ODY: Weeks 22-23. Stricken (Streakened?). Travellin

Week 22 of Guitar for Dummy started off sweetly. Once upon a mall wander, when I should have been doing my consumptive business and getting the hell home, I hit the pseudo-intellectual indulgences store, where they sell cigarettes, chocolate bars, and more mags about more things than I could imagine. (Hold the cigs.)

Stores like this — does anyone call them “smoke shops” anymore? — with their racks upon racks of magazines always hypnotize me if I allow myself to walk in. Mercifully, I can usually pass by the sections for women, knitters, video game junkies and home repairmen. Normally, the music section is also beyond me, unless the cover features an artist I know. I’ve always loved music, but I felt outside it. Now, however, that I was a Certified Guitar Butcher, it seemed unjust that I had never bought a music mag, so it was a breakout day: would it be Guitar? Guitar One? Acoustic Guitar? Fingerstyle Guitar? Vintage Guitar? Guitar World? Old Fart Guitar Diletantte Galaxy? (I made up one of these.) I settled, for a reason I can’t remember, on Guitar Player magazine. 

It was a bit of a Looking Glass experience. It had English text, photos of (mainly) familiar things – faces, guitars, curvy women reminding me that I was an ol’ babe in BoyLand – and ubiquitous advertising, but it was a strange land where I could see and read and still not find much sense. (John Mayer (?) plays Regular Slinky and Power Slinky…okay, sure…Fasel infused classic wah cutting high gain distortion searing double-edge tone…I think that was a good thing, but it took me awhile to figure out where the verbs were…) It went on. I noticed spank-guitar shred lessons and alnico classica humbuckers. I certainly didn’t understand the local customs or dialect in this new world. (Toto, I don’t think we’re in Sports Illustrated anymore…)

I thought Guitar Player might teach me something, and that it might be good airport reading, because we were off on a family trip. We’d decided on Guadeloupe: it would be an immersion in French, and we knew two couples who had lived and worked there. Okay, and palm trees and sun. Just days ahead of our flight, I’d found that friends of these friends could lend me a guitar for the two weeks we’d be there. I stopped hunting for a titanium guitar case for baggage handlers to play catch with. Gordie would stay home and safe. 

4:30 am taxi, 6 am hop from Ottawa to Montreal, 9:30 Air Canada flight to Point à Pitre, during which we removed the many layers of clothing we’d needed for -25 degrees C. and got ready for the tropics. We arrived, met by other new friends. (So good to belong to the Bahá’í community, with friends and fellows everywhere we go.) Got settled in our gite, joined our new friends for an evening, returned weary and grateful for a clean bed at about 11 pm, and only then realized, with a foggy head but emotional air raid sirens, that my guitar connection hadn’t been at the meeting. ARGH!

I was up against it: The Streak was in jeopardy. The goal I’d set for myself had been 365 straight days at the altar of the guitar muse. The day before we left, I had played for the one hundred and fiftieth consecutive day, and looked forward to playing in the warmth of a Caribbean evening. But now it was late, in a guest house in rural Guadeloupe. (The nearest neighbours were cows and roosters.) I made a desperate stab-in-the-dark request. Good news: Yes, the proprietor said, my grandson has a guitar you could borrow! Profoundly helpless and regretful news: But he doesn’t live here. Maybe you could have it by tomorrow.

I was buried by it: The Streak was over! Hard to take, but there was no way around it. I had made a promise that in the end – well, in the middle, actually – I couldn’t keep. Shoulda brought my own guitar. Damn! Did we go to the wrong meeting, maybe? Where was Christine?… But there you go, and there I went. It was a lovely night for sleeping, and I was crispy with fatigue et un peu de chagrin. But it wasn’t the disappointment that kept waking me up – it was the damned roosters. 

Rose-Hélène was true to her word, and the grandson’s small guitar was in my hands for our first full day on the island. It took a long while to tune – at least I’d had the foresight to bring my electronic tuner, or I’d have been cooked trying to coax music out of that thing. After about six or seven minutes, it made some recognizable noises, though it had ridiculously high action, rather like the ol’ broken-necked Degas that I started with. It was a comfort to be back on the musical trail. I didn’t even try to go all heroic and somehow redeem the sins of the previous day. Jes’ played, and it felt good to not be too desperate or anal about the whole thing. Life goes on. The Streak was at One.

After two days with the baby guitar, I was back to full-size after finally meeting my connection. (Some people go to the Caribbean in search of illicit chemicals. I scored six strings.) It was a full-sized classical acoustic, dusty and out of tune but a good machine. There were little coloured circles all over the fretboard, but I didn’t really try to figure out the chord calculus. I just did my dusty old things in a bright new place: the windows of our gite were always open, so I tried to do my late-night strumming softly, thumbly. (I ended up not using a pick the whole time there.) After all, the other guests were, well, heck, some of ‘em were considerably older than ME, and dawn comes early in Gwada. (And according to several neurotic cocks, it comes over and over again, the all-night rooster version of the movie Groundhog Day…). So no psycho percussion, no windmills, no blues hollers or howls of frustration.

All was well, and then a few days later, it happened again! ANOTHER MISSED DAY. Was it the water? (Or the lack of it?) Was it bad sleeps, or hot days after Canadian ones? I’m not sure, but after a day as the loyal chauffeur and pack mule for the princess, and then some beach time and too much sun and a miserable drive home, I couldn’t friggin’ get around to the guitar because I had my head in a toilet for much of the evening. I finally was able to tumble into an exhausted sleep, and I didn’t even consider playing. Sigh. And so a new challenge came: would I still get that daily practice in without the absurd but effective spur of a long run of commitment?

My favourite practice of the trip happened a couple of days later. I sat on a rock, down near Atlantic’s edge in a town called Le Moule. For an inland lad like me, the swell and the roar of the waves is intoxicating, and I liked it well. The surf pounded relentlessly, and I sweated profusely. I turned my ballcap backwards to keep my neck from reddening and, but of course, to present the image of an arty young vagabond, sitting on a rock, discovering himself and chronicling his generation in song by the sea. (Too bad there were no other rampant sentimentalists there. If a narcissist plays by the ocean / Does anybody see?) So, yes, I was a bit self-conscious – still! – about playing “in public”, even though there was almost nobody around. Still, I had a blast: beautiful scene, beautiful sun, one idea in mind and time on my hands. It felt like a vacation. Sweet!

Our first week in Guadeloupe was a delight. (Except for that toilet episode.) I was quite proud of myself that the end of The Streak didn’t sabotage my commitment, or hasn’t seemed to. It was the only bit of dark cloud we had. So now the count stands, for those of you scoring at home, at 159 out of 161 days – not what I’d been planning, but a fair percentage. The Streak is now at 5. Whoop-de-do…

Back to Adolescence. Again!

I’ve been a Substitute Creature for the last couple of days at a local high school. I do it all: French, Drama, History, Geography, English (of all things!)… I did demure this morning when a Tech class was in the range of Mr. Flexibility choices, although I WILL remind you that I won the grade 9 Industrial Arts Award at Caledonia High School, lo, those many years ago, where I made the most absurd and sickly book shelf in the history of design but aced all the tests.

Given my stupendously modest earnings as a writer this past year, I’m courting the don’t give up your day job Day Job, and I’m looking in the direction of education — where I spent the bulk of my professional career — rather than writing for government contract or speech-makers. I’m convinced that my own stuff would wither away if I was writing for other people from nine to five, though I can imagine writing after the classroom fog lifts and I’ve scrubbed the chalk off my fingers (sleeves, thighs, forehead). I’ll be off to make the Art of the Theatre sparkle and inspire young minds in half an hour. (I sense a movie coming on…)

I am finally getting to my long-overdue notes on my Guitarzan odyssey, that ODY-ous quest (the “Old Dog Year”) to become a guitar player a decade or three after my teens. (The first 150 days or so are already posted in the “On Second Thought” section of the site. You should Write Me! if there aren’t a couple more posts up by the weekend.) And the new quote for the week, a day late, is up in the “He Said/She Said” box. So much for the mind, so few photos. Speaking of photos, remind me to offer a link to our Guadeloupe travels; I should also be getting to writing about this cool trip before the memories fade.

ODY: Weeks 20/21. The Song is the Thing.

There was a part of me that hoped that by this time, nearly 150 days into this crusade, I would be obsessed. By and large, my habits are pretty well established when I’m at home, and it’s no great inconvenience for me to get my work done. But knowing how I can get utterly locked in to patterns of thinking and concentrated (if brainless) activity, I had thought vaguely about how to manage a raging addiction to guitar playing. How will I handle it when I stop coming to meals? What’ll I do when my writing day begins to suffer because the boy just wants to play?

Well, safe at home, I guess. No worries about dependency yet. I recently read a piece on Tom Morello, the rocker with a brain (and a social conscience, and a lifelong love for the Cubs, I believe) from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. He started on the guitar relatively late, as a Harvard freshman, but made his own fervent pact to play each day, no matter how many essays were due. Legend has it that those playing sessions could last as long as eight hours. (Show-off! Creep!) Mine have approached ONE hour, oh, maybe twice.

And unless I start heeding advice from the Sonshine Boys – Dad, you gotta play more SONGS! Find stuff you like on-line, or write your own! They can be as dumb as rocks, but they’ll get you pumped — that kind of momentum will never be able to sweep me along. DAMN, but I’m a slow learner!

Songs, songs, songs. So what are the great songs I’ve loved, the singable songs for the very middle-aged? Time for a list, in no particular order, and then I’ll see which ones are actually Playable By A Guy Like Me:

Lorelei (The Pogues): might be simple enough, and so much feeling.

Jungleland (Bruce Springsteen): wow, but maybe too complex? One of the greatest songwriterly things ever. And Blood on Blood, or almost anything from Nebraska.

Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles): is a cello required?

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Jimmy LaFave): I love the LaFave version of this old Jimmy Webb song. On a Bus to St. Cloud is another melancholy, lovelorn ballad that Lafave delivers well, a song by Gretchen Peters.

So many from Bruce Cockburn, but let’s say “Tie Me at the Crossroads” and “Great Big Love”. Maybe I should learn one of his sensual ones, though; odd that this introverted, rather intellectual master guitarist has written some of the sexiest stuff ever. “Sahara Gold”, par exemple.

Boots or Hearts (The Tragically Hip): some alt-country type should record this, I’ve always thought. Locked in the Trunk of a Car knocks me sideways, but I don’t know how campfire friendly it is. Son One wants me to learn Wheat Kings, but it doesn’t get me. Not yet, anyway, but it is a three-chorder.

Naïve Melody (Talking Heads): I wonder if these are too funky for simple guitar playing. Byrne does a guitar-only rendition of Psycho Killer on Stop Making Sense, which may be manageable.

Road Trippin’ (RHCP): I don’t like earlier stuff much, but Californication is a terrific album. Real melodies and harmonies.

And this is so much fun, I could go on and on and never actually learn any of ‘em!! Ah, resistance. I’ve been reading a lot about you in The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and here you are, Resistance, you old seducer. There is one song that I’ve been working on, though, and the satisfactions are strong. It’s a chord progression to play behind a prayer I’ve learned to sing: Blessed is the spot, and the house, and the place, and the city, and the heart, and the mountain…where mention of God hath been made and His praise glorified… It’s a sweet and lovely invocation of the holiness of all places, when the spirit is given its due. And blessed is the spot where music is made, too, whether couch or bedside, but the chords are a bit tough for me: A, A7, E, E7, and D are more than manageable, but I still stumble over three bar chords. There’s a B minor, and A#7, and an F# minor.

But The Spot has begun to prove to me the wisdom of my young teachers. It’s nice to play something that sounds like a song. Keep at it, ol’ fella. 147 days down, and better days to come. Maybe even a little compulsion, for a change.

ODY: Week 12. Listen.

It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…

(Every one of Garrison Keillor’s stories of a mythical Minnesota begin this way. Prairie Home Companion. Gotta love it.)

It’s also been a quiet week in Old-Dog-With-a-Guitar Land, Gary, but I keep on pluckin’. And I still have a ringing in my ears. It’s “Scuttle Buttin’” by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, and that whole Carnegie Hall album. I do love the blues. But I keep thinking back to the rudeness of the crowd as an elderly John Hammond, one of the godfathers of great American music, tried to introduce the band and was almost shouted down. Perhaps even worse was the reaction of much of the crowd to SRV’s solo encore.

He quietly introduced “a song I wrote for my wife” and eased into a slow and introverted instrumental love song called “Lenny”. I have no idea how he made some of those sweetly bent chords come out of a Stratocaster, and I can’t fathom why so many in the audience appeared not to care. “Go, Stevie!” one guy roars, apparently thinking, along with many another buzzed-out moron, that all this delicate stuff was just to whet our appetite for some more headbanging histrionics. I’ve read that Vaughan put his finger to his lips more than once during this extended solo, but the shouting (Hey, listen, I’m a rock show star!) just kept on. That would’ve driven me nuts. It does, even in my living room. Another leather-lung tried to help – I guess – by screaming “Shut the f—k up!!” It didn’t work. I wonder how the performer felt. It’s the context, I suppose, that whole bar blues ethic. I admired Vaughan’s attempt to deliver some quiet and quirky virtuosity, rather than the beer-fuelled, ass-kicking kind. It’s weird when fans take their heroes prisoner. I wonder if it’s just coincidence that the brief, up-tempo closing ditty, a fast and funky answer to the sweetness of “Lenny”, was called “Rude Mood”. (Yeah, folks, I was just teasin’ y’all with that LOVE-stuff.)

There’s so much to The Blues. Feeling. Longing. Suffering. Of course, it arose (at least indirectly) out of the experience of slavery, and it’s still rooted in pain. It can always be dressed up around the edges with sweat, booze and sex, and that’s all some players can find in it. I’ll always go back to Roy Buchanan, though, because he finds all the emotion. (And, bitterly, a most tawdry and depressing end, but that’s another story.) “The Messiah Will Come Again.” “Roy’s Bluz.” Stunning things. I can dig the energy and drive in all kinds of blues players and songs, too, but I lose patience with the corruption. “Howden’s Blues”: I fantasize about a new music — and maybe even playing it a bit — that is tinged with or even driven by the blues, but which can speak of social justice, and not just another dysfunctional shack-up; that can appeal to mind, and not just the groin. Or hey, how about a just slightly raunchy hymn to racial harmony or loyal marital loving? You may say I’m a dreamer…

Well, of course I am. After all, I played my guitar every day again this week. That made for 84 straight, and it ain’t like I’m making a whole lotta music. I’m playing waltzy accompaniment to “On Top of Old Smokey” and a polka-esque pick-strum backing to the melody of “Skip to My Lou”. In four different keys, mind you!! And no matter how tired I am or how drab the prospect, I find that the practising still draws me in. Just gotta put myself in the driver’s seat, and Gordon and I go lurching off on our nearly musical way.

ODY: 35/365. Weekly, Not Weakly.

I showed off my calluses today. Sitting in a seminar, engaged in a getting-to-know-you with Kim, I mentioned the Old Dog Year, that there’s a trick with a guitar that I’m learning to do. She plays, she composes, and so she had that warm and knowing interest. “Five weeks. Nice. How’s it going?” I offered her the fingertips of my left hand, and pointed out their toughness with bashful pride. She smiled. She got it.

Yes, there are moments when a chord comes out clean, or when the picking fingers work with a mind of their own. I slide into automatic pilot, a brief patch of detachment when I can let go and listen to what my hands are doing, no strings of wilful insistence attached. Easy. But one of the most valuable signs of progress is a blunt and fairly stupid one, but I like it: I have hard fingertips. My calluses remind me, when the guitar or even thoughts of it are distant, that I’m putting in the work. It’s like being able to catch a hardball in the palm of your glove without pain, cutting and jump-stopping in basketball practice without fear of blistered feet.

My belly is softer and rounder than I ever thought possible, but my digits are tough and nimble. I’m a hard-body! (From the palms out) Today makes five full weeks in which I have strapped myself to a chair and Done the Thing each day. Nearly ten percent of a year. Victory is mine! It is good to look back on 35 days of required clumsiness and see what small advances have been made. I’m proud of you, Old Dog! Good stuff! I almost said that out loud, and came dangerously close to actually believing it.

The thought of picking up the guitar every day is a pleasant one now. I’ve made friends with it, and it’s teaching me well though it cares not at all. I’ll keep the streak going, but I think from here I’ll record my progress weekly. Until Week Six. 

ODY: 32/365. Night Class.

So there I was, learning to play with others. Sort of. Nine nervous grownups with that bright first-day-in-school blush. I even thought KW, our teacher, had a bit of a shine on, but he’s been doing this a long time. Maybe it was because he was distributing, in two piles of photocopied paper, his book. Ah, so this was a literary soirée, minus the canapés and the booze and, ah, staples. For me, it was a first chance to learn this new thing with people beyond my immediate gene pool.

There were nine chairs, nine music stands, and between them were six women and three men awkwardly hoisting their new best friends. We sat in a small basement studio in a northern capital city. A quick inspection confirmed that I was the oldest of the dogs here at Guitar Obedience School. (Wouldn’t have it any other way.) The hour went quickly.

It took a while to get the pages collated. KW’s amplifier had several ideas, few of which had anything to do with powering his little black axe, with which he hopes to be audible over our group’s acoustic cacophony. The cellar studio held a bizarre stew of tunings, and I knew that either I or the guy next to me was in a hopeless state. K shut us down quickly. “Let me give ‘em a quick tune.” Mine gave him a challenge, but he was pleasantly surprised that my crippled Dégas – “let me put it this way, they don’t make a high-end guitar” – actually made a decent sound once he’d cranked it about for a few minutes.

Not so with my near neighbour. “You have a bass guitar,” KW said. Twenty minutes later, he admitted defeat. “This is impossible to tune.” No wonder the hour went so fast. He talked us through some of the basics. I discovered that I’d even been holding the thing wrong, which is part of why my left hand has had so much trouble finding a way to make chords; the neck should be tipped upwards, but I’ve been perching the guitar on my right thigh so that it was quite horizontal. Oh. Okay, then. He reassured us: “You’re going to have a long time where you say, ‘Damn, I suck!’” He implored us to buy electronic tuners. He flew through a couple of chord diagrams to great passivity. (Calm acceptance of the familiar? Hmm. I’m betting on stunned incomprehension, but maybe that’s just me.) He showed us a little finger-picking sequence, showed us how to read the chord boxes on page 17 of his manual – thanks to my sons’ pencil diagrams and emails, I understood them; YAY! – looked at the clock, grinned sheepishly at us and said, “Bye!”

Oops. Later, the guy in the music store upstairs cheerfully pronounced my guitar “unplayable”, and explained to me that its ridiculously “high action” was not an expression of macho praise but a mark of how far above the frets the strings were. (I probably should have bought the Walden guitar they have on sale. It sounded JUST a little different than mine, and wasn’t one of the $2000 jobs.) When I walked out into the night of this Brave New World of Musical Education, I was a bit bewildered, but pleasantly so. Nowhere near catatonic, but I think some of my classmates were.

ODY: 30/365. I Guess Not.

I don’t know what I’m doing when I do it, but I do it anyway. I love to mute the strings and mess around with percussive strumming and picking and fretboard assaults with the left hand. Especially when I’m brain-dead tired and another halting run through “A Blues Riff” or “Bonanza” feels too much like medicine. (Buckley’s. Cod liver oil. Not the sweet grapey stuff you get at the drug store now. Shoot, we used to figure if you didn’t gag on your medicine, it wasn’t worth taking! We used to eat burnt toast on a sore throat and never even chew it. Made you strong!) Work on a new chord? Left hand says, “I can’t want that.

The Queen of Encouragement generally stays away when I’m in the Old Dog Gimme (Guitar) Shelter, but tonight she crept downstairs while I was noodling a rhythmic monotone on a muted string. I was hypnotized by it. She said, “Is that supposed to be music?”

ODY: 29/365

Missions accomplished.

1. I had a good and satisfying guitar workout. The B7 chord, however, is a brutal thing. How do I get my paws around that?

2. I’m signed up for group lessons. Two nights from now. Beginner’s class, and I’ll have a 29-day head start. No pressure, but if I’m not the class prodigy I will melt like a water-logged witch.


ODY: 26/365. Tenacious D.

Hmm. “Got” the Bonanza theme might’ve been pushing it a bit. I thought I’d run through it enough that I’d remember how the innovative part ends, but I had to work it out all over again. Maybe tomorrow the tumblers will click into place. I’m now at the point where I could polish it and “A Blues Riff”, especially the latter, to sound pretty good with an hour or two of concentration. That’ll be for the weekend. But here’s the thing that might actually be interesting. (And there’s no accounting for taste, yours or mine, so here goes.)

Discipline might be a viral thing. It seems to leak beyond the boundaries of the thing being practised (and, sometimes, can be caught from the person doing the practising – this is why running backs used to go to the sand dunes for savage off-season workouts with Walter Payton, why ambitious ballplayers ought to make friends with Albert Pujols). In more youthful times, I often noticed that regular prayer and meditation were somehow easier during the days (or longer periods) where I’d worked out physically. Among other things, this puts the lie to the I haven’t got time excuse. It’s like when pro athletes publicly say “It’s not about the money”, which nearly guarantees that it most certainly IS. “It’s just that I don’t have the time”, without fail, means “I don’t really want to but I’ll never admit that to you or myself.”

So it’s 26 straight evenings on the Guitar Diet. And since I do my practice in our tiny downstairs library, I’m noticing (and getting excited by, even reading) the great books that I insulate my basement with. Furthermore, my dumbbell set has been leaning dustily against one of those bookshelves. Somehow, virally or otherwise, the I WILL of playing guitar has been transmitted to the Well, Alright of a quick set of lifts and stretches, even when I enter the library Old Dog Tired and as motivated as a plump squash. Fulfilling one promise makes the next one easier. One workout leads to another. Well, except for tonight. (And, ah, last night.)

Tomorrow should be sensational, though.

ODY: 25/365

Only 68/73rds of this experiment in personal re-novelty, this “Old Dog Year” of learning guitar, remain. I like fractions.

After two hours watching a vibrant and feverishly competitive practice of Canada’s best amateur basketball team and wondering if I was wishing to blow that whistle again, I returned to my own subterranean training session. No floor burns, no ankle turns, no sweat. (And don’t forget, coach: no herding sullen teens toward an objective only you can imagine. No making chicken soup out of chicken, um, feathers.)

Didn’t much feel like work, but was surprised to find that the 30 minutes flew. I went back to my dogged progress in figuring out how to play the theme from Bonanza, and I’ve got it, even the almost-intricate part. I’m sure it’s pretty eccentric fingering, and I’m a long way from ease in the saddle, but that was fun. More fun with the blues, too. Almost like playing music.