Playing Hooky

By Dan Dunkle | Dec 08, 2011

“I think we need to start talking about what's really important here,” I said to Mike. “Like what kind of T-shirts do we need?”

Forming a band is never easy, especially when you can't really play your instruments yet, but Mike and I decided not to let that bother us.

I took the week after Thanksgiving off, not realizing that my wife was going to be super busy that week and the kids were back in school. The result? A full week of playing hooky.

You know how you have that thing you like to do, but you never get to do it because you're always at work or have a family thing going on? Maybe you like to cook gourmet food or play golf or have a secret ambition to beat the all-time top score ever at Q*bert. For me, that thing is guitar.

My love of guitar goes back as long as I can remember. My parents used to play videos of Elvis when I was a kid and I would mimic his moves with my Snoopy guitar (blame my parents. I was too young to know better). In sixth grade, I became aware of music pop culture when I heard Van Halen's “Jump” for the first time. In seventh grade I got my first boom box for Christmas allowing me to blast Starship, Springsteen and the Miami Vice Soundtrack.

I bought my first real six-string down at the five-and-dime. No I didn't! That was Bryan Adams. We didn't even have a five-and-dime.

No, I bought my first real six-string at a yard sale for six dollars. You couldn't keep the thing in tune, but since I couldn't really play, it didn't make much difference. I did play it until my fingers were all blistery and painful, eventually developing the callused left finger tips that I consider a badge of honor.

For a while in high school, I used to play around with the guitar with my buddies, Scott, Mike and James. James was on the drums and Scott was the guitarist, keyboard player and songwriter. He used to sing kind of like Tom Petty, I thought, and we played the songs he wrote into his old four-track. Despite my enthusiasm, I was always kind of the weakest link musically, making little progress.

When I was about 25, newly married and working as an unemployed writer, Christine bought me a nice Washburn acoustic guitar and I started applying myself to learning songs like “Blister in the Sun” by the Violent Femmes and various tunes by U2 and the Beatles.

Since then, I've played pretty steadily, enough to keep my calluses, but since I never took proper lessons, my progress has been kind of stunted. At some point I added an electric guitar to my collection.

Then recently, I've discovered this wonderful thing. You can get step-by-step guitar lessons online! So here I was playing hooky from work, sitting in front of the computer learning how to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Disarm” by Smashing Pumpkins and Johnny Cash's “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Despite the fact that I'm still slow and unskilled, for the first time in years I'm also progressing.

The other thing is, it's funny how when you're home from work on a weekday, it still feels like a weekday. My buddy Mike and I had this feeling playing around with guitars in my dining room like we were getting away with something. When Christine came home for lunch, I felt oddly guilty. “Shush, shush, turn the amp off! A grownup's here!”

Mike is a real musician. He even went to college for it. I think he said he majored in piano. I didn't even know that was a major. I wonder what is the most obscure instrument to major in at music school. “Hey, I'm majoring in triangle.”

The cool thing is when Mike comes over he can actually make our piano sound pretty darn good. He and I have been joking about forming a garage band for a long time. I've been encouraging him to get one of those keytars from the eighties, which is basically a keyboard that you sling over your shoulder with a strap and play it like a guitar. It's one of those items that's so lame it's kind of cool in a retro way. Being a smart person, he has opted instead to start learning guitar.

For a while we did that thing where we would say, “Do you know this song?” “No.” “How 'bout this one?” “No!”

Finally, we agreed to learn two songs for next week: “Disarm” and “Folsom Prison,” two songs that have never been put together before. I'm hoping they go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

The whole thing has given me a bizarre sense of purpose. Now listening to my iPod isn't goofing off. It's research. So is watching a guy with a thick foreign accent play through the Johnny Cash guitar solo.

Of course, this week, it's back to reality. I'm no longer playing hooky and I won't have the time to devote to this cause.

But even though I'm the mild-mannered reporter by day (more like the ill-mannered to be honest), in my head, I'm a rock star.

Now all I need is the right T-shirt.

Dan Dunkle has moved to Thursdays. He still lives in Rockland with his wife, two children and spastic kitty cat.

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