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October 16, 2006, Paris


This morning a long Metro ride to Ecole Militaire from Reuilly-Diderot for the Rodin Museum. A few stops in, a guy with an electric guitar and an amplifier gets on and stands near the door. At first I groaned inwardly, remembering the surly accordion player who got on my car on the Metro two days ago. I was riding from south-east Paris to the Pompideau, sitting for most of the ride across from an old Eastern European woman who was wearing a black wool winter jacket with a caul over her head on a damp muggy day. She sat facing the floor of the car with a scared look on her face, whispering prayers, her hands clasping a rosary tight in her lap pushing her large breasts together.


A man of about 40 got on with an accordion and pushed numbers on a Casio until he got a samba beat and began to play a polka on a red tortoise-shell Vox accordion. No one was in the mood for happy accordion music at 7 in the morning, and when everyone turned their backs to him, he slammed the Casio off and walked up and down the crowded subway car with one hand extended while the other continued to play his accordion. When everyone (including me) ignored him, he stopped playing mid-song and went back to his machine and angrily shut it off, staring sullenly at us until we reached the next station—where he got off to, no doubt, get the same reception in the next car.


Anyway, this guitarist had a beat box too and began playing “Rawhide,” which I thought was an interesting choice for the Paris Metro. Nothing fancy, but each note clearly and precisely defined, with a nice attack and some tremolo added to each note to give it a little extra bounce and depth. I was sitting across from him on one of those fold-out seats in the landing of the car and an elegant businessman, cradling a briefcase, was standing next to me and also faced the guitarist, and a young Japanese girl sat across from us.


I struggled to know what I should do—to look up would be to acknowledge his presence—I would get involved, which I wasn’t sure I wanted to do remembering the accordion player’s insolence when I wouldn’t give him any change. But it felt odd not to look at him. I liked what he was playing, I liked his fingerwork, I was curious to see who this guy was, playing “Rawhide” in a subway car in the Paris Metro.


First I looked at his shoes (black Keds, hi-tops), his slacks (black pegged jeans), his shirt (soft reddish-brown, plaid), then his guitar (a vintage black Stratocaster), and then his right hand. He was holding a white plastic pick loosely between his thumb and forefinger. His fingernails were long and trimmed, solid. He held the guitar tight against his body and slowly rocked back and forth and side to side as he played.  


When he saw me watching his fingers, he palmed the pick and began to fingerpick, playing freestyle. His fingers moved from string to string, precisely attacking each note and leaving it reverberating when his fingers went on to the next string. Then my eyes moved up the neck to his left hand. His fingernails were rounded and short. He drummed his fingertips onto the strings, his fingers striking the strings against the fretboard the way a piano-player hammers the keys with varying delicacy and force, their touch determining the amount of vibrato and clarity in each note.


I shot a glance up to his face. He wasn’t looking at his fingers, but vaguely off at the floor, just as I was a moment before. He had short blonde hair, a clean-shaven face. Young, a little weathered, but clean and bright-faced. His reddish-brown shirt was freshly pressed.


He was playing out of his imagination and never seemed to be pushing himself, or attempting to play outside of what his fingers could actually accomplish—the notes were precise with lots of air and space around them, his fingers and body language relaxed. I could feel the force of his concentration—effortless and originating from somewhere deep inside him. Or perhaps he was gathering it from the air around his head, listening to the notes before and after they appeared and disappeared, replaced by whatever came next, listening and playing at the same time. Between the melody lines, when he was waiting for the beat to come around again, he rested the palm of his right hand on the soundboard, then flipped the pick back between his fingers, darting out a final flurry of angular, off-kilter endnotes.


As the last note of “Rawhide” reverberated, he bent over and programmed the beat box to begin a song I immediately identified as “Samba Pa Ti.” He looked up and when he realized I was smiling, he rested his hand on the pick-guard, and palmed the pick and began playing with his fingertips, his index finger playing a counterpoint to the melody he was picking out with his third and fourth fingers. Then he began hammering a counter-melody with the fingers of his left hand, simultaneously extending and bending the notes and dropping in unexpected and discordant notes around the melody line, using these to launch short and then longer runs and fills around the simple slow melody, all the while completely relaxed, unforced, playing well within his limits. In my peripheral vision I could see that the businessman and the young Japanese girl were looking up and watching him, too.


Then in a gentle way he began to ascend away from the melody entirely, soaring above it, overlaying a brace of crisp notes in the air, the descending notes guttural, reverberating like stones dropped in a deep well, the upper register bright and glistening with vibrato, the two progressions finally coming together in a single note that he maintained longer than anyone could possibly imagine, until he raised it and sharpened it higher and higher and higher until he hit a pitch that was like the ice of a thousand windows shattering into gold.



[Originally published in NHS 2007, http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs07/Randy_Roark.htm.]