"Mentors & Icons" (Essay)

The passing of musical legends leaves the author looking in both directions at the vital roles of mentors and inspirations in our journey from youth to elder statesmen.

The music world has been rocked this week with the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey of the Eagles, as well as renowned fingerstyle guitarist and clinician Pete Huttlinger. All of them share in common having had some deep influence on my music and thus my life.

Their passing has me reflecting a lot about a lot of things in life. Each was a mentor and/or an icon to me in their own way. None of them had any idea that they had been. I think about the ways that they each shaped my life, in the context that none of us live forever on this earth. When we are young, we are shaped like clay on the potter’s wheel by many hands - parents and family, friends and community, and by those who inspire us - icons from afar and mentors up close. I realize that I now still keep close touch with many mentors who’ve profoundly influenced me, but I have also long been aware that I may also play that role for many, including plenty of people about whom I may never know.

When I was a kid Bowie showed that it was ok to be weird and creative, and to follow your own path and vision. His Diamond Dogs album may have been the first rock album I bought with my own money. Throughout his career right to the end he evolved and challenged his artistic boundaries. Among his many legacies is introducing the world to a young Texas guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan on his China Doll album (check out SRV’s searing solo at the end of “Let’s Dance”). And who wouldn’t envy the art and the completeness of Bowie’s exit, releasing his final CD almost as a gift to us on his birthday, two days before he died. Who in the world wouldn’t want to call their last home run like that?

Glenn Frey was important to me too, but in a different way. When I was 15 I landed a job in a cover band playing guitar, and from then through the end of my graduate school days my guitar made money that helped get me through. And perhaps only the Beatles contributed more than the Eagles to the repertoire of songs that made that possible each weekend playing in bars, and at parties and weddings.

I only discovered Pete Huttlinger a few years ago when I decided to get serious about evolving my capabilities as a guitarist to include right hand fingering instead of primarily using a flatpack. Pete was a great and accessible teacher through his Homespun DVD lesson, and I still use some of the drills and techniques I learned from that in warmups.

Each of them led productive, challenging and imperfectly human lives in their own way, following their own journeys which led to a wider world knowing of and appreciating their musical gifts. I can directly trace elements of my own life in music easily to their influences. I don’t have the luxury of knowing much of my own influences on others, other than my own guitar students while I have them and with the occasional post-concert comments or emails. 

It is an oft-overlooked part of growing older I imagine, that we like it or not become mentors and icons, or at least influences, on the younger generations around us. And it is inevitable too that we watch the passing of our own mentors and icons as we age. My mantra for today and the days ahead is to embrace that notion with awareness. Share my appreciation for those who have inspired me with them and with others. And to live my life with awareness that I may well be doing the same. I am deeply grateful for both aspects.

Leave a comment

Add comment