Four More Blisters

llustration by Mitch Handsone

AROUND 8:30 P.M., AFTER BILL AND DANA and I had eaten dinner and settled back in to work, Hector Schechner called and insisted I buy a cheap electric guitar, immediately. "To build up calluses," he said. Schechner and I had spoken over the weekend. Talked about politics and the tendency of social policies to change in 30-year cycles, because it takes that long for a generation to figure out how badly it had been fucked over by the preceding generation, and then to draw up dreadfully faulty blueprints to correct the errors. Talked about the necessity of certain kinds of blisters, the ones that yield desirable calluses, such as those that afflict the fingertips of players of guitar.

Schechner claimed never to have picked up a guitar, but reacted with some heat when I glumly admitted that, for the first time since I was 15, my fingertips were callusless. He’d hung up on me, in fact, and I hadn’t heard from him since.

"Take a break," Schechner now insisted. "You’re five minutes from Guitar Center. Go there, right now, and buy a cheap electric guitar. A hundred thirty bucks for a Squier with a decent neck. It’ll last all winter."

"I’m at work," I reminded him. "And I don’t have money."

"Take a break. Tell your boss it’s important. Put it on a credit card."

As it happened, my boss, Bill, was a fine guitarist who kept his own cheap electric guitar in the corner of his office, leaning against a small orange couch. Throughout the workday, people came into Bill’s office to conduct business or talk. One of every dozen or so visitors who sat on the couch would foodle around with his guitar. (It wasn’t plugged into an amp or anything.) Probably why some visited in the first place.

"Sounds good," said Bill, when I proposed the short road trip. "I could use a break." We’d worked hard all day, and our crew — an art department at a newspaper — was ahead of schedule, waiting for stories and artwork to arrive. Bill was the art director, and I was lead designer. I had one other boss, Dana, who was the editorial art director. Dana played drums, so it seemed like a good idea for Dana to come, too. (We were all close friends. Best job I ever had.)

It was raining hard. We took my car. The conversation with Schechner over the weekend had instilled a bit of ’70s-whiteboy-guitar-hero nostalgia, and I’d packed the VW’s CD player accordingly: We pulled out of the parking lot accompanied by Eddie Van Halen.

Three grown men driving west down rain-slickened Sunset Boulevard, backward through time, a five-minute drive to a cheap electric guitar, employed, drooling.

WHEN I MOVED TO CALIFORNIA IN THE LATE 1970s, I bought a $20 electric guitar — a Fender Jaguar impersonation — and a $15 amplifier at a High Desert pawnshop. The late 1970s was a special time for a new kid in town and his cheap electric guitar. New kid wasn’t very good, but good enough to keep himself company, play along with rock and jazz records, eventually jamming with similarly untalented friends in an afterschool "band" that never played in public. My fingertips blistered terribly at first, but after a few persistent weeks the calluses began to form, and from then on, until recently, I played often enough to maintain serviceable pincushions on my leftern fingertips.

I belonged to the club, you see — the Callused Fingertip Club, man. I was important, you dig? Because there were thousands of us, all over the country, all over the world, with these same calluses that had begun life as blisters. And alone in our rooms, after school, we’d overcome the pus and the pain to form these mighty pillows of scar tissue that allowed us to make music. (Specifically, to play "Stairway to Heaven" in our dorm rooms, over and over, wistfully, trying to get laid.)

I HADN'T BEEN TO GUITAR CENTERin many years, since the old Sunset Grill was a tin shack next door, where you’d wait out a Sunday afternoon downpour with a burned hamburger and some secondhand smoke. We parked around the corner and rushed inside. Place looked about the same. The sales staff seemed to have changed only haircuts. Guitars of all creeds and pickups lined the walls like the post cards depicting Hollywood Boulevard on sale along Hollywood Boulevard. And the same signs and oversize price tags with, really, about the same prices. And always, as in every guitar übershowroom from Tokyo to Tallahassee, one guy — at least one guy — sitting on an amp in a corner, playing speed-metal licks on a lacquered maple-top, mahogany-back something, with mother-of-pearl inlays in its genuine Brazilian-rosewood neck.

What world was this? What year? And what was I doing in it? Who was Schechner, really? Do I need a guitar, or do I just need the calluses? And where are Bill and Dana?

"Dave?" Apparently I’d sat down in the middle of the floor, disoriented. Bill and Dana were standing beside and above, offering assistance.

"Hey!" someone barked. "Dudes! C’mere!"

It was that guy — the metal speedsmith in the corner, sitting on the amp, undazzling us all, blithely, with soulless calisthenics on an orange Paul Reed Smith 513. Long dirty-blond hair, big black handlebar mustache, motorcycle boots, jeans, tank top with skull insignia, rose-tinted glasses. But, strangely, no tattoos. Waving us over.

Bill shrugged, and Dana shrugged, and I stood and shrugged, and we walked toward the offending wave. As we got closer, it became clear that this particular soloist did not have long dirty-blond hair and a big black handlebar mustache, but rather was wearing a long blond wig and a big black fake handlebar mustache, and that he was, beneath it all, god help us, Hector Schechner.

Hector Schechner, septuagenarian standup comedian, who had specifically told me that he did not play guitar, sitting on an amp, playing fatuous speed-scales like a virtuoso 14-year-old suburbanite on meth.

"What the fuck, Schechner?" inquired I.

"Right on," said Schechner uneasily, raising a fist as he felt his new character would. Then he reached behind his amp-chair and presented me with a pre-selected black Fender Squier, with a $129 price tag. "Here," said Schechner. "Buy this. It’s got a good neck. Get your calluses back."

I took the Squier, which lives with me to this day, and introduced Schechner to Bill and Dana, who were a bit apprehensive. They’d heard me mention Schechner before, but they’d always responded with expressions of misgiving, as if Schechner were a fictional character, someone I’d made up for personal reasons.

Schechner examined Bill’s hands, then Dana’s hands. "Guitar and drums?"

Bill and Dana nodded.

Schechner’s new persona nodded back, and raised his fist again. "Calluses, man!" he proclaimed for all to hear. "The bastards can’t stop us as long as we have our calluses!"