Why I’m not taking up the guitar
Chico Performances has a knack for bringing in top strummers and fingerpickers
I’d planned to take up the guitar this year and, through diligence and discipline, make myself a master of the instrument. I won’t be doing that, however, and for that disappointing change in plans I must blame the people who run Chico Performances through Chico State. I’m even considering a lawsuit to see if I can claim damages for the loss I’ve suffered in giving up whatever gifts might have been, quite literally, at my fingertips.
The reason I won’t be taking up the guitar is because last year I spent a half-dozen or so evenings watching some of the world’s best guitar players at Laxson Auditorium and at the Paradise Performing Arts Center sponsored by Chico Performances. After seeing, say, Béla Fleck simply command the instrument in ways that don’t seem quite possible, the idea of even picking up a guitar begins to seem utterly presumptuous.
Yeah, I know, people like Béla Fleck once couldn’t play a lick, either, but watching musicians of his caliber play the instrument is way more than daunting. It’s like those people are another species, almost, or part of a club I could never hope to join.
And the night after Pat Metheny played at Laxson, I swear I could see a faint glow over Chico, a light I imagined was being created by all the guitar-player wannabes who were burning their instruments in their back yards after having seen the display of mastery Metheny had put on the night before.Then there was Barry Flanagan, a guy who plays Hawaiian slack key guitar as part of a group called Hapa. What he does with a guitar is astonishing in the tempos, the picking and the variety of unexpected sounds he wrestles out of the instrument.
People who are mediocre at what they do make other people exclaim, “Hey, I could do that,” and for that reason mediocre musicians have reproduced themselves by the millions. A cloning of the clods, so to speak. For a while there, it was a law in many states that if you were a teenage boy you had to have a garage band. In some states, it’s still the law. And though playing in a rock band is still legally optional in our great state, a recent survey revealed that only one high school kid out of a dozen was not currently in one.
The fact that nearly all of these kids play three-chord rock ‘n’ roll should not be seen as a strike against them. It’s a start, though for many it’s also an end in itself.
Not so with this extraordinary wealth of talent brought to Laxson year in and year out by those hobby-destroyers at Chico State. These are musicians who didn’t settle for a good start; they’re people who never really “settle” at all, who restlessly continue to improve at their craft even after they’ve managed to depress the hell out of people envious of the mastery they’ve already achieved.While they profess to be bringing entertainment and culture to our relatively remote community, what they’re really doing is discouraging a whole lot of us from taking up musical instruments, and it’s hard to say just how much damage this is doing to our own artistic growth and development. Sure, there are those people out there who will argue that great musicians actually encourage more people to take up instruments, or that they inspire mediocre musicians to become better ones. That may be true in small doses, but anyone who was exposed to the breadth of talent on display on the Laxson stage over the past six months isn’t likely to buy into that idea.
My own experience began with Robben Ford, who accompanied John Mayall. There was also a fat guy whose name I forget, and both of them turned guitar playing inside out and upside down. Then there was the aforementioned Pat Metheny show. In terms of virtuosity, this display was jaw-dropping. I might not have believed that human beings could do what he did that night if I hadn’t been there to see it.
Buddy Miller, accompanying Emmylou Harris, put on another display of guitar mastery in a wholly different genre, and then there were two guys who played with Mark O’Connor, and there was Patty Larkin, Mimi Fox and Kaki King who performed as “La Guitarra” in Paradise, a showcase of guitar styles and passion for music that established the fact that when it comes to discouraging displays of virtuosity, women can be just as depressing as their male counterparts.Throughout the whole Chico Performances series last year, I saw lots of top-shelf entertainment by musicians who have sufficiently discouraged me from taking up music as a new means of self-expression. But, as if last year’s performances hadn’t done enough to discourage local talent, the people at Chico Performances are once more presenting a lineup of talent certain to make many more of us decide not to take up the guitar, or a range of other instruments, as well.
From folk, to classical, to jazz, there are masters of many instruments in every style coming to make you feel sheepish about your own lack of talent. The Chieftains are coming, Lou Reed is coming, Natalie MacMaster, Lucinda Williams and Kronos Quartet. Lots of other folks are coming, too. And if last year is any indication, they’re all likely to be a discouraging bunch.