Thomas Wictor

Improvement is not always conscious

Improvement is not always conscious

Those of you who’ve read Ghosts and Ballyhoo may have noticed that I make only one mention of Tony Levin, on pages 42-43. This was not deliberate.

My friend Steiv Dixon and Carmen were Levinites, as they called themselves. They introduced me to Tony Levin’s best work. As a result he became one of my bass gods, along with Ray Shulman, John Paul Jones, John Taylor, and Andy West; Scott Thunes and Stephen Jay came later. I pitched Levin twice to the Bass Player editor who wrecked my career. He didn’t even respond.

As much as I’d come to terms with losing Carmen, Steiv, my career in music journalism, and my ability to play the bass, it was apparently still too painful to listen to Tony Levin. More than anyone, he personifies loss, suffering, and shattered dreams. He played a Music Man StingRay, the same model of bass Carmen gave me. One of her favorite songs was Peter Gabriel’s “Kiss of Life.” She had it playing during the first night I spent at her apartment. Until three days ago, I hadn’t listened to it since 1992.

It still makes me sad, but at least now I can bear to hear it.

In the past few weeks, the urge to once again listen to Tony Levin became overwhelming. Thank God for YouTube. There are far too many great Levin songs to list, but my favorite is King Crimson’s “Sleepless.” I now prefer Robert Fripp’s remixed version. My band A Window played it in Tokyo. The bass effect is achieved by thumb slapping and a digital delay; you have to have a metronome’s ability to keep a steady beat so you don’t mess it up.

In the dream I
Fall into the sleepless sea
With a swell of
Panic and pain
My veins are
Aching for the distant reef
In the crush of
Emotional waves

How could I not love that song? The ending is especially pertinent.

Hey, can you picture the sight
Of figures on the beach in the searing night
And the roaring hurt of my silent fight
Can you pull me out
Of this sleepless night
Can you pull me out?

No. Nobody can pull you out except for you. And it appears that I’m still pulling myself out. I no longer associate “Sleepless” with terrible loss. The same goes for “Man with an Open Heart.” That surprises me because this is my Carmen song. It describes her and my battle to accept her as she was.

She could be moody, dramatic as a play
Or be evasive as a shadow in the shade
Could be irregular and singing in her underwear
It wouldn’t matter to a man with an open heart

* * *

Her wild and wise womanly
Her faults and files of foolishness
Wouldn’t matter to a man with an open heart

I eventually became a man with an open heart, which is why it surprises me that I can listen to this song without breaking down. My open heart didn’t prevent me from losing her, especially in such an agonizing way. All my effort came to nothing.

What my ability to re-embrace Tony Levin means is that improvement is not always conscious. God knows I’ve worked hard at not being and not doing. Just yesterday I nearly let out my wolf in response to an unbelievably vicious, profanity-laden, I-hope-you-die column someone wrote about a person I admire. The columnist’s e-mail address was at the end of the article, so I composed a response.

Re: ________ as a diagnostic tool.

Dear _______ :

__________ is a 100-percent-accurate diagnostic tool. Those who hate her are virulently mentally ill. There isn’t a single happy, stable, well-balanced person who hates her. Disagreeing with her is fine; that’s your right. It’s completely legitimate. But hating her? You’ve exposed so much of yourself without even knowing it. And you’re a psychologist! You’ve proven what we always said in college: Psych majors are all insane. They go into the field to find out what’s wrong with them. And there’s quite a lot wrong with you, isn’t there?

Merry Christmas,
Thomas Wictor

Then I thought, What the hell am I doing, engaging a raving, slobbering lunatic? So I deleted the e-mail. And no, I don’t believe that all psychologists are insane. I said that only to hurt the columnist. My message was an assault on a sick person. The wolf inside me still tries to get out, as you can see. But I didn’t let it.

That’s the sort of improvement I’ve been engaged in for years. Refraining. Reining in. Stopping. Choosing to not do. It’s very difficult. Being able to listen to Tony Levin again never crossed my mind. I’d banished him so thoroughly that he wasn’t even a ghost. He was just a void, an empty space where so much once existed.

My favorite studio-recorded Levin bass line is on Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain.” I don’t listen to the lyrics. To be honest I’m not a Gabriel fan. His vocal style always annoyed me. This is one of his more “important” songs, a cri de couer against capital punishment. I don’t spend even a second of my time thinking about capital punishment. In a representative democratic republic, the voters decide what they want. What I like about “Red Rain” is the amazing bass.

In the middle of the song, Levin seems to use a precursor to his “funk fingers,” which were inspired by the drumstick-bass duo he did with Jerry Marotta on the song “Big Time.” You can hear that duo in “Big Time” after Gabriel sings “I’m gonna watch it growing” and then yodels. The idea of a drummer hitting the strings of a bass while the bassist fingers the notes is quite old.

I made my own funk fingers, using drumsticks screwed to sections of PVC pipe, but I never got the hang of it. Eventually, I was able to duplicate the drumlike fill using four steps.

1. Muting the strings with the index finger of my fret hand and raking my thumb upward from the highest to lowest strings.

2. Slapping the strings with the remaining three fingers of my fret hand.

3. Slapping the entire picking hand against the strings, which are all muted with the fret hand.

4. Popping the G-string. I used the middle finger of my picking hand to pop.

What it sounds like is frrrruh-buh-duh-BAP! I could play the Levin-Marotta passage from “Big Time” by myself. It was great fun.

It’s also fantastic that I can listen to Tony Levin again and not feel bereaved. Slowly but surely, I edge ever closer to where I want to be.

Thank you, Steiv and Carmen, for making me a fellow Levinite. I turned my back on all of you for a while, but it was only because remembering hurt too much. Now it doesn’t anymore.

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