Having once been described as one of London's top two-thousand guitarists, I experienced an unfamiliar swell of pride the day Junior, now twelve years of age, brought an acoustic guitar home from school.
'He has to practice,' my wife told me. 'It's part of his homework, to practice for fifteen minutes. He'll be playing in the school concert at Christmas.'
The song Junior was required to practice was called How Much Longer Do I Have to Do This? It was an improvised piece performed by slashing away at the strings as hard as possible with a plectrum so as to produce a sound not unlike that heard on a Derek Bailey record, whilst holding down an occasional note with fingers of the other hand. Additionally the piece required that Junior purse his lips causing his two front teeth to protrude, puff out his cheeks, and go cross-eyed whilst playing, maintaining this special comedy face for the duration of the work, excepting pauses during which he would call to Bess how much longer do I have to do this? or how long has it been? or is it fifteen minutes yet?
I've come to dislike the special comedy face because it usually serves as a substitute for the sort of ordinary human interaction one might reasonably expect. It says I'm not going to answer the question or return the greeting but here, check this out - I think you'll agree that it's pretty darn funny. He pulled the special comedy face on my first day of married life, seven in the morning in the kitchen the day after the wedding. 'Good morning,' I said.
He pulled the special comedy face, stood far too close to me and jumped up and down in the certainty of this being hilarious, because at some point someone had told him that it was, and he hasn't listened to any of the less favourable reviews given since.
'Go away,' I suggested.
Bess explained that the avant-garde nature of his guitar recital was probably put on for my benefit, because he is yet to notice that the special comedy face doesn't really work for me. I retired to the room with the computer, the sanctuary in which I keep my mammoth collection of Doom Patrol comics and A.E. van Vogt science-fiction novels. The music from the front room settled into actual chords, hesitantly strummed, but impressive for a kid who had only picked up a guitar about a month before. I was fourteen when Santa first stuffed one into my stocking, and it took me two years to graduate beyond the bass line of Babylon's Burning picked out on just the two lowest strings.
I said as much to my wife. 'You know, he's not bad at all. I just wish he'd take it seriously instead of trying to be the great entertainer all the time.'
The next week or maybe the one after, he forgot to bring the guitar home from school, apparently having become accustomed to the idea that the point of other people is to remember things on your behalf, sort of like when Alfred reminds Master Bruce that it might be a good idea to fill her up next time he takes the Batmobile out for a spin.
Junior practiced on my guitar instead, breaking a string during a particularly energetic performance of How Much Longer Do I Have to Do This? I was displeased. 'I've been playing guitar for thirty-five years now,' I pointed out. 'In all that time, I've probably broken three or four strings. You've been going a month and yet here we are already.'
I bought new strings, dipping into Junior's allowance for funds, and he continued to practice. By December he still remained some way short of Segovia standards, but at least he no longer sounded like he was attempting selections from a Ramleh album. Now it's two Thursdays before Christmas and we're driving to the school. There's nowhere to park so we drop Junior off at the main entrance and head over to the adjacent park, one reputedly frequented by gentlemen who seek sexual liasons with strangers. It's dark, near pitch black due to it being seven in the evening and the absence of street lights, but no-one attempts sexual liasons with us and within minutes we are back at the school. The church - which is part of the same building - seems packed, so we sneak upstairs to the organ loft. No-one else is there and we have a much better view. It feels a little like we've broken in, like we are somewhere we shouldn't be, but there's no-one to chuck us out so we take seats. We sat up here last time I came to the school for one of Junior's concerts, so I suppose it should be okay. If we weren't meant to be up here, the door through which we came most likely would have been locked.
The pews are filling up down below, and there's a large herd of first graders fidgeting away at the front, green and red colours predominant. Everyone has been told to dress festively. Junior accordingly wears a red pullover with some sort of fluffy white arrangement up front and across the shoulders.
'There he is!' I point to the transept where a group of older kids, the sixth graders, stand around looking bored with their acoustic guitars. I notice how in his red and white top our man looks as though he's come as one of the Doom Patrol from this distance, specifically one of the Doom Patrol from when Paul Kupperberg was writing the comic. I quickly realise there's not much point in my sharing the observation with anyone.
I try to work out whether this is the first Christmas concert I've attended at this school, and what seasonal occurrence the previous concert I witnessed had acknowledged, but it's gone. I saw a couple of equivalent concerts at the previous institution, San Antonio Guantanamo for Boys as my wife and I refer to the place these days, and those were pure arseache. They seemed to go on for hours, and more than half of that time was taken up by the oratory of their used-car salesman of a principal clearly very much in love with the sound of his own adjectives. What is the magic of this thing we call San Antonio Guantanamo for Boys? he would rhetorically enquire with Disney brand sincerity before introducing a series of laboured skits.
'What do you want for Christmas, Lester?'
'Well I always wanted to go to sea, but I guess a boat would cost a whole lot of money.'
'You know, maybe we can all go to sea... in a Yellow Submarine!' and into the song, and it would be that for the next couple of hours, fail then cheese, then more fail and more cheese, then yet more fail and yet more cheese - jokes which wouldn't have made the grade on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-in, and the millionaires of Alamo Heights equating this with value for money with a degree of faith equivalent to Junior's belief in the special comedy face. So maybe the teachers weren't required to have any sort of formal teaching qualification, but all that filthy lucre must be paying for something good, and hey - they're singing Yellow Submarine! That is sooooooo cute!
Junior has been doing significantly better at this school, and no-one gets a headache when asked to attend events of this kind, so everyone is happy.
The first graders launch into song. The evening is a mixture of the traditional and the slightly cheesy but done with such generous spirit that no-one really minds; so we kick off with All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, or something of the sort. The only real problem is that the once traditional arrangement of kids singing to the accompaniment of their music teacher at the piano has gone out the stained glass window, so we have the little ones singing to the backing of some karaoke instrumental sourced from a laptop at the side of the stage. It's okay, but the percussion on the instrumental skates a bit too close to drum & bass and is as such difficult to ignore, so the whole is a little weird and tends to overshadow the children's performance. This is a pity because they're probably the most tuneful bunch of nippers I've heard, certainly a great improvement on the assembled atonal fog hornery of my own school days.
After a few more songs, we get Silent Night scored for just kids and piano, which is wonderful except that they've given it a different tune for no good reason I can think of. The point of Christmas is surely, at least in part, tradition and repetition and doing the same thing you did last year and the year before. Silent Night was fine as it was. It didn't need jazzing up or improving.
Then we get bell ringing, both traditional carols and a few of the more Christmassy hits of the sixties, most of the actual music unfortunately coming from a laptop; and I consider that this road will eventually lead to Christmas concerts in which we sit around and listen to a recording of Bing Crosby whilst a child stands on stage and tries to keep time with a tambourine. It somehow suggests a lack of confidence in the children.
Junior shuffles on with his guitar, accompanied by another seven or eight kids with guitars. They all strum as the choir sings, and seemingly in time. Then at last we get a song for which every instrument is being played by a kid stood on the stage, even the percussion. It's the Little Drummer Boy, and it lurches here and there with some kids hanging onto previous bars a bit longer than necessary, but it has so much more feeling than the karaoke numbers. This is what we came to hear.
We leave happy as the concert ends, just an hour after it began, and we take with us all of the good stuff - the sweet, clear voices of the first graders, the enthusiasm of the children, and the pleasing knowledge of our boy having done well, holding it all together without feeling the need to break out the special comedy face. Back in the park, our car is where we left it and no-one has tried to have sex with it in our absence. As we head home, we briefly shudder as we remember the days of San Antonio Guantanamo for Boys, and we are endlessly thankful for all that we have now; so seasons greetings etc.