Mr Bolam was a soft-spoken and gentle man who wore a cheap suit and little round glasses. He would sit in a tiny room and teach guitar lessons to the students taking Standard Grade and Higher Music. Twenty minutes was usually the most time he’d get with each, and some had to come in twos. He smoked cigarettes outside the front door, had a sailor’s tattoo, and played the guitar like an angel.
I liked him much better than the other guitar teacher, Mr —-, who had a gruff voice, aggressive demeanour, and once charmingly told me that my little finger was a poof and needed to be strengthened. He dismissed guitar tablature, referring to it as ‘paint-by-numbers’, even though none of us could read music. He made us play shit like Focus. I never once saw him actually play the instrument.
Mr Bolam, on the other hand, was kind and patient, and believed we were capable. He showed me a piece he’d tabbed by hand called ‘November’. It was a Spanish right-hand exercise, and it was pretty easy to pick up. I felt like I had a knack for this kind of thing, and he continued to give me classical pieces, like Ejercicio in Em and some of Fernando Sor. It was fun. I was actually having fun playing the guitar. Couldn’t strum worth a damn, and I was completely incapable of playing the kind of music all the other guys were into, but I had my thing and I liked it.
Then, of course, I took it too far. On the way back from Dalry one day, we had a Simpsons tape playing in the car. It was a song from Last Exit to Springfield (often considered the single greatest episode), the one where Lisa’s playing the guitar at the union strike. “So we’ll march day and night by the big cooling tower, they have the plant but we have the power.” Tierce de picardie. Lenny’s voice came over the speakers. “Now do Classical Gas!” And Lisa starts doing some classical picking. Hey, I thought. I’m doing stuff like that in school right now. What’s Classical Gas?
A not-so-quick Morpheus download on dial-up followed, I found this very tab, away I went. It took me a couple of months, but I got most of it down, and arranged to play it at the school show. On rehearsal day, I watched a sixth year named Alex play classical guitar before me. He was brilliant, and I was incredibly jealous. He played mostly the same stuff I did, but was allowed to play some of the more complex pieces Mr Bolam had withheld from me so far. He took a seat down the front after his flawless performance, and it was my turn. This was my chance. This was my chance to prove to everyone that I could beat him, that I was a better classical player than he was. I sat down on the stage, heart thumping, and zoned out.
Two and a half minutes later, I finished playing, and Alex burst into genuine applause. “Well done, wee man!” he shouted. “That was unbelievable!” I flushed with embarrassment, feeling very small and guilty, like I’d gotten away with a lie I’d really hoped someone would call me out on. Everybody seemed impressed by the technical demands of the piece, but I knew I was a charlatan. Alex was a real classical guitarist: he put feeling into his performance, and never seemed to falter. I staggered through, barely aware of what I was doing, relying on muscle memory and sheer luck.
I wasn’t a real musician, and I couldn’t actually play. I could only copy what other people had done.
This is a feeling that haunts me to this very day.
(Fifth Year Chemistry)
“Here Ryan, you play bass, don’t you?”
I whirled around to see the tall, somewhat-popular, severely-threatening Craig Fulton looming a full five inches over me. That one who was always getting in trouble for making noise with Steven Carson. Surely, this was a trap. Craig would never speak to me, unless he was trying to upset me.
“Cool,” he said. “Me and Steven are starting a band, we need a bass player. Would you be up for coming along?”
My first band.
I’d got a bit of a head-start on the whole music thing because my big brother played guitar, and if my big brother did something, I had to do it too. Not to be better at it, but to share it. Stuff my brother was into was cool. Turns out, nobody cares you can play Yankee Doodle when you’re a kid, or if they do, they’re not willing to say.
Then, suddenly, people were in bands. It was considered socially acceptable to go to an empty space every couple of weeks with an instrument and make a racket. Admirable, even. People in bands seemed to have very well-defined groups of friends. They all hung out together, all the time. They all dressed in a certain kind of way. And even if you make a lot of noise renouncing the immature displays of insecure teenagers as I once did, there was something undeniably fascinating about it. I wanted to be them, so badly. I wanted their confidence, their passion for music and life. I felt like they were experiencing something on a level I couldn’t relate to, and if I could, I’d express it in a much cooler way. Linkin Park and Blink 182? Fuck that. Wish I was as happy as them, though.
They even had girlfriends. They’d bring them to practice all the fucking time, unwittingly rubbing it in my face. “I have a nice girl here,” they’d seem to say, “who thinks I’m so awesome she will actually sit and listen to us play.” The concept was utterly alien to me. Although I’d spent the majority of my time in primary school talking to the girls, I’d only impressed them in an immature way before, like making them laugh (in pity, no doubt) with silly characters and voices and games, or endearing older women to me with references to older movies and bands. But to have an actual young woman, sexual characteristics, superior grades, lack of social fear and all, impressed with you? Holy shit.
I played bass guitar, didn’t I?
“Yeah, I’ll play bass.”
“You’ve got to hear this guy play,” Craig gushed behind me as we made our way into the music department. I was trotting out in front, trying to play it cool but beaming like a fucking ruby inside. I’d been listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers all summer since buying By the Way in Montpellier. Rafael, who could’ve been a character in City of God, managed to smuggle Californication out of the Virgin Megastore in his jumper. Sitting under a fruit tree on a warm August evening in the south of France, drinking wine and listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Abyssians and, during one spell, Adam Sandler. It could be from an advert, or one of those horrid mainstream-indie flicks, but I came back from France with a desire to learn slap bass, pretty much just to impress people.
I wasn’t really part of the music crowd at school. My parents couldn’t afford lessons, or if they could, they certainly weren’t paying for them. They didn’t offer, and I didn’t ask. All I had was my older brother’s guitars. He’d been a university student, see, and could afford them. So the musical kids played clarinet, trumpet, euphonium… there was a curious amount of brass players. Greenwood Academy was very proud of its brass band. I had the guitar I’d only learned because my brother did it, and no-one thought it was cool. My teacher asked me which other instrument I’d like to specialise in. The choices for an untrained oaf like myself were glockenspiel, drums or keyboard. “Oh, and bass, I guess you could do bass,” she added at the end. Bass? That’s kind of like a guitar, right?
“Yeah, he can do slapping and shit,” Craig went on. A year later, I’d begun to think of myself as the bass player. Everyone else who played bass did so because they weren’t good enough at guitar. I was the only one who cared. I was in demand, damn it.
I fell going up the stairs, Craig and his friend pissing themselves laughing at me, and my dreams of an identity went up in disappointing, hot, embarrassing smoke.