TNAG Notes #30 by Stephen Bennett
This one’s a bit different. At least, in keeping with the times, the first half is. Bear with us.
We all, by now, understand the nature of what goes to constitute our fragile framework of ‘essential services’. We’ve all come to realise, too – or should have - how much we take our society’s structural foundations for granted. They’re just there; the hospital staff, the ‘first-responder’ police and firefighters, the bus and train drivers, the delivery, maintenance and postal workers, the farmers, food processors and point-of-sale workers…the list goes on. It’s quite an eye-opener, when you start to break it down, just how many irreplaceable, functioning cogs there are in the giant wheel of ‘civilised’ day-to-day living.
Right now, exposed as we are to the unforgiving light of a harsh new reality, we’re having to re-examine our definition of words like ‘essential’. The dictionary defines the currently catch-all adjective as meaning, “vital, fundamental, cardinal, so important as to be indispensable.” Which you might think covers it – until you start to wander into the less easily defined, parallel dimension of, ‘indispensable to what?’
In the current usage, we seem to have boiled the term right down so as to encompass only those things we need in order to function on a practical, mechanical basis. This kind of ‘essential’ automatically qualifies as, to borrow the old Sellar and Yeatman adage, A Good Thing, and to suggest otherwise would be ludicrous. Yet, as with so many aspects of our zealously outrage-addicted, pc-over-scrutinised, blame-obsessed, morally-policed world (…steady…) there’s a lot more to it.
How dare you cross my lockdown line of sight when you are not – demonstrably not, due to your lack of red-rimmed, exhausted, thousand-yard stare – in any way, ‘essential’?
Well…at the risk of offending the green biro brigade (okay, not that difficult) or those stentorian champions of righteousness who bellow treason if a children’s tv presenter hasn’t nailed a poppy to her head by early October…what complete and utter bollocks. And if this (personal) opinion should elicit accusations of shallow ‘virtue-signalling’, a lack of perspective or an overstatement of the obvious…then fine.
You can’t eat it and it won’t cure dandruff - never mind COVID-19 - but music plays a fundamental role in the development and preservation of our emotional wellbeing as sentient human beings. The same goes for poetry, literature, drawing, painting, making up stories to tell your kids at bedtime, laughing, crying, arguing, having sex and drinking tea. Especially drinking tea. Of course the temporary denial to an individual of any one or more of the above won’t lead to instant societal collapse – unlike the absence of an ‘essential’ essential - but once you’ve come to terms with that and established that you’re not going to die, at least for a while yet, ‘essential’ takes on an extra, less tangible dimension.
During my arguably far-from-indispensable stint down the Soap mines at Granada, we used to cling to the notion of providing a sense of community; of serving up 23 minutes (an ITV half-hour, drama-wise) of vicarious engagement with characters whose intentions were, in the end, positive and well-meaning to the point whereby, despite their foibles, viewers would still be willing to come back and spend time with them later in the week. Without that sense of community, the fundamental premise of what we were trying to achieve would be lost. As it has been, long since, to its fast-becoming fatal cost. But that’s another story. As an essentially (that word again!) gregarious, communal species, we need to identify and, if possible, to belong. That’s what soap did. Once.
Excuse me…haven’t we gone off the guitars a bit..? I hear you say. True. Let’s get back.
The Notes blog operates at a safe social distance from TNAG HQ – three and a half thousand miles is admittedly erring on the side of caution - but one of the things that’s been keeping this little corner of the empire going (may need to fact-check that one – Ed.) is the knowledge that there will be a missive of some sort arriving every few days from Bourne End. Which may as well be Bag End, at the moment for all the chances of us actually getting there. And that’s the point. This is our community. People all over – not just TNAG people – are offering long-distance positivity to their likeminded brethren and sistren (yes, it’s really a word!). For someone, somewhere, that’s the few minutes difference - be it a lesson, a hands-on review or an interview – between a miserable day stuck in the house and the brief contemplation of an outside realm of rosier possibility. It’s a dose of the positive that contact with friends, actual or virtual, brings when, for example, the cat is refusing to tell you where he’s hidden that last jigsaw piece and you’re already contemplating another single-use for those surgical gloves because you’re convinced he’s eaten it. Plus, you’ve actually taken to arguing with a cat.
Until, that is, the email pings and it’s Ben or Brian opening a cardboard box. Admit it, this is not something you’d have considered all that gripping a few months ago. Now, it’s the final reel of Alien. Or it’s Stuart Ryan playing some finger-knotting wizardry in 17/11 time so bloody effortlessly that you may feel the healthy urge to break with protocol and get close enough for a polite strangulation. The point is, somebody is taking the trouble to make us feel. What we feel is up to us but, regardless, let’s at least appreciate them for it. And we can all do it, too. It’s not disrespectful or socially subversive to try to connect. Indeed, according to E.M Forster, it’s all there is. Nor, heaven forfend, is it some kind of venal sin to try to keep your livelihood intact while carefully observing a healthy regard for the needs and feelings of others in these current grindingly dull-but-dangerous circumstances.
Positivity is a service, too. Okay, it’s a long way down the ladder of ‘essential’ but one definition of the word describes it as ‘the act of helping or doing something for someone else’. Hardly something to feel guilty about.
People are making incredible sacrifices in the face of this horrific pandemic, risking their lives on a daily basis. Most of us can’t actually offer them any practical help in their work – we’d only get in the way and end up doing more harm than good - but, surely, if it’s not actively harming anyone, every positive vibe we can offer might help someone get through the long, locked-down day. Even if that someone isn’t you. Even if the only way we connect is via five minutes of internet box-opening and a few best wishes, we’re still a community. We share stuff - emotionally and spiritually if not in any actual physical sense. We love guitars…playing them, looking at them, talking about them. Long may that adherence to our peaceful little tribe continue to keep us, ‘essentially’, human. There’s always something to celebrate. After all, as the great ‘Skunk’ Baxter once said, “it’s hard to hug a Steinway.”
BIG (ish) NEWS! In the interests of, erm…interest, we’re planning on taking a bit of a sideways swerve over the next few outings. Master luthiers including Michael Bashkin, John Slobod (Circa) and Jeremy Jenkins (Lame Horse) have already agreed to share their lockdown musings, existential insights and vast knowledge of all things acoustic in a series of upcoming interviews. Others to follow. The TNAG Phillips cassette-recorder is firing up as we speak. Stand by, then, for the thoughts of people who actually know what they’re talking about. There’s a thing. You can’t say Notes isn’t breaking new ground on that score.
This Fortnight’s Fab Five…
…Things To Watch, as an alternative to bingeing on Better Call Saul just so you can join that influential ‘better than Breaking Bad’ focus group (it isn’t – Ed.). And don’t say you haven’t got time! There are dozens of guitar-based documentaries out there - perhaps too many. Some are fascinating and truly revealing, many more are bland and superficial. Some are uplifting while some – the stories of great players like Roy Buchanan or Terry Kath – are just a bit too depressing. So, in the spirit of that legendary shred-meister, Lord Reith, here are a few filmic lockdown diversions guaranteed to educate, inform and – above all – entertain.
- Ragtime, Gospel, fantastic black & white footage and the inspiring redemption story of the mighty Reverend Gary Davis, ‘Harlem Street Singer’ sees a raft of top players tell the tale of a true giant of American music and one of the most influential six-string acoustic stylists of the 20th It’s on the YouTube. Even non-musicians in the house will like it (from a safe distance).
- A bit harder to find but no less fascinating and an important insight into a complex, occasionally murky landscape that we players often take for granted, ‘Musicwood’ follows three grands fromages of the commercial guitar world – Chris Martin, Bob Taylor and Dave Berryman (of Gibson) – into the heart of the giant, Native American-owned, coastal Alaskan rain-forest. In search of hard planks and harder answers. Park your romantic preconceptions outside as this one’s quite an eye-opener, as well as being nerd heaven for earnest Sitka huggers everywhere.
- Have we mentioned this one before? Probably. But even if you watched it a while ago, watch it again. ‘Anvil’ might not be ‘about’ guitars but it’s one of the most entertaining and uplifting music films you’ll ever see. These lovably naff, knowingly delusional Canadians with their naïve, uncrushable good intentions are, in effect, the reality Spinal Tap. This is probably the only tragi-comic, heavy-metal tear-jerker you’ll ever need. A solid gold (plated) classic.
- Again, not just a guitar-fest – much more, in fact - Julien Temple’s ‘Oil City Confidential’ is another superb and brilliantly perceptive insight into ‘band life’, this time in the form of Canvey Island punk-blues demi-gods, Dr. Feelgood. It’s sad, funny, angry, surprisingly gentle and crackling with the riveting, urgent electricity generated by one of the finest live bands ever. Yes, Wilko’s barking but, as revealed here, accidentally or otherwise, only in the nicest, most charming possible way.
- Finally, there’s ‘Life After Django Reinhardt’ (currently watchable via Amazon Prime) which meanders gently through the legacy of the great Gypsy jazzer in the company of an engagingly unshowy band of soft-spoken, fiery-fingered Manouche devotees. The understated delivery offers a fine, palate-cleansing contrast to all the sexed-up bombast of such flashy, content-lite US guitar docs like ‘Hired Gun’ or ‘Turn It Up!’. It’s that community thing again, folks. Even if you don’t go for the exclusive playing style these guys venerate, it’s hard not to envy them that fierce sense of belonging.
So, for as long as this madness goes on – hopefully beyond - be considerate in (and of) all things. That’s an essential service, too, and one we can all provide. See you next time.
by Stephen Bennett