24. “The Audience is Listening” — Steve Vai

Steve Vai, Passion and Warfare on My Shuffled Life

I think it was around this time, the summer of 1990, that I started to realize my musical tastes were different from most people’s. It seemed natural to me, though. It’s like when you’re six and you like something because you like it, not because your friends or the cool kids or famous people or the media told you to like it. It just speaks to you. Which is why, that summer, while vacationing in Florida, I could fall in love with both this manic tribute to guitar virtuosity and teenage rebellion AND Mariah Carey.

Oh. Em. Gee. You like Mariah Carey?

Yes, (Valley girl-voiced) Imaginary Reader, I like early Mariah Carey. Part of me wishes people who weren’t old enough to appreciate her when she first burst upon the scene could go back there. Because it was good. And it was good before 16-year-old wannabes on American Idol were trying to sound like her, with all the crazy runs.

I LOVE those crazy runs! Whoa-o-whoa-o-whoawoaowoawoaowao!

Very nice, Imaginary Reader. My point is, “Vision of Love” was a mesmerizing combination of pure vocal wizardry and genuine emotion. And guess what? That’s something these two vastly different artists had very much in common. Both have been criticized for just being show-offs; for being blessed with astonishing technical ability but not putting anything of themselves behind it. But I would argue both did. I think Mariah stopped doing that three or four albums in and collected her paycheques. But early Mariah was hungry and vital and at least helped write her own stuff.

Steve Vai was also hungry and vital, but he was also an alien. There was something about his look and his sound that seemed not of this world. He was the first guy I’d heard of that played a seven-string guitar. A seven-string guitar with 24 frets. That’s 168 possible tones. And it sounds like he used every one of them on this song.

Like a crazy person, I’d listen to this song and “Vision of Love,” probably back-to-back, on my Walkman.

Um. Yeah. You’re totally cray-cray.

It was Florida in August. It was brutally hot. But I was in an air-conditioned home, in my mom’s uncle’s vacant house that he let us stay in, watching Vai’s madness on MTV. Yes, not only did MTV play music videos back then, but they played music videos for songs by a guitar instrumentalist that completely ignored conventional song structure, tempo and time signatures. It’s amazing to me that the record company even provided a music video budget for a song like this. But, for a 17-year-old guitar-playing kid, who quietly loved weirdness, underdogs and the idea of teenage rebellion, it was the perfect song, and video, for me.

He’s talking and laughing with his guitar! And you know exactly what he’s saying! The teacher thinks he’s such a nice little boy! He warns us that it’s gonna be loud! And then it gets loud!

I was also a kid full of huge dreams. And the spoken word parts of the song are all about growing up to fulfill your dreams and passions. I was going to be a major-league baseball player. I was going to be a rock star. I was going to be a famous writer.

How’d that work out for you?

You don’t have to rub it in, Imaginary Reader. Okay, so none of those dreams quite panned out. Not yet, anyway. But I’m still passionate about all three. I still participate in all three. I’m still a co-ed softball slugger. I’m still a basement/bedroom rock star, cranking up my Fender amp to rock the neighbours’ foundations. And if this self-indulgent music blog doesn’t make me a famous writer, nothing will. Right?

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