While I Gently Weep For My Guitar

January 2, 2011

I think that I had to be sixteen or seventeen before I ever held an electric guitar.

It must have been a BC Rich as it belonged to the younger brother of my buddy Beej and younger brother was a metalhead who aspired to join Dave Murray and Adrian Smith in Iron Maiden.

The next time I ever held a guitar was a good five years later. A housemate in college, Billy, owned a white ’64 Gibson SG.

Many nights we’d be hanging out in the living room watching some bad movie on late-night cable. Billy would be sitting there mindlessly playing scales and, on occasion, he’d show me a chord or two.

Over time, I’d grab the guitar from its case and monkey around with it when Billy was at work and I was likely supposed to be in class.

(cable and a couch trumps class on a cold winter’s afternoon handily)

I figured out how to play Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more of a rush of accomplishment.

Billy noted my increased interest in the instrument. He told me tales of the guitar’s history, of how it had supposedly once changed hands as part of a drug deal and how it had once belonged to a guitarist in a band called Mike & The Raiders.

(it was all so rock and roll)

Obviously I had no way to know how much was true, but the wear and tear apparent in the nicks and scratches on the guitar made anything seem possible.

Billy also had a bit of an agenda. He wanted a Fender Stratocaster.

And so, for a pittance of the SG’s worth, the guitar became mine.

I’d like to tell of how I played it ’til my fingers bled, put a band together, and that I now have a mansion and a yacht. I have no doubt that, in some parallel universe, that is exactly how it played out.

In this universe, the guitar was stolen from our house less than six months after I bought it.

I caught a few breaks, a canary sang, and I tracked the perp – a high school student – to his hometown four hours away.

The police, the attorney of the kid’s parents, and a co-worker that had done six years for armed robbery became involved, but, in the end, the guitar had been destroyed.

(or so I was told)

In some parallel universe, the co-worker did decide to go after the kid and shanked him.

I reaquired the SG, played it ’til my fingers bled, put a band together, and I now have a mansion and a yacht.

Here are four guitar songs…

The Jayhawks – Miss Williams’ Guitar
from Tomorrow The Green Grass

Paloma and I spent innumerable hours listening to Tomorrow The Green Grass, the fourth record by the alternative country-rock band The Jayhawks. Though the group never really broke beyond having a devoted grass-roots following and a slew of swooning critics, the Minneapolis quartet was beloved at the record store where we worked at the time.

Miss Williams’ Guitar had everything we’d come to expect from The Jayhawks – stellar songwriting and musianship delivered in an exuberant mixture of country, folk, and roots rock.

Tomorrow The Green Grass would be the final album that featured the glorious harmonies of vocalists/guitarists Mark Olson and Gary Louris as the former would leave the band and marry folk singer Victoria Williams, the subject of this song.

Steve Earle – Guitar Town
from The Essential Steve Earle

The title track from Townes Van Zandt-protege Steve Earle’s debut album captures the wanderlust of life on the road with humor and twang.

It all rings true when delivered in the rough-hewn vocals of the hard-living Earle and makes the fact that the artist shared bills with Dwight Yoakam and The Replacements at the time seem totally appropriate.

Radiohead – Anyone Can Play Guitar
from Pablo Honey

Though it lacked the distinctiveness that caught the attention of listeners with Radiohead’s more offbeat breakthrough hit Creep, Anyone Can Play Guitar is still a wonderful alternative pop song from the band’s debut.

Mainstream Interest in Radiohead waned in the States following the initial excitement of Creep, but the band remained a favorite of our record store’s staff with the brilliant follow-up album The Bends.

Then came O.K. Computer and Radiohead again – and deservedly – became the “it” band of the late ’90s.

John Cougar Mellencamp – Play Guitar
from Uh-Huh

Growing up in Indiana, any new album from John Cougar was going to get a lot of play on radio.

But, as American Fool had sold millions and been one of the biggest albums of ’82, the release of its follow-up in the autumn of ’83 was treated by local radio as an event. Stations teased the arrival of Crumblin’ Down, the first single, for weeks before its premier.

Though Uh-Huh wasn’t quite the commercial juggernaut that American Fool had been, the singer was now a homegrown institution no matter what his moniker might be and radio latched onto – and played into the ground – almost every cut on the record including the raucous and rebellious Play Guitar.

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The Carnival Is Over, Let The Carnival Begin

August 28, 2010

There’s a party semi-raging on the ground floor of our three-story treehouse. Paloma and I are sandwiched between it and a couple of Chinese grad students on the top floor.

We won’t be attending.

(I doubt that the Chinese will either)

It isn’t because of the music, though the organ-driven jam band is hardly a selling point. It’s a lot of noodling and the kindest I could be in describing their efforts is symmetrical.

We won’t be attending because there is nothing left that either of us could accomplish at such a scene.

Both of us managed to eke out a good decade or two more out of behaving like rock stars on tour than folks who were relegated to weekend warrior status by their early twenties.

I think we’re still catching up on sleep we didn’t get in the ’90s.

And, we don’t want to end up as carnies.

As if the universe knew of this impending soiree, I received a rare e-mail this morning from Kelso, one of our friends. We had all worked together at a record store in the mid-’90s and he had news of The Drunken Frenchman, who had also worked with us in the same store.

“He’s working in a traveling carnival as a ride operator,” the friend wrote. “He’s a carny. This gives me great pause.”

Such an outcome isn’t really surprising. There are a finite number of record stores in the world – fewer each day – and, even then, The Frenchman seemed destined to work his way through most of them.

I guess he finally did.

And now he’s a carny.

Of course, with his craggy features, hangdog eyes, and gruff, indifferent exterior and demeanor, The Frenchman is well cast in this role.

Paloma – though never having been fond of The Frenchman – was sympathetic, considering his gig with a shudder.

“He gets fresh air,” I offered.

Any of us from that time could have ended up as carnies.

Here’s hoping he finds love with the bearded lady.

It really wouldn’t surprise me.

Here are four songs from fifteen years ago when all four of us – Paloma, Kelso, The Frenchman, and me – were still part of the carnival…

The Verve – On My Own
from A Northern Soul

The Verve just simply wasn’t meant to happen in the States (at least not on the scale of success the band achieved in the UK). First, they were forced by the record label to change their name here to The Verve UK.

Then, in 1998, driven by its use in a Nike commercial, the group notched a mammoth global hit including in the US with Bittersweet Symphony only to see the Stones take all of the royalties in a controversy over a brief sample.

At the time, I thought that The Verve was one of the great rock bands on the planet and – listening again to their scant three albums from the ’90s – I still feel the same.

Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees
from The Bends

Though it was released earlier in the year, The Bends was an album that was still in constant play for me in August of ’95. The album failed to generate the enthusiasm that Creep had a year earlier from their debut Pablo Honey, but it was immediately apparent after one listen that Radiohead was a force with which to be reckoned.

Sometime in August or September, I caught the band opening for R.E.M. and told the friends I was with that – though I wasn’t sure when it would happen – we had just seen a band that would in the near future be the biggest band on the planet.

(it would happen two years later with the release of OK Computer)

As for the soaring, atmospheric Fake Plastic Trees – it’s quite simply one of the most gorgeous and compelling songs of that decade.

Natalie Merchant – Carnival
from Tigerlily

Ms. Merchant had just embarked on her solo career with Tigerlily following a lengthy and successful run fronting 10,000 Maniacs. Her former group had been a staple on college radio in the late ’80s and Tigerlily brought Merchant to a whole new audience.

That album and the slightly funky Carnival wasn’t much of a departure from her work with 10,000 Maniacs except for being a bit more polished and arriving at a time when mainstream radio was embracing artists once relegated to alternative outlets.

However, my enduring memory from that time is seeing Merchant on a bill with World Party at an outdoor venue with Paloma and the ten minutes during which she interrupted her set to save a moth that had made its way on stage.

Tricky – Ponderosa
from Maxinquaye

Once a member of pioneering trip-hop act Massive Attack, Tricky became a critically-acclaimed force in his own right with the release of Maxinquaye. It was impossible to ignore the clattering, hypnotic rhythm of tracks like Ponderosa.


Col. Sanders Would Have Never Been Such A Slave To Vanity…Would He?

May 24, 2008

Has plastic surgery now become the norm, nothing more than regular maintenance for every other person I see? I caught Mary Tyler Moore while channel-surfing recently and she frightened me – truly, deeply, profoundly. She’d probably be a perfectly, attractive woman for her age, growing old with grace and style. Instead, she frightened me and made me think she and Joan Rivers should go bowling together.

And then, there’s Kenny Rogers. A friend once used to joke about having calculated some formula for projecting the age of his next wife. The wives and girlfriends kept getting younger. Hey, older guys have always gotten the cool, younger chicks since junior high, right? Summer of eighth grade, Kate, a girl with whom I (and most of our class) was smitten) was dating some high school junior from our hated, rival high school. Drove a Trans-Am, as I recall (him, not her).

But I digress. I saw a picture of The Gambler online last week and…well…There are guys on the website, Men Who Look Like Kenny Rogers that look more like Kenny than Kenny these days. I think that he should have gotten a Trans-Am. I don’t want Kenny to give me the heebee jeebees when I see a picture of him because, like Kramer and Newman, I thought the man made a mean bird. Do Kenny Rogers’ Roasters still exist?

The point is that aging is a natural thing and I’m not quite sure who all of these people think that they are fooling with their nips and tucks, additives and preservatives. I want to see Mary Tyler Moore and think what a brilliant comedic foil she was for Dick Van Dyke, how lovely she looked in Capri pants, and wonder if Morey Amsterdam ever tapped that. I don’t want to recoil, aghast with fear. I want to see Kenny Rogers and deeply ponder the life lessons he taught us as The Gambler, speculate if it was the wood that made that chicken so good, and not be concerned that, if he smiles too broadly, his eyes might burst from his head as though they were spring-loaded.

Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)

Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees

Cibo Matto – Know Your Chicken

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – Love Is All Around (Theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show)