I’ve got a Gibson without a case / but I can’t get that even tanned look on my face / Ill-fitting clothes, I just blend in the crowd / Fingers so clumsy, voice too loud
– Pete Townshend
When I was thirteen years old, after flirting with AM top 40 radio for a few years, I fell deeply in love with “hard” rock. There was no such thing as “classic” rock at the time, because it was 1972 and rock was still in its infancy, and there was no nostalgic sentimentality attached to it by desperate middle aged, pear-shaped men hanging on to their youth by a strand of their combed-over hair. That would all come later. In 1972, “hard” rock was still a young man’s domain, a ‘teenage wasteland,” its soundtrack the album orientated, FM radio music dominated by the churning chords and screaming riffs of electric guitars.
I was physically small and socially inept, painfully shy around girls. Every day I’d wake up in the early morning darkness of my room and wait for the ass-kicking that puberty would subject my ego to. I remember being disappointed when my voice began to crackle and pop before the long awaited appearance of peach fuzz on my chin and my gonads.
It was a confusing time, as my older brother Don, who’d been my roommate for as long as I could remember, got married and moved out of the house. He gave me, as a parting gift, probably the best and most used gift I’ve ever received: a poster of Raquel Welch from the movie One Million Years B.C. that would hang on my bedroom door for about the next three years. Needless to say, the poster turned out to be much preferred to the presence of my brother.
It was a lonely time, a time when the persistent perception of myself as a misfit was proven to be true. Friends who were more socially adept were suddenly unavailable, spending time at parties and high school dances that I didn’t give even the first thought to attending.
A significant amount of time was spent in my room, listening to music, spent in my mind, in my fantasies – and it wasn’t just Raquel, either. In my fantasy world, I was strong and confident and funny, and as my album collection grew, so too did my Rock and Roll fantasy grow.
Where do you get those blue, blue jeans / Faded, patched secret so tight? / Where do you get that walk oh, so lean? / Your shirt and your shoes just right
I developed secret crushes on countless girls, all beautiful, all popular, even though I was acutely aware that I had no chance with none of them. No chance now, that is, none until I learn to play … electric guitar.
I became obsessed with the electric guitar. I’d listen for hours to the licks and riffs laid down by Hendrix, Clapton, and Page. I became a fan of David Gilmour’s sound and Pete Townshend’s stage theatrics. I studied the photos in the album liners, how each player held their guitar, strapped low and loose, and the intensity that oozed out of their pores whenever they played a hot solo. I remember watching the documentary Monterrey Pop, about the 1967 Monterrey pop festival. The Who closed out their set with “My Generation,” ending it with Townshend destroying his guitar in what was the perfect articulation of the rage and frustration I felt constantly churning in my belly. It was possibly the coolest thing I’d ever seen, and I set my sights on getting a guitar and learning to play it, not smash it (for now).
So I bugged my mom to buy me a guitar, and then I bugged her some more. When that didn’t work, I tried a different strategy: I bugged her some more. Finally, she broke down and bought me a cheap, little acoustic guitar. It wasn’t the Fender Esquire I’d been hoping for, but it was a start. I took it and a short instructional book my mom had also bought me into the darkness of my room, determined not to come out until I was legitimately bona-fided.
But I’m one
I am one
and I can see
that this is me
and I will be
you’ll all see
I’m the one
By now you probably know how this story ends, as it’s been told a thousand times before: young misfit picks up a guitar, learns a few chords, and before you know it, he is transformed, a star is born, and neither his life nor the world are ever the same again. Well, that’s how it was supposed to end.
In reality, the ending to the story is a little bit different. I didn’t quite uncover the musical genius that was hiding deep inside of myself. Instead, I confirmed what my Mom already knew and validated her worst fears – the simple and sad fact that I had no intrinsic musical ability at all. None. Zippo.
Stubby, little and inflexible fingers combined with laziness and a short attention span are not the ingredients for mastery of anything, let alone a musical instrument. I remember the book first trying to cover a few simple chords, but that soon grew boring and struck me as the sort of thing a rhythm guitar player would need to know. Screw that, it was lead or nothing for me, so I “taught” myself a couple of simple, one-string melodies and solos, slowly plinking them out as the fingers on my left hand moved from fret to fret, becoming unjustifiably impressed with myself when, for example, I stumbled upon what I took to be the melody for the old folk song, “Little Brown Jug.”
My enthusiasm for playing was exponentially greater than any propensity I had. I say “propensity” rather than talent due to the rules of mathematics, as using the word “talent” would have resulted in a divide by zero error. I remember sitting in our living room, torturing my mom with my playing, when I asked her, “What should I play next?”
“How about ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’?”
Impressed, I replied, “I didn’t know you were familiar with the Led Zeppelin song.”
“Led Zeppelin has a song called that?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s on Houses of the Holy,” I replied.
“Oh,” she said, “I was just saying that you should play over the hills and far away. Far, far away.”
“Very funny,” I said.
About this time I started babysitting on Sunday nights for a family that lived on the street, about three doors down, the Poisls. One night, after the kids had fallen asleep, I called home and asked my little sister to bring over my guitar, so I could practice. There, in the quiet of the Poisl’s living room, I plunked away for about an hour when Mr. and Mrs. Poisl came home. Mrs. Poisl enthusiastically reacted to the sight of me with my guitar.
“Do you play?” she asked. It was obvious that she loved music.
“Yeah, I get by,” I replied.
She pulled up a chair across from where I sat with my guitar, and with a big and happy anticipatory grin on her face, said “play something.”
“Okay,” I said, and delved right into my one string translation of “Little Brown Jug.” As I slowly plinked and plunked away, I looked up in time to see the last glimmer of light fade from her face, as her smile transformed into the same pained expression I recognized from my mom’s face when she heard the same rendition of the folk classic. I stopped playing and said, “well, it’s getting ….”
“Late,” she said, finishing my sentence before adding, “Excuse me.” Then she was up and out of the room, leaving Mr. Poisl to pay me and see me off. After he shut the front door behind me, I thought I could hear, buried in the night mix with the crickets, the muffled sound of laughter from inside the Poisl’s house, but I couldn’t be sure.
One evening, about a week later, shortly after supper, my guitar and I were in the living room when I decided it was time to return to my bedroom. As I approached the hallway, my trusty guitar in my right hand, my oldest brother Mike, emerged from the bathroom. We met in the hallway, which was a bit too narrow for Mike, me and my guitar, and as we bumped shoulders, Mike gave me an innocent brotherly push. I lost my balance and my guitar ended up pinned against the wall as my right elbow pierced the guitar’s top board, leaving a big hole in it.
“You broke my guitar!” I protested.
Mike mumbled something in return and left the room. I couldn’t tell what it was he said, but it clearly didn’t include the words “I’m sorry.”
Devastated, I stepped into the kitchen, where my mom was doing the dishes. “Look,” I said, “Look what Mike did to my guitar.”
She barely looked up from the sink, and glancing at the smashed guitar, said, “Oh, well.”
“’Oh, well?’ That’s it? You’re not going to yell at Mike?”
“These things happen sometimes,” she said, returning to her dishes.
Perplexed, I said, “If I didn’t know better, I might think you’re glad Mike broke my guitar.”
She remained silent, her hands in the sink and her head down, hiding what I could swear was a smile