After a long night’s writing, as I finish this, singer Andy Williams has died at the age of 84. Vaya con dios, Andy. I’ll spare him and you the Mancini puns. This seems an appropriate way to honor his passing. (And no, I have no idea if we’re related.)
An anniversary story that my guitar demanded I tell, else it will gently weep for weeks, and — in my experience – there’s nothing worse than a weepy guitar.
cartoon originally appeared in The Comic News, 1996
I was playing my guitar tonight when it came to me: forty years ago, I bought my first guitar at Music Villa in Santa Fe, on St. Michael’s drive, for fourteen dollars.
I probably got gypped. It was a steel-string no name monster, with action a full quarter inch above the fretboard, but it kept me playing and that hasn’t stopped, with one exception. The finish was wrecked, so I got some paint stripper and for two days out in the garage at Siringo Rondo South (there is a Siringo Rondo East, where the street doglegs ninety degrees, but no West or North). After sanding it down and refinishing it, that was my guitar for awhile. My brother still has it (called “the old guitar”) but no one, to my knowledge, is crazy enough to play it.
But the story starts about a month earlier, as I spent the next to last summer I’d ever spend at my Aunt’s house in Omaha.
Aunty Em’s house
Aunt Mary had always been the “ear” musician, the antipode to my mother, the “classical” musician, although both played piano as their weapon of choice. Auntie Em always had a grand piano in the living room, and the boys were always in “combos” and bands from earliest age. Downstairs in the basement, Steve’s drum set was always set up, and Steve played guitar as well. From earliest daze of 64 they had always been The Ultimate Beatles fans, with all that Fab Four crud and every Beatles album, even multiple copies for the multiple record players scattered through the house. To this day, I still dream of that house, filled with books and records, a respite from the Hell that was my home life with my aunt’s crazy sister, my mom, and dad, who went along with her lunatic notions of child-rearing.
I had been groomed to take her place at the keyboards, and suffered through five years and multiple John W. Schaum and John Thompson piano books, beginning with the classic “C B A leads the Way,” which I can still play but do not want to.
Just seeing this again gives me the willies
When they were gone, I would experiment with the piano, trying different things, making thunder and a storm, or water and the sea, or a brook. But this was frowned upon and I was told to play the John W. Schaum books with all their thrilling spots. I remember there was an adaptation of Tarantelle that I liked, but that was after five years of dutifully being dropped off at Mrs. Wyoba’s house, across the street from the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Wyoming.
We had a Baldwin Acrosonic Spinet. I spent my childhood
dusting it. We didn’t have a padded bench, tho. Hard bench.
She always was sure that the U Wyo was going to take her house through “eminent domain” — a concept that I learned, along with John W. Schaum — and when I was back in the mid-90′s I checked, and the house was still there. Never eminent, it remained a private domain. By fifth grade, I had figured out how to run the classical baseball or piano split, and “reluctantly” I chose baseball. The last couple of months, as a hint, I would practice with my right-handed glove sitting on the piano bench next to me.*
(I ran into Mrs. Wyoba once more, in 1968 at the Wyoming State Republican Convention (the first that Dick Cheney ever attended) and it turned out that she was one of those little old blue-haired women who used to run the state parties, former chairwoman of several committees, etc. etc. And it was hilarious to watch our Senators and Congressmen and Governor all pay homage to my old piano teacher, as though she was a Foreign Ambassador. I guess she was one of those pillars of state parties who do the work and attend the thankless meetings for a zillion years. All things considered, I don’t remember the piano lessons much, but I learned a terrific amount about politics from her, and her last lesson, imparted at that convention was that little states need seniority to compete with all the bigger fish in the American aquarium.)
I hated practicing. I still do. I always believed that you are supposed to play music and not work music, and since I wasn’t having any fun with the High Holy Church of Spots. Music is NOT spots, although they’re nice to know. Ask Ray Charles, whose birthday it was yesterday. Or, I remember the endless Beatles articles flabbergasted that none of them read music. I chose that route.
Then viola (because I forgot my practice pad two weeks in a row and was kicked out of band in fifth grade) which I played through high school and an orchestra junket to Juarez, where the Santa Fe High School Orchestra stayed at an amazing hotel with room service and pool service as inexpensive as the restaurant, played for several Juarez Schools and an Art Opening, even though I always cringed when we played “La Cucaracha” in front of our Mexican audiences. It seemed as dumb as going to Australia and playing a bad rendition of “Waltzing Matilda” for their school kids. Dumb gringos.
But still more spots. Let me tell you: the viola is such a boring instrument that they give you your own CLEF, just to make you feel less idiotic. Viola clef has middle C in the middle of the five lines, half in treble clef and half in bass clef. And the important lesson learned is that bass players are the coolest guys in the world, the natural allies of viola players everywhere, who commiserate as we watch the feral savagery of violin and cello “challenges” — a universal concept in high school bands and orchestras at the time, based on the notion that music is a competition, and whoever plays the most spots the best wins.
This never made sense to me, which is why I was a viola player, and glad of it. If you have to play a stringed instrument, play the viola. You will never lack for orchestras. And while I was playing the viola, and beginning to secretly play the piano whenever my mother wasn’t in the house, that summer I went to Nebraska for my annual pilgrimage to sanity before returning to my station in my circle of hell.
Home life when I was a kid
That year, 1972 I spent the summer at a church camp with Ruth Carter Stapleton* at a Hastings Nebraska (empty) college and then a week in Omaha amongst the Beatles and the Grand Sorrow — my cousins still grieved (the two boys still at home) at the breakup and sided with Paul McCartney and believed Yoko Ono to be the Antichrist. That year, I heard my first bootleg album, the outtakes from “Let It Be” with Beatles renditions of several songs that would show up on various solo records.
[* Four years and a couple months later, her brother would be elected President of the United States, but we only knew her, and nothing of her family. Observing Billy, one can understand why.]
They even had this album, which was a double album
of interviews, no music, and Capitol Records cashing
in in the most exploitative manner possible.
And, having watched the teenaged boys with guitars attracting the teenage girls at the church camp with guitars on grassy lawns in the cooling evening with the cicadas droning on all horizons, I realized that I liked that, and I asked my cousin Steven Cornelius Roberts to teach me the guitar.
Which he kindly obliged.
Steve was the kindest boy I ever knew. He had a friend “Billy” who was an idiot. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I think he had Down Syndrome, or something similar and was in Special Ed, but Steve had Billy as a friend, because it was good for Billy to be around and to be accepted, and I can’t think of a lot of teenaged boys who would do a thing like that. Steve eventually dropped out of music and became a fine artist instead, and painted the murals in the Nebraska State Capitol building after a long jury selection process.
Nebraska State Capitol Mural: Steve self-portrait at far right
I’m sure he still plays guitar and drums, but at that time nobody knew that he could draw. There was just one painting of his in the house that summer, of an old man carrying a dead or sleeping boy from a stormy shore, and if you imagine a really bad paint-by-numbers version of that image and make it worse, that was it. Lot of greens. He had paintings in his room, but all faced the wall and no one was allowed to see them.
I was taught the “D” chord, the “A” chord and the “E” chord, and he showed me how to read the chord charts in the various music books they had — all Beatles. And the Beatles books all had a LOT of Seventh and Suspended chords and suchlike, and I decided there and then that I did not like Sevenths and have eschewed them with an almost religious zeal ever since.
I did, however, learn to play “Here Comes the Sun” since it’s mostly D and A and I could do that. C was kind of hard, so no attempt to render “C B A Leads The Way” was ever attempted. (B is a tough chord on the guitar at the nut. Better as a barre chord at the seventh fret. At least at the beginning.)
Aunty Em, Steve’s mom at far right - NE Capitol mural
I returned to Santa Fe from Omaha, knowing the guitar but WITHOUT a guitar, flying by Frontier turboprop from Denver to Santa Fe
[* Before they closed down the airport due to a taxpayer revolt over extending the runway, and all flying thereafter took place in Albuquerque after a 60 mile drive down the Bruce King Memorial Hyperspace Bypass, or as you turistas call it, Interstate 25.]
That spring, Robert K. had gotten us to the University of New Mexico Speech Tournament in forty minutes, never doing under a hundred miles an hour in his custom-paint Ford Torino while the speech coach sat white-knuckled in the passenger’s seat up front. She knew that Robert was not going to slow down so she didn’t say anything, just tried to dig her fingers as deeply into the plastic upholstery as it was possible to dig. He was a senior, and had the obligatory wealthy mother, and was the only guy I ever met in high school with his own (engraved) business cards. They said “Robert K. New Mexico Republican Party.”
1972 Ford Gran Torino family
And, what Steve taught me started to fade in the early autumn. But, as I said, I got the $14 no-name guitar and kept playing.
Now, there is a reason that I told you all that stuff about pianos and violins. And it’s this:
That guitar was the first instrument that I’d ever had that was MINE. I don’t mean physically mine, since I had to share it with my brother — who quickly obtained a classical guitar and went in the “easy on the fingers” guitar direction. I stuck with steel strings.
No: mine in my soul. Nobody else around me played one. Nobody could tell me HOW to play one, or force me to learn to read spots. I was sick of spots by that time.
And, from that point forward, there was never a time in the XXth Century that I did not have calluses on the ends of my fingers on the left hand, from playing the guitar. I even got, from time to time, blisters on my fingers, as the song says.
But it was MINE, conceptually. I would never “work” the guitar. I would only “play” the guitar. It was my instrument, for me, not for anybody else, nor did I play anyone else’s music. I got a couple of song books, and played a few songs from them, but from the beginning, the guitar was what I composed on. Period.
I didn’t learn other people’s licks. I didn’t play other people’s songs, feeling, rightly, that there are plenty of tape recorders, long play vinyl records, cassettes and 8-tracks in the world if you want to hear other people’s stuff. I resolved to never be a human jukebox on the guitar, and never to play any Sevenths.
Which pretty much killed the whole “sitting on the grass playing songs for teenage girls” thing.
Which was fine. I was one of those Emerson Lake & Palmer, Moody Blues, Yes, Jethro Tull teenagers, all heavy and angsty, but that never particularly interfered with my guitar playing, since nothing was particularly transferable to the guitar. I started writing songs, and wrote a lot of them, all bad.
But I stuck with it.
My only two memories of any social interaction on the guitar was once with a Jesus Freak, who was a reformed druggie now gettin’ high on The Lord. He started to show me some standard rock and roll licks, but I quickly ignored them. I didn’t want to do other people’s stuff. And, on a long ride to and from the Brophy Speech Tournament in Phoenix, Arizona, where I learned the joys of “Dr. Gertz’ Carbonated Celery Juice” at a delicatessen near the Catholic High School that sat just next to the Phoenix Suns basketball arena. “Carbonated Celery Juice” sounded too nasty NOT to try, and I can safely report that it tastes just like Ginger Ale from hell with a celery afterkick).
Somebody had a songbook, and I’d brought my guitar along, so we sang songs to and from Phoenix on US 60 and then I-25, with the leitmotif being “Dead Skunk In the Middle of the Road,” and a long parody of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” which became “Brophy’s Tournament,” and I discovered my lifelong odd talent for song parodies, which I’ve never done anything other than make them up on the spur of the moment and then promptly forget them.
Django Hendrix Segovia, the Muse of Guitar
End of social interactions with the guitar. I played, I composed. My guitar was my friend.
That Christmas, with their unerring sense of how to get ALMOST the right gift that turned into a hellish nightmare, my parents bought me a Sears Silvertone acoustic guitar. I had wanted an ELECTRIC guitar, and already HAD an acoustic guitar. Go figure. When I wanted a shortwave radio, I was given an AM radio, and so on and so forth.
It had dreadful tone (it wasn’t one of the classic Silvertones, but a ‘Seventies piece of crap from Asia) but at least the action was low and didn’t buzz.
I hated that guitar for two years, until Candy, my first wife, decided that the way to really piss me off was to take her Dr. Scholl’s wooden sandal and bust my new copy of Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” while it played on my Pioneer PL-10 turntable (which I still have). The seven-pound aluminum platter wasn’t harmed, but there was something happening there, and Mr. Jones was not at all aware of what it was. The record was busted seven ways to Sunday. Weirdly appropriately to the title.
It’s alright ma, I’m only smashing my guitar
I diverted my anger, and took that Sears Silvertone piece of crap and took out all my anger on it by smashing it to pieces on the concrete stoop. It may have been the single most and best cathartic moment of my life. This scared the crap out of Candy for some reason and the disagreement ended. Sam, my boss at the record store REPLACED the Dylan album, free of charge. And I told the story of the crappy dead guitar, and a little Hispanic guy who used to hang out across the street at The Hop (financed, it was said, by Space Opera’s only Epic Records album) said he had a “good guitar” that he’d sell me for $40. Well, that’s kind of how the deal went down.
I paid Esdrupy $15 and he gave me a pawn ticket that I got the guitar out of hock with for $25. It was a Yamaha FG-110, and, little did I realize it, but I would own that guitar for nearly 22 years.
Someone, probably Esdrupy, had taken a Bic pen and inscribed a five-pointed star in the soft wood of the soundboard, just above the pick guard, by the fretboard. It was one of those haphazard stars you draw in one motion. Why it was there was a mystery but it stayed there as long as I had it.
I’m not going to take you through the adventures that the FG-110 and I had over the years. Bands and friends and wives and other guitars (a whole lot of them: Martins, Gibsons, Lyles, two Guild Starfires, Ibanez, Univox, Takamine, Fender, electrics, 12-strings, a dobro, etc. etc.)
But since I never “worked” music, and the writing always paid for my freedom, when I did perform, I never had to compromise. I never had to play a certain set of songs, or cater to some clubowner’s needs. Music has always been my ‘payment’ for incarnating on this crummy planet, and I never fell into that horrible malaise that comes of — in the words of one rock critic — “getting all your records for free.” My guitar has always been free to roam where it will, untrammeled by considerations of commerce or of “being commercial.”
Eventually, I had a style of my own and played other people’s stuff, but the guitar was always mine. Always a place to play and never to work.
And I have always had music with me, ever since: my music. I do other people’s stuff now and then, but still what I play are the things that I learned over the years and composed and played. I spent several years on stage, but only if I did a significant portion of my set filled with originals. I’ve written so many songs that I can’t begin to remember them all, but I have notebooks of them, and notebooks stolen, and remembered songs, lost songs, and even, once, a song that I’d forgotten since 1981 that came back to me in 1998 via a most unusual route.
When the final jones has passed and the fortune teller prays
and old ladies show their panties on those busmen’s holidays
and the laughing boy dictators in their polyester clothes
will wipe the final traces of the cocaine from their nose
The heart repairman’s union will declare a wildcat strike
and you won’t know what to make of it,
so you’ll make it what you like …
And so forth.
I mostly use words as musical notes. I mean, if you LISTEN to rock and roll lyrics, they’re usually stupid, and you just have them there for the music. Sorry, every Rolling Stone critic who went into long English Literature major deconstruction of every song lyric ever heard and reviewed. Maybe that’s the reason I never ended up doing much writing for the music industry. These cats never seemed to get that music isn’t “work.” So, I remained willfully ignorant and moved in other directions.
And my whole experience of the guitar has been one of willful ignorance.
I didn’t cop licks, I learned chords, but intentionally stuck with major and minor chords and octave fifths.
In fact, I remember reading an interview with later Sir George Martin in which he said that the Beatles did things that no trained musician would do, because TRAINED musicians wouldn’t do such things. And I decided that, in many ways, ignorance CAN be bliss.*
[* Many years later, I knew a working musician (who specialized in getting long-running bar gigs and short-running round-heeled women) who kept trying to write stuff, but HE KNEW TOO MANY SONGS! He'd get something he liked and then realize: Oh, that's from Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Led Zeppelin or Hank Williams or whomever. And he'd have to stop. He couldn't UNknow all those memorized songs, and so he would stop and the song would remain unfinished and he'd seek solace in the arms of yet another attractive tourist. Poor guy.]
I’d taken a semester of Music Theory in college, and realized that I knew just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to know anything. I like structure, I always have, and most of my composition is based on very clean structure. I focused on being a true “rhythm” guitarist — again, there are enough lead guitarists in the world, and in the modern rock band, a true rhythm guitarist is always welcome, although, inevitably, I’d always end up jamming with the drummer and the bass player.
I built my own style, wrote my own songs, found my own voice.
There’s no time to tell the luthier story, the new machine heads story, the bone bridge and the Thinline® story. Many adventures.
In 1992, a woman had my guitar (and every press clip I ever garnered, my certificates and birth certificate) sent to the dump over some misperceived “sin” that blamed me for her landlord finding out that she’d sublet her apartment against his rules and got herself evicted. Reasoning that what I had done had somehow caused the person who was subletting to cluelessly go to him, giving up the game, my FG-110, the manuscript of my first novel, the only copies of my first two novels, the script to the Lust Bug, a lot of drawings and acrylic paintings all went to the Tesuque landfill.
My beloved Guild Starfire (with harp bridge) pawned
to benefit the pirate who stole my daughter …
And life moved on. Again, I had the weird luck: musicians I knew were leaving for Seattle, and one had a black Ibanez with a busted back strut, which he didn’t have any room for and basically forced on me for ten bucks and a short eighth. And from 1992 that was my guitar. It was a better guitar sonically, and for some reason, twenty years later, the busted back strut still hasn’t caused any great diminution of its sound and the neck and frets are clean. He’d just refretted it DIY, and, after slicing a couple fingers, I got a jeweler’s file and ground the frets back to flush with the neck at the sides.
And so until about 2002, when I bought an Ovation Celebrity (mostly for the pre-amp and the great amplified sound, because otherwise, I HATE Ovations and their plastic backs) that jet-black guitar was my faithful steed. I still have both guitars.
But I had been diagnosed in 1998 with Type II diabetes. By 2004, diabetic neuropathy robbed me of the ability to play the guitar, and I went through a long period of acceptance: I’d had a good run. I had no regrets, and if I could never play the guitar again, so be it. But it seemed apparent that I would never play the guitar again, and that was a kind of memento mori that we all get, eventually, and none of us want, ever.
And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plow, lose my land, I won’t have to plow no more.
I’m being followed by a moonshadow: moonshadow moonshadow
Cat Stevens song I bring up for an important reason, because if anybody were ever so foolish as to ask me “Who are your greatest influences?” mostly because it saves music writers the bother of actually asking intelligent, thoughtful questions, this is what I’d tell them:
Such and such and so and so, but mostly Cat Stevens. Not for his “guitar hero” playing (because he’s not) but for his unique and uniquely powerful sense of RHYTHM.
See? I told you I was a rhythm guitarist.
Several years passed, and I found myself TRANSFERRING everything I’d learned about rhythm, strings and intervals back to the piano.
Once, in Santa Fe, Steve the funk guitarist told me: “You know what your problem is, Hart?”
(People have been extremely generous throughout my entire life in letting me know what my “problem” is, kind-hearted souls that they are.)
No, I said.
He looked at me: “You play the guitar like a piano.”
Well, now I play the piano like a guitar. Maybe that solves my problem. I don’t know.
Second wife with third guitar
Fort the first time since my senior year in high school, I didn’t have those calluses on my fingers. I had the guitars, but the guitarist was gone and I just sucked it up and transferred the music to the piano and didn’t mourn. But part of that was NEVER thinking that I’d never be able to play the guitar again. Not because it wasn’t probably true, but because it merely created pointless pain, and who needs that? We’ve got enough pain to go around without ginning up new pain through our fantasies about things we will never know. Kind of like how Republicans feel such pain at the thought that their “hard-earned money” is going to pay for some freeloader’s Cadillac. It’s invisible money, but nothing hurts a Republican more than the loss of imaginary money to imaginary people. The pain is real, the fantasy isn’t.
(Hint: rather than being angry and hurt about my tax money going for the wars, or the drug wars or whatever, I think of the Space Telescope and think that every dollar I ever paid in taxes goes to pay for it. The bad stuff gets paid for by those other people, who are miserable about it, but I don’t regret any taxes I pay. None of it changes anything, but I am happy and those others are miserable, both by self-choice.)
treble and bass clef
But I started on Alpha Lipoic acid for neuropathy (me, as internet physician, not any doctor or herbalist), and I bought a NEW guitar, the modern Yamaha equivalent of the old FG-110, and, except for the much better tuning heads, it’s as identical as I’m likely to get.
And then, in 2010 or 2011, I started playing again.
I had trouble forming easy chords, but with playing and practice, it’s begun to come back. Like riding a bicycle, after all. And I’m writing new songs again, and I can stand to listen to my tone and phrasing with only the occasional bad note. The calluses are coming back, and the neuropathy dulls the pain that is the price for playing steel-stringed guitars.
Model of my current electric – Les Paul gold flake
Even better, having given up the notion of ever playing again, ALL playing is gravy. I’m happy for anything I can do on the guitar, which I thought I’d lost for good.
And, playing that guitar last night, it spoke to me, and it said:
You’ve been playing the guitar for forty years now. You’re a writer: write about it.
And so I have.
You’re welcome, guitar. Now you don’t need to get weepy.
Because even gently, my guitar weeping is not a thing I want to see.
Oh, and forty years later, in case I didn’t say so: Thanks Steve. I very much appreciate you teaching me to play the guitar on a hot Nebraska night.
PS: Here’s a Lyle Lovett piece that I usually close my shows with. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever done, but it’s the quickest thing I could find.