The day after Scott and I decided the age of indie prog was at hand, I went to Guitar Center. Guitar Center is a massive store on 14th Street, one of the places in New York where rock-star dreams are born. Amongst the men staring longingly at 50th anniversary Stratocasters and bright red POD 2 effects boxes, I charged a Fender DG-20CE acoustic-electric. It was time to get going.
Buying it was both thrilling and scary. What would make this guitar different? Of all the guitars carried out of Guitar Center, only a small fraction will ever go on tour. The merest sliver will ever be played on a major label release. Many more will be propped in corners or slid under beds, or find their ways onto eBay.
The guitar is only the beginning. Then comes the amp, and the delay, the reverb, the talkbox, the condenser mic, the multi-track hard disk recorder, miles of unbalanced cable. Even then you’re not done, because there is always a device more pure, something with expensive tubes and a single silver dial that will bring you closer to the pure essence of your own rock archetype, Hendrix, Zappa, or Richard Thompson. Your dreams pile up on monthly statements. And you dream darkly, too, of being thrust on stage, naked, before an audience. And instead of a guitar, you’re handed a Chapman stick, the ultimate guitar nerd instrument, and there you stand, nude and exposed, holding that monster spawn of bass and guitar, with no idea how to play it.
I pushed these thoughts away and decided that, first, I should learn how to play more than five chords. I took the guitar home and got to know it in my bedroom, savoring its glossed black curves, tapping it to listen to the resonance. I sat on the edge of my bed and plucked around until I got the opening of “Here Comes Your Man” and the “high and dry” part of “High and Dry.” And I sang, and the guitar in my hands shone from the light hanging from the ceiling.
I called Para to tell her what I’d done, strumming a few chords over the crackling wireless phone, but she wasn’t interested. To her, it’s just a thing I purchased, like a new ottoman, or a pair of pants. The next day I came home after work and took my guitar to Scott’s loft, only a dozen blocks away, a smooth space with lots of white chairs. Thinking of my empty room and my two roommates, I was not jealous but in awe. How does someone afford to live this way?
Gary: This is a nice place, Scott.
Scott: I had a serious Swedish furniture phase.
Gary: All you need is a big Ricola horn.
Scott: Uh, that’s Switzerland.
Gary: Oh, sure.
Scott: Swiss is neutrality and chocolate. Sweden is a chair named Ingemar.
Scott had worked in Stockholm for a year. Everyone in New York City, besides me, has spent at least three seasons in Europe. I’m also the only person here who 1) did not attend an ivy league school or private liberal arts college; 2) speaks only one language; 3) never went on kibbutz.
Para’s family vacationed in Barcelona when she was 13, and she lived in France for a year when she was 25, with some well-off, long-gone boyfriend. When she talks about her journeys overseas, I don’t bring up that I went camping at Letchworth when I turned 12, after I had earned enough merit badges to make Webelo. Nor do I mention the drive to Cocoa Beach, Florida with my geek friend Dave, to see the space center and visit his grandmother. I’ve played Civilization, but I haven’t experienced it. Last week, when Para stopped into “The Bread Also Rises,” a bakery in Park Slope, she held my hand and looked at the loaves in the window.
Para: You smell that?
Gary: I do smell that.
Para: It reminds me of Nantes.
Gary: Your mother’s sister, or your father’s?
Poor inexperienced, immature Gary. As Para laughed at me, I noticed that the baker, a tall woman in an orange shirt, was sneering at Para, and I felt a sudden wave of girlfriend shame; I didn’t know who to be more embarrassed for, Para or me.
Para: Especially with these politics. I would love to be in France right now.
Gary: I really liked Air’s last album.
Para: We should go. How much fun would that be? I could show you Paris.
Gary: I guess I should get a passport.
Para took my hand to leave. “Don’t you want some bread?” I asked. She shook her head, and looked down at her non-existent belly. “I don’t need it,” she said. She lives on small, leafy green things and strawberry candy. She is like some sort of mystical elf, a taller Björk. And looking at her, feeling her hand in mine, the embarrassment I’d felt fell away. Why would anyone sneer at her for loving France? I sneered back at the woman in the bakery, even though she was a now a block away, and wished a yeast infection upon her. Although I don’t know if that’s the same kind of yeast.
How could anyone look critically at Para, a woman who loves typography and knows French, and who, with a few awkward starts, has given me access to her most tender parts? For some reason, though, she and Scott don’t get along, and when I tell her I’m going over to his place, she gives me a thin smile and tells me to have fun. When I confessed to Scott that I was dating Para, he just said, “I know,” and told me to be careful about workplace romance.
Scott’s apartment revealed him to be a true equipment junkie, an addict. There was a wall piled high with equipment, a full-sized rack of glimmering devices, with a keyboard and PC below it. When I saw it, my eyes moistened.
As a synth player, his addiction is more subtle than a guitarist’s, driven as much by software and knobs as by the feel of nickel steel strings over a bird’s eye maple neck. For me, the pleasure of guitar and drums has always been the ability to simply make a sound, but the synth player plans his fix, thinking in oscillators, dreaming of pitch bending and sine waves and portamento.
Putting down my guitar case, I pointed to a box with a blinking green LED.
Gary: What’s that?
Scott: That’s my MOTU unit. It processes the audio coming out of the computer.
Gary: What’s a MOTU?
Scott: It stands for “Mark of the Unicorn.”
Gary: And this one here? Is that the Foot of the Hobbit unit?
Scott: That’s a military surplus oscillator. It generates continuous sine waves. You just turn the big dial.
Gary: Are you sure it’s not a Cry of the Orc?
Scott: I’m sure.
Gary: So where do you get a military surplus oscillator?
Scott: I got it at the Poughkeepsie HAMfest.
Gary: [quizzical look]
Scott: HAM radio folks get together to sell equipment.
Gary: Wow. Saying you like to go to HAMfests, that’s like saying, “I just got married as my character on Everquest.”
Everquest, if you don’t know, is a massive, multiplayer, online roleplaying game. In the interest of protecting my reputation, I only know this because my sophomore roommate spent most of his time as M’ronobta, a level-40 Dwarven Cleric, before he was expelled for never attending classes.
The centerpiece of Scott’s temple of digital sounds is a Kurzweil 2600, a keyboard that looks like the monolith from 2001 turned on its side. “It arpeggiates like a star,” he said, a proud parent, pressing a few buttons and then playing a low C. Suddenly the room filled with a passable movie soundtrack, a big string sweep with a piano line and a gentle gonging. “Dude,” I said, both of us sitting in awe of the automated music machine.
Gary: It seems like cheating to be able to make that much music that easily.
Scott: It’s not cheating. It’s just a shortcut. I was really into fractal music for a while. Don’t sigh. But…I got back into songcraft. I had a big Beatles phase.
Gary: Who’s your favorite?
Scott: John. Who’s your favorite?
We nodded in mutual approval, both having passed a test, and had the obligatory Beatles-worship conversation. As we spoke, I pulled out my new guitar from its plastic case and took a deep breath.
Gary: I need to warn you, if we’re talking smashing out chords and belting out some angry words, I’m your man. When it comes to bel canto singing over a prog riff, not so much.
Scott: I’m sure you’re fine.
Gary: I’m just saying, I grew up listening to Ween, not King Crimson.
Scott: When I say “D sharp diminished,” do you know what I’m talking about?
Scott: Well, OK. That’s why God invented reverb.
We started in, talking out our ideas, playing scraps of sound and asking the other player to push back. It sounded truly atrocious, as bad as the last Soul Coughing album. But an hour of fiddling and knob twiddling later, with Scott showing me the fingerings on a few chords, we had something, a little one-minute riff with me humming, kind of folky. He recorded it into Pro Tools and played it back. I held out my hands low, and he slapped them.
Gary: I know.
Scott: This is good for me. I’ve been spending too much of my life programming Java servlets.
Gary: Dude. You have no idea. I lived in Albany.
Then we made a pact of honesty, promising to tell each other the truth in pursuit of a greater goal, a musical version of Maoist self-criticism.
Scott: You’re not that good a guitar player.
Gary: You’re a pathetic sound nerd.
Scott: Your lyrics blow, and your voice cracks.
Gary: You’re not allowed to program any more drum tracks.
It stung, but it was also a relief. We could stop pretending and just play, and concentrate on our strengths. After our third session, with 10 minutes of untitled song ideas multi-tracked onto Scott’s hard drive, I told him we needed to think about getting a band together.
Scott: Well, you know, this is fun, but I don’t know if I want to go through all the stress.
Gary: [staring silently]
Scott: I’m just saying, it’s a lot of work.
Gary: Sure, I understand. Your time is better spent programming Java.
Scott: No, but—
Gary: I mean, what’ll be great, is when you’re on your bed of death, a ring of grandchildren around you—
Scott: Grandnephews and grandnieces—
Gary: And the nurse is hooking up an IV to your arm, and you turn to the people in the room and with rheumy eyes, you can say, “I die knowing my skills in object-oriented programming increased revenue for a branding consultancy.”
Scott: I’m just saying it’s work.
Gary: Allow me, Scott, to draw you a picture.
Scott waited with exasperated patience as I drew a stick fish and a stick person. Under the stick person I wrote the words “Martin Gore.”
Scott: Fish Martin Gore.
Gary: The fish is a carp.
Scott: Carp Martin Gore.
Gary: What band is Martin Gore in?
Scott: Depeche Mode.
Gary: What is the abbreviation for Depeche Mode?
Scott: ‘Carp DM.’ [disgusted look]
Gary: Carpe the fucking diem. I’ll keep saying until you hear it, Scott: I’m going to be in a band in Williamsburg unless I get hit by the B61 bus. I have nothing ahead of me but fantastic success or spectacular failure, so I’m not settling for anything in between.
Scott: I cannot believe I’m considering starting a band with someone as extraordinarily stupid.
Gary: Dude. No argument there. But go to the mirror, boy. You’ve invested the GNP of Spain into a setup that would shame Rick Wakeman. You bought all this stuff so you could stay home and play “New York State of Mind” while sipping wine?
A little later, not without more sighing, Scott signed on.
Gary: No takebacks. You can’t bitch out.
Scott: I will not bitch out.
Next I presented my plan for fleshing out the remaining open positions.
Gary: I go to the Mercury Lounge and the bands are almost all white boys. It’s boring.
Scott: No argument there.
Gary: I’ve been giving it some thought. We have a straight white singer, and a gay white synth player. We’re fusing prog and indie. And so, let’s take it all the way. Let’s have the most diverse band in the city.
Gary: I mean, we start with a hot chick drummer.
Scott: Who can play.
Gary: Exactly. I’m not talking Meg White.
Scott: Now the bassist—in a wheelchair?
Gary: No, the bassist should be a black guy. Though he could be in a wheelchair, I don’t care. Maybe if he had some sort of special mouth control for his effects box. What? What’s out the window?
But I kept going. Scott would come to understand my vision.
Scott: [shaking head] What about a lead guitarist?
Gary: Are we getting a lead guitarist?
Scott: No insult, but it definitely isn’t you.
Gary: Maybe an Arab.
Scott: Sherpas are good too. They can lug the equipment.
It went on for another hour, until Scott agreed that trying to build a diverse band was not such a bad idea.
Scott: So…do you know any hot chick drummers?
Scott: Well, there you go.
Gary: Bro, two words: Craigs. List. [Pause] Dot org. And I’ll put up posters. [motioning out the window] This is hot chick drummer ground zero.
Scott definitely has a shrugging and sighing problem.