I don’t know if everyone has moments like this connected so viscerally to mere pieces of songs, but I think even if I’m gripped by an early dementia or bang my head on a doorframe and it rocks me into a full amnesia, I will forever and always remember the first time I heard the first fifteen seconds of “I Heard Her Call My Name” by the Velvet Underground. I think it ruined the guitar for me forever—every other note played on the instrument became as flat as dead water after that. In 9th grade, a friend of mine stuck the song right in the middle of the A-side of a mixtape that had been collaged from fragments of found-sound samples and songs both in full and busted apart. I told him, The way you shoved part of that VU song on there so that it just jumps right out at you is real cool, and he laughed. No, that’s it. That’s the song. That’s just how it is. It was the wildest thing anyone had ever said to me.
Sterling Morrison played guitar on the song and he felt more or less the exact same way, even quitting the band for a few days after hearing the album in full for the first time because he assumed they’d put the wrong mix together. “‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ [was] one of our best songs that they completely ruined in the studio,” he’s on record as saying, and he’s definitely right about the first part. I’m not even sure you could call what Lou Reed does on the track “playing the guitar”—the sounds he makes are more akin to a subway car colliding with a Range Rover, or a toddler playing twelve terrible Fisher Price instruments at once. The chaos is illuminating though, the beauty of the silence when the song (“song”) comes to a close nearly deafening. It’s calmed my mind down on several occasions, and I think it was intended to do the exact opposite.
And what are we supposed to do with a guitar solo in the first place? How can we listen to one and not feel automatically and overwhelmingly like Someone Who Is Listening To A Guitar Solo, since in every solo lies the history of solos, with the role you the listener are meant to play already laid out before you. Guitar solos are supposed to take you...somewhere. They’re supposed to make you feel...something. Is the soloist trying to transport us, or tell us something more profound, something the lyrics aren’t able to verbalize? Both at once, ideally, and yet I can’t escape the feeling that the vast majority of guitar solos are so very guitar solo-y, so in love with their own awareness as a guitar in the act of soloing.
Obviously there are some who have found ways to continue to surprise, with sonic fun or sheer new-age smarts—Annie Clark and Nels Cline come most immediately to mind—but by and large the guitar solo’s a dead fish in 2017, as, in my mind, it probably should be. It died 50 years ago, with “I Heard Her Call My Name.”
Regardless, in December of 2015 Rolling Stone published a list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists” (perhaps not of all time?). Dead Man composer and cameo artist Neil Young sat at number 17, and the magazine employed Phish frontman Trey Anastasio to write the paragraph-long blurb for him. This is how it starts: “If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young's original ‘Down by the River’ solo. It's one note, but it's so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It's like he desperately wants to connect.” I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit to the teacher that I’m not entirely sure what Trey means here by “original,” though my assumption is he’s talking about the studio version off of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Neil Young’s second album, and not some live or bootlegged nonsense. The guitar solo in question is fine; I mean, yes, it’s good. It’s a minimalist guitar solo, one that favors feeling and connection to the instrument over virtuosity. It’s definitely not just one note for a full minute—that would be insane (but better, strangely, I think)—and it’s not even close. For ten seconds it relies on that one note, then runs away into other notes, as one does, so I don’t know what Trey Anastasio was smoking, but sure, it’s a good guitar solo. It’s still just...a guitar solo though.
“Down By the River” is a great song, probably the best on Everybody Knows if you forget the title track exists and “The Losing End” is too Grateful Dead for you, but it’s not the guitar soloing that makes it great. It’s Neil Young’s terrifyingly timeless, unchanging voice, the unrelenting drive of Crazy Horse, one of our all-time great backing bands, and the gorgeous production of the tracking itself. The solo is merely a conduit for the feeling, a bit player in a larger tapestry. Why do we fetishize it so much, why exalt so ceaselessly the abilities of the guitar player above all else?
I’d have to imagine it’s mostly nostalgia. Rock music has guitar solos—that’s kind of it’s thing. So when we hear a rock song with a guitar solo we aren’t really hearing that song or that solo, we’re hearing the history of the genre and we’re comparing notes. Is this person playing like Hendrix? Are they playing like Page? I think I remember Allman using that same trick. That player’s got that Diddley or Holly or Berry or Santana sound. Blame it on drugs, or the penis, or the Summer of Love. Blame it on white folks and Vietnam and Les Paul and drugs. Actually, just blame it on drugs. Whatever you’re putting your pin in (drugs), the consensus is undoubtedly the same: guitar solos are hella sick and you can deal with it.
So fine. I accept. But it still bores the daylights out of me. Not the guitar solo itself so much as our insistent romanticization of it. Furthermore, the older I get the more I start noticing the complete absence of the guitar-as-principal-sound in my favorite records. The future is in cracker jack producers and tightly-wrapped, Mensa-smart pop songs. The future has little space for cock rock buffoonery, for soaring faux-emotion on a six-string. I don't know. Perhaps the future of music would do well to ignore its past entirely.