I’ve Got Blisters On My Fingers!

January 24, 2019

As a kid, I was a huge fan of the Partridge Family, a show featuring five siblings forming a band with their widowed mom. (Think polyester bellbottoms, and you’ll have a sense of the lowest-common-denominator appeal of the not only the show, but of the seventies in general.)

Anyhoo, my older brother would occasionally breeze through the den when the show was on to mutter a contemptuous comment or two. He was particularly indignant when witnessing a scene of the Partridge Family performing “live.” The footage truly is a hoot, what with groovy vests, a strummed bass and a kid so somnolent on the tambourine that I’m surprised she wasn’t periodically checked for a pulse.

These nuances were lost on me as a kid (I was too busy digging on David Cassidy to notice), but not on my brother. I still remember him groaning, “There are no fade-outs in a live performance!”

At the time, I didn’t even know what he meant by fading out (gradually decreasing the volume at the end of a song), and I didn’t care. But I thought about it recently with a smile, and I called my brother to share the trip down memory lane. Anything music-related from our childhood is particularly fun to reminisce about, since my brother grew up to become a stellar musician, producer and recording engineer.

My brother laughed at the memory, then noted that fade-outs are less popular than they were during the heyday of commercial radio. The device was coveted for providing potentially time-strapped DJs with a wide time range to wrap up a song. Now that most people listen to music digitally, cold endings (a definitive stopping point) are back in vogue.

But practicality notwithstanding, there’s a lot to love about fade-outs. The device — enabling musicians to diddle around in the last few seconds of a song to their heart’s content —  can be mesmerizing and intoxicating. The sense of the song continuing into infinity can keep the adrenalin flowing and the toe tapping long after the rhythm has faded away.

What often makes it the most exciting part of a song is that musicians are typically less self-conscious during fade-outs than at other points in the recording session. As guitar riffs or ad-libbed vocals  meander on, the musicians know that a good chunk of their efforts won’t make it onto the final record, so it’s perfectly safe to go for broke. Some serious shredding, experimental licks and playful improvisations may never have seen the light of day without the fade-out.

I think this applies to writing as well. The less nervous and self-critical we are, the more we can explore our craft and stretch our creative muscles. Art, like so much else these days, seems to have become excruciatingly transactional and outcome-oriented. I’m fully aware that artists, like everyone else, need to earning a living and lack the luxury of dissing pragmatic considerations. Books have to sell if an author expects a paycheck.

But I’d love us to make room, as well, for spontaneity, for exploration, for fun — and not as a means to an end. Yes, I know the importance of discipline, direction and deadlines. But life’s too short to forgo the fade-out.

And who knows? Maybe that’s when you’ll create the best work of your life.

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© 2020 Christine Hurley Deriso