ODY: Weeks 16/17. Sick. Of this. Acoustic Guitar.

In my twenties, I came across the Talking Heads album Fear of Music. I knew nothing of the band then, and I was vaguely dismayed by its mainly black cover and that stark green title. There may have been a hint of stiff-necked Baptist disapproval in there, though I was years removed from those hard and judgemental pews. It certainly did jangle my mental Intruder Alarm. Here there be monsters. It was a few years before I actually listened to it. By then, I’d been fascinated by the Heads album that had preceded it, More Songs About Buildings and Food. Its artfully geeky title and funky cover photos got me in the door, and what a different musical world it was. I was entranced by the relentless rhythm, and the lyrical combination of frantic energy and oddball repose. And I realized that I already knew Fear of Music’s “Life During Wartime”, which even an unhipster like me had wrapped his mainly uncomprehending ears around. 

I gradually became a fan. Well, stereo needle, we’re not on Chicago any more! This is a long way from “Wishin’ You Were Here”…It took me awhile to work my way back to Fear and the first album, Talking Heads ’77, but I loved Little Creatures through the years when my own wee critters were being born. Son Three, who turned out to be the TVPI, danced madly in his Osh Kosh overalls to “Blind”, the first track on Naked (“Talking Heads With Horns”, you might say; it was the last vinyl album I ever bought). Along the way there were True Stories, the brilliant concert/film Stop Making Sense, and of course the dark and astounding Remain in Light. Still, Fear of Music didn’t get absorbed into my collection until music-loving, punk-revering, vinyl-buying teens were living in my house around Millennium time. (Being ancient has the occasional perk: I still had a good turntable, and so Heads and Clash and even good ska like The Planet Smashers have spiced up my vinyl collection, from which the most embarrassing 1970s albums – but not all – have been purged. I guess the vinyl is worth the furniture and other gear that the lads have stored in my garage.) 

It’s not A-List Heads, but Fear of Music has some wonderful stuff, including a spooky meditation on the ultimate significance of six strings: This is the meaning of life / To tune this electric guitar … This is a crime against the state / Never listen to electric guitar … This is the verdict they reach / Someone controls electric guitar. It’s a weird and awkward song, and I’ve been playing the piss out of “Electric Guitar” and the compelling nonsense of “I Zimbra” and the rest of the album for days. It’s been the soundtrack to my own lingering fear of music this week, and it has some licks that I would probably be able to play. If. I had. An electric guitar. One of these days, I will. (One of these days, I may even allow myself to pick up the black axe and amp that the TVPI has left behind in my basement.) But the fear of music, the reluctance to stretch my boundaries or actually play with anybody – even somebody on CD or vinyl — still lingers.

Or maybe I’m just bored. It’s been a profoundly grungy cycle in the Old Dog Year. Sunday was the 119th consecutive day of playing. Occasionally, those practices have been pretty cursory fifteen-minute tours of the fretboard, but for the most part I have stumbled along the strings for at least half an hour each day. But this has been a lousy two weeks. I AM bored. Most days, when I allow myself to think of it, I have a tiny quiet dread of picking the thing up and doing the same stuff (badly) again. This is the anatomy of frustration. This is the melody of discouragement. This is the hour of lead.

Well, THAT’S a bit melodramatic, to be invoking the poetry of suffering. I’m just in a funk about my playing. I’ve been in a bit of a craphole about several things, and my guitar nook is not immune. This getting old is not for sissies, said some bard of the hair salon or barbershop. But I keep coming back to the hour of lead, and remembering the stunning Emily Dickinson poem that contains that line. (Lord, she was good!) (But hold on just a doggoned minute, guitar boy. You’re being ridiculous. The poem is known as “after great pain”, and that ain’t your story. You’re just doing things the hard way, as usual. Give your head a shake!) I know this is just a plateau in the learning curve. I know this is a rut in the road, no great suffering or mischief. But it still feels pretty shitty, and I hear Emily’s epic description of the dumps:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes–
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs–
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round–
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought–
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone–

This is the Hour of Lead–
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow–
First–Chill–then Stupor–then the letting go–

 “The letting go…” Is that to be avoided or embraced? Are you a good witch, or a bad witch? For now, I’m not letting go of the daily visit. Keep on keepin’ on. A year is not so long, but the half-hour sometimes seems endless. It may be a Wooden, a Leaden kind of progress, but I’ll assume for the moment that progress it is.

ODY: Week 8 (56/365). The Whole Fam-Damily.

I began the week with reflections on a family reunion. We’d booked a room in the seniors’ home where my sweetly declining Mum is glowing out her days. I made a grander-than-usual entrance because I was carrying a guitar case, which got the attention of the nieces and nephews. Lots of questions. (Mine: “What, you’re not reading my site?! You obviously need to get rid of your life – of course I’m playing the guitar!”) And yes, eventually, flushed of face and nervous as a 16-year-old knocking at the door with a corsage in hand, I played a little where people I know and love could actually hear me. I played clumsily and it didn’t matter a bit.

There was never live music at family gatherings when I was a kid. There wasn’t music, period. Neither our parents nor any of the five kids played at all. The next generation has done better. My children are the fathers of this man’s music-making. My sister married a quiet and stubborn man who taught himself to play guitar, and their girls play piano and more. Now there’s a son-in-law in the mix, a live-wire entrepreneur, guitarist and sometime recording engineer, and Jer was all over me. (He was like Dave the TVPI, my son and first teacher, except with Mediterranean hairiness and more manic energy.) He was very encouraging, and had WAY too much stuff he wanted to show me. (I hadn’t known how well he played.) This all let me off the hook of actually having to play for him, which was way too fine with me, but I did learn some interesting little twists on the G and D chords, as well as other stuff that may resurface sometime down the road. (I’ve already forgotten. Indigestion of the mental kind.) I have so much to learn, and it was fun to learn with a newly-minted nephew.

Quietly, in the background as he so often is, was Silent Paul, my brother-in-law. It has sometimes seemed that we didn’t have a lot in common. Our professional collars are of a different colour and our world-views sometimes far apart. If I am words and ideas, he is hands and things. But as the years pass, we find each other more and more when the clan gathers. (I admit that he annoys me mightily with that flat belly of his, but he has good qualities, too.) Later that day, he sidled up to me as we were about to hit the homeward road. “Keep pickin’ and grinnin’,” he said. A noble, quiet man says a lot with a little, and among all the reasons for enjoying playing the guitar, here’s another. It’s sweet to share a common cause with a brother. We sometimes run together when I’m down home, and now we have another avenue of DOING that we can share. Paul’s friendly and kind, but not much for sitting around and talking. He runs a huge crane in a steel mill. He works on his own car, restores antiques, installs his own hardwood floors. He envies my letter-writing, but I would like to have built a house and home like he has. Now we have a new thing that we can do together. It’ll be fun to learn with him, too, and I have another motivational deadline. I want to be a lot better by the next family gathering.

Back home, my next lesson was a slap in the head. I felt out of it. I couldn’t keep up with the chord changes that every one of my eight fellow bumblers seemed to be doing far better than me. Guru Kurt said the kindest thing: “Chord changes are the WORST. Nothing will bring out the I SUCK! in you better than them.” The whole week was a real plateau time where I couldn’t see much sign of progress. Some of this, my occasionally rational mind tells me, is because of Kurt’s method, or at least my response to it. I’m trying to learn many chords and techniques and note reading and rhythm reading all at the same time. He says that he wants to give us, in this eight-week group lesson, everything that we need to know to teach ourselves the guitar. He gives us a lot, assuming that we won’t be able to absorb it or quite keep up, but the plan is that we’ll have habits and a strong set of materials to keep on plucking after the course is done. Beyond that, though, I also have to hammer away at the repetitive strain of going from G to C, C to D, D to A (and on and on) over and over and over again. (“But play songs! Make up stuff! Have fun!” insists the TVPI by phone. There’s a balance.)

My final family lesson of the week came from the six-year-old. Sam has adopted the old broken-necked Dégas as his own. He keeps it simple. He started by holding it upside-down and playing left-handed; I might’ve left him that way, but he’s very clearly a right-dominant boy. I showed him how to hold a pick, and where his left hand might go (he didn’t care for much detail), and then he whaled (and wailed) away. I listened furtively while he composed his first song, strumming the same non-chord and singing the same flat and sweet little melody for every line, no matter how long it was. I’m a Dad. I found it brilliant:

I was alive since 2000 / I was alive since 2000 / Most of my friends weren’t even born / Thomas wasn’t born ‘til October / But I was born on April 6th / And I didn’t know them when I was a baby / But I didn’t even care if they were babies in their mommies’ tummies / ‘Cause I didn’t even have friends yet / But we lived next door to McDonald’s / And we were pretty close to a play structure…”

The next song in his repertoire involved more aggressive punching of the strings, while the lyrics came from the latest number-one-with-a-bullet grade 1 schoolyard song. (The part I don’t get is that he goes to a French school. As Ottawa’s francophone parents say, we have to promote and protect le français. In a city like ours, even kids who speak only French at home can pick up English like they do a cold.) And here’s how it goes. It starts off with an echo of Queen’s ever-present “We Will Rock You”, and then wanders into the ancient rhythms of nearly all the chants that every kid learns on every playground.

We will, we will, you know what? Kick your butt!
All the way to Pizza Hut!
I don’t care if you dare,
But don’t forget your underwear!


Words to live by, and an I can do it spirit to learn by, too. Thanks, little buddy.

ODY: 22/365

Today is full of commemorations of massive murder, but the IA had more urgent questions. “He taught you bar chords? Those are hard! Jacob still refuses to even try them.” Jacob is Ben’s friend. Ben, eldest son, Itinerant Artist, was having his long-distance chance to hear how the Old Dog Year is going. He’d only been back down from the Arctic for a week or two, no Internet connection yet but the phone works. He’s a gentle pile of bones, but the IA did had some strings to pick with what the Teen Vegan Punk-rock Intellectual (his bro) had chosen to start me up with.

The IA is a musician and a sometime guitar teacher – and he’ll go back to his music degree sometime, too, I’m sure – so he has a little stronger background than the TVPI. (But I can learn from anybody. At any distance.) He had praise for my efforts, including a truly catastrophic attempt to play the blues over the phone without a warmup. (I haven’t played it that badly in at least a week). 

“You’ve played every day on a broke-neck garbage guitar? For how long? That’s a victory right there!” Thanks, IA. And you’re right about another thing, too: an experienced, face-to-face teacher might not be a bad investment. One wandering phone call brought encouragement, a promise of emailed chord diagrams to expand my repertoire, and also inspired a pretty satisfying guitar workout. So maybe feedback helps. So maybe I do need more regular and immediate instruction. But hiring a teacher? Well! That does seem like rather a public commitment, don’t you think?   

ODY: 18/365. Consoled by Blues.

The TVPI, before his departure for the Great (Not Quite) White North of Canada, had written out for his Old Dog Dad a guitar Tablature for Old Dog Dummies. It’s a blues riff. You know it. Everybody knows it. (I think Dave called it “A Blues Riff”.) It was one he enjoyed learning. It made him feel, at 14, like he was actually playing guitar, and he went on to improvise from it and generally make punkadelic mayhem.

I’ve been messing about with it some, but hadn’t quite figured out the rhythm of the resolution part that was supposed to take me back to the beginning of the thing. Tonight, I decided I wouldn’t do anything else until I did. And hey presto! I did!

Now listen. I have, up ‘til now, refused even to play for Calvin Junior and his stuffed and furry friends at night-night. (Point of order: Junior is my fourth six-year-old son. So where’s my Order of Canada?! Where’s my Presidential Medal of Freedom?) But tonight, I ran upstairs, dragged EcoWoman out of the bath, propped her up in an attentive and generally approving posture, and played A Blues Riff. Twice! It was, ah, humilerating. (Exhiliating?) Embarrassed pleasure, rueful excitement. Mid-life learning is a confusing business.  

ODY: Day 14

Two full weeks of the Old Dog Year are done. It is a perfect time to sit back and evaluate. How am I doing? What components of this self-indulgent midlife quest, this pale adventure, are effective and what parts need re-tooling?

Well, screw that. No nerdy analyses for me, at least not today. (I’m a natural at rumination.) I’m playing every day even when I’m lost. I make up stuff. I pretend. I turn off my critical ear and just make noises. Last night (yes, I’m cheating today: my after-midnight guitar churning was possible with eyes closed and a burnt brain, but I sure as hell couldn’t write), I tried to get a little smoother on the tunes I’m picking and the chords my fingers are trying to find.

Son Dave the TVPI has left town, and I may be forced to pay for lessons now. (He’ll still be a Teen Punk-rock Intellectual, perhaps the only one of his kind in Canada’s Nunavut territory, but a Vegan in the Arctic? Don’t think so. Pass the raw fish, please. And how would you like your caribou this morning?) Before we took him to the airport, the T(V)PI tuned the Dégas and pointed out that the E-major and A-minor chords that I’ve been practising are rather similar – the same fingering pattern, just one string higher – so that is a chord transition that I can learn to make. (Can a three-chord rock anthem be far behind?)

And since Dave was leaving, his brother Will had convinced a good buddy to drive him up for a visit: seven hours through the tail-end drowning of Hurricane Ernesto’s sorrows. Big Man Will (the only BMW I’ll ever have) and Little Jason are a Mutt and Jeff pair (see, I looked it up for you), an odd but loyal funship, a couple of guys who can yack and laugh without end. Jay was one of the funniest kids I ever tried to teach, funny/quirky and funny/ha-ha and an apparently hopeless student. He bobbed and floated like a drunken butterfly through a couple of my English classes, writing and reading what he had to. He showed up and passed ‘em, but somehow managed to flunk guitar class miserably.

And somewhere in the four years since, Little Jay Forbes picked up the guitar again, along with a pencil, some chords and a million burning ideas. He walks through malls and hears riffs and runs for his guitar. He writes like a mad thing at 4 a.m., sings in local restaurants and Legion halls and just had a professional pressing of his first CD of original songs. He sang for his spaghetti last night in my basement, a tune too new for the album, and it was full of clear-voiced feeling and melody and solid guitar playing. It makes no sense at all, this development in his life, which is why I love it. Jay Forbes, the six-string dropout and English class lounge act, made interesting music come out of my broke-neck guitar. If I can’t find inspiration there, I ain’t lookin’ for it.   

ODY: Day 8. When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Appears

Dave the Teen Vegan Punk-rock Intellectual was able to fit me in before his shift at the bagel mill today. Week 2 of the Old Dog (new trick) Year has begun, and I was in need of correction, encouragement and some newfangled guitar fun. (Um, ah, serious new challenges on my midlife road to musical immortality, I mean. And All-World Alliteration!)

“Your strumming’s a lot better,” the TVPI observed, “but why are you holding on to the pick that way?” I thought I’d suavely picked up his quick going-out-the-door demonstration of pick-holding. Instead, I’d adopted the most ham-fisted approach possible. No metaphor – my hand was a fist, with the pick protruding like a tiny shark-fin between my thumb and the second knuckle of my forefinger. This may have been part of the reason that my strumming, though better coordinated, was also quite savage, with the pick assaulting the strings at a right angle. Once the approach was more gentle, things sounded instantly a bit more melodic. Whew! Another correction: apparently I not only need to learn more about music but also about my son’s henhouse handwriting. That was an E chord, not G, that I was having modest success at in week one. Okay! 

What else? Power chords and bar chords are not the same things! I felt that my left hand and wrist were about to go epileptic on me after 20 seconds of arranging my digits in the bar chord — the major bar chord — position, so we’ll work on stamina. Once I achieve a kind of manual rigor mortis, I figure, I’ll be all set. TVPI says the bar chords will allow me to just skate up and down the neck (two frets apart tend to sound good in transition, he claims). He’s written down for me the basic pattern of an octave, from A to G sharp, as well as the simplified tablature of his favourite simple blues riff. I hope I still understand it tomorrow. (Oh, I’ll show you blues, buddy. I’ll show you blues.)

ODY: Day 4. Ride ’em!

It’s on its way down to 7 degrees Celsius on this August night that feels like fall. Good sleeping weather. Good Bonanza weather! Guitarzan couldn’t bear to slog through the mud of the way I make G and A chords tonight, so I started off with my inimitably mal-tuned acoustic power chords. (I haven’t figured out where to put my friggin’ elbow when I’m flailing, but flail I do.) And then as I practised picking out an individual string repeatedly, at some point I succeeded in hitting the same one six or seven times in a row, because suddenly a theme from my childhood TV sprang from MY GUITAR! What a great thing: 12 notes in a row on my chubby E was the start of a song.


Lorne Greene and Dan Blocker and Michael Landon and whoever played “Hop Sing” gathered around the campfire in my bedroom tonight, because 12 quick plucks on any string (except maybe A, something wasn’t right there) and at any fret point sounds a little like the beginning of the Bonanza theme. (Ask your father.) Then I had to mess around to find a couple more notes, and I had the first part. YEE! I found ways to play it with any two consecutive strings, and began to see what the Teen Vegan Punk-Rock Intellectual (my “teach-Dad-a-lesson”-er) meant by the fifth fret. (Does that take it up an octave? Whatever it does, it allowed me to find that high note at the end of the first phrase of the song.) I also found out how to play the thing on one string; heck, I can play it on any string! Just not very fast, or very well, but I was tickled rosy.

I even got parts of it using power chords, though it sounded like I was playing in a cave under water. Who cares? I found such utter delight in the child’s play of figuring out a simple tune. Only the first two phrases, mind you; it gets a little more musical after that opening hoofbeat melody. But as the TVPI had counselled me: “Play songs. You gotta play songs.” Right agin, perfesser! I’ll be back on the trail tomorrow.

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.