What Have I Learned After Writing Ten Novels?

 

Before I get rolling I should inform those of you who might have clicked on this looking for easy answers, handy tricks, or magic spells to make your novel fill reams of paper then you can stop reading now. There are no short-cuts.

 

Okay, if you’re still here, I’ll get on with it.

When I started writing seriously I decided I would take the many things I’d learned while becoming a good guitar player and apply them to my new craft:

  1. Read about authors I admire to learn their influences, and approaches to writing.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Set reachable goals.
  4. Break the different story aspects down into small parts, and then drill on them.
  5. Put in the time and do the work.
  6. Accept the realities of what writing a novel and getting published means.

I had the advantage of learning from my mistakes as a guitar player and changing to not make the same ones as a writer:

  1. Get your work out there. Don’t wait until it is perfect.
  2. Hang out and share with other writers.
  3. Take a few structured classes (in my case, all of them).
  4. Do your own thing; never write to the market just to get published.

Starting with #1, after about the tenth Paris Review author interview I noted a common factor among many novelists, which was that most had written between four and seven novels before their first one was published. Of course I thought I would be the exception, but around the end of my fourth novel I started to understand why that number made sense. Sure, I could put together a comprehensive, complex story, but there was usually something missing. I didn’t figure out what that was until after my sixth novel. There was a depth that was absent. I wish I could explain what I mean by this, but the bottom line is that my writing lacked the weight I wanted.

So I soldiered on.

The last three novels began to fill in closer to the way I wanted them to.

Another thing that all successful authors have in common is they finish whatever they’re writing no matter how bad it is, and I understand this completely. I learn more from my bad writing than I ever can from the good stuff. Understanding how a piece failed, and where it failed has helped me sniff out a failure in progress, and I can kill it on the spot now.

An essential truth is there is no such thing as wasted time writing.

Numbers 2, 3, and 4 all run together. When I was learning guitar I played every day for an average of four hours, often more, and I usually had my guitar within reach. I learned new songs each week, and I ran scales endlessly. Taking that into writing I made a point in the beginning to write every day, and try to write a new short story each week. This lasted for two years, and I still write something almost every day.

If you wonder what a drill is, this means writing short scenarios relevant to the type of story you want to tell. I write a lot of action, so I would write car chases, shoot-outs, guys sliding down ropes in the dark, getting punched in the face, punching someone else in the face, and other things that my characters might end up doing. I would write in the styles of my favorite authors like Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, Poe, and Elmore Leonard, and I would write a the same scenario using their voices.

It’s like trying on different shoes.

The payoff comes when I’m writing and a car chase ensues I’ve already done the work, I’m ready for the roaring engines, squealing tires, and the smell of burned rubber. I don’t have to waste time figuring it out because I have already the work. If you write stories about a person who hunts frogs then you should drill on writing about swamps, ponds, lakes, wet socks in wet shoes, what pond water smells like, what the air around the water smells like on a summer day as opposed to a spring day, the smoothness of the frog’s skin, and how that smoothness is different when the frog is in the water (yes, I’ve caught a lot of frogs). Whatever your chosen world to write about is you should be drill on the parts and action that are sure to take place.

I started this piece out by stating that there are no short cuts and #5 is the ground’s truth. The more you write the better you get. The more you read and write the better you get, just a little faster. Your story will not write itself, I have spent hours staring at my screen waiting for words to appear, and it never happens. Never will. I parked my but in front of my laptop for an hour or more every day and wrote. Today I average 1,500 words each day while I’m writing a novel. This is the perfect pace for me, and I get results…like I said, I’ve finished ten novels. You have to find your pace, and for some it’s 2,000 words per day, and others it might just be a few sentences. As long as you keep working on your project that is all that matters.

Getting to six, the fact is that after all of my past and future work there is no guarantee I will ever get published. If that day comes the reality is that I won’t make enough to quit my day job. I don’t care; I’m going to write anyway. My dad played golf every weekend, and he never played in a tournament. Most golfers never do. The same is true with runners, there are runners who could run and win marathons, yet never have the stones to sign up for a race. There are people who are great cooks who will never see the inside of a restaurant kitchen. The golfers still golf, the runners still run, the cooks still cook, and I’m going to still write no matter what.

I have successfully applied all of these things and have generated ten novels.

My next novel I will consider my first. Ten novels is the perfect foundation to build a library upon. I have a clear and sober view of what is ahead of me, and I’m excited by what I see.

This is supposed to be about what I’ve learned after all of that work, and here it comes.

  1. It doesn’t get easier. Each novel is different; new story, new locations, new characters, and each come with a unique set of problems. Four of my novels have featured the same characters and each one was a different experience.
  2. Outlines are a good idea. I write by the seat of my pants most of the time, but an outline saves a lot of time not just by knowing where the story goes, but because you’ll know what kind of engine the car in your story has, or when trout season is, or where the fire exits are at the Luxor hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Looking those kinds of details while actively writing kills momentum.
  3. List your characters on a spreadsheet, and keep it updated with which chapters they appear, and what they did in those chapters. This helps prevent plot holes.
  4. Line-edit as you go. A line-edit is where you look for typos and other grammatical screw ups.
  5. Keep learning. This means read Writer’s Digest, Paris Review, and other writer’s blogs. One thing I learned from guitar that is true with writing is that no matter how good you get you can always learn something new, and you can always learn something from just about anybody.

Most of these are straight forward, but I want to talk about #1 a little more. It doesn’t get easier and that is counterintuitive. Two of my novels I banged out during NaNoWriMo, one even being completed in seventeen days. My last one took me eight months, and it’s not the kind of story that should have taken that long. In this case the presidential election threw me off my game for a few for a while. Like I said, each story is different with its own set of obstacles navigate. This used to bother me, but now I realize that a story is going to regulate how fast and easy it is done, not the writer.

The other reason it stays hard is that with each work complete you mentally raise the bar for the next one. This is compounded by the new books you read in the meantime which inspire you to write better, and you work that made you happy in the first novels no longer meets your new standard. Since this all began I have discovered a dozen more authors whose writing has inspired me and left me in awe. They’ve made me want to step my game up with every new book I read.

I love this, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Before I sign off I want to address a side issue.

The biggest excuse I hear from people is that they want to write their novel, but they can’t find their voice. Here’s the good news: You already have one, now get writing. I know, your expensive how-to books, or your Ivy League MFA have told you to find your voice, and that your work will languish until you do. Here’s the thing, the more you write the more refined your voice becomes.

Waiting until you find your voice is a chicken-shit excuse.

A great example is Elmore Leonard. I love Leonard’s work, and he is my primary inspiration, and my go-to author for when I get stuck. Two years ago, after he passed away, a collection of his unpublished short stories was released in a book titled: “Charlie Martz and Other Stories”. Some of these were his first works which came well before he was published, and while you can tell they’re Elmore Leonard stories his voice isn’t quite there yet. The narrative is flat. Even when reading his early westerns if you start chronologically you can watch his voice sharpen with each one. Do this with your favorite author, read their first book, and then compare it with their latest novel, and you will see it.

So get out there and write, or don’t, I’m not the boss of you.

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Holiday Work (a Max Chrome Christmas Story)

     December is always cold in Ar Raqqah, Syria. Tom’s two winters in Iraq prepared him for this mission by choosing warm, comfortable clothes, and he would have thought he was Elk hunting in New Mexico is not for the calls to prayer from the nearby mosque’s loud speakers at their appointed times of the day. Sitting in the gold corduroy upholstered armchair next to him was his friend Max, who peered through his tripod-mounted spotter’s scope at the set of three industrial buildings inside the walled compound on the other side of the highway. The scope was fitted with a night vision extension and laser range-finder allowing him to switch between visual and thermal imaging to keep an eye on their target.

Tom sat back rubbing his eyes and said, “You ever think about the ethics of killing a guy on Christmas Eve?”

“No, these clowns think their Muslims,” Max said, without looking away from his viewfinder.

“But we’re not; we’re a couple of Episcopalians who happened to be armed to the teeth, waiting to drop so shitbag while our butts are parked a few hundred miles from Bethlehem.”

“When was the last time you went to church?”

“That’s not the point.”

“I haven’t seen the inside of a church since my parent’s funeral forty years ago, and you told me you haven’t hit the pews since junior high. So give me a break.”

Tom sighed and leaned forward into the scope of his .338 Remington MSR rifle. A large garage door rolled open revealing a trio of Toyota pickup trucks now packed with high explosives, and he counted twenty-one men, three of which were receiving their final blessings before driving into the last night of their lives as suicide bombers.

“Got him, our man is at your ten,” Max said. Their man was Abdul Khan Amadi, a colonel in the Intelligence Organization of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (IOIRGC), specifically in command of this Quds unit in I.S.I.L.- controlled city. The car bombs are not going to target ISIL locations, but instead will be used on Syrian rebel units opposing the Assad regime.

“Do you see anyone who looks Russian?” Tom said, locating Amadi and setting his crosshairs on him.

“No, not that I give a shit.”

“See, that’s what I’m talking about. What if there’s a Russian Episcopalian down there, and we wax him on Christmas Eve. Do they have Episcopalians in Russia?”

“Fuck if I know, besides – a good Episcopalian wouldn’t be in this town anyway.”

Tom snickered and said, “Fuck you.”

“And to all a good night,” Max said. In his scope he saw the men gathering around the drivers taking turns hugging and kissing their cheeks. “Is this really bothering you that much?”

“Not really, I’m just wondering if one day I get to heaven, and the J-Meister is waiting there and says, ‘You killed some mother fucker on my birthday, not cool.’”

“I don’t think he’d be upset. Judas was an assassin.”

“Say what?”

“Iscariot evolved from the name Sicarii, a cadre of assassins in Judea who took out Romans.”

Tom looked away from his scope to Max, and said, “Dude, the Sicarii weren’t a thing for another ten years after the crucifixion. The name Iscariot comes from the Hebrew meaning ‘Man of Kerioth’ which was somewhere in Judah.”

“Yeah, but that’s the Greek translation of the Hebrew, and they were busy fucking up the New Testament. And who’s to say that the Sacrii weren’t around a century before? Maybe they were just that good at their job,” Max said, re checking the range from their window to the garage – 215 meters.

“Okay, fine, but did Judas ever kill anybody on Jesus’s birthday?”

“I don’t think so, but I don’t think the opportunity came up. Come on, are you telling me that none of the guys who killed S.S. troop during the Battle of the Bulge never got into heaven? Bullshit. It’s not like it was their idea.”

“True, but in our case this was our choice,” Tom said, looking back through his telescopic sight. He and Max were private military contractors working for Drummel Security Options based out of Connecticut. Ar Raqqah was in ISIL control, inside Syria (a country hostile to the United States), and they were there to kill an Iranian national. The CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) wanted nothing to do with this operation due to the potential fallout if things went south…but they wanted Amadi dead bad enough to order out.

“We’re getting paid way more than thirty pieces of silver, Bro.”

“Like you need the money.”

“I love the Holy Land during the holidays.”

“Holy Land…now you have me hearing Burt Ward in my head.”

“Burt Ward? Christ you’re old. You probably fart rust,” Max said. Burt Ward portrayed Robin in the 1966 Batman T.V. series.

“Holy Geritol, Batman!” Tom said, his grin nudged the butt of his rifle, and threw the sight off for a second until he eased it back onto Amadi’s head.

“Well, Robin, you can take the shot any time.”

“I’m Batman.”

“Whatever.”

“Are you going straight home, or are you going to hang out, and bring in the New Year on the continent?”

“As a matter of fact, I’m thinking of doing New Years at Loch Ness.”

Tom shook his head but maintained his view on Amadi, “Loch Ness, can you even get laid there?”

Max chucked and said, “Probably, Scottish women might feel sorry for a pair of lost black sheep like us, take us back to their place, and mother us…so are you coming with me?”

“Fuck yes, at least I can load up on good Scotch, and hit the Glasgow library.”

“That’s actually a great place to meet women.”

“See? Good thing I’m going, or else you’d be all alone with your Yule Log.”

“But none of that happens until after we put this guy down,” Max said.

“And escape,” Tom said.

“That too.”

Tom was measuring his breathing as he slid his finger onto the trigger. Amadi stood back from the clusters of Jihadi fighters while talking on his cell phone. At this range the round would blast through his skull and pass through the cinderblock wall five feet behind him. When the trigger was squeezed, the round would fly, and he would see the impact clearly through the scope. Amadi’s head seemed as big as a pumpkin. The other men would first drop to the floor, or behind cover, and he and Max would use these seconds to exfil from this two-story house once owned by a dentist. They had a 2007 Honda Civic waiting to drive to the safe house a few miles away.

“You gotta be kidding me,” Max said.

“What do you have?”

“Check the rooftop at your one.”

Tom swung the rifle up to the One O’Clock position and said, “No way, is this a joke?”

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“I’m looking Corporal Tandy dressed in full battle-rattle.”

“Good, I see that too. At least we’re not batshit crazy.”

On the roof of the building stood an American soldier wearing the dark green, olive, brown, and black woodland camouflage  uniform of the 1980s, complete with flack vest, ammo vest, and the distinctive rag-topped helmet of the 7th Infantry Division (Light). His face was painted in dark green and black, but Max and Tom recognized him.

Tom said, “Okay, what the hell does this mean?”

“Wait, maybe he’ll let us know.” On cue, Corporal Tandy raised his arms and waved them over his head. “He’s telling us to get out of here.”

“Do you think we should?”

“You know what? I do. Why else would he be here?”

Corporal Dan “Dandy” Tandy was killed on Christmas Eve in Colon, Panama, by a negligent discharge from an M-249 machine gun. He was in Max and Tom’s platoon in Alpha Company, 2-27.

Tom looked Max in the eyes and said, “We might not get another chance.”

Max pointed out the window. “Take another look, dude. Do you still see him?”

“Yes, he’s still there waving us off.”

“Okay, so how long does a dead man have to tell you something before you listen to him?”

“Point taken.” Tom picked up his rifle, collapsed the bipod legs into the stalk of the rifle, and stood. Max was already up putting on his pack. They went downstairs and locked the door on their way out. Tossing their packs into the back seat, Max got behind the wheel while Tom opened the steel courtyard gate. Max drove out onto the street and waited for Tom to get in the car.

“What do we tell Ops?” Tom said, buckling his seatbelt.

“No clue yet, I’ll think of something,” Max said. He drove down the narrow street watching the road, and the dentist’s house shrink in the rearview mirror. A bright flash, then a shockwave shook the car hard enough the crack the rear windshield, and break the windows of the houses on both sides of the street. In the rearview mirror all Max saw was brown-gray dust mix with the red from his break lights, and then a mushroom-shaped orange and yellow fireball boiled into the sky from the other side of the highway.

“Fuck a duck, that was more than three car bombs,” Max said.

“Way more. Bro, we gotta go back and do B.D.A,” Tom said, referring to Bomb Damage Assessment. Max made a U-turn, and went back to the house, but could only get to within a block. The blast had leveled the house they had been sitting in for the past six days along with three neighboring homes. Their occupants had long ago fled the I.S.I.L occupation and all there was to do now was get infrared footage of the compound across the street.

“I don’t see anything over there now,” Max said.

“No buildings, no walls, notta. They must have shot their whole wad.” Tom said.

“Let’s get out of here. Satellites can take this.” Max and Tom got back into the car. Tom called the Drummel operations center to report the blast, but they already knew about it. The drive to the safe house would take twenty minutes. There they would stash their weapons before heading to the Turkish border.

They were silent for a while and then Tom said, “Nice to see Tandy again.”

“He was a good guy,” Max said.

“Still is, apparently.”

“God loves us, but a Wolfhound will always have your back.” 2-27’s nickname is Wolfhounds.

“Amen…so, do you think the Loch Ness Monster is real?” Tom said.

“Sure, I mean it’s not a dinosaur, and it’s only about fifteen feet long but it’s a real thing.”

“What is it?”

“A giant lake salamander.”

“Bullshit.”

“Tell you what, I’ll rent a boat, and we’ll go fishing, and I’ll bet you fifty bucks I catch one.”

“Oh it’s so on. Easiest fifty bucks I’ll ever make,” Tom said, suddenly not so sure. If the Loch Ness Monster was real, Max was the one guy who’d know how to catch one.

Max laughed, “We will see. Besides, we have a week of pub-crawling ahead of us.”

“We owe Tandy that much.” Tom looked out of his window trying to imagine the bright star that led the three wise men to Bethlehem, but mostly he thought about how Dan Tandy had been laughing as he waved them away from the roof of that building, knowing he and Max would get to see another Christmas.

The Grinder

The Grinder

I don’t believe in “Writer’s Block”, but the past six months have been hard for me as a writer while I deal with health issues, and I’ve definitely been knocked out of my daily routine. In spite of that I pulled off another NaNoWriMo successfully even with a crappy story. Why? I like being a writer; I like writing, the act of shaping a story from nothing. This is so much truer for me now as it is one of the few things in my life I control. The problem is that I am also still human complete with the sea of emotions that everyone else has, and there have been too many days since the last week of August where I did no writing.

Still, I get back on the horse and gallop back into the grinder.

On those days I don’t feel like writing I hear M.Emmet Walsh’s voice in my head speaking his line as Bryant from “Blade Runner”:

“If you’re not cops, you’re little people.”

In this scene, Decker has been detained and brought to Bryant and reinstated as a Blade Runner involuntarily. I relate to both Decker and Bryant on my non-writing days. Decker doesn’t want to go back to his old job. He’s clearly beaten by the past, and knows the many downsides. Bryant needs Decker because he’s the best at tracking down replicants. Decker resumes his job, hunts down his target, and mostly gets his ass kicked. In the end he is ultimately rescued by the last replicants, Roy Batty, the most dangerous one on his list, as his fingers slip off the ledge. Like Batty, my writing usually ends up saving the day in ways I would never have discovered had I not written at all.

(If I just spoiled Blade Runner for you that’s your problem, you had 34 years to see it, loser.)

Since I began this new writer’s life I have established a set of rules, some of which I have posted here already. These rules are subject to change, and are ignored whenever they get in the way of the story…except one.

The Exchange Rule: On days you don’t feel like writing – write something else.

This means that on a day when you’re second-guessing your latest novel, questioning your direction in life, or feel the need to wallow in a puddle of negativity you still have to write. Write anything. Write about why you think you’re shit. Write about how life has peed in your pool. Write about your cat, dog, turtle, or that one drawer in the kitchen. The point is that even though your novel is sidelined you haven’t walked away from the table. You are still producing content.

Here’s the thing, writers write. If you’re not a writer, you’re little people.

 

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You want to be in the club? Write. That’s all you have to do. That steaming pile of self-indulgent ooze you just wrote about your long dead dog just put you ahead on 99.999999% of the human race who didn’t write jack-shit today.

You won.

Yay.

Tomorrow you get back into the game working on your big project and do so until the next time. When that time comes, write something else, but just write.

I started “Short Story Tuesday” back in the summer in between novels. The mission is to write a new short story before I go to bed on Tuesday night. I started looking forward to Tuesdays because it was a day off from writing…while I was still writing, and since I was not working on a novel this gave me six days to revise the better stories. I basically found a way to keep writing while fooling myself into thinking I wasn’t writing. Not every story was good, a few stank, but it kept me in the game.

 

Van Halen and 1978

1978 was a good year for me. I graduated from the 8th grade, and started high school. On the third Monday of September, 1978 (the 18th), I walked into 6th period guitar class after dropping an English class because the teacher sucked and I felt my time was better spent ditching school. The class was my councilor’s way of keeping in school the entire day. 1978 was a good year because I had discovered rock music in a big way, and was growing a record collection along with my brother. We were buying the classics, and we were catching up with the current top bands like Led Zeppelin, KISS, Ted Nugent, ACDC, Cheap Trick, and others.

van halen 1

In February of 1978 my brother bought Van Halen’s self-titled debut album in Modesto a few days after its release. This was a southern California band that we’d been reading about in B.A.M. Magazine (Bay Area Music, a free newsprint tabloid found in racks by record store checkout counters everywhere back then) in the back columns that covered the far end of the state. The buzz surrounding the band was significant. So the first thing we did when we got home was put the record onto the turntable and drop the needle.

Running with the Devil announced itself with car horns morphing into a landing alien space ship sound, followed by a thumping bass, and then a powerful guitar. Not just powerful, but the sound was fat, and rich. Good rock song, the solo is cool, but nothing to get excited about.

The next track was Eruption.

Holy fucking shit.

The track is 102 seconds long, nothing but Eddie Van Halen playing the crap out of his guitar. My brother had to listen to it three times before letting the needle advance to the third track. I can say two things: I was born in a world before man had walked on the moon, and I was born in a world before Edward Van Halen knocked rock guitar on its ass.

You Really Got Me was the third track, and the band does more than just cover the Kinks’ classic, they almost reinvent it by putting their stamp on the music. They even managed to leave a verse from the original song out and nobody noticed. That would become Van Halen’s signature: Where does a 500-pound gorilla sit? Anywhere it wants to.

Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love is where the legend of Van Halen started for me. That fat, perfect, heavy sounding guitar opens the song with a staccato arpeggio that wants to take your head off and slam-dunk it. The song itself was written as a parody of punk rockers that shared the L.A. music scene at the time, and it’s only two chords, but God damn it they get more mileage out of those two chords than some bands could with their entire albums. The song has a belligerent attitude. The song does not feature a great guitar solo, but it fits the song (and that’s important).

On the 5th track that guitar solo problem is resolved. I’m the One is wall-to-wall blistering guitar over a swinging shuffle rhythm. This is where Eddie stood out. When handed a standard I-IV-V-I blues progression he takes the format to another dimension and puts frosting on it, frosting with sprinkles. Even when he drops into a blues-style it’s nothing we’ve heard before. The song’s highlight is the acapella break after the guitar solo. Van Halen was a package deal that featured incredible backing harmonies from bass player, Michael Anthony, and Eddie Van Halen behind lead singer, David Lee Roth.

We listened to that first side of Van Halen a second time before flipping the disk over to the second side.

Jamie’s Cryin’ kicks off Side Two. It’s a conventional song written while they were on the studio, and it was clearly for the radio.

The real action follows on track #7 with Atomic Punk. The song is aggressive and excessive and fast, and it’s the kind of song that would take your lunch money. This song is drawn from a well that continues to serve Van Halen to this day.

Feel Your Love is mostly a forgettable song. Sorry, it just is.

Little Dreamer is about as close as Van Halen got to a ballad with Roth as their singer. It works on a couple of levels. Roth’s lyrics paint a dark picture of a doomed woman, but unlike the thousands of other songs written by L.A. bands on this very topic, it is not specific to Hollywood. In fact, in none of the tracks does Roth mention L.A., Hollywood, or Southern California at all, and that is something song writers can learn from today.

Roth’s acoustic guitar playing opens Ice Cream Man on the next track. The album’s second cover song, this one was written by John Brim, a Chicago Bluesman, in 1953 (originally recorded at Chess Records). The anticipation while waiting for the rest of the band to kick in is rewarded. Again we see Eddie handed a blues song only to morph it into something new.

The final track is On Fire, and made of the same driving force that Atomic Punk and Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love are forged from.

Van Halen was recorded in three weeks for around $40,000 and as of this time has sold 10 million copies.

Here’s the thing, I liked the album but I didn’t love it. Not at first anyway. After I began to play the guitar I started to listen to it more, but as a novice I couldn’t relate to anything Eddie Van Halen was doing. Which leads me to the rest of the story…

I learned to play guitar in about an hour. I’m saying I was awesome, but I could strum a tune, and then remember it and play it again. I bought music books for my favorite albums and learned to play all of my favorite songs at the basic level. I couldn’t wait to get to guitar class, which consisted of twenty other kids scattered around the large rehearsal room for the Carmel High School band. The room was big enough that we could all spread out and not bug each other, and we either played alone, or clustered in groups.

Then there were the seniors.

Six or seven 12th graders would bring their electric guitars to school and jam in the back practice rooms of the buildings. Freshmen weren’t allowed. These guys played Aerosmith, Lynard Skynard, and Zeppelin. We all envied them. The seniors didn’t waste their time talking to underclassmen, and sure as hell never took the time to show us how to play something cool on the guitar.

On Saturday, December 2, Black Sabbath headlined the Oakland Coliseum, and all of the seniors drove up to see the show because Sabbath was cool, and nobody wanted to miss the show.

Van Halen was the opening act.

That Monday, December 4, the seniors weren’t playing their guitars. A boom-box (what your grandparents called a portable cassette player that was the size of a refrigerator) was brought into the room, and Van Halen was placed in the carriage, and Eruption was played over, and over, and over, and over. Even the teacher came out to listen to the track. You know the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the apes wake up and find the obelisk? It was exactly like that. The seniors looked like someone had let the air out of their tires. I was already a Van Halen fan, and I was pleased to know that I was culturally ahead of these guys.

The problem was that with Van Halen blasting in the main room nobody else could practice without going outside or into the back, and I wanted to practice. I go into the front practice room because nobody ever used it except me, which was weird because it was huge and had a piano. This time, however, I’m joined by Christian Nesmith, who also was looking for a quiet place to play. The name might sound familiar and that’s because his father is Michael Nesmith, member of the Monkees, and pioneering video artist. Christian was one year ahead of me and a genuinely cool guy.

At the age of 15 he was already a gifted guitarist who played a Seville Les Paul copy. Christian could play anything and did. Unlike the seniors, he was happy to show me, or anyone who asked something cool on the guitar. This was a classy move on his part that I emulated as I got better on the instrument.

So we’re sitting in the front practice room and he tells me he’d seen Van Halen a bunch of times already. He shows me the hammer-on/pull-off move that Eddie Van Halen is best known for doing.  Christian walked me through it step by step until I had it down. He tells me that most people did it wrong by using the side of their pick. Sure enough, later when we come out of the room the seniors are using their picks to hammer the neck.

That was about the most time I spent with Nesmith that semester, but it was one of the most important forty minutes of my life. I incorporated the hammer-ons into my playing as I developed, and by the time I was a good guitarist they were second nature. More importantly I learned it was important to share what I knew with people who wanted to learn. I have no idea how many people I’ve taken time out to pass along a little guitar wizardry, but it’s a lot.

None of that would have happened had Van Halen not opened the Sabbath show.

For full disclosure it was Van Halen’s Woman and Children Fist album that turned me into the massive Van Halen fan that I am today. By 1980 my playing had advanced to the point where I could grasp what Eddie was doing and I could appreciate his genius on a whole new level. 1978 was a turning point for rock music, rock guitar, and little old me.

 

Randy Rhoads and 1981

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I remember the day I’d heard Randy Rhoads had been killed in a plane crash. I was at work and the local FM radio station, KLRB, made the announcement. It was a punch in the gut. I’d skipped the Ozzy Osborne concerts because I’d figured I’d catch him at an outdoor show at some point. One of those shows had been just up the highway at the Santa Cruz Civic, in Santa Cruz, California, which was a small venue that Randy would have been right in my face no matter where I sat. When I got off work I went for a long walk that ended up at the beach. I don’t think I listened to any of his music for a week, and that was a huge deal for me.

I’d listened to Randy Rhoads every day since “Blizzard of Ozz” had been released in September, 1980. That album was a major point of contention among my high school friends at the time, Osborne had left Black Sabbath (or had been kicked out depending on who was telling the story at that time), and his fans hated him for it. They wanted to hate the album, they wanted it to suck, so it would fail. This way Ozzy would see the error of his ways and return to Black Sabbath and all would be right in the Heavy Metal universe. But it didn’t suck.

Nobody had anticipated Randy Rhoads.

“Blizzard of Ozz” was a thunder clap riding the lighting of shit-hot rock guitar. There isn’t a weak spot on the entire album thanks to Ozzy and his wife, Sharon, having the good sense to hire rock veterans Bob Daisley on bass, Don Airey on keyboards, and Lee Kerslake on drums. Kerslake had done 10 albums with Uriah Heep, had just done two tours with Rainbow but had earned his bones with the progressive fusion band Coliseum II (featuring Gary Moore on guitar), and Daisley was also a Rainbow alumnus. They laid a foundation allowing Rhoads to excel. Fans will always talk about the solos, but guitar players like me and my peers were equally blown away by his rhythm playing.

1981 had been a seminal year for Californian rock guitar. For the six previous years the Los Angeles rock music scene had been fermenting an army of over-the-top super guitarists who, in spite of selling out clubs and backyard parties, where being ignored by the morons at the record labels. While Van Halen had broken through selling three platinum albums thanks to the Godzilla-like playing of Edward Van Halen, they were considered a “Pasadena Band”, an anomaly. Ed was considered a unicorn, but the truth was he was an equal part product and engine of the nuclear reactor that was generating other guitarists like George Lynch, Warren Di Martini, and others. They weren’t swimming in shark infested waters – they were the sharks. Yet only Rhoads was the other to get exposure to the larger music world.

In Northern California we had Neal Schon of Journey, Ronnie Montrose, and Dave Meniketti of Y&T, and all were great players, but they weren’t melting brains like the L.A. guys, and one could argue that Rhoads and Van Halen had come from another planet. It wasn’t just the speed- it was the power and the attitude. With “Blizzard” suddenly anything was possible on the guitar. Rhoads’ playing, while fantastic, was accessible. Van Halen inspired a lot of copy-cats, but few grasped the fact that he was skating on the other side of the ice. In 1981, if you played guitar you were either a Van Halen guy or a Randy Rhoads guy.

I loved Van Halen but I was a Randy Rhoads guy.

Rhoads worked within a structure that I could understand, and his playing was elegant. The second album with Ozzy was “Diary of a Madman”, and here we got to see him stretch out. His playing was a little more insane, but the songs were more complex, more orchestrated. His acoustic work is outstanding. His tone was evolving into a fuller voice that seemed to reach inside my head to turn on switches I didn’t know I had. We are left with the pain of wondering what was to come next if only…

…If only…

Rhoads’ death left a black hole in the potential of rock guitar. His willingness to teach others along the way would have shaped the musical landscape in positive ways.

The worst thing about his death is how he died. I am still angry at him, and while this is selfish it is the truth. He hated to fly, but he got into that plane flown by his bus driver who’d just pulled an all-nighter. What was he thinking? I can’t come up with any good answers and it makes me mad.

His death would propel his old band, Quiet Riot, into the Top 10, in 1983. Suddenly any band with big hair that was sober enough to hold a pen was being signed by the labels. We got some great music out of the deal, but it didn’t last because it wasn’t always honest. Rhoads never lied with his music. He kept Quiet Riot on course. Without his voice to keep things in perspective the 1980s were lost.

And they were lost.

Everyone who knew him says that Rhoads was planning to attend UCLA to study classical music. The effect this would have had on young guitarists cannot be understated; there would have been a flood of guys with big hair headed back to junior colleges across the country so they could transfer to a university. Instead we got MTV Spring Break, cocaine-fueled antics, and the crime of pointless and forgettable music.

There will always be 1981.

That year everything was still possible. Van Halen’s “Fair Warning”, while not ripping up the charts, was a game-changer, and “Diary of a Madman” showed that supped-up rock guitar was ready to shave and get its driver’s license. Stadiums still waited to be filled with thunder.

Boston: Right Album at the Perfect Moment

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My brother had Boston’s first album, Boston, in his collection early on. I don’t think he played it that often, I never did. We didn’t have to. Songs from that record were always on the radio. By now there 17 million copies sold so there’s a good chance that you have or had one in your collection. The songs are good, and the first three: “More Than a Feeling”, “Peace of Mind”, and “Long Time” represent the strongest 3-song lead-off block on any debut rock album as far as establishing the sound and soul of the band. The question is why, in a year that saw the release of “Hotel California” by the Eagles, “Changes” by David Bowie, “Fly Like an Eagle”, by Steve Miller, and “A Day at the Races” by Queen, Boston’s album made the cash registers ring so much more than the others?

The answer is technology.

Boston sounded great. Tom Scholz had resisted the fools at Epic and recorded the album in his basement instead of an L.A. studio, which the label brass had demanded. Scholz, an M.I.T. graduate, was a sound technology innovator, and had he buckled and gone conventional the album might today just be a forgotten gold record. What was delivered was an album that performed well on the evolving stereo systems which were finally becoming affordable to regular people in 1976. Dolby began to appear on the receivers music lovers plugged their turntables into and Boston became a spaceship of sound just as their album cover advertised. This was an album recorded so well it made the hair on your arms stand up.

The other technology ready for great sound was the car stereo systems. 1976 saw the 8-Track tape deck introduced to the driving world, and Boston became a staple of that format. Even today when someone discovers a box of 8-Tracks in an attic there’s 75% chance Boston will be one of them. Cassette tapes were right on the 8-Track’s heels that year, and the album was tailor made for the high fidelity cassettes offered. Did people buy a record just because it sounded great in the car? Yes they did. Of the many “Road” albums perfect for the long stretches of lonely American highways Boston ranks in the top ten. The sound fills the car perfectly.

Boston is a cornerstone album. I make this judgment based on the albums that came before it, and the ones which followed. Boston opened the minds of engineers and producers to what could be done in the studio. Albums became more polished. Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors”, and Pink Flyod’s “Animals” were so smooth and clear compared to each band’s previous work that both albums are considered landmark works for each band. Boston’s sound quality became industry standard. As a rock purest I understand how this might be viewed as a bad thing. Rock at its best should be delivered raw and twitching. The Sex Pistols were a direct response to what Boston was doing to rock music, and God bless them for it.

But it wasn’t Boston’s fault.  People like what they like.

I’m not arguing pros or cons of what became Industrial Music. Tom Scholz was the George Lucas of rock music, a guy who was fiercely independent and ended up creating something that made so much money the corporate suits bought the into the works without looking back.

Boston, at the end of the day, is a good rock album. Solid musicianship with songs tightly performed. Tom Scholz played all of the guitars, bass, and keyboard parts to perfection, Barry Ourdreau played “Monster Guitar” on “Long Time”, Sib Hashian locked down the drum parts on all but “Rock & Roll Band” (Jim Mesdea handled that song), and the wonderful Brad Delp did all of the singing. On the album he’s listed as vocals, but damn it, that man could sing, and what you hear is real singing on Boston. Delp was a treasure. Every hack song writer and musician has Tom Scholz as their patron saint. His “Rockman” portable headphone guitar amp meant axe men could get monster tones on their cheap 4-track cassette recorders for the first time, which lead to all of the sound modeling technology musicians of all stripes enjoy today.

Boston was and is just a perfect album, a rock and roll hole-in-one.