Sunday, December 19, 2010

Please Refer to My Corpse as “Jane Do-Re-Mi”

A couple of years ago, when I started running my mouth about how desperately I wanted to learn how to play the guitar, I was given a pimped-out acoustic one as a gift. It’s become a decoration in my home, part of my interior design, propped up against a wall in my living room. I usually forget it’s there until someone comes into my apartment for the first time, points to it, and asks: “you play?” And all I can say is: “huh?”

Today, I had my first one-on-one lesson. I wiped some of the dust off my latest musical instrument before walking it (without any kind of carrying case) across the park. “Good luck - hope you turn the place out,” a bursting-with-pride panhandler sang out as I passed.

The place almost turned me out. Since the caseless guitar and my coat were so heavy, I didn’t feel like adding a purse or my bulging wallet to the mix. The only small items I stuffed into my pockets were a wad of cash, my phone, and my keys. The music-lesson building’s front-desk security guard scolded me for not carrying any forms of ID. “What if you were in a serious accident? We wouldn’t have any idea who you were and would have to call you Jane Doe.” This was one of the only times in my adult life that I didn’t argue or talk back when provoked. I’d been looking forward to my session for a damn long time and needed this police-academy prodigy to let me through.

When I finally met my teacher, I told him I wanted to play an Ani DiFranco song. He was all: “Uh, I don’t think so,” because she uses an atypical tuning style that’s not fit for beginners. That’s about when I lost most of my interest in this mission. The whole reason I ever signed up for guitar lessons was so I could learn an Ani song – immediately. (And the instructor later pronounced Ani’s name as “Annie.”)

I regained my composure and was shown the standard way of tuning the strings. By the time we finished this drill, I was ready to pack up my ID-free belongings and call it a wrap. But we had 50 minutes left to go.

I'm not supposed to have this much trouble mastering the basics. I had repeatedly been told that it’s usually pretty easy for people with formal musical backgrounds to pick up the guitar. I do have a formal musical background. It may have been 15-20 years ago – but it’s there.

When I got back home, I started practicing within 3 minutes of walking through the door so I wouldn’t forget any of my new skills. After successfully tuning the top few strings, I tried working on one of the lower ones, twisting and turning its tuning knob. There was a mini-explosion and a sharp sting against my hand. The string had dramatically popped off from one of its ends and is now lopsidedly dangling by a thread. So’s my future in the music-making business. Again.

For a full hour after my only “serious accident” of the day, I was taunted by the sound of my upstairs neighbor expertly strumming his own unbroken, exquisitely-tuned acoustic guitar. I sat on my couch, listening, resting my head on one of my hands. The other hand was busy tapping my old tambourine as back-up. I’m better at percussion.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bravo, Jigga!

I’m halfway through Jay-Z’s brilliant new memoir (Decoded), and I already have the pages of this masterpiece marked up like my dog-eared copies of The Bluest Eye and The Brothers Karamazov. It’s that good. The men/boys of the mainstream hip-hop industry generally don’t impress me, and it’s not only because of the hyper-machismo and sexist lyrics. I’m genuinely revolted by many of their core personalities. I wouldn’t ever be able to get along with Kanye West or the woman-hating, animal-hating DMX. But Jay-Z has always seemed like one of the sane, likable ones. If he had been in my freshman dorm, we could have been great drinking buddies. I've known someone who has run into him at his 40/40 club downtown and she confirmed that there’s something deep and different about him. The Jigga-man has been a writer since the tender age of 9. In Decoded, he describes how he’d be walking down the street with his friends and suddenly come up with the perfect rhyme or phrase in his head. He carried a notebook with him to get the words down on paper before he forgot them. I do that too. He took up his brand of songwriting to explain the psychology behind urban hustling/street life/the underworld - and to be “honest about that experience.” We should be “approaching rap like literature, like art” and viewing hip-hop music as anthropological reportage. As if all this conceptual enlightenment weren’t enough, he’s teaching me new words and terms such as “leaning nodder,” “subwoofer,” and “raising green up.” (The verdict is still out on what exactly a leaning nodder is. I looked it up and it could be anything from a condom to a drug reference.) Growing up in the Bed-Stuy housing projects, where he met a few other visionaries, he read the dictionary to build his vocabulary. I live about 10 minutes away from a set of housing projects and when I sometimes take shortcuts through them, I’ve seen and overheard groups of their residents gathered around a bench, passionately philosophizing away. If they had been born into even slightly different circumstances, they just as easily could be having these discussions around a bench on the campuses of Brown or MIT. But the Jay-Zs of the world (and there aren’t too many people who are gifted with this preternatural level of stubborn, confident, and thoughtful entrepreneurial ambition) don’t necessarily need formal higher education and all of its prescriptions and restrictions. They have what it takes to figure out how to reshape and enhance a cultural narrative on their own terms.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Now All We Need Up Here Is a Dave and Buster’s

Thanks to big-box retail, living in Upper Manhattan has recently become more affordable/bearable. Since the last thing I want is to risk losing my born-again bohemian street cred, I buy locally as often as I can. But I’m on a budget and can’t afford to get the bulk of my produce, fish, and pre-made baked goods from farmers’ markets, nor can I bring myself to pay $45 for a lamp at the family-owned neighborhood housewares store when I can now trot across town to get a comparable-quality one from Target for $24.99. Out of all these glorious new uptown chain stores, the apple of my eye is Costco (which one of my Upper East Side friends once said has “transformed [her] life”). It saves me some cash-money and reminds me of the merry bulk-shopping trips to Sam’s Club I used to take with my parents when I was coming of age. Being inside of a Costco (or its equivalent) is like being inside of a casino – you’re surrounded by every walk of life. Women and men (of every race and color) from every age bracket, education level, and nearly every socioeconomic status are represented. Suburban soccer moms, blue-collar workers, prep-school jocks, the tattooed and body pierced, immigrants who don’t speak English, immigrants who are English. It’s what America is supposed to look like. Women with Chanel purses respectfully debate the merits of competing brands of detergent with women wearing glasses held together with scotch tape. You can bump into a couple with matching cable-knit “Yale Alumni” sweaters joshing around with men in bandanas and gold chains, as they all come together to sample paper cups of red lentils or chunks of whole-grain bread. I haven’t seen a melting pot (all at once) this deep in a mom-and-pop store or at the average local strip mall.  Whenever I’m in my new Costco I don’t end up buying all that much. Whenever I’m in a casino I end up hardly gambling at all. Somehow, subconsciously, I’m in it for the atmosphere.