The other night I had a dream that it was the 90s again and I was trapped in one of my sessions with my then-guitar teacher and he was again forcing me to try and learn how to play “Stairway To Heaven.”
Fucking “Stairway To Heaven.”
I love my guitar. I love playing it, when I play it, which is somewhat more rarer these days. But back then I was full of boundless enthusiasm about learning to play the thing and I was so nervous and so fucking terrible about it. And thus I convinced my mom to pony up the cash to get me a session with some dude with a pony tail at the local guitar shop once a week. This was maybe 1997-ish?
Mind you, all professional guitar teachers have pony tails. It’s like a fucking requirement. Same thing for the schlubby white dudes who work at your local Game Stop. Another Game Stop requirement: That hot Asian/Pacific Islander girl who wears really, really tight pants. After she leaves Game Stop, that girl will go get a job at your local gym and thanks to her, you will never ever ever quit your membership.
Anyway. Six weeks I spent with that dude who wanted me to slave over my guitar until I could play “Stairway To Heaven” in its entirety. “This is a right of passage!” he would scream as my fingers struggled. “But Page just stole this from ‘Taurus’ by Spirit!” I would scream back, but that was irrelevant to my guitar teacher. His name was something unspectacular like… Greg. “All the best mages steal and make the magic of others their own!”
That was a big thing with my guitar teacher: Magic. The occult. The focusing of one’s will onto the world around oneself and interacting and influencing it. Mastering your domain, and achieving a dominion with nature and this goofy playground we call reality. “This song is a magic spell,” he would tell me again and again, “and I want you to get this enchantment right.” It was a big deal to him that I attempt a passable version of Page’s solo. I tried to explain to him that that wasn’t my goal with learning to play the guitar, but it fell on deaf ears…
All I wanted to do was learn how to write songs. I wanted to entertain myself and write little pop ditties. Maybe I’d do something serious with them, but maybe not. They were going to be my own magic, intended for and belonging only to me. Three chords and a melody. That’s what someone had promised me, and with just three chords and a melody I could change my life. I wasn’t interested in learning someone else’s solos or playing them or anything like that, especially not for others’ consumption.
As my young fingers slaved over the fretboard my guitar teacher wanted to fill my head with stories of the occult powers and apprenticeship of Jimmy Page. He wanted to talk about Kenneth Anger and Lucifer Rising. He wanted to talk to me and get me excited about sigils and secret words. He thought it was important that I knew not just about the words and deeds and actions of Aleister Crowley, the “wickedest man in the world,” but that I knew the influence that he had had on some of my favorite musicians.
Mind you, don’t forget: This was the 90s. Back then we were either obsessed with the 70s or told that we should be obsessed with the 70s. And we should be obsessed with their obsessions. Like Tolkien and The Lord Of The Rings and Thelema and Aleister Fucking Crowely.
If you’re interested in the short version on Crowley, it goes like this: He was a shit. And a piece of shit. And full of shit. And he may have been onto something. I’ve talked about him here previously, if you’re interested, but I’ll say this… If there’s truly magic in this world, outside of a young girl’s heart or in music, then he might’ve made some real strides towards discovering it. I’m not exactly what I’d call a full fledged “magic” enthusiast, but I’ve always had an interest in the strange and eye towards a certain level of experimentation. I’ve done my research and from what I understand, you can do some of Crowley’s rituals and get the same results. But the thing is… so what? Do you really want to summon a demon? Look out your window. They’re already here. They’ve taken over!
(And sure, we know that the Devil is a hardcore patron of the Arts, clearly, but then he went down to Georgia and all I want to know is if I were to meet him on the road… Which of us plays the fiddle better?)
And sadly none of this knowledge that was being dropped on me by this sleazy dude with a pony tail and overpriced guitar lessons was new. Maybe/maybe not in this post I’ll go into an anecdote about my dad, but one of the few things my father ever gave me was an extensive collection of esoteric anecdotal knowledge about the heroes and icons and monsters and cunning folk of classic rock. Invite me to a party with your parents and I’ll be a fucking hit. Wanna hear a story about Keith Moon and horse tranquilizers?
Sure you do. But maybe another time. Anyway. After six weeks in a tiny little closet in the back of the guitar shop I finally got up the balls to tell my guitar teacher that enough was a enough. “Look, Gandalf,” I said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Fuck this. Teach me something else.” His style was to learn songs and go from there, so show the technique and the craft behind individual songs, and expand it. It hurt him greatly to have to give up this little spell, but finally he nodded and acquiesced. The next song he taught me was “Angie” by the Rolling Stones.
Thanks to my guitar teacher I always think of this song as an ode to wanting to get fucked. “This song will release the flood, if you know what I mean,” my guitar teacher would tell me. I’d tell him that I didn’t exactly know what he meant and then he’d start a complicated explanation of how exactly the physical effects of arousal come about in a woman’s vagina. I’d cut him off then and say, “Ah, yes. I get it.”
“This song is all about pussy,” he’d tell me, simplifying it. He was a happily married guy, he’d assure me, but whenever he and his bodies would go out of town, he always took his guitar with him. If he met a nice girl, one who intrigued him, he’d pull out the guitar and play “Angie” for her. And then the flood would come, he lead me to believe. “This song will get you into serious trouble,” he’d tell me. “And that trouble is called ‘girls.’”Again, “this song is all about pussy.” And probably the pussy of David Bowie’s first wife, at least from a historical perspective.
I’m not here to talk to you now about my, ah, cocksmanship, or my luck with the ladies, or any of that. Everyone’s got a set of magic words or that perfect song that you can put on and it gets the kind of attention you want from the people you want amorous attention from. What I’m saying here is that was never what the guitar was supposed to be for me. It was not an extension of my dick. It was not a metaphor for my penis and it wasn’t something that I was hoping would get me into any trouble or any women. I’d like to think I’m beyond any kind of cheap metaphors or mentality about women and penetration.
FYI: I grew up, for the most part, in Sacramento, California. In and around that area is where this story is taking place. The thing about Sacramento is that back then, every guy you’d meet who had a ponytail and was over 40 probably had some story about how he was in Tesla for about five minutes. Other than that, the local music scene consisted of all this bad white funk and swing/rockabilly bullshit. That the guitar teachers would consider themselves citizen warlocks isn’t so much of a stretch, but that their world was some kind of undercover seduction community… Well, I guess that wasn’t much of a stretch either. Sigh.
Anyway. After I had mastered “Angie” to the approval of my guitar teacher, we moved on to “December” by Collective Soul.
Sadly, there was no deep knowledge to be dropped on me that had to do with this song or any kind of belief system behind it. It wasn’t about magic nor was it about impressing girls, not as far as my guitar teacher was concerned. It was just a song that was on the radio at the time and he liked it. As far as my tutelage in the guitarsenal (or the guitarmy) was going, it was busy work. Two weeks later I got a call at home from my guitar teacher’s wife to tell me that they were moving out of state and that he wouldn’t be able to continue my lessons, but a good friend of his would and that the first lesson with him would be free to see if we were a good fit. If I was interested. I remember sitting there in the den of my California home and holding that phone and being silent for a long time. I was thinking, I guess, but mostly I was realizing that I didn’t care one way or another. The guy’s wife asked me I was still there and I was and I told her so and I said sure, and told me that the lesson with the other guy would be at the same time at the same place and I said I’d be there. Physically, at least.
Anyway, the replacement guy was a nice Philipino man who’s real name I can’t remember but he kept wanting me to call him Zen. Everyone called him Zen, he assured me, and I had a problem with that. He had a pony tail too, so I knew he was legit. His alternative credentials was that he had been in a band with Perry Farrell about six or seven years earlier, prior to that band’s implosion and Farrell going on to start Jane’s Addiction. I said, “Wow. That’s interesting.” I remember he smiled so big at that. “You love that, don’t you?” he asked. “All you kids love that, that I knew Perry Farrell.” I shrugged. I didn’t really like Perry Farrell. Or Jane’s Addiction. Maybe a song or two. I liked one or two songs by Porno For Pyros. And Dave Navarro looked like a parody of an alternative rock God masquerading as a magician in drag to me.
After that first lesson with the man whom I will sadly now and only now refer to Zen, I went where he instructed would be an abundance of the one album he recorded with that band that included Perry Farrell: Tower Records. Never found it, sadly. Of course not. Maybe it had never actually be conjured in existence. Maybe he had made it all up, which wouldn’t surprise me. That’s the thing about magic, kids: What you want doesn’t exist. It’s bullshit. But if you wrap it in a story and think about it hard enough and tell it right, you can make it real.
Back in the 90s, there was this concept of division in music as well. It’s a cyclical idea, part of our constant search for authenticity and what’s real and our witch hunt for anything that’s untrue. We disliked poseurs back then, I remember. Suddenly we all become Holden Caufield, righteously screaming on into the dying of the light about all those phony people that surrounded us.
That guy that I’ll call Zen here really hated rap and hip hop. He assumed by by my picking up the guitar that I must hate it too. He and I would talk about how Rock vs. Rap was really the battle for the soul of the humanity, or something like that. Just a year or two later, a bunch of assholes would be creating something called “Rap Rock” and it would probably blow his mind. Nevermind that a decade earlier Run DMC and Aerosmith had already shown us that we could all “walk this way.” It was really about taste, what you liked and what you disliked. It wasn’t about the Rockers vs. the Mods, not anymore. Or jazz and rock n’ roll (and the effects both have had on American crime). Some songs are about unification and partying and some are about solitude and otherness. They can be about one or the other and usually they tie into each other. It always comes back to us vs. them, and it’s usually the same. Do you even know what side you’re on?
All I’m saying here is that in some loose definition, all music (and possibly all noise, depending on the listener) is pop, and it doesn’t matter whose side you’re on when you’re marching into the Holy Land to wage your stake in the Crusades, you’ll probably be singing a little song to keep yourself occupied and though the lyrics may change, the melody is probably the same as your enemies’ song. Like what you like and don’t like what you don’t like, because your music belongs to you and only you, but just know that sometimes only the concept of division is what divides and what you like and what you don’t like probably share the same address.
Anyway, that guy Zen and I used to talk about that kind of stuff at the guitar lessons my mom was paying for and, well, they weren’t very deep conversations. Thankfully the lessons weren’t that expensive either.
I’m thinking about this stuff now, but the last I really thought about this all was back in late 1999, or early 2000, a few years after my adventures with the guitar teachers (that was the mid-90s, and I was in high school then). I was homeless, just having turned 18, and I was very much alive in this world and very much adrift. I was living with a mess of a friend, a real asshole (but in our group of friends back then he was our asshole, as Commander Light had so perfectly put it not too long ago). It was late at night one night and we were sitting on a porch, this friend and I, and this hideous girl who he was fucking behind the back of another friend of his. She was a disgusting mess and there was a guitar present. I picked it up, so tuned out of whatever their conversation was about, and I was just finger picking, just finding a tune, something to keep my mind active. At some point I just remember my friend getting so upset with me and grabbing the guitar out of my heads and yelling at me, “That’s not how you play ‘Dazed And Confused’!” and then he proceeded to try to play the Led Zeppelin song for the amusement of his lady friend.
He played it terribly but she was easily amused. Eventually they left me the guitar while they snuck off into the night to fuck somewhere and I just stared out into the dark. I hadn’t been trying to play “Dazed And Confused.” I don’t even know how to play “Dazed And Confused,” nor have I ever cared to learn it. But I certainly felt dazed and confused. And there on that porch in the darkness I played “Stairway To Heaven” all the way through, just as my guitar teacher had taught me and forced me to practice all those years earlier.
That was the only time I’ve played it since I quit the guitar lessons and I haven’t played it since. I don’t even remember how now.
But that was then and this is now and 2500 words later I can tell you that I still have the same guitar I had back then and I still play it occasionally but not like I did back then, sadly. But I still play it for the same reasons I sought it out back then: for myself. For enjoyment. Hell, I don’t even masturbate solely for enjoyment anymore these days (I do it so that I don’t go crazy and kill people).
Magic is just another one of those things, like religion and politics and fresh fruit and an interest in other human beings. You believe in it, but in your way, and it’s not comparable to what or how someone else thinks or how they feel it. When people ask you that stupid question, “What would you choose if you had to pick from one, to be either blind or deaf?” and I think I’d have to ultimately choose to be blind. There’s so much in this life that I think I’m seeing but really not anyway, and plus, as cheesy as it sounds, I think I’d die without music.
In that regard, and in others, I haven’t given up on magic, but magic the way I feel it and understand it and appreciate it and practice it. These aren’t just words and a silly story you’re being told here. This is my incantation and this website is my talisman and hypersigil. And my grimoire. And if you’ve ever written on this website, or read this website, or even just these words right now, well, then you’re a part of my coven. Welcome to the game that’s disguised as everything. We’re telling a story that’s big and crazy and a little bit odd and hopefully a little bit fun and if we want it hard it enough and tell it right then maybe we can make it real. And if you’re lucky it’ll have a good tune that you could dance to.