My sister’s boyfriend Mike, the crown prince of The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam, and his brother Neil were the first guys like me to dip their toes into the “music as participant” pond. Overnight their room was filled with cheap electric guitars, complete no-names with thin plywood bodies and poorly grounded pickups. Mike didn’t last too long, but Neil took to the instrument.
I would hang out at their house whenever I could just to watch Neil, Marlboro hanging from the corner of his mouth, slaughtering the riffs to “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Slow Ride,” “Highway to Hell”:
dah dah dah (two three) duh duh poing!….
“Hold on, hold on.”
dah dah dah (two three) duh duh duh (two three) dah duh duh dah duh poing!…
“Hold on, hold on.” On an on with the sour notes followed by the ‘hold on hold on’ restart, squinting at the fretboard through his cigarette’s smoke .
Inevitably the student needed to become the master. Neil handed me the guitar, took an extra cool drag off his cig, and said, “Go ahead on, little brother. Rock out.”
“Nah, I don’t know how to play.”
“See that fat string on top? Put your finger here, here, and here. Hear that? You’re playing ‘Smoke On the Water,’ dude.” A guitarist for thirty seconds and I was already rocking like Richie Blackmore.
And you know what’s unique about that story? Absolutely nothing. This story has played out everyday throughout the world for the last forty years. Fill a room with gray-bearded old farts and ask for a “was your first guitar song ‘Smoke On the Water'” show of hands. Provided that the weather isn’t affecting their bursitis, the majority of hands will go up.
But unlike Abba, Michael Jackson, and Grandmaster Flash, Deep Purple is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The authors of every fledgling rock god’s first baby steps aren’t worthy of the Hall. This is a sore subject for the music equivalent of comic nerds, but it shouldn’t be. When every kid who picks up a guitar plays your riff, your work is essentially the living, breathing rock and roll hall of fame. One is just a dusty building housing Madonna’s bustier. At least at the Hard Rock you can get a burger while you look at Madge’s lingerie. But the other is the first step toward a life making music.
Which is not to say that everyone who picks up a cheap guitar and pounds out “Smoke On the Water” will make beautiful music. I’m over thirty years separated from that day in Neil’s bedroom, and I still play horribly. If I have the root of a song I’m happy. I don’t care if I know it note for note; in fact, I don’t want to know any song that intimately. I’m a front porch guitarist — the guy who can get everyone at the party to sing “Jessie’s Girl” but would crash and burn in front of an audience. I’ve never been in a band, and don’t really want to be.
I have suffered my share of guitar-related embarrassment, but I don’t mind. The friend who taught me the “Johnny B. Goode” riff put her hand over my fretboard after five minutes of practice. “Please stop,” she said. “You’re hurting my ears.” She is one of many.
“I can’t take anymore cowboy chords!” yelled one friend, and he yanked his guitar away.
“Jesus Christ, will you stop? You’re killing me,” said another after I droned on her mandolin for who knows how long. The punchline? She was so high that she couldn’t keep her eyes open, yet I managed to abrade my way through the fog.
What’s fascinating to me about this is that I could genuinely care less. If it has strings I want to play with it, and whatever sound I manage to pull out of the beast is okay by me. I was struck recently by the realization that I will be entertained until my dying day provided that I have a guitar or a ukulele on my lap. I have probably played “Sweet Home Alabama” twenty thousand ties over the last thirty years and it has sounded terrible each time, but I have enjoyed the hell out of all 20,000 repetitions.
Of course I didn’t always feel this way. At age thirteen with one of Neil’s cheap plywood guitars to call my very own, I was a future rock god. It was just a matter of time before I strapped on a Les Paul and won the battle of the bands, and after that, who knows? Record deals, tours, babes.
I must have looked serious. For years I asked for music lessons, and for years my request was denied. “I paid for your sisters to take piano and they dropped out. Goddamned waste of money.” But damned if the folks didn’t come through now that I was wringing “Smoke On the Water” out of my plywood guitar.
I couldn’t wait to meet my music teacher. He was going to have a kick ass mullet and a Flying V and we were going to spend an hour each week together going meedly meedly meedly way up high on the fretboard because everybody knows that’s where the really hard notes are.
Guitar lesson day one finally arrived. My father pulled up in front of Gregory’s Barber Shop.
“Why are we stopping?”
“We’re here. Go inside and tell them you’re here for a lesson.”
Inside both barber chairs were occupied. The oversized novelty comb I coveted as a fifth grader still hung next to Gregory’s mirror.
“Did I used to cut your hair?”
“Yeah, I go to Jane’s now.”
“I heard that,” said one of the guys hanging around the shop. They all laughed.
Gregory said, “You come on back and see me sometime. I’ll give you a man’s haircut. Go on back, George is waiting for you.”
Seated in Gregory’s office was what is commonly known as a bubba. He was mid-fifties, big beer belly hanging between his polyester knees, trucker cap concealing his thin gray hair.
“Come on into the house,” he said. “Get you a seat. What’s your name, son?”
“Jim, you can call me George.” He poked a hand toward me. I shook it. “What kind of music you like, Jim?”
“I don’t know. Rock.”
George laughed. “All y’all want to play rock and roll. Let me tell you something, you learn where that comes from and then you can play you some rock and roll. Hank, Jimmy Reed, ever heard of them?” We spent the remainder of the hour strumming “Red River Valley.”
The next lesson was the same, as was the next. “When are we going to play some good music?” I asked.
“What’s good music?”
“I don’t know, ‘Sweet Home Alabama.'”
“Oh, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’? That’s good music, not ‘Red River Valley’? I’m just an old man, I don’t know nothing about rock and roll.” And with that the big old bubba launched into a note perfect acoustic version of “Sweet Home Alabama.” He hollered along with an ancient bluegrass voice that raised the hair on my arms. (Even writing about it thirty years later raises the hair on my arms.) It was beautiful and unexpected and weirdly not weird. Was it possible that Skynyrd was hollering music funnelled through Marshall stacks?
“Now practice ‘Red River Valley,” he said when he was finished.
The barbershop lessons grew more boring and painful. I started sneaking off to Ronnie’s Pharmacy as soon as my parents’ car was out of sight. I would read music magazines or MAD as long as I could, showing up at lessons later and later. Eventually George started keeping me waiting. “You don’t show me respect I won’t show you respect,” he’d say when he finally wandered into Gregory’s office.
“When am I going to learn ‘Sweet Home Alabama’?”
“When I think you earned it.”
I never did. I quit, just like my sisters. Just like baseball. My father was right again: I was a quitter, a waste of time and money. My math teacher Mr. Gregory was right: I was a dead-ender.
My pal Hal caught me in the school hallway not too long after I quit lessons. “You want to stay over this weekend? I got a new guitar, a Les Paul copy. We can jam.” I couldn’t wait.