This is part four of my personal exploration of Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing. You can read the first part here, the second part here, and the third part here.
7. Always carry a church key
That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song “I Need a Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty — making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.
What is a church key? In the slang of the 1950s, it refers to a bottle opener. So Captain Beefheart is referring to both an actual church door and a bottle opener in this case. How do you open the door to the spirit realm and get to what you’re looking for?
He tells you to to carry your inspirations with you. Look to the people that make you realize what is possible to help you with your work. Just hearing their music or reading their books or listening to them speak fires up your creativity.
He mentions two people specifically. The first is One String Sam who played the Diddley Bow which is just a plank with a single string stretched across it. He created a classic song and recording with just that. No wonder he’s a key to the church. He created something from nothing.
The other is Hubert Sumlin, who is widely recognized as one of the greatest guitar players of all time. He played every song with fantastic authenticity and emotion, bringing out qualities that you didn’t realize were there. He’s an inspiration in that he’s a national monument, almost unreal in his ability. The kind of person that you aspire to be, but is on another plane of existence. Mythologically talented.
I think there are many more kinds of “church keys” in the world, but his example is an excellent example of the primary broad division: someone who does not have the advantages you have and makes a piece of art you admire from sheer force of will and someone who has more skill and talent than you have that you aspire to be.
8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument
You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.
I love this one.
Get your stink on your art. When you create something, leave the parts in there that make it unique to you. Don’t make it generic.
Make sure that people can see your work. That you are sending a part of yourself off with the finished piece. That your sweat from the effort is a permanent part of it.
When you think of your favorite musicians, comedians, artists, writers or dancers, you can tell their work within moments of seeing it. Their signature is in every second of what they do.
I write a lot of catalog copy. That means I read a lot of catalog copy. Most of it is boring and generic. You couldn’t tell if a company switched writers or used multiple people because they polish off the sweat before they use it. But, other companies know the value of a voice for what they do. When reading it, you can see the person writing it, even if all they’re doing is describing a bunch of boxes.
Don’t play Muzak. Don’t write bland, universal copy. Don’t do hotel art. Don’t tell hacky jokes.
The scary thing is that if you’re recognizably a part of it, when it gets rejected, which it sometimes will, part of you will be getting the rejections as well. By leaving your mark on what you do, you are taking a giant risk. That’s why people don’t do it. It hurts less when mediocre work gets rejected.
But, you don’t want to do mediocre work. You want to do great work.
That means you’re going to have to get your stink on it.
Read part five here