Somewhere deep within Google’s servers, choked beneath an infinite fog of 0s and 1s, rests the true detritus of the Internet. Lower than unloved cat videos, sadder than video game podcasts without subscribers—yes, the bleakest, basest circle of YouTube hell is reserved for the amateur musicians audacious enough to bare their souls to the unlistening world. I’m not talking about the ones that garner attention for being impressively bad. I mean the here-goes-nothing guitarists who can’t link chords together. A Green Day cover band with fifty views total, all their own; a Nickelback fan who nails the verses of “Photograph” but can’t sing the high notes in the chorus. There, embalmed in a URL, they sing their hearts out for no one and nothing, open to the public yet inescapably private.
And here sits their progenitor. An artifact from 1973 sporting a hand me down suit, making sure his music looks perfect. To him, wearing his Sunday best means having a guitar in his hands and harmonica in his mouth. Smoking on the water; letting it be; taking a walk on the wild side. You can smell the Bob Dylan on him. He could be going to play at church, or he could be learning “Stairway to Heaven.” Either way, people don’t play in public and make a stage out of nothing unless they’ve got the bug.
He and I share a secret language. We speak with a musical gutter-tongue—a total bastardization of classical form. We strum in bare-bones progressions, C, G, A minor, F…C, G, A minor, F… with little to guide us but our untrained ears and the rhythm of Pachelbel spinning in his grave in clean 4/4 time. We are keepers of a sacred order, capable of calling bullshit whenever an actor pantomimes instead of plays in a movie. Him, medium body steel-stringed Martin acoustic. Me, American fender Stratocaster. He clutches the fingering of a C chord like a lifeline, and without a pick he strums uncomfortably with the meat of his thumb—in a few years, “Dust in the Wind” will blow his fucking mind.
I was 16 years old when I first recorded myself playing. I had just gotten back from camp, and pictures from the summer had already begun to surface on Facebook. I was holding a guitar in nearly all of them. Although I had been playing for two years, I was reluctant to think of myself as a “guitar guy.” That comes with a lot of baggage: “play ‘Wonderwall’ for us, bro” and “you’re probably only doing this to pick up girls” or “what, do you think you’re good? Dave is way better than you.”
But from the summer photos, I got my hard proof, and I coveted the accessories of my new identity like a boy scout wears his merit badges. I bought guitar key chains, read guitar magazines, and always had a chewed-up pick in my wallet, just in case a spontaneous jam session broke out. I practiced every day and learned a couple of songs well enough that I could strum and sing at the same time. I was the guy whose guitar Bluto destroys.
My song was “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals. I showered, put on my coolest t-shirt, and turned the camera on. Oh god. Is that what my voice sounds like? Why am I not keeping rhythm? Let’s do a second take. After four or five more, I sort of lost track of the original organization within the song and started riffing with the basic chords. I was sing-shouting and strum-punching my way through the track, but it felt good. It felt unforced. And when I played it back, I thought it looked good too. So I put it on the Internet where it remains to this day: difficult to find and even harder to sit through, but it’s mine.
Texas might not have been kind to the boy in the photo booth, nor to his musical aspirations. Judging by lone spectator in the reflection of the booth, he didn’t draw a huge crowd. How do you get people to watch what you’re proud of? How do you show without being called a showoff? The trick, it seems, is to play on, pretending the camera isn’t there at all.