In Memoriam – John Wetton

On “days like these” I “lament” that I have “nothing to lose.” Vocalist, bassist, and all around Progressive Rock musician extraordinaire, John Wetton, passed away this January 31st. Only “Providence” can explain why we shall hear his innovative bass lines and stellar vocals “nevermore.” I wish someone would “hold me now.”

I’ve been listening to Mr. Wetton’s music for over “thirty years.” Whenever I had “time kill” “in the dead of night” I’d pass the time listening to his live work with King Crimson. Upon discovering the band’s live box set, The Great Deceiver, I’d never felt both so inspired and intimidated by a fellow bass player. I’d marvel at the myriad different arrangements to the classic “Easy Money.” His improvs would rival those of any jazz musician. His capability to push the boundaries of an already revolutionary genre exhibited the scope of his proficiency.

Mr. Wetton’s innovative approach to the bass guitar could only be rivaled by legendary Motown session man, James Jamerson. Like the latter, he chose an early 1960s Fender Precision Bass as his means of expanding the instrument’s traditional boundaries.

In an encomium to the legendary Motown session man, bassist Anthony Jackson explained the three components of genius:

  1. Original style.
  2. The technical proficiency to execute that style.
  3. The persistence to push that style onto an unreceptive world.

For that reason, Mr. Wetton earned a place in music history among the likes of music’s luminaries. Yes, he even deserves to be ranked with James Jamerson.

While a laudable achievement in itself, Mr. Wetton even expanded pop music into an art form. The most memorable musical moment of my life occurred the first time I listened to Chasing the Dragon. Like many of his fans, the band Asia served as my first exposure to his talents. This 1994 live album opened with “Heat of the Moment.” Instead of the high power rock anthem I knew, Mr. Wetton performed it as an acoustic ballad. I never could’ve imagined delivering it this way. His slow somber vocals gave the track a new character. To my amazement it even sounded much better than the original.

As a performer who spent most of his career playing progressive rock, many of his songs are unfamiliar to the larger public. It’s truly a shame that more people haven’t been exposed to such outstanding tracks as “Rendezvous 602”, “Battle Lines” and the greatest instrumental track ever recorded, “Red.” The eponymous UK album is still one of the best recordings released in any genre.

What King Crimson fan doesn’t hear John Wetton’s lugubrious vocal from “Starless” run through his/her mind while watching the setting sun?

            Sundown. Dazzling day. 

            Gold through my eyes.

            But my eyes turn within; only see

            Starless and Bible Black.

            This seems a fitting epitaph for those of us who adored his music.

I extend my deepest condolences to Mr. Wetton’s friends, family and fans.

Funky Christmas Miracle

It’s that special time of the year when I commemorate the life of the main man. Typically, I spend a couple hours on Christmas listening to music reflecting his accomplishments. It adds a tinge of sadness to this otherwise festive day. I think about how he left us far too soon. I’m referring, of course, to Mr. Dynamite himself, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. James Brown. This past Christmas marked the ninth anniversary of his passing.

While listening to his music on Christmas Day, I thought about how much he and his various bands influenced me as a musician. I’m sure many people are surprised to read that I’m a James Brown fan. I’m sure many more are shocked that I’ve been inspired by his music. After all, when I started playing bass guitar in the 1980s “Hair Metal” was the dominant musical form. A steady barrage of eighth notes (many on open strings) spewed forth from my cassette player. Understandably, I got bored. I sought out other musical genres. After stints with Classic Rock, Blues and Jazz, I discovered “the funk”; first through Motown Bassist James Jamerson and then through James’ many back-up bands.

In the course of my musical journey, I also taught myself how to play the guitar. When I played I mentally journeyed to Madison Square Garden in the summer on 1974. I’d take Jimmy Page’s place during The Song Remains the Same recording. Other times, when Mom and Dad left me home alone, I cranked my amp and travelled to Leeds University on Valentine’s Day 1970 and jammed with The Who.

When I matured musically, I started playing more challenging pieces; at least ones that would challenge an Irish-American kid from South Jersey. Following a love affair with (loud) Classic Rock, then Blues (played loudly) I graduated to R & B and Soul. That’s when I first encountered The Godfather’s music.

As Christmas Day dawned, I hadn’t seriously approached the guitar in months. I hadn’t played bass in at least a year. I yearned for a “Christmas miracle” in seeing if I could remember some of James’ cuts, let alone play them well. I took my Telecaster out of its gig bag. I stared at it for a while. It beckoned as if saying, “Try Me.” “Please, please,” it seemed to say. “I got the feeling” I should.

I was “bewildered.” My memory surprised me. (In addition to being a musician in my youth I drank like one, also.) I still recalled the chops to such tracks as “Lickin’ Stick-Lickin’-Stick” and “Mother Popcorn.” After a few run throughs I thought, “ain’t that a groove”? I never would’ve thought I’d say “I feel good” about my playing.

I wanted to focus on my guitar playing, but the lure of the bass was “out of sight.”  James had an ear for talent comparable to Miles Davis. He worked with a host of gifted bassists among them Bernard Odum, Charles “Sweets” Sherrell and Sam Thomas, “Bootsy” Collins took the instrument to a new level. I didn’t have anything to “think” about. I had to tackle the simulated live version of “Give It Up or Turn It Loose.”

I told myself that I’m not in the same class as Bootsy. “I know it’s true.” “I don’t mind,” I thought. “It may be the last time” I try to play this song. Bass is a fun instrument.  That’s what’s important. It didn’t matter if I was “super bad”. Sure enough, as fast as Bootsy’s riffs were, I pounded them out of my P-Bass.

I figured I’d paid the proper homage to my idol and wanted to avoid “doing it to death.” I put my guitar and bass away and went back to enjoying the Holiday Season. I’d managed to give a decent tribute to the man and musicians who gave me great direction along my musical journey. It was a funky Christmas miracle; and people it was bad.


When Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough

In the early 1940’s executives at Gibson USA decided that the company needed a new slogan. As one of the premiere guitar manufacturers in the world they wanted a catch phrase that would really capture the essence of what their company was all about. So their Marketing Department got together and came up with a phrase that they believed did just that. “Only a Gibson is good enough!” they proudly declared. It’s a good slogan: “Only a Gibson is good enough.” The company’s executives didn’t just like it: they loved it! They decided not to just use it in print advertisements; they had it painted it on the actual guitars during the production process. From that day forward, everyone who purchased a Gibson guitar would see the words, “Only a Gibson is good enough” featured prominently on the head stock. I don’t mean to repeat it so much, but it is a good slogan. I’d have to say that it’s almost the best I’ve ever heard.

Marketing Execs at Gibson’s chief rival thought that it was a pretty good slogan, also. In fact, executives at Epiphone were concerned that it was going to lure customers away from their company. So they realized they needed to come up with a new company catch phrase. After doing some research, and a very clever bit of benchmarking, they came with a new slogan: “Epiphone…when ‘good enough’ just isn’t good enough.” That’s the best slogan I ever heard. “Only a Gibson is good enough,” never appeared on another Gibson guitar.

Gibson learned the hard way that priding one’s self on mediocrity doesn’t lead down the path to success. As we’ve discussed here, we live in an era where the expression work ethic is an oxymoron. Dave Palmeroy, A Nashville session bassist, once commented that “Bass players should look at the minimum number of notes they can play in a song and then play half of them,” but many people today take that approach to their jobs and to life. That just isn’t going to cut it anymore these days. In order to be successful you have to push yourself to do your best all the time.

As an example of this philosophy, I’d like to use an anecdote from the life of a gentleman I work with. Bob Grazioli began his professional career as an electrician’s apprentice. On his first job in that field he worked for a gentleman whose daughter he happened to be dating. (You can say what you want about Bob, but you can’t tell me he’s not brave. My grandfather was awarded two Purple Hearts in WWII, but I’d have to say Bob is the bravest man I ever knew.) Bob was installing an electrical socket into a kitchen. After he put the box in he asked his boss if it was “good enough.” His boss looked at him and asked, “Is it perfect?” Bob replied, “I don’t know.” “Then how do you know if it’s good enough?” Bob got the message. He won his bosses’ respect, became a professional electrician, and he got the girl. (He and his then-bosses’ daughter have been married for over twenty years.) Bob Grazioli is currently a Maintenance Supervisor for an international manufacturing company. I guess that socket was perfect.

Gibson USA also got the message. In 1957 they were facing stiff competition from an upstart rival called Fender. At the time, all guitar companies used single coil pick-ups in their instruments. They enabled the sound of the guitar to be amplified and heard, but they also caused a humming or hissing noise to come through the amplifier, but the tone was “good enough” for musicians at the time. Gibson hired an engineer named Seth Loving to see if he could correct this anomaly. Sure enough he invented a device he called a “Humbuckler” that produced a cleaner tone that eliminated the hiss and the humming noise. Gibson got a head of the pack. And, oh yeah, around that same time, they bought Epiphone.

Legendary Marketing Guru Theodore Leavitt had a great expression: “It’s not whom we know, it’s how we are known by them.” Joe Girard exemplifies that. He is the world’s greatest salesman. He sold 13,001 cars to individual people. In one month in 1973 he sold 174 cars. That is a world record that stands to this day. How did he do it? He explained in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review that, “When you bought a car from me, you just didn’t get a car. You got me. I would break my back to service a customer; I’d rather service a customer than sell another car.” Mr. Girard emphasized that he loved his customers. Unlike today where many companies view their customers as a hindrance, Mr. Girard saw the opportunity to put food on the table for his family. He was born poor and he was down on his luck when a manager at a car dealership decided to give him a shot at sales. And he never forgot it. Mr. Girard said that he sincerely appreciated every person who ever bought a car from him. He would tell customers, “I thank you, and my family thanks you. I love you.” Mr. Girard didn’t see a sale as the end result. He saw making a satisfied customer as the goal.

I’ve described Marketing strategies that work, the power of persistence, and success. I’ve talked about people and companies that are winners. I think it fitting to close with a remark by one of the greatest winners of them all. Vince Lombardi used to tell his players that “the day you can tolerate coming in second, it makes it that much easier to tolerate coming in third. And that makes it easier to accept coming in fourth and so on.” So the next time you do something, don’t ask yourself if it’s good enough, you ask yourself if it’s perfect.