Letter from the Trenches: Unsung, Unseen, Inescapable

Robin the HammerTHIS MONTH, OUR THEME IS UNSUNG Heroes. Before we even begin, I’ll bet about half of you are saying, “Yeah, and I’m one of them,” which begs the question, “Where does the Music live?” It lives with everyone.

In jazz, rock ‘n’ roll or any genre, all the creativity, all the influences, the significant trends, don’t come about only on disc or at Madison Square Garden. That’s just the surface, the outer manifestation of a great underground river of music, a flow of ideas that lives among the people, both audience and lesser-known performers. We call folks like the Beatles, Kurt Cobain or Jack White innovators, but are they, or are they actually the distillations of a vast collective consciousness? I used to listen to the words of great rock songs, and say, “I was thinking just that!” but someone else said it. Perhaps we all were thinking it, they just had the platform.

Some say “Down in the clubs, that’s where it’s at. That’s where Jimi got his chops.” But waitaminnit—Ric Ocasek put a notice up at Berklee College of Music, built the Cars, and got signed on one gig—and those guys sure can play! Either way, it means years of hard work.

Like most live things, the Music has a head, a heart, and guts, and it needs them all to function. We are all part of one thing, and yes, it’s bigger than any and all of us. There are musicians you never heard whose licks you are practicing right now. When you listen to Louis Armstrong, think of Buddy Bolden. Charley Patton talked about a guy called Ike Zinnerman, and a lonely youth named Hank Williams said he learned “everything” from Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, a black street performer who also taught him to overcome his shyness. I was sitting on a couch in a hotel lobby in Amsterdam, playing the blues with my eyes closed. Some guy sat down next to me…after 20 minutes he got up and left. Everybody said to me, “Did you see Jackson Browne checking out your chops?” No, I didn’t.

So practice every day, and next time you see some famous star on stage, or hear a great solo on a record and say, “That could be me,” remember, it kind of is you already.

—Robin the Hammer

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