I have now played the guitar and sung on a stage, in a theater, before a live audience. So you can scratch that bad boy off my bucket list.
Okay, so the theater and stage are at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where I just completed my second eight-week round of once-a-week guitar classes. And the audience was made up of instructors and other students, many of whom also performed a range of song and dance at Sunday afternoon’s “graduation” show.
Yet if you’d told me 16 weeks ago that, before the end of the year, I’d have the audacity not only to participate publicly in a rendition of “Heart of Gold,” but to channel Neil Young’s singing while I played, I’d at least have been skeptical.
I have long been a big fan of Neil Young — some of my D.C. friends might recall that I began my going-away letter to my CQ colleagues last spring by quoting from his song “Helpless.” And I can at least mimic his voice without completely embarrassing myself, as witnessed by the lack of booing and throwing of ripe fruit after my class had its three-minute pursuit of rock stardom Sunday.
Still, it was touch and go, right up to the last moment, whether I’d both play and sing.
First, our class had to choose between the two songs we’d been practicing at home all week in preparation for the graduation concert: Heart of Gold and Handle Me With Care, a catchy song that was a hit for the super-group The Traveling Wilburys (which included George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison).
I think I could have played the latter tune all right. But singing along would have been unlikely. Handle Me With Care has a couple of tricky transitions to a B7 chord, one of the few chords that requires four fingers to play instead of two or three. Heart of Gold has only more basic chords (E minor, C, D and G) played over and over, mostly in the same order.
Plus, I don’t have a good handle on the lyrics to Handle Me With Care, while I could recite the words to Heart of Gold in my sleep.
Even so, it wasn’t until we start playing and ran through an instrumental lead-in without problems that I decided to give the vocals a shot. It worked out. Go figure.
The reason that this was a red-letter day for me is that I am fairly well into middle age and have never come close to mastering a musical instrument. My parents, for reasons ever unclear to me, decided that I should learn to play the clarinet, which I quickly proved to have no aptitude for. I took some group piano and organ lessons about 20 years ago and learned enough to bang out a couple of tunes, but never played before an audience and gave it up fairly quickly because life in D.C. just kept getting in the way.
At the encouragement of my wife Barb, who has played a variety of instruments for most of her life (and is currently taking fiddle lessons at Old Town), I bought this guitar about three years ago. But I’d just started trying to teach myself — which probably would have been unproductive anyway — when I cut up a couple of fingers in a kitchen accident. Nothing very serious, but enough to derail me at a time when a lot of things, particularly in my professional life, were getting very complicated. The guitar sat in its case collecting dust.
So when we moved to Chicago, it became a priority to try to learn how to play this thing a little or concede that it was God’s will that I never play a musical instrument. The Old Town School, located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, has been a Chicago institution for more than 50 years, and we’d been to real concerts there, so it was a natural place to look to get started.
The first round of beginner classes was a bit of a struggle, as my short fingers fought with some of the chord transitions, I went through the often-painful process of building up calluses and was reminded that, at this point, arthritis is an option.
But, somehow, it started to kick in about two or three weeks into the second round of classes. It helps that Carlos Chacon, our teacher and a really nice guy, happens to share my taste for classic rock, and most of the tunes we’re learning are familiar.
Now don’t get me wrong — I know I’m not good at this yet. But I’m having fun and I’m encouraged. The Old Town’s descriptions for what students will get out of each level of its courses ends with this promise: “The desire to keep playing.” True that. I start eight weeks of Guitar 2 on January 9.
You might have noticed that I’ve been taking on a variety of challenges since we moved. Along with building a freelance writing career, networking to expand my connections in my new hometown, and trying to keep this blog updated daily, I’ve been taking these guitar lessons, just finished an intensive two-week bartending certificate course and am heavily engaged with the local Michigan State alumni club, including planning for the big SpartyBall event on February 25.
The fact is, though, that a lot of this is lifetime maintenance deferred for years by my dedication to a challenging and demanding workplace and by existential issues that included a health crisis and various family illnesses and passages.
You never want to wait until it’s too late to make up for lost time.
I’ll conclude with a passage from a song, Wasted on the Way, that Crosby, Stills and Nash made without Neil Young. These words rang through my mind frequently when we made our decision earlier this year to really shake things up, and I want to thank my many friends who took risks, and summoned the courage to change, for the inspiration.
Oh, when you were young
Did you question all the answers
Did you envy all the dancers who had all the nerve
Look around you know
You must go for what you wanted
Look at all my friends who did and got what they deserved