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Sunday, December 18, 2005

HALF SPEED

The other day the pain of an hour-long commute home was drastically reduced by an episode of THE HOLLYWOOD PODCAST. Host Tim Coyne asked his friend Dave to compile a list of the top ten guitar solos since 1975. As soon as I heard the subject, I began rifling through my memory banks for the guitar solos that I considered the best of the best. As Tim points out, lists like this are personal expressions of personal preferences. There's no one right list that will satisfy everyone. Everybody has their own take.

Post '75, hmm? I quickly started fleshing out the list with sure things...Stevie Ray Vaughan, Randy Rhoads...but from the moment I heard "Top Ten Guitar Solos," there was no question what my #1 would be: Eruption by Van Halen from their 1978 debut album entitled Van Halen. No deliberation was required. None whatsoever. And as Tim and Dave started their ascent up the list, I wondered where my #1 would appear, if at all.

When I was a sophomore in high school in 1980, my friend Kevin and I heard about "Independent Study," a deal where you could get class credit for doing some sort of project outside of school and then submitting monthly reports. Through a brother of a friend we found out that our "project" could be volunteering as disc jockeys at the Wellesley College radio station. Back then WZLY 91.5 fizzled its 50 watts out across a half mile radius, transmitting from Alumni Hall, an creepy, musty, beautiful 100-year-old auditorium on the campus of the all girls school. We signed up, took the FCC test and within a couple weeks had our own radio show, two hours every Friday night from 8 -10, "The Tom and Kevin Show."

This was a sweet deal. Think about it. Two 16 year old boys spending their weekends with college girls and getting school credit for it. OK, they were creepy, musty, not so beautiful Wellesley College girls, but college girls just the same. And on top of that, we got to hang out at the studio whenever we wanted. It wasn't a 24 hour operation so a lot of the time we had the place to ourselves. It sort of became our clubhouse.

The entire station was tightly contained in a converted office above the auditorium. There was a main room with some stinky, old chairs arranged around a steamer trunk. Against one wall sat an ancient, lumpy, creaky couch that served admirably as my bed on more than one occasion. Two shallow steps led up to Studio B which was no more than a former closet that had one wall replaced with soundproof glass so you could see into the main room and into the main studio. Studio B was where we made promos for our show. From there, a door led into Studio A, the main studio, a square room about 8' x 10' where the actual broadcasting was done. There was a sound board, two turntables, a cart machine for promos, two sets of headphones and two microphones. The walls were lined floor to ceiling with record cases that held a collection that had been building since the early 60s. The DJ's chair was an office chair that could not have been less than 50 years old, all metal and springs with a single piece of crispy, dried out leather stretched across the seat. It creaked if you moved so you had to try to stay still while the mike was open.

It wasn't long before our friends wanted in. First, my friend Dave got is own show, then Ray. Ray's on air persona was Razor Cough. He played a lot of Cramps and Killing Joke.

My friend Dave and I had both started playing guitar about a year before. We liked a lot of the same music and a lot of the same guitarists so we had a friendly (occasionally not so friendly) competition throughout high school to see who could play what first. Inspired mostly by Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin but limited by our average sized hands and a remarkably unstudious approach to technique, we didn't have much use for the music of the day. By 1980, punk as we knew it had come and gone and although we still pledged allegiance to some bands like the Clash, in terms of guitar playing all our heros were from 10 to 15 years before, the hippie years.

That is until we heard Eddie Van Halen.

Obviously we had heard Van Halen on the radio, but for some reason the pure mastery and originality of Eddie Van Halen's guitar playing hadn't registered. Maybe because the radio hits were such great pop songs that they just seep into our brains without even letting us know what they're up to. Sneaky bastards. That's how you end up 35 wondering how it came to be that you know all the words to Peaceful, Easy Feeling. That's how it was the first time I really listened to all the guitar that goes on in Van Halen's version of You Really Got Me. I reeled and wondered, "How the hell could I have listened to this so many times and never heard THAT?"

Dave rushed into the radio station and grabbed me. "You have got to listen to this. It will fucking blow - you - away!"

Dave bolted into Studio A, ignoring Bob the jazz DJ who did a four hour show on Sunday afternoons. Bob was as close as we came to a professional on-air personality at WZLY. He was a DJ from way back and really knew his jazz. As the result of a recent car accident though, queries of which he deflected with the same ease with which he delivered stories of meeting Chet Baker and Art Pepper on the same day, he had his jaws wired shut in order for his wounds to properly heal. Pro that he was, Bob never missed a shift and never mentioned the incident on air. If he had an audience at all, they didn't seem to mind the fact that he spoke as if he were resting the entirety of his body weight on his chin.

"Tht wz Naht Kng Cll snkng 'Wn I Fll n Lvv.'"

Dave went directly to the shelf of records second from the floor against the far wall, the V's, and pulled out Van Halen, recognizable by the quadsected cover featuring individual photos of the band members each posing in their own absurb and, in retrospect, really gay way. Emblazoned in the center is the famous VH logo, a powerful symbol indeed that has been etched into countless surfaces by countless people.

Into Studio B we went. Dave flipped on the power to the small auxiliary board, slapped the LP on Turntable 1, cued up the second track and turned the volume pot to 8. And then it started. Eruption.

Dave was right. Right there in Studio B of a radio station in a converted office in a century old auditorium at an all girls college in eastern Massachusetts, Eruption fucking blew - me - away. Clocking in at a mere minute and forty seconds, never before had I heard any single instrument played with such ferocity, power, speed, and control. I won't even try to describe it here, so certain am I that no assemblage of words can approach recreating the expansion of my consciousness that took place at that moment. All I'll say is this. It was as if the boundaries of possibility as I had known them had opened up like a retractable roof, revealing that in fact there was an entire universe beyond those boundaries, a universe full of small, far off points of light that indicated a scale of distance but on closer inspection revealed that this open space went far, far beyond what I could even see. There were no longer any limits to what was possible. If one man was able to express so much in one minute and forty seconds, then surely there was nothing that couldn't be done in the span of an entire lifetime.

I'm no doctor but I'm pretty sure that over the next ten days, our association with those one hundred seconds would in most psychiatric circles be considered and so termed, clinically speaking, "an obsession." We listened to it over and over and over again. Every moment the circumstance of which didn't preclude further aural examination of this recording was filled with its playing and replaying. A cassette was hastily dubbed from the WZLY copy of the entire LP and our rewinding skills became so finely honed that we could consistently stop the tape and hit play at the exact moment the drums pound out the start of the song, just before Eruption's opening power chord.

The obsession grew. I needed to isolate one particular part of the song. Essentially, the last part of the recording features 26 seconds of a melody built on triplets, sets of three notes played in rapid (as in machine gun) succession and timed as though they were one single note. The triplets start low and work their way up the guitar neck in quick increments before cascading back down and then crashing into a swirl of feedback and a full octave drop. That's how Eruption ends.

I had an idea. I would make a tape of just that part of the song. And then I would tape that one part ten times in a row so I could listen to it over and over without having to rewind.

You'd think that would be enough, but no. After all, this is obsession we're talking about here.

Back at the station I dug out a dusty old turntable that I had noticed sitting behind a weird marble endtable next to the lumpy couch. This turntable had a strange feature, a setting for 16 rpm, almost exactly half the speed at which a normal LP played. I hooked a tape deck directly to the turntable, and on the same cassette that I used before, recorded that one section another ten times in row only this time at the 16 rpm setting. I took the tape out to my car and listened to it on the stereo. The sound was other-worldly. Even slowed by half, the notes still flew by at a blinding speed. The sound was more that of a bassoon or oboe than a distorted electric guitar. The reverb was magnified. The effect of listening to the endless loop of notes climbing up the neck and down the neck and up the neck and down the neck was soothingly meditative, even hypnotic.

When I got home I took a label and pressed it on the cassette with my thumb. In black Pilot pen I wrote simply in all caps HALF SPEED. That was 25 years ago.

Tim Coyne and his friend Dave wound their way through the "Top Ten Guitar Solos Since 1975" as I wound my way through the parking lot that is the 134 as it slides past Griffith Park into Glendale at 5:30 on a Tuesday in December. I was surprised to find myself in such consistent agreement with Dave's choices. There was Stevie Ray Vaughan. There was Randy Rhoads. But we were pretty close to #1 and no mention of Eruption. Either I was really in sync with these guys or else I really wasn't.

3, 2,...

And there it was. Dave's pick for the best guitar solo since 1975 was in fact Eruption by Van Halen. I smiled and felt a strange combination of validation at the hands of a complete stranger and utter, ridiculous nostalgia for a time when things as simple as a piece of music mattered so much. I think it was a good feeling but a little like receiving a lifetime achievement award when you feel like you haven't even started your career yet.

The next night I looked under a bunch of plausibly obsolete VHS tapes in a box in the garage. There were the remains of my once impressive tape collection. I shifted the tapes around like the box was one of those sliding grid puzzles you have when you're a kid. A couple more shifts and the tape revealed itself. The ink from the Pilot pen was worn but still legible. HALF SPEED. I took it out and looked at it and then put it the armrest of my car. I'd listen to it the next time traffic was backed up on the 134 in Glendale. That turned out to be today.





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4 Comments:

At 12/18/2005 9:26 AM, Anonymous said...

That post rocked! -- And not just because you mentioned me. Wow! That took me back.

I grew up with an older brother who played guitar and worshipped Eddie. He used to do exactly what you did, slow down the solos so he could decipher what the hell Eddie was doing and then lock himself in his room and try to learn it. Guess what? He actually did learn it! I remember going into school and telling Billy Urda, a Van Halen superfan, that MY brother could play Eruption. Billy didn't believe me but I knew what I heard.

My parents were getting divorced and my guitar playing brother wasn't handling it well - failing out, drinking, drugs, anger. All of his anger and rage went into that guitar and it was the only thing that kept us talking. He hated me unless I was worshipping his guitar playing.

My older brother and I haven't been close since then. The emotions I feel right now tell me how deeply devastating this is to me. Thanks for bringing me back. Maybe I'll talk to him this holiday season about these memories.

Tim

 
At 12/18/2005 12:52 PM, Tom in L.A. said...

Thanks, Tim. I wonder if famous musicians know how profoundly they effect people and the choices they make in life.

 
At 12/18/2005 8:37 PM, Anonymous said...

Hey Tom. I've never listened to Eruption at half speed. It's pretty freakin' crazy. Reading your post brought me back as well to the first time I heard it. My brother used to make me listen to music that he liked, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and of course Van Halen. I'll always remember sitting in his room and hearing the fade out of "Runnin' with the Devil", and then the thunderous brilliance that follows it.

I'm glad you agreed with some of my choices for the list. I've already gotten shit from some of my friends about it. Friends that don't even play guitar! Everyone thinks they're an expert I guess. Anyway, at least you agree with my #1.

Dave

BTW The cassette picture is awesome. I must have had a hundred of those things on the floor of my room when I was fifteen.

 
At 12/19/2005 6:12 AM, Tom in L.A. said...

Dave

Like Tim said, this was your list. Everybody's got their own opinions but I can't argue with most of your choices. It was great listening to you guys talk about each selection and what made them so special. FUN!

 

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