rock stops for nothing (not even phantom pain)

Max emerged from his band’s rehearsal a week ago, eyebrows raised and anxious. He had just learned that his lead guitarist couldn’t make their gig on Saturday. Over the next 48 hours he waited to see if the guitarist could extricate himself from work (he couldn’t) and if another musician he knew could substitute (he couldn’t). Thus it came to pass that late Wednesday night, I uttered these fateful words to my son:

“Listen, if you’re really stuck, you can try to teach me the songs. I could probably pick them up well enough to get through the gig.”

Having no other options and, I suspect, morbidly curious, Max agreed to my offer.

I have not played the guitar with any regularity for 15 years. I first picked up the instrument in college and took lessons on and off into my late 20’s. I never got good enough to do much besides learn how to play basic versions of songs I liked. Oh – and one other minor, niggling little point: I had never played guitar in an actual concert before. I regale you with this unremarkable history to emphasize that I wasn’t stepping in as some kind of ringer. It was akin to a 53 year-old endomorph offering to run a marathon with a 24 year-old who’d been training for a year to break the 3 hour barrier.

I sat down on a chair in Max’s bedroom as it approached 11 PM. Max probably learned two things about me very quickly that evening. First, I’m not a great guitarist. Second, I try to make up for my lack of talent through sheer relentlessness. Within 30 minutes, the four words he likely hated the most to hear from me were, “Let’s do it again.”

Before long, my fingers – soft from years of disuse – were burning from the steel strings, and my back ached as I hunched over Max’s Gibson. As we closed in on midnight, Max unknowingly paid me the greatest compliment I could have asked for. As I told him that I thought I had the basics of the song we’d been working on down pat and told him to teach me the next one, he exhaled loudly, blowing air out of his mouth like Dizzie Gillespie, and grinning. “What?” I asked. “Nothing,” he replied, followed by a short, laughing shout. “I am so relieved,” he said. “I really didn’t want to go through this show as a 3-piece.”

I knew then that I had passed this unofficial audition that he was holding for me. He thought it was going to work.

*   *   *

My old electric guitar, desperately in need of a full tuneup from a luthier, sat next to me during Thursday and Friday so that I could pick it up during any breaks from work and bang my way through one of Max’s songs. We rehearsed into the early morning hours both days: I went to bed at 1:30 AM Friday and 12:15 AM Saturday, the day of the show. As I hit the pillow Saturday morning, I thought I had prepared for everything. As usual, I was wrong.

At 1:19 that morning, my old friend, Phantom Pain, decided to make the rounds. Having left me alone for 4-5 months, apparently this was the night to reconnect. I suffered through the next 6 hours getting jolted awake by electric discharges through the foot I haven’t had for close to 18 years. I cursed my luck and wondered if the two over-the-counter sleep capsules I had taken to (unsuccessfully) block out the pain would impair my motor function later that day.

I woke up with a post-medication fuzziness and headache that left me irritable and nervous. The bassist and drummer came over for a 1-hour rehearsal that would constitute the entirety of our practice as a full band. We rattled through the set list and, my headache fading, packed the cars up to go to the club. Upon arriving there, we dumped our equipment backstage and waited for our turn to play. It was at this point that I realized I had a problem.

I had spent the previous 72 hours cramming every spare moment with those 7 songs. Between work and practicing for this, I’d done nothing else. Now, at 2 pm, I had to kill close to 2 hours at the venue while surrounded by people from the other bands on the bill, all of whom were 20 years younger than me and 100 times more experienced. As I looked at the other musicians swirling around me, I felt increasingly out of place. Skin tight jeans with a bandana around the thigh; shapeless wool hat (in 84 degree heat) over shoulder length hair; large white plastic glasses (definitely not prescription) swallowing up an impossibly skinny face; and me, closing in on 45 wearing blue jeans, sneakers, a black tee-shirt and a Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team baseball hat (backwards, because – you know – I’m hip).

When the bassist for the headlining act asked me if I worked for the club, I politely answered in the negative while freaking out inside. It was a logical question – why on earth would a nearly 45 year-old guy be hanging out backstage if he wasn’t working there? – that sent me spiraling down a rabbit hole of middle-aged angst.

I had to get out. I pulled my guitar out of its case, walked into the alley behind the club and sat on the ground, working through the set list to calm down. The act before us finished, and then it was rush onto the stage, plug in, power up, check the sound, and before I could process it, the curtain rolled to the side and the lights hit me. And in that 30 seconds between seeing the audience and Max launching into the first song, I felt everything speeding up around me, too fast. The thought, “I. Am. Scared.” went through my brain.

I spent the entire set looking either at the neck of my guitar or at Max, 10 feet to my left, as if he could save me just by being there. It felt like it ended 5 minutes after it had begun, and I was suddenly in the alley behind the club lugging the amp and guitar back into the trunk of my car.

I could think only of the mistakes I knew I had made on stage afterwards. I didn’t see or talk to Max until 30 minutes later, after he had made the rounds with all of his friends who had come to the show. “Were you happy with it?” I asked, which really meant, “Did I screw it up for you?” “It was great!” he answered. “Best crowd response I think we’ve ever gotten. They were really into it. I had fun.”

Then, and only then, did I relax.

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