Good day at work, busy but not overly so. My daily dose of zen came in the form of a conversational gambit disguised as guitar modification inquiry in the presence of an old musician, possibly ex addict but sober now, body wracked with age and misuse, clutching pieces of cardboard as well as a beautiful old red National electric he wore on his back. He was headed into the work area and I headed him off. Gary was briefly involved and quickly sussed this did not require his presence as no real work would be done. I spoke with TJ about his schemes for the better part of thirty minutes, allowing myself to remain calm, that nothing was going to happen except TJ explaining himself to a sympathetic ear. I was like the bartender, listening to the alcoholic’s stories, stuck behind the bar, nowhere to hide. TJ finally left when confronted by the absurd solipsistic juggernaut that is SJ; a self absorbed crazyman who had a poprock hit in the 90’s and careens along an arc of inanity leaving in his wake people frustrated, amazed and vowing never to take him seriously. He left behind two beautiful vintage acoustic guitars for modification. After Gary deftly handled SJ’s preschool level attention span the arrival of JG from that seminal Nineties gay punk band was a refreshing relief.
During rehearsal last night (we never, well, almost never rehearse) Jim launched into a song without preamble. Typically we talk about a next song, lobbing ideas back and forth (“why do you need to rehearse THAT?”) until we settle on one and then it takes us a while to start it: who counts it off? How fast? How does it go? We’re like that. But this one time Jim starts to play and I immediately recognize the notes as the start of a Mermen song but I have no idea what song it is, how it goes, what note comes next. We played this song for years but it’s been a long time since we played it. The notes are calling urgently and I must begin my part and without realizing it, I do. My fingers go to notes without my conscious participation. I have no idea what I’m doing. The song is playing me. I have thoughts, in the form of questions. What note comes next? How does this song go? What’s the name of this song? No answers. I carry on, my mind following my body slightly behind. We play the song, it goes well. It’s a good song. We spike the ending. I look up and ask: “what’s the name of that song?”
I couldn’t remember the damn song, but my fingers never forgot.
One of the great things about being the bassist (and believe me, there are many great things) is the application of stylistic integrity. That’s a fancy way of saying I do it pretty much the same way most of the time. Laziness? Maybe. But in pop and rock, which is where I’ve done most of my damage, the bass tends to be an adjunct to what’s most noticeable about a song. The bass enhances the melody, the chords and the groove. Most bassists find a sound, a feel, an instrument and stick to it. Not, typically, guitarists, especially electric guitarists. The Quest for Tone is legend. The Holy Tonal Grail, a moving target if there ever was one, eludes. Maybe that’s what makes it holy. At my workplace I field questions about pickups, species of wood, strings, hardware – you name it. If an obsessive (I can quit anytime) person wants to achieve a goal, and that goal has to do with the electric guitar, I say: “fair play.” Anything I can do (anything legal or moral) to assist a guitar player in getting That Sound…well…of course I will give it my best shot.
But I offer here a real world example of how most of your tone is with the you alone, in your fingers. In this video a famous electric guitarist is experiencing amplifier difficulties. He grows restless, nervous, impatient and, finally, suggests something unorthodox to another famous electric guitarist sharing the stage. The second guitarist allows it (they are old friends) and we have a perfect demonstration of how two people sound entirely different under the exact same conditions. Listen to their back-to-back solos. Or, is it: back to front?
You’re at your computer; streaming audio, sending and receiving files, email and, of course, sporadically surfing the nefarious interwebs. The audio stops and you think: is the stream buffering? You glance at the router. O ho! All the pretty little green lights are gone. The damn thing’s turned itself off. You knew this was coming, you’d already messed with it several times. Previously, you turned the router on and off along with the computer and everything else when you left the room for any length of time, until recently, when the router stubbornly refused to turn back on. You pressed the power button dozens of times, from different angles, and lights came on but turned off again as soon as you let go. But, like kick-starting an old Triumph Bonneville, hope springs eternal and you kept trying until you either gave up, exhausted, or it coughed and roared into life. Relief and gratitude flooded your being. You could now don your helmet and ride out into traffic, risking your life.
All patterns are repeated.
But no…this time pressing the button again and again avails nothing. It’s time for a different approach. A toothpick, yes, that should do the trick. In a perverse mood, you look at a used matchstick by a candle, it’s blackened end already shrunken to a rough nub. Taking a pocket knife you whittle the end of the matchstick to a fine point. Pushing in the power button at the rear of the device you simultaneously jam the matchstick into the gap between the plastic cylinder and surrounding channel. Miraculously, hilariously, it holds. The pretty green blinking lights return, one by one.
I work the front counter for Gary Brawer and I hear some weird stuff. Besides the guitar playing I hear comments, questions and exclamations. One of my favorite topics occurs when techs talk tech to each other. I love this stuff. I have, over the years, marked repeatedly the phrase: “Forstner bit.” As in, “Where are the Forstner bits?” or “That looks like a job for a Forstner bit.”
“What is a Forstner bit?” I asked myself, figuring I should find out. My job here is to answer the phones, sell and order parts and schedule repairs for Gary and the others. I am not a tech. Those people work in the back.
A Forstner bit turns out to be a drill bit for holes that need a flat bottom. “So…someone would use a Forstner bit to drill a hole in the top of a solid guitar body for the insert holes that accept bridge studs?”, I said to the techs. “No,” they returned patiently, “for that you would use a brad point bit.” “Oh,” I thought, obviously unclear on the concept. I would need to do some deeper research.
This unique drill bit was invented in the 19th century by a Benjamin Forstner, an American gunsmith looking to make a smoother hole. He got rich off his invention, too, licensing the technology to Colt Firearms and other gun makers.
So how for a guitar would we use a Forstner bit? Well, it’s a perfect way to make deeper a cavity to accept, say, longer pickup flanges – the metal tabs that accept pickup height adjustment screws. When making a deeper hole it’s a concern to avoid going through the wood of the back of the body. So: a hole with a flat bottom. But there’s a center point in the bit, to guide its direction, so diligence is still required.
The Forstner bit has other beneficial features. Its shape is very stable at spin (compared to other bit shapes) and also resists something called “tear-out” a phrase indicating how clean a hole can be drilled. The bit is not commonly used in hand drills – it’s hard to push – a drill press is typical. Rickenbacker has been known to use Forstner bits to drill wiring channels, an observation that shocks some of the more fastidious technicians.
I learn something new at this job every day.
Over some of the month of October, 2012, the G3 Tribe bounces between several of the most populous cities on the South American continent. I’ve never seen this part of the world before. Luckily I’m in the care of Professionals Who Have Experience With These Kinds of Things.
Our first stop is Rio. Lovely Rio de Janeiro of song and story. The self-described capitol of the senses. “You love me, I’m Brazilian!!!” I’m not comfortable with these cannibals of emotion, the noise and the bugs. To get over jetlag I drag my ass down to the beach and leap into the Atlantic. It’s cold, very cold, like Pemaquid Point in Maine on a summer day but refreshing. Later I’m told this beach is well-known to be a sump of offal leaching from overpopulated hill sides. I wash my mouth out with coffee.
At rehearsal/soundcheck prior to the first show the next day we are catching up on consciousness, remembering our parts and putting the pieces together.
Traffic is congested between the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches – a skinny two lane blacktop connects two of the most famous playas on Earth.
All goes smoothly, including our first show of the tour. Next stop: Sao Paulo, also a smooth production while outside the venue a warm Equatorial thunderstorm bathes the rain forest.
We’ve spoken of the Holy Laminate before…all of us get handed one. I’ve drawn an especially auspicious good-luck laminate! Looking over the setlist prior to the South American tour I realize I only require two basses: the five-string for Flying in a Blue Dream and the P-bass for everything else. Since the Thunderbird was already in the shipping coffin from the recent European tour I’ve thought to use it as a warm-up instrument. Its scale being longer than the P, it’s like a batter warming up with a heavier bat.
Brazil behind us, we arrive safely in Argentina. Some of us have had passionate discussions about the high quality of beef in this country. I take heed and avoid red meat until Buenos Aires. Mike Mangini (drums for John P.), Mike Keneally and I wander quiet old streets to a chop house for what becomes one of the best steaks I have ever had. I go to sleep happy.
Buenos Aires is a beautiful, sad city. “Paris of South America” it’s called, and it’s architecturally true. But neglect is evident. People are selling all manner of tourist goods on the street. They’re also selling family heirlooms. In tight little marketplaces European silver, crystal and china brought across the sea in the last century clutters shelves alongside clothing, toys and dolls. If you like rummage sales it’s heaven.
Several of us head over to the Recoleta Cemetery, the most dire and ponderous necropolis I’ve ever seen.
Some crypts are lovingly preserved, some are decrepit.
I am only slightly alarmed to see rotting coffins within reach. Time, the Revelator.
Enough accessible decay to last a lifetime.
I spend an hour wandering past massive granite Belle Epoque crypts. I’m not creeped out. Of course, it’s daytime and other tourists are present. The old dare about spending the night in such a place…could I do it? What do I have to prove?
The morning after our Argentina show it’s a short hop over the spectacular Andes to Santiago, Chile. Upon arrival we are invited by a local restauranteur to a glorious (and hosted) meal. I’m very taken with this mountain city, it’s liveliness, open-sky feel and civility. People smile for each other, automobiles stop for pedestrians (mostly) and there’s a crispness in the air.
The walk from the hotel to the restaurant at dusk is warm and full of life.
At dinner we are treated to a king’s feast. King crab, meats, fish, hors d’oeurvres aplenty and flowing wine (Chilean, of course, and fantastic) all contribute to well-being, ease and relaxation.
We are welcomed, feted and fussed over by patrons and staff alike. Joe whispers to me: “They think you’re Ted Nugent.” I suggest to him that I should loudly voice my support for gun control and cultural compassion (one must counter foolish behavior any way one can). Thankfully I do not loudly voice anything. Luckily Mike and Jeff find time for a friendly disagreement at top volume. As the DJ is also contributing to the overall sonic level in the room much of what they have to say to each other is drowned in hipster bass and drum grooves.
No animals are harmed in the making of this conversation and everyone finds their way back to the hotel and sleeps. Tomorrow: a show under snow-capped mountain peaks.
The Santiago show goes well. The city and it’s people have welcomed us, and we moved easily within its borders. It’s the last peace we’ll find for the next three days. Early in the morning we make a very early 7am departure from the hotel.
Now begins a descent into several of Dante’s Hells.
We fly from Santiago, Chile (I awake at 6am) for three hours and land in Lima, Peru for a ninety minute layover. Then we fly towards Caracas, Venezuela (a supposedly four-hour flight) but are diverted to Maracaibo (700km away) by extreme weather. I mean, our aircraft is struck by lightning several times. It’s very rough, and thunder is clearly audible inside the cabin. During this flight I finish Neil Young’s new autobiography “Waging Heavy Peace” generously on loan from the Mike Keneally. Sometimes you’ve got to drag your mind as far away from the present moment as you can, if only for a short time. After white-knuckling it to Maracaibo our tribe and another eighty hapless castaways are abandoned by the airline (LAN). Left to our own devices we are thankfully rescued, in part, by a young man who manages the Dream Theater web site within Venezuela. We spend the night in Maracaibo (my room has no hot water, no lights in the bathroom and industrial air conditioning units directly above my top floor room send subsonic waves through my exhausted body). We depart in the morning for Caracas on a one hour flight. The web master kindly proffered his credit card (apparently only Venezuelan credit works in Venezuela) to purchase these new plane tickets (on another airline thanks) to Caracas. The original airline (LAN!) turned their back on everyone. Time from Caracas airport to our hotel in the center of the city is three hours through traffic so horrendous it makes Moscow seem rural.
But Caracas, as nasty as it appears, is the site of our last show with Steve Morse. We make the best of it. The show is energetic, loose, powerful and very well-received. The farther you travel and the more arduous the journey, the greater the release.
It’s an outdoor show and the weather has cleared; a glorious tropical night under a yellow half moon.
We make our goodbyes to Steve Morse and his drummer, Dru Betts, after the show. Doug Nightwine snaps a quick group shot with Jeff’s camera.
Travel from Caracas to Mexico City is cursed only by long lines at airports. At a celebratory dinner (we escaped Venezuela!!!) Steve Lukather and his band arrive, straight from the airport. It’s a happy meeting. We all spent a lot of time together in New Zealand and Australia last Spring.
We’ve got two back to back shows here in Mexico City. Some of the crew complain of shortness of breath. The smokers, naturally. At 7200 feet above sea level I can understand it. But I don’t suffer altitude sickness. The higher I get, the more I like it.
You know what it’s like to be crew. The talent must be avoided at all costs, except to make the expected obeisance. Otherwise: do your job and keep your head down. When the work is done (and we do mean the last truck drives away) grab as much sleep as possible. You don’t know how long you’ll be able to sleep. Will there be a shower? What will the food will be like? You’ll drive all night and wake up parked by another large concrete sports complex or rebuilt theatre. At least the institutional sports complexes are built for efficiency. Charming old theatres can be very cramped on stage, possess strange smells and have steps where you least expect them. The crew works the hardest of anyone. I wouldn’t last 24 hours. I’d be booted off the bus for sure.