I remember my first guitar. I found it in the Papershop. I think I was 20 or so. The guy selling it lived on some side street in Olyphant barely wide enough to navigate (even though it wasn’t a one way) in an apartment roughly the size of a closet. The guitar itself was a ghastly Ovation knock-off with one of those round backs that made it look like a canoe paddle. It was fairly obvious the guy was selling it either to pay for his next meal or his next fix. I sorta felt guilty, but managed to get over it, especially since I just handed him a hard earned $100 I wasn’t going to be able to buy beer with.
The face of the guitar was some sort of plastic and after a few weeks of my customized bashing it cracked like a windshield getting hit by a rock. But it had a killer pick-up in it and stayed in tune for weeks on end. I played it so much I’d gash my finger open and the blood would spray all over the edges of the sound-hole, making it look like I dabbled in impressionism. I had no idea how to play “properly”, and after all these years I’m pretty sure I still don’t. Pretty proud of that actually.
Recently somebody asked me how I learned to play and I quite innocently and without any hesitation said “I listened to ‘Magic Bus’ over and over.” I thought that’s how everybody did it. Lessons? Wha? While everybody in my classes were out being sociable and lying about sex, I was siting in my bedroom learning the Bo Diddley beat, which is the cornerstone to whatever comes next. I you can go E to A…or A to D, and people move this way and that way despite themselves, then not only are you a guitarist my friend, you are an entertainer who will no longer be forced to lie about sex. You can now get asses out of seats and you don’t have to run with a ball and be swarmed by multiple neanderthals with no necks to do so. Nope. All you need to do is what the men don’t know but the little girls understand. Six strings. Three chords. And the truth as you see it. It ain’t gonna make you rich, but it’ll keep you so busy that you’ll barely notice. Except when your starving.
I wanted to be Dylan. Not very original I’m afraid, but I learned “Girl From the North Country” and pretty soon I was taping a harmonica to a bent wire hanger and putting it around my head like a hangman’s noose….trying and trying to figure out why it sounded so dreadful no matter what I tried. At the time I didn’t realize that harps came in separate keys, so I was trying to play a song in one key with the harp tuned to another. And at the time “tuning” wasn’t the fancy white-collar playanoteuntilthegreenlightblips thingie it is today. I used to hum “Johnny B Goode” to myself and tune my A string to the note in my head. You young punks have it easy.
I also used to walk to school uphill both ways in blinding snow storms. More on that another time.
Playing nothing but a bad guitar for years gives you an extra appreciation for good guitars. Or even decent ones. I eventually bought an off the rack Takamine from Giannetta’s Music in Scranton for $650, a guitar I still use for solo gigs because it sounds tolerable and my heart would not be broken if some drunk tripped over something and fell on it. I bought a Takamine because I saw a picture of Pete Townshend playing one, although I’m pretty sure his cost more than mine. If it’s good enough for Pete I figured, it’s good enough for me. Of course as soon as I bought the Tak my man switched back to Gibson Jumbos….the contrary little English poof.
After falling in love with all things Woody Guthrie I bought a raggedly old used Epiphone for $175 because I heard Woody “borrowed” one from Burl Ives and “forgot” to return it. As soon as I got it I stuck a “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker on the face and became even more of a raging leftist. The guitar sounded thin and reedy, like something you might have picked up at Sugarman’s back in the day if you managed to talk yourself out of the $25 ukelele. But the Epiphone stayed with me until my nephew “borrowed” it a few years back and has thus far “forgot” to return it. I’m proud to say that some of my best songs were written with that guitar. And much of my politics, which went from FDR’s new deal to Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, and whomever Pete Seeger managed to get blacklisted from….migrated about as far to the left as a man can go without popping up in secret government files.
On my 40th birthday I finally got a world class guitar….a Townshendian Gibson Jumbo imported from Toronto that I won’t dare take to gigs for fear that some drunk might trip and fall into it. It plays like a dream and makes me feel like I’m wearing a plate of armor when I strap it on. I’d steal this guitar from Burl Ives and forget to return it. It rocks hard and can sing me to sleep. When I die I’d like to be buried with this guitar….even if I’m still paying on it.
Unless I can talk my friend Lorne Clarke out of his custom made $3000 monstrosity that melts my fingers and sounds like a panzer corps on steroids. He let me use it to record once (my 3rd record, the all-acoustic “Drinking With Nick Drake” was all Lorne’s guitar)….and when I rather carelessly leaned it against the wall and it nearly fell over I thought he was going to snap my neck with his hands….which happen to be the size of garbage can lids. He told me that if he died he’d leave me the guitar in his will, and ever since has been worried that I might try to kill him.
Now, can I tell you about my first piano?
In a bit..
I’ve been pushing two records. “Teen Angst and the Green Flannel” with my band The Shillelaghs. And my solo acoustic record that I recorded at home called “Love and Streets”. I’m proud of both. One is loud and one is quiet. Other than that, it’s still me and a guitar and pen (or, increasingly, a piano that I can’t really play but love to tinker on). Music remains my lifeline. Over these last few months I’ve lived on a rotating diet of sounds as diverse as The Who, Steve Earle, Brendan Benson, Lunasa, The Gourds, and various Andrew McMahon bands. And that was just yesterday. My Ipod, one of the industrial strength jobs they don’t make anymore, is currently half filled. With 20,000 songs. Losing it would send me searching for drugs that haven’t been invented yet.
I don’t do this full time. I wish I did but…..well…..bills are a bitch and seem to arrive no matter how many songs I write. I was thrown into turmoil at the end of 2012. A single phone call. From my place of employment. Seems my services were no longer required. After 12 years. Cold blooded really. Four days before Xmas. The presents were already purchased. I’m almost ashamed to say that some of them were returned. So that was that. Suddenly, in one day….that was that. I could sleep in the next day. And the next. And the next. Nothing to do. Nowhere to go. I threw myself at the mercy of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, fired up the web browser, and hit the job boards, typing with my fingers crossed. What I found was not promising. Out of work 46 year olds are not in great demand. At the end of the first day we had cancelled our cable and regular phones, got rid of luxuries like Netflix and Rolling Stone and Time Magazine subscriptions, and talked ourselves into calling a visit to Pizza Hut a “night out”.
I was scared. For a while I retreated. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. And I didn’t want anybody talking to me. I looked forward to washing and folding clothes. Making the beds. I spent long nights buried in books. And there was always the music. But it was the music of others. I couldn’t write a note. You have this romantic notion that, if suddenly you had all this time on your hands, you could sit down and write the great American novel, or Nebraska II. I’d sit at the kitchen table late at night with my lyric notebook open to a blank page. And….nothing. When I’d finally slink off to bed, it was still blank. My guitar was still in its case. I’d always been able to write my way through (or at least around) something that was bugging me. Now the pen was dry and the strings were getting rusty. The lid on the piano remained closed.
I had to do something. I don’t know many people. I’m not very outgoing, so it was uncomfortable to say the least. But I reached out to the one group of folks I felt comfortable with. Musicians and those who support them. Without going into details I’ll just say that guys like John Quinn, Thomas Tell, Vinnie Archer, Wiggy Wegleski, Eddie Appnel, Don Surace, Jackson V, Aaron Condida, Shawn Z, Kris Kehr….when I called they called me back. And they offered support…sometimes just lending a late night ear. And I’ll never forget it. There’s something about communities like this. You don’t need to beg or plead. You don’t need to pass any sort of cool test. It reminds me of the code of Mariners. No matter what….if somebody on the water is in trouble, you reverse course and stream towards them. Guitar players are kinda the same way. And even better, they sometimes bring beer with them.
These days my head is clearing. I’ve managed to find a new day job (thanks to a “leap of faith” from a good friend). To quote Springsteen, “it ain’t gonna make me rich”, but it’s a job and I’m lucky to work with some good folks. Someday I may even figure out what I’m doing and earn my nickels. Until then I can only hope they put up with the old guy with the Ipod who still can’t find his way around the building.
The music is trickier. It’s still not coming. I lay awake at night and the ideas are there. They’re percolating. But I’m having trouble focusing. Maybe it’s nerves. Maybe it’s fatigue. Maybe my last two records emptied the tank. I wouldn’t mind being known as the guy who wrote those songs, but I still feel the urge to write better ones. Nobody ever sits down and thinks “I’m gonna write some songs that are almost as good as the ones I wrote last year”. Last night I sat down at the piano and picked out a tune. It sounded nice. But I didn’t follow it. There were too many roads and I was afraid I was gonna pick the wrong one. Nothing good is gonna come out of feeling that way.
But I know soon I’m gonna choose. And that fills me with some sort of hope. And maybe a bit of wonder….which is the one thing good music has always filled me with.
I see what’s going on around me. Fear is everywhere. It backs folks into a corner…..and all they can do then is lash out. We look for people and things to blame….and usually get it wrong. We’re bombarded with so much propaganda sometimes it’s the truth that manages to sound absurd. We trip and fall and look for the person who stuck their leg out. Sometimes we can stumble all on our own. Sometimes we can only find the problem by looking in the fucking mirror.
I don’t want somebody to catch me when I fall. I just want somebody who’ll grab my hand and help me get back up. And if you want that, the best advice I can give you is to learn to play the guitar.
In a bit…