A few years back, the great singer and thinker Willie Nelson offered some guidance to parents. “Mamas,” he sang, “Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Don’t let them play guitars and drive them old trucks. Let them be doctors and lawyers and such.”
Now, Willie is a man who is very rarely wrong in these matters. But here, surely, he is on the wrong track. Although as a writer I’m probably at the doctors-and-lawyers-and-such end of the spectrum, it is my firm belief that mamas should not only let their babies grow up to play guitars – they should encourage them. Sending a child into adulthood, able to play the guitar, is a great and vital gift.
The banjolele that my mother gave when I was about nine changed my life. My brother Philip and I were at a prep school, now mercifully defunct. We started playing three-chord songs – “Sweet Ellie Rhee (So Dear to Me)” was one of our favourites. I rather think Lonnie Donegan’s classic “My Old Man’s a Dustman” was part of our very limited repertoire.
Later, when I was at public school, my banjolele made way for an acoustic guitar – an Eko. I began to play along to the hits of the time. It was the golden age of guitar instrumentals – The Shadows were in the charts, “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures was on Radio Luxembourg. My debut number, played haltingly and repeatedly, was “Diamonds” by Jet Harris and Tony Meehan.
Wellington, the school I attended, provided an invaluable stimulant to teenage creativity – profound boredom. I had hours to fill, learning the guitar, harmonising Everly Brothers songs with my friend John Wehner. In the traditional way of school guitarists, we formed a group but I can admit that we were overshadowed by Wellington’s rhythm and blues outfit, the brilliantly named Groovediggers, who were fronted by the precocious blues pianist Pete Wingfield, who went on to be a successful musician and actually backed The Everly Brothers. The lead singer, Guy Siner, ended up, rather less musically, playing Lieutenant Gruber in the sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo.
I was never a great guitarist, but by the age of 17 I had discovered a great and simple truth. The guitar was a friend, a therapist. Like many teenage boys, I felt as if I didn’t quite fit in at school or at home. My Eko became a refuge. Playing it gave me a confidence that I otherwise lacked.
In those days, three chords – four, if you wanted to be flash – would get you through most of the songs you heard on the radio. Gradually, I began to discover that you can express yourself through a guitar. For those who are really good, it is like a conversation, an extension of character. It can be as individual as a fingerprint. Even for the average player, it’s the most versatile and friendly – the most forgiving – of instruments, capable of reflecting every mood from rage to sorrow via love.
During the Sixties, the whole changing culture became guitar-centric. The shaggy, sensitive troubadour with his battered guitar-case, roaming the world with only his songs for company – the poet and the one-man band of Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” – was one of the great archetypes of that self-mythologising age. Like many weekend hippies, I roamed, I rambled – but not very far.
In 1967, I travelled around America on Greyhound buses with my friend Rodney Portman and a guitar. It was the summer of love (something of which I had not had too much experience at that point), and we ended up in the throbbing, hedonistic epicentre of global hippiedom, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Everybody, I now realise, was at it some way or other, except us. I was a drug-free virgin in paradise.
But here is another thing about the guitar. It’s a short cut to the past. Today, I only have to play Paul Simon’s “America” or Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” and I’ll be back there, in the Sixties yet somehow missing them. Like Mr Jones in Dylan’s famous “Ballad of a Thin Man”, something was going on and I didn’t know what it was. Did I, Mr Jones?
Mamas, if you let your babies grow up to play that old guitar, it will take them to some strange, interesting places. They will be invited to more parties. They will probably get more sex. You don’t have to be a show-off to get the most out of a guitar, but it helps. As I edged towards competence, I found that I liked playing in front of people. Today I can see that, in this at least, it is for me similar to writing. I want to reach people. I may enjoy playing or writing for myself, but to make sense of it, communication – performance – has to be the aim.
Writing is a cool business, compared to playing music. You write. It goes through the process of publication. Eventually people read your words and, sometimes long after they were written, someone might say they liked them. Music is more immediate. You can learn a song, maybe even write one, and see, feel, how it works that very evening. In a way, it’s the perfect complement to writing.
1971. Paris. I was in my early twenties, on the run from Englishness, and there was a lot of exciting, bewildering stuff going on around me. One night I found myself at a party where, at some point, and pretty much without warning, everyone took off their clothes. I remember sitting naked on a sofa, panicky and bug-eyed, gripping my guitar to me like Peter Sellers in A Shot in the Dark as all sorts of relationships were explored on the floor in front of me.
Later, back in London, I started playing in restaurants and bars, sometimes solo, sometimes in a duo with my friend Derek Creigan, a Scottish bass guitarist with a voice like Joe Cocker’s. Whenever I read in today’s papers of the binge-drinking excesses of modern youth, I think back to some of the things I witnessed, belting out “Blue Suede Shoes” or “Hotel California” as the English let their hair down in the orgiastic bedlam of a basement restaurant in Knightsbridge.
Maybe it was the new guitar, or perhaps it was something in my life, but suddenly it was no longer enough to play the kind of songs from my youth and middle age which had kept me happy down the years. Astonishingly, they had begun to bore me. I have found myself going back in time, listening to ancient bluegrass, music-hall stuff, songs from the 1920s and 1930s, ancient blues – some Cole Porter, for heaven’s sake. Nothing now makes me happier than to play “My Melancholy Baby” or “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” or “Let’s Misbehave” or “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”. I have even, to the alarm of my friends, taken to listening to Chas and Dave pub singalong CDs in search of new old stuff. There is nothing too mad or unfashionable for me to consider adding to my repertoire.
The band played on. That was the golden rule in those days. Whatever was happening – stripogram grannies, punch-ups, food fights, blow-jobs in dark corners – Derek and I would sing on, noisy yet curiously invisible. If you could play those gigs, you could play anywhere. One night, an all-male office party stripped off and did the conga around the restaurant, stark naked with candles sticking out of their bottoms – surprising in itself, but particularly so since the dancers were policemen from the local Chelsea nick. Twice or three times a week, I would return home in the early hours of the morning, my ears ringing, my throat hoarse, my clothes reeking of cooking fat, smoke and stale booze.
It was perhaps an odd thing for a professional writer, as I was by then, to be doing, but it suited me just fine. I read a travel book at around that time, written by someone I had vaguely known at Cambridge. He had been commissioned to write about Texas and, before he left for America, he paid a visit to the Texas Lone Star, a hamburger joint on Gloucester Road. There he found himself listening to a couple of guitarists singing something – I think it was Willie Nelson’s “Good-Hearted Woman in Love with a Good-Timin’ Man”. “My God,” he thought with a shudder and wrote later, “is this the culture I have been paid to write about?” Reading his account, I realised that, almost certainly, he had been listening to Derek and me and had, perhaps understandably, failed to recognise me.
What the hell. Although the travel writer and I had both ended up as professional authors, we were different. He was a literary insider, taking notes. I was playing the guitar as a fake cowboy in a London hamburger bar. That suited me just fine.
As an instrument, the guitar seems to invite superiority. It is too easy to play, too damned democratic. Nothing refutes the idea that music is an exclusive club more comprehensively. The guitar is 100 per cent snobbery-proof.
I have recently experienced a sort of musical freak-out. A kind person might describe it as creative renewal but the startling intensity of what has happened is more akin to a nervous breakdown.
The days when my guitar was a way to be cool or to get invited to parties are gone, but it’s as good a friend and therapist as it has ever been. These days I play a Gibson J45, which I bought two years ago in Johnson City, Tennessee. In spite of its naff gold machine-heads (the little tuning handles), I love my guitar with all by heart. Without wishing to be disloyal to its predecessors – the Eko, the Yamaha, the Ovation, the Guild – playing my Gibson is in a different realm of experience. It is like having dated perfectly nice local girls for years and then suddenly finding yourself waking up beside Scarlett Johansson.
My Gibson is taking me back – and now I am not alone. Through an invaluable online musical dating website called Musicians-in-Your-City, I’ve met another Gibson-toting throwback, a finger-picker from Framlingham called Derek Hewitson.
We come from different musical backgrounds, Derek and I. He is a folk, jazz and blues man who takes a dim view of some of the mainstream stuff I have been singing down the years, and I never imagined that I would end up playing with someone who knows all the lyrics to “When the Old Dun Cow Caught Fire” complete with its mysterious shouted refrain, “Macintyre!” Yet, as in all the best internet dates, the chemistry is there.
We meet. When I finish my writing day, we rehearse. We introduce each other to strange, obscure songs. Our repertoire covers the last century but, to the surprise of both of us, our musical comfort zone turns out to be the late 1920s. We have played in a local pub and have been offered gigs. A shameless steal from Joseph Heller has given us a name – Something Happened. We have a MySpace page. Business cards have been printed.
It is all very interesting and unexpected. Who would have thought that I would end up playing “When Dixie Stars Are Playing Peek-a-Boo” and loving it? Perhaps some kind of weird musical regression is taking place and I’m returning to the songs I first played when my mother gave me a banjolele. One day I might find myself casually suggesting to Derek that we have a go at “Ellie Rhee (So Dear to Me)” or even “My Old Man’s a Dustman”.
One of the sadder bluegrass numbers that we sing is “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar”, the Delmore Brothers song from the early 1930s about an old guitarist who is telling this world goodbye. We both sing it with feeling.
Gonna lay down my old guitar
Lay down my old guitar
I wish I could tie it to my side
And take it along with me.
‘The Essay’, broadcast by BBC Radio 3, 21 July 2008.