Did Two Videos Teach Me A Lesson?

A contemplation on what music can do, that I had entirely forgotten.

Despite living in an almost-constant flurry of material and constant state of excitement towards my work, this week I not only had but experienced a feeling of changing gear.

For years various mentors have advised me to “Read slow. Write slow. Read deep...” all of which was met with an internal (raised) voice of both ‘easy for you to say’ and ‘easier said than done.’ I am angsty and irritated that this mode and pace seems so untouchable. Unachievable. Even the use of the word unachievable signifies a tension and entanglement with long-developed and, by now, engrained ideologies of productivity that make for an unhelpful concoction of embodied over-ambition, speed, and voracity towards work. A general orientation that more often results in debilitation than enjoyment or pleasure.

However, two days ago I did something that felt radically out of character—so shockingly so that I’m still thinking about it today and felt the compulsion to document it here.

Two Videos

I took the time to watch two videos in full. The context was being with a friend who has taken up playing the guitar over the past year with serious dedication. He found the right online course, which kept him motivated and enjoyably committed.

We both used to play electric guitar in our teens, and were astonished to revisit tab websites (guitar ‘tablature’ is a method of notating music that is usually used by beginners since it is way easier than reading regular music staff notation and trying to learn how to translate that to guitar; the major difference is that tabs not only show you what notes to play, how long to play them, and what techniques to use—but offer the serious advantage of showing where to play the notes on your guitar) and how much they’ve changed since the early 2000’s. Basically, they are now a fucking amazing learning tool. Combine that with the infinite amount of YouTube tutorials and the likes, and it becomes hard to not think: How much better would I have been as an amateur teen-guitarist if these tools and resources existed back then? Maybe I would have stuck at it. Maybe I would have been more empowered, dedicated, stuck at it… Whatever. Debatable.

Nevertheless, we started sharing videos of rad songs, influential songs. We got into a zone of nostalgia that was bloody wonderful. I watch the following two videos, showed them to my friend as things of prominence to me as a teen, and my heart began to swell as I was transfixed watching these videos with no temptation to fast forward or skip ahead… I was there for the whole thing. And I wanted to relive it again, and again.

Like anything laced with an element of nostalgia, the risk of sharing them or trying to explain the profoundness of such a moment is that it is unlikely to be shared by somebody else without the same historical attachment to the material. However, these two videos speak differently to be watched in 2021. They hold reminders and embedded messages. They retain a renewed certain power that I felt (or realised) is potentially important to feel and consider in this different context. The context of the now.

1. Steve Vai - ‘Tender Surrender’ (1997)

The first video is a clip of Steve Vai performing ‘Tender Surrender,’ taken from the DVD Alien Love Secrets from 1997, which features full-length performance videos of every song from the Alien Love Secrets EP.

For those unfamiliar with Vai, he is basically a living guitar god. Born in 1960 in New York, he played in Frank Zappa’s band in the early 80’s and went on to have a massive solo career. He playing style is described as “highly individualistic” (whatever that means, although after watching this video, the description somewhat fits) and a “heavy rock and metal virtuosi who came to the fore in the 1980s.” I don’t like many things from the 80’s (I wasn’t alive then), but I love Steve Vai. Guitar World mag voted him "10th Greatest Guitarist Ever.”

Here’s some cool stuff courtesy of Wikipedia:

At the age of thirteen, after having purchased his first guitar and begun taking his first lessons from fellow New York native Joe Satriani, Vai became obsessed with the discipline of practice.

Vai's practice routine, consisting of a rigid and structured regimen of ten-to-fifteen hour-a-day practice schedules, became the basis of his work ethic for the rest of his career. During his employment by Frank Zappa, Vai transcribed and played very rhythmically complex music, believing that if started slow and perfected, any piece of music could be played.

Okay, so Vai is also an advocate for the ‘go slow’ approach to one’s craft and work. I’m realising now my friction with this suggestion is that it feels like a luxury. Did prior generations have the time, space, and resources, to take a slower approach to their lives and vocations? Possibly, yes.

Anyhow, this video is 5 mins 23 seconds long. A seemingly ridiculous amount of time to consider as any kind of achievement to have watched intently. I implore you to check it out and be absorbed by its every detail. His body language, that outfit (amazing–shirtless under a suit?!), his visceral relationship to the music, its every note and bodily gesture. His steez, his effortless skill, the length of his fingers (!?), how the song moves through phases, when he gets to these somewhat-'show off' movements of utter radness, when he runs his hand through his hair… when he licks his finger at the end (again, !?). Just, all of it.

[Full screen advised.]

Imagine that time and place. It’s 1997 and the process of time (considered linearly as moving towards ‘the future’) feels naturally progressive in the positive sense. Generally, things (life) were considered to be getting better as they went along, year by year. Each generation was better off than the one before—more opportunities, enhancing, more exciting and more beneficial technologies… This is how I imagine it was at least. I was only six after all, but my parents had no doubts I would live a better life than they or their parents had. Whatever ‘better’ might mean. (Please note: I am absolutely aware I idealise life pre-web 2.0.)

This live performance of Tender Surrender seems to incapsulate so much soft simple beauty is its passion, skill and performance. I am certainly projecting how profound it is as an artefact, but as mere art I did feel it as profound to indulge it its fullness, for those 5 minutes and 23 seconds.

2. Incubus - ‘A Certain Shade of Green’ (2004)

After watching Vai, I wanted to show my friend a certain rendition of Incubus’ A Certain Shade of Green from their performance (and resultant DVD) Alive at Red Rocks from 2004. As part of his online guitar course, they had encountered a riff from this song, which he had never heard before. I, on the other hand, have a history with it.

A Certain Shade of Green is off one of Incubus’ earlier albums called S.C.I.E.N.C.E. (also from 1997, like the Vai performance. Pure coincedence.) It came after 1995’s Fungus Amongus while the band was still outside the mainstream and, well, weird.

Those who know Incubus for their later hits like Drive or Wish You Were Here may not be familiar with their earlier work that was an odd but wildly innovative and successful mash of genres that fell/fall under the umbrella term of 'nu metal.'

Heavy metal, hip hop, funk, techno—S.C.I.E.N.C.E. has it all. Incubus combined a spectrum of genres “without sounding like a mess.” In terms of 'nu metal' they created a solid sound that was not only genre-defying, it brought quality and innovation to a musical sphere that typically rewarded decibel levels rather than renegade eclecticism.

What is so enamouring about this live version of A Certain Shade of Green is the solo by DJ Chris Kilmore. Yes, the line-up of the band Incubus has included a turn-tablist since the beginning—now for over 20 years. And this is, in my opinion, a core source and force of the band’s unusual sound. Turntablism and trip hop have been rarely incorporated in metal and rock.

If you watch this video, the fucking seamlessness of turn-tablist skill and sound (scratching included) in the midst of a totally different musical world will blow your mind.

I owned this DVD as a teen, and cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched it. It is 1 hour and 47 minutes long (now watching a 6 minute 13 second video from it feels like a big deal. Weird.) and I never got over how magical the venue of Red Rocks, Colorado, looks.

That open air amphitheatre is carved into the rocks and is known as a ‘gotta experience it once in a life time’ spot for music lovers. The City of Denver purchased the area of Red Rocks in 1927, construction began in 1936, and was it opened to the public in June 1941. So, it’s not new and is an example of when humans dominate nature and make wild, controversial, shit.

The venue is an aside. What’s most important is that I spent 6 minutes and 13 seconds showing a YouTube video to a friend of something I had watched millions of times before in my youth and felt the same enchanted transfixation as I did some 16 years ago. In that moment, life became simple. I was confronted with the Eros of art that I’ve spent the past five years intensely trying to chase, understand, articulate, and theorise.

It was right there.

Can Two Videos Teach A Lesson?

I don’t think this is about escapism, or even the surprise life of an existing attention span I suspected was long diminished. It’s a different lesson I’m gradually learning, which comes back to this advice to ‘read slow, work slow, go slow.’ Perhaps it’s not the luxury I designate it to be, something out of attainment in this phenomenological perception I live in that feels sticky, treacherous, inescapable, and quite honestly, hopeless.

These two videos, two experiences of touching something outside my suffocating daily life-on-repeat, were blissful reminders of other ways of living. Alternative options for being and moving through the world.

In a talk this week titled Deviant Fates: Ends in Care Times / Care in End Times, Johanna Hedva described music as “the most accessible, cheapest, easiest-to-get-to form of mysticism in our society.” These experiences were indeed mystical. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, I easily forget how much music (especially music from my past) feeds the soul. I forget that I could live by the words “Rock and Roll Feeds My Soul.”

When I wear band tees, I feel me. When I have Hendrix (or Joplin, or the Runaways, or Iggy Pop) in my ears on the tram, I actually feel reminded to take it back, take it easy, don’t take it all so seriously, and I get to live in that (idealised) simpler paradigm for a little while. And that’s healing.

This week I’m going to make time—take time—to watch a video again that teaches me the lesson I perhaps will never viscerally, instinctually, fully learn. The one that bliss does exist, that workworkworkwork isn’t everything, and that maybe the world as I (we?) live it is viable to different paces than the one, which one insists (or feels is insisted upon them) to operate solely, inescapably, within.

If all else fails, I could always buy this poster and pretend that staring at it on the wall might eventually transport me back in time (which I still think would be a dream come true.)