Author Archives: heavymetalheartbreaker

My History with the Blues

Pants, smaller

I took a music course on the blues during my sophomore year at Brown. It was called The Blues. My friend Chris was enthusiastic about it. For my part, I thought I could already play serious blues for a 19-year-old from Leonia, NJ. It had been covered in my private guitar lessons. I thought to myself, What’s this course really going to show me?

But Chris talked me into it. He said, “This is just gonna be cool. Trust me. Plus, it’s an easy A.” So I went to the first class, and the professor said, “Don’t take this course if you think it’s an easy A.” As we walked home afterward, I said to Chris that maybe this class isn’t so easy.

Chris said, “No, it’s definitely easy.”

“But the professor said that thing.”

“That’s how you know it’s easy. Do you think they say anything like that in Jeff’s engineering courses?”

Jeff was our roommate, who took hard courses. That was enough to convince me. I signed up for The Blues, with 2 dangerous assumptions: 1) I already understood the blues because I could play it to my own satisfaction, and 2) This would be an easy course, and the crucial piece of evidence was that the professor said it would not be an easy course.

Your grade in The Blues was based on 1 midterm and 1 final. That was it. Musical ability was not tested whatsoever; the tests were the old-school kind, which is to say they were tests of knowledge.

The midterm was surprising in the classic nightmarish way: as the professor handed out the exams, the students looked down, shook their heads, and laughed. When I got mine, I saw why. We were all doomed. The first question was “What’s Howling Wolf’s real name?” No one knew that. Was that from class notes? Was that in the reading? No one knew if there even was reading. We just came to class and listened to the professor play blues records and rhapsodize about the meaning of the blues. Sometimes he would demonstrate stuff on an acoustic guitar. He wasn’t that good. We thought the whole class was just a vibe. No one knew what Howling Wolf’s real name was.

The second question was “What year was Bessie Smith born?” I had no idea. I was about to flunk a midterm at an Ivy League school that I had worked really hard to get into. Did that count as having the blues?

Then the midterm had a listening section. The professor played an archival recording of Blind Lemon Jefferson playing a one-string guitar and muttering incoherently. We were supposed to transcribe the lyrics. In the world of impossible tests, this was some next-level shit. I said to myself, “This is what it feels like to fail a test completely.”

I guess not everyone blew off studying, though. When the midterms were handed back, the professor looked at one kid and nodded and said “Good job.” That must have been the kid who knew who Sonny Terry was. I looked at him with awe and resentment.

After that, the rest of the semester was less fun. I frantically took notes on everything in class—wait, could you repeat the date of W. C. Handy’s first transcription of black folk music? It was that, constantly.

I studied for the final, but I had a not-great attitude. It was impossible to get a B, probably. I didn’t have the Honors Student–pride that was usually at my back. The goal was simply not to fail; it was “See if you can crash land and break your own legs so that you’re not instantly killed.” I studied in that spirit. I got a C for the course.

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EPILOGUE TO THE ECONOLODGE

Image by Marie Fade.

Image by Marie Fade.

On the way back from my Econolodge, I stopped at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT. It’s a giant gift shop, but it has the affectations of a museum. It’s got a bunch of old Pez dispensers in display cases and a mural depicting the 90-year history of Pez. In the beginning, Pez dispensers were nondescript. They didn’t have character heads. The first character head was Halloween Witch, sometime in the 30s. The most popular Pez dispenser of all time is Santa Claus.

Some of the super-rare collectors’ Pez pieces that were on display were remarkable for looking like the worst Pez dispensers you’ve ever seen in your life. There was a brokenish hippopotamus, for instance, that is the jackpot of all jackpots, but when you look at it, it’s hard to understand that it’s not completely worthless.

Admission to the Pez Visitor Center is $6—that’s $6 to enter a building that is basically a store. But who was I to say no? Admission comes with $2 of store credit and a Pez lanyard. The lanyard was a minor issue. Even as Alone Guy, I find lanyards problematic for my vision of myself. They’re like fanny packs or Merrells sandal-sneakers. I can’t wear lanyards. Problem is, the Pez lanyard serves as your ticket to the visitor center, and in order to walk around, the lanyard has to be visible. So I bunched mine up and carried it in my hand.

Another thing I learned is that a big part of Pez’s business today is licensed characters: Batman, Harry Potter, Spongebob. I was opinionated about this. Soon enough, everything in the world will be something to do with a blockbuster movie. Enough with that. I found myself reevaluating the decrepit Pez hippo forgotten by time—I guess it’s cool now that the most valuable Pez dispenser in the world is a shitty hippo that looks like shit. OK, yes.

For my part, I used my $2 of store credit to buy a vampire bat Pez dispenser. I took some pride in the choice; Halloween is a high holy day for me, and I made sure that the bat was not some licensed Twilight bullshit. It was just a Pez bat designed by Pez.

Now that I had a dispenser, the really cool thing I could do was go flavor shopping. They had these huge sealed tubs of all the different Pez flavors, and you could pull a lever and a bunch of Pez tablets would come tumbling out. You could fill a bucket with all the flavors you wanted for 5 bucks. I sprung for that. The last time I had any real consumer awareness of Pez was in elementary school, when there were only 4 flavors: strawberry, grape, orange, lemon. As I recall, lemon was pretty bad, except that it was hard to find, so it was kind of interesting for being rare. Today, Pez is onto some next-level shit when it comes to flavors. The Visitor Center had something like 20 to choose from—not all of them were good, but some of them deserve respect as experiments in jazz. There was a teenage employee standing near the wall of tubs, and she saw me looking at them will full-bore intensity, taking it all in with my little bucket and my Pez bat and my bunched up lanyard. She said, “If you want to try a flavor, just let me know.”

I said, “Yeah, OK, thanks.” So she put on rubber gloves and then very conscientiously tried to pull one of the levers just a teeny bit so that exactly one Pez tablet fell onto her glove-hand. Then she held her glove-hand out, and I tried raspberry-lemon, which I decided was too sour. “OK, thanks,” I said. “Can I try sour watermelon?”

I had a feeling that Pez sour watermelon would be really good, the way gummy sour watermelons from CVS are really good. So, again, Class of 2013 hunched over and masterfully extracted only one sour watermelon Pez tablet from the huge thing. And again I ate it off her hand. It was better than raspberry-lemon but worse than gummy sour watermelons. I wondered then if gummy sour watermelons are just better than all Pez, and if there was a gummy sour watermelon Visitor Center in the world, and if so, how long would it take to get there from here? But then I noticed that my teenage attendant was still standing there, waiting to see if I was going to request another flavor test. I was curious to try all 20, but something about the whole production of having her get each one and then eating it off her hand—after 2 it already felt like an unnecessary power thing. “OK, thanks,” I said. I would go it alone at this point. I would fill my bucket with flavors, making decisions based on my memory of the primordial 4 and my brief encounters with 2 of the new. I don’t know how this is going to go, I said to my Pez bat. But let’s try it.

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TRIP TO THE ECONOLODGE

Notebook + overdrive pedal

Notebook + overdrive pedal

I decided to get away for the weekend. Wanted to go somewhere and write lyrics. My girlfriend Erica was in Italy, and my roommate Frank was bartending at the Belmont Stakes. I decided to finish some songs in a motel room by myself.

Part of the plan was to find a motel room near a weird cool place, so that I could write all weekend and make one trip if I needed to clear my head. What’s a weird cool place? My first choice was the Boxing Hall of Fame, which is in upstate New York. When I looked it up, I was shocked to see that this very weekend was their induction ceremony. What luck! Marvelous Marvin Hagler was going to be there. Wait, Rosie Perez was going to be there! She was even going to be the Parade Marshal on Sunday. I didn’t know what Parade Marhsal means, but Frank reminded me that Rosie Perez has, from time to time, made appearances on the Ivan Anderson Top 5.

Until 4 days ago, I never really understood how big upstate New York is. When I looked up the driving directions, I learned that the Boxing Hall of Fame is a 6-hour drive away. I’m gonna spend the whole weekend driving, I thought. That would normally be an attractive idea, but I’d recently lost the car I most love in the world. I cannot get into the details of this now, but since I lost that car, driving has been an altogether different experience for me. Going to the Boxing Hall of Fame would put me back in mourning—it was too far away, too adventurous, too perfect. I knew somewhere over the course of those 6 hours I would look at the odometer of Erica’s car (mine while she’s in Italy) and break down.

Besides, the thought of trying to meet Parade Marshal Rosie Perez, the pressure to flirt with 48-year-old Rosie Perez, was already exhausting me. I would get zero writing done.

Instead, I discovered Gillette’s Castle in Connecticut, built by William Gillette, a guy who played Sherlock Holmes on stage 100 years ago. It was only 2 hours away. It looked medium popular. I booked a nearby Econolodge for 2 nights.

I brought a composition notebook and my guitar. I picked up a bunch of fruit snacks and Zone bars on the highway. No computer. I took 2 books: The Spooky Art, by Norman Mailer, and The Forty Days of Musa Daghh, by Franz Werfel. I am, as of this writing, 300 pages into Musa Dagh, which represents the first significant fraction of this 1,100-page book about the Armenians. I am currently at one of the book’s hard parts. The not-hard parts depict Armenians taking to the mountains with guns and ammo, preparing to hold off the Turks Alamo-style, drawing battle plans, building forts, and practicing Rambo maneuvers in a way that is rousing and hopeful for the reader. But then, inevitably, new Armenians enter, telling grisly stories from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, stories that are completely horrifying and go on for pages. These are the book’s hard parts. And even though I have been more than gamesome for 300 pages of Rambo, then genocide, then Rambo, I am currently between Rambos. So before I left, I decided to bring along another book. Hence The Spooky Art, which is just Mailer rhapsodizing about writing and beyond.

When I got to my room at the Econolodge, the full weight of what I had decided to do came over me. My motel room smelled like smells. The deadbolt didn’t work. The phone didn’t work. With all the lights on and the TV blasting (also the remote control didn’t work), my room was still dark. It was a bizarre, impossible darkness. I had not been prepared for the loneliness of what I was about to do: write by myself for 3 days, in a dark motel room, with 1 trip to a castle. It was going to be fun, but also lonely. On my bed with my guitar, looking at an Econolodge parking lot through the window, I was lonely.

But it made me feel closer to Norman Mailer. I took his advice seriously about the importance of committing to writing for hours on end no matter what. He says you must do this so that your subconscious has a reason to trust you. Only after days of staring at a blank page, gaining weight, accomplishing nothing, will the subconscious bequeath one of its gifts. Looking around at the Econolodge and all its drab adversities, I felt eligible for that.

Moreover, I felt receptive to the full size and complexity of Norman Mailer’s superstitions: that everything in the universe is a plus or minus on the soul of the writer, whose true mission is to nudge the sum of all things toward plus by writing novels. I was ready to believe that as never before. I was ready to believe that books and lyrics mattered in ways I didn’t even know. Recall, again, the uncanny persistence of Econolodge darkness. I’m telling you, my room was dark against all odds. Even on Saturday, with the curtains open and the high-noon sun shining directly into my room, it was dark. So there was that—something to take seriously in an account of the mystical forces around me. Recall also that I had chosen not to go to the Boxing Hall of Fame, boxing being one of my bonds with Mailer. I had declined an invitation from Rosie Perez—I had exiled myself to the Econolodge Den of Darkness. Surely this too was part of the cosmic algebra of my weekend.

Part of me wondered if I was courting something really bad. I had chosen to visit an old castle; I had made the lonely choice, maybe the haunted choice. I was setting in motion events similar to those that began The Shining. I was actually worried about that: before I left, I sent an email to some friends with the phone number and address of the Econolodge where I was staying. “If you never hear from me again,” I wrote, “start here.”

Fortunately, there was no Shining. Gillette’s Castle was quaint. No real occult to speak of, just a bunch of kids with braces running around. I was there as Alone Guy, carrying around my notebook just in case anything spooky happened and lyrics appeared to me. At one point, I carved “IVAN + ERICA” into a wooden picnic table when no one was looking. Sorry, Rosie Perez, I said. Then Sorry, Erica, for saying sorry to Rosie Perez.

After that it was back to the Econolodge for more writing. I unplugged the TV. Consumed fruit snacks. Wrote. Procrastinated by practicing guitar bullshit. Wrote more. Consulted the rhyming dictionary. I forgot to mention this: I had brought the rhyming dictionary my ex-girlfriend Jeanne gave me 10 years ago, back when me and Jeanne were still me and Jeanne.

After 1:00 AM on Saturday, I noticed that my compact MW rhyming dictionary was missing an entry for words that rhyme with savage: cabbage, baggage, etc. I forget why I needed rhymes for savage, but the omission affected me. I spent several wee-morning hours trying to find where the dictionary had hidden savage et al. I never found it. The dictionary had failed. I began an argument with Merriam-Webster in my mind. This is no time to make grave mistakes, I said to my book. Not now, when the Internet has its foot on your throat. You can’t be making unforced errors at a time like this. Do you think I’ve never heard of RhymeZone.com? Do you think the Internet isn’t teeming with words that rhyme with savage, and not only that, but RhymeZone lets you include near rhymes in any search result? Do you have any idea how powerful that is for the young author?

I am willing to believe in the eldritch power of print. I believe in the spookiness of The Spooky Art, and that the Internet is a species of plastic, something that is destroying the mind-world of Norman Mailer. Yes, I am a person who will spend money to be in a decrepit motel room away from the noise and the honking of all that. But when Merriam-Webster leaves out important rhymes from the print edition, I have to wonder if my side has already surrendered. Keep in mind: I don’t know what happens on the fortieth day of Musa Dagh. I know how the Armenian genocide ends, of course, but I don’t know if this guy Bagradian makes it or not. This is why, at 3:00 AM, hunched over on my EconoBed, realizing that my rhyming dictionary contained at least 1 horrible failure, I wondered seriously if all was doomed. I kept writing, though.

MY RELATIONSHIP WITH SHOWTIME

My first showtime was last summer. I was on the subway and a bunch of young dudes got on and said, “Showtime, folks, showtime.” They cleared a space and started blasting music and did a breakdancing routine up and down the subway car. My thought, that very first time, was “Let’s not hate this.”

There were good reasons not to hate. Number 1: don’t I appreciate the performing arts? I carry around my guitar case, I’m trying to do my thing. I gotta root for some kids making a buck by breakdancing. Opposing them would make me feel like a Republican. Reason number 2: ya know, maybe it’s hip. Maybe they’re on to something. I read about previous New Yorks, New Yorks that had the Limelight and CBGB, Keith Harring’s graffitti, Basquiat walking around somewhere. My experience of New York has not really approached that kind of disco in the Wild West. Even when I play gigs, my nighttime world is pretty logistical: where to park, where to load in, which door I gotta use, which form I gotta fill out to get paid. It doesn’t really feel like a Blondie music video, exactly. So the first time a bunch of kids took over my subway car to breakdance, I tried to be receptive.

But times have changed. The breakdance invasions have gotten more frequent. You could say I’ve made an attitude adjustment. There are days now when I get 2 different “Showtime, folks” on the same trip. And I no longer strive to say “Let’s not hate this.” I’ve dropped my pretense. I hate it now.

The reason is that they take the subway car hostage. They ask everyone to move, and you just gotta deal with the music and the moves and wait for it to be over. That’s the part I hate. Sitting there, captive, trying not to be interrupted from whatever I was reading or thinking or not thinking.

But I say to myself, what about me and my band? Maybe I’m just like these kids and their breakdancing. We’re both trying to make it, right? Maybe someday I’ll be on a subway car, forcing people to listen to me play “Eruption” on a practice amp. Maybe I should  say “There but for the grace of God go I” and try to love showtime.

But when I put myself out there—when I take the guitar out of the case—I never force anyone to listen who doesn’t want to. When I hand out flyers on street corners, I don’t talk trash to the people who say stuff worse than “No thanks.” I think that’s just part of it, if you want people to care about your thing. I’ve gotten 1 or 2 absolutely shitty write-ups on the interent, 1 or 2 total take-downs, but I haven’t gone on killing sprees. I’ve watched Rockwood Music Hall clear out within 30 seconds of my band’s first song, watched an entire room of people say “Yeah, no” when I start playing. I’ve shoveled my car out of the snow to play gigs where the promoter lies and there’s no sound and no one comes and everything sucks.

And when I wake up the next day, my first thought is not “How can I force people to listen to my stuff no matter how uncomfortable it is for them?” That is not my comeback strategy. Instead, I try to write songs that people will just love. I go back for more guitar lessons. I talk to the band about what we gotta do next. I try to get us all on the metronome a little tighter, try to get some better clothes, try to do some more pushups, try to learn some new chords, whatever it takes. All of this is why I feel entitled to hate showtime when I get ambushed on the subway. I don’t want to be forced to dig it.

But there was this one time. I was on an N a month or 2 ago, and a dude got on wearing headphones, standing near me at the end of the train car. He started slamdancing violently, lunging forward over and over again, in a way that let everyone know “This guy has a thing.” It was like he was headbanging from the waist. It might have been Tourette’s—I don’t know. It was intense. People looked at each other and the vibe going around was “For this 1 second we are all not jaded.” We gave Tourette’s some space.

The doors shut, the train started moving, and then, from the other end of the car, we heard “OK folks, showtime, showtime.” Near me, people’s eyes got wide. Tourette’s was in his own world, rocking back and forth. If the showtime kids were about to do what they normally do—which is get in everyone’s space—there was no telling what we were in for. It could be anything.

The showtime kids started blasting their music, and Tourette’s got this look on his face that said “Oh, fuck, nice, yes, awesome, fuck.” He started slamdancing even harder, now in time with the showtime music. And the showtime kids started their routine, but they didn’t really come all the way down the car, because it had become Tourette’s zone. They let him do his thing. Tourette’s was going wild, grinning like he was in total rapture, and I looked at him and thought “OK, let’s not hate this.”

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PUSHUPS

Backstage at BB Kings, November 2012. Photo courtesy of Chris Klettermayer.

On my birthday, I went to the library in my neighborhood for the first time. It was boiling hot inside, and there were a bunch of people sitting around looking stressed out. Who goes to the library anymore? On my birthday, it was the elderly, local students, and me. It felt like how I imagine 1974. It felt like the world of CBS FM. Computers were a negligible presence, and the books themselves were yellow and middle-aged.

I sat down in the periodicals room and opened my composition notebook. I was trying to finish new lyrics; that was why I came to the library on my birthday. I was hoping that the purgatorial vibe of the library would give me something. It felt like an Edward Hopper painting in the daytime. I was looking to find rhymes in that. One guy near me slept sitting up in his chair, wearing a sea captain’s hat. Another man to my right was reading two giant reference books about cancer. That’s not you, I said to myself. You are here today to turn 26 and write lyrics.

Later that day, after I had put together 2 verses at the library and come back to my apartment, I decided to do 70 pushups in a row without stopping. 70 pushups would not be my lifetime record, but it would be close—I once did 75 in a hotel room in August, 2011. Sometime after setting that record, I started walking around as a guy who could do 75 pushups in a row, and then I stopped doing them, and then I lost the ability. I started trying again this past summer, when I went to Morocco with my girlfriend. On our first day, with no phone and no friends in a foreign country, I realized that it was just the 2 of us and our wits. Part of wits, I decided, should be pushups. So I started doing pushups again.

3 months later, on my birthday, I was ready to try for 70 straight-through, no junk ones. Down and up, every time, with my back straight. That was the plan. Around 5:30 PM, I got down on the carpet and said to my girlfriend, “I think I’m gonna try my thing now.” I’d had reasonable success at the library earlier, and I’d had a full day to brood about the meaning of turning 26. The meaning of 26, as far as I understood it, was horrifying to me. I read somewhere that by the time George Harrison was 26, the Beatles had already accomplished everything and broken up. So I spent most of my birthday furious at that, and on my way back from the library I dared to ask whether George Harrison, at any point in his life, could do 70 pushups in a row. The answer must be no.

I started my pushups by using the terror of old age to power through. The first 50 were a mostly-painless blitz of pride and self-actualization. Starting around 54, I had to slow down a little and concentrate. The next 11 took on a personality of their own. They had the feeling of a blood offering. The feeling of a painful thing I was only doing to scare away the thought of, “What if it never happens?” But I made it to 70, and the last 5 were not too difficult for me to catch a glimpse of 80. I saw the nearness of 80, and I saw the possibility of beyond. It’s not too late to dream of 100, I decided. Happy birthday.

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THE WILL TO LIVE

Roommate in kitchen.

I think about the will to live every morning when I check the mouse traps in the kitchen. My kitchen has 9 different traps in it, and many more units of poison. I don’t know how to measure the quantity of green poison pellets that have been dispersed throughout my kitchen, but there are a lot. Every day I wake up and check the traps, and they are always untouched. Sometimes I find mouse poops near them.

We’ve plugged all the holes, so the mouse is trapped inside with us, and it’s only a matter of time before he stumbles onto a trap. Whenever I think about this, I say to myself, “Please may it not be a glue trap.” As you may know, the glue itself doesn’t kill. You must finish the job. And I’m told that at times like this, the will to live often complicates things. The mouse may scream and have mouse-conniptions. It may drag itself through a narrow space to pry the trap off. If that doesn’t work, some mice are so overcome with the will to live that they will chew their legs off in order to escape.

This is why I pray for it not to be a glue trap. Such a grisly, soul-killing ending with those. And besides, the glue traps make me think about the horrifying powers that are afforded to mice when the will to live is invoked. The will to live can make a mouse do Jason Bourne things, or it can make a mouse do extreme auto-cannibalistic things. The will to live can be kind or unkind, Christian or un-Christian; it can be savage and appalling or it can cite scripture to suit its purpose. It is for this reason perhaps a satanic force.

My roommate runs a catering business, and one time he saw that a waterbug had gotten stuck in one of the glue traps in the basement. When he first discovered it, the waterbug was thrashing around in total madness, trying to escape the glue. The next morning it was still trapped, and it was still writhing around in the grip of absolute mania. The bug was firing every twitch and synapse that it could to get out of the glue, but it was no use. There was nothing it could do. It was just going to starve to death, and probably soon, because of how exhausting it is to be in constant motion. But the waterbug was still alive on the third and fourth days, still flailing in vain, slowly drowning in glue. And then, on the fifth day, when my roommate went down to the basement, the glue trap was still there, but the waterbug was gone.

BEST-LOVED SEARCH TERMS

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What follows is a list of some of the most memorable search terms that people have used to find this blog:

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A LIST OF SIDE EFFECTS FROM WATCHING EVERY EPISODE OF THE SOPRANOS AGAIN FOR THE THIRD TIME

(This is an incomplete list.)

1. It’s like drugs. It’s too good. Knowing that I can eat dinner and watch another episode of The Sopranos, it’s almost as though I don’t need anything else to live for. One episode can un-waste an entire day, no matter how long it took me to put on my pants in the morning. That’s how much I love The Sopranos. It is a dangerous love.

2. I’m noticing a bunch of small errors for the first time. Mostly they’re first-season stuff: the actresses who play Silvio and Big Pussy’s wives are different the very first time you see them, and some of the vocal punch-ins are a little off. Also the very first season uses more non-diegetic music than the seasons that follow. I’d never noticed that before.

3. When I play the game of “Which Sopranos Character Am I?” I’ve come to see that I’m probably Johnny Sack, the perpetual guy-behind-the-guy from New York who dies of lung cancer. He’s monogamous, he’s uptight about his things, and he’s basically in charge, but he has to play chess games with everybody to get his way. I relate to those qualities. Also he loses face for crying at his daughter’s wedding. The other gangsters talk shit about that.

Now that I’m older I can admit that I would not be Tony or Chris. I calculate too much. I have too many questions, and I have also, in my time, cried. So I’ve come to terms with the fact that I would not be one of the stars of The Sopranos, if my life were The Sopranos. I would be the slinky cigarette-smoker with bags under his eyes. I would be Johnny Sack.

4. Certain things on the show are too much for me. Certain things make me squirm with pleasure-pain. For instance: the scene in the fancy restaurant when Tony Soprano tells some guy to take off his baseball hat. This scene haunts me. The guy doesn’t want to take his hat off. But then Tony looks at him, and he takes the hat off. Afterward a waiter comes over and thanks Tony.

Sometimes I think this one scene has fucked me up more than all heavy metal music and rated-R movies combined. When I’m on the subway and I see and hear things that are the Ivan Anderson–equivalent of a person wearing a baseball hat in a fancy restaurant, I think of this scene and I am tormented.

How does a person do that thing? How does a Johnny Sack become a Tony Soprano? And why does it mean as much to me as it does?

When I talk about The Sopranos as drugs, this is what I’m talking about. It nudges my fantasies to their furthest, most infinite places. And as much as I love the show, sometimes it’s just too much. Like the flavored syrup the dentist uses to clean your teeth and gums. Sometimes that’s the taste of the thing you love.

Halloween, 2009.

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GUITAR STORE CONFESSIONS

Photo courtesy of Caitlin Becker

I can count all the times I’ve been complimented in a music store. When I first started learning guitar as a kid, being complimented in a music store was an attainable dream on the list of dreams. It was among the things I wanted in a “Oh that would be nice too” sort of a way. I fantasized about it as recess from the other more extreme fantasies.

This is because a big part of electric guitar is the culture of big tits. For guitar players, big tits = shred, and shred = fancy in-your-face guitar playing that immediately shows off. If you have the big tits of shred, everyone wants to see it. But you’re not allowed to touch someone else’s big tits of shred, you just have to stare and admire it, or envy it. To put it another way, shred is obvious and powerful the way big tits are, and the feelings of attraction and confusion that shred inspires among guitarists are not, I submit to you, entirely different from the feelings many of us have about big tits.

I was 12 when I started taking guitar lessons, and my teacher back then was 13. I remember once, during a lesson in his living room, he told me that he went to a guitar store and bunch of other kids crowded around him and watched him play. “Yes,” I thought to myself as a hapless beginner, “I must have that too someday.” And it was at that moment that I first entered the gladiator’s arena and took my shoes off.

All these years later, do you want to know how many times I have received praise in a music store? The answer is 4. You may be wondering, “Is 4 a lot or a little?” You must decide for yourself. Judge my 4 how you will, with all that you know about shred and big tits.

Know too that many people who work in guitar stores are basically Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. This may explain why 2 of my 4 praises are not from playing guitar but from playing piano. I can imagine that the culture of piano is different, that there’s less silent hatred among players, less overall anxiety in the rat race for shred. Maybe because there’s never quite been a Jimi Hendrix on keyboard.

In any case, I’m not a good piano player, but it has brought me 50% of my music-store props. The first time anyone ever said to me, “Hey, you sound good,” I was diddling around on a keyboard in Teaneck, NJ. I had been playing guitar for about 8 years at that point, and I felt totally ready for someone in a music store to say that I was a shredder. But it didn’t happen until I sat down to play a keyboard, maybe because I wasn’t trying so hard, or maybe because I can only play pleasant, Paul McCartney–type stuff. It happened again at the Guitar Center near Union Square: I was sitting at a piano and people stopped and watched for a while, which counts the same as praise in my scoring system.

If I could, I would trade those for 2 more guitar praises, guitar being my main phallus and my main big tits, but that’s not allowed. Of my 2 guitar praises, one is from a guy in a store in Roslyn, Long Island, who seemed like he might have been looking for a guitar-bro. He was in his 40s, he had an 18-year-old son, but he gave off the vibe of the kid on the playground who wants to be friends more than you want to be friends. It was a small guitar store, and I didn’t want to get sucked into a conversation with this guy about his rig and his band and his dreams, so I bailed.

My 4th guitar praise, which is probably the only one that really counts, is from the owner of 30th St. Guitars, Matt Brewster, who once looked up when I played “Le Freak” by Chic. I was playing a BC Rich through a Marshall stack, which is totally un-Chic. But I made it sound like “Freak Out,” because I’ve had a thing with Nile Rodgers since 10th grade, and I even saw him on the street once. And while I was playing, Matt looked up at me from the back of the store and did the frowning nod thing.

So, to be perfectly honest with you, my 4 is really a 1. But it’s a good 1. And earlier, when I said that you yourself must decide whether my 4 counts for a lot or a little, it was really another way of saying that my 4 counts for a little. But I say too that my 4 contains 1 really great 1. So let that be known.

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I HAVE THIS TO SAY ABOUT NJ

Ronde Del Dia! published something I wrote about my hometown and my favorite diner, Royal Cliffs, which recently went out of business. The piece is called “RIP Royal Cliffs Diner,” and it’s also about the time I poured bleach on my leg to get rid of poison ivy, and the summer when I had to drive my friend to a bunch of psych wards. You can read it here. It’s what I have to say about NJ.

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