Photograph by guest arts editor, Peter Ahn.
You can read about the art selection process for this piece here.
I got pretty damn good at playing guitar during the period when I first moved away from home and took up an apartment with my friend Dennis Mozer. I practiced six hours a day on average. On days off I usually stretched it to eight or nine. Having heard of the routines of some of the greats like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Tom Morello, I became determined to follow in their “axe tracks”—yes I even invented a term for it.
Meanwhile, feats of willpower—like swearing off alcohol and drugs which I had done since I was sixteen and read The Wretched of the Earth (it’s funny to look back and think how some of my hardest drinking was done at ages 13 and 14)—were something I’d long been into. In short, I had that fanatic streak. When I developed blisters on my fingertips I was proud, and on the few occasions when they bled, just barely, I was certain I was on my way to greatness or at least to a unique place in the history of modern players.
My style was a bit unusual. I tended to roam and improvise, ever meandering up and down the fret board, endlessly plying the sky of the C major scale, the tempos and attitudes of my notes changing like cloudscapes and the weather. My teacher, who led a jazz band, had told me such scale was more or less the foundation of Western music, and at some point I’d decided I was going to make it my terrain, my own musical backyard. I would stick to the key of C Major, learn those note positions inside and out and to a large extent play only chords built out of those notes—no sharps, no flats. Inside the many rooms and hallways of this widely used traditional scale is where my left hand—and occasionally right hand whenever I put the pick down or perched it coolly in between my lips and employed the tapping technique a la Eddie Van Halen or Stanley Jordan—would dwell, and come to excel and dominate masterfully. All my music, infinite music, would come out of it, except of course in the case of some well-intuited instances when I might want to add a radical little twist just ’cause it sounded badass and unexpected and so would venture out of the scale lanes to create some coordinated havoc.
My plan per se was okay, but I made some strategic mistakes, miscalculations, in executing it.
Then again I knew overall that the plan was working and that I was improving significantly when, for instance, Dennis would come home from his job in the city as sous chef at some elegant restaurant and find me playing away in my room or in the kitchen—standing at times in front of the fridge and staring into its plain white face as if it were a magnificent window, my Fender plugged into the mini Marshall on the counter and the notes seeming to spit out rigidly and jaggedly or to gush forth mellifluously each one like a hyper jet of sound which bounced off the cabinets and ceiling and reversed course before blending into the next lightning stream—and despite being tired he would drop his keys down somewhere and, not even first going to the bathroom or anything, come and watch me and listen for several minutes, apparently enthralled with a supportive smile on his face.
“Man, do you do nothing else anymore other than play this gi-tarr? I ask because you sound more and more kickass every frickin’ day, it seems. Jimi the Fuck Hendrix is what I say.”
Dennis was a good dude, solid guy. Actually we hadn’t really been friends growing up, just peers at a distance. But he, like me, had dropped out of school with ideas of his own, determined to go against the grain. So we became good pals during those two years living together, despite that he had been brought up by off-kilter libertarian parents who didn’t even keep a TV in the house but did keep some kind of South American bird in the kitchen while my parents were bleeding heart liberals and pro-Government Democrats and had allotted for three televisions—never fewer than two, as I recall—and these were generally accessible to me and my sisters.
But the thing was, Dennis was not just flattering me, I could really play, but by the same token I was making those mistakes. For instance, despite my discipline to practice for long periods, I too often indulged my tendency to ramble and experiment across the frets. I was a wanderer and enthusiastic tramp, like Christopher McCandless, the real-life figure of Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and I always felt compelled to keep searching, continue pressing on, often concocting elaborate phrases but without writing them down to come back to.
There were other things I should have done but, strangely and stubbornly, never did. I should have recorded some of my sessions and listened to myself playing later, at a time when I would be relaxed and able to concentrate purely on the sounds I was making. And I should have utilized my metronome more and, in connection, practiced particular phrases in various times. I should have bothered, also, to learn some famous riffs. But I had a preference for playing almost exclusively original material. I was greedy and foolish in this, wanting to revel in my own creativity, wanting to hear constantly what I could produce, and to marvel at my own capability, like Narcissus wanted to keep seeing himself. For some reason I didn’t see then that if I had dipped into compositions by others it would have helped me cultivate and command my own style. Instead, after those two years of crazy playing and having very little social life at all (beyond hanging with Dennis for an hour or two on his single day off per week and beyond one short period of less than two months when I dated a Turkish girl, Amara, who worked at the 7-11 and who I finally had asked out spontaneously one evening after encountering her on the late shift several times previously and stifling the impulse—with infinite devotion to my other “girl” in mind, that is, the submissive one with the long neck), I never succeeded to forge an identifiable, consistent style.
I remember thinking, “What the fuck? I’m playing all the time, my fingers are strong, I can play fast, what I can do is pretty impressive, I’m definitely way better than I was, but I’m not even sure it’s worth a damn, really. My play doesn’t flow right; it’s restless, lacks mastery.”
The assessment was correct. My play was interesting, at times exhilarating, but it was amorphous. It boiled down, or up to a beautiful miasma; a dulcet hypnotic mess—one that potentially would stretch eternally without end.
Still, my biggest misstep was not shunning my metronome or failing to record my play and listening critically later. It was just this: I never made any real effort to seek other musicians out, even though during that whole period I was in fact entertaining dreams of getting a band together someday. In other words, I kept practicing and practicing—at some point it must have been tantamount to treading water, with occasional exasperated thrashing—and trying to get great, while at the same time never testing myself with others nor allowing myself the freedom to get together with anyone and try and write some songs. I denied myself any and all possible collaborations. True, I didn’t really know anyone at that time, but then I could have sought someone out; I could have posted an ad. But I can remember thinking that the young musicians I had met here and there tended to be unfocused, tended to want to drink or smoke, you know: kick it, maybe watch a movie or something before getting around to plugging in and actually working on song ideas. God knows, poor rigid me, I didn’t want to waste time and had little patience for procrastination or recreational substance use. But that stereotype about the young musician type which I clung to, even if there was truth in it, I ended up using as an excuse to stay sealed off from others. I went to work, I went to 7-11, I went for walks, and I stayed home to play guitar.
Quite unlike Tom Morello, who after graduating from Harvard and practicing for like eight hours a day for however long, determinedly took his ass out to L.A. and soon met Zack de la Rocha and the others with whom he would form the most raw, innovative, and razor-sharp rock-rap band maybe ever.
Yeah, that was Morello, not me. When the time was right he went and sought collaboration, changed the world. Me, I played and played, biding my time, never quite realizing that my profoundest failure was simply my reticence to get together with anyone, to keep seeing myself on a shining island while avoiding the obvious reality that I was completely stranded there.
* * *
Years later—I was twenty-nine so almost a decade later, a strange series of events occurred. I had long given up guitar, hadn’t played more than the odd moment or two in forever. I was still working at the same diner only now I was assistant manager rather than a server. Dennis Mozer and I had parted ways after our two years together and we were barely in touch. He was so busy, married by then and still sweating, cutting and hustling in the kitchen of the same fancy place, and meanwhile every one of my good friends, boys and girls, had settled into lives in far-away places from Japan and Mexico to New York, Chicago, and Washington state. One of my best friends, Chandler, was a rising star on the directing and producing side of the Seattle theater scene. He seemed thrilled, and I was happy for him.
One February day I went by Chandler’s old house on an impulse; I knew his mother still lived there. It was a precious day off, and I told myself I just wanted to enter the house again, reconnect with its spirit, get close for a moment to the cozy rooms where Chandler and I had so many good, if often somewhat reckless times, drinking and chatting and laughing away or blasting music and actually moshing in his room or, more occasionally, experimenting with harder substances than alcohol.
I guessed Chandler’s mother, Ellie, would be home. She was a divorcée and a widower, with her second husband having passed on, leaving her quite comfortable. Chandler had not been happy with her remarrying, and the fact the man was much older had bothered him deeply. But he had gotten used to it, moved on.
“Hi, oh wow—is that you, Jishnu? Gosh you’re totally grown-up now, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Mrs. B, I am, thanks for noticing,” I said, trying to sound suave-ish.
“Well come on in, I was just organizing the refrigerator and making a list of stuff to get later, just in case.”
A big blizzard had been forecasted and Ellie, who lived alone, was doing exactly what she should have been doing, preparing for the possibilities of being snowed in and having to go an extended time without power.
“Yeah, alright,” I said as I entered, “so I just wanted to see that you’re doing well and I was also thinking it would be nice to visit the old house too. This old house has a certain place in my heart, too.”
I scolded myself for saying too much off the bat and for including too many ‘toos.’ But I was nervous on account of the crush I had always harbored for Mrs. B, or Ellie—god, the name alone was enough to start me getting worked up. Add her dark red curls and a low intensity hurricane would already be brewing throughout my torso. By the time you got to her lioness eyes and few well-placed freckles… it was like they say, forget about it.
I remember noting, half-disappointedly, that at the age of 56, 57, she was still stunning.
“Really?” she’d answered politely. “That’s so sweet of you to check on me, and the house.”
I explained it was my day off and that if a blizzard really did pour down in the next 24 to 48 hours then in all likelihood the diner (“yep, same old diner”) would close up for at least a day or two, depending.
Graciously, she invited me to stay for hot chocolate. I thanked her and stayed, of course.
We sat on her large roomy couch, a few feet apart, toasty mugs resting on a circular low glass table pulled close. I recall well a certain very snazzy, buxom bronze vase at the center; I thought it looked chintzy, like those roofs found in tin shack shantytowns, but then I figured in reality it might be quite expensive given Mrs. B’s well-to-do status. It was holding beautiful tall flowers, the sloping petal-walls deep red. I complimented them and apologized unnecessarily for not knowing what kind they were. As she explained about them—they were tulips I believe, and they had come from her own garden out back—I was preoccupied by other thoughts: the arrangement was terribly enticing, especially if she was considered as part of it. The flowers matched her hair very near to perfectly.
We talked a while about Chandler, and about my moving into management at work. I asked how she kept herself busy. She read voraciously—mostly novels, but anything really, and she indulged in certain reality TV shows, went to a gym, and gardened when the time was right. She had recently been seeing a man, she confided excitedly, but he had turned out to be married.
“Poof, that went up in smoke. I tell you Jishnu, I’m not that kind of girl. I’m just not willing to do that.”
“Well, power to you, Mrs. B, that’s very admirable.” I wasn’t bothered by her having started dating again—it must have been two or three years since old man William had died.
It seemed we were both having a warm time and, as if in confirmation, she invited me along on her trip to the grocery store. She already had a good shovel and a bag of salt, so nothing extravagant was needed.
Once there she turned down my offer to push the cart and we worked fast from her list. I found it agreeable whenever I naturally fell behind her on our way down any aisle, since I could admire her figure accentuated in taut jeans and snug black sweater; even though from behind her cutely oversized puffy jacket blotted out the sweater, I still carried it in my memory, as if it were also wrapping round my brain keeping my thoughts warm. Her coat and fuzzy youthful boots, in addition, seemed to speak of a commendable two-headed desire to appear fashionable in the world but not while sacrificing comfort.
Instead of getting two gallon jugs of water, as she had originally planned, she got four. “With your muscles, I think we can manage it,” she had said.
She bought boxes of crackers and elegant cookies, a few apples and oranges, things not requiring refrigeration, and three bottles of red wine.
Standing in checkout, a fretful frown suddenly appeared on her face. She was compelled to say something, and it came out polite but awkward. “I’m not sure what you’re thinking about my getting all this wine, but I would have bought three of these suckers regardless—I mean, even if I wasn’t expecting a guest.”
“I understand, Ellie,” I said, wondering immediately if this was the first time I’d ever called her by her first name, “no explanation necessary.” We both smiled and nodded, and a series of thrills careened around inside me like in a pinball game.
Back at the house I helped get everything squared away in the kitchen, a few things down to the basement. As fate would have it she invited me to stay for dinner, and I accepted. She cooked a simple but delicious chicken and parmesan dish with asparagus. And much to my approval we also started in on the Merlot supply.
* * *
After dinner we were both tipsy. I was feeling so comfortable, so ensconced in her hospitality and abiding familiar attractiveness. My head swam with pleasant thoughts, though I forced myself to keep them pure-ish. She seemed very natural and I could tell she was genuinely enjoying my company. Maybe her relationship had ended recently and this was helping her feel right. Or maybe she was just embracing the circumstances, life. I knew she had always spoken well of me, that is, as a friend to Chandler; I wasn’t a bad influence, and she thought highly of my parents.
“Didn’t you used to play guitar?” she asked, and the inquiry landed like a bombshell in my chest.
I answered in the shy affirmative, and she explained that she had acquired an old acoustic from a friend, one that with all her spare time she had gotten restored and restrung. I was massively nervous at the prospect of playing for her, being so rusty, and knowing that I didn’t really know any recognizable tunes or any recognizable general song structures either. But she pursued her lead, saying that she loved hearing others play acoustic guitar—one of her highest delights.
When she went and fetched the damned beautiful thing, I knew there was no escape.
Taking it carefully and cradling its curvy bulk in my lap, I warned her that I hadn’t played seriously in years, and prefaced: “You have to understand my style’s a little out there, it’s not gonna sound all nice and… strummy. It’ll probably sound a bit strange, so just know that.”
“All the better. Anything you can play, whatever, I want to hear it.”
I began, and right away I could tell the tones of the instrument were gorgeous, rich and full. I felt them resonating warmly inside me, but I also felt something else: the gravity of responsibility. I needed to play well.
I remember looking at her for a moment and grinning modestly. Her head was slightly cocked at attention, and her green eyes were blazing anticipation. Despite a certain sense of doom, I felt inspired and privileged.
So I played, keeping it slow, attending carefully to each stroke of sound, discovering chords as I went, lingering over any given set of notes and finding complementary variations. I played soft, then harder, in controlled bursts. To my great relief and happiness, I heard my music ringing out, but sounding good and right, and comprehensively well-rounded—like the tulips and wine glasses, and not just in their final form but down to the bulbs and sand and grapes.
There was an undeniable magic in my fingers now. Staying disciplined and savoring my musical pathways, I had slipped into some kind of profound groove, something I had found so elusive years before.
She went to get the wine bottle, told me not to stop, returned and refilled the glasses. I paused and drank and she gushed over my playing, saying she’d never heard anyone play like that. She told me it was hypnotic and beautiful, and she made me keep going for what turned into an hour, at one point taking out her phone to record me for four or five minutes.
“I always have to be able to hear this particular sound, this brilliant music,” she said, and I wished I could have recorded her voice saying these miraculous words. I told myself that I had to enjoy to the fullest everything that was happening, and I did, and to not take any of it for granted. I didn’t.
At some point we saw it had started flurrying outside.
With magic in her eyes and in a slightly raspy voice—which seemed, like the lights, to have been dimmed—she invited me to stay; only this time for the storm.