While (His) Guitar Gently Weeps

Thinking about what the doc said a few days ago, and because I didn’t even get out of bed until 4 this afternoon (I was up from 2:30—8a, reading Shirley Jackson), I decided to walk this evening to the spiritual gathering my wife likes so much, while she and my son caught a ride with our neighbors. It’s held maybe 2.5 miles away, over the river and through the woods, as the song has it.

The snow started falling more heavily as I hiked along and the sun went down, but I was warm enough, and soon felt like I was trudging through the middle of a Robert Frost poem. Because I got started late, and had to spend some time shaking myself off once I arrived, I came in a little after the service started to find that the choir was sitting with the regular congregation, and only two musicians (flute and guitar) occupied their usual space up front.

I was enjoying the music when, about 80% of the way through the service, I realized that in all probability I was listening to the most famous guitar in the state. If not New England. It’s the centerpiece, the raison d’etre if you will, of the book Guitar, which happened to be one of the first two books (along with the play Julius Caesar) I took out of the local library when I arrived in town back in October.

Like Shakespeare, Brookes comes from England, but unlike the Bard of Avon, he’s lived in Vermont for many years. He’s Oxford-educated, director of the writing program at Burlington’s Champlain College, a commentator for NPR’s Weekend Edition, and author of five previous books. Guitar, his most recent, is a pleasing mixture of interesting personal and musical history describing how he ordered, and then watched over the construction of, his new guitar as it was created by luthier Rick Davis, who lives about 20 miles to the NE from our apartment (over a bigger river, as the song would have it, and through many more woods).

After the service’s postlude — Django Reinhardt’s tune, Melodie au Crepuscule — I went up to confirm that he was in fact the author, and it the celebrated concert jumbo six-string from the book. (The flute player, Barbara Boutsakaris, turned out to be his wife.) Brookes was an extremely nice guy, with a most-unVermont-like British accent (which you can hear here); he even offered his prized guitar to me, if I wanted to try it out, but I declined — wisely, since I almost always play musical instruments using drumsticks.

He was happy to hear, of course, that I enjoyed his book. I told him my favorite comment came from Davis the guitar maker, who explained about his clients, ?when they start out, they want the best guitar they can afford. By the time it’s finished, they want the best guitar ever made.?

Other nice quotes from the book:

“You start off playing guitar to get chicks
and end up talking with middle-aged men
about your fingernails.? [Ed Gerhard]

“The first sign of maturity
is the discovery that the volume knob
also turns to the left.? [Jorma Kaukonen]

And from the author himself: “First guitars
tend to be like first loves: ill-chosen, unsuitable,
short-lived, and unforgettable.?

I also praised him for what he called the most fun part of the book, the glossary, which includes these defintions:

G, C, D, A7: All the chords
a guitarist needs to know in order to make money.

Rock: Suitable article to throw
at any electric guitarist
whose solo exceeds seven minutes.

X-bracing: Bracing in the shape of an X.

Zither: Guitar gone bad.

In addition to being enjoyable, Guitar also will teach you a great deal, including the fact that “Fred Carlson’s sitar-harp-guitar… was inspired by a dream of a chicken learning to fly,? and that ukulele means ‘jumping flea’ in Hawaiian. Highly recommended.

* * *

p.s. Looking for the details about Guitar, which came out in April 2005, I found out that six months later a remarkably similar book was published, Clapton’s Guitar. Which describes two guitars being made by an expert luthier in Virginia for another well-known (o.k., really well-known) guitar player with an English accent.

I saw Mr. Clapton play three times in the late 1960s with his little trio Cream, but not since then. If he ever shows up at the little spiritual gathering down the road, I’ll be sure to walk over and see him there as well.

* * *

p.p.s. If you, like Tim Brookes, are a big fan of Django Reinhardt, check out my friend Jon’s band in Philadelphia, Beau Django.

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