I never write these things in one sitting. Well, maybe there have been a couple hyper-caffeinated sprees of opinionated free-association, but most of the time they’re spread out over a few evenings. Sometimes I peck away while waiting for the grrrl to come out to the waiting room where the parents wait for their grubs at the Montessori school because sometimes I don’t feel like chatting with the other parents and I want them to think I have some important work to do on the computer. I’m the only Daddy in the waiting room at the Montessori school with paint on his hands, tattoos and a 10 gauge septum ring. I wrote the opening paragraph, decided it was a good opener and then read an article about Wolf Eyes in The Wire. I respect Wolf Eyes, but I really haven’t heard a whole lot of their stuff and the little I have heard didn’t grab me by the short hairs so I haven’t followed up. The article was boring so I went to sleep and then today, when I was out dumping a truckload of trash at some student housing complex, I heard an announcement on NPR that later they’re going to play David Sedaris reading his thing about taking guitar lessons from a guy who hated kids and I remembered the time I took guitar lessons and I decided to write about that instead.
My Dad got me an electric guitar for Christmas when I was fifteen – the red Hondo All-Star that I still have. I don’t know what he was thinking. We were on bad terms, even for us, at that point. I assume he was trying to bridge the gap and maybe he was trying to tap into my interests to get me to do something positive or channel my angst into a creative direction or something. I dunno. It became very obvious very soon that I was not going to start playing Rolling Stones or Byrds guitar licks. Left to my own devices, I ran the Hondo through a shitty, homemade amp that I got for $15, all knobs at 10, and just thrashed out the most heinous feedback scree I could manage. I opened the guitar to see what was inside, removed the neck to see how that would make it sound, scraped the strings, swung it around, tore the flesh off the side of my thumb, all at maximum volume for hours, totally in love with my new power to create horrible noise. I had no sense of sounding good or bad, just a visceral and engorging excitation. Any sound I made was fascinating. I’m sure the neighbors thought otherwise.
Now, when the time comes to thrash, I am unable to recapture that purely ignorant spontaneity. What I know about music, though useful and good in other ways, always interferes. It’s something I’m working on.
One Saturday, Dad picked me up after I mowed my Grandma’s yard. He had my guitar in the truck and he informed me that I would be taking guitar lessons and that I would be paying for them. Before I could come up with a token argument, he had dropped me off at some guy’s house. The guy turned out to be Jeff. Jeff was about thirty-five and had a moustache. His hair was parted in the middle and I’m sure it had once been just long enough to hang over his collar. He had clearly peaked early. At thirty-five, he was working some job – selling farm insurance or used mobile homes or something – and trying to keep his marriage from falling apart. I got the impression very quickly that his wife had given him some kind of ultimatum, something like “Stop playing in bar bands or I’m outta here.” Bar bands were a huge part of Jeff’s past. We would be sitting in the little side room where he taught guitar lessons, laboring over some song from a Mel Bay Guitar For Beginners book, “Cockles And Mussels” or “Greensleeves” or something, and Jeff would start explaining guitar techniques like “pull off”, “hammer on” and then he would say “When you master these techniques, you can do something like this…” and he would wander away from reality and into an extended Allman Brothers jam, head back, eyes closed, clearly reliving some unbelievably awesome gig at The Elbow Room or The Broken Spoke or whatever local redneck bar he had been at when he achieved supreme awesomeness.
I am not making this shit up. I would sit there, failing to comprehend the melody of “Shortnin’ Bread” because I never practiced what Jeff had told me to practice and had no interest in learning to read music and Jeff would completely zone out, wailing away at some Doobie Brothers solo until he suddenly realized what was happening and then he’d break off and say “Oh, uh, yeah, that’s what you’ll be able to do. Practice this song here”, poking his finger at “The Noble Duke Of York” or whatever, “That’s it for today. My wife’ll be home soon.”
The Mel Bay books are good instruction manuals for beginners. I’ve collected a bunch of ‘em over the years, mostly at thrift stores. Jeff basically had the right idea. He taught me to read chord charts from which I learned all the major and minor chords. He showed me barre chords which came in handy – I watched some Ramones videos and took power chords from that. He taught me where the notes are in the first five frets and tried to teach me to sight read melodies. I would figure out the notes using “Every Good Boy Does Fine” for the lines and “FACE” for the spaces, memorize the melody and then pretend I was sight reading, which worked. I can’t say that I liked Jeff or respected him, but I didn’t mind him much. As his marriage got rockier and rockier, I started to feel sorry for him and also to find him more interesting. Going to guitar lesson became more about watching Jeff crumble than about learning to play guitar. He started drinking beer during lessons. I was disappointed that he wouldn’t let me have one, but the beer did open up some long and rambling monologues which revealed more than Jeff probably intended. He went off one time about how you should never work for your father-in-law. That explained a lot.
One day, Jeff called to give me directions to his new place, which turned out to be a fairly crappy basement apartment. I didn’t ask, didn’t need to. After his wife threw him out and he lost his job, Jeff pretty much quit trying. When we’d first started, he was consistently dressed in khaki slacks, white shirt and loosened striped tie, the uniform of guys who have to dress for work but who have no sense of style. By the time he moved, he was usually in jeans and T-shirt, sometimes without shoes. At his new place, boxers, T-shirt and bathrobe became standard. He was now smoking cigarettes one right after the other and downing two or three beers during our hour. There were whiskey bottles sitting around. He was incoherent half the time, mumbling some drunken monologue about how unfair everything was. Jeff’s decline had clearly gone past the interesting and kinda funny stage and into the depressing and kinda scary stage. I started worrying that I was going to show up one day and find him dead on his kitchen floor surrounded by empty bottles and sleeping pill packages. And I was paying Jeff $5 an hour for this. I was sixteen by this point. I had a car and I knew college students who would buy beer for me. I had figured out the “Louie, Louie” riff without Jeff’s help and was ready to rock.
Jeff told me after a lesson that he wouldn’t be there the following week. He had to take care of something. He might not be there the week after. I should call before I came over. It had all gone too far. I left knowing I wasn’t going to call and that I would almost certainly never see Jeff again. I haven’t. I hope he’s okay.
I never had any more “formal training”. Whatever else I have learned about music came from listening to music, reading books and interacting with other musicians.
Don’t be surprised when I re-use that opening paragraph.