If Jimi Hendrix was my Jesus, then Chuck Berry was my Saint Paul. Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley were my Old Testament prophets. My gospels were the House of the Rising Sun, Blowing in the Wind, the Sound of Silence, and the Streets of London (the songs I could play), and my bible was my school guitar, which went everywhere with me, especially to my church, which was the playground in the park.
I’d been the last to arrive at the guitar class, so I got the last guitar. It was three-quarter size––like myself––two quarters of its lacquer was missing, and one quarter of its back had come unglued, flapping open like a basking shark’s mouth. In spite of these defects it was four-quarters loved by me.
I was initiated into the chords of A minor, C major, D, E and G, and doors flew open, casting weak sunlight into the inner sanctuary of the god of everything that mattered. All that remained was for me to sign with my own blood, a contract that bound me to loathe all forms of team sport from this time on, and I was a musician.
I practiced my chords on the bus on the way home. They weren’t really the chords to any particular song, just random chords, but to my mind they sounded like they might be part of a song.
I played in my bedroom, I played on the bus going to school, I played during break, and I played right through lunch and then, feeling like I’d mastered the shift from A minor to C, I took the guitar with me to the park.
Somehow I believed the lyrics of Chuck Berry’s song, Johnnie B Goode, were a prophetic message. The eponymous character Johnnie B Goode “…carried his guitar in a gunny sack.” I carried mine in a waterproof plastic case (I didn’t know what a ‘gunny sack’ was. I was fairly certain it was neither plastic nor waterproof, but it would have to do). He played while sitting beneath the trees at the railroad track. I played in the foot tunnel under the local train station, where my E chord reverberated as if I was playing not one three-quarter sized school guitar, but a thousand three quarter sized school guitars. Then I played under the trees at the park.
Guitars are subject to their own set of commandments. One of these rules states that if you play guitar in a public place you will be confronted by someone who plays better than you. You will allow that person to take the guitar, and demonstrate just how much better they are.
Among the park people was a character named, Colin Thomset. He was spoken of in hushed, reverential tones. He was not only a ‘total nutter,’ he had already been in prison by the time he’d reached the age of 16.
I’d been working on the shift from C to D, and I hadn’t seen him come up. “Here. My mate plays better than you,” he said. He pointed to the boy next to him. My arms went numb. His friend was Pat Lyons, if anything an even bigger nutter than Colin himself. Colin lifted the guitar out of my non-functioning hands.
I expected him to snap the neck off with his eyelids or something, but he just handed it to Pat Lyons, who settled into a cross-legged position, tuned the guitar, strummed some chords I didn’t know, then drifted into a gentle version of The Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses, which he crooned in an a pleasant tenor voice.
“That’s really good,” I said, trying not to sound too surprised.
Pat handed the instrument back to me, but before I could get my hands to it, Colin grabbed it. “My turn now,” he said. He yanked the strings back as if it was Robin Hood’s longbow, and yelled, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m good right?”
“Don’t be a stupid cunt,” said Pat. “The only thing you can play is in your pants––if you can find it. Give him his guitar back.”
“Nah,” said Colin. He turned to me. “I’m going to take it home and practice. I’ll bring it back next week. You don’t mind, do you?”
I cleared my throat. “Please,” I said, “it’s a school guitar. Can I have it back?”
They stood up. Pat said, “Give him back his guitar, you idiot.”
But Colin walked away still holding it. “Nah. He’s the idiot for bringing his guitar to the park.”
I picked up the plastic case and followed them, calling out “Please can I have my guitar” in increasingly frantic tones. I followed them across the playground, past the rugby club, past the miniature golf course. I saw the park-keeper. “They’ve stolen my guitar,” I said, but he just gave me his miniature 18 hole stare. I think he been at the fall of Tobruk, and everyone was Afrika Korps to him.
Colin and Pat reached the main road by the football stadium, with me still following a few paces behind. Colin turned to me. “Here. Have the stupid thing.” He tossed ti towards me. It arced across the evening sky, pivoting on its axis. I’d never caught any type of ball in any sports game up until that point in my life, and I’ve never caught one since, but I caught that guitar.
The next day was my second guitar class at school. Three of the students had quit already, and it was just me, Roger Bancroft and Behzad Ahmadi. The guitar teacher took back the three-quarter size guitar and gave me a full size one. It was nicer to play, and sounded better, but I missed the older instrument. We’d been through danger and drama together.
I’ve always believed there was a fourth unpublished verse to Johnny B Goode, in which bullies steal his guitar and he has to fight them to get it back. Maybe one day some rock’n’roll archaeologist will uncover it.