In the band?

Hello Vftp readers! I’m writing to you from high above the Atlantic ocean, en route from a tense and nervous Heathrow airport, where the deportation of Abu Hamza has once again convinced those in power that the only thing that can keep us safe from the murdering madmen who roam the planet is to hassle lots of ladies about putting their makeup in ziplock bags, to New York’s JFK for a couple of weeks of trio gigs with Epomeo.  Before I share my thoughts, I just want to thank the makers of ziplock bags for keeping us safe from death in the skies. Where would we be without them?

In-flight movies are no longer quite the source of irritation and object of derision they once were. With the advent of personal screens, one can choose what to watch, or not to watch at all, and some airlines actually end up showing some good and interesting films. The real advantage of the in-flight movie is that you don’t have to pay for it, and watching it doesn’t take you away from practice or office work or time with the kids (although I do have a stack of scores in my bag I could be studying). Freed from guilt and financial pressure, and wanting, above all, to avoid conversation with the people in adjoining seats, I often use the inflight film to sample movies I would never let myself spend time or money on in an unpressurized environment.

Today between Iceland and Nova Scotia, I watched a documentary about the rock band Pearl Jam by Cameron Crowe called “20.” Why? I’m not sure- I kinda dig them, but in a sort-of “never bothered to buy the record but was always happy when my ex-girlfriend played their stuff on the way to Columbus Symphony gigs” way. I remember seeing them play with Neil Young on TV a few (many) years ago, and that was rad. Neil Young is a god. I wish my cello could do what his guitar does in the soundtrack to Dead Man. And I always thought Adam Sandler’s impression of Eddie Vedder’s singing was one of Sandler’s finest comic turns.

What I found most touching in the film was the enduringly stable membership of the band- after going through about a half dozen drummers in their first few years, they’ve remained the same quintet for almost their whole professional lives.  That kind of commitment and continuity is not easy to maintain- think of all the changes one goes through in twenty years. Some in the group find love, others don’t, some struggle with success, others with envy, some bloom as a creative force while others burn out, some want lives with their families, others hunger for the road. There are health issues. It’s amazing it ever works.


Ken in the band (on the left)

Long-time Vftp readers will know that I spent much of my formative years playing guitar in bands. I still miss it. To me, I’d rather eat my own butt hair than be a pop star- it’s such a plastic and dishonest world, singing  (or lip-synching) only the songs you think will sell with a bunch of hired guns.  Artists are disposable, and the public exist only to be separated from their cash. But to be in a rock band? There’s a real nobility and honesty in it- a sense of personal commitment to your band mates, and an artistic honesty inherent in playing only that which the five of you can create together. To me, the name says a lot- we call a “rock band” a “band “not because it’s like being in a marching band or a military band. At it’s best, the world “band” has come to apply in music as it does in war- a band of brothers (and sisters), united by common purpose.

I suppose I’ve been thinking about bands this week, even before seeing this film. I was both happy and outraged to learn of Rush’s long-overdue nomination for induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. What a band they are- three guys who have been through it all together, never sold out, never let their standards slip. They’ve been to the top of the mountain of commercial success, and been on the “are they still alive and playing?” list. I can still remember summers in the early 80’s when it seemed like half the songs on FM radio were by Rush- Tom Sawyer, Limelight, YYZ and many more. I remember sitting in my room with a bunch of kids from the neighbourhood listening to Sport of Kings and tripping out to Cygnus X 1.  And don’t get me started on 2112- I can still play the whole album from memory on the guitar 30 years after I learned it (not that I’ve tried in 20 years).

And yet, the rock establishment have always sneered at Rush- if there’s one thing rock critics hate, it’s anyone who can play an instrument, tell a story or come up with a musical idea. Worse- if you can combine all of those skills, and develop and integrate them, you’re sure to be derided and belittled at every turn. I’ve seen Rush live five times, the last time was in 1992, but I never heard them miss a note, play a chord not together, miss a tempo or not give a good show. And that was 20 years ago. But do rock critics care? Do they respect that kind of continuity, or even recognize the uniqueness of their vision? No. They think that the Sex Pistols are “real” and “honest” and “important,” even though their lead singer now sells butter for a living while the guys in Rush are still playing great shows.

John Rotten pimping butter. This is what rock critcs mean when they talk about artists being real and authentic. And important! And rebellious….

Of course, Rush have been lucky- they’ve all stayed alive and sane and able to play. Would Queen still be going if Freddie Mercury hadn’t died of AIDS? Would Zeppelin still be recording if John Bonham had had a few fewer drinks on his last day on Earth?

Another punk icon showing how sincere they are about their rebellion- Iggy pop sells his soul to an insurance company

Pity Brian May and Jimmy Page, sipping their cognac in their mansions- my life in bands was pathetically small time, but I did learn that the sense of belonging is something you can’t overstate the value of and you miss it when it’s gone. To go onstage in your band and just absolutely destroy the place? There’s nothing like it- partly because of the crowd, partly because of the music, but largely because you’re doing it with your band of brothers. Jimmy Page, for all his many talents and accomplishments, was born to play guitar in Zep. He was infinitely lucky to fulfil that destiny, and infinitely unlucky that his destiny ran its course when he still had so much to give. When Bonham died, Page’s life’s work was more-or-less through. I don’t know how he got over it, but I suppose he was wise enough to know that there are a lot of Jimmy Page’s in the world who never find their Robert Plant and John Bonham, and a lot of Brian May’s who never meet their Freddie Mercury. At least, for a while, those guys found the place, the situation and them moment they were meant for. What greater good fortune could an artist aspire to?

For most of us, we only experience the promise of belonging, of arriving, of fulfilling. It’s probably no accident that I joined my first string quartet and my first band in the same year of my life.  I can’t think of a happier moment for a young musician than to be in a room with three of four peers with nary a teacher nor parent in sight and to make music happen in a way you’ve never experienced it.  Looking back, neither band nor quartet had a future- it’s a little too much like dating, but they were still really good groups and everyone involved has gone on to do interesting stuff, and some have had distinguished musical careers. Ticking 95% of the boxes one needs to tick in a relationship is not enough- what starts out as “aw heck- sure she likes weep folk shit a bit too much” soon evolves into “we can’t talk about music, and I’m a musician.”  In a band “he would be the greatest bass player who ever lived if he just simplified his parts and focused on the groove a little bit” soon evolves into “we’re never going to get any work if the rhythm section can’t keep time.” At least we celebrate our failures in song.

But just as in love, once you get over the “girl with the weepy folk shit fixation,” you find yourself moving on to the “slightly over-zealous Catholic girl with the bright blue eyes,” and then on to the “brilliant but introverted wind player who never quite lowers her guard,” once the dust has settled on band or one quartet or one trio, you eventually find yourself jamming in someone’s basement, going for a beer and talking about Stevie Ray Vaughan’s terrifyingly strong handshake and/or why the  Bartok Quartets are one of the five reasons it’s worth being a human being in spite of the many frustrations of the human condition, and the next moment you’re writing songs or tuning chords in Beethoven’s opus 132, dreaming  of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame or DG record contracts, never mind that you don’t really have a singer, or your second violinist breaks out in a rash every time you turn on the metronome.

What’s remarkable about Zeppelin is not just that Page and Plant found Bonham, but that they also found John Paul Jones, who was able to complete the group. That’s always the hardest thing in a group- finding the one missing element, whether it’s the charismatic lead singer or the semi-anonymous bass player, the visionary violist or the cellist who can play in tune.  And it’s all too easy to miss the right person because you’re making due with the wrong one so that you don’t risk losing the dream altogether. Page and Plant have seemed pretty sanguine about working with Jones since Bonham’s death-  perhaps they think any good bass player will do? Well, maybe they should talk to Neil Peart about Geddy Lee. But when do you go ahead and fire Pete Best, and when do accept that, unlikely as it is, Ringo Starr is the drummer you’ve been looking for?

Actually, I think rock band members are pretty well aware of how precious those situations are- I’m sure The Who would never have given up touring had Keith Moon lived, and I’m sure that Pearl Jam and Rush, among others, are still together in large part because the guys know that they’re incredibly lucky to have found the place where they belong as artists and as brothers in arms, and that makes it worth enduring the frustrations and the ups and downs that are inevitable and long relationship, be it personal or artistic.

I’ve had some really exciting but incomplete journeys in rock bands, quartets and trios over the years. Even as a conductor, I’ve come close to thinking “this must be what it feels like to have found the right gig.” But so far, I’ve never quite found my Bonham, my Berlin, my Guarneri Quartet. At a certain age, one starts thinking that maybe it’s more than luck- that either I lack the talent to earn those opportunities or the wisdom to recognize them.  I’ve gradually come to recognize that it may not all slot into place in this lifetime, and that I ought to at least make the most of those incomplete or evolving situations I’m in.  These days I get the odd chance for a hot and heavy affair or summer fling with an orchestra, but we all know that summer festival romances never last (although I met my wife at one). I look back at my last string quartet or my best rock bands, and I see so many missed opportunities. Why didn’t we write more songs, record more, record better, document our work? Probably the most musically able of my bands did the least writing- and we had a genius engineer/producer in the band. How crazy is that?  Why didn’t I force a change of singers in another band?  Why did we waste so much time making demos when we could have made fucking records? That’s the best advice nobody ever gave me- there’s no place for demos in life- if you’re recording, record, if you’re performing, perform. There’s nothing I would love more than to join my own Pearl Jam, and find a situation I could throw myself into for 20 years, but failing that, I’ve decided I’ve got get on with it and make the most of where I am now.

It’s taken me all these years to release my first “band” album, this time with my string trio. Epomeo doesn’t try to be Pearl Jam or the Guarneri Quartet- we’ve all got multiple gigs, different jobs and on-going projects and ambitions (and we live in different cities)- but we give the trio everything we’ve got when we’re together, and I enjoy being in the group.  But when I play the Schnittke Trio with David and Diane, I feel no need to concede anything to Eddie Vedder , David Soyer or John Bonham.

I pushed hard for us to get on with making our first recording- on one level, the chance to make the first recording of the Gal trios was an opportunity we would have to have been insane to pass up. But, perhaps even more urgent for me, was realizing that it had been ten-plus years since the quartet had been playing at the level where we could have made a similar statement of who we were and what we believed. I missed that opportunity, but I wasn’t going to squander this one. My career may not amount to much in the end, or it may just end up remaining very pick-and-mix, and I can live with that, but I want my kids to know why daddy was away for these two weeks, and all those other trips. I want them to know what the cello means to me- to be able to hear what I played like, for better or for worse. That’s why, if you look in the booklet’s fine print, you’ll see I dedicated my contribution to the disc to my children.

And I suppose that’s the other great mystery. As a musician, I’m still playing the dating game- there’s flirtation, frustration, disappointment, game playing, misplaced aspiration and expectation ad infinitum. However, to my complete surprise and amazement., on a personal level, I did find where (with whom) I belong a long time ago. Grab your barf bags now, but I really do feel like I’m one of the lucky ones who, in my personal life, found my Plant, Bonham and Jones all in one person, now enriched by two little ones (puke! Sorry!). On a professional level I still find myself contemplating the music equivalent of internet dating, which is more or less how I thought I would be spending my personal life, not my artistic one. Knowing things can work out in one compartment of life does at least give one the cautious optimism to think that maybe life isn’t all just a hopeless joke, and when work sometimes dips from the frustrating to the tragicomic, there’s something to look forward after the soul-destroying gig or the meeting, or the end of that musical festival romance.

Meanwhile, the rock band days seem well and truly gone (although I’d assumed that was the case for chamber ensembles too). I still toy with the idea of spending a summer recording all my songs and writing some new ones, but that involves no professional ambition, and would probably be more a Jeff Lynne/play-all-the instruments-yourself-in-your-home-studio situation than any pathetic attempt to start a band again at my age. Rock ‘n’ roll is a young person’s game- even the bands that survived tend to have done all their best work in their first five or 8 years. What happens to most rockers after age 30? After the last band boke up, and the wounds had healed, I stopped trying. For me, I couldn’t carry on once I realized how anti-music the commercial music establishment is. Both the commercial industry and the popular/rock music press basically love celebrity, fashion, dance and attitude, and despise music. The Pearl Jam guys, like Rush, have been both lucky and shrewd- they parlayed their fifteen minutes of mega-fame , when they managed to slip by the gatekeepers of mediocrity and into the mass consciousness, into the opportunity to play the music they want to play  for a big audience for the rest of their lives.  In Vegas terms, they beat the house. Still, if you doubt for a second that the critical establishment hates actual music, pick up Rolling Stone Magazine’s recent list of the greatest bands of all time. Other than the Beatles, it’s about 90% crap, glorifying mostly those who took their  chance to make music, be an artist, speak to the world and enrich the human condition and instead decided to sell butter.

Me, I’m gonna start selling ziplock bags. Did you know they can prevent planes being blown up? I take great comfort in the knowledge that everyone around me is travelling with one, and that if anyone wants to save their pre-landing sandwich, they can conveniently seal it in an air-tight container. Why would anyone resort to terrorism in this, the best of all possible worlds.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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7 comments on “In the band?”

  1. Brian

    Great post, Ken. For about one week, I found my “Bonham et al.” It was a glorious time spent with the orchestra in Marianske Lazne a mere two weeks before 9/11. Alas, those kinds of experiences are few and far between and will probably never happen in quite the same way again.

  2. Mikko Utevsky

    Once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds, one finds that this is the best of all possible worlds.

  3. Daniel

    Perhaps not the greatest VFTP post ever (that’s a bold claim), but certainly a contender in the ‘funniest opening paragraph of a blog’ category, web-wide!

  4. Ellen Dieleman

    Thanks for sharing all these thoughts, Ken. Though we met only once – in a chambre music course in Ischia, Italy – the way you write your blogposts is so personal and insightful that it’s as if us readers are travelling (and thinking!) along. So interesting.

    Looking forward to put the Epomeo CD in the player!

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Ellen!

    Many thanks for your kind comment. It’s great to hear from you- hopefully, the Epomeo CD should be arriving there any minute now. Let us know what you think!

    All best


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