'The Guitarist's Inheritance'

Jonathan Pinnock

I'm a perfectionist. I've inherited that from my mother, although I wonder sometimes if it's more something that we've both acquired through circumstance. Even though I've long since left home, she still comes to all my gigs, and she watches me like a hawk, trying to detect any flaws in my playing. She tries to be inconspicuous, but I can always see her in the audience. I'd know those eyes anywhere; I've got a pair just like them. Sometimes she comes backstage, hanging back shyly as if she can't believe that I'm there. Sometimes she just disappears into the night, calling me later to give her report.

What about my father? What have I inherited from him? Well, I certainly didn't inherit any cash from him — he was an old-school hippy, hopelessly feckless with money, whether it was his own or other people's. No, it's from him that I got the music: the singing and the guitar playing.

I grew up to the sound of my father playing old Woody Guthrie songs: “This Land is Your Land,” “Tom Joad” and the rest. I sometimes include one or two of them in my set, but it's not easy. More than once I've cracked up on stage at the thought of him. Sometimes an inheritance can be a burden.

I have a pretty low-key career. I make just enough to get by, but that's about it. The best thing I can say about my reviews is that sometimes they are kind. They know who I am, and who my father was, and sometimes I wonder if all they're looking for is a good story. The music is, frankly, secondary. It's more the genetics that they're interested in. Just how like my father am I?

In his day, he was — they say — a pretty mean guitarist and he could pick a tune with the best. But by the time I was old enough have any level of discernment, he had lost most of his skill and he would struggle to string a few chords together. It was my mother who taught me most of what I know. She isn't much of a musician, but she's a good teacher. And, like I said, she's a perfectionist.

The one thing that I would love to do would be to play one of his guitars on stage. But that's out of the question. One by one, he smashed them all in an impotent rage, and all I have left are the bent remains of a National Steel that defied his frustrated efforts to destroy it.

On my eighteenth birthday, five years after his death, I found out why my father had such an affinity with Woody Guthrie, although I'd half-guessed the truth already. We'd been studying genetics in biology, and our textbook used the transmission of Huntington's disease as an example of the way that a dominant gene works. I was sure that I'd heard the name before, but I failed to make any connection. If you're that young when a parent dies, you don't ask the obvious questions.

Sometimes when I'm having trouble getting to sleep, I think of the film of Woodstock, and Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son — young, confident and charismatic — singing “Alice's Restaurant”. I wonder how he gets through the day, knowing that the odds are 50/50. Just like they are for me.

My mother still comes to all my gigs, and she watches me like a hawk, trying to detect any flaws in my playing. I know why she does this. Like me, she is looking for the first signs. The first fumbled chord. The first slight shake in my plectrum hand. The first early warning of my inheritance.