A little over a month ago, one of the publicists I regularly correspond with offered to send me a die-cast replica Fender Stratocaster guitar, and I immediately said yes, because who doesn't like to get cool stuff for free? In this job I get a lot of freebies, and though I'm well past the age when it's cool to clutter up every shelf and surface of my house with pop culture signifiers, it's too hard to turn things down. I have stacks of CDs, DVDs and books everywhere, plus posters, promotional items and collectible artifacts from movies and TV shows dating back decades. I've lost my Fargo snow globe, but I still have my talking Teddy doll from A.I. and my For Your Consideration turkey baster. And right now, on the top shelf of the desk in my home office, I see–among other things–a Captain America mug, a Pigs In Space lunchbox, a poseable Iron Giant figurine, my employee ID from Opryland (where I was a costumed character for two summers at the end of the '80s), a box of Atlanta newspaper clippings from Hank Aaron's chase of the all-time home run record, a stack of still-in-the-box Office Depot calculators (in case my son loses his in the middle of the night and starts to get upset), a garage-rock single that my wife played organ on (and which features her on the cover in a sexy minidress), and now this:
(Although mine is red.)
What's most impressive about the model guitar is its heft. It's stunningly detailed, with working knobs and switches and all the pick-ups, pegs, strap buttons, bridge assemblies and neck plates that Fender aficionados would expect. But what you first notice when you pick it up off its replica guitar stand is how it's balanced like an actual electric guitar, with all the weight in the body. You can even strum it, and though you can't make real music, it's hard to walk by the Fender without wanting to grab it pretend to rock.
(But then I'm a restless-hands kind of guy. Put a rubber band within reach and I'll twist it around until it snaps and stings my arm. Show me a yardstick and I'll balance it on my fingertips until it slips and conks me on the head. This is one of the many reasons I don't keep a gun in the house.)
I'm fascinated with this Fender also because the guitar has always been a mysterious instrument to me. I don't play any instrument really, though if you remind me where Middle C is on a piano, I can one-finger an old hymn I learned in 5th grade. (I don't know its name, but I know its number sequence. Starting with C as "1," it goes "1-2-3-4-5, 4-5-3-2-1, 1-2-3-4-5, 6-5-5, 5-8, 6-5, 4-3, 2-1, 6-5, 4-3, 2-1, 1." When it comes around in church, I nudge my wife and say, "Hey, it's ol' 1-2-3-4-5!") Sometimes I fiddle with the electric piano in our den and come up with something like a melody, but I'm just not wired for songwriting. I plunk away because it's calming to do so, even if–or maybe because–I'm not really creating anything.
The guitar is different, because the processes required even to plunk away tunelessly take training. You have to learn chords, and then train your fingers to form them, and then learn which string to pluck. I watch someone play guitar and it's like they've learned the secret for spinning straw into gold. Especially if they can sing on top of it. How can anyone concentrate that hard?
Even people who play the guitar well seem stymied by the instrument sometimes. My dad played in bands and in church, and yet at night he'd sit on the edge of his bed for hours at a time, playing the same first few bars of a song he was trying to learn, stopping and starting and stopping and starting, waiting for the music to order itself as cleanly and logically as he heard it in his head. Even J. Mascis, a monster with an axe, once explained that his solos sound the way they do because he'd rather be drumming, and his frustration with the limitations of the guitar have forced him to kind of torture it.
I recently watched the documentary NY77: The Coolest Year In Hell on VH1, and in it the various talking heads (and Talking Heads) repeat rock's enduring Horatio Alger myth, that anyone can pick up a guitar, learn three chords, and be on stage at CBGBs later that night. But it can't really be that simple, can it? Is playing the guitar really idiot-proof, or is it one of those skills like turning a somersault or diving headfirst into a pool that some people take to easily and some people have a mental/neurological block against?
My miniature Fender sits a few feet above my head, standing for so much–a music, a philosophy, a family history–and also taunting me with a reminder of a gift I don't have. I keep it around because it's so beautifully humbling.