I Know… But I Like It
I gave Ethan his first guitar when he was just six-months-old. It was a bright red wooden thing; a bit more than a toy, but less than a real acoustic guitar.
A bit overzealous? Perhaps. And that says nothing of the bongos, the piano, or the maracas I gave him — all before his first birthday.
I’m not entirely sure what drove me to try and expose Ethan to playing music so early (or, moreover, still). It’s no different than those annoying uncles who always wanna’ play catch or go to the ice skating rink. Sitting there this evening, watching him fumble for a chord and feign to strum along with his father, the whole jumble of hopes and dreams and expectations for our children seemed writ large on his blank expression.
Abbi was in South Carolina doing recon for the wedding, so mine was something of a bachelor weekend. That I spent the bulk of it inside reading “Walk On: The Spiritual Journey Of U2” and watching PBS documentaries (plus the occasional episode of “Who’s Wedding Is It Anyway?”) says something about me, I guess.
Still, my hangover from Saturday night’s Alphabet Lounge show was pretty severe. I was moving slowly. In fact, I took a mid-afternoon nap. Ben Fong Torres’ Gram Parson biography, “Hickory Wind,” lulled me to an easy and deep sleep. When I woke up, I had a melody in my head, and some words about a guy who leaves the small town in which he grew up and becomes estranged from his parents — who, along with all the town’s folk — consider him “the man who sold his soul.” So I wrote it, and recorded it in just under an hour (you can download the demo of “Everybody Knows” by right-clicking here).
Point is, the clock was slipping rapidly towards four o’clock — the appointed of Ethan’s Fourth Birthday party — and his present was sitting in the living room in an ugly brown cardboard box. Moreover, I’d been a bad uncle, and failed to buy wrapping paper. Worse, there wasn’t a stitch of Scotch tape in the house.
The last few weeks — what with The MTV Movie Awards and all — have been insane. Last week, for example, was chocked full of twelve hour days. There was no way I was making the guitar shop. Which is where Abbi came to the rescue.
“What kind should I get?” she asked. “I don’t know anything about guitars.”
“I’m sure you can just walk in and browse and within five seconds you’ll be swarmed by guitar shop dudes.”
Me? I walk into Sam Ash or even Guitar Center and I’m persona non grata. I have to wrestle a clerk to the ground to buy some picks. But sure enough, four and a half seconds in the door, Abbi’s got some skull cap wearing, David Evans wanna’ be tuning a 3/4 scale Yamaha and strumming her the opening strains of “All I Want Is You.”
So the guitar is great; just like daddy’s and Uncle Benjamin’s. But come this afternoon, it’s still in it’s ugly brown box. And I know full well that half of the joy of birthdays is tossing wrapping paper into the sky.
Now, I’ve never been one for wrapping paper. Seems kinda’ wasteful. I like to use the comic section. Or better yet, make my own: a little construction paper and some magic markers and you’re in business. And so it was that I found myself pulling apart the most recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine. What could be more apt than the colorful pages — carefully selected for their editorial insight, of course — of the magazine that launched a thousand deluded rock ‘n roll fantasies (at least one of which I can personally speak to: mine). And so it was that I stepped out onto Tenth Avenue with a triangle-shaped box with Amy Winehouse, Jeff Tweedy, and Queens Of The Stone Age peeking out from between school bus, fire engine, and dump truck stickers — all held together with the tape from one of those lint rollers.
I hop a cab, commiserate with the driver (he neither a fan of the Puerto Rican Day parade, nor double-length busses), hop out at 82d Street, climb the stairs, knock on the door and excitedly await young Ethan’s unbridled rock ‘n roll enthusiasm when…
He opens the door and — my hand to God — says right off, “But I don’t need a second guitar.”
Cue the sound of air wheezing out of a balloon. A hung over balloon.
Still, he saves Abbi and my box for last, after the pile of books, the glow-in-the-dark turtle, and remote control car. He saves it ’til just before the ice cream. At this point, it’s dusk. Two days of cake and cookies and “Happy Birthday to you!” have gotten to him. He’s a little punchy, a hair spacey, distracted. But everyone knows Uncle Benjamin can’t wait to see Ethan play his new guitar, so they remind him, “You still have one more present, Ethan!”
When he finally opens the thing, he begins by carefully peeling off each sticker, then takes to ripping each page. He doesn’t seem to notice that it’s a magazine, or that I’ve carefully arranged the Charts section next to Reviews. Instead — aided and abetted by his increasingly mobile tenth-month-old brother who is crawling all over the box — he begins voraciously clawing at my punk rock wrap job. And when he opens the lid, his mother, father, and grandmother say in unison — as if rehearsed — “Ooooh, Ethan! It’s beautiful.”
Ethan stares blankly at the guitar, it’s lacquered blonde pine top reflecting the red glow of the stars above the dining room table. He is speechless, and I’m not sure why. In that instant, I begin to imagine that he feels the pressure of all of us bearing down on him, that he knows Uncle Benjamin already has plans to get him into this thing he calls “the studio” and play in something called “a band.” And I imagine that he wants to play along with daddy when he sings “Home On The Range,” if only he could make his little fingers fit on those big strings. And I imagine, as he pulls the one-of-a-kind Lilybug guitar strap fashioned from recycled audiotape over his head, that maybe it’s all a little bit confusing for him. So I begin to feel kind of badly, like maybe we should have bought him a remote control truck.
I’m sure it will work out just fine. Maybe he’ll take to it, maybe he won’t. In the end, we take from our parents and elders that which fits us, and cast the rest aside. Either way, it’s only rock ‘n roll.