Opinions - August 7, 2000

One of my favorite premises for a story is in Kurt Vonnegut¹s book, Galapagos, which takes place a million years from now. In the novel, the human race has evolved to become much less intelligent than it is today; consequently, it is unable to do nearly as much damage to itself or the planet as it once did. From the perspective of a million years in the future, he refers to our present time as the "era of the great big brain." Vonnegut goes on to talk about the importance of opinions in the era of the great big brain. "Mere opinions," he says, "were as likely to govern people's actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be . . . Julius Caesar could be a statesman in one moment and a butcher in the next, Ecuadorian paper money could be used for food, clothing, and shelter in one moment and line the bottom of a bird cage in the next, and the universe could be created by God Almighty in one moment and by a big explosion in the next -- and on and on."

Everybody has an opinion, and when you are a musician, you are guaranteed to hear them all, usually prefaced with, "You know what you should do?..." But over the years, I have heard a few opinions that stuck. Part of the reason they stuck was that they created an argument in my mind. At various stages of my life, I have agreed with these statements, disagreed, or gone back and forth. Here are some examples:

"Everybody gets good."

This was said to me by a piano player, whose name I have long-since forgotten. There was some wisdom in his simple statement. First, my musician friend was saying that if we apply ourselves to our craft over a lifetime, if we are able to make a living at it, then we can expect to become accomplished at what we do. My friend went on to explain the bigger implication behind his statement: being good is not enough. We all get good. So what? The more important question is: What do you have to say? I am sure anyone who reads this can think of a hundred musicians who are fundamentally sound, who know and do all the right things, but do not communicate on a deep level . I¹m sure you can also think of lots of musicians who are good at what they do, but you just don¹t like them! 

I basically agree with this statement, and have quoted it a number of times when someone has asked me the question, "Is he good?" I say, "Of course he's good. Everybody gets good." But on the other hand, I have to admit that there are performers who I think are pretty awful. (No, I won¹t say who -- call them collectively "Bad Artist.") In my opinion, "Bad Artist" might be popular because people like what he is saying, even though he is unskilled and/or unimaginative in saying it. Or "Bad Artist" might be downright insincere (in my opinion). But many folks love "Bad Artist!" Their opinion is that "Bad Artist" is a genius. 

"Just because you can doesn¹t mean you should."

John Knowles said that to me years ago. If you hang around John for more than five minutes, you are bound to hear pearls such as this, delivered in his soft, Nashville drawl, so low-key that you don¹t even know that he said anything special until hours later when his little gem sneaks up and whispers, "Gotcha." John is also the guy who said to me, "What I don't understand is how somebody can know all about God, but they can¹t tell me what a B7 chord is."

Anyway, it is John Knowles' opinion (or was fifteen years ago), that "just because you can doesn't mean you should." Now, John is a prudent man, and I envy his restraint. I have quoted him often, and it is my opinion that his statement is basically true. On the other hand, sometimes I can't tell you if I should until I find out if I can. Of course, by the time I find out if I can, it's too late to tell you if I should or not. But, in my opinion, you have to take a risk sometimes because it may be the only way you will reach beyond yourself and make new discoveries.

"I play music for nonmusicians."

I am paraphrasing a quote from an interview of John McLaughlin twenty-some years ago. (My apologies, John, if my memory has skewed your statement, but this is how I remember it.) He explained his opinion by saying that musicians already have music inside them, so they don¹t need the gift he is offering. It was the nonmusicians whom he was playing for, much as one might give food to someone who was starving, rather than to someone well-fed. When I first read this, I thought, "What a copout!" My mind-set had always been to play for musicians, because they were the ones who would truly understand what I was doing. My opinion said that to play for nonmusicians was to hold yourself to a lower standard. But McLaughlin's statement would not leave me. For one thing, very few people would accuse John McLaughlin of having low musical standards! More important, the truth of what he said resonated in me. As with many new concepts, I was resistant to it at first, but as I processed it, I adopted it as my own. Still, there is the other part of me that is particularly flattered when a musician I respect compliments my music -- I think, "Now that person knows what he¹s talking about!" After reading this article, my dad who doubles as my proof-reader pointed out that "every great artist has been 'fed' by other artists. I think you'd feel starved if you only heard your music." Good point, Dad.

In summary, opinions can provoke lots of "fancy thinking," as Kurt Vonnegut would say. The actual truth of an opinion amounts to about as much as it weighs in our "great big brains," because for every opinion, there is an equal but opposite opinion. And that's my opinion. 



Old School, by Paul Chasman and the "Great Gatleys"


Accompanied by Dan and Laurie Gatley on bass and vocals, Paul Chasman returns with 11 new original tunes that will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think. With his trademark sparkling guitar at the forefront, Paul’s poetic lyrics contrast life and mortality; grief and celebration; and light that penetrates the dark.