My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago In Guitar Player (November 1989)
The November, 1989 issue of Guitar Player had a number of interesting articles. My recollection is that I was probably more focused on the John Lee Hooker interview at the time (since my main musical interest was the blues), but I’m sure that I read the Joe Satriani article, if only to discuss it with my friend Touré, who was a guitar shredder. Re-reading the issue, I have to say that the interview with Melissa Etheridge was a real standout.
The issue also features an interview with Reeves Gabrels discussing his new band Tin Machine (fronted by David Bowie) by Joe Gore, but it doesn’t do much for me (nor did Tin Machine, for that matter). By re-reading these magazines again every month it’s clear that the GP editors must have considered Gore to be the “young guy” who could cover the less mainstream acts (Sonic Youth, Metallica, etc.) but I don’t enjoy his interviews as much as those by the older, more experienced writers such as Jas Obrecht, Dan Forte and others. Interestingly, the Melissa Etheridge interview was done by younger writer Matt Resnicoff, and it’s quite good. All these years later, I find that I still can’t relate to Joe Gore: it seems that nearly every gear review he does for Premier Guitar is about some skwonky noise maker that I’d never want to use. I respect his musicianship and knowledge of the guitar scene, but he’s kind of a caution flag to me telling me I’d probably do better to move on.
Matt Resnicoff’s article, “Melissa Etheridge: Braving the Acoustic Craze” is one of those smaller features on pages 10-11 before the bigger pieces later in the issue. It’s very well-written and I learned (re-learned?) a lot about Etheridge from revisiting it. Check out this month’s playlist below to hear her playing with her band in a concert at the Roxy in L.A. from 1989–the audience was digging it, and she and the band were really excellent!
So I didn’t know (or remember) that Melissa Etheridge had spent a year in Boston at Berklee, though she admits that “I had a lot of different ideas of writing music and what music was apart from sitting in a classroom….When they broke it down and made theory out if it, I lost interest.” Like many pros, she was already gigging heavily in school, “playing cover tunes five nights a week at a restaurant down the street”. Although she obviously wound up doing just fine, it’s neat to see Etheridge admit that “Now that I’m older and I’ve done music….I kind of wish today that I’d stayed and learned more technical aspects of guitar playing. I’m not a lead guitar player, and I regret that I didn’t learn a lot of chord forms.”
Resnicoff frames Melissa Etheridge’s music as “skirting the dirtier edges of the current introspective-songwriter-with-an-acoustic-guitar revival that’s provided market sanctuary for everyone from the Indigo Girls to Tracy Chapman”. Later, he mentions that “Melissa spent last year on the road, playing larger theatres with Bruce Hornsby & The Range, who is probably to the acoustic piano what artists like Etheridge are to the acoustic guitar–caretakers of a refreshing traditional resonance in current pop.” He quotes Melissa as saying “You know, I’ve been playing the acoustic since I was eight years old, and it’s funny how everyone asks, ‘When did you decide to go into the studio with an acoustic guitar?’ That’s where I’ve always been, forever, and that’s what my roots will always be. I’ll go from there.”
In my mind, the acoustic (more accurately, acoustic-electric) trend is something I associate with the early 1990’s and the television show MTV Unplugged, but it turns out that Unplugged’s first episode aired in November of 1989, the same month as this magazine was on the shelves. So it’s neat to see that Melissa Etheridge was really in the vanguard of what became a pretty big trend (one that I found rather annoying, but that’s a story for a different blog post).
In 1989, John Lee Hooker was a 72-year old blues legend and this lengthy interview by the peerless Jas Obrecht (timed with the release of Hooker’s album The Healer) was quite good. If I remember correctly, it also kicked off a period where Guitar Player would interview at least one elder statesman of the blues annually.
The interview took place in “in the shade near the hot tub” of Hooker’s “palatial house in the hills above Vallejo, California” with the musician’s white Cadillac (license plate “Doc Hook”) and “sporty red Toyota” (license plate “Les Bogy”) parked outside. What emerges from this interview is Hooker’s joie de vivre, and his self-confidence. Unlike the interview with Albert Collins (for instance), where the Iceman seemed more concerned with putting other people down to lift himself up, Hooker is generous with praise and advice. I learned from reading the article that Hooker was only two months younger than my grandfather, and he gives off a very grandfatherly air in this interview. It’s also interesting to me that he seems to speak like he sings, with repetition to hammer home his points.
Hooker’s blues are an acquired taste, and the irregular nature of the music (it’s not always 12 bars!) can be unsettling sometimes. But it is definitely an authentic type of blues, and probably very close to the earliest versions of the music. Obrecht starts the article by asking about the most “Hooker-esque” tune on the new album:
While The Healer features many well-known musicians, the strongest tracks are the ones where you’re by yourself, especially “Rockin’ Chair”
That’s my favorite tune! The others is good for dancing, some of them, but getting right down to the nitty gritty and the real funk, this is it. Just playing the guitar, sittin’ there in my old time rockin’ chair. A lot of people like that, too. It is the closest to my heart.
“Rockin’ Chair” seems to be in the oldest style you play in.
Oh boy! Whew! That’s direct to my heart. That’s a funky blues. People can just sit there and just meditate and think about how it feels sometimes. It’ll send a cold chill up and down your spine. It chills you, it’s so deep. Sometimes when I play stuff like that, tears come out of my eyes.
When you were working in Detroit in the early days, you often played like that, with just your guitar, a small amp, and your right foot keeping the beat.
That’s the way I used to play. No band, no nothing. Just John Lee Hooker and his feet.
If someone wanted to hear John Lee Hooker’s best guitar work, where should he begin looking?
I would tell him to start lookin’ at the years gone by….But to get to the best hard stuff I did, you want to go back to Detroit days when I was playing by myself in coffeehouses. I played more guitar. I had no band to interfere. I didn’t need to give no band no breaks and solos. I could do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do. With a band it gets in the way a lot.
Pretty neat to see that Hooker thinks of a band as something that interferes with his music, rather than a vehicle to produce it. As the interview went on, Hooker had many chances to discuss other great blues players and his generosity of spirit and true respect for those people came through loud and clear. That said, he was also aware enough of the scene to be aware that originality was in short supply.
Are there certain blues albums that you like to listen to a lot?
Oh yeah. I would start with Albert King and Jimmy Ray Vaughan–well Stevie Ray Vaughan. Jimmie too, is nice. Layin’ these blues on you. And Muddy Waters and on and on. The great ones have stood here and then have gone, but they still live on in my memory, whom I love so much. Just a great memory.
Right now, it seems like there are tens of thousands of blues guitar players.
Whoo! Well, I hate to say it, but it seems like there’s too many. And a lot of them is really good! They are good ones, but if you look around, a lot of ’em sound alike. You hear one, you just about done heard them all. So in your mind, they all are good, but if you go in to record with them, you just say “Hey, this guy sounds like so and so. He sound like B.B. He sound like Stevie Ray.” They don’t have a unique style all to themself, like I got. Some of them play a tremendous lot of guitar–they play much more guitar than I do–but what I play is with a solid drive, a funky beat, and nobody got it but me! That’s what make me stand out. In fact all of them sound almost alike–do do do do do [mimics stratospheric wailing high on the fingerboard]. It’s good, but…
What would you have someone learn from you?
That’s a good question. What would I have them learn from me? Just learn to stop trying to make all the fancy chords and a whole lot of guitar all the way down the neck real fast. Forget about the fancy chords and concentrate on just a funky beat and something with a lot of soul and just a feeling to it.
After describing his respect for Albert King (“gives me chills”), B.B.King (“a tremendous guitar player”) and Bonnie Raitt (“she’s one of the best slide players I ever heard in a long time. She’s one of the unique ladies I ever seen. I love her voice, I love her style of guitar. She can do that slide.”) Hooker gives a very thoughtful history of the blues from his perspective.
When you began performing, did it seem almost impossible that a blues performer could play to a white audience?
Right. No, you couldn’t imagine it. But I had a feeling it was comin’, but when? I knew it would come sooner or later. Now it’s here in the full. I know back then that the blues was just only for the older black people in just a certain area. You get a hit record then, it wouldn’t be half the hit it is now. Just a half a big hit now is big, but back then the #1 record didn’t make a lot of money ’cause it only went to a certain people, the older black people. But down through the years it all changed.
Is right now a good time for the blues?
Oh, yeah. All over the world. To the non-English speaking people, Japanese, France, Russia, the Communist countries, the blues have just cut their way into every country in the world, all over the world. Young, old–they found out the true identity of music that is the blues. It is the first music was here. It is the one tells the story. It is the one to tell the life story of a human being or a man and a woman. Who started this? Eve and Adam in the Garden. When the blues was born, it was born with Eve and Adam. Over years and years and years, they beginning to find out the roots of this stuff and what it means to people.
The rich, the poor–they all have the blues. No matter how much money you got, when your woman or the one you love have left you, or you can’t get along with her, all the money in the world cannot fill the place of happiness in your home. Because money can’t talk to you. So that’s the reason the rich people, they get the blues. They get worried and upset, then they can’t talk to that money at night. They can only spend so much, but they cannot buy happiness. So everybody realizes that now. The young, they study the blues. It’s in the library. They read about it.
See, what they call rock and roll haven’t been around over 35 or 40 years. What is rock and roll? That was all taken from the blues. Everything that we are saying, they are saying: “My woman done left me [scat sings a solo].” The blues was saying all along, “My woman done left me heartaches,” or “My baby gone, she won’t be back no more.” Well, rock and roll say the same thing, but they got the really up-to-date form and they call it rock and roll. It’s the blues!
One thing I like about Obrecht’s interview style is that he tries to ask questions to elicit a sense of how his subject lives–it’s not all gear and tuning questions. The last bit of the article with Hooker gives a sense of the man:
You seem to have a very smart business sense.
Oh, yeah. I’m very deceptive. Money ain’t anything, but I just don’t run through it. I know I’m not going to be doing this all my life, and I know that if I live on, I’m going to retire and have a good life, a good home, and have money to kick back and do what I want to d, go where I want to go. Some of them live so fast when they’re making big money, they run right through it….
Did you learn that lesson the hard way?
Yeah [laughs heartily]. Yeah, yeah, I did. I learned it the hard way. But now I’m very well set. I got a pretty nice home, I’m into real estate. I got three more homes in Oakland that I leased out. But like I said, I learned it the hard way. I could have run through partying, women, whiskey, living the fast life, and I wouldn’t have had nothing. You get through, and it’s just a dream you went through, and you got nothing. And then when you’re old, that’s gone. When all your money and success is gone, all your so-called friends are gone. They ain’t friends; they leeches hangin’ on as long as you got something….I know they are.
And you’ve always got your guitar.
Yeah, always got that! When the women gone, I always got my guitar. My woman can leave me, but my guitar ain’t gonna leave me. Always got that.
This was the second time that Joe Satriani was on the cover of Guitar Player since I started this blog, and this interview was the third feature on the brilliant musician in as many years. The November, 1989 article was to promote his latest album Flying in a Blue Dream and was in an “as told to” style, edited by Jas Obrecht and Joe Gore. Satriani describes the record as a departure from his previous work “In comparison…, my other records are very straight-ahead. This album has got so many sides; it’s the bible of what’s going on with Joe. It’s got more keyboard work, as well as vocals, harmonica, slide, and banjo. I’ve really thrown in a lot of things.”
One thing that comes through to me in all of the interviews I’ve re-read with Satch is how self-aware he is, and how he is truly a musician who plays guitar, rather than a guitarist. The friend I mentioned above spent four years at college sweep-picking to an ever increasing metronome beat in his dorm room, but he never played in front of an audience, or created any actual music. It’s almost like Satriani had Touré in mind when he said:
I’d rather someone said “Man, that’s a great solo! I’ll never forget it,” than “Man, that was a great solo; that guy’s got some technique.” That’s the accolade I don’t care for. If someone can relate my guitar solo to an exercise in a book–yow! That’s no fun at all. ….[N]obody likes to listen to anyone play with a metronome. So that’s something that instrumentalists never get to share with anyone else. And it’s a good thing, because it’s ultimately boring and self-serving.
Satriani describes the album track by track, and of course you can listen to it in this month’s playlist. I won’t quote too much here, but there were a few things that he said that I found interesting. First of all, it’s really cool to see that he recorded most of the tunes with his black Ibanez guitar going into a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal into a Roland JC-120 (not traditionally the most “metal” rig!); secondly, he says “we don’t record very loud–usually it’s 80-90 decibels, tops.” That’s remarkable! When I’m playing along to a record at my house I’m often pushing out about 95 decibels. And especially considering the incredibly muscular and full tones that the album features, it’s really something to think that the studio was not deafening. Finally, at the end of the interview, Satriani shares some personal details:
Something’s been going on with me the last several months that really figures into the story quite a bit. In March, when I was into the second week of recording, my father suffered a stroke and went into a coma. He lingered close to death for about four months. When we were halfway into mixing, on July 18th, he passed away. During the whole course of the record, it really was an emotional struggle to hold on and keep focused on the project, and at the same time deal with my father’s situation. So there were a few songs that I left off the record that were just too much to work on. They were too close to the feeling of the moment. I left others on that were very much autobiographical. It was a cruel coincidence that the record was going to represent a journey through a life, and that such a momentous thing was happening as soon as we started.
Like most people, I will never understand music the way that Joe Satriani does, nor be able to play the instrument even close to his level of virtuosity, but I’ve had to keep up an outward level of equanimity while loved ones were dealing with chronic illness, and when my own father was dying of cancer. I don’t think that I would have considered this to be a go to record to depict an artist dealing with heavy emotional issues, but now that I’ve listened to it after re-reading this interview, I can hear it. Satriani has always been, to me, the most emotional player in the group of people like himself, Steve Vai, Yngvie Malmsteen, Greg Howe, etc., and this interview confirms that feeling for me.
That’s it for now. There is a very extensive (over 15 hours of music) playlist for your listening pleasure–check it out! The November issue looks to be feature packed, with a great cover interview of Keith Richards, a long interview with Steve Stevens, and more. Until then, keep on picking!