When I was playing with Christopher Cross some years ago, there was a section of the show where Christopher would go out and do a few songs by himself solo, and then I would take an acoustic guitar out there with him and we’d do a few songs singing and playing together like that. It was quite a thing for me as a guy from Juneau, Alaska, who was very scruffy and often poorly mannered but happened to end up being pretty good at playing bass and singing while I did it, quite a thing to find myself singing and playing guitar with a guy like that.
I remember when I first heard “Sailing” when it came out back then, driving along the highway in Juneau that connected downtown Juneau to what was called “out the road”, or “the Valley”, which is the part where the Mendenhall Glacier is if you’ve been there. Driving along and that song started, and out over the water there was a hole in the clouds that had lit up a part of the water out over the Gastineau Channel, a kind of “god-hole” that was really beautiful…..I was just slain by the sound, and I never forgot that moment. So finding myself on tour with him, doing that part of the show with him, I would often just be kinda shocked it was happening, and that kind of moment has happened to varying degrees with EVERY artist I’ve had the opportunity to work with,. Although I don’t like the way the term “grateful’ is just tossed around like it’s proof of caring, in this case it’s the right word, I’m grateful to have done the things I’ve been able to do.
Anyway I digress… so while Christopher was playing the first few songs by himself, I would always grab someone and say, “Do you know how good at THIS that guy is?!? If you saw that at like Genghis Cohen or Largo or really any venue that is known for singer/songwriters getting up and playing a song by themselves, your goddam HEAD WOULD EXPLODE! You’d be like ” who the HELL is this guy and why isn’t he huge?!?!?”. And of course in the end he was, and he IS. But the point is that as he sat there playing, everyone would kind of gather round in a way, their attention getting closer and the room would get smaller and more and more intimate, and everyone was there together in that room, sharing in that moment.
There’s almost nothing else that does that like music does, and it’s MAGIC, literal actual MAGIC.
What we musicians do does things to and for people that almost nothing else can. We help provide a release valve, we help define moments, we provide a soundtrack to someone’s life that will resonate and transport them like nothing else except smell can (science!), we provide a method of understanding, a sense of not being alone and that someone understands, a sense of comfort, feelings of urgency, a lifting of spirits, and balm for the soul.
That’s actual MAGIC. Or it is to me, literally Human Magic.
I say this a lot to my fellow musicians, to varying reactions ranging from vehement agreement to “Check Please!”. Mostly it depends on who you’re talking to, and mostly it’s related to whether they are a Touring Sideman (someone who is hired to go out on concert tours and support an artist who is playing live venues), or someone who is trying to write and perform their own music, and/or someone who is involved in the creation and recording of someone else’s music (sessions players, producers etc).
Those are typically different mindsets, (not always, but typically), with the Touring Sidemen often not very interested in those aspects, and the Session Types at least understanding that point of view and trying to create something special that will sound like MUSIC to them and the listener, and then the creators/ARTISTS being almost ONLY concerned with trying to create MAGIC at all times, even if the reason is only to generate income, because they know income tends to follow MAGIC around quite often.
But for me, I think that even in the Touring situation, it’s still MAGIC. We’re still helping that moment happen, that release, that communal moment, that healing and power, and in fact when you’re Touring, if you’re paying attention you can see it happening every night. Every night out there SOMEONE is having that moment of clarity, or that moment of release of a pent up anguish, or a memory has been jogged loose, or they finally understand something that didn’t make sense till that moment.
A guy I used to play with in Christopher’s band named Dave Beyer, who played drums with Christopher for most of the time I was with Christopher, said something to me once I appreciated and never forgot: “Every night at some point while Christopher is speaking in between songs, I try to look around for those 30 seconds or so at what I’m doing, really see how unique and special this is, and how amazing it is to be here now doing this.” And every show I’ve done after I’ve tried to remember to do that, because for all I know it could be the last time I ever have a chance to do this, and it may really matter that I was paying attention, not letting it just go by like it didn’t matter.
And that was the energy and focus I would put into it, like it mattered (*Past tense because it’s Covid times, and there’s none of all this happening at all right now!). Trying to actively PLAY every note, hit everything as right as I could, sing as in tune as I could, bring as MUCH game as I could to all parts of what I was doing, trying to make it MUSIC and MAGIC as much as I could. I’m sure I wasn’t always as successful as I would like, and there were/are many technical issues that can get in the way, but the more you push towards that, the more likely it is that you’ll succeed!
I had a MAGIC moment that I always refer to in talk about this subject…. I was playing in a Borders Bookstore Cafe (remember those?!?!), on the road supporting my 2 CD releases I’ve made on my own (another whole world of stories for another time), and I was playing a song called “The Lady’s Song” which for me is about my Grandmother dying, and how bad I was at handling that. In the audience that evening was a guy with what I guess was his wife and 2 children, and during that song the guy’s wheels just suddenly came off, seemingly all at once. Full on sobbing crying family gathering around him, utterly emotional and without caring about being in public. At the end of the show he came up while I was signing and selling my CD’s, bought both of my CD’s for each of his family members, and told me that he had not grieved yet for his mother who had died some fair amount of time before, and that something about that song and that moment had gotten him thinking about it, and suddenly it all opened up on him, and he had started the real grieving process in that moment. I gave him a hug and told him that that was what I was there for, and thanked him for what I thought was a wonderful thing to share with me, and that in a way he had given me the best kind of compliment he could give me.
For ME, that was MAGIC as well.
To be able to help like that, to be able to bring that to someone, THAT is what we do.
I would just like to put it out there, what we do is MAGIC. Remembering that and understanding the human power of that, respecting it and giving it to our audiences, sharing that with them, that’s a really wonderful thing we can do, not everyone gets that opportunity.
As a kid in Juneau Alaska in the late 70’s, when this record came out we were absolutely stunned, I remember listening to it over and over wondering how everything had been recorded and how they played so well….just blew us away, and raised the level of our expectations of ourselves….not knowing anything about how records were actually made, we thought people just played like that, so that was what we did too….and living up there, you had time to work on that in the bedroom or wherever….over and over and over….
Later I was playing with Don Felder and we were opening for the Doobie Bros and Boston, and I sat at a table in the backstage eating lunch with Scholz and a couple other Boston members…I think I was just staring at him….and I think it was kinda annoying him, but you know…I was really just sitting there thinking how much that music had meant to me at the time, and here I was, some dork from Juneau Alaska sitting here at the table with him…I couldn’t believe it….I’ve had a lot of those moments, I’ve been very fortunate….
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. As a musician it’s tricky to understand what we do in the context of money and meaning. Lately I’m finding it much more useful to think of it in terms of how well I do it, and how much it brings to others.
In that context, playing for not much money in some bar just kinda anywhere starts to take on a lot more meaning and value. People are enjoying their time together watching others do something they can’t really do, in a setting that allows and/or validates their feelings….being brought together to feel something that can’t be had alone at home with your tv and your bottle, it’s GOOD for people to do that, and not be alone.
People come up all the time to share how they feel about what they’ve just seen/experienced, and I think we as musicians forget what a gift that is….that they have felt something so powerfully that they need to come up and tell us about it, even to a total stranger who just stepped off the stage, even at the risk of being rebuffed or ignored…. and it’s hard to just walk up to someone and bare your soul, even a little, but they trust us to hear them, because they know we MUST understand, because we just did it!
Yes, maybe we hear it all the time, but for them, it’s special, and it’s NOW, and it really matters to them.
It has nothing to do with money, it has nothing to do with MOST valuations that are recognized as valid measures of what we do, but maybe it’s the most important thing of all, and we should pay a lot more attention to it, I think we would be happier and maybe even better people for it.