This issue features the winners of best of 2015’s Creative Writing programme at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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Friday, 22 July 2016 17:44

Dreaming of Guitars

By  Josh Marcus


At the last show I play, the crowd chants my name. It’s not the type of attention I’m used to. I think the short speech I give is stilted, but I speak sincerely, and sincerity usually comes through. Although I leave out some important information.

“Playing in a rock band is every kid’s dream, and I’m incredibly grateful I got the chance,” I tell the crowd.

I am grateful, but I long ago realised that it’s not what I want. Every kid thinks they want to be in a band, but the reality is that for guys like me it becomes a drain. I love creating, but that’s maybe a quarter of what it entails.

Take this final show. I’m enjoying it far more than most I’ve played over the past six or seven years. We’re back in our hometown, and though we hate this place, our most loyal fans live here. There are five hundred maximum. Intimate. Like final shows are meant to be. As I stand up here, speaking to the crowd for these couple minutes, I suddenly regret that I made this decision so recently, and that I chose to keep it secret. Because I’ve been standing on stages around the world for ten years, and I’ve been feeling unfulfilled for six or seven of them, but speaking to the crowd about how incredibly grateful I am, I begin to resent that I find it so hard to speak in front of five hundred people. I’ve played in venues that held thousands. And I am not ridiculous. Tyler, if anyone, is ridiculous and the fans take him as seriously as the plague. How is it I always leave it too late?

Tyler takes the mic from me, and thanks me, tells the crowd that although this is an ending, I’m still his brother, yada, yada, yada. Then he explains the song we’re going to play, which is ridiculous if you think about it because the words are explicit. We don’t hide any riddles. Tyler says what he means. So when he says the song’s about a gang whose leader is known for killing younger members on a whim, it’s more that he’s telling them we’re gonna play ‘Pawns’, which is the name of the song and also sums up the theme.

The lyrics are not ridiculous, let’s get that straight. Tyler doesn’t write ridiculous words, I don’t construct ridiculous riffs, Ryan doesn't play ridiculous beats. Everything is calculated, layered and, above all, very fucking serious. If you turn off the sound, then watch Tyler convulsing on the stage, hitting that tambourine against his thigh, you’ll find it ridiculous. So it’s a testament to how serious we are that people aren’t standing there going what the fuck is happening on that stage.

‘Pawns’ is our most popular song, but it’s far from our best. It’s from our early work, whereas our last album far surpasses anything else we’ve done. It’s a masterpiece, even if I’m being vain in saying so. I wrote riffs and progressions that can evoke emotion even in those who don’t invest in the instrumentals, which is a lot of our older fans who are the screamo crowd. I know this because the screamo crowd stuck around, even though Tyler eschewed all screaming for this one. He delivers the new lyrics without sounding like he’s just lost his family. The instrumentation and vocals combine properly, not like before when sometimes I felt like we were playing different songs to what he was screaming.

We start the show with ‘Pawns’ because these are our oldest fans, after all, but we move on to ‘Ride Out The Night’ right after, which is about a family trying to keep safe from a storm, and starts the realistic drama of this latest record. I feel high emotion playing up there. But it’s not sadness or nostalgia, it’s regret, and I am more animated than ever with my guitar, strumming hard – which the song allows for – and jumping around, letting myself be ridiculous because tonight is my night and the crowd is on my side no matter what.


It isn’t enough to make up for the missed opportunities. I would need another year at least for that. I am too late. The end of the show comes too soon. Tyler gives one more emotional speech, thanking me for everything, and I take the mic, feeling like a dork for being so obviously different to how I normally am, and I tell everyone how much I love them, and I can’t find anything to say that would make up for the past, and so I start the final song.

We left this one for last, because it’s my favourite. A twelve-minute masterpiece from our first full length album. And I know I said that only our latest really cohered, but this song actually did so long before. Tyler’s voice is an instrument in it, even with his overdramatic screams. Most importantly, my guitar runs this one. The drums are geared towards my beats, the bass as well, and Tyler’s screams coincide with thunderous notes. You’d think a twelve minute song would last long, but way too soon I’m strumming the part in which I mute the notes, just making a tng tng tng sound with smartly placed full barres, or one specific barre over and over that isn’t muted. Tyler is singing about our friend James who never had PTSD even though he saw crazy shit over in Afghanistan, and we come to the end, and the crowd are shouting Roland Roland Roland, which is my name by the way, and it feels really good but it’s too late.





I’m going to make guitars. I’m going to luthiery school, even though I’ve already built a few in my time, including some with intricate specs for friends. I wanna be an expert, because that’s how you fulfill your dream. You don’t just do the thing you wanna do, you do it properly. That’s how I got good at making music. I practised 4:4 and all the easy measures until I wanted to rip the needle out of the fucking metronome, and then challenged myself to more complicated time signatures. Only once they came naturally did I start writing stuff. Then I was no longer bound by them. I wrote what made sense, and thought about the beats after.

And it wasn’t just guitars. I learned drums too – not to play, but the dynamics of different sounds and beats and techniques. That way I could gear my sound towards possible drum patterns, and sometimes write them for Ryan. It helps that Ryan has never liked to write his own shit, otherwise I’d have been crossing a lot of lines.

So we finish our final show, and I give my guitar to Sloane, and I walk off the stage into the crowd which chants my name. They hug me and shake my hand, and then raise me above them and pass me through in an aimless wandering. I have some photos with them, which is really nice although I hate photos where I’m the centre of attention. I always look like a complete nerd in photos, with my short beard and glasses, but they mean something, which is what matters.

I think maybe I should hook up with a girl, because it’s a perk of being in a band that I’ve never taken advantage of. For moral reasons, and because I don't really like sex if there’s no intimacy. It’s messy, and feels good I know, but not good enough to offset the dirtiness I feel about having slept with a stranger.

But I’m worried that maybe I haven't done it because I’m scared, and now is the last chance I’ll get, and I need to know that I can do it. And yes, it’s easier because the crowd is chanting my name and taking photos, but that doesn’t make me less anxious.

I spot this black-haired girl, pale with very striking eyes, which would have struck me even if she’d had no makeup on. She has a tattoo of our logo on her arm, which gives away that she’ll be keen. I don’t think highly of tattoos of band logos, because you grow older and your tastes change, or a band member does something really bad. Like that British singer who raped a baby. Some people have tattoos of his logo and lyrics. I’ve seen tattoo fails a lot worse, like people who covered their faces with tats. One guy even inked the names of porn sites all over his cheeks and forehead for income. That’s for the rest of his life now. He’ll never have a normal face, or get a normal job. In that context, having the logo of a defunct band with a paedophile singer is not so bad, provided it’s not too prominent. Still, regret seems inevitable. But that’s life I guess.

Anyway, this girl has our logo on her upper arm. We just have a black outline, without any strong colours or patterns. It’s subtle, which is lucky for this girl, in case her life changes. I walk up to her and she gets really excited, which scares me because now I’m bound to disappoint her. That’s another reason I’ve never picked up a fan.


“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Gina,” she says. “I’m so so so excited to meet you.”

“I know... I’m excited to meet you too...?”


She laughs as if I’ve made a really smart joke. I don’t know what to say, so I keep silent. It feels really awkward, but I know she feels it too, and that calms me.

“Let’s go talk somewhere more quiet,” I say to her.

“What?” she shouts.

I lean in like I’ve seen suave guys do, and say right into her ear, “Let’s go talk somewhere more quiet.”

She giggles, I guess because she said, “What?” to that, and because she’s nervous and can tell I am too.

When we’re outside we get to talking about guitars. When I start talking about guitars, I don’t stop, and I know that annoys some people. But it doesn’t annoy Gina, who is so enamoured with me she wouldn't mind if I was speaking about tax reforms, which is another thing I’m interested in.

I tell her some stuff about me, as well. I tell her why I got into guitar, which is that as a kid I inherited one from my grandfather. I was more interested in the mechanics of it, at first, but I started strumming a bit, and taught myself to play. People can’t believe that – that I taught myself to play – but with guitar it’s straightforward once you know the notes and how to press down on a fret. You also have to get callouses, but I already had them from building stuff and taking things apart.

Although I speak, and she listens, it doesn’t feel one-sided. Maybe it’s just the way I am. I don’t intimidate or make people feel small. Tyler does, because he’s just too clever. He’s arrogant, but not in a rockstar sort of way, which people would be more equipped to respond to. He’s arrogant about his smartness. He’ll quote Bukowski in casual conversation, and Kierkegaard in more serious ones.

Tyler comes over and tells me we’re going to his hotel room for an after party. He invites Gina personally, which is nice because she’s really excited to meet him. Still, it bothers me – why would anyone settle for the guitarist when they can have the vocalist, especially when the guitarist is me and the vocalist is Tyler?

When Tyler goes off to find the others, she gushes about how much she loves the band, and how she idolises all of us. I tell her that we’re just a bunch of regular guys, and she says that it’s so cool I’m down to earth and haven’t let the fame get to my head. To be honest, I’m getting bored with her since Tyler interrupted. All she can speak about is me and the band, and I guess that’s the downside of hooking up with a fan.





Back at Tyler’s hotel room, we sit around smoking a joint and reminiscing about when we first started. Ryan’s brother Lucian is here. He played drums for us at the beginning, before moving on to a career in law. I feel kinda bad about having brought Gina. She has nothing to do with this party, and I feel guilty towards the other guys, because they want this to be intimate. But she doesn’t mind sitting quietly and no one pays her any attention, so I forget about it.

Sitting around like this feels right. It reminds me of the beginning, before we had any success. We had just left high school when we released that first EP. Nothing special, although I still love some of the riffs I wrote for it. Tyler thinks he sounded terrible on it, and he’s not totally wrong. Those days we would sit and get high and talk about the future, dreaming that one day we’d make it. Now we’ve made it and we sit around doing the same thing. Life sometimes has that kind of symmetry about it.

One time in particular stuck with me. After a show somewhere in Tres Lyon, we went back to our tour bus where we were sleeping – getting a hotel room didn't make sense in terms of what we were getting paid. We peeled off our clothes, which were sticky with sweat. We were lying on our beds, passing around a joint, when Lucian started slapping his hands against his bare belly and chest, making a sticky beat, which Tyler started putting words to. I picked up my guitar and strummed individual notes. All just riffing. None of it made any sense, Tyler’s words especially, and I began to layer it with my own. Sitting in this hotel room, I bring it up.

“So young and dumb,” Tyler says. “I thought I was being profound. I always thought my high ideas were profound. You were never so presumptuous,” he says to me.

“Yup. I’ve never even thought my sober ideas were profound,” I say.

“And you're the smartest of all of us,” Ryan says. It’s not true, and we all know that, but since the guys are feeling sentimental I let it slide.

We sit quietly, passing around what remains of a joint while Lucian rolls another. Gina finally breaks her silence.

“I’m such a huge fan of all you guys,” she says.

Tyler puts popcorn in the microwave and stands there silently as we all listen to it pop. It’s a comfortable silence, in which we’re all lost in our own stoned realities. Mine is a jumble of abstract thoughts about tonight. Lines from my speech run through my head.

Every child dreams of being in a band. Being in a band. A rock band. Every child’s dream.

Gina puts her hand on my face. I let it sit there, while Tyler pulls open the bag of popcorn and pours it into a bowl. We all put our hands into the bowl at the same time, and laugh. When my mouth is full of popcorn, Gina puts her lips to mine and sucks a kernel from it. It shoots out too fast and gets stuck in her throat and she coughs. I laugh and spray crumbs out of my mouth.

Gina climbs onto me and plants kisses on my cheeks. She puts her hand on my crotch and squeezes through my jeans. I bring my mouth to hers and taste her smoky tongue. We are going at it, pulling each other’s clothing off. I’ve been naked plenty in front of the band, but I’ve never had sex around them. I think it’s time that changed. I’ve had to bear with the others fucking all the time.

I can hear the others talking. They start to cheer me on.

“Shut up!” I shout. We’re both bare-assed now, and I’m precumming like I always do.

The others are still cheering, just like the crowd did earlier. She’s sucking me off and I start saying my speech again.

“It’s every kid’s dream to be in a rock band. I’m grateful for every second of it. And every blow job I’ve gotten through it. And Gloria, or actually Gina. I’m grateful for Gina. Every kid’s dream. Being in a rock band. Gloria, you're my Gina.”

The guys are in hysterics. “Roland! Roland! Roland!”

Ryan puts his hand against Gina’s ass, moves his index finger inside, and she jerks. She slaps his hand away, and focuses again on pleasuring me. I’m the centre of her night, not the others. I’m grateful for her. I tell her so, and she lets me penetrate her.





Building a guitar is easier than you’d think. Once you’ve built a body blank, and outlined the shape, what you need to do is carve the guitar out of the wood. It’s like Michelangelo said, about the sculpture being inside the clay, and he was just uncovering it. Building guitars is much the same.

I love the simplicity of digging into the wood with my jigsaw, taking it slow, revealing the guitar in a haze of sawdust. It still amazes me every time to feel the smoothness of the body. The perfection after half an hour of strenuous cutting. Then I rout it, which is intricate but only takes about ten minutes.

Of course, when I’m doing it professionally, I’ll use more advanced tools than my handy jigsaw. I’ll have industrial-size glue vats, and ready-made body blanks. It will give me the time to focus on the more fulfilling part, the creative part. You probably think it’s hard to be creative building guitars, because there’s a finite array of types and shapes, and over the decades that people have been doing this, so many cool designs have been created. But I build custom guitars, according to the guitarist’s specifications. It involves a lot of problem solving, including all sorts of mathematical equations to get measurements exactly right. And you have to get it exactly right, so that you know what sort of designs you can do.

Lots of guys come to me with crazy ideas, and I have to change their expectations, because what they want’s not possible. So I have to figure out how to build something with the same sort of inspiration, but which fits what they need in sound. Working it out on my drawing board, that’s my favourite part. Scribbling a shape, then rubbing bits out and replacing those bits with others, till I’ve got a sort of monster. Then I refine it, and figure out how to create it.

I don’t always have to let them know. Let them know their vision won’t work, that is. I sometimes just disregard something they think they need. I build the guitar that makes sense, not the product of their untrained mind. If I do a good job of it, they won’t even realise I’ve left anything out.

So the building part will be a lot easier, because I’ve got the funds now to get the best equipment and studio space out there. And that might compromise on the therapeutic vibes of sawing and polishing. But my creative side will be running wild.

I explain this all to Gina, after I come on her chest. She’s listening, still horny, waiting for me to recharge so that we can go at it again. I ask her if I’m boring her, and she says no, not at all.

“Are you sure? Because we can talk about other things. What do you wanna talk about?”

“I don’t really have anything to say,” she says.

“Sure you do. I’m interested in you. The others are interested, aren’t you guys?”

“No,” Lucian groans. “Not really. I would like a chance with you. That I’d appreciate.”


“She’s not a slut,” I say.

“Sorry,” she says.

“What do you have to talk about then, Luch?” I ask.

“You writing all my drum lines, that’s what.”

I don’t understand why he always brings this up. He loved when I did the work for him.

“Ancient history, man,” says Ryan.

“Oh yeah? What about your drum lines? Did you write them?”

“He did when he wanted to,” Tyler says. “It’s not Ro’s fault your brother’s a lazy fuck.”

“Let Roland fight his own battles. He needs to answer for himself, don’t ye Ro?”

“I don't wanna fight with you, Luch,” I say. “I don’t think there’s what to answer for. We can’t go back in time and change things. I’m sorry. That’s all I can say.”

Lucian laughs, but it’s a fake laugh. “Back in time, he says. Back a day, maybe. You never stopped being that controlling bitch, not till tonight. You made it so this band’s nothing without you, so that when you leave and everything falls apart, everyone will think you kept it together.”

“Fuck off, Lucian. We’re not gonna fall apart,” Tyler says. “You left us long before he did! You're not one to talk about betrayal.”

“I left you a replacement.”

“Yeah, like you got Ryan to join. You're his brother, not his manager.”

“Come on, Luch,” Ryan says. “This is totally unnecessary. We’re happy with where we’re at. We support Ro, he’s been with us all the way and it’s been great. You have no idea how great it’s been.”

“I know you, Ry, I know you're pissed. You’ll never say when you're pissed, just never talk to them again. I’m doing you a favour. No one else is saying anything, so I’m taking responsibility here. You're all pissed at Roland and he doesn't even know. Do you, Roland?”

“Are you guys pissed?” I ask. “I understand if you are. But we all know that you’ll be fine without me. You're too talented not to.”

“It’s gonna be hard without you,” Tyler says. “That doesn't mean we’re pissed. We support you all the way. Don’t listen to Lucian. You know how he gets when he’s coked up.”

“How I get?” Lucian shouts. I realise he must have done a line when I was preoccupied. “How I get? So, maybe I’m a little buzzed, but this is not someone who’s lost control. You know who looks like they've lost control? You, Tyler. You, when you're jerking around on stage, like a kid with epilepsy.”

Tyler is suddenly on top of Lucian, hitting him in the face. Lucian is not fighting back, just weakly holding his arms over his face. His nose is bleeding, but it doesn’t look like Ty is hitting him hard. I pull Ty off, and hold him as he struggles to keep fighting. I’m still naked, and Lucian laughs spasmodically at the scene.

“Faggots, both of you! Retarded faggots!” He goes on laughing.

Now Ryan jumps at him. Ryan’s fists let his brother know just how much he hates bigotry. He hates conflict, and he’s having this fight to make it all go away. Gina is standing dressed at the door.

“I’m so sorry,” I say to her, as Tyler pulls Ryan from Lucian.

“You wouldn't have to be sorry if you hadn’t brought her to our private party!” Lucian says.

“I … I didn’t know it was private. I’m so sorry,” Gina says.

“It wasn’t,” I say. “Tyler and I invited you. You can stay.”

“Roland, give it a break,” Tyler says. I look at him. “This is private. You should go now,” he says to Gina. “Sorry, but there’s shit we need to discuss just us.”





Later, we’re sitting on the roof, bodies held up by arms against knees, silently contemplating what we want to say to each other. This is Tyler’s idea.

“Chill out,” he told us. “Take some time to let the adrenaline drop, and we can speak when we’re all thinking rationally.”

Lucian had glared at him for that, but here we are, all of us introspecting. It’s very cold. Tyler eventually breaks the silence.

“Cold,” he says, “this kind of cold, at least, cannot hurt us. It hurts because our bodies want us to. They’re warning us, urging us to warm up before we get hurt. Once we acknowledge their concerns, we can feel the cold without the urges associated with it.”

We’ve heard this lecture before, but no one interrupts, I think because no one else knows what to say yet.

“Those urges are much like the tension between us,” he continues. “We hurt because our spirits want us to. They're warning us, telling us to fix things before it falls apart completely. Once we acknowledge those concerns, we can feel the tension without the urge to fight. We need to say what we feel, get it out there, and then we can get on with our lives. Get on with our relationship. As brothers.”

It’s a testament to Tyler’s sincerity that we’re all nodding, rather than scorning his pretentiousness. We’ve heard it before, and it makes sense, it makes us feel closer, and opens us up.

“I speak for myself only,” he goes on. “Roland, brother. I love you. And so, of course I feel let down a little. It’s not even that you're doing anything wrong. I know there’s not a malicious bone in your body. It’s irrational, because feelings are. That’s why I need you to know that I feel betrayal, and maybe I’ve been showing it. I haven’t meant to. I love you. I … there’s nothing rational I can say. I’m gonna miss you.”

We’re all quiet once again, and I know I’m feeling a lot. There’s that sadness, and of course there’s guilt. I know I’m letting them down. Most of all, that regret weighs heavy on my chest.

“Roland,” Ryan says. “I don’t care that you wrote my lines. You're better than me at writing, we all know that. Yeah, I wish I could do what you could, but that doesn’t mean I’m angry about it.”

He pauses, and I look up at him. “Thanks,” I say.

“I do feel what Ty’s been saying. It’s not something that makes sense, but I’m gonna miss you and I sorta blame you. I support you, you know that. But it’s gonna be hard, is what I’m tryna say. It’s gonna be hard writing my own shit, working with a new guy. I’m scared, because I don't know if we can do it without you.”

“Guys,” Lucian says, a moment before I’m about to speak. “I’ve got something to say, and it’s long overdue. I regret leaving. I regret that I didn’t stay and experience all the awesome shit you’ve done. So many missed opportunities, and what’s worst is I brought it on myself. That’s why I’ve been taking it out on you, Ro. You got to do all those things I wanted, and they’re not important to you in the way they’re important to me. If I didn’t blame you for that, I’d have to blame me. I can’t turn back time and change what I chose. Even if I could, I wouldn’t do it, because I love what I’ve done with my life since. But there’s something you’ve been so lucky to have, and I envy it. I love you, and I’m sorry I treat you like I don't.”

We go to each other and hug. I can’t feel my feet and hands, but that doesn't bother me. Ryan pulls out a joint he rolled earlier and lights it. We sit smoking, and once again I’m about to speak, when Lucian starts slapping his belly in a simple beat. Ryan taps his feet against the floor, fitting a more complex rhythm over his brother’s slaps. Tyler layers on the words, words which make no sense to me at least.

I don't have my guitar up here, so I keep quiet. I take it all in. This is what they are without me. I don’t think they even realise they've left me out. It brings me right back to that night in the van. Back then I thought I’d never leave, that I was living the life I would always want to live. The regret weighs heavy on me.

It’s strange to say, but I don’t wanna do the things I never did. I don’t even want the life lessons those experiences would have given me. I just want to be able to say I did them. It’s immature, and I’m glad I’m leaving. I won’t be like Lucian in ten years. Being in a band was never my dream.

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