The Blues

Whenever I see a girl, I hear a guitar lick. That isn't a metaphor either. When I look a girl in the eye, I won't hear her voice anymore; I'll hear a riff instead.

Every girl has a different riff. I've heard everything ranging from an acoustic finger-pick to punk rock power-chords to that guitar-pop crap. You know, like Yellowcard and MCR and Reliant K? I can't stand those girls. When I hear a girl's riff, it isn't just a riff – it describes them perfectly. It shows me exactly what that girl thinks about, how she treats people, and how she wants to be seen. Girls who have those guitar-pop riffs, I have found, are predisposed to having their heads further up their own asses than it should be possible to go.

Plus, I just don't particularly care for that style of music.

I like my music to be more meaningful than guitar-pop. I want music that takes me places I've never seen, that lets me experience something I've never done before, that changes me for having heard it. Consider blues riffs and digital delays: those are my two personal favorites, but they are also the rarest – both in songs and in girls.

The delay riff, in and of itself, is usually pretty simple, but there are so many patterns you can achieve with it. It isn't so much the composition of the riff as how it's manipulated to change the atmosphere around it. It's a beautiful style of riff, and for some reason it hits me in the gut every time. It's powerful.

My big sister Ellen has a delay riff, but that isn't surprising; after all, she holds a fairly singular responsibility for my taste in music – plus, she's my best friend. Suffice to say that she has a lot of influence on me. She and I used to hate each other, though. We were the textbook example of incessant sibling conflict, because everything I did bugged her, and when she was mean to me, I took offense.

Then, she got really into music. She started bringing home CDs and posters of all of these bands and albums, and I was intrigued. I remember the day our relationship turned around, too. I knocked timidly on her door one Thursday after school – barely audible over the sound of what I later learned was U2's The Joshua Tree. She opened the door and asked what I wanted, with enough angst dripping from her voice to write a Hawthorne Heights album. I asked her what music she was listening to, hoping that she wouldn't be embarrassed that I thought it was cool and turn it off. I didn't have anything to worry about, though; for the first time in what had probably been months, she smiled at me. The anger and hard feelings dropped from her voice as she said, "You might not be too bad after all."

She introduced me to a little bit of her music from then on, one album at a time. It grew on me faster than anything ever had in my whole life. I soaked it all up as fast as she could throw it at me. It was a very typical day that I distinctly remember realizing, as we lay on Ellen's fuzzy green floor rug listening to the Killers' Hot Fuss, that she was my best friend – and the best part was, I didn't even care. In fact, I felt downright cool.

By the time I was fourteen, she had introduced me to so much great music – Hendrix; Elvis's Comeback Special; Queen, one of my personal favorites; The Clash's Combat Rock; Dire Straits and Fleetwood Mac; Skynyrd; The Who and U2; Chuck Berry; the Outlaws; GnR; Blink-182. She surprised me at Christmas one year with tickets to a Kings of Leon concert when they only had their first two albums out.

The most amazing gift I ever received from her, though, was what she did for me on July 18th after my eighth grade year, the day before my fifteenth birthday – right before she was about to leave for her freshman year at State College. She and her best friend Jake picked me up – or kidnapped me, depending on the point of view – from my very pitiful job filing papers in my Dad's office, put a blindfold on me, and stuffed me into Jake's trusty Honda Accord. It didn't matter how many times I asked them, they would not tell me where we were going, nor would they let me take the blindfold off. I decided that even though I was about to pee my pants out of fright, I could handle it.

So, I played it cool and waited until the car stopped. Ellen took me by the elbow and pulled me across a steaming hot parking lot, and through an unknown doorway. I felt a rush of compressed, recirculated air, and I got a little nervous for a second. She and Jake seemed very excited, though, so I didn't think it could be that bad.

After all, Jake was a pretty cool guy. He was in "a garage band, dude, not a rock band," as he put it to me the first time I met him. He was quite the guitarist, and still is. While Ellen did her undergrad at State College on a science scholarship, Jake took Berkley by the storm – he double majored in guitar and recording arts, and now he has a band and runs his own recording business right off of State College's campus.

Jake was around our house all the time while he and Ellen were still at home, and he had music that Ellen never listened to. There was some heavy metal, which was cool, but I owe him tons for introducing me to the blues. Most days I preferred Ellen's music, but some days only the blues would do. He showed me Doc Watson, Muddy Waters, and Eric Clapton.

I also owe him for taking off that blindfold as the door to the music store shut behind him.

It was a sight to behold, but I have to admit it was the smell of the place that got me. It was like an attic that isn't dusty, or like a woodshop without the aftertaste of cigarettes and too much friction. It was the smell of polish and cleaners and treatments and packaging, of high-voltage amplifiers spreading their heat throughout the room. An excited series of shivers worked their way up and down my spine as soon as I entered that store, partly from excitement, partly from nerves, and partly from something else indescribable about the atmosphere that was almost tangible.

"Ells tells me that she's getting you a guitar for your birthday," Jake said with a grin. "And, she told me it was going to be a surprise. How do you feel?"

My mouth, understandably, dropped to the floor. I looked to Ellen. There was a playful gleam in her green eyes as she affirmed it with a nod. I was in shock; I had nothing to say. Learning to play the guitar had always been a dream, but I didn't think my parents would ever buy me a guitar – I had a bad habit of never following through on learning something new when I was younger. I knew that guitar was different than ice skating lessons, though – this was something I knew I wanted.

Jake, being the musician he was, began a mandatory barrage of questions: he asked me what kind of music I liked, what I wanted to play most, what I didn't like – that sort of thing. Then, he brought me to the back wall, which was absolutely crammed with guitars. While Jake was going on about sounds and pickups and hardware and neck tension – all of which I later learned were important – I wasn't listening to a word he said. I was too busy exercising selective vision; I looked straight through all of those too-bright-yellow price tags that grew up to four figures, and I saw the rainbow. A pair of Razorbacks, both ebon; a mahogany Explorer that must have been sex with strings; a line of Les Pauls, with more shades than I'd ever seen; an electric blue Jackson Rhoads that I'm sure I would have walked out of there with, except that I saw the Strat.

It could have been speaking to me, for all I know. It might have been possessed, and said, "Pick me up; touch me, hold me, play me, love me."

If it did, I listened.

Jake was still saying something when I pulled it down from the wall. He stopped midsentence and smiled when he saw me, eyes locked in on the alluring finish, on the white knobs that somehow made noises, on the neck's polished contour.

"Look, he doesn't need me at all, Ells. Kid knows what he's doing."

The name was printed in perfect script on the top of the neck: FENDER Stratocaster. I'm pretty sure I memorized everything about that instrument the first time I saw it. I can't explain how right it felt in my hands as I sat down on one of the small benches and made a few irrhythmic strums, touching the frets experimentally, probing it as though it was alien life. I had no idea how to play; I just wanted to make my stringed monster come to life.

Jake really helped me out there. He pulled another guitar off the wall and asked me if I wanted to learn to play something real fast. I said yeah. He taught me "Sunshine of Your Love". What a great way to start. I still play that lick all the time, just because it sounds so good.

I must have sat there for hours, playing that song over and over and over again. I didn't even try to plug it in to the giant amps they had there – I just wanted to play. Twenty five songs over the loudspeaker later, I was still blistering my fingers on that riff. I vaguely recall stopping once to wipe sweat off my face. The only thing that persuaded me to stop playing the guitar for even a moment was my sister's voice, which said "Let's get checked out."

I stayed up all night in my basement, letting the sounds my sore, swollen fingertips produced soak into the cold, industrial carpet. No amp, no fancy gear – just me, a red and white pick, and a poorly tuned guitar.

Over the next four years, that guitar became as much a part of me as my legs or my arms. I learned as best I could, even though I never took lessons. I played guitar a lot, but even so, I still made time every day to put a CD into Ellen's old, faithful Mixmaster Multideck after school.

There was, and still is, something incredible about taking time to do nothing except listen to music. The right song can make a good day the best day of the month; a blues song on a bad day makes any problem seem less bad somehow; an old-favorite song can bring people together. Even after Ellen left for school, I kept on listening to music and sharing my new discoveries with her. The music kept our friendship together, even over long distance and the age gap.

When my senior spring finally arrived, I had everything going for me: I could play the guitar as well as anyone in school; I had been accepted to State College; I had been given permission to visit Ellen, who was then in her senior year there, for a weekend. She had promised me three days I would never forget – they were, though not in the way I expected.

That weekend was when I started to hear guitar riffs, and I met… well, honestly, I never got her name. But, I wanted to know it. The first guitar lick I ever heard from a girl – hers – was a delay. And the girl was beautiful, her riff was beautiful, but I never got her name.

I saw her on Sunday, when Ellen took me to a soccer game to recover from the first night of any drinking that I had ever experienced. The girl in question – a stunningly beautiful redhead, dressed in a wonderful pair of skin-gripping short-shorts that proclaimed her a State College student to those behind her – walked past me and caught my eye as she got behind me in the concessions line. As soon as we locked eyes, I started to hear a ringing in my ear. I couldn't tell what it was at first, but as I looked around, I realized that it was two things: a digital delay lick, and coming from her. I mean, the riff was coming from her. Nobody else seemed to be able to hear it, but I knew it was there, clear as could be. I don't really know what I should have done in that situation, but I did the only thing that felt natural: I got out of there.

I hustled back to my sister with my head down. I didn't want anyone to notice me, to think I was crazy; I was suspicious enough of my own sanity. When I got back to Ellen, I looked her in the eyes with intention of telling her I didn't feel very good. When I did, I could hear something in my head again. Another delay lick. And I was thinking at that point that I was getting Punk'd by a mad fucking scientist with a delay pedal obsession.

I managed to make it home without too much more trouble – relatively, anyway. I had never been so freaked out by anything in my life. I sprinted to the bathroom, avoiding everyone on the way there. I locked myself in a stall until I calmed down enough to think rationally. I eventually made my way back to the stands, keeping my head down for the remainder of the game and the subsequent ride home. I pretended to be preoccupied with texting, but in truth, I didn't think I could handle a conversation at that point.

The first two days of that experience were the hardest but once I figured out the basics of it, it wasn't too hard. It only works with girls; I don't hear anything until I look them in the eye; once I'm out of earshot I don't hear it again. As long as there's no direct eye contact, and a girl's not too close, I do fine. If it comes down to it and I'm required to make eye contact, I usually just focus on her bangs.

About a month down the road, though, I realized how rare that girl with the delay riff was. Almost nobody has a delay, and those riffs are so different from any other kind – those girls are the ones with music in their souls, who understand how I feel about music. I had never met anyone who understood music the way I did except Ellen, and that girl with the delay riff was intriguing.

When I got to school that fall, I decided that I was going to find her, because I wanted to hear that wonderful riff again. And it was quite a riff – after I first heard it, I couldn't get it out of my head. Maybe I did get a little fixated, but I'm not sure what happened at school would have possibly taken place without that.

The only thing was, though, I didn't even know where to start. I knew three things about her: she was a very attractive red head, at least a sophomore at State College, and once attended a girls' soccer game. My first action once I moved in seemed seemed obvious. During the second day of Freshman Welcome Week, I became the proud owner of both an empty wallet and season men's and women's soccer tickets.

Who knew? Maybe she would show up there again.

I wasn't counting on that option, though, and I was also sure that I was utterly unwilling to wait until spring for the soccer season. I reasoned that the best way to find anybody was to Facebook creep. I'll admit that it's a low thing to do, but the possible effectiveness of the method tempted me. How hard could it be to find one red-headed girl in a college of… thirty thousand people? I asked Ellen the question hypothetically. She took a break from her graduate biology research at University of Chicago to tell me both that it was impossible and to get a life. Lovingly, of course.

She was right on both counts. I looked through over six thousand profiles, and I didn't find anyone who even resembled that redhead. I was a fool. It was a long shot, and I was getting sad and desperate. It was almost to the point where I thought that I wouldn't ever be able to find her, at least when it mattered. As far as I knew, she could have had a boyfriend. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like a complete idiot.

Still that riff nagged at me. It wormed its way into my skull and would not leave. I decided that five days of searching the internet unsuccessfully warranted another phone call to Ellen. I asked her if she knew the girl. It was another long shot, I knew, but it was better than nothing, because I simply could not let that girl's riff go; I just felt this call to it. It was like that song on the radio you've never heard. You hear it once, and you don't hear it again for ages. I hate that.

Ellen's response was, of course, a very sweet and unhelpful "Sorry, but no," and I was just left sitting there in my empty dorm room on a Friday night, trying to convince my depressed self that Facebook creeping was not the way to go. I turned on some B.B King and tried to chill out a little.

It was about that time that I got a very interesting phone call from Jake. He told me that there was a "real rager" going on at his place, which was only a short walk off-campus. So, I pulled on my jacket and walked out the door. After all, I was getting down on myself a little bit; I rationalized that maybe I just needed to get out for a little while. I will admit, though, the possibility of seeing miss delay there was certainly a part of my motivation for going. I wasted no time hiking across the campus sidewalks to the house.

When Jake answered my knock on his door twenty minutes later, I experienced an immediate sensory overload. It was so hot inside that I could feel the air nudge my hair backward as it stampeded out the door; a strobe light pulsed to the beat of MGMT; the bass was turned up so high that I could feel the keys in my pocket vibrating. Jake threw his arms up in the air when he saw me, his eyes growing wide in excitement. He told me that he was the DJ, and asked me if I liked the sound system. I gave him thumbs-up approval. He smiled, handed me a beer, and pushed me inside, straight into a sea of sweat, sex, alcohol, and music. I immediately maneuvered my way through the claustrophobia-inducing crowd and went for the open seat on the couch against the wall.

I opened the beer Jake had given me, sipping at it as slowly as possible, and began to do what I most often did at a party like this one: people-watch. There were about forty people crammed into this black-and-white-contemporary kitchen/dining room that didn't have a table, dancing to the music of DJake live from the Island Stove in the Middle of the Kitchen Floor. All the lights were turned off except for the strobe.

People-watching is so much more interesting with a strobe light. It's like a movie where you miss half the scenes, and you have to fill the rest in yourself. I must have been the only person who went to that party for something besides the thrilling dual sensations of movement and alcohol. I instead preferred to watch other people's behavior. I especially enjoyed trying to guess the kind of riff that a girl might have.

I spied a girl on the near side of the dancefloor with a red cup in her hand. She wore more makeup than The Joker, and as she and her very unconcealed cleavage stumbled past me, I was assaulted by a bottle's worth of perfume. That was all I needed to know: she was a bubblegum guitar-pop riff, and as shallow as they came. I could imagine her riff without even looking. I averted my eyes as she turned around, not wanting to actually have to hear it.

As I drained the last few sips of my beer, the music stopped, and Jake's voice came over the loudspeaker. "May I have your attention please?" he boomed into the mic. "Is everyone having a good time?"

The party let loose a cacophonous roar of collective agreement. As the clatter died down, I could hear music playing again, but Jake hadn't started his music – that meant it was coming from a girl. A rush of fear gripped my stomach as I looked for the source of the music. Then, I heard more songs: two more, then another after that. I could hear a cute little bubblegum riff that made me want to vomit, a four-chord-song – C-G-Am-F – and a little indie rock riff. As I looked around, I noticed that the three girls nearest to me were the source of the noise (and of course, the girl wearing too much makeup was the bubblegum lick). And I realized I hadn't even looked any of them in the eye; they were turned around. I could hear all the girls around me.

It was the most terribly overwhelming sensation I've ever experienced. The combined torture of the audio overload, the sweat-soaked heat of the room, and the frantic strobelight made me feel like I was about to throw up. I got up and made my way toward the door to leave. I had to get out of there. I felt at least as freaked out as I did at the soccer game, although this time, having my head down did nothing to dull the riffs of every single girl who came within five feet.

As I was walking toward the entrance, I noticed absently that someone had thrown up all over the main hallway. It was too late to worry about the condition of Jake's house, or so I thought; all I could think of was getting outside, away from this massive crowd of people. But, right as I opened the door, she appeared on the doorstep.

If I had to sum her up in one word, I would say stunning. She had long black hair that fell straight down her back, and as soon as she walked in, we locked eyes. She had these deep brown lasers that could turn mountains to dust, and as soon as she came close, I could hear this blues lick that absolutely overwhelmed the room. Real blues too, not just some wannabe stuff. Old-school blues, like it was coming off of a 78. If I had to make a comparison, I would say "Here My Train A Comin", but it was smoother, more devious. It felt slow, but it moved fast. It was heavy but easy. She had the type of riff that would draw every eye in the room, if eyes could see riffs.

I couldn't stop staring at her for at least fifteen seconds. I have to admit, even as strong as I feel about the delay riff, the blues come across even stronger. I had never heard a true blues lick from a girl before that day, and it hit me hard. All of my effort and thoughts for miss delay were forgotten with her overpowering entrance.

I realized that I still hadn't let her in yet, so I invited her to please watch out for the puke in the middle of the floor and come in. I walked back toward the party with her. She hadn't said a word yet, but beckoned me to sit down on the couch with her.

We sat there and tried to talk for a bit. I didn't hear much of it, only the words Caitlin, sophomore, and wet. Rather, that's all I needed to know – her riff, which pulsed with excitement and anticipation, told me the rest. I felt my blood rush to my heads as she said, "Let's get out of here."

Her riff played a few excited staccatos as she dragged me by the elbow toward what looked to be the coat closet. She fumbled with the door knob as my heart thumped along to the similarly excited pace of her riff. It was still chugging away, though as she pulled me in and shut the door behind us, I began to hear another layer. It was almost like a bass track dubbed underneath –pulsing, deep and low, and gaining intensity slowly. My pulse grew a little keener. As hormones and adrenaline coursed through my body, I could feel everything around me. I remember feeling a decidedly ignorable pain in my right toe as I tripped over a vacuum cleaner. I shivered as I brushed against the cool leather of what seemed to be Jake's favorite jacket – a shiny, black trenchcoat – as she ran her hands down my back.

I tried my best to keep up with her – her hands were everywhere at once, her mouth was everywhere at once, and her shirt was on the floor within five minutes. The strobe light blinking in through the crack in the door gave the entire scene a strange, ethereal aura, and that blues woman was doing things to my body I never thought possible. Our hands were each other's pioneers: they explored, they built, and they enslaved. Her riff was so good, she was so good. My jeans fell down of their own free will, and suddenly I did not see her silhouette in front of me; I only heard her riff as it steadily gained speed and volume, and then I heard a cymbal's crash as she, her riff, and I simultaneously arrived at the earthquake of a crescendo.

I fell back against the wall of the closet as I tried to regain my breath. She followed suit, but instead of falling against the wall, she fell against the door. It gave way, and she fell straight into the hallway. She gave a small, sly yelp, as though it was embarrassing, but I could hear her riff; she liked being seen. I must say, though, I can't pretend that I enjoyed it; in fact, I was rather put out when miss delay appeared before my eyes on the other side of the open door.

The red-haired girl stopped and gaped at the scene before her for a moment. I followed her eyes; they glanced at Caitlin, haphazardly pulling her shirt back on, and at me, with my messed-up hair and, as she glanced down, my unzipped pants. She looked me in the eye, scoffed, and walked away. When she got about ten steps away, I suddenly realized that the only riff I could hear was that melancholy blues lick, chugging away like nothing had happened; like my chance with the girl I had sought for months hadn't just burst to pieces. I didn't even get to hear that wonderful riff again. Caitlin got back on her feet, smiling deviously, and pulled me back inside the closet, shutting the door behind her. As her lips touched mine, I forgot all about miss delay.

When Caitlin comes around – and it happens all the time now that I'm seeing her – she's the only riff I can ever hear.

All you have to do is get them once, and let me tell you those blues stick with you in your head. And when that happens, you can't hear anything else, not even a delay's haunting melody. If you get them, you can't go back and you can't let them go. The blues sneak up on you, waiting for your hopes to be in reach, and then they give you hell when you're weak. But you know what the worst part is? When you catch the blues, you don't care about the delay riff anymore, no matter how much it meant to you. You don't even give a damn.

In fact, you almost want them.