My brother taught me to play guitar. He was the singer and performer in the family. All four of us kids had been forced into piano lessons for endless afternoons during our childhood. My mother played piano, taught piano, sang in the choir at church, some regional choirs from time to time. Mom loved music, she passed it on to us kids. But my brother was the one who was the singer and performer. He took voice lessons, sang at every event where anyone would let him, and acted in plays and musicals around town, at church, at school, form the time he was small. In high school he played Doody in Grease. In the stage play, but not the movie, there is a scene where Doody plays a song on the guitar. My brother didn’t play guitar at the time but he knew he was pretty talented and mom had an old guitar laying around from when she tried to play guitar as a kid so he decided to figure it out. He did. And he did a pretty good job of it. My brother is one of those rare geniuses who can do things the rest of us just can’t do, even if he has trouble with some things the rest of us do all the time. So when he was in tenth grade and I was maybe twelve he learned to play “Those Magic Changes” on Mom’s old nylon-string Epiphone. He taught me how to play it also, memorizing how to stretch my fingers across the frets for each chord while strumming at the same time. It was a mess. Like most American pop songs Those Magic Changes is pretty simple musically. It consists of four chords, C, A minor, F, and G, most of the time repeating in the same order. We love simple consistency in our culture, and mostly find it through repetition, but I digress.
We both kept playing guitar after that initial adventure. We never got great at it or anything. But we liked to play and learn new chords and songs. We often played together because we liked harmonizing our voices and instruments. We had grown up listening to our parent’s records and eight track tapes. The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary set of the soundtrack for every family road trip. We emulated them now. We played with friends who were similarly inclined. It was easy enough and natural for us having occupied our places in a particularly religious family who almost worshiped music in various forms. Throughout our teen years we procured and shared with each other various types of guitars and took a keen interest in each one. We had acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and even one acoustic-electric. But when we played together it was almost always with two acoustic guitars. My brother also kept playing piano and whatever other instruments he could get his hands on. But I had found mine. I was content to strum a guitar and sing along. I wasn’t quite the achiever that he was.
I don’t know if it was learning to play guitar or not that specifically peaked my interest in heavy metal music, or if it was the other way around, or if it was something else entirely, but as soon as I learned my first chord I was a heavy metal kid. I grew my hair long. I wore a strict uniform of worn out jeans and concert t-shits. And I played and sang for my very own garage band. I was prepared to make a lifestyle out of it. This seemed to concern my Mormon parents greatly. We argued and fought a lot. They didn’t like my hair or my attitude or the loud “devil worship” music I listened to and played constantly. They didn’t like my friends or the posters in my room. They hated my whole thing and we got into it every chance we could.
I loved a lot of music at the time. “Hair metal” was everywhere in the late eighties and early nineties. It had never been more popular. My friends and I religiously watched the Headbanger’s Ball on MTV every Saturday night. We watched Def Leppard stay at number one on Dial MTV, every afternoon for like a year. I loved Kiss, and Motley Crue, and dozens of other similar bands, but I was really obsessed with Led Zeppelin. I still am obsessed with Zeppelin, like every suburban white guy has been for the last 30 years. Learning to play Stairway to Heaven was an early, necessary, and quickly accomplished goal as soon as I started learning guitar. I could play Stairway so I was legit. It was the only evidence of any legitimacy I may ever have enjoyed as a guitarist.
Although she was initially delighted to see me take such interest in music, my mother quickly learned that my music was leading me somewhere she didn’t want me to go. She didn’t like it all.
A funny thing about being a parent, as opposed to just being parented, is that you learn a lot. I suppose you learn a lot either way, but much in the same way that they say the best way to learn a thing is to teach it to someone else, I think the best way to learn about parents and children is to try out both for a while. Luckily we humans live long enough to give that a shot. My parents gave it a shot, and so did I. We have both seen mixed results. There is no way however, to deny that parenting changes both parties over the years. My parents were disappointed when I rejected everything they taught me and turned to a “lifestyle” they couldn’t support. I was discontent with the life they offered, which in my opinion lacked a critical level of interesting experience I was looking for. I have recorded in various ways some of my own children’s’ discontent with me. It turns out in spite of all my efforts I am a terrible father, just ask my kids. They are currently rejecting the life I offer them with the same ferocity and rage that made loud music and long hair so critically important to me once upon a time. It might just be a necessary and endless cycle, but a little perspective can make a big difference. And time, as we understand and worship it, almost always offers new perspective, if we are willing to notice. We never remember anything that actually happened, not with any accuracy, but we often remember how we felt at a particular time.
My brother lives nearby now. The whole family lives within a couple hours of each other, and we get together for holidays. We aren’t one of those families who still hang out together all the time like on TV, but we do sometimes. This past Independence Day most of us got together at my brother’s place. My brother went the traditional route for our people, and now his home and family looks nearly identical to the one in which we were raised. We are all grown up now, but visiting with my family in this environment sometimes feels remarkably close to childhood, enough that I often feel the need to rebel against something, or give up haircuts. These days I don’t have much hair to cut. But then I remember I am a forty something white man and I basically rule the world already. That’s the problem with being the target demographic, there’s little left to be angry about.
My brother has a piano and various other instruments laying around his place, and while we were there my girlfriend spotted that old nylon-string Epiphone still in its original cardboard case from when Mom was a little girl, sticking out from under the baby grand. Mom was there and was happy to see me pull it out and dust it off. She hit the notes on the piano for me to tune it. My family hasn’t really heard me play lately. Mom wasn’t even sure I still did. But I do, almost every day, still, with no more skill or ability than I had as a kid. I am a living study of practice not making anything perfect. You either have the talent or you are a hack. I am a hack and am content to be so. But I was high enough, and my girl was there, and she loves to hear me play. It didn’t take long before my brother picked up a banjo and joined me to run through a few of the old songs we could barely remember. It was fun, nostalgic, good-old wholesome family fun.
Then between songs I heard Mom say “Play Stairway to Heaven!”
I complied as best I could remember, just the intro now, but she seemed delighted, and that delighted me.
We eventually put the strings away and got busy blowing things up, which is also a special talent my brother has always had. As I settled into a chair on the driveway and said happy birthday to my country by watching kids run around like maniacs with tiny explosive fires in their hands I was a little overcome with perspective. I thought about my parents, my siblings, and my kids. I thought about time and attitudes and beliefs and I thought about Led Zeppelin.
To my Mom, Zeppelin was once the enemy, taking me away from what I was supposed to be. Led Zeppelin once represented a rebellion and rejection she could barely endure as a mother who loves her son and worries about him. And yet now, with the perspective of twenty-five or thirty years gone, Stairway to Heaven seems nostalgic to her. I think it reminded her of a simpler time when her kids were similar ages to my kids now. It reminded her of a time when I used the love of music she taught me, and quite literally her guitar, to rebel against the world-view she cherishes nearly as much as her children. It must have been hard on her then, like it feels hard on me now. And yet all these years later she still wants to hear me play Stairway.
I wonder what will one day remind me of now. I wonder how we all will feel then.
…Those magic changes my heart arranges
A melody that's never the same,
a melody that's calling your name
It begs you please, come back to me
Please, return to me, don't go away again,
oh make them play again
The music I wanna hear is once again…
- From “Those Magic Changes” by Sha-Na-Na