I’ve always kind of had stiff little fingers and had to warm up extensively before a gig or recording session, but these days it seems to take longer and longer as each year passes to get my chops into gear.
My biggest dread is being taken by surprise in the office or at a party by an invitation to play something on a guitar that just happens to be gathering dust in the corner. As if declining is ever an option in these circumstances. Experience has told me that invariably this “guitar” is a thing whose banana-shaped neck is strung with gunge-impregnated and rust-infested bits of wire and whose fret ends could draw blood. And cold, cold fingers. A couple of bars and the look in the eyes of onlookers that says “This guy’s made a CD? Yeah, right.”
And this is not a dread without grounds. One fateful evening a long, long time ago, at party hosted by my brother and his wife of the time, and after host and guests had liberally availed themselves of refreshments, my brother had the flash of genius to announce to the revellers that his brother was a bit of a guitar player who had made records. This was met with coos of approval and why-won’t-you-please-play-somethings which in turn engaged my well practiced reaction which is to feign embarrassment and, with a motion with hands, modestly sweep aside my (truly) humble achievements. Had I had the foreknowledge that my brother had a “guitar” somewhere (he would go search for it – finally dredging it up from some dark and fetid corner of the house) and that the “guitar” itself – had it the means to do so – would hardly have had the audacity to claim any pedigree as a Musical Instrument – and had I not been in such an inebriated state – I might have been able to see the minefield ahead and skilfully negotiate my way past, through, or over it and been able to forestall the impending tragic scene.
I knew that in my state I would have to concentrate hard if my – and by association, my brother’s – reputation were to survive unblemished playing on an unfamiliar, and in all probability, an imperfectly setup guitar. But the true scale of the problem at hand only became apparent as the guitar was brought into the room. Even in my foggy state I could see from the other side of the room that this was no guitar worthy of its name. I admit that to the untrained eye it would have looked convincingly like a guitar – indistinguishable, in fact, from the real thing – but as my brother crossed the room dragging it along by its neck I could see that it was an impostor. Had my brother had had the novel idea to play a practical joke on me and the assembled company, and had prepared the guitar to be so exquisitely almost possible to play, it would have been a jape to end all japes. But no, this was on the level. And the glory of particular “guitar” lay in its own initial emphatic mediocrity which had evolved to spiteful uselessness through years of neglect.
As I placed it mournfully on my lap I quickly discovered to my astonishment that its centre of gravity was in entirely the wrong place – in fact I’m not sure it was even it the confines of the “guitar” at all. I tried shifting about in my seat and readjusting its attitude on my lap in an effort to achieve a degree of control and comfort but I realised that my hands would be compelled not only to play the damn’ thing, but also to hold it in place and to prevent it slipping onto the floor. My attention then moved to what I might euphemistically call its “action”. It was no real surprise that the strings were so unreasonably high above the fingerboard that attempting to play it would constitute an aerobic exercise drill. This string height also precluded any hope for reasonable intonation, and sure enough, I spent a whole two minutes trying to find a tuning that would provide some sort of “mean” out-of-tuneness that would sound equally imperfect over the fingerboard, but not catastrophically absurdly out of tune at any one location. This was futile and would have taken more of a mathematician than a musician to achieve.
Performers have four eyes: two to attend to the mechanics of tuning and playing the guitar and two more in the forehead for simultaneously gauging the mood of an audience. While the former pair at that moment had trouble fixing the topology of this chaos of wood and wire, the latter were keenly aware of the expectant and hushed expressions of the party goers. I could sense my brother was also taking the pulse of the party – which I was shortly so emphatically to poop – and was getting keen that I soon launch into a something musical and stop twanging apparently randomly and arbitrarily on the thing as if looking for which end was up.
Swimmers diving off the top board for the first time will know the feeling. Fairground riders reaching the crest before the first plunge of a big roller coaster will know the feeling. Fiscal incompetents (of whose number I am a proud member) opening tax demands will know the feeling. Second world war kamikaze pilots knew the feeling. This is the no-way-back certainty of impending calamity. This moment now just before the first chord. Actually, the term “chord” was bestowing to the noise which erupted a sonic quality which it didn’t remotely deserve. Nevertheless, the ice having been broken, so to speak, I determined that grit and determination coupled with sheer volume was the only way forward. If I couldn’t seduce the senses with a filigree of fingerstyle, then I would bludgeon the ears to insensitivity so it wouldn’t matter any more. Assault the senses with sound. “Shock and awe” military folks would call the strategy today. Perhaps I could appeal to a punk-folk phase I was going through.
Alas, this tactic was not enough to conceal the blindingly obvious. In truth, even with the best guitar in the world I doubt I would have saved my brother’s – and the whole room’s – blushes given the copious amount of beer and whisky that I’d consumed to that point. So as I desperately tried to maintain focus through the mist of alcoholic intoxication and terror of the piece of cacophony the next attempt at a chord change was going to belt out, I raced toward the finish line. The damning and embarrassed politeness of the cauterised-short applause which greeted the culmination of my Herculean effort only deepened my sense of mortification. Then some sadist asked for an encore which, after a moment of astonished silence, was backed up by a few insincere mutterings of approval. So off you go again. A certain resigned calm beginning to kick-in. An almost out-of-body feeling of detachment. Fixed expressions on the face of my victims as they look at the carpet, walls or their own footwear – anywhere but in the direction of this corruption of musical sound.
A trick I learned when a particular song is not going well during a performance is to arbitrarily discard bits of it. A verse here; a chorus there – it doesn’t matter. Just to get out of there is the imperative of the moment. So it was on this occasion. I think my facial expression must have forewarned anyone of the danger of asking for yet another musical treat because even before the dying of the last tortured note a couple of soft but persistent conversations spontaneously started up which were gratefully enjoined by the others. Mercifully, the possibility of an another encore receded and I was able to release the confusion of wood and wire to the force of gravity and let it rest on the floor and with the help of a soft kick with my heel place it out of harm’s way.
For my part, and after a suitable interlude and another whisky, I retired to the room where the guests coats were laid out on the bed and, without turning on the light, burst into tears of shame and frustration. Later I apologised to my brother for the “performance” but he was understanding and shrugged it off.
Now, I have played in rooms full of hundreds of people and I’ve played in Antwerp dockside cafes competing with the din of pinball machines. I get nervous before every gig, sure: but that’s part and parcel. A couple of songs in and I’m having a ball. But ask me to do an impromptu couple of songs on an untried guitar at any ad-hoc gathering and your unlikely to see my boot heels for dust.
The horror. The horror.
But back to the matter with which I started this little reminiscence. These days, I’ve discovered that if I miss but two consecutive days without playing a guitar, my fingers feel as if they hardly recognise the fingerboard and my other fingers want to scratch and pull instead of picking and plucking. “Cold” fingers when sober and serious is a tiresome irritation. You go through exercises and playing tunes for a couple of hours, or more, and by the time your “chops” are in tip-top shape, its time to put the guitar down and slope off to bed. And the next morning start all over again. “Cold” fingers, with an alcohol frazzled brain at the steering wheel, are a liability and can seriously undermine your credibility. There may be no way back.