Inviolate: free or safe from injury or violation.
On Saturday, I went to Harrisburg, PA, to the Whitaker Center to see my hero Steve Vai. He’s touring to support his Inviolate album. If you’ve spent anytime with me at all, I have probably mentioned him.
I’ve always loved guitar. I’ve played drums since elementary school (thanks to the no-name blue sparkle drums dad brought home from a garage sale one day). But, my dad observed that I seemed to be a “frustrated guitarist” stuck on the drums.
When David Lee Roth hung his own shingle out after stepping away from Van Halen, my pals and I were curious as to how he’d deal with the red, black and white striped elephant in the room.
I picked up the Yankee Rose 7″, and while the intro to that song was cool and novel, I was stupefied by Shyboy on the b-side. I was an instant fan of both Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan. Vai was new to me at that point, but he’d already filled Yngwie Malmsteen’s shoes in Alcatraz, and worked extensively with Frank Zappa.
I worked in a kitchen washing dishes during my high school years, and I had saved up some money to buy a guitar. This next part is something I regretted for many years. My neighbor had an Ibanez Les Paul copy. According to him, it had the words Les Paul on it, and Ibanez got sued over this. He offered to sell it to me for $150, and for another $150, I could get his Fender twin reverb. Instead, I gave my money to Hugh Welton’s older brother Griff for a sunburst Cortez, which, according to him, had borrowed and used by the Residents on stage.
Aside from that last, unverified feature, that guitar was truly junk. It wouldn’t stay in tune, and the pick-ups were crap. I do believe I chose poorly, and certainly overpaid. I recorded Whisker Biscuit with it, and I took it to college with me, but I’ve always viewed that purchase as a set back, rather than a step forward.
At the end of my freshman year, or maybe in the fall of my sophomore year, I took a trip to Chuck Levin’s music store and bet the farm on a black Kramer focus guitar that was a scratched up floor model. I traded to the Cortez and forked over all my dough – it was as much guitar as I could afford at the time. It had a humbucker pickup, two single coils and three toggle switches to turn them on/off. It also had a floating Floyd Rose tremolo with locking nut, which is really why I bought it. Kramer + Floyd Rose invoked Van Halen.
I used GHS Boomer 009 strings because that’s what Brad Gillis preferred. I had this guitar until 2013.
Following a winding academic pathway, I ended up being a music major, and primarily focused on composition and theory. The college did not offer instruction for percussionists or guitar players, so I had to plunk along on piano as best as I was able. [To this day, I’ve never had a formal guitar or bass lesson.] In order to graduate, you had to do one of three things (besides accumulate the required credits with passing grades):
- Write some extensive composition and perform it
- Pass a comprehensive exam on everything learned over 4 years. It would take the better part of a day to complete. Maybe is was a two day exam – I can’t remember.
- Write a thesis.
I opted for the exam.
The tiny music department consisted of three professors, was very conservative, and had focused mostly on early music and the theory of the Classical period. I didn’t have the confidence to present my compositions at that time. I had written a great deal of music. I had written some quartets, some 12 tone serial pieces, and I was learning orchestration. Most of my writing was for my rock band, and I suspected that it would not be well received at a stuffy recital.
I attended my first review session with my professor, mentor, and dear friend Garry Clark. As he began asking questions, I froze, and then panicked. I recall walking back to my room thinking “This isn’t going to work.” I had no desire to revisit this material, and I wasn’t sure I would ever pass this test. This was a nightmarish realization. In that moment, an idea for a thesis struck me. I could write a paper on the history and development of the electric guitar in the rock idiom. I’ll never forget that moment – it was truly a gift. From where that inspiration came, I’ll never know.
I rushed breathlessly into Garry’s office the next morning and pitched the idea to him. Garry was a little stern with me, noting that I should have presented this idea a month before, I missed the deadline, etc. Yet, he could see my enthusiasm, and admitted he had concerns about my passing the comprehensive exam as well.
I started the paper with the very first electric guitars, and wrote about Les Paul. I explained how pick-ups function, and how guitars are made. I connected players innovations to improvements in the instrument, and discussed how each affected the other. Ibanez had released the JEM guitar, and Steve Vai represented the peak of innovation and virtuosity.
Around this time, Steve’s self released solo album Flexable was in constant rotation in my walkman cassette player. I listened to The Attitude Song, So Happy, Salamanders in the Sun, etc. over and over. I loved that record. Vai had borrowed some gear from Frank Zappa, and recorded it on an 8-track deck in his home. I had borrowed (and eventually bought) my friend’s ROSS 4×4 tape recorder, and spent countless hours writing and recording, too. Truly inspiring.
Oh a whim, I decided to mail a draft of my chapter on Steve to the P.O. Box on the back of Flexable. About two weeks later, I received a response from Steve saying he’d love to grant me an interview for my thesis, and if I was interested, to please call his sister and set it up. He was on tour with Whitesnake at the time. When he arrived in Maryland, we talked for about 40 minutes or so on the phone. I was starstruck, and he was generous and kind to me.
Steve sent me backstage passes, too, but the Whitesnake people wouldn’t honor the passes and refused to let us backstage.
As a result of this, I graduated with honors. I learned a lot from the experience. When inspiration strikes (thesis idea, sending letters to p.o. boxes, other opportunities), ACT UPON IT. After graduation, I picked up some freelance writing gigs with local music papers because of all this.
Steve had dictated the letter to his sister, who has sent it to me at college. Because he was on tour, and because the creepy Whitesnake people were actual creeps, he had not gotten to sign the letter. In 2005, I attended an EVO experience at the Ram’s Head in Baltimore, and showed Steve the letter. He said “I remember this! I remember you,” and he signed the letter for me.
Another aside about my thesis: Steve Via played the devil’s own guitarist (Jack Butler) in the movie Crossroads. William Kanengiser had performed the classical guitar parts for Ralph Machio, and Steve did the electric non-blues parts. As my luck would have it, Kanengiser gave a concert at my college and I was able to interview him about Steve, too. All this went into my thesis, which ended up being 126 pages long.
So, that’s my big Steve Vai story. I can’t over emphasize the importance of that event in my life. And he’s continued to inspire me, both as a musician and as a person.
I first learned about Eckhart Tolle from him. And, partly through his example, I’ve found my own weird musical voice and identity.
Okay, so back to Saturday. I arrived in Harrisburg at 3:00, and found my way to the Whitaker Center with the help of Daniel, a PhD economist+guitar aficionado who passed the time with me until we made it inside. No phones/videos/photos were allowed, so I don’t have any pics of the Q&A session with Steve, nor the soundcheck. They have sought to create an intimate and safe place for this exchange, and I think it works. I also really enjoyed talking with the attendees. It was friendly and warm.
Steve came out, and took a few moments to look everyone in the eye. “Better than a handshake,” he said. Before answering each question, he paused the thought about how best to respond. It was lovely.
I’m going to leave the conversation in that room, as they requested. What I will share is that during the Q&A, and even while performing on stage, he was completely present and giving us his full attention. Not just looking “at” us, but really seeing us. He gave me a lot to think about. After about 45 minutes, he posed for phots with us that his son Julian took, We shook hands and he signed my guitar strap for me.
Then, we attended the sound check. He warmed up by playing a looping staccato melody that he handed off to his guitarist. He instructed Jeremy Colson as to the beat he wanted, and then they improvised for five+ minutes or so. It was great. Then, he played Little Pretty, and wrapped up with The Teeth of the Hydra. I was about 15 feet away! I appreciated that all the lights were on, and the volume was reasonable (it was much louder during the main concert). I was very moved. It was excellent.
I bought a hat from his son, Fire, and managed to “fire off” a dad joke about… dad hats. So good!
While we are on the subject, I want to share one other bit of trivia. When I explained that Steve Vai had played with Zappa and transcribed his music, Garry softened to the idea of my paper. We had some of Frank Zappa’s albums in the music department record library, and he appreciated Zappa’s reputation as a composer and performer. I even loaned Garry my copy of The Real Frank Zappa Book.
Zappa lived in Baltimore for a time. My late sister-in-law had worked with his grandmother, and the Zappa family lived very close to my current home in Baltimore City. I was able to attend his statue dedication back in 2010.
I recently found a letter that 16-year old Frank Zappa wrote to Edgard Varèse 1957 (accessed at https://orchestra2001.org/inner.php?pageid=1468).
Mr. Edgard Varèse
188 Sullivan St. New York, New York
Perhaps you might remember me from my stupid phone call last January, if not, my name again is Frank Zappa Jr. I am 16 years old … that might explain partly my disturbing you last winter. The reason for my letter at this time is that I am visiting relatives in Baltimore and as long as I am on the East Coast I hope I can get to see you.
It might seem strange but ever since I was 13 I have been interested in your music. The whole thing stems from the time when the keeper of this little record store sold me your album “The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Vol.l.” The only reason I knew it existed was that an article in either LOOK or the POST mentioned it as being noisy and unmusical and only good for trying out the sound systems in high fidelity units (referring to your “IONIZATIONS” [sic]). I don’t know how the store I got it from ever obtained it, but, after several hearings, I became curious and bought it for $5.40, which, at the time seemed awfully high and being so young, kept me broke for three weeks. Now I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I am looking around for another copy as the one I have is very worn and scratchy.
After I had struggled through Mr. Finklestein’s notes on the back cover (I really did struggle too, for at the time I had had no training in music other than practice at drum rudiments) I became more and more interested in you and your music. I began to go to the library and take out books on modern composers and modern music, to learn all I could about Edgard Varèse. It got to be my best subject (your life) and I began writing my reports and term papers on you at school. At one time when my history teacher asked us to write on an American that has really done something for the U.S.A. I wrote on you and the Pan American Composers League and the New Symphony. I failed. The teacher had never heard of you and said I made the whole thing up. Silly but true. That was in my Sophomore year in high school.
Throughout my life all the talents and abilities that God has left me with have been self developed, and when the time came for Frank to learn how to read and write music, Frank taught himself that too. I picked it all up from the library.
I have been composing for two years now, utilizing a strict twelve-tone technique, producing effects that are reminiscent of Anton Webern. During those two years I have written two short woodwind quartets and a short symphony for winds, brass and percussion.
Recently I have been earning my keep at home with my blues band, the BLACKOUTS. We have done quite well and in my association with my fellow musicians I am learning to play other instruments besides drums.
I paint in oils and watercolor and last year produced a cartoon film in school by painting color directly onto a 250 foot reel of cleared 16 mm movie film. I painted on the color in such a way that I managed to closely, but not completely, synchronize their movements to your “DENSITY 21.5” and the second “movement” of “OCTANDRE”. It brought about some amazing results from the audience and my counselors in the office allowed me to make a trip I had planned to Walt Disney studios with the film.
Nothing ever came of my trip, but when I got back to school I was informed I had a chance to be skipped from the Junior year in high school to the Freshman year at the junior college which adjoined the school as an experiment.
I went to the Jaycee and studied harmony and music appreciation and history for one semester and came out of it with A’s and B’s.
I plan to go on and be a composer after college and I could really use the counsel of a veteran such as you. If you would allow me to visit with you for even a few hours it would be greatly appreciated.
It may sound strange but I think I have something to offer you in the way of new ideas. One is an elaboration on the principle of Ruth Seeger’s contrapuntal dynamics and the other is an extension of the twelve-tone technique which I call the inversion square. It enables one to compose harmonically constructed pantonal music in logical patterns and progressions while still abandoning tonality.
Would you please reply as soon as possible because I will not be here much longer. My address here is 4803 Loch Raven Blvd., Baltimore Maryland. Phone Hopkins 77336. Thank you for your consideration.
Frank Zappa Jr.
from Edgard Varèse, Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary (ed. F. Meyer and H. Zimmerman, Suffolk, Boydell 2006).
I love that young Zappa wrote to Varèse and struck up a friendship. When Steve Vai was studying at Berkley, he came across a score that he had read Zappa wanted. He made a copy of said score, and sent it along with his transcription of Zappa’s The Black Page and a cassette of him playing. He might have called Zappa – I’m typing this from memory, so the details might be inaccurate. Maybe that’s why Steve was so generous as to help me, too. It certainly set me up as a young man.
I love all of this. Thanks for reading, if you made it this far!