For the last month I’ve been paying a man to teach me a heavy metal song on the guitar. It’s the most satisfying, relaxing and stupid thing I do. At times the ridiculousness weighs down on us, me and Noel the guitar teacher, but we power through, pretending it’s not there, in the corner, cupping a fag in its palm and shaking its head.
I’m a middle manager, I attend meetings, I make notes in a little notepad, I have a wife and one of those drawers with fuses, and scissors and an old bike light. My mind is full of deadlines, forgotten tasks, micro-disagreements, and attempts to read my handwriting in little notepads. I’m an entirely normal, jibbering, shouting-at-the-screen, bundle of workplace stress. But not for the 45 minutes I’m with Noel.
I’ve owned an electric guitar for years. I mastered the bar-chord shape and the tune Cars Hiss By My Window off The Doors' LA Woman album. My mate John taught me both. And that’s it. I didn’t learn anything else. At all. Nothing.
How often are any of us straining right there at the cold, rocky border of what’s possible?
Over the years, I bimbled through Cars Hiss hundreds of times. Usually on a Sunday afternoon. I’d see the guitar, think, ‘Ooh it would be nice to have a play’, then I’d remember I knew only one song, play it anyway, hate myself, stop. My wife and children grew to despise this slow blues. The original is plodding and gloomy, I turned it into an expression of the pointlessness of life itself. I lacked the motivation to move on, I drifted beyond the age when rock guitar lessons were in any way dignified. I was trapped in a low-energy, 1960s filler track.
Then I was introduced to Noel. He had an air of cheerful patience, also, importantly, he was clearly an authentic Rock Person.
Noel is a proper guitarist with tousled hair and leather things round his wrist. He supplements his band income listening to people like me pummel his favourite tracks into halting, avant-garde jazz versions of themselves. Over our initial lessons we Bowied, we Beatled, we Hendrixed but we both love metal. We knew, eventually, we’d have to focus, accept a real mission and head up river together, emerging at the other end, changed men.
It was always going to be Metallica, of course it was going to be Metallica– but what I didn’t see coming was Master of Puppets; seven minutes, fifty-six seconds of twisting, complex, epic speed metal. Imagine a really angry Bohemian Rhapsody.
It has fast bits and very fast bits, one slow bit and loads more really fast bits. It’s gigantic, labyrinthine and I knew I had to face it down. On some deep, pre-conscious level, I suspect we both felt it looming.
Once committed, we took roughly one-minute-thirty segments of the song, over a 45 minute lesson and painstakingly worked through them.
You will find if you do this – or your version of this – that a one-to-one lesson in anything is exhausting. I tried to work out why it’s so tiring, then I realised, it’s the strain of humiliation. It’s someone watching you be useless, very close up. You have to brace against it. It’s almost unbearable. Most of us are average at everything most of the time and no one’s looking. In one-to-one tuition, you are in the full glare of another human and you can’t remember which string is called E. But you try, God you try.
And that’s the magic: total, absolute focus on the task. Everything else just fades away and all I want, every bumbling, fat-fingered part of me, is to play the fiddly bit before the chorus.
And then after Noel has gone, comes practice. Practice is a form of noisy meditation. From the moment I switch on the amp (even the background electrical hum is exciting) I’m free. Free to be awful, over and over again. Not like playing Cars Hiss…, this time I’m stretching for something, at the edge of my capabilities, how often are any of us straining right there at the cold, rocky border of what’s possible? And as I practice, I refer back to Metallica’s original, I play bits of live footage to see how James Hetfield does it, legs heroically far apart, trousers made of panther skin, an army of fans and wealth management specialists waiting for him backstage. And I don’t envy any of that, he can keep whatever cliff-edge hideaway he lives in, I’m contented in my back room, fine with hanging some washing on the radiator after practice. There is absolutely no serious ambition behind my hours of rock fiddling, I know I’m a middle manager making a racket in a converted garage and I don’t care. It makes me happy, and it could make you happy too.
Forget yoga, screw mindfulness; find some dumb, teen ambition, some idiotic skill, kick down the plastic, double-glazed doors of embarrassment and feel the joy of being really awful at something.
Phil’s guitar teacher, Noel can be heard in rumHoney – see the internet for details, or listen here.