I get a call from a man who I loved, who didn’t care about me in the slightest; except for whenever he was in the mood to play games. I was in my bedroom on Wedgewood Avenue in Nashville when he called, looking out through the dust-caked window screens and out onto the very busy street mere feet away from my front door. I was sitting on the edge of my bed in the stillness of a musician’s afternoon: while everyone else was at a job, sitting at a desk; there were a whole host of us in Music City just staring at walls or plucking at strings, contemplating, teetering on the thin edge between revelation and unemployment.
He calls me; it’s the first time in a week and it was just as I had begun to forget about my drug-like dependency. Can I play this little line from a Sufjan Stevens song on the ukulele in a video he’s shooting in a few hours? He tells me what to wear when I say yes.
I show up at his house in the prefered sundress, my hair curled and my fingers unrehearsed, clammy and cold. We sit on his couch. He passes me his ukulele after playing the line for me once, in a slightly looser rhythm than on Sufjan’s recording, which was more in line with his style of playing. He eyes me quizzically as my hands take a similar shape to his on the fretboard, and I give my best attempt at miming the line back at him.
He is not pleased.
I try again, to no avail. There’s a dip in the energy of the room, a thick cloak of disappointment descending like a curtain, seeping out of my fingertips and oozing from his stare. He had underestimated me.
He told me it wasn’t going to work, that it was a mistake. It was time for me to leave.
I trudged back through my own back door on Wedgewood, the sun setting over the communal garden on the adjacent lot, and it was approaching an appropriate time of day for me to be once again wearing my pajamas. I don’t remember what I had for dinner that evening; only that it was probably fairly modest.
A week later, he uploaded a video featuring another young girl with curled hair, who was singing the very same song, smiling at his side on the very same couch where I had failed.
A chilly autumn night in an east Nashville three-bedroom built back in the 70’s, with all the doors and windows wide open, indie rock music emanating, mixed with the streaming yellow light that was spilling out onto the street. People milled in and out with their sweating red solo cups clutched tightly in hand, none knowing exactly how he or she found out about this Tuesday night party. I was there to see my friend, who liked me and I him, but not in a way that could ever really stick. He had graffitied green rooms, tv show sets and a deep, dark heartache in his memory; I had an unquenchable longing for acceptance that no one person would ever be able to satisfy.
I floated along the orange-hued corridors, wearing his hat, his coat, and his thick prescription eyeglasses for comedic effect, losing at beer pong and pretending that I felt okay being among these unknown people I felt physically repelled by, like we were all the same magnetic poles being forcibly pushed together. I know they felt it too, and yet somehow everyone, including myself, thought everything was fine with enough alcohol in our systems.
For musicians and socialites alike who lived in Nashville some five to ten years ago, alcohol was the preferred drug of choice. I only seldom smelled the pungent stank of weed when I happened to pass through a throng of college kids, or when someone I was writing a song with at their house would open a box looking for a pen, releasing a puff of stench into the room before quickly capping it back once again. At 24, I normally got sick of drinking before I got physically sick, with no repercussions the next day unless the only thing on the menu was tequila, and I had momentarily forgotten that it was (and still is) my kryptonite.
I leaned on my friend’s warm shoulder as he led me out onto the front porch, littered with cups and empty glass bottles of Jack strewn over the Goodwill whicker communal table. Numb, gooey people were sardined together on little wicker loveseats arranged in a horseshoe, piled with thick, wiry indian blankets. As we sat on our own loveseat together, he noticed my knees knocking from underneath his oversized coat, and threw a cigarette-smoked woven blanket on top of me. I smiled at him, he returned it, but his gaze was somewhere very far away.
Someone handed me a guitar, possibly just interested in seeing what I would do with it. They’d only ever seen me in a Nashville club singing with my fingers in my pockets or on the keys of a piano. Thankfully, the guitar had a capo squeezing down the strings, and I knew a few chords, so I lilted out a few half-hearted tones to find the right key, and I strummed a G chord that was really a C chord with the flat edge of my right hand’s middle fingernail. “Pretty little hairdo…” I sang shakily, half asleep.
I sang, and the beer and whiskey pumped through my veins like a coolant, quenching any fear or adrenaline that might rise up inside of me as I slowly puttered through my favorite song, that I had never played, and knew no chords of on the guitar. I didn’t care about what I sounded like, nor if any of the onlookers mushroomed around the whicker table felt like I was worth listening to in my woozy state of half-hearted performance. Scanning the circle, every person I saw had the same face as he or she patiently listened to me, that of a complacent indifference; but each mind was in its own separate place. Some were in their own beds; some were in the arms of a man or a woman who was currently inside of the house playing beer pong; or some were staring back at a crossroads that long ago led them to this moment, sitting in the cold next to a stranger, listening to a young girl wearing a dusty top hat strum on an instrument she clearly did not know how to play, watching her through tired, slitted eyes.
I finished my song and everyone clapped cordially. I reached for my solo cup after handing the guitar off to my companion sharing my loveseat.
I drive the 30-minute commute from my own duplex on the west side of town to a neighborhood on the far northeast, near Madison. In a year, things had changed dramatically for Nashville, and the artists who lived there were having to face climbing rental costs by tucking up and running to the far corners of the metroplex. If you were lucky, like the person I was heading towards, you had enough money in the bank to put down on a house before that neighborhood was bought out by a developer, and the cost of the land would skyrocket. Historic homesteads would be demolished in a matter of weeks, and spritely, “skinny” duplexes would be erected in their place. Nashville was being invaded by young people, fresh from college, with their wealthy parents’ money to burn.
I had met the guy whose house I could now see growing closer through my windshield a few months prior. We had known of each other for many years through mutual acquaintances, and I was aware of his tremendous skill at the guitar and the parade of awesome gigs that had built up his career in a relatively short amount of time. We had both left the same crowded bar on a chilly winter evening at the same time, nearing midnight on a weeknight we both were in town. We walked to Five Points Pizza (named for the chaotic five-street intersection located nearby) where we both bought a slice and he walked me to my car. Before parting, we said we’d write together, and the next week, we did.
I wrote a few great songs with him; each one was a piece of my soul that I’d laid at his feet, and with each quiet confession either around his backyard firepit or on his couch at 2am, dazed from lack of sleep (no booze, I’d recently decided it would be best to lay off), I grew closer, and he remained unchanged. He knew the effect this was having on me, the attention he was showing me and the vulnerability he allowed me to reveal to him, bit by bit. It amused him, my obvious affection. It intrigued him, but nothing more. We sat in his living room listening to records with the lights dim, a glowing orb pulsing with hues of blue, dark purple, and lime green rotating on his mantle, throwing colored shadows across his cheekbones and twisting through his dark chestnut hair. He looked like a dream someone might have had in a 70’s movie, tall and slender, neck arched backwards over the back of the sofa with his eyes closed. I wished he would do something, say something; but in the end it was always me, coming up with one more line, one more melody, clinging to those last few minutes before he said he was tired and that I should probably go.
I pulled up to his mailbox, and he invited me in. I had been lying on my own living room rug all morning, strumming my grandfather’s vintage Epiphone, piecing together a song I now wanted to show him, which I called “Man In The Shadows”.
He stood over me as I jangled my way through it; I was acutely aware to whom I was now trying to play guitar in front of, but I chose to sing with as much feeling as I could muster and power through. After I was finished, he was actually incredibly nice, even looking genuinely enthused by the tune and not at all put off by my mediocre playing. I was so floored that I wrote the lion’s share of two or three new songs with him that day, all of which he included on his album the next year, and to my knowledge, he gave me no credit for them whatsoever.
I am lying in my bed on Sunday afternoon, writing this to you. Through the open bedroom door, I see C directly across from me on the far side of the apartment, in his leather chair and spotted footrest, sending emails from his work computer. Every so often, he and I look up at the same time, and we smile, before both returning to each other’s task at hand. On the far wall of the living room, each on stands displayed in a line atop a set of drawers, sit four expensive, shiny guitars. C plays them every weekend; I still can’t play more than a few chords in the key of G. I don’t play guitar for him, save for only a few notes here and there. No songs, no performances.
But soon, that might change. I’ve found a teacher here in Lausanne who speaks English (my introductory French lessons are finishing up in two weeks and I’m not at all fluent), and with my relocation agreement through C’s company, I will take courses in guitar. He thinks the lessons are a great idea.
This time, learning guitar will not be for some guy, to be in his video; or to entrance the casual attendees of a Nashville weeknight hangout; or to woo some schmuck under the moonlight after months of unrequited puppy dogging. This time, it’s finally for me. Maybe someday soon I’ll be in our apartment, strumming confidently and in time, singing my own song that I’ve written in some other key than G. Maybe I’ll have my eyes closed, my callused fingers sliding up and down the fretboard, really digging into the neck and feeling the weight of every note. Maybe I’ll even have a different tone to my voice when it’s paired with the cold steel strings.
When I’m done with my song, I will open my eyes, and there will be no one there. No one I’m desperate to impress, no one whose input gives credence to the thoughts I have, or the chords that I play. So many budding musicians learn the guitar to get the girl (or guy), and for not much else than that. I can’t express how lucky I feel, that my learning will not be for anyone but for me. The me in my future, the songs she will be able to write. And never again for any man she hopes to impress.