Friday, November 18

Writing About Guitars

“I WISH I COULD play guitar,” said the cabbie as he drove down a road that was buses-and-taxis-only. The buildings were dilapidated. I had not seen them since my school bus took me through them ten years ago. They had not changed in ten years. They were in a terrible condition then, and they are in a terrible condition now.

My parents surprised me with my first guitar just before my thirteenth birthday, if I recall. I had just returned from swimming with my friend in a nearby town. I never visited the town except for the swimming pool, which was fairly decent, and my father got the cuckoo clock fixed there because in the little town was cuckoo clock specialist. They are hard to come by, but one worked in that little town. The guitar was a cheap Strat’ knock-off. It was black with a white pick-guard and a faux-maple neck. When I sat down with it, it overtook my body. My hands could not really get around it. I was very happy and showed it to my friend.
As it turned out, a man around the corner played guitar and he agreed to give me some lessons very cheaply because he was not a professional teacher. His wife and daughter were familiar faces around the neighbourhood because his wife babysat many children. We would get used to the children and the children stopped needing to be babysat. His daughter grew up and she stopped playing out. She got breasts and became very attractive and we rarely saw her. His house had a smell of cooked food. No matter what time of the day you went in the house it smelled of cooked food: stews and hotpots and casseroles, old English cooking. Smells collected on the furnishings and the picture frames. The stairs up to his study creaked.
His study was small enough that I had to worry about banging my guitar on something. He handed me a handful of sheets he had photocopied—they smelled of cooked food. He had a long face and deep-set eyes. There was a computer, a record collection, framed certificates, photographs, all manner of personal artefacts, and an old boxed set of Battleships that had been allowed to collect a disguising amount of dust.
The lessons went on for a few months—affecting our Sunday family afternoons so that we could get back in time—but I could not grasp the guitar. It pained me to pull down on the strings and my hands were too small. I thought of others who had learned to play the guitar; were their hands smaller than my own?
Eventually the lessons were cancelled. I walked out of his house for the last time. Never again would I smell whatever his wife was cooking.

Two years later and my hands had not grown but I was increasingly unsettled within my life. All of the other boys had developed—bigger hands, body hair, explosive orgasms—but I had not. I was desperate to learn the guitar. We had moved now and had found another guitar teacher.
“Are you sure this time?” asked my parents.
“I am sure.”
We found him in the yellow pages. My mother would drive me there after my after-school IT class. I was very exhausted but the lesson prodded me into excitement. He lived alone in a bungalow.
Again my senses were at once ignited by the smell coming from the kitchen. I was his last class before dinner, so the hob or oven was usually left on to just finish off whatever he was cooking. The smell punctuated the house, including the spare room where he gave the lessons, a music stand in front of us, and a row of guitars on the other side. The carpet was late 80’s but the walls were always immaculately painted, white and without blemish. He did not look that dissimilar to my other guitar teacher—though a little less hair—and as quietly spoken. He taught me many things. When he asked me to play I froze up and could not move my fingers. I practiced what he taught me and always looked forward to the next lesson. I visited his house for just over a year. We became good friends and spent a lot of the time talking. That summer I was misbehaving at home a lot and my parents, their patience extinguished, said that there were to be no more lessons. I lied to my teacher—citing that it was lack of money—and said good-bye. I told him that I would include his name in the sleeve-notes of my first album. As the smell of his meal faded from my nostrils on the doorstep of his home I began to cry. Hiding my tears, I walked down his garden path and into the car of my waiting mother—
“You need to sort your behaviour out,” she told me. “If you pack it in, maybe you can start lessons again.”
“No. That is it. I can’t go back there after being gone,” I said and we drove home, to where my mother’s own oven was still slowly cooking.

I didn’t get many hours at Woolworth’s but they were enough. Every month they would pay us and because I asked for so few hours I got very little money. It was only on Saturdays that I stood behind that wretched till, scanning the goods of customers, their vacant eyes upon me, looking at the clock and being asked how old I was. My body was still not developed and it angered me. I looked twelve.
After work I went to the newsagents next door and picked up a guitar magazine. I rode home on my bicycle and went to my room. The afternoons back then were grey and cool and the air was wet with incessant drizzle. My new guitar was in British racing green and it was the most precious thing I owned. It was a replica Telecaster—my fascination drawn to its hard curves. My hands had grown slightly and the neck was thin. Through it I could communicate all things. My room held the two of us, singing through an amp. I would learn everything in the magazine, playing for five hours at a time, until my fingers hurt and dinner was called. My last teacher had shown me so much, just enough, but now it was my responsibility to go further.

On my eighteenth birthday I was allowed access to a fund that my parents had started for me when I was five-years-old. Perhaps it was meant for a car or for university or such a thing, but I wanted a new guitar. I wanted a Gibson Les Paul.
The local store had one—a Studio model—in cherry-red lacquer with gold pick-ups & machine-heads, and a rosewood fretboard with mother-of-pearl fret-markers. It spoke to me from the stand. It was eight-hundred-pounds. It weighed a tonne. The sustain carried into next week. I had to have it.
That night there was a party but all I wanted to do was stay at home and play with my new guitar.
“Go to the party. You can play the guitar tomorrow.”
My mother was right.
The next day I was hungover and at work, and as the steam escaped from the potwash, dampening my face, all I could think of was my new guitar. I felt like I might vomit at any moment, but there was forever the thought of my new guitar; the board clean, the strings fresh.
People strongly advised me not to take it to university, in case it was stolen. It would not be stolen. It would be the most cherished item in my room. It was the most cherished item in my life. Back then I was not writing and my guitar was my vessel for communicating with the world.
I stayed on the first floor of two-storey student accommodation and my room was on the end. The halls were a temporary building with substandard plumbing, electrics and all that nonsense. The walls were paper-thin. I was next door
to a sports freak of a girl with chapped lips and wild blonde hair. She was slim and at night when her boyfriend came to visit I could sometimes hear them having sex through the pipes that linked our two rooms. In my everlasting loneliness the guitar was there. I played loudly and constantly; always trying to perfect one song after another. The other students I lived with told me that the sound of my guitar could be heard in the centre of building. For me, it was play it loud or don’t play it at all. I did not care whether others heard me—in fact, the idea that people were listening in made me strive to be even better, to improve with every pick, so that they would not think “He is so loud and so bad”, they would just think “He is so loud” and I could live with that.
The girl next door told me two months in—“You’re really getting better at that!” I thanked her. It sounded like her sex was much the same. I would lie on my bed, stare at the ceiling and play my guitar while the bedsprings pressed into my back.
I was soon infatuated with a girl I didn’t know. Her name was Jenna and, besides her presence in the SU, that was all I knew of her. She dominated my nights out from her podium of perfect skin & hair. One night when I was so overcome by her that I had to leave, I fled to my room and in the darkness I strummed every love song I knew on my acoustic. Soon there was a knock at the door. It was this little Chinese girl who liked me. I did not like her because she was not playing with a full deck.
“Are you coming out? We’re all in the common room.”
I shut the door. Once I had done so, I realised that my face was wet with my own tears. What a beautiful relief! There were no lights left on in my room. I could not see a thing but so used was I to the small space that neither I, in a state of inebriation, nor my guitar bumped into anything. All thoughts of the girl in her Saturday night leisure left me and I was alone with my guitar.

This all followed me into the second year of university. Again, I had no regard for the people around me who did not want to hear my endless rehearsal of scales and technique. I would play a song over and over until I had it nailed. I did not like the people who surrounded me. At night I would get drunk, get stoned, eat sweets and play my guitar. The warm air would blow out through the ventilation grille. The bathroom was opposite. Everything was laid out so that I never had to stray too far from my room.
It continued like this for months; from September into March, when the sun was finally returning and the earth was not so cold. I was walking to a class one morning when I spotted the guys who lived next door. They were on my course, in my class, but I never had any business talking to them so I avoided them. The very prospect that I had to over-take them on the pavement one morning made me uncomfortable. As I did—
“Are you the guy playing Led Zeppelin?”
I slowed and told them I was.
“You’re pretty good.”
I thanked them and we talked the rest of the way. They were all musicians, of course, and it was good to talk to them about such things. It was not something I was very familiar with. Suddenly, what had been so exclusive to me and my world, was aired for all on my way to lectures that day.
What is peculiar—or at least, seemed so to me—was an invitation around theirs to play in the garage. Sound from their garage could often be heard as they played together; drums, bass, guitar. After the lecture I sat in my room considering this new offer and whether or not I would take them up on it. Indeed I was not irritated by their presence, as I was with most other students, but found them rather enjoyable to be around. One thing was certain, though, and that is that I was not going to knock on their door, guitar and amp in hand, asking if they wanted to jam. I would simply have to sit this one out. Although I thought about the invitation a lot, I never went round.
A week later, there was a knock at the door. A housemate answered it. It was one of the young men from next door, asking if I wanted to come over. I was filled with a great excitement, a storm of nerves and joy. I picked up my guitar and amp and went round there.
They had soundproofed much of the garage, putting up mattresses and old carpets and pillows until there was barely room to move around. I was used to playing in confined spaces. A 16-channel mixing desk was laid out, intertwined with cables and so on. I plugged in my guitar to a spare amp. One of them sat behind the drums, another on guitar and a fourth on bass.
A deep friendship very quickly established itself between them and me. I imagine I was a source of great interest to them because I was a new face. And it goes without saying that they were a source of great interest to me because so long had I been alone and unconcerned with those around me that these gentlemen stirred me in unusual ways. I spent many of my waking hours around there, playing guitar, drinking discount booze, getting high and laughing.
The music, though, spun out from me. I cannot accurately describe for you the feelings that blossomed in me when I played my guitar with others. One particular memory that is lodged in me was before a pub quiz one Tuesday evening. While waiting for everyone else to get ready, me and two others went into the garage. I took up my now familiar position wrapped in a guitar strap, my big friend took the bass, and another sat behind the drums. They told me to take it away. I suggested some songs that they knew—Black Dog, Hey Joe, Voodoo Child—and we played them together. Stood there, I wondered what had become of my life, how it had turned so quickly. Naturally I was filled with the doubt that this could end at any moment if I perhaps put a foot wrong or if they said something that would send me scuttling away, so I enjoyed it while it lasted.
This continued into the final year of university, where I found myself—without rent—taking up their sofa, four nights a week. They did not seem to mind. Their filthy sofa—home to cigarette ash & fruit juice & bottle-tops—was soaked in my cold sweat and I awoke many times there in a state of distress.
Around Christmas we locked ourselves in a bedroom together and recorded a long improvisation session. One guitar, one bass, a pair of turntables, a computer, and a keyboard. I was assigned the guitar and it was my responsibility to conjure up something out of thin air.
“Do your thing,” they told me, “come up with a riff.”
And I fiddled until it came, then they all joined in. The music pulsed and formed and it was something alive that I and the others were breathing life into.
At night we slouched on the secondhand sofas, stoned, drunk, silence, candles, an acoustic lying on someone’s lap, with soft strumming, out-of-time, sung-a-long to.
Through the six strings buzzing underneath my left hand, I detected an intense connection with other people, a chiming in harmony, a brief and very delicate bond that could not be duplicated easily nor described vividly to others.

Now I am very much away from that. All I have to play along with are CDs. I do so every night. Sometimes I’ll sing over my acoustic—Young, Bragg, Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel—but mostly it is the electric. It is the electric I return to; its volume boosted and aimed so accurately at my head that afterwards my ears are ringing and I have a headache and, more often than not, my torso is covered in a light film of sweat. Every night, after dinner. Sometimes a euphoric fever falls upon me and all else in my life drops away. It’s not as fun as it has been, but that’s OK with me. Nothing lasts.

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