Listen Up: I Don't Know What I'm Talking About

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Over the weekend, at an antiques shop in Athens, Ga., there was a girl wandering around the back of the store while she waited to hear from a certain dealer if she could buy the old organ he had for sale for less than the price he’d tagged it with. He wasn’t in the shop so it was happening by phone; she was trying to talk the guy down from $100, or $125, because the thing was clearly maybe a little broken. It was a small place and I heard her talking with the cashier, and I heard her again talking with the boy she was with as they browsed one of the back booths, biding time.

“Do you even play the piano?” he asked her.

“Well, no,” she said. “But an organ’s easier—easier to mess around with the different things.”

In Athens, I assume that everyone under the age of 40 who is not clearly associated with one Panhellenic organization or another is in a band. It was Saturday morning and she did not have a ponytail and didn’t look like she was wearing her boyfriend’s gym clothes so I figured the busted organ was probably going to be put to use in some sort of tweaky bedroom project named after a woodland creature. And I guess it still could be. But there was something in the way she dismissed the boy’s question that made me think, you know, she really has no idea what she’s going to do with this thing. Maybe she can play other things—guitar, maybe. Autoharp. Some other strange broken thing she found in an antique store. But the defensiveness in her voice was familiar. It was the sound of a person who does not know how to play, and whose inability to do so is utterly incongruous with their life. I recognized it because that’s a truth of my life, too.

I can’t play anything. It is both for lack of trying and not for lack of trying. Growing up, there were two Casio keyboards in my family’s house that I used to intermittently bang on, but mostly just used for the one pre-set tune they each played, which I would turn on and dance around to for what I remember to be hours and hours and hours, perhaps because my parents were into more rootsy music and it was the only danceable stuff I could find besides once inexplicable 7-inch single of “Macho Duck” wedged between Allman Brothers and Buffalo Springfield LPs on the record shelf. If you ask me, I can still sing you the wordless song that the older of the two Casios, the one you had to plug into the wall, would play. I don’t know if it has a name.

When I was nine, I was supposed to learn to play the recorder along with the rest of my third grade class under the tutelage of Ms. Beene, our elementary school music teacher, who wore a wig and wool sweaters and long wool skirts and thick, opaque pantyhose and Teva sandals all year long. She had a large wart on one toe that protruded through the pantyhose between the sandal-straps and the older kids told the little kids would make them blind if they ever looked at it; her classroom was one of the half-dozen double-wide trailers plopped into a little ostensibly-temporary annex behind the old, overcrowded school, under which there were frequently skunk infestations. In her world all you needed to know about music was the biographical details of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, and how to keep a steady beat with one wooden stick against another while chanting “tee tee / ta ta,” and she rewarded our good trivia-retention and beat-keeping with gold stars and miniature marshmallows. Every year she would attempt to teach every single third-grader at the school to play the recorder. In 1993, I contributed to her failure of this goal because I sat next to a boy named Bradley who was so horribly behaved that I spent so much time of every class trying to get him to be quiet so that I could hear the lesson that I never heard a lesson. By the time I told Ms. Beene about it and Bradley was moved away from me, it was too late. At the end of the year, everyone could play the recorder except me and Bradley, but he got a second chance because he was held back the next year. I felt partly responsible—because I’d told on him—but not guilty. It seemed like a more useful contribution to the world than the ability to play a weird plastic flute.

In high school, the summer between sophomore and junior year, I had a guitar in my possession for three months. My cousin Marie, my best friend, was across the state at Governor’s School, learning about Shakespeare and darkroom photography and living in a college dorm with a bunch of kids she didn’t know. I had applied but I didn’t get in. As a consolation, I guess, I got to babysit the undersized six-string that had once belonged to her grandmother, but not the grandmother we shared. She also lent me her How To Play Guitar Book. At that time I didn’t know the Radiohead song “Anyone Can Play Guitar” but I generally felt that to be true. I blazed through the first few lessons in the book, which addressed such subjects as, like, How To Hold Your Guitar and How To Generally Strum. And I learned the first song, “The EFG Song.” I owned “The EFG Song.” I would play it over and over, that summer. When my other friends who didn’t get into Governor’s School would come over to hang out, I would often show off my mastery of “The EFG Song.” I was very proud. I was supposed to quickly move on to the next song—whatever the second-easiest combination of chords would be, I guess—but for some reason “The EFG Song” seemed like enough.

That was my last real attempt. I guess instead of learning how to play music, I spent the next few years of my life becoming someone who writes about it. And so this is true: I cannot play music, I cannot read music, I cannot listen to a song and tell you what chord is being played or what key it’s in or what time signature it is in. My boyfriend recently picked up his guitar and asked me to tell him some chords to play and I rattled off some letters that I knew corresponded to things that come out of a guitar and the sounds that resulted did not correspond to any expectation I had for them. He taught himself to play guitar in high school; he has tried to teach me to teach myself since then, but it did not even go so well as “The EFG Song.” Marie, actually, also taught herself to play guitar eventually, and now writes songs about redwood trees and banana slugs for the outdoor nature school she works at in California. I know it’s possible for me to acquire this skill, but my ignorance is so wrapped up in my relationship with music that I’m not sure how I would function if I knew anything.

When I hear music, I do not hear notes. I hear sounds. Sounds that I like or that I don’t like or that I’m not sure about, sounds that sometimes sound like other sounds, sounds that I wish sounded like other sounds. I am still trying to figure out who I am as a music writer and what I want to do when I write about music but one thing that I am pretty sure about is that this is actually a useful way to hear at things, because a lot of other people hear them the same way and find it useful to have someone in the shit that speaks their non-language. Then again, if I was more in line with that old cliche—the music writer as failed musician, fueled by thwarted rock ‘n’ roll pipe-dreams of my own—perhaps it would be more respectable, and less like I’m a sports announcer of some game that I know the name of, but not the rules or what half of what’s on the field is called.

On Saturday, when I finally wandered out of the antique shop, the girl was still there, waiting for her offer to get the OK. Haggling via telephone takes a while, I guess. The organ was up by the door and she was there, standing guard, wistfully fiddling with it. She pressed some keys and some combination of them sounded like they maybe could be a song—low, dull wheezing tones, like the work of a drunk baseball-stadium organist the day after his dog died and his car got impounded. (That guy—that guy knows more about the game than me.) I laughed a little to myself as I walked outside, laughed at this girl and her fixation on this old thing that was so clearly broken and more expensive than it needed to be and which she clearly didn’t know how to work either way. But I hope she got her deal and I hope she got it home in one piece and I hope right now she’s futzing around on the thing, driving her roommates crazy and making strange, lovely sounds that I don’t understand.

Rachael Maddux is Paste’s associate editor. Her column appears at PasteMagazine.com every Monday.

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