When I was in high school WHJY, the local “rock” station, would play “Cliffs of Dover” every now and then. When I say “rock”, I mean not specifically “alternative” or “classic” or whatever, just “rock.” I have no idea the distinction, except that it seems to be geared to older people than I am, but younger people than my parents. Anyway, I loved this song when it would come on, because the solo was so joyous and addictive. It also stuck out like a sore thumb because it was incredibly rare for a radio station to waste prime hitmaker air space on an extended instrumental jam. It became one of those songs I would easily have called my favorite, if only I’d known its name. Of course, with no lyrics, it was nearly impossible to find it… you try onomatopoeia-ing through a solo and see if anyone can identify it.
In my desperation, I called HJY one day. “There’s some song you play on occasion,” I said, “that is completely instrumental. I really like it, but I have no clue what it is.” The phone-intern, or maybe the DJ (although it certainly wasn’t anyone I was familiar with) suggested a couple songs that clearly were not it as soon as he suggested them. I forget which, but I recall at least one having vocals. I thanked him and hung up. Radio is useless.
Pirating music, however, ends up being completely useful.
When the internet finally got up to snuff, I spent a day downloading as much music as I could from lone guitar slingers. I’d look through my old guitar mags for transcriptions that might be right, I’d browse the most popular files from the heroes they listed nearly weekly, and I’d download as much as I could find. Satriani was a likely suspect, while Vai’s style made him less likely, but did not spare him from my reach. Jeff Beck seemed promising and regularly disappointed by not having written this song. Eric Johnson was pretty much a shot in the dark, since to me he was less than a nobody, but as they say, any port in a storm, and I was in a tempest of incorrect tracks. I plugged his name in, downloaded the song, and digitally spun it. I don’t know why, but I had a strong feeling about it as soon as I saw the track come up on search. I think you could have seen me smile from the moon when I realized I was right.
It’s the sort of experience that perhaps only a child of my generation could appreciate, and it’s one that will always make me super ambivalent about the whole “music piracy” debacle. On the one hand, as someone who loves music, and art in general, I feel very strongly that we need to start treating artists as the important creative forces they are, and pay them accordingly (I’m looking at you, Pandora). On the other, I know a lot of it is simply music label wrangling… the best way to increase artist profits isn’t to outlaw file sharing, but to outlaw abusive contracts from labels and other services (I think I’m still looking at you, Pandora). For my part, I am willing to admit I owe a lot to Napster for connecting me to new music, and I have a CD collection that states pretty loudly that if anything, musicians and especially record stores turned a profit on me. I don’t know what Mr. Johnson’s feelings about file sharing are, but clearly in at least one case it connected a potential fan to his work. The fact is, even at this point, I don’t know another more reliable method in this circumstance.
This was not only one of the first purely instrumental songs I ever truly connected with, but also remains one of my favorites. That lick (you know the one) could make even the worst day feel better for a bit (god, that guitar tone almost makes me cry), and if the actual cliffs of Dover look like this sounds, it could be the solo that launched a thousand vacations. And of course, it’s made all the better from the hunt.
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