By Ken

by Ken Ueno

Originally published


Music saved my life.

When I was eighteen, I thought I had lost everything. Everything I had planned for my life — attend West Point, serve my country, become a general, then come back to California to become a senator — was taken away from me. Having survived the first year at West Point (still the hardest year of my life), and going into the second year, I suffered an injury in a training accident. That was the end of Plan A. I went back home to convalesce with my mother for two years. Those two years were the hardest years of my life. I had no idea what would become of me. It all seemed hopeless.

Thankfully, a year before heading to college, I had discovered Jimi Hendrix.

In high school, I used to tag along with my older brother and his UCLA friends when they went skiing. On one of those trips, in the morning, I had woken up to find that they had ditched me. Alone in a mountain cabin without a television set, not knowing when they’d come back, years before the iPhone, I looked around for something to read or otherwise keep myself occupied for the rest of the day. I found a turntable and a box of LPs, and I spent the rest of the day listening to Classic Rock – Led Zeppelin; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, etc. – until I found Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?

Perhaps equal measure somatic and sonic, the torrents of feedback and squelching overtones that Jimi Hendrix unleashed from his guitar and sometimes backwards overdubbed layers, those complex sounds worked over my body. It reached into my mind and amplified my soul. Those esoteric sounds seemed to say that it was okay to be me. For two years, I went to physical therapy and played guitar for eight/nine hours a day. When I was healthy enough to think about finishing my education, I had been playing in metal bands and had started to write songs and somehow got the chutzpah to think about music school.

The act of listening to Hendrix, as well as playing guitar was therapy. It gave me a new purpose in life. I still don’t quite understand how it happened, but after hearing Hendrix and being moved by him and his music, I just had to start playing guitar myself. It was a strong gut instinct. Perhaps that’s where faith resides in all of us. All true loves are irrational. Ever since, that instinct has been the strongest instinct in my life. Playing and listening to music changed my body. Practicing for hours each day cultivated a solipsistic space of comfort. Time became focused on the now. It helped calm me. And as I got better at playing music, it ultimately gave me a sense of confidence in the world – that the world IS mostly beneficent and that I should trust in the future, even though my initial life plan had to be abandoned. Music gave me hope.

I have followed my musical instinct ever since. I have now been working as a composer/vocalist for over twenty years. I no longer play the guitar. I have lost my guitar callouses — the only callouses I have on my left hand now are at the base of my middle and index fingers from pulling carry-on roller bags. But like a memorized poem, I carry the experience of music with me.

So, nowadays, whenever I’ve had an especially difficult day, I still often turn to music. I pick up my guitar and play. Sometimes, it feels like it’s my only friend, but a friend whose love is unconditional and always there. Listening to music can be just as soothing too. The intense opening of Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet. The primitivist stereo sermons of Coltrane’s Meditations. Following how the tambourine orchestrationally text sets the title in the Beatles’ Dear Prudence. The way Mick’s drawn-out delivery of “monkeeeeeeey” turns into a scream/noise after the instrumental break in the Rolling Stones’ Monkey Man, a Bartesian synthesis of Geno song and Pheno song. How the triplets hidden in the first violin part in the first section of the Cavatina, helps prepare the arrival of the tutti triplets in the second section. Everything about Dylans’ Tangled Up in Blue. Our most meaningful listening experiences are exercises in empathic exchange. Bartok’s Fourth often felt like how I felt. And my history of little secret listening epiphanies are little secrets I’ve worked to unlock, little gifts of trust from my favorite artists. Indeed, listening necessitates that listeners work hard too to be creative and generous. It’s part of the contract of empathic exchange. We need to trust that the more we give, the rewards are even more plentiful – like reading the endless fountain of depth that is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. And that’s how we cultivate a personal history that is hopeful and immutable from the vagaries of anything the world might throw at us.


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO