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To be clear, when I think about this phenomenon with guitarists, I’m not talking about physical facility on the instrument— i.e., chops. Anyone with time and the will can develop impressive dexterity. That said, I’m fully aware of how daunting it must be to maintain a continuously amazing repertoire— and certainly not from personal experience. I also understand the statistics associated with creative “lightning” striking twice for one individual (say, with a huge hit song), let alone once. But something doesn’t have to be a hit or achieve widespread acclaim to be electrifying.
No, what I’m talking about is something more endemic to creative types with a tendency toward perfection. It’s what I’ve decided to call Gollum Syndrome. For the three of you reading this who are unfamiliar with the infamous character from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and/or Peter Jackson’s masterful film adaptations of it, Gollum is a creepy-as-hell, ugly-ass freakazoid who was at one point a regular, happy-go-lucky hobbit called Smeagol who loved ale, pipe-weed, and singing in the pub every bit as much as the next four-foot-tall, hairy-footed fellow.
But then he discovered a magic ring that happened to have the power to destroy the world and do lots of other cool stuff, like keep him alive for 500 years. What’s not to love about that? There was just one problem: The ring, which also housed the soul of pretty much the most powerful and evil demigod ever, transformed him into a crazy ghoul with a huge head and an urge to kill anyone who stood between him and his “precious” (the term functioning here as a noun, not an adjective).
In my opinion, that’s pretty much the crux of the problem for a huge swath of players and right-brained people in general these days. Not the murderous ghoul part, but the obsessing over one or two aspects of their art part—the tendency to become so preoccupied with our “precious” that our craft is morphed into an endeavor so inwardly focused and self-absorbed that all the seemingly extraneous aspects of life that previously seeped into it and made it as much fun as a carefree hobbit dancing on a table at the pub are gone and replaced with unnatural obsessing that stifles our previous unpredictability and freshness.
Some might be inclined to think this freshness and zeal naturally slips through our fingers like the sands of time as we age—or, worse, that such youthful abandon is immature, unrefined, and undesirable— and that the only logical way to counter either scenario is to woodshed endlessly in pursuit of “better” chops and relentlessly pursue the rarest, most expensive gear extant in order to get “better” tone. But I call B.S. on that. A lot of incredible musicians started out with either crappy or mediocre gear and somehow made it not just work, but made it theirs. Further, we’ve all witnessed players (or bands, actors, etc.) who just seem to get more and more badass with age—while retaining their youthful zeal— regardless of the technology or gear involved. That’s because these people have discovered their inner punk.
You don’t have to like punk rock to discover your inner punk. I happen to love punk. The best punk bands—including Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Dead Kennedys, the Circle Jerks, the Ramones, Fugazi, and the Misfits—literally saved rock ’n’ roll from suffocating in the sap-filled folds of its own bloated and predictable excess. In essence, they raised the middle finger, aurally and literally, to the establishment and insisted on doing things their own way. And if people didn’t like it, they could take a walk off a cliff.
If you trace the etymology of the word “punk,” you find that its modern meaning grew out of a reference to youthful inexperience. Sounds bad at first, right? But youthful inexperience is fantastic when it leads you to wondrous discoveries you never would’ve found if you’d worried about “experts’” preconceived notions about how things should be done.
That’s why I contend that all of music’s true legends and icons were punks, regardless of their genre of choice. They took a good look and listen at what was going on and said, “No, thanks. I’ll do it my way.” And they reveled in that finger-flipping abandon, too. Django, Robert Johnson, Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Dick Dale, Page, Beck, Hendrix, Van Halen, Rhoads, Yngwie, Tom Morello . . . all punks at heart. That’s what made us fall in love with them in the first place. They slapped us awake and saved us from drowning in a sea of sameness.
Only one thing can save music (and the arts in general) and assure us a future of continual discovery and excitement: A mutual, concerted effort to find your inner punk. Once you do—once you set her or him free—there’s no telling where it’ll lead you.
Save the Smeagols!