Obsession didn’t quite cover it. More like a fever.
More than anything else in the world, I wanted to play guitar
One problem. I’m female, was age 17, and lived in Ohio. It was the 1970s and girls from the midwest just didn’t play guitar. Not seriously, anyway.
On the coasts, there were outliers. Patti Smith. Joan Jett. I never knew about Chrissie Hynde, who lived one city to the east of me, yet had to move to London to get famous.
But girls like me, where I lived, and coming from a working class family? It’s okay to be smart enough to go to college so you can catch a husband from a well-to-do family. It wasn’t okay to be smart enough to know you didn’t want to be like those girls, needing a man to define you in society.
It was a prison born of a generation of women not quite liberated, and a fading tradition of male superiority stuck in an blue collar past.
I did not know how the chains of my upbringing would grow heavier the more I struggled against them in the years ahead.
All I knew, at age 17, was a desperate need to learn rock guitar.
I hunched over the state-of-the-Kmart record player I got from my parents for Christmas. It was not an easy trick to retrieve the stylus and drop it on top of the same patch of spinning black vinyl, while clutching a bulky hollow body electric guitar against my awkward teenage body. Difficult and stressful, yes, but done for a noble purpose.
To learn a guitar lick.
I dropped the needle to the platter again, on that same patch of plastic worn white with misuse. A single guitar phrase, thick with unholy blues-inspired nastiness, rolled from the speakers placed strategically near the ceiling on each of the four walls of my room. I memorized the dozen notes of the phrase, then lifted the needle off the vinyl. Jabbing the guitar strings with my pick, I made a sloppy mess of duplicating Mick Taylor’s brilliant phrasing, on that stolen Harmony guitar my guy friend Steve had “left in my care” in our family’s basement.
I would never be able to play that solo like Mick Taylor, but damn it, I wanted to so badly it hurt. I put the needle to the vinyl again. And again. And again.
…until I could play that “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” solo along with the recording – without finesse or technique, perhaps – but straight through.
Maybe I wasn’t a virtuoso, like Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones. But every bit of heart that could be mustered by a 17-year-old girl in the ’70s poured into that loosely copied guitar solo – and that’s quite a lot.
I called it “the heat” – that yearning of wanting to play like the guitarists who took my soul to the borders of heaven. Only to the borders, though. Because everybody knew, rock stars were never going to get past St. Peter.
Those rock stars would burn in hell forever. Just ask my religiously-fanatical mother.
Never mind. If I could convert that desire trapped inside of me, into a guitar solo that blazed its way into eternity like those guitar gods could, I’d gladly burn in hell with them.
Legend had it that bluesman Robert Johnson stood at the crossroads with the devil, and traded his soul for his guitar skill. I totally got that.