Category Archives: escapism

Bucket List: Busking, Check.

DjangoThe wonder of San Francisco is an integral part of my life; I’ve lived here for 9 years now. Mostly ups and downs, plateaus few and far between. I left the familiarity of the San Diego nest (not “Socal”. No one called it that, ever) for this phenomenon-behemoth of a city. I went to college here, graduated with a degree in Industrial Arts after 4 years of gymnastics on the uneven bars of sanity. Music was a constant. I was never away from a guitar that was stashed in my car, bedroom, or strategically located at friends houses so I had something to do at parties that didn’t involve small talk.

Ever since I picked up a guitar, I always had this image of sitting downtown in a metropolitan area, just playing. Even just practicing scales in public. I was always so afraid to do it for a multitude of reasons: My guitar will get stolen, someone will mug me, someone will cut my strings, the millions of dollars in my guitar case will blow away and other reasonable thoughts.

Two days ago I purchased — for the first time in my life — a book from the “New Age” section. It’s called “The Four Agreements” (It’s quite popular, but I’m knew to this game) and was a quick read. It contains much of the usual “live each day like it’s your last” parrotry, usually met with my contrarian “I hope I’m dead after all of those prostitutes, drugs, crimes, and burned bridges.” Oddly, I decided to try not saying the smarmy comeback (to myself in my head…)This book, chock full of good-natured nonsense, actually flipped a switch. Mid read, I took a post-it note, and wrote “If you could play music downtown on Thursday, would you?” and stuck it on my door frame. It was a neon pink post-it. I knew it wouldn’t clash with the see of day-glo colors in my room.

Thursday hits, just like the post-it predicts.

The post-it note is torturing my peripheral vision with its disco color sensibilities. It’s haunting. I roll out of bed, grab a guitar bag, throw in my cheap gypsy jazz copy, and start walking to a BART station. I get about 500 yards from my house and say “It’s going to be windy, maybe another day” and I turn around. I think “Dumbest excuse ever” complete the 360, and keep walking to the station.

As I sat in the BART car, whizzing deeper into the center of Liberal mecca (their words, not mine) with a guitar case between my legs, I couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous that this image I had played in my head for almost 15 years now, was actually occurring, and on my own accord. Build up.

I get out of the Embarcadero station and start walking towards the Piers, scouting for places to sit and play guitar in public. It’s something I have always avoided, so it wasn’t a developed skill. I walked by a street musician playing bass over some pop-tune backing tracks, and we both knowingly nod to each other. “I’m one of you,” the nod implies. I walk by the ferry building, looking for a comfortable place to sit. By comfortable, I mean anonymous enough to manage my self-consciousness in the daylight, but still a stretch of confidence to be in a place open enough to be heard. There was pacing involved. I finally found a place with a bit of wind blockage, and sat down. It was also when two pretty girls were walking by selling jewelry, and I figured I could be playing before they were out of hearing range:

The thought “I’ll play 5 miraculous notes and they’ll fight to the death over me” seemed reasonable.

I put the case down, fumbled to get a pick out of my pocket and nervously started to play. A few looks, some smiles, some Ipod volume controls turned up or down, amused infants, bemused tourists, jumpy joggers, texting teenagers, pedicab peddlers, melancholy homeless, camera fumblers, drug stumblers, workers walking home on the sunny side of the street, hippies, yuppies, gays, straights, whites, everything-but-whites, tots, kids, pre-teens, tweens, teens, youth, young adult, adolescent, adult, middle-aged, over the hill, older, old, aged, elderly, hipsters, cops, monks, whores, rich, poor, obvious, hidden.

San Francisco. You get it.

Fast forward 45 minutes no change, no money, nothing dropped in. I didn’t really care. Before I left my house, I was debating putting a “No Tips” sign in front of me as a way to brandish my sense of defiance in a city full of panhandlers.

Remembering they were all tourists, I realized I would like to take as much money from them as possible so I could continue to afford living here after they had long (in)digested their clam chowder.

Along walks a young guy carrying a music case I recognize as a clarinet. He stops for a few moments, eyeballing my gypsy guitar. Wearing jeans, a black hoodie and sunglasses doesn’t exactly scream “Django”, so I understood his possible confusion. I stop playing and say “That a clarinet?” and he says “Yea.” “You want to play something?” He obliges. We exchange about two sentences, he informs me he just got off a train from Chicago 10 minutes ago, and it’s his first time in San Francisco. He asks “You live here?” Interesting question…I’ve occupied housing in San Francisco for 9 years, so I answer with shrug “I guess I do. You know Tiger Rag?” Musicians have a certain eyeball look, like a hard drive loading information. Lights are blinking, not much is going on, but the query registers. A cock of the head to jostle the neurons into proper order, and he says “Yep”.

Before the hyperbolic part of me kicks in, I will say this: I was outmatched. He was tremendous, and I was a shaky human earthquake of anxiety trying to impress this new human. Luckily, I was struck with a wave of “Who cares! Enjoy this dammit” and happily got out of my head. The territory is familiar, comfortable, and I don’t care that this guy is the first clarinet player I have ever played music with. We just met 30 seconds ago.

Now we’re having a real conversation. This isn’t idle chit chat, this is syncopated chatter of increasing depth. This is an active discussion of the history of music, personal backgrounds, muscle memory, improvisation, assumption, expectations, rhetoric, and familiarity all conveyed without words.

In terms of actual words, there were few. Moments of verbal communication to see what we could do, and then back to it.

The set list: Tiger Rag, Stardust, Be Meir Bist Du Schoen, and a gypsy jazz cover of Let it Be by the Beatles. Total take? 7 dollars and some change.

I say thanks, hand him the money and start to pack up my guitar. He says “You staying out here? I’ve got to go.” I said “Nope, I can go home now.” He says “You do this often?” With a sly smirk I said “I’ve been planning to do this for 15 years. This is my first time, and I can cross it off my bucket list. Thanks for helping.” I gave him my business card, partially hoping I’d hear from him, partially hoping not. A truly poetic flourish to close a brief moment of friendship. I suspect he’ll be famous one day. His name was Dan, I think.

My favorite part was probably him saying “I’m a saxophone player” because I don’t like saxophone, and this would’ve been a story of musical prejudice rather than triumph.

The world is all right.

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Dreams of Owning a Large House (Guitarist Stream of Consciousness)

My aspirations for main purposes in owning a home revolve around two major themes, the limits of space and volume, both sonic and spacial interchangeably. As I watch that Vince Gill video, I have no idea what type of squalor and or grandeur his house may embody, but that guitar room is some sort of dream sequence.

As a young guitar player, if you asked me to imagine the future and where I’d be living, “Guitar Room” was always part of it. The first thing I usually reference is the montage at John Entwistle’s house where he goes down the stairs with a guitar case (with a record breaking [watch the video on Youtube to see what I mean…] Thompson submachine gun inside) and there are guitars everywhere.

As a Californian, it stirs up my fear of earthquakes. I hope my house is in tune.

I’d like a music store version of the show Survivor. Lock a few musicians in a store and see what happens. Lateness would decrease, but not as much as you’d expect…

I’d make a guitar string hammock for a bed. Nylon strings, of course.

Music stores contain a seemingly infinite amount of potential — energy, creativity, emotion, you name it. Like an art supply store, but a different flavor of pretentiousness. Instead of the snarky paintbrush aficionado, there’s the drumstick guy, brand sycophant or the amplifier guy. Same essence, different clothing.

Music stores are usually poorly organized, an interesting nuance to something so arrangement driven. Temperamental objects and people crammed into a small room.

A silent cacophony at night. Dog pound chaos by day.

I want to live in that. I imagine it in the middle of nowhere, in my head it’s usually a 5000 acre Nebraska field so I can play as loudly as I want and not worry about neighbors calling the cops.

Almost forgot about tornadoes.

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Guitar Center bought by Mitt Romney’s Company: No More Haggling Allowed

It came to my attention today as I bought a set of pickups from a guy at guitar center who usually gives me good deals, that he wasn’t giving me a discount like he always did. I felt it odd, but for what I was buying I figured maybe they couldn’t do it with accessories, despite getting pretty big discounts on a single pack of strings.  In my venture, I needed something from Radio Shack, and oddly enough, a former Guitar Center employee was there at Radio Shack. I asked him why he does work at Guitar Center any more, and he says:

“Mitt Romney’s Equity firm bought Guitar Center, and we’re not allowed to discount or haggle any more. All the prices that are on the tags are what you have to pay.”

I was taken aback, considering that’s my main reason for going to Guitar Center, is the thought of getting a better deal. I talked to the guy awhile, and I basically interpreted it as the commission guys can’t really make good money any more from giving people deals on gear, so what’s the incentive of staying at one of the most competitive companies with the highest turnover rate? Also, I hear that they might be doing away with commission altogether. At which point the guitarists, bassists, techies and everyone else with a specialty in music will have no reason to work at guitar center any more. If you don’t have to try to sell things to make more money,what’s to say Joe Everyman who’s doesn’t know jack about guitars doesn’t just come in for a part time job?

Commission was incentive to for musicians to work at Guitar Center. The more you know, the more convincing you sound, the more you sell.

As a background, Bain Capital, an equity fund that was founded by 3 people, including Mitt Romney (take that in whatever way you want), recently bought Guitar Center for 2.1 Billion dollars. Why people who own Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Toys R Us, and Sealy mattresses (among a few other HUGE names in their specific markets) have anything to do with guitars is beyond me. I’m sure all of the companies felt the same way. Why are we all being managed by the same people? Bunch of marketing/financial geniuses who wouldn’t know a Squier from a Martin if you magnified the logos.

All of these companies started as small places, only to now be owned by some 50 Billion dollar equity firm. I’m sure they all originally had little secrets which customers knew. I knew that the prices at guitar center were flexible, while most others don’t.

What i’m thinking (dreaming?) is that this might bring back competition. I did find out that they are allowed to do price matching ,where they match/slightly beat a competitive price. It’s how I got my now retail 2089.99 SG Reissue for 1400 flat.

Will this be the return of the mom and pop stores? Will guitar competition return and prices drop naturally?

My guess is no. Guitar Center’s super management people will probably realize that this is a major screwup,  and return to normalcy.

But if they keep it this way, it’ll turn Guitar Center into Circuit City or Compusa. Stores with even more lackluster sales people with no enthusiasm for what they’re selling, and they’ll start to close down.

As for me, I really have no reason to go there any more. If there’s no chance that I can get a really good discount, I might as well just go to a mom and pop store and pay normal price and give it to people who actually need the money.

Excuse me if my Guitar Center post-apocalyptic thought process was a little difficult, but I found this revelation to be a big mind changer. Understood it’s a slippery slope, but damn if it aint greasey on that guitar hill.

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Why did I start guitar?

It’s been awhile, and lucky me the end (sort of) of the hiatus/sabbatical/laziness comes to fruition in a self-serving post about what provoked me to play guitar and not quit. It’s just me writing about why I am not one of those kids with a poorly maintained no-name acoustic guitar in the corner with the same set of strings it had in the moving crate on the Hyundai Super Tanker on the way over from Korea.

As much of a veiled crack at guitar mass production as that may have been, it doesn’t change the fact that slave labor, awful wages and quality control indicative of Yugoslavian cars probably had a large effect on most of the guitarists in the last three decades. The reason many of us took to the instrument was because one of these easily available tree-destroyers was sitting around somewhere that we saw it, and instead of leaving it there, we just kept going back to it. In my case (technically, my Dad’s case – guitar case, that is) it was an Aria nylon string acoustic guitar my dad had under his bed. When I was really young somewhere in the range of monosyllabic numbers (Seven inched its way in) , after I figured out that one of the latches on the case had to move sideways to open the damned case, I would just sit there with it on my lap and hit the strings. The first instrument I’d ever owned was a drumset with paper heads on some of the drums, and stainless steel heads on others. It was basically something for me to move my arms against that didn’t consist of electrical wires or sharp corners. At the age of 2, I was just beating something to get out the aggression that developed from my parents not getting the correct brand of steamed carrots (I demanded carrots from non conflict countries. Sorry, Gerber-Libya) but in a fit of unadulterated preschool tricycle induced road rage, I broke the drumset. I was a mini Keith Moon (Half moon?) I dare say, but that still didn’t change the fact that I was, as a child, someone who was fond of percussive response.

So, back to the Aria Nylon string. I would remove it from the Pandora’s Box of a case and just lay it on my lap, hitting all of the strings with my hands. I was just happy getting some musical response from anything, despite having no connection to music with the exception of yelling at my sister playing her annoying radio on the oldies stations*. I was another radio kid listening to the pop stations; some of the first albums i’d ever owned were Hootie and the Blowfish, the Beastie Boys and Alanis Morisette. And even those were stretches.

Then came middle school. 7th grade requirement was to take a guitar class. The rules were simple, you only play the strings where you learned songs from. For instance, if we had only been taught Aura Lee or Yankee doodle on the high E string, we would lose our guitar privileges for playing any other strings. This is the quality of music instruction you get from a high strung (Had to do it…), anal retentive choir teacher who had no business teaching guitar. I didn’t particularly like the class, but most of it consisted of us sitting around learning some simple song for an hour while talking to our friends. I did well in the class because I had my dad’s Nylon string at home, and I could practice whatever I wanted, when I wanted (Back when I was a little overachiever, oh how times changed.) I was the kid people looked up to because I could play the first few notes of Walk this Way by Aerosmith, and to this day I still don’t even know the whole song. By the end of the class, we were still only allowed to play the G, B, and high E strings. I guess the teacher didn’t think wound strings were appropriate for innocent little middle schoolers, because that’s where power chords lie.

After that class was over summer came and I went to a summer camp. The summer camp had a guitar class in it, and I decided to take it. It was something easy to do, despite them having steel strings, something beginner guitarists usually avoid like the plague. The idea of pressing your fingers against things which are used to cut cheese and clay usually deterred most from touching the guitar. The thing was, I did pretty well in the “class.” Considering the teacher only knew Free Falling by Tom Petty, a three chord song consisting of the most basic of finger positions.

After I got home, I decided to take lessons at a music store. I’d been taking them for awhile when I had to take the same music class again. The first day, I still remember, we all got guitars and I started to play a Green Day song. The class was listening to me and the teacher yelled at me for playing other strings. I stopped and she pulled me outside and asked what I was doing. By then I was up to chords and some scales, so the teacher turned me into the TA for the class. Every day while most while sitting inside the class playing the second year songs consisting of most of the strings (They never played the low E string) I would sit outside in the sunshine of the lunch area with whatever guitar book my Guitar Teacher got for me, attempting to squelch out anything related to pop culture.

And thus brings me to the major factors in why I didn’t put the guitar down – it’s the reason I’m writing this. There are a few guitar related moments in my life which changed my outlook on music.

I remember in 7th grade english class, Nick Ferrantello and Nick Konapasik (I believe I messed up their names, but who cares) the “Nicks” as we all called them were the cool kids in school. They were good skateboarders, and one of them played Blister in the Sun on guitar in front of the class. A lot of the class was jealous, and I remember wanting to play that song too. I spent a long time trying to learn that, and I wanted to be the kid in front of class wanting to play like that, albeit remedial, it still got their attention.

Those guys made me want to play better in middle school, but few had as big of an effect on my guitar playing as Kenny Relethford, the oldest brother of my best friend at the time. He had an electric guitar. The electric guitar. It was always sitting out with the strap in a certain orientation so he’d know if someone played it. It was an Ibanez Destroyer II from the 80’s which his dad bought. I had been playing my Yamaha acoustic with Medium strings for the longest time (only a year) and when I played the electric guitar, it felt like heaven. Light strings, great action, comfortable, and it sounded amazing.  It was eye-catching, so it was impossible to not notice any time I was at their house. Every once in awhile i’d go in there and play it, hoping he wouldn’t find out. A few times he did, and he was angry, but he was the reason I ever wanted to play electric guitar. Guitar Center was too far away, and I was too afraid to play plugged in anyway. This Ibanez Destroyer was always the beacon of light which I wanted to get to. After Kenny gained some trust, he’d occasionally let me play it if I played songs he wanted. I’d always talk a good game and attempt to coerce him into letting me play that guitar. Still to this day, I would buy that guitar off of him. It’s the first electric guitar I ever played, and started my love for electricity and guitar.

The shred phase of my life, and the aims for musical skill are all due to one man my dad worked with, Dorian. A church mandolin player with long hair who worked for the Government. From the sounds of him now, I would’ve brushed him off, but seeing is believing. He invited my dad and me over to see his guitar stuff. Long hair should’ve given it away, but I didn’t know any better at the time. I got to his apartment with my dad and his wife was sitting on the couch watching TV. It was a small apartment, but upstairs was the gateway into the world of guitar. I wasn’t a fan of shred metal or anything with guitar skill in it yet. I was a fan of some guitarists, but they were in pop bands or ska bands, nothing to aim for. My dad and I went upstairs and he pulled out his Charvel Model 6. It was a pink/red guitar with the black crackle finish on it (If I remember correctly) and a floyd rose. I remember him saying it was a bit temperamental, and at the time I thought he was just discouraging me from playing it, but now I know what he was talking about. Now owning 3 guitars with Floyd Roses, I know exactly what he was talking about. Anyway. He plugged into a rackmount effects processor and started playing. He introduced me to a guy named Randy Rhoads. He pulled out the tribute book, and I looked at the guitar tab. I’d never seen so many notes. A few days later, my dad bought me the same guitar tab book, and I bought the CD. I spent months looking at it, but still didn’t learn much. This opened up the door to Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, System of A Down, and all of the metal bands i’d never been exposed to, and that was the nail in the coffin, so to speak.

And now we come full circle.

Just an hour or two ago, I was playing my Ibanez RG1570, and since it’s blocked up, I can tune it to whatever I want. I tuned it down a half step and Flying High Again by Ozzy Osbourne came on. All of a sudden, I started jamming with it, considering I usually can’t because i’m in standard tuning. Playing to the song opened up a door to a room full of guitar oriented memories I hadn’t seen in a long time. I played the descending tapping riffs, the chords, and the inflections i’d become such a fan of when I started playing electric guitar.

All of it reminded me of why I do this stuff. Why I continue to pick up this stringed instrument every day, why I spend so much money on it, and why I always attempt something new, despite the fact that there really is no overall gain for anyone but me. Everyone has a reason they do something that means the most to them, and they spend too much money/time/effort on something which, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t necessarily help anyone.

I say necessarily because if Nick didn’t play Blister in the Sun, Kenny didn’t have that Destroyer, and Dorian didn’t play a perfect rendition of Crazy Train on his Charvel, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this remembering why I’m sitting in a room full of creatively trimmed trees, oil-based plastic parts, and shop manipulated metals which cost way too much money. It’s why I sit here trying to learn a Derek Trucks song when i’m the only one who really enjoys the outcome. It’s why I spend time I could be doing classwork or trying to get a job harnessing the power of vibrations for musical joy.

Go ahead, complain about the democrats, republicans, Israel, Palestine, global warming, global cooling, oil, hippies, pacifists, war, hate, peace, jews, christians, muslims, athiests, hindus, buddhists, taoists, mormons, gays, lesbians, abortion, 9/11, homeland security,  taxes, homelessness, government and whatever else you worry about.

But me?

I’m just going to play this here guitar for awhile.

Then i’ll worry about the rest of it.

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