I hate it when I know I let major opportunities slip away. It haunts me for years afterward, especially when it would have been something really cool. Like this story…
First let me set it up. As you may have picked up from reading prior posts, I’m a music geek. And the reason I think I’m such a music geek is that I so much wish I could produce actual music. But as I’ve discovered, I have absolutely no aptitude for understanding music theory. Oh, I can use the music lingo of performance… bars, riffs, fills, phrasing, verse/bridge/chorus… But the physical act of putting notes together or understanding how music works in real terms; it’s like a secret code that I just can’t crack. So instead, I’m devoted to music “appreciation.” I spent 13 years working crappy jobs with terrible pay, just so I could be near the music business.
It’s funny… when I was a kid, I was always so happy that my folks never forced me to take music lessons, like so many of my friends’ parents did. I was always available to come out to play, because I wasn’t encumbered by piano lessons or sax lessons or guitar lessons.
But now, what I wouldn't give to be able to pick up a guitar, or sit down at a piano and entertain people.
Rock and roll is a guitar culture, so I’m especially fascinated by the good guitarists. I love to watch their hands when they play. They make it look so freakin’ easy, but once you hold a guitar in your hands, you realize that it is anything but. It’s only easy if you’ve cracked the code. I know this because I actually have a guitar; a good one, too. I’ve had it for about 20 years. How I got it is the gist of the story.
Back in the early 90s, when I worked at the home office of my music retail company, we would have these big semi-annual company meetings. All the Regional and District Managers would come from all over the company for three days of meetings and seminars with us home office folk.
I loved these affairs, not only because you got to meet the people you’ve only dealt with over the phone, but there were other cool extras. They’d bring in music stars for the meetings and the nightly entertainment. Celine Dion, Patty Smythe, Steve Forbert, Norman Nardini, (and several other R&B stars of the time whose names escape me) all played our event.
Another was Vendor Day, where reps from all the record labels and accessory manufacturers would set up display tables with information and goodies. I’d come home with bags stuffed with CDs, tapes, display racks, tape cases and all kinds of tchotchkes. The vendors would also “sponsor” various meals, where they’d pay for the food and then give a presentation during the meal.
One afternoon there was a lunch sponsored by Relativity Records, who at the time was home to hotshot guitarist Joe Satriani. As part of their presentation, they had a guitar giveaway. Everyone was instructed to check for a red tag under their chairs. Then if anyone with a red tag could answer a question, they would win a brand new Ibanez electric guitar autographed by Joe Satriani. (That was the kind of guitar that Satriani played.)
Well, I found a tag, as did two other girls, and each of us answered the softball questions to win guitars. They didn’t have the guitars there; they would need to be built. They said they would send them to us.
OK, so no immediate gratification, but still, it was very cool.
After the meetings, the plan began to change. The Relativity label guy said that we would get our guitars presented to us on stage at the next big meeting. He further insinuated that we would be expected to play something on it when it was given to us.
I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but as our next meeting drew closer and the label guy kept asking me what I’d be playing, I began to fret about it. He kept going, “What, you can’t play a little ‘Louie Louie’ for us?”
Apparently, that was supposed to be easy. But whatever… how the hell was I going to learn to play? I didn’t have a freakin’ guitar yet! I hadn’t even held one since I was a kid. Now if they were giving away air guitars, I could have given them a real show.
I considered taking lessons or something, but still, I had no guitar, no one I knew to teach me and no money to plunk down on formal lessons. So I basically did nothing.
Then there we were at the next meeting, in a big auditorium with the stage dressed to accommodate the rock act they had booked for the afternoon. It had mics, amps, and giant Marshall stacks on each side of the stage.
The girls were called up on stage first and were presented with shining white guitars. Neither of them could play either so all they did was pluck a few discordant notes and then scurry off the stage. I knew I was going to be lame, but was determined not to be that lame.
They called me up and presented me with a bright red Ibanez. Hot red! I loved it!
The autograph is on a panel on the back side. I bought the amp for it at a later date.
They strapped it on me and plugged it into the amp. I was good to go.
I wish I could say I had something special in store, but alas, I didn’t. BUT, I did have a long history of watching guitarists’ hands, to further enhance my air guitar abilities. (Don’t judge; it was the 80s!) So I did the one thing I thought I could pull off… I just focused on one string, the bottom one that makes the highest notes. I pressed the string up high on the fret board and began hitting the string. As I “played” I slid my fret hand lower and lower on the neck, making the guitar pitch higher and higher, until I got to the bottom and just let it scream. I probably should have used the Whammy Bar, but for my limited abilities, it was about as cool as I could do.
The whole thing probably didn’t last any longer than 10 seconds. I got in and out quickly, feeling weird about occupying everyone’s attention when I didn’t know what I was doing. You probably don’t believe it, but I’ve never felt comfortable in the spotlight, especially when I’m not confident in what I’m doing.
I still have that guitar; it sits on a guitar stand in my living room. Right out of the chute, I picked up some How-to-Play books and tried to teach myself to play using tablature (meaning diagrams of where to put your fingers, as opposed to reading the music notes). In 20 years, I’ve managed to learn three chords, E, A and D. That’s it. But I figured out that you can play “Louie Louie” with E, A and D. The label guy was right, after all.
I’ve never been able to form a C or G without stopping completely and carefully arranging my fingers. That kind of thing brings a song to a halt pretty quickly.
With the place my life is at now, I could definitely hack taking lessons, but the onset of my Delayed Pressure Urticaria (hives) in 2001 made guitar playing pretty much impossible. If I press the strings for more than 10 minutes, my fingertips will swell up like sausage links. Not good, when you type for a living.
Twenty years later, I still think about that day. What an opportunity I had, to do something cool and unexpected. I totally should have scraped together some bucks for some guitar lessons. I wouldn’t even have had to learn that much. I’ve thought about this a lot; if I had a do-over, I’d learn how to play the intros to a couple of classic rock songs. If I could have strung a couple of those together, it would have killed because it would have been so unexpected, coming from me. Here’s how I see it now:
A tall gangly guy ambles up to the stage and a bright red guitar is hung around his neck. He looks like a deer in headlights as he glances up at the crowd. He plucks a few single notes, as if checking the sound. As the last single note sustains and fades, he arranges his fingers high on the neck and begins a grungy, fat-fingered version of “Louie Louie.” The crowd approves, as no one expected him to be able to play anything recognizable.
After a chorus/verse/chorus of “Louie Louie,” he sustains the last note, then looks up and smiles. The crowd begins to applaud, but before they can get going, he raises his hands over his head and starts a rhythmic clap. As the crowd picks up the beat, he hits the strings again, producing the instantly recognizable beginning of “Smoke on the Water.” After a couple of passes through the main riff, he again holds the last note and looks to the audience. With a small smile at the corner of his mouth, he plays the opening to “Highway to Hell.” The crowd goes crazy… they had no idea that the guy could play. Now they were going along for the ride.
In quick succession, he ran through the openings of Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” and J. Geils Band’s “Come Back,” before finishing with AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds” and “Whole Lotta Rosie.”
Throughout most of the songs, he stood stock still, concentrating on his fingers, but as the AC/DC rolled, you could see his body come to life as he moved his legs with the signature Angus Young leg stomp and head bob. As ‘Rosie’ kicked in, he suddenly turned and did the Angus ‘scissor-kick’ over to the side of the stage and back.
As he retook the center of the stage, he held one last note; left hand on the strings, right hand reaching for the sky, as a thankful salute to the appreciative crowd, before bending into a deep bow. He straightened and cut the note off with a flourish on the fret board and waved as he strode off the stage.
“Follow that,” he said to himself as he disappeared into the wings.
A guy can dream, can’t he?