The case is black and heavy. I snap open the catches and raise the lid. There it is – my old friend; the sweetest guitar you ever will see. The golden wood is satin under my fingers, the piney aroma still magical. I pick it up, lay it across my legs, and my left hand finds the old shapes; the strong bar of F; triangular D; the small contortions of a minor seventh. I shut my eyes and start to sing. And suddenly, I’m back.
There’s fear down here in the shadows, at the foot of the steps. I wipe my hands, slick with sweat, on my black pants, feeling the reassuring weight of the guitar against my leg. The boys are behind me – drum, bass, and keyboards – but this is my show; my songs, my lyrics, my life exposed. My neck on the line for people who couldn’t care less.
Suddenly we’re on, and I stride up the steps into the circle of light. I’m a moth to this flame. It’s who I am; my identity, my dream. There’s fear, thrill, and suddenly the intoxicating rush as my voice soars through the microphone and into the blackness. They’re out there somewhere – I can hear the chink of glasses, the spikes of laughter, the low rumble of conversation. But here there’s no audience, just me throwing my heart out there into the dark.
I knew when I was young that I could do it. Armed with my first guitar I conquered the school assembly hall – the shocked, upturned faces of kids who only knew me as lousy at math, and a little too plump. Then the talent shows, dinner parties, churches, weddings – and much later, getting serious. Lugging heavy equipment across muddy festival fields; smoky late-night bars and clubs in seedy parts of London; bits and pieces of session work. Pushing and fighting to be heard, to be better, to be the real thing. Sarah, the singer-songwriter: ‘I’ve walked this stage, I’ve learned my lines, I’ve played this part oh so many times, and now nothing feels right.’
With two small children this is tough, tough, tough. You were supposed to do this in your teens, not your thirties, for goodness sake. Now you should be home, quietly toeing the line and packing the kids’ lunchboxes, not singing sad songs about Sarajevo to crowds of strangers at midnight. And gradually I start to know that it isn’t going to happen. That I’m not only not bad – I’m actually pretty good. But I’m not good enough to be the very best. And the very best is all that matters.
Slowly, very painfully, I make my way back – and forward; to my real career, the one that rewards me and takes me to the other places I want to go. To language, to expression, to fulfilment and security – a different path, but in some way, only fully understood much later, a path that is more truly me.
I put the guitar back in the case, close the lid and snap it shut. I turn off the light and walk away. It took years for this not to hurt, but now I’ve made my peace with the past.
So do you see now how I understand you? I WAS you.
To be continued