Like most things, I started writing songs because I didn’t know any better. Teenage angst is like that. Fortunately for me it was a hell of a lot less destructive than all the other things that I could have been doing with my frustrations and energy. I also started writing because that’s what my best-friend, Jimmy, was doing. He wrote the happy tunes and I wrote the not-so-happy stuff. Anyway, being self-taught meant that pretty much all the things I wrote came from stumbling upon things that sounded good to me. But I felt like I was working from a pretty limited pallet and eventually what I wanted to write about just wouldn’t fit into a three minute three chord song. So I stopped writing songs. Lately I’ve been carefully listening to artists like Neva and Peter Himmelman and it dawned me that I might have made a mistake stopping. I thought everyone else was better than I’d ever become. I never realized the power of playing within ones strengths, to play within oneself.
What I mean is that I felt I’d gotten as far as I could with my limited skills. In the years since I’ve thought about the little tricks (like a band?) I could have used to make up for what I thought I lacked. It goes without saying that most folks can do things with a band that are hard to pull off with just a guitar, a mic and blind faith. But then I listen to folks like my buddy Neva who have that right combination of soul wanting to get out in their music and the talent to pull it off with a couple of wooden spoons and a fry pan. I know that no amount of tricks can make up for the lack of talent, if it’s missing. See, you won’t find a bigger group of folks completely insecure about their talents than musicians (well, except for supermodels, which is part of the reason they hilariously end up together). It was so easy to fall into the trap, as a guitarist, to feel like I was shit because I couldn’t play like Jimmy Page, Jimmie Hendrix, or for my group, Phil Keaggy.Because I could never imagine getting my fingers to fly across the fretboard fast enough I failed to recognize the miracle that I could get some good tunes out of said fingers in the first place. I’d forgotten that I started playing and writing in the first place not because I wanted to be a rockstar or play the fastest leads. The simple truth was that I started because I couldn’t find any music that expressed what I was feeling or experiencing so, not knowing any better, my buddy and I started writing about it.
Fortunately, most of the 60 plus songs I penned when I was a kid have been completely lost over the past 30 years. But they served their purpose at the time. Like I said, my friend Jimmie wrote the happy tunes and I wrote the other tunes. But more than just a difference in disposition, my friend tended toward the simple chords while I experimented with different kinds of tuning and the like. I spent countless afternoons and evenings with my buddy really just learning how to play. And when I started playing for others, I was still spending a lot of time learning from those who were better than I was. Getting together all the time really spurned the creativity, I could hardly wait to share my new stuff with my jam buddies. It makes sense that all of this would change after college when I had far less disposable time to work with. I guess I never realized how wonderful it was to have such great jamming partners when I was in high school and then in college. That was such a long time ago, a lifetime ago, it seems.
Vineyard Long Beach Worship Team (guitar band) circa 2006
And all of this might have completely passed away into rarely remembered memories had I not found myself re-examining everything in my life and again looking for the voice inside of me wanting to communicate what I was going through. This most recent time around I found a whole host of artists expressing what I was exploring in my life so I didn’t even bother taking up the writing and spent countless hours learning all of the music I’d missed over the intervening 15-years I’d been “away.” Alas, the power in my life that compelled me to take up my guitar again was also more than a little contradictory as far as playing music at church, so I made myself available to help out with the proviso that there was a giant hole in my “personal life.” I was pretty straight forward in the four different worship groups I worked with and to their credit they accepted me in my fully-flawed state. Funniest thing was that the most challenging element in all of this that I had to deal with was that the second worship band I worked withdemanded that I play electric lead guitar and NOT sing. I learned a lot during my brief tenure at that post. But then that worship leader stepped down and I didn’t quite work out with the new guy who was piano-centric and had no time to mentor a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time lead-guitarist. One thing I did learn playing electric and lead was that less-is-more and that it was never about seeing how fast one can play, but just having something to play during those breaks. I never quite got there, but it was a good lesson learned.
So now I’m in a very different place from my high school/college days, or the last five years of dragging my guitar around. It feels a bit weird listening to my own music from over the years. Back when I was writing music so much of it was full of that adolescent preachy-ness that can be pretty embarrassing given how things have turned out so far. I guess what I want to remember is the passion. It’s still a part of me, but it doesn’t seem to fit in all of the little categories that I preached as a budding musician. And this last time around it was very much about the passion and giving voice to the longing i felt in my heart. But that didn’t quite turn out either. Listening to Peter Himmelman play on Leo Laporte’s podcast reminded me that I’m not done yet. His playing reminded me of where I left off back when I was writing. It reminded me that I started this thing because there was something in my soul that needed to get out in my music. So, should it be so surprising that I still find myself, in my middle years, pulling out my guitar, playing some of the old stuff and still frustrated that I’m still not finding the tunes that tell my story? Damn.
JBB’s Media Projects by Joseph Bruce Bustillos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.