I have a book beneath my bathroom sink titled Bass Heroes. It is compiled of interviews from the 1970s and 1980s with famous bass players pulled from the pages of Guitar Player magazine. The roster of interviewees is a veritable Who’s Who of elite bass players, including Billy Sheehan, Geddy Lee, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, John Entwistle, Bill Wyman, and Paul McCartney. I bought the book in Nashville several years ago in a music store. It was long enough ago I couldn’t even tell you the name of the store.
Why is this book beneath my bathroom sink, you may ask? Mainly for ease of accessibility. If I could compile a Bible of bass playing, this book would be it for me. It has been an invaluable resource, and even though it was published over 20 years ago and some of the players featured in it are now deceased, I still pull it out and read it from time to time. Its edges have become frayed, and I’m actually quite shocked it’s held together this long, but I imagine I will hold onto it until it crumbles into dust one day.
There are definitely tons of tips and discussions on bass playing techniques and instruments and amplification and even a touch of music theory here and there, but that is not what keeps me coming back to this book over and over again. What compels me to keep reading it is the stories it contains. Clarke struck out from Philadelphia for New York in the early 1970s with basically nothing to his name but his electric bass and some clothes. Wyman once tried to reach out to high-five a fan and fell off the stage, colliding with the concrete floor seven feet below. Noted blues bassist Jerry Jemmott, who played several sessions with the late B. B. King, nearly lost his ability to play at all after an automobile accident in 1972 left him severely injured.
To me, a person’s story is just as (if not more) important than what they have accomplished or how they managed to accomplish it. The story makes up the fiber of their being. How did they get from Point A to Point B? How did that journey influence them? What was their point of decision, the path that changed their trajectory? What was it that elevated them from a normal to an extraordinary life? These are the factors which drive ingenuity and encourage individual thought, and they are also the sparks that leap from art to encourage others to strike out on their own journeys.
Unfortunately, this type of book would be difficult to compile today. The majority of guitar and bass publications I pick up now are made up of at least 75 percent product reviews, which really sucks for a guy like me on a limited budget. More than that, though, the stories have been pushed to the side. Even if an artist is chosen for a feature interview, the majority of it focuses on either that artist’s latest project or the instruments and equipment they used to record it. My heart sinks nearly every time I pick up one of these publications these days. I can actually find better interviews free on the internet.
The point I’m getting at is this: Our stories are vitally important, not just to us, but to others who may get to hear them later on. When we lose our stories, we lose our emotional connections with each other. When we become more about gear and machinery and impersonal objects, we lose our ability to inspire. The newest effects pedal on the market never inspired me to get better at my instrument, but hearing Sheehan talk about learning all of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar parts on the bass makes my wheels start turning. Could I do that? And, if I couldn’t, what would my story be?
The human experience is what makes us what we are, not the tools of the trade. It would be like asking what kind of hammer John Henry used or what brand of gasoline Evel Knievel filled up his motorcycles with. Toys are cool, but stories stand the test of time.