones or practice unplugged.

If you had said you wanted to play bluegrass or country or easy-listening it would make some sense to just learn on an acoustic, since that is what you would end up playing anyway... but you want to rock, so why pretend otherwise? and if you do eventually get deeper into it, and the guitar becomes part of your life, at some point down the road you might find yourself wanting to add an acoustic to your guitar arsenal. ...and when you do, your first thoughts wil be "Man, are these strings tight and a pain in the neck/fingers to play."

So there it is. No one has to start on an acoustic, and anyone that says otherwise doesn't know what they're talking about.

Sep 22, 2010

The Eternal New vs. The Eternal Night.

DEAR ask a punk -
I'm pretty sure I'm older than you. I hung it up years and years ago. The last time I played in a band it was I think 1988. I know it was at least 20 years ago. I don't miss it and my wife and kids - three of them - really don't know much about it. There weren't as many pictures taken in those days. Why am I writing? I guess because I feel like I'm in a no-win situation now. I know I'll never like any new music I hear as much as I once liked my favorite bands, but at the same time, all those dozens, probably 100s of "favorite albums" are so deeply burned into my brain, that I don't feel like I have to listen to any of them ever again... and if any of those songs were to come up on the radio - which never happens of course - I'm not so sure I wouldn't flip the channel anyway. I know listening to new music would be a mistake too. I would complain that it wasn't as good or if I DID happen to like it I would mortify my daughters. I guess I'm asking, what can an old ex-rocker - I think I pre-date even punk, really - do with this unfocused yearning for - SOMEthing worthwhile? - Rock-a-papa.

Dear Rpapa -
The first time I was reading along through you email I thought you were going to ask me what you should listen to now... but when I got to the end the question was a lot more open-ended and vague than I expected. Maybe you MEANT to be more specific or maybe your question was more existential in nature... I can only guess... but since bits/bytes are more-or-less free, and god knows I've got the time, I'll take a stab at answering the question both ways.

If you're tired of your favorite old albums but don't want to suffer through whatever your kids THINK is quality music (a wise choice by the way) there are, I'm sure you, know a million other sounds and bands you could explore here on the internet. You could go the 'tracing the roots' route - Where you dig into the history of your favorite bands and determine who THEIR favorite bands were... and then you investigate THAT music. Or you could just let the computer spin the musical roulette wheel by going to pandora, creating a few 'personal stations' and then waiting to see what similar bands you've never heard of get added to 'your' station. ...or you could just surf myspace band pages or you could randomly pick a country and google for 'bands' in that country... or if you want to keep it in the US, pick a state or a city and search around to see what bands are currently hailing from that zip code. I'm betting that I'm not telling you anything you don't already know here... which makes me think your question WAS more vague and existential.

The only guitar I ever bought "new" is just a few years away from being officially considered "vintage." I was listening to a 'TEDtalk' podcast yesterday that told me a 62 year old person ages 125 times faster than a 12 year old does... what does this all mean? It means Time (with a capital "T") is like a great white shark - a remorseless eating machine and what it is eating is us and everything else. That sense of 'yearning' you're feeling, which is a more positive term than 'anxiety' is the feeling of that accelerating decline and of wanting to cram more new things into your life while you still have the energy to seek out new things, experiences & sounds, appreciate them and somehow tie them into the long (but much too short) running narrative of your life.

Does that about sum it up? ...or am I being a blowhard here? THAT is another good reason to keep seeking out new things and experiences... if you're always learning about something new, that delays the moment when you'll start acting and sounding like an expert (or more accurately: THE expert) on only the things you already know... and that leads to rigidity in the thinking and in the body and in the soul.

So you've got the right idea... keep pushing outward in all directions to see, hear and learn new things. This keeps you moving forward. Just make sure that you're not doing all this INSTEAD of connecting with your daughters and with the people who are important in your life. Sometimes the 'Quest for knowledge' or other grand obsessions (or even all-consuming hobbies) can be distancing mechanisms people use to protect themselves from connection and intimacy ... and that can be really sad because human connection is really what keeps us alive, subtle and timeless.

Sep 15, 2010

Battle of the Band(s)

DEAR ask a punk-
My band is divided over an issue. A club is sponsoring a 'Battle of the Bands' this Fall. There are a couple of 'rounds' and if you win one night you get to go to the next until the end. Half the band thinks it is a lame idea and the other half wants to do it. We haven't been together for long, so it isn't like I think we could WIN it, but I think it would be a good way to be seen. So you know how I'm voting. So I guess I have two questions - Should we enter the BotB and, with an even number of band members what is the best way to solve these voting ties? - Battler.

Dear Battler-
I usually tell people that "a gig's a gig" and, if nothing else, any live show will help a new band in ways that 20 practices wouldn't... but these "Battle of the Bands" things can be tricky...

First of all, don't expect to win. I don't care how good you are (or aren't.) These things are usually (if you're lucky) decided by the audience, so the most popular/well-known band, the one that brings the most fans & friends through the door are most likely going to win. If you're not lucky then a panel of 'judges' will be determining the winners based on all sorts of shady criteria that you couldn't begin to guess at.

The other tricky thing about BotB's is that some of them are flat-out scams... Is there a heavy "entrance fee" or some other cash outlay (like having to pre-sell your own tickets or make up the $$ difference) that each band is expected to shoulder? If so... then DON'T enter the contest. You would be better off spending the couple hundred bucks renting out a space and throwing a gig/party of your own.

But if the costs of entry are low and you keep your expectations low, it can be a good experience. As I said first off: As a new band ANY gig is going to be good practice, and something like a BotB, especially in a small-ish scene like the one you've described is a good way to possibly meet, all in one place, many of the people involved in your town's music scene: other bands, other promoters, new fans etc... You'll learn (quickly) that some of these people are D-bags that you'll want to avoid in the future, but you're also likely to make some new friends and comrades in the scene and if you don't suck and don't act like complete tools, you might find some of your new friends & acquaintances offering you gigs and introductions to other worthwhile people. ...yes, it is called 'networking.' ...but if you want to be part of the music scene in your town, a little elbow rubbing couldn't hurt.

I can hear some people complaining already... I said elbow-rubbing, not brown-nosing. As I said, you're likely to meet as many people you'll want to avoid forever as you are allies... but hey, that is still useful information to have isn't it? ...that is IF you want to learn about the mainstream venues in your town... There is certainly something to be said for going your own way and DIYing your gigs, publicity and future. I'm all for that as well... but you didn't tell me ANYthing about your band's style of music or basic principles, so I'm left to guess.

As far as figuring out how to break a tie in a band with an even number of people... I guess it depends on how agreeable you all are and how important the decision at hand might be. Something relatively unimportant like "Should we enter a Battle of the Bands?" might be decided if one faction or the other decides to just relent OR you could just flip a freakin' coin. I mean it doesn't really matter THAT much either way, does it? ...Bigger decisions, if you ever have to make them, well, hopefully people will be able to civilly debate, compromise and persuade each other to come to a group decision that everyone can be (relatively) happy with.

Sep 8, 2010

(Don't) Look Homeward Angel.

Dear AAP,
I'm 20 years old a girl and I moved to New York about a year ago from Georgia. I moved away to get away from my dysfunctional family (drugs/bad issues). My problem is that I have now found myself stuck over here, cannot get a job, cannot afford my rent, had to stop going to school(money stuff) and have lost about everything I own. I really don't want to go back to them but I feel like I have no other choice. I'm just sort of lost. I've made great friends and I really love it here. What do you think I should I do? - Lost

Dear Lost -
The good, really good, news is that you managed to achieve escape velocity from your dysfunctional family situation at a much younger age than most people. Congrats on that. The bad news is that, when you escape so young, you don't have quite as many resources (money, education, experience or even credit) to fall back on when things get dicey, which can tend to suck... but there is still more good news, and it is this: You're young, and that counts for a lot: 1) You've still got a subtle spine that can handle some extended time sleeping on assorted couches and floors if necessary. 2) Assuming you can avoid getting hit by a bus, you probably don't require heavy-duty health insurance or the sort of perpetual prescription medications that you'll probably be needing in about 20 years.

What I'm saying is - you've got the luxury of time. Oceans of time. There is a certain nobility in struggle when you're so young. People will cut you tons of slack and admire your "moxie" for striking out on your own without much of a safety net... and believe me when I tell ya, it is a lot tougher to pull off that nobility-of-struggle angle when you're, oh, say, MY age. I know saying "you're lucky" is useless, but ask any, and I mean ANY rich 50+ year old if he/she would trade places with a temporarily down-at-the-heels-but-potential-filled 20 year old, and he/she would say YES in a heartbeat.

I'll get back to the first thing I said. If nothing else remember what you've escaped from. I'm sure any day eating ramen in a dicey neighborhood beats the heck out of whatever hellish bullshit you would be going through if you were still back home and under the thumb 'those people' right now, right? Damn right. Think of all the people who don't escape at all. ...and I understand that this is part of your fear too - the thought of maybe having to go back... I get shivers on your behalf just thinking about it. I don't think it'll come to that (moving back, I mean) I doubt your options will dwindle down to that absolute zero, but even if they do, you'll have the strength of knowing that you CAN escape... since you've already done it once, you could certainly do it again with a little time, patience (and savings) ... but as I said, I doubt it'll come to that.

I'm probably repeating what you've heard already but it is true: These are tough times for (nearly) everybody. What start as tough economic times turn into tough psychological times in an alarmingly rapid way. Plans and hopes for a bright future become dim to the point of darkness when every trip to the mailbox brings new bills you can't pay... including the rent for the mailbox itself. ...believe me when I say that a lot of people, myself included, have drastically adjusted their lifestyles (downward) more than once in the past 2-ish years, with more adjustments to come. It is tough to remain vaguely hopeful, never mind actually optimistic.

...but you've gotta.

I didn't mean for this to be such a rambling, vague and platitude-filled "rah-rah" answer... who knows? Maybe I'm trying to convince myself as much as I'm trying to convince you. So let's refocus.... ok...

You've already had to drop school and have lost (I'm guessing: sold) "nearly everything you own," so I'm going to spare you the "cut expenses and start clipping coupons" speech... I'm sure you're cutting your budget pretty much close to the bone already. You have to focus what little cash you have ONLY on things that'll increase your chances of getting work (granted, school would help, but it can be prohibitively expensive.) You need a cellphone, but you probably don't need to pay the extra $40 a month for 'full web' etc... like I said, I'm sure you already know this.

The key thing you're trying to hold onto isn't your premium cable package or your daily Starbucks fix, what you're really trying to hold on to is geography... namely: all those beautiful miles between you and your nightmarish former (home) existence. So let's just concentrate on that. We have already decided that moving home is the option of VERY last resort, so let's look at what we've got. You're living in New York... I don't know if that means NYC or some other place in that big, sprawling state, but either way, winter is coming and you're going to need shelter. The one resource it sounds like you DO have is perhaps the most important one: Friends.

Chances are these friends of yours, at least some of them, are in the same cash-strapped boat you are. They're also probably young and flexible (physically and emotionally) and would be willing/able to group together to afford cheap group housing. So have any of them floated any 'roommate' offers your way? If not, start floating some their way.

Another possible plan to consider: If one of your friends has to "move back to the folks' place" themselves... you might be able to ride things out with one of them. Surely they probably live close to NY and probably come from a waaaay less dysfunctional family than yours. Is asking (perhaps even begging for) that favor tough, awkward and humbling? bet it is, but it beats the alternative, right? I'm also willing to bet you know how to be a good, quiet-to-the-point-they-forget-you're-even-there house guest. Those of us who grow up in houses that were often difficult to return to become quite adept at making ourselves unobtrusive in other people's homes... We learn how to extend a 'dinner with friends' into an 'evening with friends' into a 'weekend at the friend's house' ... I know this, and I'm sure you do too. Just think of extending that skill into the realm of weeks or months. It can be done.

Difficult times call for drastic measures, and those measures often include swallowed pride and deferring plans. That is the plain truth. You absolutely don't want to move back to the chaos of your F-ed up family? (and I don't blame you) ...then you've gotta figure out how much NY-style upheaval & uncertainty you can endure. As tough as it is to think positively or even clearly, you've gotta try to think creatively. If you are seriously facing homelessness, is there ANY place else you could live? Could you barter room and board? I don't know what career path(s) you were trying to pursue in NY but is there any way to do them elsewhere? or do something else that you've always wanted to do? ... I'm talking about anything from the Peace Corps to teaching English in Japan or India or China, or becoming a Nanny somewhere on the planet etc. I know it sounds like I'm just clutching at straws here, but don't rule anything out... It gets back to the age thing... It might feel like you can't do anything, but that also means that there isn't anything you can't do... Heck, I thought by the time I was this age my "years of experience" would count for something, perhaps give me some cache' in the world I've chosen to inhabit, but the truth is; for every opportunity 'age & experience' might give me. a baker's dozen of other pursuits are no longer possible or open to people over a 'certain age' (whatever that may be.)

I'm tellin' ya: As you sit there on your last dufflebag of clean clothes, everything you think is a weakness is a strength. You don't have any money, but you also aren't responsible to anyone but yourself. I'm assuming you don't have a mortgage, or kids or a spouse... sure you've probably got student loans, but those can be deferred. I'm not going to insult you and say that 20 or 30 years from now you'll look back on this period as 'the best years of your life.' ... they hopefully won't be... but I can promise you, you'll never again feel so light on your feet (literally and figuratively) as you do right now.

New York will always be th
ere. You've proved you're ready for it, maybe it just isn't ready for you...yet.