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My Guitarless Year

It's been a long time since author Jason Heller touched his guitar.
It's been a long time since author Jason Heller touched his guitar.
Caitlin Rice
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Since the first pandemic lockdown transformed our lives one year ago this week, I haven’t touched a guitar.

This dismal fact became painfully clear to me the other day. I was folding laundry in my bedroom, and a stray sleeve grazed the acoustic guitar standing next to my bed. Still and silent since last March, those strings once again sang. Dust drifted off the instrument’s neck. A lonely echo rang off the walls. It was as if my guitar had been saving up that sound, hoping I might someday unmute it. My heart hurt. I realized these were the first notes of music I’d produced in a year. And it was entirely by accident, without bodily contact. I’ve admittedly made some pitiful sounds in my thirty years as a musician, but that chord may have been the saddest.

Since COVID-19 descended in early 2020, we’ve been ruthlessly pummeled. People have lost work. They’ve been evicted. They’ve gone hungry. Their mental health has suffered. At best, they’ve lost touch with the freedoms and routines and fellow human beings that make life joyous. And underpinning all that is the cold, morbid comfort that, hey, at least we were still alive to keep struggling. Millions around the world have not been so lucky.

Musicians, of course, have been hit hard. There are no shows to play. Music venues, starved of oxygen, are closing permanently. Virtual band practices and livestreamed sets aren’t nearly as fulfilling as the real thing. The dream of becoming a full-time musician is a hundred times harder. Even when COVID is over, making music may never feel the same for those fortunate enough to have lived through it. One thing musicians can always fall back on, though, is the gratification of playing music by themselves. The simple act of creating sound can be meditation, catharsis and escape. Hanging with your bandmates and sweating on your audience are great and all. But when it can literally kill you, strumming a guitar alone in your room is a form of bliss, a solace unto itself.

So why haven’t I chosen that solace? I don’t know. The weird thing is, after three decades of playing in various Denver bands, from Crestfallen to the Blue Ontario to Red Cloud West to 25 Rifles, 2019 was my most successful year as a musician. In late 2018, my latest group, Weathered Statues, got to tour Europe, which was a first for me. Our debut album, Borderlands, was released by the awesome indie label Svart Records. And one of my heroes, Lol Tolhurst, a founding member of the Cure, chose to do a remix of one of our songs. Yet I quit Weathered Statues, and throughout the pandemic, I’ve avoided my guitar as if it were, well, the plague.

Starting when I was a teenager, my fingers itched if there wasn’t a guitar pick between them. All the way up to the onset of COVID, I would pick up my instrument every day to tinker with riffs, write songs, or just noodle around. Neglecting my guitar over the past year wasn’t a conscious choice I made. But for some reason, when the pandemic bore down and I needed to clutch my guitar tighter than ever, I let it go. I allowed this howling, COVID-shaped hole in reality to swallow it.

At least I have another outlet. I’m a writer by trade, and that keeps me creative. As a writer, I’ve always felt that making music was a necessary counterweight. Playing guitar freed me from my desk, switched my gears, and gave me a euphoric sense of peace. Writing, on the other hand, is a job. My last book, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Culture, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded, was worth every sacrifice I poured into it, even when I thought it might give me a stroke. Sure, writing is a pretty cushy way to make a living compared to the warehouse work I used to do. Still, it's mentally and emotionally grueling. And like so many freelancers and gig workers in the pandemic, I’ve gone nuts over the past year trying to cope with a shrinking pool of clients and income.

Jason Heller is the author of Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded.
Jason Heller is the author of Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded.
Courtesy of the author

Thankfully I have a couple new books in the pipeline, including Repeater, an urban fantasy novel set in the ’90s punk scene, and Extraterrestrial Summer, a memoir about my obsession with science fiction while I was growing up amid addiction, violence and poverty. Insanely enough, I’m about to co-author a nonfiction book with a certain founding member of the Cure who I may or may not have mentioned, though I can’t spill any details right now. I feel blessed to have these opportunities. That said, being an author means having to wait months, if not longer, to get fully paid, all while busting ass to meet crushing deadlines. Playing guitar is not just the calm in the storm; it costs nothing.

Last week, my old friend and former bandmate Nathan Marcy died. He left behind a wonderful wife — the acclaimed singer-songwriter Rachael Pollard — as well as two amazing daughters, Ava and Dottie. He also ended a long run as one of Denver’s most talented, expressive and respected musicians. Lately he played drums in the great doomgaze trio Palehorse/Palerider. I think I’ll always remember him best, though, as the guitarist of the Risk, a scrappy group that mixed garage rock, power pop, and soul. Nathan always played his guitar like it was his last day on Earth, and this was long before he was diagnosed with cancer. Whenever he stepped on a stage, he poured every ounce of himself into that instrument. He never took it for granted. It’s a pleasure to make music, but it’s also a privilege, and he knew it.

When that accidental guitar chord rang out in my bedroom the other day, it was right after Nathan’s death. It made me think of him. I’d visited his house a couple times during his last few days, but we didn’t talk much about music. Instead we shared a few memories and joked around in the face of death. Now that he’s gone, I wonder if he played his guitar right up to the end or if his deteriorating condition made it painful or impossible. Did his guitar remind him of what he had accomplished? Or what he was losing?

I’m staring at my own guitar as I write this. It’s still untouched. Even now, some kind of weight holds me down. I’m looking back at the past year of impossible loss, at twelve months of a broken world I never thought I’d see. But spring is almost here. Vaccines are finally circulating, and life might even be flowing back. Maybe chords are like steps. You just need to take that first one.

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