First Live Performance in a Long-Ass Time

Posted: December 12, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Tomorrow, at my office talent show, I’ll strap on a 6-sting, jam the cord into the amp, gradually twist the volume knob up (though lamentably not to 11, seeing as how it’ll be in a government office), and commence strumming, my right hand’s kitten-light touch across the strings plucking tonal magic from the musical ether. Yes, you have surmised correctly: tomorrow I will play guitar live for the first time since 2002. That time, I was living in China and a friend’s punk band was in dire straits and in need of a stand-in guitarist, as their regular axeman was down ill a fortnight prior. Following a tight rehearsal in an even tighter chicken coop (literally, that’s where we rehearsed), I took the stage with them in an Christian church gutted during the Great Cultural Revolution and later refitted and reopened as a night-spot for Chinese punk and metal youth. We performed one of the band’s originals, the name of which I cannot recall, and the NoFX song “Angry Young and Poor”. I was woefully out of condition to perform live – I was singing as well, which smoked my lungs blacker than a burnt BBQ frank – that when we finished the warp-speed abbreviated set, I was winded beyond description. Hence realizing that my time had long passed and I didn’t have “it” any more, I foreswore playing live anew, heretofore restricting my live musical activity to concerts I have paid to see, and air guitar before every reflective surface I encounter.

The specific piece I’ll play tomorrow is one I wrote at age 14 in 1991. I had just listened to the b-side of Metallica’s Black Album and upon indulging a virgin ear-voyage into “Nothing Else Matters” was suitably inspired to pen a softer piece to balance out all the corpse and war tunes I’d been writing up until then in a failed teenage bid to eclipse Slayer as World’s Most Evil Songwriter. Writing the piece came easily; in fact, you might say it wrote itself, though unlike Black Sabbath I cannot readily claim divine (or un-divine, as it were) intervention. It flowed from me as effortlessly as, say, Taco Bell leaves one’s intestines, to paraphrase Swedish band Dismember, “like an ever-flowing stream.” I have since perfected the passage: pseudo-classical and dealing heavily in minor keys, with finger-picking lending me the appearance of being far more skilled than I actually am at the instrument, it’s the song I’m most singularly proud of composing. And it’s ironically the piece the fewest people have ever heard. The last time – and ONLY time – I played it live was January 1995, also at a high school talent show during my senior year.

I was 18 years old then. Now I’m 37; it’s been nearly two decades. I had a waist-length lion’s mane of blond metal locks then; now I have a bald scalp peppered with spots from sun damage. (Thank you, 2nd-degree sunburn in Puebla, Mexico). Before I had dreams of head-banging stardom; now, 19 years later, I’ve made the full transition from metal head to walking dead, being a professional bureaucrat, and a federal one, at that! So on the surface, in every conceivable way, things have changed.

And yet none of the essentials have morphed over time. The night before a live performance is eternal: random nerves are the accepted price of dealing in live music. And let’s not forget the stress-eating: I just put down an entire block of Minas cheese. But most importantly, just like in the old days, yet again I find myself pissed over perceived equipment malfunctions that could adversely affect my performance tomorrow. I just changed guitar strings and I’m CERTAIN something isn’t right. Is that a buzzing E string? why is the sound so thin, is the cable not pumping enough juice into the amp? Why isn’t the chorus function on the multi-effects board giving my guitar the choir-like boost I desire?

And yet tomorrow it will all fade to the background and the joy of performing will reign supreme. Until, that is, a string breaks. Or a cable dies. Or a bum note is struck. Any of which will suffice to derail the entire show and, verily, ring in the fifth death of my macho.

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