ODY: Week 7. Of Dogs and Six-Strings.

It’s a fun stage in the Old Dog Year, having now spent a first full week with my new guitar. The chords that have sounded so discouragingly now ring, when I can get my fingers organized, with an undeniable sweetness. When I bought the Walden, I also asked about how to get hold of the guru, KW. I’d missed the second lesson, and wanted to know what I should work on. Guitar Guy just laughed. “You can’t get hold of Kurt.” Oh. The Guy had some good words, too. The advice: repetition, repetition, repetition. “When you’re watching TV, listening to radio, talking to people, just play simple stuff. Over and over. Brainless. Just let your fingers learn by doing it over and over. That’s it.”

My old boss has a book out, and in it she talks about a life-long affection for opera. Radio 2 had an interview with her the next day, where the talk was all music. So I took up the Guy on his suggestion, flipped on my bedside radio, grabbed the Walden and played A Blues Riff and Travis Picking and a few quiet chords, which is how I found myself accompanying Maria Callas from a 1951 recording of La Traviata, as well as a really swell tenor (I forget) doing an aria from La Bohème. (I don’t understand the lyrics, but I was flushed with pride that I actually recognized the aria. Yay, me!) Then Cohen. Then Lightfoot. My noodling had sounded better beside operatic singing than it did as an accompaniment to Gordon’s guitar. Sigh.

Then the next day, in the midst of a long conversation with The Big Guy (son number 2, on a surprise visit, not to be confused with the Guy), I called time-out, thought Where’s Walden?, grabbed my new best friend from the basement, and noodled some more while we yacked and yacked. Who says I can’t multi-task? Normally, I can’t keep doing dishes while talking on the phone. I can’t eat and think at the same time. But this seemed to work okay. Gotta listen when young men decide it’s time to talk.

On lesson night, KW the guitar guru showed up with his left hand encased in plaster, having severed a finger tendon doing home repair. The anaesthetic was wearing off, the painkillers were kicking in, but he was there. His eyes were crossed by the end, but his humour was intact. His planned lesson was a little frayed around the edges, though. He has eyes and a mouth painted over the curved end where cast holds the fingers, so his left hand can gesture and cajole like a ventriloquist’s dummy. It can’t do chord changes, of course, but neither can THIS dummy. I felt lost. I am no star in this group of beginners. (Fabulous. Another vain imagining cast aside.) Most of the rest have music experience – piano, sax, trumpet – and so the theory and the reading must be as boring for them as it is nervous-making for me.

My musical education came largely in Mr. Danton’s class on rotary in grades 5 and 6. I didn’t pay much attention, though my eyes got wide when he played “Sweet Georgia Brown” on the piano. He was a painfully shy man, but his mild, Clark Kent exterior sprung holes when he got at the keyboard. (He tried to contain himself, but really couldn’t. Loved that.). Oh, yes, and there was a month, way back when, with a grade 1 piano book. One lonely year of renewed bachelorhood, I lived in a small apartment off my sister’s house, where there was a grandmother’s piano and a bench full of conservatory books. I attacked it solo. I played for nobody. I lasted for a hardworking while, and so staffs and clefs and quarter notes look vaguely familiar to me. But I have so much to (re)learn. Chord changes. Chord changes. Cripes, I’ve always been a bit resistant to change, but this is ridiculous. I tend to labour away at one chord ‘til it’s clean. Then I stop. Then I do it again, on that or another chord. The transition between them, though, is so friggin’ awkward and muddy. I hate that pause, that waiting zone, “for people just waiting”, as Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel) once wrote. 

After my lesson, I was down to the International Writers Festival, where the last session of the evening featured three songwriters, playing and talking and laughing about their work. (Jim Bryson is an odd, interesting and very witty performer I’d never heard of; Lynn Miles has a dark and soulful groove that she mines; and oh my, Oh Susanna  – not her real name – was a revelation to me, a great big voice and a quirky but substantial way of writing. I had fun.) I watch musicians a little differently now that I have a little clearer idea of what a guitarist does. Afterward, there was a particular treat.

I’d heard of Six String Nation  before. It’s one man’s quest to unite his country through the instrumentality of a guitar built from sea to sea to sea. Actually, it was built in Nova Scotia, but its materials come from a representative sample of the Canadian dream. Its wood comes from a Haida-Gwaii albino spruce, a Wayne Gretzky hockey stick and the schooner Bluenose. It contains copper from the roof of Parliament, a piece of Rocket Richard’s 1956 Stanley Cup ring, and a chunk of mammoth ivory, 60 bits of our history and geography. Jowi Taylor, the crazy guy behind this sweetly insane idea, has toured all over with the (as yet unnamed) Six String Nation guitar, and it has been played by all the great Canucks – Colin James, Bryan Adams, dozens of others. It has now also had a silly little blues line played more than awkwardly by Yours Truly. (I’ve never played standing up before.) A bunch of us lined up after the songwriters’ show to be photographed with this lovely little machine, and to make our suggestions for its name. (I’ve selected the archetypal Canadian name GORDON: think Gordie Howe, yes, but especially think Gordon Lightfoot, and maybe Gord Downie from The Tragically Hip, or even the name of the Barenaked Ladies’ breakout album, but don’t think about that goofy beaver in the Bell ads. GORDON isn’t as bicultural as I’d like, but it ain’t bad.). I got home very late, but I felt inspired to play ‘til much later in my own wee six-string neighbourhood.)

I began to notice, over the next couple of nights, that the Walden was wildly out of tune, but I couldn’t be bothered learning how to use my new electronic tuner because I was getting to the practice chair so darned late at night, and the Old Dog needs more beauty rest than you can imagine. The E and G chords were especially bad because my remarkable ear had begun to register that the low E string was brutally off. Travis Picking sounded terrible, but the movement and the rhythm are coming along. Nice!

On the road for weekend family visits, I released Wally from captivity in the forenoon. (It may be a “morning guitar”. And after my earlier vaguely erotic writing about my first moments with “her”, it may turn out to be a guy. Oops!) Looking out over a perfect little lake at Mother Margery’s, I figured out first how to use the tuner. (It works best with the batteries in it.) I twisted my very own machine heads for the first time! (Machine Head. Wasn’t that the name of a testosterone-friendly band in the 70s? Gosh, men are funny. What, didja think we were gonna call ourselves The Tuning Knobs?!) And MAN did the chords sound sweet. Read some rhythms (need to spend lots of time on the reading), played for over an hour. This is what I need this is what I need this is what I need… 49 days in a row. Only 316 to go in the daily company of my as-yet unnamed friend. Um, Walden? Waldo? Wally? (Wanda?) Or maybe even Gordon…

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