Like most of us, I’ve always kept a list of goals and ambitions in my head. When I was 10, I wanted a pony and an Academy Award. So much for that. But some of the items on my list now have a check mark beside them (get published, visit England), and as for the others, well… my garden is almost ready for its close-up, Sunset Magazine. Those are the dreams I’ve admitted to, when asked. But I also keep a second list, double-padlocked and held close to the heart, of dreams that are too private to divulge, for fear of being laughed at, or worse, being expected to follow through.
For most of my life, the same dream sat at the top of my super-secret to-do list: Learn how to play the guitar. It seems like a perfectly mundane goal, well within reach, unlike that Palomino I was going to keep in the driveway. But I couldn’t make myself speak my guitar obsession aloud, let alone actually do something about it. Whenever I had the chance to learn, I backed off. And the more I backed off, the more desperately I wanted to learn.
I’ve had a thing for guitars as far back as I can remember. There’s a wrinkled, black-and-white photograph of me at age four, circa 1962, holding a plastic toy guitar — or was it a ukulele and I only thought it was a guitar? No matter, it was the best toy ever. I remember bashing away at it while Burl Ives sang “Big Rock Candy Mountain” on the hi-fi. But then I saw the Beatles for the first time on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, and the seeds of all my feelings about guitars, and rock and roll, were planted. I didn’t just fall in love with John, Paul, George and Ringo, I fell in love with the sound of John’s curvy two-tone Rickenbacker, Paul’s little violin-shaped Hofner and George’s great big Gretsch.
And I fell in love with the way John, Paul and George looked while they held their guitars — not that my six-year-old mind was able to wrap around the grown-up concepts of “cool” and “sexy.” Back then, I had a simple response to the excitement and confusion the Beatles sparked inside me: I couldn’t decide if I wanted to scream and cry for the Beatles, like the older girls on TV, or if I wanted to hold my toy guitar and pretend to be a Beatle — so I did both.
As a pre-teen, I was obsessed with guitar-strumming female singers. Joan Baez, Bobbie Gentry, The Singing Nun — it didn’t matter, I would have traded places with any one of them if it meant that I could sit on a high stool in a spotlight with a guitar on my knee. I begged my mother for a guitar and, to her credit, she came home one day with a scratched-up pawn shop acoustic. Lessons were out of the question, though — we didn’t have the money. So I tried to teach myself, but soon gave up in frustration. (I hope girls today know how lucky they are to have Girls Rock camp and the Internet.) Even though I couldn’t make a coherent sound with that guitar (Oh, it had to be tuned first? Who knew.), I still spent hours in my room posing with it while singing along to “Ode to Billie Joe.” I didn’t have the chops, but, dammit, I would not be denied The Look!
My second guitar-centered epiphany happened when I was 15 in 1972, at a Boston Common concert by the all-girl rock band Fanny. Led by sisters Jean and June Millington, Fanny was the first female rock group to be signed to a major record label. And they were the first girls I ever saw playing electric guitars. I listened to their single “Charity Ball” over and over. The way I had once wanted to be a Beatle, that’s how much I now wanted to be a Fanny.
Did my Fanny-worship spur me to learn how to play? Nope. Stuff kept getting in the way. Excruciating shyness, for one thing. And school, and boys. And then, as I got older, college, and marriage. In the early ‘80s, I started my writing career as a pop music critic, and I wish I could say that Chrissie Hynde and the Go-Go’s inspired me to finally scratch my itch. But the years passed and the excuses I allowed myself continued: work, life, being a mom, on and on. I was fully aware, though, of the real reasons for my procrastination: inertia, fear of failure and embarrassment. Deep in my core, I still yearned to know what it felt like to hold a guitar and make music. And my disappointment at myself lay coiled and festering, like a dirty secret.
So what finally kicked me into action? 50. When I hit 48, it was like looking down the barrel of a shotgun. Did I really want to reach a half-century without realizing the dream that had been a constant whisper in my heart for almost as long as I’d been alive? So, I signed up for beginners’ guitar lessons at the local rec center, hoping that I wasn’t going to be that one weird old lady in a class of teenagers. I didn’t tell my family until a couple of days before the session started; that way, if I lost my nerve, only I would know. I went out to buy a guitar and came home with a learner’s-level Yamaha acoustic that was, nonetheless, beautiful in my eyes. Its lacquered golden blonde wood gleamed like the Palomino I never had.
At my first lesson, I barely had enough finger strength to hold down the steel strings to make a G chord. I wasn’t expecting it to hurt. Nor was I expecting a pick to be so slippery, or to have to trim my fingernails down to nothing in order to fret the chords. I came home that night and stuck my burning fingertips into the ice tray. I almost gave up, right there; I thought about quitting and felt the familiar relief of a hard job abandoned. And the relief made me angry, and that anger turned to stubbornness. I was not going to let myself off the hook. Screw you, Miss Lack of Follow-Through. We are doing this!
It turned out that all those years of listening to music and watching others play had been useful after all: I was a natural at tempo and rhythm. And the chord diagrams — maps that allow you to play rhythms without having to know where individual notes are on a fretboard — decoded the language of music for me. Sure, I might never be able to pick out smokin’ leads, but my goal wasn’t to come out of that class a Mick Jones; I’m proud to take my place as a workmanly Joe Strummer. After months of raw fingertips and cramps from trying to stretch my absurdly small hands to make chord shapes, I could strum out “This Land Is Your Land” and “Me and Bobby McGee” without too much of an awkward pause between chord changes.
At the end of the session, I was nearly the last student standing; we had started out with a dozen adults (I wasn’t even the oldest!), and ended with myself and two other regulars. I signed up for the next session and, after that, was able to teach myself more chords and figure out some favorite songs by ear. I grew to crave the feeling of the fretboard beneath my newly calloused (and, thus, impervious to pain) finger pads, the high of ringing a chord just right. When I felt that I was good enough, I upgraded to a sweet black acoustic-electric that was lighter and fit my body better. I could now play standing up. I got faster. I bought an amp. I made noise. I started singing (but only when no one else could hear me).
Do I wish I had learned to play sooner? Yes. I would have been a much better music critic back in the day if I had understood the full meaning of Bruce Springsteen’s line, “Well, I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk.” Playing an instrument isn’t magic, it’s a world of pain and practice and a level of skill and invention that I will never have. So, I regret that I couldn’t have been more insightful about the musicianship, as opposed to the meaning, in my reviews. But, beyond that, learning to play the guitar — even at my admittedly modest skill level — has given me such satisfaction, such pride, that it makes me feel corny to admit it.
When I look at that snapshot of my four-year-old self now, I no longer see it through a veil of sadness and guilt. I see a confident kid who has all the trust in the world in her future self. I’m so glad I didn’t let that little girl down.
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2012