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Making music: an itch you can’t quite scratch

I don’t usually hang around message boards – when you spend all day on the internet the last thing you want to do when you finish work is spend all night on the internet – but I’ve been intrigued by a conversation on jockrock.org about music. In a rare, non-sweary thread people are talking about what motivates them to create music and how your attitudes change as you become Too Old To Rock*.

I have a vested interest in the subject because from my teens to my early thirties I played in bands, and a few years back I gave it up altogether – other than the odd drunken noise-fest when David’s visiting, I haven’t played guitar for two or more years. That’s a big change for someone who was always making a racket, and who tended to see everything that wasn’t about music as either fuel for songs or finance for being in a band.

I knocked it on the head for a number of reasons. Many – most? – musicians thrive on performing live, but shyness/stage fright meant I never, ever enjoyed that side of it. I preferred what’s best described as “dicking about” – working on stuff via computer music programs, or in studios. The people I played in a band with moved away, some geographically and others mentally (despite repeated efforts, I haven’t seen our former drummer Calum for three or four years. That’s a shame personally – he’s a nice guy – and a shame musically, because I don’t think I’ve seen or heard a drummer since who comes close to his raw talent). And other things got in the way of my obsession with making music. I joke that meeting Miss Right is creative death, but I’m only half joking: being happy isn’t good for writing “woke up this morning, Christ I’m depressed, ooh ooh ooh loook at me I’m so tortured” bollocks; better to have a good life than a crap life that makes good songs, and all that. And if you’re routinely working silly hours, finding the time – let alone the enthusiasm – to batter away on a guitar, a keyboard, a computer program is difficult.

Another issue is that as you get older, you stop being naive – and much of the music business, particularly in the lower echelons, is based on exploiting naivety. You’ll routinely put up with idiots, with mistreatment, with false promises when you’re sixteen; when you’ve got a bit of experience and a bit of sense you finally develop a bullshit detector and enough savvy to realise that “take three days off work, hire a van, travel to london and play in front of three drunks and a murderer” is not an offer worth accepting.

More superficially, clambering onto a stage and realising that you’re old enough to be the other bands’ dad (and if you’d spent your teenage years talking to girls instead of writing songs about wishing you could talk to girls, you might well *be* their dad) makes you feel like a dick.

Above all else, though, the main reason I stopped making a racket was frustration. I could never quite turn what I heard in my head into something others could hear, and it was driving me daft. I’d hear stuff by other people and know I could do it better, but I couldn’t express *how* I would make it better. My head was an amazing musician, but when I tried to translate it into something in the real world I was hamstrung by my own limited abilities – both in terms of my ability to play instruments (rudimentary at best) and my ability to explain to other, more talented musicians what I was trying to get across. It’s very frustrating, like trying to play a piano while wearing boxing gloves.

Rationally, giving up music was a sensible move. But it’s an itch that you can never quite scratch, and no matter what’s going on in your life the itch is still there. My dad gave up smoking a few decades ago and says that to this day, he feels there’s something missing: a taste you can’t quite taste, an itch you can’t quite scratch, a gap you can’t quite fill. And music’s exactly like that: sooner or later its absence starts nagging at you.

There’s a cliche that music is a drug, but I think that while the idea is hackneyed it’s also true. Making music delivers some amazing highs – pulling a tune out of thin air, suggesting *this* note instead of *that* note and hearing something amazing, overcoming your stage fright and playing a blinder, losing yourself for hours in a single guitar riff… everyone’s different and as a result the highs they get from music will come from different aspects, but the one thing everyone has in common is that the high you get from music is powerful – and short. In many respects it’s the ultimate drug because while the buzz is short it’s unlike anything you get from anything else in your life (I’m excluding parenthood here because while I suspect it may well offer something similarly amazing, I haven’t experienced it and therefore don’t have a clue) – and once you’ve experienced it, even if you’ve only experienced it for a tiny period of time a long time ago, part of you wants to experience it all over again.

Which, I guess, is a long way of saying that despite my perfectly rational and logical reasons for staying the hell out of making music, I’m writing stuff in my head again. Mrs Bigmouth has very kindly bought me a bass guitar, I’m getting the telecaster out of storage, I’m going to try and locate the effects pedals I loaned out for one night only and never saw again, I’m going to upgrade the Mac so it’s up to the job of recording music, and I’m really into the idea of making a noise again. Not because I want to be a pop star – I’m too old, too ugly and too ornery for that – but because making a god-awful noise is pretty much the most fun you can have without getting arrested.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

* In the jockrock discussion I’ve mentioned, Tony K made an excellent point about the Too Old To Rock thing: our generation is still defining the terms, because for the first time the cool list is growing old and continuing to make music which, in many cases, kicks the arse of the stuff made by younger acts.