Getting Good

Richard Russo

Summer 2017

I was in junior high—as middle school was called back then—when I heard my first live band. The venue was the gym where we hormone-driven eighth-grade boys ran laps, climbed ropes, played dodgeball, and wrestled, in the process converting our recent cafeteria lunch—half a ham-salad sandwich and a shallow bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup—to methane. I’d been to dances before at the YWCA, but in that smaller gym a DJ spun records. This was different. Hearing the same songs I’d listened to on the radio thundering through guitar amplifiers, the insistent bass thumping so hard that the bleachers vibrated, was a revelation. I all but levitated. This was for me.

The boys in the band were older by what—two or three years? Four at the most, but an eternity back then. And cool? Dear God. Their longish, shiny hair was slicked back on the sides, their pompadours somehow dangling down over their foreheads and swaying to the music’s urgent beat. They wore white shirts and narrow ties, dark jackets and tight “pegged” pants. When they stepped up to the microphone to sing “Baby, Wha’d I Say,” they seemed almost to whisper into the mics, but their voices boomed and echoed off the walls, the pulses and crackles of their low-slung Fender guitars seeming disconnected from both the fingers of their left hands, which flew over the frets, and their barely moving right hands, as they picked and strummed. The songs themselves weren’t perfect, like the more polished and heavily orchestrated versions played on the radio, but to me they were so much better. Hearing the former, you’d smile and nod your head. In the gym—never mind the wafting aroma of dirty socks and sour jockstraps—you could sense in every ringing, echoing note the thrilling proximity of something you couldn’t name or even describe. Freedom was part of it, but more than that, power. Music played this loud by tall, lean boys showed even the school’s thick-necked bullies what mattered and what didn’t. Though trying to look nonchalant, they hung on every note as hungrily as dweebs like me. The boys behind those roaring sunburst guitars altered our world and in the same instant ruled it. It would be decades before I’d want anything as much as I did to be one of them. Before that eighth- grade moment my most fervent wish had been that my father, long banished, might return to the house my mother and I shared with my grandparents in an upstate New York mill town. Afterward, there were things I needed more than him and an intact family. A guitar. An amp. A mic.

What do you do with such visceral yearning?

If all you have is a cheap acoustic guitar, you start saving the money from your after-school job for a cheap electric one, and after that you somehow manage to buy a secondhand amplifier about a quarter the size of those in the gym. Everything that comes out of it sounds fuzzy because some other boy with a need identical to yours has blown one of its two tiny speakers. Next, you join forces with a kid who dreams of being a drummer and whose parents have promised him a set for Christmas, and another boy who also plays guitar—his is better than yours—and has a decent amp. When the drummer gets his drums, his parents let you practice in their basement. Somehow, somewhere, you locate a couple microphones, which means both mics and guitars are now plugged into your good amp. It takes you forever to find the setting that doesn’t result in ear splitting feedback. Your drummer doesn’t think of the band as a collaboration so much as a competition between members. He wants to bang, so bang he does. The song he’s beating out is only tangentially related to the one the guitars are playing. He works himself into a frenzy of wallops that don’t take into consideration where you are in the song, its slow build toward climax. Sometimes he doesn’t even notice when you stop playing, just keeps pounding until he’s spent. He hates ballads because he’s not permitted to work himself into his preferred ecstatic state.

You suck, but you keep practicing. The drummer takes lessons, improves. You all do, though it’s hard to tell how much because your needs—better instruments, amps and mics—are so great, so far beyond your economic reach. Also, you need an audience. You need feedback, and not the sort that comes out of your amplifier when you turn up the guitars and the mics so you can be heard over the drums. One of the few things you need that doesn’t cost money is a name for the band, so you obsess about that as if it were your most pressing concern. You go through the list of car names, most of which have been taken. Have you arrived on the scene too late? You need to look like a band, which means clothes. You can’t afford the skinny black suits those other boys had, and even if you could your parents would never let you out of the house looking like that. They understand you’re in the grip of something powerful, though, so they confer and buy you matching fuzzy sweaters, powder blue.

Even though it costs money to enter, you sign up for a county-wide Battle of the Bands to be waged at the old armory, where three or four hundred kids will hear you. Even as you set up your equipment, long before the first note is struck, you can tell the other four bands will be better. With your two small amps you won’t be heard above the ambient noise of the crowd, and the tiny part of you that’s tethered to reality whispers in your ear that this may be a blessing in disguise. You’re up first. People are still arriving when you play your two-song set, which only people standing next to you can hear. Later your friends drift over and ask when you’re going on, and you have to explain that you already did. No surprise, you finish last. Fifth out of five. Nor, as it turns out, is this the worst humiliation of the evening. In the armory parking lot, you watch the boys in the other bands load their instruments into an armada of vehicles—pickup trucks, vans, rented U-Haul trailers; the winning band has a repurposed hearse. Yours is the only band whose equipment fits, with room to spare, into one rig, the back of the drummer’s parents’ pathetically uncool Nash Rambler station wagon.

Monday, after school, you do a postmortem. You tell yourself you’d sound better with better equipment, but in your heart of hearts you know you’d only sound louder. At the end of the week, your other guitarist announces he’s quitting and taking with him the only good amp. Face it, you’re a joke. You and the drummer, sick at heart, look for another guitarist. You hear about a Jewish kid who’s supposed to be good, so you give him a try and he is good. He’s been studying classical guitar for several years and seems not even to have heard of rock and roll. You invite him to join the band anyway because there’s nobody else. You tell him where his parents can buy the requisite powder-blue sweater.

Since you’re fourteen, you don’t understand that far worse than not having what you need is not knowing what you need. That you need so much—better instruments, a sound system that’s separate from your guitar amplifier, the means to get to gigs in the unlikely event that anyone hires you—obscures the fact that what you need most, which renders your other needs irrelevant, is to get good. Right now all you’ve really got is this terrible, relentless hunger to strap on a Fender Stratocaster, plug it into a killer amp, step up to the mic and make the kind of music that doubles as a sledgehammer. Nothing else matters.

Hunger has no business preceding ability, but it always does, with no exceptions.

Richard Russo is the author of nine novels, most recently the best-selling "Everybody's Fool" and "That Old Cape Magic," and the memoir "Elsewhere." In 2002, he received the Pulitzer Prize for "Empire Falls."

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