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Sleeping With the Guitar Player
by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Published: March 13, 2005, New York Times, "Modern Love"

In the Ages of Man, there are the classics - infancy, childhood, adulthood. We have the Midlife Crisis, of course, so dear to therapists and second wives everywhere. There is adolescence, which in some men seems to last, oh, well, when does it end? But in the last few years I've experienced, via my husband, another masculine stage, one I'd been blissfully unaware of. This is the time of a man's life that I must now and forever think of as the Guitar-in-the-Basement phase.

Six years ago, when my husband, Paul Muldoon, a poet who teaches at Princeton, brought home an electric guitar, carried it down to the basement of our house in New Jersey and plugged it in, I was laughing too hard to absorb the enormity of what was happening. I knew he loved music. Growing up in Ireland during the 1960's, he was present at the birth of British rock, and he knew far more about American blues and its influence on both sides of the Atlantic than I had ever cared to learn. He leaped into action when the U2 tickets went on sale and had dragged me, over the years, to many, many concerts I despised. (I once fell asleep listening to Bob Dylan at the Beacon Theater.)

Still, I failed to realize that the very loud sounds coming from beneath the living room floor portended great changes for our family. I was pregnant with our second child at the time, and to be honest, I wasn't focusing very well. When Paul played his guitar in the basement, the whole building vibrated, and I would sit there, one story up, swaying with nausea. When I couldn't stand it any longer, I went to the top of the basement stairs and flicked the light to get his attention. "Please. Stop." He stopped. But not for long.

This was not, I would soon discover, a mere matter of purchasing a single musical instrument. We were on an acquisition conveyor belt of more guitars and related equipment, the charms of each soon negated by the undulations of the next. After that first guitar, a Cort, and its sidekick amplifier, Paul ordered up a Fender Stratocaster, a Gibson Les Paul, a Marshall amp, a reissue of a 1952 Telecaster ("like the guitar Keith plays"), an Ibanez acoustic/electric and a Fender Acoustasonic amp.

It was a new and unwelcome side of a man I thought I'd known pretty well, a man who never shopped, who wore a watch with a cracked plastic band, and who drove an old unlovely car, knocked askew by a deer a decade ago. Now he was making special trips to Sam Ash in New York City (I imagined the salesmen nudging one another, "Here comes another Guitar-in-the-Basement dude, dude."). It was getting crowded down there under the floorboards. Gradually, I began to understand that it wasn't just him. There were hoards of men out there, roughly his age, frolicking in guitar wonderlands and shoring up amp arsenals in their own basements. In the weeks after Sept. 11, when I began each sad day with the Portraits of Grief in The New York Times, I read again and again of men commuting home from their working lives, descending their basement stairs, and rocking their Jersey or Westchester or Long Island houses to the rafters.

Once, at a friend's dinner party, Paul was seated next to a terribly dull financial manager I'd been shackled with during cocktails. To my surprise, they quickly began an avid conversation, which lasted all through the meal. I kept my eye on them, at a loss to imagine what they might possibly have found to talk about, let alone with such animation. "He has a Stratocaster in his basement," Paul said happily as we drove home. "He just got a wah-wah pedal."

Inevitably, Paul started to play with some of these men. There was a lawyer who possessed an entire recording studio in his apartment, then a professor of Renaissance poetry with a vast collection of guitars. Initially, heading out after dinner with the guitar packed into the back seat was a grand occasion, a thrilling adventure for him, if not for me, but soon it became a more routine outing. "You don't mind if I rehearse tonight, do you?" he'd ask. Rehearse? I'd think, baffled. He was still learning basic chords on the instrument. Rehearse?

It took a long time for me to figure out what I was dealing with. But I'm a woman, which means that, in my heart of hearts, I have long understood that certain things are never going to happen in my life. I won't, by way of example, be modeling swimsuits for Sports Illustrated, representing my country as an Olympic gymnast or dancing Coppélia for the New York City Ballet.

I have dealt with these disappointments and, in the idiom of our age, moved on. But my husband - my wonderful, endearing husband, who is extremely successful at writing and teaching poetry - believed, at the age of 53, that it was utterly possible for him to become a rock guitarist. On a stage. In front of an audience.

Our 12-year-old daughter dubbed the new band Freaks With Guitars, but the actual name encompassed a more subtle humor. They were called Rackett, and by now the three older men had been joined by three cute young guys, just out of college. They started writing songs: the Renaissance poetry professor on music, my husband on lyrics.

A couple of those cute young guys could really sing. The Renaissance poetry professor was a superb guitar player, actually. Within months, the recordings made in the lawyer's studio were sounding not all that different from the music my 12 year old was blasting in her room. The keyboardist, who runs his own breath-mint company, began to talk about producing the eventual CD's.

I no longer bothered to try to talk some sense into my husband. What sense, after all? My notion of reality had departed the day I came home to find Paul playing, over and over, a recorded phone message from one of the few rock stars we both revered, Warren Zevon. Mr. Zevon had read some of his poetry. When Paul hit "play" on the answering machine, I heard the author of "Werewolves of London" and "Excitable Boy" pronounce my husband "The best damn poet on the planet."

In due course they would meet, become friends, and write two songs together, including "My Ride's Here," the title track of Mr. Zevon's penultimate album. Books about the music business began to accumulate in our bathroom. Paul formed a publishing company to register his lyrics, and became a member of Ascap. Copies of Spin and Guitar World began to arrive monthly, along with an inexhaustible supply of Sam Ash catalogs. Rackett was offered its first gig, in a Greenwich Village club. The band's catalog of original songs stretched to 30, then 50. Bruce Springsteen produced a live recording of "My Ride's Here" for Warren Zevon's posthumous tribute album. I refuse to conclude from all this that I have been unknowingly married to a rock star for nigh on 18 years. I simply could not have been that unobservant, failing to notice the spandex in the closet, the tour bus in the garage, the groupies at the mailbox. Nor is this a story about years of hard work, prodigious innate musical talent and patient honing of "craft" reaching their inevitable, just conclusion.

It occurs to me that much of his success in this odd endeavor derives from the fact that he just didn't know the whole thing was impossible, that his dearth of musicality, advanced age and lack of Rock Star lips meant that it was flatly impossible for him to become the thing he had decided he wanted to become. Then again, some of that obtuseness might have derived from being male in the first place.

Unlike women, for whom menopause serves as an unignorable transition, a line dividing one part of life from another, men have no midlife marker to brake before, or even to steer around, in the hinterland from their youth to their age; there is only a great, elastic middle. Is it any wonder they lose track of where they are, and think they can do anything? And evidence being what it is, I'm forced to concur. Should Paul waltz in tomorrow and announce that he has decided to become an engineer, a painter or a matinee idol, I'm afraid I will be forced to give him the benefit of the doubt.

On stage, he looks like a middle-aged Irish poet, bespectacled, dressed in the same rumpled suit he teaches in. He is not a great musician and still can play only seven chords (which is four more than you need, he points out). But to succeed at anything is just so unlikely in the first place. Why should the fact that he's 53 and a musical neophyte make watching his band rock out on stage any more bizarre for me? Why should I be so surprised by the possibility of being surprised?

Then again, one of the great pleasures of being shocked by some amazing thing a loved one does is being aftershocked by something in ourselves. I'll admit that I have now done things I never thought I'd do, like bounce up and down in the dark basement of a rock club with a host of 20-somethings, an activity that might have recalled my lost youth had I ever done it when I myself was a 20-something. I have seen things I never thought I'd see, like a group of college students raising a sign with Paul's name on it in the audience at a Rackett performance.

And I have said something I never thought I'd say, at the stage door of a New York club, as I attempted to carry his guitar — one of his guitars! — downstairs to the dressing room. The bouncer, after giving me a very dubious look, wondering, perhaps, if I hadn't just wandered in off a New Jersey soccer field (which was precisely where I'd been a few hours earlier), asked if he could help me.

"That's all right," I told him, hoisting the guitar. "I'm with the band."


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