Sunday Shred: Sir Duke

Like millions of others around the world, I watched a big portion of the Michael Jackson memorial service. It was a bizarre experience, because I was utterly aware of the conflicting feelings within myself -- first of wanting not to miss an event that was sure to be a pop culture focal point, and yet at the same time feeling the sort of icky aftertaste that comes from the glorification of celebrity death, especially in the face of a life so controversial.
But we all watched anyways, drawn in by the spectacle -- curious like passersby to a car crash.
What I was expecting to see, I don't know. I figured there would be music, I assumed there would be unintentional hilarity (and there was plenty), but above all -- it was one of those odd moments we seem to have so much of these days in our hyper-connected reality where I was sitting alone at a desk streaming a video feed whilst commenting on it and sharing opinions via website, twitter, and texts with friends around the world, many of whom I've never met (and possibly never will).
Connecting without connection.
It's odd, because it's impossible to not recognize the hypocrisy in it. To see it for the gravy train that it is. And yet, when things happen in our world -- we want to react. Small talk by a water cooler, emails to friends, casual conversation over a cel phone, offhand comments about a newspaper headline while waiting in line for a coffee -- these are all things that happen every day, things that are in a larger sense meaningless when weighed against our actual responsibilities, obligations, desires, and passions -- and yet are unmistakably a part of who we are.
And yet -- when it's twittered, when it's facebooked, when it's blogged
without prompting -- it's narcissistic. It's self-aggrandizing. It's plastic.
It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately -- this divide between simply existing in the networked age versus engaging in daily acts of shameless self-promotion, 140 characters at a time.

I'll admit it -- I like attention. I enjoy it when I tell a joke and people laugh. I like when my writing gets read and commented on. I like when people poke their head around the corner at a guitar store to see what I'm playing. I have a side that craves this sort of emotional sustinance -- and in many ways the only way to feed it is to self-promote. To open your life up like a book and then try to force that open page in front of the eyes of every stranger you can find.
In a perfect world, talent would speak for itself.
Much like it did at the Michael Jackson memorial, when after what seemed like a stream of singers and artists simply filled space with music fell away and Stevie Wonder took the stage and reminded us all why he may just be one of the most special artists to grace our lifetime.

The emotion, the passion, the control -- even in mourning he blows me away. Everything with him is so effortless, so pure. Do I love all his songs? Of course not (I Just Called to Say I Love You is one of the 10 worst things I've ever heard in my life, included on a list with the sound of a car crash and fingernails on a chalkboard) -- but when you see the guy play, when you hear his voice -- it's hard not to be impressed by it.

His career has spanned decades, and continues to move strongly across genres. His influence on countless artists is immeasurable. Marching bands play his songs. Blues guitarists. Jazz saxophonists. Gospel choirs. My mother used to sing "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" to me as a lullaby (not strictly his song, but it was his version she took her cues from).
But to the best of my knowledge -- Stevie doesn't twitter. He doesn't have a Facebook page that he maintains himself.
Oh sure he's been on everything from Soul Train to Sesame Street -- he's put out dozens of albums and won tons of awards, he's maintained a certain look that has become almost as much of a trademark as his body of work -- but Stevie's not out there selling it on every corner; he just does his thing and everyone around him is touched by it.
it's one of the reasons why I find him so inspiring as an artist.
People make fun of the head-bobbing, the way he moves his head when he plays -- but honestly, when you're having that good a time who can really say anything at all about the way you express it?

I honestly believe that Stevie Wonder does it because he loves it. That regardless of the fame or the accolades there's still something satisfying to him about simply making music, about playing your instrument, collaborating with other talented people and crafting your art into a finished product -- regardless of who else has the chance to see/hear it or not.

Take this tune (one of my favorites) -- "Sir Duke." Just a short little tribute to Duke Ellington, a fun mix of chord changes and riffs.

In a lot of ways when you break it all the way down -- it's not even a finished song. The chorus repeats itself far too many times near the end, sort of suggesting that there was going to be a third verse but it never really came together,
Or if you look at it a different way, that the song was just a jam session that grew
into something more special, and it's imperfections are part of what makes it unique.
It's weird, because like a lot of Stevie Wonder songs, the heart of it lives in the keyboard playing and horn section parts, providing that signature bounce and brightness that you find in so many of his tunes -- and yet it's a riff that in my mind can't really exist without the entire band. Every little piece works together like a puzzle. You can't just love the bassline to this (even though it rocks), you have to love the way it fits together with everything else.
It's an important lesson that sometimes gets lost in the over-importance that's placed on technique and flash in guitar playing.
Which is perhaps what makes having a little (or a lot) of Stevie Wonder songs in your repertoire as a player such an important thing. Because there's more to playing these tracks than just doing your part. It's about fitting into something -- about being special in the mix of elements that create the entire picture.

Even when Stevie Ray Vaughn tried to turn Wonder's "Superstition" into a showcase for his guitar playing -- it's the groove of the song that rises above the individual parts, helping (imho) turn it into a much better showcase for SRV's skill as a soul player more than his prowess as a guitar hero.

I mean, think about the two guitarists in the video clip -- longtime Stevie Wonder sideman Ben Bridges (the hippie looking guy with the headband) and Michael Sembello, (who was Michael Jackson's guitar player for many years but is probably best known for this song) -- have plenty to do, and are working their butts off (as are all the other players) riding through the changes and the lines, and yet just like Stevie -- seem to be having a blast of a time doing it.
And why not -- it's a hell of a lot of fun to play:

[Listening to:  Jeff Buckley - "Everybody Here Wants You" ]


Hex said…
Apologies for the bad sound quality of the clip (and for the blues-ish wankery at the beginning), I'm still trying to find the best way to get a good mix of my guitar and the song I'm playing along with using my computers webcam software -- but I think the idea comes across ok. Reminds me of the days I used to jam out to this song with my old roomate Justin, just grooving it out in the little half den of an office we had in that house by the lake. Good times.
Adam said…
I'm no Michael Sembello aficionado, but I'm pretty sure the long haired, headband-wearing, strat-playing guy is Michael Sembello.

I still think 'Maniac' outranks anything Stevie Wonder ever wrote!
Hex said…
Adam - nah, Sembello rocked that beard forever. He's definitley the guy with the telecaster.
Adam said…
I'll have to take your word for it. But I was going off of this-style Michael Sembello:

(He may be a talented musician, but I saw him on VH1 and he seemed like a bit of a prick).
JerseySjov said…
my favorite celebrities are always the ones who just love what they do and seem pleasantly surprised that they get paid to do it.

in response to the first part of this post- twitter, facebook statuses, etc seem to exist to make everyone think they're the most interesting and important person in the world. when you make an update you're sending the message that "i am doing this and feel like others should know," which then leads to feeling overly important when you recieve a response, and oddly neglected when nobody notices what you've written.
Werdna said…
Good to see that Vimeo is interested in your business.

Not bad performance. It has room for improvement on the rhythm part, but you have a nice arrangement.
Heff said…
Dig your guitar, dude. I'm pretty sure there's no good way to get quality sound with web-related stuff, lol.
Ben said…
I just want to help clarify. Beyond any shadow of doubt, the "hippie looking guy with the headband" is Michael Sembello and that's Ben Bridges playing the white "James Burton" telecaster. I was at that session, and I know both of these guitarists.