Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Gimme an Asshole Who Can Play!"

That is a direct quote from Monty Budwig. I had been studying string bass with the veteran west coast bassist for a few months and the lessons had become more like rap sessions on a variety of subjects, some of them musical. On one occasion I walked in on Monty and trumpeter Jack Sheldon debating the financial merits of opening a repair shop for "love toys." I couldn't help myself from observing that they both had a few screws loose and the "lesson" degenerated into a discussion concerning the many character flaws integral to the making of most great musicians.

The name of a famous bassist came up and we were unanimous in our opinion that this guy would not be our first choice as a next door neighbor. We agreed however, that this musician could be depended on to light it up when the record button was pushed. To paraphrase Monty, "When you got a roomful of guys making double scale, a producer breathing down your neck and the clock is ticking...gimme an asshole who can play!"

Most of my close friends and acquaintances are either athletes or musicians and I can say with authority that of those who excel in either endeavor, few, if any have both oars in the water at the same time. Their infirmities range from engaging in mild superstitious rituals to experiencing out and out psychotic episodes. Off beat and idiosyncratic behaviors are the order of the day and that which would be considered utterly unacceptable in civilian circles barely raises an eyebrow within the safety of the rehearsal hall or studio.

The fascination the general public holds for artistic individuals is intriguing and paradoxical. We are expected to be different, entertaining, funny, brilliant and maybe a little nuts. And yet when one of our guild fucks up and is caught in compromising circumstances the general public points an accusing finger and claims to have known that this individual was a jerk all along.

There is one generalization made about musicians that couldn't be more innaccurate and this is the notion that we are lazy. A recent post in the Sellaband forum described most musicians as lazy and characterized them as not having the skill set to deal properly with business. These are two completely unrelated subjects. It is true that in many cases those in the arts are sheep in the fleecing line of the less than reputable music business sheering machine. But that has more to do with artistic preoccupation and focus than it has with laziness. That artistic people are inept to a fault when it comes to the mundane is nothing new. But laziness is not conducive to artistic endeavor and I have yet to meet the accomplished artist who hasn't invested the time and effort required to excel.

For some reason, civilians think of musicians as organ grinder monkeys who should be ready to perform in the most casual of circumstances in exchange for a handful of peanuts. I was at a holiday party recently and there occurred the obligatory karaoke plague. I had been introduced into my immediate circle as a musician and voice teacher. One of my fellow party-goers was a well dressed professional type and he challenged me rather obnoxiously to sing, "Well c'mon now, you're a pro. Why don't you get up there and show us how it's done." I asked him what his profession was and upon learning that he was a dentist I suggested that I drop around his office in the morning to see about a loose crown that had been troubling me. I told him that I had spent as many if not more years learning my trade than he had, am really good at what I do and would be interested in singing for him in equal trade for dental work. He walked away muttering something about lazy smart-assed musicians and I don't think I'll be able to close the deal. Well, I am, after all, inept at business...but never lazy.

But getting back to the quote, II suppose that the "asshole ratio" among working musicians is on par with the general population. There is however, a big difference in the dynamics of what can be called the "asshole effect" when it comes to cooperation in music in comparison with civilian endeavors. The typical asshole in business is an asshole through and through with no redeeming qualities. This breed is not loathe to sabotage the efforts of co-workers in advancing his personal agenda. The civilian asshole's...assholitude isn't dependent upon a degree of excellence or even accomplishment. Assholes in the mundane pursuits exist at every level and can be counted on to rain on the least significant parade.

Assholes among musicians are more made than born. This is because it is decidedly difficult to rise through the ranks as a born asshole unless under effective camouflage. Only after proving himself can the born asshole be true to his nature, and even then he will have all the made assholes to contend with. But here is the big difference...even the biggest asshole will give a producer his best efforts. An asshole in the rhythm section would never say to himself, "Hmm, how can I fuck this up and make everyone look bad." Assholes who are also shitty musicians don't last long in the business. Assholes among veteran musicians might be the last choice for a cocktail party, but they didn't get to be assholes by not bringing the real deal to every gig. Indeed, being the very best at their art only increases the AQ, or Asshole Quotient.

So, when the clock is ticking away the recording budget, you can forget nice guy Johnny who'll bring coffee and donuts to the studio and get the feel after four or five takes. In the words of the great Monty Budwig, "Gimme an asshole who can play!"

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