overcoming the voices in you that tell you you aren’t good enough. that you are terrible. where do these voices come from? childhood wounds. something someone said once. can i learn to harmonise? i asked, age 8ish. no, you can’t even sing. what did she say? you need to be able to at least sing before you harmonise. all i wanted was for the song to come out of me. to sing. to harmonise. to feel those vibrations. to give out from my gut into the universe. you can’t sing, she said.
fast forward 30 years. this lingers. i can’t sing. i weep in front of an open guitar case. annabel, my blue, thin body ibanez acoustic has been with me since 1997.
in 1988, all i wanted to listen to, sing, be, was amy grant. i know, i know. but, at 7, my exposure was limited to what was allowed by my very conservative mother. amy grant was acceptable, and god did amy make me feel. she sang about real things, some of them were acceptable within the church environment i was surrounded by at school and on sundays.
but there was a spark to amy. she was also full of things to say and learn and feel. she…wasn’t going to be limited, and it turned out later she wasn’t when she publicly left the label of ‘christian music’ and ended up having a public affair and being shunned and generally following her heart. woman after my own tiny heart. saved by love, alright.
in 1997, i’d finished high school in the oddest of ways (pulled out after 3 years and had to take the test for kids who are dropouts, except a year younger than my graduating class), and was living with my grandparents, caring for my ailing grandmother and watching, but not understanding, as my grandfather tried to run from all of that. my grandmother was an alcoholic, or so they said, who knows.
years earlier, i was there, too. i was 7. she stayed home all day. watched soaps in her robe. to me, she was elegant. she had a tray of perfumes with vintage hand-squeeze bubble spray bottles. i wanted to use them all, preferably while wearing her costume jewellery and holding her purses and wearing furs.
it was part of our family lore that she’d played violin, but i never saw her pick up a violin and have no idea about the truth in any of that.
there was a steinway baby grand piano in my grandparents’ living room. i spent all my summers there. every afternoon, too. my mom worked. dad worked. they both ran their own businesses. i was always at mamalea and papa’s house, as we called them. the baby grand was there only as a piece of decor, but i started playing it. who cared? i couldn’t play, but i just bashed away. my grandmother endured this as long as she could and finally decided i needed lessons (enough with the vintage silent night sheet music that i had no idea how to interpret).
for two years i went to the house of a lady on canyon road in santa fe. how funny i can’t even remember her name now? two years! i learned treble clef, then tried base clef. i was terrible at reading music. mom and dad bought an upright electric piano for me. this was the height of 90s sophistication, and they were about to divorce, so everything was doable to keep us happy at that time.
i still listened to amy. at some point later, i put her away and left her forever. then we went to live in texas, and high school happened, and my crush played guitar and suddenly i had to learn guitar. that’s when i started.
my dad, the sort of musical hero you could never even hope to be incarnated as the offspring of, got me nicholas. a black gibson everly brothers flattop with stars inlaid down the fretboard. i learned all the things i should learn about guitar on him. the chords of D and G and E Minor. all the important chords. though none of the amy songs.
in the summer of 1997, my mom had moved us back from texas to new mexico and i hadn’t been given the chance to graduate with my year, i had to ‘graduate early’ which meant taking that weird test, waving goodbye to my friends in lubbock, and going to live with my grandparents back in new mexico while my mom lived across the street with my stepdad. god, when i think about it now, wasn’t it all super fucked up?
mamalea, for all her faults or whatever anyone else said about her, seemed to understand this was a fucked up time for me, as a grandmother should. the only thing i really loved was singing and guitar and even back then i wasn’t confident or very objectively good at it, but it was something that always came out of me, just like it had on the baby grand 10 years earlier and like it did in my flat on carlingford road in dublin in 2008 and like it does tonight in SE23 london in 2019.
i saw annabel in a guitar shop on cerrillos road in santa fe in 1997 and frankly wanted her because she was blue, like my heart was at 16 and still is at nearing-38. mamalea said get her, and gave me the money, so i drove in and bought her and didn’t even care what kind of look i got from the dude in the shop or anything else, about my choice of an ibanez thin-body acoustic guitar because she was, in my mind, perfect and she still is.
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.
she’s been with me longer than anybody. literally. we wrote teenage songs that should never see the light of day, the first of which was about the scarlet letter for my sophomore english class, and even played 20-something gigs in austin and houston. and i stood on stage with her in zhejiang and she dutifully accompanied me while i belted out ‘my heart will go on’ badly for hundreds of chinese students.
and she was there, when i left her to lie dormant. when my heart loved and was broken by a man and another man, and really broken by myself. i put her away and stopped thinking about things of the heart, because they seemed like too much, too hard, too complicated, too many shadows and wounds to face and all i wanted was simple and married and life solved and to be done with all that. i wanted emotions gone.
in the end, emotions aren’t gone, they are just shoved away until they aren’t and then they come bursting out and you have to weep over the guitar you’ve let sit in her case for years because you were too afraid to face yourself and all the shadows lurking.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee