There is a scene in the excellent U2 documentary, “From the Sky Down” where singer Bono is talking about making 1991’s “Achtung Baby” at Berlin’s Hansa Studios. An engineer is putting up various stereo DAT tracks that the band used for their demos and Bono is explaining, or attempting to explain, the creative process that the band uses. As he is talking he becomes distracted – more than once – by the music playing at low level through the studio speakers. At one point he raises his finger, cocks his head and ear toward the sound and says, “do you hear that?” “That” was a faint bit of guitar that Bono was hearing that stirred up Bono’s memory of that time and that song. I didn’t hear it but he did.
I’ve been fascinated by this notion of artists who, by all reasonable thinking, should be (and often are) nearly deaf and yet can pick out a random note of music out of thin air. I saw the great drummer Hal Blaine do it. He was talking to some kids in a hotel lobby when “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” came on the hotel sound system. You know these systems – faint background songs emanating from small crappy speakers that are hung 100 feet in the air. His finger went up and he said, to the kids, “listen to this part coming up. I dragged a set of tire chains across the studio floor when we recorded it.” I thought, “how the hell did he hear that?”
Shelby Lynne did the same thing at a cocktail party that I attended at her home. In her case it was a Black Keys song that was playing softly on her sound system. She put her finger up and told me to listen to the bass guitar.
I’ve decided that this “finger thing” as I call it is an artist’s built-in, God-given antenna. They aren’t necessarily hearing these things. They are receiving them. The sound leaves the speaker and finds its way to their finger and into their ears, heart, and memory. My friend Rick Elias, a singer, songwriter, and producer from Nashville, does it too.
And it’s not just musicians who have this ability. One time I found myself sitting at a bar next to tennis great John McEnroe. It’s a long story – his wife Patti Smyth was playing at the club and I went in under the pretense of having lunch while secretly hoping to listen to drummer Martin Chambers warm up. This stuff happens to me a lot. Anyhow, there happened to be a tennis match on the TV near the bar. I should make it clear that I had no interaction whatsoever with Mr McEnroe aside from sitting next to him. During the match he did the “finger thing” after an extended volley. Actually he started the finger thing just before the volley got going and said to no one, “he’s going to lob and win the point.”
I think it’s a beautiful attribute, for lack of a better term and I think about it a lot. The other day I was with my son Jasper having lunch at a restaurant near us in Palm Springs. A Hozier song came on and we both raised our finger at nearly the same time. The drum part found him and the vocal found me. I smiled.