The Hand in the Guitar
I was raised at the end of a dirt road that wound two miles through a dense pine forest. The place didn’t even have a name but it was seven miles from the interstate and fifteen miles from the small town of LaCombe, Louisiana. On the map it was simply referred to as Ward Six. Most of the men who lived in Ward Six were skilled laborers who couldn’t take living in New Orleans any longer which lay about thirty miles west of us.
My earliest memories are of cleaning off the five acres of land where I lived with my mother and stepfather in a two-room wooden house. Sometimes our neighbors would help us clear off the land on Saturdays, and when it got dark, we’d all gather around a huge fire we made from the trees and shrubs we cut down that day. It was during one of these gatherings when I met Mike Molaison, an epileptic who first introduced me to the guitar.
I had never seen a guitar before. Mike sat by himself near the fire playing simple three chord tunes by CCR, the Eagles and John Denver. He had a thin build and dark eyes. His hair was an unattractive rust color and he had a wide thick moustache. He looked a lot like Sonny Bono, without the cheerful aspect. His face was covered with acne, apparently the result of the pills he took to control his fits, although they didn’t seem to help; Mike had at least two mild seizures a day and up to three bad ones a week.
After that night, Mike came over every couple of days and tried to teach me how to play the guitar. I was good at learning chords, but I could not pluck notes and no matter how many times Mike tried to show me, I couldn’t tune a guitar. This of course meant I had no natural ear for music which kept me in a constant state of frustration because I had to learn everything I played, nothing came easily or naturally. But what I could play I played well and in fact developed my own style rather quickly. I was drawn to minor chords which have an eerie melodic effect. Mike didn’t like this style of playing at all. He said I was hiding behind it and if I didn’t give it up, I’d never be able to play anything worthwhile. He was right. I never did play anything worthwhile.
Often during our “jam sessions,” Mike would go into one of his fits. He always knew when a fit was coming on. He’d simply lay the guitar down on the floor, excuse himself, and gradually go into convulsions. Sometimes the fits would last only seconds, other times they were several minutes long. The first time it happened, I was so frightened and confused I cried. Sometimes his fits made me angry and embarrassed. Once, we were climbing a huge live oak and he had one. I was above him just a little ways, so I carefully climbed down to where he was and tried to hold his legs and arms down so he wouldn’t fall to the ground. Luckily, it was a mild seizure, but as we climbed down together, Mike swore never to climb any more trees. Although I was ten and he was twenty-five, it never occurred to us that he was a bit too old to be climbing trees anyway. Perhaps it had something to do with his incessant acne but Mike never seemed to age, as if he was a boy trapped in a man’s body.
From the tree-climbing incident, my memories of Mike and the guitar become a bit obscure. I had no natural ear for music but tried anyway, and once played “The Bridal Song” at a wedding, which was easy since it only required three chords. I took guitar lessons in New Orleans from the lead guitarist of a locally famous band called “The Rebels.” He was as baffled as I was. The more I practiced the worse I got. On my eleventh birthday, an uncle of mine bought me an expensive Martin Sigma acoustic, which I carried around everywhere. However, it only made me more miserable because I wanted to play really well on this mahogany work of art. I never did learn but a handful of chords. Mike loved my guitar and he was always on my front porch strumming out his favorite simple tunes. Mike wasn’t much better than me, but at least he knew how to tune a guitar.
The same year that I got the Martin, and began to listen to more complicated music, such as The White Album, Rush, Pink Floyd and the like, my aunt brought to my family the new religion: Fundamental Christianity. Like my mother, I was raised Catholic and wasn’t even aware that there was any other religion. I remember the first night my aunt took my mother and me to church. People held their hands in the air, dancing in every imaginable way and speaking in tongues, which frightened my young Catholic ears when I first heard it. Several people fainted around me. There was much hugging and kissing going on. They were said to be possessed by the Holy Spirit.
My aunt came around all the time trying to convert us. She said that Catholics were actually giving praise to Satan, but they just didn’t realize it. The idea of the new religion was to have a one-on-one relationship with God, which was the only true way to worship, she said. She went on to explain that Catholics prayed through saints which was nothing but idolatry and witchcraft. My mother, who never had strong convictions about religion or anything else, agreed to be converted. My aunt had her repeat some lines out of the Bible, and after she read them they hugged her and she congratulated her for being “reborn” and “saved.” My conversion came shortly afterward on the same day.
I had found religion but still listened to rock and roll and played simple rock tunes on my guitar. This worried my mother and aunt to no end. One night the two of them took me to church to hear a special guest lecturer who spoke about the evils of rock music. Apparently, we had missed the lecture because when we pulled into the church parking lot, a crowd of people was throwing records, books, and plastic idols–from Porky Pig to St. Christopher–into a large fire. The guest lecturer spoke through a microphone that was attached to a portable amplifier. He kept saying over and over that the only way to “cleanse the soul” was to get rid of everything that wasn’t made to praise God. With respect to music, this meant not only the satanic bands had to go, but even middle of the road music. So James Taylor, and God forbid, John Denver, Mike’s favorite singer, had to be thrown into the fire. It grew higher and higher and the churchgoers danced and hollered around the fire like so many Indians. Finally, the cops came out and told the pastor that he was in violation of the city fire code and soon a fire truck pulled up and put out the fire. The crowd stayed through the whole thing harassing the cops and yelling at them that they were helping Satan maintain his hold on this world because the records and books were not burned down to ash.
On the long dark ride back home, my mother tried to convince me to burn all my records. I told her I wouldn’t and she started crying, trying to explain to me that if I did not burn my albums Satan could go as far as to take possession of my whole body. I can’t remember if I believed any of what she was saying. I only knew I loved my record collection almost as much as I loved my Martin Sigma. I refused to burn my collection, which had taken my whole young life to collect. I had some rarities because a D.J. out of New Orleans, who I had met through my guitar teacher, admired my avid interest and love for The Beatles. He mailed me some extremely rare Beatles music such as a single of “She Loves You” in German, and a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band on red vinyl with a picture of the cover embossed on the album itself, and a signed copy of Rubber Soul by John Lennon. I told my mother these things, but she said it didn’t matter. What good were these things if they cost you your soul?
That night, as I tried to sleep, I tossed and turned and sweated. What if they were right? I had over one hundred albums and maybe every one of them contained a devil. I tried to sleep but I couldn’t; the house was too silent. I could hear my stepfather snoring across the house, but this was no comfort. Outside my window, a dog barked from a long way off. Then from my closet I began to hear the faint dissonant notes of my guitar. They slowly assumed a pattern that sounded vaguely like the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” I kept still in my bed. Beads of sweat broke out on my forehead and my mouth was very dry. I kept thinking how I wish I had a glass of water. The music grew louder. I did not want to believe what was happening, but the notes played on and sounded more and more like a real song. I began to cry. I cried hard, but the music would not stop playing. Eventually, I gave up and went to my mother’s room and crawled up close beside her. It was as if she knew everything that was happening without my having to say a word about the guitar in the closet. She simply pulled me closer to her and said, “Don’t worry, tomorrow we’ll get rid of those records and they won’t bother you again.”
The next day, as I got off the school bus, I could smell something like tar in the air. In the back of the house, my mother was throwing the last of my albums into a rusty old fifty-five gallon drum with three feet of flame jumping out of it. She turned to me with black soot all over her face and said, “Now the devil won’t be able to get into your room anymore. The only tears you’ll cry will be for the Holy Spirit.”
I wasn’t the same after my mother burned all my albums. I lost complete interest in music and my $1000 Martin Sigma collected dust in my closet. To get my mind off of music, I took up farming. I grew magnificent pumpkins and watermelons, which I sold to my neighbors and to local grocery stores in LaCombe. Mike would come around from time to time, but since I quit playing the guitar, we didn’t have much to talk about. I told him I wanted to be a farmer and that I had found Jesus. He didn’t come around at all after I told him that.
Five or six years later, I had become a little less saved and a bit more practical. I simply wanted to go into the Marines. On occasion, I would see Mike walking along the dusty roads of the village. He told me that he tried going to a small college, but his fits had grown worse, and he couldn’t take the constant pressure of calling attention to himself in public. He left college before he even finished his first semester and moved back to Ward Six to live with his parents. He was over thirty years old and spent his time watching Kung Fu movies and professional wrestling. Apparently, he had given up on the guitar as well. He died a couple of years later of a brain hemorrhage. The doctors said it was inevitable, that they had never seen one so epileptic as Mike Molaison.
Years later in a bar in Baton Rouge, a huge redheaded guy told me how cockroaches can play beautiful music by walking up and down on guitar strings, but I didn’t believe the guy. No, I simply wouldn’t believe it.