(The Shaggs open May 12! Click for tix)
The first time I ever touched an electric guitar, I was awestruck. I tried plucking a note, tried to make it sing like the Beatles could, but it did not respond. I was at the house of my friend, Dave Werry. The electric guitar belonged to his mom. It was red, with a sunburst finish, and some kind of a hollow body. I had a slight tinge of disappointment, in that I somehow had the idea that a solid body electric was more modern and cool than a hollow body. But still. I had never been close to any electric guitar before. And even with the minor failing of it being hollowbody, and the fact that I couldn’t make it sound like anything, I was totally stoked.
We had gotten his mom’s permission to use it in a skit we were preparing for the school talent show. We were in 4th grade. I had memorized every word of the Beatle’s ‘Help”, and had recruited 3 other guys to join me in doing a live version of the song for the talent show. I had a set of sparkly paper drums I’d gotten for Xmas when I was 4, and two black Beatle wigs. Dave had his mom’s electric, and we borrowed a couple acoustic guitars. We practiced. We banged and strummed. We knew no notes, we knew no key, we were just singing the words at the top of our lungs and pretending to be the Beatles. On the stage of the cafeteria the day of the show, the only other “band” acts were lip-syncing. We were the real thing, making our own noise, and we were a big hit. 6th graders came up to us afterwards, telling us how cool we were. It was my first taste of the limelight. But it was my last moment with an electric guitar for a long time.
The memory of Dave Werry and his mom’s guitar surfaced when I was asked what kind of guitars the girls in the Shaggs would be playing onstage in the upcoming production of “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World”. I’d grown up in a college town, in the suburbs of San Francisco, a fairly cosmopolitan place. Still, I’d never seen an electric guitar except on TV. While I knew there was a music store in town that carried electric guitars, I’d never been inside the store. I didn’t think I had the right to open the door and approach an actual guitar. That’d be akin to riding my bike to the Pontiac dealership and asking to test-drive a GTO. If the reality of playing an electric guitar were so distant for a suburban-street-wise kid, how much more exotic might it have been for The Shaggs, who lived in a small town in New Hampshire? Where did their father, who knew nothing about music, find electric guitars? How far did he drive, what kind of store did he find, what was it like for him to talk to a long-haired guitar salesman? And when he brought them home as a surprise gift for his girls (along with a drum set), what was their reaction? Unlike me, they did not have an intense passion about music. They had never expressed any interest in music whatsoever. And if playing en electric guitar eluded a music aficionado like me, how much more hard and mysterious and frustrating would it have been for them?
Years later, when I was 16 and had been playing acoustic guitar for a year (self-taught) I bought a used Fender Mustang and rented a Sears Silvertone amp for 6 months. I still couldn’t make it sound like I wanted it to. After 6 months I returned the amp and sold the Mustang. The magic of electric guitars would continue to elude me way into adulthood.