The Authenticity Experiment, the guitar edition. She said it off-handedly. She didn’t mean it that way, but that’s how it hit my tender heart with its secret shame when I told my friend that I’d spent my teenage years in my room playing my guitar to every album popular during high school: Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, Phoebe Snow, Janis Ian. “Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you just write your own music?” she said. Flat, the nasal vowels of her native Michigan coming through.
Because you’re a lonely kid, I said, surprised that I’d spoken the naked truth, no spin. Because you’re a lonely kid, closeted and afraid. Because your mother taught you to play by ear when you were four years old. Then you took lessons and learned rhythm and more and more chords. So when Jimmy Buffet had a Cdim7 chord in his version of “Slow Boat to China” you could hear it, but you didn’t know how to write your own music—or at least how to put lyrics to all those angst-y minor chords you played over and over. Then, when 40 years later, a woman you think of as a bit of a musical genius says to you, “Of course you know that song—with those big jazz chords.” You want to tell her it’s not that hard, it’s not really even complex chords. No ninths. No sixths. No flatted fifths. Just some step downed sevenths that sound difficult, but are really easy once you unlock the pattern.
Now when you’re sad and worried about your brain, your heart, and your existential loneliness, you sit in the dark and drink bourbon and play along again. This time to Patty Griffin and Ryan Adams. You can still hear the chords. But what you’ve lost all these years later is the rhythm. You can play it straight, as it were, but you can’t easily put your signature spin on it. The triplets, the sixteenth notes, the string slap that you used to be able to do without thinking. And you know perfectly well it’s not Alzheimer’s. It’s just practice. Slow it down. One more time from the top.
Say goodbye to the old building that never tried to know your name
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye old friend
You won’t be seeing me again
(Oh, look at that video. Griffin plays it capo 8 in the key of D. That’s why your D chord sounds off. She’s actually playing a Csus-something on eight and you’re playing a D on capo three. Well, at least your ear isn’t off.)
Hear that beat? You can play it. Put the pick down. Put the bourbon down. Slap it out. Half time. There you go. Try it again. Worry about those lyrics tomorrow. In the morning light they’ll be easier to memorize and good for your brain, too. You’re still pretty good. You’ll never write a song like “Ferris Wheel,” but that’s okay. You’ll also never write an essay about being at the zoo with your ex-wife and your sister and seeing Dar Williams play and all that happened in that evening. And that’s okay, too.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye old friend
I can’t make you stay
I can’t spend another ten years wishing you would anyway
So just plan that next summer you’ll go to the bluegrass jam at Ladd’s Edition with the country music singing femme and reclaim something you thought you lost. Turns out you were just waiting for right the person to help you remember that you like playing, even when you fuck up the rhythm. Turns out that all musicians mess up and then say, “Wait.” and begin again. And that’s it, isn’t it, the beginning again. Maybe all it takes is the willingness to try and not necessarily be perfect at something, to let go of the secret shame of being average. To admit that you actually have to work a little hard at a friendship with your instrument, a friendship you shouldn’t have said goodbye to after all.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been a bit off the back with my posts. I’m finishing the final edits on the manuscript of The Authenticity Experiment and it’s hard to write and edit simultaneously. So, you’ll get one more post from me and then, in the coming weeks, you’ll hear from a variety of amazing writers, including the Alaskan Poet, the Idaho Playwright, the Country Music Singing Femme, the Michigan cum Minneapolis cum Missouri writer who doesn’t see the brilliant alliteration of his peripatetic life or think of himself as a writer, and a wide range of Portland-based writers who don’t have nicknames, including Kate Gray, Mel Wells, Ashley Brittner, Kate Ristau, and more. You’re gonna love their writing. Dark and Light, both/and from voices you should know and will soon want to be following.