The only song I ever learned to play on the electric guitar I bought in college, a Japanese knock-off of the Stratocaster, was the Pixies' "Cactus," a lament for a lost lover. This is no great accomplishment—the song is extraordinarily easy even by the DIY standards of the time—but the first time I hit the chord progression correctly, I felt the kind of magic that I imagined drove musicians to pursue their art, that realization that you yourself could make the music you loved.
Not that I learned any other songs on the guitar. Nick Hornby has a great sentence in High Fidelity, one that I love so much I've committed it to memory (which guarantees I'm misquoting it): "Barry's all-consuming desire to play Madison Square Garden had never led him to do anything so mundane as learn how to play an instrument." That was me. I wanted to be in a band, but I didn't want to do anything to become the kind of person who was in a band.
I'm writing this in Ho Chi Minh City, which everyone still calls Saigon. I spent today the way I usually spend the first day in a new city: I walked around, past coffee shops and noodle bars, fancy hotels and backpacker hostels. I saw tourist sites and buildings that still held the traces of French colonialism on their facades. After a while, though, I was past all that, across the bridge of the Thi Nghe Channel, into a different part of Saigon.
In the weeks leading up to this trip, I've noticed all the things around me that were made in Vietnam. Clothing, tools, even the backpack in which I'm carrying everything for this trip, all made somewhere here. And when I crossed the bridge, I suddenly found myself in the land of Made in Vietnam. Men tooled car parts in stalls, welded ornamental gates using torches with lights brighter than the sun. I passed one stall in which a man was carefully applying plaster to make a cherub, one of a dozen dancing on the headboard of a bed.
I think writers have a fascination with manual labor because we're never quite sure if we're making anything. I mean, there are books and contributor's copies of journals, but a writer spends a long time just to produce a Word file, a bit of digital ephemera. Is music the same way? Did Black Francis hold the master tapes of Surfer Rosa in his hands and think "that's it?"
I'm in Saigon to work on a book, doing research so that I can theoretically make a thing somewhere down the line. And I walked around the city all day today with the songs of Surfer Rosa in my head—the bad Spanish and the loud-soft-loud construction, the weirdness of the "you fuckin' die" segment, the way the album feels so perfectly made to me that I could listen to it on any day. I thought about how on every new copy of the CD at the record stores someone had always tried to pull off the sticker over the bare breast on the cover (these were pre-internet days, folks). I thought about how Apple used "Gigantic," a song about spying on a man and marveling at his oversized penis, in an ad campaign a few years ago. It was easy to be horrified by the inappropriateness of choosing that song for a garage band of teenage girls to sing in order to sell expensive electronics, and yet, speaking as a guy who puzzled out the four chords of "Cactus" many years ago, singing along softly in his room as the song came together, I also kinda loved it.
Maybe we're all trying to figure out how to make something in our lives. Not "make something out of our lives," which is a whole other consideration, but how to make something, a physical thing, in our lives. Maybe we make a Word file or some master tapes for a short but perfect album. Maybe we make car parts or metal gates. Maybe we make plaster angels that will fly over someone else's head.
Tomorrow I'll walk back into the city, trying to find something, I don't know what, that will help me write. I'll look for clues and remnants among the endless river of motorbikes. I'll stop and think for a while, trying to figure out how to make the thing I want to make, and as I do it, a little corner of my brain will repeat "your bone's got a little machine" or "hey Paul, hey Paul, hey Paul" or "bloody your hands / on a cactus tree / wipe them on your dress / and send it to me," and even if my hands have forgotten the muscle memory to make the chords, I will still remember the joy of making them.