Songs Of The Day 2/27/2017: XTC – “Summer’s Cauldron” + “Grass”

The Final 31

High School With Ashtrays

This one’s gonna be pretty short. Don’t worry, the doozies start tomorrow.

My last year as a Sacramento resident was largely spent revisiting areas in which I’d had some success in high school, jazz and theater, under the aegis of American River Junior College. Many times they eliminate the “Junior” part of that name. I imagine that’s because of the implication of hierarchy wherein “junior” is seen as something lesser, but also because if they lose the “junior” they can adopt the pretty sweet acronym ARC.

I also took a course in human sexuality. I may have whitewashed that a little bit at home and simply referred to it as “a psychology class.” The instructor told everyone at the beginning of the class that if we managed to get an “A” in his course, his standard practice was to print out business-card size certificates verifying the grade in case we, you know, needed to prove it to someone. I got an “A.” I damn sure got the card.

I enrolled in an intro to philosophy. That was a disaster. After spending years in a controlled religious environment, there was no way in the world I was going to make a smooth transition addressing issues put forth by people like Socrates. The instructor started right out with the philosophical investigations. I opened my mouth once and it was silly. I dropped it.

I took a history course with one of the toughest professors I’d ever encountered. I got on his good side with one essay of mine that he read to the class, bolstering the “I can write somewhat” argument. He gave me a 90 out of 100 on the second essay I wrote, because it was written well, but he didn’t buy that the thoughts were all mine. They probably weren’t.

I took French. I also took French in high school. I took one of a couple of creative writing classes I’d take over the next ten years. I don’t remember much about it. I had to write poetry. I’m strategically organized not to write poetry. My girlfriend at the time was in the class too. She wrote a poem that just cribbed lines from XTC’s Skylarking album. That is always a good strategy in situations where the instructor has never heard of XTC.

Piano Mangler

I was the pianist in the ARC Jazz Ensemble, who were a bunch of really fine people. It was here where I first encountered the internal conflict that dogged me for decades afterwards, which could be summed up in the simple tenet “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”

To parse it a little more thoughtfully, I was concerned that I was a practitioner and not an artist. Ever since junior high I played piano with force. I pounded the hell out of it and believed that speed and velocity were sufficient evidence of acumen. Obviously that’s ridiculous, but that’s what you get for listening to Billy Joel’s occasional breakneck passages (see: “Miami 2017,” “Prelude/Angry Young Man”). You don’t have to do too much rationalizing to see how this pounding equated with whatever I was going through as a kid.

I had a one-on-one talk with the instructor at the time where I think I expressed this problem I was having. He knew exactly what I was saying and had a really great counterpoint for me to study: Bill Evans’ solo interpretation of the standard “When I Fall In Love.” This was not with the Evans trio, this was a solo piece that I have since been unable to find. (Note: Try this obscure service called Spotify, sport.) It was deconstructive and simple, but perfectly placed. “Any high school pianist could play this piece as written out,” he said, “but absolutely none of them would be able to come up with it in the first place.”

I did one last hurrah with SST, too, playing piano for the summer production of West Side Story. That’s one score you can’t fake with your left hand. I had to fight a lot of impulses to take the quick way out, and the bandleader called me on it nearly every day in practice. By the end of the production I felt I’d finally nailed it, as did the bandleader.

All this points to the syndrome I’m talking about here: imposter syndrome. I snuck in a reference to this in Mixtape #20: Veritas Animus. I’ve never been confident in my creations. (Except mixtapes.) A lot of it comes from my upbringing, the mistrust of artistic motivations in an industrialized economy, the sense that I’m just wasting my time doing all this art stuff. That impedance keeps kicking around even today. Even more today. I’m not looking for sympathy about it, I’m looking for a way out of it. Or a chance to get a way out of it.

I’d done all I could in Sacramento. Or all I was willing to try, anyway. I probably wasn’t ready to move back to San Francisco and stick it out longer, but you never think you’re ready, do you?

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