Whole lotta shakin’ … not going on

Time is a strange beast. Sometimes a straight line plummetting down into the depths, dragging us down as it goes, sometimes a great circle and we sit on the circumference watching our present, our past, and our future whizz by, just out of reach. Ok, maybe it’s a spiral. The fact is, that every so often we revisit our past. Past girlfriends, past places, past lives. We know that everything will be different, yet we still strangely expect it to be the same.

Yesterday I bumped into my past, my present and my future simultaneously. And it was strange. What made it particularly strange is that while said bumping was in occurrence, I noticed that the strangeness had been noted on facebook. ‘Waiting for Jedi’, read the status report.

I suppose I ought to explain. Yesterday, I popped out of the ‘office’ to visit a friend and old student. Make no mistake, this gentleman is a highly accomplished guitarist. Like me, he has trod the publishing boards, producing articles, columns and cds for various publications. Now, I don’t mind admitting that I was somewhat nervous. After all, when I was teaching him, I was uber-guitarist (rock), and my every note was hung upon by students such as he. I was worried that he would dazzle me into some humility – is that it? I’m unsure.

No. I wanted to be dazzled. And I wasn’t disappointed. While by his own admission a little rusty, he showed a maturity in his playing which was very impressive.

I was worried that he would think I sucked. That he would re-consider his opinion of me. That would hurt.

So, I’m explaining the parky’s and showing how frigid and rigid my left hand is (and yesterday, for some reason – tension? – it really was pitiful) and then picked up a guitar. Yes, I could barely string two notes together, but there were flashes of what my fingers could once do. I explained that so far as I can see, actions burnt into one’s muscle memory are less affected than those which require active nerve impulses. It’s the will which is denied by this disease. All the same, my fingers were less than impressive.

He fired up his amp, stuck on a backing track, and began to wail, as they say. I won’t lie, I was itching to have a go, but really rather scared at the possible outcome. After all, I have hardly picked up an electric guitar in the last ten years – I’ve probably spent as long playing an electric in that time as I used to spend in a day practising. And to add to that, I couldn’t remember the last time I played with an amplifier. It must be four or five years.

So. The track finishes. He hands me his guitar as naturally as can be, and I begin. It’s faltering at first, but my fingers begin to loosen up just a little, and every so often a nice little phrase pops out, or a burning little run flies from the speakers … in parts, it’s not bad.

He is very kind about my playing – overly so, but in some ways he’s right. There is some stuff still there. Some glimpses of what I used to be capable of.

But there is a caveat.

Every time I get to the end of a phrase – no matter whether it’s been any good or not – my fingers simply stop. Phrasing on a guitar is so dependent on that note, because it’s the pay-off … the note which you stamp with your personality. The note which you vibrato.

I discover something about vibrato. It doesn’t live in the muscle memory. It’s an instruction. You actively make the note sing.

I. Have. No. Vibrato.

This is shocking. Vibrato is one of the great leveller in guitaristic circles, and it’s one of the things parkinson’s has taken away. Ironic, really. A good, good friend said on hearing of my diagnosis that I ought to get a lap steel guitar, because ‘you’ll have the best vibrato’. The shaking palsy, however, seems to be preventing me from shaking notes. That, children, is the true definition of irony.

Now, I know that this disease, and the therapy which accompanies it, has changed me, in some ways quite fundamentally. As a guitarist, however, it has robbed me of my identity. Bastard.