Monday, February 16, 2009

And STILL My Guitar Gently Weeps

Lately, I've spent a lot of time thinking about wants and needs. I've been having that conversation with myself on whether I want something or whether I need something. I guess it's a natural result of finally not having to live from hand-to-mouth and sweating where the rent is gonna come from. For the first time in what seems like forever, I don't feel strapped for cash. Granted, that might change in a week, but right now, at this moment, life is good and manageable.

But as far as needs go, yeah, I snapped my too-awesome-for-words prescription sunglasses in half a couple of weeks ago, and I needed to spend the scratch necessary to replace them. That couldn't be helped. But I considered doubling down and getting two pair, just because.

I didn't though--I just ordered the one replacement pair, but I thought about having a spare on hand. Eventually I might, but that's more of a want than an actual need.

I guess I really don't need anything right now except to pay the bills on time, and luckily for me, the next batch are already paid. Of course, I'm still driving around with a dented fender that's gonna cost me over a thousand dollars to fix, and my biggest annual expense is coming up in a month (March Madness), but the fender can wait until I stumble into my next windfall, and well, March Madness has basically turned into the only holiday I'm able to celebrate. It would be easier to cancel Christmas than to keep me from the Madness, so that expense is built into my budgetary DNA like food, clothing, shelter, and taxes--it cannot be avoided.

But I've been thinking of spending a little money on something that brings me joy, a philosophy that my wise friend Linda introduced me to recently--basically, I should avoid things that don't bring me joy, and work for things that do. Now, there are a lot of unavoidables in life that don't bring much joy, but on the side of the ledger that I can control, well, why not?

One of the things I really enjoyed quite a bit back in the day (about ten years ago), was playing the guitar. Now, I'm going to own up to the fact that I was likely the world's worst musician, and other real musicians would think I was a total hack. I got by with rote memorization and practice, as I cannot read music and my improvisational skills were downright terrible. Basically, I sucked at it. Non-musicians who watched me thought I was good, and I played in front of crowds many many times, but those who truly had talent were nice enough to always offer encouragement instead of criticism. And I'm cool with admitting it--I wish I were a skilled musician, but I'm just not wired to be one.

As Major Winchester famously said, I can play the notes, but I cannot make music. Of all the great lines ever uttered in M*A*S*H, that one has always stuck with me, because it hit the closest to home. It describes me to a T.

But even as untalented as I was, music was still a lot of fun for me. And I embraced it fully. I never harbored any fantasies of being a rock star, but I sure had some fun being in a band and playing onstage.

I always wanted to play guitar, but coming from a family of six kids, there was no money for any kind of music lessons unless it was for piano, because we already had one of those in the living room. I knew my parents would never buy me a guitar, but then again, I never asked for one, either.

Speaking of pianos, however, do you want to know the biggest crime against music ever perpetrated? (I mean, besides Paul McCartney's post-Beatles career). Let me tell you...

When we were kids, my parents had a huge old-skool upright piano--the kind they had in saloons out in the old west. We had it as long as I can remember and I have no idea where it came from or whatever happened to it--it might have been part of the family even before I was. It was older than dirt and had chipped and uneven keys, but my mom and sisters played it every day for years. And the running joke in the family was that my dad said he'd replace it with a brand new baby grand if anyone could ever learn to play Rhapsody in Blue so that it sounded just like the version on his Boston Pops album...

Anyhow, for god knows what reason, my parents decided that the stained wood finish wasn't contemporary enough for our swingin' Seventies living room, so they got out the brushes and rollers and painted that sucker avocado green. I shit you not. We had an avocado green piano for years. And it wasn't spray-painted, either. It had all the brush marks. Talk about a conversation piece--it was as mod and trendy as our Jetson's-style retro-futuristic wall clock that never worked and the circular leopard-print lounge chair.

Clearly, being raised around all that cool hipness has shaped who I am today.

But let's get back to the subject at hand--my one-sided love affair with the guitar. Back in 1992, when I first got to ASU and had a little bit of student-loan money left over after paying for school and flying lessons, I bought an entry-level Alvarez acoustic guitar. It was about a hundred bucks, and I got it at my favorite music store in the world, Milano Music in Mesa, Arizona.

I signed up for weekly lessons, and although I didn't practice nearly as much as I should've, the first songs I learned to play were Stairway to Heaven (of course) and Every Rose Has It's Thorn (yeah it does...). My teacher tried to get me to practice chords and scales, but I didn't really put my heart into it--I was more interested in learning licks and the recognizable parts of songs, so it was kind of a waste of my money and my instructor's time. But I fiddled around and took lessons all summer long, and pulled out the Alvarez out of the closet from time to time over the next couple of years.

I guess the bug got to me again in 1995, when I started working full-time and had a little bit of extra cash again. The acoustic guitar was fun and all, but it was too hard to play and tough on the fingers. Besides, it wasn't nearly as cool as an electric guitar, so one day I went back to Milano's and picked up a bright red Japanese-made Squier Stratocaster.

In the electric-guitar world, it is definitely the entry-level baby-steps model, although to the untrained eye, it looks every bit as cool as the real thing. But it's Fender's low-priced beginner's guitar, made out of cheap parts and stamped metal, with all the fit and finish of a surplus Chinese ammo can.

Actually, it was a great guitar to learn on--I couldn't hurt it, and since I was running it through a cheap 15 watt transistor amp anyways, the sound quality was just fine for my purposes. It was lots of fun to play, and the first song I learned with my cool new electric guitar (besides figuring out Smoke on the Water the day I brought it home) was Led Zeppelin's Black Dog, followed shortly thereafter by Rock You Like A Hurricane.

At that point, I sold the old Alvarez to a guy in my office for fifty bucks, and started taking lessons again, dreaming of being the first bald guy in a hair band since Rob Halford of Judas Priest, minus, of course, the whole Village People wardrobe and lifestyle...

After a few more months of lessons, it was clear to me that my little 15 watt amp wasn't nearly adequate, and I needed to get some real gear. I couldn't afford a Marshall stack, the industry standard, so I got me a Peavey Transtube 112, with an extra 12-inch speaker cabinet underneath, kicking out a full face-melting and ear-splitting hundred watts of power.

With that amp, it didn't matter that I was playing a cheap guitar, especially on full distortion. If I turned it up past three, it would rattle the windows in the house; past four, and you could dry your hair in front of it. If I cranked it to five, the cops showed up. I shudder to think what would've happened had I turned it up to eleven...

That was my rig for a couple of years, and I had a lot of fun with it. One of my favorite memories was on the Fourth of July back in 1996, when I had the most annoying neighbors ever. At 7:00 am that morning, I set up my gear out in the driveway, ran an extension cord back into the garage, turned the amp up as loud as I could stand it, and ripped into Jimi Hendrix's distorted Woodstock version of The Star Spangled Banner.

Oh hell yeah.

My visionary roommate suggested that I videotape my performance and send it into the Arizona Rattlers, perhaps earning a gig performing the national anthem before an arena football league game. Alas, it was not a crowd favorite, judging from the reactions of the neighbors, so my musical genius remained unrecognized.

And so it went for another year or so. By then, Reverend Dave was waking up to something that the rest of the family had known for years--that his wife was a complete f*cking moron--and he showed up at my house in the middle of the night with all of his clothes in tow, looking for a place to crash. Now, while I'd been pursuing the guitar all this time, Reverend Dave always wanted to play the drums, but having a bitch for a wife precluded him from doing pretty much anything enjoyable. But that all changed when he moved out of the Disney House of Pain and back into a proper bachelor pad.

A perfect storm of events happened right about then. Guitar Center was flooding the airwaves announcing their grand opening blowout sale the next week, and Reverend Dave got a new Citibank Platinum Visa with a $25,000 limit in the mail. Wanting to treat himself to something nice, like a new set of Pearl drums, we went down in the pouring rain and stood in line at the new Guitar Center in Ahwatukee, hoping to be lucky enough to be some of the first ones in the store to take advantage of the ridiculous one-night-only sale prices.

As I recall, that night I was also fighting the worst case of food poisoning I've ever had. I was miserable, puking or squirting every five minutes, but I didn't want to miss out on a chance to pick up a new guitar for a song, so I gutted it up and we were there a couple hours early, standing in line like stoners trying to score KISS tickets.

When they finally opened the doors, they only let like 150 people in, and Reverend Dave and I were lucky enough to be in the first group. In front of me was a wall of guitars like I'd never seen before, and I stood there with my mouth agape, trying to comprehend the sensory overload before me. Eventually, I gathered my bearings and shuffled over to the Fender section of the display. The VP of sales for Fender America was there on hand, and like a well-seasoned used-car salesman, he flattered me by telling me that I looked like a man that could use a new Stratocaster.

Why yes, yes I could...

When I saw The One, it was love at first sight--even more amazing than the night I met Trisha Tame up at the dorms ten years earlier during my freshmen year in college... There in front of me, hanging on the wall, with a chorus of angels singing in the background and a spotlight directly from heaven shining down upon on it, was the absolute most beautiful guitar I'd ever laid my eyes on. It was an extremely limited edition Fender Plus Deluxe Stratocaster, with Lace pickups, a blue burst finish, a pearl pickguard, a rosewood neck with abalone inlays, brushed nickel locking keys, a Floyd Rose bridge, and a ball-bearing nut. If it were a car, it would be a Ferrari Enzo. If it were a woman, it would be Ann Margaret. If it were a church, there's this chapel in Florence... You get the idea. I simply had to have it. We were completely beyond the 'want' frontier and deep into 'need' territory at that point.

Since Reverend Dave had kindly offered up the 'Get whatever you want as long as you pay the interest on it' proposal, price was no object for me. I would've gladly sold myself into servitude for seven years to get my hands on that guitar. But it was Bargain Night at Guitar Center, and that beautiful guitar which was ticketed at $1399 was on sale for ONE hour only for $599.

I told Mr. VP of Sales that if he could throw in a nice Fender hardcase for another hundred bucks, I'd drive it off the showroom floor right then and there.


So they packed it all up for me, and I bought a few other things like a strap and some picks, while Reverend Dave was over in the percussion department negotiating a deal on a new five-piece drum kit and a set of cymbals.

One hour and a few thousand dollars later, we were loading up the back of his piece-of-shiat Volvo like Jake and Elwood leaving Ray's Music Exchange. Once we got home, it was like Christmas morning for us, and we were up all night playing with our new toys. I was so proud that I strutted around for a week like a peacock who nailed the prom queen.

I had a one-of-a-kind guitar, and I loved it. It was beautiful. And everyone else loved it, too. I became known as "that bald guy with the beautiful blue Strat" in musical circles around town. At that point, I began to take it a little more seriously, and eventually formed a band with a couple of other guys. I practiced a lot, even more so with the band, and actually got to be a decent guitarist.

Our band never really went anywhere, we only played a couple of 'real' gigs, and somewhere out there, there is footage of me onstage going to town doing the lead guitar on a surf medley, and just as I ripped into the hook on Wipeout, some dude on a bicycle went cruising past the stage in front of me, totally breaking my concentration. A beach ball or a pair of panties would've been much cooler. But I recovered, the audience oblivious to my fat-fingered-f*ckup.

Anyone who's ever been in a band can tell you that one guitar and an amp is simply not enough. So I started collecting gear. In addition to my Peavey stack, I ended up with a whole rack full of goodies--a light bar, a rack tuner, a sonic maximizer, an EQ, a full effects processor, a few pedals, etc etc... Playing guitar got to be an expensive hobby, but I really had a lot of fun with it. And I enjoyed the hell out of being in a band, and I was one of the few people who actually looked forward to practice, too.

And while I loved loved loved my pretty blue Strat, I couldn't give a proper showing to Guns 'n Roses or Led Zep with it. Jimmy Page and Slash both played a Les Paul, so I had to get one too. I ended up spending a small fortune on another beautiful guitar, this time it was a Gibson Les Paul Studio, wine colored with gold hardware. It was sharp. It weighed a ton, kinda like having a cinder block strapped to you, but man, the sustain on that thing was just nuts. And even though it took me more than a month to learn, when I played Sweet Child O' Mine, and could finally make it sound just like the CD, I was in my happy place.

That was a nice guitar--it felt great in my hands, and like I said, the sound was amazing. I only wished that I had the talent to really make it shine. Oh, I could play it, but in the hands of somebody truly talented, man, it was just a thing of beauty.

By that point, most of my social life revolved around the local music scene in Phoenix. I spent my weekends going to dive bars and blues clubs, checking out friend's bands and seeing up-and-comers. And since I had such nice gear, a lot of my friends would ask me to come see them play, and also bring along one of my guitars. So I'd end up onstage as a guest musician, playing a couple of songs here and there, and then I'd let the real musicians take over, and they'd use my guitar for the rest of the set. It was a lot of fun, and I played in a lot of different places all around town.

I remember my first live stage performance was at a place called Cactus Jack's down in Ahwatukee. It was a smallish bar, but it was always packed on weekends. I was friends with the band, and I was sitting there alone at a table during their first set. I tried to start a conversation with the two girls at the table next to me, but they just looked at me like I smelled bad. Oh well.


But then during the break, my buddy asked if I wanted to come up and play a few songs during the next set, and feeling supremely confident, I agreed to. About a half hour later, after they'd played a couple, they introduced me and called me up onstage to join them. I strapped on my buddy's Les Paul and we played a few tunes--easy stuff like Brown Eyed Girl, Low, Cumbersome, stuff like that...

And when I came back down from the stage, the most amazing thing happened--not only did I get a huge round of applause, but the chicks who previously didn't want anything to do with me suddenly pulled their chairs over to my table and bought the next round.

Oh hell yeah, one could get used to that type of positive reinforcement. So I went out every weekend, either playing with my own band or sitting in with others--and it went on for a couple of years.

At some point, I felt like I needed an acoustic guitar again, just because, well, you gotta have an acoustic guitar. So I picked up a Washburn D11. It wasn't a beginner's model, but then again, it wasn't a ridiculously overpriced thing like an Ovation or a Martin, but it sure had a nice tone to it. Everybody loved it--my old roommate Derek, especially. It was pretty, too--a nice dark wine color, almost like my Les Paul. And life's too short to play ugly guitars, so you may as well get a sexy one.

One of my fondest memories of that guitar was one on Halloween, we decided to skip the band practice, and I had everyone over to the house that night for a BBQ and a bonfire. Everyone from the band showed up with an accoustic, and even our drummer Arnie brought an acoustic bass with him. After dinner and a few beers, we gathered in a circle in the backyard and had our own five man acoustical jam. The neighbors started showing up, and it eventually turned into a full blown party--we stayed up way past midnight playing and singing every song we knew, finally wrapping it up when the beer ran out. It was a great time -- just one of those magical nights that you wish you could put in a bottle and open it up once a year when the weather is nice and there's a full moon out.

Like I said, I had a lot of fun back in those days, and I really miss playing in a band. I miss my old blue Stratocaster even more--it was probably the most famous guitar in Phoenix at one point in the late 90s. I remember about eight or nine years ago--long before I'd ever considered moving to Las Vegas--and me and Eddie B were here in town for a weekend of buffoonery. We were wandering around the Venetian on a Friday night, and the casino was just packed. When suddenly, out of the crowd, some random guy approached me and said Hey--you're that guy with the blue Stratocaster, aren't you?!?!?

Both Eddie and I stopped dead in our tracks, and I admitted that yes, I was he.

Yeah man, I saw you playing at the Alamo Saloon down in Fountain Hills a couple of months ago!

Fame! I wanna live forever!

Eddie was impressed, too.

Anyhow, it seems that those days are gone forever. The band broke up, eventually--too many type-A personalities locked in a small room will do that. And the financial disaster of the bursting technology bubble has been well-documented on these pages already. Eventually, all those guitars made their way to the pawn shop, back when I was just trying to scratch up enough money to remain living indoors.

The blue Strat was the last to go. I'll always remember the day I sold it--I felt like I was trading a priceless artifact for a tank of gas and a few groceries, but I had no choice at the time. Looking back, I should've sold it to a friend of mine who would babysit it until things got better, but my stubborn pride wouldn't let me do that. Perhaps it was better that a stranger took it off my hands, and instead of a festering wound that won't heal, well, I have a small scar with a story behind it. Besides, they say you can't really play the blues on a guitar unless it's been in the pawn shop. I just hope that somebody, somewhere at the crossroads is playing the hell out of it, getting as much joy as I did.

But I'll always remember it fondly, like a first love. That blue guitar was literally one in a million, and they don't make 'em like that anymore. I've moved on, but I'm ready to take the plunge again, I think. Perhaps tomorrow I'll go down to the pawn shop and see what's available.

It's not that I want to. I think I need to.


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