Sunday, April 22, 2007

Pickin' 'n' Grinnin'

Somebody asked me recently why I play guitar. Like a lot of stuff in my life, it falls into some familiar categories: It's creative, it's fun, it's learning something new, it's a discipline, I love music -- the usual.

When I got my first guitar at sixteen, it was because the folk movement in the U.S. had blossomed, and I had visions of myself on stage as part of Peter, Paul, and Perry ...

Never wanted to be a rock star, per se. Like a lot of baby boomers, I was drawn to rock during the time I came of age, and grew up along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, but I played acoustic -- nylon strings -- and was trying to change the world, so I was big on Message: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" "Blowin' in the Wind, and even "Eve of Destruction ..."

"Hey, Jude" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" came later.

All in all, I would rather have been Randy Newman than Mick Jagger.

Um. Anyway, at sixteen, I learned three major chords and one minor one, and started strumming and singing and writing dreadfully-dreary-and-sincere folk-and-protest music, which I'd sing to anybody who'd listen at the drop of a hat.

Me and twenty thousand other guys around town.

Buddy of mine got a guitar, so he and I started collaborating on dreadfully-dreary-and-sincere folk-and-protest music. We couldn't sing, couldn't play, and couldn't write, but other than that and a complete lack of performing talent, we were just like Bob Dylan. We had guitars, didn't we?

My buddy and I, and then his second wife, formed a trio. We sang in a couple of coffee shops, at hootnannies -- go look that one up, kids -- and even cut a demo tape of our material once. Gave the tape to an agent in L.A. and I expect it was in his trash basket before the door closed behind us. They say all you need is three chords and the truth, but I think you need more. We didn't have it; we were, not to put too fine a point on it, awful.

Worse, we didn't know how awful we were. We thought we were Simon and Garfunkel, or Lennon and McCartney, at least as good as they were. We just needed a break.

Being bad is one thing; not knowing how bad you are? Priceless ...

But -- being young and stupid offers one hope: You might grow out of it. And I pretty much did.

After my buddy got sent to Leavenworth for a long vacation -- another story -- I parked my guitar next to the file cabinet and let moss grow on it for most of the next thirty-five years. Now and then I'd get it out, usually when I was depressed. Sing a few sad songs, then put it away. I think I changed the strings on it three times in three decades. I didn't learn anything new.

Then one day, in the middle of a book I was slogging my way through, knee-deep in the Really-sorry-I-took-the-job swamp, I scraped the mold off the guitar and decided it was time to actually learn how to play it. I was writing for a living, which some folks think is creative, but I wanted to do something just for fun, and not profit.

Unfortunately, I won't live long enough to master the guitar. I got a copy of "Guitar for Dummies," and started learning some classical stuff, some fingerpicking material I liked, couple blues riffs, and am even writing new songs. The difference is, this time, I know how bad I am, and I'm not looking to stand on the stage at the Garden -- or even the Onion -- and wow the crowd. Not my path, and I don't mind at all.

I am getting a little better, SoundClick! provides an outlet and that's enough. (Sure, there's always the fantasy that Springsteen will hear something I've written and cover it, but that's like the winning-the-lottery fantasy: not a reason to go looking for a Ferrari.)

It is true that I once sang "Hey, Jude," live with Paul McCartney.

Yeah -- me and twenty thousand other people, at the Rose Garden ...


Mike said...

Hey, I've paid good money to hear guitarists who were not nearly as good as you are; in fact, your version of "Dixie" turns me green with envy: good stuff! And I, too recall the days when, if you knew three chords, you could meet girls. Just think what might have happened had the simple and inexpensive recording gear we have today been available then. Why, we would have been buried under terrible versions of "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore", "Kumbaya" and the like. And the stuff we played then would still exist in recorded form: not a happy thought at all...

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, I hear that. Some of the first pieces of fiction I wrote were just good enough to get published. And in attics and basements, there are probably still moldy copies of some of those 'zines extant.

Re-reading those stories today is downright embarrassing. Dialog that fell from my characters's lips like deep sea fishing sinkers; players who were more wooden than Pinocchio; exclamation point poisoning out the wazoo!

"Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." Wow, haven't thought of that one in years.