Ramble On Blog

The Memorial Day Guitar

I have a tendency to anthropomorphize things. Being an only child that moved around a lot, I developed an active imagination pretty quickly. One could probably make an argument that I did it out of necessity, but I like to think that we’re all just born a certain way for very uncertain reasons that only time will divulge.

I can remember climbing a tall coconut tree when I was about 5 years old. I had never had a coconut before and wanted to try one. There were people running towards the tree screaming at me to climb down, I didn’t understand what the big deal was. I was never really afraid of heights and I got my coconut. Why was I never afraid of heights?

Anyway, back to why “The Brave Little Toaster” turned every 80’s child into hoarders that hide their defunct kitchen appliances in the attic… As I was saying, I had an active imagination as a child for a number of reasons. Even into adulthood, I look at objects and associate them with life and personality. I’ve started a small collection of empty scotch and whiskey bottles in my kitchen that are associated with different life events. There’s a 17 year Macallan that I was given in Austin for helping with a film score that lasted the two years I lived there. It only got brought out on special occasions, so it’s a reminder of Austin for me. It was a tough two years and my brain imagines that bottle as an old, battered civil war general. Lots of battles and stories but he’s all the wiser for it.

Given these realizations about myself, I’ve found that the most interesting object in my life is one of my guitars. If you know me, you’re probably laughing because you know exactly which guitar I’m talking about and how protective I am of it. It is without a doubt the one thing I always grab in the notorious “burning building” scenario we all like to judge each other with. Your priceless beanie baby collection can burn to the ground for all I care, my Taylor 714ce is making it out of the building one way or another. What I find most fascinating about that guitars personality is that it mirrors my own at any given time.

Unlike everything else I own, there’s nothing assigned about that guitar in my mind. It’s become an extension of myself in a lot of ways, which isn’t all that unusual to me given that it’s a creative tool. I’ve heard the same sentiment conveyed by wood workers and how certain tools help them connect with the wood. There’s nothing quite as physical to attribute it to when writing music, but that’s the closest analogy I can come up with. It has a sound and a soul to it that helps me connect with ideas and emotions like nothing else I’ve come across. It’s without a doubt my creative tool.

The back story on how I got the guitar isn’t quite as excalibur-esque as many would hope or imagine, but it’s significant enough to me. It was 2003 and I was still in high school in Taiwan. I had been playing guitar for about two or three years at this point, so good enough to where my parents encouraged it and didn’t dread the sight of it. I remember wanting an airsoft gun a christmas or two before that but instead got a better acoustic guitar. I wasn’t unhappy at all as it was at least better than the $30 classical I was learning on. I still wanted that damn fully automatic Tokyo Marui M4A1 airsoft gun, but it turns out my parents really did know best that time… Good call Mom and Dad!

Having established that I was a genius musical savant at age 17, it was obvious I required a more refined canvas for my flowering guitar skills. Living overseas and being a missionary kid, I was always excited about going back to the States for the summer. This summer particularly, I was excited to go around to a bunch of guitar stores and try some awesome guitars! At this point, it was somewhere around the middle of May and I was cramming hard for my approaching school finals. We got a call one day that my grandpa was not doing well and we needed to rush back home to Oklahoma because he didn’t have much time. He had been suffering from emphysema for years at this point, so although the call was a surprise it was not unexpected. I don’t remember a lot of specifics, but I do remember feeling numb for one of the first times in my life.

If I were to take a wild guess, all of us probably remember the first time we really had that feeling. When you’re a young child, everything is an emotional rollercoaster. You can loose control of your emotions because you dropped your ice cream cone. You can feel a strong, profound sadness and anger because your parents told you you couldn’t go to your friends house for a sleepover. You can feel lost because you don’t fit in with the other kids. But the first time you really feel numb is pretty confusing and sometimes frightening. There I was, getting to go back to American two months earlier than I usually was, and on top of that I’m excused from missing all my class finals! At the same time, my grandpa is dying and there’s nothing I can do about it. On top of that, I’m flying right into a mess of things and had no idea what to expect. It’s always fascinating to me how accurate the laws of nature and existence can reflect emotions and spirituality at times. A positive number and a negative number cancel each other out. Everything I could possibly be excited about, but it’s because my grandpa is dying. How am I supposed to feel or act right now? That’s numbness.

From what I remember, we got the news that morning and were packed and on a plane that night. We didn’t think he was going to make it through the night and were expecting to get to the airport greeted by bad news. Surprisingly, there were my Aunt and Uncle at baggage claim all smiles and happy. Grandpa was ok and doing great, crisis diverted… I knew I was supposed to be happy and relieved, but it didn’t happen. I was just tired and on an emotional hangover. I also knew deep down that this wasn’t the last time I was going to have to deal with whatever “this” was. I think I grew up a little bit in those 24 hours.

So there we are, back in America and sitting around in the living room with grandpa and family, talking and joking around like nothing happened. Surreal.

A few days had passed and everything was feeling right again. I did my pilgrimage to Taco Bell and had already gone through a few bags of Flamin Hot Cheetos as was ceremonially custom on return to the homeland. I realized it was ok to be excited about summer again and started to thoroughly enjoy myself. On top of that, I got some great news: although my birthday was in July, a bunch of relatives had all pitched in some money for me to get a new guitar! Dad had suggested that since Memorial Day was coming up, we should look around for a few days and see who was having sales. Maybe we could get a good deal.

To this day, going to guitar stores is one of my favorite things to do. It’s something I still do with my parents, almost like a tradition. I remember driving all over the place for about a week that summer playing anything and everything. For the first time I was starting to hear the differences in guitar designs, sizes, woods… It was a great experience! I was starting to realize what I liked and didn’t like rather than “that cost like $4000 so it sounds great!”. I was starting to narrow things down but knew a lot of the ones I was looking at were way too expensive. The day before Memorial Day, I ended up back at the Guitar Center in Oklahoma City. Guitar Center is one of those places musicians love to belittle, but in the early 2000’s they really had their act together. The acoustic guitar room in the one at Oklahoma City in 2003 was what dreams are made of.

At this point, I think Dad was getting a bit impatient at my lack of decisiveness given the impending Memorial Day Sale deadline. I was trying to find something affordable that I liked and he wasn’t having it. He’s the kind of guy that never settles for anything. If he can’t have what he wants, he goes without it until he can have it. I had seen him do it for years with firearms, fishing and camping equipment. “Play everything in here and pick the one that sounds the best to you” he would say. “Alright, you asked for it”, I quietly said to myself.

I didn’t really need to play anything in there. This was probably the fourth time this week we had been in here… It was between a Taylor with a cedar top and an older vintage style Martin. They sounded so different, but there was something about them both that I just loved. I played the Taylor for a few minutes and decided although I liked it, another store had one that was the same model but it sounded a little better to me. Dad was already playing the bargaining game with one of the sales guys, after being overseas for so long I think people in America were always surprised when someone wanted to bargain. Dad’s great at it though, and we were going to go back to the other guitar shop afterwards for leverage. “Give me a few minutes, I’ll see what I can do” said the salesman.

A few minutes later he returned with another guitar in hand. “Here’s the deal. This is the same model as the one you’re playing, but an amp fell on it in the back while it was in its case, so the case is destroyed and it has a scratch on top.” The minute I played it, I knew something special was happening. It just sounded so much better than anything else I had played that week. But I knew that even at a discount, it was going to be way more than I had to spend. “I can’t sell it to you right now, but it’s going to go on sale ‘as is’ tomorrow during Memorial Day for $750.”. Talk about a “Wayne’s World” moment, I probably even said it under my breath: “It will be mine, Oh yes, it will be mine.”.

“We need to head home and go to bed.” Dad said. It was 6pm, is he crazy? I had never been in the states for a major sale holiday like Memorial Day, my innocent little brain was majorly underestimating the American consumers compulsion for the sale. I still thought he was crazy, but we got home and I tried to sleep. I was woken up sometime around 2am, “Rise and shine!”. He was loving this a little too much, so was my uncle. They both grew up on farms with lots of cattle, of course they love this. When’s the last time he was up this early with his brother? Just like old times, this was entirely new to me though.

We were at Guitar Center probably around 3:30am, definitely the first ones there! By 4am there were a dozen more people and by 5am there were a few hundred. I guess Dad isn’t that crazy after all. The wait for 7am seemed like forever, I was counting the minutes and calculating all the possible scenarios of how this could go wrong. What if I couldn’t find the guitar, what if someone else gets to it first? I really shouldn’t have eaten those Flamin Hot Cheetos before bed… A few minutes before the doors opened, I saw the sales guy from the day before walking around inside. He waved at me and came over and cracked the door open, the crowd got quiet and prepared for the impending stampede. He pulled me inside for a second and pointed over towards the back of the store, “I put it over there in the corner for you, just run back and grab it when I open the door.”. The sweet feeling of relief!

The doors opened, the choir sang, everything went to slow motion. None of that happened, but I like to imagine that it did. I figure that in 50 years, this story will be way more over the top and exaggerated, but no one will be the wiser and my memory of my life will have been much more interesting than reality has reflected. It was in my hands, it was mine, this is awesome! The best part of all of this was the ensuing episode of “People Watching” about to occur as I had to wait at least an hour to get a case for the guitar. Dad was right, sales in America are nuts! Not to mention how many pissed off people that were in that line expecting to get my guitar. There were more than a few guys that walked up to me asking if I was actually going to buy it followed by a slurry of tourettes induced phrasings. If only they were smart enough to wake up at 2am like I was! Ok, ya it was Dad’s idea…

Little did I know how significant such a meaninglessly consumeristic moment would become. That guitar made me want to play more than I ever had, which in turn made me a better player. It would help give me the confidence to actually play with other musicians that were better than I was. It would help me step out of my comfort zone and actually play on stages in front of people. It gave me opportunities to connect with other people and become more outgoing, which was against my introverted nature. It was there when I wanted to write horrible songs about how I thought I was in love. It didn’t judge me and still sounded beautiful as I played and sang every cringe worthy note and lyric. It was ready to go when I first started to learn how to record music and realized I kind of enjoyed it enough to eventually build my own recording studio. It didn’t matter what was happening, I never assigned it some anthropomorphized personality or agenda. It was simply a reflection of myself and what I was going through at the time. It’s silly to love an object so much, but it’s sort of transcended itself at this point.

I’ll leave you with one more memory. Summer was wrapping up and it was time to go back to Taiwan. I doubt I put that guitar down much, it might as well have been a drug. Mom had been bugging me to no end to make sure I played something for my grandpa before I left. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I really didn’t want to. Probably a combination of embarrassment and shyness. Bags are packed and loaded into the back of the pickup, I have to insist on putting the guitar inside with me in the back seat no matter how crowded it is. Do you have any idea the sheer number of travesties that can befall my instrument back there?? Moving on, we drove to the grandparents house for a quick goodbye before we went to the airport.

Mom made me bring my guitar in with me, there was no getting out of this one. Man, I really hate performing… I have no idea what I played, I hope it was something pretty. Grandpa had been bedridden for a few years by then, so he was always in the living room lying down. I do remembering him lying there and closing his eyes for a second and listening to me play. He probably knew it at the time, but I was none the wiser that that was the last time we were going to be together. Fast forward a few months later, we’re back in Taiwan and the phone rings early in the morning before my mom and I are about to leave for school. I can’t hear the conversation, but Mom hangs up the phone and looks up the stairs at me. “Hey Matt, he’s gone”. She didn’t have to say any more than that. Dad was the High School Principal and always went in early, I was going to have to go find him and tell him. That was the second time in my life I felt numb, this was becoming too habitual.

Grandy was a true cowboy in every sense of the word and was always outside doing something. I can remember standing in the back yard with him teaching me how to cast a fishing pole. I remember him there with me when I caught my first fish on a snoopy pole. It had to be hell for him living in a bed with half a lung left for the last ten years, is it ok to feel relieved right now? As soon as my mom said that he was gone, the first thing that popped into my head was me sitting in the living room playing guitar for him. How did I not realize what was happening then?

As you get older you either find ways to deal with your emotions and problems or they deal with you. I’ve got so many stories just like that popping into my head every time I pick up that guitar. It’s helped me deal with a lot of stuff and got me through a lot of hard times. I really hope it outlives me!

 

Left, Senior picture 2004. Right, MillSounds Studio 2017

Left, Senior picture 2004. Right, MillSounds Studio 2017