This Yamaha Red Label FG-180 guitar was probably built in 1969. The woman in the guitar store next to the Loyola Theatre in Westchester said Jimmy Webb had been in the week before and picked up this very Yamaha and played a few chords. She couldn’t believe I’d never heard of Jimmy Webb. It was March, 1970, and I’d just returned from active duty in Forts Bliss and Huachuca. Having talked to some other guitarists, I already knew the FG-180 was the guitar I wanted for the money I had, factory made in Japan, so inexpensive, but playable, reliable, and sound worthy. The guitar, case included, cost $100, a Martin dreadnought knockoff, no extra charge for the Jimmy Webb back story.
A back story is a forward. The forward is not a trailer, nor is it an abstract. The back story never spoils. It’s an appetizer. The back story, moving forward, provides the predicament that explains the current situation. Without a back story, new episodes drift aimlessly and meaninglessly, random dead links. The back story deflates absurdity and fills the reader with hope. The back story is a proposal, a hypothesis, an argument.
My first guitar was a hand-me-down from a neighbor friend, but its neck was broken by an early girlfriend jumping off the top bunk. I then purchased for $25 from an ad in the South Bay Daily Breeze newspaper, a nylon string, plywood top Orlando.
What is the relationship between physicists’ string theories and guitar? The on-line forums for both are full of confusing, contradictory claims, but full of back stories. A guitar often comes with a back story. Several guitar cases were recently spotted for sale in thrift shops, but the guitars were long gone. We might have some idea the age of the universe, but is it old or young, and what does it matter? The Ventura guitar case the guitar shop offered to throw in today shows the wear and tear of travel in a deuce and a half, to Fort Liggett and Camp Roberts and Camp Pendleton, and later trips to gold rush country and various ocean beaches, and not a few years sleeping in a dank basement while the guitar enjoyed an open stand in the living room.
This FG-180 has a spruce, two-piece solid top, mahogany sides, and a two-piece mahogany back. The neck is a thick bar of nato of one piece with the head. The fretboard is one quarter inch thick rosewood. The Yamaha link (above) says the backs were three-piece, but the top and back of this one are both two-piece, book matched. The bridge is rosewood. The FG stands for folk guitar. This one has a thin crack in the back of the head, at the top of the neck.
The top under the bridge has lifted some, and the head crack is a bit worrisome; light or extra-light strings will reduce tension. The FG-180 is now set up with D’Addario XL Chromes, flat wound, jazz light gauge, electric guitar strings. The electric strings when played acoustically don’t produce as loud or deep or full a sound as acoustic strings, but they pop, ping, and twang, “like a steel rail humming” (Pete Seeger, “Hobo’s Lullaby”), and if you do want to plug the guitar into an amplifier, use an old fashion, Dean Markley sound hole fitted pickup.
In Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life,” Slavoj Zizek explains how we are seduced by ideology. If the universe has a back story, our present predicament can be explained, even if the explanation makes no sense. The Big Bang is a big back story. When an effect tickles or bites or bombards or floods us, we search for a cause. We reconsider our back stories.
We somehow must work and rework, correct or clarify, our back stories into our instantaneous presentations and performances amid the distractions, commercials, hypes, phobias, click bait, news tsunamis – the whole bafflegab of what’s up now.
Zizi Papacharissi, in “A Networked Self,” appears to understand the ability to “back-story” (to verbalize a noun, to go with the flow, “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” as Eliot said in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) as an adaptation skill, the ability to adapt to changes in social environments, from a supposed fixed state, where the self was assumed to be a character bound in a book with a lineal story, to a fluid self that is constantly seeking its own level, walking on the deck of a small boat, changing with every social interaction, mimicry as a survival technique (elasticity of demand in a social market):
“Narratives about the self have always been performative. That’s what renders aspects of our identity a discourse. What changes is that performativity is augmented through online means of self presentation. And it is this enhanced theatricality, afforded by certain online platforms (SNSs, and various forms of blogs and microblogs), that individuals find most appealing.
Sociability is practiced to the network, via the network. Performances of the self enable sociability, and these socially oriented performances must carry meaning for multiple publics and audiences without sacrificing one’s true sense of self. These polysemic performances not only contain many layers of meaning, but are remixed and remixable – sampling digital traces of identity to piece together performances that are further remixed and re-interpreted by multiple audiences and publics.”
That could be used as a back story that may now explain the emergence of the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. The revival, originally acted out in small coffee shops, living rooms, and campus settings, was at first minimally commercial. Few expected to earn a life-long living from singing folk song covers, but that wasn’t the goal, and the identity of the performer was inseparable from the identity of the audience. The audience participated in the performance. But that participation wasn’t a surge of fans aspiring to go on stage. There often wasn’t a stage, and each time a song was sung it was renewed in an altered form. Many of these performances were not recorded. They were passed on as living songs. Folk music is chameleon and transferable.
One of my older sisters sang in a high school folk group, “The Travelling Trio.” Their travels did not take them out of the Los Angeles Basin. They sang in living rooms and the local high school gym. Imagine a young Judy Garland singing Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” But unlike my sister, whose voice flowed like melted chocolate over fresh strawberries, your voice sounds like a galvanized plumbing pipe rattling in the wall with trapped air bubbles. Such a voice might confuse Tom Waits with Hedy West. Still, your Kentucky grandfather played the spoons and the harmonica, to add more filler to your back story, and you were an easy target for the music bug early on.
But a singing gig was not to become part of your back story. You played finger style. You liked the guitarist John Fahey, saw him play at Long Beach State and again at the Ash Grove. Not only did he not sing, on stage he never said a word. You were playing what you pretended was folk blues and fell into jazz. You took up what you called jazz guitar, though not everyone necessarily heard it that way.
Classical guitar lessons are useful for a few years. Your fingers already know how to play, but your brain doesn’t always know what they are doing. Over time, you’ll use up several teachers who will walk you through a couple of Aaron Shearer books, and a few of the Frederick Noad books, and teach you the Segovia scale method (which you might later hear Joe Pass dis, along with the number system). Your first teacher will probably introduce you to Leo Brouwer and his “Etudes Simples.” The Cuban composer’s short pieces are of course not all that simple, but at least you don’t have to sing. You’ll learn to read, slowly, like a stuttering primary school student, and learn enough to work through a Dionisio Aguado book, “Studi Per Chitarra,” on your own. You’ll learn by heart the old cliché: “The guitar is the easiest of instruments to play poorly, the most difficult to play well.” You’ll return to jazz and folk and find your breath and take solace in another cliché: “Close enough for jazz.”
Close enough substitutes feeling for the pursuit of perfection which as Cornel West explains in “Examined Life” is the romantic road to disappointment. So it was in the spirit of close enough that I answered an invitation from Sunshine Dixon to read a poem at an artists’ reception in the campus library, but I suggested that instead of reading a poem I might bring my old FG-180 guitar and sing a folk song. I worked up a folk version of “Gospel Plow,” using Dylan’s version on his first album as inspiration. If a recording pops up on-line somewhere I’ll add a link to the back story or upload a piece of it to SoundCloud. Maybe sister Peggy Ann will tune in.
And if you’d like to read more about the artists’ reception, Sunshine and I collaborated on a short article now on-line here, already part of a back story.