Cliffs of Dover – Eric Johnson – 1991

I have to start out by saying that the reason that I went to a music school for guitar is that I wasn’t very good at it.  There… I said it.  I always managed to get into bands where I was the worst musician of the bunch.  And relatively speaking, I was pretty good at the guitar.  I could hold my own and improvise fairly well.  But compared to my aspirations as a guitar player and my criticism of other guitar players, my playing was terrible.  If I were to have listened to my playing, I would have said I was pretty mediocre at best.  So I packed up everything and went to Berklee.

Yes there are a lot of people that want to play music.  And there’s nothing more humbling that aspiring to be a guitar great at a school with 1500 guitarists who all aspire to do the same thing.  And add to that the fact that as an entering student I didn’t even qualify to be in an ensemble.  This means that I couldn’t take classes for the very reason I went there, to play with other people and get better at it  I had to work from there up.

Granted playing punk music in a bar in Houston doesn’t require ensemble ratings.  And you can still do great things as a musician without being a great instrumentalist.  Reading music isn’t required for playing punk or rock.  It isn’t even required to do what Eric Johnson is doing in the Cliffs of Dover.  Really, reading music isn’t required for any part of being a musician, but if you want to scale the academic tower and participate in what academia has to offer, then you probably will need to learn to read music.

When I was first learning to play the guitar, I wanted to be able to play the music I loved.  I worked really hard at that.  I got pretty good at that, and I could pick out most Led Zeppelin songs.  I played with some other people before long.  Playing on stage is hard work.  Writing music with other people is fun and demanding.  And then sometime after high school, I developed some demanding dreams around playing the guitar.  I wanted to be proficient in any style and great at some.  I fell in love with the guitar.  It’s all I wanted to do.

After two years of Berklee, I hated the guitar.  I really have never re-developed this affection.  I like to play the guitar to make music.  I don’t enjoy the guitar for the sake of the guitar.  It’s amazing though.  I pick the damn thing up and I am proficient in almost any style.  My fingers and ears know how to make the thing work and produce sound that is nice to listen to.  But I am not great at any style.  This was a reality that I had to deal with in my third year at Berklee.

I remember waiting for Ah Via Musicom to come out.  It was a big thing among guitar afficionados and Texas music fans especially.  Eric Johnson is a perfectionist and it took a ridiculous amount of time for him to complete this record.  He kept starting over and over.  Eric Johnson is great guitarist.  And Ah Via Musicom is a great record.  The Cliffs of Dover is a great song.  But this isn’t the best recording of the Cliffs of Dover.  The live version of the song at Austin City Limits is the best recording.  But the Austin City Limits show came about four years previous to the studio version.  I can remember being somewhat disappointed by the studio version even though it’s still a great recording.  Of course, there was a lot of press about how Eric Johnson might be overthinking Ah Via Musicom, so I wonder if that had anything to do with my disappointment.

The truth is that I never wanted to be the kind of guitarist that Eric Johnson is.  But there is an energy that runs among musicians to earn the respect of other musicians.  And it’s hard to know when you are crossing the line from doing what you want to be doing to doing stuff just to impress other musicians.  Just to be cool.  I don’t think Eric Johnson suffers from this.  He suffers from perfectionism.  But in a way, that’s what made me hate the guitar.  If I can’t be a virtuoso and satisfy my own impossible standards then fuck the guitar.

Before I went to Berklee, I didn’t know what I wanted to go to college for.  I am one of those terrible college students that think it matters what you major in as an undergrad.  It only matters if you know exactly what you want to do with your life and you never waver from that path.  Like being a doctor or a research scientist.  Or a concert instrumentalist.  I only wanted to be a concert instrumentalist because I wasn’t satisfied with how impressive I’d be if I just wrote and produced some songs and performed them.  At first, this desire was a love of the instrument, but then I got sidetracked with trying to impress other musicians.

I know now that my love of the song far outweighs the love of the instrument.  Any instrument that gets me there is acceptable.  I love writing songs.  I love listening to songs.  I have developed a new love for looking for Indie songs from this blog.  And since I can’t always find a new song (I went through about 10 Indie artists last night trying to find something I liked.), I write about songs that had a huge impact on my life like Cliffs of Dover.

Cliffs of Dover has its place in the genre of virtuoso instrumental guitar rock.  It’s a one of a kind approach.  Eric Johnson’s patience and perfectionism pay off.  There is a reason for the disappointment between his studio efforts and his live performances, because his live performances are so amazing.  But the truth is even his studio performances set the bar ridiculously high.

The third year at Berklee is the time when most musicians come to terms with the fact they won’t be performance majors if that is what they originally intended.  So you either choose a major that is more suited to your abilities, go on a hiatus and practice or just leave the school.  Don’t get me wrong, there are other majors that people go to Berklee for.  And there are a lot of people that don’t understand why you want to be a performance major at Berklee because there are other schools more suited to specific performance styles.  But I just knew I wanted to major in music, the choice about what major to declare was too much for me, because once again I thought it mattered what my major was.

In the end, most of what I am talking about is where I fit into the whole scheme of things.  The difference between the dream and reality.  Sometimes coming to terms with that difference is heart breaking and it was for me.  I see this everywhere though.  Friends that majored in English who end up on the editing staff for computer text book companies or training dogs.  Philosophy majors waiting tables.  Music majors in computers and programming.  Engineering majors designing toasters.  There isn’t a total disconnect between these majors and the professions.  But it takes each individual story to know which crazy reality leads to another crazy reality.  It’s just that the reality you see on the other side of an English major is usually something to do with creative writing, not text books.  And computers isn’t what I saw myself doing.  But I’m not Eric Johnson.  Sometimes he’s not even Eric Johnson.  But it’s not that bad being me either.  Most of the time it’s pretty cool.

And I think that there is a choice about what you can do.  I like to produce music anyway.  Maybe it will always be mediocre.  Maybe sometimes it’s really good and people don’t notice.  Maybe it’s objectively great but people still hate it.  And I’m pretty sure that even Academia is missing an important opportunity in Indie media, but there is a really cool freedom there.  The idea that you can reach a few people doing what you really want to be doing, but all of the recognition aside, maybe I really just like doing it.  And if I let go of the cool factor of trying to impress people, maybe it’s a lot more fun for everybody.

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