Every junkie’s like a setting sun
Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done: shouldn’t be hard to play. The chords are easy, even spare. Just a little unexpected:
The tab looks manageable, compact, even elegant.
But my brain can’t yet connect the sound to my fingers. There’s a piece missing. I move my fingers over the frets, humming under my breath, but the sounds don’t make sense yet. They are just sounds.
Learning a new song is like going off the high dive. You may get to the top of the ladder knowing what you want to do, with a view of the whole arrangement — board, pool, water, diving position. But once you’re in the air, there’s a few moments where time seems to stop. It’s to late to go back, but holy shit, it’s a long way down and you have no idea if your plan is going to work.
I’m in midair with Neil Young right now.
Falling in love with a song is like that too. I’ve loved this song for a while, but I really don’t know why. For some reason, figuring out why I love a song has always been really important to me. Learning to play it is one of the ways I figure it out. It’s always something different. With “Needle,” maybe it’s the disconnect between the lyrics (about the horrors of drug addiction) and the pretty, even delicate accompaniment. Maybe it’s Young’s voice, somehow both earthy and ethereal. Maybe it’s the way at the end, the song cuts out unexpectedly without a cadence, unnaturally cut short as if it could have gone on forever but didn’t. Maybe it’s the way Young both strums and picks in a counterpoint between upper and lower strings. It’s this very counterpoint that I’m struggling with, although I’m having the distinct impression that the struggle is really more with myself than with Young. It should be easy but it’s not. What am I missing? What am I not allowing myself to see?
But it’s the figuring out that’s interesting. When you buy concert tickets and you go and sit in the third row and listen and move with the music and maybe hoot and holler sometimes when the spirit moves you (or clap politely, depending on the venue and your inclination towards social niceties), you’re only seeing a sliver of what’s happening. The damage done. The interesting part is what happens with the musician and the instrument alone together. The needle. It’s what makes it happen. The concert may be the who, what, the when and the where. But the music is the why and the how.
Practicing guitar makes me realize that I don’t like solutions so much as I like solving. I obsess over a piece like an addiction I can’t let go until I figure it out. Once I’ve got it, it’s over. You won’t hear it from me again until I’ve almost forgotten it. The damage is done. It’s okay to be like this on my guitar, which I only play for myself. It’s okay to practice until my head gets it and walk away before my fingers quite catch up. But it’s maybe not the best character trait in other areas of my life. It means I’m easily bored and I need to watch myself to make sure I finish what I start. I don’t always finish what I start.
I watch the video again, looking for clues. Is Young strumming with a pick on the downstrokes and using his fingers on the up? Why the sudden slide up the neck, a move that doesn’t look necessary from the tab I’m working from. Young’s hands move with a confidence and certainty that mine lack. I crack my knuckles and slide my fingers into a D-chord and try again.
I caught you knockin’ at my cellar door.
I love you, baby, can I have some more?
Oh, the damage done.
I stumble. More than once. But it’s better. The first two bars are starting to sound right. Maybe a few more tries. And then I’ll be able to put it down. Okay, just one more and I’ll walk away. I mean it.