Tag Archives: music

To Restring A Guitar

To restring a guitar
on the morning of a snowstorm
is to convene a seminar 
on the joys of knowing very little.

To restring a guitar
is to open a familiar door
and find familiar things
have been moved to a new room.

To restring a guitar
is to pull the pushpins
from a bulletin board
and throw away the outdated notes.

To restring a guitar
is to understand nothing again
and find something else
has been made clear again. 

To restring a guitar 
when the weather is bad
is to declare that last night’s forecast
was incomplete. 


Twenty Flight Rock

Woke up 
singing Eddie Cochran’s
“Twenty Flight Rock” 
No idea why

At once I thought 
of seeing Ry Cooder
play it — solo acoustic — long ago
at the Newport Folk Festival 

I’m not much given
to nostalgia which feels
to me to much like 
lusting for ghosts

who can only feel
what they have always felt
Why do that when
there are new things

to be felt
Why repeat yourself
endlessly with the same
old same old movements

going back again
and again through one
life two lives three
lives four 

Although
I’m starting to drag
and soon enough might be
ready to sag

I’m not yet ready to
say things were
so much better
before when

I could look at Ry Cooder
playing a song from his own old days
in his own splendid fashion
and say I could be him someday

So fuck the ghosts
who crowd around me
demanding obeisance
to their past

when I am still learning
to play not like
Ry or Eddie
but like myself

No matter how far
I have to climb I swear
I will only go to bed
when I get to the top

 

 


Chopsticks

If I say “Chopsticks” is
my favorite piano piece
will you think I am being
facetious or simply 
and incredibly stupid about
how much great piano music
is out there that I must have heard
at some point and yet here I am
championing something
almost anyone with fingers
and a memory of hearing it
can play with little thought
once they are shown where 
to begin? If I tell you
that the reason I claim
such a thing is for 
that precise reason —
how accessible it is and 
how it connects so easily and
how much delight one may see
in the eyes of a new player
of any age — how the sound of it
might make even a seasoned pianist
ever so slightly nostalgic
for their earliest days upon 
the ivories — would you think
I am being facetious then
even as your own fingers
begin to twitch and beg you
to let them try? 


Guitarist’s Prayer

Poem from late 1990s. Lightly revised.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“ it was not the first time /  I left a guitar behind  / and it would not be the last” 
— patti smith, “munich”

while
dreaming of things beyond / my own ruin

i pray for a
ruined guitar

i pray my
hands will some day pry open /  the lid on the case where hope is hidden

and brush
aside the fierce ills that torture me  / as they fly by

and if
/  as i suspect /  i find that hope is a guitar that’s been trapped for too long

one that’s
been scorched and broken

neck just
cracked enough / strings just frayed enough

that one
good chord / will rip the instrument finally / apart

i pray that
my hands will recall their past

i pray the
strap will hold / when i lift that guitar into place upon me

i pray
there’s a decent cable /  in the case

i pray the
Amplifier of Heaven /  is plugged in and warmed up near by

i pray i
will remember /  the name of the right chord

i pray i
will remember how /  to set my hands in place /  on the strings /  so that chord can pour through them

i pray i
take a long quiet moment /  before i strike  / for the spaces are as important as the music

i pray i
have the patience /  to not worry too much / about the perfection of the tuning

i pray the
Pedals of all the Saints / are arrayed before me

i pray for
enough time to stomp every possible voice / into that chord before it fades

for the
right chord is itself a prayer

and tonight

i pray that
i pray it / just right

i pray that
then / i will have enough grace / to know when i am done

to know when
to set that wreckage down

and

walk

away


Telecaster

The Telecaster
is in my hands
unplugged at 
11 PM so as
not to disturb
anyone but me.

Even in this
incomplete state
it does its best
to cry and
offer prayer
as I try

to make
my sick hands
move one iota
more like they did
six months
a year two years

ago. The doctor
calls this “diabetic 
neuropathy” and
people beyond
the doctor like to say
it’s my fault

or at least my fault
and my parents’
fault but what I know is
I was bad at this before
it happened and am
no better now that
my fingertips feel 

nothing. Meanwhile
the Telecaster is still
doing that transparent thing
where its voice becomes
my voice and my voice
becomes an insult

as well as a prayer
and together we do 
what a thousand thousand
teenagers with guitars
have been doing
forever: trying to

keep their pain silent
when the house is asleep
and all they want to do is
scream. Here I am though, 
old and numb, trying to pretend
that old and numb doesn’t lead

to the same
kind of pain, this
clicky-quiet
Telecaster pain,
this stumble-finger agony,
the discomfort

of knowing
that regardless of whose fault
all of this is,
I am failing this guitar,
and it is not
the other way around.


Right Place Right Time

When music is right I say that whether
it lands upon us as hammer or feather 
in right place at right time
music is life and is no crime

Soca calypso punk polka country
Metal reminder that wrecked hearts still beat
Right song at right time
Music itself is never a crime

Musicians may scrap and murder and steal
but music they make may yet save and heal
Right note at right time 
Music itself is never a crime

Police drive up saying music’s too loud
Hands on their guns eyes on this crowd
Wrong place friends in a rebel time
It isn’t our music they see as a crime

Ancestors knew this and said it through drum
Children know this and cry when it’s done
Right place and no wrong time
Music is how we stay sure we’re alive


Not All Boomers Love The Beatles, Man

Regretting time spent considering my teenage years
when I was compiling 
banks of music, art, and literature
the world could use to define me.

Unlike so many boomer peers
I’m mostly no longer
in love with all that. Instead 
I’m somewhere I’m not

supposed to be, forever chasing the new.
I’m a bad example of my peers — 
nostalgia is for the easy
to please and I’m not that,

never have been. But
there are times when by chance
something from ages ago
stirs a new feeling, or someone

from long ago stirs a new pot,
and instead of disdain I feel
small hope that I might have
a final twist in me too,

or will at last be able to unlock
my one true thing, my one
best offering, and all the rest
of why I ever loved those artifacts

might make sense and I’ll at last
be unafraid to reclaim all of it
without looking down on the love I felt
as a relic to be left behind. 


Only A Minor Threat

Revised, from 1999.

he died silent on a Monday
looking into that last camera
without a smile

eyes rolling up
like a tail gunner
during a spiral
still doing his job

the reporters on hand 
either saw him blink
or didn’t see him blink
said he was either resigned
or defiant
confident
or arrogant

not one said remorseful
not one said scared

the Friday after he died 

a jogger in Kansas City
found a 4 year old girl 

another one found
her head a day later

when several days had passed 
and no one had reported 
a four year old girl missing

a local church group
began going door to door
to identify her

refusing to call her
by the police procedural name
of baby jane doe
they renamed her “precious”
because “someone must have known her 
someone must have thought her precious”

last night

for the first time in years
I recalled the night I sang with Minor Threat
flying on crystal
maintaining barely well enough 
to pass for straight edge 
in a crowd militant for sobriety

the night irony was invented

when MacKaye handed off the mike
to what must have looked like 
just another shaven runt in the crowd

I was so thrilled to be just straight enough 
to remember the words

and that was the first one I remember
the first of those all-American moments

when 
faced with something dangerous
and contradictory

I lunged for a safety net and tried to

simplify
to boil it all down 
to a head shake 
and a slogan

simplify

to stick a fist in the air
and shout along
with the long national hunger
for swift closure 

simplify

because

if we can find a way to call her precious and insist
that she must have been beloved

if we can forget that in spite of that
no one seems to have missed her

if we can forget that it is likely
that her killer knew (or even gave her) her real name 

if we can find a way to call the truck bomber
a madman and insist that he is an aberration

if we can forget that he cried
when he saw children burned in Waco

if we can forget that he nonetheless
meant to burn the kids he burned 

if we can forget that they are not just any monsters
but our very own

looking for their own versions
of the easy answers

if we can get by those sticking points fast enough
we can return to the luxury of certainty

simplify

safely tuck it all away

and say

only a minor threat
only a minor threat


Lowell George, Sylvester, and Heaven

Let us pray on the questions.
Let us listen to the answers:

is church or swamp the holiest of holies?
How deep into murky water will you go to find God?

Heaven, Hollywood, Watts: how far apart are they?
Did Lowell George meet Sylvester at the Whisky back in the day?

Glory, glory in the Commodore Hotel;
a choir full of lust and memory.

Glory, glory, hallelujah on the dance floor,
as real as anything, as anything could be.

Is a dance floor less real than the seat of Heaven?
Is the church the only true entrance to paradise?

Preacher in white coveralls offers Scripture
with six strings and a spark plug socket.

Gay black angel in glittering wig and robe
unfurls wings below the sacred mirrorball.

Is any rock club you could choose any more sacred
than any disco you could name?

Is the distance to Paradise from your stage
truly shorter than theirs, or do you just measure them differently?


Working on…

A music project. Poems to return in a day or so.


One Sick Session

Remember how sick that session was?
We all walked out the door saying that was one sick session.
No idea now who played. No idea now what we started with.
I must have had a red guitar but which one?
I must have played my heart out but I don’t remember.

You were there. You’re shaking your head but you must have been.
If you don’t remember it I’ll try to remind you. Remember?
You offered me a smoke and I turned it down because no filter.
I smoked Winstons back then. Haven’t smoked in what now, a decade?
You say you never smoked? I could have sworn you offered me a Camel.

I know we started with a standard — maybe “Stella By Starlight?”
I don’t even recall how that goes now. You swear you never smoked?
I don’t touch my guitar anymore either. Maybe I never did?
The room I recall was full of smoke. Maybe it’s all in my head?
That sick session I rely on to remind me of who I was — did it happen?

Did I ever play at all? The room had gray walls and a ceiling fan.
Did it happen to me? I can just see five or six shadows intent on music.
Was it on TV? Everything is, you know. We were wailing, I promise.
No cutting, not us. We wove and bobbed and it worked, it just worked.
Did it happen? Did we play together? Everything used to just work back then.


Cookout Blues

A song is playing loudly
in the neighborhood, a song
you can’t stand hearing,
another person’s favorite song.

You worship at the altar of curation.
You can’t fathom why
they can’t use earbuds
to keep their atrocious taste to themselves,

dammit. This is America. You have
the right to be unbothered by
the presence of others. You have the right
not to find out who is who

through their music. Their food smells
good, though. If it were over here
you’d try it. But the music — the music’s
all wrong. It ought to be unheard,

and while we’re at it, they’re pretty loud
themselves. Too loud. This is America.
You have the right to call someone
and get them to do something about this.

You have the right not to know
one damn thing about the people
who lives up the damn block.
That’s why you bought the earbuds

in the first place. That’s the whole point
of a curated playlist. That’s the reason they invented
noise cancellation. You have the right
never to hear another voice as long as you live.


My Life In The House Of Music

Born sheltered under country,
opera for a roof, walled in by popular crooners
on a street where Lawrence Welk might live.

Only dug the classical wing of that house
now and then. I preferred to take that
small: string quartets, solo guitar.

Later, rock music compacted me,
helped me fit better into tight rooms
full of other people.

Later, I felt funk as earthquake
cracking a back wall I thought
would be too thick to fall. I was wrong.

Jazz, though: jazz kicked open a locked door
in a stone wall in the little rock room,
got me past the classics to the open air.

I had to leave the house I grew up in
to grow up. It took flamenco palmas
to lock the door behind me, Afrobeat

to help me turn the corner
into the broad boulevard
headed out of town;

there has been so much more since
I cannot name. I’ve lived
in so many places since then

that I can listen to anything now
and not go home again because
I know so much of what the world looks like.


Chordophones

The guitars my country of old men loves to hear
support the binary my country of old men adores.
They must have either six or twelve strings,
must be either acoustic or electric.

My country of old men mostly loves only songs
that are played on guitars. If there are
mandolins or banjos in the song they must be
there only as adjunct to guitars. Ukuleles

have their place among the acceptable
for their chiming and their cute faces; they look like
infant guitars to the old men and who would take
such candy from babies? They’ll surely outgrow them.

A bass guitar is acceptable; this is why it is called
a guitar. Any other instrument with strings
is inferior to guitar and should be at best
relegated to guitar support, say the old men

of my country. This is why no one around here
recognizes any kind of cuatro or knows what a saz is,
why no one has ever heard a vihuela, a charango,
a guitarra de Lisboa.

Those who play such dangerous instruments
keep to themselves around here for fear of
my country of old men. You have to spin the dials
a long time on secret radios to hear any of them played.

It’s as if the old men
know this would be
a different country if everyone
heard those sounds.


Words And Guitar

I wrote my first poem 
when I was almost too young
and marked by that
went on to write only poems
for an entire lifetime;
that was music to me.

It was always music I sought
in words, how they butted up
to song, slope of one line into
another, beat of syllables
against my teeth and tongue.

When deep in later life
I touched my first guitar
I thought of all those poems
and as my fingers built chords
I recognized what was happening;
it was the same.

All of that is vanishing now.
The need to play is slipping
from me. I sit and think
of my dusty guitar
on the far wall. I sit
and think about the dust
on the seams of this poem.

There’s fantastic music,
clouds of it in fact,
still playing clearly 
outside somewhere;

none of it 
is meant
for me to play.