The Air Guitar Time Machine

I probably first played air guitar when I was 13 or 14, after we moved from Akron to Columbus.  We were living in a bigger house and I had gotten my own room, which I equipped with a radio and with the family’s hand-me-down record player, a cheap and unsteady Panasonic unit with plastic speakers.  In that little enclave of my own, I really started to discover rock music beyond The Beatles and The Monkees.

Like many teenaged boys, I was drawn to the guitar gods of the day — Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple, and others, the slouching, long-haired titans who delivered the intricate, crushing solos that kicked your spirits into another gear and managed to look uber-cool while doing so.  I saw clips of their performances on the late-night music shows and how they looked while playing.

So, was it really so surprising that, when you put a song like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven or Cream’s Crossroads or the Rolling Stones’ Monkey Man on that flimsy Panasonic turntable and felt the surge of energy that those songs inevitably produced, a little air guitar solo would surface?  When you were in the grip of those songs, you had to do something to participate, and the choices boiled down to playing air drums with the John Bonhams and Ginger Bakers and Keith Moons of the world — or playing air guitar.  I chose air guitar, even though I had no idea what I was doing and whether my chord-fingering on the air fretboard and picking and strumming on the air strings bore any relation to guitar-playing reality, and even though I knew I looked silly doing it.  It just felt like the right thing to do, and it was fun, besides.

It still does, and still is.  Even now, more than 40 years later, if you put me alone in a room and start playing Derek and the Dominos’ Key To The Highway or Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Call Me The Breeze, the impulse to play a little air guitar (and in the latter case, a little air keyboards, too) and feel like a kid again while doing so will be irresistible.  Those songs are like a kind of time machine that transports me back to that poster-filled room with the scratchy Panasonic unit playing at the loudest decibel level I dared, and my guess is that the same is true for many of us fifty-something guys.

It’s nice to know that, lurking under the extra pounds and the grey hair and the aching back, there’s a little bit of that teenager energy and silliness still to be found.

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When I’m 65

Last week I was walking home from work when I saw the shoe shine guy outside the Key Bank building.  In the past he’s offered a shoe shine, in a very friendly way, and this time I made the spur of the moment decision to accept his offer.  Why not take a few minutes for an old-fashioned personal service and come home with some spit and polish?

He turned out to be a good guy who did a really fine job on my shoes, and I’d definitely recommend him and use him again.  As I sat in his chair and we talked, however, the conversation turned to our ages, and the shoe shine guy guessed that I was . . . 65.

IMG_5157“65?  Wait, seriously — 65?”  I was somewhat flummoxed.  “I’m only 57!” “Sorry.  I guessed wrong,” the shoe shine guy said, and then he went back to his work, flipping his brushes and applying his polish and snapping his towel as I stewed about the fact that I evidently look almost a decade older than my actual age. I gave him a good tip when he was finished and then headed home, trying not to walk with an old guy shuffle.

Kish gets a kick out of this story, and so do I.  I’ve never been vain about my appearance because there’s absolutely nothing to be vain about:  I’m about as average-looking as you can get.  I know that as I’ve put on mileage I’ve acquired grey hairs and creases and wrinkles I didn’t have before.  I’ve always thought, however, that you’re only as old as you feel and have tried to maintain a youthful attitude.  Now I know that rationalization doesn’t apply to the exterior me — the shoe shine guy has confirmed it.  If a guy who is working for a tip overshoots by eight years on his age estimate, you’ve got no room for argument or self-deception.  You’re squarely in AARP territory.

Today, as I celebrate birthday number 58, I’ve adopted a more nuanced perspective on the shoeshiner’s comment.  Who wants to look like a kid, anyway, and fret about whether their skin is smooth and their hair has the dewy sheen of youth?  Why not embrace with the Keith Richards alternative instead?  I apparently look like I’ve packed a full 65 years of living onto my 58-year-old frame.  That’s not a bad thing in my book.

Time For The Rolling Stones To Gather Some Moss

Keith Richards is being quoted as saying that the Rolling Stones have met for a few rehearsals and are thinking about touring to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary together.

Sad, isn’t it?  It’s embarrassing to even contemplate a bunch of 70-year-olds preening and prancing on stage, trying to live up to their old tag line of being “the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.”  Of course, that description hasn’t been accurate for a very long time.  It’s been decades since the Stones have released a meaningful studio album, and they’re not really relevant to modern music, except for the enormous contribution they made back in the ’60s and ’70s.

As the linked article indicates, the Stones’ last tour, in 2007, was hugely profitable — in fact, for several years it held the record as the most profitable tour of all time.  Could they possibly have squandered all that money already, and be desperate for a paycheck?  Do they honestly think that since, say, 1977, anyone has gone to a Rolling Stones concert to hear their new music?  How many times can these guys play I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and Gimme Shelter?

The Rolling Stones aren’t, and shouldn’t be, like Styx or Kansas or any of the other sad “legacy” bands that need to hit up their diehard fans every summer for a few concert bucks.  The Stones produced some of the greatest rock music ever released in the ’60s and ’70s.  Why not let that body of work stand, without being further tarnished by lame geriatric tours and pathetic tell-all books?

Back In The U.S.A.

I’m pleased to report that Russell has returned to the United States from his trip to Vietnam, safe and sound and no doubt enriched — personally, culturally, and artistically — by the experience.  For now, however, he may be mostly glad to get back to the land of serious air conditioning.  In recognition of that likely fact, I offer Russell the following amazing performance of Back In The U.S.A. by Chuck Berry and Linda Ronstadt, with a wicked guitar solo from Keith Richards tossed in:

American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake