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Entries in bill francis (2)


Getting in Tune with the Music

Ed mugging behind the StratocasterNovember 2000I suppose maybe I should have done it 17 years ago, but I waited until February 23rd. I mean, I started when I was just about to turn 21, and now I'm 38! But I didn't ever do it right. I just did it my way. And then things got distracted and even the attention I used to pay it was cut down noticeably. But something inside me keeps nagging for things to be reawakened, but this time it has to be done a different way. Of course, everything could have been different if last Friday happened anytime in the last 17 years. But it didn't happen that way. But it did happen.

I had my first proper guitar lesson.

You read right, folks. First paid guitar lesson ever. It wasn't for lack of opportunity; there are quite a number of teachers in this town, and there were several teachers among the various bands I used to work for. It wasn't that I didn't know anything about guitar, either, or about music. I did have a basic musicianship class (and a concurrent piano class) at Mesa College in 1993. So, by the time I picked up a guitar in late summer 1994, I was already introduced to chords and scales and intervals. My second instrument, the piano, made some sense to me since one key makes one sound. But after playing in bands that used guitars rather than keyboards, it began to be apparent guitar and bass would be more useful as auxiliary instruments to know. (I mean, I had a piano at home but I wasn't about to go to a rehearsal with it!) 

It just so happened that Bill Francis, the curious fellow who lived at our house in 1994 had two guitars and he wanted to shed one to make a few bucks. For me to say he lived "at" our house is more descriptive than to say he lived "in" our house. He was afforded a trailer or a shed to live in, courtesy of my old man, who was willing to help just enough to keep Bill from being totally homeless. Bill let me borrow one guitar—the Fender F-210 I still use today (about 25-30 years after its manufacture)—and that the old man subsequently bought for my birthday just a month or so later.

I had a chord book but had no idea what to do with it, really. It was more of a traditional jazz-blues kind of book from Mel Bay and I was kind of sour on it because I didn't hear the chords I saw in the rock bands I played in. I didn't really have vocabulary for it, but I was essentially missing the various power chords, partial barre chords with an A or E string left to drone, or certainly, open tunings or altered tunings. Not long after messing with all that, I sought some time with Jim Pupplo from Slaves By Trade. SBT was just in the process of breaking up, not by some big artistic differences, but that Jim was leaving to play with another band. As a parting gift, he showed me some power chords and other bits one day at his place. The thing is, I wasn't really sold on guitar as something to get passionately into. Chords never fell well under my fingers, and even to this day, I am slow to get certain forms, lest my fingers get into a tangle.

The battle-damaged F-210I never took a lesson since then. I've had a few more chord books and a couple books that, if actually used as intended, might have done me some good. Instead, I was keen on experimenting with sound. In early 1995, I was in an interesting spot to receive two guitars from a girlfriend who was keeping her convict friend's possessions. For a while, I had an acoustic guitar (don't remember if it was electro or not) and the very same Strat as I now play. (Sort of. Almost everything on it has been replaced and renewed over time.) I recall that quite early on in my guitar era, I took to using alternate tunings. I think the first ones must have been to tune to what would be a minor barre chord, or maybe a major if desired. One of my early tracks, Earl, was simply me strumming open chords at a couple positions as a drone effect. I was rather far from actually making music. Another odd tuning I used was EBEebe and perhaps a more extreme form, EEeebe. Somewhere there lurks a recording from mid 1995 using that tuning on the F-210, with an amazing stack of octaves and unisons but no real chords. It pretty much is a heavy attack minor key kind of theme that has an interesting buzz about it. That Fender acoustic could be called on to do some odd tunings. I've used it to play Robert Fripp's CGDAEG tuning, and even a variant of that, tuned a half step down! And of course I've done DADGAD and DADF#BD type things. It's versatile.

Some of that was to avoid having to learn real music on the guitar. Almost as soon as I picked up guitar, I found my two leading inspirations to diversify away from my drums-only identity. In December 1994 I saw Mike Keneally for the first time, and in the spring of the next year, the newly re-formed King Crimson threatened to explode my brain. There was nothing I could do to emulate Keneally's guitar or keyboard playing, but I could make jokey recordings with copious amounts of tape editing. And over in Crim-land, I could go for a highly processed tone, ambient effects, noise, and unusual tunings. It was fortuitous that just a month after seeing the Crimson King, I began working for Rockola. By the end of the summer, I was beginning to work for Bob Tedde. He let me borrow all sorts of things that made my experiments fruitful: pedals, 12 string Rickenbacker, effects boxes, Mustang bass (the short thing), and over time, various synths. Doug and Marty of the band also let me use bass and drums if I was responsible for getting them to the next gig. Various other guys I jammed with let me use instruments for various periods: 6 string bass (the one I played with an air compressor), electronic drum kit, and more. It was handy to have access to things, but because I wanted to record more than I wanted to practice, I set about my early practices that became my standard approach until maybe 2001: the recording was the artistic focal point for me and instruments were the brushes that let me paint the sound onto tape or disk. Learning musical vocabulary and repertoire was secondary, and often ignored.

Receiving coverI worked around cover bands playing a lot of classic rock, funk, disco, fusion, and even some blues and country. Some of what I missed in lessons was supplemented by watching bands so much of the time, and at least taking some stabs at things I saw over and over. But I never really learned songs or parts on guitar or bass in the way that I did on drums. Major disadvantage that I am now trying to put right. Receiving was recorded at the peak of my activity in the music/tech world, but you will barely hear anything directly attributable to my having watched so many bands play those styles named above. On Receiving, like all my recordings, there is really no knowledge of conventional harmony. I doubt there is even one tonic-dominant progression to be found. Or maybe only one! And yet, there is some adventure in the tension and release on certain tracks. It just isn't anything you'll find "in the book."

Over time, there were a few players that were on my scene for a few months or a year or so, and who graced me with better musicianship than I ever brought to things. In order, I'd name Michael Kropp (bass/guitar 1995), Tom Griesgraber (bass/guitar/Stick 1997-99), and Todd Larowe (guitar/bass/keys 1999-2002). Each of these guys gave me access to better playing on those instruments, but each also left me with something to think about as I watched their method or as they helped me unpack other things about music. My understanding was pretty decent, but my application of any of that to the instrument was always lacking. Knowing some things was half the battle, but I never won the other battle on any of the instruments I played: working the sticks and picks with any discipline. I've tended to regret that.

In the years since 2005, most bets have been off the table anyway, particularly with regard to space to set up and do thing as I used to. That was a bruising time that took a lot of wrestling. Despite selling off pieces that I sort of wish I had kept, I did retain enough to maintain a guitar/bass/drum/recording capability. And in the absence of actually playing much guitar or bass, I've been soaking up music just as a listener and allowing it to reach me in a way that I don't think it did when I was trying to create stuff myself. In the background I've been trying to push myself to develop some familiarity with pop music of various eras, either on bass or guitar, or just in trying to map out chords and get a feel for things at a new level. Part of the challenge has been to develop my ear and intuition on an instrument.

Church in the parkIn the fall I briefly played drums and a bit of bass for a budding worship band at church. I don't like the music and I didn't like the structure, but I gave it a shot for a while to at least put myself to some use. In all the years of doing church and playing music, I had never played for any liturgical purpose. The band leader was driven enough to buy a drum set and so I used that at rehearsals, making it quite easy to show up and play, only needing to add a few personal bits to the kit.

Fender bass wall with 5 string jazz bass and the bastard Fenderless fretless modJazz bass on the left; Fretless on rightIn October I bought my first instrument in years. It wasn't a huge step, but it warmed me up some. I found a rather used and very cheap ($100) Indonesian Squier P-Bass at a pawn shop, and as soon as I got it home, ripped the frets out in gleeful abandon, using toenail clippers! Then I took it to a luthier and paid 2.4 times as much ($240 more) to have the fingerboard properly finished with inlay lines and dots, and smoothed out. I was just aching to have a fretless again. It's no Warwick, but it soothes me to find my own notes again. Maybe it's part of my ear training method, but it's good to have a fretless bass once again.

Since the late summer, I've been joining in on a monthly acoustic/folk kind of meetup that lets me come in to learn some pretty basic songs on guitar. Again, not all of it strikes me as my kind of music, but since I did such a job of not learning the basics, now it's like I am building the foundation underneath the second floor! Just a couple days ago I went to the monthly meetup and the theme was "no guitars." I was able to come in with the fretless and hamfist my way through the tunes. It was quite a different group with no guitars. I think I was more able to participate on bass than on guitar.

Heartbreaker amp/cabinet looks pretty lean and sporty.I hope to make the Heartbreaker screamAll this has helped draw me back into spending time with music. Over the past few years, there have been a trickle of song fragments and chords that I have not finished. Part of the hold up is not really feeling I have a singing voice yet, but knowing that can be worked on. And I think maybe that should be made a co-incident priority with guitar related tutoring. I've mostly resisted the urge to set up a recording environment. It's hard, but I've sat many times in the past decade, staring at a rather complete recording rig, fully aware that I am more beholden to the gear than any stroke of brilliance and passion in my fingers. And that got old. I've stormed out of the studio plenty of times knowing that that approach was disingenuous, and that I should tap into whatever feeling lurks, and to work at developing some technical readiness to deliver the goods when the muse arrives. Eventually complicated recording setups can be put together, but for now, I need to trust that me and the guitar have something to say, and that has been the trouble. 

Another meetup group I just tried last week was a songwriters' meetup. I got a good feeling off of it, and since the people are dedicated to song craft, with a chance to be reviewed by others, and a feeling of collaboration, it might lead to other opportunities that get me out of my rut.

Unfortunately, the jobless situation means funds are a bit tight, but the choice to get music lessons is a worthy use of funds. I've been of the mind that the time has come to seek personal growth with some combination of music lessons, a gym membership, or with a shrink. I can't really afford all three. Two of them are things I've never done. One will just tell me to do the other two. In the few days between the first lesson and the songwriter meetup, I felt distinctly more alive—damn the therapists! I've been of the mind that it's time to make some more space for music, even if it comes at some cost to a life at, say, church. I've already cut back on that for various reasons. With the meetups and a new sense of empowerment, I might be able to meet some new people and do things that I've been setting aside and dreaming about.


The Unraveling +15

It was on this day in 1996 that my grandfather Norman died. I might be buttering things up to say that we were close or that he was the beloved patriarch, or any such stuff. For my grandmother, his partner of 61 years and more, I suppose she was relieved somehow. But really, that is speculation. Even on that side of his death, I guess there are vast areas about their lives I'll never know. I can't blame her, but I'd say it was more my grandmother's task to build me up according to a loftier vision of possibility than to revisit any of the hard times of her past, particularly when it comes to the intra-family dynamics. There is so much I just don't know about how people thought and felt. Or so it seems.

You can read other blogs of mine from this day in years past. I've been writing them for some years now. This year's angle seems to be a bit of surprise at the passing of time. Fifteen years now since Norman died, and in the clearness of hindsight (but it wasn't impossible to imagine prior to his death), the descent into family chaos began just about as fast. His death opened up the power vacuum into which my old man stepped. Or, that sounds rather polite and graceful. There was a kind of arm-twisting coerciveness to it. When Norman died, Viginia was quite well possessed of her facilities. She had no interest in really changing the plan, no matter how much her son wanted to push and prod into alternative living arrangements in the same house. As far as I remember, she regarded it as a nuisance to be dealt with.

Norman was buried with full military honors at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetary. I still drop in once in a while, particularly when guests are in town. If nothing else, he has the nicest real estate ever, overlooking the bay and Coronado and downtown. The day he was buried was a rainy one, which if I recall means that life is about to renew somehow. I don't know what time frame that is referring to, because so far there has been a lot of heartache. I don't rule out the long term, but we aren't there yet, and what I am certain of so far is that there has been a lot of pain and dissolution. 

The wild card that I doubt anyone saw in advance was the presence of Bill Francis. Bill was a 40ish guy who had fallen on hard times about three years before. On two occasions he had lived at my house, first in a trailer out back, and then in a shed. Both times lasted several months and were accompanied with some expectation of labor around the yard, or on projects headed by the old man. Being essentially homeless and without regular work, he was falling through the cracks of life, losing his health, relations, possessions, and all that. He had a general skill set that included a strength in construction (from years of building Houston, TX) and some automotive repair. He also braved any other work he was asked to do, sometimes foolishly. And more foolishly, he did stuff he had no business doing sometimes. He did tend to be a homeless pack rat kind of person, hanging on to anything that might constitute value for sale or projects he would possibly be engaged in. I found him to be a nice guy who befriended me at a time of transition into young adulthood—about 19-20 years old. He was like an uncle to me.

I never liked the way my old man treated him. The offer to stay in the trailer or shed upset me, particularly since we had a bedroom to spare. But I was always shown how dirty Bill was. (Really? He worked like mad at anything put in front of him, and had no access to our showers.) Or I suppose any of a number of arguments were made to keep Bill outside the house, even for social time. They were half justified, particularly later on when in the weeks following Norman's death, it had a vague ring of mutually agreeable value to have Bill Francis take a vacated room in the house with my grandmother, and to help her with meals, shopping, and house related tasks, and maybe construction on the patio enclosure.

I was his advocate. I got to know a generous side of Bill. He gave money that he barely had, often to help a friend of his who had a few kids and had it harder than he. So I vouched for him before my grandmother. He wasn't a bad guy, but he was definitely having hard times by 1996. Some stability would do him good, so it seemed. Anyhow, barely three weeks later, he was moving into the house. I recall that by the 19th, he was in, and maybe it was then that the following happened, and really started to accelerate the issues of adjustment for my grandmother.

I don't know who really suggested it or told me it needed doing, but one day Bill and I were cleaning out what used to be my grandfather's room (and which a couple years later was mine). I guess this was a dismal moment that never should have been. Bill and I worked our way through all sorts of stuff, some of which was clearly Norman's and some more clearly Virginia's. Stuff that got thrown out included both of their things, and because it was under the radar, it became an I-said, he-said kind of thing. That one day soon inflamed my grandmother in a huge way, and for the first time that I can recall, her wrath came down on me. It was quite unexpected and shocking. An extension of all that came when my old man began charging me with there being missing silver items. I positively had not seen such things and was completely unaware of their very existence. In fact, the accusation he made was the first I heard of such items. I think there is some other funny business going on. But the weight of having gotten my grandmother pissed at me, and then being accused of stealing silver was a clear break with the old days. 

At around the same time (and possibly related to all this), the pressure was mounting for me to leave my childhood home on Artesian St. I had friction about paying a nominal rent to my old man (one that was prompted when I put a proper lock on my bedroom door after he peeked in on me and my girlfriend Robin at 5 am one day in September 1994). At the time of this family disintegration and strife, I was working exclusively as an assistant to Rockola, and probably made just a couple hundred dollars a month, maybe $500 or so at best. To pay $100 was possible but painful because it changed the terms of the relationship into one where I paid for what I got for free for so many years. Finally, in August 1996, messages were being sent that I should be on my way. (I seem to remember being told my old man wanted to make room for some Russian woman he planned on marrying, and who was about to arrive any day now.)

I was in a bind. The pressure was on to get out of the house where I was living, but the welcome mat at my grandmother's was rolled up and taken away after the room cleaning debacle.  I went out and looked for apartments with Robin, but it was at the wrong time for us: we were in the midst of an eight month period that was a long, slow breakup. I, as always, had my fears about whether I'd make enough money to afford a shared apartment that went for a whopping $600! (Robin had just started at her illustrious career with Wal Mart that May.) Thinking back to a year before when her first attempt at moving out of home lasted just a month and a half, and our dissolving relationship, I retreated.

Bill apparently got pretty comfortable in the house though. His packrat side came out, as he brought in as much stuff as possible into the room he had, and overflow running into the pseudo-garage "storeroom" that once he was gone, became Hog Heaven Studio. He had auto parts, devices, files, boxes, tools, hardware, and so much shit that a couple years later it took my old man and me several truckloads to move out to a storage locker. But before it got so packed, it was looking like he was doing his role in the house for a while. He set out to get the patio cover done, but like these things tend to do, it took forever as he was getting distracted by other jobs that came up. Eventually, his time got spread too thin. Or he got sick. Or he didn't have materials. Or my old man interfered. Or— anything, really. 

But what really pushed my buttons and drove me to regret vouching for him was a couple of occasions that made me sense he was far too comfortable there. First was when I finally got the pressure and did my two hour move from home in two cars, the following weeks were times when I was in a kind of quasi-homeless state. I took everything over to my grandmother's house, having no other place to drop stuff. But since this was a month after the whole room cleaning incident, it was not a great welcome. She slapped conditions on me and my stuff, like it was just a temporary thing. I was not given a key, but since it was summer, I knew the windows were open. I was working for Rockola, typically not done and back home till about 2-3 in the morning. One night I got a ride back from one of their club gigs and climbed into the window after knocking on doors and windows to get Bill up. No answer. So I entered and got my night's rest. Sort of. The news got out that I broke in and I got flack for that from old man and grandmother alike, thanks to Bill's newly adopted informant role. 

One time, shortly after I left my house, I had to spend at least some time at grandmother's place. I had Bill start to work on my car, as it was in need of a timing job. I think it was on the same day as I came back from the Rockola gig and climbed into the window, my punishment was that my old man rolled my car off the ramps and into the street, and in the process, messed up any timing relationship within the engine. I was pretty much forced to tow it. Bill insisted that he get paid for his work. I told him to piss off. I got him into a cushy housing deal, and if he had to be paid, he'd get paid when the work was done, not before. All this was of no concern to my old man. He just left my car in the street. I had to have it towed to a more agreeable location outside Bob Tedde's house elsewhere in Clairemont, and then again to a shop. Then that shop charged me $300 for what became the final repair. Days later, I took it down to the Toyota dealership, and with $8000 check in hand, I bought my truck (which I still have). The trade in credit on the Ford was $150.

The other instance of Bill's not opening the house was rather later, on New Year's Eve when I was asked to carry and store band equipment for Dr. Feelgood. At the time I had an upstairs apartment with a not-too-safe situation for storage. I was also with the flu, feeling quite weak. I spent the evening at my apartment, sleeping. I had an agreement with my grandmother finally that let me use the storeroom space to keep things if needed to make money. But I had no key, so I had to knock and ring. I'd have expected Bill to answer. I rarely got much advance notice about when these things would happpen, so I basically needed to be able to act on the spot sometimes, like on NYE 1997. Dr. Feelgood asked me about storing things just as I got to the gig at 1:30 am. I had no easy way to do anything but show up and expect to store things at the house. Calling would be pretty distracting. So I appeared at the house at about 3 am, did the knocking and ringing for over half an hour. In the back of my truck, the gear was unprotected from the mounting drizzle which turned to rain. I had to have something happen. Bill did not answer, but I heard his stirrings. There was no shelter for gear so it was now make-or-break, and I still did not imagine lugging all that gear up the stairs to my apartment. I found the kitchen window was unlocked, so I finally climbed in, and just as soon as I did, Bill was right there, shouting at me. I was shattered. He went in to wake my grandmother (or to get her involved anyway—she was always up late), and got her all upset at the confusion. He dialed 911, but by the time he did that, I stormed out and raced to my apartment where I defied all logic and fought the flu, the rain, the stairs, and the rage against so many people who had turned on me, who I once called family or friends.

The first morning of the new year was started with a call from my old man telling me I had to get my stuff out of the house at Quapaw. For my little "stunt" of breaking in so that I might save other people's gear from the rain, and so that I might make a bit of money, I had this extra burden. So I had to go over and collect a lot of stuff, including two drum sets (one that sat in my closet and one in the living room—the latter always giving me a fear of theft) and who knows what else. It was hell. The rest of 1997 was more hell but it had lots to do with the shifting alliances of the four of us. Sometimes Bill and my grandmother were pitted against me and the old man. Sometimes me and g-ma against the old man. Sometimes Lucas vs. Francis. Cops were called. Adult protective services had g-ma as a case. One of Bill's friends sued the old man for moving a car that Bill was "repairing." The old man towed it off the driveway and down several blocks, provoking a lot of ire. All this was dismal and disorienting. Who knew who to trust?

It wasn't all rosy when Norman was alive, but there was not this kind of chaos. I am torn between knowing he was the stern patriarch who I never connected with, and who later on seemed pretty grounded and normal in comparison to what followed. So much of the story of TAPKAE.com revolves around the power vacuum that he left for his son to fill. Norman did see it coming though. His granting me over $10,000 in cash and about $5,000 in stock was an attempt to bypass that. I have drums and a truck to show for it now, and I have essentially paid my way through the Art Institute of CA on those funds. It is something, I guess. I'd still rather have had a property to live in, to shelter me and Kelli from the market swings. Or maybe more to have a family that didn't crumble so fast and furiously. But I guess that was not my package in life.