By the time I was 13 years old, my abilities at air guitar were unsurpassed, at least as far as I was concerned, as I never did it in front of anyone else.
The year was 1994, and it was an amazing time for rock music. Nirvana had helped erase the horrible mistakes of the 80’s, unearthing America’s need for loud guitars. Making your guitar sound like it was being played with a chainsaw through amplifiers that would make a person deaf at close range became popular. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Radiohead, Metallica…heavy guitars were ruling the popular scene just as I was in the home stretch of the most aggressive parts of puberty. It was perfect.
I had a long mirror behind the door in my bedroom, and I would air guitar my way through song after song on my brand new CD player. I must have “played” the solo to Pearl Jam’s “Alive” more often than Mike McCready himself. My heart lived for rock music, I felt the beat of songs being matched in my arteries. I would come home from school ready to rock. I had to listen to certain songs before the day was over, or else it was a day wasted. Music was exhilarating. And absolutely necessary.
The next natural step happened. I had to play. I needed a guitar. I would do anything for a guitar.
“I would do anything for a guitar!” I told my mom.
“I just don’t think we have the extra money right now, Michael. Did you ask your father?”
My parents were divorced at this point. It would be days before I could ask my dad, and I needed a guitar now, damnit!
“I would do anything for a guitar!” I told my dad that weekend.
“What did your mom say?”
My parents had already passed that part of every divorce in which the parents are competitive through gifts and whatnot with their kids. Each parent had taken my sister and I on a nice little vacation and had gotten us expensive Christmas gifts. There was no way to get a guitar out of either parent at this point. It might have happened a few months earlier, but now it was too late. We had entered the “dare the other one to do it” phase of divorce. My birthday was months away, so that wasn’t going to get me a guitar anytime soon. It was clear that if I wanted a guitar, I would have to wait seven months until my birthday at the very least, and even then it would have to be a complicated “joint gift” so that one parent didn’t “get ahead” of the other. My parents liked to keep things even.
I obviously had to come up with the money all on my own, which was fair enough, but how?
Part of the excitement of being thirteen and needing to play guitar was that I could easily talk other kids into starting a band. I remember getting my friends Clint and Dave interested. They were both excited, because I just simply told them quite factually that I was getting a guitar. When they asked me when, I told them that I had to raise the money first. I figured it would take at least $200. Naturally, they asked me how I was going to raise that kind of money. I had no clue. It was lunchtime at school when they asked me this perplexing question. I hadn’t bought my lunch yet, so I still had the two dollars my parents gave me in my hand.
Then it clicked.
“I’m not buying lunch until I have a guitar!”
It seemed like a foolproof plan. Somehow, saving $2/day or $10/week translated into instant guitar.
I had full support from Clint and Dave.
And so it went. I kept my lunch money in a jar under my bed at my mom’s house. I didn’t eat at school. I got hungry often, and occasionally Clint or Dave would throw something my way because they were excited for the band that we kept talking about forming, throwing out names that sounded like instant success. I remember the name “Rocket Club” for some reason. It was a great time with big dreams. I was racking up the cash really quick (or so it felt) and we spent our school lunches daydreaming of rock stardom.
Weeks passed with each day gathering more excitement for our future. It did not matter that neither Clint nor Dave had saved a single penny for their own respective instruments. We had a dream, damnit, and we would achieve it in no time.
The dream ended when Dave said something funny while I was drinking a chocolate milk he had given me; something about a snot rocket. I laughed mid-sip, spraying a fine mist of chocolate milk all over both Clint and Dave, who were, of course, both wearing white that day. When they got home in their brown speckled outfits, their moms had forced them to say what had happened, which somehow led to a full confession of how they were giving me food so I could save money for a guitar. One of their moms called my mom and told her what I was up to.
I thought I was in trouble. Mom looked very serious when she pulled me aside.
“How much money have you saved, Michael?”
I thought about lying, but realized there was no point. I confessed to a sum of $140, or fourteen school weeks without a lunch. Seventy lunches sacrificed in total. I had kept the secret for so long, and I had ruined it by spitting all over my friends, of all things. I geared myself up to hand over the money and accept my punishment.
“If you want a guitar that badly, I guess there’s no reason for us to get in your way. But, for the love of God, start eating lunch again!”
I had never been so excited. I kept asking my mom “For real?” as she explained that my dad would take me out to buy a guitar this weekend, and to give him the money I had saved. He would cover the difference.
Dave and Clint were almost as excited as I was when I told them the news the next day. They also thought I would be in trouble, making them snitches, so everyone was happy with the happy ending. They were still a little sour about my spitting all over them, however, and they refused to sit across from me at lunch for some time.
When the weekend finally arrived, my fists were clenched in feverish excitement. My dad gave me a quick lecture about how I should eat lunch, and then rushed me off to the music store. I think he was kind of impressed at how long I had been saving money, honestly. He seemed excited to go shopping for the guitar, too.
I had caressed many guitars on shelves before this point, but I had never had the courage to take a guitar down and try to play. I knew nothing about guitars, I just knew that my dad said I couldn’t go over $250 total, which included my $140 of lunch money. There was one electric guitar in my price range that came with a small amplifier. It was a white Yamaha that seemed to shine a little brighter than the other guitars when I saw that I could afford it. The sales person showed me how to plug it in and turn it on. I plucked the strings nervously, as I had no idea how to play anything at all, and the amplification of an electric guitar is something to get used to. I didn’t want to play in the store. I just wanted to take the guitar home and lock myself in my bedroom for five years until I got good.
Unfortunately, my dad asked the sales guy to play it so he could hear the guitar and make sure that it worked. Naturally, the sales guy launched into one of those screaming soulless solos that are designed to impress the listener, but instead makes all listeners picture the performer still living in his parents’ basement. Watching a guitar sales guy solo is like watching a guy in the gym flex for a group of women. You know that no one is actually interested, but for some reason they carry on with their flash routine.
After the performance was finished, my dad was satisfied that the guitar worked and released a confident “We’ll take it!” that made my heart leap. I took the guitar from the greasy, faux-talented salesman and never let go. I held it with me in the back seat as we drove home, plucking the strings, caressing the neck, turning the knobs, dreaming of rock stardom.
It was perhaps the greatest moment of my middle school years, other than playing with a couple of high schoolers at the talent show the following year…but that’s another story for another time.
Twenty-three years later, I have guitars on all levels of my house, ready to be plucked from a wall and brought to life. I have written songs for myself, my wife, and my child. I played in a couple of bands and felt the adrenaline surge of live performance. I am a guitarist amongst many other things. Playing guitar is something that always makes me happy, and it all started with simple dedication and commitment, which I guess is perhaps the moral to this story.
If you want something bad enough, you should be willing to sacrifice something to get it.
And if you get sick of waiting, you can try spitting chocolate milk all over your friends to help hurry the process along.