Paralyzed, or the Mind-Instrument Interface

We are down in the Northwest winter. Compared to much of the U.S. at a comparable latitude, we have it relatively easy. Occasionally, it gets uncomfortably cold, but it rarely lasts (unlike the protracted cold of eastern cities, where it feels like living in the world’s largest walk-in freezer). What we do have is rain and, with it, a kind of pervasive darkness, like the sun never quite powers up. At midday, it feels like all the lights have burned out, and only 40-watt bulbs are available as replacements.

Night, late in morning and early in evening, seems to be as much a psychological experience, akin to a drug state, as a physical one. You can understand how, especially in a night lighted only by pitch and tallow, the Greek god of sleep, Morpheus, leant his name to morphine.

In this somewhat smoky, haunted environment, with its damp and fog, you dig why every over house in the British Isles apparently owns a ghost (or vice versa). And, as though following the soundtrack from a classic horror or noir film, at this time of year I find myself listening to slower, slightly stranger music, preferably in a minor key.

I tend to reserve winter’s keystone—Leonard Cohen’s first album—for one of our rare snowfalls (blame Robert Altman, who apparently vacationed in my head), but of late I’ve found myself listening to spritely larks such as Low, Bedhead, Peter Green, and Ride’s “Nowhere”—a most appropriately named album for the season.

And now that I occasionally (i.e., every night) play music as well as listen to it (I have yet to graduate to making it…for more than, say, 30 seconds at a time), the music I play adapts to life in semidarkness.

Which leads me, in a roundabout fashion, to yesterday evening, where, very tired indeed, I sat down with the Strat, amp, and effects boxes (if anyone wants to send me a belated Christmas gift, stompboxes are always welcome), and attempted to negotiate Ride’s majestic ode to psychological dysfunction, “Paralyzed.” The verses were troublesome, but the chorus was enjoyable—for at least 30 seconds at a time—and provided a distortion-assisted sense of movement within non-movement. A good session for a neophyte. When I despair of forever being a beginner, partly due to a certain talent deficit, I suspect, I console myself by remembering that staying a beginner is the destination for Buddhists….which, of course, requires unrelenting practice.

(Would Buddha have played a Fender or Gibson? Probably a Rickenbacker. I can, however, see the Protestant Jesus wielding a Strat—with whammy bar—and the Catholic Jesus favoring a Les Paul. With Mary on amplified flute, Joseph on bass, and, on drums, the Holy Ghost. I can’t, however, imagine any of them playing “Paralyzed.” Sorry, Ride. “A Day in the Life” perhaps. With the Protestant Jesus cranking out “Blue Suede Shoes” and Abraham playing “You Can’t Always Get What you Want” on glockenspiel. Muhammad, as we know, don’t dance.)

Back to the piece under discussion, as I attempted to negotiate barre chords for E minor, F sharp minor, G major, C major, and B minor (I said it was cheerful), the word “interface” kept coming to me. It’s not a particularly elegant term, all chilly IBM technospeak. Perhaps “medium” is more appropriate. But it became apparent that the instrument served as both a conduit and a barrier in a feedback loop. I don’t mean getting the guitar pickups too close to the amp (a subject for another time), but feedback in the sense that, when one plays music as opposed to solely listening to it, one becomes both sender and receiver.

What has come to the brain via the ears—say, listening to Ride’s recording of “Paralyzed”—regenerates as memory, then is transferred through neurons to the muscles of the hand and hence to this supremely physical object, rife with its own psychological resonance (to play guitar is, fleetingly, to become whoever played the original), and somehow those muscle actions generate vibrations the guitar pickups translate to electricity—much as neurons transmit electrons borne of chemical interactions—which twist and turn through the shape-changing maze of effects box circuitry, until arriving at the amplifier’s speaker cone, which generates—sometimes quite forcefully—sound waves that the ears return to the mind. Like photosynthesis, the process, though understandable by the left brain, is no less magical to the right. Unfortunately, understanding the process makes you a no better guitarist than intellectually grasping the mechanics of sex makes you a lover.

At a certain point, I put “Paralyzed” away for the evening, shut down the gear, put the guitar back in its case, and went out on the porch for a smoke in the dark. And there, with neighborhood lights moving through fog and drizzle, two versions of “Paralyzed” swam alongside each other like salmon, moving in concert but perfectly separated—my “Paralyzed” and Ride’s—and the winter felt less like something to be endured and more like a laboratory for the psyche. Ghosts and all.

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