I'm spinning from the brilliant, oblique, and inspiring list of "Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing" by Captain Beefheart, originally issued to a new member of his band in 1976. They were republished the other day on Open Culture.
My favorite is #7: "Always carry a church key." Beefheart lists two musicians who he considers keys to the church: One String Sam, a Detroit street musician, and Hubert Sumlin, who played guitar for Howlin' Wolf.
I'm sure we could all list a few musicians or key recordings that opened doors for us; there are times when you hear something new and feel that you're undergoing an initiation.
The first that jumps to mind for me is the moment I first heard Mississippi John Hurt. It was summer 2002, driving at night, and my hometown jazz radio station played "Stack O'Lee." Time stopped, for a second. No one else in the car seemed to notice. I didn't know music could be like that. A new path opened.
Earlier, less a lightning bolt and more a steady conduit of inspiration and challenge: in eighth grade I'd begun to show an interest in jazz, and one of my sisters asked her friend for recommendations for me. "If he's going to be into jazz," the friend said, "he's going to need these two albums." They were Kind of Blue and Giant Steps.
You work for years, right up against it, and occasionally you find yourself in a place where the path unfolds before your eyes. I could see far from my cabin in Joshua Tree, where I was Artist-in-Residence in October 2009. I sat on the porch in the morning and wrote songs, and then I drove around the park to hike and climb and explore.
There were four CDs in my vehicle, and they became the four keys to the church there in the blue-brown expanse of the desert, the four pillars of the revival-meeting tent I set up for myself in the Mojave. It was a spontaneous collection, one that fell together without premeditation or curatorial effort. One of them was brand new, two I'd just purchased off a used rack in Austin, and one was an album I'd loved since high school that I happened to grab from my old collection before I left Iowa in September.
The new one was Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion.
The two used discs were Wilco's (terrifically underrated) A.M. and an album I've scarcely listened to since, Devendra Banhart's Oh Me Oh My.
The old one, a piece of music I adore terrifically & have covered in its entirety, was Beck's One Foot in the Grave.
In Banff in the autumn of 2010 the keys to the church were Sibelius' Seventh Symphony, Mingus Plays Piano, and John Coltrane's Crescent. I was negotiating a breakup and facing the demons of my own musical self-doubt. Crescent pointed the way forward, drew a sinuous line not away from my sadness, but through it.
In May 2011 when I landed in New Mexico, a bit confused as to why my recent musical dedication and spiritual progress had led me to a job leading backpacking trips, a friend played me Charlie Parr. At the moment when I least expected it, there I was standing in another sanctuary.
Sam Amidon posted this interesting list of church keys on his tumblr. I knew most of the artists but none of the specific albums. I've begun to listen to them; Thelonious Monk's Alone in San Francisco is a special revelation.
Often when I cast myself into the world, into newness and the flow of events, I find church keys alongside the road that help me on my way.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts