Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar by Frank Zappa, performed by his son, Dweezil.
Yes, I know, I’ve strayed from the direction that started this tome, the daily retinue of our lives posted for the world to see. I’m not a voyeur, I don’t do this in the hopes of getting a reality show, making money, or God forbid, troll for women on the internet. (Who would think that, by the way? Obviously someone, I get criticisms)
I make no secret of the musicality of my family. In fact, there’s been a constant line that there wasn’t a person born in my Mom’s family that was unable to sing. It obviously rubbed off on me, my brother, even my children. What I have a hard time explaining to people is the fact that this isn’t some mere hobby, the equivalent of a “man-cave” or a former jock turned car salesman who spends every Sunday incessantly watching every play of every game he can see and then re-living the other games watching the “Red Zone” on ESPN. I have my sports teams I follow, the games I enjoy, but they’re not the focus of my attention or my weekends.
Don’t get me wrong, I think I’ve actually done my boys a disservice by caving into my wife when she was around by ignoring sports and not watching football. They’re the only two kids in their class, it seems, with no permanent knowledge of how football works, why their family loves the Kansas City Chiefs (look at the proximity for where I grew up and realize why that’s a silly question) and what a “Cornhusker” is. But we still go out, toss the ball around, play flag football with their sisters and the friends that meet us at the park.
But music isn’t like football. It’s just not that simple. People think I joke when I say if I was forced to pick a limb to lose I’d take a leg because I can use crutches but I can’t play guitar with one hand. (Yes, I know, SOME people can, but not me) I look at the guitar as an extension of my left hand. I can listen to Kenny Burrell, or “Live Cream Volume II” and have no words or lyrics and still feel something in the way the notes are played. If my life were to be silenced of melody and harmony I would simply slip away into madness.
It was also something that thoroughly bothered my wife, up until the last few years of our marriage. She didn’t understand that this was part of my life, an integral part, until she’d come to the realization after talking to doctors and seeing studies on synesthesia: a genetic syndrome where people see sounds and movements in shades of color. I’m not talking hippy-speak “aura reading” or mood rings, but if you were happy and giggling, she might see you in shades of yellow, while a screaming child throwing a tantrum might be orange or red. She thought all her life that everyone saw the world that way. The same people think that a similar spark in the brain can do that for musicians. I always have music in my head. I see the way people talk in terms of rhythm, movement and harmony.
But Andrea didn’t realize that at first. When we were dating she’d never realized that I was a musician of the caliber or ability that would perform at more than a garage band level. It changed when I played with my first band, a cover band known as “Drastic Measures” and we opened for the two-hit wonder classic-rock band Foghat. I’d gotten some passes for the show for friends and family. At this point, I believe, Andrea and I had been dating but few people knew about it. A friend of ours came along and sat with her while I was supposed to perform. (He still remembers, with some humor and sadistic glee how awfully that night went) What she was unaware of was the fact that we had shown up insanely early, in the freezing cold of a Fall day, at the Peony Park Ballroom in Omaha. The promoter and band were late. We were cold and hungry, and when the van rolled up, “Lonesome Dave” and the crew refused to come out of the tour bus. The man who did come out, a fat-assed long-haired greasy tour manager, started barking orders at us – the opening band who was getting a mere pittance for the chance to perform.
Here’s the thing. We knew we weren’t headliners, nor were we thinking this was our ticket to superstardom. We did feel grateful for the opportunity to perform and were nervous to be opening for a touring act. What we didn’t think was even probable was that they considered us “roadies” for the day, but they did. I was ready to hit the road, leave the jerk of a bastard behind, but the band leader thought it was worth it for the opportunity to be an opening act for a c-list classic rock band. I threw out my shoulder and had to take a handful of ibuprofen after lifting a speaker column that weighed the equivalent of a Greek marble column with the tour manager sitting on top while eating potato chips. One of the other guys slammed an amplifier’s casters into my foot and it started to swell, and we hadn’t even brought our gear into the ballroom yet. By the time we thought we were able to, the road manager asks us if we’re ready to set up some equipment. I say “yes” and they start diagramming how we are to set up the stage for the Foghat show. The drummer and I looked at each other, looked at the stage manager, and in unison said “F**k you!” We turned around and stomped out of the ballroom.
What our mutual friend isn’t aware of, I don’t think, is that after fuming in the parking lot, screaming my head off, spewing profanities about the poor-playing, audial masturbatory, self-indulgent prigs that I thought this band was I spotted a pay phone in the parking lot. I could have called my brother, who would have commiserated with me, or my folks, who supported me, but I called the person whose attention I craved and whose voice made me smile. I called Andrea. You have to understand that at that point I was determined to tell them to screw themselves and head out the door. I had my amp, my guitars, all of it. But as a voice of reason, she basically said she wanted to see me play and that since we’d already loaded the crap into the ballroom what good would it do? How much worse could it get?
She was, of course, giving me the kiss of death.
That night I had new clothes, a stage outfit that wasn’t anything flashy or crazy, but was black pants, a blazer, a fedora, whole nine yards. I had brand new pair of pants and a shirt that I had bought because Andrea had said they’d look good and I wanted to impress her. Unfortunately, the rhythm guitarist, while Andrea and our friend were backstage telling me to break a leg, informed me she’d spilled a “whiskey sour” on my clothes, forcing me to wear my stage clothes, staining and ruining the outfit. Not that I was obsessed with clothes or how I looked, but I was so hoping to keep this woman interested in me and not give her reason to think I was the waif that I was. She smiled, our friend guffawed out loud. He was right to, but I could hear it echoing in my head.
Just before we were to go on, old fat-ass shows up again. Gruff and smug as before he informs us “You get exactly 30 minutes! You go 31, we shut off the power! You play any 10-minute or longer songs, we turn off the power. You try to get cute and play any “Foghat” songs, we shut off the power.” Basically, he told us that if we showed up the headliners we were in trouble. In the back of my head I could hear Stevie Ray Vaughan telling David Bowie to go to hell and I looked the crazy, viscous man in the eye and right as the radio DJ said our name, I told him “go f**k yourself!” I hit the stage, opened with a solo, then the lights went black and we kicked into the instrumental.
We played really well, if I say so myself, and I left the stage. The fat man walked up to offer a compliment but I blew past him, grabbed my stained clothes, met Andrea and our friend and we went to another bar, drank too many margaritas and ate too many free nachos and made fun of the two-hit wonders. To put a bow on this story, Foghat never paid us. We only were going to get $100-150 each, but we never even got that. Headaches, pain and the demise of fashionable clothing for nothing.
Andrea even that night asked me why I wasn’t looking toward her while playing. Each gig I played, she supported me, but wondered each time why my full attention wasn’t focused on her, playing my songs for her. I did that, in fact I thought of her more than anyone when I played, but when you play, you drift, your eyes glazing, the sounds enveloping you and the melody takes hold while you find the notes to fit into the chords that are playing around you. My eyes are seeing the harmony and melody, they don’t see the world. Years later, when I was out of the market and unable to play live, she would notice it even on the couch, my gaze somewhere else, the sounds overtaking my brain. It drove her crazy because she didn’t understand it and it drove me crazy because I couldn’t make her understand.
Then she heard that first story – a piece on the NPR series Radiolab. Her eyes stared at me, her mouth agape, and she asked what I had been trying for years to tell her: “Is that how you see things – in colors?”
“No, I see in terms of music. You don’t?”
“No, I see colors. You hear music?”
She told me if she’d understood that years ago, we’d have had so few fights, so few misunderstandings, so few disagreements. What she didn’t realize was that I so wanted her there, with all my heart. It was so much easier to have her believe and understand in what I saw as a major part of my life. Sure, the dreaming, teenager inside of me wanted to believe that I’d get discovered and be a rock star. The realist in me knew it wouldn’t happen, but it paid enough when I started my own band that we bought groceries, Christmas presents, and made college tuition for her to get into Pharmacy school because of it.
When Andrea died, so many things made no sense. She was around every corner. When I went to take a shower I could smell her lotions and makeup in the bathroom. Nothing was normal. The only thing that was consistent was my guitar. I could pick up the Strat and it was consistent. The songs I played, the blues I was so enamored with, was a style she didn’t gravitate toward. The only thing in my life that didn’t change, the only thing I could do without going off the deep and and going insane was to play music.
I wrote a song in the days after the funeral, at 3-4am every night, unable to sleep, unable to think, it just came in.
At the end of the day, when I couldn’t face life because life didn’t make any sense any more the only thing I could do was to shut up and play my guitar.