Unclipped Strings: The Stories No One Sees

Unclipped Strings: The Stories No One Sees

This is the third installment in a collection of essays called The Stories No One Sees. You can read Part One, Part Two, and Part Four here.

My musical journey begins and ends with Bob Dylan.

A common enough story for a white, middle-class teenager stuck inside a dead-end high school, drowning in common denominators and pronoun exercises, dreaming of the sublime: an after-school diet of ping pong, video games, and chili dogs. As soon as the bell rang, I would bolt to the nearest friend’s house, slip a paddle into my hand, and let out a sigh most reserve for intimate bedtime activities. Add multiple chili dogs to the mix and things would turn X-rated in no time fast. My parents were worried sick. They’d wait in darkness as I’d stumble home at 4 am, chili on my breath and sauce burrowed beneath my fingernails. Many an early morning was spent defending my habits, arguing in favor of my vices — late nights, Halo, canned Castleberry’s — over the traditional teenage behaviors of smoking dope and clothes-on sex in public parks. My parents wouldn’t bite. They felt responsible for creating a teenage chili pervert and wished I would indulge in one semi-normal behavior, far away from the midnight hum of an Xbox. I spent years arguing chili dogs > teenage pregnancy but now, as an adult aware of the perils of canned chili, I’m not so sure.    

Amidst all the chili versus sex arguments, I found Bob Dylan. My AP English teacher was a Dylan acolyte — for lessons, he’d play songs on a worn tan guitar and we’d dissect lyrics like pimpled surgeons. At first, I wasn’t into it. He’d write passages on a whiteboard in bold red marker, squeaky annotations marking phrases and meanings I couldn’t understand. What does “The sun isn’t yellow, it’s chicken!” even mean? I would zone in and out, dreaming of a bubbling chili pot, trying to make sense of Dylan’s world. One day, things clicked — I can’t recall the line or phrase, but something resonated. Maybe it was Dylan singing about Napoleon in rags and the language that he used, or the simple, unsettling way he whispered, “I’ve seen pretty people disappear like smoke.” Whatever it was, my mind was opened. I began listening to Dylan religiously — “Like A Rolling Stone” on loop, Blood On The Tracks my favorite album — and purchased a thick, hardback book filled with his lyrics. It was gospel. I felt the wisdom, tasted the unsettling truths, became a collapsing parishioner humbled by the weight of god. Dylan sang, and I listened.

I began learning guitar the summer after I graduated high school. College was three months away and I needed something to fill time besides video games and chili dogs. With “Visions Of Johanna” dancing through my head, guitar seemed the prudent choice. I descended to my parents’ basement, waded through stacks of canned peaches and powdered milk, and dusted off an $89 piece of wood-and-steel — a blue Johnson guitar purchased by my older brother, with a fretboard separated from steel strings at twice the normal height. For those of you who don’t play guitar, this means the strings were really, really hard to press down. And as a weak-handed chili boy, I was not prepared for the sheer amount of hand/finger strength required to operate the Johnson. The first few weeks were hell. I would practice for no more than 10 minutes, my hands on fire and cramping in the strangest places — strings imprinted on the tips of my fingers, uncertain where steel ended and bone began. My stamina gradually improved. After a few months, I could play for over one hour and I would squeeze people’s biceps to show them my strength. My guitar skills were terrible. I slowly mastered a D chord, then A, then G, clumsy and slow in my transitions. Bar chords were impossible, as was any semblance of rhythm. I kept at it. Before long, I could piece together the world’s most rickety cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and I knew I was destined for rock stardom.

I enrolled at Utah State in 2004 and my freshman year was a large step towards adulthood. I halved my chili consumption. Video games became less prominent, replaced by countless hours of Johnson strumming. My life revolved around guitar and watching college football — what’s more adult than that? I’d practice chords with 30 extra minutes before class or during sleepless nights at 3 am, an anchor to release amidst dark and angry seas. My song catalog expanded bit by bit: “Mr. Tambourine Man” opened the door for “Blowin’ In The Wind,” which opened the door for “House Of The Rising Sun,” which opened the door for “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” It was a drug I injected gladly, traversing the same musical path as my idol and singing lines that reflected many of my life philosophies. I’d belt out the words, “I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity” and with a guitar in hand, nothing seemed truer.

The first time I broke a guitar string, panic ensued. I’m no handyman — my repair abilities are limited to duct tape or gorilla glue. Neither worked on a broken guitar string and with apprehension, I turned to the surest source of guidance I know: YouTube. Under the tutelage of a skinny bald man who caressed his guitar in a strangely sexual manner, I embarked on the path to re-string. My first try was carried out with grim, forceful determination, grunts and groans ending with the taut snap of a new string. After multiple attempts, success — mastery over that which cannot be mastered. Pride washed over me, a newfound adult capable of solving the world’s problems via super strong hands and access to the internet. The new strings were unclipped due to lack of tools. At first it freaked me out how the loose ends scraped against the wood when I played, careless and untamed. But over time, they became part of the experience — the knowable sound of a strummed chord, the uncontrollable whisk of unclipped strings.

My guitar skills continued improving, and music became a bigger and bigger part of my life. I dove deep into Dylan’s catalog, fascinated by his wisdom and carelessness. I watched online tutorials on how to fingerpick, seeking to emulate the on-screen antics of 50-year-old folk musicians with long gray beards. I began to understand the nuances of rhythm, how words unspoken hung in the silence between notes. Many a late night was spent singing alone in my bedroom, guitar pick scraping over brass strings, Dylan’s words booming in religious chant. There seemed to be something truthful about the way he sang without care for smoothness, pitch, or key — for myself, a man of meager musical abilities and vocal limitations, his approach was liberating.

I believe “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” to be the greatest song ever made. I’ve played it on guitar thousands of times and listened to it thousands more — a clean, quiet intro of finger-picked guitar, lyrics rotating between defiance, heartbreak, and forgiveness, a harmonica outro that climbs the notches of my spine every time I hear it. Dylan’s greatest strength is creating songs that transcend individual moments, woven into the fabric of existence and untethered to specific pinpoints in time. His words and music exist simultaneously across past, present, and future, meanings dancing and changing like rings of smoke — lyrical truth never stationary, but always true.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is a song of defiance. I know this to be true because I’ve experienced its power at age 20, reeling from a break-up and sensing my world caving in. I can feel the tight grip of a leather steering wheel, speeding away from my ex-girlfriend’s house with fingers white and pulsating. I can remember the jarring, sour taste of feeling unwanted and the long weeks it took to dig through the rubble. Dylan was my guide. I fed off his sparks of anger, wailing harmonica poured over hammer-on guitar. I gained strength from the venom dripping off lines like “you just kinda wasted my precious time.” At night I drove looming, empty streets and measured my loneliness in three minute, 37 second intervals, pressed repeat, and began anew.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is a song of heartbreak. There is a difference between sadness and debilitating sadness — I’ve sworn off the latter but despite my best efforts, the former can’t be avoided. It’s what arrives at the doorstep when relationships go south, the familiar pang of another thing come and gone. It’s found in nostalgia that bleeds through lines like “we never did too much talkin’ anyway,” melts from a quiet guitar intro belying the jarring admission of “it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe.” It’s not pity, just the measurement between pain and healing: a distance to be walked until, once again, everything is alright.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is a song of forgiveness. It’s the most powerful sensation found in the quicksand between musical notes and human voice. Dylan at his best finds absolution through many of his songs: for himself; for those who have wronged him; for a world bent on self destruction. This song is his finest. It’s baptism by music, sins washed away in a rush of cold water, pain cleansed under the repetition of “don’t think twice, it’s alright.” A reminder that even in the most bitter of times, peace can be found.

With Dylan as my inspiration, I began traversing the United States to attend music festivals, looking with great interest over herbal-laced gatherings of tie-dye bikinis and VW buses stained by rust. I started wearing shirts depicting the shadowed faces of rock’n’roll past: Hendrix, Page, Lennon, and of course, Dylan. I saw my first naked 65-year-old woman in 2005 at Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee. It was the middle of June, dense southern humidity draining moisture from flesh and placing me on a razor’s edge between reality and hallucination. Suddenly, she was there — bare body bathed in the noonday sun, confident sweaty stride unaffected by bemused onlookers. She stared me straight in the eye as she passed, smiled, and I thought, “Did we just have sex?” By the end of the summer most people thought I was a pothead, which was better than chili pervert, so I didn’t put up a fight.

My musical journey blossomed over the following decade — guitar my weapon, Dylan my muse. My mind was opened to the world of local music and I made the insane decision to attend a Utah-based festival called Uncle Uncanny’s for five consecutive years. A girl in a bright red dress had approached my friends and I at a concert in Park City with a handwritten note. It said something about a three-day music festival in Spring City and we said yes in two seconds flat. Nothing would prepare us for what was to come. We pulled up to an empty field in the middle of summer, greeted by a Sideshow Bob who spoke in tongues and parted his dreadlocks to whisper he was almost out of Molly — if we needed hallucinogens, now was the time to buy. We politely declined and kept a safe distance from Bob, his eyes wide and glassy. Base camp was on a huge anthill. We pitched a couple tents, pulled out a few guitars, and started strumming as others filed in. The attendees fell in one of three categories: one, really into hemp; two, really into illegal substances; three, really into hemp and illegal substances. To the best of my knowledge, we were the only people in category one.

The first 24 hours of Uncle Uncanny’s lived up to the billing. The first band started playing and we were the only ones in attendance. It was amazing. I turned to my friend to gush about our personal concert and was startled to find a scrawny man standing inches away from me grinning ear to ear. He didn’t say a word and he never stopped smiling — he just stood there in a concert crowd of four people, inching closer to me every time I tried to move. Day turned to night and the crowd grew, saucer eyes and loopy grins a common theme. One girl laid out an enormous tie-dye blanket, tied bright red ribbons to her ankles, and announced she was practicing ground tricks. This meant she would sit or lie down and perform various activities with her ribboned feet: hula hoop, attempted juggling, balloon tying. It was my first and last experience with a ground trickster. While we marveled at her foot dexterity, a casual man in silken pajamas strode by and we quickly dubbed him Merlin. He was tall, barefoot, maintained a scraggly brown beard, and we were certain possessed some sort of magical abilities. We weren’t wrong. Before long, Merlin walked by using his hands as feet, legs pointing high into the air. I can’t tell you how long he did this but by the end of the weekend, hand-walking seemed a reasonable mode of transportation. Years later I would walk into a restroom at Utah Valley University and see Merlin in all his silken pajama glory. I was so excited I could barely move. I sidled up next to him at the urinals, unzipped my fly, and I've never been prouder to expose myself next to a fake magician.

Uncle Uncanny’s would switch sites from Spring City to Heber and we followed like fevered zealots. It was our favorite holiday, a 3-day weekend rife with depravity, music, and Jesus sandals. I spent one night mesmerized by a twirling fire dancer, her black hair and long limbs silhouetted by tongues of flame. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful. I stole a folding camp chair, plopped it down 10 feet away, and asked for her hand in marriage — she declined, reported me to the police, and I’m still reeling. Another night, I performed a marriage ceremony. My friend had drank half the world’s alcohol and found the lady who drank the other half. After 20 slobbering minutes of making out, they were ready to tie the knot. I was the presiding authority — I leapt onto the nearest cooler and with wobbly legs, gave the most eloquent blessing to a most unholy union. The gathered circle of friends and strangers cheered as a band played next to us. Unfortunately, the new bride was spotted 20 minutes later with another lover. I slowly climbed back onto the cooler, spoke some somber words of divorce, and thought, if love can’t be found at Uncle Uncanny’s, where can it be found?  

I’ve floated in the black expanse of the Mexican coast and gathered light from dying stars.

I traveled south for winter break with my friend and his extended family, camped on a sandy beach next to the relentless crash of waves. The locals called me Peter Pan and I still don’t know if that’s good or bad. We bashed candy-filled pinatas for Christmas and handed out gifts at a nearby village. We drank spiced horchata, ate sizzling hot dogs wrapped in greasy bacon, caught fish from the ocean that looked like wrinkled old men. I swam daily. Dawn would break under muted bluish light, a quiet chorus of seagulls circling high above. I’d slip from my tent in orange swim trunks and bare feet, follow a soft path in the early morning calm. Stand at water’s edge with breath caught in my throat. Float on the swell of ocean tides, stare into an open sky streaked with first signs of daylight, and taste the hard bite of salt against my lips.

Nights were limitless. We’d gather dead cacti and strike matches as light drained from the sky, smoky columns spiraling into the impending night. Warmth. Silence. Crackle of fire, dance of orange flame. I’d unstrap my guitar case in the soft illumination of white starlight born millions of light years away, test the metal ring of a plucked string, and play. The music would burrow into the surrounding countryside  — layer into grains of dust, bury deep in charred ash of a dying fire. “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.” “Desolation Row.” “My Back Pages.” “Simple Twist Of Fate.” Every night, the same routine: tightening of a leather guitar strap, sharp jolt of the first chord, vocals stumbling into the shadows. Within the dark thrum of these warm, foreign nights, I’d look skyward — pinpricks of light poked through a black canvas, red embers glowing and popping at my feet — and feel like the world and all its wonders had been created just for me.

I have not become a rock star. Far from it, actually — I blog about tech companies and sit in front of a computer for money. Carpal tunnel is forcing its way into my extremities and my posture resembles a stick of melting butter. I’ve heard approximately 500 entrepreneurs say with straight faces, “I just want to make the world a better place” and gagged each time. I don’t do cocaine, though I’ve seen enough people drink Rockstars that my hands shake every time a can opens. Music is not (and will never be) my profession though in a strange sense, it is my religion. Worship can happen in an empty room, or with a smiling girlfriend, or at a dusty music festival in central Utah, prayer rising from Dylan’s words and the hypnotic swirl of rhythm guitar.  

Bob Dylan was once asked about writing “Tangled Up In Blue” and said, “I wanted to defy time.” This feeling is threaded throughout his music and for me, it’s found in the familiar brush of fingertips over six metal strings. There’s a timelessness that seeps from muscle memory taking over, chords and lyrics rushing like water through a dam, my mind ascending far beyond the constant troubles of this place. His lyrics are burned into the pathways of my brain, carved into the back of my eyelids — words that hang suspended beyond time and space, and allow me to do the same.  

I don’t profess to be good at guitar or singing. I enjoy both, and that’s all that matters — I have something to come home to. Every second I play is a respite from current problems, a vehicle to drive down the crossroads of my mind. I sit, and the guitar’s wood fills my hands, unclipped strings whisper wild and warm, and the night seems full of possibility. This is where I return, again and again and again. It’s the simplest reminder that love can be found in the strangest places and no matter how stupid it may seem, it’s still love.    

There is beauty in the stories no one sees.

It’s a subzero night, land covered by thick sheets of ice. I park in a slick driveway, walk into a chilly, empty house. The kitchen is bathed in cold light — I root through the refrigerator for a meal, settle on a key lime yogurt, and flip on the television. Another shooting, a somber news anchor delivering the details with robotic precision. Names. Ages. Definition of a bump stock. Fatality statistics. A window into how personal tragedy becomes public, becomes political. I watch for 10 minutes out of some sense of obligation, like paying witness will alter what’s happened or what’s to come. It’s too much. I turn off the outside world with a muted click. The heater kicks on as I shuffle downstairs, blue carpeted steps groaning beneath my feet. Warmth begins to permeate my room. I sigh and slip off my thick winter jacket, settle calm and comfortable into a worn orange chair. The room thaws. I pick up my tan Martin guitar, new strings bright. I tune each one with care, listen for the miniscule differences separating good from bad. I smile after striking the first C chord: razor sharp, ringing, an open invitation. I clip a capo onto the sixth fret, stretch my fingers with liquid, casual movement across the fretboard, and let memory take over. The song flows through my lips and fingertips. It’s a river of electricity, a shock, the only source on earth of lucidity and warmth. A river to dissolve the entire world, from a great expanse filled with violence and regret, into a small room sheltering sound and light. I ride the current with eyes closed. My fingers tread familiar paths of brass and rhythm, vocals hum in quiet benediction. Defiance. Heartbreak. Forgiveness. The last verse ends: “don’t think twice, it’s alright.” I rest my cheek against the wooden guitar base and smell fresh pine, final echoes coursing from its body to mine, amazed how a hollow base can seem so full. My head is bowed. I don’t move as the last remnants of sound flicker — absorbed by flesh and blood, wood and steel, the plaster of these four walls — until together we descend to silence.  

(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)