I didn’t buy a guitar yesterday. I was going to. I had, the day before, arranged to visit the seller, and then I realized something and didn’t go. But I almost did…
The story starts around 40 years ago in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. A couple of years earlier, I had become involved with a church youth group whose leader was musically inclined. In the late 1970s, this was virtually a requirement for any one working with youth (as it seemed to me, at least, that the world was not so much a place of smells and colors and textures, but of sounds). This guy played a 12-string Martin guitar, and that sound. That sound!
My mother had a small, poorly-made, Kingston guitar. A decoration, really, rather than an instrument, that sat in a corner. But only a few weeks after hearing the leader of my church group play his 12-string guitar, an instrument that to this day puts me in mind of angels singing, I picked up her little guitar, pressed a lens out of a pair of cheap sunglasses to use as a pick, and tried it. It was, of course, horribly out of tune; it hadn’t been touched for years. I managed, with the aid of a pitch pipe, to get it tuned. Then I picked up the book she had tried to use to learn to play the thing. If you’re of a certain age, the name “Mel Bay” will strike fear into your fingers, and this was, indeed, an introduction to the Mel Bay Method of guitar playing.
I almost quit. Almost. I did quit a couple of times. But those angels were still there in my head.
I was living at home at the time, and one day I wandered into a music store in the local mall—I think it was Schmidt Music in Rosedale—and there on the wall, above the various home organs, were guitars. Ovation guitars.
Ovation was one of the best-known brands, distinctive, because while they had wooden tops and necks and (usually) six strings, that was where the resemblance to conventional instruments ended. Where regular guitars have backs and sides made of some hardwood, typically rosewood, mahogany, or maple, Ovations had a black plastic bowl. Known informally as round-backs, they were produced by a company that had originally been founded to make durable plastic parts for military helicopters.
One of the guitars was beautiful model called the Country Artist. Unlike most folk guitars, it had nylon strings, which I figured would be a good idea, since at the time I didn’t relish damaging my fingertips with steel strings. Used, with a good case, that guitar was priced at $400. I didn’t have $400, but I did have a cello that my parents had purchased for me years before in the hope that I would take to classical music. I had not taken to classical music and, with a little persuasion, I was able to convince my parents to let me part with the cello in exchange for the guitar. That was one of the best decisions they and I ever made.
Immediately, any and all discretionary funds I possessed started to flow to the purchase of music books that had chord diagrams in them. I learned, and learned, and learned, and learned. I never looked at a Mel Bay book again!
Eventually, an electric guitar joined that Ovation (first a Gibson Marauder, then an Ibanez MC200) and, ultimately, a small Martin OO-18 steel string guitar.
I played the hell out of all of those instruments, building calloused fingers and an ear for arrangements. I occasionally made a little money playing, but mostly I played for myself and for friends.
When I prepared to move to Chicago for graduate school, four years after acquiring the Ovation, I sold all my guitars except the Martin.
I still have that Martin today, and I still play it, and I’ve bought and sold about a half-dozen other guitars over time. The variations are enjoyable. But I’ve had a special place in my heart for that Country Artist ever since. So when I saw one on Craigslist last week, I thought about it, went “nyahh,” thought about it some more, and then finally contacted the seller and planned to go see it the next day.
You have to understand what that guitar meant to me. If I close my eyes, I can still smell its case, the wood and plastic resin scents that wafted from the guitar itself. I can hear and feel its resonance as I plucked the low E string (I was a religious user of Augustine Blue strings, favored by Segovia). I can feel the smooth ebony fingerboard, and see the glow of the beautiful spruce top. I can watch my cat curl up in bowl-shaped velvet of the case while I play.
What struck me between the time I contacted the seller and the time I contacted him again and told him I wasn’t coming to look at it was the nature of nostalgia.
Wanting can, I think, be divided into categories. There is wanting something in the future. That is anticipation, longing, desire. This is wanting but never having had; it’s aspirational.
I always wanted to try an Alembic electric guitar (They were $1,700 in 1976; still produced, they’re around $10,000 today). A few years ago, I finally had the opportunity. The Alembic was everything I had dreamed it would be, and the owner of the guitar shop where I tried it looked like he knew what I was experiencing: the fulfillment of a long-held wish. But he knew that I wouldn’t be buying it. And that trial—that one time that I played an Alembic? It cured me. I still like to look at them, but my desire has been satisfied.
Nostalgia’s not like that. It’s wanting something that you had, but can never have again. It’s a kind of fetishism of symbols.
For me, that Ovation was a symbol—a symbol of friends who’ve passed out of my life through time, distance, and death, of lovers, of the tiny apartment that leaked buckets when it rained, of watching lightning from my balcony, of making candles from discarded crayons, of incense, of sticking flowers in the muzzle of a tank, of eating vegetarian pizza and drinking green tea at the New Riverside Café. Of my favorite college book bag, of classes at the University, of the vast underground bookstore, of the street light shining through a sticker on my window. Of my youth. Of my naivety.
All those things are gone—gone forever—and owning a guitar that I associate with those things won’t bring them back.
Nostalgia isn’t always a terrible thing, because it tells us about ourselves: what we valued then, and how that is connected to what we value now. But buying items that symbolize a past frozen in memory and amber light, I think that is a bad thing.
So I sent an email to the guy selling the guitar. What I wrote was:
I’m not going to look at the guitar tonight after all, and this is my explanation and apology. Essentially, the time when I owned certain instruments (like the Country Artist) was a particularly great time in my life, and it’s for that nostalgic reason as much as any that I want to see it and, after doing so, would likely buy it. But, and it’s an important but, I’m 40 years older, and my little Martin is really all that I need. Guitars are meant to be played, not revered as symbols of the past.
I apologize for making plans with you to see it, and maybe interrupting plans you had already set. It’s a lovely instrument and it deserves to be played and appreciated by someone who loves it for what it is. Unfortunately, that’s not me.
Do I regret not going to at least see that guitar, to pluck its strings one last time? Yes, of course I do. But you know what? There’s a last time for everything. Some day, I will play my Martin guitar for the last time. Some day, I will ride my bike for the last time. Some day, I will type on my computer for the last time. Some day, I will taste chocolate for the last time. Some day, I will close my eyes for the last time. Some day, I will kiss my spouse for the last time.
Nostalgia is a longing to say that there is no last time, that we can always recover our past—our friends, our lost loves. That we can say the right thing instead of the wrong thing even though we said the wrong thing decades ago. That you can always go home again.
Nostalgia is a denial of mortality. But it’s mortality that makes us who are.
Until next time—