I want to return today to the thoughts that Chuck Levin has inspired in me this week. I am blessed with one of those moms that send me newspaper clippings in the mail, with little notes written on the paper just in case I can't determine which article was meant for me. This week's installment was a profile of Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center, a music store in Silver Spring, MD, where I spent a good amount of my teenage shopping time.
The opening line of the article grabbed my attention: "Maybe your junior high school band teacher tipped you off." This is precisely what happened to me. Well, it was my brother's high school band teacher, because my school didn't have a band- I substituted this by participating in the Handbell Choir, but that's a whole other post in itself.
When I was 13, I started a band with two of my friends, mainly because we idolized Gwen Stefani and also had a huge crush on Gavin Rossdale. I had no idea what to do with a guitar, and was mainly writing lyrics, playing piano, and starting to find my singing voice. My parents, tipped off by the formidable Mr. Earl Jackson – the archetypal band teacher – supplied me with an electric guitar from Chuck Levin's and that was my introduction to the store. Over the years, I made multiple trips back there, for an acoustic guitar, to help others pick out equipment, or just to browse. I had a lot of friends that lived in the area, and I would frequently stop in if I was passing by, just to walk around and touch things, really.
Chuck himself died a few years ago; I knew when it happened because my mom sent me the clipping for his obituary. I haven't been to the store in years; I haven't been in Silver Spring for years, but I am happy to read this article and discover that it's still alive and kicking. Here's the link to the article.
Well, that's just background. What I've been thinking about has little to do with my teenage memories of the store, but it has a lot more to do with the obsession of musical "gear." Stores like Chuck Levin's have this ability to cast a reverential patina over even the smallest of trinkets. Glockenspiels, guitar straps, effects pedals, small percussion instruments and cases, for instance. Don't even get me started on the guitars and the amplifiers.
My personal experience of "gear" has fluctuated over time. I definitely sympathize with the desire for new toys, and the way that novelty actually spurs creativity. The proud feeling of belonging to a tradition, whether it's the tradition of being a Chuck Levin's customer, or the tradition of the Telecaster, there's a way that simply by owning these things, you are participating in a History of Events. On the other hand, since that complicated stretch of months where I had to pack up three years of a life in Charlottesville into one suitcase bound for Paris, and then somehow compromise later on with a Civic-full of the life that I brought with me to Seattle, I've learned to detest owning things, especially large, awkward-shaped heavy things.
I foresaw a little bit of this problem of material right before all the moving happened, and so I did the obvious. I went to Chuck Levin's, and I went to Guitar Center, and I picked out the best, most versatile guitar I could find, haggled the price between the two stores, winced as I made out the biggest check I've ever written to date, and told myself that it was a done deal. No need to take three guitars to an as-yet-undetermined location on the west coast. No need to negotiate between the big, wooden sound of my mom's old Yamaha, the convenience of my acoustic-electric, and the bad-ass-ness of my electric. I decided to have the best of all worlds and stick with one guitar.
Two years later, I am still incredibly happy with this decision- I love my guitar and it serves me well. Still, I frequently find myself in music stores, running my fingers down the weathered side of an old Martin, or doodling on a flashy Strat. I have moods where I consider buying things. A cheap classical guitar in a thrift store sometimes makes sense; other times I am more focused on percussion, which is why I mentioned the glockenspiel. I have, despite my desire for an ascetic setup, acquired certian things. Bongo drums, shakers, two keyboards and a harmonica in the key of C. I've found that it's creatively stimulating to both nurture the gear obsession and also restrain it. Striking a balance seems to be important. I've arrived at my own through a series of coveted objects and kind gifts.
I am the kind of musician that has a trusty relationship with my guitar. I haven't named it, or even given it a gender; it's no Lucille. Nevertheless, I would feel a bit like a traitor if I had to divide my time between more than one. There would be an entire drama in my head, involving two (possibly more) inanimate objects in competition for my love and affection. Is that self-centered or what?
Materialism is built into our culture, so much so that it's pretty obvious how people's sense of identity is tied to the objects they own. This is why "branding" is so effective (and I put the word in quotes because I don't actually think that it is a new concept, just a new marketing description which is itself a brand). I don't expect to be able to step outside of myself and actually avoid these feelings; I don't think there's anything bad about it until it gets out of hand. Maybe self-imposed restraint is my way of preventing total chaos (financial, spatial, audible, mental, neighborly, etc…). Or maybe I'm just waiting for a bigger closet.