Why My Guitar Gently Weeps
Doug types too much...
January 31, 2020
The Beatles came to save us less than 3 months after President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963. From the moment I was allowed to watch John, Paul, George and Ringo in their first televised appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in early February of 1964, I wanted to play guitar.
I didn’t have the resources to buy a guitar, so I made one by nailing a square piece of flat wood (the body) to a long narrow piece of wood (the neck). The few nails I had were slightly bent and had been discarded in the corner of a parking lot behind our apartment building. My hammer was a fist-sized rock. I couldn’t muster strings, so at age 8, I became a version of Bobby McFerrin, imitating not only approximated lyrics by the Fab Four, but guitar and drum sounds as well. I was a one-boy band.
Facing our parking lot was the back of a stone-built Lutheran church. There was a broken foundation of brick wall in my “backyard” that formed a little perch where I could stand probably 2 feet off the ground. I’d strap on my Frankenstein creation, secured over my shoulder by a long piece of twine. I’d imagine myself performing on my little stage. Singing to my audience of stain-glassed windows that adorned the back of the Lutheran church. The bright sun was my spotlight.
My concerts weren’t short. I did sets.
I abandoned the concert circuit one afternoon when I discovered the Lutheran church janitor peering at me, grinning from an upper window. I was willing to perform, just not in front of an audience. Not at that time anyway.
If you weren’t alive when Beatlemania exploded, I can’t begin to describe it. For fans, it was a physical and intensely emotional reaction, some might even say spiritual. Everyone knew who they were. Everyone talked about them – even the adults who disapproved.
Within a few months of their arrival in New York City, United Artists released the first Beatle movie. When the State theater in Portland, Maine screened A Hard Day’s Night, it was pandemonium. The first audience I saw it with was sold out and comprised mostly of girls my age and older. Every single time a tune was played in that movie, the girls screamed. I mean, SCREAMED. Jumping around in their seats, unable to contain their frenzy. The girls only ceased screaming when the Beatles were talking. We all wanted to hear every sly Liverpudlian reference, whether we understood them or not. But even then, it was all people could do to sit in their seats.
Truth be told, I understood the girls screaming themselves hoarse during the songs. I understood because I wanted to scream too, but little boys weren’t supposed to express themselves that way.
If my memory is correct, I was in 7th grade when I first strapped on a real guitar in the little town of East Union, Maine. For $20, I bought a used electric guitar and amp from a kid trying to get rid of it. I had no idea how to play or tune a guitar, but I knew how to plug it into the amp and turn it up loud.
I had a friend who owned a snare and one small cymbal. Another friend also had a guitar, but had some inkling of how to play. The other guitar guy had figured out how to play Chicago’s 26 or 6 to 4 on his top bass string. He taught me how to do it as well, albeit on an un-tuned guitar.
Our little garage band held together for 2 weekends in a row. We’d jerk around trying to play something for hours. This attracted local kids to fill in for fans. They weren’t really fans, they just had nothing better to do.
We broke up without the formalities. I think we all gladly just fell apart and walked away from our train wreck of nothing but extended versions of the 25 or 6 to 4 riff.
I ended up selling that guitar to a kid in school for $10. I kept the amp because I discovered I could plug my headphone jack into it and channel my cheap record player through a booming high-quality stereo speaker.
In the late 1980s, I had a chance to do stand-up for a large room at a company Christmas gathering. Years earlier, I’d seen a comedian come on stage with an acoustic guitar – the joke was the guy had a paper sanitary seal wrapped around the guitar, covering the hole like a freshly cleaned toilet, which he ripped off before he started playing.
Don’t ask me why I thought that was so incredibly funny, but it was. To me, anyway. So when I was told I was going to get to do some stand-up, I was determined to steal that bit and open my show with some physical comedy.
The night before my gig, I went to a music store in Thousand Oaks, California to buy my prop. It was a real music store with high-end instruments. The salesman was very nice in the face of my cluelessness and offered to sell me an acoustic that was on sale for $250. The seller assured me that given the “low” price of the guitar, I would be more than happy with the sound I would get out of it. It was a good bargain and I snapped it up.
My stand-up opening joke went well. Laughs. All good, but then I never played the guitar which turned out to be distracting to some members of my audience. They weren’t afraid to let me know. Afterwards, I put the guitar in a case I’d bought and stored it away for a couple of years.
After a period of neglect, we moved to Camden, New York where I met a truck driver named Walt who played guitar and loved The Beatles. He found out I’d always wanted to learn guitar and he offered to come over once a week on Sunday mornings to teach me. For free. His only stipulation was he insisted I practice the things he’d taught me in between lessons.
He was true to his word. And so was I. At first he was alarmed because I played steel strings with my bare fingers. I didn’t like using the pick. He would marvel at my beat up calloused fingers and ask if I was okay.
Walt tried to teach me how to tune a guitar by ear, but I never could figure that out. Walt tuned it for me at first, but then I was introduced to a battery-operated tuning device that was easy to master and only cost $20. Man, I had that tuning thing down. You know, as long as I had fresh batteries around.
I learned some stuff from Walt, but not too well, no matter how much time I put in. I could make my way through some chords which I can still remember and I was able to break down a simple song by ear, assigning tabs to songs I wanted to learn. But other than that, there wasn’t a lot of musical progression on my part.
I can sing on a good day. Walt couldn’t on his best day, and he knew that. Our lessons gradually morphed into Walt playing to me singing. Eventually we parted ways.
My wife Judy had already lived through relationships where the male wanted to play guitar. She found the initial learning phase excruciating each time, but my inability to ever get better was especially painful for her.
She begged me. “Doug, please don’t make me go through it again.”
It wasn’t too long after that when I decided the guitar wasn’t for me. The family’s collective sigh of relief was audible.
Not long after I hung up my Segovia spurs, Judy’s ears stopped bleeding.
So I chilled and put the guitar away. For the most part. I was still drawn to trying because even though I was terrible, it relaxed me. It felt good to do it.
Every couple of months, on weekends when Judy was invited to dance festivals, I would drag out my instrument and torture the kids by playing for hours in my off-kilter staccato style. Plus I sang along. I even recorded some of those sessions. The kids remember this period. They laughed themselves silly, muffling their mirth at the top of the stairs looking down at me in the living room.
We produced one of my original plays in Rome, New York in the early 1990s. Throughout the play, my character was supposed to sing Don McLean’s American Pie. Played live, we used verses and choruses to make transitional jumps in the play. We’d even sought permission from Don’s publishing company.
I knew I couldn’t embarrass myself playing the guitar as I sang, so weeks prior to opening night, we recruited a high-school senior who played and was willing to accompany me. Well. Sort of. After coming reluctantly to a couple of lead-up dress rehearsals, she failed to show when the curtain went up in front of an audience.
I was mortified. Calling her house. Emailing. Nothing. She was not coming.
So about an hour before we debuted my brand new play, I was beside myself having to contemplate playing the guitar in front of a paying audience. And this was theater in the round. There was no faking it. There would be audience members sitting a foot away from my singing stool.
Leo, the director of the art center, sat outside with me before the show began.
Leo asked me to play American Pie for him, so I did. The whole time I was strumming and singing, he stared at me with a poker face. When I was done, he didn’t say anything right away.
I went into self-deprecation mode. “Yeah, I just don’t have any rhythm.”
He smiled and said, “Oh, no, you have a rhythm, it’s just not one I’ve ever heard before.”
I played American Pie for the complete run of the show. On opening night, as if my nerves weren’t already shot, I popped a string that went BAP against the wood of my acoustic guitar body. It came at a quiet part in the song and the pop seemed extra loud.
And so did the woman sitting a foot away in the seat closest to me. If the string had snapped differently, she might have lost an eye.
When that happened, the room came to a breathless standstill. Only a second or two passed before I said something, but that’s a long time when you’re dead on stage. Any live performer knows when you lose a moment like that to calamity, you have to address it, put it to bed, and move on.
The woman struggled to catch her breath. Everyone was staring at me to see how I would bring them back into the performance.
I smiled at the woman and said, “Yeah, scared me too.”
She and the audience laughed with the same feeling of relief my family had when I initially told them I was going to give up playing. The show went on like nothing had happened.
Years later, I had a confessional with myself and gave up the guitar for good. It stayed safe in its case for years until I finally gave it to my son Ivan who actually knows how to play. He’s used it a bunch so I feel like my decades-old purchase of a comedy show prop went to good use.
Our son Ivan was forced into lessons when he was a teenager. We made a deal – take weekly lessons for a month and if you hate it, you can walk away.
Our good fortune was he got a music teacher who inspired him. And Ivan’s good fortune was he didn’t get my guitar-abusing DNA. In fact, one night in Virginia Beach in 2001, I was hosting a script reading and as I escorted my fellow actors to the front door, Ivan was closed off in his bedroom upstairs practicing on an electric playing the riff from Day Tripper which he nailed repeatedly. We stopped at the door as a group and listened.
One of my friends said, “What’s wrong with the record? It just keeps playing the riff over and over.”
“It’s not a record. That’s our son Ivan.”
All of their faces went into “Are you kidding?” mode.
It really did sound exactly like the record.
Around 15 years ago when I was making a documentary about a local family with the last name of Cason, I had to go interview one of 7 brothers at his house. Billy Cason considered himself the musical gift to the family – he played guitar and harmonica. And he sang. He did none of those musical things incredibly well. It was the only time in my life I heard a rhythm on guitar just like mine. Plus he couldn’t self-tune his guitar, so anything he played sounded off. His inadequacies did not deter him – he was always game for playing in front of ANYONE.
I asked Ivan to accompany me to a subsequent interview where I was going to film Billy playing. I wanted Ivan to tune the man’s guitar. Ivan did it in seconds by ear. Then something magical happened in that film. Billy asked Ivan to play with him. And they did for about 30 minutes. I got to sit and watch Ivan bringing joy to an old man’s life by playing the guitar I’d given him. That guy in the Thousand Oaks music store was right. My old acoustic in Ivan’s skilled hands had a beautiful tone.
When the session came to a close, Billy’s wife came out from the living room.
“That’s the first time he’s had that guitar tuned in 30 years.”
I could still see a speck or two of dried blood in her ear canals. My wife’s good fortune was I eventually quit. Billy never did.
John Mellencamp has a song called Play Guitar which has the lyric “Forget all about that macho sh*t and learn how to play guitar.”
Man, I so wanted to take that advice. But it ain’t my thing. Neither is being macho, so I’m kinda stuck, except being able to sing has taken some of the sting out of my inability to play an instrument. As Clint Eastwood lamented in a Dirty Harry movie: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
My unique rhythm doesn’t accommodate even simple toe-tapping. I can’t keep a beat for longer than a minute. But if I’m singing with musicians, I can figure out where to come in and get into a pocket of vocal rhythm.
Judy once cornered a music teacher I was doing a musical with.
“He can’t play an instrument to save his life. He can’t dance. Where does he get the rhythm to sing?”
“Different part of the brain,” the music teacher explained.
Yeah. There you go.
Different part of the brain.
Billy Cason died not long ago. But he didn’t go out un-tuned. After that night when Ivan jammed with Billy in his kitchen, I bought Billy one of those $20 battery-operated tuning devices.
I’m glad I helped Billy out during his last years. And probably his wife by extension.
I’m glad my prop guitar went to someone who could, and still does, play it.
I’m glad I can carry a tune if I can’t play an instrument. Why God made musicians and Karaoke.
I’m glad I’ve had the privilege of seeing some truly genius guitar playing right in front of my eyes. Up close on so many occasions that wowed me. I have and continue to stand in admiration of what you who have figured out the guitar thing do.
I’ll be over here living in my different part of the brain.