Saturday, January 19, 2013

“Guitar Rust”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

As I have often said, the best columns seem to write themselves.
This was once again the case, as I attempted to record a song based on lyrics that I composed for a recent installment of Thoughts At Large.
In bygone years, my interest in music caused me to experiment on toy instruments, perform in 4-H talent competitions, appear on local television, record hundreds of home demos, and provide entertainment for my immediate family.
This passion for the life of a minstrel made me collect plectrum twangers of all kinds. Everything from the Spanish guitar to the electric bass to the Russian balalaika appeared in my household arsenal.
But as time passed, I focused almost exclusively on creative writing, while working a regular job to pay the bills. Thus, while my wordsmithing skills developed accordingly, I became distant from the art of plucking a stringed tonemaker.
This reality became apparent as I attempted to record a song that was included in a recent installment of Thoughts At Large.
In my head, the composition sounded fully-formed and viable. But when I dug out my Ovation “Applause” roundback acoustic, to record the piece, it was suddenly obvious that I could barely play the instrument.
Years of “rust” had collected on my fingers.
I struggled with basic chords, familiar to fans of Country & Western music. G, C, D.
The guitar was cracked from a fall encountered while disembarking from my F-150 pickup truck, at the erstwhile “Tim’s House” in Chardon. I often played there with Archer, another volunteer, and local performance artist Robin Echols Cooper. Yet the axe sounded true. Only my own mastery of the strings was lacking.
I plunked along while reciting the lyrics:

“I got a pickup truck
I’m down on my luck
And I’m stuck here in the dark
But I’ve got the only iPhone
In the trailer park.”

My volunteer friend Archer would have been proud of such an earthy composition. We often jammed at Tim’s House as part of a program Cooper called “Healing Through Music.”
I picked and plodded while adjusting the iPhone to capture the moment. My hands cramped from neglect. But there was an epiphany of sorts as I spoke about the late CEO of Apple:

“I’d like to thank Steve Jobs for everything... that fellow from Cupertino, California has changed my life and I’d like to dedicate this song in memory of him.”

I pondered using a capo to make chording easier by going up the neck. But after a bit of practice, old habits began to return. I rocked in my chair with the roundback acoustic following along. The tongue-in-cheek ditty took shape like a performance of old.
Barely noticed was the techno-brick being employed, my iPhone5.
I strummed along while singing in the tones of a weathered laborer. Thoughts of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters filled my head.
I remembered recordings made as a high school student in Pennsylvania. And with friends in New York. Even those in our basement on Maple Avenue, in Chardon. 
Each reflected a different kind of crude engineering, moving microphones and equipment to achieve the proper acoustics.
From my earliest reel-to-reel recorder, to a digital unit of great sophistication, I developed skill with each device. The collected sum was a sense that I knew how to produce recordings worthy of duplication and sharing. But the energy of yonder days had faded.
As I pulled at the strings of my guitar, ghosts of yesterday appeared.
I remembered going to Ashtabula with my friend Tim, from Fisher’s Big Wheel on Chardon’s Water Street, in the 1980’s. He knew a fellow named Bill, who offered to trade the Ovation “Applause” guitar for something sacrificed out of my own collection.
I surrendered an Epiphone that had a neck profile like a tongue depressor, with weak pickups. Both of us thought we had scored an incredible bargain off of the other.
The roundback became one of my most favored instruments. I soon lost track of ‘Bula Bill and the Epiphone. But the trade yielded benefits that have continued to today.
Part of the difficulty encountered with making a video of the “iPhone” song was that I couldn’t tell exactly where the shot was framed. I propped the phone up between my laptop PC and an Italian ashtray made of rough-hewn marble.
The first clip was aimed too low. I readjusted, and tried again. Then, I attempted a quick performance. But a ceiling light made the visual image harsh and overexposed.
Finally, a second take with ambient illumination worked better. My fingers were stiff and the words fumbled off my lips. But I completed a full recording.
Figuring out how to post the video presented another challenge.  I had only possessed a smartphone for two weeks. Going from an aging LG NV2 to an iPhone5 represented a quantum leap like trading in a Chevette for a Mercedes. But with a bit of fiddling, I figured out the necessary steps.
Afterward, comments began to arrive from friends and family members that had watched the clip. My favorite came from an aunt in Gallia County, down by the Ohio River.
“You sound like R. D. Ice,” she observed, referencing my father. “I’m sure you are familiar with him. Keep playing!”

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