Blues in A Minor

Coming to terms with a rock 'n' roll fantasy

David Hollander MFA '97

My dream of rock stardom was born suddenly, on a bone-chilling night in the late 1980s. My buddy Jason and I were driving through the wealth-addled precincts of eastern Long Island, toward a blues club that hosted a weekly open mic. I had been playing guitar for all of six months and had no intention of removing my guitar from the case banging around in the back seat, but I liked pretending that I might. Soon I’d return to the bedroom in my mother’s house, where I spent long hours crying and cursing at myself in the mirror in a way I hoped was dramatic.

My life at the time would have made a good first act in a Lifetime special on teen angst. There had been a halfhearted suicide attempt, a brief hospitalization so as to address the problem of my Beautiful Sadness, a withdrawal from college, and the discovery of entertainment drugs. It might sound dramatic, but you could have thrown a rock into my cardboard subdivision and hit someone with the same story.

We arrived at the club to find a lot of well-dressed 30-somethings drinking at little round tables that floated in a bronze haze of smoke and sophistication. I felt suddenly ridiculous in my torn Hendrix shirt and profanity-covered denim jacket. There were musicians warming up on stage—the open mic’s accompanying house band—and their slick clothes and shiny brass horns suggested that my burgeoning familiarity with the pentatonic scale would fail to blow any minds. “Let’s get out of here,” I told Jason, who only shrugged noncommittally.

A bearded guy in a sharp three-piece spotted my guitar case and ushered me backstage. “What’s your name, man?” he asked, before shaking my hand and wishing me luck. I had no idea what was happening, but instinctively tuned my instrument. A few minutes later, a PA buzzed to life, and I heard God introduce me to the audience.

I stumbled toward the stage. “So what do you want to do?” asked the bearded dude, who was now attached to a saxophone. I wanted to tell him and his musical friends the story of my Beautiful Sadness and beg for their love. Instead I tried, “Blues in A?” In my memory, he counted down from four, like a firing squad’s master of ceremonies.

I bent the hell out of some notes and when by some miracle that didn’t sound too bad, I threw my head back in the same pose Hendrix was striking on my shirt. Maybe it was pity or maybe my appearance mystified the natives, but my first solo was met with robust, life-affirming applause. Some valve inside of me popped open. I felt intensely high. As I descended from that little stage I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life. I was going to be a musician.

Fast forward 25 years to find me now, a middle-aged writing teacher living in a small upstate town, wondering—as we all do in middle age—who dimmed all the lights. I have two beautiful little girls and a wife I love dearly. I have students who count on me. I have my fiction writing. But I am not a professional musician, and nothing has ever replaced the religious experience of making music.

There is, however, a second act. The audience has left the building, and the stage lights have gone cold, but it turns out that my love for the guitar has nothing to do with applause. In the past year, dozens of friends and neighbors have drifted back to dusty instruments, searching for a spark. My wife (who plays piano and bass guitar) and I are writing songs together. In the evening our girls join us for “family rock time” and beat on tambourines or blow harmonicas. A neighbor has organized a weekly “Acoustic Sunday” where players bring their children and their instruments and their bottles of wine. The kids play upstairs, we play downstairs, and for a couple of hours everyone is happy.

It probably looks like a collective midlife crisis, but Acoustic Sunday feels like a communion with the same divine forces that took pity on me 25 years ago, on a Long Island stage amongst well-coiffed bluesmen. Every now and again I’ll play a voicing that slides perfectly inside another player’s chord, and all the compromise and anxiety of adulthood briefly vanish to reveal something pure underneath.

The problem of my Beautiful Sadness resolved itself decades ago. Playing music now is a resistance to ordinary sadness, which is the real killer. That’s something my adolescent self—who dealt only in absolutes—could not have fathomed. If I met him today I’d try to explain. I’d say, Your dreams are not going to come true, but that’s because your dreams are absurd. The world is never going to scream your name, but your little girls will shout “Daddy!” every time you walk through the door. You are going to have a good life. There will be people who love you. And the guitar will always be there, like an old friend, when you really need it.