It was exactly like a chapter from Accordion Crimes – if you squinted your imagination and overlooked the fact that the instrument travelled for thousands of miles and (spoiler alert) never made it back home; but in defence of the allusion, it, too, was a Mediterranean-born instrument gone walkabout, and I happened to be reading the book at the time, so the reference is understandable; so, yes, we’re agreed, it was exactly like a chapter from Accordion Crimes*.
I got the guitar on the morning of my ninth birthday. It was in my parents’ bedroom, over on my dad’s side, on the carpet there in its coffin-like cardboard box, too big to be gift-wrapped. A BM Clasico Spanish three-quarter number, with, as I recall remarking quite breathlessly in my jim-jams at the time, a top-board of Oregon Pine and a Samanguilla neck. I’m certain I did. What I don’t recall is negotiating for, hinting at, or plainly stating the need for this genteel axe, although by that age I’d probably demonstrated enough dexterity and raw animal pelvis-led talent as to render my mother’s old tennis racket and the inherited banjo redundant. (The ornately-backed banjo was given to me by our Hollyshaw Lane neighbour, Mr Fanthorpe, the same benefactor of my first Lego – the wonderfully enriching castle kit from Weetabix.**)
For a child’s guitar, the neck was still crazily wide, and you could drive a bus under the action (a phrase I once overheard a muso say in an office on a London street), but I persisted at it like I’d persisted at nothing else before, and within a month had mastered a buzzing clutch of chords – for it’s rhythm I wanted to play on this wrong guitar – to be able to bash out ungodly tubthumpers like ‘Joshua Fought The Battle of Jericho’ and ‘Hey Sinner Man’, with its lovely ending of ‘aaa-all on that day, pluck, strum’ – those final instructions so lyrically fitting as to be incorporated into the words.
But the musical heights achieved on Guitar No.1 were to be:
1) the fabulously mawkish ‘Streets of London’, which became the highlight of my every bedroom concert performance, played standing up on my bed, my guitar strap made from a dressing-gown cord, so as to study my stage technique in the mirror. When I sing that song now I choose to pepper the lyrics with obscenities; it adds to the urgency and depth of the message and the righteous call to action.
2) my first foray into Hendrix-like maverick musical innovation, consisting of holding a two pence coin against a vibrating top E to recreate the buzz at the start of ‘Day Tripper’. Magic. Madness.
The BM Clasico was replaced in 1980 by a steel-string acoustic, about which more anon, and at some point early in the 90s, I handed that first guitar over to my little nephews, making the instrument a French resident for some twenty years and counting – for it lives now in the gabled eaves of my nephews’ grandparents’ house on the Cote d’Azur. It has far fewer strings than ‘The Streets of London’ might require, but does feature a proper screwed-in strap. Neither of my nephews learned to play the beast, or held a centime to its E, but my brief reacquaintance with it on a wet Provence afternoon in November, was wonderful enough for knowing it existed, however unplayed, in a family where generations are now handing their histories on to each other. Exactly like Accordion Crimes, if you squint your imagination – and I left it there.
* Accordion Crimes is a novel by Annie Proulx. Do yourself the favour, and thank me later.
** Both the banjo and the Lego castle are with me now, stored below the desk at which I work – hardly surprising, then, I write as I do – my very daily set-up constructed upon the totems of my life.
© Copyright, Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2012