Let’s start this week with a brief clarification, for those of you who came in late. I never thought it needed saying, but given the content of an e-mail that just got sent to my employer, I suppose it does. The name of this site is Riverside Green, after the drab Columbus, Ohio neighborhood in which my brother and I spent some of our formative years. Most of you get to it via jackbaruth.com, but some of you use jackandbark.com as well. This site significantly predates my association with Hagerty, my marriage, and most of my freelance writing relationships. I launched it as a WordPress blog in March of 2013, almost exactly eight and a half year ago. Since then we have served 4.7 million articles to approximately 1500-2000 readers a day. We served ads for a while, but now we keep the (very dim) lights on thanks to a partnership with Shinola. Thank you for visiting and reading.
I don’t write everything you read here; about two-thirds of the posts are mine. The rest are done by guest and recurring contributors like my brother, Tom Klockau, Ronnie Schreiber, and others. It is fairly common for Tom, in particular, to publish the contributions of other automotive enthusiasts under his byline; when that happens, he identifies that person in the opening paragraph.
All of this has to be said because apparently it’s not obvious from a perusal of the site. For what it’s worth, I assure you that my brother, Tom, Ronnie, and other people who contribute here are absolutely real and not figments of my imagination, nor are they pseudonyms I use so I can write more often.
Good talk. Let’s continue on another topic.
My relationship with Pat Metheny is about as complicated as an entirely one-way thing can be; obviously Pat has no idea of who I am or what I might be thinking about him at any given time. I bought Letter From Home in 1989 and was a compulsive customer of his from then till 2019 or thereabouts. I have pretty much everything he has ever recorded, in multiple formats. Bought all the sheet music. The practice-exercise book. T-shirts, guitar picks. Hell, I bought Zero Tolerance For Silence, a repulsive cacophony of noise that was meant to be a final middle finger towards David Geffen. Have seen him in concert more than a dozen times, including three separate episodes when I caught the same gig twice in a week, at different places. You get the idea.
I was derailed from my all-consuming enthusiasm by a few events. First off was the early iteration of his “Side Eye” tour, which was just sloppy and boring to watch to the point where I wanted my money back. (His keyboard player didn’t know any of the tunes, relying on sheet music but often just comping in random fashion.) Then there was Metheny’s detour into Trump Derangement Syndrome and Black Lives Matter fundraising, which struck me as somewhere between cynical and naive. Finally, there was his tour to Cuba, which came off as an attempt to support and endorse a regime that has been unspeakably cruel to its own people for a very long time. If Pat wants to turn into some kind of late-stage capitalist Castro fanatic who charges $75 a night to watch him noodle chromatic scales in the company of lazy “young lions” whose ability to play “Sirabhorn” is considerably below that of my twelve-year-old son, it’s his call — but I’m not going to support it with my Biden-era dollar. (Now with thirty percent less purchasing power!)
None of that means I won’t listen to Pat’s old stuff. I do that all the time. When my son took delivery of his newest fretless bass, I immediately started drilling him through Jaco’s “Bright Size Life” part so we could play the tune together some day. (Some day this year, so help me God.) There was also very little chance that I was ever going to not watch Rick Beato’s new interview with Metheny, embedded above; I think I waited maybe forty-eight hours after it came out before cueing the audio up for a skatepark trip this past weekend.
At the age of sixty-seven, Metheny is still more or less the person you expect him to be: friendly but reserved, demanding of both others and himself in a methodical and rational fashion, thoughtful to a fault. Some of the sharp edges are gone. It’s hard to imagine this iteration of Metheny dissing Kenny G or firing Mark Ledford from his band for being late to practice (because Led was about to die of heart failure, apparently) or even driving a murderer’s row of prodigy bassists (Pastorius, Egan, Bona) out of the Pat Metheny Group in favor of the dishwater-dull Steve Rodby. In this interview, what you see is more or less what you get, and what you mostly see is a polite Midwesterner espousing the virtues of hard work.
Some of that hard work seems difficult to understand, honestly, which leads me to the true subject of this column. (At the 841-word mark, which is almost a worse indulgence than the first side of the Pat Metheny Group’s Quartet.) During the interview, Metheny makes the following claims, none of which I have any reason to believe is false or exaggerated:
- He doesn’t eat on the day of any gig, which almost sounds reasonable until you realize that he often plays four or five nights a week on tour;
- He takes approximately ten pages of handwritten notes after every performance, night after night;
- He has never tried any drugs or alcohol, not for moral purposes but because he was disturbed by the effect it had on other performers (all but name-checking Jaco, I might add);
- He has often spent five hours in a single day playing Falling Grace in all twelve keys.
From previous interviews, I know that Metheny usually practices several hours a day, even on days when he has a gig. He is obsessive about improving his playing, his musicianship, and his understanding of both his own songbook and of the traditional jazz canon. It’s difficult not to admire his approach to music. After fifty years of playing out at the highest level, surely we would all excuse him if he just kicked back and milked his success like pretty much every Boomer rock musician in existence. Yet he remains obsessive about the craft. In much the same way that Ferry Porsche once said that his favorite car to bear the family name was “the next one”, Metheny is always looking forward.
That being said, there is something within me that utterly recoils at the thought of cherishing and prioritizing effort the way Metheny so clearly does. It’s occasionally painful for me to watch him play; the lockstep rigidity with which his left hand assumes various chord and triad positions as his right hand clunks away with the pick upside down just makes me flinch. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
Metheny looks physically miserable here, like he is doing the last lift of a bench press pyramid starting at max. I don’t look this unhappy playing “Bright Size Life” and I guarantee it’s much more difficult for a worthless hack like me to fumble through it than it is for Pat to crank it out. By contrast, look how relaxed Richard Bona looks, even as he’s playing at the same speed! Even Antonio Sanchez, who is kind of notorious for beating up a drum kit, looks less stressed out. Metheny wrote the tune, you know!
Alright, so it’s not fair to compare a guitarist to other musicians. Let’s watch Lee Ritenour, who is generally understood to be faster and smoother than Metheny if perhaps about one-tenth as historically significant, play a track at similar speed:
Note, for what it’s worth, that Lee’s band looks totally relaxed as well. I’ve seen a lot of worried faces on Pat’s bandstand over the years, with the unhappiest being Giulio Carmassi. Pat is notorious for making his bands rehearse hard. At one point about twelve years ago, he just gave up on human beings altogether and decided to tour with a robotic orchestra, I shit you not. (This is where my Firehouse Subs story comes from, by the way.) One suspects that Pat liked playing with robots best of all, because they wouldn’t die or let him down in some other fashion.
Clean, sober, and hardworking, Pat Metheny will likely play at a very high level for at least another decade, putting out who knows how many recordings along the way. That being said, I don’t know anybody, even among the most fanatic of Metheny aficionados, who spends much time listening to anything he’s done in the past twenty years. We all bought the stuff, and we all gave it a listen, and then we all went back to “Watercolors” or “Still life (Talking)”. Note that this is also true for other hardworking musicians like, say, the fine fellows in Iron Maiden — but there’s nothing about any post-“Seventh Son” Maiden album that simply reeks of tireless effort the way that, say, Metheny’s “The Way Up” does. As with John Updike in his later years, each successive work feels like the product of more effort and less inspiration at the same time.
I’m no musician, obviously. I’m a writer, about to turn fifty and more than a little concerned about what the rest of my life holds for me. Much like Metheny, I don’t suffer from writer’s block of any sort. This morning I cranked out 1730 words in fifty-eight minutes, and only had to correct two sentences after the fact. But I worry that as I age, I will feel less inspiration, even regarding prosaic subjects like a new-car review, and will be tempted to supply the proverbial perspiration in its stead.
That’s a daunting prospect to face. I understand what my son means when he uses “try-hard” as a cutting insult; for him, the apex of happiness consists of nailing a series of terrifying gap-jumps on the first run without breathing hard. The Italians call that sprezzatura, the demonstration of effortless mastery. It is never truly effortless, at least not in the measurement of one’s lifetime effort; Jimi Hendrix worked pretty hard for a long time before he became Jimi Hendrix, and your humble author spent a lot of sleepless nights learning how to write in faster and more efficient fashion. But it looks easy, and that puts the audience at ease. It’s worth striving for, regardless of one’s chosen field.
Pat Metheny has no idea that I’m alive, and he never will. But if I could sit down with him, as Rick Beato did, and presume to offer him some unwanted advice, it would be this: Stop working so hard. Give yourself a chance to breathe. You might find your original self again, the kid who wrote “Bright Size Life” in the first place. You know what strikes me about the contrast between Metheny’s and Bona’s solos in that video above? How much air Bona leaves in his solo. The space between the notes. Was it Miles who said that music is in that space? I don’t know, and I’m too lazy to find out.
Last week, for Hagerty, I wrote about the new Countach and an alt-universe Car Twitter take on an electric Mustang.