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Late one weekday after the young man had put in an eight hour day writing computer programs for an insurance company in downtown Chicago, he left work, tired, and boarded an elevated train. He took the train north to Lincoln Park where he lived, but he went one station past his normal stop. At the Belmont Avenue stop, the young man got off the train and his eyes were bright and his step was lively. He’d gotten on the train tired, but by the time he got off at the station past his normal stop, his energy had returned because he was going to a music store which was due to have gotten its first shipment of the new Steinberger guitar.
The young man walked into the music store. The first thing he did was thank the heavens no teenage kids were shopping for new amps and rattling the walls with grunge power chords or squealing heavy metal raunch. The young man waved to the sales clerk he’d talked to the week before. The sale clerk nodded, and pointed to a stool near the front of the store. The clerk reached down, and when he straightened up he was hold the most beautiful guitar the young man had ever seen.
The new Steinberger guitar was built after the same design as the famous Steinberger bass. A small, black rectangular composite body and a twenty-five inch, twenty-four fret neck. “Have a seat,” the clerk said. “I’ve got you set up by the Fender fifteen. Big enough?”
The young man shrugged. “I’d be happy to play it through a Pignose. The fifteen will be fine. Do you mind if I go to an alternate tuning? I like to play in fourths, but sometimes the sixth string breaks . . .”
“The tuner’s on the body,” the clerk said. “Go for it. I don’t think you’ll break these strings.”
“Got it,” the young man said. He sat down and looped the thin, light strap over his shoulder. He plugged in the guitar, switched on the amp and lightly hit a G-major 7th chord to test the tuning. He adjusted the volume on the amp so as not to shake the walls, and then struck more chords, working his way from low to high. He gently rotated the tuning knobs and brought the B-string up to C and the high E-string up to F. He played a harmonized scale, from low G-major 7th on the bass strings up to G-major 7th on the high strings.
The clerk listened to the young man tune up for a moment, then smiled. He patted the young man on the shoulder and told him to play as long as he wanted. “Just put the guitar on its stand when you’re done and switch off the amp.”
“I don’t get paid for a couple of weeks,” the young man said. “It’s going to take me a while to save for this. Today I’m just going for a test drive.”
“No problem,” the clerk said. The clerk left the young man alone and returned to his station behind the counter.
The young man turned slightly away from the showroom, turned slightly toward the amp so that his attention was completely focused on the guitar hanging just above his stomach. The high-tech, composite materials created a guitar that weighed only about seven pounds. With the strap supporting the instrument, after a moment the young man didn’t even feel a sensation of weight to the guitar. He only felt the absolutely flat, amazingly thin neck between the pad of his thumb and the tips the fingers of his left hand, and the strings under his thumb and three fingers of his right hand.
The young man played finger-style jazz, no pick, plucking chords like a small harp or single-finger runs of scales, arpeggios and melodies.
He was in love. He was just warming up and hadn’t yet played a song, but he loved the way the guitar looked. He loved the way the guitar felt. And he loved the effortless way the strings flexed under his fingers, stopped against the low frets and gave the pickups in the composite body an absolutely pure tone to put out.
The young man started playing with a pop jazz song called “Sweetheart,” by Ken Burgan. He’d heard it on a Maria Muldaur album and liked it so much that the next day he worked out the melody and a harmonization. Then he played a jazz version he’d worked out of the “Moon Flower” song Dorothy Lamour sings in “Road To Bali.” Then he played some BTO songs, a jazz version of “Not Fragile” and a simplified, one guitar version of his favorite BTO song, “Blue Collar.” He also played some songs that he wrote himself, but he was beginning to wonder just how long he could stay in the store without wearing out his welcome.
He played “Sweetheart,” one more time, putting more swing into it, letting the high notes tell the story of a girl working as a donut shop waitress in love with a customer who tells her his problems with the woman he’s in love with and then leaves the waitress to dream of him.
The young man stopped, then. He let out a long breath. He switched off the amp, then slipped out from under the guitar’s shoulder strap. Holding the light guitar in both hands, he looked at it, looked at it some more, then put it, gently, into its stand.
The young man stood up and turned around. And stopped where he stood before he’d even taken a step.
There was a teenage girl sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, staring at him.
She was wearing bell-bottomed jeans, which the young man hadn’t seen for about ten years, and she was wearing some kind of deep blue jacket that hugged the shape of her body. Her hair was light brown. She was sitting with her knees pulled up against her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs.
One time the young man had been walking home from work. It was early evening. He’d walked from Michigan Avenue to Oak Street and was walking west on Oak when he saw Pete Townsend walk into a ritzy club on Rush Street. An actual real-life gaggle of young man and women went in after Townsend. A smaller gaggle of gorgeous teenage girls too young to get in the club took up station outside, some sitting on the curb, some leaning against the front window.
The girl in front of the young man in the music store looked to him as if she were some kind of alchemical amalgam of all the most amazing features of those magical looking girls he’d seen following Pete Townsend. Only this girl wasn’t waiting around for a famous old Brit rock star. This girl was staring at him.
The young man took half a step forward.
The girl stood up. She stood up slowly, unwrapping her arms, first, from around her legs. Then she stretched out her legs and put her palms flat against the floor. She folded up her legs in a slightly different manner and pushed herself onto her heels. She stood up. When she was done she was quite a bit closer to the young man.
The young man took another half step forward. He very consciously didn’t clear his throat, but very consciously spoke clearly. “Hello,” he said.
The girl moved closer to the young man, but he didn’t see her feet move. He was staring at her face.
Artists who keep track of human anatomy say there are only twenty-six muscles that control all movement on a human face. They say only eleven of those muscles control all of our expressions. Those artists say there are only six basic expressions and they say expressions of happiness are only eight variations of one of those six basic expressions.
Those artists should have seen the face of that teenage girl standing in front of the young man in the music store.
Without actually moving her lips or her eyes or her eyebrows into anything the young man could have called a smile or any other particular expression, the girl’s face, in fact, seemed to be cycling through an infinite variety of expressions, all communicating pleasure, approval, desire.
Her face was like, the young man thought, George Harrison noodling about on a zither, exploring micro-tonal intervals around a pedal point. In the case of the girl’s face, the young man thought, the pedal point wasn’t a tone but rather something like a complex, repeated, melodic theme, a body message that had nothing to do with eleven or twenty-six muscles, nothing to do with six expressions or variations on them. The girl standing in front of him was using some kind of face magic to communicate the absolute and unmistakable message, “Kiss me. Kiss me right now.”
The young man had once thought long and hard about what makes rock and roll different from all other forms of expression. He’d decided it was about content, explicit and implicit. He’d decided rock and roll was about three things: desire, fulfillment and loss. Pop and jazz creations typically focused on one or sometimes two of the elements, but rock and roll dealt with all three. Sometimes one or another element would be alluded to rather than spelled out, but he’d decided that real rock and roll always includes those three elements.
Rock and roll was not, after all, about a woman who buys a stairway to heaven and lives happily ever after. Implicit in the content is that she will eventually find out the stairway doesn’t really go to heaven . . .
The young man liked jazz, but he liked jazz that stood shoulder to shoulder with rock and roll without getting munched up into what people called ‘fusion.’ He liked Zappa. He liked BTO.
The young man knew he wasn’t going to marry the teenage girl in front of him. But he also knew that teenage girls who sit on the floor of music stores watching guys play guitar don’t expect the guy playing guitar to marry them. The loss was implicit.
The young man felt as if the twenty-six muscles in his face had each called over five or six of their friends and now all the muscles were working together trying to tug back his lips into an idiotic grin. But he told himself, Be cool.
The girl’s face didn’t change. Or, rather, the girl’s face didn’t stop changing.
The young man leaned forward. He kissed the girl. She kissed him back.
Inside the young man’s head, Keith Moon kicked over his drum kit. John Entwistle stepped aside and stood watching. Pete Townsend shoved his guitar neck deep into an amplifier.
And the crowd went crazy.
Get well soon, Marianne Faithfull!