Valentine’s Day weekend 2016
It’s a gray and frigid morning, a couple of weeks before my 49th birthday, and I am standing with my wife in a strip-mall Guitar Center. It’s a Saturday, and the place is crawling with kids too young even to be teenage dirtbags — tweeners, packs of them, whose mothers have dropped them here unattended while they go to browse the tchotchkes at the Christmas Tree Shops. The kids are not there to buy, or even to shop seriously; they are killing time, noodling at “Iron Man” and “Teen Spirit,” at “Smoke on the Water” and the goddam sweater song. Tale as old as time. The din is horrific.
I glance at Danielle, who smiles encouragingly and squeezes my hand. I look around the sales floor ‘til I find something that looks likely, something big and suitably loud, then flag down a sales clerk.
“D’you have a bass I could borrow so I can test-drive one of those amps?” I ask. “Nothing fancy.” I do not say aloud We have money in hand, and are ready to buy today. I do not have to. The clerk looks us over, sizes us up, and she cannot help us fast enough.
My irregular stints as a working musician began when I was still in my teens, and my gear was always mostly borrowed or secondhand. When I played in my brother’s bands, I used his equipment. For my infrequent solo shows, I would rely on the house PA and an assortment of loaner guitars. When I scored brief gig as fill-in bass player for Boston folk-punk scenesters We Saw the Wolf, I played — both on stage and in the studio — a plywood Sears-Roebuck bass that Danielle had gotten as a teenager. It weighed about 35 pounds, and the action was so high the strings felt like plumbing pipe, but I could make it do everything I needed it to do.
A rough mix of “Chills,” written by Andy Nagy and performed by We Saw the Wolf. I’m on bass and backing vocals. A remixed version is available on the album On the Shore.
Some musicians love gear for its own sake, but that’s never been my scene. In part that’s because I’ve never had the disposable income you need to be a real connoisseur, but in part it’s a simple acknowledgement of the respective roles and limitations of the instrument and the musician. A bad instrument might make a good player sound worse, but a good instrument can’t make a bad player sound better. A guitar is just a plank; the magic resides not in the wood, but in the musician. The instrument is just a tool, like a hammer. And you can drive a nail just as effectively with a three-dollar hammer as with a fancy hundred-dollar hammer. So I’ve always been a big believer in going out with the bare minimum that you need to start swinging away.
In 2003, we moved our family from Massachusetts — from the town where Danielle and I had both grown up — to Rochester. Most of my borrowed equipment was left behind. Looking at a fresh start, I put together a new acoustic solo act, mixing classic rock and blues, fingerstyle jazz, and a heavy dollop of folk, drawing on the styles of heroes like Chris Whitley, Richard Thompson, and Nick Drake. I invested serious money (for me) in a nice PA system — a four-channel mixer and two cabs — and some decent microphones and stands. I played coffeeshops, organic groceries, even a mental hospital. I found within the format the freedom to play a satisfying mix of music; I even played my own songs now and then. I felt like I was going somewhere.
Then, one night after a late gig, someone broke into my car and stole my entire PA system. I would not play another gig for ten years.
It’s the day before Valentine’s Day, 2016, and Danielle has announced that she wishes to make me an extravagant gift. I’ve been working full-time from home for a couple of years now, and I’ve started thinking about gigging again — mostly to get me out of the house. Danielle is in favor of this.
We talk about what it would take to get me out again — the bare minimum investment that would make me a marketable musician once more. We take stock. We have an acoustic-electric guitar, beat-up and missing a knob; a solid-body electric with bad wiring; and Danielle’s old bass, built like a brick shithouse and showing no evidence of age. No amps, no mics, no mixers — all of that is long since given away, sold, or stolen.
Rather than a PA system or guitar gear, we decide on a bass amp. Bass was always my best instrument, and my favorite to play. I figure a solid pocket player can always find a gig. And a bass amp would provide the most bang for the buck. Guitar players are a dime a dozen, and frankly I’m not that good — and buying an amp is just a first step; then you start buying pedals, and there’s no fucking end to it. Having the PA, meanwhile, would make it my band, and I’m hoping to step into an ensemble that’s already gigging rather than build one from scratch. So a bass amp it is.
I take a borrowed MusicMan four-string from the Guitar Center clerk, and I plug into a nice Peavey combo that’s out on the floor. Three hundred watts. Fifteen-inch speaker. Reasonably priced — marked down, in fact, on account of being a floor model with scratches and dings. Flip the switch. There’s a barely audible pop and an expectant hum. Somewhere nearby, a twelve-year-old is crucifying “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” I feel a million years old, my hands big and clumsy.
Hesitantly, softly, I start in on a sixteen-bar walking blues in A. I fiddle with the amp tone, dialing in a warm, distorted growl. I play “My City Was Gone.” My fingers loosen up. Good pop in the highs. Even at this volume, I can feel the music in my chest. I lay down the stalking opening line of the Smithereens’ “Blood and Roses,” way down low. The rumble goes up my legs. I play it all the way through. I take my time.
Finally, I look at Danielle. I nod my head. She whips out her credit card.
The amp weighs fifty pounds, but it feels like a newborn baby in my arms as I carry it to Danielle’s Jeep.
“Well,” I say to myself. “Here goes nothing.”
Next month: Advertisements for Myself on the Way Out