Saturday, May 4, 2013

Guitar (& Life) Lessons From Dan

So take me to the station
And put me on a train
I’ve got no expectations
To pass
Through here

- No Expectations, The Rolling Stones

“Being dead’s only a problem if you know you’re dead, which you never do because you’re dead!”

-Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections


I took off my tattered, unwashed cardigan that was hanging open over a Nirvana t-shirt, the one that has a pink translucent figure on the front and ‘SLIVER’ written on the back in blue capital letters, and grabbed the proffered Armani suit attached to my mother‘s outstretched hand. My arms slid nicely through the smooth lining and I went into the bathroom excitedly to check out the results. It was the first time I ever put on a suit jacket.

At first, it looked perfect: I’d never seen my wimpy teenage shoulders so enhanced and sharply rendered. All of a sudden, here was Simon Le Bon staring back at me. The jacket seemed perfectly tailored for me and not to a recently deceased family friend. But then my eyes drifted towards the extremities. Those damnable sleeves! Of course they were too short and if I was wearing a dress shirt underneath, the cuffs would be as long as John Holmes’ rig. Curse these gangly twig arms! I took off the suit and hung it up in my closet, knowing it would sit there until I, too, could pass it along.


The doorbell rings, I stop playing my guitar and lean it against the back of a chair, taking my hand off the neck for an instant to make sure it will stay up on its own before turning for the door. There’s nothing worse than the sound of your guitar toppling over and crashing to the ground with an atonal thud.

I got up to the peephole and watched this stranger stare back through the other end of the peephole. He an eerie blank look of non-recognition though he was looking right at me; some kind of thousand yard rock n’ roll stare. It’s my first lesson with this teacher and I’m a little nervous. One more deep breath and the show begins . . .

He stepped into the foyer and plunked down his hard shell acoustic guitar case, extending his hand to mine. We both shared that universal truth when two people shake hands and look each other right in the eyes. I was instantly pleased and relaxed; he had the warm smile of a disarming person. Instantly, I became aware that my new guitar teacher was a dead ringer for Kim Thayil, the lead shredder from Soundgarden. I was flabbergasted.

Ambiguous East Indian/South Asian nationality? Check.

Long, thick black hair? Check.

Long, thick black beard? Check.

Grunge/Stoner get up? Check.

It was 1997, the height of Soundgarden’s fame. If I didn’t bring it up it would be the elephant in the room. As I led him through the hallway to the dining room, I said, “Dude! You look exactly like Kim Thayil. I bet you get that all the time.”

He broke into a hearty chuckle, half expecting it, and confirmed that, “Yeah, I get that all the time. Hey, I can‘t help that that guy looks like me,” he said and gave me a you got the joke, right? smile.

KT took a seat at the dining room table, unfastened the clasps on his case and whipped out his axe. My guitar lessons always took place in the almost-never-used-yet-fanciest-room-in-the-whole-joint, otherwise known as the dining room. It was the only reasonable place where Mom could keep an eye on the proceedings.

KT showed me the scales, in particular the E scale, iterating that, “all those awesome solos, from Slash to Mick Taylor, originate right here.” He waited for the profundity of the statement to sink in, and I managed a half-hearted, “Cool.”

There we were, Kim Thayil circa the Black Hole Sun video, and me, a greasy haired grunge rocker/stoner amidst the finest china the Nesbit’s could afford. It was quite the anachronistic scene.

He showed me a few chord progressions and tricks of the trade (Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually) and asked if there was a song or two for him to tab out for next week’s lesson. A treat of sorts if I practice the scales.

“What are you into? Classic Rock? Grunge? Most of my students are into grunge nowadays. I bet you are too, right?” He asked accusingly.

As much as my existential teenage angst cut to the core, I was no different than most fifteen year old’s, apparently. “ Yeah, I love Nirvana, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, that type of stuff, but I also love The Doors, Hendrix, Zeppelin, and The Beatles too. I don’t think I can learn too many solos right now. I like the chords, the rhythm parts. I love Nirvana. I just want to learn like Nirvana songs basically.”

“Just tablature, right? You don’t want to learn notes?”

“Pretty much, yeah. I mean, no notes . . . yeah.”

“That’s fine, I’m not a hard ass about the notes. Truthfully, some of the best, most original guitarists don’t know much about the technical side of things. It’s kind of like knowing where your good buddies house is, but not the address. In the end, you still know how to get there right?”

“For sure.”

Surely, Nirvana was the bane of mid-to-late nineties guitar teachers’ existence.

“Okay . . .” he sighed, “Anything in particular?”

I played it off like “Hmmm . . . let me see, how about this song. . .” when really I was waiting all week for this question so I could show this guitar teacher who totally looks like Kim Thayil, that I was fucking way deep cool.

“Let’s go with Radio Friendly Unit Shifter. You know that one?” I deadpanned like a jaded junkie rock star.

“Sure, sure. I know every single song from In Utero, front to back back to front. The kids can’t get enough of it! Though I don‘t usually get asked for that one, I‘ll admit. I’ll have it tabbed out for next week’s lesson on one condition: you practice that E scale both going up and down. Even Kurt knew the E scale, Taylor!”


It is the summer of 1987, and I’m on a houseboat idling in the middle of Pigeon Lake. It’s my first time on such a thing--a houseboat, not a lake. I am six or seven years old.

I’m standing on the deck looking out absently at the opposite shore while both sets of parents whooped it up inside the kitchen/dining area. Dan came around the corner wielding a fishing rod with what I only recall as a flailing scorpion-like creature of death hanging from the hook. A crawfish perhaps? Dan pinched the dangling line and swung the creature in my face, the thing coming this close with its pincers to snapping onto my rosy, prepubescent cheeks.

Cue the waterworks. I started wailing and crying with the gusto that only a small coddled only child can muster. I considered diving overboard, taking my chances in the unknown waters, (I could, after all, swim in the deep end sans water wings) but instead ran into the interior of the ship where Dan’s dad was frying up lunch and the other adults played cards.

“Danny has a monster and it’s gonna bite me!” I cried.

This was my one and only memory during the week on the houseboat.


The doorbell rings, and I put the same guitar on the back of the same chair, wait the moment it takes to be sure the guitar is perched at such an angle that it will remain poised, and head for the peephole to check out my new guitar teacher. I can’t say I’m thrilled. KT was a great teacher and he left after only a few weeks to go on tour--just a local one. Never did get the name of his band (Soundgarden cover band, perhaps?)
I opened the door to a man wholly committed to denim. He was a tall white guy with shoulder length hair and bore a striking resemblance to Canada’s own Kim Mitchell (when he had hair, of course). And can I pause here for just a minute? Kim Mitchell is just awful. He has some of the most unbearable tunes in the annals of Canadian rock history. Who needs to be told to go for a soda so nobody hurts and nobody dies? It’s like if Neil Young sang, “I’ve seen the car crash and the damage done/Unsafe amounts of beer were in his blood/Gone, gone, the damage done . . .”

I’m MADD as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!

Is the public so ignorant that they need to be told--in song form--not to rape toddlers born with AIDS? We get it, Kim, drinking and driving is bad, thanks for the advice. Now shove a patio lantern where the sun don’t shine.

Anyways, I didn’t sense much warmth from this guy and things went from bad to worse as the lesson progressed. He was militant and unfriendly. I fumbled through his Yngwie Malmsteen-esque drills while the look on his face, just beneath the surface, if you looked hard enough, had failed-frustrated-wannabe-rock-star-just-biding-his-time-until-his-big-break written all over him. Not the most suitable approach to teaching.

As soon as the guy left I told my Mom that that man cannot under any circumstances teach me guitar ever again.


 Dan was the best guitar teacher I ever had. He would come over and we’d go in the basement instead of the formal confines of the dining room. Protocols of formality disappeared because he was a family friend. My parents knew his since before Dan or I were born. He was the kind of family friend that I only saw on big occasions like Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving, and we’d been out on their boat a few times, too. It deflated the mystique of Dan to see him on a regular old Tuesday in July.

In the basement we’d sit cross legged on the floor, our acoustics cradled on our laps. Dan would flip open a tattered notebook full of tabbed out songs from previous sessions. He would always ask at the end of each lesson to give him a couple songs to tab out for the next week.

This one time he opened up the Sacred Book of Tabs and the song was one I had been waiting all week to learn: Here Comes Your Man by The Pixies.

Before I had a chance to make sense of the numbers running through lines, he warned me, “Don’t look at the tab yet, just watch me play it.”

He picked out the familiar riff a notch slower than how The Pixies actually played it. His fingers were flying all over the frets, even using the dreaded pinkie to hit one of the notes. “Not the pinky!” I protested. “Can’t I just use my third finger to compensate?”

“Nope. Gotta use all four. It will suck now but you’ll thank me later.”

Slowly, I fumbled my way through the indie surf rock riff, gaining confidence and clarity of note through each go around until we landed in synch, and it’s like we were one entity reflecting a message--the same message--back at each other. We played the riff a couple of times so I could lock it into my muscle memory. I took my eyes off the neck and peered over at Dan. He was looking right at me and I looked right back. His eyes were asking, “Do you get it now?

Dancing with fingers instead of bodies. Though there is no physical contact, his fingers are urging mine along, guiding them, stringing them along, forging a path. There is a connection that is not possible through language or sex or blood. It is through music and unfortunately it can only be conveyed descriptively through language.


Forgotten junk and rock n’ roll are apparently peaceful cohabitants.

Before me are rows upon rows of single car wide storage spaces coloured road construction orange stretching out into the distance. It’s one of those places where most people store whatever tenuous junk they’re hanging onto, unable to just toss it in the garbage and forget about it. These are the auxiliary items that define their lives, but are too cumbersome for the homestead.

And then there are those who rent out these spaces for rock n’ roll. A place where there are no parents and no neighbours who simply don’t get it.

Dan slides up his units door, unfurling before me his tools of the trade. There was a drum kit, two guitar amps, a bass amp, and a few stray guitars strewn about the small space, barely large enough for a car to fit in. A tattered poster of the Human Riff himself, is the only accoutrement adorning the walls. It’s the one where Keith is leaning against a wall, eyes hidden behind aviator glasses, a blank look on his face; beside him is the sign: PATIENCE PLEASE . . . A DRUG FREE AMERICA COMES FIRST!

Though I didn’t recognize the photo at the time, I’ve since seen it many times since, scrolling through Google Images looking at page after page of Rolling Stones photos, scouring for ones of the band in the heady early‘70’s. The photo was taken during the Exile on Main St. tour of America in the summer of ‘72, arguably their best tour, and my favourite if I had to choose. Definitely their most mythologized; books, movies, you name it. At some point the myth and the reality become inextricable. The reality is that they’re savvy businessmen who crafted their legacy very carefully and they also know how to write great songs, but a boy can dream, can’t he? Or maybe Mick is the reality and Keith is the myth and the ingredients are stirred into a concoction that is left to simmer, and here we are fifty years later and if I could afford the tickets I’d be watching them at the ACC this summer.

“I’ll hop on drums and we’ll jam it out, okay? I’ll give you a simple beat and just lay into some power chords, man.”

Dan got behind the kit and started banging out a slow and simple 4/4 beat while I drowned him out with brain piercing decibels of feedback to hide my insufficient skills. Sensing that I had to actually play something, anything, I then palm muted an E chord and in a Parkinson’s-esque flurry kept chugging along until I switched it to a G chord and then back to an E, then back to G and so on, until Dan, finally sick of my two chord dichotomy stopped playing and shouted, “Hey! Hey! Taylor!” until I stopped too and looked up at him. “Yeah?”

“Let’s try something different. You know ‘Satisfaction’?”

“No, don’t know any Stones songs.”

Dan showed me the simple riff on a nearby guitar while I watched his fingers compute the simple equation across the calculator of the neck. Simple enough, I thought.

Back on the drums, he kept time with a repetitive tap on the snare until I had the rhythm down. All I could was keep playing the intro riff over and over, which is not very much fun for anyone involved. Sensing my nervousness (and ineptitude) we stopped and he drove me back home. I felt like a doorknob and a douche bag. I was a beginner but he entrusted me to be able to hold a simple rhythm and fiddle around on some chords and I let him down (Whhhhaaahhhh!). He was as meek and accommodating as ever . . .

“Next week I’ll come to your place and I’ll teach you a couple little tricks. You’re doing fine Taylor, it just takes practice. John Lennon didn’t get good overnight, either. Though, you can palm mute an E chord like nobody‘s business!”

                                        Breaking the (by)law

Everyone remembers notable world events that happen on one’s birthday. We collect them like talisman’s we hope imbue us with an air of mystery or intrigue. One of my go to birthday events is the UFO crash at Roswell. Clearly the most famous supposed UFO crash of all time, and it happened
on July 3rd 1947. I want to believe dammit!

Definitely the most surreal and unsettling one is death of Jim Morrison. He died on July 3rd 1971, exactly ten years to the day that I was born. Impossibly, Jim died sometime in the early morning hours, approximately 3-5am, while I was born at about 4am. You may know where I’m going with this. I half convinced myself when I was seventeen and a huge Doors fan that I was at least one quarter Lizard King. I had to be! It was quite conceivable that he died at exactly the same time as me, exactly ten years (a nice tidy round sum) before I was born. It’s not like he died on April 14th, 1973 for Chrissakes! That would mean absolutely nothing to the story! Based on the ten year purgatorial soul rule, Mr. Mojo Risin must have floated out of his body in 1971 and wandered the streets of the city of lights and then, looking for an inhabitant of a city that was more unburdened with centuries of history, he submerged his wayward soul into the umbilical cord of a prenatal boy in the generically comfortable suburbs of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Take that Paris!

I really got into the Stones when I was in my late twenties. I, as most other people with two ears and a heart, have always liked the Stones. No one hates the Stones. Perhaps you dislike the ubiquity of the Stones, but it seems impossible to me to hate them, at least their 60’s and 70’s output, and especially a lot of the songs you don’t hear on the radio. Believe me, I don’t ever want to hear Start Me Up ever again either, but I never tire of the duelling lead guitars on Beast of Burden.

It’s impossible to throw on Waiting On A Friend or Sweet Virginia and not think about my old guitar teacher. Surely, the two are mutually exclusive, but they’re inextricably woven into the fabric of my being. Try as I might to untangle the knots, they coexist. Some songs hit the feeling home harder than others. Especially those awesome 70’s songs because that’s what Dan loved. He was always mentioning something called Exile on Main St. and calling it one of the greatest rock records ever and I pretended to care and insist that I would "Check it out."

The Stones' 60’s success gave way to the decadence and debauchery of the 70’s, where I’m sure all four of the guys found out that despite being rich, famous, and one of the most successful rock bands in the world, problems persisted. They found out that they were still mere mortals. Drug problems and egos and girls will fuck any good thing up. Don’t discount that as glib or trite nonsense. The realization can crush your fucking soul. There’s no way out. Picture this: you are on top of the world of rock n’ roll, for all intents and purposes a real life superman spending 85% of your life flying over the plebeian masses to get to the next show where you play 15-20 songs in a stadium full of nameless faces. In fact you see so many vague little amorphous faces in the crowd, you see more actual human beings than most any other people in the world, but they’re just staring at you and going wild and though you see so many people and they see you, it’s not like there’s any sort of conversation or meaningful nuance to the mass of people you see night in and night out; a crowd in Tulsa is the same as one in Vancouver. All you can do is manipulate the coiled strings on this long necked wooden device that is heavily amplified to explode throughout a massive dome reserved for entertainment, and you have to control these patterned noises you’ve written with your band mates a while back, and now have to play these things over and over the same way (for the most part) as the only means to really extend a hand to these endless nameless faces that scream back at you every single night, and sometimes all you can do is lay down in the quiet of a hotel room far from home (as if you really even have such a thing anymore) and shoot junk and snort blow and come up with more intro/verse/chorus/interlude/solo/verse/chorus/outro patterns to amplify in front of the same screaming faces around the same time next year.

Dan only shows up now when I’m learning the tab on a Stones song, making sure I use my pinkie if needed. He can rest assured. I don’t cheat anymore with my ring finger, my pinkie’s well trained after playing for some fifteen plus years now. Sometimes Dan is there in the flesh, his slight frame translucent. Sunlight coming through his whispy blonde hair. He’s some kind of Frankenstein between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain, with a dash of David Foster Wallace. But sometimes it’s only a feeling; a vague senescence, little Dan particles infused everywhere, in between every chord.

Tonight, I’m learning one of their easier tunes that I somehow never thought to learn after all these years (there is an embarrassment of riches): No Expectations. It’s 2013 and all the tabs are only a click away, books of tab that are sold at music stores, Dan’s notebooks full of meticulously laid out solos full of hammer-on’s and pull-off’s, and chord structures are now gone, their practicality rotting on the vine of a dead age. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t need to book a lesson to learn this one. It’s only C, F, and G for the all the beginners playing along. There is a great slide guitar part that is rumoured to be the last contribution of Brian Jones. Practically useless in the studio during the recording of Beggar’s Banquet, stoned out of his gourd, he somehow managed to put together the beautiful acoustic slide guitar part that really makes the song what it is, before he was fired from the band and then promptly drowned in his pool on July 3rd 1969.


There aren’t too many motorcycle accidents in Brampton mainly because there aren’t too many motorcycles. Those types of accidents tend to happen more often on the winding country roads north of the city.

If only he didn’t pass that van waiting to turn left. If only he slowed down and just waited for a damn minute, if only he had patience. I guess that’s why people buy motorcycles in the first place though, right? They want to go fast, they don’t want to be stuck behind a minivan doing 40 K. If only he had a flat tire, or if only he didn’t bother to catch a crawfish on a houseboat on Pigeon Lake in 1987, or if only the other driver, the one facing Dan, waiting to turn left, didn’t assume the coast was clear and ease too far into the middle of the intersection.

‘If’ is the middle word in life.

As ‘if’ mentally rearranging the facts as though they were pliable, as though they were a rubik’s cube that could reroute and endlessly confuse the road that led us to the inextricable here and now.

To each party involved in the accident it must have seemed like they both came out of nowhere--until they didn’t.

By the turn of the millenium, I lost all contact with Dan, and hadn’t seen him for a few years, which turned out to be his last. Frankly, I was surprised that he had a motorcycle. He was 5’ 8” and 130lbs--wouldn’t exactly have fit in with Sonny Barger and Co.

There were only a handful of lessons in total, and certainly no further jam sessions. There was still an indelible mark left on my budding psyche. Nothing was better than the two of us sitting in the basement, learning a tune. No hard feelings. Just the way it is. Maybe I’ll see you on Christmas Eve.

But I never did.

My family began new traditions--we were travelling more during Christmas to see our extended family and contact with his family was somehow lost in the shuffle, relegated to the land of Christmas Cards.

Some people are destined to live on in memory only and there are no answers why so why am I even trying?

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