|LIFE AS A LOSER #8: "MUSICAL DESPAIR.|
|By Will Leitch|
My cousin Denny is about the coolest guy I know. He’s studying to be a grade school teacher, he lives alone in a spacious house with velvet Elvis paintings, and on the side, he races motorcycles professionally. Considering this is a guy with whom I bathed when we were younger - well, is 22 considered “younger”? - I feel like something must have gone wrong at one point because he’s got this really kick-ass life and I type my deepest woes into a word processor while cleaning up cat shit and picking my nose.
I’ve tried to improve my social standing in respect to my cousin, but there is one way I am certain I will never match him. Denny, in addition to all that other stuff, plays guitar in a rock band, writes his own songs and jams with friends in a back room of his house, which is decorated generously with various amplifiers, drum sets and static pedals (I don’t know what a static pedal is, but he mentioned it one time, and it sounded cool).
Whenever we’re at a party together, someone will inevitably ask him to break out his guitar. He’ll be sheepish about it, but he’ll bust it out and start rocking, and every woman in the place will eventually be at rapt attention. Whenever I break out my word processor at parties, I can never garner quite the same reaction.
Denny’s obviously a hip guy in more than one way, but his musical prowess certainly impresses people the most. He didn’t play any instruments as a kid, but one day he picked up a guitar and just started pouring his soul into it.
No matter their place in society or their proclivities toward spontaneous gestures, I’ve yet to find a woman who can resist a guy who teaches little kids, races motocross and writes ballads. So, as I tend to do when I notice someone who seems to have a better idea of how to live life than I do, I decided to try to shamelessly copy Denny. It was time to become a musician.
I’d tried this before. In high school, a friend was starting a band and wanted a lead singer. I’d never sang much before, but I’m always looking to try new things, especially if they help me meet girls. We had a little jam session at his parents’ house, and he broke into Led Zeppelin’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I just tried to keep up, but yeah, I felt I was belting out the tunes with the requisite amount of soul. I was mistaken. My friend told me I had a “good punk voice,” but, um, that wasn’t quite what this band was all about. “Maybe if you knew how to play guitar, you’d know how notes work.” Ahem.
I gave up any pretense of singing when the music teacher at my high school, upon witnessing my audition for the school play, told me, “Will, you’re perfect for the part (of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls). But, seriously, we’ve got to do something about that voice.” I played Big Jule instead.
OK, fine, so I couldn’t sing. But I had plenty of friends who played guitar. Maybe I could do that. When I moved to Los Angeles, I had a roommate who had a working guitar and an amp. That is, until I got a hold of it. After I got home from work, I would plug in and start rocking out, randomly scratching out unrecognizable sounds that sounded beautiful to me. This agonizing noise - strangely, every time I left for work in the morning, four dogs were lying dead at our front door - ended when, while trying to compose a particularly difficult death metal selection, I snapped two strings on the guitar. I offered to replace them, but my roommate insisted that wasn’t necessary. Seriously, Will, don’t fix it. It doesn’t need to be played again. I mean it.
So ended that little stage of my music career, though my sister, who was fortunate enough to receive all the musical, non-neurotic genes in our family, taught me how to play the first three bars of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and instantly regretted it. Every time I saw her for the next six months, I’d swipe her guitar, play the three bars and announce proudly, “Hey, check it out, I’m a rock star!” She didn’t seem convinced.
I finally decided I had enough of this fly-by-night informal training. If I was going to learn to play an instrument, I would have to do it the right way and take lessons. I couldn’t afford a nice electric guitar and amp, so I figured I’d go in another direction. It was time for some ivory tickling.
I would learn to play the piano. It didn’t seem that difficult; I mean, I type all day every day, and you use your fingers to do that. You use your fingers to play the piano. Pretty much the same principle, right?
I had visions of a New Year’s Eve in an unnamed big city, overlooking the downtown skyline, my girlfriend and I all snazzed up, she in an evening gown and I in a tuxedo, surrounded by our closest friends. I raise my glass of bourbon for a toast. “This one is for my friends, who have given me a wonderful year and will give me many wonderful years to come.” I sit down at a grand piano and play a beautiful ode to fellowship, the passage of time and happiness. When I finish the composition, the room is absorbed, my friends pat me on the back, my girlfriend kisses me, strangers tip their top hats in respect. Preferably a music executive would then show up, offer me a record contract and tell me he will make me a star, but that part is optional.
I bought a little Casio keyboard for practice and signed up for lessons with a seemingly friendly elderly woman in town. Every Wednesday night, for the reasonable price of $12 a half hour, I headed over to her home. The plan was for her to turn me into Mozart or, at the very least, Little Richard. Adding up the details, I guessed it would take me about, oh, a couple months before I was ready to take my show on the road. Money, women, fame and the other trappings of rock ‘n’ roll stardom would roll right in.
My first warning sign that things weren’t quite heading in the direction I’d hoped occurred in that first lesson when my instructor, Resa, informed me I would have to unlearn everything I knew about music, which wasn’t all that much. “None of that rock ‘n’ roll stuff, that noise,” she preached. “You must appreciate the discipline of counting and measures. The piano is an instrument of science and mathematics, and you must treat it as such.” Well, Mr. Miyagi, I suspect Axl Rose would disagree with you, but I’ll play along.
The first selection in the book, The Older Beginner Piano Course (aka, Why Didn’t You Learn This Shit When You Were 7 Like Everybody Else?) was “Au Clair de la Lune,” the French folk song that monkeys can play. I had no sooner made a lame joke about how maybe I needed to save this song from the German folk song on the adjoining page when Resa tersely tapped me on the knuckles - I’m lucky she didn’t slam the damn piano door on my fingers - and reiterated, “Concentrate! There is no time for jokes. You must immerse yourself in the notes.” It was a bad time for me to mention that, well, I just wanted to rock!
I sucked it up, though, and eventually I did learn how to play that song as well as “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Down in the Valley” and of course, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” In fact, I thought I was progressing at a pretty solid pace until one night, when I arrived about 15 minutes early for my lesson.
Resa was working with some snot-nosed, 6-year-old twerp, a demonically angelic little girl with bows in her hair who was tapping out a magnificent version of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5” (how do Hungarians dance, by the way?). I watched as Resa gently turned the page and the little shit seamlessly transitioned into the Swan Lake theme. The lesson was then over, and she hugged Resa and told her she couldn’t wait until next Thursday’s recital. She asked if she could stay and listen to my lesson while she was waiting for her mom. Resa tried to hide her reluctance, but I noticed it. The kid stayed.
Well, old man Will sat down and clunked his way through “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” feeling fortunate he hit any key, let alone the right one. Resa tried to remain patient. She told me, “You know, Will, it’s OK to use both hands,” but her exasperation was quietly evident. Kids, however, have no such restraint, and I heard a sickly sweet voice rise up behind me with, “Boy, you stink.”
The piano gods later smiled on Resa. Our lessons ended about a month later when she and her family moved away. At our last one, she gave me the number of another teacher, but I got the impression she’d rather another colleague not be subjected to me. I staggered through a final version of “Lightly Row” with her - her look during the performance implied she felt it wasn’t written to sound like silverware being dropped on the floor - and I bade her, and my musical career, adieu.
Denny is fully aware and sympathetic of my thwarted desire to be a rock star, so he threw me a bone a couple years ago. His band was playing at a local watering hole, and in between songs he called for me to come onstage. To imaginary cheers, I sauntered on up and prepared for my moment of glory.
“OK, this is a new number we’re doing. Will, you’ll know what to do.” He then broke into a rousing, rollicking version of the Peanuts theme song, and I realized I was not there to sing or drum or strum but instead to jump around and bob my head up and down just like Linus and the gang did on the cartoons. I was, of course, the dancing monkey for the crowd to mock, but I played along.
And, if I do say so myself, I rocked.