ODY: Week 13. 91/365. LOTSA Time…

Multi-tasking is spectacularly over-rated. Have you ever talked to someone who was answering e-mail or Black-buried while (allegedly) listening? Can you (should you) multi-task while making love, meditating, reading or doing any of the most important things? Have you noticed how badly people (not you, of course) drive while they eat or plan or do their nails or change their clothes? Heck, I can’t even have an intelligent conversation with any of my passengers without forgetting where I’m taking them. I’m trying to learn to do dishes while I talk on the kitchen phone, but anything much beyond that is just doing several things poorly. 

Still, I’m learning to multi-task my way through the drudgery of practice and half-baked melody-making. (WHY? Because I’m on the road to Mid-Life Guitar Glory, that’s why! The story started back here, if you’re interested.) To avoid leaving practice until the end of a brain-dead day, and to build my endurance of endless repetition, I’m learning (slowly) to combine it with other things. Eldest son, the Itinerant Artist, renewed his nagging this past weekend. “Pick some song you like, and figure out something to play along with it. PLAY! It could be a guitar lead, or any lead. It could be some little bass riff that you can hit an octave higher on the acoustic. Doesn’t matter. Find a backing band!” Well, IA, I do like that “backing band” idea. James Howden and the Chicago Horns.  James Howden and the Radiohead Orchestra. James Howden and Steve Earle: The Revolution Starts Now. (Well, pretty soon, anyway.)

This past week, my backing bands were radio broadcasts: from ethicist Margaret Somerville giving the Massey Lectures, to the Ottawa Senators trying to remember how to win. Hockey play-by-play is a rhythm I’ve heard so many times that it goes down easy, without taking too many brain cells hostage. And I convinced myself not to worry about catching every nuance of Somerville’s The Ethical Imagination because I’m planning to read the book anyway. Still, I felt the stunned silence in her live audience in hearing some of the medical dilemmas that she threw at them. Cyborgs and chimeras and clones, oh my! What is a human being? Is that different than humans doing? But I was serene. Damn the ethical torpedos; I just played, and heard what I could. I couldn’t summarize the talk, and I didn’t learn anything new on the strings, but I did get some routine rehearsal done.

KW, the Guitar Guru, was in good form this week. For part of our lesson, he was out of the left-arm cast he’s been wearing since he severed tendons in his hand doing home renovations. (I’ll bet he was multi-tasking at the time.) He wears a removeable cast, and is beginning the slow business of learning to use his hand again. For a professional player and all-round GG like Kurt, it must be agonizing to be unable to play. (“It’s only, oh, 35 years since I’ve been away from the guitar for this long.”) And it’ll be a long road back to playing like he’s used to; gosh, he’ll have to start from tender-fingered scratch and rebuild his calluses, not to mention those knuckle-busting stretches and changes. Ouch. We’re roughly of an age, though, and I like his chances of getting his guitar chops back FAR more than mine of ever making a decent crossover dribble again! (Be careful with crossover dribbles — the ankles you break may be your own!) Still, those guitars and those dedicated hours are things he has loved and lived by, and it must be driving him nuts to be without them. (Beware of linoleum cutters.)

The GG was sharp this week. Hearing evidence of the one thing I’ve learned to do fairly well – some finger-picking sequences – he went into Radio Voice. “According to a British study, finger-picking guitar players have a 40% lower chance of dying from a heart attack…” Ah. Those famous Studies and what they Show. He didn’t go on too long, though, because there isn’t much time left. (He’s been loading us with content for the last couple of weeks.) I was pissed by my utter inability to make a chord change while pick-strumming a waltz beat (accompanying “On Top of Old Smokey”) or a dreary polka (behind “Skip to My Lou”.) And how many times has the GG had to listen to this lumbering collection of missed notes and half-breed chords? It’s goofiness that gets him (and us) through. While we plucked and strummed, he sang the lead in various voices and accents and alternative lyrics.  Any antidote to boredom (his, after 25 years of teaching) and frustration (ours, after nine weeks of inch-worm progress).

For the last two sessions, the GG has been showing signs of an archetypal teacher sentiment that I know by heart: how the hell am I going to get through everything I planned to cover? This is accompanied, unfailingly, by the ethical question: was the (slightly) slowed progress worth the laughs, the stories and the peeks inside this new world? It was for me; I was fascinated, always, to hear musician stories: the GG’s own, but also those about Ted Reed’s Syncopation for the Modern Drummer (“it’s the BIBLE of percussion”); of Jaco Pastorius’s brilliant bass-playing and coke-addled end; of the Bulgarian Ivo Papasov, “the world’s greatest clarinet player”, and a reminder of the astonishing Bulgarian National Women’s Choir; and, this week, an urgent polemic on “the real inventors of rock ‘n’ roll [Louis Jordan and Mickey Baker], not Chuck Berry, the big goof”. I’m hungry to better know this world, and I don’t mind a story or three, especially when my fingers are all tangled up in blue anyway.

And this knocks me out: in the midst of eight rookies flailing away in a small room at a barely recognizable something-or-other, Kurt the GG reached over and gave a quick twist to the tuning peg for my low E string. He arched an eyebrow, I played the string, he nodded.

     “Holy cats! What an ear, Herr Walther!”
“Well,” he replied, “I only have one hand, so I guess I’d better be able to hear!”
“So, keep the knives away from your ears, then, Vincent!”

We’re all getting to know each other a little better, though I know only Glenn by name. We all laugh more and louder now, and feel more free to commiserate with each other and to admire the quiet woman in the back row who is playing all of us right off the island. A little ease was welcome, because I felt like adding Guitar Throw to the Olympic field event roster. Arggh. I hadn’t gotten ahead far enough to look at the new material, so I felt Dumb AND Dumber. I couldn’t even follow the very minimal (but rather hurried) instruction. I thought for sure that I’d be sent immediately to what was called, in my antiquated grade school days, the Opportunity Class.

I’m daunted by the material we’ve been given in this Beginner’s Guitar class, although the GG constantly reassures us (“Okay, there are relative degrees of success there!” he’ll smile after an utterly bungled sequence. “You are floating in a sea of calm,” he intoned this week when we muttered anxiously after a quick set of instructions. And then, as usual, he’d laugh. “That’s a sea of calm, not a sea of qualms.”) I found out this week that Beginner’s Guitar, Session Two (“Faster and Furiouser!”) will resume at the Ottawa Folklore Centre after we have a month off to digest Kurt the First. I think I’ll continue. “There will be more songs and cool stuff,” KW the GG assures us.

So I mostly feel good about my work on the most boring of exercises. I do, that is, until I do the math: last night, playing to the ebb and flow of another hockey game on the radio (Go, Sens, Go!), was my NINETY-SECOND STRAIGHT DAY of doing things to my guitar. (Stay, Gordon, Stay!) Working hard on chord changes, I am, but also working on the over-numerous but slightly-less-boring songs that use ‘em. Ah. Method to the GG’s madness. One night, though tired, I played for nearly an hour ‘cause I got seriously into “Skip to My Lou” and “Old Smokey”, yes, in four different keys! And I belatedly got to page 39 of the GG’s guitar manual, and realized that it won’t be all that mysterious once I spend an hour or so on it.


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…

ODY: 28/365

Same stuff, different day, but I don’t get bored when I’m picking out a tune, getting pick-quicker, rhythm-ready, feeling what I’m feeling, reeling, real-ing and dealing. Four weeks of musical motion, appealing to feeling. Tonight was good, and I found the weights again, too. One for one. 

48 weeks to an OD (New) Year. Email message from the Itinerant Artist. Ben is a natural teacher. “Finally got caught up on the Old Dog entries. Great stuff. Your writing and intensity are fun [but] you’re really going about this in the strangest fashion: it’s fascinating, and impressive. Though you may not be accelerating your ability as fast as another Old Dog might be, you’re going deep and bloody seriously…That said: Get a bloody teacher already! And keep rolling!” Thus spake the IA. Oh yeah? Who is this other dog? I’ll pee on his practice chair!

“If it ain’t rough, it ain’t right,” said the Pistons on their way to playoff implosion last year. (I suspect the rap reference is a horny and misogynistic one, but that may be prejudice. Correct me.) I know one thing: my way is the hard way. The IA’s “strangest fashion” feels like home to me. Yeah, I hear you. I need to get out more.

ODY: 23/365

After a largely pointless and haggard day, I didn’t want to practise tonight. Calvin Junior required considerable maintenance and the odd holler, and the Old Dog was having trouble managing even the well-established trick of getting a six-year-old boy to sleep. (Come on, man, you should be able to handle this on the fourth go-round!) I just wanted to crawl into bed with The Poisonwood Bible. (Good novel. It’s got me.)

Ever notice — this is the way it is for me, at any rate — that it’s hardest to keep the promises we make to ourselves? Practise I did, though, the full 30-minute monty. The blues are smoother, but I’m going to blame my broke-neck Dégas for the muddiest chords I’ve heard in a week and a half. Sigh. The Itinerant Artist, though, good as his word, had sent me an email with nine new chords to try, along with a renewed insistence that I get regular lessons. I was nearly obedient. I made the call to the Ottawa Folklore Centre, a remarkable place whose musical offerings of various kinds I virtually toured this afternoon. I’ve checked the bios of their guitar teachers. I’ve ranked them according, largely, to their facial hair and what I can read of their Genuine Guitar Chops in their eyes. Ah, vanity.

By the way, I tried F7, sort of a modified barre chord. (Yes, the learning goes on. I now know how to spell “barre” chord, which brings me zero percent closer to ever being able to do one.) And 45 seconds trying to make my fretful fingers do the F7 thing brought them to a spooky spasm of rigor nearly mortis. All in all, though, it was like somebody once said about golf, or some other frustrating form of alleged amusement: a bad half-hour at the guitar is better than 30 minutes of spectacular dishwashing.

Old-Dog Year: Day 2

Put in an excruciating 35 minutes. The Teen Vegan Punk-Rock Intellectual commanded me to hold the pick a certain way, and it seemed to help my strumming a bit. Just having a pick probably helped make it sound a little more authoritative, if utterly muddy and tuneless. The pain wasn’t only emotional. My fret fingers feel chubby and arthritic, though they are neither. (And the tips hurt. Waah!) Picking slowly down the strings, each note of the A and G chords could be made to sound somewhat clear, but the strumming was horrible. Then I realized I’d been reading the TVPI’s handwritten chord diagram upside down.

After that, there were a few moments when I might’ve been actually playing the G major and minor chords, albeit badly. The A still sounds like I’m strumming on a leaf rake. Patience, Old Dog.

How Long Will That Take in Old-Dog Years?

In the spirit of The Revolution Starts…Now, Steve Earle’s Grammy-winning 2004 album, I proposed, back in the spring, a more selfish and less significant transformation. I decided, well, I planned, um, hoped, okay, speculated idly about the possibility of maybe learning to play guitar. (You can read the whole messy rationale for this new project here. It’s in On Second Thought.) You know, the revolution starts…someday. And [gulp] today’s the day.

I’ve paid attention to guitar players closely for a long time, starting with Chicago’s Terry Kath, who was the gritty soul of their brilliant first two albums. (My rabid teenaged fandom, I have found in my (relative) maturity, was not as embarrassing as I’d feared. They turned to Peter Cetera pop pap, but they started out as a real rock band with horns. Lyrically, they were never a powerhouse, though Robert Lamm had his moments, and their early years were infused with the peaceful and transformational spirit of the anti-Vietnam age. We dedicate ourselves to the revolution in all its forms, unfortunately, had morphed into Sweet sixteen, mighty fine in your tight blue jeans before the seventies were out. Don’t get me started about Chicago, though.) Some Walsh, some early Santana, a little Clapton and Page, Byrne and Strummer, and any number of blues players headed up by the lamented and incomparable Roy Buchanan. (Kath and Buchanan: tawdry and ridiculous deaths. I love their picking, not their choices.)

I do go on, but here’s the thing. I’ve decided the revolution does start now, and it scares me to death. And you get to follow along, kiddies, if you have the taste for it. I’m going to get a guitar. I’m going to get some guidance. I’m going to play every day for a year. Tomorrow is the launch, and my pad is the pad. If music or learning interest you, if the midlife twists of an old dog trying to learn a new trick strike any chords, you may want to follow along. I’m going to post this pilgrim’s progress in On Second Thought daily. (It’s mostly for longer finished pieces, but they’ll be easily found in the archives, if you’ve become addicted to Howdenilia.) They’ll be short takes, and they’ll have some distinguishing mark so you can read it preferentially or avoid it like the bird flu. This should be fun, but I think it’ll be frustrating as hell. I expect all of you to hold me to this slightly ridiculous vow.

The ongoing account of my mid-life quest for guitar glory begins here.