My first guitar was a Japanese Les Paul wannabe
with a warped neck I’m certain was manufactured
in Staten Island, in Paul Majewski’s basement,
circa 1982. We knew the best ones were built in the States,
Gibsons & Fenders we couldn’t afford.
The best amps were British Hiwatts or Marshalls,
hand wired, tubes glowing like party lights, those parties
we never attended. We were poor children of poor parents.
Our heroes made do, made music from distortion—
Wayne Kramer, James Williamson, Ron Asheton,
names so ordinary they might have been written
under a class photograph. In school the sisters
assured us we could do anything, just not rock n roll
or art; not anything sexy, anything glamorous or fun.
What we were ravenous for we never received:
that guitar refused to stay in tune & turned
my left hand into a claw. Don’t ask
what happened to Majewski—maybe jail,
a jealous husband. More likely he just drove off
into an adulthood of average jobs,
an above average mortgage: that slow drizzle that never
becomes a full blown torrent. He lived with his mother, &
we’d escape, nights, into punk dives or else
into cassette tapes delivered by boombox, the first song
always the same, Robin Tyner insisting
we kick out the jams, motherfuckers. We wanted
to kick out the doors & windows, too. Kick out the night.
There was that small brick ranch in Royal Oak
with its flower gardens & sadnesses
of in-laws with their secret hurts. My wife & I
would visit on summer holidays until the barbecue grill
became just another smoldering. So many hot coals
in the suburbs, in that marriage, in the country,
and so I’d just take off some afternoons,
stop at the stores on Woodward Avenue where out-of-luck
axe-men pawned old Gibsons & Vox amps, where
I could play for a while, first a Mosrite
followed by a Rik then a Gretsch or whatever else
hung on the walls. Nickel strings digging again
into my fingertips. I moved from shop to shop:
Music Castle, Motor City Instrument Exchange,
Woodward Guitars, take a pick from a glass jar,
plug in. I wanted what the guitars had to say,
the inflection of sustain & overdrive, a feedback
barrage Fred Smith & Wayne Kramer understood,
a revolution in fuzz tones. It was the third of July.
Already those streets of pastoral names reeked
of sulfur & lilac, maybe a lead lick of honeysuckle.
We could be anything, we once believed, but even
then, all I recognized were the frowns of my wife,
the gospel of bills & bank statements to which we tithed,
so I knew I couldn’t afford that American Flag
Fender Coronet with the single humbucker
just like Kramer used to play
on Back in the USA (it could have been his, he was
made in Detroit, after all). From the tuning pegs,
the price tag dangled like a dog tag. I knew
in a way I hadn’t known I’d been taught, I was
finally getting hip to the American Ruse.
I couldn’t afford the revolution. But still, it came.
Gerry LaFemina is the author of numerous books of poetry including, most recently, Little Heretic. He is an Associate Professor at Frostburg State University and serves as a Poetry Mentor in the Carlow University MFA program.