The mysterious gadget
Lockdown drawing: “Hole in the Sky” by Benjie Lontoc

The mysterious gadget

ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - June 1, 2020 - 12:00am

Of the things of childhood, there was one that particularly captured the imagination. With a size no bigger than the palm of one’s hand, it was a combination flashlight, compass, magnet, conversion table. Come to think of it, the mysterious gadget most likely brought back by older siblings during their time in the Great Midwest had the shape of an early model cellphone.

I mention this now, weeks after the youngest member of the household brought home an electric guitar. From out of the blue, he and a college mate decided to skip quarantine to make their respective purchases at a music store in a nearby city. Aside from Netflix and video games, another diversion was necessary to fill the long hours of lockdown.

Tools of the guitar are rudimentary, some of which can be gleaned from the lyrics of the Talking Heads song, Electric Guitar, from the album “Fear of Music.” In our house, when a guitar goes electric, there is nothing to fear but music.

Chords come out sporadically from the young guitar player’s room, the fuzz tones and buzz tones, and as yet he has no need for a metronome, which goes on ticking anyway even after the song. The basic major chords are essential, as songs can be built around patterns of three, such as: E-A-D, or C-G-D, then next lesson would incorporate the minor chords, such as Em-Dm-Am, and we haven’t gotten to the sharps and scales.

Years ago I had myself purchased such a guitar from prize money won in a word race for amateurs, at a music store in Raon, which was every music aficionado’s dream strip back in the day, where guitar strings can be bought per piece, usually the fourth always the first to snap, and the display counters were filled with varied effects of musicians: picks, harmonicas, capos, jew’s harps.

And out on the sidewalks or the overpasses, along with the smuggled mechanical tools was hawked the occasional odd hourglass, the opposite of an eyesore. What the fragile hourglass was doing beside such hardware was another one of those enduring enigmas of a prolonged adolescence; maybe it suggested that shopping must be done before the city vice squad again makes the rounds.

That first electric guitar, after spending some time in a basement room at Maginhawa, eventually found its way to a building on P. Tuazon corner 7th Avenue, Cubao, in the music room of Jingle magazine. During Fridays or whenever the staff felt so musically inclined, there were hours-long jam sessions — yes, that’s what they called it then, before “pot session” became generic even if cannabis wasn’t the drug of choice — over a case or two of beer, and “liquor ban” was a strange animal not part of hormonal vocabulary.

We were drawn to the music room like fireflies around a shrub in the countryside with its own magnetic field; here spirits hovered, the kind with 70 or 80 proof. Afterwards the tropa headed maybe for Rose Canton Mami to counter any hangover, Shiatsu for quick massage, or if it wasn’t too late, slip in at Araneta Coliseum to catch the last two minutes of a PBA game.

The vinyl consisted of Elvis Costello’s “My Aim is True,” Van Morisson’s “Wavelength,” John Prine’s “Bruised Orange,” Little Feat’s “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.” The chords were still playing in our heads long after the records disappeared one after another, borrowed and never returned.

The fate of that first electric guitar was more or less similar but not quite, because it too seemed to vanish into thin air after the gang got tired of the drunken despalinghados, the real honest-to-goodness street legal contraband sessions, the endless beers and nothing like. 

Was told much later by a colleague that a fellow amateur musician had spirited it away perhaps to learn a few chord progressions himself, but actually to disappear somewhere in La Loma to set up a bakery called Long Life. A showbiz writer suggested I should inquire about the black Gibson model from the missing panadero, and showed me a picture of a coffin where lay the actress Julie Vega and behind which photo I should write my demand note.

Cut to: years later, after getting roaring drunk in one of those high school reunions, I suddenly found myself safe and sound on the sofa back in the apartment, wondering how I got there with everything bright as day. Must be an angel on my shoulder, looking over what I write so it doesn’t become too self-fulfilling. And in the southeast room another guitar is playing another lifetime, a Fender Strat with the scales vaguely familiar, no more the gadget cellphone prototype, which we are told by a sister in Canada was actually a light meter for photography.

* * *

(Erratum: In the previous number titled “Lost Frames,” the album cover of the Submarines’ “Declare a New State” was inadvertently attributed to artist Benjie Lontoc. Our apologies. Please see the painter’s real-time drawing of Oslo in quarantine).

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