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I was over a friend’s house recently when his son burst into the living room proclaiming he was going to start a rock band with his friends. It was a scene I participated in many times during my youth, the thrill of the larger-than-life expectations undiminished yet by that dreaded “real world.” Being a supportive “uncle” I offered to show him some guitar chords and a few tricks he could probably get by with. Lord knows how some of these golden fakes served me.

The young boy looked at me with the most quizzical eyes, as if I had just recited The Iliad in Esperanto while standing on my head. “What are chords?” he asked.

“He’s talking about forming a ‘Rock Band’ band, not a real band,” his father confided to me. The boy gnashed his teeth and spun out of the room, infuriated by his father’s distinction. Yes, this kid was talking about forming a digital equivalent of a band with his friends through his X-Box, not the actual process of writing and performing songs but, in his mind, the two were one and the same. “Don’t be offended. He gets like that lately.”

I found the whole concept depressing. A few generations ago, the story went that The Velvet Underground weren’t huge but everyone who saw them play formed their own band. Although Nirvana was a lot more successful, they too spawned a legion of guitar slingers with this notion that it could be done. The thought that those days were past us and now the act of creativity was relegated to just as much vector spaceships spinning to blast ‘asteroids’ weighed heavily on me for a good long while. I’m not alone in this either. By doing a little reaseach – well, okay, more like a little web-surfing – I’ve found an undercurrent voicing this same opinion, that creative, artistic expression is slowly being co-opted by facsimile. Some go as far as dubbing it “art porn” though that may be too harsh.

There are similarities though. Our standard concept of pornography is that it is a depiction of sexuality that is used to substitute the real thing. Along those lines, then fine, a ‘rock band’ that supplants a rock band is creepily similar to the sexual counterpart, being all bang and no real relationship, not even involving real people, just images on a screen that reward you for touching at the right time and penalizing when you’ve pushed the button at the wrong time. For me, the incongruity lies in that exposure to a music role-playing game isn’t liable to screw up your ideas about what performers really want from their fake guitar players.

No, for myself I think about what these youth, who have somehow fallen into the notion that they’re making something, are missing. Currently hanging on the wall of the room where I’m writing this is an acoustic guitar. It’s made by Hondo and probably could use a dust rag dragged underneath the string array. The frets are a little nubbed and could definitely stand some repair work, but when I pick it up and strum across that sound-hole, I get a decent, pleasing tone. I’ll never be Mark Knopfler and don’t think that doesn’t tick me off as well, but I can rustle up a tune when called upon.

This is not my guitar, although I own it. If I live to be a hundred and still have the thing, it will never be my guitar. It was given to me by my grandfather John. He had a workshop in the backyard of his house, once a garage but converted into a sort of a club house. This is where he went to have the occasional beer, smoke the occasional cigar and pop in a VHS tape to watch Chuck Norris kick the occasional ass. In this box of stick-em tiles, exposed ceiling beams and wood paneled walls, he showed me, or atttempted to show me, the proper finger placement on the fretboard. He showed me how to get a sustained note, how to graze a string to produce a harmonic and how to focus so that it all came together in the form of a real, flesh and blood song.

emmajohnOn one of these impromptu lessons, I hit record on my portable boom-box. This way I could take the tape, and that Hondo guitar, home with me to practice. Poppy, as we called him, picked up his guitar, found his finger placement, started strumming and sang, “Your cheatin’ heart will make you weep – You’re moving from this chord to that chord on the word ‘weep‘ – You’ll cry and cry and try to sleep – Now you’re taking it back to that first chord – But sleep won’t come the whole night through – And follow it up – Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you…”

There was a good block of time when I had forsaken that guitar, any guitar for that matter. Still, I had that cassette. I stored it away in my closet. Those lessons, but that one in particular, meant so much to me. I wished to keep it so that I could hear it on those days when I needed to feel connected. One such day was a dreary spring. I got the call at work from my sister. Poppy was at the hospital, the COPD that was knocking him around during those last few years was finally taking its toll. I needed to get down to the hospital as soon as I could. After some cajoling of the boss, which in hindsight probably sounded more like angry whining, I was off to make the twenty minute trek. I arrived before some of my other relatives, but we assembled eventually. When the last cousin finally arrived, Poppy breathed a sigh of relief, having seen his family all in one place one more time, and was gone.

There was a lot of crying, as could naturally be expected, and the loss that seized everyone was more than palpable. Poppy was just that kind of outsized personality, whether it was cheering his beloved Giants on to the touchdown, tossing the baseball at the park, or showing his grandson how to knock out a tune. Some people who leave are a loss, and others make you yourself feel lost, but I had my ace. I was determined to get home and dig that tape out of the closet, hear him once again trying to out-Hank Hank Williams and get some comfort in his instructions. “You’re moving from this chord to that chord on the word ‘weep'” After some frantic digging, I did find the tape. It was shoved in a box that stored my old Burger King Empire Strikes Back glasses (it has a couple Muppets Take Manhattan glasses in there too.) I rushed the tape to the deck, popped it in and hit play. The inner spools had seized over time into a sticky, black oval, unmovable. Unplayable. I stared at the deck, then zeroed in on the cassette in all it’s uselessness. The rain was still falling outside and the day had that strange cast to it, like it might never be sunny again, the kind of gray that infects the most porous parts of your bones. I must have sat staring at that thing for hours. That is when I truly felt my grandfather die.

That is, until I take that Hondo guitar down from the wall and give it a strum. It doesn’t matter what I’m playing either, be it “Blister In The Sun” or “Heart Of Gold” or dear old Hank. When that tone drifts out, my grandfather is there somewhere, and that is why even if I have that instrument until my dying day, it will never truly be mine. Sure, you can feel like you’re a rock and roll celebrity when you’re twiddling those buttons on your Strat-shaped controller, and sure you can punch along with Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain or, very soon, John Lennon, but video-game musicians will never conjure up the dead like I can, with only a couple chords and the right tempo.

rock bandI’m not telling you to not enjoy playing games, but when the game is done, get into the real thing. The easy way out may give you pleasure for a moment or two, but you have no idea of what you’re missing in that substitution.

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