Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Guitar Grievance

 At the age of three, my son had his very first 'away' playdate.  When I came to collect him, his friend's mother told me on arrival he'd gone from room to room opening closets, peeking under beds.  It was relentless.  She overheard her little boy ask him what he was doing and he replied 'I'm looking for your Mom's guitars.'  Apparently he assumed part of motherhood meant being a musician.  

During this pandemic I've watched more television than usual.  The quarantine has forced even our basic newscasters to provide a glimpse into their domestic environments.  Some are obviously fortunate, with rich decor and furnishings-- grand rooms behind them.  Others are more discreet, and appear in a limited space behind a desk, casually dressed, in front of a lamp-- family photographs in frames, and always the bookshelves.  Journalists have historic books-- world affairs, biographies; the entertainers and emcees have variety-- novels, popular trade books, art monographs, atlases.  Some are arranged so that they look 'provided'.  Others, like Judy Woodruff's, seem authentic and comfortably spine-worn.  

A large number of home 'sets' include a guitar.  Being the musician, I've often strained and squinted to decipher the brand or model.  Usually the instruments are background... but for some, like on Conan's show, they are prominently displayed and there are more than one.  I've actually met Conan at gigs, maybe 25 years ago... he'd always been attracted to music, played a little guitar.  We need to know this.  Apparently the presence of a guitar, like household pets, has a message-- conveys artistic bent, sensitivity? A 'player' (lol)? Coolness?  Who knows?  Like my young son, it may be just an assumption-- a household necessity-- like a blender or an iron-- something your Mom and her friends passed around at night... or the thing she took into the closet at 3 AM so she wouldn't wake the kids.  Most of the headstocks were labelled with the same initial as your name, so they felt familial-- branded.  They belonged.

Unlike many musicians, all of my guitars (and pets) have in a way 'found' me.  They are like stray dogs that somehow crossed my path, and came home to live with me.  I have fallen in love with each one-- their quirks and flaws, their unique beauty and voice.  My very first 'real' bass was initially a listing in Buylines-- the free newspaper we all used to seek out instruments in pre-internet days.  This was our Craigslist, the local 'hub' for trading equipment.  I took two trains and a bus out to some address in Jamaica where an old Fender Precision in a broken-handled case waited for me.  Its owner had long disheveled hair, arthritis... maybe a career once in local bands-- I didn't ask. The place smelled musty-- it was dark.  I'll take it, I said, without playing it, without holding it... the price was exactly what I had in my pocket-- $300.  When I got home, my rocker roommate was in a state of shock that I'd hit some pre-CBS jackpot.  That guitar served me for years; it mostly resides in a case these days; it seems pretentious to carry around a bass with its monetary value... I miss playing it.  I look at old photos and remember the way I felt.  

When my 'solo' guitar self-destructed two weeks ago, I panicked.  Here was another ill-fitting anomaly-- not 'me' at all, but somehow with its defects and flaws, I'd made it work.  It was my companion.  Yes, my 12-string weird tuning put unnecessary stress on the bridge but it had never seemed to complain.  Until it did.  Even its maker shook their head at the photos and told me to bury it.  Sell the parts.  

In a pandemic, random fated meetings are near-impossible.  I spent nights combing the internet for affordable options. Of course I have access to the wonderful collections of my friends, but I need to have my own funky instrument.  I need to be able to bond unequivocally and not worry about accidents or mishaps.  So with my tail between my legs I walked down to Guitar Center which was quieter than in former days... and lined with hundreds of the guitars we see and don't see hanging from TV walls-- primped and leaning in stands.  The first night I played a range of 12-strings-- from $4,000 down to $200... walked home and vowed I'd find a repair person brave enough to fix my old wreck.  

Five days passed-- I borrowed a guitar just to keep my fingers alive, and I got the courage to return to the store.  This time, one (a cheap one) seemed to remember me-- it had retained the tuning I tried out-- it had a small crack in the neck-finish which merited a price reduction.  It was the only one available.  I also had a gift card from judging a King of the Blues contest.  I so rarely buy things, the card was unused.  Again I went home, thought about the cracked guitar, considered the cons, the responsibility of actually buying a new instrument.  Nothing new about me these days.  Another two days passed, and I looked at internet photos. tried to crush on the guitar a little... gave myself lectures on moving on in life-- of leaving things behind, peeling away old layers.  A TCM movie synchronicitously had the guitar brandname in its title-- that perked my soul a little... I began to speculate that if someone bought that guitar I'd feel hurt.  So I went down a third time--- there it was.. it seemed to greet me... still in my tuning.  I bought it, carried it home with that feeling I had as a child when I'd take a few months' worth of allowance to the toy store on my bicycle and picked something. 

It's not 'everything' but it's something.  It's a lesson-- an adjustment.  The two of us are an odd couple.  It's loud, it's bright... it's black and so new.  It's a blank canvas, for sure... but I'm trying to make it welcome.  I'm going to sell the parts of my old one-- I won't insult it by trying to plastic-surgery it into some guitar hell, but maybe the parts will live on in some songwriter's hand.  It served me well and reminds me about life-- even inanimate things have a kind of death and we can't bury ourselves with our own past.  We have to keep going.  I feel certain one day my new guitar will gently weep for me, but hopefully I'll have done it a bit of justice by then.  

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020


The first slight chill of September is a grim reminder of not just time but his designated reaper.  This summer's diminished celebrations have highlighted the significance of our mortality... of the way things wind down, segue casually into a sequence... or, more rarely-- simply die.  That 2020 may be remembered as the year with no summer, for some of us, is for our future perfect to determine.  

Death after death has been logged, like a thick-knotted rope we blindly grope in an unfamiliar, unlit present.  We are sad-- we are repressed, we are uncharacteristically grateful for small privileges as they are gradually restored... but like a hurricane aftermath, we have not yet surveyed the damaged human landscape.  

Meanwhile we have the fires burning in the West, reminding us that nature is not done with us-- that vaccine or none, there are larger battles in store-- there is perhaps life on Venus, economic disaster for any one of a number of countries... there is still a looming and impressive death toll to digest.  No wonder people demonstrate; fear fuels anger... we are leaderless, disunited, confused and betrayed.  We are the victims of emotional recession.

Tonight I re-watched The Virgin Suicides.  With the added distance of age (the parental Lisbons are a generation younger than I am now), it all seemed both more and less poignant.  The concept of innocence-- especially for those of us who were born in the 50's-- is complex and rooted.  Whether we were raised in a protective, sheltered home or somehow damaged and violated, all women seem to have a mothery response to teenage girls.  As some of us know, they can also be evil and manipulative-- but even in the darkest Lolitas, there remains a 'band' of white.  They get a reduced sentence.  

One of the noted ironies of this film tonight was the quarantine-- which unlike our pandemic culture only served to encourage the so-called malignancy it was meant to prevent.  Teenage suicide is especially tragic because real-life seems so vast and irrelevant outside the small passionate priorities of youth.  I remember my older sister once swallowed a bottle of aspirin because she was docked from some unremarkable party.  At the hospital she confessed she'd only actually eaten seven and they were baby aspirin because she was more terrified of the stomach-pumping apparatus.  In the end it was a worthless exercise and she'd played the death card badly.

The other theme that struck me was the longing-- that hypnotic, all-consuming 'drug' we really only experience from the entry points of love-- the fantastic, elaborate, drawn out sense of endless waiting to consummate or even touch the object of our desire (which can change in a teenage heartbeat).  Halfway through the film, at the bottom of the screen a message floated by informing me, among other bits of news, that Cardi B had filed for divorce citing 'trust issues'. Well... times have certainly changed from nights of holding a telephone receiver over a turntable playing early Todd Rundgren to the instantaneous and public posts of social media.  In the current MO of relationships, those weighted endless hours of courtship have eloped; time snaps back like an elastic weapon in your face.  

I don't know what teenagers hold onto these days... romance has had its wings clipped-- or maybe the quarantine, like the Lisbon sisters, has only stirred the fires of love and creativity.  I have heard all too many stories of death these months-- painful for those of us who stand helplessly on these quiet sidelines, but also somehow comprehensible in this world of 'less-than'.  I look back on my girlhood; as a high school senior I had a brief romance with a handsome young teacher who was installed as a 'draft dodger' .  He let it be known he was interested and as inappropriate and taboo as it was, it superseded any romantic fantasies of my 17th year.  I was fortunate; he treated me with utmost respect and kindness.  We drove off in his Renault to a studio apartment on West End Avenue where he taught me things I had not known, but never violated my 'innocence'.  It was 'everything'.  He even introduced me to Dustin Hoffman.  

My high school romance became a lifelong friendship... we went our separate appropriate ways and I always considered this experience more than first love... During the pandemic I learned he'd passed away, and with it a small chunk of my past buried itself.  For those of us who do not attend funerals or post on social media or weep publicly, these things have taken a toll.  For teenagers, reading about death statistics daily, masking their young mouths and maintaining an amount of sterility-- well, it seems like some kind of deprivation--  the year with no 'teenage'.  It seemed fitting tonight that The Virgin Suicides paid a kind of tribute to the pain and loss suffered by even the 'privileged perfect'.  I remember the criticisms that it 'rhapsodized' suicide... for me it just reminded of the perfect fragility of adolescence... the sad wasted timeline of disappointment and cancellation-- the ambiguous and ambivalent value of quarantine.  But I am old and nostalgic-- empathic and sad.

On the other hand, apparently Cardi B. has just filed for custody of Kulture.  Let's hope not.  

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