Summers are always an interesting time for me, because they present a bit of an internal identity crisis. No, I'm not talking about the "I'm an academic and the summer is supposed to be my vacation period but is in fact the only time I have to do any of my own work" crisis...or even the "I am trying to use the summer to actually get into shape (or at least be slightly less bloated), but so many of my friends are leaving town for better jobs than I have and everyone else finally has time to hang out so I end up drinking entirely too much" crisis. No, this one is a bit more essential than either of those.
The summer is the time when I can actually restring my guitars and play a bit for my own amusement, something I never have time to do in the semester...and this is the issue. I can actually feel like a musician again, even if only for a limited time.
I started playing guitar in junior high, after saving up my lunch money for about a year. It was a cheap "Chicago"-brand Les Paul knockoff. Eventually, I outgrew it and wanted something a bit better, so again I saved up my lunch money for a year or so and bought a cheap Fender. Unfortunately, one of my parental units made me sell the old one (so whatever unfortunate offspring I might eventually have won't be able to inherit it), but I kept playing, and eventually, I didn't altogether suck.
I thought of myself as a guitar player first and foremost for years. While in school, I got a job so I could get a better amp and keep myself in strings. I cultivated friendships with other musicians. I bought a car mostly so I could drive to jam sessions. I practiced as much as I possibly could. I learned scales, wrote them out in every key, studied them incessantly. I tried to do everything musicians do, but there was one big void in the act: I wasn't in a band.
After I'd been playing for a year or two, I knew that I wasn't good enough to form my own band, but I really didn't know any bands that were hiring someone who had no real skills save the ability to bash out some simple chords and play the guitar solo to "You Shook Me All Night Long" perfectly...but who was willing and eager to learn. However, a classmate (in my sophomore science class, I think) told me that some friends of his were looking for a guitar player, and he offered to drive me to their practice.
So, I packed extra strings (necessary because at the time, I was using a galvanized steel guitar pick out of some misguided notion that it made my playing sound tougher or more metallic, whatever that means), lugged my Peavey Renown amp (notable for being loud as all hell and weighing 2,374 pounds) to my friend's truck, and off we went. And went. And went. We drove down roads until we got to the country....then we went until the pavement ended...and then we stopped for a cow crossing...and finally, we arrived at the house, at the end of a very long dirt driveway. My friend assured me that despite the long drive into farmer territory, we were technically still in Jacksonville FL. Personally, though, I could've sworn I saw a "Welcome to Alabama" sign somewhere along the way.
We entered the house, and my friend introduced me to the band...all in the 18-19 year old range, so I felt like the young'un. We then played some songs. If my memory serves me right, we went from "Sweet Home Alabama" to "Fade to Black" to something else similarly whiplash-inducing; the whole session jumped from genre to genre, as if they had gone to a record store, picked out several albums at random, selected the third song off each album, and decided to make that their repertoire.
Musically, the guitar player--who did all the leads--was the best one there...I seem to remember he almost had the ability to play "Eruption." The rest of the band was almost able to play a lot of songs...not that they made any major mistakes, and they could definitely finish everything they started, but there was always something slightly yet indefinably off about their performance.
So we played for about an hour. They then said they needed to talk, so they went outside, leaving me in this stranger's house. I plunked on my guitar. I stared at the faded movie posters. After ten minutes, one of them invited me outside to hang with them, and it was only then when the absurdity of the situation hit me.
There was some middle-aged guy wearing a flannel jacket wandering around. He had no teeth whatsoever. He kept offering me salt-free pretzels.
Everyone in the band was wearing "Just Say No to Drugs" shirts, hats, or pins...this being in the middle of the then-First Lady's attempt to solve the drug crisis by letting the youth of America know that illegal drugs were not in fact mandatory. Of course, the first thing these guys did was light up a joint.
The guitar player then lit into a speech, letting me know that his band was a democracy, and that everyone worked together in his personal band, but he was in fact the leader (something I gathered from his constant use of the word "my" when discussing the band), and they wanted to invite me to join...and did I have a good name to suggest?
I told them that I had another offer, I would need to think about it, I promised to get back to them, but I did really enjoy playing with them.
I never did contact these guys again. Looking back at it, I don't really know why I was reluctant to join. True, I didn't have a car, and these guys practiced 2,049 miles away. It was also true that they weren't exactly a great band...but then again, I was a mediocre guitar novice who could only really bang his way through songs as long as they had lotsa power chords. And we all would eventually get better.
And ultimately, it's not like I had lots of success later in getting into a band. Years later, I blew one audition because I was drunk. I blew another because I didn't know a Dokken song by heart...and I didn't have the guts to tell them that I didn't really listen to or even like the music they were playing in the first place. I backed out of another because the guys kept switching keys in the middle of AC/DC songs. And the only time I ever had one of my musician friends invite me to try out for his (very good) band, they wanted me to play bass...and auditioned me with a fairly hard song that they only wrote a few days before. Needless to say, I blew that one as well.
I tried forming my own bands, also with little success. Some friends invited me to join their jam sessions, and we did have a brief period of existence as a three guitar metal/blues/psychedelic band, but we didn't have a singer or a PA...and none of us had the guts to try singing ourselves. I formed another band with a few friends, and we wrote several original songs that I still think are pretty good...but we could never get a drummer. Another friend and I started a cover song band, and I think we got pretty decent...but singer never showed up for practice, and then the drummer left to join the singer back in their old band.
It's a shame, because I have never learned as much as when I played with other musicians. Also, when these jam sessions were going on, I felt happy, powerful, content, and they were some of the few times in my life when I've ever felt cool.
Also, I have never been in a band that's played out, and this is truly one of my deepest regrets. I have never played live. I wonder if my musician friends, most of whom have played out in some form or another, realize how lucky they are, or realize how strange it must feel for me to have failed so utterly at being able to perform and thus achieving the ultimate end-goal of anyone who considers themselves a musician first and foremost.
If I had to do it again, I'd just pick some kind of music that I could sing and play, so I wouldn't have to rely on other musicians. Unfortunately, I used to smoke, and that ruined whatever voice I might've had. I can do it now, but getting the vocal chords in shape to sing requires a lot of work...and most of the time, I'm too busy being teacher guy to even look at my guitars.
I'd also like to get some of my friends here together and play, but that's only actually happened twice. Each time, someone got busy with writing or teaching or something, and we never played beyond our first sweet, wonderful jam session. And if they're not busy, they're getting ready to move away.
But the summer...although I have lots of research and writing to do, there are still enough hours in the day where I can pick up a guitar, run through some chords, and maybe play a song or two.
Last week, I restrung my Ovation acoustic. Ever since, I've picked it up once a day at least. I've run some simple finger exercises, played some scales. Then I've started strumming, going through a basic chord structure, found myself singing something.
While playing, I've thought back to all my musician friends. Some of them still play out on occasion. Some consider themselves retired from whatever level of involvement music had in their lives. Some pick up their instruments only occasionally. Some I've long lost contact with, and I wonder if they play.
Since I restrung the acoustic and started my summer playing, I've found myself thinking about that first band audition. I don't remember any of the guy's names anymore, and I can't even remember what they looked like. I wonder how long they played together. I wonder if they still play. I wonder if they still think of themselves as musicians in any sense, or if they ever think of playing at all. And I wonder how all of our lives would've been different if I would've joined their band.
Three of my guitars sit on their stands at the end of the couch. Besides the Ovation, I have my green Telecaster out, as well as my Yamaha, which I use for slide playing (and I'm not very good yet). My actual, not-a-copy Les Paul custom sits in its case, patiently waiting its turn in my guitar rotation. The black Fender I took to that audition all those years ago also sits in its case, but it won't come out anytime soon...it needs rewiring, and I just can't afford that right now.
Once I finish writing this, I want to pick up the acoustic and run through my country cover of "Boys of Summer," or perhaps some Wilco, maybe try to perfect that Josh Ritter song. I'd then love to plug the tele into my Marshall combo, crank up the gain, and just let a few chords rattle. I'd love to restring my Gibson, move to some big city, and form a band, show them how it should be done.
Instead, though, I need to grab lunch and then get back to that race article...so I can send that off, get to the awaiting book review, television article, and book manuscript. Meanwhile, my guitars look at me, wondering how they became adjuncts to my life rather than the center of it, as they were at one time.
I wish I knew what to tell them.