Liza and I love listening to audiobooks in the car, particularly on long drives. This weekend, we just started listening to the CD book of Life, the autobiography of Keith Richards, as read by Johnny Depp. It’s really good, especially when acted out by Depp who does character voices in all the right places to really bring Keith’s narrative to life. (We got a similar kick out of Sean Penn’s reading of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. One). Today, we drove home from a weekend in Napa and one part of Keith’s story really took me back. It concerned Keith’s earliest infatuation with the guitar. As a guitarist myself, I couldn’t help thinking about my own first flings with six strings. Invariably, this subject brings me back to the subject of humiliation.
Humiliation, or fear of humiliation, is probably one of the biggest motivators in life. Case in point, I think the only reason I actually learned how to play guitar was due to a dare. My reputation, such as it was, was on the line.
Let me explain.
As long as I can remember, I have wanted to play the guitar. It probably started, as most things do with me, when I heard The Beatles, which was followed by The Monkees and ultimately, Led Zeppelin. When we played street hockey, back in the suburbs of Toronto, it was pretty common for me to be caught daydreaming, humming a guitar line and holding my plastic-bladed stick upside-down as though it were a wailing Les Paul or a screaming Stratocaster. The tennis ball would sometimes hit me on the leg like a frozen cannonball to wake me from my rock-sleep. At this point, the closest I’d gotten to a real life guitar was watching Bruce Nasmith, the local boy-god of guitar, shredding at the local church hall. Even being close to a real guitar in those days was as memorable and exciting to me as sighting George Clooney on a red carpet might be to a paparazzi. I begged my mom and dad for a guitar but they didn’t think I was ready (I wasn’t), but when my brother Peter bought himself a nylon-stringed Spanish guitar with his paper route money, I co-opted it to my own ends, leading to some pretty intense sibling squabbles. To me, it was manifest destiny, sure Peter had bought the guitar, but any fool could see that this guitar was meant to be mine. I didn’t know how to actually play it, but I ran my fingers up and down the neck, on one string, and made a joyful noise not unlike music. It was thrilling and exciting, but it didn’t sound like Rock and Roll. Where was MY guitar?
We fought over Peter’s guitar for months, and he took to hiding it behind couches and under pillows, which was also how the thing met its end. There’s no polite way of saying it, but a local fat kid, unaware of the guitar hidden under a pillow, crashed down on it one day, reducing it to kindling. We went guitarless for about a year, before my younger brother Mike bought himself the first electric guitar in our household; a hollow body, sunburst finish Granada with F-holes. He also bought an amplifier; a no-name thing that I now realize was an ungrounded electrocution hazard. Manifest destiny once again prevailed, and the Granada soon became “mine”, and I perfected my untrained “one string” method by playing along to Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. My frustrated mother began to insist I take some real lessons, heck, she’d even pay for six months of them if it meant me learning to tune the damn thing.
The lessons hadn’t begun yet, however, when my humiliation story begins.
You see, I always knew, innately, that I could play guitar, even when I couldn’t. Just as a sculptor sees the final sculpture in the massive rock, I knew that I only had to chisel away the parts of me that were not Jimmy Page. Right? This is why I began lying and telling my classmates that I was a guitar player.
“Sure, I play guitar. Been playing for years now.” No one would ever know, I figured, since there were never any guitars at our school. Then came the class trip that changed everything.
We boarded a schoolbus from North Toronto and drove to nearby Stratford, Ontario, to see a daytime matinee of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Festival Theatre there (I assume this was a regular student outreach program at the Stratford Festival). We would get up there at 10 am, see the play, meet the cast during a post-show Q&A session, and then walk across town to a local park where we would eat the lunches we’d packed for the trip. I think one of the other kids suspected that I’d been lying about my six-string prowess, because on the way to the park he noticed a guitar store and said “Hey Paul, Look it’s a music store! Don’t you play guitar?”
I was suddenly very ill. “Sure” I said, “but we don’t have time to go in now, do we?” I was buying time, negotiating with my executioner, but I was a dead man walking. As we entered the store, I saw a sign that read “Please do not play the instruments, ask for assistance.” Saved? Not so fast.
“Come on Paul, just play a little for us. You can play right?”
“Um, yeah, sure.”
This was it. It was a defining moment. I had few options. Do I lose face in front of my classmates? Do I develop a sudden ability to become invisible? Or a third option, do I do something miraculous?
For reasons I will never understand, the third miraculous option came true.
I picked up a Guild electric hanging there and, trembling a little, began making a two-string “barre chord”, probably having only seen it on TV. As it turned out, I was a little bit right about my innate ability on the guitar. Under pressure, I played a convincing, if rudimentary, white boy’s blues on this before the sales clerk waved us out of the store. It sounded musical enough, but had I displayed the requisite “chops” to fool my classmates?
After lunch, we got back on the bus; full of Shakespeare and egg salad sandwiches. I stared out at the farmland as we went back to our school, dreaming of a day – hopefully really soon – when I’d actually be able to play the guitar, continuing to wonder if I’d fooled everyone or just myself.
That summer, I took lessons at Peter Powell’s Music studio and my instructor, Phil, taught me how to play convincing rock and roll chords. Within a year I was writing basic songs. As it turned out, I really did have the basic talent and hunger to play, which fueled what little technique I developed. I strongly suspect, however, that humiliation, or rather the fear of humiliation, had pushed me that extra mile into turning my bluff into a reality.
And to this day, I strongly suspect that it will always be the case in most endeavours I embark upon.