Light & Shades: A more artistic groove to recovery

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You may hear in a 12 Step meeting, “You gotta’ pay your dues if you want to sing the blues, and you know it don’t come easy.”The lyric, credited to Ringo Starr, with a little help from his friends, such as George Harrison, could be the theme song of many addiction stories and, as many of us know all too well, recovery stories. Recovery doesn’t come easy, at least not at every turn. We continue to pay our dues and, from time to time, sing the blues.

I am reading Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page by Brad Tolinski with producer/guitarist/founder of Led Zeppelin, James Patrick Page. There are a few breaks from the chronology by way of conversations with other notables, such as John Paul Jones and Paul Rodgers. In one of these musical interludes, Jack White and Jimmy Page are talking together. Page says something about music that I think is a bustle in the hedgerow for any Twelve Step program member.

Let’s see what Jimmy Page says about the blues:

“The key is you don’t want to copy the blues; you want to capture the mood. On [Led Zeppelin] III, we knew we wanted to allude to the country blues but, in the tradition of the style, we felt it had to be spontaneous and immediate . . . You can’t overthink this music. Mood and intensity can’t be manufactured. The blues isn’t about structure; it’s what you bring to it. The spontaneity of capturing a specific moment is what drives it.”

The Twelve Steps aren’t about structure; they are about what each addict/alcoholic/codependent brings to it. I hear members proudly recite “How it Works” word for word as if imitation is the secret to long-term sobriety. Sobriety isn’t a role with 12 directorial cues and 164 pages of lines. Everyone has heard some member pontificating, “If you don’t work the Steps exactly as prescribed in the book, you’re going to get drunk!” Bullshit.

Have you ever seen one of these seven-year-old virtuosos playing the “Stairway to Heaven” guitar solo, note for note, bend for bend on YouTube? It’s hard not give them credit for the hours of practice, but… But what; what’s missing? I can tell you what’s missing: Feel, passion, authenticity—it is not because of their age or privilege in life; it’s not because at seven you can’t play the blues because you haven’t paid your dues; the reason is that these notes are another man’s notes expressing another man’s emotions. Something very significant is lost in translation when any of us try to duplicate another—even if the other is a genius or an original.

As Bill Wilson put it, "The wording was of course, quite optional, so long as we voiced the ideas without reservation." Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book) pg. 63

When Page says we don’t want to copy—we want to capture a mood—he is saying much the same thing our cofounder wrote. Use a guide for the 12 Steps if you feel compelled to follow the instructions or “do it as it’s laid out in the Big Book” if you are concerned about being left to your own devices. But the instructions from author Bill W are not to follow a verbatim, sequential path; rather we are encouraged to “capture the mood” or “voice the ideas.”

I have been known to say that any 100 members today, sequestered in a room to write us a new Big Book, would almost invariably write us a better book. I know; this is sacrilege to some of us, a disrespecting of our sacred text. But any 100 people today know more about addiction and recovery than the founders of AA did. A random 100 would have more recovery under their belts than the zero to three years sobriety that our founders mustered at the time of writing Alcoholics Anonymous. There was no one with double-digit longevity in 1939. Now, one million members in AA alone have over a decade of recovery. The language of the new book would be in today’s vernacular—less masculine, Christian and heterosexual stereotyping. Hopefully, the new book would update the words while maintaining the mood, intensity, spontaneity and authenticity.

We can work the Steps without believing in God or other super-powers. Because of the transforming impact of the Twelve Steps, some of us will either gain or lose faith in a deity part way through the process. Each of us should question if alcoholism is an allergy or a disease. Each of us can decide if “character defects” ring true for us or if our addicted lives could and should be characterized as “insane.” Is the recovery experience going to be, for us, an event to which we will thank those who helped us and then get on with our lives, or is recovery a lifestyle that will include meetings, members and/or servitude?

I don’t think there is a wrong way to say it, do it, work the Steps or live recovery. I didn’t get sober until I tried to help my cousin recover. My life wasn’t worth saving as far as I was concerned; hers was. “The Steps are in an order for a reason,” doesn’t hold true as a rule for working my program. I got sober working Step Twelve before I had a firm foundation on Step One. Following an order, by the book, wasn’t working for me. Two-stepping did. I was able to voice ideas without reservation to her, which I couldn’t take seriously for myself.

I see people work the program in their own authentic way with great success. I see others who treat recovery like a grade 9 test; “Did I say it right?”, “Did I get it right?”

Learn the rules and then break the rules. Don’t break them just to be disagreeable. Break them to custom-fit your own needs. How this looks in practice can be learned from prolific artists like Jimmy Page. A lot is said about the longevity of Led Zeppelin’s popularity. Was it because John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were geniuses or becasue the whole is greater than the sum of the parts?

These questions are answered in the twenty years of interviews with Jimmy Page that make up Brad Tolinski’s Light & Shades. Looking at Page through a 12 Step lens we see no half-measures; what we do see is complete abandon, an open mind, willingness and artistic honesty. Long before anyone knew Jimmy Page the guitar-god, he was a sought after producer and session musician. He helped make hits for Herman and the Hermits, The Who, The Kinks, Neco and Burt Bacharach. A very young Jimmy Page had a hand in soundtracks like the 1967 “A Degree of Murder” along with Rolling Stone, Brian Jones and “Goldfinger,” the James Bond theme song sung by Shirley Bassey. Page had a sitar before George Harrison did, having taken some time out in India after the Australian leg of a Yardbirds tour to learn and understand Indian music. He had a real love for Celtic, folk, African and classical music as well as rock and the blues.

Led Zeppelin was his third touring band. He learned about studio recordings, he learned about live performance, instruments, music history, publicity, art and the business of music. He learned the rules and then broke the rules—not indiscriminately, but to accommodate his unique vision.

If we learn the Steps and Traditions and the myriad of recovery knowhow, then we can make a mindful choice about what to follow, reject or modify to meet our needs.
The point is, Jimmy Page learned the rules first, then he broke them. In doing so he altered history and culture. He was no drummer, but he noticed that the records of the day did not capture the full ambiance of drums. He looked at drums as an acoustic instrument and drum beats need room to breathe in order to feed us their fat sound. He experimented with microphone placement and found that richer sound could be gained by moving the mics further away, not closer to the drum. “Distance equals depth” is one of Page’s famous sayings and anyone who can imagine the Led Zep IV’s “When the Levy Breaks” knows how this type of memorable sound can be created by making a process, the music production process in this case, one’s own.

Did you know how the song “Four Sticks” came about? In Light & Shades, Page recalls that the band was having trouble with the song; it wasn’t happening and they moved on to something else. One night John Bonham left the bands recording getaway estate for an evening out to watch Ginger Baker (formerly of Cream) perform. Bonham came back muttering, “I’ll show Ginger Baker something.” The late John Bonham took two drum sticks in each hand and started pounding out a beat, which became the new backline to the song—and incidentally, the inspiration for the name, “Four Sticks.” The most requested song in FM radio history, “Stairway to Heaven,” was too long to be a hit and abandoned structural conformity with no chorus to it. “Over the Hills and Far Away” and “Kashmir” also have no chorus and don’t seem to be missing one.

Many innovations and many breakthroughs come from expressing ourselves in our own unique way. Any fellowship in danger of reification can take a few cues from the more artistic members as they capture a refreshing new “mood and intensity” from age-old tenets.

Quote: Tolinski, Brad. Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page New York: Crown Publishing, 2012, p. 132

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