Ghosts and Ballyhoo

Ghosts and Ballyhoo: Memoirs of a Failed L.A. Music Journalist, by Thomas Wictor. Available from Schiffer Books in the fall of 2012. Anthology Six: Abyss 2003-2011 [chapter title]

Flashback: A Druid in Los Angeles Stephen Jay has been "Weird Al" Yankovic's bassist for over thirty years. However, he's also a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, lyricist, and classically trained composer who studied with John Cage, Lukas Foss, Max Neuhaus, and Charles Wuorinen; in addition, he's also a music ethnographer who's traveled the world playing with and recording folk musicians from multiple cultures. Finally, he's one of the most technically skilled, innovative, and melodic bassists alive. The music of his film and TV scores and his solo albums is genuinely astonishing. He's developed a hybrid picking-slapping technique like nothing I've ever seen. It allows him to play rhythm and lead at the same time, as well as superimposing different meters on the same pattern, a technique he describes as "polymetric triangulation." "That's the way I think of focusing on the groove. You use two meters at once. If you're playing in 4/4, you can nail your groove and feel the inertia, but as soon as somebody starts playing a three-figure against that, all of a sudden the groove locks. It works the same way as a sextant or a global-positioning system by having two fixed points of reference and your own position, creating a triangle that allows you to determine exactly where you are. The way it works in music, its focusing time to determine more closely where 'now' is, and the groove is basically all about 'now,' the source, where things comes from. It's the edge of creation, where that which didn't exist before suddenly does and then doesn't again. That's the essence of the groove. By staying closer to that origin, the source-point of 'now,' we can ride along right on the edge. It's always going to be two against three, or four against six, or eight against five. You and another musician can play different meters, or you can play different meters in your own part. "Let's say you're playing eighth notes, alternating between a loud and a soft. You're going up and down with your thumb, an up-stroke and a down-stroke. Then you can switch from accenting every other note--a straight two--and you start accenting every third one. Rather than changing your technique to produce a three-pattern, such as two strokes down and one up, or one down and two up, you keep that two-pattern as your technique but superimpose accents in alternating positions along the pattern. You've got a really nice two-pattern going, and you superimpose the three on top of it, producing the same triangulating effect as a sextant, pointing you to where the 'now' is. It can get really complex. This happens spontaneously as you play, as opposed to it being something you've rehearsed beforehand." He slaps eight- and twelve-string basses in a way that makes him sound like an entire band. Discovering Jay's incredible talent was like finding a chest of gold doubloons in a lagoon where you thought you'd be lucky to pick up a few pretty shells. He's the only bassist with superhuman technical skill I ever saw whose chops never overwhelmed the music and actually created a deep emotional resonance. When I attended shows put on by Ak & Zuie, a duo consisting of Stephen and drummer Pete Gallagher, I was actually transported into an entirely different plane of perception, due to the intricate interplay of the bass and drums. Stephen told me it's based on decades of studying how rhythm and melody can change brain chemistry and make you feel good. Also, the overtones and polyrhythms interact in such a way as to make you think you're hearing an entire ensemble. Jay calls the invention "polymetric funk." He also uses his Theory of Harmonic Rhythm,[1] his discovery that a consonant harmonic interval produces a consonant regularly rhythmic interval, creating a "universal substance" between harmony and rhythm. By being aware of the symmetry between harmony and rhythm, and by being aware of the delicacy and scale on which harmony and rhythm focus with each other, a kind of musical sympathy can be achieved. As Jay told me, "A simple example would be if you were going to write a song in A, and you're tuned to 440, and you make your song tempo 109. Every time you start a cycle in an A 440--let's imagine that you can be mathematically perfect in your beginnings--if your tempo is 109, that waveform would always be chopped off before it completed itself because the tempo isn't 110, a subdivision of 440. So by simply synching up the tempo to the pitch, playing it exactly the right tempo for the pitch you're playing, you create complete waveforms rather than incomplete waveforms. They're broken up evenly. When little things like that are expanded out to the scale of how each individual note in a chord works in relation to the other notes in the chord, it becomes an equation that's so immensely complex that it seems to me like it would be incalculable, and that's what makes music magic." Some scientists believe Stonehenge was built to enhance the experience of the drumming and chanting rituals performed by the druids. When I attended Ak & Zuie concerts, the polymetric triangulation, polymetric funk, and Theory of Harmonic Rhythm combined to create moments when I entered a trancelike state, and I had to ask myself, What's going on here? It was the only time in my ten-year career that music did that to me. I suddenly understood the true power of music and its ability to induce euphoria. Ak & Zuie backed me up at some of my readings for In Cold Sweat, a surreal and magical escapade. I fell deeply in love with an instrumental Stephen played for me that he said might go on a future album. That composition stayed in my head for years, though I couldn't remember the title. I didn't want to contact Stephen because of the shame and humiliation I felt over the collapse of my career in music journalism. He told me the title of the piece on April 15, 2012; "Telenergy," on his CD Tangled Strings. It was a great relief to rediscover it. Stephen writes far too many brilliant songs for me to list, but some of the standouts on his many solo albums are "Big Shoes," "Go Like This," "Deny the Accuser," "Tangled Strings," "Suva," "Self Avoiding Random Walk," "The Mistake," "What the Voodoo Became," "Underwater," "What They Say," and "Hungry Target." All are dumbfounding confluences of musicality, lyricism, vocal skills, and--above all--effortless bass prowess that never distracts. Perfect Stephen Jay samplers are his albums Sea Never Dry and Self Avoiding Random Walk, both on the Ayarou Music label and available on his Web site. They contain songs that you can sing or hum after just one listening, despite their devilish complexity. My favorite track on Sea Never Dry is "Trouble," a traditional Turkish song that Stephen adapted, writing his own lyrics. Ashram in the bedroom Solemn like soldiers Happiness in hell fire Sadness in heaven Who called this meeting Who knows the reason Who are all of these people Happy like children Empty like cauldrons Happy to be here Swallowed not eaten Taken not bitten Who made them lay down Jah must have made them Ghost made them play dumb Saved for no ending

The combination of the middle-eastern melody and instrumentation, the passion of the singing, and the ambiguity of the lyrics makes this one of Stephen's most memorable efforts. Tim told me that his art teacher in college said, "Great art asks more questions than it answers." That's my position, too. I don't know what these lyrics mean, which is why I like them. According to Francis Bacon--one of my favorite painters--the job of the artist is to always deepen the mystery. It's an approach Stephen Jay has taken to heart. Ak & Zuie do something indescribable to cover songs, too. Their versions of "Cinnamon Girl" by Neil Young and "Rock On" by David Essex are unforgettable and immensely moving. Listening to Stephen Jay was one of the rare times as a music journalist that I felt privileged to be in the presence of such greatness. In my career Scott Thunes, Gene Simmons, John Taylor, Andy West, Bryan Beller, and Stephen Jay made the most lasting impressions on me as both accomplished artists and people. The music that entered my very being--separately from its creators--and made a permanent change was the work of Ray Shulman, Scott Thunes, and Stephen Jay.


[1]"The Theory of Harmonic Rhythm," by Stephen Jay, (accessed May 2, 2012). Lessons Learned [chapter title]

God Only Guards the Tool Shed When I sent the short story "Flashback: A Druid in Los Angeles" to Stephen Jay for his approval, he responded with a remarkably affecting e-mail.

Reading your heartfelt words about the music I write was for me hitting the motherload. I mean that in this way: Until you hit the motherload, as a miner working on blind and sometimes delusional faith, you really have no way of knowing if there's "gold in them thar hills" or not. Your words convinced me that there is. I have now, as of this day, July 1, 2012, "seen" it. And I am forever changed.

This is really wonderful. Over the years many people have given me very positive feedback. But no one has ever expressed experiencing the transformative power as persuasively as you have. Your gift as a writer has enabled you to open my mind up to the most important truth there can be for me. That I should continue writing.

I came up to my studio this morning to work on a new song that really slips the bounds. It's called "God Only Guards The Tool Shed." It came to me in a literal flash, with no clue of why or what it meant. On reflection I realized that it could be a very nice way of saying we can have faith in our capabilities. Something in the universe appears to favor that idea. I love writing music like a climber loves tackling Everest, because it's almost impossible and yet sometimes it feels like you can get there. It can be more painful and challenging than anything else I have experienced. As you know, the strength to jump off the cliff and become fully engaged to do that are always the issues.

Who knows where that strength comes from? Well, this morning I do. It comes directly from you! I am so energized and encouraged by what you said that this song is going to be fantastic. The essence of collaboration! Here we go. You will hear the new song very soon.

Thank you! Steve

The song is indeed fantastic. It's beyond genre. The best way to describe it would be a kind of reggae-tango with completely unexpected rhythms, changes, melodies, and vocals that elicit powerful emotions. Stephen somehow managed the incredible feat of creating a song that's uplifting and mournful at the same time. It mysteriously, ingeniously articulates the gamut of the human condition, and it asks far more questions than it answers. Here are some of the lyrics.

It feels like that's what it's for God only guards the tool shed Maybe a little more Than before we started Using the tools like instruments Only way that matters now Is if it all stays safe and sound I hear what they're saying today Better clean up the tool shed Put all the stuff away Spend the day finding each tool a proper place All the saws and solder guns And lock it all up once it's Done and gone and put away You-know-who's guarding it night and day Over her shoulder Those all-seeing eyes Might envision a grander prize Than I can disguise

Everybody's had déjà vu, the phenomenon of feeling you've experienced something before and you're reliving it. The French term means "already seen." You've also had presque vu, or "almost seen," the sensation of being on the brink of an epiphany. It's when a word, name, or memory is on the tip of your tongue. Stephen Jay is the undisputed master of musical presque vu. He offers glimpses of meaning, and you almost grasp what he's saying. It can be maddening, but therein lies the potency of great art. I'm humbled to have played even a tiny part in the creation of this terrific song. It also helped me realize that what I've been doing recently is putting my tools in their proper places as I envision a grander prize. I believe that God does guard the tool shed, but it's entirely up to us to use our tools properly, keep them in working order, and clean them. Thank you, Stephen, for both the gift of this song and a more poetic way for me to express one of my deeply held convictions.